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Life After Death Discussions.

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 [...]

2022-05-29T11:06:50-04:00April 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 [...]

A Humorous Take on Wealth From a Great Satire of Antiquity

In my previous post I discussed the radical views of Cynic philosophy – to be happy you must give up everything that can be lost, including all your possessions and your attachments to them.  That was a set-up for what I really wanted to discuss, a “Journey to the Afterlife” (technical term: Katabasis) found in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, one of the great writers of Satire in the Roman world, writing in the second century CE. Here I introduce Lucian and begin to talk about his very funny dialogue, The Downward Journey.  (Again, this is taken from a draft of my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, to come out from Yale University Press in April) ****************************** Born in Samosata on the Euphrates, outside the centers of intellectual power and not known for its cultural icons, Lucian originally would have spoken Aramaic but he came to be trained in Greek rhetoric.  He eventually abandoned law for a literary career. Some eighty of his prose pieces survive, many of them attacks on charlatans and [...]

Should You Give Up All Your Possessions to Be Happy? The Ancient Cynic View

In my forthcoming book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press; due out in April) I will be devoting a chapter to discussing how tours of the afterlife functioned sometimes in order to promote certain ethical views.  If you know what life after death is really like, it can be incentive for how you live now. One of the sections of this chapter deals with ancient “Cynic” philosophy – a radical stand on the importance of giving up everything, all one’s possessions, in order to attain to true happiness.  That is not easy to do, as Jesus’ followers discovered later, even though they stood in an entirely different ideological tradition (apocalyptic Judaism). The Cynic view is embodied in a very humorous fictional “Journey” to Hades by one of my favorite writers from antiquity, Lucian of Samosata.  Here is how I will be describing Cynicism in my book – to be followed in the next two posts with a discussion of Lucian’s account. ****************************** It is not a simple task to summarize ancient Cynicism: the [...]

God’s Mercy and Justice: The Opening of a Chapter in Journeys to Heaven and Hell

Do the early Christians think God is more just and determined to punish or more merciful and determined to forgive? I deal with the matter in one of the chapters in my next scholarly book,  Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition, coming out in April with Yale University Press.  The book has been done for months now, and I am right now reading through the final page proofs sent to me by the press – making final corrections of typos before it heads into production.  (It’s a very long process: usually a book doesn’t get published for about a year after the author has finished writing it and sent it to the publisher.  This always reminds me of the famous poem of John Donne, “Hymn to God the Father,” with its celebrated refrain (about God forgiving sin):  “When thou has done, thou hast not done, for I have more.”). The book is written for scholars, but with a few helps non-scholars will be able to get the [...]

2021-11-01T10:35:42-04:00November 10th, 2021|Afterlife, Book Discussions, Christian Apocrypha|

What Do YOU Think? The Experience of Death.

A month ago I decided to add a new feature to the blog, a periodic post that asks you to share your personal view about something, your honest opinion based on serious expertise or complete non-expertise. These posts are (and will be) called “What Do You Think?”  I will NOT be responding to your replies/comments.  I’ll simply be posting them so you can express yourself and have others can see your views.  (As always, I will not be allowing comments that are rude to others or irrelevant to the question – for example, castigations of particular politicians that many but not all of us may despise, on one side of the political chasm facing us or the other. Or that try to proselytize others to your religious beliefs). Others of course can comment on your comment as they choose — and I hope they do.  I’ll be listening in, for my own fun, education, and edification! The topics are meant to involve the BIG QUESTIONS.  This one is related to the previous one but is [...]

2021-09-22T10:20:29-04:00October 5th, 2021|Afterlife, Public Forum|

Jesus and the Coming Destruction: Who, Why, and How?

In my book on Revelation, one of my goals (once I start to write it) will be to contrast its view of judgment with that of Jesus himself.  I think the differences are stark and telling.  BUT, that is not because I think Jesus imagined that God was simply a God of love who would forgive everyone in the end.  I wish he did think that, but alas.  He was a Jewish apocalypticist who firmly believed the judgment of God was coming on the earth.  So did the prophet John, seventy years later, writing the Apocalypse. But for me the important issue is the object and reason for destruction.  Here they differ significantly, in ways that make me think John the prophet is not preaching the gospel of Jesus. Nowhere, in my view, can Jesus' understanding of the coming judgment be seen more clearly than in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).  I have talked about this passage several times on the blog before.  In order to explain the contrast with [...]

2021-09-03T16:05:38-04:00September 14th, 2021|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

On the Flipside: The Glorious Salvation of Saints in the Teachings of Jesus

In my previous two posts I’ve talked about Jesus’ view of the coming destruction of sinners.  My goal is to compare and contrast his views with those of the book of Revelation.  For both Jesus and the prophet John (author of Revelation) the future will not only bring very nasty destruction for some people on earth, but also an amazing salvation for others. Here is how I talk about the future rewards of the righteous in my book Heaven and Hell (Simon & Schuster, 2020).   ****************************** It is easier to document Jesus’ words about the dreaded fate of sinners in Gehenna than about the blessings of the saved in the Kingdom of God.   Even so, we have seen one teaching that is repeated in the Gospels:  the coming Kingdom will entail a fantastic banquet where the redeemed eat and drink at leisure with the greats of Jewish past, the Patriarchs.  This is a paradisal image of great joy. Another key passage involves Jesus’ discussion of what life will be like once the resurrection has [...]

2021-09-03T15:59:17-04:00September 12th, 2021|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

The Horrible Fate of Sinners: Jesus’ Teaching on Gehenna

I continue now with my reflections on Jesus’ view of the coming destruction and the very bad fate coming to those who are not rightly aligned from God.  In this post I deal specifically with his teaching on Gehenna, and the devastation that will happen there.  Spoiler alert: it is not the place you want to go, but Jesus is not talking about “hell.” If you want to read more about this, join the blog!  You will get access to five posts a week dealing with just about everything connected to New Testament and Early Christianity.  There are various tiers of membership, and whatever you pay goes straight to charities helping those in need.      Click here for membership options   I have taken this discussion from my book “Heaven and Hell” ****************************** It is highly unfortunate that sometimes English translations of the New Testament render the Greek word “Gehenna” as “hell.”  That conjures up precisely the wrong image for Bible readers today, making them think Jesus is referring to the underworld of [...]

2021-09-03T15:10:49-04:00September 11th, 2021|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

What We Know Today About Religions and the Afterlife (in the US): Platinum Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

I am pleased to be able to publish this Guest Post by one of our Platinum members Sharon Friedman.  Sharon has been a blog member for some five years.   Here is an intriguing post with some statistics to make you ponder and reflect on a topic near and dear to many of us. If you have questions comments, go ahead and make them!  Many thanks Sharon. ***************************** Often on the blog, people ask Bart “what did Christians or Jews think about some topic?” It’s definitely difficult or impossible to know that about the past.  We do know something about what they currently think.  Fortunately, groups like the Pew Research Center and NORC at the University of Chicago ask people religious questions.  Let’s look at that source of information for insights into our discussion of the afterlife, specifically what do Christians, Jews and Muslims currently think about heaven and hell? Pew does a Religious Landscape Survey about once every 10 years or so. It’s chock full of information.  There is a crosswalk between belief in heaven [...]

2021-05-27T17:27:17-04:00May 27th, 2021|Afterlife, Public Forum|

All Day Seminar (Online) for the Smithsonian: This Saturday!

Looking for some fun, excitement, and a change of pace this weekend?  On Saturday I will be doing an all-day seminar for the Smithsonian Associates, four lectures (two in the morning, two in the afternoon), each with Q&A to follow, on Heaven and Hell, based, of course, on the book.  Interested in joining in?  Ticket information, and so on, can be found here: The structure of the lectures will be different from the book.  Here is the line-up of the lectures. 9:30­–10:45 a.m.  Death After Death The earliest records of the afterlife in ancient Near Eastern, Israelite, and Greek cultures portrayed it as no life at all: death leads to only a dreary, uninteresting, eternally empty existence in which there is no joy, no pleasure, and no hope, as portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, and writings of Homer. 11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  Justice in the World Beyond Both Greek and Israelite cultures eventually developed the concept that this life cannot really be the end of the story and that the misery [...]

2020-09-09T09:50:34-04:00September 9th, 2020|Afterlife, Public Forum|
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