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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
    Pattylt  March 10, 2017

    One of the ideas of the early Christians that I found fascinating was the insistence of the resurrection of the flesh and that Paul seemed to be pretty clear that we are NOT raised in the body we die in. Why was it so important to the early fathers of Christianity that we keep our flesh? Good grief, I don’t want to keep my poor scarred and arthritic body (I do not belive in an afterlife) but these men certainly did. It was a distinction from Greek thought was it not? Didn’t they have some problems convincing the Pagans that being raised in the flesh was better? Needed? Was this just to confirm that Christ was raised in the flesh so it served an apologetic purpose?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Paul’s views were actually pretty nuanced: he thought the *body* was raised but hte *flesh* (that is, the sinful part of us) was not. But the body would be glorified, just as Jesus’ body was.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 12, 2017

        Nuanced (maybe downright confusing) is right… I still cannot figure out what Paul means exactly… is it right to assume Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that the spiritual body is raised without flesh and blood and is a body that is not confined to 4D spacetime as our natural bodies are? This seems consistent with other accounts of Paul’s vision of Jesus (Acts) and his other vision (2 Cor. 12) as well as gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrected body (John 20:19). In your view, is it true Paul seems to think the incorruptible spiritual body is something like (not exactly like) a “body of massless energy” (photons) or a “body of unknown matter” (Dark Matter) rather than a corruptible “body of normal matter” (Carbon based)… yet even still, Paul sees such a body as very *real* nonetheless… in your view, is this along the lines of Paul’s understanding of the “spiritual body”?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2017

          Yes, the body will be raised but glorified, without the “sinful flesh” as part of it.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  March 13, 2017

            Was Paul of the opinion that there were inherently evil aspects of the material world but, contra the gnostics, that those aspects could be purged and a good matter left behind? Did he think, as some fundamentalists I know, that the whole material order was corrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve, or did it just corrupt the human body?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 14, 2017

            Yes, that’s what he thought. And yes, the corruption extended to the natural order (see Romans 8)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 12, 2017

      My hypothesis is that Paul and his ilk believed the body would be essentially re-created, but rather than being made of the corruptible, ephemeral earthly “stuff” that makes us mortal, it will, rather, be made of the incorruptible, immutable heavenly “stuff” that makes the heavens and the divine beings immortal (Aristotle’s so-called “quintessence”). This can be thought of as the first significant syncretism of Judaism and Platonism in Christianity (Though Jews had been creating common links between Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism for centuries up to that point, e.g. Philo, Letter of Aristeas, etc.).

  2. Avatar
    mjt  March 11, 2017

    I’m definitely interested in hearing your thoughts on NDEs. Can you give a hint now, or recommend one of the books that influenced your thinking on this?

  3. Avatar
    mjt  March 11, 2017

    I’d be interested in hearing about the transition from ‘works association’s to salvation by faith/grace. I can’t make heads or tails out of what’s taught in the NT.

    • Avatar
      mjt  March 11, 2017

      ‘works salvation’, not ‘works association’

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Ah, it’s probably because different authors taught different things. Matthew: it’s all about living a moral life in conformity wiht Torah; Paul: it’s all about faith in Christ.

  4. Avatar
    johnbutleruk  March 11, 2017

    Hi Bart
    I’m very intrigued! ? What do you now think about NDEs? I read a little into this subject a long time ago but haven’t kept up with the research. Bonus question: Of the 20 books on NDEs, which might you recommend?
    Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      I’ll be dealing with that! Best place to start — the beginning, with Raymond Moody’s Life after Life. Most famous recent account, Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven.

  5. Avatar
    Aaron  March 11, 2017

    This sounds really exciting! Best of luck to you Dr. Ehrman on this project, can’t wait to see what insights you have about this!

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 11, 2017

    Wow! Quite a list. I am especially intrigued that Bible quoting Christians seem to have a view of the afterlife that is not actually Biblical. I am also intrigued by the change of heaven being for the “righteous” to heaven being for those having the “correct” beliefs.

    Readers of this blog might have an interest in reading online “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” It appeared in the New Yorker and was written by Elizabeth Kolbert. Concepts such as confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and the Backfire Effect attempt to explain why religious and political views don’t usually change with evidence.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  March 11, 2017

    And don’t forget the Celts, who believed in The Otherworld. And perhaps reincarnation. And everybody knows The Vikings dreamed of a world where they could fight all day and drink all night. Hunter-gatherers often have a form of ancestor-worship–which means they believe their ancestors are still watching over them.

    Pretty much nobody said “You die, and that’s it.”

    It’s kind of boring, when you get right down to it. 🙂

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  March 11, 2017

    As far as I am aware, no Near Death Experience has ever resulted in a verified prediction, such as a dying patient floating over to the commissary and hearing nurses talk in specifics about their boyfriends, then reciting what they’d heard when they awaken word for word. Like Paul’s claim that he met and spoke with Jesus on the road to Damascus, we cannot ever know for sure just what the hell is happening until we have proof of the event. I think the issue of NDE is a complete waste of time.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Actually there are verified experiences. That makes it all the more interesting.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  March 12, 2017

        I hope you’re going to make a clear distinction between NDEs and mere *Out-of-Body* experiences, which can happen at any time. As I understand it, an NDE involves a person who’s actually flatlined supposedly visiting a “destination” suggestive of Heaven or Hell.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2017

          Yes, OBE’s can occur in connectoin with NDE’s — but apart from them as well.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 11, 2017

    “the idea that at the end of history God would raise every human from the dead to face judgment, either to be rewarded or punished for eternity… Where did the view come from, why did anyone hold to it, and why did Christians stop holding to it? Or did they?”

    That view seems still to be present in the Catholic “Apostles’ Creed” – at least the way it was worded when I was young. Referring to what followed Jesus’s death: “He descended into Hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

    It never made sense to me, because in other contexts, we were given to understand that the dead in “Hell” had already been “judged,” and condemned to remain there eternally! (I can see now that it was really a reference to the older idea of Sheol.)

    And there used to be an emphasis on burying amputated limbs with the rest of the body, whenever possible – presumably because it would facilitate the eventual “resurrection of the body,” also referred to in the “Apostles’ Creed.” But when *organ donations* became possible, Catholics did accept the idea.

    • Avatar
      Eskil  March 12, 2017

      Martin Luther rejected the belief in the immortal soul and hence there is no reference to soul in some of Lutheran funeral liturgies – instead the main message is…

      “For dust you are and to dust you will return.
      Jesus Christ, our Savior, will raise you up at the last day.”

  10. Avatar
    Eskil  March 11, 2017

    Has there been any NDE reported where someone has visited Hell and returned back to this life?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Yes, Maurice Rawlings, a physician who is also a fundamentalist Christian, wrote a book about them. His work is widely discounted.

  11. Rick
    Rick  March 11, 2017

    “Everyone, including Satan, would be saved?” But would Satan then finally bow to the Son?

  12. Avatar
    Tony  March 11, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I am a bit confused about your 4th point. In the Gospels Jesus of Nazareth prophesied about his resurrection and is, of course, the main resurrection subject himself. But Jesus of Nazareth himself gives no further resurrection details, except that Matthew links the third day raising to the OT by means of Jonah.

    Paul is much more specific and lays it out nicely in 1Cor 15 According to Paul in 1 Cor 15:42-44, the resurrected body is a spiritual body and not a perishable natural body. Except for the short ending of the original Mark, this contradict the material bodily resurrections of Jesus in the Gospels. Original Mark got it right, because he read Paul and realized that the resurrected Jesus, according to Paul, was spiritual and not of the flesh!

    The later copiers of Mark introduced the bodily resurrected Jesus and the other Gospel writers followed the interpolated Mark.

    Again, we see a disconnect between Paul and the Gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      I’m not sure what you’re confused about.

      • Avatar
        Tony  March 12, 2017

        You stated in your 4th point: ” …and was the view of Jesus and his followers….”

        Where does Jesus, or his followers, in the Gospels communicate: “the idea that at the end of history God would raise every human from the dead to face judgment, either to be rewarded or punished for eternity.” ?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2017

          In a number of places; I give some key examples in my book Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium. One obvious place: Matthew 25:31-46.

          • Avatar
            Tony  March 13, 2017

            Thank you, but I’m not at all sure that the author of Matthew writes about resurrected humans in Matthew 25:31-46.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 14, 2017

            Ah, sorry, I thought you were asking about whether Jesus subscribed to the idea of punishment after the resurrection. On resurrection itself, see Mark 12:18-27.

  13. Avatar
    iameyes137  March 12, 2017

    For decades I have been seeking to understand why an eternal, all powerful being, has to be worshiped. Demanding reverence suggests there is a deficiency of some kind.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 12, 2017

      Agreed! One of my main objections to Christianity has always been that I can’t believe a Being who *deserved* to be “worshipped” would *demand* to be “worshipped.”

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 13, 2017

        Well, if God knows everything, it knows it deserves to be worshipped and may feel an obligation to its creatures to inform them of that. Just from the tip of my head…

  14. Avatar
    MikeDavis  March 12, 2017

    Bart, do you think that belief in an afterlife among Christians may have arisen, not only because of belief or trust in certain statements in the New Testament (such as Jesus going to prepare a place for believers, etc.), but because of experiences they may have had, such as sometimes seeing apparitions, near death experiences, alleged communications from deceased persons through mediums, dying persons claiming to see relatives, angels, or Jesus coming to take them to Heaven, etc.? It seems to me that experiences such as these might make it easy for Christians to read into New Testament passages a belief in an afterlife that might not be in accord with the original context of the passages.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      I’m exploring that as a possibility. Not sure what I think yet.

  15. Avatar
    Jason  March 12, 2017

    There are a few interesting theories in current theoretical physics that might be worth mentioning in at least a speculative way-for example the idea that the past is always in some sense as real as the present and future that Relativity seems to imply, or the holographic principal that our experience of reality might just be a 3 or 4 dimensional representation of information or processes on the surface of a 2 dimensional bubble surrounding our universe. (The former is rarely questioned, the latter is un-provable with current technologies but a lot of top level theoreticians are putting their money on it.)

    • Avatar
      Apocryphile  August 1, 2017

      I like your comments, and agree that cutting-edge theoretical physics is one of the most exciting and promising areas of scientific research today, and may someday soon overturn and revolutionize our current scientific paradigm of what constitutes “reality”. As I mentioned in my own posts in this thread, what is ontologically foundational or primary is precisely the focus of current thought and research in what we normally think of as the ‘hardest’ of the sciences – physics. Eminent physicists such as Leonard Susskind, Brian Greene, Roger Penrose, Juan Maldecena, and Max Tegmark are seriously postulating, for purely mathematical reasons, that what we think of as reality is, as you say, a 3-D ‘projection’ (or hologram) of a distant 2-D surface. Max Tegmark even goes so far as to postulate a multiverse that is, at its base, purely mathematical in structure. To me, it’s fascinating how closely these current ideas reflect Plato’s analogy of the cave. These days, a strictly materialist epistemology seems no longer to be sufficient for an honest, comprehensive phenomenology.

      (Dr. Ehrman – if you’re interested, I could recommend several books by these physicists (sans equations) that you might find valuable as scientific background to some future book….. Cheers!)

      • Bart
        Bart  August 1, 2017

        Wow. I’ve been reading books about “consciousness” recently, and Neal Degrasse Tyson — all new stuff to me and mind blowing. But not as mindblowing as *that*!

  16. Avatar
    Rockwine  March 12, 2017


    A number of years ago I suffered from a very serious back problem which left me semiparalyzed for a while. I recovered from this by learning the Alexander technique. One of Alexander’s principles is called end gaining. It is about movement. Our body needs to move from its centre. If we first move with our heads we will upset our balance and create a problem somewhere. In order to move from our centre we need to be in the present. If we are living in some fantasy future or past we are not living in the present. This is not an easy idea. For instance Bart when you are writing a book about the future or the past you’re still living and writing in the present. But I expect that you will have noticed that if you spend too much time writing you will probably begin to stiffen up. This can become a problem. Our bodies need movement to remain in the present. The present has an edge which we need and which is an essential part of living. People love playing sports because it forces them to function in the present. But like with most things we need moderation too much sports may bring on tiredness which may lead to injury and some form of disability.
    Mind, body, emotions, sensuality, we need to function in all areas in order to live satisfactory lives. I think Bart that your reaction to Ecclesiastes fits in here.
    I think that eternity is in the present. That is why I believe in the continuity of life. When I am in the present I cannot imagine termination. Continuity or eternity alone makes sense. NDE’s fit into this context. They represent the witness of people who were on the verge of oblivion or death for instance on the operations table. They moved from this situation into an expanded experience where they met a being of light which they believed to be the future. They had the opportunity to review their lives to face unsatisfactory actions. They wee asked if they wished to return to their everyday lives and take care of unfinished business. Many accepted this with reluctance.
    Many doctors accept that there was clinical death.. This happens more often on the operating table than the medical profession would like to acknowledge. If indeed there was clinical death then there is only one explanation for the return of these people and their now satisfactory lives. It seems that most of them no longer feel afraid of dying. There are many thousands of them and many more who are silent. If in fact what they are talking about was a case of hallucination why would this reduce their fear of death? Of course one can argue about all of this. Scientists tend to argue about almost anything.
    However I think it is important to accept that this belief or this evidence for a future life is based on present day witnesses. It is not based on 2000 year old writings and our faith which so many people believe in and refuse to argue or discuss.
    Personally the living witness makes sense to me. I have read the evidence of many people who went through these experiences. I see no reason to disbelieve all of them.

  17. Avatar
    plparker  March 13, 2017

    For me some of the most memorable images of the afterlife come from movies like Ghost. I hope you discuss these in your book as well.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 13, 2017

    One of the points you mentioned in your list of things you were considering including in your book is how Christians got from heaven as the reward for righteousness to heaven as the reward for right belief. Would Paul’s exegesis (Romans 4) of the verse in Genesis, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” not be the simplest explanation? That’s what I remember from bible studies in the 1970s. Is it true that the concept of faith has been dumbed down to simple credulity, that it is more a relational concept of mutual trust and fidelity in the OT and NT? If so, then the fidelity part would imply right action as a show of good faith, no? Hence James, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.” The dumbing down seems to have begun very early on.

  19. Avatar
    Jana  March 13, 2017

    How truly exciting research Dr. Ehrman. Again eager for your next book. I think as a personal exercise for my own personal philosophical/psychological clarification, I’ll answer your questions. I regret that other than anecdotes, I have so little to offer in this discussion … One of your readers commented about Eastern philosophy. It does offer answers … not from theory but gleaned from mystical experiences … and those experiences are also archetypal … meaning we all have similar experiences when a certain level is attained. If your quest is also personal as compared or contrasted with academic, could I suggest anything by Master Chogyal Norbu? You might find his book on Dream Yoga interesting. It touches on a couple of your themes.

  20. Avatar
    Eric  March 14, 2017

    Your description of Sheol in older Judaic thought seems to suggest an earlier idea of separation of body and soul (or at least consciousness, the “shades of hades” sort of thing.

    Or do you think they thought actual buried bodies descended through the earth (rock, dirt, etc) and entered Sheol/Hades in physical form?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      It’s hard to figure out, but they appear to have thought that the grave itself was Sheol.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 16, 2017

      Sheol might be a synecdoche. It may have started out meaning literal interment, but later it took on a connotation of the state of death in general. Compare it, for example, to the English idiom “six feet under”. The expression refers to dead people who are literally buried six feet under ground, but the expression can also just men to be dead. A person who’s cremated could be “six feet under”. Same goes for expressions like “pushing up daisies” and “sleeping with the fishes”.

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