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Jesus and Paul on Heaven and Hell

A couple of days ago I indicated on the blog that I am thinking about devoting my next book to the “Invention of the Afterlife” – that is, to the question of where the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell came come.  I asked for comments (and I still welcome them) from people about what they would be interested in seeing in a book like that.  Many, many thanks to everyone who has (so far!) responded to my request!

As some of you know, I have already written a *bit* about the topic in an earlier book, Jesus Interrupted.  I thought it might be useful to replay what I said there, just to show where my thinking is at this point (I haven’t developed my thoughts significantly from writing that book, published in 2009) (but I expect they will develop in a big way, once I start working more diligently on the question).  Here is the first half of what I said there.  The second half will come tomorrow.  (For those of you who keep track of such things, these two posts reprise what I posted earlier in the year, before I had any idea of writing this book.)




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.

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(Later) Early Christian Understandings of Heaven and Hell
Why Don’t I Call Myself a Christian? Mailbag: October 8, 2016



  1. Avatar
    puzzles  October 9, 2016

    “No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” (Romans 12:20 RSV)

    I had always imagined that Jesus and the early Christians believed in poverty and charity, because they had empathy for everybody else (including their enemies). After watching one of your youtube lectures about the teachings of Jesus, I began to wonder if early Christians had more selfish motives. Maybe they believed that they could dominate their neighbors in the Kingdom of Heaven by deliberately being dominated in this life? This strategy doesn’t mix with loving your neighbors as yourself, but Romans 12:20 doesn’t sound like Paul believed in truly loving enemies. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2016

      I think he’s just giving them an additional reason to be kind to others.

  2. Avatar
    Todd  October 9, 2016

    Just a comment…this is very good…a good, clear summary worth a print out. If your new book deals with this in the way you wrote it here, it will be well worth reading.

  3. tompicard
    tompicard  October 9, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I don’t think I buy the idea that Jesus taught physical resurrection of the body.
    Do you have examples of Jesus words that you consider historical?

    Jesus taught that there are two types of life and so death.
    “Let the dead bury the dead”, “those who seek to gain their life will lose it, . . .”, cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye rather than going un-maimed to hell, etc.
    If you include Words from John’s Gospel ( I guess you don’t think these are historical) many many more about life/death [ two aspects of life, two aspects of death].

    Beyond all that there are obvious logical problems with eternal life in a physical body on earth [ physical bodies wear out, all animals and plants die, will humans age? have children? will space on the planet run out]

    Resurrection meaning going from death to life, in Jesus teaching probably meant going from spiritually dead to spiritually alive, which could occur in the present to Jesus disciples immediately ( before they physically died).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2016

      You may want to see my discussion of the historical sayings of Jesus in my book Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 10, 2016

        Well I read that within the last month and learned a lot, joining membership to this group to learn more.

        I did not read in that book anything as explicit a statement as I see in this blog
        “. . . so taught Jesus. The Kingdom of God was soon to appear . . . and everyone would be brought back to life, BODILY, to see and experience it.”

        The first part of the above statement ‘KoG soon appear’ you made an excellent case for.
        The second part, I don’t think so.

        I suppose some people find the idea of physical death incompatible with the Kingdom of God.
        Maybe a lot of evangelicals who influenced your original understanding of Jesus teachings do so.
        I don’t find it incompatible [but what I think isn’t interesting]; more interesting is whether Jesus in any way implied ‘physical death’ is inconsistent with the KoG.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 11, 2016

        what I meant was (sorry if it isn’t clear)

        Do you have examples of Jesus words that you consider historical, in which he taught the resurrection of the physical body?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 12, 2016

          I suppose the dispute with the Sadducees over the resurrection in Luke 20?

          • Avatar
            Michele  October 19, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman,
            since this passage is taken from Mark, I think it’s doesn’t matter (for its historicity) if Luke was of 120s or 80s, right?. Anyway I’d like to ask you, if one could prove that Luke is about 120s, this could change in part some of your opinion of what Jesus said and did, or is it irrelevant in this sense?

            Thank you so much!

            Michele Fornelli

          • Bart
            Bart  October 21, 2018

            It actually wouldn’t change it much, although it might make scholars less inclined to give an early date to Q.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 9, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, if I could add anything to your concise outline it is the ancient distinction between earthly and heavenly “substances.” That is, the ancients saw the earth and heavens as being made of different “stuff” (cf. Aristotle’s On The Heavens and Plato’s Cosmogony in the Timaeus) each with disparate qualities. The most important distinction between earthly stuff and heavenly stuff is that the former is corruptible, ephemeral, and, therefore mortal, while the latter is incorruptible, immutable and, therefore, immortal. So for men steeped in the Greco-philic Roman world, such Hellenistic ideas of perishable versus imperishable substances informed how they thought about the contrary natures of the physical body compared to the ethereal soul. When Paul talks about us being resurrected “in the spirit” (or when the Johannine Jesus talks about being “reborn” from “above”), he is, in essence, talking about our bodies being remade out of the imperishable heavenly “stuff” (cf. Aristotle’s quintessence), rather than the perishable earthly “stuff” (i.e the classical four elements of earth, air, water and fire). I know these are rather esorteric concepts to get across to a general audience, but I believe if you could elucidate these concepts to your readers they may come to appreciate how early Christian thinkers arrived at a philosophical rationale in adopting the belief of a mortal body dying and being “resurrected” into a form that could never die (cf. Justin Martyr, et al.). There was actually a logical, rational reason why the ancients came to believe something that to the modern, scientific mind now seems almost ridiculous.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  October 14, 2016

      talmoor, explained in this way makes somewhat (or at least a little) more sense than Dr. Ehrman’s too short phrase “brought back to life bodily”. As why would I want to come back to a body of the same “stuff” which is growing older every day and getting more and more prone to break down?

      Now if I come back with a body made of this incorruptible “stuff” that sounds better, I suppose.
      Is my abode the planet earth? Is the planet earth also magically changed to incorruptible “stuff”? Is that the meaning of new heaven and new earth?

      Are there reasonable answers to those questions?
      And, more importantly for Dr Erhman’s thesis, was this really the teaching of Jesus?

  5. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 9, 2016

    Deuteronomy 28:1-14 lays out the blessings if Israel obeys the law. Deuteronomy 28:15-45 itemizes the curses for those that do not obey the law .
    So since Israel had been suffering the Pharisees came to believe that God was punishing Israel for disobeying the Mosaic law.
    To make sure that Israelites would not disobey the law the Pharisees developed more and more rules to make sure everyone understood what was required.

    Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being legalistic and not understanding the true character of the law.

    Matthew 23:23
    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy
    and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

    However the Pharisees were only trying to comply with Deuteronomy 28 to stop the curses

  6. Avatar
    mjt  October 9, 2016

    Is this a common view among scholars? That eternal life happens here on earth? Is it just among critical scholars? I can’t imagine many conservative scholars share this notion.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2016

      I don’t know anyone who personally thinks this. But a number of scholars think that this is what Jesus and his followers thought.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 9, 2016

    I don’t doubt that this is what those people believed. But I find it hard to understand anyone’s looking forward to an eternal future in which there would be *no more children*!

  8. Avatar
    cmcotham  October 9, 2016

    The relationship between hell and human psychology would be fascinating to me. Thus, the invention of hell could be fruitfully looked at as the result of certain psychological forces. This would take you outside of your normal historical approach, but considering your look at the psychology of memory and oral tradition in your last book, you could continue to pursue this angle which may be tickling your curiosity at the moment.

    For instance, why the staggering, incomprehensible, unimaginable cruelty of the doctrine? Why would it seemingly turn up in the New Testament, which, on the face of it, does seem to portray a more loving, forgiving God than the wrathful one in the Pentateuch? And (this one strikes me personally, as a former evangelical, raised as one from infancy), should it be considered as a form of psychological abuse? I’ve heard Richard Dawkins describe it as such, especially when considered in the context of child rearing. Given the extreme anxieties I suffered in relation to the doctrine (I can’t recall how many times I rose my hand to accept Christ into my heart as a child just to be sure I was going to heaven!), this one hits home to me, though I’m reticent to say so, because clearly my parents loved me and were concerned for my future, in this life and the next. But one can certainly see how difficult such a doctrine might make it for a child to, for example, “disobey” (which is often just a healthy assertion of independence), or rationally look at evidence and make up one’s own mind, without having to wait for the maturity of adulthood to be strong enough to do so, etc.

    And how about the Christian apologetic, e.g. of C.S. Lewis, who defends hell as a consequence of “free will”–hell is there because everyone there is making a free choice to be there! Is that how the Christian doctrine of hell originated, as some sort of logical, theological consequence of the Christian doctrine of free will? He even goes so far to say that EVEN WHILE THEY ARE BEING TORMENTED, they are choosing to be there because they hate God so much (I heard this again at an evangelical funeral just two weeks ago). How could anyone regard this as a realistic understanding of human psychology, of how and why we choose? Even Biblically speaking, Lazarus cried out to Abraham across the gulf between heaven and hell, for Abraham to give him just a drink of water to alleviate his torments, and pleaded with Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers. That hardly sounds like a person behaving like Satan, rebelling, hating, and suffering at every moment! Surely most people hope there is a heaven, and that they are going there, but are rather unsure about the whole thing. Does Christianity, psychologically speaking, just slip in there as a way to overcome the uncertainty? One would probably need to study the psychology of fundamentalism in religion generally.

    I’d be VERY interested in the book!

    Thank you so much for your work!

  9. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  October 9, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,
    Along with describing how the ideas of heaven and hell came about, I hope you will talk about the parables. I have searched for them on your site but have not found any discussion.
    Thomas F Perkins

  10. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 9, 2016

    Perhaps your next post will explain and I should just be patient. But why would Jesus talk about hell if he believed instead in the resurrection of the dead? Were his references to hell the creation of the Gospel writers? I’m pretty sure Jesus predicted that evildoers would be punished when the Son of Man came but was that punishment supposed to be forever? I suppose unending punishment in a resurrected body could be pretty similar to hell?

  11. TWood
    TWood  October 9, 2016

    Jesus’ statements to the thief on the cross (today you will be with me in Paradise) and in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man seem to indicate some kind of afterlife before the final resurrection, don’t they? I suppose you might say these were not historical statements given by Jesus… but these passages still seem to indicate a very early tradition that Jesus said things like this… maybe. IDK.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2016

      Yes they do. And no, I don’t think Jesus said these things.

  12. Avatar
    jrauch  October 10, 2016

    Great topic to write about! You believe that Paul thought there was some kind of interim existence with Christ. When Paul wrote “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”, could he have believed that since the dead have no consciousness; they know nothing and have no awareness (Ecclesiates 9:5), that from the moment he died until his resurrection at the 2nd coming of Christ, it would seem like only an instant of time had passed. Even if there was a period of time between his death and resurrection, for him it would be instantaneous because he would have no awareness of that resting/sleeping time. He would die and immediately be with Christ. I believe that he thought it was best for him to live so that he could continue to preach to the Philippians so that they would have an eternal reward rather than eternal punishment at the 2nd coming of Christ.

  13. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 10, 2016

    There is one scripture that contradicts your premise.
    Luke 21:20
    Jesus Foretells Destruction of Jerusalem
    “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.

    This passage is parallel with Matthew 24 except it makes clear that Jesus is talking about the end of the Jewish religious system.

    If Luke 21:20 was not inserted at some later date then Jesus is clearly talking about the end of the Jewish religious system and Jerusalem as the end times.

    At least you should mention this scripture as being inconsistent with your premise

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  October 14, 2016

      Jesus never believed in the end of the Jewish religious system. That is one of the many fantasies “Christians” invented to explain their vey existence,

  14. Avatar
    mjt  October 10, 2016

    So, the righteous will live forever on earth…what happens to the wicked? Do they get to live here forever too, but in some state where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2016

      I’m not sure!!

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  October 10, 2016

      Probably Missouri.

      Just kidding.

      Bart, your comments about ‘bodily resurrection’ – especially by Paul – helps explain the peculiar disdain many fundamentalists have with cremation; even though they probably couldn’t explain why they are uncomfortable with it.

      My mother falls into this category. She has mentioned on occasion, when hearing about somebody being cremated, that she couldn’t understand why anyone would do that. She has actually admitted that she isn’t sure why, but it just seems ‘non-Biblical’. I am certain she doesn’t actually believe in bodily resurrection, but rather has experienced some cognitive dissonance about what she reads from Paul and what she has been told is ‘proper’ theology.

  15. Avatar
    skhackett  October 11, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, cmcothman mentioned at the end of their comment posted on 10/9 that, “One would probably need to study the psychology of fundamentalism in religion…” Is this a topic you have covered in depth in any of your trade books? Having over the past few years found myself moving farther and farther away from my former fundamentalist beliefs, I have been intrigued/mystified at what I used to believe, and just how passionately I believed it. Any recommendations you could provide for further reading or study on this topic would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      No, I never have, since I’m not an expert on modern religion. You might be interested though in the books on it by George Marsden.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 11, 2016

    I can’t believe you are already off on another project. You are incredible. When in the world do you mow the yard?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      Yeah, I have to admit: I don’t!

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 12, 2016

        Speaking of your ‘capacity for work’, your ability to read/consume information must be incredibly high.

        Assuming it was new material to you, roughly how long would it take you to read a book like, say, “Misquoting Jesus”?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2016

          Probably three or four hours, depending on how well I was focused. If I wanted simply to suck the marrow out of it, an hour or two.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 11, 2016

    While I don’t personally believe it, I think something I read years ago, by some Catholic theologian (I have no idea who), is the most “morally acceptable” view of Hell: The souls there aren’t suffering in any way! All it involves is eternal separation from God, which they’ve freely chosen. They don’t feel that they’re missing anything – though in fact, the souls *in* God’s presence are experiencing bliss the others can’t imagine.

  18. Avatar
    jhague  October 11, 2016

    If Paul believes that God’s kingdom will be on Earth, why does he say in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
    Why caught up in the clouds in the air?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      Yes, Paul is very confusing! I wish he were here to ask.

  19. Avatar
    Jana  October 11, 2016

    So in order to be resurrected and enter Heaven, one must not only believe in Christ’s Resurrection but also be a righteous person? This is radically different from the Romans right (being righteous) from what I read in your previous blogs? And Paul alludes to the “Second Coming” which I heard sometimes among more evangelical friends? Who or What would have determined righteous actions from evil actions? How was this to be determined?

  20. Avatar
    iameyes137  October 15, 2016

    Something to ponder upon, regarding the topic of Hell, are the three different types mentioned in the N.T. Using the KJV because of its longer time as an influencer upon our thoughts, we see these three types of “Hells”.
    Mark 9:43 “…go into hell…”, Strong’s #1067: Valley of Hinnom.
    2Peter 2:4 “…down to hell…”, Strong’s #5020: Tartaros.
    Revelation 1:18 “…keys of hell…”, Strong’s #86: Hades.
    Three distinctly unique places that are destinations for wrongdoers.

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