Bart Erhman’s Heaven and Hell—Any JW Could Have Written This!
August 11, 2020
Okay, start by walking it back. They couldn’t. Not all of it. But the gist of it they could, and that is a claim that few others can make.
When I read Bart’s contribution to Time Magazine, it was as though I was reading the Watchtower! The occasion is the release of his latest book Heaven and Hell, (he has over 30!) in which he speaks in absolute agreement about topics that Jehovah’s Witnesses know well—and have known well for over 100 years—topics such as soul, psyche, Sheol, Gehenna, notions of heaven, and notions of hell.
A very few of his paragraphs wouldn’t fit—mostly the ones that are muddled. But for the most part, the content of his book is very very familiar. It is so familiar that I even begin to float the notion that he keeps up with Watchtower publications—the writers there are far and away the most vocal proponents of the ideas he has picked up on—some might say the only proponents.
Not that he would accept the Watchtower as a source in itself, I don’t think. But what I can easily picture is him keeping abreast of their writing and the explanations that only they have, then tracing it back to original sources, whereupon he verifies it all and presents it as though his own research—which it would be, minus the credit for who put him on the right track in the first place.
Okay, okay—maybe he’s not ripping off their work. Probably he is not. He is a respected scholar, after all. But in that case, the scholarship of the Watchtower must be elevated, for it is the same—and their critics generally assume that they have none.
Take a few excerpts of Erhman’s article:
Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.
Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. On the contrary, for them, the soul was more like the “breath.” The first human God created, Adam, began as a lump of clay; then God “breathed” life into him (Genesis 2: 7). Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes... When we stop breathing, our breath doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. So too the “soul” doesn’t continue on outside the body, subject to postmortem pleasure or pain. It doesn’t exist any longer.
The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes.
Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.
In traditional English versions, he does occasionally seem to speak of “Hell” – for example, in his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount: anyone who calls another a fool, or who allows their right eye or hand to sin, will be cast into “hell” (Matthew 5:22, 29-30). But these passages are not actually referring to “hell.” The word Jesus uses is “Gehenna.” The term does not refer to a place of eternal torment but to a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods. The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place.
In the ancient world (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish), the worst punishment a person could experience after death was to be denied a decent burial. Jesus developed this view into a repugnant scenario: corpses of those excluded from the kingdom would be unceremoniously tossed into the most desecrated dumping ground on the planet. Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist.”
Anyone who knows anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses knows that these are exactly their views. Is Bart just taking our stuff? No—it can’t be—I wouldn’t make the charge. But I can be forgiven the suspicion. Do a search on any of these terms at JW.org and you will find what he now says. Maybe it is simply basic research that any decent scholar could uncover, as Bart has, but in that case it is all the more damning for the world of churches. Not only do they make no mention of these things, but they consider most of them heresies.
Witnesses were there before he was born. He can’t not know it. When I search his own blog (which I am jealous of—he has a good gig going, and I like the platform), virtually nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses comes up, apart from a post about the name Jehovah itself, in which he misses entirely the import of God having a name rather than a title, to focus on its Latin letters, and thus declaring it false. I found nothing else beyond a few brief, usually derogatory comments from contributors, to which he typically would answer that he is not very familiar with it.
Nobody espouses on these ‘afterlife’ views of his like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apart from them almost nobody else does—and yet he never mentions Witnesses. This seems parallel to when Ronald Sider suggests four reforms that he thinks would solve the problems of the evangelical church (that they don’t practice what they preach), stating that nobody implements these reforms, and ignoring completely that Jehovah’s Witnesses do, and that yes, they do go a long way in solving the problem he has identified.
“Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.” says Bart.
We’ve taught this for 100 years and, yes, they are surprised. Why? Because such things were never taught at church. Instead, the near-universal teaching of church Christianity is that when you die, you go to heaven if you were good, and hell if you were bad. That is what just about everyone of church background thought before becoming a Witness. I have said before that, given the universality of the heaven/hell teaching, you would almost expect it to be on every other page of the Bible. Instead, apart from a handful of verses that can be tortured for that meaning, it is never encountered. It is among the reasons that, on becoming Witnesses, people are wont to say that they have “come into the truth.” The explanations are so simple. The Bible comes together and makes sense. After all, if God wanted persons in heaven, why didn’t he put them there in the first place?
“There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment (or purgatory en route). ...The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught.” states Bart.
Yes, of course they would assume it. Most church teachings—people simply assume that they are to be found in the Bible—why would the church teach something Jesus did not? For many, the you-know-what hits the fan when they discover that such is in fact the case. From this arises the saying among Witnesses, not heard so often as it once was, that new ones ought to be locked up for six months until their zeal is tempered with common sense.
There was a pesty fellow who used to challenge me a lot on trinity and other church teachings. One day he sent me a video of “4 famous church leaders” hubbubing in conference, in which he said they acknowledged that everlasting life on earth was the actual Bible hope—it wasn’t just JWs who taught it. I couldn’t get far into it—it was just too smarmy. I told him I’d take his word for it. Though these leaders knew and discussed the actual role of the earth as our permanent home, the problem was “Bible illiteracy” among the masses, he said.
If the problem is Bible literacy among the masses, I replied, why don’t they fix it? Isn’t that their job as leaders? Ones taking the lead in our faith manage to keep people on the same page.
So what to do with Bart? Is he taking our stuff? Nah—I guess not. If the four famous church leaders knew things that they hadn’t bothered to tell the masses, maybe it is out there for Bart to find as well. I have not been especially kind to him in previous posts, and maybe I should walk some of it back. He presents as though an agnostic/atheist in his Great Courses lecture series and annoys me on that account. I’ve written about ten posts, none of them kind, with several more in the hopper that I may or may not ever get to, and I may have to rethink some of them. Fortunately, I have already made it clear that nothing is personal—it is ideas that you squabble with, not the persons who hold them, for they are more-or-less interchangeable placeholders.
But he had better be careful. He joins the ranks of people like Bruce Speiss, Jason Beduhn, Joel Engardio, and Gunnar Samuelson, who write something that squares with JW beliefs, and spend the rest of their days on earth denying that they are one of them. Occasionally, they must even issue statements to the effect of “Look, I'm not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t even like Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But it’s too late! The damage has been done! Sigh....what's a scholar to do? Agreeing with Jehovah’s Witnesses is detrimental to one’s career, and yet Jehovah’s Witnesses are right on so many things. And the things they're right about, they have been saying for a long time, so it’s embarrassing for cutting edge scholars to endorse what the JWs, for the most part unscholarly and ordinary folk, have long maintained.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) he veers aside frequently enough so people may not make the mistake. Such as:
“Some thinkers came up with a solution [shortly before Christ] that explained how God would bring about justice... This new idea maintained that there are evil forces in the world aligned against God and determined to afflict his people. Even though God is the ultimate ruler over all, he has temporarily relinquished control of this world for some mysterious reason. But the forces of evil have little time left. God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died. Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence.” (italics and bolded text mine. “Some mysterious reason”—he doesn’t know that?! after nailing it on so many other points!)
Not to mention his muddled:
“And God will bring all the dead back to life, not just the righteous. The multitude who had been opposed to God will also be raised, but for a different reason: to see the errors of their ways and be judged. Once they are shocked and filled with regret – but too late — they will permanently be wiped out of existence.” Sigh...it is as Anthony Morris said: “Just stick with publications of the slave, and you will be alright.” The moment he goes “off-script” he comes up with some half-baked “nah nah—told ya so!” diatribe from his born-again days that he grew out of (and they do not look upon him kindly for that reason).
One of my own chums pulled me back from the edge, just as I was about to go apoplectic and accuse Bart of plagiarizing us: “I don't think all of this is that new to Bart Ehrman. I caught some of this on his site. But I had never noticed before, that he now sees Jesus' actual words in pretty much the same sense that JWs believe,” he said. He had spent the few dollars to subscribe to the Bart site for a month, so as to ask a question or two. I read some of the Bart site, and he makes a better impression on me there than he does as Great Courses lecturer.
My chum said of our own work and of Bart’s: “I think that the Watchtower (Bible Students and JWs) have done an enormous service to the religious world by "putting out the fires of hell." It has taken the last 100 years, but I believe that there are a lot of churches where the Watchtower has provided a strong influence so that those churches and their teachers are not so likely to emphasize the teachings that make God seem like a monster. For good or bad Ehrman does have influence, especially on new students, and this last book might even help a bit in opening up some opportunities for our own work.”
Odd “allies” we may yet become.
It may be that one should take a new look at Time Magazine, as well. I subscribed to Time a little over two years ago, enticed by an absurdly low rate, with the thought I would cancel when the auto-renewal hit. When it hit, I did cancel, because the magazine—once a powerhouse, but now upstaged amidst the digital revolution, seemed no more than “same-old same-old” to me. Nothing wrong with it, but neither was it unique. My curiosity had been peaked by the low subscription rate.
I now think super low rate was because a sale was pending, and they wanted to enhance whatever subscriber base they still had to pretty it up for purchase. Mark Benoif has bought it, he who is the Salesforce company founder—a guy worth 6 billion, I am told. He joins Jeff Bezos who bought the Washington Post, and Lourene Jobs (widow of Steve) who bought a majority stake in Atlantic.
Not sure how the new owners will change the brands they bought, however I can’t picture this Ehrman piece in the old Time (or in fact, anywhere). This might be evidence that it is o longer same-old same old.” In an effort to compete, these outlets may be going places that they have never gone before.