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Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?

This past Friday I went up to NYC to meet with my editor, and the marketing team, at my new publisher Simon & Schuster, both to discuss the next book coming out in September AND to talk (with my editor herself) about the possible new book, the one I am tentatively calling The Invention of the Afterlife (dealing with the question of where the widespread views of heaven and hell come from, especially since they are not actually what the Old Testament, Jesus, or the NT writers actually taught).  This was kind of a first pitch, to get them interested.

They are indeed interested, and so now the next step for me will be to write a prospectus to get them to agree formally and finally.  I want to do this now, so I don’t spend months reading about the topic – both ancient writings that deal with the afterlife and modern scholarship on the matter – only to find out that this will *not* be my next book.   Just to write the prospectus I still will have to do a lot more reading, but not MASSIVE amounts of reading.  Once we’ve agreed to the book, then we move to the very big pile of books.

As I think I have mentioned on the blog, this is a very different book for me in one obvious respect.  For (nearly) all of my other books, I have tried to find something about the Bible, the life of Jesus, or the history of the early church that would be interesting to a general reader.  USUALLY this reader has been someone already interested in the Bible or early Christianity.  For people like that, what can I write about that would be especially interesting?

This book is different because …

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What I’m Thinking about the Afterlife
Me and Jesus



  1. tskorick  March 8, 2017

    Some eastern/Asiatic religions dating back to the iron/bronze ages and their embarrassing cousin the Western New Age movement espouse a lot of ephemeral, elemental visions of the nature of the afterlife while other Middle Eastern and post-Christian faiths are very physical and corporeal in how they view it. It appears to me that, on a sliding scale of afterlife state interpretation from spiritual to corporeal, the closer a given faith’s teaching gets to the latter the more fundamentalist and literalistic the religion appears to be with regard to their scriptures. There are of course exceptions, even within a given major faith. Obviously Christianity contains a number of denominations that fit either description.

    I wish I had a good survey on the general topic to recommend, but most of what I’ve read has been pretty awful. If you do find something worth reading I’d love to see a bibliography

  2. doug  March 8, 2017

    I don’t believe in an afterlife. But I once did. Part of the difference for me as a non-believer is a greater desire to do a lot of things, both fun and altruistic, in my life, because once I die – that’s the end. It’s a matter of degree, since when I believed in an afterlife, I also wanted to do a lot of things. But if I didn’t get as much done as I wanted – well, I still had heaven to look forward to.

    • Alanizd1  March 10, 2017

      I quit believing in my strict Catholic religion my 10th of 12 years of parochial education. Four of those 12 were high school with Jesuits! I’m an agnostic and I mostly agree with Doug’s comments above. I wake up each day happy that I have another; I try to have as much fun as possible each day, and I respond to a deep seated belief that each man is my brother and we are all in this together. My good deeds are not about an afterlife which I don’t think exists. I wish I had a scholarly reference to give you but I don’t, just my ethic and non-belief in an afterlife. Also, I am very liberal if that means anything but even when my parents taught me strict Catholicism, they were very liberal. Could have a lot to do with their being 2nd generation Mexican Americans. Hope you satisfy the publishers without a lot of hassle.

  3. tcasto  March 8, 2017

    I’ve heard others express the thought that, because they are living for the next world, not this one, that matters such as climate change are of no regard. You could same about pollution and poverty too, I guess.

    What I would like Christians to embrace is the idea that, if there is a God, he gave us this world to preserve and enjoy, and to leave it a little better than we found it. I don’t think that should take anything away from living for Christ; I don’t think it’s idols of the heart. I think you should be able to love God and still do the right thing in this world.

  4. Adam0685  March 8, 2017

    I wonder if views of the afterlife for many early Christians (and many Christians today) is ultimately related to/the outcome of their view that God is interested in ultimately rewarding/punishing, particularly in the ultimate sense for those who are thought to be condemned to hell forever or rewarded forever in heaven. Much of early Christian belief seems to be rooted in/the outcome of the view of a God who punishes or rewards in the afterlife–and much of the beliefs that developed is focused on coming up with a theological system of why this is the case and how one is saved from punishment in the afterlife (e.g., the meaning of Jesus’ death – God punishes Jesus for the sin of others to save those who believe from punishment in the afterlife).

    A book on this may want to explore not only what early Christian views about the afterlife were, but also how the view in a God who judges, punishes, and rewards in the afterlife affected the origins and development of early Christian beliefs and economics, politics, justice system, etc in the history of the West, for example. Did the early architects of economics, the justice system, etc. talk about hell/heaven/afterlife in their theoretical works that shaped the views and practices of the West?

  5. Todd  March 8, 2017

    You said in your previous article that you are an atheist and that this life on this planet is all there is. That is a statement of belief due to the absence of empirical evidence one way or another that there is or is not a god or an afterlife. To say there is a god also cannot be proven empirically for the same reason. The writer of 1 John says straight out the “No one has seen God” and uses love as evidence of God’s presence. That is a belief statement. God is not provable scientifically. It is a matter of belief.

    The same is true of an afterlife. No one has come back from the dead, that we can prove with tools of science and is also a matter of belief.

    Belief in a god or in an afterlife come simply from people in history from various religious and non-religious positions saying that there is or is not a god or an afterlife. Such testimony is also based only on personal belief.

    I think that for your book it would be best to examine the historical testimony found in the early documents as to how people understood the afterlife and make it quite clear that all of the various positions concerning this topic is based always on one’s belief and not on verifiable evidence.

    I would like to suggest that you write the book laying out the various positions on the afterlife and leave the issue totally open-ended while indicating that each position is one of personal belief…that is, no one can prove this either way.

    I think that a conclusion that states that there is definitely not an afterlife is a bad idea and will turn faith based readers away from the book.

    On the contrary, producing a book that clearly outlines the many ways that the Judeo-Christian documents view the afterlife and leaving the conclusion up to the individual’s belief would be very useful to read, especially if the study includes a comparison to the early traditions on this subject compared to various contemporary western views on this issue.

    Those are my suggestions. Please keep us posted.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Yes, I am definitely not planning on taking a personal stand in which I definitively state there is no afterlife! I may express this as my personal view at this stage in my life, but I think it’ would be flippin’ crazy to be dogmatic or even insistent on the point.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 8, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, the following study is full of complex economic models that you can simply skip over (I’m not even convinced the mathematical models are accurate). However, it’s a good summary of some of the things I’ve been expressing in my comments on this current discussion of the afterlife. Like I said, you can just skip over the eyeglazing math (which is mainly concerned with the correlation of belief in a just world and tax rates, because economists are obsessed with taxes) and simply read the theory, especially the section on the afterlife.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Great, thanks.

      • Todd  March 10, 2017

        I am agnostic in many things simply because it is not always possible to know with certainty regarding them, such as an after life, the existence or nature of a god, and so on. It is just better to find happiness within ourselves and to live this life as compassionately as we can, and what come after this life is not something we can know. This is a good discussion and a project I do know will be a good book to read. Blessing to you.

  7. JamesFouassier  March 8, 2017

    What I’d like to see, Professor, is some discussion about why humans need to believe in an afterlife. What is it about the human psyche that rebels at the idea that one day a lifetime of experience, emotion, knowledge, accomplishment is suddenly obliterated? From the dawn of humankind there always has been some kind of belief that life, in some way or form, does not end with physical death; almost always it involves not just continuation but also an extension of consciousness that in some way preserves the identity of the individual; he or she basically remains what he or she was in physical life. Why is it so important that all that we were in our physical existence in the here and now somehow will go on?

  8. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 8, 2017

    Bart, are you familiar with the website and TV series, “Closer to Truth” hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn? It covers a vast number of subjects from quantum physics to the existence, nature, and possibility of an afterlife. He goes around the world talking to scholars, scientists, philosophers, and others about each question.
    Here’s the URL for the section “Life After Death?” https://www.closertotruth.com/topics/consciousness/persons/life-after-death
    The contributors are shown on the lower part of the page; you can arrow to the right to see them all.
    I don’t know how much they get into the greater significance but I’m sure some do at different points.

  9. wostraub  March 8, 2017

    One question that immediately comes to mind is whether Christianity’s sweeping popularity in its first few centuries had anything to do with the promise of a pleasant, eternal afterlife. Bart often uses the term “living close to the edge” in his books and talks, referring to how the lives of most people long ago were so difficult that they just wanted to get through this life with relative ease — the afterlife wasn’t worth bothering with. That’s certainly not the case now, as eternal life seems to be the only thing motivating today’s Christians.

  10. jdh5879  March 8, 2017

    I think that conservative Christians denial of climate change and lack of interest in social justice issues is very much an USAmerican phenomenon. Christians I have met from Africa and Latin America (although theologically conservative) are still very concerned with these issues.

  11. sladesg  March 8, 2017

    Surely you’ll be able to tie in information you’re currently researching on the afterlife with your prior research into your book about memory. My point is, from a psychological standpoint, an afterlife grants peace of mind in the present, along with a set of moral beliefs that guide us as a society (that are to ultimately make our individual lives better, and thus give more peace of mind (theoretically)). As a product of the American South, culturally I’ve been knee-deep in the Church my whole life, and heaven/hell is always a topic not too far distant. With everyone around me believing there is an afterlife, it shapes who we are as people, or at least has a big impact, but it (surely) factors into how our brains process memories and/or information concerning the afterlife, ghosts, visions, etc. I suppose my main point is this: I don’t think you should dispose your prior psychology research as you move onto this other subject, as I see that they are inherently intimately related.

  12. BrianUlrich  March 8, 2017

    On a very basic level, this is one example of an idea developing and spreading in a religious contexts. Because ideas develop and spread in religious contexts still today, understanding how and why that happens is itself valuable.

  13. seahawk41  March 8, 2017

    Do you intend to focus mostly on Christian views (and their Jewish background)? What about Islam or other belief systems. Obviously, the beliefs of *some* Muslims are having a critical impact on our world. But your book could become very large if you try to cover faiths other than Christianity. I suspect there is plenty to deal with just in the realm of Christianity and Judaism!

  14. cheito
    cheito  March 8, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    What my editor wants to know is how views of the afterlife might have broader significance for something other than themselves.

    My Comment:

    Believing in the after is considerably significant if one desires to be with loved ones forever and not just for however many years we live in this life.

    For example I believe I will see my mother again. However, If when I die all ends, and I cease to exist forever, then I will not see her again. That doesn’t make any sense to me!

    If one has children would not one want to see them again? If there is an after life then one will see them again, and also their offspring if they have any. That makes a lot of sense to me!

    To me life would be pointless if I believed that this life is all there is.

    As far as I’m concerned, the universe and it’s vastness would be a waste if all I’m going to live is sixty-five or maybe ninety or less.

    I want to live forever and one day visit other galaxies and see other wonders that I haven’t yet seen.

    I want to see all my relatives that have passed on and those I’ve never met.

    I want to Jesus, Abraham, George Washington, etc.

    So the implications of the afterlife are as vast as the universe itself and as deep as our mind will reveal to us when this mortal will put on immortality.

    Well this is one insight, I hope it helps DR Ehrman.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 10, 2017

      Comedian Julia Sweeney tells a great story about two Mormon missionaries coming to the climax of their pitch to her: “And you can spend eternity with your family!!” Her response was, “Oh no”

      That an idea makes sense only means that it is understandable. It has nothing to do with whether the idea is true or not.

    • cheito
      cheito  March 12, 2017

      My edited version:

      What my editor wants to know is how views of the afterlife might have broader significance for something other than themselves.

      My Comment:

      Believing in the afterlife is considerably significant if one desires to be with loved ones forever and not just for however many years we live in this life.

      For example I believe I will see my mother again. However, If when I die all ends, and I cease to exist forever, then I will not see her again. This doesn’t make any sense to me!

      If one has children would not one want to see them again? If there is an after life then one will see them again, and also their offspring if they have any. This makes a lot of sense to me!

      To me life would be pointless, if this life is all there is.

      As far as I’m concerned, the universe and it’s vastness would be a waste if all I’m going to live is sixty-five or maybe ninety or less years.

      I want to live forever and one day visit other galaxies and see other wonders that I haven’t yet seen.

      I want to see all my relatives that have passed on and those I’ve never met.

      I want to see Jesus, Abraham, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

      So the implications of the afterlife are as vast as the universe itself, and as deep as our minds will reveal to us when this mortal will put on immortality by the grace and power of God in Christ Jesus.

      Well this is one insight, I hope it helps DR Ehrman.

  15. Boltonian  March 8, 2017

    I know you have said that you want to stick to your last and make the Bible your focus but I would urge you to at least read about Buddhist beliefs in this field. My wife is a Therevada Buddhist (although fairly lukewarm) from Thailand and we have some spirited discussions from time to time about re-incarnation. How can one’s behaviour in this life determine, or at least affect, what one becomes in the next? How (and why) are we being punished in this life for what one did in the last? What is the mechanism that causes re-incarnation? Etc etc.

  16. flshrP  March 8, 2017

    Of course the belief in the existence or non-existence of an afterlife has enormous repercussions for human society.
    9/11 would not have happened if those Muslim fanatics had not believed completely in an afterlife of pleasure as a reward for their suicides.
    For other believers in an afterlife, their struggles against perceived injustices in this life may be endured more or less stoically when buttressed by the belief in a Judgement Day in which the dead will arise and the guilty will be punished.

  17. Hume  March 8, 2017

    This is more for your previous post on why you are not a christian. Doubt! Christianity punishes the non-believer for non-belief. Even if the rationality endowed by the creator, the mental faculties given to us by Him, lead us to doubt bronze age texts, changed over the ages, that contain bronze age morality, and borrowed myths from other civilizations – we will be cast into the fire. How is this fair Bartholomew?! To me the punishment does not fit the crime.

  18. tcastner  March 8, 2017

    I can’t remember whether I read this in a study or if this was based on conversations that I have had with a number of people (maybe Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture), but premillenial dispensationalists tend to believe that things will keep getting worse until the very end when the earth will be destroyed before it is recreated. For that reason, environmental activism is a complete waste of time. I had a youth pastor express that view to me in New Hampshire in the early 1990s. A 19th century postmillenialist might see greater need to reform society, including its environmental ills in order to usher in the millenium and the Second Coming.

    Care of creation edited by R.J. Berry and Redeeming Creation by Van Dyke and Mahan each address newer Evangelical approached to “Creation Care” as it has been rebranded. There appears to be a growing emphasis in some evangelical circles on the final state being on a renewed earth which appears to be opening more avenues for environmental thinking. I think that end times scenarios might be more important that views of the after life per se. C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle might also be interesting from an afterlife/environmental perspective.

  19. Tony  March 8, 2017

    “Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?”

    Belief in the afterlife influences political orientation. Here is a recent Pew study that touches on the subject:

    Not surprisinly the survey findings state that:
    “In some ways, the basic patterns in religion and politics in the United States remain unchanged. Some religious groups (including evangelical Protestants and Mormons) are generally supportive of the Republican Party, while other groups (including Jews, religious “nones,” Hispanic Catholics and members of churches that belong to the historically black Protestant tradition) tend to be more Democratic in their partisan allegiances”.

    I read your recent posting with interest and your analysis of the early Christian beliefs in the cosmic battle between good (the celestial Jesus Christ and God), and evil (Satan and his minions) is spot on. However, the celestial Jesus was the main player in this drama – and never a spokesperson for the apocalyptic beliefs.

    The creator of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth character put the apocalyptic beliefs of Paul, and his followers, on the lips of their Jesus. It was Paul, (preceded by Cephas), who expected the imminent apocalyptic end times and the arrival of the celestial Jesus from their visions and scripture interpretations.

    The early “Gospel Jesus” sayings merely carried Paul’s apocalyptic component forward – for awhile.

  20. thebigskyguy  March 8, 2017

    While I think it would be very interesting to explore how a person’s views on an afterlife might affect other behavior, I think it would be very difficult to isolate causality to just one aspect of their worldview. If someone believes in an afterlife and is skeptical of climate change, that may be caused by the underlying dogma, rather than just a belief in an afterlife.

    It would not be a stretch to assert a hypothesis that those with a firm belief in an afterlife also have a low tolerance for uncertainty and greater willingness to follow authoritarian figures. And that they are easily manipulated by a charismatic religious authority giving them a sense of certainty, as well as a manipulative politician giving them easy answers. But it would expensive to prove.

  21. godspell  March 9, 2017

    I think people’s political and ethical behavior is mainly impacted by personality and the culture they were brought up in. Many religious people have been strong environmentalists–most of the early environmentalists were religious. Atheists are often also Libertarians in America, and thus oppose any government intervention in what people do to exploit the land, make money from it. Some of the most reactionary people I’ve met online are vehement unbelievers, as fanatical in their unbelief as any follower of Abrahamanic religion ever was–maybe worse–certainly less polite–and supremely irrational.

    And of course, many other atheists are nothing like this–so what does it mean, really? When people who believe in God and people who don’t can end up resembling each other much more than the people whose opinions on religion they share?

    There are so many ways to be religious, so many ways to believe in an afterlife, that I’m not sure the question, taken in itself, is meaningful. The first environmentalists in America were the native tribes. I doubt there was a single atheist among them. And they’re still fighting for nature, at Standing Rock. Pope Francis has declared his support for them.

    Humans of Good Will. That’s all that matters. Humans of Good Will, who believe we all need to make a future together. Whoever is not against us is for us.

  22. madmargie  March 9, 2017

    I personally do not believe in an afterlife. I believe this is all there is. That’s why I believe it’s so important to do all we are able to make life count for something other then ourselves.

  23. andersg89  March 9, 2017

    I think you got it backwards. People of a conservative nature tend to adhere to whatever faith is proper in their social context while liberal people are more spiritual and open to new faiths (generally speaking of course).
    What those faiths are is mostly cultural, conservative Christians in Sweden belive strongly that the Bible say that we’re responsible for the maintenance of the Earth and they long for the days a strong government supported Christianity. But as it is impossible to elect a pro Christian government they support personal freedom in family matters etc. something conservative Russians do not since they actually have a strong government that exclusively support their brand of faith.

    As to belief in the afterlife you probably should recall the Japanese suicide pilots who died not for paradise but for a concept of honour. But the psychology is probably similar in nature to jihadi suicide bombers and other forms of religious martyrs.

    Best of luck with your new book

  24. RonaldTaska  March 9, 2017

    I am delighted that the editor has given you a “green” light. Your question about whether views of an afterlife are correlated with other views is an intriguing one. Maybe so, in some people. I have a neighbor, for example, who completely discounts his earthly existence focusing only on the afterlife to come so he does very little in his yard which, hence, always looks overgrown. In essence, his yard just doesn’t matter to him. Moreover, I have certainly been intrigued how in our culture certain views about religion and politics seem to often, not always, go together. For example, a fundamentalist view of the Bible probably predicts certain views about gays, abortion, guns, and illegal immigrants. It would be hard, however, to always attribute these views to views of the afterlife and the problem would be how to separate this afterlife view factor from other factors whatever they happen to be. In psychiatry, we are big on there being multiple determinants for almost everything.

    As usual, your thoughts about such matters are probably running way ahead of mine..

    For me, the issue of the afterlife is intriguing because it is a way of trying to put it all (the atonement, the divinity of Jesus, and on and on) together much as the ultimate goal of physics is the search for “the mathematical theory of everything.”

    I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful, but I have seen you churn away at stuff before and that gives me confidence that you will somehow work this out even if I may not get parts of the path at first.

  25. Rockwine  March 9, 2017


    A number of years ago, I discovered the significance of near-death experiences. It is also called life aftr life.. I have researched it over the years, and I have discovered that there are many thousands of people from all around the world, who have actually gone through the experience of dying and returning to relate their experiences. It seems that many many of them describe a situation in which a being of light put them through an examination. The issue seems to be love; caring for themselves caring for other people and obviously caring for life. Many of them were offered a future life if they so chose. But they were also given the choice of returning to their own life to take care of unfinished business until they die naturally. These people if they were willing to describe their experiences made it clear that they in fact no longer felt afraid of dying. In the meantime they were very concerned to be active in their life in the present. By the way there is no indication of hell.
    I tend to believe in these witnesses. And since I believe them I also believe that my life needs to be concerned with the world. And I in particular am very concerned about the quality of life, the quality of food and water and the future of our environment which affects us so much. I believe that global warming is going to happen. I believe that this will cause enormous suffering. Since I’m already nearly 80 years old this will not affect me that much I imagine. Since my wife is 20 years younger it may well affect her. I don’t want her to suffer. I think there is enough suffering in the world with out the effects of global warming. I love the earth with all its wonder and abundance. I feel angry that we are destroying it. Personally I can do very little about this. Our family of three myself my wife and our pussycat consume very little energy. I communicate to my clients my own value about the world we live in.

    I have always been concerned about the earth. But I’ve always believed that I would go into a future life when I died. I have also believed that in some ways I would be held responsible for my contribution during my life. I am sure that belief in a future life does intensify this. I have a difficulty in imagining why Christians, who believe in a Creator who created the world, do not care about his world. If God loves the world then why don’t Christians care for and take care of the world? However somewhere they must feel that they will be called to account for their attitude and lack of action.
    Therefore Bart I think that the issue of future life after death is actually extremely important. I believe that I will be examined on my behaviour. I don’t think that I will be condemned to hell because I think that is totally ridiculous and out of all proportion. But I do think that I may be put through a certain amount of discomfort in facing the truth about my own responsibility. Could I be doing more now about this issue? I’m really not sure.

  26. Eskil  March 9, 2017

    Afterlife matters for the third monotheistic sister as well.

    Muslims regard Mohammed as the restorer of the true monotheistic faith. I have noticed that some muslim scholars have welcomed the historical critical view that the doctrine of the trinity is a latter Christian innovation as proof of their tradition that latter Christians corrupter Jesus’ original gospel i.e. teachings about Allah.

    However, Quran has vivid and frequent descriptions of heaven and especially hell.

    As a comparison…

    “The Qur’an uses a number of different terms and phrases to refer to hell. Al-nar (the fire) is used 125 times, jahannam 77 times, jaheem (blazing flames) 26 times.”

    “Most [Bible] translations only contain the word “Hell” a dozen times or so and many do not contain the word at all. The primary word some Bibles translate “Hell” is the Greek word “Gehenna.””

    If and when the afterlife (including hell) was introduced into the Judeo-Christian religion by the latter Chritians (similarly to trinity), it could be taken as proof that Mohammed did not restore any true monotheistic faith but just further developed Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman empire as it was know in the times of Mohammed.

  27. skhackett  March 9, 2017

    One line of approach may be to incorporate in the book a comparison/contrast of how your behavior and/or world view has been affected/changed as your own personal beliefs in the afterlife have evolved from those of a fundamentalist to those of an agnostic.

  28. rburos  March 9, 2017

    James Watt as Reagan’s Sec’y of the Interior seems to fall into that line of thought. . .

  29. Wilusa  March 9, 2017

    My first quick thought: I was raised Catholic. And among the ordinary, middle-class Catholics I knew, I don’t think their beliefs about the afterlife had *any* effect on other aspects of their “present” lives – politics, charitable giving, etc. They expected to wind up in Heaven – imagined, vaguely, as some kind of continuation of their life with family and friends – and rarely thought about it.

  30. James Chalmers  March 9, 2017

    I’m finally doing my intellectual duty and reading the Qur’an. A lot of the world’s second religion is lifted from the first. One lift-out is its doctrine of the afterlife. Again, as in the first, some ambiguity as to what happens in the interim before the day of judgment and resurrection. But clarity that judgment is coming (can’t say just when, but soon), that belief and acceptance of what’s in a book or preached has a lot to do with entry to the kingdom, that those who don’t get in will burn. Also clear that the new world is Edenic and very nice. Not so clear–or maybe I have to read better–just where the resurrected will live, where the better place is, on earth or elsewhere.
    But anyway, it is clear that Mohammed like Jesus is promising resurrection for those who believe, and warning of coming judgment. It’s not so much souls gone to heaven as it is resurrected believers who’ve passed judgment.

    This is all very crude and simplistic and probably downright bad interpretation at points. But I would suggest the world’s second largest fastest growing religion influences the beliefs about the afterlife of a quarter of the world’s population and rates a chapter in the pending book. I’d also say it’s interesting that the views of the founder(s) of Christianity and founder of Islam both differ from those of their latter-day followers, as the followers had to accommodate the fact that the judgment day proved to be less imminent than the founder or founders had declared it would be.

  31. chrispope  March 9, 2017

    One group it might be worth spending (a little) time looking at is the Jehovah;s Witnesses. Definitely apocalyptic, with ‘unusual’ views of the afterlife – a literal belief in 144k going to ‘heaven’ (but not Jewish male virgins as in Rev), the rest living in a paradise earth afterlife.
    As I understand it, their beliefs in the afterlife very much affect current teachings, even after failed ‘world will end in 1975, sell the farm’ and other statements. Current teachings still warn against further education, planned careers, pensions, etc., as these won;t be needed in the afterlife soon to come and ‘faithful’ JWs are expected to see ‘how bad this world is’ and follow these teachings.
    JWfacts.com is a good resource for this – all stuff from their own publications.
    Amazing how apocalyptic stuff from the late 19th century still apparently shapes lives today.

  32. mjt  March 9, 2017

    I can only speak for myself. When I first became a Christian, it was common in my social circle to talk about ‘this world’–and how foolish and pointless it seemed in comparison to the real deal, the afterlife. I became much less interested in the affairs of the world. Climate change wasn’t a hot topic back then, but I probably wouldn’t have cared much. I also thought the 2nd coming might be imminent, which made me more apathetic toward this life.

    • iameyes137  March 12, 2017

      Apathy towards my life having any other goal except a religious one was what I suffered from in 1980. A northern Minnesota version of fundamentalism, where King James was still king, gripped me and some friends. I thought that there was little left to live for other than converting others to Christianity.

  33. rburos  March 9, 2017

    I’m kind of thinking aloud, but:
    1. I’ll read it, but am not as excited about it as I am waiting for Triumph. I think historians will be interested, but since I’m not literate on the topic and I’m not sure what direction your narrative will take, I’m not sure how to feel about it. I can say that over the last two years I have learned to TRUST your instincts, so I’ll read it.
    2. I think those employed by established religions will either legitimately be or will pretend to be offended, even if for no other reason than the obvious one.
    3. Many claim to be religious, although they never read the Bible, or read about the Bible, or even attend religious services on any regular basis. They will probably still feel justified in disparaging your work as the attempt of another elitist. The fact that you ARE elite in your field will be lost on them, and I wouldn’t put it past those in item 2 above to feed those feelings in an attempt to polish their own legitimacy. Alas, you’re probably already used to that. . .

  34. KSS  March 9, 2017

    My wonder about the afterlife, is how so many political decisions are made by primarily religious politicians who believe in the afterlife, and thus willing to engage in acts here on earth, that may/do result in death for some, or themselves, “knowing” that they are going to a wonderful afterlife. Seems that the afterlife concept drives many decisions; the Middle East conflict, the Iraqi War, etc. It’s almost like with this afterlife “knowledge” so many believe in, they feel actions are permitted now, as the afterlife will justify, or correct the issue ultimately.

  35. Debbie  March 9, 2017

    It will be interesting to read what you come up with in this new book. Most of the people I know believe the “here-after” is a continuation of this life, “escaping from Hell and being received in Heaven” where they will be reunited with family and old friends (pet and pumpkin pie, too). Please do tell where this idea of the afterlife comes from.

  36. leo.b@cox.net  March 9, 2017

    I believe that the idea of an afterlife can be very effective from a psychological aspect. It is a way for many to be able to cope with the frustrations of this life. As well as the suffering, misery, and injustices so paramount in this life. The hope of a better, everlasting life can give one some meaning or even a purpose to get out of bed in the morning and try to accomplish something. Just some thoughts.

  37. dragonfly  March 10, 2017

    This study is rather intriguing. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0039048
    It seems to suggest belief in hell keeps national crime rates down, whereas belief in heaven by itself actually increases crime rates. A lot more research needed of course, but it seems a lot of the social benefits of religion cone from fear of punishment rather than anything to do with love. Self interested bunch of primates we are.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      Wow. Interesting. Thanks.

      • stuckyabbott  March 19, 2017

        At the risk of being entirely wrong about everything because I don’t have time to fact check my skepticism – I want to share a few thoughts that might make one hesitate to swallow this whole.

        1. game theory shows a usefulness of the threat of punishment in changing human behavior. Is this effect greater or less than game theory would indicate?
        2. Differences of belief systems in abstract thinking cultures and concrete thinking cultures. Concrete cultures would be more apt to believe in supernatural punishment. Many of them also have severe and concrete forms of punishment in their criminal justice system – chop off one’s hands for stealing etc. Does belief in supernatural punishment correlate with cultures that punish crimes concretely?
        3. My impression is that more Americans believe in God (heaven and hell) than Europeans. Americans have a higher crime rate than Europeans who don’t believe in either heaven or hell – not even in supernatural power.
        4. Fear is a more powerful emotion than love – and dictates behavior based on the animal side of our brain. Love is a more highly developed concept/feeling and will not evoke the same control – this might explain the research with those writing about God’s love or punishment and then cheating. Are they in their amygdala or executive part of brain? Fear restrains and love entitles.

        I don’t know enough about evaluating studies such as these – but these thoughts jump out in my brain and send up red flags. Perhaps you know much more. leona

  38. RonaldTaska  March 10, 2017

    After sleeping on it, I think it’s clear that the current behavior of some radical Muslim terrorists is strongly influenced by their view of the afterlife. I am sure you are already thinking about this aspect of how the afterlife affects current life in a very powerful way.

  39. Epaminondas  March 10, 2017

    “But it is a question I’ve become more interested in all of a sudden: do views of the afterlife have any bearing on life outside of our inner thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams?”

    Is it possible that the implied cause and effect in your question are reversed from the true relationship? Similar to the reminder that correlation does not prove cause. This is a tough old world, and it’s natural to feel unhappy about that. I’m consciously unhappy about how dysfunctional “civilization” is — how poorly naked apes are suited for it. I don’t think there is a cure, though. There’s going to be a lemming-like end to the tragedy of the commons we’re caught in.

    I’d sure most people — anciently and currently — feel a similar unhappiness, and in typical human fashion, must have an answer for it. The cure that many (50% ?) prescribe is religion, strong authority, and patriotism. At least that’s a plausible theory.

    To put it simply, the feeling is that if we could just (authoritatively) fix everybody the world would be a wonderful place. And incidentally, our cure would take care of the little problem of the finality of death.

  40. flcombs  March 10, 2017

    Belief in an afterlife with reward or punishment has been used as a powerful motivator through history. Not always bad of course, but look at the times through history where religion (afterlife) was used to motivate people to do things they might not have done otherwise because “God wants them to” and to be rewarded in the afterlife. Muslim extremists today for example that are expecting a reward for killing others and dying for God (the guys get all those virgins, but not sure what the women get! 🙂 . Making God happy so you’ll get your reward and go to heaven has frequently been important. Haven’t wars and conflicts been fought by people with different views on what happens to you when you die?

  41. LWH  March 10, 2017

    I am interested in the meme about the child asking if their pet dog who has died has gone to heaven. The answer is usually in the affirmative. When and how did this view of the afterlife start? Is there any historical support for such a question or is it a more modern idea?

  42. rivercrowman  March 10, 2017

    Suggest you “inventory” where in the Bible there is an assurance of an afterlife, especially an eternally blissful one in Heaven. And if you’re quoting Jesus, slip in the idea that these may be the words of early Church fathers instead of Jesus himself. Remember, you wrote the book on “Jesus Before the Gospels.” … Most strong environmentalists are in the agnostic/atheist column based on my studies (Rachel Carson comes first to mind). Born-again Christians have more to worry about in terms of regular church attendance, daily prayer of an hour or more, and even Bible reading! But they seem confident their next life in Heaven will not be fraught with problems of pollution, climate change, endangered species — or human overpopulation.

  43. ctho  March 10, 2017

    I’m intrigued by the connection to belief in an afterlife and crime and punishment. In one respect, do believers favor punishment or rehabilitation? In the case of, say, murder, the victim ends existence for all eternity, rather than passing to a “better place”. The non-believer is never reunited with the person who died. They are never looking down on them from above. How does that affect the believer and non-believer’s views? For a crimes where a believer feels they punishment is not strict enough, it is common to say that God will be the judge—that the criminal won’t “get away with it”. I’m curious about whether the punishment part is viewed differently for the non-believer. This extends to development of laws, taboos, and justice systems in societies.

  44. Adam0685  March 10, 2017

    “The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife” by T. Walters

  45. Rick
    Rick  March 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, are you familiar with “Guns Germs and Steel:The fates of human Societies” a trade book by Jared Diamond? He is an MD with further training in ornithology, ecology and history who in that work examined the last 13,000 years to conclude environmental differences rather than any biological ones account for the relative success or failure of societies. One of his major takeaways is that ” Government structure and whether of not religion is government-sanctioned within a society has a direct cause and effect on a group’s behavior and long-term prosperity”. One point made is that religion contributes to state cohesion by justifying governments and the rationale for killing others to preserve those governments. Within that context, it is notional that religious (and thus state) controlled access to the afterlife was a key motivation – perhaps necessary to a societies success?

  46. John  March 10, 2017

    Bart- Belief in an afterlife is like a belief in a god. Impossible to prove or disprove. I think of Albert Einstein and his Conservation of energy. When we die our body elements disappear into the natural elements but what happens to the life force? I think it is entirely possible that we continue on in some form. An organized heaven and hell-I don’t think so.

  47. Judith  March 11, 2017

    Why – with a third of the world’s people Christians (2010 Pew Report) – wouldn’t the afterlife that we believers all believe in, matter for everything? Why are there Syrian refugees with no Christian families to open their homes to them? And hungry people when we Christians number in the billions and could do so much more to alleviate the problem? Is it because we are as Jesus said, “…if the salt loses its savour…it is no longer good for anything (Matthew 5:13)? We do some things but not enough if our faith in an afterlife was significant enough to really count.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Questions I too ask…

    • jwesenbe  March 13, 2017

      because we believe as a matter of convenience without really thinking about what it means to believe.

  48. SidDhartha1953  March 12, 2017

    I have a vague recollection from my readings on the history of South Asia that some scholars attribute the persistence of the caste system to the belief in reincarnation, which is a special form of afterlife. If that analysis is correct, then the Vedic teachings on reincarnation were crucial to the long-term stability of a fundamentally inequitable social system.
    The U.S. is one of, if not the most militaristic nation in the world today. The people of the U.S. are also among the most likely in the deveioped world to believe in God, angels, an afterlife, and heaven. I should not be at all surprised if the two phenomena are causally linked.
    Bringing the two paragraphs above together, it may be that, not only is belief in an afterlife relevant to other issues, but the specific nature of the afterlife one expects may have different consequences for a society.

  49. mannix  March 13, 2017

    A couple of my own thoughts….the “fear of death”, possibly unique to H. sapiens, is quite powerful, particularly as one ages. The thought of an afterlife may be a psychological defense mechanism that suggests we will continue to exist in some form following “death” (“Death be not proud…”). The concept of reward/punishment in the afterlife could also be a defense mechanism against the resentment of “unfairness” in life (“…the last shall be first..”).

    Perhaps religion and the afterlife are evolutionary phenomena developed by ancient humans who were weaker physically, but not intellectually, than others. To avoid being bullied or attacked by the stronger individuals or groups, the “weak” were able to convince the latter of a higher authority who would punish, after death, those who commit injustice on others.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 14, 2017

      I am 71 and more conscious of my inevitable death than ever. But I am less afraid of it.

  50. jwesenbe  March 13, 2017

    Afterlife, as well as religion itself, is all created in the image of man. Firstly to satisfy a curiosity, then, as all things human, to use as a means of control. There may be, and if there is, it is probably in no way like we imagined. My guess, and I hope I am wrong, is that there is not.

  51. jlparris  March 13, 2017

    Are you familiar with Stafford Betty’s scholarship and publications? “Stafford Betty earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University, where he specialized in Asian religious thought and Sanskrit. Today he is a professor of world religions at California State University, Bakersfield, and has evolved as one of the country’s most acclaimed experts on the afterlife.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/sbetty-559

  52. jachandler@gmail.com  March 13, 2017

    Question about the afterlife (I’m not a believer) from my bro in law funeral. The preacher said he and my sister would be like brother and sister in heaven! He cited Matthew where Jesus is supposed to have dodged the Pharisees by saying about the 7 brothers who married one woman seriatim 25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27After them all, the woman died. 28In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” 29But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong,  v because you know neither the Scriptures nor  w the power of God. 30For in the resurrection they neither  x marry nor  x are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. “.
    What? Did Jesus talk about heaven? And bro and sis?
    Please explain!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2017

      Yes, Jesus thought there would be an afterlife following the resurrection, and no one would have sex or be married, just like the angels.

  53. HistoricalChristianity  March 14, 2017

    “Christianization of the empire changed the entire course of Western Civilization, completely transforming the history of the West not just religiously but also socially, culturally, politically, economically, intellectually, and in every other way.” — Was it really Christianization that did that? Or was it just empire? Paul expanded the scope of altruism, but so did empire. If empire prevents me from warring with my neighbors, I am more likely to recognize that mutually beneficial interactions with them (like trade) need not be zero-sum. Did we really need Paul for that? Did Christianity really make the difference?

    The majority of art and music was Christian-themed. Was that merely because most people were Christians? Would art and music have flourished equally had Christianity never existed? The most famous Greek and Roman architecture was pagan (polytheistic).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Yes, there still would have been art, architecture, literature, music, and everything else. But it would have been incalculably different. I’ll be dealing with that in my forthcoming book.

  54. Eric  March 14, 2017

    If we take religiosity as correlating to a belief in the afterlife, I believe there are readily available statistics that suggest those who belief in an afterlife tend to give more of their resources and time (charity) to the needy than do the “liberals’ you cited as working for social justice; these latter tend to advocate that OTHER people’s resources be allocated to their causes.

    I do not believe in afterlife myself (most days!) and you self-identify as a liberal and are obviously a counter example to the generalization I am referencing, as many many liberals are. But certainly many beleivers are very much interested in what “good” they do while here.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      I’d love to see those statistics if you can find a reference to them.

      • Eric  March 16, 2017


        Huffington Post Article with the first paragraph:

        People who live in deeply religious regions of the country — the solid-red states of the Bible Belt and Utah — give more of their income to charity than those who don’t. Of the top 10 most generous states, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy study based on itemized charitable contributions among people who made at least $50,000, nine voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
        [I am recalling the splash this made at the time this study came out in 2013, especially in more conservative fora…I’m giving you the Huffington Post citation so you aren’t subconsciously prejudiced from the git go!)

        Here is the direct link to the Chronicle of Philanthropy source:


        This source makes no correlation to measures of religiosity by state — the HuffPo article draws that connection without citation, but I suspect you have access to good religiosity by state data and can draw your own inferences.

  55. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 16, 2017

    Bart, I have a question on a different subject.
    I just re-read Luke 14:26 “”If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Is “hate” the correct translation and, if so, how do you and most other non-fundamentalist New Testament scholars understand what Jesus is saying here? Or did he say it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      Yes, it is definitely the world “hate.” I suppose most interpreters think it means that you show no care or concern for your family members but only care and concern for following Jesus. We’re not exactly talking about “family values” here.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 21, 2017

      It’s simple hyperbole, used throughout these texts. Give the study of Torah suitable priority. Don’t use family as an excuse to not study Torah.

  56. maklaka  March 21, 2017


    I just finished God’s Problem and I loved it. Thank you for that work, you owe me a replacement highlighter.

    I have a slightly tangential “especially because” factoid that I think is nevertheless tightly coupled with belief in the hereafter. You be the judge. It is the effect of belief in a “spooky type free-will” ethereal soul. Because the soul is critical to belief in the afterlife, you might find it is relevant and interesting.


    Joshua Green in this debate with Dennett and Pinker makes a case that belief in the “spooky soul” has a tight correlation with the desire to pursue retributive justice. Our pervasive American religiosity is therefore certainly a factor at play when trying to explain our inordinately punitive justice system with respect to less religious western nations.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017


    • HistoricalChristianity  March 22, 2017

      At least in the ANE, history tells the opposite story. Revenge was permitted, even an obligation, long before they entertained the idea of an afterlife. The imprecatory Psalms demand that God punish the bad people, especially the ones who hurt Israel in some way. Not until Philo of Alexandria were the Platonic ideas of the forms, then of an afterlife, even considered by the Jews.

      • maklaka  June 5, 2017

        That’s an excellent point with respect to the ANE. I hadn’t considered that. However, our modern conditions are much different. ANE folk also believed that gods and spirits were active in exacting corporeal justice/ mischief. It seems that most contemporary believers have been beaten into a conclusion (perhaps by science and mass media) that the only justice that will happen is in the hereafter. Nonbelievers, acknowledging that only this life is possible, are perhaps more likely to actively pursue maximum justice instead of handing it over to God to work out.

  57. Denglish1020  April 12, 2017

    When I was inside the “bubble” of Christianity, I easily dismissed major issues that face the human race. My go to explanation to suffering, climate change, natural disasters, and any other negative problem was, ” It’ the product of living in a fallen world”. It was much easier to say that instead of thinking issues through. Now that I’ve been deconverted, I accept that I have a responsibility to make THIS life better for those I am able to help. Christianity allowed me to be blinded to the suffering of others. When I do help someone now it’s motivated by true caring and not by the thought of earning enough rewards points to get me a better seat at wedding feast of the lamb.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 12, 2017

      Beautifully put. Thank you.

  58. sksinks  May 10, 2017

    for me, what is will be, no matter what you believe. personally, you could not talk me out of beliving in after life. believing helps me live the very hard life i have. if i couldnt believe there was more, i would comitt suicide, i would see no point in just being a flower. so if there is no afterlife then i will still be happy while i m here then i wont miss being wrong, i m dead. on the other hand if there is one then i want to be prepared to live what i believe.

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