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Eternal Life and Damnation

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

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

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

I am puzzled by …

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I am puzzled by many things by the Apocalypse of Paul – why, for example, it is so much harsher on sins committed by Christians than by pagans.  I suppose Christians have less excuse.   But also, what one believes is so important for one’s salvation.  You better believe the right things, or else.

The difference between these two texts makes me think of a general tension within the early Christian tradition.  Parts of it stress that what really matters to God is how you lead your life, specifically whether you live a life of love and service to others or are, instead, a self-serving schmuck.  Those who love will in the end be rewarded, but the schmucks will be punished.

You get this teaching, in my opinion, in the words of the historical Jesus.  Jesus was certainly a completely committed Jew who understood the Torah to embody God’s will for his people.  But he appears to have thought as well that all the Torah could be summarized in two of  its key love commands, the central verses of Deuteronomy 6:4-6, that one should love God with all their heart, soul, and strength, and that of Leviticus 19:18 that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself.  As Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew (and possibly he really said this), “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And so an eternally right relationship depends on living a life of love.  Not on believing something about Jesus.  As he says also, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Calling Jesus Lord is not what matters.  Doing what God wants is.  And what God wants is love.

Thus the famous story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats that I have discussed before on the blog (Matthew 25:31-46).   Whether or not someone knows who Jesus is or believes in him, it is the one who feeds the hungry, who provides clothing for those in need, and who visits those in prison who will enter an eternal reward; those who do not will enter into eternal punishment.

But there is an alternative strain in early Christianity, which insists that it is not a moral life that brings a right standing with God and eternal blessing.  Instead it is proper belief.  You get this particular view on Jesus’ lips, and on the pen of the narrator, in the Gospel of John.  Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life; whoever does not will face condemnation: “the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36).

Even more explicit is the judgment scene of a little-read book of the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians, which talks about when:

The Lord is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed….  2 Thess. 1:7-10, NRSV

If you’re not one of the “saints” who “have believed” in the gospel of Jesus – look out!

The book of Revelation is an interesting account – I’ll be talking about it at length on the blog – and after all these years I’m not sure about a number of its details.  For example, it is only the Christian martyrs who will rule with Jesus during the future millennium (Rev. 20:4-6).  But the ultimate judgment – does someone enter into the new heavenly Jerusalem or are they chucked into the lake of eternal fire? – depends on “what they have done” (20:12-13).  The fiery lake is reserved for “murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars.  Their lot shall be  in the lake that burns with fire and Sulphur, which is the second death” (21:8).

So which is it?  Correct belief?  Good behavior?  Both?   If both, is it that correct belief leads to good behavior, and without the former you could not have the latter.  If so … really?

I see this as a real tension in early Christian teaching.  It is one of the things I want to grapple with as I think about the development of the early Christain understanding of the afterlife.

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The Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol
Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate – Did Jesus Exist?

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Comments

  1. Adam0685  March 27, 2017

    Very interesting to see how (diverse) beliefs of the afterlife affected the views, and the development of views, of early Christians. I wonder if belief in a god that punishes and tortures affected how some Christians treated others who they believe god would punish and torture.

    I recall while studying at MBI about 10 years ago, I mentioned to someone who worked there, that I was troubled by the idea of people suffering forever in hell. He was deeply disturbed by my comment because he thought I was undermining the death of Jesus. He thought without hell or punishment in hell, Jesus’ death was then not a true sacrifice. He questioned my salvation because he thought I would not be troubled by hell if I truly understood the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death…which he believed rescued believers from hell because he was punished for those who believe.

    On another note 1 Peter 3:18–20 is an interesting/odd verse of the afterlife in comparison of what other NT writers thought.

  2. doug  March 27, 2017

    On one hand, Jesus summarizes the law in the two general commandments (love God, love neighbors). On the other hand, in Matthew 5:18 he says “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”. That sounds pretty strict regarding obeying every detail of the law. Did Jesus really say Matt. 5:18? If so, are the two statements consistent?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      I don’t know. It’s only in matthew, and conforms with matthew’s own view closely. So it’s hard to know if it goes back to jesus. My guess is no, that it’s an attempt to counter later followers of jesus who are insisting that it is not important to follow the law.

  3. Wilusa  March 27, 2017

    But it’s interesting that even when the emphasis is on “love,” and concern for others, people are supposed to be behaving that way so *they* will be somehow *rewarded*.

    • dragonfly  March 30, 2017

      The Israelite law was originally for the benefit of the society. There was no reward or punishment for the individual. Apocalypticism changed that. Bart do you think Jesus preached love God and your neighbour because he was concerned for people that they would miss out on the kingdom, or did he think if everyone started to behave that would somehow bring on the new Kingdom? Or did he just think by preaching enough God would make him king in the new Kingdom?

  4. Jason  March 27, 2017

    Where did young evangelical Bart fall on the faith vs. acts question?

  5. john76  March 27, 2017

    Were Jesus and God above the rules of the Law?

    Dr. James McGrath said in a blog post last year that :

    “I found myself wondering whether Jesus might have been viewed by the Gospel author as, like God, above such ethical matters just as God could be depicted as sending a lying spirit to deceive a king (1 Kings 22:22). I also wonder whether Jesus might be an example of the appropriateness of deception in order to preserve oneself in a context of persecution.” see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2016/08/snts-third-main-paper-and-simultaneous-short-papers.html

    What do you think of Dr. James McGrath calling Jesus and God liars?

    • john76  March 28, 2017

      In case anyone is interested in the topic of “Lies and Deception” in the ancient world, I’m starting a new Blog on that topic called “Palpatine’s Way.” My first post on “Lying in the Judeo Christian and Greek traditions” is now up here:

      http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/

      My next two posts will be on Dr. Ehrman’s forgery books, and Tricksters in the ancient world.

      Stop by and let me know what you think!

      John

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      I think he’s pointing out that 1 Kings indicates that God sent a lying spirit to deceive the king.

      • john76  March 30, 2017

        So God is above the ethical norm of honesty?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2017

          Are you asking my opinion? I’m afraid I’m not a theologian!

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 27, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, allow me to give you something to contemplate.

    Why is Judas Iscariot so vilified? Because he was disloyal; he was a betrayer; he was a turncoat.
    Why are the Pharisees so vilified? Because they’re “hypocrites” — they perform all the right actions, all the outwardly appearances, but on the inside their heart does not believe. They are not truly loyal. Loyalty and behavior are seen, at first, by the Christian movement as two sides of the same coin. If you’re loyal, you’re engage in the proper behaviors, and if you’re engaged in the proper behaviors you’re showing your loyalty.

    The problems begin with factionalism and infighting within a movement. One side will see certain lax attitudes toward behavior as a show of disloyalty, but the other side will then counter that “true loyalty” exists in the heart, and that, perhaps, those who emphasize behavior are really hypocrites who are displaying loyalty, but in their hearts are not loyal to the movement at all. And such recriminations continue, back and forth, until each side has staked out a position: statements of loyalty vs. demonstrations of loyalty.

    To my social scientist eyes, at least, this is what appears to be happening.

  7. Petter Häggholm  March 27, 2017

    I find it really interesting to learn that Jesus’s view that the whole Torah can be summed up in the love commands, while presumably not mainstream at the time(?), also isn’t unique. I’m thinking about that wonderful story of Rabbi Hillel standing on one leg. I don’t know enough about Judaism to have any clue if Jesus stood in his tradition or some other, but either way it seems to deflate an attitude some Christians hold that Jesus provided a more meaningful and completely revolutionary “spirit of the Law” counter to excessive legalism with respect to the mitzvot: apparently, it wasn’t uniquely revolutionary after all, but something within the ambit of Jewish thought even before Jesus.

  8. James Chalmers  March 28, 2017

    What must I do to be saved? Believe or behave?
    From early days on, a deep cleavage in Christian doctrine.

    But in Jesus’ preachment, too.
    Yes, he may have reduced what’s required of us to love of God and each other.
    But he also, did he not, said (in a fair paraphrase) this
    a. the kingdom is coming
    b. you better believe it
    c. if you don’t, you won’t get in.
    It seems to me b is an epistemic requirement, and that the embrace of this eschatological belief was more central to his kerygma than was any preachment of love such as found in Matthew 5:43-48.

  9. James Chalmers  March 28, 2017

    I should mention it’s true too that Jesus requires his followers to live now as if the kingdom were already here. Nonetheless, the reason why is that it’s coming, and they must also accept and believe that it is.

  10. RonaldTaska  March 28, 2017

    Great post! I think the usual answer is as you describe: Correct beliefs result in good behavior.

    • VirtualAlex  April 23, 2017

      Absolutely no one has the correct beliefs then. Heaven will be empty!

  11. Rich Griese  March 28, 2017

    On the subject of “eternal life”. I’m on the final chapter of Alan Segal’s; _Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion_ (2004) and can highly recommend it. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0385422997/

    Cheers! Rich

  12. godspell  March 28, 2017

    Jesus was the leader of a cult. Not the founder of a religious institution. Jesus believed that God was going to impose divine rule over temporal reality. What human institution would be needed after that? Those who remained in this new world would have proven their worthiness, would not (to paraphrase Stevie Smith) need working laws to keep from doing wrong. Jesus was asking people to change themselves in order to be worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But if the Kingdom isn’t coming, and therefore is going to be increasingly interpreted as the afterlife–which no living person can see, though some may claim otherwise–how then can worthiness be determined? This is a question that has haunted Christianity ever since.

    Even Paul, who began the process of creating the institution of Christianity, still lived in hope of seeing the Kingdom. He didn’t talk much about hell at all, and the church was a scattered group of highly individual communities in his lifetime. It’s only once there’s an institution–with an institution’s instinctive all-embracing need to perpetuate and expand itself–that you see this idea take hold. And a religious institution is much more about shared beliefs than anything else. Jesus would say that anyone who loved God and his neighbor was worthy. An institution would say he has to do these things for the right reasons, in the name of Jesus, or it doesn’t count. At the extreme end of this are people saying that deeds don’t matter at all, only faith. Jesus thought faith was the only thing that would lead to better behavior, to men and women treating each other as loving brothers and sisters under God, which is why he emphasized it so strongly.

    It’s a very painful and difficult subject, isn’t it?

    As to why they were so often harder on believers than on pagans, that question answers itself. Pagans don’t know any better, and since they have never pledged their loyalty to the new institution, they cannot be accused of betraying it. In the same way, citizens of a country who rise up in rebellion against their government are treated much worse than soldiers of an invading army, since the latter were doing their duty, but the former were abandoning it. Once you have embraced the true path, there is no forgiveness for leaving it.

    The story is told of a missionary who found a savage who’d never heard the gospel story. And the savage, having been informed said “Okay, so before I knew about this, I was blameless of not believing, since I didn’t know what I should believe. But NOW, if I don’t believe and think and behave exactly as you want me to, I’m condemned to eternal punishment after I die?” The mission said yes. “So why did you tell me?” the savage asked.

    🙂

  13. Vatikan  March 28, 2017

    This topic is very interesting! When Jesus is discussing these places of “eternal reward” or “eternal punishment” is he referring to locations in the soon to be Kingdom of God here on Earth or some other worldly place?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      I’ll be exploring that later on the blog!

      • Vatikan  March 29, 2017

        Looking forward to it, thanks again for this blog!

  14. SidDhartha1953  March 28, 2017

    Back in the early 70’s when I was hanging out with house-churchers and campus crusaders, I heard someone teach that the Greek for sorcery could be interpreted as psychoactive drug use. Is there anything at all to that? Did any early Christian sects make use of mushrooms and such?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      No, no evidence. John Allegro wrote a book about Jesus and a sacred mushroom cult, but so far as I know he never persuaded anyone.

  15. Eskil  March 28, 2017

    Isn’t believing in a bit problematic grammatically?

    “I don’t believe in Jesus”

    Is usually interpret that Jesus was not a God or that Bible is not true.

    “I don’t believe in Zimmerman”

    Is usually interpret that the political message in Bop Dylan’s lyrics was not right.

    Is it clear in the original greek manuscripts that believing in Jesus didn’t originally simply mean subscribing to Jesus’ ethical teachings?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      For Paul it certainly is not that. Believing in Jesus means a trusting acceptance of his death and resurrection for sins.

  16. mjt  March 28, 2017

    I have attempted to reconcile this conflict myself, and have pretty much given up. What I can’t understand is, how Christians, particularly those with advanced degrees, don’t see any conflict in the NT writings regarding salvation. Do your colleagues struggle to reconcile faith and works?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      My colleagues in biblical studies are pretty sophisticated and realize that different authors of the NT have different views about many such things.

  17. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 28, 2017

    This post is an example of what the everyday Christian isn’t aware of–conflicting ideas about heaven and hell. On the surface, it looks to be generally the same, but that’s not so as you’ve pointed out here.

  18. Hume  March 28, 2017

    The old testament doesn’t have Hell, it has Sheol. Where did Jesus get the idea of Hell? I know the word he uses is Gehenna which was a burning garbage heap, but eternal damnation?

  19. Paul  March 29, 2017

    The ‘doctrinal salvation’ view is problematic for the simple reason that many, such as those who lived before the time of Jesus, or those who had no opportunity to ‘believe’, would be damned.

    Isn’t a more likely cause for this ‘believe or be damned’ view that it was an attempt to eliminate the many variant Christian views operating at the time, such as Gnosticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2017

      It’s possibly related — but I would say that it’s more than that. Once a religion becomes exclusivistic, it’s detailed beliefs become important.

  20. Rick
    Rick  March 29, 2017

    Just conjecture but, if you view religion as an organized device to control people and/or take their resources you can explain First Century Judaism pretty well. The Sadducee’s controlled access to Gods Blessings via the Temple and the sacrificial alter – for a cut (Elias Rivkin, the Shaping of Jewish History). The Pharisees had assumed control over behavior by stressing the “oral law” the complexity of which they alone interpreted… eventually some 6000 pages of Talmud (Rivkin et seq)! Entering into this landscape in the late 20’s/early 30’s CE was a charismatic Jewish country bumpkin who simplified it all down to two great love commandments which did not require a rabbinic lawyer to navigate. Fast forward to the second century and it is not surprising to me that his early adherents (well after the time of any who would have known him) returned to, or developed their own, behavioral control concerns. After all, if its just a matter of loving God, loving our fellow man and even believing Jesus resurrection and Divinity, what do you need priests for? By the fourth century, the more mature religion keeps control by scaring people into believing they are unable to navigate the deep complexities of right belief action without the churches help…. for a fee of course.

  21. wrengles  March 29, 2017

    I grew up in the Bible belt, and this notion of going to heaven on the basis of faith in Jesus vs good works is one of the first things that caused me to diverge from the church. First of all, it seemed totally irrational. But it also raised the question: so what happens to those kids who grow up and live their entire lives never even hearing of Christ? Are they doomed to hell, no matter how they live their lives, no matter what good they do on earth? The answer I got was “yes, they are doomed” (to *eternal* fire!), and that, more than anything else, seemed so completely ridiculous that I could not possibly follow this religion.

    • jdub3125  March 30, 2017

      Wrengles in this regard you can give up on what is often preached in Bible Belt churches but not give up on the Christian faith. Can a person be in a state of bliss while his/her beloved spouse, parent, or child is suffering relentless pain? Jesus commanded that we love all other humans, so in an afterlife it wouldn’t seem possible for the Christian to enjoy perpetual bliss while knowing that his beloveds are in torment. Even just one.

    • VirtualAlex  April 23, 2017

      #godislove 😳

  22. Jana  March 31, 2017

    I’m reminded of points made in an earlier blog (too tired to recall which one) concerning church politics and the politics of control, authority, and money. How far off would I be in suggesting that good behavior and those who then have the authority to monitor leads to a power and a church hierarchy while good behavior( “acts of kindness”) doesn’t require such? What you’ve included as Jesus’s words btw sounds similar to what the Dalai Lama says of Buddhism. (Russian documentary Sunrise/Sunset).

  23. dankoh  April 2, 2017

    You’ve brought up the sheep and goats before (I’m even quoting you on it), but I still do not understand how Christian theologians (starting with Paul) can read those words of Jesus and still insist that salvation comes only from believing in him, when Jesus flat out says that the test for salvation is what you DO, not what you believe. (A very Jewish perspective, not at all by-the-way.) Do you have any insight into how they thread this needle?

  24. Seeker1952  April 2, 2017

    I find the idea that salvation could be dependent only on correct belief to be very bizarre. But I wonder if the deeper point is more that salvation comes from God as an undeserved gift rather than as a result of humans doing good. Humans can’t save themselves. And maybe that it’s not salvation that comes from correct belief but recognition that one is saved comes from correct belief.

    I also had the idea recently that it might be thought that one result of believing is to more firmly “attach” the believer to Jesus/God, in kind of a mystical way. If I remember correctly (and I may not) don’t Paul and Ignatius talk like that, eg, being part of the (mystical) body of Christ? Salvation comes from being attached to God/Jesus.

    That doesn’t explain or justify leaving a person’s behavior out of the salvation equation. But it does seem like believing in a person would more closely attach one to that person.

  25. madi22  April 5, 2017

    After graduating with your PHD as a new liberal christian what exactly where your views on afterlife?
    Also, i know the OT doesn’t say much about afterlife however in regards to the story of satan being cast out of heaven what is that all about? Wasnt that the enternal firey hell being created?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      I was starting to disbelieve in hell, but I wasn’t really sure. There is no story of Satan being cast out of heaven in the Bible. (But there is in Milton!)

  26. Christopher
    Christopher  April 5, 2017

    I don’t think that “correct belief is necessary for correct action” is very controversial. For example, if you have a job to do that can be only done by a hammer, then your belief that the job requires a hammer is needed in order to do it properly. You can’t use an axe, saw, or spoon. You definetely want to recognize this in your book to avoid the cheap criticism, which is what this is. Obviously what you’re drawing out is that there doesn’t seem to be any moral strength added to a propositional belief from simply the belief that “Jesus was magic and the Son of God”. It’s absolutely hard to see how this is so intuitive that we could fault someone for not holding it, even if they’ve heard of Jesus, and it’s hard to see how this belief could be a prerequisite for sincerely held beliefs that more naturally seem to be conditionals for good moral action. (Did I say all that right? LOL) XD

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      I suppose it depends on which believes and which actions one is thinking of. Hammers might be in a different category from, say, caring for the poor and working for justice.

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