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The Invention of Heaven and Hell


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 church, how 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?


Ah, this is a great question, and as with all great questions, it does not have an easy answer!   I give a short version of the answer in my book Jesus Interrupted, in the chapter on “Who Invented Christianity,” where I discuss the “invention” of heaven and hell.   I don’t mean, of course, that anyone actually invented them, but I think the idea that such places exist were not the original ideas of Jesus and his followers, but were later developments among Christian thinkers in later times.   And since these ideas did not exist at one point among Christians, and then later became very much Christian ideas, then in that sense, SOMEBODY came up with them (or lots of somebodies), and that would involve their “invention.”

So if the short version is in my book, let me give you a hopelessly abbreviated version here.

The starting point: I’ve argued for many years now that Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist.  This is not just my idea – it’s been the majority view among scholars of the New Testament for over a century.   But some scholars disagree – which is why I (and others) have had to argue the point.   Jewish apocalypticists were dualists, who believed that there were two fundamental components of reality, good and evil.   God was of course over all that was good; the devil was over all that was evil (when Jews started thinking apocalyptically – about 160 years before Jesus during the period known as the Maccabean Revolt – is when they first came up with the idea of the Devil).   God has the power of angels, and life, and righteousness on his side – these are all cosmic forces in the world; the Devil has the power of demons, and death, and sin on his.   All things—and everybody – participates in this dualism, and so is either on the side of God and good or the Devil and evil.  There is no neutral territory.

This cosmic dualism got worked out in a kind of historical scenario, where it was thought that there were two “ages” on earth: the present evil age, controlled by the Devil and his minions, and the future good age, to be controlled by God.   At some point in the very near future, God was going to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom here on earth, a utopian state in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering, no more war, epidemic, starvation, or natural disaster.  God himself would rule supreme.


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My Problem with Fundamentalism
An Agnostic Teaching the Bible



  1. Avatar
    samchahal  January 13, 2013

    Hi Bart , I have been waiting to hear about this subject for a while now and this was a great post – thank You.

    However , just a question please , quote : ” What happened in Christianity is that believers *reinterpreted* their earlier beliefs and *reconfigured* their dualistic outlook.”

    Did Paul not talk about Heaven “above ” in his writings? I am sure he talked of the “rapture” in one of his letters and said that those who are still alive on the last days will be taken up in the sky and so shall the dead rise ; does this not show us an early “pauline” understanding of Heaven or is that more central to the ancient belief in a 3 level heirarchy of the planet ie described as “third heaven”? in my understanding this still alludes to a vertical dualistic position or not so? please comment.
    thank You Sam

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      Yes, I think Paul is already in the process of reinterpreting things — possibly more toward the end of his life (e.g., Philippians) than the beginning of his ministry, as he began to realize that he may not be alive to see these things happen. So in a sense he becomes a kind of transitional figure.

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    toddfrederick  January 13, 2013

    Thank you for providing an answer to this question. The issue of heaven seems to be #1 among almost all Christians since that’s why we become believers…to get to heaven…a place of bliss….right? That’s what my friends tell me. I’m not so sure.

    I’m currently writing an on-going series of “streams of consciousness” that I call “Musings of a Church Mouse” and posting the drafts to Facebook to see what comes back at me. Currently I am starting thoughts on “The Lord’s Prayer” which I consider to be a beautifully condensed statement of Jesus’ message and mission.

    Right now I’m stuck on the opening line: “Our father, in heaven….” I guess I haven’t gotten very far into this !! Well, I’m OK on the “father” portion of that prayer and even on the “Our,” but “heaven” still has me stumped…Jesus is saying that there is a place called heaven and that God is in there. I would guess that Jesus is referring to the UP-ness of heaven (in a three tiered world view) and that’s where God will come from to establish his reign on Earth at the end times…which many still believe will come someday, yet the notion is also that heaven is a spatial place where believe go at death. All very confusing.

    I like your “temporal” and “spacial” distinction regarding this issue, and perhaps I should first do some writing for my Facebook musings on the apocalyptic mission of Jesus before I deal with the location of “heaven” yet, in the Lord’s Prayer” Jesus says God the Father is “in” a place called “heaven.” That’s what Christians believe and that’s where they say we go when we die. That is, I guess, a comfort to those who believe in that.

    My son, who’s a minister, thinks I’m not believing in what the Bible says…well, I am trying to understand all of this ! He says, just believe…he seems to think that I don’t trust in the supernatural…I don’t trust God.

    Jesus also said that the Kingdom of God is “within” us…I need to do more study of that as well. That would be more of a mystical dimension to what God’s Kingdom and heaven is…although all of this may be simply metaphorical since finite minds can not grasp an infinite concept.

    I studied a bit of NT Greek and use an interlinear Greek-English Bible, but that really doesn’t help much with finding unbiased definitions of the words related to “heaven” and “in” (where is “in” ?) and “within” and such…All very confusing.

    I see all of this in two ways, trying to hold onto my faith and understand it:

    1) Salvation (another word I don’t truly understand) is “going to heaven rather than to hell (up or down..spatial) when we die (temporal)

    2) or the message of Jesus is apocalyptic and that God will come down to rule on Earth someday.

    I have a different view…a third view…I have come to appreciate Scot McKnight’s writings on what he calls the “Jesus Creed”…to love God with all our essence and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

    In that sense, God’s kingdom has come, through us, and what we do to show our love for God, our “neighbor” and our environment, here and now, not some day in the future whether “up” in heaven or “down” at the end times.

    To me that is a way to Love God, Follow Jesus and to serve our people and our environment in which we live. That is the only way I can make sense of all of this. If I go to heaven, so be it. If I don’t, so be it. At least I can work to help make this planet a better place right now.


  3. Avatar
    samchahal  January 13, 2013

    Just to add to my last question , Paul did not seem to have the same thoinkings as Jesus that the kingdom was to be on earth as in the earth all humnas lived on ; it seems pretty clear that he believed that the kingdom would be above ? so the idea that all beliefs about a heavenly kingdom in the sky developed after Paul isnt entireky refective of Paul’s own alleged perception of the kingdom according to his own writings? please comment, thanks Sam

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      Yes, I think it’s harder to figure out Paul’s eschatology than Jesus’, since Paul already had started thinking of “up” and “down” in reference to Jesus and the kingdom (as in 1 Thes. 4:13-18)

      • Avatar
        samchahal  January 14, 2013

        yes so in reference to the fact that Paul had already began believing in Heaven above as it were , I think it is right to say that , although “most” of the ideas about haeven or hell were developed later (70ce onwards) , the root of the theology was laid down under Paul ; and its more based upon an ancient understanding of 3 tier planet rather than a new spiritual dimension where we go after death ( a later development) , my point is that as early as Paul the idea is there!

  4. Avatar
    DaveRamsey  January 13, 2013

    Before the birth of the apocalyptic movement, weren’t most Israelites universalists, in that they believed everyone, good and bad, went to Sheol at death? Neither heaven nor hell, Sheol was conceived as a shadowy, nebulous place where both sinner and saint went after death.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      Yes, in the OT period most Israelites seemed to think either that the soul went to Sheol or that there wsa no existence after death.

      • Avatar
        donmax  January 15, 2013

        I would add that most Jews these days do not believe in God, heaven or hell. Many do, of course, but most don’t.

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    wisemenwatch  January 13, 2013

    “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.” ”

    It seems that whenever I am focussing on an idea or thought, I see that idea all over the place.

    I was reading the obituary of a local man this week and saw something I have never seen in any other obituary.

    Something to the effect that one of the highlights of his life (he was only 59) was taking a trip to Israel with Hal Lindsey. He had been the art teacher when my daughter was in high school.

    Then this comment here on obituaries. I seem to get more than my fair share of synchronicity.

  6. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 13, 2013

    “What happened in Christianity is that believers *reinterpreted* their earlier beliefs and *reconfigured* their dualistic outlook. In short what happened is that the horizontal dualism (this age/the age to come) got flipped on its axis and became a *vertical* dualism, where the contrast now was between the world the world below (hell) and the world above (heaven).”

    I suppose you noticed that this forms a cross. Is it possible this was not an reinterpretation, but were concepts that always existed side by side? The horizon has always been in a relationship with the earth and sky.

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    Mikail78  January 13, 2013

    Bart, as always, great post. Thanks for this. As I’ve said before, Christians of all kinds today are still reinventing and reinterpreting their faith in order to make it fit with reality.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the preterist view, which is popular in some evangelical/fundamentalist Christian circles. It basically states that the apocalyptic prophecies of the New Testament were not failed prophecies….but rather they were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. I think it’s pretty obvious that this preterist view is bogus and fatally flawed.

    Would you agree that the preterist movement in some Christian circles is a contemporary example of Christians attempting to reinterpret their faith in order to rescue Jesus and the Bible (their “holy book) from failed apocalyptic prophecies?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      Yes, I suppose so. The Preterist view goes way back in history — it’s not jsut a contemporary view. It’s hard for me to see that 70 CE is the fulfillment of all that Jesus predicts, though. (Where’s the kingdom?? As one wag put it, Jesus preached the kingdom, and what we got was the church)

      • Avatar
        samchahal  January 14, 2013

        i think most fundies would say the “kingdom” came at calvary and the prophecies were all fulfilled when Jesus rose from the dead , however that doesn’t account for Paul’s insistence that the end of the age would come in his time!

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  March 22, 2019

        “The Preterist view goes way back in history…”

        Who first espoused this view? Was he/she a partial for full preterist?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2019

          Not sure. But it’s the standard view in interpreters like Jerome.

  8. Avatar
    Mikail78  January 13, 2013

    Oh, and by the way, I seem to remember you saying that you were a colts fan, but are now a broncos fan. So, from that, I have to infer that you are a Peyton Manning fan. Am I right? If so, what happened yesterday against the Ravens?!?!?!?! Peyton is one of the all time greats, but he loses a LOT of big games.

    Hope you don’t mind this comment that is COMPLETELY off the subject. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 13, 2013

    “And since these ideas did not exist at one point among Christians, and then later became very much Christian ideas, then in that sense, SOMEBODY came up with them (or lots of somebodies), and that would involve their “invention.” ”

    Here’s another one. Where in the Bible does it say that we are to invite Jesus into our hearts and have a personal relationship with him – i.e. the sinner’s prayer? I wonder if doing this is not what makes it so difficult to deconvert. I mean, you just formed a relationship with your inner conscience, so how do you deconvert yourself from yourself.

  10. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 13, 2013

    Great post! This is a subject I’ve long wondered about.

  11. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 13, 2013

    “and was advised by a bumper sticker yesterday, “Heaven or Hell: It’s Your Choice.” ”

    I got behind one once that said “Where are we going? And why am I in this handbasket?”

    It was years ago, but it still makes me laugh – which pretty hard to do.

    • Avatar
      donmax  January 15, 2013

      My favorite is “JESUS IS COMING AND BOY IS HE PISSED!”

  12. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  January 13, 2013

    If the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD, am I wrong to think that all the disciples were dead by that time? I’m asking because it would seem strange that the author of Paul would write that Jesus said “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” The author must have known that this prediction didn’t come to pass, so why keep it in writing? If the words of Jesus were based on oral tradition, you would think they would get tweaked along the way.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      My sense is that Mark thought the prediction was fulfilled by the event of the Transfiguration that he recounts in the next story.

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    Christian  January 14, 2013

    Very interesting topic. I will reread that chapter of your book.

    Is Judaism today a descendant as well of these apocalyptic Jews of the 1st century? If so, who and when did they stop believing in hell?

    What can you said about the Gehenna, as it is mentioned in the NT and the OT?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      No, apocalyptic Judaism came to be stamped out; Judaisms today stem from a non-apocalyptic form.

      Gehenna is only in the NT: it refers to the trash pit outside of Jerusalem where fires were constantly burning.

  14. Avatar
    hwl  January 14, 2013

    Many people – liberal Christians, conservative Christians and non-Christians – find Jesus’ teachings e.g. Sermon on the Mount, morally attractive. Jesus’ ethical teachings are often read as timeless truths. Would you say when Jesus is understood against his apocalyptic context, instead of coming out as a great moral teacher, he looks more an eccentric and crazy man with fanatic ideas?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      Well, I don’t think he appeared eccentric and crazed in his own day, but rather normal. But whenever you transplant someone into a different world and context, they look very odd indeed!

      • Avatar
        samchahal  January 14, 2013

        didnt his family and friends think he was mad when he first started saying he was the messiah in mark??

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

          They think he has gone out of his mind, but it is not because he is proclaiming himself the messiah.

          • Avatar
            gavm  January 11, 2014

            if his family really didnt think much of him isnt it strange that james is such a major early christain figure? why do you think he changed his mind after jesus death? could he have been along before that?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 13, 2014

            Yes, it’s very strange! I think he must have had a vision of Jesus after his death. (Which is what Paul claims)

  15. Avatar
    hwl  January 14, 2013

    Do you think another reason why the notion of heaven and hell is so pervasive in churches today is the problem of bible translation: the “hell” Jesus often referred would not have been understood in his day as a postmortem state, and the gospels’ concept of “kingdom of heaven” is often misunderstood as the place believers go after death?

  16. Avatar
    donmax  January 14, 2013

    What you’ve done here is something superior as an answer to a question. It’s exceptional and you are to be commended for a job well done!!! I don’t think anyone could have done better in such a short span of time and space. D.C. SMITH

  17. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  January 14, 2013

    If I understand things correctly, the Jews and the earliest Christians didn’t really have a concept of the afterlife– which is one of the reasons that apocalypticists believed in a bodily resurrection of the flesh to mark the end times. Is that correct?

    The pagan religions, on the other hand, tended to have some extensive concepts and mythologies built around the afterlife. The psychopomp is a very common deific stereotype, amongst polytheist pantheons. Since we know that the vast majority of Christians that arose in the early centuries were Gentiles from pagan areas, is it likely that the concepts of Heaven and Hell were amalgamations of their new apocalyptic worldview with their ancestral views of an afterlife?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2013

      I think it’s all very complicated. Some Jews and Christians did have a concept of the afterlife. Resurrectoin itself is such a concept: an afterlife to be lived eternally in the body.

      Yes, some pagans also had views of an afterlife, but many did not. From what we can tell from funerary inscriptions, most pagans believed that htis life is all there is. But I think you’re right that the Jewish views of Jesus’ and his followers did come to be influenced by pagan notions once Gentiles came to be so prominent in the religion.

  18. Avatar
    tcc  January 15, 2013

    Professor Ehrman, what do you think Paul’s referring to when he talks about being “taken up into the third heaven” in 2 Cor 12:2-4? From what I’ve read, it seems like it’s a reference to Aristotle’s geocentric cosmology, and the third heaven is actually the third planet from the Earth, Venus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 16, 2013

      A lot of ancient people believed that there were multiple layers to the heavens (not just Aristotelians, but also middle platonists, Jewish apocalypticists, Christain Gnostics, and so on), with the highest being reserved for God himself.

      • Avatar
        fred  January 16, 2013

        Apparently Paul thought so, since he refers to someone who was taken up to the third heaven (2Cor12:1-5)

  19. Avatar
    MicahStott  January 16, 2013

    Very interesting Bart, I’ve wondered about the understanding of Heaven and Hell in early Christianity. What about these two quick objections that come immediately to mind?

    1). With the idea of the devil being relatively recent (160 years prior to Jesus) how do we think first century Palestinians thought about evil forces or powers being subservient to Yahweh, yet still relevant and viable forces to be reckoned with (e.g. 1 Kings 22:19-23; Job 1-2; Psalms 82)?

    2). I think the picture of an Apocalyptic Jesus is very, very convincing. However I struggle with the idea of a reinterpretation or reconfiguration of belief systems in light of a catastrophic collision with reality. I hope I can offer this example for clarification:

    Perhaps I was in a completely monogamous and loving relationship with my wife and wished to remain so for the rest of my life. Then one day an event occurred and I was confronted with undeniable proof that my wife was not only unfaithful, but nothing like the wife I had thought she was or hoped she would remain to be. Now in light of this evidence, would it be feasible for me to reconstruct my ideas of our marriage and reorient my paradigms to embrace this new idea of a wife, or to let reality crash into my life and move on?

    I know the analogy will fall apart at many levels and I certainly don’t intend to be crass or remove the idea from context, but in essence, is it possible to contend that such a personal and unexpected turn of events would create the impetus for reconfiguring established hopes and beliefs?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      Big questions! On the first, “the satan” does appear in other texts (Job, e.g.), but you’re right, there he is one of God’s council members in the divine realm, and unlike the apocalyptic view of the devil, was working with God, not in opposition to him. And yes, I think you can indeed reinterpret an apocalyptic mythology in light of a different (modern) mythology. I think this is what happens when many thinking Christians are confronted with the modern world: they do not throw away their religion, they interpret it in light of their present experience.

      • Avatar
        FrankBrierton  March 30, 2013

        What happened to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden? Seems live the devil and/or Satan was around from day one, no?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 30, 2013

          Well, he was condemened to crawl on his belly from then on, and that’s why we have snakes!

  20. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 16, 2013

    First: I’m in my early seventies, and way back when I was a child, I read a Catholic claim that people thought Jesus had made prophecies that didn’t come true because they were confusing what he’d said about the Last Judgment with what he’d said about the destruction of the Temple.

    But in general, I–an agnostic raised Catholic–found that Catholicism said little or nothing about that “Last Judgment,” or a supposed second coming of Jesus. It’s always puzzled me that those concepts, and the “resurrection of the body,” are mentioned in the prayer called the Apostles’ Creed. That whole business seemed unnecessary, as I saw it, because the Catholicism I knew taught that everyone who lived and died, or ever had lived and died, went immediately to heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo. Your explanation of the evolution of the ideas makes it much clearer!

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