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Did Ancient Greeks Invent Heaven and Hell?

Back, for a post, to the scholarly project I’m now doing on the “katabasis” traditions in early Christianity – the stories of people being given tours of / visions of both heaven and hell.   Some readers of the blog may be confused about why, on a blog devoted to the study of the New Testament and Early Christianity, I would want to discuss the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil, etc.   It’s because I very much want to understand where the Christian ideas of the afterlife come from.

In the traditional Christian view, after death a person is taken off to be rewarded with paradise or punished with the torments of hell came from.   In my book I’ll be arguing that idea did not come either from the Old Testament or from Jesus.  Then whence?

My last post on this was on the Odyssey, where Odysseus goes to the underworld and there are no heaven and hell there either, just a place called Hades where everyone – whether great or small, valiant or cowardly, vicious or virtuous — leads a kind of bodiless and banal existence, being bored for all eternity.     So Christians didn’t get the idea of heaven and hell from the most ancient Greeks.  Whence then?

I’ll be arguing that the view did develop within the Greek tradition after Homer.   Afterlife rewards and punishments can be found with especial poignancy in the writings of Plato, especially in several myths that he tells of those who see what the afterlife is like and come back to tell the tale.  The best known of these myths involves an ancient Near Death Experience.

Plato discusses it …

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A Roman Vision of Heaven and Hell
An Early Otherworldly Journey

72

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Alexandre Ferreira  March 26, 2019

    Again, the Blog always make happy. You have helped me a lot to solve many many question, some time increasing my questionnaires. It is not bad, of course. I will read more about the Er’s myth, it is very intriguing.

    1
  2. Avatar
    jwesenbe  March 26, 2019

    Plato seems to be using the same familiar technique used throughout history to control society, that of eternal punishment for wrongs done on earth. Do or do not do as I say and you shall be rewarded or punished accordingly.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Right! My question is when did that *start* being the technique that eventually became familiar.

      6
  3. Avatar
    seahawk41  March 26, 2019

    I recently watched a Smithsonian thing about Egypt, part of their Sacred Sites series. The discussion of Egyptian beliefs and practices regarding the afterlife got me thinking about your proposed book and the posts on the blog. What struck me was that the Egyptians believed that people would be tested after death; those “good” would go on to a sort of paradise, those not judged as good would be annihilated. Of course, this applied only to the upper crust, not ordinary folk so far as I can tell. [I have not read in this area, so don’t know a lot about it!] So there are some similarities and some major differences. What does the scholarship say about the influence or relationship of the Egyptian beliefs to those of the Greeks and Romans?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Most experts think the Egyptians were doing their own thing — a very interesting thing (or sets of things) — but that they did not influence that broader Greco-Roman world (or Xty) much.

      3
      • Avatar
        Ryanshidyak  June 4, 2019

        Hi Bart I was wondering what the response should be to Christians who cite passages in support of Jesus speaking on hell which you’ve said he didn’t. They cite the verses of eternal fire and others. Thanks a bunch

  4. Avatar
    smackemyackem  March 26, 2019

    Is it significant that the nt uses similar words as tartar us and hades?

    do you consider this as evidence that early Christians borrowed from the Greeks?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      They certainly did, and since they were speaking Greek they naturally used the words available to them.

      4
  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 26, 2019

    So,,our ideas about heaven originated with the Greeks. I had no clue that such a story was found in the work of Plato. Thanks for continuing to educate me.

    2
  6. Avatar
    Vlobascio  March 26, 2019

    “Jesus died to save mankind from eternal hell/separation from God” is the crux of the modern interpretation of the gospel narrative. How did the concept of Jesus as the Messiah become wrapped up with the idea of Jesus’ cleansing our sins through sacrifice as a necessary condition for escaping hell? Jesus as the final sacrificial lamb had to come first, right?

    It seems like answering this question is immensely important to Christianity’s claims to exclusivity as well as its urgency. Telling ancient people Jesus makes them right with the one God (who also happens to be the God of the Jews) is one thing, but telling them NOT accepting Jesus damns them to eternal suffering is a *very* different message. I wonder if the ‘hell’ part of the story was tacked on as a carrot & stick approach to winning converts?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Yes, Jesus’ death as salvation came first; the idea of hell later. The original idea was that the world as we know it was soon to be destroyed in judgment, and only those who believed in Jesus would be saved from the coming onslaught. Later that was transferred into the idea that the onslaught would come individually, to each person, at the point of death.

      8
      • Avatar
        flshrP  March 27, 2019

        I think I remember that you used this explanation in one of your books. It was in the context of the NT portrayal of Jesus as an “End Times” prophet who told his followers that some of them would be alive when the Father came in glory to judge the living and the dead. However, reality intruded. All those original followers of Jesus died and no supernatural events anywhere near what Jesus prophesied had occurred. This left his 2nd century followers with egg on their face since it appears that they were worshipping a failed apocalyptic prophet. I’m sure that their pagan opponents in debate pointed this out to them.

        In another classic instance of cognitive dissonance resolution, these early Church Fathers flipped the script and said that Jesus was not thinking of time in a linear mode, event after event stretching into the indefinite future until the Father’s appearance at last occurred. No, Jesus really meant that every person would be judged immediately after exhaling their final breath in a sort of provisional judgement and that later there would be a General Resurrection and Final Great Judgement where everyone’s situation vis-à-vis reward and punishment is at last determined for all eternity. Never underestimate the ability of theologians to wiggle out of a tough situation.

        1
      • Avatar
        Vlobascio  March 27, 2019

        Thanks for your clarification. I’m still not totally clear on *how* we got from one (Jesus as a savior from global apocalypse) to the other (Jesus as savior from eternal suffering).

        Was this transference of meaning due to the fact that the apocalypse didn’t seem to be coming very fast? Or was it just easier to convince people that an individual “apocalypse” was a more impending threat than a global one? Considering Jesus’ chief concern was a (literal) apocalypse, salvation from personal, eternal destination seems like an absolutely monumental shift.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2019

          Yup. The apocalypse didn’t come so the words came to be reinterpreted.

          2
  7. Avatar
    fishician  March 26, 2019

    As much emphasis as modern Christians have on the afterlife, it is surprising that the Bible is so sparse in its description of the afterlife, outside of Revelation. No colorful stories like the one about Er. Of course, if the earliest Christians believed in a kingdom on earth, not heaven, and the destruction of the ungodly, it makes sense.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Even Revelation doesn’t say much about it. The only people in heaven are the martyrs under the altar in 6:9-11, and there’s no word about “hell” per se. (I’ll have a discussion on the “Lake of Fire” in my book; I don’t think its a place of eternal torment for sinners)

      3
  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 26, 2019

    And here we are, back at the question of origins. 🙂

    1
  9. Avatar
    mkahn1977  March 26, 2019

    So where does Hades fit into all this, and what’s the difference between Hades and Tartarus?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Hades is usually understood to be the place where all the dead go. Tartarus becomes the place of punishment. It is either a compartment of Hades or a separate place.

      2
  10. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  March 26, 2019

    I have a friend from Paris that agrees. I think it is possible.

  11. Avatar
    nichael  March 26, 2019

    I’d like to pick a couple nits about the question as to when a notion of “Hell” appeared in Greek Mythology; specifically the point that
    > “…the view [developed] within the Greek tradition after Homer.”

    That is, the view of Hades as a place where “everyone went” to spend a post-death eternity as mindless wraiths is certainly a reasonable reading of the description of the afterlife in Homer, however there were other contemporary views that depicted post-death fates that we would recognize as Hell –i.e. a place of eternal damnation reserved for the especially evil.

    Most notable is the view expressed in Hesiod (who was roughly contemporary with the Iliad and the Odyssey –at least in their written forms.)

    For example, as described in his “Theogony” Tartaros was a place which was 1] distinct from the “usual” realm of the dead and 2] reserved for those deserving special punishment (punishment of which they were fully conscious). For example, humans who had led especially evil lives (like Sisyphus –the first murderer–, Tantalus, etc) and other enemies of the Olympians (many of the Titans, such as Prometheus, etc)] [*NOTE]

    Needless to say there are differences between the ancient Greek view of Tartaros and the modern Christian view of Heavy and Hell (for example, the Greek view didn’t presume an “everybody/either-or” situation).

    But Tartoros as a place of special, eternal damnation goes back to (at least) the time of Homeric epics.

    [*NOTE: Also, there’s the minor point that in Hesiod “Hades” wasn’t the name of a place but of one of the Gods. More to the point Tartaros was one of Hesiod’s four primordial deities (together with Chaos, Gaia, and Eros) whereas Hades didn’t come along until a couple generations later, as one of the children of Kronos and, so, a sibling of Zeus, Poseidon, etc. But this doesn’t really bear much on the current discussion.]

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      I’d say its even a bit more complicated. Tartarus for Hesiod is only for the Titans. Humans don’t go there. And even in Homer there are three persons who are punished for all eternity (Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus); but they are exceptions to the human rule. So when I say hell comes after Homer, I mean that the idea that it’s one of the choices for human eternity comes after Homer.

  12. Avatar
    godspell  March 26, 2019

    We see this pattern over and over–more educated Christians, like Origen,would say he and others like him believed in the truth of their beliefs, but not necessarily in a literal sense. Later, during the 18th century, French Deists and others of a philosophic bent said “Of course we are above the old religious superstitions, but it is good for the ordinary people to believe in it, because it leads to a more ordered society.”

    Even in the Rabbinic tradition, there are different levels of interpretation, and there would be the ‘stupid son’ version of a teaching story–meant for those who couldn’t understand the deeper implications, and needed a simple moral lesson they could grasp.

    And on the one hand, I find this a bit condescending and classist.

    And on the other–well–we’ve all met some stupid sons.

    I doubt the Greeks came up with the basic idea of punishment and reward in the afterlife–it probably goes back much further. But separating the realms of punishment and reward in the Christian tradition clearly would be derived from the Greeks.

    I’ve never liked Plato, incidentally. He would not be in my Divine Paradise. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      I first became a Platonist in my early 20s, when I had my first really expensive bottle of wine. Then I realized he had been right about the forms, and the difference between reality and shadows.

      7
      • Avatar
        godspell  March 28, 2019

        Upvoted for the joke, but in all seriousness, you know that’s not what Plato meant. 😉

        What I mean is that while it’s good to have ideals to aspire to, we’re wrong to think there’s any such thing as an unchanging ideal. That bottle of wine you had was no doubt phenomenal, but would the ancient Greeks have thought it so? Wine has changed a lot since Plato’s time (and he would have poured water in it, the thought of which makes me flinch too).

        Philosophy and Religion alike struggle with the quest for unchanging ideals, and keep changing up their ideals, without admitting it.

        Darwin and Wallace had it right (also Octavia Butler, read Parable of the Sower sometime, postapocalyptic novel about the founding of a new religion). Life is change. I think Aristotle got that, so put me more in his camp. Perfection is a chimera, a mirage. We strive towards it–okay, maybe Plato was right about that–but the Ideal Forms are just an idea in our heads. In truth, we’re just adapting to the exigencies of the time. And some adaptations are more timeless than others. The shark. The field mouse. A Billie Holiday track. The Sermon on the Mount.

        But The Republic is a blueprint for totalitarianism, which Plato was hoping to find some Philosopher Prince to ram down our throats.

        The question is, was Jesus doing the same, only his strongman is God? Not quite. Jesus knows better than to think you can fix humanity by taking all the kids away from their parents and retraining them (yes, he advocated for that). Because some of those kids would be goats, and they’d end up corrupting any system they were saddled with. The more all-encompassing it was, the more easily they’d turn it to their own purposes.

        So while both men advocated for something that couldn’t happen in reality, it was Jesus who focused on the true ideal–the good people seeking out and supporting each other, and waiting in joyful hope for the coming of–whatever is coming.

        4
        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2019

          But it’s what I wanted him to mean! And actually, in a sense, it is. Mutatis mutandis, that’s the teaching of the Symposium. Earthly love leads one to think about the higher forms of love, etc…

          5
          • Avatar
            jhbaker731  March 29, 2019

            I guess I need to go back to believing in heaven and hell and being one of the “stupid sons” since the level of y’all’s (from Texas) discussions leave me bewildered and half the time I don’t know what the “hell” y’all are talking about. But thanks for the education..,it makes me read more and more.

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 29, 2019

          I would, if I could, edit the above post to say PLATO wanted to take children away from their parents and have them educated by the state.

          I would hope it was clear from context I wasn’t saying that about Jesus. Who didn’t believe in any earthly state.

          1
  13. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I believe you could be correct with your theory that the Christian idea of heaven and hell has Greek origins, but is it possible that Christians may have been lured (so to speak) into using Greek ideas?

    Wikipedia (the source of all truth) states that when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word “Hades” was used for the word “Sheol”. This could cause a reader of the Hebrew Bible written in Greek to imagine the Greek “Hades” when reading the word “Hades” rather than imagining the Hebrew “Sheol” when reading the Greek word “Hades”.

    What Greek words did Plato use to describe “heaven” and “hell” in the Myth of Er and are these same words found in New Testament manuscripts written in Greek for the words “heaven” and “hell”? If the same words were used then a Christian reader fluent in Greek who was familiar with Plato’s Myth of Er might automatically envision Plato’s heaven and hell when reading those words?

    Anyway, just a thought.

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      I don’t think they were lured: this was simply part of the world they live in. Just like today, many Christians in America think that capitalism is the God-given economic system taught by the Bible. Tell *that* to theologians of the 12th century!

  14. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 27, 2019

    What happens when your book comes under peer review? How does that process work?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2019

      Trade books are usually not peer reviewed in the same way (to my knowledge) That happens only with scholarship, and for a good reason. Scholarly presses do not want to publish “scholarship” that is flawed, since advancing knowledge/true scholarship is their very raison d’être. I actually don’t know if some trade presses have experts evaluate submissions. My sense is, not. They make sure of the author’s credentials, publishing record, and established expertise — and their own editorial staff’s knowledge and insights. But that’s why you also can’t turn to trade books if you want to be assured of scholarly claims, and why so many trade books are panned by real experts.

      3
      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 27, 2019

        How does the peer review process work for scholarship?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2019

          Ah, sorry. I misunderstood your question — for some reason I thought you were asking about the book I just finished on the afterlife. Right — scholarly books. The details differ from one publisher to another; the very best scholarly publishers have very rigorous peer-review processes. Others publishers are incredibly lax. That’s one reason why someone who brags that his/her book has been “peer reviewed” isn’t necessarily saying much. Depends on the publisher. Most of the top publishers receive a manuscript from a scholar; the editor reads it to see if it might be suitable on the surface; but he/she is not a true expert in the field, and so the she/he acquires names of acknowledged, published experts who can evaluate — not whether they *agree* with the book but whether it is a solid, competent piece of scholarship without the kinds of mistakes and errors that non-scholars typically make, that it is based on true reseearch, for example that the author has mastered all the previous scholarship (not just English, but also, e.g., German and French) and interacted appropriately with it; whether the argument is coherent and advanced in a sufficiently convincing way; whether the book is structured appropriatedly; whether it actually makes a real contribution to the field or is simply repeating what experts already know; etc. etc. etc. Normally the manuscript gets sent to two experts, who read it, and in consideration of these matters, writes up a report for the editor. The reports almost *always* say different things. But if they are in basic agreement that it deserves to be published, or that it not be, then, that usually decides the issue. If they disagree, then either the editor makes a decisoin him/herself or sends it to a third reader. Often the reports indicate to the editor that signifiance (and insignificant) changes need to be made before it can be accepted. (Some publishers rely on only one reader. That speeds things up, but it’s a bit more risky)

          3
          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  March 31, 2019

            Do publishers pay experts to review scholarly work?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2019

            No, it’s just one of the things we do as scholars as a service to the discipline. (Intersting point. You might ask anyone who likes to brag about his / her academic credentials / accomplishmnents how many books they have been asked to review in the field of their claimed expertise by major academic presses, like Oxford, Cambridge, Brill, Princeton, Columbia, etc. etc….)

            1
          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  April 2, 2019

            Good point about being asked to review books for academic presses.

      • Avatar
        James Chalmers  March 27, 2019

        It occurs to me that one of the great things about your work goes beyond the application of evidence-based standards to learning ferreting historical truth out of scripture. It also shows an appreciation of the difference, for purposes of learning what’s true, between scholars, who are dedicated to and good at doing it, and others. Not to say that, for instance, journalists can’t be good scholars. But I do mean to say that footnotes, drawing on sources whose validity is carefully assessed, are essential to the truth business, and that your work across the board illumines how truth can found (and that it can be found, even if the limits of what we know have to be recognized).

        1
  15. Avatar
    Joel Smith  March 28, 2019

    Did the Greeks also invent the modern Church’s views on Jesus’ resurrection? There are many stories of the Greek “sons of god” rising from the dead and even ascending to Mt Olympus.
    The Apostles Peter & Paul both wrote that Jesus’ resurrection was a spiritual reality that had nothing to do with the flesh.
    Paul said that when Jesus died he became a life giving spirit. Peter wrote that Jesus died in the flesh & was raised in the spirit. Paul also wrote that when people die they leave their bodies behind and go to heaven in the spirit.
    This is what today’s church should teach… but doesn’t. It is the earliest version of the story.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      My view is that the early Christian belief in resurrection is fundamentally different from the Greek and Roman views of the sons of god ascending to heaven, though there are obvioulsy parallels. The Christian notions are directly tied to their idea of bodily resurrection ,as something tht would happen to all at the end of time — a view that Greeks and Romans not only didn’t share but found repulsive. (So they don’t refer to the apotheosis of, say, Romulus, or any of the gods, as a “resurrection” from the dead)

      1
  16. KaryNation
    KaryNation  March 29, 2019

    Has anyone found any comprehensive scholarly books on the mythological origins of the Jesus/God myth?

    The uTube post under the description “The Jesus story and the stars and constalations of the zodiac” is interesting but not well researched to say the least. (However I did use an astronomical tool to verify if the ‘3 kings following the north star to the ascending sun on December 25th’ to mark the beginning of the Winter solstice actually works and it does seem to have merit.)

    Above uTube source:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NHDvWabiyM

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      There are scores of non-scholarly books. Just look up Jesus Mythicism, and you’ll have enough to read for the next decade!

      1
      • KaryNation
        KaryNation  March 31, 2019

        Here is what I understand so far…

        1 – Old Testament – No heaven and hell. Almost no information in the OT on where people would go after death. Sheol? A bit vague.
        2 – Non-Torah books to the New Testament – Black and white concepts of a cosmic battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil is thrust upon humanity.

        Question 1:
        Sometime during during and after the Babylon captivity did a toxic combination of a war-god religion with their unique lawyer-like how-to-live rule book + the Zoroastrianism God/Devil cult create a religious virus? A virus that has spread and mutated into thousands of twisted off-shoots of Judaism?
        Question 2:
        How do we stop this 2000 year old mind-debilitating chain-letter style religious curse in its tracks?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2019

          I’m not sure I”m seeing the connection of the various things you’re asking. Are you interested in whether Jesus existed? Or in the views ofhte afterlife in the OT? Or the development of Israeilte religion? Or the evolution of religion in the West more generally? All are really important questions! But they all are different fields of research and interest, with lots of good books available.

          • KaryNation
            KaryNation  April 1, 2019

            My question is:
            Do you believe that the Christian beliefs of ‘heaven and hell’ and the ‘imminent apocalyptic battle between good and evil’ came from Jewish exposure to Zoroastrianism?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 3, 2019

            No, I will be arguing against that in my new book on heaven and hell.

            1
        • KaryNation
          KaryNation  April 16, 2019

          Thanks Bart.

          Keep us updated on this project. It will be on the top of my Audible list.

  17. Rick
    Rick  March 31, 2019

    I seem to have been under a misconception. That is that the (at least early) Greeks had no afterlife per se, or just a hades where spirits/shades languished until Elysium was concocted as an afterlife for the greatest of heroes. Does your research touch on the Elysium myths and where might they fit?
    Thanx as always!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      That’s right. You don’t find this in Homer. But it’s clearly in Plato, 400 years later. Yup, I deal with Elysium in my new (trade) book.

  18. Avatar
    APOCALYPSE  May 29, 2019

    Hello Dr Ehrman.
    I’m new here. Thanks for the opportunity to share views and for the social benefits from it.
    Will you deal with the mysteric religions in your next book about the afterlife? I’ve been browsing the blog looking for mentions to them and I couldn’t find any.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2019

      I mention them only briefly, in relationship to the “trip to hades” found in Aristophanes, The Frogs.

      1
      • Avatar
        APOCALYPSE  May 31, 2019

        It would have been interesting to read your take on Orphism and orphist’s afterlife expectations in the context of (other) pagan and early Christian belief(s). Looking forward to read your next book.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2019

          The problem with Orphism is that we don’t have any solid texts to help us out much — it has to be reconstructed from allusions and hints here and there. That hasn’t stopped scholars from writing about it — there’s a whole cottage industry connected with Orphism. But I think it’s very difficult to say anything about it with any certainty.

  19. KaryNation
    KaryNation  May 31, 2019

    Maybe you have a good point on this topic. I don’t know the original Latin text but here is a translated quote from a speech by Cato the Younger:

    “…Caius Cæsar, a short time ago, spoke in fair and elegant language, before this assembly, on the subject of life and death; considering as false, I suppose, what is told of the dead—that the bad, going a different way from the good, inhabit places gloomy, desolate, dreary and full of horror.”

    On the Punishment of the Catiline Conspirators
    (63 B.C.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2019

      Yes, Romans did pick up this view, but almost certainly from the Greeks (see especially Plato)

  20. Avatar
    markdeckard  June 6, 2019

    Have you or will you be addressing the link between the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to its roots in ancient apocalyptic motif as addressed in Richard Bauckhams “The Fate of The Dead”?
    In chapter four he dedicates considerable attention to the fact that this parable was in fact a long extant narrative template which had been retold in various ways so as to provide a sense of justice for the sufferings of life for those who considered themselves the just victims of life’s oppression. The Jewish establishment had popularized as many as seven versions of the story which Bauckman says has it’s origin in Egyptian lore.
    At the time of Jesus it was believed that the Jewish Elite comforted themselves with a tale of the Tax collector Bar Mayan and the poor scribe Ashkelon. They both died and in the afterlife Ashkelon enjoyed life in paradise and Bar Mayan was near the separating river between them but could not touch the water because he was so uncaring in life.
    So the reversal of fortune in the after life was a major component in the fable. This would seem to revolutionize what we would believe Jesus was actually doing with that parable. Perhaps rather than illustrating hell for Christians soteriology was he actually lampooning the Pharisees who thought of themselves as the poor scholar when in fact they were the nameless rich man in Jesus telling.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Yes, I’ll be interacting with Bauckahm a good bit in my scholarly book, I would imagine — but since the popular book isn’t written for scholars, I won’t be engaging in the scholarly debate there….

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