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Looking at Hell

I have been talking about different views of what the afterlife entails.  In the broadest terms, some ancient people believed that everyone at death had the same fate: they lived on, not in their body but in their soul, in some kind of netherworld where nothing much ever happened.  It was a dreadfully banal and boring existence, that went on forever, the same for everyone.

Some ancient authors who had that view described visits to the underworld by the living, where they encounter the souls of the dead, who tell them how awful it is – not just for sinners but for everyone.   The point of these otherworldly journeys is crystal clear: you should avoid death for as long as you can, since once it happens, you have a hopelessly insipid future ahead of you, which will stretch for all eternity.   Stay alive as long as you can!

This is one of the main points of the otherworldly of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey.  And it stands very much at odds with the view set forth in Christian texts from 900 years later, which insisted that the afterlife was absolutely not the same for everyone.  For these texts, no one leads a boring and uninteresting existence after death. People are either awarded with heavenly bliss or subject to the most horrific torments you can imagine.  And so a person has to choose.

This view is set forth in a number of different kinds of writing, the most intriguing of which are…

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A Satirical Lesson about the Afterlife
Problems with Some Bible Translations, including the King James: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 5, 2017

    Since the idea of resurrection is that there is life after death what then do we make of figures like Enoch and Elijah who were transmuted without death why did the apostles focused more on resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      I can’t tell if you’re asking one question or two. Some theologians thought Enoch and Elijah would return and die prior to the resurrectoin.

  2. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  September 5, 2017

    Why was the Acts of Thomas not canonized by the church?

  3. Avatar
    Gravenfox  September 5, 2017

    In the Homeric conception of the afterlife, everyone’s fate is an eternity of painfully boring existence. It seems like that could lead some to anti-natalism. Are you aware of any ancient writers denouncing procreation on moral grounds to avoid creating anyone else who would suffer like that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Certainly later Christian ascetic writers were opposed to procreation; some of the Gnostics were rather notorious for thinking that it was morally wrong (not because of afterlife, but because if more bodies are formed, than more spirits can be trapped in them)

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 5, 2017

    Yikes – that story is really horrible! Did the author go on to say whether the woman agreed to live in a nonsexual relationship with the man who’d murdered her, or they went their separate ways?

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 5, 2017

    It still stuns me that ancient Jews in the Old Testament did not have a view of a wonderful heaven filled with righteous believers. I am glad that you have educated me about this.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  September 5, 2017

    It’s also important to point out that this view abandons the notion of an actual eschaton, when all the dead will be resurrected, and they will join the currently living in a great Judgment Day. It’s only at that point, in which all of humanity is standing there, waiting for judgment, that they will either be sent to eternal bliss in paradise (either on a re-newed earth or in heaven) or to eternal torment in hell. This was what the apocalyptic Jews of Jesus’ day — including Jesus himself — believed.

    But this whole resurrection and judgment all at once idea was soon abandoned, probably because the idea of immediate judgment and verdict after death was not only an easier concept to understand, but because most people outside of Judaism proper — especially the Greeks who were already familiar with immediate judgment upon death — probably found the bodily resurrection before judgment to be needlessly complicated (hence why Paul is so often defending the idea in his letters). You die; you’re immediately judged; your soul is sent either to paradise or to hell. That’s it. Simple.

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  September 9, 2017

      If Jesus believed in a single judgement day, at which all people are sorted into heaven and hell at the same time, that doesn’t seem to square with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 13, 2017

        That’s why Jesus never uttered that parable. In fact, I don’t think any of the parables in the Gospels were spoken by Jesus. They were put into the mouth of Jesus by later Christians. Jesus most likely spoke in prophetic aphorisms, like “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He was imitating the style of the ancient prophets.

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  September 5, 2017

    At first glance, this appears to be a hell based on the teachings of the Pharisees and then takes a turn towards hope for those saved in Christianity. This is not to suggest the popular belief in the common era of once saved, always saved. Rather, it appears to represent an alternative view of; accepting Christ, living the commandments, and being an overall good person (torture awaits “sinners” even worse than she has seen).

    My understanding is that some scholars have concluded that Thomas the Apostle may have visited India within 20 years of the crucifixion (even if only legendary). If so, he probably would have found a predominantly Hindu population and a small Jewish presence as well. So, one of the questions that arise is whether this woman was Jewish or Hindu. I would argue that she was Hindu and the reason for her traumatic NDE (near death experience) story was the nature and process in which she was murdered.

    According to Hindu sacred texts, Hindus exit this life and experience great joy if they left this world peacefully. Adversely, if they left this world violently or under great personal distress, then they would most likely be visited by the “Lord of Justice” and forced to experience pain and torture. In an effort to keep this short, my question is this. Do you believe this text was most likely used to convert Hindu’s to Christianity? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      It is generally thought among scholars that the Thomas legends of the second century (missionary to India, etc.) are indeed legends, without historical basis.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  September 8, 2017

        This question is for Talmoore: Where do you find the abandonment by the Jews of the universal resurrection “at the end of time”?

        • talmoore
          talmoore  September 8, 2017

          I should clarify. I don’t think it was abandoned by Jews, specifically rabbinical Jews. Indeed, modern rabbinical Judaism still holds to the endtime Resurrection of the Dead. And within the Talmud itself it says those who do not believe in the mass resurrection will not be allowed into the World-to-come (sanhedrin, 90a). What I was refering to was specifically those Christians who abandoned the idea in later centuries, as evidenced by this Acts of Thomas.

  8. Avatar
    Apocryphile  September 5, 2017

    Very interesting. Will you be tracing when and where these differentiated accounts of the afterlife originated?

    (As a total aside – being a Platonist at heart myself, it does make me wonder what other realms might exist “out there”, perhaps much better or much worse than ours, (and, tangentially, whether we might occasionally get glimpses of them, perhaps through drugs, bodily trauma, etc.?) Given the fact that most cosmologists these days accept some form of the anthropic argument positing many universes, Everettian (quantum) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hugh-everett-biography/ or otherwise, in order to explain the (otherwise inexplicable) fine-tuning of ours, it does gives you pause. Just looking at what exists in this world, both good and bad, it makes you wonder what else is possible).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Yup, one of the questions will be where such ideas come from.

      • dschmidt01
        dschmidt01  September 23, 2017

        There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  9. Avatar
    RVBlake  September 5, 2017

    This must be something in human nature…Other than the subject of the Christian film “Heaven Is Real”, I think that’s the title, I can’t recall any vivid descriptions of what Heaven is like. But I’ve had both Evangelicals and Catholics describe to me, in loving detail, the torments that await the sinner in Hell.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Ah, there are lots of them in the Near Death Experience literature! Or see Dante!

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  September 7, 2017

        It seems likely to me that at the point of death, the brain would be in overdrive releasing all sorts of chemicals, with the accompanying hallucinations forming the basis of Near Death Experiences.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2017

          Yes, that’s pretty much what I think too (after reading about 20 books by people who have had them and studied them).

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  September 8, 2017

            What books have you read that convinced you NDE’s are hallucinations? I’d like to read a couple.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 10, 2017

            You might try John Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, New-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (although I have to say, just reading the accounts of NDE’s by their biggest advocates helped me think they were neurological events, not real experiences; often it is completely transparent that this is something going on in their heads)

  10. Avatar
    doug  September 5, 2017

    The Acts of Thomas afterlife story makes me wonder about the gruesome mindsets of the people who wrote stories such as that. Yikes!

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 5, 2017

    Sounds like it’s particularly targeted toward women.

  12. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 5, 2017

    It’s interesting how people started out being polytheists with either no belief in an afterlife or a vague sense of it to what we have now; mainly, monotheists with extremely diverse views of the afterlife. Even more fascinating to me is that belief in the afterlife remains strong even though atheism is on the rise.

    The early Christian view of hell, and unfortunately the present-day view for some, appears to stem from the desire to control others, and if that means being threatening and judgmental, then so be it.

  13. Avatar
    Hume  September 5, 2017

    Do any of Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God convince you in the slightest? What about the unmoved mover argument?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Nope, not in the least.

      • Avatar
        Oikonomos  September 17, 2017

        Perhaps I’m not as well-read on this subject as I need to in order to be even be asking this question, but . . . how do you, personally, treat the cosmological origin/cosmological argument then? Does the Initial Singularity of the Big Bang become, effectively, the “unmoved mover,” the first cause we have to accept with out any real explanation? I realize to address this question properly may require an answer from you that would take up too much of your time, but even a hint would appreciated. Thank you!

        • Bart
          Bart  September 18, 2017

          No one knows what “caused” the Big Bang. But there are lots of things I don’t know/understand that I think are true. I don’t even know how my toaster works!

  14. kadmiral
    kadmiral  September 6, 2017

    Can you point me to any religiously unbiased scholarly works that trace the origins of hell and the devil/Satan? Does Pagel’s book fit the bill? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      Yes, you might try Pagel’s book on the origins of Satan. On the origins of hell — that’s what my book will be about. In the meantime, you might find useful the book by Alan Bernstein, The Formation of Hell

  15. Lev
    Lev  September 6, 2017

    I’m loving this series, but may I ask an off-topic question?

    Assuming John 21 (the second epilogue) was added after the original text, the author of John’s gospel never mentions John or his immediate family by name (in John 21 we find the words “sons of Zebedee”). The synoptic gospels freely name check the Zebedee family, but the author of John’s gospel never does.

    Do you know if there is a scholarly consensus on why this is?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2017

      The two standard explanations were completely at odds with each other! (1) The author John was too humble to mention his own name; (2) The author thought John was far too insignificant even to merit mention (or he had never heard of him)

  16. Avatar
    toejam  September 7, 2017

    Enjoying this series of posts. Can’t wait for book! Unrelated question. I’m currently investigating the infamous “Render unto Caesar” pericope (Mark 12:13-17 and parallels). I’ve read all I can on the canonical versions and am hoping to look more into alternate versions. I’m aware there is a compressed version in the Gospel of Thomas, and there’s a similar scene in the Egerton Gospel fragments. Are you aware of other non-canonical sources that retell or allude to this scene?

  17. Avatar
    mmns  September 7, 2017

    A master class in how to intimidate new converts and proselytes alike, assuming that the woman was of Hinduism faith, by fear, terror and trepidation.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 7, 2017

    With all this talk about Hell…I hope your book will include at least a brief mention of Purgatory and Limbo, even though those concepts may have evolved at a later date than you’re primarily dealing with.

    And also…I know you will, of course, be dealing with Origen’s beliefs. I’ve been wondering: did he believe *all* humans were incarnations of “semi-fallen angels,” or only *some* humans? (If it was the latter, “ordinary” humans not experiencing reincarnation?)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2017

      Yes, I’ve read Jacques Le Goff’s important History of Purgatory. Very interesting. I won’t be dealing with the full-grown doctrine (which develops after my period), but I will be talking about its antecedents in the early Christian centuries.

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