Bart Ehrman: Heaven And Hell Are 'Not What Jesus Preached'

Ehrman comes out swinging at long cherished traditional Christian beliefs.

GROSS: One of the theses of your book about the history of heaven and how is that views of heaven and hell don’t go back to the earliest stages of Christianity, and they’re not in the Old Testament or in Jesus’ teachings. They’re not?

EHRMAN: (Laughter) I know, exactly. This is the big surprise of the book, and it’s the one thing people probably wouldn’t expect because, you know, when I was growing up, I just assumed. This is the view of Christianity. So this must be what Jesus taught. This is what the Old Testament taught. And in fact, it’s not right. Our view that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell is not found anywhere in the Old Testament, and it’s not what Jesus preached. I have to show that in my book, and I lay it out and explain why it’s absolutely not the case that Jesus believed you died and your soul went to heaven or hell. Jesus had a completely different understanding that people today don’t have.

Of course this is not news to mainstream scholarship, which has generally held this understanding for a very long time. However Ehrman’s profile will help bring the news to a large popular audience.

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So, @Jonathan_Burke, a question (and I’ll probably read Ehrman’s new book at some point, but haven’t seen it yet): it has always seemed to me that the main references that could be taken as references to “hell” in the sayings of Jesus were (1) the various parables which, in some tellings, end with someone or other being sent off to the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth and (2) the tale of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus.

I know this is probably asking the sort of question which can be answered only with the merest grunt or with ten thousand pages, and if so, my apologies for asking. But what, rather than a heaven/hell type afterlife, would you take these to be references to? I have found your remarks on demonology and the like very interesting and would love to know your thoughts on this.

What about Mark 9:42-50

Firstly you need to understand that the typical form of afterlife in Second Temple Period Judaism was resurrection. Consequently, any reward or punishment takes place on earth, after people have been raised from the dead.

“Of the ten Gehenna texts the body is specifically mentioned in six (Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Matt 5:29; 10:28; 18:8) strongly implied in another (Luke 12:4–5) and not precluded in the remaining (Matt 5:22; 23:15, 33). This emphasis underlines two points. First, the final judgment is preceded by a bodily resurrection of the wicked. Clearly there can be no judgment on the body if the body is not resurrected. Second, the notion that judgment only takes place on corporeal persons intimates that there is no judgment in supposed other forms of existence. The emphasis on judgment on the body therefore precludes any punishment or judgment before the end of time and the Day of Judgment.”

Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 237–238.

Secondly you need to understand that the typical reward in Second Temple Period Judaism was life in the messianic kingdom of God, which was of course on earth. Punishment was exclusion from that kingdom. The people weeping and gnashing teeth in Jesus’ parable are being excluded from the kingdom, while seeing others enter. This is why in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is able to see Lazarus rewarded while he himself is punished.

“The outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth usually appear as a conclusion to parables in connection to a banquet (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 24:51). The comparison of the kingdom to a banquet is metaphorical and therefore so is the outer darkness. Since most banquets took place in the evening, to be thrown to the outer darkness literally means to be excluded from the lighted, happy halls of the feast. It is a metaphorical expression of exclusion from the kingdom and not a literal description of the final judgment.”

Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 240.

For more details, see this previous post of mine in which I demonstrated that mainstream scholarship has largely abandoned the entire idea of the immortal soul. For a book length treatment on the history of mortalism, from a Christadelphian perspective, download this.

The word “hell” here is the Greek γέενναν, a transliteration of the Hebrew gehenna, meaning “Valley of Hinnom”, an area outside Jerusalem which was used as a trash dump. Fires burned there night and day, destroying the trash. During the Old Testament it became used as as a symbol of apocalyptic judgment, the punishment of sinners.

Note that the gospels refer to Gehenna as a place where body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28, “fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”), not preserved forever in eternal torment. This is a post-resurrection punishment on people who are alive and in their own bodies, using the symbolism of a place where trash is destroyed.

“The destructive imagery associated with Gehenna reaches an apogee in Luke 12:4–5 (Part I, chapter VI). In language reminiscent of Isaiah 66:24, Luke records it not as a place where destruction is inflicted on the wicked, but rather as the place where the corpses of those already destroyed in the final judgment are thrown to be burned and consumed. Gehenna, therefore, becomes the place of the annihilation of corpses and impurities and as such, brings to a conclusion the punitive work of the judgment.”

Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 238.


Thanks. Very interesting!

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While @Jonathan_Burke is correct about what was the “typical form” of afterlife, we should remember there were other views of the afterlife promulgated by other Jewish sects.

Josephus provides a notorious Masada narrative featuring the final speech of zealot Eleazar Ben Ya’ir. Some academics point out that this speech may not have ever been voiced. But nevertheless, the details of the speech represent Josephus’ understanding of the Zealot view of the afterlife. And the irony is that most of the Western world has come to adopt the Zealot (aka Essene) view of the afterlife!

Below are some quotes:
“… I find that you are such people as are no better than others, either in virtue or in courage, and are afraid of dying, though you be delivered thereby from the greatest miseries, while you ought to make no delay in this matter, nor to await any one to give you good advice; for the laws of our country, and of God himself, have from ancient times, and as soon as ever we could use our reason, continually taught us, and our forefathers have corroborated the same doctrine by their actions, and by their bravery of mind, that it is life that is a calamity to men, and not death…”

“for [death] affords our souls their liberty, and sends them by a removal into their own place of purity, where they are to be insensible of all sorts of misery; for while souls are tied clown to a mortal body, they are partakers of its miseries; and really, to speak the truth, they are themselves dead; for the union of what is divine to what is mortal is disagreeable.”

“It is true, the power of the soul is great, even when it is imprisoned in a mortal body; for by moving it after a way that is invisible, it makes the body a sensible instrument, and causes it to advance further in its actions than mortal nature could otherwise do. However, when it is freed from that weight which draws it down to the earth and is connected with it, it obtains its own proper place, and does then become a partaker of that blessed power, and those abilities, which are then every way incapable of being hindered in their operations. It continues invisible, indeed, to the eyes of men, as does God himself; for certainly it is not itself seen while it is in the body; for it is there after an invisible manner, and when it is freed from it, it is still not seen.”

“It is this soul which hath one nature, and that an incorruptible one also; but yet it is the cause of the change that is made in the body; for whatsoever it be which the soul touches, that lives and flourishes; and from whatsoever it is removed, that withers away and dies; such a degree is there in it of immortality.”

“Let me produce the state of sleep as a most evident demonstration of the truth of what I say; wherein souls, when the body does not distract them, have the sweetest rest depending on themselves, and conversing with God, by their alliance to him; they then go every where, and foretell many futurities beforehand. And why are we afraid of death, while we are pleased with the rest that we have in sleep? And how absurd a thing is it to pursue after liberty while we are alive, and yet to envy it to ourselves where it will be eternal!”

“We, therefore, who have been brought up in a discipline of our own, ought to become an example to others of our readiness to die. Yet, if we do stand in need of foreigners to support us in this matter, let us regard those Indians who profess the exercise of philosophy…. (H)owever, the circumstances we are now in ought to he an inducement to us to bear such calamity courageously, since it is by the will of God, and by necessity, that we are to die; for it now appears that God hath made such a decree against the whole Jewish nation, that we are to be deprived of this life which [he knew] we would not make a due use of.”

Josephus Flavius, The Wars of the Jews , VII 8.6, translated by William Whiston.

There are additional writings by Josephus which additional cover the principle of TRANSMIGRATION of the soul… not as a mainstay of Jewish thought, but as a special notion embraced by some of the sects of Judaism.

Yes, but they aren’t found in the New Testament.

Yes, but again we don’t find this in the New Testament. These are fringe views in Second Temple Period Judaism.

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I think that is an over-statement. I think Jesus dipped his cup into many teachings of these sects:

Such teachings (non-Pharisaic and non-Sadducee) would include this text:

Mat 19:12
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it , let him receive it .

But on the SPECIFIC issue of the soul’s behavior at death, we have just a few more texts, introduced thusly by Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

Smith’s Bible Dictionary

This is a word of Persian origin, and is used in the Septuagint as the translation of Eden. It means “an orchard of pleasure and fruits,” a “garden” or “pleasure ground,” something like an English park. It is applied figuratively to the celestial dwelling of the righteous, in allusion to the garden of Eden (2 Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7). It has thus come into familiar use to denote both that garden and the heaven of the just.

Luk 23:43
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luk 16:22
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom… [versus: the rich man also died, and was buried…]

Luke 16:22 is commonly dismissed as merely a parable, but a parable loses its effectiveness if it invokes a completely erroneous world view!

Yes I am sure you do. How about you write a paper and submit it to a journal, describing Jesus as an enthusiastic religious syncretist?

Smith’s Bible Dictionary. Really? It hasn’t been revised since 1948.

No it doesn’t, especially when it’s explicitly contradicting that world view.


What you fail to address is that the COMMON view of the afterlife - - represented in the New Testament - - is NOT the view that Western Civilization has come to accept.

The most obscure soul scenario is the one that has won out.

What do you mean “fail to address”? It’s the whole reason I made the original post, which specifically mentions the fact.

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Yes, I see your point. But it seems YOUR point is that the popular views of the Soul and the Afterlife are wrong, or not worth believing.

In contrast, I think the popular views regarding the Soul and the Afterlife make more sense than the idea that General Resurrection required a physical body.


I am sure Jesus and the apostles would be very interested to hear this.

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The interesting question for a Unitarian Universalist like me is whether Jesus was teaching gnosticizing views?, or was it Paul?, or was this one of the few things Jesus and Paul agreed upon?!!!

Hi @Jonathan_Burke, @gbrooks9 and @Puck_Mendelssohn,

Is the immortality of the soul a view outside the mainstream of New Testament teaching? I don’t think so. How about this? First, there’s 2 Corinthians 5:6-9:

6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

Paul wants to be not only “at home with the Lord” but “away from the body.” This saying makes no sense if he thinks we have no conscious existence outside our bodies.

And what about this? Philippians 1:21-24:

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Once again, the passage makes no sense if there’s no intermediate state. Remember: regardless of whether he had died young or old, Paul would have (on a soul-sleep scenario) gone on to be with Christ anyway, the only difference being that if he’d died earlier, he would have gone to heaven a little earlier. So what?

Finally, there’s Revelation 6:9-12:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

Departed souls can talk? Doesn’t sound like they’re asleep to me.

And let me conclude with a quote from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, written in either the 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D., and counted as part of the Bible by Catholics and many Orthodox believers. But whether it’s canonical or not, it was widely influential and well-received in its day. It certainly wasn’t the work of a fringe group. Here’s Wisdom 3:1-9:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
3 and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
9 Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.

One more point. The soul-sleep view has its fans, and a plausible case can be made for it from the OT and even parts of the NT, but really, does the notion of an entity which exists (in some shadowy state) but which is unable to perform any kind of operation at all (no thoughts, no memories, no consciousness) make any philosophical sense? It doesn’t. Even a dormant virus is still there, with the chemical properties of a crystal. But a dormant soul? Really? If, on the other hand, you think God annihilates people at death and reconstitutes them at the Resurrection, you run into the identity problem: why is my resurrected body still me? Immortality is the only logical solution to these problems. And it’s a solution which most of the world’s Jews today accept.

I look forward to seeing your academic paper published in a peer reviewed journal, as opposed to a few opinions expressed on a handful of verses, in a discussion forum.

The appeal to personal incredulity? Really?

For the same reason why your body now is still you, despite the fact that your original body, which you had when you were first born, no longer exists.

I am one of those who is inclined to think that finding a truly consistent thread in an anthology like the NT is to some extent a fool’s errand. And I am not very interested in what the NT “teaches”; I’m more interested in whether a particular claim is actually true, as demonstrated by evidence, than I am in whether some passage teaches one thing or teaches another. NT authors made a variety of claims. What evidence can be brought to bear upon those claims is what I am interested in – if some set of views can be substantiated, then perhaps there is some argument for understanding those views more deeply, but even then I’m not sure, because the mere fact that an author might have something right, as confirmed by evidence, does not mean he has anything else right.

So, for me, this is another case of “philosophy in the air will not do.” While I do find the “teachings” of the various Biblical books interesting from a cultural/historical perspective, ultimately it’s their truth or falsity that’s the thing. And when we are speaking of afterlives and resurrections and immortality of the soul and whatnot, data are non-existent. So, of cultural interest, yes; but at bottom there’s nothing there to study.

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The issue that frequently arrises, per @Jonathan_Burke, is that he thinks there is an important distinction between a soul that is NOT immortal, but is granted immortality by God …


a soul that is immortal by nature.

The problem with this Tempest-in-a-Tea-Pot is that the INCARNATED body occupied by a soul seems to have been DESIGNED to be mortal - - which is why the Tree of Life was an important feature of Eden.

Jonathan also likes to think the Gnostic version of an afterlife that doesn’t require a body (as found in Zoroastrianism, Essenism and in modern Western societies) are not presented in the New Testament as valid schools of thought.