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Life After Death Discussions.

What About People Who Come Back From the Dead in the Hebrew Bible?

In thinking about Sheol and death in the Hebrew Bible, it is worth reflecting on passages where the dead come back to life or are contacted by the living.  This does not happen much at all – a couple of instances of resuscitation and one of necromancy. Probably the most famous resuscitation – the bringing back to life of a dead person – involves the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24.   Elijah has been helping an unnamed widow from the town of Zarephath, miraculously providing her and her son with food during a divinely-mandated drought/famine (which the prophet brought to teach the wicked King Ahab a lesson).   But the boy dies.  The widow is understandably distraught – the prophet was supposed to be helping her and now her son has died.  Some help. Elijah takes the boy, though, and raises him from the dead.  The woman responds appropriately, declaring him Elijah a man of God who speaks the word of God. In 2 Kings 4:32-37 a similar story is told about the prophet Elisha [...]

2024-04-08T16:07:16-04:00April 17th, 2024|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

More on Sheol: Was it an Actual Place?

The Jewish scriptures contain a variety of different views about what happens to a person at death.   Most commonly, a person who dies is simply said to have gone to “death” – a term used some thousand times in the Bible.   Better known, but far less frequent, a person’s ultimate destination is sometimes called “Sheol,” a term whose meaning and etymology are debated.  It occurs over sixty times in the Hebrew Bible, and there is unanimity among critical scholars that in no case does Sheol mean “hell,” in the sense people mean today.  There is no place of eternal punishment in any passage of the entire Old Testament.  In fact – as comes as a surprise to many people – nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is there any discussion at all of heaven and hell as places of rewards and punishments for those who have died. Probably most people who read the Bible think of Sheol as a Jewish kind of Hades, a shadowy place where everyone goes and all are treated [...]

2024-04-17T10:52:12-04:00April 16th, 2024|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

What Is Sheol in the Hebrew Bible?

I was recently asked what the Old Testament teaches about "hell" and whether that's what "Sheol" refers to.  If not (or if so), what it the view of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible?   This is a topic I dealt with in my book Heaven and Hell (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and I posted on it some years ago on the blog.  This is what I said. ****************************** When trying to figure out where the Christian ideas of heaven and hell came from, an obvious place to start is with the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus himself held to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures.   To be sure, there was not a completely fixed canon in his day, which all Jews everywhere agreed to.  But virtually all Jews we know of ascribed to the high authority (and Mosaic authorship) of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy); and most Jews  – including Jesus – also considered the prophets authoritative; Jesus also accepted the authority of the book of Psalms and a probably number of [...]

2024-04-17T10:45:56-04:00April 14th, 2024|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

“Death is nothing to us.” What Do YOU Think?

I quote: “You need to realize that death is nothing to us.   Everything that is good and bad in our lives comes from the experiences of our senses.  But death brings an end to our senses/experiences.  And so having the right understanding – that death is nothing to us – makes our mortality enjoyable, not because we will live forever but because we don’t pointlessly long to live forever.  For there are no terrors in life for the one who fully understands that there are no terrors in not living. It is absurd for people who fear death -- not because it is afflicting them now but because they expect it will be horrible when it comes.  For this allegedly most awful thing – death  -- is actually nothing to us:   when we exist, we are not dead, but when we are dead, we no longer exist.  And so death is completely irrelevant – both to those who are living and to those who are dead.  Those who are living are not experiencing it and [...]

2023-04-17T13:25:11-04:00April 27th, 2023|Afterlife, Reflections and Ruminations|

Why Purgatory Makes Sense

Christians have always had a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife, and just about everyone (who chooses) is able to find biblical support for their views.  The Bible itself has an enormous range of views. Among other things, there have always been Christians who have thought that there must be varying levels of punishment for sinners in the afterlife.  The guy on the street who does his best but is not always a very good father surely doesn’t get punished to the same degree as Hitler. Among believers who are convinced that there are different levels of punishment I would certainly class those who believe in purgatory.  Even though it is a view almost universally rejected by Protestants, purgatory can make a lot of sense even to some of them.  The afterlife is not just black and white, one thing or the other, either/or – it is not either eternal bliss for all the saints and eternal torment for all the sinners.  There must be gradations, right? And purgatory is a way of implementing [...]

2023-04-10T11:51:01-04:00April 11th, 2023|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

What If I Commit the Unforgivable Sin? Can It Be Purged in Purgatory?

In my previous post I discussed one of the passages of the New Testament that has traditionally been used to support the idea of Purgatory, the place that most of the “saved” go after death to be purged of their sins (Matt 5:26  “you won’t get out of there until you have paid the last penny”).  In my judgment this passage is not talking about what happens in the afterlife, even though it has been read that way.   With another passage, the matter is not quite so clear. In a famous passage, again in Matthew, Jesus talks about the “unforgivable sin”:  “Therefore I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven; and whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven, either in this age or the ages to come.” As you might imagine, over the Christian centuries there have been numerous interpretations of what that [...]

2023-03-26T13:06:30-04:00April 8th, 2023|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Dreaming of Purgatory

Yesterday I began to talk about the Martyrdom of Perpetua, one of the most interesting and moving texts to come down to us from early Christianity.  It is an account of a 23-year old Roman matron who is willing to die a gruesome death for her Christian faith.  Among other things, the text shows that her faith is far more important to her than her family.  In particular, she is shown in conflict especially with her father (no husband is mentioned, which has led to considerable speculation: Divorced? Widowed? Unwed mother? Something else?).  And even though it is with regret, she is willing to leave behind her own infant child by being martyred. Family figures prominently in the two excerpts here.  In the first her father begs her to avoid martyrdom, to no avail.  In the second (chs. 7-8) we have an account of her dream and intervention on behalf of her dead brother Dinocrates.  This is the part that I will be most interested in for the next post.  Is it an early adumbration [...]

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and the Rise of Purgatory

I was recently asked about "purgatory, a concept misunderstood by most people I've ever met, including nearly every Protestant (!) but also some lifelong Catholics.  I had done a series of posts on the issue years ago, while I was doing research for my book on Heaven and Hell.  I had just read an interesting book that dealt with the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee.  Purgatory itself did not become as solid idea until the 12th and 13th centuries, but there were antecedents to it in much earlier times, including in one of the most intriguing accounts of a Christian martyrdom from the early 3rd century. That is how I started my thread: ****************************** Purgatory never made it big in Protestant Christian circles.  But it is an age-old doctrine, the idea that a person needs to suffer for their sins before allowing into heaven for a blessed eternity.  It is kind of a temporary hell.  No one can get off scot-free.  But [...]

2023-03-22T14:07:09-04:00April 1st, 2023|Afterlife, Women in Early Christianity|

Why Would Evolving Beliefs about Sin Lead to the Idea of an Afterlife? Guest Post by Daniel Kohanski

Last Week I published the first of three guest posts by blog member Daniel Kohanski, based on a book that he recently published that will be of interest to many blog readers.  Here now is the second post. ******************************             Apocryphile Press has just published my latest book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World ( The book first examines how the western world’s idea of God developed, from the Israelite worship of many gods, Yahweh included, through the first centuries of Christianity. It then looks at how that idea of God has impacted the way we deal with sex, war, and death, and how the belief that Jesus is coming back has interfered with our ability to handle crises. Here is an edited excerpt from the first part of the book, exploring how the Jews first came to believe in judgment after death. (I’ve relied on some of Bart’s books, and other scholars, for some of this material, but omitted the references for space reasons.) --------------------------------------------------------------- In the days of [...]

2023-02-27T20:08:14-05:00February 25th, 2023|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Did Christ Save *Everyone* When He Descended to Hades?

In my previous post I started to discuss the famous doctrine of the “Harrowing of Hell,” where Christ is said to have descended to Hades after his death (since he was a human, after all, and when humans die, they go to Hades.  Part of the reason for the doctrine, then, is that if he didn’t go, he wouldn’t have had all the human experiences); but he did not go there forever obviously (in this way he was *unlike* everyone else!) but as the son of God he went to bring his salvation to those who had died previously (who could not be saved by his death because it hadn’t happened yet.) I pointed out in the previous post that some theologians said that Christ went to Hades to preach to those who were there to give them the chance to repent (who wouldn’t want to get outta there??  Apparently some or lots?) but others claimed that he went to assert his raw power over his enemies to show who was Lord and King. These [...]

2022-12-23T14:17:13-05:00December 18th, 2022|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha, Early Christian Doctrine|

Did Jesus Descend to Hell After He Died?

Someone on the blog recently asked me about the idea that after Jesus’ death, and before his resurrection, he “descended into hell.”  This is an affirmation found in the Apostle’s Creed, and so continues to be recited by millions of Christians still today.  But what does it mean? Throughout the history of the church it has usually been thought – by those who thought and/or affirmed such things -- that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead to provide salvation to some (all?) of the people there, to liberate them from their condemnation (which was impossible *before* then because salvation can only come when Christ died – in this view – and so not before.  So when he died he went down to save some (or all) of those who were there, taking them from Hades to heaven.  This notion has traditionally been called “The Harrowing of Hell.” But how did it work, exactly?  And were did the idea come from? As it turns out, I devoted a chapter to the question in my [...]

2022-12-15T10:13:16-05:00December 17th, 2022|Afterlife, Early Christian Doctrine, Historical Jesus|

Jesus’ Teachings on Love and Salvation

In my previous posts I have been explaining in brief terms how people thought about “ethics” in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, that is, how they decided what kinds of human activities were best for themselves and for their society, how they were to interact with one another, what values and virtues they should hold and what values and vices they should reject. Part of my thesis – which I hope to spell out in my next book – is that Christianity changed how people understood virtuous activity and the good life, how they urged people to behave, and why they did so.  My argument will be the what we think of as the driving force of most ethics today is not at all what people in the world at large in antiquity thought.  At all. So far in these posts I’ve tried to show how pagans were particularly concerned with “well-being” or “happiness” as a guide for how to live.  Jesus, however, rigorously adopted a Jewish view that the main criterion for behavior [...]

2022-09-16T21:11:20-04:00September 15th, 2022|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

Digging Deep into Afterlife Journeys

I don't recall *ever* having a podcast interview in which I was asked to go down seriously into the weeds of my scholarship as found in one of my scholarly books.  But that happened in this interview, done on June 14, for the Christian Humanist Podcast.  It's a serious podcast, where the perspective is Christian and the topics are intellectually meaty.  The interviewer is a PhD in English literature and professor at Emmanuel College.  He's a bright guy, who knows a lot, who read my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell carefully, realized clearly what both the scholarly issues and the wider payoff were, and grilled me on it for an hour. Here's the podcast for your viewing pleasure.

2022-06-27T21:40:43-04:00June 29th, 2022|Afterlife, Public Forum|

A Skeptical View of Life … From the Bible!

To celebrate the tenth-year anniversary of the blog on this past April 18, I've been posting all the previous April 18 posts.  This one is from 2020; in it I discuss one of my favorite books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes.  The post was originally part of a series of posts on "Wisdom Literature" in the OT, as I indicate at the outset. ****************************** In my previous post I pointed to the “Wisdom” literature of the Old Testament (usually said to comprise Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), suggesting that this is a good time for all of us to ingest some wisdom from those who went before.  The book of Ecclesiastes has long been my favorite in the Old Testament.  It seems so modern in so many ways.  Even though written over 2000 years ago, it considers ageless questions about what the *point* of it all is. If you don’t know it, it’s worth reading; it won’t take long.  If you do know it, it’s worth reading again.   To provide some orientation to the overall theme of [...]

2022-06-27T21:06:20-04:00June 28th, 2022|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

An Interesting Interview on Journeys to Heaven and Hell

I don't recall ever doing any podcast interviews before on any of my academic books since, well, they are written for scholars rather than the general public and few podcasts target scholars (at least early Christian scholars!) per se.  But I've had a couple on my recent book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, and I think it's because the topic really is interesting to more than scholars. Here's one that helped bring out some of the intriguing material I cover, with an interviewer -- Mike Delgado -- who both knows his stuff and knows what is interesting.   Enjoy!

2022-06-05T12:18:14-04:00June 19th, 2022|Afterlife, Public Forum|

An Even More Unusual Story of What Happens to the Rich…

In my last post I began to discuss Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16) and I mentioned there is a very similar tale in ancient Egyptian lore, about a man named Setne and his adult son Si-Osire. In the story the two of them are looking out the window of their house and see the coffin of a rich man being carried out to the cemetery with great honors.  They then see the corpse of a poor beggar carried out on a mat, with no one attending his funeral.   Setne says to his son: “By Ptah, the great god, how much happier is the rich man who is honored with the sound of wailing than the poor man who is carried to the cemetery.”  Si-Osire surprises his father by telling him that the poor man will be much better off in the afterlife than the rich one.  He surprises him even more by proving it. He takes Setne down to the underworld, where they see how the unrighteous are punished, [...]

2022-05-31T10:52:29-04:00June 7th, 2022|Afterlife, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

A Lively Interview on my New Book “Journeys”

I've done a number of interviews over the years for my trade books (for general audiences), but almost NEVER for one of my academic books.  But here is one, on my recent book Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition.   The book is geared to academics (as you'd see from the very opening), but some is accessible to general readers (including the bits on wealth I've been summarizing here). This interview is *completely* accessible, and it's done by a very good interviewer, Mitch Jeserich for the podcast Letters and Politics.  He knows a lot about the history of early Christianity and the broader ancient world, and he asks well-targeted questions.  Some interviews are a bit of a pain; this one was all pleasure.  See what you think.  

2022-05-30T13:39:21-04:00May 29th, 2022|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Did Early Christians Believe in Reincarnation?

In my previous post I talked about how Origen's view that souls existed before being born as humans related to his view that in the end, all things -- including the most wicked beings in the universe -- will convert and return to God: salvation for all!   Also connected to this idea was Origen's notion that after death people would be reborn to, in a sense, "give it another go."  Origen is our most famous Christian proponent of the idea of reincarnation. Reincarnations - Before Origen The idea of reincarnation had been floated for centuries before Origen.   In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Pythagoras was widely believed to have been the first to perpetrate, or at least popularize the idea.  Later it was allegedly held by such figures as Parmenides and Empedocles, the latter of whom had allegedly said “Before now I was a boy, and a maid, a bush and a bird, and a dumb fish leaping out of the sea.” So too we find it in the Roman tradition, as when Virgil’s Aeneas [...]

2023-03-15T15:26:26-04:00April 8th, 2022|Afterlife|

Heaven and Hell at the Popular Level

I often get asked about the difference between my trade books for general audiences and my academic monographs for scholars.  Three times in my career I have written on the same topic for a popular and a scholarly audience.   The first was one on the manuscripts of the NT.  The popular book was Misquoting Jesus:  The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; the academic one was The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.    Just from the title it should not be too hard to tell which one is trying to cater to a wider audience and which one is directed to fellow academic nerds. So too with the next set, dealing with the issue of pseudonymity in the New Testament and other early Christian Writings.  The popular account:  Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors are Not Who We Think They Are; the academic one:  Forgery and Counter-forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in the Early Christian [...]

2022-02-12T15:43:08-05:00February 20th, 2022|Afterlife, Book Discussions|

Why Cynics Thought Being Poor Was Ironically Better

Isn’t it better to have no possessions at all than to have millions of them and then lose them?  According to ancient Cynic philosophy: Absolutely Yes! I’ve been discussing how this view comes to be embodied in Lucian’ of Samosata’s humorous dialogue Downward Journey, about a rich tyrant who abused his power and wealth and then ended up completely miserable in the afterlife.  I begin here with the paragraph that ended the last post, to provide a bit of context for the humorous passage that follows.  (All this is taken from my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, with Yale University Press, due out in April) ****************************** The dialogue shifts then to another of the deceased, an impoverished cobbler, Micyllus.  He too is upset, but not for being removed from the world of the living but for being delayed from crossing the Styx.  He cannot get to the underworld fast enough, and is perturbed that Charon’s boat has filled up without him and he has to wait on shore.  Clotho is surprised that Micyllus does [...]

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