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Some Very Strange Journeys to Heaven and Hell

This post is free for everyone, but most posts come only to blog members.  Joining the blog is easy and it gives you access to tons of material for very little expense.  All the money goes to charity.  so why not join.

Last week I was in Marburg, Germany for the annual conference for the Society of New Testament Studies.  This is an international society at the top tier of NT scholars in the world, a closed society that no one can actually *join*.  You have to be nominated and voted in, and there are strict academic guidelines (in terms of qualifications and numbers of books and articles published, etc.).  I’m not saying I’m in favor of that system, but as we say these days (or at least were saying a year or so ago) it is what it is.

I’ve been a member since the 1990s but actually haven’t been to one of the meetings since 1995.   But I went to this one because I was asked to read a paper and I’m really glad I went.  It was absolutely terrific.  Really smart people there (maybe 300 or so?) (OK, some smarter than others….) from around the world doing interesting and important work.

The paper I read was related to the scholarly project I’m working on, involving the journeys to the underworld recorded in early Christian texts.  As I’ve said on the blog before, this kind of trip is technically called a “katabasis,” a Greek word for “Going Down” (i.e. to the world below) (the same word is also sometimes used, generically, but somewhat confusedly, for trips “Going Up” to heaven above).

My paper was meant for scholars but it is not heavily burdened with anything particularly scholarly and inaccessible.  It dealt with two of our earliest Christian katabaseis (the plural of the world) in the non-canonical Acts of Thomas (if you don’t recall what that text is about, I discussed it recently on the blog, here: https://ehrmanblog.org/thomas-and-his-identical-twin-jesus-in-the-acts-of-thomas/)

It’s pretty fascinating stuff, and thought you might be interested in parts.  I won’t give the entire paper here, but just the bits of greatest interest to what generally happens on the blog.   This is how I begin (I’ll explain any unusual words as necessary):


One of the most fascinating but understudied features of the Acts of Thomas is its understanding of the afterlife, particularly in light of its two remarkable katabaseis, both of which are narrated as Near Death Experiences.   The first comes in the second Act, connected with Thomas’s commission to build a new palace for the Indian king Gundaphorus (recall: Thomas is Jesus’ twin brother, sent on a missionary journey, after Jesus death, to India; Gundaphorus is the king there).  Gundaphorus provides extensive funds for the building but Thomas gives it all to the poor.  When Gundaphorus comes to inspect the nearly completed project, Thomas assures him that rather than building a mere earthly palace, he has been building him a mansion in heaven.  Gundaphorus, not unexpectedly, has the apostle locked up, with plans to have him flogged and burned at the stake.

But that evening the king’s close-knit brother Gad dies and is taken to heaven by angels who show him the various residences available to him.  None is as glorious as a recently constructed palace.  He tells them he would like to dwell in a small part of it rather than have his own luxurious dwelling for eternity.  When he learns it is the palace built for his brother by Thomas (alms-giving — even if unconscious) having earned for the king a “treasure in heaven”) he persuades the angels to allow him to make a temporary return to life to purchase the property.   But when he is resuscitated and Gundaphorus learns the true state of things, he refuses the sale, suggesting Gad make his own palace.  On the spot Gundaphorus converts to the Christian faith and the life of self-sacrificing charity that this apocryphon promotes.

A glorious afterlife, then, is in store for those who convert and adopt the ascetic lifestyle promoted by the apostle.  And what of those who do not do so?   This is the subject of the katabasis in Act 6, granted not to an incredibly wealthy and powerful male sovereign, but to a lower-class anonymous woman.   A young man, recently converted, comes to Thomas to take the Eucharist; but his hands shrivel before the elements.  The apostle naturally knows something has gone awry.  On inquiry he learns that the man has just come from murdering his lover after failing to persuade her to embrace the new faith and the chaste lifestyle it entails.  His idea had been to enjoy spiritual but not physical pleasure with her for the rest of their lives; she evidently preferred conjugal relations.  Driven mad by the idea that she might enjoy them with someone else, he has slaughtered her and left her corpse behind before going off to take communion.

Thomas and the young man arrive at the scene of the murder.  The apostle instructs the man to revive his erstwhile lover through the power of God.  When he does so the woman’s first reaction is amazement, not at the resuscitation per se but at by the presence of the apostle, identical in appearance to the person she had just a moment before been addressing in the realm of the dead.  Here then is another play on the concept of the identical didymoi (Greek for “twins”), as it is better known from the account of the bridal chamber in Act 1 (see the earlier post I referred to above).

Thomas instructs the young woman to recount what she has just experienced in her brief visit to the afterlife.  Unlike the equally pagan Gad before her (for some unexplained reason), she was not transported to the realm of the blessed but to the chambers of torment.   A “hateful” looking man had taken her on arrival and guided her to the places of punishment, where pitiable souls were being tortured for their sundry iniquities:  abortion, adultery, slander, theft, and so on.   As in other Christian katabaseis, some of the punishments matched the penalty: for example, hangings by various appropriate body parts most culpable in the sin.   Others involved canonical torments of the genre: muck, worms, and wheels of fire.  The woman was then shown a very dark cavern reeking with stench, where she saw souls that had not been destroyed by their torments, fighting for breath for eternity.   When her hellish guide refused to give her over to any of the eternal tormentors, she was suddenly returned to the body.   On reviving, she begs Thomas to prevent her from being taken back.

The apostle informs the bystanders that there are actually worse punishments, which the woman had not observed, and that if they (and she) don’t turn to God from their sins, they will be subjet to them for an eternity of abject misery.  The only solution is to convert to his gospel message.   Given the Christian author and audience of the text, there is the expected and glorious outcome:  “Then the entire crowd believed and delivered their obedient souls to the living God and to Christ Jesus.”

There is much to be said about these texts.  In this paper I would like to consider them in light of significant comparable texts from earlier times and different religious traditions (Greek and Roman mainly).   My overarching thesis is that this kind of early Christian katabasis, more famously found in the somewhat earlier Apocalypse of Peter and the later Apocalypse of Paul, functioned not only to instruct Christians about the life to come and (secondarily) to urge non-Christians to convert to this faith but also to set the Christian message in clear contrast to other religious traditions of the Greek and Roman worlds, as expounded in even better known, pagan katabaseis.  The Christians borrowed the forms of these earlier texts but radically transformed their content to incorporate the truth of their gospel message.


A Christian Forger Caught in the Act
Was James the Actual Brother of Jesus?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 7, 2019

    Facilis descensus Averno:
    Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
    Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
    Hoc opus, hic labor est.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      Yup, one of the great passages. Not a Sibyl for nothing!

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 7, 2019

    Hi Bart, I hope you won’t mind answering an off topic question. From the tiny little bit of church history that I’ve managed to familiarise myself with, I get the impression that the early Christians were very careful to define in as precise and detailed a manner as possible, what it was they believed. The bishops came together in council to define the doctrines of the faith and to condemn those who held opposing views. My question is this: was that something that was exclusive to christians only or was it common practice among the “pagan” or non Christian religions in the Roman and Greek world? Was the practice of anathematising a group or an individual and branding them heretical something that was peculiar to christians or are there examples of similar happenings among the non christian cults or religions of the Greek and Roman world of those early centuries?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      I think I answered this one already? Brief answer: no, there was nothing like this in pagan religions.

      • Avatar
        stokerslodge  August 9, 2019

        Oh! So sorry! I went looking for the answer but couldn’t find it and was thinking that you hadn’t received it… so I re-posted!

  3. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  August 7, 2019

    Here comes that word “Literal” again!

    Do scholars know if the rank and file (and potential converts) of early Christianity took thesekatabaseis literally or rather as legend (or something else)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      We don’t know for sure, but the general sense is that people really believed them.

  4. Avatar
    Forrest  August 7, 2019

    “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member. “— Groucho Marx

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  August 7, 2019

    The Qumran community would have become aware of the communities of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

    Was Jesus doing things with which the Essenes did not agree to the extent a diplomatic envoy would have been sent to Jesus and his disciples–or was Jesus and his disciples called in before the Essenes?

    While Jesus was making a name for himself with his Son of Man ministry, James was occupied with his own vocational development. James did not make a name for himself being the leader of the Jerusalem church but he was an authority figure in his own religious right, respected by Peter’s Jerusalem church. James became a resource of the Peter’s Jerusalem church, for the Jerusalem church was tradition oriented without the freedoms of Paul.

    The answer seems to be Jesus was not doing anything for which the community of his brother would have brought him in for correction. Still, James did not join his brother in empire-building. James, likely was a member of a different institution/community, with its own prestige and hierarchy.

    The Jerusalem church of Jesus does not diplomatically come in contact with James’ circle the way the community of Paul came in contact for correction with James.

    You bring up Rotary Club and Kiwanis service communities. Jesus and James had their own communities and Peter could appeal to the unique authority and prestige of the non-offshoot Essene community of James. “Not a letter of the Law would be changed,” so, if Peter needed more gravitas, he could appeal to either the Essene community at large or tap the personal connection of Jesus to the larger figurehead of that related community.

    James was not an administrative leader of the Jerusalem church but a dotted line authority figure within a tradition that did not have a Son of Man Movement offshoot. The New Testament has no formal speech where James addresses the disciples of his brother where he thanks the disciples for carrying on the ministry of his brother and where he is honored to lend his prestige to his brother’s community.

    James does not seem to pickup 1) the miracle working of Jesus or 2) Wicked Tenant and Tribulation for Jerusalem motifs (dominant ideas) of Jesus.

    If you do not agree, how do you see James as more than an authority figure of a similar holy community, with a personal family connection to Jesus and a shared interest in orthodoxy to which Peter’s Jerusalem Church could appeal?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      I”m not at all sure that the small community around Jesus in Galilee would have been known by groups of Jews in Judea. In fact, I highly doubt it.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  August 9, 2019

        I’ve toyed with the idea that when Jesus “cleansed” the Temple he might have been signaling to the Essenes that he was ready to be their messiah, since purification of the Temple was a frequent theme in their writings. Admittedly it’s just speculation. I actually think it’s more likely he was frustrated that his “triumphal entry” fizzled, and that people were more interested in buying and selling than it what he had to say.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 11, 2019

          I suppose the problem is that there is no evidence that Jesus had any contact with (or even knew about) the Essenes.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 15, 2019

        I”m not at all sure that the small community around Jesus in Galilee would have been known by groups of Jews in Judea. In fact, I highly doubt it.

        Well, Jesus was known by one group of Jews in Judea that got him killed. Is there some objection you would like to raise about that, also?

        I suppose the problem is that there is no evidence that Jesus had any contact with (or even knew about) the Essenes.

        With the Jesus-Pharisees and scribes exchanges, Jesus would have done himself well to find a less hostile audience. Second, given Jesus’ belief in angels and the Essene’s belief in bathing/baptism as to not contaminate angels sent to help them, they sure had enough in common for a mutually beneficial dialogue.

        Reference Jesus saying
        Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?
        Matthew 26: 53

        • Bart
          Bart  August 16, 2019

          Yes, you too are known by some people in your town. Doesn’t mean you’re known to people in some other town. And we live in a world of modern transportaiton and mass communication/social media….

  6. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 7, 2019

    The different stories of the afterlife are interesting. I know Judaism had some Apocalyptic texts. In contrast, Ancient Egypt had a different version. I think Ancient Egyptian had eternal life (many time going up to heaven and coming down to earth) and everlasting death (you don’t live again). This is my current understanding and it could change as I learn more. It seemed to be enough for Ancient Egyptians to want eternal life instead of everlasting death.
    From what you previously said about the Ancient Romans, this might be the same type of death they were used to and expecting, so maybe the Bible writers needed to make death more undesirable for them to convert.

    With all of the research that I have been doing and the changes I have made resulting in what I learn, I have decided to research leading with love and kindness in the Catholic Church. My concentration is global leadership in a doctorate of management degree program. I have been studying ethics and philosophies this summer.
    I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. I didn’t realize some of the differences between Catholics and Christians. For example, there is a difference of faith vs faith plus works. In addition, if faith is based on the Bible being historically true, instead of believing in God, yourself and others created good, with eternal life and also the freedom to choose, then people don’t really know God.
    This could be some unethical writing in the Bible that divided people and has resulted in suffering and death.
    Divided we fall.
    United we stand.

  7. Avatar
    Hngerhman  August 8, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Tangential topic – heartwarming cautionary stories such as this speak directly to the invention of hell (and the afterlife more broadly), and to the concept of a god who would entertain a hell in the first place. So, two questions:
    – How much longer will we need to steel our patience for your Afterlife book?
    – Are there any good scholarly studies you’d recommend that trace the origins and evolution of the idea of god – from the ruthless tribal YHWH of the earliest yahwehists through to the more abstract 4-Omni god of mainline Xnity?

    Thanks much!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      1. It comes out the end of March 2. Haven’t read it, but Jack Miles: The History of God?

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  August 9, 2019

        Thanks 2x!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  August 10, 2019

        FWIW, as consumer-end confirmation of same, just now got the Amazon preorder notification and purchased the Kindle version scheduled for arrival 3/31/20.

  8. fefferdan
    fefferdan  August 8, 2019

    “The Christians borrowed the forms of these earlier texts but radically transformed their content to incorporate the truth of their gospel message.” Looking forward to seeing your comparison of Christian and pagan accounts. I see it happening today with some new religious movements today as well.

  9. Avatar
    sdorman  August 8, 2019

    I know this is off topic for this post. Although, I’m curious if you recommend any commentary or commentary series on the New Testament. I have read conservative ones written by Calvinists, Like D. A. Carson, but are there more liberal ones? Also, would you like to write a commentary on a book of the New Testament? If so, which one?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      The best ones are fairly technical, for example inthe Anchor Bible commentary series. But there are millions for layfolk. Just check out the author on the Internet and see if she/he teaches at a conservative Christian school or not. No, I vowed in grad school never to write a commentary and I have less then zero desire to do one now. Maybe I’ll post on why….

  10. Avatar
    Kavsor  August 8, 2019

    I wonder on what merits did Gad qualify for heaven ? Wouldn’t it make christianity redundant ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      Exactly. Nothing qualified him: but his going there was necessary for the plot of the story.

  11. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 8, 2019

    This is off topic and I apologize in advance, but I haven’t found a way to work in this question anywhere else. so here goes: what would have given Jesus the impression that he was something special? That he had a special destiny? Or a “mission”? There seems to be sufficient evidence that he DID think he was special. I’ll throw this out as a hypothesis– he was much brighter than average and had a physical defect or oddity that forced him to live a different sort of life than his manual laborer father, possible allowing him to spend more time in whatever would have passed for a religious center in his home town. Maybe he became “bookish”. If he was set apart physically in some way, and also intellectually, I can see that he might have decided that he was a special sort of person with a special destiny.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      It’s a great question, but I’m afraid there’s no way to know. There are lots of people — religious leaders, politicians, and, well, university professors — who are convinced of their own greatness, and probalby for a variety of genetic and cultural/environmental reasons. Hard to tell in any specific case, especially if they aren’t around to interview. (Some of these people really are great but have an ego problem; some are absolutely not great but massively insecure and want eveyrone to think they are great; others are great and are simply self-reflective about it in a non egotistical way; etc. etc.)

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  August 9, 2019

        I guess it would also help to know how an ancient Palestinian Jew would react to someone with perhaps Marfan’s syndrome (very tall, thin, heart defects limiting activity) or albinism or androgeny. I guess temporal lobe epilepsy would be another possibility (something Paul may have had as well). Probably no info available on that. In general, I wonder how the ancient world reacted to or treated physical “otherness”. Superstitious awe? Rejection?

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  August 8, 2019

    I’m very interested in ancient cosmology. Do you see a meaningful distinction in these accounts between stories where the protagonist journeys to the “other world” seen as part of their own cosmos, and accounts where the “other world” is some order of reality accessible only by death or temporarily through dream or vision? Gilgamesh and Odysseus can travel to, respectively, Paradise and the Land of the Dead once they learn the way. They are places within their cosmos. Paul and John the Revelator can’t travel to the Third Heaven except through vision. I realize there’s no clear demarcation; Enkidu dreams of the land of the Dead, but it seems to me there might be a different mindset between someone who thinks Paradise is a place on earth and someone who considers Heaven a completely different order of reality.


    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      Very interesting question. My sense, though, is that all of the ancients in one way or another thought the realms of God and of the dead were part of *their* world. The problem was getting there. Even in Revelation, the prophet is allowed to go up through a window in the sky. God is up there, above the sky — literally. He’s not, say, in a different dimension of time-space. Some ancients thought you could get there if you travelled far enough (thus, e.g., teh Tower of Babel); others thought that it wasn’t humanly possible, but because of human limitations (humans can’t fly).

      • Avatar
        Stephen  August 10, 2019

        Thanks for the response. I figure your list of topics to post about is already very lengthy but allow me to suggest a post or two about this concept of taking beliefs “literally”. I was raised by fundamentalists and was taught that everything in the Bible was to be taken absolutely literally. But more and more I’ve been hearing and reading people make the claim that nobody in the ancient world took their beliefs literally, that this is a modern error of interpretation. I assume the truth is not in the extremes of these opinions but somewhere in between. Please consider this topic, thanks!

  13. Avatar
    Hume  August 9, 2019

    I was just in Jerusalem and Gehenna does not look like Hell at all. It’s has houses and streets and some shops. I’m trying to figure out why the authors of the new testament needed He’ll at all? Somewhere for their enemies to go? They couldn’t win against disbelievers in real life but they win in the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      Hey, I one time lived in a neighborhood we thought was hell…. As to Gehenna, I’ll be describing the logic behind it being “hell” in my forthcoming book. Maybe I should post on it….

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  August 9, 2019

        Yes, please do. And, in similar irony to Hume’s point, the Val d’Enfer near Les Baux-de-Provence, whose striations and caves are reputed to have been the inspiration for Dante’s vision of a leveled hell, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

  14. Avatar
    KSS  August 12, 2019

    Bart…regarding Heaven and Hell, when did the concept of God being a “loving” God develop? Seems at least in the OT, a reader sure might not get that impression? In the NT, Jesus, etc. speak of “love”, but where/how is it developed that God is an all loving being? Thus, even in “judgment” send a human to an eternal Hell?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2019

      Oh yes, God is definitely described as loving in the OT — it goes all the way back.

  15. Avatar
    KSS  August 13, 2019

    TX for clarifying for me! Guess I focused on the less nice parts. Seems even more confusing then that God would need Hell if so “loving”? Hell a human idea to get people to believe/follow? Makes that path seem more like an insurance policy then? If “love” is a coercion, is it real love? Looking forward to your new book! TX!

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