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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
    Hume  March 4, 2017

    Good post! In some sense I’m still scared of hellfire. What piece of information or analysis made you think it wasn’t real? Gehenna being a garbage heep? The influence of Hell from Zarathustra? The fact that Lucifer changes his role throughout the bible from heavenly faith tester to evil incarnate?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Lots of things! I’ll deal with all that in the thread I’m starting.

  2. Avatar
    Hume  March 4, 2017

    Simple Question: God could destroy Lucifer right now, why not end it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      The question of the ages!

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 5, 2017

        **The question of the ages!**

        That is not ‘THE’ question of the ages, for there is, at least, one better:

        Why (given omnipotence) did He let Satan/evil happen in the first place?

        ‘Ending it now’ is too late for everyone who have already suffered at the hands of ‘Satan’.

  3. Avatar
    DRBILLCUMMINGS  March 4, 2017

    Great stories, Bart!
    After I left the Catholic priesthood, I married a girl who had been raised a “Trinity United Evangelical Brethren Methodist.” Her mother ran the church but her father, whom she loved more -stayed home on Sundays, and of course, was doomed to hell fire. When she was 8 years old, she very meticulously built a ledge above the fires where she could sit with her daddy for all eternity!
    This was her image until she got to college!

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  March 4, 2017

    I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell a joke told me by an Englishman.

    It is asked, ‘What is the real difference between Heaven and Hell?”

    In Heaven-

    The English greet you at the door.
    The French are in charge of the cuisine.
    The Germans are in charge of planning.
    The Italians are in charge of the entertainment.

    In Hell-

    The French greet you at the door.
    The English are in charge of the cuisine.
    The Italians are in charge of planning.
    The Germans are in charge of the entertainment.

    (What they think of Americans I’m afraid to ask.)

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

    I’ve heard some liberal Catholics say that the church teaches that the existence of hell is dogma but not-as dogma-that anyone is actually in hell.

    Similarly, to deserve hell would require a complete, irrevocable, entirely free and fully-informed rejection of God’s mercy and love-and that it’s unlikely that anyone is mature enough to be able to actually do that.

    Finally, the current theory of the inspiration of scripture is that the authors wrote what God wanted them to write as opposed, apparently, to inerrantly.

    Broadminded and humane in many ways but it also smacks of having your cake and eating too — though maybe that’s what heaven is like

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  March 4, 2017

    May I ask a question?

    As graduate student of theology you must have been aware of Jesus remarks in Matt 25 saying to those on the left,
    “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.”

    So at that time of your move to ‘a different kind of Christianity, one that was more “liberal” and open to a non-literalistic reading of the Bible.’, did you see those words in Matt 25 as
    inauthentic, or
    authentic but something Jesus was somewhat confused about, or
    authentic but not literal, or
    . . . ??

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Authentic but not literal.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  March 7, 2017

        so now you have gone back to your prior/fundamentalist way of thinking ? (i.e. Jesus saying ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire’, was meant by him to be taken literally)?

  7. Avatar
    Simulacrum  March 4, 2017

    Hi Bart
    I’m looking forward to your book and your findings. I hope you will cover what the historical Jesus might have thought about Hell (Sheol?). I personally find the thought of eternal life boring, because what’s the point? If there is a Hell, at least in Hell you’d know you’re alive. An eternity of bliss would be a different Hell; life without challenges, obstacles, progress. You only know happiness, if you’ve been sad, success is only rewarding if failure is a possibility etc.

    To me the idea of Afterlife is just denial of the obvious – that death is real. Death is death! If our existence on this rock has taught us anything, it’s that there is no life without death. Creatures die so that others can live. Life only makes sense if there is also non-life. It also belittles life to think that it is eternal. It somehow makes it less precious. I think we should cherish every moment of this brief flash of consciousness we are, before we go back to what we were – non-consciousness.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences. Best of luck with the book!

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  March 5, 2017


    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 6, 2017

      “I personally find the thought of eternal life boring, because what’s the point? … An eternity of bliss would be … life without challenges, obstacles, progress.”

      Here, I completely agree with you.

      “Life only makes sense if there is also non-life. It also belittles life to think that it is eternal. It somehow makes it less precious.”

      But here, I don’t. What if our eternal life really *is* filled with challenges, obstacles, and progress?

      I’m not, of course, thinking about “Heaven.” I believe in reincarnation – because there’s strong evidence for it. IMHO, that evidence – for the reality of reincarnation itself, not for any specific theories about how it works – is irrefutable.

      In my present life, I developed – in my early teens! – a passion for, of all things, the Wagner operas. In my thirties, I traveled to Germany in three successive years to attend the Bayreuth Festivals devoted to his works. By then, I’d come to believe it was an easily reawakened interest from my previous life, as an English woman who *hadn’t* been able to get to Bayreuth. I was fulfilling her dream.

      Knowing as much as I do now, I hope I can prepare myself for my next life. That I’ll have a “head start” – things I’ve learned over decades in this life will come to me more quickly in the next, because they’ll really be coming *back* to me.

      The greatest progress I believe I’ve made in this life? My rejection of theistic religion.

  8. Avatar
    Beatle792  March 4, 2017

    I could be wrong but it seems I read or heard that there is no eternal place of torment in the bible. I could have sworn it was you in a debate with a fundamentalist, but again I could be wrong. It seems what I read is that later Christians created the place of torment. Matthew 25:46 seems to indicate that place. Am I reading that wrong? I’m confused. I thought Hell was a pagan concept. Jesus wouldn’t have believed in that would he?
    thanks 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Matthew 25:46 does indeed seem to describe eternal torment. As do passages in Revelation.

  9. Avatar
    wje  March 4, 2017

    Evening, Bart. You mentioned leading people to the Christian faith back in your younger days. Do you ever meet some of these people now? For the people that know what you believe ( or don’t) now, what do they say to you?

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 5, 2017

    Isn’t hell just the English translation for where people are buried after death? A pit/grave, or Gehenna Hebrew , Valley of Hinnom. Greek
    All the same…
    The Valley of Hinnom is the modern name for the valley surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City, including Mount Zion, from the west and south. … In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter it was deemed to be cursed (Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6).

  11. Avatar
    Gary  March 5, 2017

    Getting over my fundamentalist fear of Hell was not easy. That is why I believe that fundamentalist Christianity is a cult. You don’t just walk away from a cult. It’s not like resigning your membership at the Rotary Club. You must be deprogrammed and deprogramming takes time. That is why I blog regarding my former belief system. That is why I study scholarship and apologetics. It is my therapy. It is my deprogramming. It is how I expose my deeply indoctrinated brain to the falsity of fundamentalist/orthodox Christianity. It is my battle against the little voice in my head that tells me I’m going to roast on a spit in Hell for all eternity simply because I refuse to love and obey a man who lived two thousand years ago as my “Lord”.

    On another subject: A Christian recently posed this question to me. I am curious how you would respond:

    People can be exposed to the same scholarship, (knowledge) and yet come to very different conclusions. For instance, Bart Ehrman’s teacher at Princeton who Ehrman respected greatly was Dr. Bruce Metzger. Dr. Metzger was arguably one of the greatest NT scholars of his time. Dr. Ehrman eventually became an atheist [actually, an agnostic], and yet, Dr. Metzger was a committed orthodox Christian believer until his death. Both were exposed to the same information, the same scholarship. What made the difference in their faith conclusions?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      The problem is much more stark than that. None of the professors of Biblical studies at Princeton Seminary agreed with Metzger! So everyone disagrees. The question is: how do *you* weigh the evidence. (Not you personally: you, as in everyone)

  12. Avatar
    Hume  March 5, 2017

    That reference to Lucifer in Isaiah says only the morning star, which is Venus. As Venus appears in the morning before the sun and is overpowered by the sun.

    Also Jesus is referred to as the morning star twice, 2 Peter 1:19, and Revelation 22:16. There can be doubt that Isaiah is speaking about the Devil?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      I don’t at all think he was. But later Christian authors thought he was.

  13. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 5, 2017

    Bart, would you give us some insight into Jewish beliefs about Hell/Hades at the time of Christ. For instance, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man seems to convey the idea of eternal torment , would first century Jews and christians have understood it in that sense?

  14. Avatar
    brandon284  March 5, 2017

    How did the pitch go Dr. Ehrman?? This current thread seems to indicate that things went well??

  15. Avatar
    Jason  March 5, 2017

    Did it occur to no one who heard the parable of the giant forks to ask if there was something preventing the dead from eating like one does in a pie-eating contest?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      That’s the point of the story: those in hell think only of themselves and so can’t think far enough to realize that ifthey thought of others their own needs would be met. It’s a metaphor, of course.

  16. Avatar
    Chadevan  March 6, 2017

    The parable of the long spoons is told in an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. I’ll never forget Nucky’s bewildered response: “Why don’t they just grab the spoons higher up on the handle?”

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 10, 2017

    I don’t know if the preacher who told the parable of the long forks thought it through this far, but I think it also has the aspect that neither hell nor heaven are eternal, objective states: human choice can make a hell or a heaven out of any situation, depending on our willingness or unwillingness to think beyond the tips of our noses.
    Bart, I am getting the impression from my re-reading of Genesis that the final redactors were conflicted about God’s justice. In chs. 2-3 he tries (and fails) to keep humans ignorant of good and evil because he doesn’t want them to become like the gods (who alone know the difference) but then Abraham and one of the Pharaohs have to teach God the ideas of proportionality, letting the punishment fit the crime, and not punishing the innocent. Is that merely my modernist point of view glomming onto the text, or do you think they (the redactors) might have been suggesting that God’s justice evolves with our own evolving understanding of the good?
    On a lighter note, here is another amusing treatment of the question of hell: http://www.pinetree.net/humor/thermodynamics.html

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      My sense is that ancient people did not have the idea that God’s moral sense evolved.

  18. Avatar
    drussell60  March 19, 2017

    Many years ago, when I was still a committed fundygelical, I heard apologist Norman Geisler tell a joke/story about a little girl who was talking to an old man who lived next door. The little girl had just returned home from Sunday School and was playing with the dog in the backyard. The old neighbor walked up to the fence and said, “hey Veronica, how was Sunday School?” She said, “it was really good.” The old neighbor asked, “what did you learn today?” The little girl replied, “we learned about how Jonah was swallowed by a big fish for disobeying God.” The old neighbor then asked, “well how do you know that story is even true?” The girl said, “well when I get to heaven I’m going to ask him if it’s true.” With a sarcastic tone, the old man retorted, “But what if he’s not in heaven?” The little girl quipped back, “well then you can ask him!”

    Lame, but funny!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      Yeah, that’s a good one. He would be shocked and dismayed to learn this, but he was instrumental in my decision to pursue graduate work (based on a conversation I had with him when he came to give a talk at Moody when I was a student there)

      • Avatar
        drussell60  March 20, 2017

        Wow! Never knew that you encountered him. He dated my mother before she met my late father. Norm and his wife live not far from you and have threatened to come to the book signing event (for my new book) on May 6th at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, NC He has no clue that I have abandoned the good ship Evangelical.

  19. Avatar
    aaron512  February 19, 2018

    Professor Ehrman,

    I know that the Hebrew Bible is not your speciality, but would you say Isaiah 66:24 is an allusion to eternal punishment?

    Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) – “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”.


    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      It came to be used that way, but the text itself does not say that they will be *alive* only that the worms and fires that are consuming their bodies will never die out.

      • Avatar
        aaron512  February 20, 2018

        This crossed my mind, but I noticed that “worm” seems to be in the singular. I thought it was strange that they would describe a decomposing body being eaten by a single worm, rather than multiple worms.

        I used to think that “worm” may have been used metaphorically somehow, to describe a person’s soul or awareness, but this seems unjustified.

  20. Avatar
    Jen  November 3, 2019

    Someone very close to me lived their life in fear and then died believing they were going to a literal hell to burn for eternity because they couldn’t “love god”. That hurt me indescribably to think they were mentally and emotionally tormented by this doctrine. Looking back, that’s probably when my faith began to fall apart.

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