The Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol

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 the other books.  It was not until a century or so after Jesus that most Jews agreed on virtually all the books of what we now think of as the Hebrew Bible – but Jesus and his followers would have accepted most of them.

That means that the views found in these books were highly influential on what Jews like Jesus would have thought about most theological topics.  And so, what does the Hebrew Bible teach about the afterlife?

To start with I can make two very basic points:

  1. There is not just one view about the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible contains lots of books written by lots of authors at different periods of time and in different places for different audiences.  Naturally there were various views about many, many things, including the afterlife.
  2. But one view that is NOT represented in the Hebrew Bible is the later Christian notion of heaven and hell, that is, heaven as a place of eternal reward for souls that are faithful to God (or who have lived good lives) and hell as a place of eternal punishment for souls who are not faithful (or good).

Both points, especially the second, may come as a surprise to modern casual readers of the Bible, especially Christians who naturally assume that their own views of the afterlife are the views set forth consistently in the Bible.  But

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Eternal Life and Damnation

In my summaries of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul, as a couple of readers noticed, there was a striking difference in emphasis.  Both of these early Christian texts (the first from the second century, the other from the fourth or possibly the fifth?) narrate guided tours of the realms of the blessed and of the damned, and both seem more interested in describing the torments of the lost than the ecstasies of the saved.

The former focuses on moral sins that lead to eternal punishment: seductresses, adulterers, murderers, children who are disobedient to parents, slaves who are disobedient to masters, women who had sex before marriage; and sundry other things.   To be sure, some of the sins are “religious” – blasphemy, socerery, and so on.  But in this case, “torment is for everyone forever according to his deeds.”

The Apocalypse of Paul, on the other hand, is far more concerned about sins within the church, sins of ecclesiastical and doctrinal error: ascetics who break their vows; church people not commited completely to the Christain life (boiled in fire forever); those who took communion even while being in extra-marital affairs; bishops who did not conduct themselves properly; and most notably, heretics who do not agree that Christ was fully human or that he was physically raised in the flesh.

I am puzzled by …

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Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate – Did Jesus Exist?

As many of you know, this past October I had a public debate with Robert Price on the question of whether Jesus actually existed.  To my knowledge Robert is the only “mythicist” (one who thinks Jesus is a complete myth) who actually has a PhD in the relevant field of New Testament studies.   For years I’ve been asked by people to debate a mythicist; I’ve always resisted, in part because I’ve thought that by doing so I would lend credibility to their view, which, in my judgment, is not credible.   But Robert is a nice guy and I finally yielded and said OK.  This is the debate.  It was lively in places and — to my surprise — ended up being a nice experience.

The event was part of the “Mythinformation Conference” Buzzed Belief Debate Series presented by Mythicist Milwaukee at Turner Hall in Milwaukee, WI on Friday October 21st 2016.  Mythicist Milwaukee focuses on educating the freethought/skeptic/atheist community about what the organization considers to be the mythological origins of religion.  The people at the meeting were amazingly welcoming of me (even though I take a position they disagree with) and I had a very good time.

Matt Dillahunty was the debate mediator.  He currently serves as the president of the Atheist Community of Austin and hosts the internet radio show “Non-Prophets Radio” and the Austin television cable access show “The Atheist Experience”.

– Preview video of debate by Mythicist Milwaukee:
– Pre-debate discussed on Bart Ehrman’s Foundation Blog:
– Discussion of debate by Matt Dillahunty, Dr. Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald and Kristyn Whitaker Hood join hosts Sean Fracek and Jason Lawson:
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Questions on the Resurrection and My Personal Spiritual Experiences: Readers’ Mailbag

I’ll address two questions on this week’s readers’ mailbag, one about what we can say about the resurrection of Jesus (a specific question about it) and one about whether my (one-time) faith was based on the Bible or on spiritual experiences I had.  (The answer is apparently not what the questioner expected.)



How do you separate the fact from fiction on the risen Jesus?  You accept, as historical, that the disciples believed they had visions of the risen Jesus – so how do you reject, as legendary, the physical interactions with the risen Jesus as they are drawn from the same accounts?

Ah, this is a good question: it gets to the heart of what it means to engage in a historical analysis of our early Christian traditions.  Each and every tradition (e.g.: the followers of Jesus came to believe he was raised from the dead because they saw him alive afterward; or Jesus ate some fish in their presence after he had died) has to be evaluated on its own merits weighing the factors that might show whether it is historical or not.  Doing history is not a matter of simply choosing some traditions one likes and accepting them, and rejecting the ones one doesn’t like.  It’s a matter of evaluating each and every one of them.

So how does one evaluate these two traditions in particular? With respect to the first, that Jesus’ disciples believed they saw him alive after his death, leading them to conclude he had been raised from the dead, the most important thing to stress is that there are two historical realities that simply cannot be denied.  The followers of Jesus did claim that Jesus came back to life.  If they had not claimed that, we would not have Christianity.  So they did claim it.  Moreover, they did claim that they knew he rose precisely because some of them saw him alive again afterward.  No one can doubt that.  It is the tradition found in Matthew, Mark, and John and it is the tradition given us by an actual eyewitness, Paul.  It is multiply attested in independent traditions.  And as important, nothing else is ever cited in our early sources for being any other reason for people to believe he was raised from the dead (e.g., the empty tomb never convinces anyone).

So that’s the reality: the followers did believe he came to be raised,  and there must have been something to make them think so.  Moreover, the one thing that they said made them think so (including one of the people who wrote about coming to think so) is that they saw Jesus alive again afterward.  As a historian I conclude that it is likely it was because the followers saw, or thought they saw, Jesus alive after his execution that led to the belief he had been raised from the dead.   One virtue of this conclusion is that it “works” historically, whether a person is a Christian or not.  Christians would say Jesus really was raised and appeared to his followers; non-Christians would say that the followers were just seein’ things.

What about the other tradition, about Jesus eating fish?   What historical realities does *it* explain?  Well, none actually.  Nothing makes it necessary.  There is nothing about early Christianity that requires this tradition to be historically true.  I’m not saying the disciples must not have seen any such thing.  I’m just ambivalent on it.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t – nothing requires me to think they did.  You get stories about Jesus eating something in several accounts, yes, but nothing else hinges on it, unlike the first instance.

Moreover, I can think of very good reasons indeed why some Christians might want to invent the idea that Jesus ate some fish (or honey or whatever) in the disciples’ presence after his resurrection.  We know of Christians who were insisting that Jesus was not *physically* raised from the dead, but only spiritually.  How can one prove that the resurrection was physical, not just spiritual?  Well, if Jesus engaged in bodily, physical activities, that would show that he was raised in an actual, physical body.  The tradition, in other words, serves a particular polemical function within the early Christian tradition.  That makes it suspicious (of course the “appearances” of Jesus perform a function too, of showing that Jesus was raised: but they are “necessary” for other reasons – and there do not appear to be other reasons for his fish-eating).

And so I think one of the two claims has a strong case for being historical, and the other, well, not so much.  It’s not just a matter of picking the one that I personally like.  History has to work this way, evaluating each and every tradition carefully, one at a time.



During your evangelical years, was your faith based solely upon the bible, or did you also draw upon personal spiritual experiences with God?  From what I’ve heard about the time you turned away from your faith, it seems you lost faith in the credibility of the biblical texts and this led you to losing your faith in God. As a liberal Christian who is skeptical of several parts of the NT (for many of the reasons you argue), I find this curious because I maintained my faith and communion with God through the personal experiences I have. You could say I never found it necessary to chuck the divine baby out with the scriptural bathwater. I am curious if these spiritual experiences were lacking in your time as an evangelical, as most seem to have experienced them.



Yes, I can see why people have said this about me, that since my belief was completely based on the Bible, and on nothing else, that once I realized there were problems with the Bible, I left the faith and became an agnostic.  But, as it turns out, that’s not at all true.

The most important point, and in direct response to the question, is that my faith was not solely based on the Bible.   My faith as a born-again evangelical Christian was, instead, based directly on the spiritual experiences I had.  When I “accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior” and “asked Jesus into my heart,” the Bible was not directly involved.  I came to believe that this is what I needed to do for salvation, and so I did it, and I experienced a kind of emotional/spiritual ecstasy as a result of it.

My faith was in Christ, not in the Bible.  The Bible came along only at a second stage, as I wanted to learn more and more (and more and more) about my faith.  The Bible was my source.  But I continued to have (sometimes quite intense) spiritual experiences, quite apart from the Bible.

I did come to place a high value on the Bible indeed.  And I was seriously deflated when I came to realize the Bible was not an inerrant revelation from on high.  But that didn’t lead me away from the faith.  It made me more thoughtful about my faith, and helped develop my sense that the Bible, while a valuable book, could not be the be-all and end-all of faith.

I left the faith for completely other reasons.  I came to realize, after years of struggle, that I no longer could believe there was a God who was active and involved in this world, where there is so much pain and misery: famine, drought, epidemics, natural disasters, birth defects, and on and on and on.  I just got to a point where I didn’t believe there really was a god who answers prayer who works to improve people’s lives.  It was then that I realize I no longer could consider myself a believer.

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Another Gory Account of the Afterlife: The Apocalypse of Paul

Yesterday I discussed the first surviving Christian account of a tour of heaven and hell, an apocalypse allegedly, but not really, written by Jesus’ disciple Peter.   Here is one other, this time allegedly, but not really, written by the Apostle Paul.   I have taken this description from my book Forgery and Counterforgery (which I have revised a bit to get rid of some of the scholarly jargon).


Far more influential on the history of Christian thought than the Apocalypse of Peter, though clearly dependent on it for many of its traditions, the Apocalypse of Paul was originally composed in Greek but came to be translated into a number of languages: Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Slavonic, and Ethiopic.  The text as we have it is dated at the outset:  “In the consulate of Theodosius Augustus the Younger and of Cynegius, a certain respected man was living in Tarsus….”  Commonly this is taken to indicate that the book was composed, in its final form, around 388 CE, but scholars today think that it may derive from the fifth century, with parts of it going back at least a century and a half earlier.

Despite its widespread popularity – down at least to Dante – the work was roundly condemned in orthodox circles, including in the Gelasian Decree.   Augustine had nothing good to say about it:

There have been some vain individuals, who, with a presumption that betrays the grossest folly, have forged a Revelation of Paul, crammed with all manner of fables, which has been rejected by the orthodox Church; affirming it to be that whereof he had said that he was caught up into the third heavens, and there heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Nevertheless, the audacity of such might be tolerable, had he said that he heard words which it is not as yet lawful for a man to utter; but when he said, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, who are they that dare to utter them with such impudence and non-success.

The account itself begins with …

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Touring Hell: The Apocalypse of Peter

I am about ready now (I think!) to dig more deeply into a thread on the Invention of the Afterlife – the tentative title of the book that I *hope* will be my next one.  I’ve been putting off starting the thread in earnest because, in fact, I don’t feel particularly ready for it.  I’m just at the preliminary stage of my reading and have many dozens of books I need to work through before I can even think about sketching out how I want to broach the subject in my book (I have about a hundred unread books on various aspects of the matter sitting on my shelf now, as we speak, and I’m collecting more virtually every day).

But I think that I will be doing this book differently from others I’ve done – at least with respect to the blog.  I’m thinking about using the blog as a way to think out loud about some of the topics I’m covering in my reading.  I’m not sure that everything I read about will make it into the book.  I won’t know until I read it, and only later can I decide.  That means that I will be reading a lot of stuff that might be interesting, but that ends up not making the cut.

As I indicated in a previous post, one of the things I’m interested in – and have been for a long time – are the Christian accounts of guided tours through heaven and hell.  The one I’ve dealt with the most in the past is a book called the Apocalypse of Peter.  I talk about this work in several of my earlier books.  Here is what I say about it in my book Forged.


I will not be talking at length in this book about we got our twenty-seven books of the New Testament, that is, how the canon was formed, so that some writings came to be included and others were left out.  There are plenty of other books that describe this process at length.  I can say, though, that there were some writings that were a “close call,” that nearly made it in but did not, just as there were others that nearly were left out but finally made it in.  One of the books that nearly made it in is called the Apocalypse of Peter.

From authors such as Eusebius, we know that there were…

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Does Jesus Claim to Be God in Mark? And My Former Converts. Mailbag March 19, 2017

Two questions in this week’s Mailbag, one about whether Jesus was claiming to be God in the Gospel of Mark, and the other about my personal life: whether today, as an agnostic, I ever meet people I once converted when I was a gung-ho conservative evangelical Christian.  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away!



Dr. Ehrman, the other day I was discussing with an Evangelical pastor that the sayings of Jesus in which he claimed to be God were only found in the Gospel of John. He had me read Mark 2:5-7. This is the verse where Jesus heals a paralytic and says to him “Son, your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders say “Who can forgive sins but God alone”. The pastor said that this shows that even in the earliest Gospel Mark, Jesus claimed to be God. I wasn’t sure how to respond but told him that there was still a big difference in the comparison. Do you have any thoughts or comments in which I could have responded to this pastor?



              Yes this is a very interesting passage, and one that, in my opinion, regularly gets misread.  First some background: in the Gospel of *John* Jesus does, repeatedly, claim a divine status for himself:  “I and the Father are One,” “Before Abraham was, I AM,” “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and so on.  These sayings are found only in John, not in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  That seems very odd if the historical Jesus really went around making such claims about himselfHow could the three earliest Gospels (and their sources: Q, M, and L!) not say anything about Jesus making such radical claims if they knew he made them.  Wouldn’t that be the most significant thing to say about Jesus, that he called himself God?  Did all of them simply decide not to *mention* that part?

That seems unlikely.   It is far more likely that they had never heard of such a thing, and so didn’t report it.

But what about Mark 2, where Jesus heals the paralytic?  He first pronounces that man’s sins forgiven, the opponents claim that only God can forgive sins, and Jesus responds by asking whether it is easier to pronounce a person forgiven or to tell a paralytic to be healed, take up his pallet, and walk.  Obviously the former is easier, since there is no way of seeing if the words had their stated effect.  Then Jesus says “But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” … and he orders the man to take up his pallet and walk.  And he does so.

Doesn’t this show that Jesus is claiming to be God?

Not necessarily….

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A Final Word (I Think!) on Group Visions

I am getting some push-back on my discussions of visions.  One of the most informed and hard-hitting critiques was this.

I certainly agree that it is within your scope of expertise as a New Testament scholar to use the term “vision” to describe the beliefs of people in Antiquity who used this term to describe certain religious experiences.  It is within your scope of expertise to define this term as defined by those ancients.  However, with all due respect, as a physician I must point out that it is not within your scope of expertise to use this term to determine what was going on physiologically or psychologically during these experiences.  This determination belongs to experts in the field of medicine and psychiatry.  That is why I believe you should stop using the terms  “veridical vision” and “non-veridical”.  Medical experts and psychiatrists/psychologists believe that these ancients experienced one of three things in these “vision” experiences:  a dream (a nightdream or a daydream), an illusion, or an hallucination.  That’s it.  There are no other options.  For you to create other categories is to create confusion.

In response, let me first say something about terminology.  This reader is pointing out that psychologists use three terms for such experiences: dream, illusion, and hallucination.  Fair enough.  The question is whether we think these three things have something in common.  The answer, I think, is yes.  They all involve someone thinking she has seen something that in fact was not really there.   Should we have a category for such an experience broadly (encapsulating all three options)?  It seems to me that would be very useful indeed.  The category I use is …

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What Really Happens With Group Visions

Several people on the blog have pushed back on my claim that group hallucinations (what I’ve called non-veridical visions) can occur.  Psychologically, is that really possible?  How is it actually possible that a group of, say, twelve people could have the same mental breakdown leading them to see exactly the same thing at the same time?

First, some people have objected to my term “vision” since psychologists don’t use that term.  They talk instead about “hallucinations.”   OK, I’ll concede the point.  Religious studies scholars, though, use the term visions, since visionary experiences are very much a part of what it is scholars of religion study (visionaries are stock and trade of the religious studies scholar), and when it comes to the study of the Bible – my own field of expertise – it is common to talk about visions of heaven, or visions of God, or … visions of Jesus after his death.  No one talks about the hallucinations of Jesus, since that prejudices the issue of whether Jesus really appeared to people or if they were just having a strange brain phenomenon.

But could multiple people have the same vision all at once?  Can the very same internal mental activity caused by the firing of certain neurons (or however it happens) occur independently in numerous people all at the same time?  OK, in case anyone hasn’t figured it out, no, of course I don’t think that’s possible.  Then why do I keep saying that group visions are possible?  I’ve actually tried to word what I’ve wanted to say carefully, even though I’m sure someone can go back and find places where I haven’t been careful.  What I usually try to say  are thing such as the following (I’m lifting these quotations from my earlier blog post):

That something led people to think they saw Jesus when in fact they were seeing something else

How is it people thought they saw Jesus alive again after his death if in fact Jesus did not really appear to them?

That’s actually what I mean.  Groups of people do indeed claim to have had visions of Jesus and probably actually think they saw Jesus.  I’m calling that a group vision.  But I do not think personally that they saw Jesus.  You can call those hallucinations.  But I think it’s even a bit more nuanced than that, since I don’t think everyone had the same vision all at once.

What I think is this: groups of people often *claim* to have seen the same thing at once, even though none of them actually saw that thing.  I’ll explain how it works by giving a psychological study in which – in a realm outside of religion – this kind of thing happens.  I’ve taken the example from my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it.  The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer.   The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed.   The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.

Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country.  Among the questions was the following:  “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?”    In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film.   Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students.  In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film.   There was just one problem.  There was no film.

These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film.   Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras.   The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash.   And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film.    Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?

Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later.   None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film.  So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?

Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down).  The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something.  They thought they were remembering it.  They really thought that.   In fact they did remember it.  But it was a false memory.   Not just a false memory one of them had.   A false memory most of them had.

The researchers concluded:  “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.”   In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.”   Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”

This was a memory of a large group of people who all remember seeing the same thing (or nearly the same thing) at the same time, even though none of them saw it.  If you don’t want to call that a group vision, that’s absolutely fine with me.  What I’m saying is that a group of people thought they saw something they didn’t see.  (The difference in this example, of course, is that the people in this study were not all standing together at the time when they had the vision – but we have records of that sort of thing happening as well.)

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t actually think groups of people all at one and the same time saw Jesus after his death, any more than I think groups of people actually see the Blessed Virgin Mary at one time today.  What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.

The thing about false memories is that they are just as firmly implanted in our brains as real memories – sometimes even more firmly implanted.  There is no way to differentiate between true and false memories.  Our brains can’t do it.  Once you remember seeing Mary, you really remember it.  When numerous individuals report having seen her at the time, even if they didn’t see her, that’s what I mean by a group vision.   In their heads, that’s what they all saw.

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Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I: A Blast From the Past


A former colleague of mine contacted me last week — not a colleague from any of my teaching positions, but a colleague in ministry from forty years ago when I was the Youth Pastor at Trinity Covenant Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois.  I’ve been reminiscing about those days, and I remembered an event connected with that church that I talked about in my book How Jesus Became God, involving a moment when my doubts about the Christian faith were starting to take hold.  Here is a post that I made about it exactly four years ago today.


When I attended Moody Bible Institute in the mid 1970s, every student was required, every semester, to do some kind of Christian ministry work.   Like all of my fellow students I was completely untrained and unqualified to do the things I did, but I think Moody believed in on-the-job training.   And so every student had to have one semester where, for maybe 2-3 hours one afternoon a week, they would engage in “door-to-door evangelism.”  That involved being transported to some neighborhood in Chicago, knocking on doors, trying to strike up a conversation, get into the homes, and convert people.  A fundamentalist version of the Mormon missionary thing, also carried out two-by-two.

One semester I was a late-night counselor on the Moody Christian radio station.  People would call up with questions about the Bible or with problems in their lives, and I would, well, give them all the answers.  I was all of 18.  One semester I was a chaplain one afternoon a week at Cook County Hospital.  Completely out of my depth with that one.

When I was a senior (it was a three year degree program), my roommate and I decided that we wanted to do our ministry in a church as youth pastors.   We were hooked up, through Moody, with…

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