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Journeys to Heaven and Hell: A Sketch of My Project

As I indicated in my previous post, I’ve decided to write a scholarly book on tours of heaven and hell in ancient Christian texts.  I am tentatively calling the book “Observing the Dead: Otherworldly Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition.”   I decided last week to come up with a 1000 word sketch of what I am thinking so far, about what the book would be and why it is needed.   This is just a draft for my own thinking, written for scholars more than for layfolk.  But it’s pretty clear and understandable I think, and can indicate how/what I’m thinking in the broadest terms at this point.  Tell me what you think!


My project entails an exploration of early Christian texts that narrate voyages to the realms of heaven and hell, depicting, often in graphic detail, the ecstasies of the blessed and the torments of the damned.   My overarching goal will be to elucidate not only various conceptions of the mysteries of the beyond, but even more to explore how such afterlife journeys embody and project richly varied Christian understandings of the goals and priorities of life in the present.

Similar stories of katabasis (“Descent”) and anabasis (“Ascent”) can be found in numerous ancient literatures from the very beginning – including famous accounts in both the Gilgamesh epic and the Odyssey.   Such …

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  1. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 27, 2017

    Personally, I would be especially interested in the social contexts that gave rise to different views of the afterlife, ie, what function did they fulfill not only to promote morality in many cases but to meet “psychological” needs and provide meaning. I’d also be especially interested in how the views of the afterlife varied based on the differences in their societys’/cultures’ (more or less) “scientific” understanding of the world and how it worked. To what degree did this scientific understanding constrain views of the afterlife?

  2. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 27, 2017

    Are any of the Christian materials you’ll be examining considered orthodox? They’re not in the canon nor do Christian Churches think they were written by Apostles like Peter and Paul, do they? I can easily believe that, despite this, they’ve been very influential on Christian thought (and also reflect Christian thought) but wonder to what degree these ideas been officially accepted by the Churches?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      Yes, absolutely I’ll be looking at orthodox documents! I’ll be trying to cover the entire range of what is available (the book of Revelation, for example)

  3. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  August 27, 2017

    Dr Bart are there gospels written around the same the time the books of the of bible were written which were not canonized?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      The earliest non-canonical Gospels are probalby the Gospels of Peter and of Thomas, both of which I date to around 120 CE or so, maybe 30 years after the last of the canonical Gospels (John). But there were almost certainly earlier Gospels that do *not* survive, since Luke indicates that he knew a number of them (Luke 1:1-4).

  4. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 27, 2017

    Oh! I so want to read this. Excellent and my best wishes for that fellowship.

  5. Avatar
    mythosboy  August 27, 2017

    You may consider the interesting journey of St. Drythelm of Melrose found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (bk 5: 12). Sort of a bridge between the traditions of Hell of Late Antiquity and those of the Medieval Period. Though maybe a bit after your emphasis. Great blog by the way!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      Yup, I”m only covering only the first five centuries. But thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 27, 2017

    You are truly an amazing scholar.

  7. Avatar
    catguy  August 27, 2017

    I think someone else asked a similar question. I am curious if the values of a given culture and their mythological understandings of the purpose of life and death were fairly consistent with all members of that culture when it came to an understanding of what happens to a person at death. Also I have to wonder what causes a society to believe all who die experience the same blah rather uninspiring eternity regardless of their moral conduct. It would seem to me that even in the most primitive cultures there would be some belief in a reward for the good and punishment for the wicked.

  8. kadmiral
    kadmiral  August 27, 2017

    If I get the gist of your sketch, it looks like you will be tracing conceptions of the afterlife from as early as you can find them through the fifth century, noting similarities and differences along the way. Some questions I would want to explore would be:

    1. What are the origins of conceptions of the afterlife? Why and where did they first come about?

    2. Is there any kind of evident evolution of thought of conceptions of the afterlife through the fifth century?

    3. Are the biblical conceptions of the afterlife original, or do they clearly borrow/copy/change for their own purposes what was before? (It seems, though I could be wrong, that you are not specifically focusing on biblical conceptions and are not writing the book for the purpose of singling out and dealing with the Bible’s conceptions, but if I may, what I have come to expect from you is that there would be a dealing with what is “really” going on with what the biblical authors are doing with said genre and material.)

    4. This is way out in left field, but what would be extra fascinating, if it were possible, is having a part late in the book that examines conceptions of the afterlife from people who have had near death experiences from before the fifth century, if they exist, and if there is any overlap from what you have uncovered in the literature. But that might be a topic for another book, that you would not write LOL.

    At any rate your sketch looks like a great idea with much to discover and talk about.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      Ah, no, that’s not actually what my book is about. I’m not talking about the origins of the views of the afterlife there. But I *will* be talking about that in my *other* book, written for popular audiences. And that’s where I”ll be dealing with the kinds of questions you’ve asked.

  9. Avatar
    Jayredinger  August 28, 2017

    Hi Bart, do we have manuscripts that were written by the authors of canonical books that did not make it into the canon? That is, for instance, are there manuscripts written by Paul that are not part of our modern day canon?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      Nope! (We have other books *claiming* to be written by Paul, and Peter, and John, and so on — but nothing that was aactually written by them)

  10. Avatar
    Jayredinger  August 28, 2017

    On another side note, after watching a TV documentary about the shape of crosses used by the Romans for crucifixions, what is the historical shape of the crosses used? The documentary suggested an X shape rather than the now famous + shape.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      The earliest references that I’m familiar with indicate a T shape.

  11. Avatar
    jmmarine1  August 28, 2017

    Have you a publisher picked out for your scholarly book? The book that requires a fellowship does not sound like the typical S&S title. May you return to Oxford for this book?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      I’m not sure yet whether to go with Oxford or another university press. Thinking about it!

  12. John4
    John4  August 28, 2017

    Go, Bart, go! 😀

  13. Avatar
    nbraith1975  August 28, 2017

    I would be interested to know what influence Christianity’s view of an afterlife had on governments and also early Church leadership. Specifically, the teaching that morality plays a big part in what happens to someone in the afterlife. Did leaders like Constantine and Theodosius I take advantage of the Christian Church’s reward/punishment afterlife doctrine to help keep the peace and control the masses? And did Church leaders take advantage of the reward/punishment afterlife doctrine to keep Church “members” paying their penance and financially supporting the Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      I don’t know of any evidence that Christian emperors used fear of the afterlife to their advantage. But if someone else knows of something, I hope they tell us!

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 28, 2017

    I’m not sure how much (or probably how little) source material there exists on different ancient cultures’ views of the near-death experience (i.e. tunnels, bright lights, deceased loved ones, spiritual guides, etc.), but this would be an interesting area of research as well.

    Your research project sounds like it will indeed contribute valuable insights to an understudied topic.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      Yes, as it turns out there are cross-cultural studies of Near Death Experiences! Some features are commonly shared across cultures; others (e.g., the “life in a flash”) are culture-specific.

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  August 29, 2017

        Thanks. I guess what I was more getting at with my question was in line with kadmiral’s #4 comment/question above. Do we have any sources from before the 5th century (first-hand or otherwise) that describe what we would classify today as a near-death experience (i.e. “dying” and returning to tell about it)?

  15. talmoore
    talmoore  August 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, is this part of your proposal to the Fellowship committee?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2017

      It’s just a draft for myself to use in order to write a proposal. The problem is that different fellowships have different requirements — some 1000 words; some two pages; some … other things…

  16. cheriq
    cheriq  August 28, 2017

    I’m looking forward to reading this! Hurry! 🙂

  17. Avatar
    Jason  September 17, 2017

    In this sense would Zoroastrianism be considered Pagan, and will the “Bridge of Judgement” be one of the traditions considered?

  18. Avatar
    Jana  October 17, 2017

    Honestly Dr. Ehrman … the title doesn’t suit the THRILLING scholarship and exploration involved. Is your heart set on the title? (I don’t wish to offend but it’s a little boring for a trade book and you asked for honesty). I can’t wait for this book to be published!!! (still catching up in doses / the material is so new that I feel overwhelmed after a while)

  19. Avatar
    Eirini  November 24, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman! I just listened to a Pod cast of your blogg and heard about your new project. I was thrilled! I’m a student at MidSweden university in Sweden and I just work on a translation into swedish of the gnostic apocalypse of Paul found in Nag Hammadi codex V. This is under the supervision of Dr. Jörgen Magnusson. I’m specially interested in the anabasis/katabasis-theme in valentinian rites and their sacraments, so I’m really looking forward reading your book. Are you going to mention/ comment on the Nag Hammadi apocalyptic texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2017

      I haven’t decided yet which texts to focus on. NH ApocPaul is an obvious choice. Are there other NH sine qua non in your judgment?

      • Avatar
        Eirini  November 25, 2017

        Thank you for your answer and question Dr Ehrman! About revelations with journeys in discoursive form : Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1) and Marsanes (NHC X, 10) . Another revelation journey in dialogue form, like the revelation of Paul, is Zostrianos (NHC VIII,1) .

  20. Avatar
    Eirini  November 26, 2017

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman, for the question. An honour! The great thing about Paul’s revelation it’s that it is short but gives a lot of information about his ascendance, one heavenly realm at a time from the third up to the tenth ??? There is an enigma! There are a lot of metaphors and symbolism in it and I think it was appealing to it’s readers two millennia ago as it is with video game players reading a shortcut guide for a game today: What must l do in order to get to the next level? What is the sign and where do I get it? What is the proper answer to the evil Dimiurge? Yes indeed! Interesting stuff! 🙂

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