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Is There a Time and Place for Heaven and Hell?

A recent Pew research poll produced interesting results on Americans’ beliefs about the afterlife.  72% of Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” and  58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”  (See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/)

So that’s a lot.   Nearly three quarters of all Americans believe in a literal heaven and well over half believe in a literal hell.   The afterlife is bigtime.

In my book on the afterlife I will not be doing something completely crazy, like claiming I know for sure whether there is a heaven and/or hell.   What do I know?    I may state my *opinion* on the matter, but since I’m an atheist, it should be pretty clear what I think anyway.  Still, it is interesting to know/think where the ideas of heaven and hell came from, and that’s what most of the book will be.

The issue returned to the consciousness of the international media last month when it was reported that the Pope himself didn’t actually believe in a literal heaven and hell.   As it turns out, that may have been a false report (as if we haven’t had enough false reports intrude on our lives lately), but it got people’s attention.   One of the most interesting articles I read on the subject would not have been on the radar screens of most blog members, as it was in an English newspaper, The Guardian.  Here’s the link.


The author makes a very interesting point (several actually, but one that I’m particularly taken by), namely, that …

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Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter? Readers’ Mailbag April 15, 2018
Degrees of Punishment and Purgatory



  1. Avatar
    doug  April 11, 2018

    I can understand how life after death is attractive to many people, since most of us don’t want to die. Plus, all we have ever known is being alive, so it’s hard to imagine being dead. I don’t believe in life after death, but it would be nice to at least go for a hike with my wife now and then after we kick the bucket.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2018

      I am so with you on that.

      • Avatar
        nbraith1975  April 12, 2018

        I could be wrong, but being dead is like what every human being experienced BEFORE they were conceived. What do you remember of that experience? Yahweh said he knew all of us before we were in our mother’s womb, but I can’t recall ever meeting him.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

          They made you drink water from the River Lethe before you entered your body so you would forget your previous existence.

  2. Avatar
    jan.kriso  April 11, 2018

    Just thinking – could you be atheist and *still* believe in afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2018


    • Avatar
      jbskq5  April 12, 2018

      To say that you’re an atheist is to say absolutely nothing about yourself other than that you’re unconvinced by the assertions of theists that there is a divine, supreme being or a prime mover. One can be an atheist and be a Wiccan, for example. The semantic arguments in the atheist community can get extremely tiresome, but I think it’s worth correcting some of those misconceptions.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  April 12, 2018

      To echo Bart (aka Dr. Ehrman), Sure! A number of authors, like Philip José Farmer, Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper et al have touched on that. Kinda depends on what your model of reality is, and the fact that those authors dealt in science fiction isn’t irrelevant.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 17, 2018

        Actually, the science fiction mavens didn’t write about new or different worlds because they thought they didn’t or couldn’t exist. They believed these things might have happened or could happen or might exist. If they didn’t conceive of some alternate reality, they wouldn’t have been able to write in such compelling fashion. And of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hal look more and more scary.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

        As well as Frank Tipler. See my comment down below (not in hell, I hope).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 13, 2018

      Buddhism, at its core, is essentially an atheistic philosophy that believes in an afterlife.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  April 14, 2018

      I consider myself a “non-theist,” and I believe in reincarnation. “Believe in it,” not in the sense of believers in a religion, but because I’ve been convinced by the evidence that it really takes place. And I think that *before* one reincarnates, the part of us that survives death (I think of it as a Mind-stream) may experience things we’ve expected, such as reunions with loved ones, which may or may not have some basis in reality.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

        I’m curious about the evidence that convinced you of reincarnation. My email is aek03030731 at Gmail etc. if you don’t mind sending me some readings.

      • Avatar
        RoddyN  April 24, 2018

        I would like to see how you came to your conclusions as well.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  April 11, 2018

    Belief in Heaven, Hell and the eternal afterlife will always find adherents because everyone is driven by fear and greed. The most primeval fear that characterizes our species is fear of non-existence. Hence, the prevalence of denial of death and of the faith that there is an afterlife. And our inherent greed leads to another article of faith, namely belief in an everlasting afterlife of pleasure for the righteous and punishment for the sinner. Organized religion uses these two hooks to exercise control over the believers. The ancient Greek philosophers are correct. Living the virtuous life means bringing your innate fear and greed under control.

  4. Avatar
    Kawfmin  April 11, 2018

    Getting a little off topic maybe, but, “nothing before the big bang” is a hard notion for me. I mean, something banged, in a big way. How did it come into existence? If it was just sitting there in “pre-time”, then one could also imagine an eternal epoch of “post-time”, I suppose.

    Maybe a lot of those “believers” in this poll just panicked when they got the question, couldn’t really think through the other possibilities on short notice, and didn’t want to deal with the overwhelming nature of the topic, so they just agreed to the safest, most comfortable answer. I’d guess plenty of them would be open to other notions if they thought about the matter.

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  April 12, 2018

      Theoretical physicists have a number of models that posit possible answers to the question, and while, for some models, time begins at the Big Bang, for others, there is either a finite or infinite time before the Big Bang. In some models, time for our universe begins at the Big Bang, but time for other universes may measure from other singularities.

      This is one of those scientific areas that will probably keep us busy for centuries to come, but it’s an area of active research nonetheless.

      • Avatar
        Kawfmin  April 15, 2018

        Last I heard, the Hadron Collider, which was supposed to get us a little further along in understanding these things, hasn’t actually illuminated much. And if it doesn’t help us, it’s not clear where physicists go from here. But I may have that wrong.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 12, 2018

      We are all ignorant on the subject of existence.

      Yes, even Stephen Hawking.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

        He may know it all now, for all we know.

  5. Avatar
    Anton  April 11, 2018

    Since God was a mathematician he knew about subspaces. It is my belief that heaven and hell exist in a higher dimension space. So our universe is a subspace of this. So heaven is not up there, but everywhere we are but in a higher dimendion.

    • Avatar
      Thomasfperkins  April 12, 2018


      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

        Two philosophical/theological models of hell I can relate to, though they are contradictory in a literal sense, are Sartre’s No Exit (“Hell is other people,”) and Lewis’s The Great Divorce (Hell is our choice to exist in isolation from other beings, ultimately even God). Interestingly, the two hells are obverse sides of one coin.

  6. John4
    John4  April 11, 2018

    “If we impose our own views on [the traditional Christian “authorities”], why do we need them at all?  Why not simply develop our own views, since that’s what we’re doing anyway?”

    Great questions, Bart!

    My own experience leads me to suppose that appeal to (imposed upon!) authorities is necessary not for determining what our views are (or should be). Rather, the appeal is necessary in order to build community. People care about the traditional Christian “authorities”. That common investment in the sacred is what binds the Christian community together, it appears to me.

    Thanks, Bart! 🙂

  7. Avatar
    godspell  April 11, 2018

    Hey, according to some theorists, the reality we see around us doesn’t exist, at least not in the way we perceive it to.

    I’d stay away from that area of speculation, if I were you. Concentate on what people said they believed then.

    As to what people believe now–hmmm. I don’t see a whole lot of people behaving as if they believe in hell. Hell is for other people, the way most conceive of it.

    Also, I see purported atheists constantly imagining people they don’t like in hell, which is damned confusing. And Tony Kushner’s play about an angel is back on Broadway.

    None of this stuff is going anywhere, and everybody better get used to it. We can’t live in a fully objective mindset, and we don’t want to. We need our pipe dreams. (Eugene O’Neill’s play about a salesman and some barflies is also back on Broadway. Saw that one. It ends with a devout unbeliever saying “God rest his soul.” And crossing himself reverently.)

    The problem isn’t whether there’s an afterlife or not. The problem is what we do with this one. I see zero evidence to convince me those without religious beliefs are doing any better with this problem, and some to convince me they can be even worse.

  8. Avatar
    seahawk41  April 11, 2018

    Indeed! Up or down depends on where you happen to be, but if you happen to be on the ISS, there is literally *no* up or down!

  9. Avatar
    PeterB22  April 11, 2018

    The idea that we go off to heaven (if we’ve been good or at least penitent) to spend eternity (!!) in heaven raises so many questions that believers seem to have no answers for. For example, if you die when you’re five months old, do you spend eternity as an infant? Do you continue to age in heaven, or do you remain at the age of your death forever? Do you get a new body (as Paul surmised), and if so, are you still “you” in a different body? Is there a force of gravity to keep us upright, or do we spend eternity in a zero-g state? Is there food, music, sports activities, etc. – just what do we do there? Just being in the presence of God for all eternity undoubtedly gets tedious after a
    Or, if as seems certain, heaven is not a physical location, then we take a spiritual form – so how are we going to recognize our dead relatives and friends?
    I could go on, but you get the point: eternal life in heaven is “a consummation devoutly to be wished”, but it does not bear up under rational thought.

    Dr. Ehrman, do you know of any texts that attempt to provide answers to questions such as these?
    P. S. Congratulations on winning a Guggenheim!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2018

      These are questions that believers in the resurrection have asked for a long time. (Well not about zero-g state, but about infants, and aborted fetuses, and people eaten by cannibals, and so on.) Discussions in authors from Athenagoras to Augustine in the ancient world, e.g…

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 12, 2018

        However, as you know, these were questions batted around by the intelligentsia, mainly. People who were going to be debating some insoluble question to death, whether they were believers or not. Habit of mind.

      • Avatar
        PeterB22  April 13, 2018

        Thanks for your response. One of the questions is whether your soul, a spiritual object, goes to heaven for
        eternity – in which case it doesn’t matter if there is gravity there or whether you were eaten by cannibals – or does it get reunited with a physical body, which raises a whole lot of different questions.
        As for the soul leaving the dead body and taking with it everything that is “you” – your memories,your thoughts,
        personality, etc. – this leads us into the “mind -body” argument, which seems to have clearly been settled by modern-day neurological science: the mind does not exist independently of the brain – and a soul divorced from a mind doesn’t have much to work with. I refuse to go to heaven without my brain!
        Anyway, I believe the whole mind-soul-brain problem needs to be re-defined in terms of modern science. Let’s not leave this to the theologians!
        Meanwhile, googling all the online articles on “what is heaven like” was quite enlightening. Nobody seems to have
        a clue!
        P.S. I love your book! I will be teaching a course on the subject at our local adult education program in the Fall.It will be required reading.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

          If unembodied consciousness is a thing, then maybe there is enough matter in the non sentient universe to create new bodies for all souls, including those whose mortal bodies were eaten by cannibals. Let’s hope life is rare in the universe.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 13, 2018

      It’s almost as if the idea of an afterlife was put forth before anyone had a chance to examine its logic.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

        That’s to be expected. All rational arguments are generated to support what we already want to believe.The one thing logic can’t address is the efficacy of logic.

  10. Avatar
    RayC  April 11, 2018

    Great post. One question, though. How is someone reinterpreting what has been written in the bible or what Christian authorities have said regarding heaven and hell different than saying you think the apostles “thought” they saw Jesus after the resurrection?

    Unless I am mistaken, the Gospels stated that they actually saw and experienced Jesus, not that they “thought” they saw him.

    I am not arguing that they actually did or that the resurrection took place. But if it is valid to reevaluate what was written about seeing the resurrected Jesus, it seems to be to be valid to also reevaluate exactly what is meant by heaven and hell, at least in terms of time and space.

    For instance, rather than frame eternity in terms of what we experience as time of an indefinite duration in this universe (which, as you say, will end), we could postulate an existence beyond this finite span – a true form of eternity without our idea of time. After all, ex nihilo nihil fit. There had to be something before the Big Bang, or else we’d still have nothing.

    I’m not hanging my hat on that as I am not that deep of a thinker, and I don’t believe in myths or legends either. At the same time, it shows a way to think of an existence beyond ours, and outside of time. St. Augustine, if I am correct, first stated that the universe was created with time, not in time, beating Stephen Hawking by a wide margin!

    Thanks for the post and taking the time to respond considering your busy schedule!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2018

      Yes, it’s analogous — when people automatically interpret a text in light of their own understanding of the world, without realizing that’s what they’re doing (changing what the text meant from what the author meant it to mean) it’s like interpreting a vision as a real optic event as opposed to a mental one.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      Ex nihilo, nihilo fit is based on observation. We have never seen something come from nothing; even magicians can only trick us into thinking they have produced something from nothing. But David Hume argued, convincingly I think, that no amount of observation in the past can guarantee that things will operate in the same way in the future. Every time I have seen one billiard ball strike another unanchored billiard ball, some or all of the energy of motion seems to be transferred from the first to the second. But that doesn’t prove it will be so the next time.

  11. talmoore
    talmoore  April 11, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, the way I think about it is: why should I take seriously the view of the afterlife from men who thought that the earth was the center of the universe?

    If they can’t, at the very least, get that part right, when why shouldn’t I dismiss everything else they have to say?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2018

      Yup, I hear ya!

    • Avatar
      ardeare  April 12, 2018

      Because if we set the bar at perfection, we may as well pass on doubt and go straight to denying everything that’s ever been taught, spoken, or written by anyone and everyone.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 15, 2018

        If you’re not setting the bar at perfection, then you’re not doing it right. The ancients did, indeed, set the bar at perfection. But their problem wasn’t setting the bar at perfection. Their problem was not reaching the bar.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      But the reason Earth isn’t the center of the universe is that the universe has no center, the physical cosmologists say. So if they could have seen the whole universe, it would still have seemed they were at the center.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  April 11, 2018

    So, after some decades of living on earth, the reward at death will be either eternal bliss or torment. To an outsider this may seem peculiar, but it is accepted as truth by the majority of Americans. I expect that the vast majority of these Americans fully expect to go to heaven, with hell reserved for “others”. As per the last sentence of this post, this afterlife notion is usually implanted at a very early age, and is most often not an informed adult made decision. Once the religious meme has been implanted at childhood it is difficult to remove.

    Atheism has not much attractive to offer believers. The atheist answer as to the reason why we live, procreate and die, is evolution by natural selection. That’s it – and it does not provide a lot a solace at eulogies. On the other hand, an atheist, knowing full well that maybe 80 plus year is all there is, can focus on enjoying the here and now to the fullest, without fear or uncertainty about afterlife expectations.

    • Avatar
      flshrP  April 12, 2018

      I think you’re dead wrong. As an atheist my reason for living is family, not evolution. The meaning and purpose of life is and always has been family. Everything else in life is transitory and ultimately meaningless; but family endures.

      • Avatar
        Tony  April 16, 2018

        Good for you. Family will give you purpose and meaning to your life. The big picture as to why there is enduring life on this planet, including human, is evolution by natural selection. Without it we would not be here.

    • Avatar
      madi22  April 14, 2018

      I don’t find heaven appealing at the expense of people i know rotting in hell. Rather there be nothing….and iv been raised a conservative christian my entire life

    • Avatar
      Ryan  April 17, 2018

      Yes, torment! Insanity would suely ensue after, oh I don’t know, say a million years? Maybe a couple of hundred? I get bored sometimes over a long weekend, hah! Enternity (whatever that means)? Please, God, no. Have mercy. 🙂

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      My dad told me once that no one believes in hell. If they did, they wouldn’t behave as they do. He was awfully smart for a guy with no degree!

  13. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  April 11, 2018

    “Another option is not to base our understandings about what happens to us when we die on antiquated myths, legends, and uninformed worldviews, but to think anew for ourselves, given what we know now.” I hope you save some space in your book for that option.

  14. Avatar
    Kawfmin  April 12, 2018

    But this empirical argument against there being heaven doesn’t seem strong to me. As in, you can’t prove a negative. Space is endless, or anyway insanely big. Most of it will never be seen or visited by anybody. So we have no way to know what might be out there. Could be the absolute cliche version of heaven out there. I don’t see how it can be empirically disproven.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      If you can’t prove a negative, how do you prove you can’t prove a negative?

  15. Avatar
    gwayersdds  April 12, 2018

    Reminds me of a song lyric, don’t remember who sang it that says “I know there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell”. Also, what is time anyway? Is it something invented by man? We base our time and relate it to our 24 hour day based on the earth’s rotation around the sun etc. Time would have a very different meaning to a life form on a different planet that had a different orbit and rotational spin. a day would be other than 24 hours, thus minutes and seconds and even lightyears would be measured differently. Just a thought.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      Blood Sweat and Tears, for one.

  16. kadmiral
    kadmiral  April 12, 2018


    Have you been able to trace the point in time when thoughts of heaven and hell as locations moved from being physical locations (under the earth/above the sky) to being more spiritualized locations (other realm/dimension?)?

    If so, could/would you please elaborate a little here on that???

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I’m sure it’s a modern development, but I don’t know when and where the idea started.

      • Avatar
        plparker  April 18, 2018

        I was listening to Cynthia Chapman’s course on the World of Biblical Israel, in the Great Courses series. She makes the point that the Babylonian Exile forced the Jews to think differently about place and moved them toward a notion of an afterlife. See in particular her lecture 16 on Ezekiel.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2018

          I haven’t heard her lectures, but I don’t think Ezekiel refers to a personal afterlife (certainly the Valley of the Dry Bones is not about that)

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 12, 2018

    “It’s very difficult to turn away from views that have been deeply rooted in us….”

    When I first started discussing religion and political issues, decades ago, I had the rather naïve idea that one could exchange ideas with others, modify one’s views as one learns stuff from others, and pile up evidence and reason for one view or another. What I slowly and painfully learned, over and over again, is that this not even close to the way the real world works. Large groups of people will not be persuaded about much of anything even when the evidence is overwhelming. Today, what bothers me most is not the conclusions people draw, but the fact that evidence and reason seem totally not to matter and, often, people seem to have no interest in evidence and reason. Where oh where has the power of reason gone? There may be some reason left in the academic world, but not in the real political and religious world where I actually live. I can pile up a huge amount of evidence about something and will persuade absolutely no one about anything.

    Anyway, I found both your blog and the Guardian article to be very helpful and thought provoking. Thanks.

  18. Avatar
    ddorner  April 12, 2018

    Fascinating post. I agree with your perspective. I’ve always thought if you’re coming up with a theory about life after death why not make up something wonderful for everyone?

    But with regard to the time. I have read that as you fall toward the event horizon of a black hole, time (at least for the observer) would essentially stop. Which would mean from an observers perspective they could be trapped in that state eternally. That could be pretty hellish.

    The problem I see with a lot of theoretical physics is it can’t really be tested. Are we in a multiverse? Maybe. But how would you ever test it and prove it? Was there time before the big bang? Maybe not. But how can you test it and prove it? Or is the universe cyclical? does it expand, and then retract, and explode again eternally? Maybe it does. But it’s hard to prove.

    Maybe Elon Musk is right and we all live in a giant simulation. Maybe so, but it’d be impossible to prove that too.

    So no matter what perspective we adopt aren’t we still just relying on faith to understand our place in the universe?

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      But if time stops, so does perception, and as all thought is based in the memory of perception past, there would be no awareness at the event horizon. What would souls in Hades give for such mindlessness?

  19. epicurus
    epicurus  April 12, 2018

    Maybe the universe endlessly cycles through a big bang then expansion then contracting down to almost nothing only to big bang again, over and over. Maybe in that sense time doesn’t end. I have no idea, just a wild hypothesis.

  20. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 12, 2018

    I have always puzzled over how the Israelites could have resisted developing elaborate notions of the afterlife, in sharp contrast to the very elaborate beliefs of Ancient Near-East cultures e.g. Egyptian beliefs of the underworld. Do you think the Israelites deliberately resisted developing system of beliefs about afterlife for political reasons and to distinguish themselves from the neighbouring cultures?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      Apart from Egyptians, I don’t think there were beliefs about afterlife that were markedly different from what was found among the Israelites, were there?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 17, 2018

      It might be significant that ancient Israel was basically the Belgium of the Middle East for over 2,000 years.

      What I mean by that is, the same way that Belgium was the battleground between the mighty French and German nations for over a century — and thus Belgium has for centuries been a mix of French and Germanic cultures — ancient Israel was the battleground between the mighty Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires. And for that reason, ancient Israelite culture was an odd mixture of both cultures, where they would, for example, avoid eating pork and circumcise their boys (like the Egyptians), but at the same time speak a Semitic language, wear Semitic clothing and worship Semitic gods (like the Mesopotamians).

      It also appears that the admixture of Egyptian and Mesopotamian elements would vary with the degree of hegemony from either empire. For instance, when Egypt had hegemony over Canaan/Israel/Palestine, the Israelites acted more Egyptian. But when the Assyrians had hegemony over it, they acted more Mesopotamian.

      I think this might be a clue to the ancient Israelite beliefs about the afterlife.

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