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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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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.

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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. 😉

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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”.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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

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