As I have been discussing the topic of resurrection in early Christianity, a number of readers have asked about a related issue, namely, where the Christian teaching of heaven and hell came from.   For most Christians, the afterlife seems to be the ongoing existence of the soul.  But for the earliest Christians, the afterlife involved the resurrection precisely of the *body*.  How did that change, and why?

I discussed this issue some years back in my book Jesus Interrupted, and what I say about it there seems to be directly on target for what these readers have asked.  And so I include it here.  This will take two posts, the first one (today) to explain why “resurrection” came to be believed by Jews and eventually by Christians and the next post to explain how that belief in resurrection came to be transformed into the later idea of heaven and hell that may people today continue to subscribe to.



Heaven and Hell

In some parts of Christendom today, especially the parts that I was one time associated with, the religion is all about the afterlife.  On the very personal level, people are eager to experience the joys of heaven and to avoid the fires of hell.  Most Christians that I meet today (I know this isn’t true of all Christians everywhere) believe that when you die, your soul goes to one place or the other.

I’ve never quite figured out all the inconsistencies of this view.  On the one hand, the afterlife of the soul sounds like some kind disembodied existence, since your body stays in the grave; on the other hand, people think that there will be physical pleasure or pain in the afterlife, and that you’ll be able to recognize your grandparents.  That would require having a body.

The earliest Christians, starting with Jesus, did not believe in that sort of heaven and hell, as a place that your soul goes when you die.  This too is a later Christian invention.


The Early Apocalyptic Views of the “Afterlife”

As we have seen, scholars have widely argued that Jesus and his followers were Jewish apocalypticists.  In some ways, the apocalyptic view developed, well over a century before Jesus, as a way to deal with the problem of theodicy.  That is not a term they themselves used; it was coined in the seventeenth century by the French philosopher Leibniz. Technically “theodicy” means “God’s justice”; the problem of theodicy is to explain how God can be just given the state of pain and misery in the world.  In other words, given the amount of suffering that people experience, how can one explain that a good and loving God is in charge?

The apocalyptic view of ancient Judaism did not …

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