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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. Avatar
    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?

  2. Avatar
    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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 10, 2017

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

  5. 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?

  6. Avatar
    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.

  7. Avatar
    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…

    • Avatar
      jwesenbe  March 13, 2017

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

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    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.

  10. Avatar
    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.

  11. Avatar
    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

  12. Avatar
    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.

  13. Avatar
    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.

  14. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  15. 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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  16. Avatar
    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


    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  17. Avatar
    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.

  18. Avatar
    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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