If one is to attempt a sweeping, grand narrative encompassing the whole span of the history of the Christian afterlife, one must be prepared to think rigorously, and to put in significant time and thought. Ehrman, on the other hand, publishes his books roughly two years apart, and in this instance does a disservice to the complexity and interest of his subject.
Ehrman is an American theologian and religious scholar, who — he tells us — was born again and then gradually inched his way intellectually towards a compassionate atheism. His is a vast learning worn wonderfully lightly and he is an engaging but expert guide around how religious ideas were formed and shaped our world.
As to why Christian eschatology requires such complicated and horrible punishments for sinners, Ehrman suggests that these were versions of the atrocities visited on Christians themselves by the Romans, and were adapted as a template for the imagined treatment of sinners.
It is that emotional aspect that is too often lacking in what is otherwise an impressively readable, clear and wide-ranging study. Ehrman is very good on the how, but he offers too little of the backdrop in terms of societal changes and circumstances that would explain the why: why heaven and hell have proved so popular at particular moments. If you don’t explain why people once believed things that today can sound ridiculous, you run the risk of turning the history and practice of religion into at best a curiosity, at worst a freak show.