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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
    meohanlon  October 26, 2016

    Given the expectation the first Christians had about the old world to give way to God’s kingdom on Earth, I’m wondering if there is any passage in the New Testament, that answers the following questions this raises, at least according to scholarly opinion:
    If this involves new, imperishable bodies, does this mean one has to die physically in order to reborn, or does that only involve some kind of transfiguration that goes along with the spiritual rebirth Jesus tells Nicodemus about (almost as though spiritual transformation had to happen before one was worthy of the new body in God’s kingdom)?
    Since this dialogue appears in John, does it reflect a reinterpretation of an earlier notion of rebirth when no apocalypse had come to pass within a generation of Jesus’ death?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2016

      My sense is that John thinks the rebirth happens in this life, here and now, and that when reborn you *have* (not *will get*) eternal life. But of course things change when you die and you go to the heavenly realm to one of the “mansions” Jesus has prepared for you (John 14:2)

  2. Avatar
    mdwyer  November 5, 2016

    Did Jesus believe that Hell would exist on earth or in some other realm?

  3. Avatar
    gavm  November 26, 2016

    Please do a book on heaven and hell

  4. Avatar
    Michele  October 22, 2018

    Dr Ehrman,
    about the changes in Luke’s possible postponed date in the 120s you said:
    “It actually wouldn’t change it much, although it might make scholars less inclined to give an early date to Q”

    Why? Even if Luke was written in 120s, remaining Matthew in the 80s, Q should keep the same date, or no? I mean, Luke was in any case written after Matthew
    In any case what date?
    Thank you so much!

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2018

      some people argue that if two sources knew of the document in the 80s, it would suggest it was written and distributed much earlier than that, whereas if only *one* source knew it in teh 80s, not so much. It’s probably a specious argument

      • Avatar
        Michele  October 25, 2018

        If I can I’d like to take advantage of your kindness to ask you why, when Tompicard asked you:

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

        You answered:
        “I suppose the dispute with the Sadducees over the resurrection in Luke 20?”, instead of Marc 12,18-27 from which Luke 20 is taken? Or was it just a randomness?

        Thank you really much!

        Michele Fornelli

        • Bart
          Bart  October 26, 2018

          That’s a great question. I’m surprised that I didn’t cite Mark 12, as that would always be my first inclination! Maybe my NT was open to Luke at that time…

  5. Avatar
    GeorgieC7  November 2, 2018

    “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
    I’ve always wondered what this meant. It seems to imply in heaven there were dwelling places for the faithful.
    Was this even translated from the Greek correctly?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      The word “mansion” is a mistranslation, but it does mean something like dwelling place/ room. There are places for them to go at death, to be with God (for the Gospel of John).

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