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A Roman Vision of Heaven and Hell

In our world, most people who think about the afterlife suppose that when we die we either cease to exist or receive our due rewards (rewards/punishments).  I have pointed out that the latter view did not originate in Jewish or Christian circles, but in pagan, going back some time before the Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century BCE.   The Greeks influenced their later conquerors the Romans in many, many ways, one of which involves their views of the afterlife.  The idea of fantastic rewards or horrific torments to come after death be seen in rather graphic terms in the writings of the most famous and talented poets of the Roman world, the great Latin poet Virgil (70-19 BCE), who like his Greek predecessor Homer, some seven centuries earlier, tells the story of a descent to the underworld.


Aeneas En Route to the Underworld

Virgil is best known for his epic the Aeneid, named for its main character, Aeneas, a fugitive from the Trojan War who, in the wake of Troy’s disastrous defeat through Greek deception and duplicity (the Trojan Horse), journeyed to Italy to found the city that would eventually lead to the emergence of Rome.  The long epic, in short, is the history of the origins of the Roman people, told with all the disinterested observation of any nationalistic propaganda.

For our purposes, the key incident occurs in Book 6, a descent to Hades modeled on the account of Homer we have already considered.  In the preceding book Aeneas and his men have left Sicily where they had celebrated the anniversary of the death of Anchises, Aeneas’s father, and arrive at Cumae, a port on the western coast of Italy.   Aeneas is eager to visit the cavern of the famous Sibyl who lives there.  The Sibyl was an ancient semi-divine prophetess who could predict the future when driven into a state of inspired prophetic ecstasy by the god Apollo.   Aeneas wants to know his fate and whether he will ever reach his destiny.  The Sibyl is the one, filled with the deity, who can tell him.

Aeneas finds the prophetess in her cave, and she immediately is overtaken by the god:

The rest of this post is for the Enlightened only.  Enlightenment doesn’t require much.  A few bucks actually.   Just join the blog, watch your money go to charity, and collect the light of knowledge that produces eternal happiness!

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Jesus “Only” Adopted to be the Son of God?
Did Ancient Greeks Invent Heaven and Hell?



  1. Avatar
    lmabe10  March 27, 2019


    In your earlier books and writings, you seem to have believed that the bible did indeed teach about an eternal punishment for the unrighteous. Has that view changed with your recent studies? It seems that you now believe that, in fact, the NT, and more specifically, Jesus, taught annihilation and that the “eternal torment” aspect is a modern misunderstanding. Is my sense of this accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      Yup, the more I looked into it the more I realized I had been wrong. Sigh. Happens!

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 27, 2019

    A related subject is the Mormon view of heaven and hell. If I understand it correctly, Mormons believe that Mormon couples will become deities on earth-like planets. Mormons are also encouraged to store up a year’s supply of water and food for coming bad times like maybe an invasion from outer space. For those of us not attached to these ideas via faith, these beliefs could provide a less emotionally intense way of looking at how such beliefs develop historically.

    • Avatar
      dynamis878  March 29, 2019

      Indeed. Although Mormon leaders have been downplaying this kind of apotheosis since the 1990s, as far as I can determine.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 27, 2019

    The Aeneid is probably my favorite piece of ancient literature.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      I’m working on improving my Latin, and am reading it in the original now. Books 2 and 6, in particular, are flat out amazing.

      • Robert
        Robert  March 29, 2019

        I was doing the same thing this morning and came across this lovely gem from the Cambrian Annals (Year 896):

        Panis in Hibernia defecit. Vermes de aere ceciderunt talpae smiles cum duobus dentibus qui totam comederunt; qui ejecti sunt jejunio et oratione.

        James Ingram’s 1912 translation:

        Bread failed in Ireland. Vermin like moles with two teeth fell from the air and ate everything up; they were driven out by fasting and prayer.

        Still can’t figure out the smiles in the Latin.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2019

          Ah. It must be a typo for “similes.” Otherwise, also, the “like” moles doesn’t make sense.

          • Robert
            Robert  March 31, 2019

            That’s it. Thanks!

  4. Avatar
    L_C_Nielsen  March 27, 2019

    I think it is rather clear that the punishment/reward dichotomy you find in Graeco-Roman tradition most likely originated from Zoroastrianism (you mention Plato, and bear in mind that Plato considered Zoroaster an authority). For example, in Yasna 30.8-11 of the Gathas we find (using Helmut Humbach’s translation, generally recognized as the best):

    “And so, when the day of payment for the crimes of these comes, then the power will be comitted to you with good thought, O Mazda Ahura, to command those who will deliver deceit into the hands of truth.

    O you mortals, when you observe the rules that Mazda has established, for good behaviour and about where not to go, and when you consider the long-lasting harm which is in store for the deceitful, and also the benefits for the truthful, then you will realize that by those rules the things desired will be there.”


    “Brilliant things instead of weeping will be the reward for the person who comes to the truthful one. But a long period of darkness, foul food, and the word ‘woe’ – to such an existence your religious view will lead you, O deceitful ones, because of your own actions.”


    “O Mazda Ahura, whosoever, man or woman, gives me those things which you know are the best of existence, reward for truth and power through good thought, and whom I stimulate to glorify those such as you, with all those I will cross over the Bridge of Reckoning.

    Through their power the Karapans and the Kavis yoke the mortal one to evil actions in order to destroy existence. When they reach the Bridge of Reckoning their own souls and their own religious views will make them tremble, and they will be guests in the house of deceit for all time.”

    And so on, it is a very frequent theme in the Gathas, the seventeen hymns of Zarathustra, composed around 1300 BC (give or take ~200 years). Would you disagree with my assessment on the influence of these ideas on Hellenic and (directly or indirectly) Jewish and Christian thought, considering the other ideas (like messianism) that also have clear antecedents in the Gathas (and also in Yashts, but I don’t have any good translations of those easily available, and they are much harder to proprerly date)?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      Yes, I used to think that too. Turns out there are huge debates among experts about the dating of the Zoroastrian texts. Yes, in theory they go back to Zarathustra. But the texts themselves developed, changed, and grew over the centuries, so that a text a thousand years after Zarathustra may not embody the original Zoroastrian ideas. There appears to be no clear evidence that the most ancient Zoroastrians — pre-Christian, e.g., — held to apocalyptic views.

      • Avatar
        L_C_Nielsen  March 29, 2019

        The yashts are heavily debated, but the Gathas (which are the only hymns said to go back to Zarathustra!) are not, they are composed in a much more ancient dialect. I have read most of the mainstream experts in Zoroastrianism; I’ve never seen anyone seriously suggest a date after about 1000 BC for the composition of the Gathas. For linguistic reasons alterations to them by authors living much later would have been obvious; there are some apparent very minor pronunciation shifts, but that’s it.

        To suggest that we don’t know whether the Gathas are pre-Christian or not is frankly a preposterous statement; you’re simply wrong there. I suspect you are thinking of Middle Persian prose and the Younger Avestan material that is Parthian- and Sasanian age.

        With the apocalypticism I think there’s one Yasht mentioning the raising of the dead that De Jong argues is at least Achaemenid-age, but that is debatable. There is definitely proto-eschatology in the Gathas; Zarathustra speaks of the coming of the Saošyant (plural) who will judge evildoers and bring benefit to their communities, along with the above discussions of reward and punishment. They are not as developed as in later writings though.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2019

          For me the issue is not whether views there could be amenable to later developments, but whether the apocalyptic views we know about later were embraced earlier, as a source for Jewish and Christian thinking.

      • Avatar
        L_C_Nielsen  March 29, 2019

        Ran out of time to edit! Yasht 19.11 is the passage often argued by e.g. De Jong to provide nearly incontrovertible evidence for more developed apocalyptic views in at least the Achaemenid era.

        However, the validity of these datings of the yashts have no impact on the reward/punishment dichotomy expressed in the Gatha verses I quoted above. Those are absolutely much much older.

        Finally, as a curious aside: Yasna 44 and some other bits has a “rhetorical question” form referring to creation (who laid down the earth, etc) curiously similar to that in e.g. bits of deutero-Isaiah and poetic Job.

        • Avatar
          L_C_Nielsen  March 29, 2019

          Last addendum: there’s also a fragment from Theopompus’ 4th C BC Phillippika that notes:

          “Magi believe people will live again and be immortal and that all that exists will endure by their invocations.”

          Which is relevant to the discussion, of course. The aforementioned Yasht 19.11 goes:

          “In order for (His creatures and creations) to make existence brilliant,/ not aging, imperishable,/ not rotting, not putrefying,/ enjoying eternal life, enjoying eternal benefit, enjoying power at will,/so that the dead will rise again,/ imperishability will come over the living,/ (and) existence will be made brilliant in value.”

          • Bart
            Bart  March 31, 2019

            That’s not a doctrine of “resurrection” though. Romans believed Romulus lives again in an immortal state…

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2019

          Yes, the dating of the text is hotly debated. See the discussoin by Jan Bremmer in his study of the afterlife in ancient religions.

          • Avatar
            L_C_Nielsen  March 31, 2019

            Should you find the time, I recommend Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina’s review “Resurrecting the Resurrection. Eschatology and Exegesis in Late Antique Zoroastrianism”. I think it’s only a few pages.

          • Avatar
            L_C_Nielsen  March 31, 2019

            Since I didn’t make it clear: Vevaina’s article is a response to Bremmer (and others), and is pretty accessible even without too much familiarity with the Indo-Iranian liturgical corpus. So it is a very useful read.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2019

            Yup, it’s a much debated issue! For me the decisive questoin was when Jews started subscribing to apocalyptic views. Was it during the Persian period, when they would have been influence by Zoroastrianism. No, as it turns out, it was long afterward, in the Hellenisic period.

          • Avatar
            L_C_Nielsen  April 1, 2019

            The Zoroastrian aspects are not really as debated as Bremmer makes them out to be, as Vevaina points out. That influence is first attested in the Hellenic period is widely acknowledged by experts in Zoroastrianism, see e.g. Yakov Elman and Shai Secunda in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism (p. 425 in particular), who addresses this question directly.. This goes even for relatively uncontroversial influences like Asmodaeus.

            I think it is really important to draw one’s understanding of Zoroastrianism from experts in the Indo-Iranian tradition, not second-hand analyses by Classicists, as trying to analyze Iranian hymns requires a profound understanding of e.g. Rgvedic tradition, something that seems to be lacking from Bremmer’s work.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  March 27, 2019

    Don’t know if this has been mentioned before, but I found you can download Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus on Project Gutenberg. That in turn led me to look for and find Reimarus’ works on other site. There are a lot of great resources out there if you look for them!

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  April 1, 2019

      Thanks, I just looked it up. Beautifully written work!

  6. Avatar
    Ask21771  March 27, 2019

    How many scholars besides you believe that the gospels are not eyewitness testimony

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      Just about everyone except conservative Christian scholars who believe, for religious/theological reasons, that we must have the exact words of Jesus.

  7. Avatar
    Ask21771  March 27, 2019

    In the bart ehrman vs richard bauckham debate bauckham said you were alone in thinking that that the documents papias attributed to mark and matthew we’re not the gospels, is this ture, are you alone in thinking that?

  8. Avatar
    Alexandre Ferreira  March 27, 2019

    I have read you, and I did read many other stuffs, in the past which, surely, lead me to unbelief in absolute truth. But, what intrigue me it is: everything in the religions seem like these primitive tales that you bring to us and it is incredible thatt continues to be passed down centuries by centuries, increasily sophisticated.

    I know there are things what I, you, they, belive and that it could be reasonables and other unreasonables like believe in a political ideology as a good thing, for example), but it does not justify the hope and faith. If it is good, I have my opinion, it was clear.

  9. Avatar
    Spiral  March 28, 2019

    Dr, Ehrman,

    Off topic. Have you ever met Amy-Jill Levine? Have you read The Jewish New Testament?

  10. Avatar
    bknight  March 28, 2019

    I’m looking forward to attending your April 6 lectures at the University of North Georgia. Will there be an opportunity for blog members to say hello to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      Ah! Are you registered for the meeting? Yes indeed, I’ll be there talking to people the whole time between lectures.

      • Avatar
        bknight  March 29, 2019

        Yes, i live in the Atlanta Metro, and I’m registered and excited about being able to attend all three lectures.
        Will you have time for coffee or lunch with blog members, similar to what you sometimes do in other venues?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2019

          I wont’ be holding a blog event; I know my dinners are booked but I don’t know about other times. My guess is my host has something already set up — but he hasnt’ told me. But almost certainly there will be socializing breaks, so come socialize!

  11. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  March 30, 2019

    I well remember encountering the Aeneid at school at the age of 13 and my friend’s translation of the first line, ‘Arma virumque cano’ as ‘The armed man and the dog’….

    In the fly-leaf of our Latin Primer we had written:

    Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
    It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me!

    Appreciation of Virgil came a bit later…..

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