23 votes, average: 4.91 out of 523 votes, average: 4.91 out of 523 votes, average: 4.91 out of 523 votes, average: 4.91 out of 523 votes, average: 4.91 out of 5 (23 votes, average: 4.91 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.
Loading...

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell

This post is free for anyone who wants to look.  Every week on the blog I post five times, dealing with all sorts of issues connected with the New Testament and early Christianity.  Interested?  Why not join?  It doesn’t cost much, you get tons for your money, and every nickel you pay goes to deserving charities.

 

I’m excited about my next book, being published on March 31, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   It’s already getting good reviews in the trade journals, the publications that announce which books are soon to come out and have experts review them in advance, so that book sellers, book stores, libraries, and so on know whether they want to buy them, and for book sellers and stores, in what quantities.  So that’s all good.

A while back I decided to try to encapsulate the essence of the book in a short essay, a kind of 2000 word summary of what it’s all about and why it matters.   I will give it here, over the course of two posts.  Here’s the first half.

 

***********************************************************

The fear of death has been among us for as long as we have had human records, from history’s oldest surviving tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the now final season of the Good Place, soon to enter its own eternal rest.   The views of these two cultural artefacts are wildly different, but they share a constant.  The eponymous hero of the Mesopotamian epic writhes in agony at the prospect of spending eternity groveling in dust being eaten by worms; Eleanor Shellstrop desperately works to avoid the afterlife she deserves, in the Bad Place and its eternal torments.

Today few people may share Gilgamesh’s actual concern of being conscious forever in the dirt.  Plenty, however, tremble with morbid fear before eternal nothingness, entering the void with no hope of return.  Yet others cannot stand the uncertainties of the unknown, unsure of what will happen, pleasant, painful, or oblivious to both.  But the majority Americans continue to anticipate some version or other of the alternatives portrayed in The Good Place.  72% of Americans continue to believe in a literal heaven and 58% in a literal hell.    Even for those who think most people will avoid the torture chambers of the underworld, some will go there, and how can anyone be sure they will make the cut?   No wonder there is such fear.

Most of those who hold such views, of course, have received them from the Christian tradition – whether through personal allegiance or osmosis.   You die and your soul goes one place or another, based on your faith, your morality, or both.   And nearly everyone assumes these views are Christian because they are set forth clearly and forcefully in the Bible.

As it turns out, that’s not true.  The idea that a person dies and goes to heaven for eternal reward or hell for everlasting punishment is never taught in the Old Testament. Even more surprising, it is not what Jesus himself preached.  Or his earliest followers.

Then where did it come from?

Start at the beginning.  The Old Testament does not speak with just one voice on any topic, the afterlife included.  It comprises thirty-nine writings produced over many centuries by numerous authors with wide-ranging views on just about everything.  Even so, the vast bulk of the Old Testament has no real concept of any kind of life after death. Life is available now, before death.  When it is over, it is over.  After death is only death, for everyone, equally.  There is no punishment or reward, just a kind of non-existence.

Many of the Israelite authors hated the thought and lamented it: the joys, pleasures, and experiences of life are all here and now.  Afterward there is no physical pleasure and no social life – no family, friends, communities.  Even worse there is no more contact with God.  He forgets those who have died and they can’t even worship him any longer.

Sometimes poetic authors of the Hebrew Bible use the mysterious word “Sheol,” to speak of death.  We don’t know where the word comes from or even what it means exactly.  In some passages Sheol seems to be a shadowy netherworld where everyone gathers together with nothing to do, bored out of their minds for all eternity.   But in most places it appears to refer simply to the grave, the final resting place for everyone, the Hebrew equivalent of Gilgamesh’s dirt and worms.

But is that kind of postmortem existence fair?  If someone is a good person and lives for God, shouldn’t they get something good out of it in the end?

It turns out that ancient Greeks had the same problem.   Our oldest Greek literature comes in  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.   Here too there is no real “life” after death.  The soul does continue to exist without the body, but it is just a shadow of its former self, with no strength, wit, or capacity for pleasure.   For Homer, though, souls are not simply abandoned in the grave.   They are gathered together in the underworld, in a place called Hades.  Everyone goes there, for the same mind-numbingly dull fate, with only a handful of exceptions.

At some point in the Greek tradition after Homer, thinkers began to raise the question of justice.  Surely differences now will be manifest then.  Isn’t there some kind of inbuilt system of rewards and punishments?  Don’t the gods care about how a person lives, about basic morality, religious practices, or celebrated virtues such as honor, bravery, and strength?   Surely some people deserve better than others.  It can’t be right that I’ll be treated like that schmuck next door.

More than anyone in the Western tradition, it was Plato who popularized an alternative.  Several of his dialogues contain self-designated “myths,” actual descriptions of the afterlife.  One of them narrates the most famous description of a Near Death Experience from antiquity.  A soldier named Er, killed on the battlefield, is restored to life and describes, then, the realms of the dead he has just observed.

His description is meant to serve an ethical purpose: the realities of death reveal the proper approach to life.  Most people, the story suggests, live for pleasure, concerned almost exclusively with enjoying bodily life in this world, pursuing pleasure and power.  In doing so, they neglect their souls.  But since the soul is what ultimately matters, neglecting it now will lead to horrible punishment in the life to come.

A few people, on the other hand, live for their souls, not their bodies, pursuing moral and philosophically reasoned lives, virtue, justice, and the relentless pursuit of truth.  These will be rewarded with glorious afterlives.  Unlike the others, they will not resent the loss of their physical existence; quite the contrary, they have spent their lives trying to distance themselves from the body and its addictive pleasures.  Their souls will therefore be rewarded in the life to come.

 

I will pick up here in my next post.

 


Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel
Why Are Their Differences in the Gospels? Does it Affect Their Inspiration? Guest Post by Mike Licona

61

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve Clark  December 15, 2019

    Looking forward to it I have almost all your books ! Scholar Hector Avalos points out in his book The Bad Jesus that New Testament Jesus (which at the start of the book he makes clear is not the same as historical Jesus) does threaten people with eternal punishment. I am assuming you believe historical Jesus either never said this or meant something completely different than the way most Christians have interpreted verses like this and others as a literal lake of fire.

    Did historical Jesus threaten people who didn’t believe him? Did he threaten them with some type of eternal punishment? If so what did historical Jesus mean by these threats?

    Thanks Bart !

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      Yup, this is a major discussion in my book. I try to show that he *did* threaten them with an “eternal punishment,” but it did not involve conscious eternal torment. They would be annihilated. And it would be forever. Hence a punishment that was never-ending, eternal.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  December 16, 2019

        As an Eternal Punishment, have you encountered the concept of denial of the sight of God? If yes, do you discuss it in your forthcoming book? Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2019

          Yes indeed, and no I do not discuss it, as it is not a major element in the early Christian tradition. (I do mentoin it about the Old Testament though: not in those terms exactly, but hte fact that in Sheol someone cannot worship God, because he is not present there, and God actually forgets about the people who are there)

      • Avatar
        Mellon  April 1, 2020

        Hello Bart. I joined your blog specifically because of your latest book. So I happen to be trilingual (English, Spanish and Greek).

        Maybe about a decade ago, I independently confirmed that Jesus was in fact, speaking about annihilation and not eternal torture. It actually made sense to me why there are sects that reject eternal torture as a sound doctrine (7th Day Adventists, Jehova’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, etc).

        Even the Greek Orthodox Church rejects active torture as a valid interpretation. If I remember correctly, the Orthodox view on the matter is that its a “separation from God” whatever that means, and that this separation itself is hell itself.

        Anyway, I will comment further on your latest blog.

  2. Avatar
    rgriggs  December 15, 2019

    Enjoyed this post – looking forward to Part 2!

  3. Avatar
    ShonaG  December 15, 2019

    You’re misinterpreting Plato, his perfect republic is where soldiers get to rape women just as long as they’re not nobles with a philosopher king like Hitler. His heaven is one of perfect forms, the true form of the raping soldier etc of which the philosopher king gets to join Hitler and anybody else who enjoys book burning, art burning and dictatorship for the common good!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      I think you must be reading a different translation from mine.

  4. Avatar
    Todd  December 15, 2019

    Are you going to stay with Biblical/NT concepts or get into other idea such as reincarnation, total annihilation, near death experiences and such? You wrote a good overview of the basic Biblical ideas. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      Yup, I cover a wide range. Chronologically from the epic of Gilgamesh up to St. Augustine (and a bit beyond). And yes, I will definitely be with reincarnation, annihilation, and *ancient* near death experiences. I’m not bringing it up to the modern phenomenon, but I originally wanted to and read about 20 books about it, trying to figure it all out! But then I thought it wasn’t as appropriate for the book, and would stick out as an anomaly (since I don’t talk about anything else in detail from modernity, other than the fact that so many people believe that the soul dies and goes to heaven or hell)

  5. Avatar
    AndrewB  December 15, 2019

    Do you anticipate conservative Christian scholars will take issue with the evidence and argument of the book, and maybe release a counter book assuring people that no, really, God will send the unbelievers to hell? It would be fascinating to see if they create something like their response to ‘How Jesus Became God’ for this work.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      Ha! I wouldn’t be surprised!

    • Avatar
      Mellon  April 1, 2020

      It doesn’t happen with anyone that can legit read and understand the Greek words. This is why any arguments for the Eternal Torture Hell always comes from the KJV, and not any other source.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 15, 2019

    According to the Timaeus, men who weren’t interested in philosophy were reincarnated as (horror!) women.

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  December 15, 2019

      Sorry, that would be cowardly men.

    • Avatar
      Smallrain  January 21, 2020

      Imagine being a woman! Imagine being a man!

  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 15, 2019

    Ezekiel 18 talks about the righteous man who turns from righteousness to sin will die and the wicked man who turns from sin and does what is right will live.

    If the righteous man who turns to sin will die but the wicked man is given time to turn from his sins in order to live, shouldn’t this be read as eternal life in the sense of the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      He’s referring to life in this world. God will not cause the person who repents to die prematurely. He will live.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  December 17, 2019

      I agree this is an example where ‘live’ and ‘die’ probably do not mean ( to Ezekiel or his contemporaries) physical life and death ( there is no mention of ‘premature’ in the Ezekiel quotes ) Many references to ‘life’ and ‘death’ in NT should be similarly be understood

  8. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 15, 2019

    The New Testament is all about the afterlife. John 3:16, Jesus died for the sins of the world, so believers can live forever. That premise comes from the Old Testament that a messiah will come and overthrow evil and save the Jews. Is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      I’d say not exactly. John has a very different view of afterlife than the rest of the New Testament, in particular that eternal life is not a future event but is “now.” I have a longer discussoin of this in my book. But no the view of John 3:16 is not directly related to Old Testament expectations of a messiah, though the author may well have believed it was.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  December 17, 2019

        Doesn’t John 3:36 make it clear that he is talking about “eternal” life Not our current earthly life ?
        John 3:36
        Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2019

          Yes, it is eternal life. And it starts NOW, not after death (for John). Someone who believes in Jesus “has” eternal life (i.e. “has” not “will have”)

      • tompicard
        tompicard  December 17, 2019

        John, let’s say was written more than 50-60 years after Jesus death, most certainly knew that those with ‘eternal life’ still faced physical death
        Most reasonable then that ‘eternal life’ meant something other than immortal physical life on earth, even 50 years prior (I.e. during time of Jesus preaching)

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2019

          Eternal life for John was not about the body dying or not.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  December 15, 2019

    “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

    Coincidence, I’m sure.

    It’s interesting to me that so many people who ought to know better think Plato (and by extension Socrates) were modern rationalist skeptics. Perhaps rationalists in the sense that their ideas influenced later schools of philosophy that fall under that category. But in no sense modern, and their skepticism was highly selective. We misunderstand them at least as much as we do the founders of Christianity, if not more. Because we project the values we’ve extrapolated from them backwards in time.

    Plato, like Augustine (who was influenced by him through Neoplatonism), is looking for a way to leave the passions of the flesh behind (even though both men greatly enjoyed those passions when young). Both seek a life of the mind and spirit, abstracted from the body, because the body gets in the way. For them, leaving earthly distractions behind would be paradise. And being shackled to the flesh forever would be hell.

    The mind/body dualism of western thought does not derive directly from Christianity and Judaism. But Christianity was powerfully influenced by pagan thinkers like Plato (Jesus, after all, left no writings, Paul a few letters). Having converted the pagan world, Christianity became heir to its ideas, a delivery system for them, even though Jesus’ ideas were quite different–not dualism, but duality. Body and soul joined in a perfect union in the Kingdom.

    Looking forward to the book.

  10. Avatar
    veritas  December 15, 2019

    Looking forward to this book. I was listening to a talk you gave at the Commonwealth Club in 2011, about your book,* FORGED*. Interestingly, the subject of Heaven and Hell came up about halfway in your talk. This apocalypse of Peter, was discovered along with other texts in 1886. This book, you mentioned, almost made it in the Bible. The talk was from 8 eight years ago. You seemed very excited in talking about these texts written, supposedly, by Peter himself. Was * HEAVEN and HELL* in your pipeline back then? I find it fascinating how you spoke enthusiastically about the subject back then and it is coming out soon. In the same talk, I chuckled at Dr. Allan Jones last comment, ” Your a much needed troublemaker”. How true.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2019

      It wasn’t in the pipeline then, but being intrigued by the Apocalypse of Peter is indeed what sparked my interest in writing it, some years later.

  11. Avatar
    ShonaG  December 16, 2019

    Missed out an important thought not only does the new testament not buy into the pagan ideology of retribution beyond the grave it teaches the opposite ideology in forgiveness.

  12. Avatar
    Zak1010  December 16, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Fear of death is expressed by many. So is happiness to be able to meet God. Job 19 -25-27.
    (Why would one fear death while the other yearn for it )

    Clear indications of life existing after death in the OT also resurrection / waking up from the dust…

    Isaiah 26-19 “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You, who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

    Daniel 12–1-3- “—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
    Some with joy or everlasting Life or everlasting contempt [ ( disgust not happy ) not very clear but definitely not Joy ) ].
    Enoch 22 — Ezraa 7 ( the 2 ways … destruction or paradise )

    In the NT :

    Mathew 10-28 “Stop being afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

    John 5:24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” … He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

    Life is about of trials and tribulation …. test after test… our response to the tests have consequences – good or not.
    We all make mistakes. God Almighty knows that… He created us. What he is looking for is our humility and whether we are willing to overcome and fight our inner arrogance to repent to Him and be thankful understanding that he is All Wise and we are not.

    GAL 6-5 ” For every man shall bear his own burden.”
    John 1:8-10 ” If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

    Dr Ehrman, why would we care if we bear a burden or even forgiven if there isn’t the 2 ways – paradise or destruction?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      As you might imagine, I deal with these passages in my book. Why do we care if we have difficulties in life or if others forgive us? Because we’re human!

  13. Avatar
    markdeckard  December 17, 2019

    One of the things we Evangelicals tend to overlook is the chronological order to the ideas in the bible. We sort of lump it all into one pot and think it was all there all along. When you line out the scriptures that undergird doctrines on afterlife and then set them against the backdrop of the development of beliefs in surrounding civilizations it becomes a very enlightening narrative indeed.
    One of the big arguments Universalists pose is that if eternal hell is real and revealed by God, why did he wait so darn long to talk about it!

    • Avatar
      thebookguy  January 26, 2020

      It becomes a very enlightening narrative? Correction, a very wish fulfilling narrative.

  14. Avatar
    johnsotdj  December 17, 2019

    I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time – just pre-ordered the book and CDs!

    Tom

  15. Avatar
    Enzoastro  December 18, 2019

    Really looking forward to the book, infact book recommendations are what I’ve appreciated most from subscribing.

  16. Avatar
    Lms728  December 18, 2019

    As a (relatively) new blog member, I’d be interested in knowing how you moderate the discussion. Specifically, are there times when you read a comment and say, “No, that’s just too bizarre (or irrelevant or nonsensical or …)”? As far as the new book is concerned, I’m eager to read it. A fella at church recently told a group of us (quite sincerely) that he looked forward to becoming an angel when he died. I wonder where that notion came from. It’s certainly not in the UCC Statement of Faith.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      No, I only delete comments that are completely unrelated to anything connected to the blog, or are overly politically partisan and inflamatory (unrelated to the blog), or are rude and snarky. People dying to become angels is ancient; it is found already inthe Martyrdom of Polycarp (I mention the idea in my book)

      • Avatar
        Cannell  February 20, 2020

        Reading Enoch and Revelations 10:20 there seems to be evident that the evil angels will indeed be tormented eternally. Not people but to the Angels who ticked God off. Do you agree?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 21, 2020

          I don’t agree that they *will* be, but I agree that 1 Enoch defintiely says they will be. Revelation 19:20 (not 10:20?) says that the beast and the false prophet will be as well, but these are not angels in the book of Revelation.

  17. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  December 24, 2019

    The fear of nothingness as brought out by Albert Camus in “ The Stranger”
    “ Better to burn than to disappear”!!!
    So said the condemned prisoner.

  18. Avatar
    clerrance2005  January 6, 2020

    Dear Bart, I am a new member of your Blog and really do applaud your scholarly works.

    I do however think that there are some Biblical pointers in the Old Testament that attests to an afterlife and judgement. Reference the verses that Zak 1010 highlighted – Daniel 12:1-3, Isaiah 26-19, Job 19 -25-27 etc.

    Aren’t these verses in the Hebrew Bible that teach an afterlife?

    Again, I think your statement ” The idea that a person dies and goes to heaven for eternal reward or hell for everlasting punishment is never taught in the Old Testament” is in direct contrast with Daniel 12:1-3.

    And lastly, please does the phrase ‘I am’ in Mark 14:62 have the same meaning as expressed in John 8:58 which may be read as Jesus calling himself YHWH?

    Thank you and I look forward to your response.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      Yes, good point. There is indeed an afterlife in passages like Dan 12:1-3 — but it’s not a life of the soul in heaven. Quite the opposite — it’s a physical resurrecton of the dead to life here *on earth* not a spiritual life in heaven. The Job passage is about the afterlife with God *ONLY* in English translations. The Hebrew is almost impossible to understand — in fact I’d say it *is* impossible. Hebrew scholars (Jews and Christains both) have debated what it means for a very long time (centuries) and about the only thing they agree on is that the King James rendition that is still used more or less in modern translatinos is not what it can mean. I deal with the Hebrew Bible at length in my book — I hope it makes sense there!

  19. Paul94d
    Paul94d  January 8, 2020

    That’s interesting, i didn’t know that. Then why the church is teaching us about afterlife, repent or you will burn in hell…..all that?

  20. Avatar
    Robert1953  January 10, 2020

    Was wondering what you thought of this NYT editorial and if you were familiar with the author’s work?

    Thanks…

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/opinion/sunday/christianity-religion-hell-bible.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2020

      I’ve got it on my phone but haven’t read it yet. He’s the fellow who came out with a fairly widely talked about translation of the NT a few years ago, a controversial scholar in the (eastern) orthodox tradition.

You must be logged in to post a comment.