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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 bona-fide concept.  My original idea was that I was interested in exploring in a book where the Christian notion of hell as a place of eternal torment came from.  In my head I was calling the book “The History of Hell.”   The short story on the notion: the idea of hell did not come from the Old Testament, where there is little sense of eternal punishment for those opposed to God.   The most common view in the Hebrew Bible is that everyone who dies goes to a place called “Sheol,” a kind of shadowy place for departed souls, good and wicked.

Some authors of the Hebrew Bible deny even that much of an afterlife.  The books of Job and Ecclesiastes directly indicate that the end of life is the end of the story: no post-mortem existence.

The New Testament suggests a variety of ideas about punishment after death.  Jesus speaks about people going to Gehenna – a reference to the refuse heap outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned.   There was always a fire going.  People who were opposed to God would go there, to the never ending fire.   And so later in the book of Revelation we learn that everyone who will not inherit the eternal kingdom of God will be cast (along with the Devil and everything opposed to God) into the eternal “lake of fire.”   It won’t be pleasant.  For eternity.

On the other hand, Jesus speaks of people rejected from the kingdom being “cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  That too is very bad.  Here though it is not a place of awful light/fire but a realm of darkness.

My sense is that nowhere in the Bible is the common Christian view laid out, that a person dies and then their soul goes to heaven or hell.   For the authorities of the Bible – Jesus, his followers, Paul, and the other NT writers who speak about such things – the afterlife was to be a physical event, in the body.  The idea that the body and soul could somehow be separated is only rarely suggested in the Bible.

But Christians today think of heaven and hell as places that your soul, not your body, goes.  At the same time, they think that there will be physical punishment.  How can there be physical punishment without a physical entity (the body)?   My sense is that people somehow think that the current body dies but then a person is given some other kind of corresponding body (looking like this one) (at which age?) for eternal rewards or punishments.  But where did the idea of the soul leaving the body for reward or punishment come from?

That was what I was planning to deal with in my book.   A few weeks ago I talked with my editor about it, and she was excited about the possibility.  But she thought – and as soon as she mentioned it, I agreed – that a focus on hell is not only too negative but also too narrow.    Why not make it about heaven and hell both, the entire afterlife?  About where the idea of afterlife came from.   Are there roots in other ancient thought?  For example in ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and literary texts?  In other religious traditions?  Does it emerge from the popular imagination?  Where and when and why?

And my editor suggested a better tentative title:  “The Invention of the Afterlife.”  I loved it.  Still love it.  I think this is what I want to do next.

I have started accumulating bibliography: books on the views of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and other religious traditions both ancient and modern.  Books on Near Death Experiences (there are tons of these!) to start reflecting on how many modern people think about such things. And … well, books on other related things.

So here is what I would like from you: ideas!  What would you most like a book like that to cover?  What issues?  What developments?  What beliefs?  What practices?  What questions?  What … ever?  What would you be most interested in with a book like this?  What would make you want to buy it?  To read it?  To refer it to others?

I’ve never posed this kind of question to readers of the blog before.  But I’d be interested in your thoughts and ideas.  So let me have them!

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Why Don’t I Call Myself a Christian? Mailbag: October 8, 2016
How I Learned To Write for a General Audience



  1. Avatar
    mjt  October 6, 2016

    I love the ideas so far…the one thing that fascinates me is the disconnect between the idea of an unbelievably harsh punishment, and the idea of a loving God. More specifically, how believers in a harsh afterlife are able to reconcile these two notions.

    Even if the bible does not consistently teach this idea–I’ve never understood how so many Christians are not bothered by this apparent contradiction. When I was a Christian, this bothered me to no end.

    It seems that those who believe in the existence of a harsh afterlife should be the most miserable people on the planet, because so many people, including some of their loved ones, probably are headed there. But they don’t seem to be miserable people. If hell were a physical place, and we could go there and see dead people in misery, we would also be in misery anticipating this outcome for the living. The fact that believers don’t seem to be miserable suggests to me that, in some way, they don’t fully believe in a harsh afterlife.

    It also seems that a believer in a harsh afterlife would never even consider having children, for fear that they might end up in that afterlife. That also suggests that they in some way have their doubts…or that there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance reduction occurring.

    • Avatar
      herculodge  October 8, 2016

      I agree with your points. Believing in heaven and hell requires an ability to compartmentalize and be in denial about the unrelenting cruelty of hell.

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    JoeBTex  October 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I love the idea of discussing the various themes of hell, Satan, demons and the afterlife and their origins. I would also like to see more work done on the Son of Man concept and how Persian religion played a role in the development of Christ’s sermons and his view of the end times. I personally believe that too much has been made of Roman and Greek influences while ignoring the first and more successful Persian Empire’s influence on the diaspora, the Pharisees, and the authors of Daniel and Enoch. I would also like to see you explore the idea that Jesus could easily have been perceived as the prophesied Zoroastrian savior. Thanks for the opportunity to make suggestions,


  3. Avatar
    flshrP  October 6, 2016

    Here’s what I wrote for the Mailbag a few weeks ago on the subject of “Fear of Dying”:

    flshrP  September 20, 2016
    Bart E wrote: “Now my view is that death is the end of the story. We didn’t exist with consciousness before we were born. And we won’t exist with consciousness after we die. We can’t have consciousness without a (physical, functioning) brain. And we can’t feel physical pain without a nervous system. We will have neither after we die.”

    That’s what I think. In my case the trigger was the realization that there is no such thing as an immaterial, immortal human soul. So I reject the Platonic body-soul duality. The idea of such a soul is a legacy of primitive animistic thinking that confuses agency with process. Example: wind is a process that a mass of gas, i.e. the atmosphere, can perform in the presence of the Earth’s rotation and uneven solar heating. Primitive humans assigned agency to the wind process in the form of a wind god.
    The human mind is a process that is performed by the human brain. And at death that process ceases as the brain begins to disintegrate. No brain, no mind. Ancient animistic thinking assigned an agent, the mythical human soul, to explain the brain process, i.e. the mind.
    As Sean Carroll, Caltech physicist points out, our brains are built from atoms and, after nearly a century of experimental research, we know all the naturally-occurring forces (electromagnetism, gravity, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force) that act on atoms and have any effect at all on our everyday life. An immaterial soul would need some type of force to animate (i.e. move) the atoms in our body. If that force existed, we would have already detected it in particle accelerator collisions. And we haven’t. Ergo, we have no evidence of an immaterial human soul at the smallest detectable level. Other forces undoubtedly exist in the natural world. But these forces are either too weak, too short range, and/or too short lived to affect the atoms in our body as we go through our everyday lives.
    It’s very difficult for all of us to shake the belief in an immaterial, immortal human soul. That’s because all of us are ruled by our most primitive motivators–fear and greed. The great human fear is fear of non-existence after death. Human greed lusts for an everlasting afterlife of pleasurable rewards. That’s why religious belief has such a powerful hold over us. To the detriment of human society.

    For your new book, before you get into the issue of the origin of the heaven and hell myths, I suggest you handle the issue of the origin of the myth of the immaterial, immortal human soul. If such a soul doesn’t exist, then, of course, the heaven/hell issue is moot. However, since so many individuals believe in such a soul, I think a discussion of the origin of this myth has a place in your new book.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 9, 2016

      I don’t believe in “hell,” any more than you do. Nor do I believe in “God.”

      But it puzzles me that people arguing against “hell” never seem to think of this. *If* “God” existed, and was *omnipotent*, *of course* he’d be capable of making someone suffer eternally! *An omnipotent Being wouldn’t be bound by the laws of physics.*

      So if we want to convince someone they *can’t* be tortured eternally, the only way to go about it is to make them see there’s no evidence for the existence of this “God.”

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    Paul  October 6, 2016

    Great concept, but I think “The Birth of the Afterlife” is better than “The Invention of the Afterlife.” I also think it would be very interesting to deal with how the afterlife is differently conceived in our more modern variants of Christianity like Mormonism and the Witnesses. Also I think the modern concepts of time and infinity are interesting to consider in the context of discussing the afterlife.

  5. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 6, 2016

    A debate is occurring in many churches as to how to stop declining church membership. Regular church attendees are aging and not being replaced by millennials.
    This is a actual case study of a large mega church. The elders fired the existing pastor which was preaching the traditional Pauline message of the cross .
    The Choir And hymns were replaced with upbeat praise bands with five guitars and loud amps ( earplugs provided)
    A Young pastor was hired wearing only black tee shirts and pants and he started preaching the public message of Jesus….,being a pacifist, loving your neighbor, social justice getting along w family and friends, To follow Jesus means you are dedicated to these issues.
    He demeans those who only want a “ticket to heaven “.
    After a couple of years the older members Who support the church with their money demanded that he be fired .
    Now the church membership is continuing to decline as the older members die off.

    As to the afterlife, I think most of the current people living in Developed countries are far removed from real mass deaths. We freak out when the media reports the stabbing death off a couple of people. If you live in the bubble protected society of the west you do not think of the afterlife until you are very close to death and medical options have been exhausted.

    A radio preacher today used The fundamentalist line “you are only one breath away from death, so believe in Jesus and live forever “. I think most people reject that line of thinking because if they’re sick they will not believe in Jesus they will go to the doctor and expect to be healed . Death and the afterlife is not a pressing issue to most people today because it seems to be remote as life expectancies just keep increasing .

    TheVoices of those facing genocide are not heard and we have no idea what they’re thinking Other than to survive one more day.

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    puzzles  October 6, 2016

    (1) Why is belief in afterlife common?
    – hallucinations after death of loved ones
    – need for purpose to pursue in life
    – need for fairness
    – cycles in seasons (births in spring, harvests, etc.)
    It might be easier to ask why some cultures DIDN’T believe in an afterlife.

    (2) What is the purpose of life? Buddhists might hope to be reincarnated into a life that is more conducive to attaining an end to rebirth. Gnostics believe whatever. Different Christians have different ideas about the purpose of life and judgment after death (faith vs. works).

    (3) Sacrifices and burial rituals might give insights. Some apparently believed that burning a human or animal was a method of sending that soul to heaven via the smoke. Sacrifices to Poseidon were sometimes drowned in the sea. The Zoroastrians apparently believed that birds would transport the deceased person to heaven.

    (4) The location of heaven and hell might be interesting. Greeks placed requests for magical aid at wells, because the water was coming from the spirit world located under the Earth. Mayans thought caves were sacred.

    (5) Eastern Orthodox seems to have ideas that differ from other Christians. Cremation is not allowed. Some Orthodox believe that heaven and hell are the same location and the soul’s attitude makes the difference. Also there is the belief in saints. I believe there is also a stronger sense that the soul cannot exist without a physical body.

    (6) The idea of stars representing angels and deceased. Apparently the some of the Arabian religions like the Sabians felt this way.

    (7) Many Christians believe that pets do not go to heaven.

    (8) Many Christians believe in soul sleep, so any vision of a deceased love one is considered a “familiar spirit”.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 10, 2016

      You’re omitting the fact that there’s hard *evidence* for reincarnation. See “Life Before Life,” by Jim B. Tucker. A stunning number of children have had past-life memories that can’t be satisfactorily explained in any other way.

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    mjt  October 6, 2016

    I’m interested in whether Jesus really thought in terms of ‘everlasting’ and ‘eternal’ like we do. Does he think of the afterlife as lasting for ever? If so, are there places where he teaches the contradictory notion that it’s finite? John 17:3 seems to suggest a usage of the word ‘eternal’ that is different than how we think of it.

    • Avatar
      Nomad  December 13, 2016

      Yes, there are a number of places where the word(s) translated as “eternal” clearly does not mean eternal in the modern sense. I have read a number of discussions of the words olam and aion (+aionios, etc.) in the original languages in various places that suggest that this word as used often has more of a qualitative connotation than a quantitative one.

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    Tempo1936  October 6, 2016

    The one message you will never hear discussed or preached in the traditional church is who wrote The new testament and when was It written, and what language was it written. The issue that The disciples and the general population of Galilee in the first century could not read or write is never mentioned . The vast majority of church members assume that the disciple John just sat down and wrote the gospel of John in Greek a few years after Jesus died .

    Anyone who questions this assumption will be branded as a heretic and asked to leave the church . Not very loving .
    That’s a big issue with millennials.

  9. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 6, 2016

    Bart, as you know, an important world religion that has “Invented the Afterlife” is Islam. Consider interviewing Dr. Sam Harris, an atheist, and author of “The End of Faith — Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (2004). … I’m impressed by his knowledge of early Christianity and Islam. … Just a thought.

  10. Avatar
    James  October 6, 2016

    “Evolution of” sounds more inviting than “Invention of”. The use of “Invention” implies an answer or a (negative) stance on the physical (or metaphysical) existence of the subject rather than the evolving views of Jewish/Christian/other cultures on the subject. “Evolution” only implies change and feels more appropriate for the scope of the project as I understand if from reading your post.

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    Tanna  October 6, 2016

    I’ve always been interested in where exactly this heaven could be.

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    SelfAwarePatterns  October 6, 2016

    This may be outside of your state scope, but one thing I’d like to see is a critical examination of the idea that ancient pre-Christian religions didn’t have an afterlife. It seems to show up in ancient Egyptian religion, but seems heavily downplayed in Mesopotamian religions (an influence on Old Testament attitudes?).

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 9, 2016

      “We” have found graves that are over 20,000 years old that, along with the bodies, have possessions and tolls or weapons in them–clear indications that those who buried the dead believed these things would be of use to the dead in some sort of next life.

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    rburos  October 6, 2016

    The “invention” of the afterlife still has a negative sound to it. A Christian would hear that and feel like somebody calling them a deceiving child (read fabricate, concoct, dream up) instead of being seriously devoted to something they feel has been revealed by God as truth (read originate, design, pioneer). Maybe something like “Conceptions of the Afterlife”, or “Envisioning the afterlife: An historical investigation into the theological development of live after death”?

    I am personally very interested in how Christianity came to accept the concept.
    – Plato?
    – Pharisees?
    – The fact that the danged kingdom never came?

    Does this get to the real meaning behind being “saved”? The Jews followed the law out of gratitude for the covenant. They had already received their end, so they did so as a response. But Christianity reversed it with the salvation thing–first I believe (and act accordingly), and then I’m given a reward in eternity. Did reading Matthew drive this?

    How did Purgatory come into play?

    I would also interested in the later development that I could be bad all my life, but convert on my deathbed and be saved.

    • Avatar
      rburos  October 7, 2016

      Or is “believing” in the death and resurrection of Christ really simply mean “accepting” that Jesus did it for us? Is accepting then just really saying thank-you? Is the afterlife simply what gives us something to look forward to since the kingdom never seems to arrive? I get the basics of Romans, but your book idea might be what I need to bridge a very large gap.

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    Stefan  October 6, 2016

    I’d love a book that doesn’t neglect the basic OT influences, such as the motifs from the prophets about the day of wrath, God’s wrath/judgement as fire, or Is 66,24.
    Its such a shame when a good NT study focuses so much on “pagan” influence that the most basic OT backgtound is neglected (or worse, overlooked).

  15. Avatar
    doug  October 6, 2016

    I’d definitely read it. Regarding near death experiences: some surgeons, to address the claim by patients that when their heart stopped on the operating table, they rose up and floated around the room, have put an object on a high shelf in the operating room which could not be seen by someone standing on the floor. The next time someone said they floated above their body, they would be asked what was on the shelf. The only test results I’ve seen were ones where no one said they floated (so no one saw the object). But maybe addressing NDE would be expanding the topic too much – from past history to current tests.

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    AlecRozsa  October 6, 2016

    I really want to know more about how well the various Christian afterlife models were received in the early Church by well read Jews, the diaspora, and Gentiles from about 33 to 200 CE or so. Particularly, plausible reasons for the exaltation of soul/spirit over limitations of flesh and matter. Perhaps how some, now heretical, Gnostic Christians saw the body as important enough to practice asceticism, while others (especially the poor minority) did not find the body important enough to neglect food offered to idols. Therefore, a lot of people eventually came to believe that perhaps the soul is so superior to the body that the “flesh” must be evil and Satanic, while the immaterial spirit is what connects us to God. Dale Martin touched on these issues in the open Yale courses. Sometimes ideas win out by social status majority, other times by yet more complicated means. Just shooting some ideas out there!

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    caseyjunior  October 6, 2016

    I am especially interested in “substance dualism” , where did the idea of a separate soul that would be punished or rewarded come from .In my sunday school days we never considered any kind of new body; it was always the soul that counted. However, I also find all the other aspects you mentioned fascinating and I’m ready to buy and read the book!

  18. talmoore
    talmoore  October 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, since I’m not a religious scholar per se, I can’t speak as an expert in the religious concepts of heaven and hell. But as a social scientist who is currently working on the evolution of morality, one of the topics I regularly tackle is the notion of Divine Justice. I see Divine Justice as the conceptual zenith of human social justice (cf. Hobbes’ Leviathan). That is, as we appeal for more and greater justice, as we go up the social hierachy (e.g. magistrate to lord to king to emperor and so on; also, cf. lower courts all the way up to the supreme court) we eventually move off the earthly plane out of practically necessity (for who can be higher than the ultimate human authority?) to an even “higher authority” to achieve “justice”. And that’s where the appeal to a god, or the supreme God of the universe takes over. God, quite literally, is the ultimate authority in the universe. And the concepts of heaven and hell emerge out of the concept of an ultimate universal authority. If there must be an ultimate arbiter of Justice (God), then there must be an ultimate reward and punishment meted out by the ultimate arbiter (heaven and hell). And that’s where the idea of Divine Justice comes from.

    As for the evolution of the idea of the afterlife itself, well, that’s a very, very complex history (which I’m assuming you’re intending to distill for a general audience). The very idea of an afterlife dates far back even before recorded history. Even ancient Neanderthal’s used to bury their dead with objects, as if souls of the dead had a use for those objects. We see thousands of ancient tombs with objects that suggest the survivors believed the dead person’s soul is living on after physical death. The souls of ancient Egyptians were believed to partake in journeys and endeavers after death. And the ancient Greeks, of course, had a very detailed mythology of the soul’s experiences in the after. Odysseus travels to the underworld where he meets the souls of dead heroes. Orpheus travels to the underworld to save the soul of his Eurydice. And so on. In other words, by the time we get to the 1st century, the idea of souls surviving physical death is nothing new.

    Except, it was relatively new to Judaism. It appears Jews didn’t begin to adopt the doctrine of life after death until after the Babylonian Exile. And at that point the afterlife became entangled with the Jewish ideas of the Messiah, the Messianic Age, the battle between the Righteous before God and the Wicked (i.e. Armageddon) and the mass resurrection of the dead for the final Judgment, reward and punishment. For ancient rationales for the soul and the afterlife, Plato’s argument for the soul, the afterlife and the judgment, are great, though flawed (if I weren’t an atheist I might have been convinced by it). I would recommend the Phaedo, the Phaedrus and the Gorgias.

    As to current study into the evolution of the concept of the afterlife and Divine Justice, I can’t say I’ve seen much compelling research (which is why I’m doing my own research). But you might want to check out some of the work done by research into re-creating out-of-body experiences and the sense of a supernatural presence, such as Stanley Koren’s “God Helmut”. (Researchers have been unable to replicate Koren’s research, however). Also, the experiences induced within sensory deprivation tanks also seems to mimic that of profound spiritual experiences. All in all, the research for this sort of topic is still rather slim. If I could make one recommendation, if I were you I would contact the neuroscientist (and notorious “new atheist”) Sam Harris, who actually specializes in the neurological basis of spiritual experiences, and he could probably provide you an embarrassment of riches in this field.

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    DaveAyres  October 6, 2016

    This falls under whatever more than historical. Yet it is an articulation of the afterlife with particular reference to death before and after the Rapture. Several years ago while watching a television program hosted by a couple of Fundamentlists (I assume, nor do I remember whether they were specifically Baptist or of another formal denomination) I learned of their description of where souls go after death and then what will happen after Christ returns.

    They provided a diagram to explain their belief. When a person dies the soul falls down this long oval shaped tube. At the end of the tube are two circles. One called Hades and the other called Hell. All souls are sent to Hades. When Christ returns he will decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. Hades will be emptied. Those destined for Heaven shoot back up the oval shaped tube to Heaven. Those destined for Hell shift over to the other circle representing Hell.

    Two things intrigued me. One was the distinction between Hades and Hell. I figured that Hades was a parallel to a Catholic Purgatory. But I’d never heard the term Hades used this way nor of a Protestant form of Purgatory. The other was the diagram itself. Not an image I would associate with conservative Protestant theology.

  20. Avatar
    jeffgrindle  October 6, 2016

    I would be interested in the development of the
    idea of the soul itself.

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