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The Afterlife in Revelation


The first reference to the afterlife in Revelation occurs in ch. 6, with the breaking of the fifth seal (6:9-11).   Nothing happens on earth, but the prophet sees the souls of those who had been “slaughtered for the word of God” and the “witness they gave” under an altar in heaven, as they cry out to God: “How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?”   An altar, of course, is the point of contact between God and humans, so these martyrs for Christ have a special access to the divine presence.  They want to be vindicated for their faithfulness.  But they are deferred in their wishes: each is given a white robe and told they need to “rest a little while longer,” until all their fellow Christians also destined for martyrdom have met their fates.

These other martyrs are described in chapter seven, after the breaking of the sixth seal.  There are two groups: 144,000 Jews, twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes, and “an enormous crowd that no one could number” from among peoples of “every nation” (Revelation 7:4-9).   The numbers are staggering, and cannot be used to document how many Christians were actually martyred for their faith in John’s time.  In periods of persecution, it often seems to those who are suffering that their entire population is being decimated.  But there were not even 144,000 Christians in the world at the time, and recent studies have convincingly shown that martyrdom was rare rather than regular. (See Candida Moss, The Myth of Christian Persecution).

It is striking that for the entire book of Revelation …

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The Lake of Fire in Revelation
More on the Symbolism of Revelation



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  October 1, 2018

    “No one thinks that if you make a trip to the Middle East today you will see Edom still burning, with smoke that has been rising non-stop for millennia.”

    The Hebrew word that is often translated as “forever” — עולם, ‘olam — can also mean “age” or “era”, as in ‘Olam ha-Ba, “Age to come”. That’s the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 34:10, לְעוֹלָם יַעֲלֶה עֲשָׁנָהּ, “For ‘olam, smoke will rise up”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be translated as “forever”. It can mean the smoke will rise forever, or it can mean the smoke will rise for an age. The context suggests that the author means that Edom will be so thoroughly destroyed that it will be all turned to ash. Hence all the smoke.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Yes, there are debates about the “forever” in Greek too — AIONIOS

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      godspell  October 2, 2018

      There’s a story by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon–I’ve bruited her name about here recently), called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s science fiction–a physicist is condemned by some unknown catastrophe to be the only survivor of humankind, and forced through some temporal paradox to live out various scenes of past disappointment, over and over again, without end. There’s no lake of fire. Just hope, followed by failure. You know. Life.

      Thing is, when you’re happy and healthy, you want existence to go on forever, but when you’re not, eternity–with or without tormenting demons or lakes of fire–is the worst cheat of all. And death the most blissful release.

      I think if you went back in time and prevented all the founders of the world religions from being born, we’d still have most if not all of the same concepts. Hell was going to occur to us, one way or another–if only because we have bad dreams that can seem to last forever, before we wake up (so what if we didn’t?).

      But it’s interesting that Jesus and his early followers didn’t believe in it. Because Christianity began as an optimistic faith. The idea of punishment came later. When it became clear that things were not going to work out as Jesus had promised. When early faith was replaced by institutional needs. The stick to go with the carrot.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  October 5, 2018

        Reminds me of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

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    mkahn1977  October 1, 2018

    Did the author of John’s Gospel also compose Revelation, or is that just tradition?

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    Apocryphile  October 1, 2018

    A bit of an aside, but it’s interesting how much petroleum and its by-products have figured into the history and mythology of the Middle East, from Neolithic hunter-gatherers using pitch to affix arrowheads onto shafts, ancient peoples using it to waterproof their boats (including Noah in the biblical tale), to archaeologists today speculating it may have played a major role in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and influenced the later biblical story about its smoke going up “like the smoke of a furnace”. Presumably Edom would have been destroyed in a similar manner. Even the lake of fire of Revelation would make sense if its surface is covered with oil! 😉

  4. Avatar
    Lazarus  October 1, 2018

    Bart, how about a blog or series of blogs, on the so-called Proto-Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Sure! But I’m not sure which ones those would be. What do you have in mind?

  5. Avatar
    Eric  October 1, 2018

    Annihilated = reduced by 100%
    Decimated = reduced by 10%

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    JamesFouassier  October 1, 2018

    Professor, I know this is a little off the topic of the Revelation thread but in your discussion of the Afterlife might you please comment on the meaning of what appears to be rather straightforward in Luke 16:19-31, the Rich Man and Lazarus? In particular verses 22 through 24: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” This clearly involves a fully conscious Rich Man experiencing real physical pain.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Yup, I think I’ll devote a post or two to it. Thanks for the suggestion. (I do think it is a parable, and I’ll explain why)

  7. Avatar
    darren  October 1, 2018

    How much (if at all) is Revelation a reflection of Jewish messianism of the time? Do we know whether there was a pre-existing expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God on Earth, and how things would play out when it happened? I guess what I’m asking is whether Revelation was inspired by the belief in Jesus, or was the expectation of this sort of apocalypse already there, and Jesus came along later to fill the key role?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Yes, it is definitely dependent on Jewish apocalyptic thought. It is very similar in many ways to the book of Daniel (see chs. 7-12); but it is obviously a highly Christianized version of it.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 2, 2018

      As a Jew myself I can say that if you took out the parts about Jesus and the Seven “Churches” the Book of Revelation reads like something even a Pharisee or an Essence could have written. By way of comparison, read the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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    brenmcg  October 1, 2018

    Does Isaiah 34:8 also suggest a finite time for punishment?

    “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      I think the idea is that a destruction is coming (and of course once a city is destroyed — well, it doesn’t take eternity to destroy a city)

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    Pattylt  October 1, 2018

    I know that Jehovah Witnesses officially believe in annihilation. Could someone please list other denominations that also preach annihilation instead of eternal torment? Just curious. Thanks in advance.

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  October 2, 2018

      Pope Francis has publicly stated that “sinners” are simply annihilated, not sentenced to everlasting torment. Naturally, Traditionalist Catholics have rent their garments and gnashed their teeth in response.

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  October 4, 2018

        Was his statement ex cathedral or just as a fallible Catholic? I’ve never heard this!

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      hoshor  October 3, 2018

      I believe 7th Day Adventists do.

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    forthfading  October 1, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It seems to me that this apocalypse was really written to bring hope. If you align with God and the forces of good, then you win! God will not forsake you in this time of tribulation. Jesus will win and his apocalyptic message will come to fruition.

    Is this close to what you feel the author of Revelation was trying to accomplish?

    Thanks, Jay

  11. Avatar
    ajohns  October 2, 2018

    I have a quick question about Revelation 13:16-18.

    “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.” [NRSV Translation]

    I’ve been told many things about this “mark of the beast” through-out my life [by Christians], for example: That the mark of the beast [666] is actually bitcoin or some form of crypocurrenty, social security numbers, world wide web, or some future technology like a chip, leading to a scenario in which no human would be able to “buy or sell” without taking part into the demoniac “number of beast” .

    I’m sure Christians have been theorizing about the “mark” for centuries, but in your view, what is the author really referring too here?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      The mark of the beast is in contrast to the “seal” placed on those chosen by God — see ch. 7. The question is: under whose mark/seal will you be?

  12. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 2, 2018

    In Matthew 19:27-28: scripture says “[27] Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? [28] And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

    Is there a similar passage in Revelation that mirrors or confirms this passage or belief that the 12-Apostles will sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel? If not, it’s possible the author of Revelation hadn’t read Matthew?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      In the initial vision of heaven in ch. 4, the author sees 24 elders on thrones around the throne of God, worshiping him. That is usually taken to refer to the 12 patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles. But no, I don’t see any evidence that the author was familiar with the Gospel of Matthew (or any of the other Gospels)

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  October 2, 2018

        Possibly Rev 3:22 quotes Matthew?

        “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2018

          Possibly. Or it was just a common way of expressing the point.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 4, 2018

          This was a common Hebrew expression. For instance, we find it in Isaiah 32:3 — וְאָזְנֵי שֹׁמְעִים, תִּקְשַׁבְנָה, wa-Oznei-shm’im, tiqshabnah, “Listeners’ ears, listen!” This is a grammatical form that we don’t have in English called the jussive, which is a bit like a third person imperative. The jussive form is often translated into English with the expression “Let…” — as in “Let the ears of the listeners listen!” It’s somewhat similar in force to the English expression “Listen to what I’m telling you!”

  13. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  October 2, 2018

    Good afternoon Professor,

    In your book on the afterlife are you using Alan Segal as a reference point to your thoughts? His book on Life after Death. He did write exhaustively about the afterlife since I’m in the process of reading it and doing mine own study as well. Do you believe Paul was a Jewish apocalyptic or a mythicist on the afterlife? Does it seems Paul j fluenced the writer of revelation? .

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      Yes, his is the most thorough treatment available. Very impressive.

  14. galah
    galah  October 6, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, Jesus speaks of paradise in Luke 23:43. I believe non-Jews also had some belief of paradise. Did they think this was something below in Sheol/Hades or that it was in the sky/heavens?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 7, 2018

      One of the points in my book will be that different Jews believed different things. The idea of “paradise” is that the original “garden” will be the destiny of the chosen ones who are saved. Some thought it was part of Hades (one of the two compartments) and some thought it was a different place altogether.

  15. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  October 11, 2018

    I read Moss’s book also, and I didn’t find it convincing. Plus I think the title is highly misleading.

    I think it’s really hard to know exactly what happened and how many people were affected, in what parts of the world, that far back in time. You can make all kinds of arguments based on all kinds of evidence, but….

    Certainly persecution and martyrdom was part of life for some Christians (and Jews) in those days. Exactly how many? How long? By governments or mobs or ??? In which parts of the world?

    It would be difficult to figure that out right now with all today’s webification, let alone 2K years ago.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 14, 2018

      After reading a recent article by Moss where she used Scott Carroll as a source, then reading Bible Nation where she and Baden were terribly hard on their colleagues, and an excerpt from The Myth of Persecution that was politically charged, I wouldn’t trust anything she writes as a scholar.

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