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Touring Hell: The Apocalypse of Peter

I am about ready now (I think!) to dig more deeply into a thread on the Invention of the Afterlife – the tentative title of the book that I *hope* will be my next one.  I’ve been putting off starting the thread in earnest because, in fact, I don’t feel particularly ready for it.  I’m just at the preliminary stage of my reading and have many dozens of books I need to work through before I can even think about sketching out how I want to broach the subject in my book (I have about a hundred unread books on various aspects of the matter sitting on my shelf now, as we speak, and I’m collecting more virtually every day).

But I think that I will be doing this book differently from others I’ve done – at least with respect to the blog.  I’m thinking about using the blog as a way to think out loud about some of the topics I’m covering in my reading.  I’m not sure that everything I read about will make it into the book.  I won’t know until I read it, and only later can I decide.  That means that I will be reading a lot of stuff that might be interesting, but that ends up not making the cut.

As I indicated in a previous post, one of the things I’m interested in – and have been for a long time – are the Christian accounts of guided tours through heaven and hell.  The one I’ve dealt with the most in the past is a book called the Apocalypse of Peter.  I talk about this work in several of my earlier books.  Here is what I say about it in my book Forged.


I will not be talking at length in this book about we got our twenty-seven books of the New Testament, that is, how the canon was formed, so that some writings came to be included and others were left out.  There are plenty of other books that describe this process at length.  I can say, though, that there were some writings that were a “close call,” that nearly made it in but did not, just as there were others that nearly were left out but finally made it in.  One of the books that nearly made it in is called the Apocalypse of Peter.

From authors such as Eusebius, we know that there were…

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Another Gory Account of the Afterlife: The Apocalypse of Paul
Does Jesus Claim to Be God in Mark? And My Former Converts. Mailbag March 19, 2017



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  March 21, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, do you ever get the sense that the apocalyptic descriptions of Hell are merely the vehicles for twisted people to indulge in sadistic torture fantasies? (One might compare it, for example, to the current trend in so-called “torture porn” that we see in movies like the Saw franchise)

    The first ancient document that comes to my mind when thinking about such torture fantasies isn’t even Christian but Jewish. In 4 Maccabees, the author — probably a Greek-speaking diaspora Jew — gives a very graphic description of the torture of Jewish martyrs to the Maccabean cause, ostensibly in support of the author’s philosophical thesis on equanimity in times of suffering. Indeed, the whole of 4 Maccabees is meant to be a philosophical rumination on the nature of the soul (which I’m sure you’re already using as a source for intertestimental Jewish notions of the soul), but from the fifth chapter on, the author of 4 Maccabees detours into what can only be described as ancient torture porn. As the author laments the mutilation and deaths of his martyrs, he equally glorifies and relishes their descriptions, to the point of serious over-indulgence. It’s like he’s getting off on their torture (which reminds me of how ISIS fighters relish the gruesome descriptions of the deaths of their fellow Jihadis as well as of their enemies).

    This, I think, is the origin of Hell itself, as men began to fantasize not only of the torture of noble martyrs, but also the torture of their ignoble enemies. They imagined — indeed, took comfort in the belief — that while the pain and suffering of the martyrs in this life was transitory, the pain and suffering of their enemies (who conveniently were also God’s enemies), would go on for an eternity. So one can imagine a man such as the author of 4 Maccabees is getting relatively excited about describing the torment of earthly martyrs, and who would then get a thorough rush of adrenaline imagining the eternal torment of those who tortured the martyrs (in this case, Antiochus Epiphanes and his ilk). In that way, Hell became a way of finding such equanimity in the current earthly suffering of the Righteous (such as the Jewish rebels against Antiochus in 4 Maccabees) by imagining that God would reward the Righteous with eternal peace and pleasure in the next life while torturing the wicked for eternity in the next life. This fantasy, then, satisfies BOTH the innate human desire to see true justice done (the good rewarded, the bad punished) and the sadist’s pleasure in seeing one’s enemies suffer. (Again, we see this very belief manifested in the current Jihadi mentally of ISIS and the Taliban. The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

    Anyway, that’s one way to approach this from a psychological perspective.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 22, 2017

      That seems to be a rhetorical question–it’s pretty commonplace for even atheists to wish horrible punishments on those they dislike (I shouldn’t say ‘even’, the 20th century proved that properly motivated atheists could make the worst theists look pretty milquetoast by comparison). It’s a very ancient human tendency. We feel like the world is unjust, that good is punished, and evil rewarded. The idea is not to indulge in sado-masochism, but to balance out the scale.

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    rivercrowman  March 21, 2017

    The Apocalypse of Peter is my favorite book that didn’t make the canon of Christian scripture. It should have replaced Revelation, in my opinion. I encourage you to include the entire available version as an appendix of your future book, so readers can savor all of its contents. You’ve noted elsewhere it’s from the second century. Have any scholars pinpointed it more precisely within that century, to your knowledge?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      Probably the second half of the second century.

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  April 5, 2017

        So that would be between 150 CE and 200 CE? It’s interesting that Greek ideas about heaven and hell and the soul had so thoroughly penetrated Christianity by that relatively early date (ie, early in comparison to say Constantine).

        • Bart
          Bart  April 7, 2017

          Yes, but remember, virtually all converts to Christianity are from Greek-speaking pagan stock by that time.

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    Jana  March 21, 2017

    I am very excited about your next book Dr. Ehrman. What constitutes as “sin” within that era? (btw: Happy Equinox which the Maya celebrate with a shamanic kind of “Thanksgiving” ceremony called phonetically a Ma Tañ Kol. It’s a blessed day.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      I suppose different things for different people, but for most Christians a sin would be any act that runs contrary to the will of God.

      • Avatar
        Jana  March 22, 2017

        I’m really confused about what was thought to be the will of God then and constituted Sin. Would it have been connected with the 10 Commandments? (guessing/I just don’t know) … What was Jesus preaching about that the Apocalypse was imminent ? Would a reread of Apocalyptic Jesus help? I read it early in my membership and maybe having more of a foundation would help me understand better?

        Personal anecdote: one of my young students was late to his class last week. When he showed up he had a number pinned to his shirt 172. I asked why? … my pueblo is predominantly Catholic and confession is a requirement (It’s a sin not to confess and even greater before Easter/Pasqua) … so nights are set aside for en mass confessions by age groups. He was 172. It staggered the imagination.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2017

          Yes, certainly the Ten Commandments. But all the commandments of God about how to live. And yes, a rereading of my book would lay out my views about Jesus’ apocalyptic message. 172. Wow.

          • Avatar
            davidschlender@Gmail.com  March 29, 2017

            Dr Ehrman, to which book are you referring?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 30, 2017

            Sorry: Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium

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    RonaldTaska  March 21, 2017

    Interesting that, in this account, people go to HELL because of their bad “behavior” not because of “unbelief” in Jesus.

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    jwesenbe  March 21, 2017

    So much is just made up. That is what baffles me so much, that no one actually thinks about what it is that they believe so dearly. It was nearly 60 years ago, while in second grade Catholic catechism when I asked the first question; weren’t the gospels written long after Jesus died? And it was’t like they kept newspaper accounts of everything that happened back then. Answer was: God inspired, which I later found was code for: Man Made Story.

  6. Avatar
    inamkhat  March 21, 2017

    Good afternoon, Professor Ehrman,

    I am really curious about what these imposters are thinking when they are fabricating verses from God. I remember a verse in the Bible, somewhat similar to No one should alter the words in the Bible; if you do so, you will be in hell or get punished in the most horrible way. I should probably change my question then, I am really interested in knowing what their mental process or purpose they have in mind when they are jotting down what God “tells” them or what God “wants” us to behave. Are they pious Christians? Or are they trying to be Gods? Do they suffer from mental illness thinking that they hear from God? What’s the difference between them and those mentally ill patients who claim that they can talk to Jesus?

    If we can’t trust the Bible word by word, or if we can just pick and choose verses from the Bible, what should we trust? IS there absolute truth?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      I don’t think I see the connection between the question of whether the Bible is literally true and the question of whether there are absolutes. Surely (either) one of these things could be right and the other wrong.

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    screwtape  March 21, 2017

    Have you read the book “Quantum Physics, Near Death Experiences, Eternal Consciousness, Religion, and the Human Soul”? It’s written by a physicist named William Bray who claims to have had a multitude of near death experiences due to a heart condition. One of his most interesting observations is that it is far more interesting to go to hell than it is to go to heaven (as long as you aren’t staying for eternity, of course). And some of the people he sees in hell are actually still alive.

    Also some interesting information about his love for a dog and his healing ministry for dogs.

    Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’ll be delving into in your book but just thought you may find it interesting.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      I’ll add it to my long NDE list!

      • Avatar
        Michael  March 24, 2017

        That NDE list should be interesting, considering that it appears that those that have NDEs are cultural specific e.g. the descriptions of them are things that are central to the social, religious, and political mores of the globe that they are residents of.

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    timber84  March 21, 2017

    The Old Testament view was that all souls (good and bad) went to Sheol. When did the idea of heaven and hell begin to enter Judaism? During the lifetime of Jesus would some Jews still believed in Sheol, while others believed in heaven and hell? I thought I read that the Sadducees did not believe in any afterlife.

    I will be attending your lecture Thursday night at the University of Binghamton. I’m looking forward to it.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      Ah, I’ll be getting to that! It’s part of my big argument in the book (as I’m imagining it)

  9. Avatar
    Jason  March 21, 2017

    Is it a forgone conclusion that a Bosch/Brueghel/Savoldo style painting will grace the cover?

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    Jimmy  March 21, 2017

    I remember during my Reformed Calvinism days reading Johnathon Edwards “sinners in the hands of an angry God ” and William G.T Shedd’s ‘the doctrine of endless punishment ” among other reformed theologians. I find these works somewhat fascinating and reread them recently. There and tons of books, sermons, articles and other types writings just from the reformed perspective ! How in the world do you find time to read these among view points ?

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 22, 2017

    What part do you get hanged by for not having the right belief? Your brain? Ooh what a headache!

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    godspell  March 22, 2017

    Bart, to what extent do you think the early Christians who wrote these pseudepigrapha wanted their readers to believe they were really written by attributed author? This was being done very early on, centuries before the birth of Jesus, and you have to figure there would be great skepticism about such claims. Your using the word ‘forged’ as your title would seem to indicate that you think there was intentional deception going on, not merely attempts to honor some great father of the church by writing in his name. With the false epistles of Paul, this would seem to be undeniable. But did (for example) the author of Mark want people to think he was really the disciple Mark? And wouldn’t it seem strange for such an important work by Peter to just show up, so long after Peter’s death?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      I think they definitely wanted their readers to think they were who they claimed to be. I make some very extensive arguments to show that is the case in my book Forged and even more extensively in my book Forgery and Counterforgery. Read what I have to say and you’ll see!

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 22, 2017

        I will!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  March 22, 2017

        But I wish you’d included in your reply that there’s no reason to think the author of “Mark” wanted readers to believe it was written by Mark.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2017

          Why Mark in particular? Why not the other anonymous books that were falsely attributed? This *is* a different phenomenon, since it’s not the author’s fault that someone else claimed he was someone other than who he was. (As opposed to an author claiming to be someone he was not)

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    Robby  March 22, 2017

    I’ve thought about if there was really once a fall from heaven by Lucifer and his followers, why couldn’t it happen again sometime in the future after it’s all said and done. Why do we think heaven will be eternal bliss? Disention happened once, could it not happen again?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2017

      Ha! Good point!

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 22, 2017

      I’ve thought about that also. Some Christians (the anti-Calvinists — Baptists in my experience) make a huge deal over free-will, that being human would have no meaning if we had no choice but to obey God. So what would be the good of going to heaven and not having any choice but to worship God eternally? As others have suggested, people just don’t think about the implications of what they believe, or are told to believe. If you are interested in popular treatments of the afterlife, check out “The Good Place” with Ted Dantzen. There are two seasons available on Hulu. I don’t know if a 3rd season is in the works, but I hope so. It’s hilarious.

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    stevenpounders  March 22, 2017

    When you cryptically said, “The men they seduced are hanged …. by a different body part over the flames”, I thought you were implying they were hanged by some unmentionable body parts.

    But the translations I checked online say they were hung by their feet. Am I missing something?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      Yes, indeed, I did mean the unmentionables. “Feet” is a euphemism for “genitals” (as in the Bible — e.g., in the book of Ruth where Ruth “uncovers the feet” of Boaz. Yikes!)

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    SidDhartha1953  March 22, 2017

    John 7:39 — the NRSV favors “there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” but indicates that some mss. have, “for as yet the Spirit (others, Holy Spirit) had not been given…”
    Which do you think is the earliest reading? Did John possibly think the spirit was not a divine being in its own right, but rather a byproduct of Jesus’ glorification?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      It is very difficult to know which reading — Spirit or Holy Spirit — is original to the passage. But the Spirit in either case is a divine being for John, I think, of the same status as Jesus himself (see John 14 and 16).

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 26, 2017

        I actually meant is it likely the original said “there was no spirit,” i.e. the spirit did not even exist? That seems like a pretty radical assertion.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 27, 2017

          Yes, it could be taken that way, but John appears to mean that the Spirit was not yet come to the disciples.

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    silvertime  March 22, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman: Given the massive amount of reading that you do, have you been trained in speed reading where one can read an entire page in seconds. I took the Evelyn Woods speed reading course while in college. It worked for a while, but I lost the skill after while.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2017

      I wish. No, I just read the old fashioned way. I do try to read fast, especially when it’s material that is not directly germane to what I’m working on or looking for. I can get through a book pretty quickly, sucking the marrow out of it, so to speak.

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    RG959  September 21, 2018

    It seems that in the apocalypse of peter (according to Wikipedia) god has pity on the souls in hell from the prayers or requests from those in heaven. Would you agree Bart? Seems to me that’s why they left it out because everyone would just think, “I’ll eventually get to heaven, so why follow god?” Revelation is eternal torment. Has more of a fear factor.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2018

      Yes, that’s found in one of the Greek fragments of the work, and appears to be original to the text (even though it’s not in the otherwise reliable Ethiopic version). I talk about the passage a bit in my new book.

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