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How To Begin with Heaven and Hell: An Excerpt

My new book is coming out next week – March 31.   Very exciting, even if it is coming out at the absolute worst time in modern history to publish a book that is not about either Donald or Disease.   But still, I’m excited.  And very oddly (I just checked) (OK, really, I don’t check every day; it’s been some weeks), it is now the top new release on Amazon on the topic of “reincarnation”!  HA!!  What a scream.

OK, there’s not a lot of competition there in the reincarnation market, and even more odd, there’s not a lot about reincarnation in the book.  But there’s *some* –and not in places you might expect.  Plato!!  He was the first to popularize the view, at least in our written record.  And in the most famous and important theologian of the first Christian centuries, Origen.  But it never caught on in the Christian tradition – even though one constantly hears that it did.  It didn’t.  But still, Origen’s views are really interesting.  Among other things, he argued, with pretty clear and important logic, that in the *end*, everyone would be saved.  Even the devil.  Really, it’s a pretty compelling argument (if you grant his premises).  But it’s one of the things that ended up getting him declared a heretic a couple of centuries later…..

My publisher has urged me to publish a couple of excerpts from the book to show what it will be like.  I won’t deal with reincarnation here, but will instead show that the book is really mainly about.  Here is the very beginning, the opening part of the Preface, where I get completely personal for a bit, including an anecdote some of you have heard before.  I hope it whets your appetite.




When I thought about God as a child I thought about the afterlife.  I obviously had no understanding of death.  But I did believe that after I died I would go to heaven or hell.  And I was bound and determined to make it one and not the other.

Looking back, the afterlife later helped motivate me to be become more deeply involved in my Episcopal church, participating in worship, saying prayers, confessing my sins, singing hymns, learning the creeds, becoming an altar boy, and on and on.  Naturally I worshiped God and tried to live the way I thought he wanted because I thought it was the right and good thing to do, but also, at least in part, it was because I knew full well what would happen to me if I didn’t.

I am also sure that hope for heaven and fear of hell played a large role when later, as a mid-teenager, I had an even deeper spiritual experience.   Some of my high school friends were committed Christian kids who believed it was necessary to make an active, specific spiritual decision in order to have a right relationship with God and – as they explicitly claimed —  to be on the right side when judgment day came.  My active involvement in the church wasn’t enough.  I needed to make a personal commitment and to “ask Jesus into my heart”.  They finally convinced me and as a fifteen-year-old I became a born-again Christian.

From that point on, I was convinced without a scintilla of doubt: I was going to heaven.  I was equally convinced of the corollary.  All those who had not made this commitment – namely, most of the billions of other people in the world – were going to hell to be tormented.  Forever.  I tried not to think I was being arrogant about it.  It was not as if I had done something better than anyone else and deserved to go to heaven.  I had simply accepted a gift that had been offered me.  What about those who hadn’t even heard about the gift, or who had never been urged to consider it seriously?   I felt sorry about them.  Deeply pained, actually.  They were lost, and so it was my obligation to convert them.  Believing this made me a Christian on a mission.  It’s not at all unlikely that I was more than a little obnoxious about it.

These views were confirmed for me in my late teens, first at Moody Bible Institute, the fundamentalist Bible college I attended after high school, and then Wheaton, the evangelical Christian liberal arts college where I finished my undergraduate degree.   Afterward graduating I chose to pursue the study of the New Testament more seriously, and went for various reasons to the decidedly non-fundamentalist Princeton Theological Seminary.  It was there I started having doubts about my faith.  In part the doubts were caused by my studies, as I began to realize that the Truth I had believed since high school was actually rather complicated and even problematic.   My scholarship led me to realize that the Bible was a very human book, with human mistakes and biases and culturally conditioned views in it.  And realizing that made me come to wonder if the beliefs in God and Christ that I had held and urged on others were themselves partially biased, culturally conditioned, or even mistaken.

These doubts disturbed me not only because I wanted very much to know The Truth, but also because I was afraid of the possible eternal consequences of getting it all wrong.   What if I started doubting or even denying that the Bible was the inspired word of God?  Or that Christ was the unique Son of God?  Or even that God existed?   What if I ended up no longer believing, and then realized, too late, that my unfaithful change of heart had all been a huge blunder?   Wouldn’t my eternal soul be in very serious trouble?   Was I getting into unbelievably hot water?  Or … fire?

There was a particular moment when these worries hit me with a special poignancy.  It involved a late night sauna.

In order to pay for my graduate school, I worked a part time job at the Hamilton Tennis Club outside of Princeton.  Most days of the week I was on the late night shift.   Members of the club with busy lives would schedule their tennis matches deep into the night, and I worked the desk taking reservations and sweeping the courts afterward.   One of the benefits of the job was that I could take advantage of the facilities, including the sauna in the wee hours when the place was shut up.

The evening in question I had been sweeping the courts and thinking about everything I had been hearing – and resisting – in my biblical studies and theology courses at Princeton, pondering just how different my professors’ points of views were from what I had been taught to believe as a conservative evangelical Christian in my high school and college years.  These new views were very liberal from my former point of view.  I was hearing, and starting to think, that the Bible was not a consistent revelation whose very words came From God, that the traditional Christian doctrines that I had always held as obviously true (e.g., the Trinity) were not handed down from heaven but were formulations made by very fallible human beings, and that there were lots of other views out that – even Christian views — that did not jibe with what I had long believed.  I was doing my level best to figure it all out.  Whatever I decided to believe and think, I wanted to be right; I was willing to change my views if necessary, but I didn’t want to leave a faith I loved, especially if it should turn out I had been right in the first place and had simply begun to backslide down the slippery slope that leads to perdition.

After sweeping the courts I decided to have a sauna, and, as was my wont, I cranked up the heat as high as it would go, stripped down, and went in, for a good after-work sweat.   As I sat on the upper wooden bench, all alone, late at night, perspiring profusely, I returned to my doubts and the questions I had about my faith and the fears I had for the possible outcomes of pursuing them – fears not just for my life, but even more for my afterlife.  Then I started realizing:  Wow.  It sure is hot in here!   Oh man is it hot in here!  It is really, really hot in here!   And then, naturally, the thought struck me.  Do I really want to be trapped in massively overheated sauna for all eternity?  And what if the sauna is many, many, many times hotter than this?  Do I want to be in fire forever?  Is it worth it?  For me, at that moment, that meant: do I really want to change my beliefs and risk eternal torment?

It is funny to me now, but at the time I realized that this brief moment in the sauna encapsulated the dilemma I found myself in.  I was determined to believe what was true, rather than simply hold on to beliefs I had drilled in me as a teenager; but I was afraid of the potential result.

I don’t need to discuss my long transition here.   Suffice it to say that I eventually did begin to change and over a number of years I moved into a liberal form of Christianity that cherished questions and thinking more than belief based simply on what others told me.  Finally I left the faith altogether.  As a friend of mine, a Methodist minister, sometimes jokes, I went from being born again to being dead again.

And yet I continue to be fascinated by the question of the afterlife – not so much because I fear it anymore, but because I think it is such an important topic.  From the purely academic perspective – the one I hold these days – beliefs in the afterlife are of abiding significance, since heaven and hell are central to much of our early Christian literature.  Moreover, knowing where ideas of the afterlife came from, how they developed, and how they changed can tell us, historically, a lot about how Christianity came to be an important and dominant religion.

But these ideas are even more important for non-academic reasons.  Traditional Christian beliefs in the afterlife continue to be widely held in our society.  A recent Pew Research Poll showed that 72% of all Americans (of every stripe) agree that there is a literal heaven that people go to when they die; 58% believe in an actual, literal hell.[1]  These numbers are, of course, down seriously from previous periods but they still are impressive.  And for the historian, it is important to realize that prior to the modern period – think, for example, the Middle Ages, or, for that matter, the 1950s — in the Christian West, virtually everyone believed that when they died, their soul would go to one place or the other (or to Purgatory in painful preparation for ultimate glory).

One of the surprising theses of this book is that….

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/

Fresh Air Interview for Heaven and Hell: Airing Tuesday!
What Did Ancient People Think (a) God Was?



  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  March 22, 2020

    Ah! My goto resource for all things reincarnate (Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein) is safe 😉

    – Abby Somebody

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    dankoh  March 22, 2020

    In studying the Middle Ages, one thing I found fascinating was the way the fear of hell permeated European society. Gregory VII even instructed his bishops to use that fear as means of keeping kings in line. And of course the sale of indulgences, a great money-raiser, was possible only because it played on those fears.

    I also see that in today’s fundamentalists. Have you read Linda Kay Klein’s book, Purity, where she describes how her mother didn’t want her writing about sexual bad messaging she and her friends had endured because it could endanger her salvation? (Her mother later changed her mind.)

  3. Avatar
    jscheller  March 22, 2020

    I think it will be heaven to get a new book from you; it’s been hell waiting for it.

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    johnsotdj  March 22, 2020

    Bart, thanks… I seem to recall reading or hearing someplace that, in the stories of the afterlife of indigenous peoples of the far north, the place of punishment is not hot, but very cold.

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    forthfading  March 22, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have two questions:

    First, will your new book be available in audio book?

    Second, when you compare your views today to the views your professors held would they still be considered liberal or is that just when compared to your views at the time?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2020

      Yes, it will be on Audible, read by a professional; but I do read the Preface.

      At Princeton? I’d say they were fairly center or just a bit right of center, most of them.

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    crt112@gmail.com  March 23, 2020

    Hmmm – that 5% of Atheists who beleive in Heaven. How does that work ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2020

      Are you saying that 27% of America is atheist? Hmm… I don’t know. Where did you get that number?

      • Avatar
        crt112@gmail.com  March 23, 2020

        The hyperlink – it says that there are 3% of Atheists that beleive in Hell and 5% believe in Heaven.
        I think they’re confused Atheists.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2020

          wow. Well, they aren’t necessarily confused. They can easily believe life goes on without a divine being in the universe. After all, thy believe life *started here* without a divine being in the universe, so why not?

      • Gary
        Gary  March 24, 2020

        The Pew detail shows Athiest that believe in Hell is 3% and Heaven is 5%. Made me scratch my head too.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2020

          If an atheist can believe in life in this world, s/he can probably believe it continues after death. Don’t need God for that any more than for this!

    • Avatar
      Gerhardt  April 5, 2020

      I’m an Atheist, and often when people find out, they ask, “Does that mean that you don’t believe in Heaven?” as if the latter were more shocking than the former. I don’t believe in heaven, but being an Atheist just means that you don’t believe in God. Many Atheists believe in supernatural stuff, even though they don’t believe in God.

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    RonaldTaska  March 23, 2020

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us. As always, your best blogs are your more personal ones.

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    DEGlaze  March 23, 2020

    Any views on The Evolution of God by Robert Wright? It is getting me through lockdown until your book comes out.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      I’m afraid it’s one of the myriad books I’ve never read!

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    RICHWEN90  March 23, 2020

    This might not actually be such a bad time to have a book like yours hitting the market– a lot of anxiety about the potential fatal consequences of an infection, and lots of people with lots of time on their hands. I know I pre-ordered from Amazon quite some time ago. Got to check on the status of that order. I really want to read this book!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Yup, good time for a book to appear; LOUSY time for any marketing of it to let a wide swath of people know it is available….

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    thebigskyguy  March 23, 2020

    Now if you want to bump your book sales up a bit you might want to consider including a free roll of toilet paper with every book purchase!

  11. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 23, 2020

    I always sort of wondered how you “fell into” the born-again thing so early in life. It makes more sense to me now. I myself had my own flirtation with that nuttiness when I went off to college, and being away from home and without wheels, was more or less a captive audience in my freshman dorm when confronted with these ideas by a very nice, sane (except for this) RA. My background was Catholic, and as my dad used to say, the Catholics had their period of insanity in the Middle Ages. His theory was that the Protestant groups were going through a lot of that currently, since they had by now developed past their formative stage and were now going through their “dogmatic” stage, each sect trying to distinguish itself from the other Protestant groups out there (i.e. they were nuttier now than the Catholics!) I don’t know how accurate his theory was, but luckily my flirtation with “Jesus-freakiness” was only a passing fancy.

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    Chad Stuart  March 23, 2020

    I recently finished re-reading all of your books and “Heaven and Hell” felt like the next logical subject for you to dedicate a book to. Already pre-ordered and looking forward to it.

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    clerrance2005  March 24, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,

    What was Origen’s argument on the devil’s salvation premised on? It has been posited out there that this was rather a misunderstanding that arose during a debate with Valentinian Gnostic teacher Candidus where the terms ‘morally reprobate’ and ‘absolute reprobate’ popped up.

    Some clarification here will be helpful

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2020

      The devil like all other living creatures was created as a living soul who eventually fell from his heavenly task of worshiping, God, but fell far further than others. But eventually, God will win out, and all will become convinced, even the devil. (It would take some pages to explain it adequately, but that’s the basic gist)

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    kevinpe5  March 29, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Your book will be an interesting read! As a Christian, I changed years ago away from the “eternal conscious torment view” to conditionalism. It seems that more Christians are abandoning the traditional view of hell.

    Of course, there are still many who deem any departure as heresy. So, I have been marked as a false teacher who will be tormented in hell forever because I don’t believe people are going to be tormented in hell forever. lol, Now I can see why that admonition had little effect on non-believers!

    I do find it interesting that Origen was a salvational universalist. I’m not convinced of universalism yet, but I do hope it is true. Do you know where Origen derived his view from and if there were others who possibly held to it during his time or shortly before?

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