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Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel

Here is the second and last part of my summary of the heart of my forthcoming book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  It’s not an outline of the chapters, but a summing up of the key issues, flow, and the ultimate “point” of the book.  As a tip, I’ve called this little essay (in my own mind): “There Is Nothing To Fear.”



The idea of rewards and punishments eventually found its way into Judaism as well, but not until the very end of the Old Testament period.   The book of Daniel was the final writing of the Hebrew Bible.   This fictitious account of a pious Hebrew young man, Daniel, presents an alternative Jewish understanding of the world, the nature of reality, and of life beyond, quite unlike the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

Scholars have called Daniel’s view “apocalypticism,” from the Greek word “apocalypsis” – which means a “revealing.”    Jewish apocalyptic thinkers began to believe that God had “revealed” to them the truth of ultimate reality hidden from all their predecessor, an explanation for the horrible pain and suffering of this world.  These do not come from God or even from the harmful assertion of human free will.   They are the work of cosmic forces of evil.  God had temporarily ceded control of the earth to powers that opposed him and were intent on making his people suffer.

But he will soon intervene in his world to destroy evil and all who side with it.  A massive day of judgment is coming, and every human will be caught up in it — not just those living at the time, but all people who have ever lived.  Those who have died already will be restored to life either to be rewarded or punished.

Jews in antiquity did not traditionally subscribe to the Greek view that the soul would live on after the body died.  For them, a person is …

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Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell: My Scholarly Book
Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell



  1. Avatar
    Russellkking  December 16, 2019

    I’d love to read a fuller discussion of how you reached your conclusion about what Jesus thought and said. I don’t doubt your conclusion, I’d just like to learn more.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Great! Hope you enjoy the book!

      • Avatar
        Fredbauck  January 7, 2020

        “brought their Greek views world with them.” Don’t know how to make a general response about this typo, so I am doing it as a reply to a comment. Only FYI.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 16, 2019

    Daniel’s style is very different from the rest of the OT (presumably because it was written later). When were the first apocalypticists write?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      He’s the first in the Bible. The first on record is The Book of the Watchers, books 1-36 of 1 Enoch.

      • Rick
        Rick  December 19, 2019

        I recall, I believe, Ellis Rivkin (then Chair of Jewish History, Hebrew Union College) sourced the advent of the Pharisee’s from the Soferim class following the new Seleucid rulers push for Hellenization 2nd century BCE. Within that he saw the Pharisee’s claiming resurrection (into God’s Kingdom on Earth) and eternal life for following the two-fold law (Pentateuch and oral law) as their selling point in claiming authority. Sounded like Jewish apocalyptic thinking was particularly main stream?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2019

          My view is that it really was mainsstream: Pharisees, Essenes, apocalyptic writers at the time, followers of John and other prophets. Just about eveyrone we know about apart from the Sadducees.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  December 20, 2019

        When do you think the Book of the Watchers was written? I got contradictory results from Google.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2019

          It’s probably from 250 BCE – 200 BCE, somewhere in there.

          • Avatar
            Eric  January 3, 2020

            So after Daniel… so Daniel is not only the firs tin the Bible, it is also the first documented?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 4, 2020

            No, 1 Enoch would be the first documents (the section called The Book of the Watchers, chs. 1-36, usually dated to the early 3rd c BCE)

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  January 4, 2020

            Dr Ehrman –

            Is there reading you think is particularly good on the dating of the pieces of 1 Enoch (esp the Similitudes)?

            Thanks much in advance!

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2020

            Best is probably the Introduction found in the Commentary on 1 Enoch by George Nickelsburg in the Hermeneia Commentary series.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  January 5, 2020

            Awesome, thanks!

          • Avatar
            Eric  January 6, 2020

            So where do you date daniel? I would have thought prior to 3rd century BCE (Selucid Era)

          • Bart
            Bart  January 8, 2020

            It’s normally dated right around the time of the Maccabean revolt, ca. 160-65 CE.

  3. Avatar
    sjhicks21  December 16, 2019

    Appreciate the post. Excellent discussion of the implications and basis for our beliefs about the afterlife. However, I disagree with your conclusion. The reason most of us don’t fear going to sleep or being sedated is that we believe very strongly from past experience that we will eventually wake up and when we have, for the most part, we experience a feeling of satisfaction and we also have learned that it is absolutely necessary for life. The problem with death which has no expectation of waking up is the fear beforehand that we will never have experiences again, especially if our experiences to date have been mostly enjoyable. I think it is quite reasonable to fear the loss of the ability to experience life forever. This fear is also possibly a necessary corollary of the drive that causes us to endure suffering, pain and extensive striving to continue to live. Of course some folks may blunt this fear by noting its inevitability and similarities to sleep but our imaginations still may inform us, unconsciously at times, that the finality of it is something very different and that it is may not necessarily be something to be welcomed. This could be interpreted as the good aspect of fear, which clearly is not always bad, as well.

  4. Avatar
    Nichrob  December 16, 2019

    Look forward to reading the book…!!

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  December 16, 2019

    Sure, Death is certainly The Big Sleep. And most of us have already experienced it via sedation. I don’t remember anything about the several times I’ve under sedation for medical procedures. I might as well have been dead. But Socrates still has not overcome the ultimate human fear–fear of non-existence. He still thinks that he can cheat death by believing that there’s a chance that he has a soul that can exist independently of his body after death. Of course neither he or any other human has produced even the slightest evidence that such a soul actually exists.

    Epicurus was much more honest than Socrates: Non fui. Fui. Non sum. Non curo. I was not. I was. I am not. I care not. Epicurus followed the evidence. Socrates indulged in wishful thinking. My guess is that humanity is divided 50/50 between Epicurus and Socrates on these issues.

  6. Avatar
    SatPat  December 16, 2019

    I’m afraid quantum field theory (QFT) has eliminated the concept of the soul with an exceptional degree of confidence. If there are souls, they have nothing to do with us. There is no way to transfer the information that is us (which consists of neural connections in our brains) into some nebulous, immaterial soul thing. In order for souls to interact with us in our natural world, they would have to push around quarks and electrons, and if that was happening, we’d either know it – and it would no longer be supernatural, or we’d have unexplained interactions with our fundamental particles and would still be searching for whatever was causing them. There are no such unexplained interactions and we didn’t find god, soul, devil or ghost forces in innumerable particle accelerator experiments.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  December 18, 2019

      You’ve always got Many Worlds and Eternal Inflation kicking around, although it is hard to prove or disprove. One might suppose that there is a sort of eternal recurrence, in that you get to live and re-live every possible variation of your life. If we actually are dealing with infinities, then arguments have been made that every possible event, no matter how improbable, will occur infinitely many times. So, duplicates of you, and then almost perfect duplicates, off to the wildest places and spaces possible. And all you, all the time, although you only get to “experience” one at a time. In short, it’s as hard to say there’s nothing as it is to say there is something. We just aren’t in a position to know.

  7. Avatar
    Manuel  December 16, 2019

    I ask out of curiosity…will your book be limited to the history of the Christian concept of heaven and hell or will you be discussing other cultural/religious concepts of the afterlife …reincarnation for example?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      I will be talking about reincarnation, but in the Christian tradition. The book deals with views in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Israel, and then Christainity — i.e., the ones at the roots of our western civilization (not, e.g., east Asia)

  8. Avatar
    drumbeg  December 16, 2019

    Thank you! 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Boltonian  December 16, 2019

    Robert Graves had an interesting take on the afterlife – I don’t remember in which of his many works it appears – he suggested that the very last thought one experienced prior to death would, in effect last forever. So, if that thought was pleasant, you were in heaven; if horrible, you went to hell, so to speak.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Ha! Well, I have lots of nice thoughts to choose from, and I think that’s what I’ll think! (I’d heard that before, but not about Graves. What a strange idea!)

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  December 19, 2019

        Buddhism has a similar idea – that your state of mind at the moment of death can affect what happens to your soul or essence. If calm and peaceful, then Nirvana (though that is a very vague notion) … if full of anxiety or other negative emotion, then reincarnation.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  December 16, 2019

    First of all, I agree with your analysis. Heaven and Hell are not what Jesus meant, but what Jesus meant demonstrably did not happen, so alternate interpretations were found by pagan converts influenced by Plato and those who followed in his wake.

    Secondly, one must ask–why did Plato, being Socrates’ student, come up with such an idea? Because he wanted to encourage people to follow the way of life he believed was best (not women, of course, there’s no point trying with them, as he sees it). He needs a carrot and a stick. His standards for who gets what are different, but the basic idea is the same–and a useful method of social control, if applied on a grand scale. He’d probably rather do the thing with the Philosopher King and the Guardians and taking all the children away from their parents to be educated (that didn’t happen either, though there have been some attempts here and there that didn’t end well).

    Socrates may have been more of an individualist, and Plato was looking for ways to apply his teacher’s ideas to more than just a handful of students (who on the whole, didn’t turn out so well, it must be said). More of a mystic–Plato is more in the Grand Inquisitor mode, to reference Dostoevsky.

    However, I must ask–you use the term ‘literary transcript’ in reference to the Apology–are you saying you believe Plato had direct access to what was said at the trial of Socrates, which he was pointedly absent from? (Otherwise he might never have had the chance to write anything about it.) We have no evidence there was any direct record of that trial, and Xenophon’s account is quite different. (He wasn’t there either.) Why should we view Plato’s account of his master’s trial and execution any less skeptically than the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ordeal?

    Plato could be referencing things he heard from Socrates at an earlier time–but what we know about hemlock poisoning makes it unlikely Socrates was engaged in learned philosophical discourse, and of course he was an old sick man at the time. I think we must assume the dialogue is mostly invented–so you’re agreeing with Socrates the literary character?

    For me, it sounds like a variation on Pascal’s wager. But the wager is mind or body. I’d say we need both.

  11. Avatar
    mikezamjara  December 16, 2019

    In the gospel of Luke there is the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in wHich Jesus tells about torment after death. Do you believe it was not in Jesus’ teachings when you say Jesus din’t believed in torment after death?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Yes, I try to show in my book why this is not a parable that Jesus himself spoke, but was added to his teachings later (by Luke himself?)

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  December 18, 2019

        fine, I wait for the book then, thanks

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 16, 2019

    So, no Hell! Good news!

    Thanks for the concise and clear summary about the origin of the concepts of heaven and hell.

  13. Avatar
    XanderKastan  December 16, 2019

    Even if there is no way to know for certain, there is a solid scientific argument articulated by physicist Sean Carroll that there is no conscious experience of any sort after death. In which case, yes there is nothing to fear (or look forward to) after death (other than concern about difficulties our death will cause the loved ones we leave behind). But to the extent that we don’t know, that includes not knowing anything about the duration or quality of life after death. It’s all speculative and there is no reason to think that historical figures like Socrates or Jesus had any special insight on the matter that we lack. If we live after death, that could just as easily be extremely unpleasant as it could be enjoyable.

    • Avatar
      SatPat  December 18, 2019

      Correct. I wish more people understood this.

  14. Avatar
    janpona  December 16, 2019

    I have an off topic question:
    I understand that most of the New Testament is forged.
    But I’m wondering how the grift was performed.
    That is to say, how did Fake Peter of 2 Peter pass off a letter as genuine 50 years after Peter’s death.
    Surely people knew he was dead right?
    And if the same community received the 1st Epistle

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Ah, good question. It was actually pretty simple. “Hey, this letter just arrived here in Ephesus from our friends in Corinth! It’s a letter taht Peter wrote that they’ve been holding on to for 50 years! We had no idea this thing existed, but look what he says!” That sort of thing.

  15. Avatar
    veritas  December 16, 2019

    Bart, according to Scripture or the Bible, what happens to those people that died and never knew God or Jesus in their lifetime? I can see children being raised or exalted to heaven, but what about those adults or tribes people in remote areas where the gospel is not preached, or even those who grew up Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim and really never heard of Jesus, how will they be raised and judged if Christianity is the true way? Thanks

  16. Avatar
    MvdK  December 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m looking forward to your next book. If I may react on your blog, you say “Jesus did not teach eternal life of the soul in heaven or hell.” How does that relate to Jesus’ parable about the rich man and poor Lazarus? At least there seems to be the suggestion that there is a consciousness after death.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      I’ll be arguing that that is a parable that Jesus himself did not actually speak, but was placed on his lips by a later Christian (maybe Luke himself?). There are very good reasons — as I’ll be pointing out — for thinking so.

  17. Avatar
    markdeckard  December 17, 2019

    To what extent was Greek thought being incorporated into Jewish education in the decades leading up to Jesus? Would you say that the Jews were blending Greek ideas into their religious teaching regarding the soul and the afterlife? If so how does this comport with the popular notion that Hebrew scripture alone was supposed to be their formative source?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      There was very little formal education where Jesus grew up — none so far as we know. Greek did signficantly affect educated Jews in major urban locations though.

  18. Avatar
    ddecker54  December 17, 2019

    In light of this, would it be safe to say that Luke 23, “…today you shall be with me in paradise” are words placed upon Jesus’ lips many years later?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Yes, that is a distinctively Lukan view, as I’ll be arguing in my book.

  19. Avatar
    Britt  December 17, 2019

    Bart, why do you think Jesus believed we would be annihilated instead of sent to Hell? What about Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus telling the thief on the cross that he would be with Him in paradise, and Jesus saying He was going to prepare a place for you, i.e. many mansions? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      The major scholarly issue in talking about the historical Jesus is separating the later sayings placed on his lips from the ones that he himself said. Scholars spend their entire lives working to establish which is which. I’ll be explaining that in my book, and showing why these sayings go back to Luke and John (or the story tellers they heard them from), rather than Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Britt  December 19, 2019

        Thanks. But where exactly does Jesus say people will be annihilated, i.e. cease to exist?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 19, 2019

          Actually, all over the place; we don’t see it because we import our own understanding of eternal torment into texts that don’t say anything about it. As just one example, Matthew 7: there are two paths, one leads to life, the other leads to “destruction”. It doesn’t lead to the eternal torture chamber.

      • Avatar
        Help00  January 6, 2020

        What about Persian beliefs about the afterlife? I always found interesting the speculation that Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism’s eschatological views, from the Last Judgment to the idea of punishment in the afterlife? Either way, thanks Bart, you’re the greatest. I will definitely get the book.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2020

          Yes, I used to think there was an influence. After reading the scholarship on it, now I’m not so sure. I deal with it in my book, of course, and show why Zoroastrianism may be unlikely to have affected Judean views…..

  20. tompicard
    tompicard  December 17, 2019

    There is no reason to doubt that

    When Jesus taught about the “Kingdom of God” that was coming “very soon,” he, like other Jews at the time, meant an actual kingdom, here on earth, a place of love, harmony, peace, and joy; a place of community with family, friends, and ancestors.

    But I think when you go beyond that you are engaging in pure speculation
    For example

    Where in scripture do you get the idea that
    Resurrected life meant a bodily existence forever, HERE ON EARTH.
    Granted Jesus and Paul speak of ‘eternal life’ but I don’t see where we can conclusively say that they meant ON EARTH (and less so old testament writers even daniel does not explicitly say that the resurrection is ON EARTH or ETERNAL (as far as I remember))

    Where in scripture do you get the idea that
    new utopian world God would create for the purpose, a restored earth with NO NATURAL DISASTERS?
    (Zech 14:17-18 exactly says the opposite (and note this chapter of Zechariah is considered apocalytic at least according to editors of New American Bible)

    Where in scripture does JESUS say
    the new utopian world God would create . . with NO PAIN AND SUFFERING OF ANY KIND ?
    He said the poor we will ALWAYS have (mk 4:7) and (Lk 13:2) Tower of Siloam seems to imply calamity is not necessarily connected to sin or powers opposed to God. Matt 5:10-12 says if you suffer (on earth) you will be rewarded in Heaven but that does not imply end of suffering in Heaven (on earth or elsewhere)
    Even the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ can suffer violence (Matt 11:12) etc

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