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Who Has The Answer For a Happy Afterlife?

A few days ago I gave the opening part of the paper I read at a conference of New Testament scholars a couple of weeks ago, on the accounts of the afterlife in the Christian apocryphal book called Acts of Thomas (an account of Thomas’s missionary adventures in India), one of them involving a near death experienced that revealed the glories of heaven and the other a near death experience of the horrors of hell.

Most of the paper involved contrasting those two visions with comparable journeys to the underworld in earlier, more famous accounts, Homer’s description of Odysseus’s vision of the underworld in Odyssey book 11; Plato’s account of the near death experience of a soldier named Er in the Republic book 10; and Virgil’s discussion of Aeneas’s travels to the realms below in the Aeneid book 6.

I don’t need to describe these other accounts in detail here, since I’ve talked about them already on the blog some months ago; if you want to refresh your memory, they are here:






The basic point of my paper – and indeed, of the scholarly monograph I’m now writing on the topic – is that the Christian versions are very different and meant to attract readers as altogether …

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How Views of the Afterlife Changed
A Christian Forger Caught in the Act



  1. Avatar
    godspell  August 13, 2019

    Inferno and Divine Paradise are certainly on the same level as Homer, Plato, Virgil, and some might place Dante even higher. But there, pagan and Christian ideas of the afterlife are combined, and prove surprisingly compatible.

    What we see when we look at pagan conceptions of life after death is that most of the things we either praise or rebuke Christianity for were already well-established beforehand. This was partly cross-cultural influence, but also simply that these ideas were going to happen, no matter what. The desire to defeat death in some way was pretty much universal to all cultures. Even the depressing afterlife of the Sumerians and Greeks was still denying death. (In a disturbingly convincing way.)

    It took modern materialism to begin to break the hold the afterlife had on us, but no sooner is that achieved than people start thinking they can achieve immortal life through scientific means, freezing themselves to wait for some miraculous elixir, or maybe download themselves into a new body. There will be more of that to come.

    Unless we have another fall of civilization, in which case we’ll go back to the older ideas. That don’t require so much working capital. 😉

  2. Avatar
    Judith  August 13, 2019

    Perfect appeal in red today!

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    craig@corbettlaw.org  August 13, 2019

    Is there a good source for the early Egyptian philosophies of the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Do you mean ancient source? Egyptian Book of the Dead.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Ancient source? Egyptian Book of the Dead.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      For an ancient source, there is the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 14, 2019

      I put my own name in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the dead, changed “he” to “she”, and some other changes then recorded it and listened to it daily.
      Your enemy is your own beliefs to sin, hate, etc. Triumph over sin, live a good life. Believe you are good and stopped sinning.
      Ancient Egyptians had the most equality at their time. Men and women had books with their name in it.

  4. John4
    John4  August 13, 2019

    OK, so the Christians developed a new and improved vision of the afterlife, a vision that could motivate conversion to the Christian faith. But, whence did this vision arise? What led the church fathers to expand and improve upon Homer and Plato and Virgil?

    Thanks, Bart! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Ah, that’s the topic of my new book! Coming out in March.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Yup, that’s what my next book is about! (Due out in March)

  5. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 13, 2019

    Ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife. I think you needed to stop sinning… triumph over sin. We can do this by changing the stories we listen to… the ones that tell us who we are.
    “The Torah is not for ministering angels”. I don’t think it gets you to heaven and eternal life. I think in the story of Gilgamesh, he looked for eternal life but failed. That isn’t the story to listen to because it won’t get you to eternal life. You want the story where you rise (from sin) and have eternal life.
    I think it takes daily work to change beliefs from sinning and hating to doing good and loving-kindness. Listening to different stories, prayers, readings, videos, communities can all help. Know that others have done it and are helping you to get to heaven. You are not alone (unless you choose to be alone).
    In Ancient Egypt, You could also connect with spirits/gods while alive on earth. They wanted eternal life and to come back many times as angels, gods, saints, spirits, to help people get to heaven, just as they were helped by spirit (God with us).
    I am reading “Forged” and I am going to reread Acts and Luke. I am grateful they were included in the Bible. There can be lessons in the stories whether they were forged or not.
    Maybe there is a difference in how people view life on earth. “Good life” or “Torture & suffering.”
    “God’s will” or “man’s will”?
    “Son of God” or “son of man”?

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 13, 2019

      I am thinking the author wrote Luke and Acts to counter some other writings. Then as a counter to those writings in the Bible, someone tried to silence women in the church.
      Could Josephus have written several books in the Bible since Agrippa was communicating with Josephus?

      • Bart
        Bart  August 14, 2019

        No, Josephus was not a Christian and had no interest in Christian views. And his writing style is very, very different from anything in the New Testament

  6. Avatar
    fishician  August 13, 2019

    1) When I read the NT it says to me destruction of the ungodly, although there may be some weeping and gnashing of teeth (provided if needed!) as the soul is consumed by the fire. Who is the first influential post-Biblical author to assert the eternal torment of the ungodly?
    2) On a textual criticism FB page there is an article about the Secret Gospel of Mark, in which it suggests that you (among others) think it was a forgery. A forgery written early on, like many such documents, or a modern forgery? I know you wrote a forward for one of Smith’s books, so you must think Smith had some integrity,

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      1. There are pre-biblical precedents (most famously Plato); post-biblically: early martyr acts? Certainly by the time you get to people like Tertullian… 2. Yes, my suspicion is that Smith may have forged it. It’s hotly debated. Even if he did, it wouldn’t negate his historical claims in other books. (I wrote the Foreward to Jesus the Magician not because I agree with it all but because it was such an important, influential, and stimulating book; Smith was an amazingly erudite scholar, who did not suffer fools gladly. Luckily I was too young and cautious to get in his crosshairs)

  7. Avatar
    doug  August 13, 2019

    I wonder what was/is going on in the mind of someone who would righteously claim that anyone who did not share his/her beliefs about Jesus would be tortured forever. No matter how many people the hell-bound person took good care of or how many lives he/she saved, the well-being of those human lives would not even matter.

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  August 14, 2019

      In any case, if such surreal sites exist, I would prefer hell.
      In the heaven they say it’s very cold. Apparently, there is central heating, but it is almost always damaged or has no fuel for the furnace heaters.
      In hell it’s very hot, say those who prefer to go to heaven. But they do not realize that when the heat rises, they can open the windows or put fans. In addition, as there is so much fire, you can have air conditioning with a heat pump powered by that fire.
      More importantly, it is said that every Sunday and uphold catholics festivities, barbecues, Argentine roasts and grills of sardines and other exquisite fish are organized. And that cannot be done in heaven because there is no fire available.

      Now more seriously.
      What about the torments and sorrows of hell?
      The human being has an incommensurable capacity for adaptation, even to the worst situations and torture. It’s a matter of time.
      Hell’s sorrows may be so enormous that millions, billions, trillions, … of years are needed to get used to. But then, eternity has not yet begun, that is, the punishment is only temporary. Then there is an eternity of being adapted, comfortabily and so happy.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  August 13, 2019

    Are there pagan accounts that are more contemporary with Thomas’s? I would be interested in how the times the authors lived in might have affected their presentations of the afterlife

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Yes indeed — some of the most interesting are the visits to the afterlife described by the amusing and entertaining fictional accounts of Lucian of Samosata. I’ll be making a direct comparison in one of the chapters of the monograph I’m writing now.

  9. Avatar
    chixter  August 13, 2019

    And….The Song Remains The Same. Cameron Day and others illustrate a Matrix type reality system which we human souls (spiritual beings) are deceived into agreeing to return to this prison planet, life after life, after life. Once we become enlightened here, we are able to escape the trickery of the Archons who’s goal is to keep us trapped in this reality. If we succeed, well all of the other reality frames become our oyster. We are free. Archons were mentioned in the Nag Hamadi books, most notably Enoch. Scientists have also begun hypothesizing about the after-life. Guys like Elon Musk and physicists like Tom Campbell are bringing quantum mechanics into play. Theories of evolving consciousness systems and existence in a virtual reality where we (in this life) are just avatars being played by the individual units of consciousness. Campbell has written a Trilogy My Big T.O.E. (theory of everything) that spells it all out. Free on Google books. My guess is that 2,000 years from now, fringe sciences will be the new religions, the old ones having faded away. Jesus will be unknown and guys like Campbell the current Savior. It just answers to our lack of answers….what happens after we die? No one knew then, or now, or most likely far into the future. So we will always have “afterlife” stories.

  10. Avatar
    qditt  August 13, 2019

    Thank you for the post Dr. Ehrman. I was curious and hopefully not asking something too personal. As an Agnostic/Atheist, do you believe in any life after death? I would speculate not, but is it something you would hope for? I don’t mean in a sense of how life after death has ever been written about, but something you would personally desire?

    Thanks as always.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      No, I think this life is the end of the story for us.

      • Avatar
        Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  August 14, 2019

        The great majority of believers have no capacity to think of an eternal life after death, that is, when the biochemical reactions that we call life cease.
        They lack the concept of transfinite numbers and potential and actual infinities in order to have even a brief idea of what eternity could be.
        Therefore, they do not realize that that of eternal life — whether in hell or in heaven, especially in the latter – – is a joke in bad taste and you could even say that obscene.
        I would at most accept an eternity with finite vacations and leave of absence on request.

      • Rick
        Rick  August 16, 2019

        So do I. At least I hope so. Sitting around and worshipping some other being would bore me to death (🥺). However, there is a fairly recent improvement to the Christian afterlife I might find worthwhile. it’s called the Rainbow Bridge where where we rejoin our pets who have gone before us. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Bridge_(pets)

  11. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  August 14, 2019

    I’m a modified Virgil.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2019

      Well, I hope you’ve modified his 1000=year required torment to a minute or two….

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  August 26, 2019

        Thanks! I’ll do that now: It’s down to mere seconds. And they take the form of a hangover, pleasurably acquired . .

  12. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 26, 2019

    I think that, as inevitably human constructs, religion, philosophy, *and* science are all woefully inadequate at explaining reality, at least as they have so far developed. As a philosophical platonist myself, I remain fascinated by our seeming ability to catch occasional shadowy glimpses of the deeper reality that physics now tells us is “there”. I tend to think our main stumbling block is our persistent adherence to a Cartesian mind/body dualism, and our post-enlightenment bias toward a materialistic explanation of consciousness and the abstract mental world. In my view, even operating within this dualistic construct, it is far from clear as to which can be said to have ontological primacy. We simply don’t know enough yet to say anything very constructive, but one thing is clear from experimental physics – we are only glimpsing a thin sliver of what constitutes “ultimate” reality. In this circumstance, opining about what happens (or doesn’t happen) to us when we die is of no more than speculative relevance. Science (Truth, if you prefer) doesn’t care what we believe (or don’t believe).

    To quote the physicist Sir James Jeans: (obviously of a similar philosophical bent) 🙂

    “I incline to the idealistic theory that consciousness is fundamental, and that the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not consciousness from the material universe… In general the universe seems to me to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine. It may well be, it seems to me, that each individual consciousness ought to be compared to a brain-cell in a universal mind.

    What remains is in any case very different from the full-blooded matter and the forbidding materialism of the Victorian scientist. His objective and material universe is proved to consist of little more than constructs of our own minds. To this extent, then, modern physics has moved in the direction of philosophic idealism. Mind and matter, if not proved to be of similar nature, are at least found to be ingredients of one single system. There is no longer room for the kind of dualism which has haunted philosophy since the days of Descartes”.

    — James Jeans, addressing the British Association in 1934, recorded in Physics and Philosophy

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