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Does Your Soul Go To Heaven?

In my previous post I discussed the beginnings of the Jewish idea of the “resurrection of the dead.”  This view is a pretty much commonplace today: in every Christian church that recites a creed today, and in many conservative churches that do not use creeds, it is believed that at the end of time there will be some kind of judgment and people will be raised from the dead.

At the same time, I have to be frank and say that it seems to me that most Christians – at least the ones I know (not just scholars, but most Christians) – don’t actually *believe* in a future resurrection.  They think they die and go to heaven in their souls.  Their souls may have some kind of physical attributes: they have all their sense of hearing, seeing, etc., and they can be recognized as who they were so you’ll be able to see your grandmother there.  It’s true, even this has always caused problems for people who hold the idea.  Which of my many bodies will I have in heaven?  The one I had when I was at my prime?  The one I died with?  What about wounds, injuries?  What about birth defects and disabilities?   I don’t even know what my grandmother *looked* like when she was 23; how will I recognize her?  People who have thought about such things have solutions of course – the solutions go way back to the early centuries of the church.  But they are problems.

Even so, my point is that most people, even (especially?) deeply committed Christians who think they are standing within the traditional Christian tradition,  think you die and your soul goes one place or the other, and your body just rots away (or is cremated, etc.), even if the soul retains the bodily attributes of the now disintegrated body.  And that is NOT, let me reiterate, it is NOT, the understanding of the “resurrection of the dead.”

That is to say, it is not the view that Jesus …

Only members of the blog can see what I say next.  Including a massively controversial tangent that is not meant to be controversial.  (Involving abortion.)  If you don’t belong to the blog, now would be a good time to join.

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Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Suffering and Death?
An Alternative View of Suffering and the Idea of Resurrection



  1. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  August 21, 2019

    The ending private tag is showing. I assume the opening tag is missing.

    Great post.

  2. Avatar
    meltuck  August 21, 2019

    I was surprised to read that by the time of Jesus, the idea of resurrection of the dead was the dominant view in Judaism. Can you provide support for that assertion? I had been assuming that it was a much more recent innovation, appearing only about 150 years before Jesus, and that we probably could not say how many of the Jews had embraced it by Jesus’s time. Certainly the Sadducees, who seem to have been very dominant at that time, had not.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      It is first recorded in the third century BCE. By the time of Jesus it was the view of the Pharisees and the Essenes and probalby the Fourth Philosophy (all the groups Josephus mentions apart from the Sadducees), along with the other non-Christian group we know about at the time, the followers of John the Baptist; and it is the view found in most of the surviving literature of the time that intimate a view of eschatology (Dead Sea Scrolls; Jewish apocalypses; etc.). Apart from the Sadducees, I can’t think of other Jews or Jewish texts that attest an alternative eschatology at the time. So the evidence may all be skewed, but it does seem all to point in the same direction.

  3. Avatar
    lmabe10  August 21, 2019

    I’m still a little confused by Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 15. He states in verse 44, “…it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

    He goes on in verse 49, “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”

    It sounds to me like he is saying when we are raised it will be in a NEW heavenly (spiritual) body, not the natural, earthly body. Growing up, this is what I was taught would be our soul’s body in heaven (I am no longer a believer, however). Am I just misreading this?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      Yup, maybe I better post on this. I’ve done so before, but a refresher is never a bad idea!

      • Avatar
        quadell  August 22, 2019

        Yeah, especially since English translations always want to translate “psychikos soma” as “physical body”, but the Greek “psyche” means mind or spirit. It really looks like Paul is saying “It is sown a [mind or spirit] body, it is raised a [breath or spirit] body”, which would make even less sense.

        My knowledge is quite limited, but I have read that Middle Platonists thought everything on Earth was made of the four elements (and therefore corrupted), but everything out beyond the moon was made of ether, where ethereal daimones live. Is Paul implying that our bodies will be replaced by bodies of ether?

    • Avatar
      quadell  August 22, 2019

      (Dr. Ehrman’s previous post on the topic is at https://ehrmanblog.org/paul-resurrection-spiritual-body/)

  4. Avatar
    quadell  August 21, 2019

    I recently read an interesting blog post about how ancient non-Jewish cosmologies shaped early Christian thought — https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2019/08/17/the-structure-of-heaven-and-earth-how-ancient-cosmology-shaped-everyones-theology/ — and that author sees the “your soul goes to heaven after you die” idea as coming ultimately from Plato’s Timaeus. In the Timaeus, souls and stars are made of the same stuff, and if a person lived a righteous life, his soul went up to become one with his own star. In fact, that blog author sees Middle Platonism as the basis for many of the odd bits in the New Testament — Paul’s “third heaven”, and his talk of “archons and powers”, for instance. Does this seem likely to you? (And if you were planning to get to Platonism in the “later post” you mention, my apologies for skipping ahead!) Either way, I’m really looking forward to your upcoming book.

    Regarding abortion, I’ve always found it amusing that so much of modern American Christianity is wrapped up in an issue that was so obviously not a big concern for the Biblical authors. I do note that a prohibition on abortion is found in the Didache, one of the earliest extant Christian texts outside the Bible. So the prohibition is clearly early — just not early enough to have made it into the canon. (I also note that the issue is not raised in terms of “We must stop people from doing this”, but merely as “We Christians do not do this ourselves”, a perspective that could perhaps be seen as “pro-choice”… but I digress.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      I wouldn’t say it comes from the Timaeus, or originally from Plato: but Plato is absolutely the most influential spokesperson for the immortality of the soul (as opposed to the body), e.g., especially in the Phaedo, which is all about that.

  5. Avatar
    crucker  August 21, 2019

    With the author of Luke, it seems there are two instances that I can think of where the reward/punishment was immediate rather than being deferred until after a later judgement. The first is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the second is Jesus telling one of the thieves on the cross that today he will be with him in paradise.

    Do you think Luke saw these as unique individuals with special circumstances (like Enoch or Elijah) so they didn’t wait in the ground after death, or do you think Luke had a different view of what one experiences immediately after death?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      Yes indeed. That was what Luke thought. I have an extended discussoin of this in my book; I’ll look to see if I’ve discussed it yet on the blog.

  6. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  August 21, 2019

    *The body you have now*.[ …] You can’t exist apart from the body. You in a sense are your body. And when you are granted eternal life, you will live in the body.
    [Fernando] * The body you have now *. That does not seem to be Paul’s teaching on the resurrection and eternal life after death in this world.
    Let’s see:
    Philippians 3: 20-21
    “21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will ** transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body “.

    1 Corinthians 15: 43-44

    43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as * natural human bodie *, but they will be raised as * spiritual bodies *. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”

    There are many contradictions and inexplicable things in these two passages.
    On the one hand, Paul’s aspiration that his resurrected body for eternal life be * like his [Jesus] glorius body *, seems quite self-centered and presumptuous. Of course that is not exactly the same as * the body you have now *
    On the other hand, it is a contadictio in terminis, an oxymoron, talk about * spiritual bodies *.
    Paul himself often opposes natural flesh (sarx) and supernatural spirit (pneuma). Then talking about the spiritual body (flesh) in Paul’s case is, at least, shocking.

    Bart continues:
    * You can’t exist from the body. You in a sense are your body. And when you are granted eternal life, you will live in the body *

    True. That is why the resurrection and eternal life of a specific person is absurd. For if it is not with his earthly body, it will not be the same person who lives forever. But this is impossible. For the body is subject to biology and life, which after all is nothing but a series of biochemical reactions, cannot be eternal by nature.

    Of course, some believers will think that the almighty god can make one thing and its opposite happen at the same time. Or change at will the laws that govern thermodynamics and biology and let telomeres do not control the aging of our body cells.

  7. Avatar
    Epikouros  August 21, 2019

    There’s also Ezekiel 37:1-14 (if someone is really intent on finding bodily resurrection in the Jewish scriptures).

  8. Avatar
    fishician  August 21, 2019

    The idea of an afterlife raises a lot of interesting questions, which even the people of Jesus’ day recognized, which is why they posed the question of someone who has been been married multiple times: who gets her/him in the afterlife? But Jesus reportedly had a ready answer: no marriage in the afterlife! I’m sure that’s sad news for some, but good news for others!

  9. tompicard
    tompicard  August 21, 2019

    even tho
    >> God allowed Elijah to ascend to heaven without dying,
    >> as he did much earlier with the mysterious figure Enoch, .
    >> If these two live forever, why not others?

    But these two examples, and you might include Jesus resurrection, are also SUBSTANTIALLY different than
    1) future resurrection of the body, and
    2) thinking you are going to live forever in your *body*
    that virtually everyone else in the Greco-Roman world (or modern world) thought was horrifying and ludicrous

    I really don’t see how they are analogous at all

    No one (lets say rather very few) sees Enoch or Elijah or Jesus walking around like they see Bart Ehrman or myself.
    I think a better analogy is that Enoch and Elijah and Jesus have been transported to a different dimension (with their bodies I dont know) but it is a dimension you and I can’t easily perceive right now
    and to say Elijah and Jesus and Enoch have the same kind of “bodies” as Bart Ehrman and I now have, you a being very confusing

  10. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 21, 2019

    The doctrine of the Trinity would be another thing that’s not present in the original text but is now commonplace.

  11. Avatar
    Gravenfox  August 21, 2019

    You got a mention in today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/christ-2

  12. tompicard
    tompicard  August 21, 2019

    additionally I think you have said previously that
    1) majority of Jews of Palestine were NOT apocalypticist at the time of Jesus
    and now that
    2) This is definitely the view Jewish apocalypticists had [I dont know if this is UNIVERSALLY true of apoclyptcist of Jesus time, I dont think you have made this claim before] [but assuming it is universally true]
    I think that it still does not follow at all that
    3) this view bec[a]me dominant in a religion [Judaism]

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      No, that’s not what I’ve ever said (your point #1). It was the view widely held, so far as we can tell.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  August 22, 2019

        ok i must have been confused

        maybe you said that the majority of Jews did not belong to one of the 4 groups mentioned by Josephus so I assumed that the apocalyptic group was even smaller than those

        but maybe they apocalyptic ideas are broader than those 4 groups ?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          Yes, the groups are like civil organizatoins (the Rotary Club, the Elks, etc.). Few people belong to them, relatively speaking, but the views they have may be widely shared. Apocalypticism was the view, not one of the groups.

  13. Avatar
    Hon Wai  August 21, 2019

    “Or Paul, or any of the early followers of Jesus or any author of the New Testament. They were precisely arguing against the idea that the soul and body would separate at death, one to rot into non-existence and the other to live forever. Their view was the opposite.”
    I am a little confused about this topic. A decade ago, influenced by N.T. Wright’s popular writings and talks and endorsement of Christian physicalists (i.e. contemporary Christians who, in context of philosophy of mind, reject the existence of the soul as an immaterial substance), I thought the New Testament view is exclusively physicalist (see http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/mind-spirit-soul-and-body/). The New Testament rejects the idea of separation of soul and body at death.
    Then I came across Christian philosophers who pointed out N.T. Wright had also defended an “intermediate state” view of the afterlife:
    It seems Pauline passages about “being with the Lord” after death suggests an intermediate state prior to bodily resurrection. Book of Revelation’s allusion to martyred saints crying out for justice suggests an intermediate state. While I accept that all New Testament writers view the ultimate state for believers is eternal life in a resurrected body when they will be made whole again, it seems to me there are passages alluding to what we would now term as an immaterial soul, capable of consciousness and experiences, persisting after death of the body, prior to bodily resurrection.
    Can you clarify?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      It’s complicated! (As we say these days.) I explain it all in my forthcoming book, but it’s very hard to do in a comment, or a blog post. Short story: Paul definitely believed in a future resurrection of the body; when it didn’t come right away,as expected, he came to think there would be an interim period of existence with Christ after death prior to the resurrection of the body. The question is: would this interim existence be with a temporary body in heaven, or without a body? It could be argued either way. In my book I explain the options and come down on one of the sides.

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  August 22, 2019

        Interesting. I look forward to reading your forthcoming book. I suppose if Paul was quizzed at the time he was writing his later epistles, whether he thought the intermediate state was embodied in some way, he might have answered he needed to think more about it.
        How about the Book of Revelation allusion to martyred saints crying out to God to avenge their blood? Should we read it as an allusion of a theology of intermediate state, or the author was in a state of apocalyptic frenzy, using vivid imagery which is not meant to be taken literally?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          Revelation has a different view from Paul’s. It’s view is that only martyrs go into heaven before the final resurrection. It doesn’t say what happens to everyone else.

  14. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 21, 2019

    Off-topic q – in Matthews version of the trial of Jesus the Sanhedrin is looking for evidence against Jesus but cant find any witnesses that agree. Then finally two do agree that he said he could rebuild the temple in three days and its only then that the high priest rises and demands Jesus answer this testimony.

    In Mark’s version however even these witnesses about the temple quote don’t agree with each other, just like all the others, but he still has the high priest rise and demand Jesus answer their testimony.

    Doesn’t the coherency of Matthew’s version indicate that he is the original writer and that Mark occasionally edits his source material for the worse?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      It’s usually taken the other way, that editors try to make things easier to understand rather than more confused.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  August 22, 2019

        But its not about ease of understanding, Mark and Matthew are saying different things, its about the coherency of the account. Whether the units of the story, “sanhedrin looking for evidence” “many witnesses not agreeing” “then two/some relating the temple story” “high priest rising because he’s got his evidence” etc, cohere as a unified whole.

        Marks single additional unit “even they couldn’t agree” renders the whole incoherent. The “temple” testimony is just like all the rest, it shouldn’t result in the high priest rising. Mark’s account should be considered the product of two authors.

        Matthew’s account coheres as a whole and should be considered the product of a single mind.

  15. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  August 21, 2019

    An interesting discussion. Yes Bart, one logical argument is that life is eternal and, by defintion, life cannot die. However, I think that the belief that Jesus had was that body dies when life (breath, mind) leaves it. I agree there are some deep questions here about what a spiritual body or just existence as a soul would mean in real terms, but I fail to see how Jesus’s and Paul’s pharisaical / Danielian belief in the resurrection on the last day, precludes a belief in a spiritual body in the meantime. I can see that one might argue that a ‘spiritual body’ is an oxymoron, but I think it is reasonable to conjecture that the spirit or soul contains all the information about you at various ages and thus could take on different appearances depending on the situation of the interaction between it and another spiritual body.

  16. Avatar
    roy  August 21, 2019

    a thought on abortion,(I am against it for the record unless there are extenuating circumstances, or at least very early in pregnancy) Christians can apologize for god’s actions in every known situation(noah’s flood, earthquakes,tsnunamis, or any other natural disaster that kills children, babies, and i’m sure a number of unborn babies, we just don’t understand god. but since they also believe life begins at conception, or at least at heartbeat, how might they explain miscarriages when the baby is wanted? is that not a natural abortion? who caused that??? I would submit that based upon that idea and biblical history that god would be far and away the most prolific abortionist ever

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      Probably the same one who caused death by other natural disasters. (I.e., no one!)

  17. Avatar
    Judith  August 21, 2019

    Intriguing blip in red today!

  18. Rick
    Rick  August 21, 2019

    “Which of my many bodies will I have in heaven? ” My Grandmother worried about that one. The most obvious answer being the one you have when you die… which caused her to lament that she would be a 72 year old woman with a 49 year old husband and a two year old baby – and whats heaven about that?

  19. Avatar
    nichael  August 21, 2019

    > “If you wonder how a view can become dominant in a religion that claims to base its views entirely on a set of Scriptures that, in fact, never talks about it, there are plenty of analogies[…]”

    Y’know, perhaps it might have been, well, “safer”, to stick with something like, say, Trinitarianism as an example?

    Just sayin’….


  20. Avatar
    jwesenbe  August 21, 2019

    This brings to mind the question that should precede this one. When did the idea that we even have a “soul” first come up?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      We don’t know. It can be found as far back as our earliest Greek texts — it’s in Homer, e.g.,

      • Rick
        Rick  August 24, 2019

        But, is it in the Iliad? The earliest versions? I raise the question as I am rereading Julian Jaynes on consciousness and the bicameral mind. He bases much of his bicameral mind hypothesis on the early Iliad which is said to be devoid of individual conscious thought by men – they are directed by gods, their bicameral other brain lobe. Pertinent here perhaps as …. could a bicameral individual without modern consciousness even contemplate a “soul”?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          Odyssey 11. Anyone who doesn’t think Greeks believed in a “soul” should read that book or, say, Plato’s Phaedo. The whole point of the dialogue is to show that the soul is immortal and survives the death of the body.

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