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Possibilities for the Afterlife



Some interpreters have thought that Paul and his Corinthian opponents disagreed about the resurrection because they had fundamentally different understandings about the nature of human existence, both now and in the afterlife. Perhaps it would be useful to reflect on different ways that one might conceive of life after death.

Annihilation.  One possibility is that a person who dies ceases to exist.  This appears to have been a popular notion in the Greco-Roman world, as evidenced by a number of inscriptions on tombstones that bemoan the brevity of life which ends in nonexistence.  One of the most widely used Latin inscriptions was so popular that it was normally abbreviated (like our own R.I.P. for “Rest in Peace”) as N.F.N.S.N.C.: “I was not, I am not, I care not.”

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A Problem with My Textbook
The Need for Context



  1. Avatar
    timber84  September 15, 2012

    If Paul believed in a bodily resurrection, what would have been his view about heaven and hell compared to the view of heaven and hell today?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 16, 2012

      I think he would find modern views to be a bit remarkable.

  2. Avatar
    SJB  September 16, 2012

    Prof Ehrman

    Agreed that Paul believed in a bodily resurrection reflecting the Jewish apocalyptic view as presumably did Jesus himself but can we detect any varying views among the gospel writers perhaps?

    How are we to interpret Jesus’ promise to the criminal in Luke 23:43, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?
    How did the early church conceive of the interval between physical death and physical resurrection?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 16, 2012

      My sense is that Luke, hwo expected there to be a period between Jesus ascension and return, thought that there was some kind of interim state for people before the resurrection. But it’s just a guess.

      • Avatar
        jrauch  July 5, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman I am late to your blog so I am just now reading some of your older posts. Could the quote that is given in Luke also be interpreted as “I assure you today, you will be with me in paradise” since there were no commas when originally written? Also if the quote given in Luke is actually accurate, wouldn’t Jesus have lied to the criminal because we are told that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead until 3 days after his crucifixion (not the day of his death)?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 6, 2016

          You’re right that there are no commas. The only way to decide which words the “today” goes with is by seeing how such words are used elsewhere in his two volume work. Scholars have done a full analysis. The “today” almost certainly goes with the words that follow.

  3. Avatar
    tcc  September 16, 2012

    Paul’s perspective on resurrection is pretty puzzling.

    Did Paul think that, similar to the walking dead in Matthew, people would crawl out of their tombs and be corporeally reassembled by God in the last days?

    It’s pretty shocking how much Paul’s letters contradict what most people in churches think about an afterlife, considering he’s the most important theologian in Christian history. Even they can’t buy his idea that when the resurrection happens everybody will become ethereal zombies.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 16, 2012

      I think Matthew’s walking dead died again. Paul’s future resurrected bodies would be immortal and indestructible. So, well, not the flesh-rotting zombies one might think of….

  4. Avatar
    bobnaumann  September 16, 2012

    I was never clear on Paul’s view of the afterlife. I know he said i 1 Corinthians 15 the we would shed this perishable body and receive an imperishable body, but was he thinking of these new bodies existing here on earth enjoying the Kingdom of God that Jesus would usher in? In 1 Thessolonians 4 he speaks of the deceased being raised up before those still alive and meeting Jesus in the clouds. So I would interpret this to mean that the Kingdom of Gd will be in Heaven rather than on Earth.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 16, 2012

      Yes, it is very confusing. I’ve never been sure whether he had a full scenario worked out, adn that he mentioned only pieces of it here and there so that it is difficult to reconstruct; or if he was fuzzy himself about it; or if he changed his views over time. One or the other, I should think.

      • Avatar
        tcc  September 16, 2012

        Paul comes across as almost Gnostic with some of the “spiritual mysteries” stuff he keeps going on about in these letters. He even tries to remain opaque about his ethereal spirit body idea with 2 Corinthians 12:2–“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows”.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 17, 2012

          My hunch is that there were a lot of “mystics” with this kind of experience. Maybe in later times they were especially drawn to Gnostic circles….

    • Avatar
      theology64  September 17, 2012

      i could say that it is all metaphorcal. Paul has had some religious experiences so to speak, but do not think of Paul as having had literal visitations etc…..It is not logic and thus not natural. I will get back to this another time.

  5. Avatar
    theology64  September 17, 2012

    Due to the discussion also, i needed to say this – Jesus has cropped up generations before Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus has also continued generations after the New Testament aswell. Think about it. I am on about a literally figure constantly throughout history. I will talk about this another time.

  6. Avatar
    BarrieS  September 19, 2012

    The Jews have held to the belief in a physical resurrection for centuries. It is mentioned in the Psalms and prophet’s writings, including Daniel (12:2) “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
    You are right, Prof Ehrman, that it is difficult to understand what Paul was saying, or truly believed. Paul claimed to be a Pharisee, but he has many teachings in the NT writings which are not anything like Pharisaic teachings.

    • Avatar
      BarrieS  September 19, 2012

      I appreciate your blog, I have about twenty or more questions to ask you…how great to speak with you, thank you for the work you do to teach the truth of what you have learned about the tainted NT writings. What a blessing it was to our family to have found your book “Misquoting Jesus” and now we have many of your books.

  7. Avatar
    tcc  September 20, 2012

    Well, one thing I know for sure is that Paul Of Tarsus was one unusual dude. His statement that the pagans know that there’s only one god and that they’re willingly committing idolatry is one of the most fallacious, whacked out passages in the NT. It’s understandable why Luke would decide to clean up Paul’s attitude towards pagans in Acts, to make his hero sound like less of a religious zealot whackadoodle.

  8. cheriq
    cheriq  October 8, 2012

    I’m surprised that the mention of the early Christians belief in reincarnation has not been mentioned. I do see indications that they did, and it was abandoned later along with the attempts to eradicate the groups they called “Gnostic”. Oddly, what the mainstream take literally, I do not; and vice versa. How they managed to spin “you must be born again – of the spirit, not water” to mean an emotional, spirit-filled,life changing experience is beyond me! At least Catholics do have one thing going for them –

  9. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  October 11, 2012

    Bart, would it be correct to say that Paul (and other Jews/Christians at the time) believed that the spirit/soul of the deceased would, at the moment of death, ‘move’ to the ‘realm of the dead’, where it would wait to be resurrected into a new body (or the transformed body)? The emphasis in this question being on ‘the spirit being in the realm of the dead waiting’. Or what did they think would happen to ‘the spirit/soul’ when a person died?

    Thank you.

  10. John4
    John4  July 3, 2015


    So when then, Bart, did the refined “substance” of the material soul in Platonic-influenced speculation cease to be material and become immaterial? What caused that shift?

    I can’t thank you enough for so graciously taking time to respond to our questions. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      For the ancients it was almost always material. It was just a different kind of material. I suppose that shifted most significantly with Descartes.

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