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Speaking in Churches as an Agnostic; and Jewish Beliefs about Afterlife. Readers Mailbag August 13, 2016


I will be dealing with two rather wide-ranging questions in this week’s Readers Mailbag:  What is it like for me, a public agnostic/atheist, to give a talk to believers in a church?  And what did Jews believe about the afterlife in the time of Jesus?



Dr. Ehrman, do churches hire you to lecture on Christianity knowing that you’re an atheist? Do you ever get tempted to say, “Let’s be honest here. I think all of your cherished religious beliefs are baloney, but I’ll humor you for the next couple of hours.” That’s how I feel when I tell someone that they can accept the Theory of Evolution and still believe in God, even though, deep down inside, I know that Evolution and God mix like oil and water, so I simply humor them.



Ah, right, this is a good question.  As it turns out, I do get asked to speak in churches on occasion.   Sometimes, of course, it is in order to have a debate with a conservative Christian apologist.  In those cases I am invited so that the people attending (good conservative Christians themselves) can watch me get trounced so that they can be assured that I don’t know what I’m talking about.  (!)   But other times I am simply asked to give talks, as was the case with the Coral Gables video that I posted yesterday.  How does that work, given the fact that I’m not a believer and I am being asked to speak to people in a church?

The first thing to stress: whenever I get an invitation, I respond by asking, “Are you *sure*?  You do know I’m an agnostic don’t you?”   Normally I get asked, though, by pastors who know exactly what I think and believe, who have read my books, who think that it would be good for their parishioners to hear me.  In fact, I not infrequently get asked to speak during a worship service (e.g. by giving a sermon).  I draw the line there.  I really don’t feel comfortable in the context of Christian worship any more, and I don’t think it is right for me as a non-believer to speak in worship contexts. So I simply will not do that.

But I’m happy to talk to members of a congregation in any other context (including adult Sunday School).   I’ve never ever felt like telling people that their beliefs are baloney.  That is mainly because …

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Being Trained To Interpret Texts
Video of How Jesus Became God, Part 1 (of 3)



  1. Avatar
    Prizm  August 13, 2016

    First questioner: “I know that Evolution and God mix like oil and water”
    True. Oh sure, there’s always believers willing to cram square pegs into round holes, but as far as the Abrahamic God goes, it’s a bit like Occam’s Razor: there’s a lot less doctrinal gymnastics required if you disregard evolution.

  2. Avatar
    Abu  August 13, 2016

    Hi Dr. Ehrman, I guess censorship is a form violation of freedom of speech.:) . In your video you mentioned how bringing back a word in translation can highlight a difference. Then I have an assumption and only you or any Greek literate scholar might be able to answer. My assumption is that a change in translation back to creek in using the word”son of God” can be made. For example, is it possible that the Greek manuscript had a word that implies other meanings but the translators choose the word Son of God to fit thier doctrines. An example of that is in New world translation where they put the word Jahova instead of The lord as it’s translated in circulating four reports about the Injeel(goodnews).
    My e-mail:ammarmail24@gmail.com

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      Son of God in Greek is almost always a UIOS TOY THEOU. Jehovah does not have a Greek equivalent — it is a made up English word.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  August 13, 2016

    Re: “Other Jews (especially throughout the Old Testament period) appear to have thought that the afterlife was a shadowy kind of existence in a place for Sheol, the place that all people, good and evil went. It wasn’t a very interesting place, but it was a kind of place of rest.

    Yet other Jews appear to have thought that there were rewards for the righteous in the afterlife in the realm of Paradise and punishments for the wicked in a place of torment.”

    I read somewhere that this idea of an afterlife with rewards and punishments entered Jewish thinking during the time of the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE) that overthrew the Greek overlords (Seleucids) that had ruled Judea since the time of Alexander the Great. The Hasmonean, Mattathias, essentially usurped the office of the high priest and sparked the revolt by refusing to offer sacrifice to Greek gods in the Jewish Temple. The Maccabees were outnumbered by the Greek military and fought a guerilla war against great odds. Supposedly the Maccabean priests came up with the idea of life after death and rewards to incentivize their warriors to make the supreme sacrifice. Which apparently worked somewhat since the Greeks, after the death of Antiochus IV, retreated back to Syria and negotiated a peace with the Maccabees, who purified the Temple and ruled Judea until the Romans showed up in 63 BCE. The Pharisees apparently seized this idea and made it part of their belief system.

    Any truth to this scenario?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      It is often thought that Jewish apocalyptic thought arose during the Maccabean period, and that this is where the ideas of eternal reward and punishment became prominent in Jewish eschstological thought – -yes!

      • Avatar
        turbopro  August 15, 2016

        Prof, perhaps you may provide some suggested reading for this period please?


        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2016

          Sure — just tell me what you’re most interested in and I’ll give some suggestions.

          • Avatar
            turbopro  August 18, 2016

            Well, we could start with the history of that period, the Maccabean period, in light of the influence of Hellenistic culture.

            I did some research and intend to read some of this work this weekend at the library: “Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews” by Victor Tcherikover

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 15, 2016

      The idea probably existed before the Hasmoneans, but it was during the Maccabean Revolt that it became operationalized, so to speak. By way of comparison, the political idea of a government “of the people” was theorized well before the founding of the Unites States of America, but it wasn’t until the American Revolution that this idea became operationalized and realized, and thus going from a theory bandied about by intellectuals into an ideal believed my everybody. Before the Hasmoneans, Jewish scholars only theorized about the idea of an afterlife of reward and punishment, and the average Jew had little to no thoughts on the matter. After the Maccabean Revolt, the average Jew himself didn’t just theorize but actually believed in an afterlife of reward and punishment.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 13, 2016

    Re the first question: No one ever asks me about my beliefs, of course, nor do I express opinions about theirs. But the main reason I don’t dismiss theistic beliefs as ridiculous is that they do indeed enrich some people’s lives. I expect such beliefs will eventually die out; but that will be a natural process, and I don’t advocate trying to hurry it along.

    Re the second question: Is that only in Luke? Is belief in “Paradise” consistent with Luke’s other apparent beliefs? And are there hints about the other Gospel writers’ beliefs regarding an afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      Yes, the verse is only in Luke. And yes, the idea of paradise as a place after death is not inconsistent with Luke’s views otehrwise. And yes, all the authors of the Gospels appear to have beliefs about the afterlife. (Most notably the Gospel of John)

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  August 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, as for Evolution, I’ve found that most critics — esp. Christian fundamentalist critics — don’t even effectively understand the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection enough to appropriately criticize it. They’ll often throw out absurd objections, such as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics or “missing links”, etc. It often feels like trying to teach calculus to someone who has yet to master their times tables.

    As for Jewish beliefs of the afterlife in Jesus’ times, I roughly divide the ancient Jews into four categories. In the first quarter are those highly Hellanized Jews who could not be bothered with eschatological concerns. Their concerns were almost entirely secular, and any religious behaviors — ritually or socially — were merely perfunctory and de rigueur. (Some of these Hellenized Jews would even have their foreskins surgically reattached just so they could exercise naked in the gymnasiums without shame.) The second group would consist of those Jews who were proudly Jews and really did believe that the Torah was God’s Law, but, for the most part, they didn’t believe that the Torah said anything about any afterlife other than the grave (sheol), and they tended to disregard the prophetic writings that hinted at an afterlife. Sadducees would have fallen into this category. The next group were those Jews who certainly believed in the afterlife, and most of them believe in a Day of Resurrection and Judgment, in which God would separate the righteous from the wicked, and the righteous would live on in a virtual Eden (paradise), whether it be on a renewed earth or in heaven, and the wicked would be sent to Gehenna or Hell to suffer torture for their sins. However, this third group was generally passive, and never did they make an effort to bring about the End Times, nor did they actively proselytize their beliefs about the afterlife. They generally kept themselves and their beliefs separate from the others. The Pharisees and Essenes (the presumed keepers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) would fall within this third group. And, finally, there was a fourth category of Jews who believed in that stuff about afterlife, paradise and hell, resurrection and judgment, etc. But they also believed that that day was imminent and that all faithful, righteous Jews should be prepared to bring it about. They were — for lack of a better term — ancient Jewish Jihadis, Holy Warriors. Within this category fell groups like the Zealots and Sicarii (e.g. the last holdouts of Masada). Jesus and his followers probably fell somewhere between the third and fourth category.

    • Avatar
      JRH  August 15, 2016

      “Some of these Hellenized Jews would even have their foreskins surgically reattached.” I bet that hurt.

      And given the yucky reaction of women to such a procedure, you’d have to be a real gym fanatic to do something like that.

  6. Avatar
    James Chalmers  August 13, 2016

    I’m not an expert in theology, but I know enough and have read enough about it to realize that it is intellectually the real deal, and you don’t have to be an idiot to believe it. For me it would be a breach of intellectual honesty to believe. But not for others.

    MacIntyre et all not idiots, not dishonest. But is his, is any, theology, the real deal? Suppose we say (a) God exists and (b) there is an afterlife. Setting aside the notion belief in God is basic and warranted by visitations of the Holy Spirit, both these beliefs require evidence.

    What this evidence might be like we know from the natural sciences.
    The theory of natural selection is confirmed by intraspecies variation, transition forms, observations in nature, observations in the laboratory, homologous similarities, the fossil record–and on and on.
    The theory of plate tectonics or continental drift is confirmed by rock-fossil matches between Africa and South America, glacial till patterns, paleomagnetic patterns–again, on and on.
    The big bang is confirmed by observations of cosmic microwave background radiation, the red shift, and again much else.
    These facts–natural selection, continental drift, plate tectonics, the big bang are confirmed–“proven” in one relevant sense–by an abundance of evidence of many sorts.
    The existence of a benevolent god worthy of worship is disconfirmed by abundant evidence. So also, then, are the various biblical efforts to explain away evil disconfirmed. (See Ehrman, God’s Problem.)
    The existence of a super supernatural entity of any sort has fallen on hard times since Hume’s refutation of the argument from design followed by Darwin’s publication of his theory of natural selection, and by physic’s increasing firm grasp of the question “why is there something instead of nothing.”
    In the early stages of its history, Thomas and Paley could advance arguments for the existence of a supreme being that referred to evidence. Now their arguments have fallen on hard times; hence Plantinga attempts to relegate natural theology to the past and conclude evidence for the existence of the supernatural isn’t needed since belief in God is warranted by visitations of the Holy Spirit. But Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Satanists experience comparable visitations, and there’s no way to discern (in an objective way) these experiences from Christians’. Hence a natural , evidence-based theology (Swinburne’s, say) remains necessary. Perhaps in the days when no one could explain life itself or its intricate configurations (and its history, including the prevalence of extinction, was not known, and when physicists had not seized ahold of the big bang and what might precede it (if that makes sense to ask) theology was “real” in that it purported to explain the origin and configuration of life and the origins of the universe. But now both the nature of life and universe and their origins are much better understood, and one has to doubt if there’s anything real about theology. If there’s nothing there, as many of us believe, that’s all it has to study.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      All I’d suggest is that if anyone is genuinely interested in what very smart theologians say they read them!

      • TWood
        TWood  August 16, 2016

        Would you include N.T. Wright and Alister McGrath among the smart theologians? I know you clearly disagree with them on the resurrection, etc., but that’s a given. I find their overall command of theology, history, science, and the original languages quite impressive. What’s your view on these two theologians?

        P.s. The people who think Christians can’t honestly also believe in science seem to forget the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Mendel, Lemaitre, Collins, et al.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2016

          McGrath yes. N. T. Wright is really more a New Testament scholar than a theologian.

  7. Avatar
    James Chalmers  August 13, 2016

    Perhaps it was from 1840 to 1930 that evidence-based belief in an afterlife flourished most. Knowing what we know now of, say, the Fox sisters, “real” isn’t the first adjective springs to mind.

  8. John4
    John4  August 13, 2016

    Hey Bart 🙂

    OK, so I can’t really fault you, I suppose, for not respecting or listening respectfully to the views of ignorant fundamentalists. But, let me ask you, have you ever talked with and/or read anyone whom you would consider to be an *intelligent* fundamentalist? Or, do you think the term “intelligent fundamentalist” is an oxymoron?

    Many thanks, as always! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      Oh no — there are indeed some HIGHLY intelligent fundamentalists, if by that you mean “people with high IQs”

      • Avatar
        mjordan20149  August 15, 2016

        Whoever arranged the financing for that “Ark Encounter” was brilliant. I don’t really approve of municipal bonds being used to further a religious agenda, but I have to admit that the financial scheme was well conceived.

      • John4
        John4  August 16, 2016

        Yes, that is what I mean. Thank you so much, Bart! 🙂

      • TWood
        TWood  August 16, 2016

        I agree, but doesn’t that seem to make the smart ones *fundamentally* dishonest? They prey on the ignorant fundies which are much more common than the smart ones.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2016

          I”m not sure whom you’re referring to!

          • TWood
            TWood  August 17, 2016

            I was referring to those in your general statement that “there are indeed some HIGHLY intelligent fundamentalists.” But to give names, let’s say James White and John MacArthur. Both seem quite smart, and both seem completely impervious to actual evidence (which they are clearly aware of). Do you agree that seems to indicate dishonesty. I heard James White dismiss all the evidence for the earth being 4.6 billion years old by saying “cosmologies come and go.” I guess he’s just a modern Simplico (Pope Urban VIII).

          • Bart
            Bart  August 18, 2016

            Dishonesty in this context implies affirming views that a person knows are wrong for ulterior reasons. I’m not sure White, for example, can bring himself to realize that he may be wrong, so I’m not sure “dishonest” is the right term for it.

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 18, 2016

            I’m not sure who was being referred to either. But maybe it was this…I said in another post that I do not know if any community style Christian churches that would encourage the members to read a blog such as this one. In fact, if it was mentioned, the members would be told to stay away from these type of messages.
            I believe this to be true even though many of the pastors of these churches probably read books and blogs such as yours.
            If a pastor knows that what he is preaching and teaching is incorrect information, but he does it anyway because he knows that’s what the members want to hear and he wants to continue to be paid, does that make him dishonest?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 18, 2016

            Yes, I’d say that makes him dishonest.

  9. Avatar
    Todd  August 13, 2016

    Two quick questions:

    In the first response, you mentioned a few theologians who are on a high scholastic level. They are dealing with theology which to me is related to belief and is subjective. You and other scholars who study the history and texts of biblical literature are not dealing with belief but with history and the texts in an objective way.

    So, can a person be both a high level theologian and believer, and be a high level historical and textual scholar simultaneously, or are the two mutually exclusive? (for example, I can read your writings and those of N.T. Wright at the same time and can be challenged by both on different levels).

    My second question has to do with the quote attributed to Jesus. I know a bit of Greek from seminary, long ago, but I don’t know what word is used by the writer for “paradise.” Will you expand a bit on the meaning of the word paradise in the context in which it was written and it’s meaning in the Greek?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      I don’t think history, or any other discipline, is “objective.” That is one of the things that theologians will stress. And yes indeed, theologians often are superb historians and textual scholars.

      The word “paradise” came into Greek from Persia. It typically refers to a blessed place of existence after death.

      • TWood
        TWood  August 16, 2016

        What specifically does Luke say elsewhere that isn’t consistent with the “Paradise” phrase? I’m not challenging your statement, I just want to know the basic reason why you say that.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2016

          I”m afraid you lost me with your question. I didn’t mean to say that the paradise statement contradicted other passages in Luke.

      • Avatar
        KathleenM  August 18, 2016

        Yes, I remember this, the word “Paradise” coming in from the East. “Paradise” originally was the word used for an inner courtyard in a wealthy home in the valleys east of the Holy Land — where a garden with fruit trees was around a small pond or cistern or pool of water. It had the 4 directions of the cross – NESW and was oriented properly to the Universe at large–a garden of delights. I suppose women wove there on cool days, talked and bathed – hence the “women in paradise” of some of the ancient texts – a sacred space of milk and honey. Maybe it was like the Roman baths and the Mikvas of Jerusalem–a place where warriors or workmen returning home relaxed with their families end of the day, week, or battle won. I think all these fabulous stories that came into the written word at some point are based in someone’s reality. Like today we “go to paradise” in my family, when we … go visit our brother in the wine country north of Davis, California…years later we still remember the good times, the wine, the chocolate and in our case the yoga classes or the children’s birth parties. One morning there I actually viewed the lion lie down with the lamb…haven’t forgotten taking my decaf up a hill to watch the sun come up…a bobcat was walking around, a falcon preening on a tree branch, quail on the ground….total peace in early a.m., a true paradise. I still tell the story…as done here, a metaphor of Heaven. /k

  10. Avatar
    Saemund  August 13, 2016

    Am I right to conclude that you personally don’t believe Jesus said those words: “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise”?

  11. Rick
    Rick  August 13, 2016

    At the church of my youth (a Methodist one) Wednesday night Old Testament Bible study was often taught by the Rabi of the nearby Reform Temple who also held the Chair of Religious Studies at a nearby university. It was not until I was a good bit older that I realized how special that was.

  12. Avatar
    paul c  August 13, 2016

    In March of this year I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Ehrman speak at a church property in Vero Beach, Fl. He was graciously received by the pastor and the audience although, during the intermission, I did hear some attendees grumbling about the theological implications of some of his presentation. I drove four hours round trip to hear Dr. Ehrman speak and I might well have been the only blog subscriber in the place. Nevertheless, the audience went away satisfied, and, perhaps enlightened. The pastor knew what he was doing.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 13, 2016

    If Jesus believed in an afterlife, do you think it is more likely he would have conceived it as a resurrection, perhaps at the coming of the Son of Man, than a disembodied life that commences immediately after death, or was the coming of the Son of Man only going to affect those who were still living? Were both views (resurrection or not) held among Jewish apocalypticists?
    Also, I’ve wondered about the story of the two who were crucified with Jesus. Do any scholars you know of believe one or both of them were mocking Jesus because they were followers arrested with him? Would they not have had reason to be angry if he had told them he was the messiah and they wound up being killed for believing him?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      Yes, my sense is that as an apocalyptic Jew, Jesus believed in a bodily resurrection here on earth as the form of an afterlife. My view of the mockery is that it is a later legendary addition, not a historical detail.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 14, 2016

    I have admired your tolerance of liberal Christianity for a long time, but it is harder for me to respect it the way you do. I wish I could. Somehow, the explanation of scholarly people just seeing things differently does not quite do it for me. It’s complicated, but liberal Christianity just does not seem to me to have a reasonable intellectual foundation, but I am working on seeing it. As always, thanks.

  15. Avatar
    adnbob  August 14, 2016

    Wanting to read both sides, is there a leading book or two from the Christian authors you list (Williams, Hauerwas, McIntyre, Tanner) who presents the most persuasive case in favor of belief?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      That’s a good question, and I’m sure there are kinds of “apologists” for non-conservative, enlightened Christian faith. But off hand I don’t know where to send you. Maybe some readers of the blog can suggest some things?

      • Avatar
        jdub3125  February 26, 2017

        Try a perhaps lesser known author from the 19th century, Adin Ballou, vol 1 of Primitive Christianity and its Corruptions.

  16. Avatar
    JRH  August 14, 2016

    “…Jews appear to have thought that the afterlife was a shadowy kind of existence … It wasn’t a very interesting place”

    What’s interesting here is that this is exactly what the ancient Greeks thought. In Book XI of the Odyssey, the dead Achilles says something to the effect that even his worse day on earth was better than the tedium of the underworld.

    So Bart, if I can ask a followup question, is there any evidence that the ancient Jews borrowed ideas from the Greeks in developing their religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2016

      Yes, Jews were naturally influenced by Greek thought, since so many Jews (including those living in Palestine) were living in Greek culture wiht Greek influences all around them! (In some ways it’s like asking if Jews have been influenced by American culture. AMerican Jews: yes indeed!)

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 14, 2016

    There’s a big difference between believing an eternally existing Being created everything else, and accepting *Christianity*. I don’t hold either view, but I can understand even highly educated people believing in a “Supreme Being.” As you’ve said, its existence can’t be *dis*proven.

    What I *can’t* understand is highly educated theologians’ embracing Christianity! But I respect the beliefs of ordinary, devout lay Christians.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 15, 2016

      Maybe they’ve had some personal experiences that they feel cannot be explained without there being a God?

  18. Avatar
    JRH  August 14, 2016

    Thanks for your answer, Bart. It seems to me that if the early followers of Jesus believed in heaven whereas most Jews and pagans did not, then the Christians could provide their followers with something to hope for in a cruel and difficult world. This hope would make for a powerful recruiting tool in attracting new converts.

    On another subject, reference the acronym N.F.F.N.S.N.C. As I’m sure you know, there are also inscriptions above some tombs in the Roman catacombs that translate as “We were once like you. You will be like us.” How true.

  19. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 15, 2016

    I can’t think of one reason why evolution would indicate whether there is or isn’t a God. People believe what they believe because it’s useful. There’s no way of knowing whether gods exist, so all you can do is believe what works for you. I know that color doesn’t exist in the real world. It is a concept created entirely within the brains of animals. But I still believe a banana is yellow when it’s ripe. Why do I believe that? BECAUSE IT’S USEFUL!

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 15, 2016

      I put that book you recommended on my wishlist. I tried to reply to your Amazon rating and review, but it wouldn’t give me the option to do so. I’ll buy it when I get caught up on the other books I’m reading.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 20, 2016

        Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I don’t have anything to do with Amazon.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 20, 2016

      When I searched for the book under Amazon, it had a review on there from someone named Dragonfly. I just assumed it was you.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 21, 2016

        Imposter! Maybe I should change my name…

  20. Avatar
    herculodge  August 15, 2016

    I admire Mr. Ehrman’s acceptance of smart Christian thinkers, people Ehrman says are smarter than he is, making their claims, and how their claims, presumably of heaven and hell, don’t impede Mr. Ehrman from making his own conclusions. I find that as a struggling agnostic, one who converted to Christianity when I was 17 but back pedaled for common reasons, I’m always, like a chess game, pitting atheist/agnostic chess pieces (Ehrman, Hitchens, Bissell, Julia Sweeney, Sam Harris, etc) against Christian pieces (Peter Kreeft, Pascal, CS Lewis, etc) and wondering who “wins.” But Ehrman, wisely, has the courage to embark on his own struggle. I suppose my fear of hell and the need for hell insurance, in spite of my agreements with Mr. Ehrman, impede me from resolving my religious ambivalence.

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