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Views of the Afterlife

If my publisher agrees that my next book can/should be “The Invention of the Afterlife” (or whatever we call it) I will, as you might suspect, be thinking a lot about heaven and hell over the next couple of years.   I”ve already been thinking a lot about them over the past six months as I’ve been reading broadly on the topic.  I’m NOT, of course, mainly reading about what REALLY happens to us when we die.  No one knows that.

Or maybe I should rephrase that.  There are a lot of people who *think* they know that, but in my opinion no one does.  Most of the books I’ve been reading are about what people have *thought* about heaven and hell over the past three thousand years.  I’m interested in knowing where current thinking came from – since what is now “common sense” in some circles was never dreamed of for most of human history.

There are some people, of course, who argue that their views are not simply common sense – that is, views handed to them by their environment and upbringing – but are based on actual authorities who can be trusted to know the truth.  That is what most conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Bible-believing scholars think.  They maintain that their views are what the Bible teaches, and therefore that they are based on an impeccable source, God himself.

What is interesting is that even people within that camp…

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Thinking about Hell
Moving to My Next Book



  1. jimviv2@gmail.com  March 1, 2017

    “No sex in heaven” (paraphrasing) according to Jesus in Mark 12.
    That can make for some fun conversation.
    I wonder if the Evangelicals agree with Mark 12?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      They do! Maybe some of them think there will be no sex drive, and that some things are (actually) better than sex!

  2. rivercrowman  March 1, 2017

    Many Catholic apologists believe that the Catholic Church is the center of God’s truth (the one Jesus founded), and other denominations are further from the truth and risk a lesser likelihood of heaven. There would be no Bible canon for Protestants to study without the early Catholic Church. Purgatory is more for grandma who missed her last confession — so her survivors best pray for her. Or ask some dead saints to pray for her too, to reduce her time in purgatory. Rejecting Jesus’ offer of salvation is a guaranteed ticket to Hell. I regularly listen to Catholic Radio for entertainment, and wonder “do these guys actually believe what they’re telling callers?” … Wasn’t Origen eventually run out of Rome for espousing universal salvation?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      It was long after he was dead. He was condemned as a heretic in the sixth century.

    • HawksJ  March 4, 2017

      **There would be no Bible canon for Protestants to study without the early Catholic Church. **

      Ah, that is indeed an irony lost on virtually everyone.

  3. craig@corbettlaw.org  March 1, 2017

    I wish I still had my notes from a seminary class about an early gnostic sect. From what I recall, the members believed that the light of the recently deceased souls would gradually build up the moon from the new moon to the full moon over the course of the month. This was a way station, and as the departed souls, with their internal light, moved on to the ultimate destination/reward, the moon would gradually lose the light and become the new moon again, ready to repeat the cycle.

    • Wilusa  March 3, 2017

      That certainly is a beautiful thought, however wrong!

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  March 1, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, if you really want to annoy the evangelicals, you can call your book “The Evolution of Heaven and Hell” (or maybe “The Intelligent Design of Heaven and Hell”, lol). And on the cover you would have Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (cliche, I know).

    As for the evolution of heaven and hell, that’s something I’ve thought a lot about in terms of the concept of Divine Justice for my research on the evolution of morality, and at one point I even outlined a series of stages for the evolution of the modern Christian notions of heaven and hell. Maybe you’ll find it helpful.

    Stage One: Pre-Babylonian exile. The Israelites have a conventional view of the afterlife, similar to most cultures. Namely, they believed that after death most people simply returned to the earth as dust (sheol in the TaNaKh), hence Genesis 3:19. But for the worthy few, such as kings and heroes, after death they will ascend to the heavens to live amongst the gods, or in the case of the Israelites, they would “walk with God,” such as, for example, Enoch, Elijah, David, and so on. These great men had earned the right to “walk” with God after death. This view of the afterlife is so ubiquitous in human cultures that it’s rare to NOT find it in the beliefs and customs of every human society. The ancient Greeks even reserved the pyre for the bodies of great men, who had earned the right to be turned into smoke and sent up to the heavens to live amongst the gods. The ancient Israelites did not think much different.

    Stage Two: Post-Babylonian Exile. This all changed once the Jews were exposed to the novel Persian beliefs of a cosmic war between the divine forces of good and evil. When the Jews returned from Babylon, they brought with them the idea that all humans are basically pawns in a great cosmic war, and that if we side with the good, we will be rewarded, but if we side with the evil, we will be punished. It was at this point that Jews started to connect this concept with the Prophets’ talk of a restored Israel. (What the Prophets meant by a restored Israel was simply a restored Israelite kingdom, like the golden age of David; it was more nostalgia than eschatological drama at that point.) Once the Jews made this connection between the Prophetic restoration of Israel with the Persian concept of a cosmic war between Good and Evil, that’s when the Jewish eschaton concept started taking shape.

    Stage Three: Seleucid Takeover of Judea. For the several hundred years of Persian hegemony over Judea, the original (stage one) view of the afterlife was probably still the majority view, and the cosmic war (stage two) view was probably developed by a small group of Jewish thinkers. But after Alexander conquered the Persian empire, things changed. Jews could now see the cosmic drama playing out on earth. From their point of view, this was a world war — a sign of what was possible. The cosmic war concept began to be taken more and more seriously. Things came to a head when the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies, giving Seleucid emperors control over Judea. Many Jews rebelled against Seleucid control, eventually culminating in the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes. This is when the great Jewish eschatological drama, as we know it today, began to take full form: the Messiah as demi-god savior, the Final Day of Judgment, God’s Heavenly Host battles Satan’s Army in the Kidron Valley, the bodies of the defeated wicked are thrown into fire (the same way the enemy dead after a battle are burned), God restores Israel with the Messiah as a new King David, and God establishes a new paradise (i.e. Eden) on earth. All the elements are there.

    Stage Four: Jesus. So Jesus was just a preacher and prophet of this, now, traditional post-Maccabean concept of the Jewish eschaton. This was a view shared by possibily even a majority of Jews at this time — one notable exception being the Sadducees. So what made Jesus exceptional? He was martyred. Jesus’ disciples took his martyrdom as a sign that God’s great eschatological drama had a stipulation. God was going to allow his Messiah to arrive, but then be shamefully taken away, as a punishment to the disobedient Jews. Then, God will test those who are willing to accept Jesus as Messiah, and those who believe will be counted amongst the righteous, and they will be saved on the Final Day of Judgment. In other words, it was the very same view of the afterlife from the time of the Maccabees, but now there was a stipulation. To be saved from the fire, you must accept Jesus as Messiah.

    Stage Five: Final stage. The early Christian concept of the afterlife, at first being along the same lines as the Jewish temporal notions (or as you say, a horizonal notion of one age going into the next) became, rather, a vertical notion, where after death, instead of waiting to be bodily resurrected at the eschaton, we are immediately judged after death, and sent either to heaven or hell immediately. Hence, most Christians today believe their loved ones are ALREADY in heaven (or hell, if they’re being honest), and no longer see heaven and hell as part of the cosmic war that they were originally part of way back in Achaemenid Persia.

    • flshrP  March 3, 2017

      Very interesting rundown.
      I think the key to the origin of the Jewish belief in rewards and punishments in an afterlife can be found in the Maccabean Revolt. This was a guerilla war between the Jews and the Greek Seleucid army of Antiochus. The Maccabean priests, in order to encourage their warriors to vow to make the ultimate sacrifice, dangled the idea of an everlasting afterlife of rewards for those fortunate martyrs for the cause.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 5, 2017

        The idea of achieving a glorious afterlife after dying a heroic death is most definitely not unique to the Maccabees. Indeed, it’s ubiquitious in every human culture. One of the reasons that just about every human culture has some form of sacrifice to “the ancestors” is that they believe that those ancestors were great men and women in life, and so, after death, their souls ascended to the heavens to abide with of other great souls. The purpose of sacrifice, therefore, was to give the souls of those great ancestors their worthy share of the earthly bounty, and in exchange those great souls would use their exalted positions to benefit and protect their earthly descendents. That’s almost certainly where the concept of gods came from.

  5. Silver  March 1, 2017

    Sorry that my queries are rarely germane to the current post but at my age I have to ask when the thought strikes.
    Is it possible that amongst the manuscript fragments that have been found we have something from ‘Q’ but which is simply assumed to be from a gospel?

  6. TBeard  March 1, 2017

    After reading and a bit of research on the invention of hell, this is my conclusion.
    Hell wasn’t mentioned in the Old Testament and Paul didn’t even have a concept of hell. It seems it was an invention by the Christians in the 2nd century to threaten people who wouldn’t convert to Christianity.

    The first adoption of the pagan belief in hell by a Christian writer was The Apocalypse of Peter written around 125-150 AD. The hell myth wasn’t in the Christian tradition before this writer developed it from pagan traditions.

    Please correct any of this if it’s wrong. I definitely trust your opinion.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      There are references to hell in the NT itself (see matthew 25, and the book of Revelation!)

  7. flshrP  March 1, 2017

    You wrote: “I’m NOT, of course, mainly reading about what REALLY happens to us when we die.  No one knows that.”

    Yes we do. We know now with better than 5-sigma scientific certainty that there is no life after death because the data mean that there is no such thing as an invisible, immaterial, immortal human soul.

    The final piece of that puzzle was revealed on 4 July 2012 with the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs particle. This discovery completes the Standard Model of Particle Physics, our best and most precise understanding of how the world of our everyday life works. Everything in our experience that has any effect on our everyday life is made of four particles (electron, up quark, down quark and the electron neutrino) and four forces (electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, gravitation) all of them parts of the Standard Model. These particles and forces are completely natural, not supernatural. Physicists detect and measure their properties all the time. There’s nothing spiritual about them

    Physicists have looked for other particles and forces that could possibly point to the existence of a human soul and after decades of work there are none. Other particles and forces definitely do exist in the universe (e.g. dark matter, dark energy) but these are either too weakly interacting, or too short range, or too transient to have any effect on the atoms in our body.

    If you’re interested, check out cosmologist Sean M. Carroll’s YouTube videos. (N.B. There are two “Sean Carroll’s”: Sean B. Carroll, a geneticist at the U. of Wisconsin, Madison and Sean M. Carroll, a particle physicist and cosmologist at Cal Tech).

    In short, if your beliefs are in conflict with the Standard Model, then your beliefs are wrong.

    • tcasto  March 3, 2017

      flshrP: you apparently haven’t delved into string theory and the existences of entities so small we may never be able to sense them directly. And the possibilities of multiple dimensions (9, 13, ??) that exist but that we can’t perceive. Just a thought.

      • flshrP  March 5, 2017

        Once these things become part of the Standard Model (i.e. have some experimental evidence to back up the speculation on strings, higher dimensions, etc), per the scientific method, we would revisit this discussion to see if this new stuff has any effect on the atoms in the human body. If so, then we would make the necessary revisions in our thinking. The prospects of this happening are very slim since strings and compactified dimensions (Planck scale distances) are trillions of times smaller in size than the distances now probed by our largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider,making it even less probable that these things you mention will have any effect on the atoms in our body.

    • Wilusa  March 6, 2017

      I have just about zero scientific knowledge, and the YouTube video would be way over my head. But I’m guessing the Standard Model doesn’t provide explanations for phenomena some of us are convinced are real.

      Above all, reincarnation. I don’t think anyone could read Jim B. Tucker’s book *Life Before Life* with an open mind, and *not* become convinced that many of the cases investigated by the researchers – cases of chldren having first-person memories of previous lives – *can’t be explained in any other way*.

      Also, there’s reason to believe at least some humans can make contact (intentionally or not) with the minds of others.

      First, consider mass hallucinations. If a crowd has “seen” the Sun doing cartwheels in the sky, the probable explanation is that one person had a vivid hallucination – and “broadcast” it, consciously or unconsciously, into others’ minds.

      And here’s an experience of mine. Many years ago I consulted a number of psychics, by mail, asking what they could tell me about my previous lives. See the first chapter of my essay “Born Again?” at FictionPress! I’m not making claims about the reality of the “lives” they described. But there are remarkable *parallels* in the responses – and also recurring *names*, some of them relevant to my present life.


      You wrote: “In short, if your beliefs are in conflict with the Standard Model, then your beliefs are wrong.”

      My response: If the Standard Model doesn’t explain phenomena that are undoubtedly real, then the Standard Model is incomplete.

      • flshrP  March 7, 2017

        None of the anecdotal stuff you mentioned is anywhere near “undoubtedly real”. Psychic claims have been studied and, in all cases, debunked for at least the past 150 years. This stuff is just more magic thinking like that taught at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This type of nonsense is a remnant of the animistic thinking of our primitive ancestors (aka caveman thinking) who saw any motion or change as a manifestation of invisible, immaterial spirits in action. Unfortunately, a large part of humanity has been unable or unwilling to leave this myth and magic thinking behind.

        • Wilusa  March 9, 2017

          I think you’re making the all-too-common choice of simply denying the possibility of phenomena you don’t want to believe in – rather than examining the evidence, and if the evidence supports their existence, *seeking explanations*.

          I doubt you’ve read Tucker’s book (with or without an open mind). I wish you would. He and his fellow researchers go to great lengths in weighing all possible explanations for the phenomena they’ve encountered. I don’t share some of his *opinions* (e.g., his assumption that most people would be happy with their child’s being the reincarnation of their parent or grandparent). But the *facts* speak for themselves.

          And that essay of mine? The “coincidences” I cite go way beyond the usual offhand explanation of “a stopped clock showing the right time twice a day.” Either there was some mind-to-mind communication going on, or I’m simply lying – I made it all up. Of course, you don’t know me well enough to be sure I didn’t make it up. But what motive would I have had? I’m not being paid for essays posted at FictionPress (a site for original fiction and essays, despite its name) – it’s just a place for people to share their thoughts/writings. And I’m not arguing for any specific belief system. I’m just in favor of acknowledging facts.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 7, 2017

        This describes to a T what happened to me after my parents died: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dream-catcher/201110/visitation-dreams

  8. Boltonian  March 1, 2017

    Mmm. Wasn’t Hume right in that our beliefs are governed by our temperaments and we use reason merely to justify our beliefs? We are tribal creatures and loyalty to the tribe trumps (pun intended) rational thought.

    I have only once been to an evangelical service and I’m not keen to repeat the experience. The pastor seemed deranged; he was a ranting, bullying, red-faced chap who was constantly bellowing something incoherent about heaven and hell. The church, however, was packed, so he obviously had something that his congregation wanted: perhaps it was the message that this select band would attain salvation whilst the rest of us would roast in hell. I wonder what he would have been like had been born in, say, Muslim Saudi Arabia or Buddhist Tibet. Talking of which, I hope that your book will cover Buddhist beliefs in this area, Bart.

    • tcasto  March 3, 2017

      Boltonian: as a teenager, I experienced a number of evangelical events characterized somewhat as you’ve described (I wouldn’t be so harsh). What I took away from those experiences, and what I retain in the autumn of my years, is that there something almost tangible that comes over many (most?) of those present. It is a powerful force and has moved many a self-selected sinner to make the journey to the altar to be received into the family. I later came to think of it as the fabric of humanity. Similar in effect, if not purpose, to the sensation that awakens a mother in the middle of the night, knowing that a family member is in danger.

      • Boltonian  March 5, 2017

        tcasto: that is a rather benign interpretation, if I may say so. At the time I thought it was very funny (as a sceptical 18 year-old) but now, as a sceptical 62 year-old, I think differently. When people give up thinking for themselves and delegate critical judgement to others (especially to someone who demands absolute obedience) there is danger afoot. That way lies fanaticism, intolerance and tyranny.

  9. clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 1, 2017

    Interesting. I would have guessed that the most punitive and horrific versions of hell are what are best attested in the NT (and, to the extent it has a view of the afterlife, the OT too). Doesn’t Jesus make a number of specific statements about hell being like that? And that the “softer” versions of hell are based more on general considerations like an infinitely loving God. I also suspect that the softer versions are also based on not wanting to think that others whom we care about possibly having to suffer like that — much less we ourselves.

    I look forward to seeing you untangle the various threads leading to these different versions of hell.

  10. clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 1, 2017

    Although I admit that people are much more preoccupied with heaven and hell, wasn’t the original Christian idea not heaven/hell but resurrection of the body? As belief in the immediacy of Jesus’s return faded, interest in resurrection may have faded too. But I’m almost positive that, for practically all Christians, resurrection is still the official belief concerning the ultimate human destiny. And the post-resurrection world would of course have counterparts to heaven and hell.

    Also, I vaguely remember a Protestant minister saying that heaven/hell were Greek ideas and that the specifically Jewish/Christian idea was resurrection.

  11. clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 1, 2017

    I assume you’ll distinguish between the statements about heaven/hell that go back to the historical Jesus and those that don’t?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      That won’t be my main point, but it will be important to see what Jesus himself actually said.

  12. Manuel  March 1, 2017

    Is this book going to be about the history and development of the concepts of heaven and hell? Will a discussion of how “near death experiences” fit into the mix be included?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes. And possibly.

      • Wilusa  March 8, 2017

        Someone asked, “Will a discussion of how ‘near death experiences’ fit into the mix be included?” And you said, “Possibly.”

        I think NDEs are a type of dream. And I’m hoping you’ll also consider another type of dream, which may be more meaningful: dreams in which recently-deceased loved ones assure us they are, in one sense or another, “still alive.” Here’s a link to an essay of mine, about my mother…


  13. Wilusa  March 1, 2017

    As I – raised Catholic – was taught, there wouldn’t be *any* “torment” in Purgatory: it was just a place where you’d have to *wait* before moving on to Heaven (a much better place, where you’d experience the presence of God). And if you did certain things during your lifetime (such as reading the Bible, while never questioning it!), you could earn “indulgences” that would shorten your stay in Purgatory. I know that in earlier centuries, where more people really thought about it and took it seriously, that led to abuses, such as the actual *sale* of “indulgences.”

    And about Hell…I remember having read, as an adult, that some liberal Catholic theologian was claiming there would be no torment *there*! He taught that Hell was merely a state of eternal separation from God…and everyone who went there had freely, consciously, *chosen* that separation.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Purgatory is a place where sins will be purged. That requires some kind of punishment.

      • godspell  March 3, 2017

        Yeah, but maybe no worse than taking a laxative and sitting on the toilet. For hundreds or possibly thousands of years. But people can say prayers for you to get off the pot a bit earlier. 😉

      • tcasto  March 3, 2017

        By definition, purging (” a cathartic relief”) can be achieved without punishment. We’ve come to associate purges with government actions which have historically included punishment. I respect your expert opinion as to what people believed or didn’t believe at some point, but to argue the “accuracy” of those beliefs is to debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.
        Here’s my thought: it shouldn’t take the promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell to do the right thing in this life.
        Feel free to quote me 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  March 5, 2017

          I’m not familiar with the idea of a Purgatory that doesn’t involve punishment, but maybe someone on the blog can correct me!

  14. Wilusa  March 1, 2017

    I’d love to see some kind of study about what believers in “Heaven,” if they give it some thought, expect it to be like. After having happy reunions with loved ones, and expressing their gratitude to God, what do they think they’ll be *doing*…*for all eternity*? Sure, we can joke about eternal enjoyment of food, drink, and sex. But I can’t believe anyone seriously anticipates that.

    I think that if I believed in “Heaven” (which I don’t), I’d want it to be an eternity of constantly learning new things. But only new things that interest me!

    And if it’s meant to provide eternal bliss for everyone who goes there, there’d probably have to be a different experience of eternity for every single one. Ridiculous.

    • flshrP  March 3, 2017

      The old joke:
      A man goes to Heaven and meets the gatekeeper who tells him that he can choose whatever pleasures he wants. So he says he wants to golf all day and make at least one hole-in-one per game, to have breakfast for every meal, and to have a harem of the most beautiful women. He indulges himself for centuries this way until one day he returns to the gatekeeper and asks if he can change his choice of pleasures. The gatekeeper says no, but I can grant you one final wish. What’s that? the man asks. To have a normal human death with no afterlife, says the gatekeeper. Out of curiosity the man asks how many people choose this. The gatekeeper says ” So far, everyone”.

    • Robby  March 3, 2017

      I remember a well known atheist saying it would be hell to have to spend eternity with God and they would have to drag him in kicking and screaming…

  15. Nan Roberts  March 1, 2017

    I found Dante’s Purgatorio interesting. The attitude of the repentant, saved sinner going through the cleansing, and that each person decides when they are done. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. But I like Dante’s story.

  16. Stephen  March 1, 2017

    I hope you’ll take a nice long chapter to discuss Matthew 25:31-46. I’m not a believer but this is my go-to proof text when my hardcore fundamentalist cousin Larry assures me that only those folks who get the doctrines (the ones he agrees with of course) exactly right get past the pearly gates (which are literal gates of pearl by the way).

  17. TWood
    TWood  March 1, 2017

    “The guy who advances this view is not one I want to have a beer with.” Ha. And the chances of this guy drinking a beer with anyone are low…

    I remember when studying patristics that Origen held something like Universalism (everyone gets saved eventually… maybe even Satan! but I think that was more what the Origenists said than what Origen himself said)… I’m sure you’ve heard of it… but the most useful overview of patristic eschatology (which included various views of the afterlife) for me was “The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology” by Brian Daley (I think he’s a professor of theology at Notre Dame—a Catholic obviously—I think a Jesuit if I remember right). It’s a “comprehensive survey, based on Christian texts in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian traditions from the second century through Gregory the Great and John of Damascus.” Have you read it—and if so—what’s your take on it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yup, it’s a good brass-tacks historical summary. He’s a fine scholar of Patristics.

  18. Eric  March 1, 2017

    First post because I have two completely different comments/questions.

    Will you be focusing solely on Judeo-Christian (plus perhaps Muslim) views of after life or will it be further ranging, to include reincarnation, Nirvana, whatever, both religious and philosophically founded?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      I’ll be sticking with my expertise: Judaism and Christianity.

  19. Eric  March 1, 2017

    Second post on totally different question:

    Afterlife ideas vary greatly on what the destinations (heaven, hell) will be like/how long, etc. as you say.

    Will your book also go into the development and support for (or lack of support for) the other aspects of “after life” — even in Christian tradition, there is the sleep until the second coming, there is “today you will be with me in heaven”, there is the idea of bodily resurrection, versus a kind of modern “spiritual (incorporeal) idea that I think is widely held.

  20. wostraub  March 1, 2017

    Redemptive suffering:

    Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
    And for the day confined to fast in fires,
    Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
    Are burnt and purged away.

    — Hamlet’s father’s ghost

  21. Lee Palo  March 1, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    One peculiarity I’ve noticed is how little the afterlife figures into the literature of the Old Testament. Given obvious Biblical parallels with other Ancient Near Eastern literature, there was some exchange of ideas with Babylonians, Egyptians, Mycenaeans (Greeks), and many others. The Egyptians in particular had a lot of views on the afterlife. Why was it that works like the Egyptian “Instruction of Merikare” could be influential on the Prehistory of Genesis, but not texts involving the afterlife? Is it that we simply don’t have any written sources for possibly more widespread early Israelite views of the afterlife? I have tended to think it is because such afterlife speculations were not deemed important enough by early Israelite intellectuals, but the absence of such speculations is curious to say the least given that Israel did not live in a vacuum. What did they make of such other Ancient Near Eastern views of the afterlife? They surely would have come across some of them.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts about that here on the blog, or in your proposed book on the subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, I’m afraid our knowledge of sources available to the writers of Genesis is extremely limited!

  22. jdh5879  March 1, 2017

    I believe zoroastrianism was the first or one of the first religions to conceptualize heaven and hell. ( I am sure this is not news to you.) I would be interested in your thoughts on zoroastrianism’s influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I read in one source that the word pharisee was based on farsi, the language of Persia and zoroastrianism. Is this true?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, Pharisee does appear to derive from the Persian for “separated ones.” I hope to be dealing in the book on Zoroastrian influences on Jewish notions of resurrection.

  23. Tony  March 1, 2017

    Great subject! But please dedicate a chapter to those lost souls who believe there is no afterlife.

    These folks actually believe that after dying we’ll be dead. Nothing more than a small link in the chain of evolution – brutal.

    Also, please consider how cleverly the poor and ignorant can be manipulated by the concept of an afterlife. Who needs social programs when the true rewards will come after death!

  24. Robby  March 1, 2017

    I’ve heard eternity described this way. Imagine a solid copper sphere 200 miles in diameter. Every 100 years a dove is released and as it fly’s by the sphere it’s wing ever so slightly brushes it. By the time the sphere is whittled down to nothing, eternity has just began…It’s very hard to wrap your mind around eternity without word pictures.

  25. tcasto  March 1, 2017

    The idea that any of us, of any generation, would have a freaking clue as to heaven or hell, is just preposterous. All of what I was taught, in a mixed bag of Protestant churches, was what people wanted heaven to be. I think the we are enjoined to do the best we can in this life; the afterlife, if there is one, will take care of itself.

  26. fishician  March 1, 2017

    I don’t find any evidence in the Bible that the unrighteous will live forever, in any state. There are multiple references to suggest destruction, usually by fire. But here’s a question – Jesus believed the kingdom of God was coming to earth; but did he believe people would live forever in that kingdom? Or just that people would live in a good and Godly society until they died?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      It’s not completely clear, but my sense is that he had eternity in mind.

  27. doug  March 1, 2017

    An eternity of torture. I guess some folks have a different concept of “love” than I do.

  28. Gary  March 1, 2017

    As a child growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination, I heard sermons which told me to imagine having my hand held down on the hot burner of a stove for just a few seconds and to imagine how very painful that would be. I was then told that if I did not repent of my sins and pray for Jesus to be my Lord and Savior right NOW, and if I were to walk out of the church and die, my entire body would experience that same horrific pain FOREVER AND EVER.

    And then they would ask us to open our hymn books and sing “Just As I Am”.

  29. dragonfly  March 1, 2017

    My assumption would be that the early Christians beliefs about the afterlife must have in some way been influenced by the various pagan beliefs around them. Will you be looking to detect those influences?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, especially the influence of Greece and Persia (respectively)

  30. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  March 2, 2017

    You said “There are a lot of people who *think* they know that, but in my opinion no one does.”

    Based on the evidence or lack thereof I think we can be more certain that nothing out of the natural happens to us. “From dust we came and to dust we shall return.” It does not seem that early Jews had much of a theology on the afterlife.

    Is this just another one of those things that God seems to have changed his mind on over the millennia? I don’t think so. Changing attitudes on the afterlife among Christians alone seems to me to be pretty good evidence, not only that we don’t know, but that nothing happens.

    In regard to heated debates. David Bercot is quite adamant in his audio series on What the Early Church Believed about the Afterlife that if the early Church was around today they would be having quite heated debates with the modern Church about what happens to believers and unbelievers after they die. For one, they believed that everyone first went to Hades to wait until the resurrection of the body. Obedient believers went to the Abraham’s Bosom section and unbelievers and Christians in sin went to the hell part.

    Your last statement is so true. Many “Bible- believing Christians” simply believe things not found in the Bible. They think they are though.

    One bad example is the head covering in 1 Cor 13. Most conservative Christians believe the head covering was cultural (so much for the eternal truth of the Bible…) They base this on one vague sentence at the end of the section on this teaching and ignore the eternal and spiritual significance he clearly attached to it at the beginning. They also claim that it was given because of temple prostitutes who went around bare headed in Corinth, yet no archaeological or textual evidence exists that such a thing went on in Corinth. This line of reasoning only exists in the minds of Evangelicals trying to justify their unbiblical practices.

  31. Arv  March 2, 2017

    It would be a substantial reding alongside ”Eternal life: A new vision” by John Shelby Spong.

  32. Ehteshaam7  March 2, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman is there any way I can interview you for my YouTube channel? I got Dr. Richard Carrier for an interview and I have Dr. Robert M Price in September would love to interview you as well. About the New Testament etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      I wish I could! Because of my hectic schedule/life, I am having to turn down all interview requests. Sorry!

  33. Scorpiored48  March 2, 2017

    The fourth point, Universalism, doesn’t seem to be the liberal construct it once was now that some mainline and conservative Christians have adopted it. Is there a generally excepted historical evolution of Universalism within Christianity outside of Unitarian Universalism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, it goes back at least to the third century (Origen) and some find it already in the New Testament (Romans 5: in Christ “all” will be saved)

  34. RonaldTaska  March 2, 2017

    A really good post. Thanks

    It reminds that the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction was awarded to a cultural anthropologist, Dr. Ernest Becker, a few months after his death, for his book entitled “The Denial of Death.” The book has a strong psychoanalytic influence and, unfortunately, is rather heavy reading with lots of psychoanalytic jargon. Nevertheless, the thesis that the creation of heaven stems from a “denial of death” is worth considering.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, it was one of the first books I read when starting to think about this!

  35. godspell  March 2, 2017

    I don’t entirely agree with this poem I’ve copy/pasted below, but it’s a bit hard to argue with its logic. Except, of course, with a more complete knowledge of all the things Christians (and others) have believed about what happens when we die. And, of course, the realization that it’s all 100% speculation–the only way to know is to go.

    “Is it not interesting to see
    How the Christians continually
    Try to separate themselves in vain
    From the doctrine of eternal pain

    They cannot do it
    They are committed to it,
    Their Lord said it,
    They must believe it.

    So the vulnerable body is stretched without pity
    On flames for ever. Is this not pretty?

    The religion of Christianity
    Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty
    Reject this Sweetness, for she wears
    A smoky dress out of hell fires.

    Who makes a God? Who shows him thus?
    It is the Christian religion does
    Oh, oh, have none of it,
    Blow it away, have done with it.

    This god the Christians show
    Out with him, out with him, let him go.”

    Stevie Smith, Thoughts about the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell

    It is perhaps worth mentioning that Stevie Smith was a regular churchgoer for much of her life. Not an atheist. She wanted to believe, but was troubled by what she was being asked to believe–and by the way the Anglican Church tried to pretty it up, push the more embarrassing doctrines under the rug.

  36. Judith  March 2, 2017

    Not to be sacrilegious but if the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) can be believed to be one of Jesus’ parables and not added later by a scribe, then we can have our cake and eat it, too.

  37. tompicard
    tompicard  March 2, 2017

    I am most impressed with Dr Ehrman’s insights into the thinking of Jesus of Nazareth.
    So the greatest (or really the only) interest to me would be in Jesus’ understanding of the afterlife.

    It is difficult to be sure what Jesus taught about the afterlife for a couple of reasons, not even including determining which passages in the gospels are historical and which are not
    1) Jesus preached on the coming of the Kingdom on the planet earth not in some spiritual realm
    2) Jesus used the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ so ambiguously. [ he who seeks to lose his life will gain it, let dead bury dead, explaining to a currently living disciple how to enter into eternal life, etc]

    I know Dr Ehrman believes Jesus taught/believed in a physical resurrection and everlasting afterlife (either bliss or torment) on the physical earth. But that is very hard to accept. But i would be interested in the book if these concepts were explored.

  38. Pattylt  March 2, 2017

    Of all the concepts of (mostly) Christian beliefs, the idea of Hell was, for me, a logical impossibility. How can an all loving and righteous God send one to eternal torment? The apologetic answer of “God doesn’t send us to Hell, we choose it” has never been answered by my response that, ” if God will forgive us for every sin or error we make then why won’t he forgive us for wrongly misunderstanding Hell”? I also have the hardest time understanding why my inability to understand this doctrine is of such concern to Christians. It seems that if I don’t belive like they do then it makes their beliefs less likely to be true! Of course they deny this but this is what their evangelism looks like from my point of view.
    I really think many Christians harbor serious doubts about the doctrine of Hell and hide it with even more vigorous evangelism.

  39. dankoh  March 2, 2017

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,

    I am doing some research now on this point – at the moment, more on Jewish attitudes toward the afterlife and how they came to change. (This is partly in response to N. T. Wright.) Although you may already be familiar with them, I would just like to point out the similarities between Sumerian/Mesopotamian mythology such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the OT concept of life after death. Also The Descent of Ishtar. The Sumerian word Kurnugi and the Akkadian (?) Arralu can each be translated as “land of no return,” similar to Sheol.

    And probably also similar to Hades, suggesting a similar Greek attitude, which may have changed after Greek exposure to Zoroastrianism. Unfortunately, as I understand it, we think we can see the Persian influence after the fact but do not have enough solid information about the development and nature of Zoroastrianism at that time to say more than that.

    Perhaps you have some more information on the Persians than, say, Robert Bellah or Jean Bottero?

    Incidentally, while Judaism has no dogmatic position on hell (Rabbi Akiva thought the maximum punishment would be12 months, another rabbi in another place mentions 70 years), in general afterlife punishment consists of being kept at a distance from God. The worst punishment, reserved for a very few, is simple non-existence.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      I am using the occasion of the book to read up on Zoroastrianism — a field I’m desperately ignorant of….

  40. tskorick  March 2, 2017

    My favorite joke about my former denomination: Saint Peter greets a newcomer to heaven and is showing them around. “In this room we have the Methodists, and in this room we have the Episcopalians, and wait, sshh …” He tiptoes past one door and points to the next, “… and in this room we have the –” “Wait, Saint Peter,” interrupts the newcomer. “What was that back there that you tiptoed past?” Saint Peter rolls his eyes and replies “Oh that’s the Church of Christ, they don’t think there’s anyone else up here.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017


    • Gary  March 3, 2017

      No. You told the joke incorrectly. The punch line is: “Oh, that’s the fundamentalist Baptists. They don’t think there’s anyone else up here.”


      I’ll bet there are other ex-fundamentalist Christians who have heard that joke told about THEIR denomination.

      We fundamentalist Baptists doubted that even most Southern Baptists would get into heaven. American Baptists were definitely going to hell. And when it came to Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, there is no way those baby-baptizers were getting into heaven!

      • SidDhartha1953  March 9, 2017

        Another variation I heard recently: a newbie is being shown around heaven and the angel shows him where the Baptists, the Buddhists, the Sikhs and so forth worship in the way they are accustomed. Then they come to a room where a party seems to be in progress. People are drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, telling jokes, laughing, generally having a good time. The newbie asks who they are.
        “We don’t know. They won’t give us their full names and they won’t say how long they intend to be here. They say they’re ‘just taking it one day at a time.’ “

  41. Jana  March 2, 2017

    Intriguing ! Can’t wait to read it.

  42. Hume  March 2, 2017

    Just bought your audiobook the Greatest Controversies in Early Christianity! Take your wife to dinner, on me.

  43. ask21771  March 2, 2017

    Is there any evidence that when Jesus said “this generation shall not pass” he was referring to generation as we think of it and not offspring or something

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      It’s how the word is normally used and is the only one that makes sense in the context (if he was saying “before the Jewish [or human] race disappears,” the saying would be pointless…)

      • ask21771  March 3, 2017

        From what I understand the word translated into generation meant a bunch of things what evidence exists that it means what we think it means

        • Bart
          Bart  March 5, 2017

          The way to establish what a word means is to see how it gets used time after time after time, and establish its typical usage. If you think it means something other than its typical, you need to have strong contextual evidence (not simply a wish that it doesn’t mean what it normally does)

  44. Tempo1936  March 2, 2017

    Is the source of the New Testament teaching on heaven and hell and the afterlife from the Old Testament?
    Daniel 12:2
    Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

  45. phylactella  March 3, 2017

    An interesting account by a geologist, about the infernal regions is “Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur”. by Salomon Kroonenberg (Reaktion Books, 2013, translated from Dutch). A model of Dante’s vision as a gobstopper allows him to write about caves, and volcanoes, and burning tar. A reference to “History of Hell” by Alice Turner (1993) looks interesting, but I have not followed that one. Clarence Larkin, in 1920, drew a simple diagram to place many of his choicest biblical references, such as “Gehenna”, “The Harvest”, and “The Tares”

  46. wrengles  March 3, 2017

    I hope this isn’t out of place, but when you described the guy who says those in hell are tormented for all eternity, it reminded me of the George Carlin routine, in which he says:

    [God] has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

    But He loves you!

  47. madi22  March 4, 2017

    Bart, from my understanding the word “hell” was later added as a substitute for different locations? Like Gehenna for instance…a place of pagan rituals etc. Whereas it was the word eternal which sparked up all this eternal hell theology. Is that true? If so do you think as an academic the new testament makes it clear of an “eternal” hell that burns you forever? Or do you think think its all over the place? I know you mentioned the book and the different views but would like to know what you believe. Did your conservative views get thrown out the window after graduating Princeton?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Yes, the word translated Hell is Gehenna, the pit outside Jerusalem. Matthew 25:41, 46 and Revelation 20:10-15 all seem to indicate an eternal torment in hell.

  48. HawksJ  March 5, 2017

    **I know of people who claim even more than that: if you don’t belong to their particular denomination (for example, The Church of Christ) you cannot be saved. **

    You have described your ‘undergrad’ program as ‘fundamentalist’. What denomination did/do they identify with and how would you compare them on the conservative-liberal spectrum vis-a-vis the Church of Christ, in so far as you know, at least?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      They were non-denominational. We thought Church of Christ folk were close to the truth. But we thought they were a bit crazy not to allow instrumental music.

      • jhague  March 7, 2017

        I laughed out loud when I read that you mentioned the Church of Christ was the only ones going to heaven! I was in the CofC for 40 years before I got out. They did/do believe they’re the only ones going to heaven. How could anyone else go since everyone else is doing church wrong. Interestingly, there were/are at least 30 splinter groups of the CofC. I was in the main stream group. The other groups were “brothers in error.” I don’t know if the error sent them to hell or if they still got into heaven since the sign on the building said “Church of Christ” or sometimes said “church of Christ.” lol

  49. Kirktrumb59  March 6, 2017

    Dr. E touches on eternity above, quite Joycean. Per my 5-14-15 comment to previous (obviously) post, the best (because I say so) description of hell and eternity is to be found in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

  50. SidDhartha1953  March 9, 2017

    The two most successful mass movements in history, as far as I know, are Christianity and Islam, with not a close third in sight. Has anyone you know of written on the triumph of Islam?
    I know you don’t like to opine outside your field of expertise (Would more experts had such wisdom!) but could the emphasis on rewards and punishments after death be at least part of the common attractiveness of Christianity and Islam? Will your new book touch on the marketing value of heaven and hell for Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      I doubt if I’ll get into Islam, but I will probably be talking about the preaching of heaven and hell as a missionary strategy.

  51. SidDhartha1953  March 9, 2017

    One of my favorite literary treatments of afterlife is Charles Dickens’ account in A Christmas Carol. Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that all souls are required to walk among the suffering of this world and bear witness to their suffering: either in life, when they can do something to ease the pain of others, or after death, when they can only watch helplessly and feel the pain of their own impotence and regret. He says nothing about those who are not condemned to walk the earth. As far as you know, were there any ancient views of the afterlife that may have inspired that portrayal?

  52. SidDhartha1953  March 9, 2017

    One more: John Lee Hooker wrote a song, “Burning Hell,” in which he sings
    “Ain’t no heaven./Ain’t no burning hell./When I die,/Where I go,/Nobody know./Deacon Jones,/Pray for me!”
    Did any Christian sects in antiquity explicitly deny or refuse to speak to an afterlife? If so, what was their view of the purpose or value of the Christian religion?

  53. ColinG  March 10, 2017

    NT Wright’s For All The Saints is a must-read in my view, for an influential scholar’s understanding of what happens after death: https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/All-Saints-N-T-Wright/0819221333

  54. sksinks  March 27, 2017

    I want to say something here and I don’t want to be attacked for what I believe. I am sharing only. I do not believe in a literal hell. I believe hell is here on earth. I believe in reincarnation, and if you have not accepted Christ, then your hell is to return here until you do, until the time is up. When I was in my 20’s, I did not believe in reincarnation, my mother did. So, I studied much to try to show her how it was not true. Well, as we can see, I found the theory was as valid as anything the Bible had to say. I also found that like everything else, the Bible also supported this theory. It all makes so much sense to me now, why people seem to suffer from no cause. Why good people suffer and supposedly bad people make gain. But this is what I believe above all………….no matter who is right and who is wrong. There is a loving God and what is will be. That He will not cause his children to suffer for eternity. To me these concepts are human thoughts and not that of a Loving Father. Are there consequences? YES! It is the hate we see in the world around us everyday. I also take a lot of peace from the stories of pre-death experiences as put forth by Dr. Lerma. I believe that Christ will find the way to bring us ALL over no matter what religion we practice or do not practice. And, I think a whole lot of people are going to be disappointed when we get there and find out the biker down the street is there with all the rest of us. I hate the word SIN. It is so judgmental based on lack of total information. WE DO THE BEST WE CAN DO WITH WHAT WE HAVE AND IF THAT IS NOT ENOUGH THEN CHRIST TAKES UP THE REST. Any more than that, like intentional harm might get sent to the laundry mat with a little bleach. Then, if all else fails, reabsorption not eternal damnation. I also believe there are more like us out there in the universe and the idea of Hell is egotistical. I no longer practice a religion because my soul just kept telling me what I was being taught was not right, so I quit. I stand alone as I live in the Bible belt. Ok so people this is where my God has brought me and I feel pretty good about it. I get pretty lonely but I chose God first. I do not call myself a christian because i take issue with Pauline Christianity, but I do keep Christ in my life.

  55. VirtualAlex  April 23, 2017

    How many Christians would still be Christian if heaven wasn’t part of their belief system? Approximately zero. It’s an extremely self centred, self interested religion disguised as a religion of love.

  56. hoshor  August 9, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman

    Have you read any of Edward Fudge’s view on “annihilation?” Namely his book The Fire that Consumes? Do you see any good claims for annihilation based on scripture? One of his claims (and many others who support that view) deals with the “misinterpretation” of the greek adjective aeonios.

  57. craig@corbettlaw.org  August 9, 2017

    Is there any connection between the early Egyptian judgment, where the heart of the newly departed is weighed for its virtue, and the sheep and goats parable of Matthew 25:31-46? I haven’t studied much about the origin of the idea of an afterlife.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2017

      I doubt if there is a case of literary dependence, but similar ideas can be found in a number of contemporary cultures, especially (of most relevance) Greek.

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