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Life After Death Discussions.

Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise?

Here is an interesting question I have received closely connected with the work I’ve been doing on the different views about the afterlife – what happens to us when we die? – in the early Christian tradition.  It has to do with a key verse that has been much debated over the years, a verse found only in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus assures the “robber” being crucified with him, that he will that day awaken in paradise.  Or *is* that what Jesus says?   QUESTION Now that you mention about the differences in translations I would like to ask about how the Jehovah’s witnesses in their New World Translation bible Luke 23:43: And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  They have inserted a comma after today because their bias is that the paradise is in the future not the day Jesus died. Besides their bias do you see any other indication that that rendition would be probable?   RESPONSE: In my book I try [...]

2018-11-04T07:59:17-05:00November 4th, 2018|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Jesus and Hell

The second of my two boxes today from the new edition of my textbook.  This one of even more pressing importance: what did Jesus think of hell? ************************************************************* Another Glimpse Into the Past Box 15.8  Hell in the Teaching of Jesus Jesus sometimes indicates that on the Day of Judgment sinners will be cast, unburied, into the most unholy, repulsive, God-forsaken place that anyone in Israel could imagine, the valley known as “Gehenna.” He says, for example that it is better to gouge out your eye that sins or amputate your hand and enter the kingdom maimed than to be tossed into Gehenna with eye and hand intact (Matthew 5:29, 30) Gehenna is obviously serious.  But what is it?   The word is often mistranslated in English Bibles as “hell” (e.g., in the NIV and the NRSV; see Matthew 5:22, 29, 30).  But, Gehenna is not “hell” in the modern sense of a place (inside the earth) where sinners are tormented forever.  Then what is it? To find out, you will need to belong to the [...]

2020-04-03T00:53:35-04:00October 31st, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Did Paul Belief in that the Fleshly Body Would be Resurrected

Browsing through posts I made (exactly) six years ago, I came across this one (which deals with a subject I'll be addressing in my new book) about Paul's view of the future resurrection.  What I thought I thought about that issue *before* I started doing the hard core research for my book on the afterlife is very similar to how I still think now.  I hope that doesn't just mean I'm stubborn!  Here is the perceptive question and my response: ************************************************************************ QUESTION: What is a BODILY resurrection without the flesh?  Don't teh early Christians (and Paul) think the flesh (the corpse) didn’t matter anymore and could be left behind, rotting and decomposing? Isn’t it all about the spirit finally getting this new, better, perfect, divine ‘body’? Addendum: The Greek for ‘spiritual’ (like in spiritual body) is pneumatikos, right? According to Strong’s that means: pertaining to wind or breath, windy, exposed to the wind, blowing. Now those wouldn’t be obvious words to describe something physical or made out of matter, would it? They seems to rather [...]

2018-10-14T11:55:23-04:00October 14th, 2018|Afterlife, Paul and His Letters|

What’s the Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man All About?

In my previous post I summarized an Egyptian story about a rich man and a poor man who both die, with the poor man having a fantastic afterlife and the rich man suffering horrible torture.  The poor man was righteous and so was rewarded, the rich man was a sinner and so was punished.  Is that what the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 is also all about – rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked?  So that it’s a story that tries to stress that you need to live a good life or you’ll pay the consequences later? It is indeed possible that this biblical story also contains an implicit teaching about righteous living.   But since, unlike the Egyptian tale, this parable says nothing about sin and righteousness, some interpreters have suggested different ways of understanding it. Maybe the problem with the rich man in Luke’s parable is not that he is generally wicked, but that, more specifically, he hasn’t used his wealth in order to help those [...]

2020-04-03T00:58:49-04:00October 11th, 2018|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels|

The Fate of the Rich and the Poor: Another Story

In trying to unpack the understanding of the afterlife found in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, it is important to realize that Luke presents the story as a parable – a simple, imaginative story meant to illustrate a deeper spiritual lesson.   It is not a literal description of reality. It is true that Luke does not actually call it a parable, but that’s true of most of the parables Jesus tells in this Gospel.  This section of Luke’s narrative is chock-full of parables – twenty two of them, in close proximity.  A number of them begin with the words “a certain man” did such and such.  That is the case of two immediately preceding passages: the parable of the prodigal son in 15:11 and of the parable of the dishonest steward in 16:1.  And it is true of this very story in 16:19. Since the account is a parable, an imaginative tale meant to emphasize a point, it would be wrong to press its details for literal descriptions of what awaits people [...]

2020-04-03T00:58:56-04:00October 8th, 2018|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels|

Heaven, Hell, and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

In my new book I will be arguing that the Gospel of Luke is distinctive in the New Testament for promoting the idea that a person is given postmortem rewards and punishments (that is, immediately after death), and that this is unlike anything found in the words of the historical Jesus himself.  Luke’s view is most emphatically and intriguingly conveyed in one of his most famous passages, and possibly the best known account of the afterlife in the entire New Testament, his story of “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”  I will be arguing that this is not a story that Jesus himself told.  A later storyteller (or Luke himself?) placed it on Jesus lips. The story appears in Luke 16:19-31 in the context of a number of parables and other sayings of Jesus.   In it, Jesus contrasts two lives.  There is an unnamed rich man dressed in fine clothes who enjoys sumptuous meals every day; at the gate of his home lies a beggar named Lazarus, starving, desperate even to get the scraps off the [...]

2020-04-03T00:59:04-04:00October 8th, 2018|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels|

The Lake of Fire in Revelation

OK, you’ve waited a while for me finally to get to the Lake of Fire in the book of Revelation.  But just think of it as the Final Judgment: you know it’s coming soon, but you don’t know when. Here is what I think about it (both the final judgment and the lake of fire) (clarification: this is not what *I* think of these things; this is what I think *Revelation* is saying about these things).  As previously indicated, I do not think Revelation teaches that sinners will be tormented forever.  They will be annihilated out of existence. The horrifying “lake of fire” makes its first appearance in Revelation 19.  Christ, along with his heavenly armies, appears from heaven for the “Last Battle.”  In a flash their arch-enemies on earth are soundly defeated and punished.  The supernatural opponents of Christ – the Beast and his prophet – are thrown, living, into the “lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”   Their human allies, on the other hand, are “slain with a sword,” and all the birds [...]

2020-04-03T00:59:27-04:00October 2nd, 2018|Afterlife, Revelation of John|

The Afterlife in Revelation

  The first reference to the afterlife in Revelation occurs in ch. 6, with the breaking of the fifth seal (6:9-11).   Nothing happens on earth, but the prophet sees the souls of those who had been “slaughtered for the word of God” and the “witness they gave” under an altar in heaven, as they cry out to God: “How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?”   An altar, of course, is the point of contact between God and humans, so these martyrs for Christ have a special access to the divine presence.  They want to be vindicated for their faithfulness.  But they are deferred in their wishes: each is given a white robe and told they need to “rest a little while longer,” until all their fellow Christians also destined for martyrdom have met their fates. These other martyrs are described in chapter seven, after the breaking of the sixth seal.  There are two groups: 144,000 Jews, twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes, and “an enormous [...]

2020-04-03T00:59:38-04:00October 1st, 2018|Afterlife, Revelation of John|

Did Jesus Believe Sinners Would Be Annihilated? The Sheep and the Goats

The most difficult passage that I will need to deal with in my discussion of Jesus’ view of the afterlife is the famous teaching about the last judgment of the “Sheep and the Goats,” found only in the Gospel of Matthew, there are reasons for thinking it is something Jesus actually said.   Doesn’t it teach eternal torment for the wicked, instead of annihilation?  I’ve concluded that the answer is no.  See if you find my reasoning persuasive. The passage comes at the tail end of Jesus “apocalyptic discourse” (Matthew 24-25), two chapters of Jesus’ discussion of what will happen at the end of time and of how people need to prepare for it.  To conclude the discourse, Jesus describes the coming Day of Judgment, when the great cosmic judge, the Son of Man, sits on his throne, judging all the nations of the world gathered before him (Matthew 25:31-46).   This is not merely the judgment of the righteous and wicked in Israel, but of all the pagans as well.  The Son of Man separates all [...]

2020-04-03T01:03:54-04:00September 12th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Gehenna: Where You Do Not Want to Go

This is the second of my two posts on Gehenna.  My ultimate point in this discussion is that when Jesus talked about people ending up there, he did not mean they would roast forever in the first of hell, but that they would end up very badly indeed because (a) they would not receive burial and (b) even worse, their corpses would be thrown into the most hideous literally-god-forsaken place a Jew could imagine. The earliest evidence from outside the Hebrew Bible for Gehenna as a place of divine punishment comes in 1 Enoch 27, written, as we have seen, at least two centuries before the days of Jesus.   In one of his encounters with the angel Uriel, Enoch asks why such an “accursed valley” lies in the midst of Israel’s “blessed land.”  The angel tell him: The accursed valley is for those accursed forever; here will gather together all those accursed ones, those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord….  Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:06-04:00September 10th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Jesus on Gehenna

I will give three more posts on what I take to be Jesus’ understanding of the afterlife.  The first two have to do with his understanding of Gehenna.    What I have to say about it is too much for a single post.  So here’s the first of the two. Again, feedback is welcome. Often Jesus expresses the image of “destruction” in highly repugnant terms, indicating that sinners who are excluded from God’s kingdom will not only killed but will be refused decent burial – which, as you will recall, is the worst fate one could have in the ancient world.  Even worse than that, Jesus indicates that sinners will be cast, unburied, into the most unholy, repulsive, God-forsaken place that anyone in Israel could imagine, the valley of known as “Gehenna.”  Thus,  for example, Jesus says that anyone who calls someone “a fool” will be liable to be cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:22); later he says that it is better to gouge out your eye that sins or amputate your hand and thereby enter the [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:13-04:00September 9th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Looking for Feedback on My Views about Jesus and the Afterlife

I am now editing my book on the afterlife, and there are a few controversial theses in it.  One of them involves the views of Jesus.   I’d like to know what you think of my argument, and to see if you find it convincing or not.  If not, I’d like to know why.   Here is a rough idea of what I’m planning to say (until you instruct  me otherwise!) First, Jesus did not think the coming kingdom of God (soon to arrive with the coming of the Son of Man in judgment on the earth)  was for faithful Jews only.  It was for all those who did God’s will.  Many Jews, in fact, would not be allowed to enter.   As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “many will come from east and west” to enjoy the heavenly banquet with the Jewish patriarchs in “the kingdom of heaven” but many of those from Israel “will be cast into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12).  It is important to note that he [...]

2020-04-03T01:04:27-04:00September 7th, 2018|Afterlife, Book Discussions, Historical Jesus|

Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter? Readers’ Mailbag April 15, 2018

I have a very long list of questions in my Readers’ Mailbag.  Here’s an interesting one that’s been hanging around for a while.   QUESTION: One of the really odd things about Christianity is the emphasis on believing in order to gain admission to heaven. Why is that so critical?   RESPONSE I would say that this one really odd thing is actually two really odd things: from the outset of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus emphasized both the centrality of belief and the realities of the afterlife.   These are oddities because prior to Christianity (this admittedly seems weird) there weren’t any religions that (a) focused on “having faith” and (b) stressed the afterlife as an incentive to practice religion. Really?  Yup, really.  People may have trouble believing this (at least my students do), but it’s true. Let me start with the afterlife.  For many of my students the afterlife is the one and only reason that anyone would want to be properly religious.  If there is no afterlife, why bother?  If there are [...]

2020-04-03T01:26:59-04:00April 15th, 2018|Afterlife, Reader’s Questions|

Is There a Time and Place for Heaven and Hell?

A recent Pew research poll produced interesting results on Americans’ beliefs about the afterlife.  72% of Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” and  58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”  (See So that’s a lot.   Nearly three quarters of all Americans believe in a literal heaven and well over half believe in a literal hell.   The afterlife is bigtime. In my book on the afterlife I will not be doing something completely crazy, like claiming I know for sure whether there is a heaven and/or hell.   What do I know?    I may state my *opinion* on the matter, but since I’m an atheist, it should be pretty clear what I think anyway.  Still, it is interesting to know/think where the ideas of heaven and hell came from, and that’s what most of the book will be. The issue returned to [...]

2020-04-03T01:27:17-04:00April 11th, 2018|Afterlife, Reflections and Ruminations|

Degrees of Punishment and Purgatory

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 such 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 [...]

2020-04-03T01:28:36-04:00April 9th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

The Unforgivable Sin and 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 “unforgiveable 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 [...]

2020-04-03T01:28:58-04:00April 6th, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

Did Jesus Teach About Purgatory?

The topic I’m dealing with on this destined-to-be-a-very-long thread seems to me to be particularly important.  Most of my scholarship is of interest mainly to people concerned about the life and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, the history of Christianity, and so on; but this is of interest to *all* of us.  What happens when we die?  Or more specifically, what happens to *me* when I die? My current discussion of purgatory may be of little interest to people, until they think about it for a second.  Do most people have to go through horrible suffering after death, even if they are not destined for the eternal flames of hell?   I for one don’t look forward to getting a tooth ache or ending up in the hospital.  What if there are years, decades, centuries of physical torment ahead for me?   Shouldn’t I want to know about that and, well, make some preparations? But it’s a topic most of us don’t think about.  Those of us raised in a Protestant tradition simply don’t buy it [...]

2020-04-03T01:29:07-04:00April 2nd, 2018|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

The First Intimation of Purgatory?

As I said in my last post, the definitive doctrine of Purgatory did not exist before the 12th century, even though the basic *idea* had been around for a long time – the idea that even though Christ’s death brought salvation to the world, most people, except for the most holy saints, such as those who had been martyred for their faith, had still to pay for their sins.   By the 13th century Purgatory had become an actual place of torment.  Before then it was not so much a place as a condition of suffering to purge away sins. The question is how early this idea existed.  How long had Christians maintained that suffering was necessary for the sinner – even the believing Christian sinner – before they would be allowed into their eternal bliss in heaven?   The idea is not part of the New Testament, although as we will see in a later post, there are some passages that could be used in support of the view. The first place we find any reference [...]

2020-04-03T01:29:14-04:00March 30th, 2018|Afterlife|

The Birth of Purgatory

I am interested in the question of where the idea of purgatory came from.   Roughly speaking purgatory is a kind of third place, between heaven and hell.   The abject sinners (or those who reject Christ, or whoever you think is destined for punishment) go to hell; the righteous saints go to heaven.  But what about those who will ultimately be saved but who have not lived a good (enough) life?  They go to purgatory.   This has been the standard teaching of the Catholic church since the 12th or 13th century. The classic study of the phenomenon is Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory  (1984; an English translation of the 1981 French original).   Le Goff was a medieval historian who was interested in the question from a purely historical, rather than theological, perspective (he was not a believer himself).   He shows that the term purgatorium was minted only in the 12th century.   It referred not to a state of being in the afterlife but to an actual place that people went – most people – [...]

2020-04-03T01:29:21-04:00March 29th, 2018|Afterlife|

The Martyr Perpetua and Her Estranged Family

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 [...]

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