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Reviewing the Afterlife

I want to return now to the main thread that I left off a couple of months ago about developing views of the afterlife in ancient Judaism and then in early Christianity.

I didn’t actually leave that thread – I simply moved deeper into a specific aspect of it.  If you’ll recall, the broader thread is simply about where the modern notions of heaven and hell came from; the specific aspect I’ve been covering involved the “otherworldly journeys” that you find in pagan, Jewish, and Christian traditions.  These journeys are of particular interest to me, since I am planning to write a scholarly discussion about them.  And while I was thinking through how I wanted to frame my study, I decided to devote a number of posts to the issue.  But enough of that!  I’m ready to return to the main thread.

For that thread, here’s the deal.  In our own world …

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Ancient Jewish Sects: Pharisees and Sadducees
How Changing My Views Affected My Relationships



  1. Lev
    Lev  September 18, 2017

    I’m pleased this thread is continuing – I’m looking forward to learning more about how the teaching of the afterlife developed.

    It sounds like you’re about to tell us, but I’d be interested to know what the different groups of Jews believed about the resurrection and a rough idea of how large each group was.

    I understand there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots, but I don’t know if there were more groups, and aside from the Pharisees and Sadducees, I’m uncertain which group believed in the resurrection.

  2. Avatar
    flshrP  September 18, 2017

    How will Ecclesiastes fit into your study of the origin of the heaven and hell myths? If I understand that book correctly, it rejects the notion of an afterlife and maintains that death is indeed final.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Yes, I believe I posted on that when I started the current thread. Ecclesiastes and Job do stand out!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 19, 2017

        The interesting thing about Job is that, while it’s unclear about whether there’s an afterlife or not, it’s pretty clear that heaven exists — or at least it equates heaven and the sky, seeing as how, in Hebrew, the same word means both — as we see God and Satan conversing in the heavenly council in the sky.

        • Avatar
          Eric  September 21, 2017

          Good observation. Bart, you might want to explain early in your book the difference between a heaven that is the abode of gods (Olympus, Asgard, Old Testament, etc) and an afterlife for mortals. Most lay readers would not start with that distinction in mind.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 22, 2017

            Good point.

      • Avatar
        Barnsweb  November 23, 2017

        Recently I had a conversation with an Amish gentleman at the hospital and he posed that he had recently been getting questions regarding support for belief in the after life and what is to come. As Jesus said, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. The earliest reference found in the Hebrew Scripture is that God told Abraham he would be gathered to his fathers upon death, and a similar comment was made to Moses. God always made distinction between those who “keep His ways” and those who rejected His Instruction – so it follows that His justice would demand recompense or reward to uphold His word to be eternally true and good. This fits with Genesis through Matthew, but I’ve tended towards rejecting Paul since coming to believe God doesn’t go back on His word – life has taught me that He remains faithful.

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    godspell  September 18, 2017

    Most cultures have stories about apparitions of lost loved ones appearing to the living. Beliefs in ghost go back far far before the time people started writing their beliefs down.

    So where are those spirits when they’re not haunting us?

    It’s not merely about denying death–it’s about finding some way to understand why the dead refuse to stay dead.

    Do I believe in heaven and hell, or Sheol? Not really.

    Do I believe death is the end? That this world we see is all that exists?

    Not really.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  September 19, 2017

      I’ve made it clear here that I believe in reincarnation. But here’s a thought about a completely different phenomenon – “ghosts.”

      Years ago, I read the opinions of a man named Loyd Auerbach (I’m not sure of the spelling of his last name, but “Loyd” did indeed have only one L). He was both a paranormal researcher and a practicing magician, who could spot fakery.

      And he’d concluded that some “ghosts” are indeed real…but even if they do things like walking around, they’re just harmless, *mindless* spectres, comparable to footprints or handprints someone might have left behind. (They definitely *don’t* contain human “souls,” who need to be urged to “go into the light”! *That’s* pure nonsense.)

      • Avatar
        Barnsweb  November 23, 2017

        Beg to differ. After restoring an antique French Harmonium (1860), and playing it the first time and recording it for a friend – upon playback there was a woman’s voice singing every single word of all three stanza’s of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – and all the digital photos of the organ revealed an orb floating over it….

        How could a mindless presence know the song and the words and transfer this through electric mic’s to the tape????

        Guess not everyone has lived in a haunted house either?

  4. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 18, 2017

    Every person who had sided with God would be brought back from the dead– Was the idea that a mass resurrection would occur original to the Jews?

    Paul said that Jesus was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Why the “third” day? Where was Paul getting that from?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      1. The question is whether they were influence by Persians. My current thinking is that they were not.
      2. In fulfillment of Scripture (Hosea 6:2; the prophet Jonah)

      • Avatar
        CanadianJB  May 10, 2018

        Hi Dr. Ehrman, could you briefly elaborate your thinking on why you do not think the development of Jewish eschatological thinking was influenced by Persians? Perhaps you’ve already done this somewhere , if so could you direct me to your comments?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 10, 2018

          Good idea. When I return (yet again) to a thread on the afterlife I’ll talk about that. (Short story: if there were Persian influence, why didn’t it happen during the Persian period but only centuries later?)

  5. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  September 18, 2017

    You wrote, “I have to say, speaking personally, that sounds much better than the mindlessly boring existence for all eternity in the shadowland of Sheol.”

    The spirit of most people is to fight for life and when imprisoned, look for escape. Of course, there are people who give up and seek an oblivion in death. I think that if I were to end up in Sheol, I would fight to escape. How and to where, I don’t know, but since I would have an endless amount of time, I would keep trying.

    But knowing you, you’d probably find a way to escape the boredom. You’d start to lecture about it all. And maybe form a sports team. :0)

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 18, 2017

    I’m curious about the evolution among those Jews of the concept of the “Kingdom” including *only* Jews, to its including all of humanity. I’ve begun wondering whether Jesus might have thought something special would be *required* of the Jews – their *imploring* God to bring the “Kingdom,” assuring Him they believed in His power to do it – because *only they* “understood what was coming.” Might he have thought it *wouldn’t* come if they didn’t show enough fervor?

    • Avatar
      Barnsweb  November 23, 2017

      Jews changed their Scriptures, and God clearly gave the Ten Commandments to fulfill the promise to Abraham.

      They also altered Isaiah to imply God chose them and no one else. This can be noted from the “Dead Sea Scrolls Bible”, as they note where the Jewish MT was altered, as well as the LXX.

      • Avatar
        Chaseobrien  December 26, 2017

        Can you refer me to where you got the knowledge on dead sea scrolls differing with modern translations of isiah, im curious to read on that.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  September 18, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I agree with pretty everything you’ve written in this post, with one exception. When you write: “Jews were being forced to abandon their Jewish customs and worship of Yahweh to adopt Greek culture and religion,” I don’t think that’s totally accurate. I think it’s more accurate to say that SOME Jews FELT LIKE they were being forced to abandon their Jewish customs and worship of Yahweh to adopt Greek culture and religion. That may seem like a minor detail, but I think it’s a very significant point. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain what I mean.

    Remember that the Hasmoneans weren’t a group of urban Jerusalem elites who rebeled against Antiochus. No, for the most part, the Jerusalem elites were on Antiochus’ side. They were the equivalent of the ruling establishment of a third-world nation who were the puppets of a hegemonic power, like, for instance the Maha Raja was in British contolled India, or the current Iraqi and Afghan governments are to American hegemony. That is, the established powers did not have that much of an issue with adopting the customs and cultures of the hegemonic, occupying power, but when you leave the capital, the average citizen highly resents the occupying power who controls the ruling power in the capital. Incidentally, this is exactly the same type of relationship we see in Jesus’ time, with the important exception that the Jerusalem elite were now in the pocket of Rome instead of Antioch.

    Anyway, my greater point is that the Maccabean revolt was not a revolt by the Jewish ruling class in Jerusalem against Antioch, but was really a rural, populist uprising against BOTH Seleucid hegemony and the Jerusalem establishment that was in Antiochus’ pocket. Note that instigators and leaders of that revolt came from a lesser Levitical family, from the one horse town Modi’in out in the countryside of Judea, not from the established priestly families in Jerusalem — and that’s why many of the Levitical families later revolted against Hasmonean rule, because they were outraged that a minor priestly family would be in control of Jerusalem and the Temple, rather than the traditional Zadokites.

    Anyhow, that’s why it would be more accurate to say that some Jews — namely the more traditional, rural Jews of the Judean countryside — had FELT like their traditions were being undermined (whether they actually were or not) by both an intolerant hegemon (Antiochus) and the Jerusalem establishment that he controlled. If I were to make a modern analogy that effectively illustrates the scenario: think of the urban, coastal, liberal elites of New York City and Los Angeles as like Antiochus Epiphanes; Washington DC as like the Jerusalem establishment who were the puppets of Antiochus; and the good ole, heartland, biscuits and gravy, conservative God-fearing Evangelical Christians of the “real” fly-over America — who are being persecuted by those godless communists in DC, New York and California — are the rural Jews who rose up against Antioch and Jerusalem. That, I think, is the more accurate way to look at it.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Yes, I’m basing that on 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are explicit on the point. Are you saying that you think they are exaggerating or misstating the actual situation?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 19, 2017

        Well, one has to take 1 and 2 Maccabees with a grain of salt, seeing as how they were written by the victors. I wouldn’t say they are total exaggerations, but I do think they overstate how the Jews were “persecuted” by Antiochus’ reforms. From what I’ve read of human history and from what I understand of human nature, the true persecution probably did not begin until the actual revolt began. Before Matthias struck down the Levite in Modi’in who was attempting to sacrifice a pig (or whatever the story was), I don’t think Antiochus was actively rounding up dissidents and torturing them. Not until those rural traditionalist Jews (possibly the precursors of the Chassidim and then the Pharisees?) began to push back violently against Antiochus’ reforms did Antiochus begin to suppress the uprising with violence in turn. In other words, the physical torment we see depicted in 3 and 4 Maccabees, for instance, is more likely a better example of what was happening after the Maccebean revolt had already started, not before. This isn’t to say that those traditional Jews didn’t have a genuine gripe. As with most sectarian, internecine conflicts, it’s hard to unambiguously distinguish good side from bad, the side with just cause from the side with no cause. In fact, after such conflicts begin, it often becomes difficult pin point when and why the conflict even started in the first place. But since the Maccabees are the ones who documented the history, they get the honor of deciding when and why it began. When? When Matityahu killed the priest sacrifing a pig. Why? Because the “true” Jews were being persecuted.

  8. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  September 18, 2017

    Fascinating! tracy

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 18, 2017

    A further post, to make my meaning a little clearer!

    If all the people Jesus was preaching to already believed in the coming “Kingdom,” and he wasn’t calling for a violent uprising to hasten it, what *did* he think his mission was? Maybe, to exhort them to more fervent prayer (and *preparing* for life in the “Kingdom”) – because if they, the “chosen people,” just took that coming “Kingdom” for granted, it *wouldn’t* come?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      I think he was exhorting them to “get ready” because “it is almost here.”

  10. tompicard
    tompicard  September 18, 2017

    The primary point to be made by the author the of verses In Dan 12:3 and 2nd Maccabees 7 is that God and His righteous will be vindicated and scondarily there will be a universal Judgement. In order to make these points a resurrection (probably physical resurrection but not completely unambiguous) narrative is included.

    Why in these instances do you believe the physical resurrection narrative is to be taken literally but not the boney resurrection narrative in Ezekiel 37, nor the non-physical afterlife realm described in Luke 16 ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      You have to look at the clues provided by the texts themselves. E.g., Ezek 37 gives its own interpretation, that it is about the nation being brought back from exile to life again; Luke 16 is set up as a parable (i.e., a fictional story); etc.

  11. Avatar
    Tony  September 18, 2017

    Just to clarify, when you wrote: “There emerged a new view that said that even though there were forces of evil who were in control of the world now,….”. Are you referring to supernatural forces (ie Satan and/or evil demons), or are these earthly rulers?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Probably both.

      • Avatar
        Tony  September 19, 2017

        For the origins of Christianity, I’ll go with completely supernatural. Ephesians, while not written by Paul, likely reflect Pauline thought. It states the problem unequivocally in Ephesians 6:12:
        “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. “

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2017

          Parts of Ep[hesians refelect Paul’s thought; other parts are at odds with Paul’s other writings. that’s why scholars think he didn’t write it.

          • Avatar
            Tony  September 20, 2017

            No doubt, Paul did not write Ephesians. But on the specific subject of evil forces even Paul’s undisputed letters talk about supernatural forces in similar language. Such as 1Cor 2:6-9 and 15: 24-26.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 22, 2017

            Yup! That’s why Pauline scholars stick to the undisputed letters when it comes to discussing Paul’s theology.

          • Avatar
            Barnsweb  December 25, 2017

            Per Luke, Paul gave contradicting accounts of conversion in Acts – seems that teaching contrary things was his manner of teaching. From the most important thing is keeping the commandments of God (I Cor. 7) to keeping them is to fall from grace. Why question the inconsistencies? They may actually be the proofs we should look at – as the accounts in the various gospels also note in detail… or lack thereof?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 19, 2017

      Demonic forces and those human beings in service to those demonic forces

  12. Avatar
    ardeare  September 18, 2017

    My least favorite example of someone going to heaven comes from a story I heard on the popular radio program, “Focus on the Family.” Serial killer Ted Bundy asked to be interviewed by Dr. James Dobson the day before his electrocution. Dr. Dobson states on his program that Bundy gave his life to Jesus and was eternally saved that afternoon. Yes, that’s right. He spends the rest of eternity in heaven because he accepted the free gift of Jesus dying for his sins. But, what about his 30+ female victims?

    The murders he confessed to consisted of girls from 12 years of age to 23. 30 in total. It is suspected that he may have been responsible for more than 100 murders, including girls as young as 8. They were brutally raped, mutilated, and their bodies discarded in numerous ways. Dr. Dobson conveniently leaves out what happens to the souls of all these young women. But, let’s be honest; we all know what is taught in that program and most Christian churches. If these young women were “saved” before being raped, tortured, murdered, and discarded like cat feces, they are in paradise awaiting their entry to heaven or in some circles, already in heaven itself. But, if they weren’t saved, their last moments were spent in a horror that was only getting started. Unfortunately, for that 17-year-old high school senior or the 20-year-old college sophomore, the last breath they took on earth was only a precursor of what’s to come. They will spend eternity in eternal torment while Bundy abides with white-robed heavenly angels.

    Give me friggin’ break. That’s quite a price these young victims have to pay for their parents having sex resulting in their births.

  13. Avatar
    Pegill7  September 18, 2017

    You may have mentioned this before but where according to scripture did Enoch and Elijah go after being immediately whisked away from earth without experiencing physical death?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      They went up to live with God — unlike everyone else who ends up in Sheol.

      • Avatar
        Pegill7  September 19, 2017

        Does everyone else include Moses, Elisha, King David?

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        SidDhartha1953  September 20, 2017

        I’ve read of the tradition that Enoch was promoted to angelic status and even had a new name (Metatron: sounds like one of the Transformers). Was Elijah also thought to be an angelic being who would return to earth in his angelic form?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          The Metatron tradition is in the later, 3 Enoch. Elijah: the texts that talk about his return don’t mention his form.

      • Avatar
        Michael Toon  September 20, 2017

        When the Old Testament says Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, is the writer suggesting that Elijah rode a tornado to heaven?

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    anthonygale  September 18, 2017

    Are you going to say anything about Purgatory? Even when I was religious I was troubled by that idea given the lack of any clear Biblical reference to it. I remember asking a Catholic school teacher about it and getting one of those answers when someone pretends like you asked a different question.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Yes, I probalby will. The definitive study is Jacque Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 20, 2017

        I think one of the Catholic “proof texts” for Purgatory is that “some will be saved as by fire.” I forget the chapter verse.

  15. Avatar
    caesar  September 18, 2017

    Just a quick search yielded a few verses suggesting an afterlife in the OT…kind of odd though, if the OT folks really believed in an afterlife, something so important only merits a handful of mentions.

    Is 26:19 Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise…the earth will give birth to those long dead.
    Ps 49:15 God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.
    Ps 16:10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.

    Did some of the OT authors believe in an afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Psalm 16 and 49 are usually interpreted as meaning that Yahweh will extend the person’s life, not that he will prevent them from going to Sheol *ever*. In addition to Isa 26:19 see Daniel 12:2. Most Hebrew Bible authors believed in a Sheol.

  16. Avatar
    Jason  September 18, 2017

    Did the three-story universe idea coexist with Heaven as a physical city in the sky above Jerusalem independent of the righteous ascending to it and the evil to Sheol bellow after death before and in Daniel’s period?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      My sense is that different Jews believed different things at one and the same time — like today!

  17. Avatar
    ask21771  September 18, 2017

    Are there contradictory morals in the Bible

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2017

      Yes, I think so. The children of Israel are told to murder all the Canaanites; Jesus says to love your enemies. Those seem incommensurate to me.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 19, 2017

        Which is one possible explanation for the extremely contradictory morals of many modern-day Christians.

        Though the likelier explanation is that humans everywhere tend to have a hard time practicing what they preach, and in all fairness, even Jesus got mad sometimes.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 19, 2017

    Good morning, Bart. I just wanted to mention an opportunity some other followers of your blog might consider. A new, seven week course (free!) began last night on the EdX website (www.edx.org) called The Science of Religion. It is sponsored through the University of British Columbia and, from the first week’s material, seems very good.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 19, 2017

    Good summary. Thanks so much!

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 20, 2017

    In 1 Cor. 2:6, Paul speaks of “rulers of this age who are doomed to perish” and in v. 8 that if the rulers of this age had understood God’s wisdom, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
    Do you think he is referring to the same rulers in both verses? It seems he would mean angelic beings in v. 6 because he would not rule out the possibility of human rulers being saved (unless he means their power, not they themselves, will perish). But in v. 8, it seems unlikely that he would be saying other angelic beings did not know who Jesus really was: one like them, but even greater.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      There is a long standing Christian tradition that the spiritual powers (bad angels) in charge of affairs on earth didn’t know who Jesus actually was (he was disguised from them). It’s hard to know if that tradition lies at the heart of what Paul is saying or not (or whether the influence went the other way, that Paul’s words helped lead to this view)

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