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Life in Hades

In my previous post I discussed Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in Hades, where we learn that the “spirits,” “shades,” “ghosts,” “souls” (they are called a number of things) there do not have any physical characteristics – no flesh or bones, even though they can be seen and can drink blood and are afraid of swords.   I think, at the end of the day, this is not a coherent picture.  If they can drink blood but don’t have bodies, where does the blood go?  And if they can’t be touched, how can they hold something (a container from which the blood to be drunk, e.g.), and why would they be afraid of a sword (if you can’t be hugged, why can you be cut or hacked).  And if they don’t actually have eyes, how can they see?  Or if they don’t have tongues and vocal chords, how can they talk?

The point is probably not, however, to paint a completely coherent picture – or if it is the point, Homer has failed terribly.  Still, the point is to say some things about what the dead are like.  Basically, they have no memories (unless they drink the blood that a living person brings down with them; does that happen, what, once every ten thousand years?), no pasts, no futures, no physical pleasures.

This point is reinforced in a second intriguing encounter that Odysseus has, this one with the greatest of all the mighty warriors, Achilles, around whose exploits Homer’s earlier, work, the Iliad, ultimately revolve.

Odysseus had not known …

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Speaking in Tongues and Virgin Births: Readers’ Mailbag September 3, 2017
The Body and Soul in Hades



  1. Avatar
    godspell  September 1, 2017

    The problem with this view of death is that it casts an endless shadow over life. We get a brief moment in the sun, then are cast into eternal darkness. But the reason, of course, that it’s hard for humans to just say death is a sleep, is that we know what happens when we sleep. We dream, and dreams can be happy, but they are more often confusing, troubled, chaotic, and at their very best, are still inferior to the best experiences we have when awake. Children tend to have the happiest dreams, but they also have horrible nightmares (I did).

    Dreams are what make us believe in the afterlife, and since we have no choice but to dream, it may not be possible for us to completely stop believing in the afterlife, even without theistic beliefs. Not for nothing did the Buddhists declare that true paradise would be utter oblivion and non-existence.

    So if we can’t help but wonder and fear about what comes after death (and if you told me you never do, I would not believe you), one option would be to shape that into something constructive. Live a good life, and you will enjoy a better afterlife.

    That of course begs the question of what a good life or a good afterlife would be.

    And it would be many different things for many different people.

    Ay, there’s the rub.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 1, 2017

    Don’t neglect completely these ancient undifferentiated afterlife views in your book. They could preface briefly the main parts of what you’ll write on. My barber thinks all the folks in the local cemetery are out there taking “dirt naps.”

  3. Avatar
    Stylites  September 1, 2017

    Are there any theories on why the oldest views of an afterlife tend to be undifferentiated?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      I’d assume the conditions for having an alternative view simply hadn’t occurred yet. People are all laid in the dirt and that’s where they “live” from then on.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 4, 2017

        We don’t know what the earliest views of the afterlife were. Though we can draw some tentative conclusions from surviving hunter-gatherer cultures. ‘Primitive’ people tend to view the afterlife as an extension of this one. The dead are not dead. They are all around us.

        What we’re looking at here is the earliest records of the earliest civilizations. You can have culture and religion without buildings and many cultures didn’t write down their most sacred beliefs.

        Some cultures are more much more optimistic about the afterlife than others.

        The Sumerians are among the least optimistic–but how much do we really know about them? For all we know, we’re getting the views of one cult in the writings that survive.

        Death is meaningful to animals that live in packs or herds. This need to process death in some meaningful way started before the first human came into being.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  September 1, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I have to take issue with your hypothesis that their view of the afterlife was completely differentiated. Indeed, it seems there was a universal exception that proves the rule. For lack of a better expression, I’ll call it the Removal To Heaven exception. This exception appears to have some universal features in most, if not all cultures:
    1. The person is taken by the gods or God before death; that is, they never properly die: e.g Elijah, Enoch, Menelaus, Utnapishtim, etc.
    2. In some cases, their physical body might die, but their immortal self is what is removed to heaven: e.g. Heracles, Krishna, etc.
    3. The person who is removed to heaven has some exceptional trait or claim that allows him to be that rare exception: e.g. Heracles has a divine parent. Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu. Elijah is especially righteous and god-fearing. Menelaus is Zeus’ “son-in-law”. And so on.
    4. It’s made clear that being such an exception is very, very difficult and very, very rare. Not just anyone gets such treatment. Only one in a million.

    I think what changed in this idea of the Removal To Heaven between the time of Homer and Jesus was that it was no longer seen as exceptionally rare and privileged. At some point, probably around the 5th century BCE, such special places — such as Elysian Fields (or Elysium), Paradise, Heaven, whatever you want to call it — became accessible to more than the one in a million exception. Something changed around that time.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      Yup, right on all scores. Undifferentiated refers to all of *us*, the 99.999%.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 3, 2017

        Dr. Ehrman, have you yet put your finger on what happened during that time between ca. 7th century and 5th century BCE that catalyzed the evolution of “heaven” (or paradise, Elysian Fields, Elysium, etc.) from a place of limited occupancy (like an exclusive nightclub that the fire marshal will shut down should it exceed occupancy) into a place of seemingly unlimited capacity that ostensibly accepts anyone (like the University of Arizona)? This is something I have been thinking about for some time now. As I’ve mention in several (probably tedious) comments, this period in history — of called the Axial Age — is characterized by a sudden shift in Zeitgeist across an enormous swath of civilization — from the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa to the Levant to Mesopotamia to the Indus valley to the Ganges to the Yellow river. Something important happened that lead all the civilizations along this corridor to start seeing this life, and the life after this life, in fundamentally different ways. Since I’m not an expert in this, but only a casual researcher, the catalysts don’t appear obvious to me.

        However, if I were to take a stab at what it was that started this ball rolling, it would be one word: iron. The 7th century was the zenith of what is usually called The Iron Age. By the 7th century, this material revolutionized warfare, and with it those civilizations that span what I call the Axial Age zone, from Italy to China, had an unprecedent acceleration in warfare technology, and with it a rapid turn around in political dynasties and political entities. Older, established noble houses and families were no longer safe from upstarts who possessed the new warfare technology. Political power suddenly became — for lack of a better term — more egalitarian. And with that sudden shift in social mobility, it suddenly became necessary to educate children to navigate a world where the boundaries between rulers and the ruled became far more fluid. Suddenly, itinerant “teachers” became more than just expensive babysitters. They became men who sold “wisdom” — a new product that permitted parvenues to at least act, if not always think like superior men. Hence, we see the rise of significant teachers, who taught avenues to power and prosperity. We see men like The Buddha, Confucious, Moh, Socrates, Plato, Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras, “Kochelet”, and so on and so forth, suddenly flourishing in this period, where rulers became obsessed with new fangled ways of thinking about and ruling this world, and the next. It was this, I think, that possibly started these civilizations down the road to the world-changing philosophies and religions that emerged in the next few centuries.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 4, 2017

          I”m afraid that I’m not at my best in making very broad, sweeping historical claims about major shifts in thinking throughout enormous populations scattered across vast territories. Every time I try something like that, I start thinking of exceptions. I have no qualms with your theory at all: I just never seem to be able to think in those terms.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  September 5, 2017

          Talmoore, could the growth of iron technology and its revolutionizing of warfare also have, for the first time, brought the mass of people in close quarters with civilizations vastly different fromt their own? This, it seems to me, could have been a catalyst for questioning the assumptions behind what the ruling and priestly castes had been telling them about the way of the world for longer than anyone could recall. Karen Armstrong doesn’t always make sense to me, but she has some interesting observations on the so-called Axial Age. I wish I could remember specifics right now.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  September 5, 2017

            There are historical clues to the revolutionary dispersion and dissemination of technology around this period (7th to 5th centuries BCE). For one, the rise of the powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire, with its revolutionary warfare techniques and technology. And after that, the Achaemenid Empire, which itself not only subsumed the previous Assyrian Empire but also itself stretched all the way to the Indus valley. It was, more or less, a giant political aggregation of what we would label as Indo-Iranian peoples, from the Zagros mountains in the west to the Ganges river in the east. It was the beliefs of this massive Indo-Iranian civilization — the Indo-Iranian beliefs that we later find in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Sihkism — that found itself in contact in the west with the Semitic cultures and beliefs of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Moreover, we see the adoption of similar warfare tactics and technology finding its way into ancient China, where a warlord’s power was literally measured in how many chariots he could field in a battle. In fact, the iron chariot was effectively the tank of that period — ca. 7th to 5th century BCE. From Etruscan Tuscany in northern Italy to the mouth of the Yellow river in China, if you wanted to take and hold power you had to have the new fangled iron chariot.

            The Hebrew Bible even hints at this important shift in military capability. Judges 1:19 — “The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.” The events of Judges supposedly took place right after the Exodus, which itself supposedly occured around 1300 BCE. Would plains people have had iron chariots at that time? Possibly, but not likely. Iron was still a very rare, very expensive material in the 2nd millenium BCE, and, since iron metallurgy was still in its nascent stage at the point, iron was still inferior to bronze. The only time an entire army could or would be outfitted with iron chariots was during and after the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, ca. 8th century. This strongly suggests the author of Judges 1:19 lived at the very earliest in the 8th century BCE (more likely in the 6th), and that this passage reflects the sudden effect on warfare, conquest and cross-cultural exchange from one piece of technology alone: the iron chariot.

  5. Avatar
    nbraith1975  September 1, 2017

    Most Christians believe they must be saved in order to have eternal life. It’s the entire basis for their faith. The salvation they proclaim God and Jesus offer rewards them with eternal life and keeps them from an eternal sentence in Hell.

    But what fascinates me most is that when Christians are pressed for an answer regarding the specifics of either heaven or hell, they can’t really give any concrete answers. Even more fascinating is that even though they can’t explain any specifics about the afterlife, or give numerous different answers, most Christians don’t seem to be bothered by that at all. The one consistent answer they give though, seems to be that God will work it all out and it will be great – if you’re saved that is.

  6. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  September 1, 2017

    When you get to the differentiated view, I hope you will consider as a resource C. S. Lewis’s little book, “The Great Divorce.” It is a delightful fantasy–a tour of the after-life. Even though it was written in 1945, I think it might reflect early Christian imagination.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      Yes, I read it about five times back in my evangelical, days, and loved it! But since I’ll be dealing with the ancient world only, I don’t think I’ll be getting into Lewis’s views. (Or Blake’s!)

  7. Avatar
    nbraith1975  September 1, 2017

    Bart – I’m sure you are familiar with the website: “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”


    It has some great material on “Heaven and Hell” and the “afterlife.”



  8. Avatar
    mythosboy  September 1, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, interested in when you think the transition happened. Looking at earlier (Torah) portions certainly gives the impression of a Sheol which is both unavoidable, silent and totally cut off from the life of the world (the ministrations of the Witch of Endor not withstanding). But then we see in Psalm 30: “…To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever…”. Is the Psalmist here indicating that some new condition for the dead is now possible- i.e. something other than the silence of the grave/pit which was the fate of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and generations of the good, bad and ugly of all lands and not just Israel? I think Jim Tabor indicated that he thought this Psalm might be comparatively late and maybe reflecting a different point of view from the more traditional one. Great discussion thus far: especially the tie-in with literary traditions as diverse as ancient Sumeria, Homeric Greece and Israel.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      I haven’t studied the Psalm in any depth, but my sense is that “forever” here means “as long as I have breath,” not “for all eternity”

  9. Avatar
    anthonygale  September 1, 2017

    Why would anyone believe in this type of afterlife? I can see why people want to believe in heaven and came up with the idea of hell. I understand why many people dont believe in an afterlife. But why believe this instead of not believing in an afterlife at all? What is the religious or psychological function?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      I think you’re assuming that people *choose* what to believe; for the vast majority of human history (and in the vast majority of instances today) people have simply believed what they were taught to believe.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  September 3, 2017

        I should have phrased my question better. What I mean is, what do you think is behind creating the idea of that kind of afterlife? When you discuss the shift from the prophetic to the apocalyptic view, you describe people coming to understand that the prophetic view could no longer explain their suffering, so an alternative view came about. People might not always be conscious of why they believe what they do, but there is something behind it. Heaven might be eternal reward for those who believe. Hell might be punishment for the wicked. There are reasons people believe these things beyond simply accepting what they’ve been told. Why come up with the idea of Hades/Sheol rather than believe death is simply the end of the story, considering there is no real life to that vision of the afterlife? I can understand that most people may have accepted the idea after it was invented, by why invent it in the first place?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 4, 2017

          What I argued in earlier posts was that it was the experience of severe persecution (torture and execution) that drove these expecations (we’ll be rewarded when this over; and our torturers are going to be tormented forever).

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 5, 2017

        Having worked as a nursing assistant in hospitals in my young adulthood, I can imagine where some notion of a continuing existence after death comes from. When bodies die, they don’t immediately become inert. Fluids and gases will shift and be released from the body, causing the vocal cords and other parts to sound. It can be quite unnerving the first time or two one witnesses it.
        I have read of ancient (tens of thousands of years old) burial sites in which the dead were bound in a fetal position and covered with flowers. The standard interpretation is that the living were anticipating some sort of new birth. Given the visceral fear of the dead many people have (from my own observations in the hospitals) I think it more likely they were hog-tying the dead so they wouldn’t come back to hurt them. The flowers may have been some kind of peace offering to let the dead know there was no ill will — just being cautious, you know.

  10. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  September 2, 2017

    I forgot to mention that C.S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce in response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

  11. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 2, 2017

    Quite interesting. “…In Sheol there is no praise of Yahweh, and Yahweh is not present there. He is the God of this world, not the world to come.” Corroborate psalm 115 v17.
    But my question is in 1cor 15:50… I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
    If flesh and blood cannot enter God’s kingdom then can we extrapolate that resurrected bodies will be like angels who supposedly have no sense of pleasures? If yes then how come did the sons of God in Genesis lust over the daughters of men? And if Jesus resurrected in body can’t we then say he will have desires, thirst and eat, need shelter, feel cold…where then is Jesus? Can a body inhabit invisible kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      It’s because when our bodies are transformed, they no longer have sinful flesh and no longer need life-giving blood.

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  September 3, 2017

        Hahahahaha! Even though the Bible says the blood is the life of body. If no blood then the whole circulatory and digestive system will no longer be necessary. And definitely we’ll no longer need a heart to pump blood

  12. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 2, 2017

    In the end it means only the living can praise God if we were to go by psalm 115 v 17, psalm 30:9, psalm 6:5, Isaiah 38:18. Right sir?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      That’s right — there is no praise of God in Sheol for most of the Hebrew Bible.

  13. Avatar
    jurajsimunic  September 3, 2017

    Dear Dr Ehrman,

    I was wondering, how much contribution this differentiation of the afterlife has had in the overall success of christianity in the early years/centuries? Would you say this was the main “selling point” of the christianity, so to speak? Being raised a very fundamental Christian (now I’m an atheist molecular biologist) I remember that it surely was for me and people around me.
    I’m just wondering about the earliest christianity, considering that this view probably took time to evolve and take shape.

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      I don’t think it was the *main* selling point, but it was one of them. I deal with this in my forthcoming book on the Triumph of Christianity.

      • Avatar
        jurajsimunic  September 3, 2017

        Thanks for the answer, looking forward to reading it

  14. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 3, 2017

    Does “senseless” in regard to the dead in Hades literally mean without sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch-sense? I would have taken it to mean witless.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2017

      I’m not sure if there was a uniform view of the matter or not.

    • Avatar
      Msjhnsn  July 28, 2018

      Hey, I sense that senseless means what the word indicates — less sense, no sense, without sense. Suggesting otherwise seems to be a bit nonsensical. Without sensory receptors like eyes, ears, noses etc, how could the sensory processor and translator, the brain, impress upon one’s consciousness what is encountered in the natural world? With one’s senses one may witness to what is encountered. Without such stimuli and resulting perception, then one can only be “witless” — without witness.

  15. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 3, 2017

    “Achilles protests that he would much rather be an impoverished and overworked slave on earth than king in the realm of the dead.” Interesting! I wonder if Milton had Achilles in mind when his Satan said just the opposite: better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven?

  16. Avatar
    jurajsimunic  September 3, 2017

    So, we have an undifferentiated afterlife, same for all, which is if I understand correctly, defined by the absence of things and senses. If it is absence of all senses, I don’t know if it can be seen as a place of suffering. We see it that way while alive, but once dead and stripped of all our senses, what do we know?
    Differentiated afterlife is defined by the presence of things, joy, happiness etc. for the good and suffering for the bad.
    I’m wondering when did the Heaven start to need Hell of torture on the opposite side or they developed simultaneously? And why? Wouldn’t the promise of joy and happiness as opposed to nothingness be enough? Why introduce the eternal damnation and pain? Is it because it is more motivating for the prospecting believer? Or saying that an evildoer will go into oblivion is not enough of a punishment?
    To me this seems that “carrot” is not enough, you need a “stick” too.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2017

      In the Jewish-Christian tradition, hell came later. Or so I’ll be arguing. First people thought there must be rewards for the righteous. Later they thought there must also be punishments for the sinners.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  September 5, 2017

      It may be a sort of cosmic anti-welfare mentality. If everyone gets to heaven in the end, why work for it? Then, if the good get to heaven and everyone else just dies and doesn’t even know they didn’t make it, they’re still getting off too easy. They need (or “we” need them) to know what they’re missing and have some pain so they never forget. Being rich feels so much better if the rich know there are poor people somewhere who don’t have what they have — and know it.

  17. kadmiral
    kadmiral  September 6, 2017

    So I am fascinated with this idea that the Hebrew Bible pictures (teaches?) Sheol similarly as other ancient literature and cultures did of the afterlife of its day–as you have described in a couple posts now–and as you summed up at the end of this current post.

    Does this not show clearly that the Bible was a product of its time, recycling the popular ideas of its day into its supposed revelation?–just like how Genesis 1 pictures the earth in terms of the current understanding of its day. Scholars such as John Walton in his The Lost World of Genesis One would argue that God is merely communicating to the people in the current knowledge of the day (for a number of reasons)–Walton thus makes a concession for why a supposed infallible revelation would prop up the wrong picture.

    But isn’t this what is happening with the Hebrew Bible’s teaching on Sheol and the afterlife? The fundamentalist must reason that if the doctrine changes later, it’s because of greater revelation. But the fundamentalist never accepts that the infallible revelation delivered a wrong teaching earlier?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Yes, it’s one of the myriad indications that the Bible is very much a product of its time.

  18. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 6, 2018

    The inherent immortality of the soul doctrine is Platonic and originated in ancient Babylon and crept into the Church after Christ’s death. This false doctrine became widespread through misunderstood Scriptures during the great apostasy that began during the Ante-Nicene period

    Ecclesiastes 9::5,10

    Psalm 146:4

    John 11:11

    Did Dorcas have an immortal soul that was brought back from heavenly bliss to suffer on earth again?

    Job 14:14

    Or the first Christian martyr that Saul of Tarsus witnessed being slaughtered? Did he have an immortal soul?

    • Avatar
      truthseekerofallthings  June 6, 2018

      Christ compared Laxarus and others deaths to sleep and others who died after Pentecost 33 were referr d to as having “fell asleep” such as the first martyr.

      The early apostles taught the resurrection of the fleshly beings for most of mankind and others were to be resurrected as spiritual beings in heaven.

      In the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures the hope before Christ’s baptism was a earthly resurrection during the 1,000 year reign or rule of Christof the earth.

      The other resurrection would take place in heaven as spirit beings during the last days or end times.

    • Avatar
      Msjhnsn  July 25, 2018

      Immortal soul? I seriously doubt it. If one has an immortal soul, and a soul is the essence of oneself, then one is oneself is naturally immortal. If one is immortal by nature then there is no real death, but simply a transition from one state of exsistance to another? Utter BS in my opinion. If one is alive then one exists. If one is dead, then one does not exist, one is dead, d-e-a-d sort of dead, not alive in some other form or state, but non-existent. When one is dead, one is not even aware one is dead or aware that one ever existed. The dead are simply unawares, senseless. “The dead know nothing!” Human life is mortal, terminal and natural. And thus the truly immortal One graciously promises mortal men eternal life, a life empowered and sustained by spirit and not subject to “natural” law. And here’s the rub: If one can not or will not conceptualize power outside of, or pre-existing and dominate of natural law and embraces preception only via the natural faculties of man, namely reason, intellect and “feelings”, then that natural man can only experience natural life. And natural life, all natural life, ends. But spiritual life is eternal (or at least so we are told.) Personally, I am banking on the promises of eternal life. Of course, such is not very rational of me, not very intellectual. But then, every intellectual and rational man that ever lived is dead or soon will be. I think I’ll pass on all the dead end rational/intellectual/natural hogwash and, again, bank on the spiritual promises. At least in them there is hope whereas all natural human reason has and still always ends up in a pile of dust — and with no other outcome reasonably in sight (if reason is such a good indicator of reality).

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