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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
    flcombs  April 12, 2018

    I see a couple of other drivers for why people want to believe. One is a sense of justice: people don’t want to believe that really bad people are going to get away with it or the really downtrodden won’t get some reward. “It just isn’t FAIR” so heaven and hell offer a fairness. I also get hit in discussions a lot with “purpose of life…”. Some people have to believe that there is a purpose to everything. When asked “what is the purpose….” and I say “What is your proof there IS a purpose at all” they either go blank or grab a Bible for a circular proof (at least in the Bible belt).

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      Trying to imagine cosmic fairness seems a bit like trying to get even for every wrong and slight: it’s always too much or too little. Baby Bear never gets to say her line.

  2. Avatar
    Leovigild  April 12, 2018

    Moreover, the universe will one day end. And this means that, at least in our cosmic environment, there is no time for eternity.

    Not sure what you mean by this. The universe may expand until it becomes a de Sitter vacuum. Is that the same as ‘ending’? Why?

    There is quite a diversity of thought on the past and future history of the universe, and it is not necessarily bounded in either direction. In fact, I think most cosmologists would disagree with that proposition.

  3. Avatar
    Eskil  April 12, 2018

    Well, light doesn’t experience time and distance (place).

    So, lets say that our consciousness would be massless and that it would travel in the speed of light in the afterlife, then in theory, it could experience eternity. We do not need another dimensions for that.


    Another funny things is that if we accept that everything is energy (E= mc2) and that time started from the Big Bang, then Jesus really was one with God at the beginning and he pre-existed (as energy) in the creation as did all of us just like the occultist would say. So, maybe the beforelife exists as well.

  4. Avatar
    Tobit  April 12, 2018

    I think the transition between Heaven being God’s realm and being the place of the afterlife equally interesting. In Second Temple Judaism some seemed to think that the righteous one’s soul goes up to God upon death, then goes back down to Earth on Judgement Day into the resurrected body.

    It’s funny how this idea of a near-future judgement on Earth (plus temporary residences for souls) gets twisted into instant personal judgement upon death with no connection to judgement on Earth. Any views on why that happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      Yup, I hope to be exploring that in my book, possibly on the blog.

  5. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 13, 2018

    As the foregoing discussion has made clear, “reality” is a slippery and amorphous topic, especially in today’s multimedia environment with news and opinion programs made-to-order to reinforce whatever you already believe. However, I think most people believe there still *is* an ultimate and actual truth out there, whether that truth resides in some sort of ethereal platonic realm, or merely exists as sets of undeniable cause and effect relations in the world.

    Regarding your ideas on time and space… well, let’s just say that even these concepts are being questioned by scientists and philosophers these days. Our universe definitely is the result of a Big Bang event 13.8 billion years ago, but whether that event can actually be seen to be the classic creation ex nihilo is among the most hotly debated topics in cosmology today. Space is definitely elastic – it bends with gravity and expands at an ever-increasing pace, but whether the universe “ends” at a big crunch, a big rip, or expands forever until even the protons at the heart of atoms eventually decay, no one knows.

    Time is another great mystery – ever since Einstein, we have known that there is no such thing as a privileged frame of reference, and no such thing as a universal “present moment”, or “now”. St. Augustine is supposed to have said “don’t ask me what time is, and I know…ask me, and I cannot tell you”. Black holes are our best clue in studying the extremes of time and space (how a hypothetical person passing over the event horizon can be both alive and dead at the “same time”, for example).

    So, if even time and space are being questioned as fundamental entities among the sharpest minds in the business these days, we would do well not to use them as bedrock assumptions and jumping off points to further speculation. We also should guard against the danger of being overly smug in how our current understanding of the universe far surpasses that of our ancient forebears. Whether you believe the universe to be resting on a ‘tower of turtles’, or put your faith in an eternal inflating universe, I can’t help but think our most cutting-edge ideas in cosmology today perhaps are closer to the turtles idea than we would like to think. Whatever the fundamental ‘reality’ turns out to be, it likely lies beyond our wildest imaginings.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  April 13, 2018

    The University of Kentucky conducted a study last year called “How many atheists are there?” They found that the Pew and Gallup polls may have underestimated the percentage of atheists within the U.S. They estimated that 26% of Americans are atheists.


  7. Avatar
    cmccleary  April 13, 2018

    You’ve always referred to yourself as an agnostic over the years that I’ve followed your work. I see that you used the word “atheist” in this article. I’d love to hear if something sparked the change.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I’m both — I’ve posted on that a couple of times, but if you want I can find the old posts.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 13, 2018

    *If* I believed in Heaven and Hell (which I don’t), I’d simply say they exist in another dimension, or possibly *two* other dimensions.

    Back in reality, it’s by no means certain that nothing existed before our Big Bang! Some scientists speculate that the Big Bang resulted from the eruption of a supermassive black hole in an older universe. And *if* that’s the case, Big Bangs may be taking place all the time, in a vastly greater Cosmos.

    That, by the way, is an argument against the claim that our Big Bang’s having produced a viable universe proves “intelligent design.” If Big Bangs are taking place *somewhere*, perhaps at every moment, some of them will necessarily produce viable universes. Certainly, there’s no proof of that; but there’s also no way to prove it *isn’t* happening.

    • Avatar
      Eric  April 16, 2018

      Interesting codicil to that line of thought (that I’ve encountered) is the possibility that as new universes are formed, its “universal constants” (G, c, n, etc) might be different; that viability as you say may depend upon stable values for such things (not necessarily our universe’s seeming stable set of values).

      So possible viable universe might not have scattered matte rover space, for example, but be something else completely.

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  April 17, 2018

        We (our universe) may indeed be one “miniscule” “bubble” in an ocean of other bubbles, or other possible universes. This would seemingly explain the otherwise inexplicable reason why our universe is balanced on a razor’s edge of fundamental constants that are “just right” for life to emerge and evolve. Otherwise called the Anthropic Principle, our specialness is de facto “explained” by the fact that there are an infinity of other universes, the overwhelming majority of which are not conducive to life. One problem with this notion is that, once formed, these universes theoretically lead “separate lives” – they are fundamentally and forever sealed off from each other, and if they do indeed have wildly varying fundamental constants, or no constants at all, why the laws of quantum mechanics and probability should lie at the root of and govern this multiverse is the million-dollar question which demands an explanation. Anything else is simply to accept the multiverse, and ergo our universe, as brute facts – an anathema to science.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

          W.L. Craig is so full of mud on so many things, I don’t know if he is ever to be taken seriously, but he claims it’s been proven that a multiverse, if it exists, cannot have existed for infinity. I’d like to read a “William Laine Craig for Dummies Who Can’t Decide if He’s All That Smart.” Did I cross the line there?

    • Avatar
      Apocryphile  April 17, 2018

      The philosophical problems we run into trying to explain how a universe could be born out of absolutely nothing (no time, space, or anything else) are far greater than postulating a universe born out of an eternal cycle of “creation” and “destruction”. Whether the mechanism involved is a “white hole”, as you speculate, a collision of higher dimensional “branes”, or an eternally inflating multiverse giving rise to baby “soap bubble” universes all the time, is the ultimate Nobel-prize-winning question. I think most physicists and cosmologists favor there being *some* mechanism giving rise to our universe, however outrageous. To simply invoke, as Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and others have, a universe “popping” into existence via a quantum fluctuation, makes sense only if the quantum “laws” are a priori assumed to somehow exist. I firmly believe that nothing can come from nothing, and even more, that the idea of absolute nothingness is a philosophical and logical non-sequitur and non-starter.

  9. Avatar
    madi22  April 14, 2018

    Hey Bart, did Jesus believe in a supernatural hell, the kind that if you dont repent of your sins and turn to him you will burn forever? (Like conservatives believe today)….Or is this a theology developed later?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I think it’s a later development.

      • Avatar
        madi22  April 15, 2018

        What do you think Jesus’s views would of been on the afterlife?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2018

          The righteous would be resurrected; the unrighteous destroyed.

  10. Rick
    Rick  April 14, 2018

    My favorite treatise on death is the ending of Bicentenial Man. Andrew the 200 year old robot man has died/stopped. His wife and love on life support commands the robot Galatea to unplug her. As a robot, Galatea must follow orders unless they would harm or allow a human to be harmed. Galatea pauses, then serenely complies…..

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      The best modern take on Pinnochio I know. Andrew is the puppet who aspires to and attains real boyhood, by accepting mortality as the cost of freedom. Galatea never imagines herself as anything other than what she is, yet is upgraded into the perfect image of a real human, until personal agency is called for. But your insight on the implications of death for humans being necessarily harmless, from the perspective of the machine, had evaded me. Thank you.

  11. Avatar
    tomruda  April 14, 2018

    What if we take science as the starting point. Matter and/or energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be changed. We certainly know where the matter of our body goes. But what of the mind, this energy can be measured while the body is alive. Is this energy move on? Does it change? Why would so many people in so many cultures believe in an afterlife? The experiences of Dr. Eban Alexander , “Proof of Heaven”, only give more questions. The way quantum particles interact defies what we think we know about the world. The real truth is that Death is the great mystery everyone of us must enter. If there is nothing, then there is nothing to speculate on. If there is something, it would be beyond our frame of reference. When I love someone, is it an energy I send out or is it just a chemical reaction in my brain? To admit we don’t know the answer, of what we term “afterlife”, to be real or not is the only real answer until we have proof. If we see a cocoon and the caterpillar that entered but did not see the butterfly emerge, is our evidence of the empty cocoon the true knowledge of no afterlife (after caterpillar)? We only know of the butterfly when we have the experience of seeing this happen.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 15, 2018

      Science itself is in a constant state of change. With so many questions unanswered, and our answers themselves changing as new information becomes available, we really should not be looking to science for the answers to all our questions. It’s going to be hopelessly inadequate at addressing most of them. Science is a process by which we increase our knowledge and understanding of the physical world. Nothing more. If we try to make it more, we’ll corrupt it. Just as when we try to make religion and philosophy means of determining which facts are really facts, we corrupt them.

  12. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  April 15, 2018

    I especially appreciate your last paragraph, i.e. most people are reluctant to think seriously. So…
    Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
    Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
    Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there and saying, “I found it.”
    Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a flashlight!

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      But the cat or the room must not really be black, or all the light from the flashlight would be absorbed.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 16, 2018

    Just a thought, re arguments that we can’t prove or disprove things like the existence of a deity or an afterlife…

    All anyone can be *totally* sure of is good old “Cogito ergo sum” – in colloquial English, ”I’m thinking; therefore, I exist.” (One may, in theory, only be imagining that s/he once *learned* that from someone else.)

    So *everything* beyond our own existence is a question of probabilities. When I want to say I “know” something with the greatest possible degree of certainty, I say i know it as certainly as I know Australia exists – Australia being a random choice of a place I’ve never seen, even from the air.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      What if there is no I that thinks: only thinking? The Cogito is an insight, not a proof.

  14. Avatar
    Eric  April 16, 2018

    Idea for a science fiction story: while delving deep in the earth, humanity runs across an actual sheol/hades.

    Crisis occurs when the first human dies outside of earth’s gravity well.

  15. Avatar
    Ryan  April 17, 2018

    Hello. Dr. Ehrman. I look forward to the publication of this new book. Hopefully though it will not have too much of your understanding of astronomy in it :-).

    The current universe will not end. The expansion is accelerating. It will likely then only ‘end’ in the sense of heat death but will still exist. Also, while you are right that time as we experience it now started in the BB it is not nonsense to talk about ‘what came before’ as much of the current research in cosmology is on precisely that. In particular, many distinguished researchers are trying to remove the idea of creation out of nothing (now THAT is nonsense) by constructing some sort of cyclic scenario; the universe always existed in some form, maybe.
    By the way if you ever figure out exactly what time is, please let me know and we will write it up – and win the Nobel.

    Finally I just wanted to say, as someone who has traveled a path in reverse of yours (atheism to the firm conviction of some sort of creative intelligence behind our universe), atheism in the strict sense is not rational. Such certainty is not scientific. Agnosticism, yes, atheism, no.


    • Avatar
      Apocryphile  April 18, 2018

      Agree with what you have to say, for the most part. All the current evidence seems to be pointing to our universe accelerating to an eventual heat ‘death’, but as you say, the quantum vacuum will presumably still exist, and that is, also as you say, not nothing. However, although all the evidence so far seems to point to an eventual heat death, I don’t think we can yet say with certainty that this definitely is what the universe will evolve to.

      I agree that it makes no sense to talk about a beginning to time – whatever reality lies at the bottom of everything, just by force of logic, must be eternal. Finally, I agree that the common understanding of atheism, as the belief that there is no God, is illogical. The most that any thinking person can claim is that they are agnostic on the matter.

      The mathematics all seems to point to a multiverse, so this may indeed be the case. It would certainly ‘explain’ the otherwise inexplicable ‘goldilocks’ universe we inhabit without the need to invoke a creator, but as I said in a previous post, even in this scenario one must still assume that the quantum and statistical laws govern the entire ‘structure’. Only in this way could universes like ours that are ‘just right’ for life necessarily emerge just by dint of the probabilities involved, and only in this way can we avoid the necessity of invoking a creator.

      • Avatar
        Ryan  April 19, 2018

        Hello. My only comment to what you say is in your last paragraph. And that is, what mathematics may point to is of course not the same, as I am sure you will agree, as to what is reality. String theory, for example, involves a lot of powerful, novel, (and the mathematician in me must say beautiful) mathematics, however it may very well be describing a physical structure that does not at all correspond to the universe in which we live. And much of it, as with the notion of multiverses, seems to be untestable which would place it outside of science and consign it to little more than fantasy. If I were to go out on a limb here, I would bet that such questions on ultimate causes may forever be beyond our ability to answer. Fun to think about though, no doubt :-).


    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

      Why would it be a heat death? The more it expands, the fewer collisions will occur between particles, causing the temperature of everything to approach absolute zero, no? See this lecture by Lawrence Krause. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XLJ04fZpec0

  16. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

    Actually, the current thinking is that the universe will never cease to be. Here is a lecture by Lawrence Krause on the future of it all: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XLJ04fZpec0.
    Also, if it was not on your reading list, you might want to check out The Physics of Immortality by Frank J. Tipler, wherein he proposes that humans may succeed in creating an eternal mode of life for all real and potential sentient beings.It wouldn’t be afterlife, obviously, for those who had never existed.

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 20, 2018

    This is the first thread of comments I’ve read from start to finish in a small eternity. Wild speculation is my meat and drink. Looking forward to the next book!

  18. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  April 21, 2018

    Perhaps our bodies in the after life are composed of dark matter and our souls become dark energy. Seems about as plausible as a real heaven and hell. Your new book is a great read Dr. Ehrman. Which type of book do you enjoy writing more? Scholarly or popular books?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      I enjoy them both, but in very different ways. Writing the scholarly books is a far more intensely focused and prolonged experience.

  19. Avatar
    rgilmour1719  April 26, 2018

    Why do you think Americans are so literal/fundamentalist in their religious beliefs compared to most of Europe?
    Those figures are worryingly high!

    Also *Hawking 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      I’ve long thought about it and have never figured it out. Christianity in particular is dying in Europe, but not so much here (though the liberal denominations are losing members hand over fist….)

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