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Thinking about Hell

When I search my mind for times in my (distant) past that I thought about hell, I conjure up two very different moments.  Today when I think about them it is with a good sense of humor.

The first is when I must have been maybe eight or nine.  I was at some kind of summer camp, and we had a daily camp meeting where we would sing songs and someone would come talk to us.  One day there was a local minister who came and told a story about a person who went first to hell and then heaven.

When he went to hell he found that there was an enormous table filled with fantastic food – everything that everyone could imagine wanting.   But all the people there had three-foot long forks strapped to their arms, and it was impossible for them to pick up the food and bring it to their mouths.  And so they were starving in the midst of plenty.

He then went to heaven and again, there was the enormous table and the fantastic food.   At this point of the story I expected him to say that the people in heaven didn’t have those monstrous forks.  But no, he continued – everyone in heaven…

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Why Do Good People Suffer? A Blast from the Past
Views of the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 3, 2017

    Have you done any research on hell houses in churches https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_house. If I recall right some churches do annual shows dispicting hell.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      I got the movie Hell House, but haven’t watched it yet. I’m told it’s … harrowing.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 3, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, it looks like you’ve already started writing the introduction to your next book.

    I have a friend who’s a Lutheran Pastor. I once asked him how be imagines Hell. He had that new fangled view of hell as oblivion, where you are not directly tortured or tormented, but rather you spend an eternity “separated from God,” and that separation is what causes pain. I’ve noticed that this view of hell crosses denominations, with even some evangelicals holding to the idea. I’m curious, where and when did this view of Hell originate? Did you ever view Hell this way at some point in your life?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Yes, I had that view for a while too.

    • Avatar
      thebigskyguy  March 5, 2017

      And here I thought the Lutheran vision of hell had to do with the torment of spending eternity in a room full of lutefisk. But I don’t recall if it was because you couldn’t eat it, or because you had to.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  March 3, 2017

    I assume your book will look at pagan views of the afterlife as well?

    The Sumerians seem to have basically believed everybody had a horrible afterlife, that you were conscious, but unable to move, just lying there in a dark place for all eternity. Okay, we don’t know they all believed that, but that’s what we have from the writings they left us.

    And we’ve all read the stories about Sisyphus, not a Christian last I heard. Very creative punishments in Hades. Good sense of irony.

    All of this would exist if Christianity had never come to pass, because there’s something in the human mind that believes we deserve punishment. And particularly the people we don’t like.

    And the more civilized we get, the more this tendency takes hold. It’s a way of trying to impose some kind of justice onto a universe that is inherently unjust. And somehow, justice and harsh punishments go together in our minds.

    And I’ve found this tendency no less prevalent among atheists.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  March 5, 2017

      Is the universe (that which we nominate so) unjust?

      Or is it perhaps just ‘a-just’?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 5, 2017

        It’s only unjust if there is a sense that good deserves to be rewarded and evil to be punished. Without that sense, it is simply a-just.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 6, 2017

        That distinction I find a-cademic. 😉

    • Avatar
      thebigskyguy  March 5, 2017

      The universe is neither inherently just nor unjust. It just is.

  4. Avatar
    Todd  March 3, 2017

    I remember while in Divinity school at Yale, there was a group of undergrads down the hill who called themselves “The God Squad.” They would come up to Yale Divinity occasionally to save us from our wicked ways and bring us into the fundamentalist fold. On one occasion a fellow students and I were musing about their message and wondered “what if they are right !? Maybe we need to change our wicked ways and save ourselves from hell” For a moment that shook us up a bit, but we got over it. We realized that we are mere mortals and do not have the capability of knowing absolute truth absolutely. Saving ourselves is also a quite selfish way to express our love for God and humanity.

    We resolved that the best we can do is to do our job on this planet, during our short stay here, being as compassionate as we can to our fellow beings and making our earthly home the best as it can be.

    Since that time, 1965, I haven’t seen much progress in that regard, and it seems we all are going through a bit of hell right now, but all I can hope is that I have done at least one thing in someone’s life that has made a difference.

  5. Avatar
    ask21771  March 3, 2017

    I want proof the Bible is wrong, where is it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Why do you think it is wrong if you haven’t seen any evidence? But I”m not sure I know waht you mean by the word “wrong.” Wrong about what?

      • Avatar
        ask21771  March 5, 2017

        I need proof it isn’t the word of God

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2017

          I’m afraid contradictions and discrepancies in themselves would not prove the Bible cannot be the Word of God. But if you want to see some historical problems with the bible, see my book Jesus INterrupted.

          • Avatar
            ask21771  March 6, 2017

            It’s not gonna prove the Bible isn’t the word of God, is it?

        • Avatar
          sjebling  March 6, 2017

          The Bible is the word of God only if God is completely ignorant and does not know that the earth is a planet or that the universe exists. The Bible is a library of books (written over a span of 2,000 years, by different authors in different times and places, with different theologies and conceptions of God) that repeat myths, legends, and stories that occur in a world that does not exist. I need proof that it IS the word of God.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  March 10, 2017

            Maybe God is like many human authors and puts words into the mouths of characters and hypothetical conceptions of God that do not reflect was she really thinks. Maybe God has a sense of irony. The presence of false or contradictory statements in a book doesn’t prove its author didn’t write it.

        • Avatar
          GTGeek88  March 6, 2017

          Why do you want this proof? I don’t think anyone can prove the Bible is or isn’t the word of God. Likewise, I don’t think anyone can prove or disprove the existence of God. You BELIEVE in God or you don’t. Since no proof is possible, they both are BELIEFS. I’d say the best we can do is decide to accept other people’s opinions as long as they aren’t forced upon others and aren’t used to hurt others. Unfortunately, the religious tend to do the forcing and hurting far too often. It should be “tend to the log in your own eye before worrying about the sliver in your neighbor’s eye,” but that succinct little rule of thumb is commonly forgotten. Can’t it just be “believe what you want, be loving, and don’t force your beliefs on others”?

          • Avatar
            sjebling  March 8, 2017

            It’s probably not the word of God if it is historically, scientifically, and consistently wrong.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  March 7, 2017

          If you’re looking for a mathematically rigorous “proof” that the Bible isn’t the Word of God, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, simply ask yourself why you don’t think the Qur’an is the Word of God, and apply those reasons to the Bible, and, poof, there’s your “proof”.

          • Avatar
            sjebling  March 8, 2017

            Well said.

  6. webo112
    webo112  March 3, 2017

    Wow, you have come a remarkably long way since then. One of the ideal qualities you poses, in my opinion, is your openness, willingness to follow truth, and ultimately change your mind if required. Not to mention that you recommend people of all faiths and none, to do the same.

  7. Avatar
    Gib  March 3, 2017

    CS Lewis has a good take on it in The Great Divorce as does Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Inferno.

  8. Avatar
    doug  March 3, 2017

    Long ago, a relative who was a conservative Christian died. Before her funeral service I was having a nice conversation with her minister. As it was pretty hot out, I kidded him, “If you’ve got a good sermon on hell, this would be a good day for it”. I got a very stern look in return.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Yeah, some people don’t have a good sense of humor….

  9. TWood
    TWood  March 3, 2017

    That’s interesting… I still think that very thing every time I go into the sauna at the mega gym here in Newport Beach, CA… which is a few times a week at least… but I too laugh now… but for a different reason… a few years ago, after an injury or two, I got very physically addicted to serious pain pills (about 100 mgs of oxycodone a day) for about one year… so I decided to quit cold turkey just to prove that I could kick it, which I did, years ago now… I wanted to suffer so I’d never get hooked again… I wanted to remember the suffering… which I do! I now laugh at the sauna because if hell is real… I tend to think it’ll be a lot more like the two weeks of withdrawals I went through (the eternal sauna would be terrible too, but the mental anguish of kicking opioids just seems more like how hell would be, if it exists, in my view)… I actually do have a question here, but it’s more personal than normal, although it’s related to the subject I think… obviously if you don’t answer I understand why… but a quick setup… even though I grew up religious too… I rebelled BIG TIME in high school (over 20 years ago now)… and so I did my fair share of drugs… including a heavy duty hallucinogenic drug (psilocybin) ONCE… and it was only once for a reason… after doing it I can tell you I never doubted there’s more to reality than the 4D spacetime we normally experience… I realize I could be wrong (I study biology and understand it reasonably well—but I also study physics—and the leading string theorist, Edward Witten, says consciousness will never be part of physics—it’s far too mysterious he says—and he’s not religious—this ought to give anyone pause in my view)… but my experience was so real that I still believe to this day it was more than a chemical reaction in my brain (it was that too, of course)… I believe it was also a dimensional shift in my mind (allowed, but not caused, by the chemical reaction in my brain)… I’ve found many people who’ve done these kinds of drugs are also convinced such experiences are in fact, in some mysterious sense, real… but it’s one of those things you can’t explain… it’s like seeing in black and white your whole life and then suddenly seeing in color for an hour… and then trying to explain colors to those who’ve only ever seen in black and white… many people (including non-religious people) believe they truly went *somewhere* else (they call them “trips” for a reason!)… I assume you’ve never done drugs… I’m also sure you’ve studied such drug induced hallucinatory experiences people have… my question is do you ever wonder if your views would change if you personally experienced such a thing? I’m not saying anyone *should* do drugs to find out, but the question is still interesting even if theoretically asked… but LSD was developed for medicinal reasons and research is once again being done at places like Johns Hopkins University (the link below is interesting I think). Even marijuana, which is relatively harmless, can cause intense effects that challenge people’s long held perspectives… do you ever wonder what would happen if Mary Jane gave you one of her brownies?! Do you ever wonder if there’s an undiscovered “truth” that could challenge your current worldview if you went down this increasingly common and legal path? I’m not advocating drugs… but after my experience… I always have that window open in my mind… and I wonder if you wonder about that…


    • Avatar
      johnbutleruk  March 6, 2017

      I watched a documentary on Netflix recently called “DMT The Spirit Molecule”, which closely relates to what you’ve shared above. I recommend watching it, if you haven’t already.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 6, 2017

        Yes, I’ve seen it (with Joe Rogan I think). I’m not sure what I asked/said came across properly. But my main question for Bart was whether or not he sees these “consciousness shift” claims as having any relevance to serious studies of the afterlife. There are many people who are convinced they’ve been exposed to extra-dimensional realities… which seems to be in the wheelhouse of the afterlife maybe.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  March 7, 2017

      The drug changed ‘you.’ ‘You’ on the drug were not the ‘you’ prior to taking the drug; the drug experience clearly changed ‘you,’ chronically (it altered your brain), just as Paul after hearing/seeing Jesus was not the pre-Jesus Paul, and Jesus’ followers ‘were’ not what they had ‘been’ once they hallucinated the “risen,” Jesus, if in fact that’s what happened.
      Among many many pedantic recommendations, read Oliver Sacks’ description of his drug-induced beliefs while on the drugs as later recalled (? accurately? hmm, there’s another problem) in his book….”Hallucinations.”
      Or, Hoffman’s account of his experience after he synthesized what we now know as LSD-25.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 7, 2017

        I wonder why the earliest Christians had such hallucinations independently (e.g. Peter and Paul were separated by a few years and in totally different circumstances). There seems to be no evidence drugs were involved. It’s hard to explain what changed them so drastically and immediately. In my case, I can’t argue that the drug didn’t change “me” as you say (the cause and effect is obvious—but that still doesn’t prove the effect is purely a material one). I’ve never done it again, and it was well over two decades ago that I did it, but it’s true that I remember the experience still which does influence my views to this day. I was with two friends that day (we ditched school). One of them I still talk to, and while he’s an agnostic leaning towards atheism, he also remembers it. He’s convinced it’s something to do with Quantum Mechanics (think the debate between Niels Bohr and Hugh Everett vis a vis superposition and all of that). Many physicists who are at least in some sense “materialists” see evidence for “many worlds” and a multiverse. Considering the Standard Model explains less than five percent of our observable universe (what is Dark Matter and Dark Energy, the remaining 95%?), I’m not willing to close the door to the possibility of an immaterial mind working within the material brain. I don’t know for sure obviously. I’ll check out the sources… thanks.

  10. Avatar
    Dhdsas  March 3, 2017

    As a young boy in a catholic school I was taught about the consequences of dying with a mortal sin on your “soul” and informed that eating meat on Friday or missing mass on Sunday were two mortal sins. My school was part of Catholic Univ. and one day in about the 5th grade some volumes of the Nuremberg trials appeared in the library. Such pictures and stories! Imagine that eating meat on Friday would result in the same punishment as what was portrayed in those volumes. It was a serious shock to my 5 th grade mind and the beginnings of doubt in catholic doctrine. Thank goodness my doubt got a early start.

  11. Avatar
    screwtape  March 3, 2017

    I will be very surprised if your publishers don’t like your book idea. I’ve read quite a few afterlife books and I think the subject sells very well.

  12. Avatar
    Prizm  March 3, 2017

    Hi Bart, there’s a camp of liberal evangelicals that insist every verse alluding to eternal torment in the NT is a metaphor. I realize the concept of eternal torment is not in the OT (except perhaps one reference in Daniel), but the idea appears rather explicit and literal in the NT, particularly in the gospels and Revelation (although strangely almost entirely absent from Paul’s writings).
    What’s your thoughts, and what evidence/examples would you provide to support your perspective?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      I’m not sure which perspective of mine you’re referring to. By liberal evangelicals, do you mean people like Rob Bell, or do you have someone else in mind?

      • Avatar
        Prizm  March 5, 2017

        I didn’t mean any person in particular, just from observing christian websites, comment threads, YouTube, etc. They will insist that literal eternal torment is not in the NT at all, and that the punishment will instead be a quick annihilation. They are generally of the born again/evangelical persuasion.
        I just wanted to hear your thoughts in general about whether the NT concept of hell/eternal torment was meant to be taken as a metaphor or literal.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2017

          Matthew 25:31-46 and Rev. 20:10-15 both seem to me to be certainly speaking of eternal torment. If one wants to interpret them non-literally, one should always ask Why?

          • Avatar
            Prizm  March 6, 2017

            Good tip, thank you.

    • Avatar
      GTGeek88  March 6, 2017

      Prizm, what are your thoughts? Eternal hell never made any sense to me. Bart mentions Rob Bell. Have you read his book “Love Wins.” It deals some with that idea.

      An eternal hell is 1) a helluva price to pay for transgressions in one lifetime, which is really an infinitesimally small slice of time compared to eternal punishment and 2) a direct implication that God can only fight Satan to a draw.

      Some people don’t believe in Hell at all. That’s easier, of course, if you don’t take the Bible literally, which is really hard, if not impossible, to do. Personally, I’m skeptical that Hell exists at all.

      • Avatar
        Prizm  March 7, 2017

        Hi GTGeet88, thanks for your reply. Personally I don’t believe in hell. I grew up fundamentalist and spent many years of my adult life in it, but became a non-believer about 6 years ago. One of the first subjects that actually took me down the doubting path was this issue of hell.
        Some of the “no hell” arguments made sense to me, like what kind of loving God creates a place of eternal torment, but never warns his people about it in the OT? That inconsistency sat with me.

        But what about the NT passages that Bart mentioned? To this day I haven’t heard a good argument from the “no hell” crowd against the eternal torment passages in the NT. It all seems to springboard from the idea that “God is love and would never create a place of eternal torment”. It’s like apologists must satisfy that particular criteria at all costs, even if it means turning a multitude of verses into metaphor and whatnot. If heaven was a bad place, I’m sure we’d have a truckload of books telling us heaven was a metaphor as well 🙂

        I was thinking about the Rich Man and Lazarus story recently: “I am tormented in this flame”, says the rich man. Let’s take the gospels at face value and assume Jesus really is the son of God, etc. It would be hugely irresponsible of Jesus to even *hint* at hell if it didn’t exist. Those listening to this story (and other words of Christ) trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the afterlife and the ways of God. Countless people down the generations are filled with the fear of hell after reading passages like this. Jesus, being God, would’ve known this would happen. Why on earth would he tell such a story and invoke the fear of hell in millions of people, if he knew hell didn’t exist?

        To me, the easiest answer is it’s an inconsistency in the bible (different authors had different views) and an inconsistency in God’s supposed character.

  13. Avatar
    olsenn  March 3, 2017

    This reminds me of a Simpson’s episode where Bart is in Sunday school and his teacher tells him about hell:

    Miss Allbright: “Oh no Hell is a horrible place. Maggots are on your sheet, worms are in your blanket, there’s a lake of fire burning with sulfur. You’ll be tormented day and night for ever and ever. And as a matter of fact, if you actually saw hell, you’d be so frightened, you would die.”
    Bart: [raises his hand] “Oh, Miss Allbright.”
    Miss Allbright: “Yes, Bart.”
    Bart: Wouldn’t you eventually get used to it, like in a hot tub?


    • Avatar
      godspell  March 6, 2017

      An earlier version of Bart did better–first, when Huck Finn is told of heaven and hell by his aunt, he says hell sounds like a lot more fun. Convinced over time that hell would by unpleasant after all, he determines to betray Jim because conspiring to help a slave escape is theft, and a sin, and he’d go to hell for it. Then he realizes he loves Jim and is willing to go to hell rather than betray him.

      And then his aunt frees Jim in her will, obviously because she’s afraid of the very hell she was preaching to Huck about. This happened rather a lot in those days, with smaller slave owners (more rarely with the larger ones whose estates were dependent on slavery). There was an understanding, beneath all the pronouncements of racial supremacy and how they had a moral duty to oversee these supposedly simple people, that enslaving others was a sin, and the fear of hell did in fact lead to many slaves being emancipated before all of them finally were.

      People who say “Everyone should do good for its own sake” are, in my opinion, not paying very close attention to the world around them. Yes, we SHOULD. But how many of us actually WILL?

      Huck Finns are rare in this world. And precious.

  14. Avatar
    Judith  March 3, 2017

    Love those stories.

  15. Avatar
    Jimmy  March 3, 2017

    You said “When I search my mind for times in my (distant) past that I thought about hell, I conjure up two very different moments” I think if North Carolina loses to Duke there may be a third time!

  16. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  March 4, 2017

    That was a great story Bart. My wife and I are lying in bed on Saturday morning having a good chuckle about it. ?

  17. Avatar
    mrbrain  March 4, 2017

    My wife was reading a book for awhile and I read some of it called Heaven by Randy Alcorn. He believes that there is much more we can know about Heaven, and it’s all there for us in Revelation and the Bible. I like his chutzpah saying in the Intro “I invite you to contact me if you believe you have biblical grounds for disagreeing with anything in this book.” That’s a funny challenge. Is it not enough to have grounds to disagree? Only the biblical grounds are worthy of bringing up I guess.

    Even when I sort of believed in the Bible literally which I don’t anymore, I felt Alcorn was taking big leaps of assumption and pretending that they are the truth. But now I’m comfortable knowing that he is starting with what is a tale, and then weaving his own tale on top of that.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 4, 2017

    Wow! What a terrific post. As always, your more personal posts are your best posts by far.

    I still think you should write an autobiography blending together your personal religious journey with your evolving Biblical scholarship. This autobiography would put it all together in one place. There is a remarkable book entitled “The Making of a Psychiatrist.” Your autobiography would be “The Making of a Bible Scholar.”

  19. Avatar
    Eskil  March 4, 2017

    Apparently there are some textual variants related to “hell” in the NT manuscripts?

    “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, [where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.]

    Is it known when the words in the brackets were added into NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      You’ll need to tell me which verse you’re looking at.

      • Avatar
        christophe  March 5, 2017

        I think Eskil is talking about Mark 9:44.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2017

          Ah, right. The brackets are not there in any manuscript, of coruse, since manuscripts do not includ punctuation of that sort. They are ptu there by English translators to make the reader see that the words enclosed are probably not original. In this case the words were inserted by scribes to make a parallel to v. 48. The words first appear in two manuscripts ofthe fifth century. They are not found in the oldest and best witnesses, and are gnerally judged by texxtual scholars (certainly) not to be original.

  20. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 4, 2017

    ” I wanted to make sure that if I changed my views about such (for me) crucial theological issues it would be only after very careful consideration and serious self-reflection.”

    Thanks for the post. Regarding the quote above I’m still doing that and don’t see any end in sight. Can you describe more specifically how you went about giving these issues “very careful consideration and serious reflection,” e.g., what criteria you used. Or do you know of something autobiographical that might describe a similar process someone else went through?

    There’s always another argument for theism and Christianity in general and hell in particular. And it’s easy to forget the counterarguments that previously seemed so convincing. There are smart people on both sides of the issue. Pascal’s Wager seems like the only rational approach, ie, at all costs avoid the worst case scenario. Except that Pascal’s Wager is not rational when there are multiple conflicting religions. But if there’s only one religion that actually seems like a “like a live option” and that one is really worried about…?

    The best solution might be a new religion, or something that functions something like a religion, that meets one’s needs much better than the old religion. Simply dropping the old religion-even if for very good reasons-doesn’t seem like it would work for me.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Yes, that’s what I’ll be dealing with in the thread I’m starting.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  March 5, 2017

      **The best solution might be a new religion, or something that functions something like a religion, that meets one’s needs much better than the old religion. Simply dropping the old religion-even if for very good reasons-doesn’t seem like it would work for me.**

      Clipper, what ‘needs’ are you referring to? I think if you can clearly delineate those, it would go a long way toward answering your questions.

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