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How Views of the Afterlife Changed

I’ve been explaining how the tours to heaven and hell – both of them Near Death Experiences – in the Acts of Thomas are meant to show the Christian alternatives to Greek and Roman views of the afterlife.   For early Christians it would not be a dull and boring, powerless and mindless existence for all eternity, as it is depicted in the oldest Greek sources, and it would not require hundreds of years of “purging” where the stains of wickedness are washed out through painful cleansing (e.g., through being thrust into fire or a violent whirlpool for centuries), as in Plato and Virgil.  It would be eternal joy or eternal punishment, one or the other, depending on whether you believed in Christ or not.

Christians thus provided the ultimate and rather simply answer for life to the ultimate question about death.  But even here there was more than a simple binary (one or the other).  The punishments in hell in the Acts of Thomas for example, appear to be graded in order to be commensurate with sin.  Different sins are given different penalties (the odd assumption seems to be that everyone has only one characteristic sin: some are adulterers, some are slanderers, some mistreat their parents…  In my experience, at least, well, it ain’t like that…).   And so thieves are hanged by their hands over eternal flames for all eternity; male adulterers by their genitals.  So maybe some sins/punishments are worst than others.

Even more clear-cut, however, are the …

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  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  August 14, 2019

    Sorry, meant to give it a 5 …1:30am less than 8 hours after a four hour prostate cancer surgery….
    Those apocalypse authors left out a for real hell way back then.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 16, 2019

      Ugh, sorry to hear about it. Awful stuff. Hope you’re OK and the prognosis is decent.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 14, 2019

    When does the idea of Purgatory enter the mix? That seems more Virgilian than Christian to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 16, 2019

      It’s much later in the Christian tradition. Search for it on the blog: I posted on it several times (where/when it came into being)

  3. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  August 14, 2019

    “outrageous sexual perversion is far less offensive than faulty Eucharistic theology”
    Ah, thank heavens! that’s quite a relief . .

    • Bart
      Bart  August 16, 2019

      As long as you have the right Eucharistic theology….

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  August 14, 2019

    “[1] An eye-for-an-eye means that the punishment should fit the crime not exceed it. Roughly speaking, being hung by the genitals may be appropriate for illicit sexual activity outside of marriage. But surely genital torture for eternity is not commensurate with, say, ten years of transgressive behavior. At least it is scarcely to faithful to the motivation of the lex talionis, as traditionally conceived. ”

    What is really perverse in the Christian theory of sin, guilt, reward and punishment is the notion that a poor, weak, finite and limited human being can possibly do anything to offend the infinitely powerful creator Deity sufficiently to warrant eternal punishment in hell. Surely, assuming the validity of the lex talionis, this is patently unjust. And since the Christian Deity is infinitely just, this notion of eternal punishment for finite human sin is clearly wrong. Either we have here a huge misunderstanding of the concept of infinity by the early Christians (very likely, since no human can grasp the immensity of the idea of infinity) or Christians worship a very thin-skinned Deity, who is understood to be infinitely perfect in every way except that He gets pissed off by things that His tiny, powerless creatures do.

    The defenders of this nonsense say it’s not the act itself that, although it offends the Deity, deserves the eternal punishment. It’s that the act implies that you have rejected God’s gift of grace. So refusing to accept something called “grace” merits eternal punishment because God is a pissed off gift-giver. These beliefs get weirder and weirder.

  5. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 14, 2019

    It’s very intriguing to read these ancient accounts of afterlife journeys, and to compare and contrast them. I’m looking forward to reading your book. These katabaseis obviously reflect their authors’ cultural milieu, worldview, and agenda, but as with all mythology, one has to wonder if there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere in these stories – not just about the shared human condition, but about ourselves in a deeper sense. If we subscribe to the idea that we are more than just our surface ego or “personality” of our waking state (maybe a big if), then our dreams are perhaps indicative of a deeper reality usually not accessible to our conscious brains. I think this in turn would open up the possibility that there might be a reason, or meaning, to our existence (the instantiation of which, in some mysterious way, we perhaps even had a part in choosing). Just my wild speculations, but in the end, we’re all just bits of information, and another word for information is *meaning*.

  6. Avatar
    Hon Wai  August 15, 2019

    I’m sure God will be just and fair. Composite sinners will surely receive their just deserts in turn: thieving adulterers will first hang by their hands, then when they had suffered enough, by their genitals, and then back to their hands.

  7. Avatar
    anvikshiki  August 15, 2019

    I just put this note here for fun. The neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, in his books and lectures, lays emphasis one one kind of behaviour that makes human beings, in his view, a unique variety of primate. He notes that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in primate brains is the main centre of rational reflection. It is responsible, among other things, for the ability of primates to delay gratification. But uniquely in humans, the development of this region of the brain has become so sophisticated that it enables some of us to postpone gratification until after our own deaths. This ability accounts for more than one kind of behaviour, such as the ability of a soldier to sacrifice themselves for others or the ability of an inventor to consider the benefits of alternative energy to future generations or the ability of someone on a diet and exercise plan to resist delicious foods and put themselves through the ardors of workout. But it also accounts for behaviours that are inspired by the promises, or threats, of an afterlife. It’s always interesting to see the variety of things that are offered in katabasis narratives that work on us!

  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 15, 2019

    None of these afterlifes (lives?) seem very appealing. A mansion for each of us, or an outhouse for the least of us, and what about friends? What about companions? What about animals, and green growing things, and nature, and all the things that made life worthwhile on earth? We rattle around all alone in our special dwellings, stoned out on the GLORY OF GOD! Bleak, sterile, and inhuman. Sounds more like hell.

  9. Avatar
    fishician  August 15, 2019

    The lex talionis remains popular; I’ve seen some cartoons suggesting that the late Jeffrey Epstein will be receiving punishment in kind for his offenses!

  10. Avatar
    jrhislb  August 15, 2019

    In these accounts they seem to think of Heaven and Hell as the reward for our deeds in life, not judgement after the general resurrection. Is this a shift compared to the earliest Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 16, 2019

      Yes indeed. It’s one of the main isuses I”ll be dealing with in my popular book due out in March.

  11. Avatar
    Eskil  August 15, 2019

    I’m very curious to see the reseption of your new book about the invention of the afterlife. Recently, I viewed a debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in YouTube. Both were speaking as if the doctrine of the heaven and hell can be found in the bible. I think Harris even asked who wants to believe in a book that teaches that disbelievers will suffer an eternity in the hell. Well, if you are right, there is no such doctrine in the bible. It seems as if both theists and atheists are equally brainwashed in this world. Here’s the link to debate in case you are interested… https://youtu.be/jey_CzIOfYE

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 16, 2019

      We are all born connected and then we all get brain-washed. You can choose (free will) to create your life and afterlife. It takes daily work because otherwise you get programmed by what others are saying, songs you listen to, tv you watch, books you read, how others act, etc.
      You either choose your beliefs and actions or others rule you and what you believe, think, and do.

  12. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 15, 2019

    Eucharistic theology has changed over time. They use to use leavened (raised) bread instead of unleavened (flat) bread. It may just have been because of the cost and longer-lasting.
    Bread was a daily food staple in many cultures.
    Just like bread is a food staple, prayer is a spiritual bread staple.

    “Our Father, Who art in heaven
    Hallowed be Thy Name;
    Thy kingdom come,
    Thy will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread,
    and forgive us our trespasses,
    as we forgive those who trespass against us;
    and lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil. Amen.”

    It may take more daily repetitions than we do. It may take putting your name in the story so you are reading a story about you… or sharing the daily bread… or participating in the daily Eucharist.

    ” God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    one in Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: ” NiceneCreed

    Many Ancient Egyptians each had their own copy of the Book of the Dead with their name in it. Saying they were victorious and triumphed over sin//evil/enemy… had eternal life and came and went between heaven and earth for millions of millions of years.
    So that is what I did. I put my own name in the Book of Dead and changed he to she. then I read it everyday…recorded & listened.to my daily bread.
    ” We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
    and the life of the world to come. Amen.” NiceneCreed

    What do Christians think resurrection means?

    I don’t think our dead bodies rise from the dead. I think it is Spiritual. It may be a spirit helping others alive on earth to get to heaven.

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 17, 2019

      I think that by becoming like-minded in thoughts and beliefs we do become one body and one spirit, even though we still have individual bodies and spirits. We share God’s will.

      Ephesians 4 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
      Unity of the Spirit
      4 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
      4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  August 16, 2019

    Interesting contrast I hadn’t considered before–the Roman world was based on extreme inequality. You could rise in it through dint of effort and ability, but most never would, and of course the children of the rich and powerful did better, as is true everywhere, always.

    Their afterlife was basically awful for everybody. Inequality in life, equality in death. The poorest man knows the rich get the same deal as him. So he suffers in life, but the rich man he toils for will be there with him in the afterlife, his wealth and honors stripped away.

    Early Christianity was about as egalitarian as egalitarian gets. But their afterlife was not equal–you rise or fall according to how you lived–the more you enjoyed yourself in life, the more you suffer in death, and the more you put others first, and accepted your suffering in life, the more you’ll be rewarded afterwards. A meritocracy.

    But it’s a meritocracy weighted towards the poor, since wealth itself, according to Jesus, is a drag on your ability to live the way you should in order to be rewarded insead of punished (Jesus meant the Kingdom, and the evil would just be destroyed, but it’s been translated to the afterlife and eternal reward/punishment).

    This is a much more attractive concept than “We’ll all be miserable together” if you’re poor, or a slave.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  August 16, 2019

    So even in Heaven there’s income inequality?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2019

      YEah, with different opinions about how satisfactory that will be to everyone….

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  September 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is this correct?: Paul views the timing of the resurrection “on the third day” as a fulfillment of Scripture. Paul refers to Ps 16:10, with its reference to a “holy one” being preserved from bodily “corruption.” Paul’s contemporaries associated the onset of bodily decay after the third day following the spirit’s departure from the body.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2019

      I don’t know about the last sentence. Off hand, I can’t think of any ancient discussion that suggests it. If you do, let me know! That would be interesting.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  September 20, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,

        John 11:39: Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Might not be a great example, but shows a 1st century belief that after 3 days corruption sets in, could this be evidence of anything, or not really?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2019

          It certainly means that Martha knew a dead body would stink after four days. But I suppose anyone around dead bodies would know that!

  16. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  February 9, 2020

    I’m sure the Europeans (Romans and Greeks,,,,or the gentiles),,,where a bit bewilderes when they tried to understand the meaning of this Jewish sect who later became Christianity, incorporating all their stories, or at least the stories in the Hebrew bible. I really can’t understand how that is possible. I really can’t understand how they even could try to translate the Revelation of John, without understanding the symbolic meaning in their history. If it is true that their scripts are based on Jewish mystisim,(Kabbalah),,or what they call, science (which they claim) and the stories is to be understood on a soul basis, where basically the story is a story of the soul,,,,(the souls involution and again, the souls evolution). I am aware of there even here are differnet “schools” of this teaching, but basically it seems to be an deeper understanding of the soul, in relationship with God. If it was so that this, John (if he wrote the Revelation) was a jew, had his jewish training,,,he could have been familiar with such teaching, there are an overwhelming similarities both in context and symbols , that this could very easily be interpreted as a “soul evolution” back to it’s source. For me, this interpretation is MUCH more credible than all the other (incredible wild) interpretations I’v heard about this book (the Revelation of John).

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