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(Later) Early Christian Understandings of Heaven and Hell

Yesterday I gave Part One of a two-part discussion of the “invention” of heaven and hell, from my book Jesus Interrupted.  There I sketched out the apocalyptic vision of what would happen at the end of time as the original view among the followers of Jesus.  Here is where I continue that discussion into some reflections of where the Christian teachings of the afterlife, as later formulated, came from.



The Transformation of the Apocalyptic Vision

What happens when this expected end doesn’t happen?  What happens when the apocalyptic scenario that Jesus expected to occur in “this generation” never comes?  When Paul’s expectation that he will be alive at the second coming of Christ is radically disconfirmed by his own death?  When the resurrection of the dead is delayed, interminably, making a mockery of the widespread belief that it will happen “soon”?

One thing that happens, of course, is that some people begin to mock.  That is the problem addressed in the final book of the New Testament to be written, 2 Peter, which insists that when God says that it will all happen very soon, he means by the divine calendar, not the human.  And one needs always to remember that “with the Lord, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).  This means, I suppose, that if the end is supposed to come next Tuesday, it could be some Tuesday four thousand years from now.

One other thing that happens when the end does not come is…

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Jesus, The Law, and the New Covenant
Jesus and Paul on Heaven and Hell



  1. Avatar
    RevJoni  October 10, 2016

    I don’t subscribe to the heaven or hell stuff at all. I do feel the kingdom of God is here and now and it is up to us to make it. But tell me, Jesus said this, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” To what was he referring?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      A heavenly residence for his followers. (I don’t think these words in John’s Gospel are actually something Jesus himself spoke though)

      • Avatar
        Eric  October 13, 2016

        But doesn’t this imply that the author of John was not an apocalypticist but more of an “immortality of the soul” thinker?

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  October 10, 2016

    But was the change a function of the delay in the Parousia or more a result of the fact that the message which originated in a Jewish context was adapted into a Gentile one? Wouldn’t Gentile Christians carrying their own philosophical and cultural baggage into the Church with them have found the idea of a bodily physical resurrection and a earthly kingdom to be weird and absurd?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      It would seem sensible, but the doctrine of the resurrection of hte dead is found most explicitly in two of Paul’s letters that he wrote specifically to converted pagans/gentiles (1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians)

  3. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 10, 2016

    Bart, have you read “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger? He’s the guy who developed the theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The book was written in the 50s and it documented a Flying Saucer group who had made definite prophecies for the near future about world destruction and aliens coming down to save the faithful. He and his group infiltrated them and studied them. Really fascinating and slightly depressing as you see them fumble around for answers as to why the prophecies keep failing.

    Anyway, your post reminded me of it. It makes sense that this is what happened in the early Church. We just didn’t have government funded scientists running around recording the nitty gritty for all of posterity to read. And so there is just enough left for the faithful to keep believing. But what Festinger’s book shows is that even in the midst of overwhelming disconfirmation the faithful will always find a rationalization and a reinterpretation to keep the belief going.

  4. Avatar
    twiskus  October 10, 2016

    In your *potential* upcoming book of the afterlife, I know you will probably be approaching it from a historical perspective, but what about discussing the contraindications the Bible lays out theologically about whether or not those who have *not heard* of Jesus go to hell?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      I don’t think the Bible talks about that.

      • Avatar
        twiskus  October 12, 2016

        Your thoughts?

        The ignorant are NOT punished

        There are several Bible verses that suggest the ignorant are not held accountable for their sins.

        If I had not come and spoken to them [the world], they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.
        — John 15:22

        The Law brings about wrath, but where there is no Law, there also is no violation.
        — Romans 4:15

        In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
        — Acts 17:30

        But if the ignorant are excused from sin and wrath, then the first rule of Christianity should be, “Don’t talk about Christianity.” If knowledge brings with it the possibility of condemnation, then it is better to never receive that knowledge.

        The ignorant are ARE punished

        On the flip side, there are other verses that suggest the ignorant will be punished.

        All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law …
        — Romans 2:12

        He will punish those who do not know God … They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
        — 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

        But if the ignorant will still “perish apart from the law” for their sins, then God comes across as unfair for punishing the ignorant.

        The ignorant are are punished on a sliding scale

        There are also verses that hint that judgement varies according to how much knowledge you have.

        But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.
        — Luke 12:48

        My brothers and sisters, not many of you should be teachers … we who teach will be judged more strictly than others.
        — James 3:1

        But if more knowledge means more potential punishment, then we’re back to the first rule of Christianity: “Don’t talk about Christianity!”

        While these verses appear to contradict one another, fundamentalists insist there are no contradictions, and that we should look to the larger Biblical themes to facilitate our understanding of these verses.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2016

          My view is that hte Bible does not have a consistent teaching on the matter.

          • Avatar
            twiskus  October 13, 2016

            I guess that’s my point! Haha.

  5. Avatar
    christophe  October 10, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,

    you say: “No longer is the physical resurrection discussed or even believed.” but the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed mention explicitly the resurrection of the dead, and most Christians even today profess this creed. So I am a bit confused, it seems to me the belief of hell and heaven didn’t replace the idea of a resurrection at the end time. Or am I thinking this wrong?
    Also, in 2 Corinthians 5:1, is Paul talking about some sort of heaven, as a temporary place before the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      It may be in the creed, but my sense is that most Xns don’t subscribe to the idea.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 12, 2016

        I agree with you – but it’s in the “Apostles’ Creed” too (the one most used by Catholics, at least when I was growing up). And – again, at least when I was young – Catholicism taught that it was very desirable, if possible, to have amputated limbs buried with the rest of the body, to facilitate its being “restored” in the afterlife. Nowadays, I’m sure the Church is receptive to such practices as donating a dead person’s organs for transplant. But they just quietly began accepting it, without acknowledging a change in doctrine.

      • Avatar
        clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 12, 2016

        In the Catholic Church I have a strong impression that both the doctrines of heaven/hell and bodily resurrection have been preserved – probably because both are in the NT (even though, as critical scholars say, it’s unlikely that heaven/hell go back to Jesus). Heaven/hell are “interim” as for Paul but a much longer interim than Paul had in mind. Christ’s second coming is still clearly a doctrine. However, now that you mention it, people talk much more about heaven/hell than resurrection. There is much emphasis on vertical than horizontal dualism.

      • Avatar
        mjoniak  October 15, 2016

        Well, most Christians that I’ve met do believe in literal physical resurrection at the end of the age. The teaching was explicitly taught in all Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches that I’ve seen. I’m also sure that it’s a dogma in all the churches that accept the creed (which means almost all of them). So, frankly, I don’t agree with you there.

  6. TWood
    TWood  October 10, 2016

    When you say “…This view of the eternal and bodiless existence of the soul is found not in the New Testament…” some passages come to mind that I’m wondering how you deal with… here are some examples: Dan 12:2, Matt 25:46, 2 Cor 5:8, Phil 1:23, 2 Thess 1:9, Rev 14:11, etc.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  October 11, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, if I could return you to that controversial (alleged) quote by Papias, the authenticity of which you have said you doubted:

    “The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’ In like manner, [He said] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear would have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that apples, and seeds, and grass would produce in similar proportions; and that all animals, feeding then only on the productions of the earth, would become peaceable and harmonious, and be in perfect subjection to man.”

    Now, to my ears as a social scientist — not an historian or religious scholar — this quote sounds *exactly* like the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric I would expect an apocalyptic cult leader to say to his followers, most of which would find hope and sanguinity in such a ludicrous depiction. It doesn’t sound, at all, like something someone would make up post hoc, many years after such a prophetic promise very obviously failed to materialize. That is to say, who would ascribe such a manifestly outlandish promise to a long dead man, when at the same time a mutated doctrine of, as you put it, a “vertical” rather than a “horizontal” notion of salvation and damnation was developing?

    To my sense as someone who studies human behavior in detail, the exact opposite would be expected. Jesus was such a captivating speaker precisely because he was able to convincingly proclaim such manifestly ridiculous expectations to a willingly ravenous crowd. This purported quote of Jesus — if not completely accurate — I believe, at the very least, is much, much closer to the way the historical Jesus would have preached, the way he would reach the hopeless, the downcast, the restive, who needed someone to tell them that things were not only going to be better, but much better in a way that, just you wait, oh boy, is it ever going to be awesome! (cf. one current Republican nominee for president)

    THAT sounds like the kind of guy who could convince men and women to disown their (hard-headed) families and communities to follow a ragtag apocalyptic cult down to Jerusalem to await the Final Judgment and the Kingdom of God, which would be coming any day now (just you wait and see!) If you consider this possibility, all the pieces suddenly fall into place and the emergence of an established religion out of a backwoods Galilean apocalyptic cult makes far more sense. Don’t you think?

    I mean, we actually have real-world examples of such a thing happening in recent history. Just look at the Mormons. Anyone outside the LDS Church can see that Joseph Smith’s ideas are completely and utterly ridiculous and absurd, and yet the Mormon church is thriving! Jesus probably did the same thing. He made utterly outlandish promises that, upon his death, this loyal followers simply couldn’t let go of. And it was only much later, decades later, when such exaggerated expectations began to sound really ridiculous, that Jesus’ message of promising a million grapes from one vine was swept under the rug, replaced by the relatively more reasonable and universal notion of a heaven full of angels playing harps, and a hell full of demons roasting the wicked on spits.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 12, 2016

      But how do you know that Jesus *was* a “captivating” speaker?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 13, 2016

        If Jesus wasn’t a captivating speaker then I highly doubt that anyone would have followed him. The best way to impress a group of 1st century men was either to be a great warrior and general or a wise and learned orator, and I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t the former.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  October 13, 2016

      I am not a member of LDS church, but stand up for their right to their beliefs, but more than that I am of the opinion that Jesus’ teachings were not ludicrous.

      Which specific teachings of Joseph Smith do you consider of comparable absurdity as 10,000×10,000×10,000×10,000 increase in agricultural produce?

      That a tribe of Israel travelled to America? though there is no evidence of it that i am aware of, it does not seem inconceivable. there is evidence (not sure how good) that Polynesian sailors made it to South America

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 13, 2016

        Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon wrote that the ancient native Americans (who, as you point out, Smith believed were descended from a lost tribe of Jews) had a great civilization on par with the ancient Near East, that they had iron weapons and horses. And that this civilization collapsed after a giant battle with countless casualites. So far all the evidence shows that the Native Americans are not related to the Jews — genetics completely rules that out — and that the Natives never learned to produce iron implements, and that horses went extinct in the Americas thousands of year before the purported events of the Book of Mormon. Moreover, there is not one shred of evidence for a massive battle anywhere on the continent before Europeans arrived. Not one iron spearhead. Not one arrowhead. Not one skeleton. Nothing. So, yeah, Joseph Smith was a fraud.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  October 15, 2016

          He seems like a fraud to me to the point that I doubt that he really “believed were descended from a lost tribe of Jews.”

      • Avatar
        AggieGnostic  October 13, 2016

        My own belief is that there are no such things as prophets, only wickedly clever people and those eager to believe in them.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 14, 2016

        You’re not suggesting, are you, that a people’s right to believe what they want implies a right to not have their beliefs/claims called into question? Jesus’ teachings were not so ludicrous in the Jewish environment that he lived.
        On the other point, it becomes less and less conceivable that Israelites went to South America. There is no genetic evidence among South American natives and Israelites weren’t a seafaring people like the Polynesians.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  October 15, 2016

          not suggesting that.
          agree Jesus teachings were not not ludicrous in his environment (nor ours).

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  October 19, 2016

      I don’t think your version of Jesus of Nazareth bears any relation whatsoever to the “real” man, and I doubt he went around making outlandish promises. You seem to want to attribute foolish things to Jesus so they fit your interpretation of him as something of a celestial jerk.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 19, 2016

        To whom are you addressing this? What “outlandish promises” and “foolish things” are you referring to that would make him seem like a jerk?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 20, 2016

        I’m not the one attributing “foolish things” to Jesus. Papias is the one attributing foolish things to Jesus. I’m only agreeing with Papias.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  October 22, 2016

          That is interesting.

          Ok, rather you agree with Papais’ attribution of “foolish things to Jesus [as] they fit your interpretation of him as something of a celestial jerk.” ?

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 11, 2016

    Odd that a belief not taught by Jesus or Paul becomes the standard Christian belief.

  9. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  October 11, 2016

    Doesn’t the story of Lazarus and the rich man found in Luke represent the concept of heaven and hell?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      Kind of! But I dion’t think the story goes back to Jesus.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 15, 2016

        Even if it doesn’t go back to Jesus, you need to qualify your statement
        ” . . . This view of the eternal and bodiless existence of the soul is found not in the New Testament, . . “

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 11, 2016

    Wasn’t the parable of heaven and hell ,depicted in The Rich Man and Lazarus story told by Jesus in Luke 16 already part of the Jewish tradition and originally came from the Greeks.

    So if you are physically comfortable
    In this life ,you will suffer physically in the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      We don’t have an exact parallel to the story in either Jewish or Greek traditions before Jesus. But the point of the story is that the wealthy cannot neglect the needs of the poor and expect to get away with it.

  11. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  October 11, 2016

    is there a possibility that the bart ehrman blog has been hacked?
    on my screen new icons are appearing which weren’t there before.
    articles which were listed in member content are no longer there.

  12. Avatar
    Hume  October 11, 2016

    Did the ancient Jews borrow dualism, the day of judgement, and a dualistic afterlife from the Persians through their state religion Zoroastrianism when they were conquered?

    *If you say no, why couldn’t they have borrowed it? Just like they borrow the Flood story from Gilgamesh and the opening of Genesis from Enuma Elish.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      It is often thought so!

      • Avatar
        Hume  October 12, 2016

        Haha, ok. And you think so too??

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2016

          I’m not an expert in Zoroastrianism, but am planning on reading up on it soon, after lo these many years. But yes, this is my understanding too.

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  October 19, 2016

            I heard Reza Aslan state on public television that it was not the Jews who Invented monotheism, but Zoroaster.
            Generally speaking, I think Aslan is a brilliant man and a remarkably articulate speaker, but I don’t believe he’s any friend of the Jews. And yet, friends tell me of Aslan not only being welcomed to Jewish Reform temples, but acclaimed.

  13. Avatar
    doug  October 11, 2016

    The reaction of early Christians to the failure of the Kingdom of God to come soon is, to me, one of the most fascinating parts of early Christianity. The soon-coming Kingdom was *central* to Jesus’ message – and it didn’t happen.

  14. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 11, 2016

    Jesus says very little Regarding the physical resurrection. Paul, on the other hand sounds like a used car salesman Describing in detail what happens when Jesus returns (1 cor 15:51 and 1Thes 4:13-17).
    Most people assume the “we ” that Paul talks about is the people living today. But I now see that Paul is assuming that Jesus will come back during his lifetime .

  15. Avatar
    Jana  October 11, 2016

    I have not read Jesus Interrupted and I had better! Good. Found it!!

  16. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 12, 2016

    Do you know of any reference to “the bosom of Abraham” predating the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man? That and the taking up of Enoch and Elijah in the OT seem to recognize there are people who are too righteous to languish in Sheol/Hades with the rest of us. The notion that God is above the sky and a rudimentary knowledge of what goes on below the earth, yielding volcanic eruptions, would have suggested that underground can’t be such neutral territory as some writers on antiquities characterize it being.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 12, 2016

    I can see the “horizontal” concept of salvation/damnation being replaced by the “vertical.” But do you think it could have happened if there hadn’t already been traditions about the “underworld” as a place of the dead (e.g., Sheol)?

  18. Avatar
    Monty  October 12, 2016

    Bart, another alternate idea for the title of your upcoming book: “Genesis of the Afterlife.” “Genesis” connotes a beginning with a story behind it, without any language suggesting a human construction that might limit your readership unnecessarily. And I think that is important, because even fundamentalists who will in all likelihood disagree with the evidence and the conclusion, still – if they read your book – stand to be exposed to some challenging ideas that they certainly will not get from the pulpit. The word “genesis” also adds a bit of irony that creates an almost involuntary psychological connection with the creation stories relating to THIS earthly life, something a fundamentalist would be predisposed to have an interest in.

  19. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 13, 2016

    The good-and-evil dualism/apocalypticism of Jews before and after the first century is fairly easy to understand (after you explained it). They were in fact obeying a God who was supposed to be good but they still had great suffering over a long period of time. So early Christianity, which grew out of Judaism, had to replace apocalyptic horizontal dualism with vertical dualism when Jesus didn’t return.

    But why did the other peoples that the Romans had conquered eventually become so receptive to the good-and-evil dualism of Christianity. I wouldn’t guess that they were worse off than the Jews – not enough to develop their own apocalyptic worldview. And not having a god who was supposed to be as good as the Jewish God, they didn’t have the theodicy problem that Jews and Christians did. As part of a fairly/relatively advanced and rational civilization, why would they replace a realistic view of death with belief in afterlife?

    I ask this because I can clearly see how heaven and hell developed out of Jewish/Christian apocalypticism. But I can’t see why either horizontal or vertical dualism would later be compelling to a great many non-Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2016

      My sense is that Christians were not preaching the idea of dualism but the message of Christ and his God, and the dualism came with it once people converted.

  20. Avatar
    emetzler  October 13, 2016

    I would love it if you were to write a book about the evolution of the doctrines of heaven and hell! (Especially hell.) They are so central to the modern Christian gospel and yet so absent from the vast majority of the Bible. As someone who grew up going to church, I remember how shocked I was when I (accidentally! no thanks to the church) discovered there is no hell in the O.T. I felt tricked!

    Keep educating us, Professor. And thank you!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 15, 2016

      emetzler, you might already know this but not only was there no Hell in the Tanakh (in the sense that Christians today mean Hell), there was also no individual with the proper name “Satan,” even if we do find even Jewish translators using it in translating Job. It was a title, not a name, and not of a being who was the incarnation of evil.

    • Avatar
      iameyes137  October 16, 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.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 16, 2016

        Or, to be more precise, “Three distinctly unique places that” the authors of these passages believed or wanted readers to believe (or both) were actual “destinations for wrongdoers.”

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