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The Original Obsession with Trips to the Afterlife

I have been interested in the early Christian texts that describe tours or visions of heaven and hell for a long time – I suppose since, when in graduate school, I first heard about the Apocalypse of Peter, which I have described on the blog before.   That’s not the sort of text we would have been reading at Moody Bible Institute.  (!)   But its description of the torments in hell – brief, yet lurid accounts of what will happen to people for all eternity, depending on what their characteristic sin was — hooked me right away:  blasphemers, seductresses, adulterers, and people who lend money out at interest all get distinctive and rather ghastly eternal torments, specified for their crimes, (as if a person only commits one of them!).

I didn’t realize at the time that we have several other accounts from Christian authors of the first few centuries; nor did I know, uneducated as I was, that it is one of the oldest tropes in literature, with examples in Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, and on into Virgil and Lucian of Samosata (two of whom I had never heard of before…) and some Jewish texts.  How I regret, to this day, not receiving a serious education in the liberal arts.  But hey, I *did* learn about evangelism, Christian apologetics, and exorcism!!

In any event, over time I realized there are a number of Christian descriptions of the afterlife.   Our earliest author Paul himself says …

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The Passion for Origins
My Next Scholarly Book: Visits to Heaven and Hell



  1. Robert
    Robert  March 8, 2019

    “But hey, I *did* learn about evangelism, Christian apologetics, and exorcism!!”

    Exorcism? Did Moody teach how to do exorcisms?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      There was no class on it per se. But one of my professors was a “professional” — he’d be called in to perform them. And he gave us class-room instruction about how to do it as part of the course — the do’s and don’ts. (Never touch the person! The demon can then come into *you*!)

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    Rthompsonmdog  March 8, 2019

    “But hey, I *did* learn about evangelism, Christian apologetics, and exorcism!!”

    In the synoptics Jesus frequently casts out unclean spirits. Outside of Saul’s evil spirit, possession does not appear in the Old Testament – that I recall. What is known about the development of this idea in Judaism?
    How seriously did Moody take the idea of demonic possession and exorcism? How seriously did you?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Seriously! both Moody and Me!

      • Avatar
        Rthompsonmdog  March 10, 2019

        Thanks, any good sources on how the idea began and developed in Judaism?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 11, 2019

          It goes back to the rise of apocalypticism, and the idea that God has supernatural enemies (demons) as well as servants (angels). All that happened after the OT period, which is why demons are found in later Jewish texts but not in the Hebrew Bible.

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            michael_kelemen  March 12, 2019

            Re: demons in the Hebrew bible. What about this? Isn’t Azazel a demon in the OT?

            And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.
            — Leviticus 16:8

          • Bart
            Bart  March 13, 2019

            Well, kind of. More like a very strange divinity, not, for example, a fallen angel who possesses people’s bodies.

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    AstaKask  March 8, 2019

    I think it stems from Plato. I believe he writes something like “to know something we must know its origins.” Or was it Aristotle? I don’t remember.
    Paul talks of the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians. What does that mean? Isn’t there one heaven?

    Side Note: Received two books from Amazon today: God’s Problem and Lost Christianities. Look forward to digesting them slowly, like a snake who has swallowed an antelope… 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Many of the ancients believed in multiple layers of heaven.

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        mwbaugh  March 11, 2019

        Did that have to do with the spheres of Ptolemaic astronomy?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 11, 2019

          Yes, but, well, vice-versa. Ptolemy was giving the scientific explanatoin for a common conception.

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    drumbeg  March 8, 2019

    “Did, for example, the Apocalypse of Peter trace its lineage back to an Orphic-Pythagorean mystery religion?” I have to admit I am interested in this question. Is there a connection between the apocalypse of Peter and the Orphic-Pythagorean?

    I am also very curious about what you discovered to be the reasons for the obsession.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      The problem is that we don’t have any direct information about any Orphyic-Pythagorean mysteries. Only vague allusions…. I’ll be talking about origins in my next post.

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    Drmagana  March 8, 2019

    Dr ehrman..Eagerly awaiting for your book about this extremely interesting topic.
    If you may allow me to make a suggestion it would be great if you discuss the different -huge – approaches and concepts on the afterlife specially of hell parts between christian denominations . Jehova’s witnesses does not believe in a hell or eternal punishment .
    An by the way the cosmogony of debt and guilt which is present on the inchoate and vestigial societies that ends on atonement rituals like human sacrifices seems to be two pronged in endings..rewards..heaven
    Or punishment…hell.
    Those beliefs of debt and guilt permeates through christianity

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Yes, that would be very interesting! But since I”m not a modern historian, I am going to focus on what we know about views in the ancient world.

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    fishician  March 8, 2019

    Would I be correct in thinking that the concept of eternal reward or punishment predated Christianity? And, do you think the concept of Satan and eternal afterlife is something the Jews adopted from other cultures during the times of their captivities?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Yes, I don’t think Christians invented the idea of rewards and punishments; and in my book I argue that Jews did not simply pick all these ideas from, say, Zoroastrianism during the Persian period.

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    dicooley  March 8, 2019

    I reread the first few verses of 2 Cor. 12 and wish Paul would’ve have gone on a bit more about the two men and their visions, the third heaven and perhaps why the special words were unlawful to utter. Instead the discussion turns to his own infirmities. What a missed opportunity to enlighten the curious among us.

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    Silver  March 8, 2019

    You frequently note that there is verbatim agreement in Synoptic passages. Is this frequently the case or is this rare? Please can you list those passages where such agreement is found? I understand that this may be across all three Synoptics or only involving Matt and Luke.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Yes, it’s all over the place. Simpy get a book like Synopsis of the Four Gospels (edited Aland), and you can see for yourself. Sometimes it’s all three agreeing verbatim; sometimes it’s two against the third, in various combinations.

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    Apocryphile  March 8, 2019

    Fascinating! The question of origins also intrigues me, as there are many cross-cultural parallels in the ancient world, beginning in the historical record with Mesopotamian mythology (e.g. the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna). It would be fascinating to know the details of how these stories were passed along among cultures over the centuries, or, alternatively, what elements of these stories are perhaps trans-cultural based simply on our shared human condition or psyche(?) Much or most of this detail is certainly lost to history, but the fact that we can discern these connections means there was much cross-cultural pollenization of ideas going on, and thus is an area ripe for further research.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  March 8, 2019

    I would assume every culture in human history (and millennia before the invention of writing) has believed it was possible for the living to visit the next world (however they define it) or see it in a vision–or else how would the stories they told about it be possible?
    This is not unique to Christianity and European paganism. It is something that occurs spontaneously, but of course there is also cultural cross-pollination.

    So in what specific way were these accounts different? What is the distinction between these Middle Eastern and European stories, as opposed to (for example) Yudisthira’s trip to Hindu paradise in his mortal body, at the end of the Mahabarata? I can see it’s treated more as a witness narrative–almost a travelogue. Anything else?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      I won’t be doing that kind of broad cross-cultural analysis, but they are interesting!

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    Rokyro  March 9, 2019

    Hey Bart, one point I’ve noticed evangelists making consistently, is that the Gospels aren’t unique in being considered anonymous. Well, actually, I’ve heard some claim, that they aren’t even that, that the cover pages for the gospels were lost early in history. Would you be able to clear that up for me? Was anonymity for authors common in Antiquity?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Most of the books of the Old Testament are anonymous; my guess is that the Gospel writers were imitating these “sacred” predecessors (authors of the Pentateuc, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings….) And no, the idea of a “cover page” is simply made up. These people must be thinking of faxes!!

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 10, 2019

      You know, Bart can’t do everything…..


      Yes, it was very common. But more for some kinds of things than others.

      Authorship in the modern sense didn’t really exist–no publisher’s advances, no royalties, no book tours. Few of these writers expected any lasting fame. Things like plays or histories would perhaps need an author’s name, because that way audiences would know this was somebody whose work they’d appreciated in past (and you don’t need to be literate to go see a play).

      But most things were written for small select readerships–since small select readerships were all that existed in an age of mass illiteracy. To even call the works anonymous is misleading, if you’re talking about works distributed in a court setting–everybody knew who’d written it. It got stored away in some archive, and rediscovered a generation or two later.

      Offhand, how many ancient religious or mythic texts–of any tradition–can you think of that have an author’s name on them? It’s amazing we know Homer had anything to do with The Odyssey, but he didn’t write it–he composed it, and it was written down long after, with Lord only knows how many changes.

      Even the Book of Mormon is technically unattributed to any earthly source, though everybody knows who really wrote it. (Those South Park guys.)


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    Stephen  March 9, 2019

    I’m interested in Paul’s cosmology in 2 Cor. 12:1-4. Will you spend time in your new works sketching out what he meant by the “Third Heaven” and “Paradise”?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      Yes, it’s a complicated business. Many ancients imagined that the “heavens” were in multiple layers. I’ll think about discussing it at aome point!

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    rivercrowman  March 9, 2019

    Bart included the text of the Apocalypse of Peter (among many other texts) in his book “After the New Testament — A Reader in Early Christianity,” Oxford University Press, 1999. … It’s a blast to read. Chapter 11 of the Apocalypse of Peter speaks of maidens who lost their virginity before marriage and slaves who were not obedient to their masters experiencing some awful tortures in eternal fire for ever!

  14. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 9, 2019

    Speaking of the Apocalypse of Peter, how widely was it read in antiquity? Did you find intermediate steps between this writing and Dante? And evidence of copies of ‘Peter’s’ vision [or Orphic-Pythagorean texts!] circulating in Dante’s time?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      I discussed that on the blog a while back. Some Christian leaders considered the book Scripture (part of the NT) for several centuries. It did not directly influence Dante, but the Apocalypse of Paul, which was based on it, did.

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    J--B  March 9, 2019

    Perhaps you could borrow “Nekuia” to include in the title of your new scholarly book. That would certainly dissuade some casual readers like me from opening it.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      I thought about it! But I’m not sure Nekuia is quite right, since technically it describes an act of necromancy rather than a journey to the other world.

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    dankoh  March 9, 2019

    What I find interesting (and not a little disturbing) about these “hell” visits is the way they devote so much attention to the details of torture and punishment. Almost no one reads Purgatorio and Paradiso, for instance, but Inferno remains popular. Readers have this fascination with other people’s pain.

    I think it’s both sadistic and anxiety-producing – on the other hand, look at what these souls are going through because they wouldn’t listen to me! – and on the other hand, what if I made a mistake in salvation choice, or committed too many sins, and this is what’s going to happen to me? (This is the “salvation anxiety” I asked you about in another blog.)

    Either way, I think it’s psychologically very unhealthy.

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    Rokyro  March 9, 2019

    Another canard the evangelical’s trot out when trumpeting the historicity of the gospels, is the early church tradition that began to refer to them. Specifically Papias, Ignatius and Polycarp. I’m wondering if you could point me to any good sources (aside from yourself of course) that deal with and unpack first century church leaders from a secular scholar point of view?

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    AJ0826  March 9, 2019

    In your book, Did Jesus Exist, you write:
    “it is hard to know from his (Papias) statement if he is calling the companions of the apostles the elders or if the elders were those who knew the companions.”
    I’m trying to understand what you mean by this last option… When you say, “or if the elders were those who knew the companions”, does this mean you think there was a generation of people between the apostles and the elders that were “the companions of the apostles”? If that is what you are saying, what evidence at all in Papias would you be referring to that would make you think this? Are you referring to Aristion and John the elder? It seems obvious to me that the elders are the “senior” Christian teachers in Asia who were probably born around 20-40 AD, whose lives overlapped the apostles. And that Papias interviewed people who had heard these elders. Your quote from your book is confusing.
    Would you mind helping me out with this? Thank you very much, sir.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      I believe I already answered this one a few days ago? Was it not to your question?

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