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Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell: My Scholarly Book

I mentioned that I have started writing my academic book on the early Christian versions of the guided tours of heaven and hell.  This will be very different from the trade book coming out in March — an full eight-chapter scholarly analysis of material that I cover in a very brief overview fashion in one chapter of the trade book.

As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, when I get to certain points of my work on a book, I like to produce for myself an account of what it is, where it’s going, how it will be organized, and so on.   Now that I’m getting down to actually writing this thing after doing the research for it, I’ve started drafting up my summary of it, to emphasize its interest and importance, and to explain to myself how I’m imagining it working itself out, as a whole and then chapter by chapter.  My current understanding of the book is closely related to what I started imagining it to be, nearly three years ago; but it is very different as well, in lots of ways.  That’s what research will do.  You get informed and you get ideas.

This summary is not for a broad audience, and so it will be a little more academic, but not at all technical or overly erudite.  It will take about four posts to pull it off, two on the general conception and point of the book, and two outlining the eight chapters.  (For a year I thought there were going to be *seven* chapters*, but when I started writing chapter 1 last week I realized there was way in the universe to avoid it being two chapters.  So now there are eight.)

I have no idea what the final title of the thing will be.  For now (I change all the time) I’m calling it:  Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell.  Otherworldly Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition

Here then is the first bit of the write up for myself, trying to capture what I think is most intriguing about it.


In the winter season of 1886-87 a French archaeological team digging in a necropolis in Akhmim, Egypt made one of the most intriguing textual discoveries of modern times.   In a tomb thought to belong to a Christian monk they found a 66-page book, in Greek, comprising a small anthology of texts, one of which was eventually identified as the Apocalypse of Peter.   This work provides the first surviving Christian account of a guided tour of heaven and hell, told in the first person by Jesus’ own disciple Peter.  In the account, now known also in a longer Ethiopic version, Peter describes, briefly, the ecstasies of the elect and, at greater length and more graphic detail, the torments of the damned.   Peter sees that …

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Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell in a Christian Mode
Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel



  1. Avatar
    fishician  December 19, 2019

    Tangential question related to how one (supposedly) gets to heaven: In the Synoptics Jesus is baptized by John, and he makes reference to John’s baptism, but there’s nothing about Jesus baptizing others, or any statements about baptism (the passages in Matt. 28 and Mark 16 almost certainly were added later). In the 4th Gospel there is no mention of Jesus being baptized but it does say that he baptized more people than John. So, John baptized, the early church baptized, so doesn’t it seem likely that Jesus baptized, but then, why no mention in the Synoptics? Or is it possible the early church re-instituted baptism even though Jesus did not emphasize or practice it? Which is why it ended up only in the last gospel written. (For me this is a historical question but for some denominations proper baptism is a huge issue.)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2019

      It’s a great question, and I don’t really know. It’s interesting that John “takes it back” later saying that Jesus actually didn’t baptize anyone (4:2). So even there there is a reluctance to say jesus baptized anyone, though he probably did, I should think, since he modeleed his ministry on John’s. Is it so no one in the early Xn movement could claim to be superior to others by saying HE was baptized by Jesus himself, as opposed to oi polloi? Or to make sure it was clear that Jesus was not simply like John but far superior, baptizing not in water but in fire? That (the latter) is my best guess.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  December 21, 2019

        I’m not sure what the significance of “the Baptism of John” really was. I flirted with the idea that it was just a cleansing from ritual uncleanness for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. This makes sense to be because the ritual baths in the city must of been almost impossible to get into during holy days. [Think of the lines at Disneyland]. But of course the gospels make it into something more. It might also have been a kind of re-committing oneself to observance of the Law, which fits more with the gospels’ “remittance of sin” idea. I also think there may have been an Essene connection. These latter ideas also might work as an explanation for baptism into the Jesus movement prior to the crucifixion. It was probably only later that Christians decided that baptism was the water of “rebirth.”

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2019

          It’s usually understood to be part of his apocalyptic message. The end was coming soon; only those who were pure would survive; purity required repentance from the polluting power of sin; baptism was a demonstration of that repentance, a purity ritual. A “baptism for the remission of sins”

  2. Avatar
    toejam  December 19, 2019

    I am currently reading J. Richard Middleton’s “A New Heaven and New Earth”, which argues that there is a singular “Biblical vision” on the fate of the faithful – a vision not too far away from what many Jehovah’s Witnesses today believe about the risen-faithful inheriting a recycled Earth, as opposed to spending eternity in heaven. Do you agree that the Bible (specifically, the New Testament) teaches this singular vision, or do you think it offers different perspectives on the fate of the faithful? While there are certainly verses in the NT that seem to me to teach the Earthly-inheritance model, I also see verses Like 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18, Luke 16:19-31, and Luke 23:43, etc., as potentially teaching something else.

    Also, I was gobsmacked when I read in Middleton’s book an interpretation of Matthew 24:36-44 that I can’t believe never occurred to me. The idea is that it is not the ones who are “taken” who are the ‘good guys’ (so-to-speak), but the ones “left behind”. I had always read those verses the other way around – that it is the “taken” who are being raptured up to heaven (or at least into the “air” while the apocalypse occurs down here on the ground). I would love to hear your thoughts on this passage – who, in your opinion, are the “taken” in Matthew’s mind? The righteous, or the unrighteous?

    Anyway, I am very much look forward to your book! It is a topic I have also drawn a fascination to in recent years.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2019

      No (your first point/question) I think that’s completely and precisely wrong. But yes, those taken are taken like the ones during Noah’s flood were taken. You don’t want to be taken.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 20, 2019

    The way into Hell is easy, the gate stands open day and night… as anyone who has been on Twitter can attest to.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  December 20, 2019

    Our ideas about an afterlife don’t seem to be very creative. That’s the impression I get from the ancient Christian and non-Christian sources you site. Pretty stereotyped– only a few recurrent themes. But they are western ideas for the most part. Interesting that among non-western cultures they seem to have a different take, mostly revolving around trans-migration of souls, a cyclic universe, reincarnation, reverence for nature, and even a quest for nirvana, which seems to be the sort of personal extinction that most of us in the west seem to fear. Sometimes I wish I’d been born into an eastern cultural tradition because their approach to the problems of life and death seem saner. I remember reading somewhere that the Japanese are not very receptive to Christian ideas, to the extent of being almost impervious to Christianity. I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to know that there are substantial numbers of people in the world who have natural immunity.

  5. Avatar
    NTDeist  December 20, 2019

    I really appreciate you sharing these posts on this subject with us. I’m looking forward to getting your book. My wife had a near death experience when she was younger and this is a topic of interest to both of us.

  6. Avatar
    Gary  December 20, 2019

    Off topic question: When Paul says in First Corinthians 15…

    “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…”

    …it is possible that he meant that he had received this information by divine revelation from the resurrected Christ, not from any man, as he claims in another of his epistles?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2019

      Possibly he meant that, yes I would say. Whether that’s actually true or not, well, I don’t think so — he surely heard all this from the Christians he was persecuting before he attacked them, or had a vision himself.

      • Avatar
        Gary  December 21, 2019

        “Surely” is an important word.

        We assume that Paul persecuted Christians only because he and the anonymous author of Acts say so. Is there any non-Christian corroborating historical evidence that the chief priest of Jerusalem was arresting, torturing, and killing Christian Jews during the mid first century?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2019

          Only because he himself says so? And that another account that didn’t hear it from him says so? No, that’s all our evidence. But as a skeptical historian myself, I don’t see why that’s problematic. I’d say there would need to be very good reason and counter-evidence to claim something else.

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 22, 2019

            But why trust sources that have proven unreliable? Is it really possible that the chief priest of Jerusalem had the authority to send Paul to Damascus, Syria to persecute Jewish Christians there? Couldn’t this be an anti-Jewish polemic: “They persecuted us first!”

          • Bart
            Bart  December 23, 2019

            I completely agree, that part of the account in Acts is implausible — the High Priest had no jurisdiction over Damascus. I’m not saying that the account in Acts is historical up and down the line. There are legendary aspects of the story — just as there are legendary aspects to the life of Jesus in te Gospels, but we can still discern, for example, that he was a Jewish preacher from Galilee who was crucified in Jerusalem on orders of Pontius Pilate. So too with Acts with respect to Paul: we have to figure out which bits are legendary and which have historical basis. It’s very important to note that precisely the suspicious aspects of Acts’ accounts of Pauls’ persecution are precisely things Paul himself doesn’t say himself. E.g., doesn’t say anything about being commissioned by a high priest (or even having ever spent any time in Jerusalem before his conversion.

            Even more important, I don’t know of any instance in which Paul says something about himself that is demonstrably problematic; every time he gives an autobiograhical statement there is never anything implausible about it.

            And so Acts is quite emphatic on the general point that Paul was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, and on that point it is corroborated by Paul. Acts didn’t get his info from Paul, so it was a tradition wide-spread in the early church. And Paul himself agrees with it. So it’s usually seen to be a pretty convincing double-whammy.

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 25, 2019

            You don’t believe that the author of Acts, writing at the end of the first century or later, knew about Paul? If he did know about Paul, maybe he was just parroting Paul’s claims about himself. Maybe Acts is not an independent source of information about Paul. The author of Acts took Paul’s statements about himself as fact and embellished them.

            So, if there is zero non-Christian historical evidence that Jews were persecuting Christians in the mid first century, why should we believe a guy who wasn’t dealing with a full deck? Someone who believes he may or may not have taken an intergalactic space voyage to a third heaven may have also invented other stories. Maybe he invented his stories about persecuting Christians to make his conversion more dramatic than what it really was. Are we putting too much trust in the testimony of this ONE man?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 26, 2019

            No, that’s not at all what I mean! Of course he knew about Paul. He wrote a book about him. Whether what he knew was always *accurate* is another question. What I have said is that he didn’t *know* Paul — that is, he was not his traveling companion or personally acquainted with him And I’m not sure what kind of non-Christian historical evidence you would be looking for to indicate Jews persecuted Christians. What non-Christian evidence that mention Christians from the first century are you thinking of?

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 26, 2019

            Exactly. So for all we know, Paul invented his “credentials” as an apostle, including his persecution of Christians. And that is one of the reasons why he so often had to defend himself against the accusation of being a liar.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 28, 2019

            Yeah, that wasn’t a credential for being an apostle. It made him stand out as a suspected oddity, not fit in.

  7. fefferdan
    fefferdan  December 20, 2019

    Two questions:

    1. Why was the Apocalypse of Peter omitted from the NT while perhaps even more questionable Apocalypse for John was accepted?

    2. It seems the Peter’s apocalypse remained quite influential despite being lost. How lost WAS it?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2019

      1. Long answer. I’ll have a whole chapter devoted to it in my academic book. Short story: I think it was because it’s view of who would be saved was deemed problematic.

      2. It was influential mainly because it was a source for the Apocalypse of Paul, which remained popular through the Middle Ages down to Dante. But it itself disappears from sight after the fifth century, until rediscovered in 1886.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  December 21, 2019

        Ah! Thanks. I knew about the Dante bit, but didn’t realize it came through the Apocalypse of Paul.

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