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Heaven and Hell, Part One

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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The apocalyptic view of ancient Judaism did not address this problem in modern philosophical terms, but its concerns were very similar.  For centuries there had been thinkers in Israel who maintained that the people of God had experienced such hardship as a people and individually because they had sinned against God and God was punishing them for it.  This is sometimes called the “prophetic” view because it is the perspective found on page after page of the prophets of the Old Testament.

But what happens when people do what the prophets urge, when they return to the ways of God, stop behaving in ways contrary to his laws, begin to live in the manner that he requires, and yet they continue to suffer?  The prophetic view can make sense of the suffering of the wicked: they are getting what they deserve.  But it cannot make sense of the suffering of the righteous.  Why is it that the wicked prosper but the righteous suffer?

There were different responses to that question among ancient Israelites, including the response, or rather responses, found most famously in the book of Job.  The apocalyptic worldview takes a different tack.  For apocalypticists, as we have seen, suffering is only a temporary state of affairs.  For some mysterious reason God has relinquished control of this world to cosmic forces of evil that are wreaking havoc on it.  But soon, in the near future, God will intervene in history and make right all that is wrong.  He will overthrow the forces of evil, disband the wicked kingdoms that they support, and bring in a new kingdom, here on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice.  The wicked rulers of this world and all who side with them will be destroyed, and the poor and the oppressed will rule supreme.

This view is first found in the Bible in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which was the last of the Hebrew Bible books to be written, sometime in the middle of the second century BCE.  It is a view found in a number of Jewish writings produced in the centuries after Daniel, including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  And it is a view found on the lips of Jesus.

Included in this view was the notion that at the end of this age, when God finally intervened, there would be a resurrection of the dead.  Belief in the resurrection was directly related to the concerns of ancient theodicy.  How is it that people have sided with God and been tortured and murdered as a result?  Where is God in all this?  And how is it that other people have sided with the powers of evil, grown rich and powerful as a result, and died and gotten away with it?  Where is justice?

For apocalypticists there would be justice.  Not in this life or this age, but in the resurrection, in the age to come.  God would raise all people from the dead, bodily, to give them an eternal reward or an eternal punishment.  No one would escape.  Evil would not have the last word; God would have the last word.  And death would not be the end of the story.

So taught the early Jewish apocalypticists, and so taught Jesus.  The Kingdom of God was soon to appear with the coming of the Son of Man.  People needed to prepare for it by mending their ways and siding with God, even though it meant suffering in this age.  But a new age was coming in which God and his ways would rule supreme, in the kingdom of God to come here, on this earth.  All would eventually be made right with this world, and everyone would be brought back to life, bodily, to see and experience it.

This was also the teaching of the apostle Paul and, so far as we can tell, of all the earliest Christians.  One key difference between Paul and Jesus is that, for Paul, it is Jesus himself who will bring this kingdom when he returns in glory (thus 1 Thessalonians 4-5).  Moreover, for Paul, the resurrection at the end of the age has already, in some sense, begun.  That is one reason Jesus’ resurrection was so significant for Paul.  Since the resurrection is to occur at the end of the age, and since Jesus has already been raised, that shows we are living at the end of the age.  Paul, as a result, talks about living in the end times.

What happens, though, to a person who dies before the end of the age?  Paul evidently came to believe that for those who die before the return of Jesus, there is some kind of interim existence with Christ.  That’s why he told the Philippians that “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). He evidently believed that believers in Jesus would have some kind of temporary body given them in heaven; but this was a purely temporary arrangement.  When Christ returned in glory, the “dead in Christ will rise first,” and then all those still living, Paul among them, would be gloriously transformed, so that their bodies would be made immortal (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-57).  They would then live eternally, here on earth.

Thus, eternal life, for Jesus, Paul, and the earliest Christians, was a life lived in the body, not above in heaven, but down here, where we are now.  Paul emphasizes this point strenuously in the book of 1 Corinthians.   The fact that Jesus’ body was raised from the dead shows what the future resurrection would involve.  It would involve bodies being raised, physically, from the dead, and transformed into immortal bodies.  Paul scoffed at his opponents in Corinth for thinking they had already experienced a spiritual resurrection, so that they were enjoying the full benefits of salvation now, in the spirit.  The resurrection was physical, and since it was physical, it obviously had not happened yet. This world is still carrying on under the forces of evil, and it will not be until the end that it is all resolved and the followers of Jesus are vindicated, transformed, and given an eternal reward.

This is the view of the Apocalypse of John as well.  After all the catastrophes that hit this planet at the end of time – catastrophes that the author revels in telling, in chapter after gory chapter — “a new heavens and a new earth” will appear.  There will be a future resurrection of all who died; there will be a new, heavenly Jerusalem that descends from the sky to replace the old, corrupt, and now destroyed Jerusalem as the city of God.  It will have gates of pearl and streets of gold.  And that is where the saints will live forever, here on earth (see Revelation 21).



Heaven and Hell, Part Two
The Resurrection in Paul



  1. Avatar
    godspell  January 5, 2016

    The idea of bodily resurrection didn’t die out–it’s still there, for example, in the prayer for burial at sea.

    “We therefore commit the earthly remains of [Full Name] to the deep, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. Amen.”

    That prayer is still used today.

    It was disturbing to the loved ones of those lost at sea that they didn’t get a decent burial on dry land–so while in a regular burial service, the notion of bodily resurrection–people rising up from their graves to walk again on earth–was too much something out of a horror story, in this specific instance it was comforting to know the bodies of your loved one were only temporarily lost. You could say that heaven was just a waystation, and that someday everybody would return in bodily form to a remade earth. Or you could just sort of not think about it too much, which is probably what most people do.

    People come to all kinds of internal accommodations about the afterlife–purgatory, limbo, ghostly hauntings, etc.

    The one thing people can’t come to terms with is just accepting that death is the end, and I honestly think this applies to many atheists as well, since they look for non-supernatural ways to live on in some form (Lenin’s Tomb comes to mind). The whole notion of doing something ‘great’ so that you will be remembered–as an approach to life, this has had both positive and negative aspects, I think you’ll agree. Anyway, it’s not a practical plan for most of us.

    My Celtic ancestors believed in reincarnation, but it was not nearly as systematic as the Hindu system. They had this notion of the Otherworld, as opposed to the Afterlife. At Samhain (Halloween) the boundaries between the Otherworld and the much more limited world we live in break down temporarily.

    We don’t know death is the end. The only way to know is to go. I can wait.

    • Avatar
      bbcamerican  January 6, 2016

      Thanks for sharing the prayer for those who died at sea! It was very interesting. Considering that a proper burial was of the utmost importance to most people (I think) in the ancient world, it makes me wonder how the Jew’s of Jesus’s day and Early Christians thought of those who DID NOT receive a proper burial. Were they “damned” for all time, or what?

      Your other comments also bring to mind some of my own personal musings on how “religion” as an institution developed in humanity’s far distant prehistory. Some suggest that the roots of religion can be found in creating some sort of moral code, of how to live out our lives and how to interact with others. This makes a lot of sense. Another is that religion/gods gave us a way to talk or conceptualize things within our environment and experiences that were outside our understanding, such as volcanic eruptions, thunderstorms, floods, etc. I think this, too, it probably true. However, I personally think that another important progenitor of religion is the concept of death. How can someone be “with us” one moment and then “not with us” the next? Where did they go? Are they really gone? How does one come to terms with the death of someone close, such as a parent, child, or spouse? There begins to be the conception that there MUST be something beyond “this” life. There must be some other plane of existence where those who have passed on in this realm continue to exist. As you say, it is very difficult for many/most people to come to terms with the idea that this life on earth is all there is. After that, it’s just over. Finis. Done. Full stop. That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow, even though most people in the world believe that is how it works for every other living thing in the world. Just not us, because we are special!

      As Captain Kirk said to Lieutenant Savaak in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?”


  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 5, 2016

    This is so helpful. It clarifies that everlasting life, according to first century Jews, was to be on a post-apocalyptic earth not in a heaven separate from earth. So, clearly, the concept of a heaven separate from.earth developed when the apocalypse did not happen. I could see another Ehrman book on the “The History of the Concept of Heaven.”

    I still think it is odd that the Old Testament says so little about the Messiah, everlasting life, and, except for Daniel, the apocalypse, etc. if these concepts were and still are so important.

    With regard to the theodicy problem, readers of this blog might find Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” of interest.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, when Matthew talks about the graves opening and the “saints” walking into Jerusalem right after Jesus’ death (Matt. 27:52), was he just jumping the gun, or do you think that Matthew was actually trying to claim that the mass resurrection had already begun and the Kingdom of God was already here? If the latter is the case, could it be argued that the redactor of Matthew is eschatologically at odds with Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      I would assume that he knew that *everyone* had not yet been raised from the dead, and so I should think that he saw the appearance of the dead in Jerusalem as a kind of foretaste of what was soon to happen.

  4. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  January 5, 2016


    I know we disagree on this but I think that the early Christians (and the Maccabeans) believed the dead would get raised INTO new bodies (yes, bodies) of some sort (Paul would claim ‘spiritual bodies’ whatever that’s actually supposed to be).

    Judging on what Paul claims in his letters it’s absolutely not clear that he believed that corpses would be reanimated only to be changed. Paul CLEARLY contrasts the old, natural body to the new, spiritual body! So there HAS to be a difference.

    Also, who or what was waiting in the ‘realm of the dead’ to be raised into something new? The spirits of the deceased? Their souls? Or did those people temporarily cease to exist and were wholly recreated at the ‘resurrection’? That doesn’t seem to be the case since Paul thought the dead were ‘sleeping’. But what does that ACTUALLY mean? SOMETHING must have survived the (now rotting) body in that case.

    These are not minor details. There are crucial elements that need to be clearly defined or explored before one could even try to address what Paul, or the earliest Christians, actually meant with a ‘resurrection’.

  5. Avatar
    Stefan  January 5, 2016

    Where would the strange idea of a bodily resurrection have come from to begin with? Some apocalyptical reading of Ezekial 37 perhaps? Was it a strictly Jewish phenomenon?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      Yes, I’ve been trying to explain how it arose in a period of suffering in the Maccabean period, strictly among Jews. Maybe I better say more about that!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  January 6, 2016

        Bart: what evidence is there that the Maccabeans believed in the same KIND of ‘resurrection’ that, for example, Paul did? Do the Maccabeans describe the bodies of the resurrected as ‘spiritual, heavenly bodies’ that differ from the ‘natural, earthly bodies’ that those people had before they died, just like Paul did?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2016

          The only evidence we have is the texts that survive.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  January 8, 2016

            but do these surviving texts indicate that the Maccabeans and Paul believed in the SAME KIND of ‘resurrection’?

  6. Rick
    Rick  January 5, 2016

    Will always remember my Grandmother remarking that in heaven she would be a 70 year old woman with a 50 year old husband and a two year old baby and what was so great about that?

  7. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  January 5, 2016

    Dear Bart,
    This is a fascinating topic. Can you recommend a book or two that explains the development of the apocalyptic world view? Thank you, Tracy

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      There are lots, but I suppose most of them are more for scholars. I suppose one standard is Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven.

    • TracyCramer
      TracyCramer  January 6, 2016

      Thank you!

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 6, 2016

    Will you discuss Purgatory and Limbo, too? When I think about it now, I find it hard to believe I could ever have accepted that crap about things like reading Scripture (not trying to *make sense of it*, of course!) earning you so many days’ “indulgences.” Reducing by that number of days the time you’d have to spend in Purgatory – as if it was a jail!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      I’m not planning on it, since those are much later ideas, well after my period of expertise (first three Christian centuries).

      • Robert
        Robert  January 7, 2016

        The Talmud is very late, of course, but it is worth noting that it ‘dates’ differing views of something like purgatory to the second temple period.

  9. Avatar
    Lance  January 6, 2016

    Do you think that the beginning point of apocalyptic thought came during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (when Daniel was writing), in that it helped explain the suffering and make light of the Jewish persecution and desolating sacrilege to the Temple during the mid 2nd century BCE? It also explains how that Jews who were keeping kosher, getting circumcised, worshiped in the Temple, etc, were being persecuted for just that, being faithful to Yahweh and not turning to other gods or are “wicked” (contrast to the Deuteronomistic Historians or a prophetic view of suffering).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      Yup, that’s what I’ve been trying to argue — but not too clearly methinks! I’ll say some more about it all anon.

  10. Avatar
    shakespeare66  January 6, 2016

    So fascinating to hear the “true” version of what the afterlife according to Jesus and Paul were going to be. It is even more interesting to know how Christianity has morphed it into something else. Oddly, the only religion I know that advocates a perpetual heavenly kingdom on earth is the Jehovah Witness Religion ( I have a brother who has taken the dogma for 40 years). Are there other religions that advocate this kind of earthly paradise?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      Great question! I don’t know!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 6, 2016

      Rabbinical Judaism sees the mass resurrection and messianic age happening “on earth,” so to speak, but, like Jesus, the Rabbis see a kind of union between “heaven” and earth, with the earth transforming into a literal paradise on earth.

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 6, 2016

    So from Daniel to Jesus (and John the baptist) heaven was to be on earth somewhere (probably Jerusalem?) once the son of man came and put things right. Where was hell? Where was the eternal fire with weeping and nashing of teeth? Babylon? Rome? Or down underground, the next stop past sheol?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2016

      It was “down there” somewhere (though they didn’t believe in hell, as I’ll be explaining in today’s post)

  12. Avatar
    dhinton  January 6, 2016

    Is there ever a clear description in the Bible of what exactly Heaven and Hell are like?

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 6, 2016

    I don’t believe in the Christian “Heaven,” but here’s the way I think it would *have to* work.

    People would subjectively experience being in “bodies,” *as we do in dreams*, and interact with other people they also perceived as being in bodies. *Everyone* would look like a twentysomething – better-looking than they’d been in life. And yet, everyone would be able to recognize their loved ones.

    The “trivial” things: Being able to gorge yourself on your favorite foods and beverages, while never needing to urinate or defecate. Women not having to be bothered with monthly periods. Having *good* experiences of feeling drunk or high on drugs, with no fear of bad consequences. Sex always being enjoyable, with no worries there either.

    Where it gets more tricky: *Everyone* would have to experience his or her own, subjective, “happy ever after.” So if people they wanted to be with weren’t really there, they’d be interacting with thought-form replicas (not realizing it, of course). Other problems: A subjective reality in which, for example, you knew your team was *always* going to win the World Series would be no fun at all! And…what if someone could only be happy with one or more *children* to raise?

    It would be extremely difficult to provide *every* resident of Heaven with an afterlife that would be “just right” for him or her. But an omnipotent God – *if* such existed – could undoubtedly do it. (I wonder if *anyone’s* ideal afterlife would really consist of basking in the glory of God and ceaselessly adoring Him?)

  14. Avatar
    jhague  January 6, 2016

    This is a minor point but you say that Paul believed that Jesus would bring the kingdom. Paul did not talk much about Jesus. Didn’t he believe that Jesus became Christ when he was resurrected? And Christ would be the one returning? Do you think that Paul thought of Jesus and Christ as one and the same?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2016

      For Paul Jesus and Christ are two names for the same person (evidence: he sometimes calls him Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ)

  15. Avatar
    Britt  January 8, 2016

    Did Paul believe he had actually seen Jesus physically resurrected? Didn’t he just see a blinding light and hear a voice? If he believed this was the physically resurrected Jesus, it’s much different from what those in the gospels claimed to see. It sounds much more like a disembodied spiritual resurrection, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t the original Christians have told him that what he saw is not what the resurrected Jesus looked like?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2016

      The “flashing light” scenario is described in Acts, not in Paul himself. 1 Cor. 15 is predicated on the idea that he saw an actualy, physical Jesus raised from the dead..

      • Avatar
        flcombs  February 5, 2016

        I just thought of this a bit late to the thread, and it may be something you would rather address in a weekly question. This appears to me to be a bit of a problem to the literalist or fundamentalists. So Jesus apparently appeared in the flesh to Paul, sometime after the events in the Gospels but likely within a couple of years. Ok, wasn’t Jesus’ NEXT return after leaving the disciples supposed to be THE RETURN or the “end of the world”? And in places like Acts 1, Jesus went “up into the clouds” and the disciples were told he would return THE SAME WAY?

        I just appears to me that Jesus’ appearance to Paul, especially in the flesh and not a “dream” or “vision” contradicts the sense I get from other parts of the NT that he’s gone and there will be ONE BIG RETURN visible and known to all at the end of the world. Yet the story is that he came back at least once to Paul and certainly the whole world didn’t see it or even more than Paul. Or am I mistaken and he was going to be coming and going but somewhere along the line it would be the last one?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2016

          Ah, right. His resurrection was not interpreted as a “return” to earth but as an “exaltation” to heaven. He just stopped on the way for a bit to convince people that he was about to head upward. He will head back to earth at a later time, in a big way.

          • Avatar
            flcombs  February 5, 2016

            But the appearance to Paul would have been after he went up in the clouds to heaven and was supposed to return the in the same manner visible to all in Acts 1, right? It just appears to me that at the end of the Gospels or Acts 1 (after Jesus leaves the Apostles), the story is that Jesus on earth is over until the big final return with lots of “shock and awe” as they say. Yet we have the story of him appearing physically to Paul later in time and not noticed by anyone but him. I’m just looking at it as another (maybe) problem with taking the various statements literally: not going to be back until the big one; Oh yeah he did come back to see Paul.

            Of course these days people claim to see Jesus in clouds, in pizza and who knows… but that isn’t in the body as Paul claimed. 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2016

            I think we often imagine that Paul believed in the ascension of Jesus some time after his resurrection. But I don’t think that’s right. I think Paul believed that Jesus went up to heaven *when* he was raised from the dead, and that all of his appearances involved coming down temporarily. The idea of a later ascension is found only in the book of Acts.

  16. Avatar
    jhague  January 8, 2016

    I know that he called him Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ but it seems his writings seem to emphasize the name/title Christ. Do you think that Paul thought that Jesus was “Jesus” before the resurrection and became Christ after his resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2016

      No, I don’t think he made that kind of clean and simple differentiation.

  17. awgonnerman
    awgonnerman  January 12, 2016

    In my final years as a Christian one of my major pet peeves was hearing preachers go on about heaven and hell, never mentioning the resurrection. One day I chatted with the minister of the last Christian church I was a member of, and he seemed to get what I was talking about. In later sermons he would mention ‘resurrection and heaven’ in the same breath, though he struggled to get New Heavens and New Earth. One day I was talking theology with a couple of college-aged guys from church, and when I explained Pauline theology on this point they both said I sounded like a Jehovah’s Witness.

    No. Not quite.

  18. Avatar
    Deviantlogic  January 28, 2016

    As I understand it, Zoroastrianism was the first to speak about physical resurrection. Do you think the Israelites adopted this view when they were conquered by Persia?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2016

      I’m not familiar with Zoroastrian views of resurrection, but yes, the Jewish view of resurrection was definitely post-exilic.

  19. Avatar
    Erekcat  December 16, 2016

    When you say “transformed, so that their bodies would be made immortal (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-57). They would then live eternally, here on earth.”

    Where do I find in Paul’s teachings that he believes we live here eternally on earth? I don’t see that part in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 or 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 but I thought I saw it somewhere.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2016

      Yes, I’m not sure where they’ll live. In 1 Thess. it seems they live “in the air,” whatever that means.

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