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The Origins of Heaven and Hell

Where did the idea of a “differentiated” afterlife come from?  I’m not overly fond of the word “differentiated,” since it’s not one we normally use.  But for the moment I can’t think of a better one for the phenomenon I’m thinking of.

An “undifferentiated” afterlife is one in which everyone has the same experience: there is no difference between one person and the next.  It doesn’t matter if the person lived a good life, was kind to strangers, was meek, humble, and mild, did his or her best to help those in need, lived a faithful and loving life OR was a wicked, mean-spirited, arrogant, violent sinner who disrespected others and went out of his or her way to do them harm.  The loving and meek, and the despicable and murderous: It doesn’t matter.  Both kinds of people end up in the same place and have the same experience after death (in an undifferentiated afterlife).

As we have seen, that was the view of most of the Hebrew Bible.  At death, everyone goes to Sheol.  It doesn’t matter how much you loved God and your neighbor, it doesn’t matter if you were faithful, religious, and devout, or if you were a truly awful human being.  Everyone went to Sheol.  There was no reward for the righteous, no punishment for the sinner.  One size fits all, for eternity.  No differences.  Undifferentiated.

A differentiated afterlife is one in which …

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Charges and Anti-Supernatural Biases! Readers Mailbag August 6, 2017
The First Apocalypse: The Book of Daniel



  1. Avatar
    nbraith1975  August 3, 2017

    As a Christian, I had always been taught from the OT that God (Yahweh) would always bless his people when they followed his laws. But then Jesus shows up and seemed to preach the opposite; that those who follow him would be persecuted – even to death at times.

    The problem for me stemmed from the teaching that Jesus was God incarnate – the trinity. If this were true, then God obviously decided to turn the table on his people and send persecution on everyone who follows his – Jesus’ – teachings rather than blessings. The blessings for his followers would now be granted in the afterlife – as well as the punishment for those who reject his teachings.

    I know now that the trinity was an invention of the early (Roman) church and that Christianity is nothing more than a contrivance of man to try and deal with the unknowable aspects of humanity and the world in general.

    I still believe in a divine creator, but believe mostly as the Native Americans did about him.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 3, 2017

    So the “prophetic” view yields to the “apocalyptic” view. You have no clue how much time you have saved me. I could never have tracked down all of this stuff on my own without your help. Thanks still again.

  3. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 3, 2017

    Are there books in which contemporary atheists/agnostics have found the OT valuable in reconciling them to the finality of death? OT figures were not atheists and believed in a nebulous afterlife but non-belief in eternal happiness is very similar to the atheistic situation. Your discussions of Ecclesiastes are good examples but there must be more than that in something as large as the OT. I think contemporary atheists from Judaeo-Christian backgrounds might find “wisdom” from their own tradition to be especially helpful in ways that more purely “secular humanist” wisdom cannot be.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      Good question! Nothing comes to mind.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 5, 2017

        I’m working on it now.

        • Avatar
          Seeker1952  August 6, 2017

          Thanks but do you mean you’re writing the book or researching whether such books already exist. I’m interested either way.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  August 7, 2017

            Writing, about religion from a secular perspective.. Life after death is not the major focus of the book, but will be one part of it.

  4. Avatar
    Epaminondas  August 3, 2017

    “Segregated” comes to mind.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      Yes, that would be an option, though the word probably has too many other valences in modern American usage.

  5. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 3, 2017

    “I’m not overly fond of the word “differentiated,” since it’s not one we normally use.”

    Maybe thesaurus.com can help. I typed in the word “differentiate” for a list of synonyms and antonyms. Here’s the link–

    I suppose the views could be considered “diverse” or “diversified”. The opposite of that would be a “uniform” view.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      Yes, I’ve looked at the synonyms (the first thing I did!) and don’t think any is better.

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  August 4, 2017


      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 4, 2017

        homogeneous vs. multifarious or variegated?
        (Variegate has been stuck in my head)

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  August 4, 2017

          I should have asked this first: When you say “undifferentiated” versus “differentiated,” do you mean a uniform view (Sheol) that deviated and became a spectrum of punishments/rewards or one view that diverged into two?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 6, 2017

            Yes, in one there is no difference in how everyone is treated, in the other there is a difference between the treatments of the blessed and the damned.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2017

          Yes, I like variegated, but I’m not sure it is much of an improvement on differentiated (the latter seems to emphasize, more appropriately, a subject who *makes* the difference rather than a difference that just kinda happens)

          • Rick
            Rick  August 7, 2017

            Makes me think of …. plants – with yellow spots!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 5, 2017

        Actually, I like “differentiated.” It makes a lot of sense.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 6, 2017

      Dr. Ehrman, I invented a new word for you. You can impress your colleagues with it.

      Allodromous (Αλλοδρομης)

      You’re welcome.

  6. kadmiral
    kadmiral  August 3, 2017

    So the literate elites of the day were so desperate to keep their national God propaganda thriving that in the face of its floundering or certain demise, they moved the goal posts, so to speak? And so now, instead of an “of this world” reward of prosperity/protection for obedience to Yahweh, so to speak, it now will have to wait for the “afterlife”? And so in this way they still can keep control over their people?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      I don’t know if it’s a matter of keeping control; it may be a matter of making sense of their world.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  August 3, 2017

    Interesting topic, looking forward to it. On a related topic, what did you think of Elaine Pagels’ book, The Origins of Satan? Not quite the same thing, believing in hell, and believing in a sort of Chief Devil. But the two are certainly linked in early Christianity.

    I think paganism tended to promise rewards and punishments in this life, more than the next. You will get certain advantages from propitiating the right gods, and you must beware of their wrath if you don’t.

    The idea of a differentiated afterlife was going to take hold, of course. With or without the Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      Her books are all incredibly interesting, including this one. Yes, it’s a related topic, but the book doesn’t deal specifically with my area of interest just now in heaven and hell.

  8. Avatar
    ask21771  August 3, 2017

    So is the idea that hell is eternal conscious torment biblically accurate

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      That’s what I’ll be discussing in this thread!

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 4, 2017

      The idea that eternal consciousness would be hell is certainly accurate, and not just in a biblical sense. 😉

  9. Avatar
    TangoFoxtrot22  August 3, 2017

    I’ve just joined this blog. I’ve always wondered when “hell” was first invented. Now, I will get some insight. Thanks.

  10. Avatar
    hasankhan  August 3, 2017

    You carefully say “most of the Hebrew bible” or “dominant view was”. Does that mean undifferentiated afterlife is not the only view found? What is the non dominant view?

    Also what did earlier prophets say to their people what will happen if you obey God? You inherit the kingdom of God? Could that not mean heaven?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      I’m getting to that. Daniel 12 speaks of a future resurrection.

  11. Avatar
    rburos  August 3, 2017

    Thank you!

  12. Avatar
    Gabe_Grinstead  August 3, 2017

    I wonder if differentiation was a result of people trying to make sense of evil and injustice in this world. In other words, because they could not reconcile a God would neither punish, nor reward, they had to find a reason to why such an evil person could live such a long and prosperous life. What is the solution? “You see, Timmy, when an evil person dies, he goes to a very bad place, forever.” In many ways, they rejected their current concept of God and created a new one.

    Now, in current times, we are as a society coming to reject this concept, because even though it appears more progressive than the former, it is still quite a hideous doctrine. It is one thing to talk of punishment and rewards, but to apply never-ending/eternity to them is gross injustice. Infinite and endless punishment for finite crimes, no matter how heinous, is a miscarriage of justice.

    We are a very tribal people. Because of the internet and modern technology, the entire world is becoming a single tribe. This is, essentially, human progression and is a good thing.

  13. Avatar
    doug  August 3, 2017

    When the O.T. says God punishes Israel for violating his will, I wonder – how obedient do the people of Israel have to be? Do 51% of Israel’s people have to obey God? 99%? 100%? And how obedient do those who are generally obedient to God have to be? Perfect obedience all the time would presumably be humanly impossible. Hard to know what the O.T. means when it says “Israel” violated God’s will. I know there is no precise O.T. answer to this. It seems like when the O.T. says evil happens because “Israel” was disobedient to God, it is an attempt to make suffering compatible with God.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      I’m afraid, as you point out, none of the writers in the OT gives any statistical analysis! But yes, that’s why they say what they say.

  14. Avatar
    Jakob Ganschow  August 3, 2017

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    I know your expertise is not in philosophy, but I’m hoping you can indulge me still.

    Are you familiar with Nietzsche’s Master/Slave Morality dynamic? The belief that what is condemned in Christianity (wealth, power, sexuality, safety, etc) have become demonized as a consequence of a misdirected form of jealousy? Much like Aesop’s Fable of “sour grapes,” Christian’s don’t (according to Nietzsche) hate the rich, powerful, famous, mighty etc, rather, they envy them and turn it into an issue of piety. The TRULY righteous suffer and abstain from such delights, for their reward is not in this world, but the world to come.

    Although Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is a rather crazy read in many aspects, it seems as though your account runs a complimentary parallel and I was wondering if you had any thoughts (no matter how brief) on my proposition.

    Thanks for your time and willingness to answer most comments.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2017

      Yes, I see this as a kind of philosophical explanation of the origins of apocalyptic thought.

  15. Avatar
    Ophiuchus  August 4, 2017

    So you don’t think that Zoroastrianism contributed very much to the idea of a differentiated afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      It appears not, contrary to what we were always taught. The differentiated afterlife only long after the period of Persian dominance. And the Zoroastrian sources that suggest something like “resurrection” cannot be dated within many centuries of the period of our concern.

      • Avatar
        Michele  November 10, 2018

        Dr Ehrman,
        therefore the scarce influence of Zoroastrianism in the development of the Jewish religion can also be translated into a scarce influence of Zoroastrianism on Christianity, given the Jewish matrix of the latter?
        Thank you very much.

        Michele Fornelli

        • Bart
          Bart  November 11, 2018

          Yes that’s my view.

          • Avatar
            Michele  November 12, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman,
            another thing that I’ve always wondered is whether it is true what I found on many websites, that Zoroaster has walked on the water, has been baptized and many other similarities with Jesus and with other stories of the genesis (Adam and Eve). Some of these things were also written in old encyclopedias of the history of religions now outdated. Should they be considered true, or even these are mostly stories born centuries later, if not even chatter from the internet?
            Thank you very much

            Michele Fornelli

          • Bart
            Bart  November 13, 2018

            Many of the stories are later inventions, made by relatively modern scholars who have wanted to say that Jesus was simply invented like the others.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 6, 2017

      One problem is that Apocalyptic Zoroastrianism and Messianic Judaism appear to have developed in tandem rather than in series. So it seems less like the Resurrection eschatology of Zoroastrianism found its way into Judaism, and more like the Resurrection eschatology was an idea that found its way into both Zoroastrianism and Judaism around the same time. For its part, it seems the only idea that Judaism took from Zoroastrianism is the concept of Dualism, i.e. the cosmic war between Good and Evil. From that the Jews turned God into the representation of Good and Satan (or Azazel, or Mastema, or Belial, etc.) into the representation of Evil. That’s the Persian influence.

  16. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 4, 2017

    Bart, I’m interested in your opinion on how the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian view of the afterlife may have influenced the later Hebrew idea of Sheol. The two were very similar – the ancient Mesopotamian version was of an undifferentiated afterlife where everyone went. It was described as a “house of dust and darkness”, where the departed had to literally eat dust and drink bitter, brackish water. To my thinking, the similarities are too close to be coincidental, and were probably picked up during the Jewish exile in Babylon, along with the creation and flood stories that were later reinterpreted in the Hebrew Bible. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      My sense is that there were various understandings throughout the world of the day; Greeks also had an undifferentiated view, all the way back to Homer and almost certainly before. It’s not that the Israelites “got” their view from one source or another. It’s that a variety of cultures all had comparable views.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  August 6, 2017

        Hmm. Can’t resist saying situations like this – somewhat similar views developing, “independently,” in different cultures – suggest, to me, reincarnation. People coming up with “original” ideas based on subconscious memories, however fragmentary, of what they’d believed in previous incarnations in those other cultures.

        • Avatar
          Apocryphile  August 9, 2017

          I think similar religious beliefs can be explained far more parsimoniously through simple cultural contact, or even (perhaps) the need to deal with similar environmental or technical challenges, etc. Still, I wonder about what the extent of the Greek influence on the ancient Israelites could have been before Alexander(?) Cultural exchange through trade routes makes the most sense, I suppose, absent the military conquest of territory. If you go back far enough in time, you can find events that would have made a universally similar impression on people. Flood mythology is a prime example – cultures all over the globe experienced similar events at the end of the last ice age. Explaining the cultural similarities in mythology is easy in this case. Explaining the similarities in underworld/afterlife mythology is a bit more tenuous, I would argue. The neolithic transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural way of life goes a long way toward explaining the hero descent-ascent / dying-rising mythos, but the ostensible Greek influence on Near Eastern beliefs needs a bit of a firmer foundation, in my opinion.

          I don’t think you need reincarnation or Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic fields to explain this one, though Carl Jung might have his own thoughts too….

  17. Avatar
    Jason  August 4, 2017

    The word that comes to the mind of a software engineer is a “sorted” afterlife, which I don’t like as it requires a sorting entity (but which may be specifically appropriate here for that very reason.)

  18. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  August 5, 2017

    Have you read your colleague’s, James D. Tabor, book, RESTORING ABRAHAMIC FAITH? I think his personal faith is what he has written in that book.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      No, I haven’t read it. But he’s on the blog if you want to ask him about it!

  19. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  August 5, 2017

    It might be useful to have two other distinctions in addition to “differentiated”

    A. Permanent vs. temporary. Other religions may see a judgment/ review of life prior to the next phase, whether staying in the afterlife world or reincarnation.
    B. Learning vs. punishment. People may be sent back or have further experiences as part of learning to be better. Say, returning to earth can be viewed as punishment, or as a learning opportunity. The difference being “you have been bad” therefore”you will be punished forever, ” or “you will be given additional opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn.”
    And somehow current Christianity ended up with “differentiated” “permanent” and “punishment”- the latter two not seeming to fit in with God as depicted Psalm 103:8-13. Some things I’ve read say that the early Church had both strains existing in tension, the merciful and the mean. Thanks for addressing this fascinating topic!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      Yes, once that first most important and basic differentiation was made it opened up the possibility (and importance) of making yet other differentiations.

  20. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 6, 2017

    I hope you have an epiphany for a new word. Differentiated sounds awkward.

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