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The Afterlife (or not) in Ecclesiastes

In my previous post I provided some comments on one of my favorite biblical books, Ecclesiastes.  Here I will continue my comments, with some remarks on the topic of the thread, the view of the afterlife in the book, a view unlike what you find in *most* of the Hebrew Bible.  Again, this is taken from my book God’s Problem.


For the author of Ecclesiastes “traditional” wisdom (such as one finds in the book of Proverbs) was inherently flawed — another reason I like him so much.  It simply is not true (as Proverbs insists) that the righteous are rewarded in life and the wicked perish.  As the author of Ecclesiastes states:  “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil doing” (7:15); “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.  I said that this also is vanity” (8:14).  The reason it is all hevel  (vanity; ephemeral) is because everyone dies and that’s the end of the story: “Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice.  As are the good, so are the sinners…. the same fate comes to everyone” (9:1-3).  And even in this life, before death, rewards and punishments are not meted out according to merit, but everything is dependent on chance:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.  For no one can anticipate the time of disaster.  Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. (9:11-12)

Nor, for this author, should it be thought that there is a good afterlife for those who have been good, wise, faithful, and righteous, but punishment for those who die in their sins.  There are no …

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My Meditation Practice and Women at the Empty Tomb: Readers Mailbag April 9, 2017
Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life



  1. Avatar
    doug  April 7, 2017

    As you noted in your April 5 post, the insights of Ecclesiastes run contrary to traditional views that say “life is basically meaningful and good, that evil is punished, and right behavior is rewarded.” Was there any controversy about Ecclesiastes being accepted as sacred scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      It was one of the latest of the books to be admitted, but since it was thought to be written by Solomon I don’t think there was a *huge* dispute. But I don’t know for sure — maybe someone on the blog does?

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 7, 2017

    Technically it’s the Adversary who inflicts suffering on Job and his family, and God merely allows him to do so, to prove a point, which isn’t a whole lot better, and pretty sure nobody was supposed to believe any of that actually happened. It’s a metaphor for why bad things happen to good people. The evil that happens to us in life is not a punishment. It’s a test. I think Darwin might agree. Technically, there’s not much of anything about the afterlife in Job, either, is there?

    Ecclesiastes would probably have been at least somewhat famliar with what the Egyptians and particularly the Egyptian rulers did to try and insure a happy afterlife. Perhaps the most inspired vanity the world has ever seen.

    Live life as if we were being tested to see if we make the grade. But surely part of that test would be how good we are at truly enjoying what life has to offer–and at sharing our blessings with others.

    And didn’t Jesus say he had come that we might have life, and have it more abundantly?

  3. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  April 7, 2017

    I believe this world view leads to the egotistical, selfish lifestyle of a lot of people which in turn is the root of much suffering.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      It certainly *can* do that. I try very hard to make people see that it doesn’t need to do that — and shouldn’t!

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  April 7, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I feel compelled to point out that Qoheleth doesn’t say there isn’t an afterlife. Rather, he says we don’t know whether there is an afterlife, but when he looks at all the world around him, he can’t help but conclude, to quote the late George Carlin, “The longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize something is f***ed up. Something is wrong here.” I think Qoheleth came to the same conclusion as George Carlin. This is supposed to be a just world created by a just God? Yeah, well, all evidence points to the contrary.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      My sense is that if pressed the author would say he’s agnostic on the quesiton, but leans toward the idea there is nothing after life: we become dust again, as seen especially in 9:4-5 (better a living dog than a dead lion!) (“the dead know nothing…”)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 9, 2017

        Yeah, Qoheleth was probably the world’s first documented Jewish agnostic — first in a long line.

  5. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  April 7, 2017

    Thought-provoking insights. The Bible itself does seem to give contrasting views on the “afterlife.” I’m curious if you see “sheol” as the equivalent of “hades” in the New Testament. (A state of deadness and no perception.) That seems to be the case. As you point out, Ecclesiastes seems to say all living persons are destined for sheol/hades, and this also appears to be the case with Revelation, where hades “gives up all of the dead” that are in it. But in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (I definitely see it as a parable), Christ seems to equate hades with a place of conscious suffering, and “Abraham’s bosom” with a place of rest and contentment.

    Though, I have to say, your view of nothing after this life is a bit dismal! I’m not saying Christianity has it right with its view of “heaven” as literally worshipping Jesus forever, but I think the Bible is much more profitable when digested quasi-literally, and much more so allegorically. I’m not sure if you’ve ever studied near-death experience testimonials, but if you do (NOT just Christian experiences), it will definitely cause some contemplation about there being something much bigger going on in the grand scheme than just this earthly life.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I think Hades can be seen as a place of punishment, whereas Sheol is simply the place all people go — no rewards or punishments.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 9, 2017

        My impression is that (pre-hellenic) Hades was where everyone went, except a few favored by the gods. Persephone spends several months a year in Hades not as punishment, but to explain winter (OK, she ate a few pomegranate seeds). Most dead people drank the waters of Lethe and forgot their life.

        I’m also not aware of any Greek thinking (again, pre-hellenic) where those, like Sisyphus, who were punished in Hades were punished for ethical lapses, but because they did something to annoy the gods.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2017

          Sorry — I thought you were referring to the idea of Hades (Gehenna) in the NT.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 10, 2017

        Hades isn’t a place of punishment in Homer. For instance, Odysseus pulls the shades of great heros such as Achilles from Hades. I think it’s significant that the Greeks had basically three “underworlds”: Hades, Tartarus and Erebus. While Hades and Erebus were not especially associated with post-mortem punishment and torture until the classical age, Tartarus was often singled out particularly for that function from the very beginning. (In Plato’s theology, Tartarus essentially serves as his Hell.) The closest underworld comparison to Sheol might be Erebus, a region of abysmal darkness and oblivion. If Tartarus is Greek Hell, Erebus could be thought of as Greek Purgatory. I guess it depends on which Greek writer you read. Some see the three as interchangeable; some see them as distinct.

  6. Avatar
    Stylites  April 7, 2017

    It is here that believer and atheist can meet. We do good because it is good and because it may relieve suffering, not because of a reward now or later. We can follow the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25, where we do it even “unto the least of these.” If one loves because he believes God wants us to do so, that is fine. If another loves because he believes there is no God, and if there is to be any love at all then we have to do it, that is fine. If the believer is correct and there is something beyond this life that is fine. If the atheist is correct in saying this is all there will be, that is fine. We cannot change the outcome whatever it may be. But we can make this world a kinder, more comfortable place both for ourselves and others. Ultimately that is all we can do, but that is quite a lot. The rest of the stuff probably does not matter very much anyway.

  7. Avatar
    Jason  April 7, 2017

    After Wednesday’s blog, I read the Wikipedia article on Epicurus and some editor has added a whole section about the apparent etymological relationship between the Greek philosopher and the Hebrew Epikoros. Is that found in “the teacher’s” words yet, and are the connotations of epikoros here or in other parts of the Tanakh really negative?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I haven’t looked at the article, but “epikoros” is not a Hebrew word. The Hebrew title of the book is Qoheleth. (the book *does* though have a number of things in common with Epicurean philosophy; it’s one of the reasons for dating it many centuries after Solomon)

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 9, 2017

        Technically, “epikoros” has become a Hebrew word; the rabbis used it (and it is still used to today) to describe a type of apostate. But they got the word from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (whom the rabbis misunderstood, in my opinion).

        Which makes it all the more interesting that they allowed what is, probably, an expression of epicurean philosophy into the Tanach. I have to think there has to be more than that its authorship was ascribed to Solomon; I’ll look around.

        • Avatar
          Jason  April 10, 2017

          Thanks dankoh-I’d love to hear what you turn up!

          • Avatar
            dankoh  April 11, 2017

            Martin Shields wrote a book on this topic (online at https://books.google.com/books?id=YIpUQpqWn1QC&pg=PA2&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false) which first discusses a couple of theories. One is that authorship of Eccl. is ascribed to Solomon and was included for that reason. The problem with that is that other works also attributed to Solomon were not – specifically, the Psalms of Solomon, although I have to point out that Pss Sol is much later than Ecclesiastes, probably 1st cent BCE. Shields also cites b. Shabb. 30b; Rav yehudah b’rav Shmuel says the sages tried to suppress Eccl. because its statements contradict each other. So the rabbis then engaged in one of their favorite games: resolving contradictions. And the Gemara concludes that the beginning and ending verse of Ecclesiastes merit inclusion in the canon.

            Shields says that his book will argue for the position that Eccl. was included in order “to discredit the wisdom movement” on the period. In his view, the rabbis looked at Eccl. as representative of the wisdom movement’s pessimism and skepticism – who realizes in the end that he must “revere God and observe his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). I haven’t read the book, just the intro, but I will say that, on the surface at least, his argument does make sense.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 9, 2017

      One of the interesting ironies of Qoheleth is that he’s espousing views that are essentially Epicurean, but, in the Talmud, the Rabbis specifically say that of the Jews who will not have “a portion in ‘Olam ha-Ba (the “Coming Age”, i.e. the messianic paradise) are the following: Those who say the Resurrection of the Dead is not found in the Torah, those who say the Torah does not come from God, and the Epicureans (Sanhedrin 90a). And yet, Qoheleth is scripture. Try to square that circle!

  8. Avatar
    straitace2  April 7, 2017

    Evil, pain, suffering … why ??? There are probably folks who thank God for sparing the life of one in that recent bus crash tragedy where 13 of 14 people were killed by a young kid who was texting while driving. Really?? I do believe in God and regardless of all this, he is in control … and am currently of the opinion that like our thinking is to that of, say, an ant, God’s thinking is infinitely more powerful than ours. Thus, we can not begin to understand the why. I have also come to the belief that when our brain ceases to function and life can no longer be sustained in our mortal bodies, “we” return to God. I put a lot of stock in this biblical narrative …. ‘Isaiah 55:8-(NIV) 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This, to me, explains a lot.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 9, 2017

      The theology of ordinary people can be quite conflicted and contradictory (not that highly educated people are necessarily better)–why thank God for sparing one person on the bus–why not thank him for taking the others up to heaven with him? Why does any believer fear death, as nearly all of them self-evidently do? That doesn’t prove or disprove anything, nor does it prove they have no faith, but it certainly does indicate they are far from certain of what’s awaiting them in the next world. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard some longtime churchgoer, when asked how he/she is, say not that well, but ‘better than the alternative.’ What alternative? Paradise?

      I don’t think we, as a species, are ever going to work this out. I do think that we’ve seen religiosity decline when life expectancy increases. It was very hard for people who had little chance of living to a ripe old age, or enjoying many of the better things in life, to accept this was all they were going to get. And for so many millions around the world, it still is. And we should remember that. Is there life after death? For the poor, a better question would be “Is there life before death?”

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  April 7, 2017

    Most people don’t know what it’s like to really suffer, and they don’t want to know. If your friend or family member gets sick, statistically your most likely reaction will be to abandon them. What keeps me going is knowing that one day it will end. The greatest mercy God ever showed was to make everything hevel.

  10. Avatar
    smackemyackem  April 7, 2017

    Now Im gonna have to read Ecclesiastes. Pretty interesting take on life. It’s hard not to relate…

  11. Avatar
    James.levell  April 8, 2017

    THE BOOK OF ARDA VIRAF might interest you

  12. Avatar
    Bdeiters  April 8, 2017

    Do we know when this book was originally authored, was it like Job in that it preceded the Orthodox views of judism?
    Also, does it appear to have a single author?
    Thanks, Bart.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      What we today would call orthodox Judaism was a much later development (well after the New Testament). The book itself appears to have had a single author, but an editor added some bits — including the final two verses.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  April 9, 2017

        So, you think these sentences have been added latter?

        Ecclesiastes 12

        13The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2017

          Yes, those are usually seen as a later redaction by an editor of the book.

          • Avatar
            JoeS  February 4, 2019

            Thank you for this information!
            That explains a lot.
            The final verses about God bringing everything into judgment seemed an odd conclusion for the author to reach considering the content of the rest Ecclesiastes, where the author seemed to be claiming exactly the opposite.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 5, 2019

            Yes, those verses are often/usually understood to be an editorial addition by someone other than the original author.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  April 9, 2017

        MUCH later! I’m not sure whether one can speak of “orthodox” Judaism prior to the XVIII cent. and the Enlightenment, though I might listen to an argument pushing it back to the 1650s and the start of the Chassidic movement.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2017

          YEs, I assumed he meant “traditional” (i.e. rabbinic) Judaism

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 8, 2017

    1. One of the things that quickly became apparent to me during my medical internship decades ago is that bad stuff happens to both good and bad people and prayer does not seem to alter this. That was very disappointing to learn.

    2 Now that I am older, it is clear that things that used to matter a lot to me, such as job problems and/or promotions, no longer matter at all.

  14. Avatar
    steveandcris  April 8, 2017

    Eat, drink and be merry, for life is short. Can I get an amen on that one!
    On April 3rd was the second anniversary of the passing of my father. I still mourn him. He was truly a wonderful, selfless, loving father and husband. Wiping a tear from my eye has been daily practice just thinking of him for over two years. He was a strong and healthy man for 83 years of life. Married for over 60 years. We decided, my Mom and wife and I that we would care for him at home and not move him to a nursing home. A battle was raging in his once healthy body between Alzheimer’s and Lymphoma.It was tough. Really tough. It went quicker than most, 2 years from diagnosed. It was the most painful thing to watch my Dad go through, and my Mom go through at the same time.
    I seemed to have somewhat of an epiphany after his passing, and that was:
    we’re not getting out of here without any pain. The pain you under go as the dying, the pain that your family and friends endure after and sometimes during the slower passings. All painful. Emotionally unforgettable. Suffering is just an extension of pain. A prolonging. Nobody escapes!
    NOBODY! Not even the “son of God”.
    Could that be the simple underlying message of the whole story of Jesus?

    • Avatar
      johnbutleruk  April 12, 2017

      I really admire you and your family for caring for your father – it’s incredibly tough on the sufferer and those around them (also suffering!). Alzheimer’s is, in many ways, worse for those who are doing the caring.

  15. Avatar
    rivercrowman  April 8, 2017

    Perhaps for mailbag consideration: A couple weeks ago, you said in a blog comment that (for you) meditation “seems to have the same emotional/personal effect of prayer.” How did you learn to meditate? What references did you consult, if any? Thanks!

  16. Avatar
    tcasto  April 8, 2017

    Thank you for bringing Ecclesiastes to my attention. Much as I say I have “studied” the bible, it’s clear I have not paid as much attention here as I have to say, Leviticus. Now I see what I have been missing.

    I especially like the view that, however it was created, the world is here for us to experience, with all the joys as well as the pain and suffering. It is up to us to make the most of it.

    Which brings me to a question you might take up in a future post. What do you make of Edgar Cayce, Brian Weiss and others who posit that our spirits our destined to repeat the journey (ie life) over and over until we are somehow perfected and return to God.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I’ve never really found that view persuasive (a. I see no evidence for it and b. it doesn’t seem to be working), but it goes back in Christian traditoin to the third-century theologian Origen.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 8, 2017

    “Even though there are people (lots of people!) who claim to know what happens to us when we die, the truth is that none of us knows, and none of us ever will ‘know,’ until it’s too late for our knowledge to do us any good. My own suspicion is that the Teacher was right, that there is no afterlife and that this life is all there is.”

    It’s true that none of us *knows*, or – in this life – ever will. I’ll go so far as to say I *believe* reincarnation is a fact (that’s pretty far, for me)…but hey, all I know absolutely is *cogito ergo sum*.

    My problem with Ecclesiastes is that the author writes as if he *does* think he “knows,” with absolute certainty.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I’d say he’s agnostic, but leans toward the idea that we no longer exist after death.

  18. Avatar
    ask21771  April 8, 2017

    where did the idea of satan being a deciever come from

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I think the idea is that he is God’s adversary, and since God represents the “truth” his adversary represents “falsehood”

  19. Avatar
    Beacamdim  April 8, 2017

    Is the Teacher named Camus?

  20. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 8, 2017

    I’m still on the fence regarding the truth of some kind of theism. But, as Epicurus would probably say, it does often seem to me that it would be much better (more relaxing if nothing else) to simply accept that this life is all there is than to spoil it by constant worry about the possibility of terrible punishment in an afterlife. I think that must be one of the things that the harsher atheists are getting at when they claim that religion can poison life.

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