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Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter? Readers’ Mailbag April 15, 2018

I have a very long list of questions in my Readers’ Mailbag.  Here’s an interesting one that’s been hanging around for a while.



One of the really odd things about Christianity is the emphasis on believing in order to gain admission to heaven. Why is that so critical?



I would say that this one really odd thing is actually two really odd things: from the outset of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus emphasized both the centrality of belief and the realities of the afterlife.   These are oddities because prior to Christianity (this admittedly seems weird) there weren’t any religions that (a) focused on “having faith” and (b) stressed the afterlife as an incentive to practice religion.

Really?  Yup, really.  People may have trouble believing this (at least my students do), but it’s true.

Let me start with the afterlife.  For many of my students the afterlife is the one and only reason that anyone would want to be properly religious.  If there is no afterlife, why bother?  If there are no rewards or punishments after this life, then why be religious?

Ancient people almost never asked this question, in part because …

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Did Constantine Outlaw the Pagan Religions?
Is There a Time and Place for Heaven and Hell?



  1. Rick
    Rick  April 17, 2018

    Professor, do you think the belief in the Christian afterlife developed directly from the length of time without the apocolypse? If Paul bought into it that spoiled seem pretty quick… A few decades?

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    HawksJ  April 17, 2018

    Since Jesus, apparently, thought and taught that the new Kingdom was coming within some of his contemporaries’ lifetimes – and therefore wasn’t exclusively an ‘afterlife’ – then wouldn’t there have been some sort of transition period over that first 10, 20, 30 (or whatever) years? At first, the message wouldn’t have been so much, ‘belief this so that when you die, you’ll go to heaven’, but rather, ‘believe this, so that when Jesus comes – which will be any day now -you will part of his Kingdom (here on earth)’.

    It seems like that transition may have been how the emphasis on a ‘heaven’ evolved. As time moved on, the message had to evolve more and more to what happened after death.

    Does that make sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018


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        HawksJ  April 18, 2018

        Do you talk about that (specifically the evolution of the ‘reward’ from the new kingdom to heaven in the First Century) anywhere? I know you talk extensively about Jesus’ apocolypticism and also extensively about the afterlife, but I don’t recall you ever addressing this specific point.

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    VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

    ” In terms of belief, the Christians from the very beginning emphasized that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that made a person pleasing to God.”

    But didn’t the apocalyptic prophet Jesus himself preach that the Kingdom of God would shortly come to earth, and to get into it, people should behave properly – according to his interpretation of the Torah?

    If (the historical) Jesus didn’t teach about his death and resurrection and necessary belief in it to get to a heavenly realm, why were the first Christians teaching it?
    How did the message get switched around so quickly?
    How did the original message disappear so soon (like, within days of Jesus’ death) – did the disciples just abandon it and substitute their own gospel? So much for their belief in Jesus…
    Does Mark return more closely to the original teachings, as opposed to, and after, eg Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2018

      Yes, that’s right. The message of the early Christians *about* Jesus was different from the message *of* Jesus. The belief in the resurrection changed everything.

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        VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

        Was Mark that kind of Christian though? He seems very concerned with the life and teaching and death of Jesus, and hardly at all with the resurrection which looks like a bit of an afterthought. Certainly nothing in Mark about believe or burn. Did Mark believe in a resurrection ticket to the afterlife? because his Jesus didn’t.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2018

          Mark doesn’t have appearances of Jesus to people after the resurrectoin, but Jesus repeatedly predicts his resurrection (see 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) and the book climaxes with it, so I see it as having a central importance to the book.

          • Avatar
            VirtualAlex  April 20, 2018

            Ok. But for mark what is the purpose of the resurrection? To vindicate Jesus? Show his divine favour? I don’t see any indication that it was THE thing one had to believe in to get into the kingdom. Compare with Paul.

            So, did early Christians have different views on the meaning of the resurrection at the same time? Mark is after Paul (though set before) so there must have been Christians after Paul who had mark’s beliefs.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 22, 2018

            Mark never explicates his theology of the resurrection, other than strongly implying that it was a miracle worked by God to demonstrate that Jesus really was the miracle-owrking son of God.

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        godspell  April 20, 2018

        However, as you made clear in The Triumph of Christianity, many if not most Christians continued to understand Jesus’ core message for quite some time after his death, and tried their best to live it out–which predictably often led to early deaths (as when they tended to the sick during plagues–I found that to be one of the most moving sections of your book.)

        There are still a lot of Christians who follow some version of this belief. Never the majority, no. In the early days, Christianity would have attracted a more elite group of personalities, people who identified with Jesus’ message. There’s never enough people like that to go around. Eventually, the goats butt in and ruin everything.

        So I guess we’ll have to keep working on it.

        But I have to shake my head a bit at modern humans, leading their comfortable well-off lives, sneering at the credulity of these good people, who dared to think life could be more than just consuming and killing.

        No, you didn’t do that.

        But people on this thread are, some of them.

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    SidDhartha1953  April 23, 2018

    Have you contradicted yourself on ancient views of the afterlife? In the past I recall you saying that prechristian views of the afterlife were mostly of the Hades/sheol variety, but here you say the good were expected to have it pretty good, the bad not so good,

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2018

      There were different views — simply contrast Homer (everyone has the same fate) with Plato (the wicked suffer) (though it’s not at all certain that Plato meant it literally)

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    dentalhygiene  April 25, 2018

    Do you have thoughts about the recent Netflix movie ‘Come Sunday’ the true story of a megachurch pastor who looses his congregation over his new convictions about the heaven/hell question? I find it so interesting that beliefs on this issue cover the whole spectrum from ‘its over when we die’, to a neutral place for all, to purgatory, to eternal torment for some and eternal salvation for some, to eternal salvation for all. We are all over the map – except a belief in torment for all!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2018

      Haven’t seen it, but saw it advertised. Recently saw the play “The Christians” (terrific!) with the same premise.

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    ftbond  May 16, 2018

    Dr Ehrman —

    re: “But anyone who did not have faith would survive death only to be punished for their lack of faith.”

    As I understand it (and, please correct me if I’m wrong), you yourself were once in “pastoral” or “Christian teaching” roles. Did you teach this … ummm.. doctrine? If so, what did you base your teachings on?

    I’m not a vaunted scholar, but, in my readings of the NT, I just don’t find any reason to buy into that doctrine. So, if you did, and if you taught such to be “true” at one time, I’d really like to know what the rationale was.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2018

      Yes, that was my view. It can be found, for example, throughout the Gospel of John. (For starters, see John 3:36)

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    prestonp  June 24, 2018

    Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter?

    Because I don’t want to die. I can’t conceive of it. I’m not a tree or a hippo. I know that death is a reality, which I cannot avoid. But, I really think it stinks that I will entirely cease being me. I am too important to just disappear and never experience life any more. I’m not unique. No person should not die. We are not meant to spend 70 years as conscious beings in this remarkable, unbelievable, wonder-filled thing called life and suddenly stop feeling and thinking and loving and learning. Guess what? I will never die. Not ever. I will, very soon, transition from this environment to the next, where, thank GOD, there will be no more pain and suffering and tears. It is going to be outrageous. It is going to be a ball, non-stop fun and fulfillment and creative activities and exploration in glorious 72 degree weather without humidity, huge waves to surf, new planets to teleport to. Oh, it’s gonna be a blast baby.

    If I had the greatest gift for you, and you refused to accept it, if you didn’t believe that I wanted to give it to you, I won’t force you to receive it. I don’t like the word faith. It is not an end in itself. It just means that to the extent I’m able to, I will exercise my will to believe you just might mean what you say. That’s all.

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