Sorting by


Life after Death in the Bible and Beyond: Webinar with Oxford Press

On April 20, 2020, I did a webinar for Oxford University Press.   I have published three textbooks with Oxford and the textbook division has started hosting these events, principally for college and university professors and their students, but anyone is welcome to sign up and join in.   When they asked me if I'd be interested, I thought it sounded like a great idea; and when they asked what I'd like to do it on, I told them the afterlife.  Of course!  It's what I've been thinking about and doing all my research on for the last four years or so -- not what *really* happens in the afterlife (for that I would need more experience, and I'm not eager to have it at this stage of existence, since, well, it will be my last experience and I won't be able to write about it -- but about where the ideas of the afterlife came from, especially those that have been prevalent for most of the past 2000 years.  They entitled the event "Life after Death [...]

2020-05-03T10:02:19-04:00May 3rd, 2020|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

The Not Old Better Show – Heaven and Hell Book Interview

On April 1 I did a podcast interview with Paul Vogelzang, the host of Smithsonian Associates "The Not Old Better Show," aired on Soundcloud (Washington DC). The podcast focuses on the issues or particular relevance to the 50+ crowd (nence its name) but obviously lots of the topics it hits are on the minds of everyone else as well. The interview was on my new book on Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   I read an excerpt from the book int he interview but mostly it's question and answer. I've done the show several times now, and have always found Paul to be an unusually perceptive and generous interviewer.  Here 'tis. Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: 

2020-04-23T21:14:18-04:00April 22nd, 2020|Book Discussions, Public Forum, Video Media|

Did Jesus Mean that Literally? Rewards and Punishments in the Afterlife

I return now to my thread dealing with the teachings about the afterlife in the New Testament.  One question that can naturally be asked is whether what is said about the afterlife in this, that, or the other passage is meant to be taken literally.    For example, I have discussed the famous passage of the “Sheep and the Goats” in Matthew 25, where the Son of Man at the end of history sits on his throne and divides the nations (or gentiles?) into two groups as a shepherd would separate his sheep and goats.  The sheep are given eternal life and the goats are forced to go to eternal punishment. But isn’t this all symbolic?  After all, people are said to be farm animals, when in fact people are human.  So isn’t the whole thing symbolic?  Isn’t it, for example, a kind of parable? I may change my mind on the matter, but my sense at this stage of my thinking is that the passage is not a parable.  Here I’ll give several reasons. First [...]

2020-04-03T01:52:49-04:00November 3rd, 2017|Afterlife, Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

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 [...]

2020-04-03T02:02:31-04:00September 5th, 2017|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha, Public Forum|

The Origins of Heaven and Hell

Where did the idea of a “differentiated” afterlife come from?  I’m not overly fond of the word “differentiated,” since it’s not one we normally use.  But for the moment I can’t think of a better one for the phenomenon I’m thinking of. An “undifferentiated” afterlife is one in which everyone has the same experience: there is no difference between one person and the next.  It doesn’t matter if the person lived a good life, was kind to strangers, was meek, humble, and mild, did his or her best to help those in need, lived a faithful and loving life OR was a wicked, mean-spirited, arrogant, violent sinner who disrespected others and went out of his or her way to do them harm.  The loving and meek, and the despicable and murderous: It doesn’t matter.  Both kinds of people end up in the same place and have the same experience after death (in an undifferentiated afterlife). As we have seen, that was the view of most of the Hebrew Bible.  At death, everyone goes to Sheol.  [...]

Eternal Life and Damnation

In my summaries of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul, as a couple of readers noticed, there was a striking difference in emphasis.  Both of these early Christian texts (the first from the second century, the other from the fourth or possibly the fifth?) narrate guided tours of the realms of the blessed and of the damned, and both seem more interested in describing the torments of the lost than the ecstasies of the saved. The former focuses on moral sins that lead to eternal punishment: seductresses, adulterers, murderers, children who are disobedient to parents, slaves who are disobedient to masters, women who had sex before marriage; and sundry other things.   To be sure, some of the sins are “religious” – blasphemy, socerery, and so on.  But in this case, “torment is for everyone forever according to his deeds.” The Apocalypse of Paul, on the other hand, is far more concerned about sins within the church, sins of ecclesiastical and doctrinal error: ascetics who break their vows; church people not commited completely [...]

2020-04-03T02:30:46-04:00March 27th, 2017|Afterlife, Christian Apocrypha, Public Forum|

Thinking about Hell

When I search my mind for times in my (distant) past that I thought about hell, I conjure up two very different moments.  Today when I think about them it is with a good sense of humor. The first is when I must have been maybe eight or nine.  I was at some kind of summer camp, and we had a daily camp meeting where we would sing songs and someone would come talk to us.  One day there was a local minister who came and told a story about a person who went first to hell and then heaven. When he went to hell he found that there was an enormous table filled with fantastic food – everything that everyone could imagine wanting.   But all the people there had three-foot long forks strapped to their arms, and it was impossible for them to pick up the food and bring it to their mouths.  And so they were starving in the midst of plenty. He then went to heaven and again, there was the enormous [...]

Views of the Afterlife

If my publisher agrees that my next book can/should be “The Invention of the Afterlife” (or whatever we call it) I will, as you might suspect, be thinking a lot about heaven and hell over the next couple of years.   I”ve already been thinking a lot about them over the past six months as I’ve been reading broadly on the topic.  I’m NOT, of course, mainly reading about what REALLY happens to us when we die.  No one knows that. Or maybe I should rephrase that.  There are a lot of people who *think* they know that, but in my opinion no one does.  Most of the books I’ve been reading are about what people have *thought* about heaven and hell over the past three thousand years.  I’m interested in knowing where current thinking came from – since what is now “common sense” in some circles was never dreamed of for most of human history. There are some people, of course, who argue that their views are not simply common sense – that is, views [...]

(Later) Early Christian Understandings of Heaven and Hell

Yesterday I gave Part One of a two-part discussion of the “invention” of heaven and hell, from my book Jesus Interrupted.  There I sketched out the apocalyptic vision of what would happen at the end of time as the original view among the followers of Jesus.  Here is where I continue that discussion into some reflections of where the Christian teachings of the afterlife, as later formulated, came from.   ********************************************** The Transformation of the Apocalyptic Vision What happens when this expected end doesn’t happen?  What happens when the apocalyptic scenario that Jesus expected to occur in “this generation” never comes?  When Paul’s expectation that he will be alive at the second coming of Christ is radically disconfirmed by his own death?  When the resurrection of the dead is delayed, interminably, making a mockery of the widespread belief that it will happen “soon”? One thing that happens, of course, is that some people begin to mock.  That is the problem addressed in the final book of the New Testament to be written, 2 Peter, which [...]

Jesus and Paul on Heaven and Hell

A couple of days ago I indicated on the blog that I am thinking about devoting my next book to the “Invention of the Afterlife” – that is, to the question of where the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell came come.  I asked for comments (and I still welcome them) from people about what they would be interested in seeing in a book like that.  Many, many thanks to everyone who has (so far!) responded to my request! As some of you know, I have already written a *bit* about the topic in an earlier book, Jesus Interrupted.  I thought it might be useful to replay what I said there, just to show where my thinking is at this point (I haven’t developed my thoughts significantly from writing that book, published in 2009) (but I expect they will develop in a big way, once I start working more diligently on the question).  Here is the first half of what I said there.  The second half will come tomorrow.  (For those of you who keep [...]

The Invention of the Afterlife: Request for Ideas!

Toward the end of this post I will be asking for your opinions and ideas.   So I hope you get that far! Now that I have sent my manuscript on The Triumph of Christianity off to my editor, and before she gets back to me for revisions and edits, I am turning my thoughts to the next book.  The reality is that I am not 100% certain what it will be.   That still has to be worked out, negotiated, and approved by the publisher.  I’m committed to Simon & Schuster for this next book, as well as Triumph (we originally negotiated a two-book deal), so that part is set.  But in our contract deal, the next book was more or less called a “player to be named later.”   Now it is time to figure out what it will be. I do have a strong preference, and hope to sell the publisher on the idea.  So far they are receptive.  But we’ll see. I started out with a vague idea, that has now evolved into a [...]

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?   QUESTION: 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.   RESPONSE: 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.  [...]

The Fear of Hell, Good Debaters, and the Name of God: Mailbag April 22, 2016

For this week’s readers’ mailbag I have chosen three unusually unrelated questions, one on whether we should be afraid of going to hell, one on how I prepare for public debates, and one on how we got the name Jehovah from the Hebrew name of God, YHWH.   This shows just how wide ranging your questions can be on this blog!   If you one you would like me to address in the future, let me know.   QUESTION: What would you say to someone who is scared of going to hell? RESPONSE: I suppose the first thing I’d say is that I understand the fear very well, from the inside, as I too used to have it.   This was especially a problem for me when I first began to realize that I didn’t believe the Christian message any more, the claim that one had to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus to be “saved” and that anyone who didn’t believe would be condemned to the eternal torments of hell.  One of my greatest fears [...]

2017-11-13T21:03:48-05:00April 22nd, 2016|Afterlife, Public Forum, Reader’s Questions|

Heaven and Hell, Part One

As I have been discussing the topic of resurrection in early Christianity, a number of readers have asked about a related issue, namely, where the Christian teaching of heaven and hell came from.   For most Christians, the afterlife seems to be the ongoing existence of the soul.  But for the earliest Christians, the afterlife involved the resurrection precisely of the *body*.  How did that change, and why? I discussed this issue some years back in my book Jesus Interrupted, and what I say about it there seems to be directly on target for what these readers have asked.  And so I include it here.  This will take two posts, the first one (today) to explain why “resurrection” came to be believed by Jews and eventually by Christians and the next post to explain how that belief in resurrection came to be transformed into the later idea of heaven and hell that may people today continue to subscribe to.   ********************************************************************* Heaven and Hell In some parts of Christendom today, especially the parts that I was [...]

Heaven and Hell, When was Heaven and Hell Invented?

Heaven and Hell: When was Heaven and Hell Invented? (QUESTION): If I were to ask the average mainstream Sunday morning Christian why they are a Christian I would probably get an answer (other than to meet friends in church) such as this, “To be saved and go to heaven when I die.” When I look at the obituaries in the newspaper, I so often see a statement assuring me that “Mable is with Jesus now,” and was advised by a bumper sticker yesterday, “Heaven or Hell: It’s Your Choice.” If Jesus’ message was as you and others state, “repent now for the Kingdom of God is just around the corner,” affirmed by Paul and the early did we get this fast-track-ticket-to-heaven in contemporary popular Christianity? I cannot find that explicitly in the New Testament (except for some hints in the Gospel of John). How did we get from the Apocalyptic Jesus to the Pearly Gates? RESPONSE: Ah, this is a great question, and as with all great questions, it does not have an easy answer!   [...]

Go to Top