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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. talmoore
    talmoore  August 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I should point out that it’s not 100% accurate to say that the prophetic view in the Hebrew Bible is that EVERYONE goes to Sheol. In fact, the TaNaKh goes out of its way to highlight those specific individuals who prove the rule: Enoch and Elijah in particular. So it’s probably more accurate to say that 999,999 out of 1,000,000 people go to Sheol, while that one guy in a million got the golden ticket to heaven. What changed with the coming of the apocalyptic view was that God was going to finally open up the box office, so people should get in line now, because tickets to heaven are now available but they ARE limited.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      That’s right, there are two exceptions!

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        Apocryphile  August 8, 2017

        There are extra-biblical precedents to this idea of unique humans in antiquity being granted immortality and life among the gods (heaven?), as you point out in your book How Jesus Became God. Utnapishtim (or Ziusudra in the Sumerian) flood stories, are obvious examples, but I’m unclear on whether this meant ordinary Mesopotamians of the day believed everyone else would go a sheol-like place, or whether they believed they were simply extinguished for good.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 7, 2017


      You are a very resourceful person! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    darren  August 7, 2017

    I’ve been watching lectures by Daniel Boyarin, who gives some fascinating talks on the messianic traditions in Judaism. Are you familiar with his work and what do you think of his arguments?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      He’s a brilliant scholar. I do know his work, but I’m not sure which arguments you’re thinking of.

      • Avatar
        darren  August 11, 2017

        Metatron and Enoch. Having trouble getting my head around it. I’m on to Lawrence Schiffman and the dead sea scrolls. Disturbing parallels between ancient apocalypticism and ISIS — the ritual purity obsession, the willingness to kill others of the same faith who don’t meet those standards, belief in a final scripted battled. Oh my.

  3. Rick
    Rick  August 7, 2017

    By the way, am looking forward to your views on variegated (ugh) /differentiated afterlives in the Hellenistic view (Hades vs Elysium) when you get to talking about the Hellenistic influences. While many Jews no doubt detested Antiochus Epiphanes Hellenization (from the concept of the Polis according to Ellis Rivkin to apparently everything else), apparently Greek thought permeated or confronted just about every aspect of Jewish life – even to include views on interpreting the oral law by the Pharisees. So, detested or not did it influence thinking on Heaven vs Sheol? I understand Elysium varied as to entry from just Demi-gods to later allow heroes – perhaps to encourage more heroes? Comparable perhaps to Heaven encouraging the faithful?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2017

      Yes, I think Greek ideas were key to what happened, as I’ll try to be explaining.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 9, 2017

      Plato’s description of the afterlife in the Gorgias is almost Biblical. Can’t be a coincidence.

  4. kadmiral
    kadmiral  August 8, 2017

    Can you imagine if a differentiated afterlife including hell was developed already by the time of the exodus? How many times would the writers have Moses warning people about going to hell? Sheesh.

  5. Avatar
    Jana  August 11, 2017

    Well Dr. Ehrman, this blog answers the questions I raised in an earlier blog comment. I hadn’t arrived here yet 🙂 Thank you.

  6. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 12, 2017

    One problem that I see with the differentiated word is what about belief in one afterlife location but various experiences in that place? I’m thinking of the “happy hunting ground” type view where everyone goes there but have different experiences. Did any ANE cultures have this type of view?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2017

      Yes, different *kinds* of experiences (e.g., pleasure vs. pain) would e a differnetiated afterlife. But if you mean that some get steak and others chicken … I’m not sure ancient people thought about differences of experiences that were not different in kind.

  7. Avatar
    Jana  October 15, 2017

    I’m checking my understanding Dr. Ehrman .. so an afterlife needed to be constructed to explain why people who followed the laws of Moses were also tortured ? (essentially why bad things happen to good people? ). Am I understanding this correctly? thank you and trying to catch up.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      I wouldn’t say they constructed it by sitting down and making it up; it’s more that the view emerged as they tried to make sense of their world.

      • Avatar
        Jana  October 17, 2017

        Thank you. Was there then a leading thinker or the view morphed into cohesion? (Am I understanding this properly?) It seems a critical shift.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2017

          I’m afraid it’s all lost in the mists of antiquity. We simply don’t know who came up with or who championed the view.

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