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What I’m Thinking about the Afterlife

I became interested in writing this book about the afterlife a couple of years ago, when I realized with unexpected clarity – out of the blue (I don’t know what sparked my thinking) – that the views most people have are not from the Bible.  Many people, of course, do not believe in the afterlife at all.  But at least in my parts of the world (both where I grew up, and where I have lived my life, first Chicago, then New Jersey, and now for the past 28 years North Carolina) those people who do believe in an afterlife (with a few, but only a very few exceptions), think that your body dies and your soul lives on.  In the now traditional Christian idea, your soul goes to heaven or hell.

Where did that idea come from?  Most of the Bible, of course, is the Old Testament (it’s about 3-4 times as large as the New Testament).  And the Old Testament teaches no such thing.  Moreover, Jesus himself did not teach any such thing.  And I would argue that the no such thing is taught in *most* of the New Testament – though there are some passages people could appeal to in support of the view, even if the passages in fact appear to be saying something else.

What the Bible *does* teach will be a large part of what I want to talk about in the book.  But what struck me when I first started thinking about it is that what most Christians appear to think is not what Jesus and his followers originally thought; and it is not taught in the Scriptures that Jesus and his followers relied upon;  and in fact it is not directly taught anywhere in the Bible.  And yet, in my context…

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Group Visions and Agnostic Jesus Scholars: Mailbag March 12, 2017
Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things?



  1. Avatar
    Antonio Campos  March 10, 2017

    I suggest to your studies about this subject that you read ” The Spirits’ book”, by Allan Kardec, publication that celebrates 160 years in April. It is a doctrine based on Christian teachings and defends life after physical death. Link to the book in English (legal free): http://www.autoresespiritasclassicos.com/allan%20kardec/Allan%20Kardec/English%20Language/Allan%20Kardec%20-%20The%20Spirits%20Book.pdf
    Finally, I believe that Jesus gave some clues about life after death, as in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 22-31).

  2. Avatar
    Todd  March 10, 2017

    I was going to suggest looking also into Eastern concepts as well, which are of interest to me, especially how they may relate to Western ideas, but I do understand your need to focus on the Judeo-Christian western tradition in your book. Near death experiences also are of interest to me, especially when some NEDs relate verifiable details of what is happening around them shortly after death. I got interested in that when I read Dr. Raymond Moody’s book on this long, long ago…”Life After Life.” The book is still available.

    My current thoughts are still that we just don’t know what, and it is best for us to live compassionately with happiness in the here and now, and what happens after death is something we can’t control.

    Good discussion. Please keep sharing your progress.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  March 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I think one very important impact of your book is that many nominal Christians, who have never thoroughly read the Bible and merely have the popular understandings of the afterlife, will come to learn that Jesus had a VERY Jewish understanding of the afterlife. I think most shocking is the fact that much of what Jesus most likely believed was not much difference from what orthodox Jews believe today, namely, that when you die your body returns to the “dust” of the earth, and that only during the eschaton, the final Day of Judgment, everyone (or only every Jew, depending on the sect) who has died will be resurrected *in bodily form* and either saved to live on a new paradise on earth (or sent to live with God if they’re especially holy) or rejected from being part of this so-called ‘Olam ha-Ba, or “World-to-come”.

    The main difference, however, is that Jesus’ preaching seems to have reflected a more severe strain of Jewish apocalyptic thinking, one that we see, for example, with the Dead Sea community. These more severe Jews believed that not only would the wicked be rejected from the World-to-come, but that they would also be tortured and tormented in “Gehenna,” or the Valley of Gehinnom, where they will be burned by an eternal “lake of fire” on the outside of their bodies while being eaten away by worms on the inside. Orthodox Jews today generally reject this picture of Gehenna, but it was clearly a popular belief amongst Jews in Jesus’ day.

    Anyway, I think that many Christians today would be shocked and surprised to learn that this is probably what Jesus actually believed and actually preached. That’s why I think your book would be important.

  4. Avatar
    ddecker54  March 10, 2017

    Bart –

    Consistent with the idea that my opinion is free and worth every penny, I would suggest that if you are going to contemplate consciousness and its nature, I would pay less heed to psychologists and neuro-scientists and rather find out what the real experts have to say about this matter,,and that would be the sages of the East. I might suggest Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj. Any discourse on consciousness/awareness that does not start with what these jnanis say would be missing the point completely.

    Based upon your post, I’d say that keeping the book under 1,000 pages will be a constant challenge. Good luck!

  5. Avatar
    bcdwa288  March 10, 2017

    Does the Afterlife Matter for Other Things? (March 8, 2017 Post Title) That is a profound question. I do not believe there is an afterlife. I do believe that it would drastically change human life on Earth if “eternal life” actually, factually, existed and could be demonstrated and confirmed in reality. So, in my opinion, the concept of “The Afterlife” matters or affects many other aspects of human life.
    One approach to your new book or some other future book might be to try to imagine what human life on earth would be like if there was no human death. We would all live forever on Earth or, at some point, we leave Earth and go to a better place and then, at some point, we go to an even better place. How would that reality impact our life on Earth?

  6. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 10, 2017

    Thank you Bart, fascinating stuff, please keep it coming!

  7. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  March 10, 2017

    Sounds pretty darn interesting. I have multiple articles re: “consciousness,” its relationship to its cousins attention and theory of mind, NDEs. They are culled from the neurological and neuropsychological literature(s). Some might be too technical, but I of course dunno. A Tony Damasio-authored consciousness article might be of particular interest. If you are interested, can send or refer you to sources.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Sure, send me (not the articles but) the references. Thanks,

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 13, 2017

        Is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained on your reading list? It’s not new (I read it in the 1990s) but it’s got some very interesting material.

  8. Avatar
    ganglion  March 10, 2017

    I would definitely read this book

  9. Avatar
    moose  March 10, 2017

    To me it seems like NDE is in conflict with the theory of evolution. I mean, to embrace death must be in stark conflict with the phrase; “Survival of the fittest”?
    There are stories of people about to freeze to death, which after a while begins to feel warm and comfortable, and begin to undress. A condition recorded in the diaries of Scott from his Antarctic expedition over a hundred years ago.
    But this is not a condition that should have a high probability of being transferred to subsequent generations.
    Example; Two suitors have to go over a mountain to meet their chosen one. On the mountain, they are surprised by a blizzard. One has genes that eventually embraces death, and he even undress. But the other one has genes that are fighting against death, and thus may be able to maintain some body temperature. Which of these would have the greatest chance of getting delivered its genetic material to subsequent generations? It’s obviously not the one who experienced NDE.
    The fact that people experiencing NDE suggests(to me) that it has a distinctive origin.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 13, 2017

      Here is an article that may shed some light on the natural causes of NDEs. Also, I recall an account from David Livinstone’s autobiography of being attacked by a lion. He said that, as the lion was shaking him, much as a cat shakes a mouse, he went limp and became completely insensitive to pain and without fear. He speculated that this must be a mechanism implanted by the creator to prevent prey from suffering in their last moments of life. It may also have a survival value, if seeming to be dead causes the attacker to lose interest.

  10. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 10, 2017

    All great topics. It sounds like the book could be massive.

  11. Avatar
    Hume  March 10, 2017

    1. Why does each generation including our own predict our own demise? Is there something in the human being that longs for the end, as Freud put it – the Death Instinct.
    2. And why is Revelation so bloodthirsty and scary?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      1. My sense is that it seems to be (alwasy) as bad as it can get… 2. To win readers?

      • Avatar
        BlowingInTheWind  March 12, 2017

        Bart, having reached 65 years on my own spiritual quest pondering the mysteries of the universe, am wrapping my thoughts around the one thing which binds ALL living creatures together which is electricity. I firmly believe “God” as well as our “souls” ie such consciousness is – Electricity.

        When the electricity stops inside us, we die.

        Where does the energy of that electricity go?

        Well, back in to the main universal “grid”

        Nick Tesla – probably (well, maybe) the smartest thinker us humans have yet produced – thought – was convinced – electricity has intelligence. He taught “…if you wish to understand the Universe, think of energy, frequency and vibration….”

        I have also been studying URIEL’S MACHINE by Knight & Lomas which in part has led me down the path towards thinking The Book of Revelations pertains to a giant comet and/or meteor coming to strike the earth – again – like has happened previously. The Noah’s Ark story makes sense when taking comet strike in to the factoring as just one example

        Have you studied The Book of Enoch to the point of making a book?

        Best, Robert Beerbohm

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2017

          Yes, the Enochic literature is very important to some of my work.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 10, 2017

    I’ll be interested in your thoughts on NDEs, since you’ve read a lot about them. *Not* having read a lot, I tend to assume they’re basically dreams – conjuring up what the dreamer believes, hopes, or (in some cases) fears is in store for him or her if they’re actually dying. But I might change my opinion if there are similarities that can’t be accounted for by the dreamers’ common backgrounds.

    Many years ago, I flatlined and had to be resuscitated two different times. I never experienced anything – at least, anything I remembered. On the second occasion, a nurse asked me whether I’d had any kind of NDE. I told her that I hadn’t, but I thought it was great that she asked people. I think I also expressed the opinion that some of us may have had experiences and not remembered them, just as we usually don’t remember our dreams.

  13. Avatar
    Johann Smit  March 10, 2017

    What about the assumption (?) that because energy cannot be destroyed, when we die, that energie just keep on existing?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Just because our energy survives doesn’t mean that our consciousness does. The lightbulb doesn’t function any more once it burns out.

  14. Avatar
    11thStory  March 10, 2017

    Very exciting future endeavors! My past Catholic > mystical Christian > atheist background has led me to the study and interest in the science of consciousness and my subsequent short film, The Deeper You Go. Plug: A good intro to the topic and available to watch on YouTube!

    I am interested in your opinion on NDE’s. Is belief a mere collection of facts to approve or disapprove or a brain state that seeks cohesion and community? What does one give up when disbelief enters the equation?

  15. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  March 10, 2017

    Doc, if you never write a book called “Apocalypse Now and Then”, you may as
    well call it a failed career. That is just too good.

  16. Avatar
    pbth4  March 10, 2017

    I love this topic … looking forward to your book! A few interesting resources for some different ideas around the issues of death and the afterlife:

    Yale free archived course on death, with some interesting discussions about the soul:

    Book: “the Soul Fallacy” by Julien Musolino

    Book: “Sum, Forty stories of the afterlife” by Neuroscient, David Eagleman

    Video series by LA Mortician, Caitlin Doughty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlsaSbIQEiw
    also her book: “Smoke Gets in your eyes”

    Book: “the big picture” by theoretical physicist at Cal Tech, Sean Carroll

    Book: “lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

    and one of my favorites, “the book of ER” in Plato’s Republic

    thanks for your interest in this topic, its a very important one indeed!

  17. TWood
    TWood  March 10, 2017

    1. In your view, is there any evidence Jesus could have preached that salvation would come about from believing in his upcoming death and resurrection? Or do you think all the statements in the gospels that somewhat imply that are placed on his lips by the NT authors? I think I know your view, but I’m wondering if there is any passage that makes you wonder if the historical Jesus possibly hinted at this in his earthly ministry (in Galilee or Judea).

    2. If not, then is it basically true that the religion Jesus taught (salvation via feeding the hungry and clothing the naked) is different from the religion the first disciples and Paul taught (salvation via believing Jesus died for your sins)?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      1. Not in my view. 2. Yes, I think they are very different. But with some key similarities.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 12, 2017

        I agree and I have my way of explaining it… but do you mind giving a brief statement on what the differences and similarities are, generally speaking? I struggle to explain this to others as clearly as I’d like to… so any input that’d help me do this would be awesome. Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2017

          This is too long for a comment here. I give a full discussion in my The New Testament: A Historical Introduction. Shortest version. Similarieis: both are apoclayptic Jews expecting that the end will come wihin their generation as God destroy’s the forces of evil to bring in his kingdom. Differences: Jesus expected the kingdom to be brought by the Son of Man to those who kept the Torah the way God wanted; Paul expected it to be brought by Jesus not to those who followed Torah but to those who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  18. Avatar
    Jason  March 10, 2017

    This seems like as good a time as any to ask something I’ve always wondered about. Does the medieval church’s reliance on combustion imagery in descriptions of hell rely completely on 1 Cor. 7:9, and is the original Greek sense of the word translated as “burn” there in later English (eg, “with lust”) versions conceptually distinct from burning in a hearth fire? (ie, would a Koine speaker have been confused if you conflated the two ideas in a play on words like the “anothen” thing?)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      No, there are other passages too, such as Revelation 20 and the “lake of fire”

  19. Avatar
    Stephen  March 10, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    While you’re taking the tours of the afterlife don’t forget the Epic of Gilgamesh. The character Enkidu journeys to the netherworld in a dream and we are presented with one of the most terrifying and despairing views possible. The image has stayed with me ever since I read the Epic in school. Haunting. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read the Epic but let’s just say these peoples of the Ancient Near East had a real hard way of looking at things.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Yup, a true classic. Reread it last week to think through some of the issues.

  20. Avatar
    Alanizd1  March 10, 2017

    Thank you. This is my first post on this site. I’ve watched and listen to all I can find online from you and that is why I joined the blog. Can’t wait to see how you develop these ideas in your book(s)! Thanks so much for caring for other and to give us such a great premium for doing the “Christian” (insert other applicable beliefs here) thing and caring for our brothers.

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