Heaven and Hell: by Bart Ehrman, An Extended Review

What happens after we die? Is there a “heaven?” Is there a “hell?” If so, what does either of these look like?

The historical development of these ideas is the subject of Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Bart Ehrman is perhaps the world’s best known critic of evangelical Christian faith, having grown up in the evangelical world until he deconverted out of it in graduate school. His New York Times best selling Misquoting Jesus has made him one of most widely read biblical scholars in our day at the popular level, sought after by the media almost every time a major story arises within Christianity.

With such a title, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife really peaked my interest. As you will read in this review, I really got into it and made dozens of notes. For over the past few years during the COVID pandemic, I have known of several friends who died of the disease, some of whom were at a relatively young age. I, myself, had a close brush with death about four years ago, after an automobile slammed into my bicycle on a busy road, throwing me back into the driver’s windshield. Thankfully, the only major injury I had was a concussion, that knocked me out cold for about an hour. The paramedics told me that I could have easily died, if the driver had hit me at a higher rate of speed. So, the topic of the afterlife is pretty pertinent to me, a lot more urgent than when I was a teenager, when I thought I was invulnerable to death.


Why Bother With Reading a Book Written by an Atheist Bible Scholar??

Yet some Veracity readers may wonder why I, as an evangelical Christian, would bother to read a Bart Ehrman book at all, particularly when it comes to such a sensitive topic. I will tell you. In the third decade of the 21st century, we live in the era of the Internet. Gone are the days when news was filtered to us through three television networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC, when I was growing up in the 1970s. Today, your average teenager has access to sources of information that I never even dreamed could have existed, when I was growing up. The ideas expounded by professor Ehrman were normally sequestered within college classrooms and stuffy libraries, a generation or two ago. But today, all you need is a SmartPhone, and you can find tons of web pages, podcasts, and YouTube videos that popularize the scholarship Ehrman himself has made easily accessible to a wide audience. Any church sermon can be fact checked in just a matter of seconds.

So, how do you know if your pastor is right, or if Bart Ehrman is right? Furthermore, Bart Ehrman far outsells more books than any other equally competent, conservative evangelical New Testament scholar. Your neighbor is far more likely to have heard of Bart Ehrman than any one of my favorite scholars, like a Bill Mounce, Darrell Bock or Daniel Wallace. Every video on Bart Ehrman’s YouTube channel gets thousands and thousands of views. Face it folks: the Internet disciples Christians today more effectively than most Sunday sermons do, for better or for worse.

Plus, Bart Ehrman is really skilled at what he does. Ehrman can write academic tomes, but he can also write popular level books, even for a knucklehead like me! Unlike what comes to us as pure garbage in much social media content today, professor Ehrman actually knows what he is talking about, and can communicate it. The Jesus Mythers, who oddly do not believe that Jesus ever existed, find Ehrman to be just as frustrating as most Christians! The moral to the story is this: if a Christian believer wants to interact with the best objections to historically orthodox Christianity, particularly when it comes to the Bible, Bart Ehrman is the author to start with.

In Heaven and Hell, Ehrman traces the history of how ideas of the afterlife developed, beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh, through Homer, Virgil, Plato, and then focusing on the Old and New Testaments. Some ancients believed that there is some type of consciousness after death, as with Plato’s distinction between a material body and an immaterial soul. Some believed that there is a system of rewards and punishments, for those who die. Some even believed that there is no life after death at all. As a survey of ancient thought alone, Ehrman makes for a compelling read.

Where it gets “juicy” is when Bart Ehrman deals with the Bible on the subject. Some Christians will be immediately turned off from the start, as many believe that there is no such thing as progressive revelation in the Bible. Many just assume that whatever Moses knew was known by David, who also knew what Isaiah knew, who in turn knew what was in the mind of Malachi, which all culminated with what Jesus taught, and so on. But that just is not the case if you read the Bible carefully.

Part of the problem is that the ancient concept of body and soul found in the Old Testament conflicted with other ancient pagan sources for understanding body and soul. For example, the Greeks typically believed that the body and soul are basically separate entities that are joined together in this worldly existence. Yet after the body dies, the soul lives on completely independent from the discarded body. The Old Testament, on the other hand, teaches that the soul, which is often interchanged with the concept of “spirit,” is that which animates the body, and they were not created to be separated. In other words, we are ensouled bodies, or embodied souls, by the design of God. So what then happens after the body dies? What becomes of the soul?

Anyone who has studied the Old Testament will notice that the structure of “heaven” is not explained in much detail, and there is no mention of “hell” at all, much less any pairing of “heaven and hell” together. The first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, barely even touch on any notion of the afterlife. While afterlife themes crop up every now and then in other parts of the Old Testament, It is not until the New Testament that we find rich vocabulary regarding “heaven” and “hell.” In other words, the question of the eventual fate of the soul, along with the body, only gets adequately answered in the New Testament for the Christian.

All in all, the main problem with Ehrman’s thesis about the development of ideas of heaven and hell in the Old Testament through the New Testament is not about the development itself, per se. Rather, it is in how Ehrman frames the narrative.

A distinction needs to be made between an evolutionary approach to Scripture versus the concept of progressive revelation. For a critical scholar like Bart Ehrman, the teaching of the afterlife changed over time in a purely human, evolutionary way, and he goes so far as suggesting that the authors of Scripture invented their views of the afterlife. In contrast, an historically orthodox Christian view contends that what we know about the afterlife was progressively revealed over time. An evolutionary approach to the Bible is very different from progressive revelation. In Ehrman’s view, the Bible gives us man’s “inspiring” thoughts about ideas that sprang up over time in Israel’s history, many of them simply imported from belief systems outside of Judaism and Christianity. Alternatively, in a classic Christian view, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, whereby God’s truth about reality is disclosed by God over time, unfolding step by step in Israel’s history, and eventually culminating in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.1

If you want a short, 4-minute summary of Dr. Ehrman’s book, here is a quick video to watch. Hold onto your socks, as he makes some rather provocative claims.

Evangelical Criticism of Ehrman’s Teaching on “Heaven” and “Hell”

Evangelical critics over the years have been right to challenge Bart Ehrman on certain points, and Ehrman’s work on “Heaven and Hell” has been no exception. However, some of those criticisms have themselves been given to overstatements.

For example, from what I have seen, the most provocative review of Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell by an accomplished evangelical writer has been offered by Randy Alcorn. Alcorn wrote a fairly popular book on Heaven, several years ago, that a few of my Christian friends have read. Ehrman and Alcorn exchanged correspondence after Alcorn’s review was published, and both agreed to allow Ehrman to post Alcorn’s review on Ehrman’s website.

Here is a flavor of what Alcorn has had to say:

“Bart Ehrman is professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He also teaches eight of The Great Courses’s widely acclaimed Bible and Christianity classes, and has a part in 78 others. (This is odd, since featuring Ehrman as their primary professor on biblical issues is comparable to selecting N.T. Wright or Wayne Grudem to be their go-to authority on atheism.)”

Here is more from Alcorn’s review:

Ehrman frequently states what he believes as if opinion constitutes proof. Ehrman, after denying the Old Testament ever speaks of resurrection, explains in a footnote:

Some readers may wonder why I am not contrasting this view of Job with the famous passage of Job 19:25–26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (ESV).

Ehrman negates Job by citing a Jewish scholar who says, “The text has been garbled and we cannot tell exactly what Job intended to say.” This scholar adds, “Job is almost certainly not talking about seeing God in the afterlife.”

I consulted 12 major translations by different teams of Hebrew scholars, some of whom don’t hold to biblical inerrancy. Their translations contain only minor differences. All of them suggest Job is indeed speaking of seeing God in the afterlife.

This is just one example of Ehrman’s practice of either: (1) inaccurately conveying what the Bible says; (2) accurately conveying what the Bible says, then declaring it’s wrong; (3) arguing the text really doesn’t say what Christians believe it says (why does that matter if what it really says is also wrong?); and (4) citing Scripture in support of his contentions, even though he regularly dismisses Scripture’s validity.2

Randy Alcorn is justified in challenging Ehrman’s evolutionary view of the Bible’s teaching on the afterlife, something that I will address more clearly below. The issue hits close to home for me as I used Job 19:25-26 in delivering my mother’s eulogy at her memorial service, as evidence for saying that the Bible teaches about bodily resurrection. Was I wrong to claim that “my Redeemer lives,” to those who came to celebrate my mother’s life, after losing her battle with cancer?

But Alcorn himself overstates his rebuttal by arguing that “12 major translations” all “suggest Job is indeed speaking of seeing God in the afterlife.” Most evangelical scholars today actually agree with Ehrman that the Masoretic Hebrew text that underlies today’s English translations, for Job 19:25-26, is anything but clear. To build a doctrine of resurrection based on this passage alone is like building a house on shaky ground. However well intentioned Randy Alcorn seeks to be, Alcorn’s defense would find rough going when paired up against a well informed skeptic.3

It would have been more helpful if Alcorn had noted that the resurrection interpretation of Job 19:25-26 owes itself more to the influence of the Septuagint, the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament, performed by Alexandrian Jewish scholars several hundred years before Christ. Among the Jewish diaspora living across the Roman empire, during the time of Jesus, the Septuagint was the closest thing to an authoritative Scriptural canon, until the non-Christian Jewish community focused more on the Hebrew text, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Septuagint was adopted by the early Christian community, and its inclined pro-resurrection interpretation of Job 19:25-26 became preserved in Christian tradition, made most famous by Handel’s masterpiece, “The Messiah.” So, while I do not feel guilty for quoting Job 19:25-26 in my mother’s eulogy, I would hardly use it now to make a case for the resurrection without other supporting evidence.

The Old Testament on the Afterlife

A more adequate response to Bart Ehrman would be to say that while the Old Testament has very little explicit evidence to support the resurrection, the building blocks for a Christian doctrine of the afterlife can still be found throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the later writings. The only uncontested passage in the Old Testament that stands out in explicit support of a resurrected afterlife is Daniel 12:2-3:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Nevertheless, even Ehrman admits that there are at least several hints in the Old Testament that point towards a resurrected afterlife. The New Testament essentially connects the dots of evidence together, found implicitly in the Old Testament, to form a Christian view of what happens after we die.

For example, Bart Ehrman argues that the meaning of “Sheol,” found some 63 times throughout the Old Testament, simply means the “grave” or the “pit,” the place where one is buried. It has no real meaning beyond that physical reference where a decaying body after death is placed. There is no resurrection, and not even an acknowledgement of consciousness after death. Ehrman discusses the principle of Hebrew parallelism in poetry, whereby instead of using a rhyme as is common in English, a phrase is made in one line, and then rephrased in the next line, where the meanings of both lines are synonymous.

Ehrman cites Psalm 16:10 to show that “Sheol” is simply another way of describing the “Pit,” where a dead body is buried:

For you do not give me up to Sheol
or let your faithful one see the Pit (NRSVue)

By this, Ehrman suggests that Psalm 16 is teaching that the psalmist (David) is simply praying to God that he will be spared from experiencing a premature death. David has been on the run from Saul, but David is trusting in God to keep him from getting killed too early in his life. There is no mention of any kind of afterlife. But what Ehrman neglects to tell the reader is the tension found in the very next verse (v. 11, NRSVue):

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

As Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser observes, the mention of “pleasures forevermore” suggests that something beyond this current life might be in view here. In fact, this is exactly what Peter is getting at in his sermon at Pentecost, in Acts 2:24-28, by quoting these verses from Psalm 16, to argue for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. While bodily resurrection is not explicitly described in Psalm 16, it is hinted at, and particularly as it is connected with other dots in the Old Testament story. Author C.S. Lewis, in his Reflection on the Psalms (p. 92-100), contends that this is an example of a “second meaning” that the New Testament writers find implicit in the Old Testament.

It would be too much to say that Psalm 16 “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus, for that would be an exaggeration. But Michael Heiser also points out that Bart Ehrman exaggerates to the opposite extreme, by Ehrman’s claim in Heaven and Hell that Sheol only means the physical grave.4

Heiser, author of the exceedingly helpful The Unseen Realm, is responding to a Time magazine article that features Bart Ehrman’s comments from his own book:

“The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes.”

Michael Heiser shows that Psalm 49 also contains strong hints that anticipate the New Testament doctrine of bodily resurrection, and not merely a reference to the grave.  In Heaven and Hell, Ehrman references Psalm 49:14 to again show the Hebrew parallelism that Sheol simply means “death” and the “grave.” You get the sense from Ehrman that the fate of the righteous and the unrighteous are pretty much the same:

Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
    Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
    and their form shall waste away;
    Sheol shall be their home. (Psalm 49:14 NRSVue)

Yet again, Ehrman does not inform the reader about the very next verse (v.15):

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
    for he will receive me. (Psalm 49:15 NRSVue)

It would have been helpful if Ehrman had floated the language of “ransom my soul from the power of Sheol” and that God “will receive me” to his readers. Eventually, Ehrman admits that not every ancient Israelite author believed that Sheol was simply the burial place. There is some evidence of Sheol as being a “place” where someone goes (p.85). Given this, it makes me wonder why Ehrman earlier in the book restricts the definition of “Sheol” to merely that of the physical grave.

But Ehrman does not go much beyond this. The really interesting part of Psalm 49 is that it even distinguishes between the fate of the wicked from the fate of the righteous, with respect to Sheol. Whereas the psalmist, the righteous, will be received by God and rescued from Sheol’s power, the “foolhardy” will experience a different fate:

When we look at the wise, they die;
    fool and dolt perish together
    and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
    their dwelling places to all generations,
    though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
    they are like the animals that perish.
Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
    the end of those who are pleased with their lot (Psalm 49:10-13 NRSVue)

This is not a full-fledged doctrine of heaven and hell, but it does give an indication that the destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous are not the same, thus anticipating what we find in the New Testament.

The Second Temple in Jerusalem, from the Holyland Model in Jerusalem. I saw this on my trip to Jerusalem years ago, but this photo from Wikipedia is better. The study of Second Temple Judaism helps us to better understand the teachings of the New Testament.

 

Connecting the Dots in the Old Testament Concerning the Afterlife… During the Second Temple Period

Bart Ehrman himself highlights passages that use the metaphor of bodily resurrection to speak about the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land, following the exile to Babylon. Isaiah 26:19 and Ezekiel’s famous dry bones passage (Ezekiel 37) top the list. In the original context of these passages, the prophets had the restoration of national Israel in mind, and not the bodily resurrection of individuals. But perhaps the language of bodily resurrection found in these texts was not so metaphorical after all. Evidently, Jews during the Second Temple period wrestled with this intensely. Indeed, this would explain why the Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in the resurrection of the dead, and why the Sadducees did not. Contrary to popular opinion, the Sadducees were more the conservative “literalists,” in contrast with the Pharisees, who took a more “liberal” approach to reading the Old Testament. Specifically, the Pharisees considered prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel to be on par with the first five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, as being authoritative Scripture. In contrast, the Sadducees only accepted the five Books of Moses to be authoritative Scripture, a more conservative position.

A common idea among some scholars has been that the Jews simply borrowed the concept of bodily resurrection from the Persian Zoroastrians, owing to the reality that the Persians ruled over the Israelites, after the Babylonian exile. Ehrman rightly shows how problematic that idea is, in that we have no Zoroastrian texts supporting resurrection prior to the appearance of Jewish writings that do (p. 104). Ehrman even goes on in saying that the resurrection doctrine “may have arisen principally as an internal development in response to the troubling social and political situations confronting the Jewish faithful” (p. 105). The unusual Old Testament stories about Elijah and Enoch ascending to heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:1-12; Genesis 5:21-24) lend support to this. This is a far cry from saying that God revealed the doctrine of resurrection to the Jews, but that is about as positive as you will get from professor Ehrman.5

The most important influence in establishing the doctrine of resurrection, as well as a period of judgment at the end of time, comes from apocalyptic literature from the period of Second Temple Judaism. Or to put it another way, various Jewish writings during the Second Temple Judaism period, most of which are not in Protestant Bibles, gathered together theological reflections that plumbed the depths of what God was revealing in the Old Testament. Notably, the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which is actually quoted or referenced in the New Testament Book of Jude, while nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, teaches about a judgment at the end of time, where the righteous will receive their reward and the unrighteous will receive punishment.6

Erhman pretty much avoids discussing the evidence for a conscious, unending experience of punishment for the unrighteous, in Judaism in the days up to the earthly life of Jesus. Erhman does not inform the reader that we find an example of this doctrinal view in the Old Testament apocrypha, such as in the Book of Judith:7

“Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever“ (Judith 16:17, NRSV).

Erhman does discuss Second Temple writings that teach that the bodies of the wicked will be raised at the final judgment, but only to be eventually destroyed. This is a doctrine of annihilation, not eternal torment or torture. Many Christians are not aware of this perspective, which is also sometimes called “conditional immortality,” or something like that. Nevertheless, the first century (C.E.) Psalms of Solomon is cited by Ehrman as evidence (p. 123):

For the life of the righteous (goes on) forever
but sinners shall be taken away to destruction
and no memory of them will ever be found (Psalms of Solomon 13:11)
The destruction of the sinner is forever
and he will not be remembered when God looks after 
     his righteous…
But those who fear the Lord shall rise up to eternal life
and their life shall be in the Lord’s light, and it shall never end (Psalms of Solomon 3:11-12)

If for the unrighteous “no memory of them will ever be found,” this would hardly fit within the concept of a conscious experience of torment for all eternity.  All of this Jewish apocalyptic thinking assumes a period of judgment, at the end of time, that precipitates the ultimate destinies of both the righteous and the unrighteous. From the Old Testament apocryphal writings, such as 2 Maccabees 7, found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, we read the story of Antiochus Epiphanes persecuting Jews for their distinctive religious practices. In 2 Maccabees 7, the story of the Jewish martyrs proclaims a hope for a future judgment, where the righteous will receive their full reward for their faithfulness.

But what about the intermediate state, the period between a person’s death and the final judgment? Another retelling of the Maccabees story, in 4 Maccabees, written two centuries after 2 Maccabees, fills in some details concerning the intermediate state that are missing in earlier Jewish texts. In 4 Maccabees, the righteous begin to experience their eternal reward right away, immediately after death, long before the final judgment and the last resurrection. Likewise, the unrighteous begin to experience their eternal punishment immediately after death, before the judgment and the resurrection. In other words, both the righteous and unrighteous experience their corresponding rewards and punishments to their disembodied soul, immediately after death.

Another text, that Bart Ehrman highlights, is 4 Ezra, written near the end of the first century C.E. In 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras), we have this intermediate state, but it focuses on the experience of the righteous and the unrighteous at the final judgment and resurrection. Interestingly, there is only annihilation for the wicked at the final resurrection. Yet another Jewish text, the Testament of Abraham, goes into great detail showing that the righteous and unrighteous experience their corresponding rewards and punishments, immediately after death, but while there is a final judgment, there is no future bodily resurrection for either righteous or unrighteous. The souls of the righteous live on eternally (not the bodies), though interestingly, the unrighteous will be annihilated at the last judgment.

Michael Heiser. Semitic languages and Old Testament scholar. Dr. Heiser offers some helpful correctives to Bart Ehrman’s work, through Dr. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast. I would highly recommend his work on the topic of the afterlife in the Old Testament, in particular.

 

The New Testament Teaching on the Afterlife

This swirling flux of conflicting and confusing ideas in first century Judaism set the stage for the doctrines taught in the New Testament regarding the afterlife. So, what did Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament teach about life after death?

Regarding believers, the story is fairly straight-forward. Believers in Jesus inherit eternal life, and that eternal life is in bodily, resurrected form, dwelling in the “New Heavens and New Earth.” It is not some out of body existence, where the soul is separated from the body, as some wrongly believe. Hollywood, bad Bible teaching, and urban folklore all contribute to the confusion about what the Bible actually teaches regarding “heaven.”  In other words, there is no floating on white clouds, with boring, ethereal harp music playing in the background, etc. Rather, believers will live forever with Jesus, with incorruptible bodies, enjoying the creation as God originally intended it, in a fully perfected creation existence. We will have enjoyable work, and delightful relationships with God and others, without the burdens associated with our current Fallen world. Everything will be made new.

To answer a question that my wife often asks, “Will our pets who have died be with us in heaven?,” a fair answer might be given. Whether or not our little Italian greyhound that died last year will be with us in the afterlife is not clear, we will experience a similar type of emotional bond with animals in the afterlife, that will remind us of the joys we experienced with our pets in our previous earthly existence.

But what about those who do not believe in Jesus? We will get to that in a moment. Bart Ehrman interestingly begins Heaven and Hell with the story of a remarkable discovery by a French archaeological team digging in Egypt in 1886-1887. The archaeologists dug to where they found a tomb, presumably that of a Christian monk, where they came upon a small anthology of texts. One of these turned out to be the Apocalypse of Peter.

Historians had known of the existence of the Apocalypse of Peter, which had circulated among some Christian communities perhaps as early as the second century C.E. Furthermore, for about 200 years, some early church leaders wondered if the Apocalypse of Peter should be included in the canon of the New Testament. Some even favored the Apocalypse of Peter over and against the Apocalypse of John (what we now call the Book of Revelation, that last book in the Bible). But once the Apocalypse of Peter finally fell out of favor in the early church, the book eventually disappeared from history, until those French archaeologists dug it up again some 135 years ago.

The early church had concluded that the Apocalypse of Peter was, in fact, a forgery, which more than explains why it was rejected from the New Testament canon, and subsequently lost to history, until modern times. Scholarly opinion today agrees with the early church that the Apocalypse of Peter was not written by Peter, despite the claim of the book itself. But this did not prevent a number of early Christians from believing what they read in that book.

The Apocalypse of Peter functions as a prelude to what is found in the medieval Dante’s Inferno. But some of the descriptions of hell, a place of eternal torments, found in the Apocalypse of Peter might have even made Dante blush:

  • Blasphemers are hanged by the tongue.
  • Women who “adorn” themselves for the purpose of adultery, are hung by the hair over a bubbling mire.
  • The men who had adulterous relationships with them are hung by their “feet” (think euphemism for some other body part), with their heads in the mire, next to them.
  • Murderers and those who give consent to murder are set in a pit of creeping things that torment them.
  • Men who take on the role of women in a sexual way, and lesbians, are “driven” up a great cliff by punishing angels, and are “cast off” to the bottom. Then they are forced up it, over and over again, ceaselessly, to their doom.

Yikes!!!! Double-Yikes!!!

The Apocalypse of Peter clearly affirms what is best described as the eternal conscious torment view of hell, abbreviated hereafter as “ECT,” which has dominated the Christian church since Saint Augustine. However, the ECT view was not the only view of hell in the early church, as other Christians affirmed the concept of annihilation, where God’s opposition to sin and evil is so great that God will punish and yet ultimately destroy the unrighteous, instead of having the unrighteous consciously and eternally experience types of anguish graphically depicted in the Apocalypse of Peter. Many Christians today take the ECT view in a more metaphorical sense, but the end result is still that the unrighteous soul is never ultimately destroyed, in being eternally separated by God.

Many evangelical churches neglect to teach their flock about what we find in these non-canonical texts. On the one hand, this is understandable in that it is hard enough to gain proficiency in knowing the contents of the Bible as we have it. On the other hand, this is indeed puzzling, since working through the historical development of such ideas can help believers to sort out how to think about very difficult topics, like hell. Sadly, this is partly why many are drawn to read books like Heaven and Hell, by Bart Ehrman, which will often lead Christians to doubt their faith in unnecessary ways, that could have been avoided if their churches simply addressed these topics head-on, and not side step them, as is so often the case.

“Tensions” versus “Contradictions” in the Bible? 

One of the more odd, indeed frustrating elements of Bart Ehrman’s writing is his proclivity towards declaring certain parts of Scripture to be in contradiction with one another, without sufficient warrant, by exaggerating differences between various texts. Describing tensions and differences in emphasis are one thing, and they are of great interest, but when Bart Ehrman finds “contradictions” where reasonable explanations already exist to resolve such tensions, it can come across as downright annoying.

For example, Bart Ehrman finds a contradiction between the Apostle Paul’s view of the resurrected body and Luke’s portrayal of the resurrected body of Jesus. To make this even more frustrating, Erhman’s claim follows on the heels of one of the more refreshing ideas presented in Heaven and Hell, which is worth a short side trip to highlight.

On page 194, Ehrman rightly shows how the traditional translation of Luke 17:20-21 is completely wrong. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Bart Ehrman. In the venerable King James Version, we read:

“And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21 KJV).

The error in the KJV is in the last phrase, “the kingdom of God is within you.” I once had a Quaker friend who would cite this verse to say that God’s Kingdom is somehow mystically inside a person, despite the fact that the Kingdom of God is never, ever described like this throughout the rest of the Gospels. Without going into a lot of detail, to say that the “kingdom of God is within” the Pharisees is completely absurd, considering the fact that Pharisees who posed the question were opposed to Jesus. Would Jesus seriously say that his Pharisee opponents somehow had the Kingdom of God “within” them? Most modern translations fix this, as with the “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (ESV) or “the kingdom of God is among you” (NRSV-UE). The point here is to say that the Kingdom of God is “among you” because Jesus was among the Pharisees. The Kingdom of God is not some kind of inner, mystical force.8

Alas, my joy over Bart Ehrman was deflated on the very next page (p. 195), when he observes a “contradiction” between the “glorified and transformed” resurrected body as taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, and a “revivified corpse” view taught in Luke. Alert! Alert! Bible “contradiction” sighted!!

Here is what Ehrman points out, and it really is something to think over and ponder: When the post-resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples in Luke 24:37, they think that they had seen a “ghost.” The word “ghost” is from the Greek word pneuma, from which we get words like “pneumatic,” the same word Paul uses to describe the resurrected body by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44.  To show that Jesus was not a “ghost,” Jesus then eats some broiled fish, to prove that Jesus’ body is a real body (Luke 24:42-43).

Jesus had argued: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

But are the “flesh and bones” that Jesus speaks of here the same thing that Paul writes about when referring to the “flesh?” Remarkably, Ehrman had previously clarified a misunderstanding some have had about Paul’s views in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (I have it here from the ESV):9

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Ehrman rightly notes that the terminology “flesh and blood” here “simply refers to embodied human beings who were living in this world (see Galatians 1:16)” (p. 182-183). But what about the world to come? Paul’s point here is that the resurrected body will be an imperishable body, and not a perishable one. In other words, the resurrected body will be completely transformed and glorified. The resurrected body in the “End Times” will be a different kind of body, but still a body, recognizable to the individual person, perfected in a way that we do not have in this worldly existence.

Why Ehrman sees a contradiction between Paul and Luke here is strange, considering the fact that the resurrected Jesus’ previous appearance to the disciples, on the road to Emmaus earlier in Luke 24, says that Jesus “vanished from their sight,” at the end of the conversation (Luke 24:31 ESV). If Luke was teaching only about a “revivified corpse,” as Ehrman says, this would hardly make any sense, since “zombie-like” corpses do not simply vanish into thin air.

One of the best ways to explain this tension is found in the Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible (The Gospels and Acts). No claim for a “contradiction” is required. We can turn off the “Bible contradiction” alert warning now:

That Jesus rose bodily and not just as a spirit is made clear in the resurrection accounts where the tomb lacks Jesus’ decaying body. He speaks (John 20:15), walks (Luke 24:15), eats (John 21:13), and can be embraced (Matt 28:9), and his wounds can be probed (John 20:27). Yet his is no ordinary body. It has new properties. His body has both material and spiritual properties, something Paul also explains in 1 Corinthians 15:35–59. It is material enough to interact with his followers in ordinary ways but includes other abilities as well.10

Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia). The medieval view of purgatory was a development of ideas springing from the Bible and later tradition.

 

The Difference Between “Flesh” and “Body”

In a later chapter, Ehrman interestingly notes a tension between the use of the word “flesh,” typically translated from the Greek “sarx,” and the word “body,” from the Greek word “soma.” Ehrman observes that Paul believes in a resurrection of the body (soma), and not a resurrection from the flesh (sarx). For Paul, the “body” is often understood generically as the material substance of humanity (see 1 Corinthians 15:37, 38, 40), whereas the “flesh” is an overlapping term with “body,” but that the “flesh” also carries with it the sense of human frailty and corruption, which the NIV translation often translates as “sinful nature” (1 Corinthians 15:38, 50, particularly with the NIV: Romans 7:5, 18, 25).

Ehrman traces out the later theological development associated with this tension, that has led many Christians to wrongly believe that when a person dies, that they simply “go to heaven,” in a purely spiritual, non-material sense, for all eternity, apart from a physical body. Ehrman cites one of the Gnostic documents retrieved at Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945, called “The Letter to Rheginos,” or “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” that makes this very argument (p. 242-243). This stands at odds with Paul’s teaching that the resurrection, happening at the final judgment, is a very material existence, whereby believers will dwell bodily in the “new heavens and new earth.” There is no permanent disembodied state for the Apostle Paul.

For example, Ehrman discusses the apocryphal 3 Corinthians, a forgery of Paul dated to the 2nd century C.E., claiming to be one of the lost letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, aside from the two letters we already do have in the New Testament (p. 246). The early church father Tertullian wrote that a presbyter (elder) authored the letter out of love for Paul, once having confessed to the forgery. In contrast to later theological development towards a bodiless resurrection, 3 Corinthians goes to the other extreme and contends for a resurrection of the flesh. In verses 6 and 24-25, the fake Paul teaches that God will “raise us in the flesh from the dead” and “those who say that there is no resurrection of the flesh shall have no resurrection, for they do not believe him who had thus risen” (respectively). The author of 3 Corinthians effectively confuses Paul’s concepts of “flesh” and “body” together, in an over-extended effort to refute Gnostic teachers who were threatening his community with deceptive ideas. In contrast, the “real” Paul of 1 Corinthians is emphasizing that our “flesh,” as our “sinful nature,” will not be raised in the resurrection. Rather, our corruptible bodies will be raised incorruptible. Sin will be no more in the eternal life of the believer.

Nevertheless, intertwined in this otherwise fascinating discussion, Bart Ehrman finds yet another contradiction, where none is needed. Ehrman appeals to the apocalyptic expectation of the final judgment and resurrection, which he says that Paul was absolutely convinced would happen in his own lifetime, in the 1st century C.E. This argument suggests that forged elements of supposedly “Paul’s” thoughts were incorporated into the New Testament to deal with the delay of the Second Coming that was not realized in Paul’s lifetime. Ehrman follows the commonly held idea among many progressive scholars that Colossians and Ephesians were not written by Paul (p. 243). In these letters, Paul teaches of a resurrection prior to the final resurrection, that effectively makes up for the delay of the Second Coming, and that this prior resurrection is actually a past event: For we have been “raised up with Christ” (Colossians 2:12) and believers furthermore have not been merely raised with Christ but that they are already “seated with [Jesus] in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:5-7).11

Theologians have long ago acknowledged this “flesh” versus “body” tension, and this related past tense sense of resurrection, along with a future tense sense of resurrection. But it is not necessary to pit certain parts of the New Testament against one another, and thus call out a contradiction as Ehrman does. Theologians have framed this very tension in terms of the “now” and the “not yet” of spiritual realities. Yes, there is a sense that we have been “now” resurrected with Christ, along with saying that we have “not yet” been raised, as the coming resurrection of the body still remains a future event. The resurrection that we experience now, as believers in Jesus, gives us a foretaste of what the believer will experience at the final resurrection. While tension surely does exist here, we need not contend for a “contradiction” as Bart Ehrman has done.

The New Testament on the Intermediate State

Once one realizes that the New Testament affirms a future bodily existence in the resurrection, with a glorified and transformed body, whereby the soul is permanently joined to that body, it does leave the question of the intermediate state open. Most Christians believe that upon death believers will receive a “particular judgment” that anticipates the “final judgment” at the end of time, and thus experience a preview of what to expect at the coming future resurrection. I have heard countless eulogies at Christian memorial services that describe the departed as having “gone on to be with the Lord.”  This experience in the intermediate state is described as a conscious one, even though the soul is separated, albeit temporarily from the body. This is the view championed most vigorously by the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, and nearly all Protestants going forward have been impacted by Calvin’s teachings in this area.

However, there is a minority of Protestant Christians who embrace the concept of “soul sleep,” whereby the soul is unconscious during the intermediate state, because it is separated from the body, prior to the final resurrection from the dead. We have the earlier Reformers, like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, to thank for contending for the “soul sleep” view.

Bart Ehrman contends that the “soul sleep” view is an innovation in Christian thought, and not something Jesus taught. The story about the thief on the cross, who came to believe in Jesus on the day of the crucifixion, is cited as the strongest evidence for a conscious experience of being with the Lord, immediately following death. In Luke 23:42-43 we read:

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43 ESV)

The question for Ehrman comes down to where you place the final comma in this passage. In the original Greek New Testament manuscripts, there were no punctuation marks in the text. Therefore, other contextual reasons need to be found to properly place punctuation in our English Bibles. Most translations, like the ESV above, put the final comma before the word “today,” as in “I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This suggests an immediate conscious experience with the Lord, following death.

Others would argue that the comma should be placed after the word “today,” as in “I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” If the latter is true, then this would allow for the “soul sleep” view. In this view, placing the comma after “today” merely emphasizes when Jesus is making the statement, there upon the cross. But Ehrman argues that a “I say to you today” reading, with no comma there, is redundant, and I tend to believe that he is correct.

While the Christian view of the afterlife is far more settled for the believer, the understanding of the afterlife for the unrighteous is still a matter of great debate. It all comes down to what Jesus and Paul taught about hell.

Historical Critical Method and the Gospels…. According to Bart Ehrman

For Bart Ehrman, his answer, particularly concerning the Gospels, is largely informed by the historical critical method dominated by many biblical scholars today. Three features of the historical critical method are enthusiastically endorsed by Ehrman.

The first has to do with how divine inspiration plays into our interpretation of the Bible. For Ehrman, the belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible serves as a problem for how we read the Bible. For if we believe that there is a singular divine author, who stands behind the text of the 66 books in our Bible, this will inevitably encourage the reader to over-harmonize the text, and under emphasize the tensions we see in the text, therefore distorting our interpretation. Ehrman sees these tensions as being contradictions instead, demonstrating that the Bible was pieced together by different human authors with conflicting agendas. Rather than looking for a unity of God’s voice in Scripture, the key to biblical interpretation is understanding the diversity of the various texts and authors of the Bible. The “gift” of the Enlightenment, as Ehrman might put it, dating back primarily to the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely beginning with the skeptical work of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is that scholars then began to safely set divine inspiration aside, so that readers can see the Scriptural text as a collection of human literature. Once one brackets off divine inspiration into a devotional corner, only then can we truly understand what the Scriptural text says historically.

To a certain degree, there is a grain of truth to what Bart Ehrman is assuming. The Bible is often thought of as a single book, but this is incorrect. It is actually a collection of books, written by a variety of authors, over many centuries. It is better to think of the Bible more like a library, rather than a single text. Furthermore, within many of the Bible’s books the reader finds intriguing sets of literary genres and styles of ancient writing, that do not always map easily into modern categories of literature. All of this defies a simplistic view of the Bible as merely being a product of divine dictation, as is often attributed to other non-Christian sacred texts, like the Islamic Koran.

As a result, there are sadly too many conservative Christians who view the Bible as some sort of puzzle book, whereby believers will rush towards a harmonization of the text without fully considering why a difference exists in the first place. In the process, such believers tend to miss out on reflecting more maturely on the divine mystery being revealed in Scripture. The other extreme is when some Christians emphasize certain passages of the Bible at the expense of others, even silencing certain other Bible passages they simply do not like. Anyone who finds themselves befuddled by debates over Paul’s view of faith versus James’ view of works, or Paul’s view of women in Galatians versus Paul’s view of women in 1 Timothy, or Paul’s teaching about the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” versus Luke’s teaching on the same, will know exactly what I am talking about.

A good example of how this historical critical method works out in practice goes back to why Bart Ehrman, along with a number of other critical scholars, believe that Ephesians and Colossians were not written by Paul, even though both letters claim that they were written by the true Paul. In Ephesians and Colossians, the resurrection of believers is spoken purely in past tense terms, whereas in Paul’s authentic letters, the resurrection of believers is primarily spoken of in a future tense sense. Without a divine superintending author to hold the New Testament together, Ehrman then concludes a contradiction in Paul’s writings, driving him to conclude that Ephesians and Colossians are forgeries that got inserted into our Bible.

For evangelical Bible scholars, on the other hand, there is no need to try to bracket off divine inspiration into some safe, out of the way space, that might keep the historian from giving us a more accurate reconstruction of historical events. In other words, we can still appreciate the tensions found within the Bible, without sidelining divine inspiration, and still learn from the various literary styles and purposes of the different Scriptural authors. This does not mean that we look uncritically at traditional ways of reading the text, but rather that we can still retain a more robust, orthodox view of the text, and not try to throw out the baby with the bathwater of obfuscated tradition. For an evangelical Bible scholar, instead of being an obstacle, the unity and diversity within the Bible both enhance one another.

Atheist and agnostic scholars, like Erhman, find no need to hold to the divine inspiration of the Bible as the glue that holds everything together, for philosophical and theological reasons. Furthermore, there are plenty of progressive Christian scholars who follow the same methodology as Ehrman. These progressive Christians, who make such assumptions, then somehow try to tack a form of “inspiration” back onto the text, after they have finished their historical work. Progressive Christian scholars routinely find themselves shuffling back and forth between a historical critical view of the text and a more devotional approach, with varying degrees of success (and more often, failure).

This is not simply about stripping the Bible of its supernaturalistic content to arrive at merely naturalistic explanations, though some have certainly tried to do so. Rather, the encrusted layers of church dogma, reinforced by hundreds of years of tradition, often described as the “Christ of faith,” serves as a barrier that keeps us from seeing the “Jesus of history.” In this scholarly approach offered by Bart Ehrman, and those progressive Christians who follow the same model, one must peel back those layers of tradition in order to get at who Jesus really was. Yet while this does produce rather provocative readings of the Bible, it is still miles away from an historically orthodox Christianity.

Heresy and Orthodoxy…. Losers and Winners

The second feature of the historical critical method, commonly employed by more skeptical scholars, can be traced back to the Walter Bauer hypothesis, on the development of heresy and orthodoxy. For centuries, Christians have believed that there was an original orthodox interpretation of the Christian faith, with what was started out by Jesus, and then passed on through to Paul, and other New Testament writers, which eventually became what we know as the “rule of faith.” This “rule of faith” was passed on down the generations to become what we generally associate with the historical orthodoxy of the faith as summarized at the Council of Nicea, in the early 4th century. Along the way, different movements branched off from this proto-orthodoxy tradition that preceded Nicea, to become what we now know of as heterodox Christian movements, or simply, heresy. Examples include Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, Arianism, etc.

Walter Bauer, an early 20th century German Bible scholar, argued that the early period of Christianity was started by conflicting movements and groups, with no essential unity. What we know of as “orthodox” Christianity was the “winner” in the fight to determine what Christians should think and believe.

 

Walter Bauer, a German scholar during the 1930s, proposed a radically different idea. Bauer suggested that there was no such thing as an original, monolithic proto-orthodox movement. Instead, from the very beginning of Christianity, a plethora of different movements sprang up, all trying to contend for the truth of the Jesus story. In the end, the message of the Apostle Paul won out in the fight for theological supremacy, and was filtered down to become the orthodox Christianity associated with the Council of Nicea. In other words, the Gnostics, the Marcionites, the Montanists, and the Arians, among many others competed with the “orthodox,” but the so-called “orthodox” eventually won. The “winners” get to the tell the story, which is why so many church-going people rarely hear of the other side of the story, as told by the “losers” of history.

Bart Ehrman is a vocal advocate for the Walter Bauer hypothesis. This further explains why Ehrman sees so many conflicts and contradictions within the New Testament, as even within Pauline Christianity there were fights among the proto-orthodox themselves to define what we know as “orthodoxy.” This effectively undermines the so-called “rule of faith” held largely in common by most Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, who follow the tradition defined at the Council of Nicea, in 325 C.E.12

I will address the third feature of Ehrman’s approach to historical criticism in a moment. Yet once a reader understands these two starting methodological assumptions at work in Bart Ehrman’s books, a Christian reader can still benefit from the positive elements of Ehrman’s analysis without being overwhelmed by the agnostic/atheist conclusions he inevitably comes up with.

When it comes to the Gospels, this historical critical method generally suggests that there are perhaps many statements made in the Gospels that do not go back to the Jesus of history. In other words, later thinkers in the Christian church read things back into the life, times, and teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels.

Jesus’ View of Hell? : According to Bart Ehrman, the Souls of the Wicked Will Be Annihilated, With No Eternally Conscious Torment

Bart Ehrman concludes that Jesus did not hold to a view of eternal conscious torment (ECT) regarding hell. Instead, the unrighteous will be destroyed at some moment following the final judgment and resurrection. In other words, Jesus taught that unbelievers will be annihilated in the future. There are several factors that lead Ehrman to make that conclusion. It would take a whole book to address these factors, so they will just be summarized, with certain points highlighted, here:

First, we must consider the third feature of the historical critical method, that Bart Ehrman enthusiastically endorses, that of Jewish and early Christian apocalypticism. “Apocalypticism” has to deal with the belief in the imminent coming of the end of the world. In particular, Ehrman is fully persuaded by the thesis made famous by the famous German polymath Albert Schweitzer, in his classic work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who expected the end of the world to come, sometime within the1st century C.E. Whether or not this “end of the world” was some type of cosmic, physical world event is highly debated, but it surely signified that the current social and political order was coming to an end, and a new age of peace and justice would be ushered in, and God’s people would be vindicated. Yet when that expected end did not come, the early church had to reframe the Gospel message for subsequent generations. The promised Kingdom of God, that Jesus had announced would be coming most imminently, within the lifetime of his earliest disciples, failed to materialize. What expectation would then replace it, if anything? The hope for resurrection, that accompanied the apocalyptic thinking of Jesus, needed to be fully reconsidered. New ideas had to be interjected into Christian teaching in order to make sense of the failed prophecy which was not adequately fulfilled in the 1st century C.E. One of those ideas was the notion of ECT, the eternal conscious torment of the unrighteous in hell.13

Albert Schweitzer, the famed early 20th century biblical scholar turned medical missionary to Africa, proposed the idea that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, who predicted the coming end of the world that did not come within the 1st century C.E. Despite this conclusion, Schweitzer continued to consider himself a Christian, and lived out that last half of his life seeking to follow the ethics of Jesus.

 

Secondly, Ehrman contends that there are passages in the Gospels that have been read as teaching ECT, but that actually teach the annihilation view. The key to grasping what Ehrman is trying to demonstrate is understanding how this reframing of the Gospel message actually works itself out in the New Testament. According to scholars like Bart Ehrman, who adhere quite strongly to the dominant academic tradition of historical criticism, we can find authentic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, but they need to be distinguished from other inauthentic sayings, placed on the lips of Jesus by later, perhaps second or even third generation followers of Jesus, struggling with the delay of the Second Coming.

One particular example of an authentic saying of Jesus, according to Ehrman, is the parable of the sheep and the goats. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the story of two groups of people, where the first group, the sheep, treated “Jesus” well, by feeding and clothing “Jesus” when the need arose, and where the second group, the goats, neglected to feed and clothe “Jesus.” The sheep then “inherit the Kingdom” and thus experience “eternal life” (v. 46). On the other hand, the goats go away into “eternal punishment” (v. 46).

Ehrman argues that when the sheep and goats both respond with “when did we see you hungry and feed you,” etc., (v. 37, 44) this means that these sheep and goat people never had any prior contact with Jesus. For Ehrman, this indicates that the sheep and goat people are judged on the basis of their works, and not on their faith (or lack of faith) in Jesus, because neither group had heard of Jesus before. For Ehrman, this is in contrast with the view advocated by later Christians who emphasize the importance of having faith in Jesus as the primary requirement for salvation. In Ehrman’s judgment, this means that the parable of the sheep and the goats goes back to Jesus, because it stands in conflict with the view of later Christians, who were struggling with the delay of the final judgment and final resurrection (p. 164). In other words, the Jesus of history preached a message of “doing good,” in the face of imminent judgment against the world. In contrast, this had very little to do with the more spiritualized sense of “having faith in Jesus,” which preoccupied the mindset of later Christians, who put things on the lips of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels, that Jesus never really said. All of this according to Bart Ehrman.

But is this really the most probable way of interpreting the “you” in “when did we see you hungry and feed you?” One does not need to be a New Testament specialist to see the problem with Ehrman’s interpretation. Most commentators of this passage observe that the “you” in these verses (v. 37, 44) is Jesus, but “Jesus” is in the symbolic sense of him being represented by the “least of these” (v. 40, 45). Specifically, the “least of these” are the followers of Jesus. For example, with respect to the sheep, “the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” In other words, how someone treats the followers of Jesus symbolically represents how that someone treats Jesus himself. Ehrman’s improbable interpretation colors his treatment of the passage. But then he goes on to the nitty gritty.14

In Matthew 25:46, Jesus concludes the parable of the goats and the sheep with: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” What is “eternal punishment” here? Is it eternal conscious torment (ECT)? Ehrman notes this is a possibility but he also argues that the opposite of eternal life is not torment, but rather, death.

In Matthew 25:41, we read “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Erhman argues (p. 165) that while the fire itself is eternal, the condition of the goats, the unrighteous here, is not. The body and soul of the unrighteous will be completely annihilated, or destroyed, in these fires, “just as the executioner’s fire continues to burn after the condemned has long since died– so too with the fires of eternal punishment. Like the worm that never dies, it goes on, but the people who are punished have expired. They will no longer exist” (p. 165-166).

For Ehrman, and also for those Christians who hold to an annihilation view of hell, the parable of the weeds demonstrates how the fires of eternal punishment actually work (Matthew 13:24-43). When the weeds are thrown into the fire to be burned, the fire continues to burn even after the weeds have been destroyed. In this sense, the fires of hell continue to burn forever even though the souls and bodies of the unrighteous have already been annihilated. There is still “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42), but the actual experience of that will be limited. Once the souls of the wicked have been destroyed, “then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v.43).

Writing Eternal Conscious Torment Back Into the Gospels???

Thirdly, Ehrman acknowledges that there are passages in the Gospels that do teach ECT, but that these inauthentic passages were inserted into the teachings of Jesus by the later Christian church, towards the end of the 1st century, or even by the early 2nd. Notably, Ehrman argues that the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31, that describes a great chasm separating the righteous above in heaven from the unrighteous below in hell, is actually an interpolation into Jesus’ teaching, and not something that goes back to Jesus himself. Ehrman suggests that this story, though not explicitly described as a parable, is nevertheless a parable that has been “literalized” in the history of the church, to substantiate the ECT view of hell, along the lines most elaborately described in early apocryphal Christian works like the Apocalypse of Peter, and later in the medieval period, by Dante’s Inferno.

So, why does Bart Ehrman believe that the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a later invention of the early church? It all has to do with the failed prophecy of the “end of the world” happening before the end of the 1st century, which created a theological crisis for the Jesus movement. Once the sense of urgency behind the expected coming of the Kingdom of God in the 1st century C.E. had started to pass, a new sense of urgency began to develop surrounding the ECT teaching of hell, as found in a later Gospel, like that of Luke’s. It was this “fire and brimstone” sense of stories like Lazarus and the rich man that started to motivate people to accept the God of Christianity, thus replacing the imminent expectation for the Kingdom of God’s arrival.

The most provocative argument presented by Ehrman is described as a “dead giveaway,” demonstrating that the historical Jesus never told this story “of Lazarus and the rich man” (p. 202). Abraham says to the rich man that sending Lazarus to warn the living about the dangers of hell would be futile, since even if the people were to hear from a man risen from the dead, they still would not listen to him. For Ehrman, this presupposes “knowledge of Jesus’ fate and the Christian proclamation that the resurrection should lead people to repent” (p. 202), which had not happened yet in the storyline. The implication here is that the early church via Luke invented and inserted the story of Lazarus and the rich man into the mouth of Jesus. In other words, the story was crafted after Jesus’ resurrection, and not before during Jesus’ earthly ministry, because the story assumes that the message of Jesus’ resurrection had been proclaimed for at least some duration of time, whereby many Jews still continued to reject the message of Jesus as being true, later on towards the middle and second half of the 1st century C.E. In Ehrman’s view, for Jesus prior to his own Resurrection to have spoken about a man coming back from the dead, to issue a warning, would not have made sense to his followers

Yet again, Ehrman makes an assumption that implies a contradiction that need not exist, by appealing to needless exaggeration. Would it really have been unthinkable for Jesus to teach about a person coming back from the dead to preach to the people, prior to Jesus’ own resurrection? Why would this necessarily be a tip off looking towards the resurrection of Jesus as a past event? Ehrman already acknowledges the influence in the time of Jesus of the Book of Enoch, which purports to have been written by Enoch himself. This is interesting in that the book is universally recognized as being written within a few centuries before Jesus, despite the fact that Enoch had been “no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:24 ESV), many centuries before. Perhaps Enoch’s book was hidden away in some vault for centuries, before being rediscovered, but there is a more likely situation, related to Enoch’s mysterious ascension. Is Enoch, in some kind of “resurrected” state, sending his message from beyond the realm of the dead? Would it have really surprised Jesus’ audience to speak of Lazarus possibly coming back from the dead to warn people of God’s judgment to come? Probably not.

Paul in prison, by Rembrandt (credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Apostle Paul on the Afterlife: Consistent with Jesus

When it comes to Paul, Ehrman follows the historical critical consensus, followed by most critical scholars today, that suggests that only seven out of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul. Out of those seven authentic letters, none of them specifically address the topic of hell. Because Ehrman rejects Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, he does not bother to treat Paul’s most extensive discussion about the “eternal destruction” of the unrighteous. Yet even here, many defenders of annihilation suggest that the “eternal destruction” described in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is not eternal conscious torment, but rather, is annihilation.

For Ehrman, Paul echoes what we find in the Gospels regarding the teaching of Jesus, namely that the wicked will be annihilated in the end, with no conscious eternal torment.For the wages of sin is death,” we read in Romans 6:23, and death here is understood by Paul, according to Erhman, as eventual annihilation, not the endless experience of torment. But in the same verse, this is contrast with the fate of the righteous: “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” For Paul, eternal life means ultimately bodily resurrection, in an incorruptible, glorious form.15

The Oddity of “Baptisms for the Dead” : Paul Goes a Little Weird in Making His Point?

Ehrman is right to point out there are some rough edges around Paul’s thought, as in the passage about “baptisms for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Talk about a weird passage in the Bible!

The verse plays into Paul’s argument regarding the nature of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, but how? Paul’s point appears to be that it makes no sense to have baptisms for the dead, if there is no future resurrection to begin with. That much is reasonably agreed upon by most scholars. But what were the Corinthian Christians doing with these “baptisms for the dead?” Furthermore, how many churches today do anything with this verse? Ehrman indicates that we have no definite idea as to what Paul was describing here. Theologians for centuries have batted around perhaps thousands of possible interpretations, but nothing has stuck.

Interestingly, the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith believed that he received a revelation from God as to what this verse means, namely that someone living can be baptized on behalf of a deceased ancestor, as a form of proxy act of faith that effectively saves that deceased ancestor. Furthermore, the baptisms for one’s ancestors plays a role in the Mormon view of one’s own salvation. This was not spelled out in the Book of Mormon, but Smith did expound it in several places in the Doctrine and the Covenants. However, there is at least one good and sound approach that in my mind carries a lot of explanatory power, and it is surely not Joseph Smith’s view. I reference to it here in the linked footnotes. 16

John of Patmos, receiving the Revelation, by Gasparde Crayer. Bart Ehrman doubts that this particular “John” wrote the Book of Revelation.

 

Bart Ehrman on the Book of Revelation…. and the Afterlife

No book that addresses themes of eschatology; that is, the study of the “End Times,” would be complete without examining the Book of Revelation. Bart Ehrman holds to a variation of the standard academic view today that Revelation was written mainly to describe events happening in the 1st century C.E., with only certain elements prophetically describing the future, such as the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Christians who are orthodox preterists, otherwise known as “partial preterists”; that is, those who take a fair amount of New Testament prophecy as having been fulfilled in the past (preterist = past), will find much agreement with Ehrman. This is in contrast with the widespread view, popular among most evangelical Christians today, who believe that Revelation mostly speaks about events that have yet to happen in human history; such as the concept of a future coming “Antichrist,” or “beast,” as described in Revelation.

My dispensationalist friends, whom I love dearly, who hold to more of a futurist interpretation, will certainly not approve of Bart Ehrman’s reading of Revelation. But it is worth considering the evidence that Erhman presents.

For example, the mark of the beast, which a lot of people associate with the COVID-19 vaccine in modern times, actually refers to something in the 1st century C.E. As most translations have it, that beast has a number assigned to it, 666 (see Revelation 13:18).  But scholars have long recognized that some numbers in the Bible appeal to the ancient method of Scriptural interpretation of gematria, whereby the letters of a word are assigned a numerical value.

There are apparently a few ways that this might work, but this is how Bart Erhman explains it (p. 222):  The emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians in the 1st century C.E. in Rome, was often called “Caesar Neron.” If you take the letters of that name, transliterate them into Hebrew, and add up the assigned numerical values, you get the total of 666.

Interestingly, there are other early manuscripts of Revelation 13:18 that have the number as 616, as opposed to 666. What is up with that?

As it turns out, Nero’s title and name could simply be “Caesar Nero,” dropping the final “n.” But if you add up the numerical values of that in Hebrew you get the value of 616.

So, while many Christians might suppose that there is some future Antichrist figure, or Beast, that has a mark or number associated with it, the original context of Revelation itself locates this figure in the 1st century, namely that of the emperor Nero, who bound up Christians on poles in the capital of Rome, doused them in something like kerosene, and then lit them on fire to act as nighttime torches to guide people as they walked around the city at night. In other words, there is a good reason why the author of the Book of Revelation had Nero in mind, and not some future unknown individual, living at least 20 centuries into the future. We might still believe that an Antichrist spirit of Nero lives on today, or that there will yet be another future Antichrist, like Nero, coming at least 2,000 years later, but Ehrman’s “partial preterist” interpretation is difficult to refute.17

However, Erhman does get speculative when discussing other parts of Revelation. Ehrman suggests that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7 might point towards the number of Christians who were martyred during the period of Nero, or thereabouts. But Ehrman rightly observes that there were hardly 144,000 Christians living during the 1st century, much less 144,000 martyrs. The 144,000 number is more likely symbolic in another way. But his point here is that while some symbols are easily straightforward, like the number of the beast, other symbols in Revelation are harder to figure out.

Ehrman again contends for an annihilation interpretation of the fate of the unrighteous when discussing the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:11-15. Here Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire, which Ehrman suggests means that death, as the enemy of God, who is the author of life, will be eventually destroyed. This indicates that eventually the wicked will be annihilated, with no conscious eternal torment in view.

I did not search very thoroughly (having no Kindle version of the book), so it is not clear to me how Bart Ehrman treats Revelation 14:11, the primary proof text used by defenders of the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, in the Book of Revelation: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” This verse is cited often against views which promote annihilation.18

The Development of Christian Theology of the Afterlife after the New Testament: Bart Ehrman’s Evolutionary Argument

After concluding that Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament, teaches the annihilation of the soul for the unrighteous, Bart Ehrman goes on to show how Christian thought after the New Testament developed concerning the afterlife. Ehrman argues that ECT (the doctrine of eternal conscious torment) eventually superseded the annihilation view of hell, particularly with the theology of Saint Augustine, by the late 4th and early 5th centuries, most explicitly discussed in Book 21 of Augustine’s City of God.

Yet it was texts like the Apocalypse of Peter, discussed above, and other apocryphal writings, like the Apocalypse of Paul, that more fully developed the ideas, not only of resurrected bliss among the righteous, but also the tortures of hell to experiencing consciously and eternally by the unrighteous. But ECT was not the only doctrine to be developed beyond the New Testament period.

A popular early apocryphal work, The Acts of Thecla, chronicles the life of a young woman who was a famous convert of the Apostle Paul. In one part of the story, Thecla narrowly escapes being martyred for her faith, and is placed under protection of a queen, Antonia Tryphaena. This queen had a daughter, Falconilla, who had recently died, but who had never heard the Gospel preached to her. As the story goes, Tryphaena experiences a dream, where her daughter appears asking Thecla to pray for her. In turn, Thecla makes her prayer, and nothing more is learned from the story, though it does hint at the possibility for a postmortem opportunity for salvation.

In another popular early Christian story about the martyrdom of Perpetua, Perpetua has a brother who had previously died of skin cancer at age seven. Perpetua has a vision of her brother, Dinocrates, suffering and so Perpetua prays for him, for the relief of his suffering in the realm of the dead. Perpetua has another vision or dream of her brother where she sees Dinocrates in much better condition, having found relief from his suffering. Like what is found in the Acts of Thecla, not much more can be gained from this part of the story, though it does hint at later ideas in the Christian tradition.

The most well-known idea from the Christian tradition in the medieval west is the development of the concept of purgatory. Unlike the doctrine of hell, where the unrighteous are forever separated from God, in purgatory Christians who have yet to undergo sufficient sanctification in this life will experience their remaining purge of sin during the intermediate state, between death and the Final Resurrection. This doctrine reached its most mature stage by around the 12th century, only to be severely criticized by Martin Luther, and other Reformers, during the 16th century.

One of the more interesting historical developments in early Christian theology that Ehrman brought out, that I did not know before, was the difference between Christian martyrs and Christian non-martyrs, with respect to what happens after death. As the Christians during the Roman era endured isolated periods of intense persecution, different ideas emerged about the fate of Christian martyrs after their deaths. For non-martyred Christians, they were buried upon death but remained in their graves, only to be resurrected in the future at the Final Judgment. Yet for martyred Christians, they immediately were ushered into the presence of God and experienced resurrection right then and there. No one really believes this today, but given the experience of persecution, it is very easy to see how this kind of split idea gained traction in the early church period.

Nero’s Torches , 1876, by
Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902). Nero used Christians as torches in Rome, in the last days of Paul.

 

The Rabbit Trail of Reincarnation

Ehrman briefly discusses Christian speculation around the idea of reincarnation, mainly through ideas proposed by Origen (p.284-287), that were later rejected by others in the early church. Origen believed in the pre-existence of the human soul, which is quite palatable with the belief that souls migrate between different bodies, at the point of death. Some have suggested that the prophet Elijah sets some kind of precedence for reincarnation, based on the speculation made by some of Jesus’ disciples, that Jesus was in some sense Elijah, or even John the Baptist, coming back from the dead (Mark 8:27-28), or that John the Baptist was Elijah (John 1:21). The Elijah connection does not work very well, mainly because the Old Testament story indicates that Elijah never died to begin with. He was taken up to be with God instead of dying (2 Kings 2).

The most peculiar reference from the Gospels supposedly supporting reincarnation comes from the story of the man born blind:

‘As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:1-3 ESV).

For how could the man be responsible for being born blind from birth, if his soul did not exist prior to his birth? Note however, that Jesus himself refutes the idea that the man’s blindness resulted from some sort of prenatal sin, the parents’ sin, or anything else. Jesus put an end to this type of speculation himself.19

Christian speculation promoting belief in reincarnation therefore found little traction in the early church, and need not disturb the Christian as a reasonable alternative today. Ehrman shows how Irenaeus completely blasts reincarnation-type beliefs held by a certain 2nd century Gnostic group, the Carpocratians. Scripturally speaking, Hebrews 9:27 completely refutes reincarnation by teaching that every person will face judgment after they die, with no chance for the soul’s migration to another body.

The “Harrowing of Hell” : Did Jesus Rescue Adam and Eve from Perdition, Between the Cross and Resurrection?

Elsewhere, Ehrman argues that the so-called “Harrowing of Hell” receives its first surviving extended treatment in another apocryphal text, the Gospel of Nicodemus. The Harrowing of Hell refers to the period between Jesus’ death on the cross and his bodily resurrection, where Jesus descended to the realm of the dead to preach the Gospel. We find this briefly mentioned in a clause from the most ancient universal creed of the church,  Apostles Creed, where Christians for centuries have repeated that Jeusus “descended into hell,” or more accurately, “descended to the dead” or “descended into Hades.”

This “descensus” clause (from the Latin) has been controversial, particularly in Protestant circles, as the Scriptural basis for it is relatively thin. Evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem has even called for its removal from the Apostles Creed, whereas other theologians have called for keeping the clause in place, as it truly affirms that Jesus not only was crucified, but that he also died, rather than merely swooning or falling unconscious while on the cross.

But what actually happened when Jesus descended to the dead, otherwise known as the Harrowing of Hell? The Gospel of Nicodemus tells us that Jesus went into “Hades,” the Greek term that roughly parallels the Hebrew term “Sheol,” to go and preach the Gospel to those who have already died. The universal Gospel message was declared to not only deceased Jews, but deceased pagans as well. None of this is ever explicitly taught in the Bible, though many cite 1 Peter 3:18-22 as the primary source.20

Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins inspired Time magazine to dedicate an issue on the topic of hell and universalism.

 

The Genesis of Universalism

Near the end of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman addresses early church speculation about universalism, held by some early Christians suggesting that after death, the punishments of hell are actually another kind of purgatory, whereby those who are unrepentant in this life will experience a kind of redemptive purging of their rebellion in hell, and then ultimately be reconciled to God. In other words, there is indeed a “hell,” but rather than being punitive, it is redemptive in nature. Various well-known Christians, ranging from the 19th century Victorian author, George MacDonald, to the 21st century former megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, have been associated with this view, in some way. William Paul Young, the author of the very popular The Shack, has come out as a vocal proponent for a Christian universalism.

It has been claimed that universalism was championed notably by the first great systematic theologian of the church, the late 2nd to early 2rd century Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, and later generations have condemned Origen and others for these beliefs. Origen taught a doctrine of “the restoration of all things,” from the Greek term apocatastasis, found in Acts 3:21, suggesting that even the devil will be converted to Christ at the very end. Despite his many positive contributions to the church, Origen has never been canonized as a saint.

Universalism has always been a minority view among Christians, despite vigorous defenses of the doctrine by contemporary proponents like David Bentley Hart. Passages like Philippians 2:4-11 have been cited to argue that the Apostle Paul himself taught that ultimately the love of God will prove irresistible to even the most hardened of sinners. Interestingly, Paul is the main source for these universalism arguments, along with a few Old Testament texts, as they have been read by some Christians. Oddly enough, appealing to Jesus, the central figure in the Christian faith, or anything else in the Gospels, rarely gets anyone near universalism. This obstacle was not enough to keep some apocryphal books, like the 4th-5th century Gospel of Nicodemus from having strongly hinted at universalism. Nevertheless, Bart Ehrman concedes that universalism is indeed a product of later doctrinal development, and not something clearly associated with the early witness of the New Testament. 

An Evangelical Evaluation of Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell

The way that Bart Ehrman explains and corrects certain Christian misunderstandings about heaven look correct to me. While Ehrman himself does not accept Christianity, he fairly and accurately describes the Scriptural teaching on heaven. Believers in Jesus will inherit an incorruptible body at the final resurrection. There is no permanent disembodied existence for the Christian in eternity. Everything about our bodies as Christian believers that plague us in this life will be completely renewed and transformed in the “New Heavens and New Earth.”

With respect to the intermediate state, I am still not entirely sure about the concept of “soul sleep,” but Ehrman makes a good case for the idea of a conscious experience of particular judgment upon death, whereby the temporarily disembodied believer is given a foretaste of eternal life, upon the future resurrection of the body at the final judgment, by somehow being present with Jesus during the interim period. So, I would lean against “soul sleep,” though I do acknowledge that Christian friends and family members of mine, notably some Seventh Day Adventists, do believe in it. The Seventh Day Adventist doctrine links the consciousness of the soul with the presence of the body, which appears to be the primary perspective taught in the Old Testament, so it would make sense to say that the soul must “sleep” during the intermediate state. It is hard to imagine otherwise, particularly in a day and age where more people are having their remains cremated. Either way, this does not appear to be a major issue in my mind.

However, for more important matters, when it comes to the fate of those who reject Christ, there are a few things that can be clearly established: Jesus spoke about “hell” more than anyone else in the Bible, more than the Old Testament, and even more than Paul. This will obviously not sit well with people who only care about reading the “Red Letters” of the Bible, where the sayings of Jesus are quoted in red letters, in some editions of the Bible.

The other thing to note is this: While a Christian might still hold to universalism and be saved, Ehrman successfully shows that universalism is a more recent development in Christian thought, and really should not be considered an accurately exegeted, historically orthodox Christian belief taught in Scripture, despite the fact that some well known Christians have adopted the view, even in the early church. As an atheist/agnostic, Ehrman has no vested interest in defending universalism as a Christian doctrine, so Ehrman’s dismissal of universalism as a more recent innovation is a significant strike against those Christians who do advocate for universalism. Like Ehrman, I find the exegetical handstands that are required to uphold a Christian universalism lack the necessary evidential framework to support that view. Frankly, I might even lean ever so slightly towards saying that materialism, with no prospect of the afterlife, is more likely than a Christian universalism.

I have more than one Christian friend who holds to such a universalism-type view. This is my response, though I elaborate a bit more in a previous blog post. First, I am not saying that someone who holds to an Origen-type of universalism is not a Christian. To repeat: One can still be a Christian and be a universalist. Nevertheless, this is an extremely tenuous position to hold, and that is being generous.

One may hope for universalism to be true, but a fair consideration of Scripture requires the believer who submits to the full authority of the Bible to reject universalism ultimately as a wrong-headed kind of false teaching. Wishful thinking, or wanting something to be true, is understandable and I am sympathetic toward it, but this does not give us the liberty to go against the teaching of Scripture. Wishful thinking can make us blind to the truth. So while a kind of “hopeful” or “wishful” universalism might find some room in an evangelical church, I do not see how any Christian who accepts universalism as dogmatically true, and any other traditional position on hell to be inherently false, can be or remain a faithful member of a conservative evangelical congregation, in good standing.21

Regarding the debate between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and annihilation, I am pretty well undecided as to which is the more accurate teaching of the Bible. I hope to study the controversy at some future point in more detail. What I do know is that Ehrman’s tendency to disregard or even ignore certain texts that many say support eternal conscious torment is worth keeping in mind. Ehrman’s proclivity to dismiss the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, without sufficient warrant, leaves the concept of ECT still on the table.

The concept of eternal conscious torment is the more predominant, traditional view, so I fully accept that advocates for annihilation, or the doctrine of conditional immortality, championed by evangelical Christians like Chris Date, at RethinkingHell.com, bear the burden of proof in demonstrating their position. If indeed the endless conscious torment of the wicked is the Scriptural doctrine, Christians must be willing to accept it. But if you do ever get a chance to go by RethinkingHell.com, you will learn that there is actually strong evidence in favor of annihilation, as opposed to ECT, and much of this evidence is presented in Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell as well.

What is not entirely clear to me regarding Ehrman’s understanding of annihilation in the New Testament is how this relates to the experience of punishment prior to annihilation. For example, the standard Jehovah’s Witnesses view is that the wicked will be annihilated immediately upon judgment, or in some cases, right at the point of death. With this view, the wicked only experience annihilation, and no other direct punishment from God. A more orthodox understanding of annihilation insists that there will be an experience of divine punishment upon the wicked, following the Last Judgment, but that the degree of that experience will be commensurate with the degree of sin, based on God’s final judgment. This experience of punishment happens prior to the eventual annihilation of the body and the soul.

The fact that Ehrman is ultimately indifferent to the existence of heaven or hell, with no vested interest in defending any particular view of either one, makes his arguments for the annihilation viewpoint a perspective that deserves serious consideration. Are the arguments in favor of annihilation sufficient enough to overthrow the traditional ECT view? I do not yet know for sure.22

Nevertheless, whether eternal conscious torment or annihilation is correct, neither description of hell is particularly appealing, to say the least. My desire in my evangelistic encounters with friends, co-workers, and neighbors is that they might be spared of any eternal separation of God, and instead enjoy the comfort and peace of knowing Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Avoiding the punitive and/or destructive fires of hell should not be the primary reason for becoming a Christian. The glories of being with the Lord should be our motivation instead. But the doctrine of hell should serve as a sober warning to those who trifle with eternal matters concerning one’s soul.

We may try to find all sorts of sophisticated ways to silence the “Hound of Heaven,” but that does not make the sound of His coming go away. As an aside, C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, has been one of the best Christian books I have ever read that has helped me to think through having a more balanced view of hell, avoiding a perverse, extreme fear of hell on the one hand, versus a complete rejection of hell and final judgment on the other.

The Materialism of Bart Ehrman: No Life After Death Whatsoever

In the afterword to Heaven and Hell, Ehrman describes why he ultimately rejects any Christian notion of the afterlife, particularly that of any form of hell associated with punishments, whether that be via eternal conscious torment, his greater concern, or even annihilation, as contrast with the glories of having heavenly peace with God:

“… I simply don’t believe it. Is it truly rational to think, as in the age-old Christian doctrine, that there is a divine being who created this world, loves all who are in it, and wants the very best for them, yet who has designed reality in such a way that if people make mistakes in life or do not believe the right things, they will die and be subjected to indescribable torments, not for the length of the time they committed their ‘offenses,’ but for trillions of years– and that only as the beginning?” (p. 293-294)

The skepticism that drives the question is one that deserves an answer, and yes, some answers given by some Christians are really bad about this. Yet the way Bart Ehrman frames the question betrays a distorted understanding as to the Bible’s approach to the problem of evil. What makes this all the more strange on Ehrman’s part is that in his other books he specifically names the unsatisfactory Christian approach to the problem of evil as being the prime reason for him rejecting the faith. Ehrman makes it sound like the problem of evil is associated with some sort of arbitrariness on God’s part, based mainly on giving the wrong answers to certain philosophical or theological questions.

I beg to differ. Ehrman’s embrace of a materialistic worldview requires him to conclude that the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell are merely a carrot and stick approach designed to motivate a certain kind of obedience to a particular set of arbitrary moral standards … and nothing more.

To the contrary, the story of Christianity is about God’s war against the powers of darkness and evil that have corrupted every human heart, even Bart Ehrman’s and even mine. Everyone thinks of themself as a “good person,” but the God of Christianity knows better. God desires to rescue humans from the deceptive grip of sin, and in doing so God is also dedicated to eradicating all unrighteousness, wickedness, and blindness to the truth. What Jesus accomplished just is not an easy thing to figure out intellectually. But Ehrman’s answer which ultimately sees no resolution to the cosmic nature of evil and deception is neither rational nor good. If all we have is this life, then the forces that work to enslave, harm, deceive and crush humanity and the rest of creation can simply get away with it, without justice, and without the healing of those who have been harmed. Why Ehrman sees this as more appealing and even more “rational” is beyond me.

Sebastiano Ricci’s (1659-1734) depiction of the Resurrection. The hope for believers in Jesus is that they will experience bodily resurrection, just as Jesus did, and dwell together in God’s presence, enjoying a renewed creation, just as God originally had in mind.

 

What We Can Learn from Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell…. and What We Should Cautiously and Safely Set Aside

I have found fault with Bart Ehrman at numerous places in Heaven and Hell in this review. One could easily respond by saying that Heaven and Hell was meant to be targeted towards a popular audience, so it was never intended to be an exhaustive examination of the topics, a point well taken. Furthermore, there are indisputable places where Ehrman’s bias against Christian truth claims stand out, as Ehrman really believes that when we die, that is it. Nothing else happens after that. This world is all that matters. What a contrast with a New Testament worldview!!

It was only within the past few months that Ehrman released a scholarly treatment of the same material, having a more “bible geeky” audience in mind, whether one is a Christian believer or not. Perhaps Ehrman addresses some of the faults I found in Heaven and Hell, but given some of the reviews so far, I am not wholly optimistic, as one Goodreads reviewer described Erhman’s new book, Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition, this way: “For anyone wanting to find material that blows a lot of the authenticity of the Bible out of the water, this is your book.” Mmmm… this would appear to justify Randy Alcorn’s sentiments that Ehrman is once again attacking Christianity.

We can recall the three main features of Bart Ehrman’s approach to the history of early Christianity, namely:

  1. The adoption of the Enlightenment’s project of “historical criticism,” dating all of the way back to the 17th century thinker, Baruch Spinoza, that seeks to unshackle the Bible from the unity given to the text by a single divine author, who exists behind the text, in order to arrive at the Bible’s true historical meaning, with contradictions and conflicting agendas left unharmonized.
  2. The Walter Bauer hypothesis, that contends that there was never a single source for historical orthodoxy in Christianity, where heterodox movements split off from it, but rather a plurality of competing, conflicting visions of what the message of Jesus was all about. What we know of as “historical orthodoxy” Christianity today was merely the winner in a centuries long fight for dominance. In other words, the pro-Nicene, pro-Pauline party eventually silenced the competitors in the writing of Christian history. The “winners” got to write the history, and the “winners” wrote out everybody else, labeling the “losers” as “heretics.” This is like postmodernism on steroids.
  3. The embrace of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion, that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, who wrongly predicted the end of the world coming within the lifetime of his earliest disciples, served as the catalyst for recasting what we know of as “Christianity” today.

These three guiding principles of Ehrman’s thought stand as the primary obstacles to any historically orthodox Christian embrace of Ehrman’s writings. Each one of these guiding principles is fraught with significant difficulties, which conservative evangelical scholars reject, and rightly so. Once a reader recognizes these points of conflict, recognizing the limitations of each, only then can a Bible-believing Christian find some benefit to reading Ehrman, without falling off a cliff into deconversion. In doing so, each of these three guiding principles can be cautiously and safely set aside, in order to gain some of the more positive benefits of Ehrman’s work.

I have to hand two things in praise to Bart Ehrman, however. Bart Ehrman comes across as an honest non-believer. This is a far better approach than those Christians who somehow convince themselves that they believe the Bible while simultaneously rejecting good chunks of what we read in the text, adopting interpretations that have a low probability of being correct. This type of dishonesty happens in all flavors of Christianity, both conservative and progressive. It really is not a matter of intentional dishonesty, but rather it is ideological certainty posing as some form of piety. To that extent, I would rather take Bart Ehrman’s honest dismissal of certain aspects of the Bible than the type of incredulous exegetical handstands that too many professing Christians, both conservative and progressive, try to perform in order to conform to their own ideological commitments.

Secondly, despite how unnerving some of the things Ehrman writes comes across to a Christian believer, like myself, Bart Ehrman is a very engaging, accessible writer. He gets his readers to think, and presents his arguments in a compelling manner, even when there are still holes in them, upon closer examination. Many Christians sadly would prefer to sweep such topics under the rug. Unfortunately, such a posture only encourages those who have doubts about the Christian faith to double down on their doubts, making them more susceptible to further deconstruction of whatever Christian faith they have left.23

I just wish more historically orthodox, evangelical scholarly writers would take up the tasks that Ehrman has successfully mastered, and that more Christians should read such books. At a distinctly popular level, I am glad that there are books like Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Lee Strobel’s The Case for Heaven to help Christians think through these issues. Yet while I have read neither book, I am familiar enough with each author to know that the treatments of the topics, while still surely helpful and coming with good recommendations, tend to be rather thin on telling the historical side of doctrinal development. But I do not expect either Alcorn or Strobel to venture into these areas too deeply, as the advanced study of historical theology is not within either authors’ areas of expertise, and neither would claim to have such expertise to begin with. What I am talking about is those evangelical scholars who do possess the depth of experience to write books of the caliber of Bart Ehrman’s work, that are meant for a popular audience. We need more books like that.

Much of what you find in Ehrman’s books are basically ignored by many, many evangelical church pastors. You rarely get this type of material from a typical adult Bible class, and practically never from a Sunday teaching sermon. In many evangelical churches these days, talk about “hell” is practically non-existent, a situation that was only really true in liberal mainline churches, just a generation or two ago. Over and over again, I wondered to myself in reading Heaven and Hell, “Why do I not hear about these things more often in church?”  If we want to stem the tide to push back against the trend towards deconversion, or if we want to reach well-read audiences, who are skeptical about Christianity, then we better learn at least something from Bart Ehrman.

Finally, a personal note….

Both of my parents died 6-7 years ago. They raised me in a liberal mainline Protestant church, yet I effectively became their pastor in the weeks before they died, as both my mom and dad had many, many doubts about their Christian faith. In their dying weeks, I had many long conversations about the possibilities of eternity, by their bedsides. What bothered me the most was the lack of solid confidence that a resurrected life awaited them in the future. Perhaps they secretly had that hope somehow, but they were never able to adequately communicate that to me. I pray that this was the case. The topic of heaven and hell is not just some theological mental exercise. At least to me, it is not. It has real world consequences, for this world and the next.

Notes:

1. Evidence Unseen has a helpful summary comparing a more radical historical critical approach to the Bible, and an historical orthodox one.

2. A lengthier review is found at Randy Alcorn’s website. A sample of Randy Alcorn’s teaching is found in this YouTube video. Here is a video review of Bart Ehrman’s book, from an interview Josh McDowell did with Randy Alcorn, followed by an interview Sean McDowell did with Randy Alcorn on Randy’s book. 

3. This is a bit disappointing considering the fact that Randy Alcorn has written perhaps the dominant best seller, when it comes to popular presentations about a Christian approach to the afterlife, Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says About Our Eternal Home. I would have expected Alcorn to be a bit more generous in his critique of Ehrman, particular as pertaining to Job 19:26. Randy Alcorn claims to find 12 major translations that agree with the resurrection translation, but nearly every study Bible that I consulted mentioned how difficult it is to translate this passage based on the Masoretic Hebrew original. Alcorn sees this as “only minor differences” between translations, which is misleading. See John Walton’s comments on this passage in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, quoted here: “It is still disputed whether Job here refers to resurrection, but most modern interpreters consider it unlikely.” The CSB Study Bible takes a more positive view, though still tentative: “The translation of this passage is difficult, but most English versions take it as a glimpse into the reality of the resurrection.” The ESV Study Bible comments: “Because of the content of Job’s earlier laments and the difficulty of the Hebrew in v.26, interpreters have questioned the likelihood that Job is expressing in these verses a belief that God will redeem him after death. However, while the focus of Job’s dialogue and lament is the desire that what he believes to be true in ‘heaven’ (i.e. before God) would be shown to be true on earth, such a desire makes sense only if it is grounded in a belief that God is his Redeemer and that he will vindicate Job even in death.”  The Zondervan NIV Study Bible concedes that even if this passage acknowledges conscious existence after death, that does not necessarily entail bodily resurrection, which is essential to a Christian concept of the afterlife. Aside from Randy Alcorn, another major popular work is Lee Strobel’s recent 2021 The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death, which I have not read. I am not aware of any critique Strobel might have made with respect to Bart Ehrman’s work. The following first YouTube video is an interview Sean McDowell did with Lee Strobel about the book. The second video is an interview Alisa Childers did with Lee Strobel:

4. See Michael Heiser, the Naked Bible Podcast #327: “Telegraph to Bart Ehrman: If you’re saying something like that (“at your—God’s—right hand are pleasures forevermore”), you’re not just thinking that when you die, that’s it. You just aren’t. Okay? So nobody at Time Magazine is going to fact-check Bart. I understand that. I just kind of wish Bart would fact-check Bart occasionally. Because it’s just such an exaggeration on the other side. ” Michael Heiser is making his response based on a scholarly article by David C. Mitchell, “’God Will Redeem My Soul from Sheol’: The Psalms of the Sons of Korah” and this is from the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30:3 (2006).  

5. In C.S. Lewis book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis acknowledges that there are two ways of reading various Old Testament passages. The first meaning is derived from the original context of the passage, such as Ezekiel’s “dry bones” that come back to life, meaning that the national Israel will be restored following the Babylonian Exile. The “second meaning,” that of Ezekiel’s “dry bones” passage being a reference to the bodily resurrection of individuals, is derived from later reflection by attentive Jews who see a deeper message being communicated by the text. The New Testament writers along with other 1st century Jews looked for such “second meanings” quite frequently, with the caveat that the Christians saw the New Testament authoritatively expressing God’s purposeful message. See Jenkins review & Tomasano review. See these other blog posts on Lewis’ Reflection on the Psalms, #1 and #2

6. See previous Veracity posts about the Book of Enoch: (a)  Basic introduction to Enoch.  (b) Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, which completely revolutionized my understanding the Second Temple Judaism context for the New Testament, with the Book of Enoch being a primary lens for interpreting the thought world of Second Temple Judaism.

7. The Book of Judith is found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, and not in Protestant Bibles. An interesting post by Derek Demars argues that both eternal conscious torment views and annihilation views of hell were present in Judaism within a few centuries before Jesus.

8. See previous Veracity blog post regarding Luke 17:21, which changed my view of Leo Tolstoy.   

9. The discussion about the biblical meaning of “flesh” can be rather confusing as the term can carry multiple meanings, according to different contexts. Some helpful resources are linked to here:  (a) Outi Lehtipuu on Debates over the Resurrection of the Dead    ,   (b) Craig Keener on Paul’s understanding of the “flesh”,  and (c) Jason Staples on Bible translation, sarx as “sinful nature?”  

10. Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible (The Gospels and Acts), Bock, et.al., kindle location 13,224. In Heaven and Hell, p.195 has a typo in it, as Ehrman references Luke 22, when it should be Luke 24

11. Jason Engwer has written a recent blog post at Triablogue discussing other evidence for Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

12. See Kruger and Köstenberger analysis of the Walter Bauer thesis regarding the plurality of so-called “heresies” and “orthodoxies” at the very beginnings of the Christian movement. They address this on Michael Kruger’s blog. I hope to read and review Kruger and Köstenberger’s book at some point in the future.  

13. See Veracity post on 2 Peter, on a more historically orthodox response to Albert Schweitzer’s (and Bart Ehrman’s) thesis that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.  For another detailed response to the failed apocalyptic prophet thesis, see this review by Andrew Perriman, of the failed apocalyptic thesis as presented by James Tabor, a recently retired professor of religion and history, who taught for a few years at the College of William and Mary, where I currently work.

14. Even Ben, the Amateur Exegete, a non-evangelical YouTuber, is not convinced by Ehrman’s interpretation. I hope to write a more focused blog post on this particular parable in the future. In the meantime, for more on sheep and goats.

15. Interestingly, David Bentley Hart does agree that if Paul is, in fact, not teaching universalism, as Hart emphatically suggests, then Paul is most probably teaching annihilation, regarding the fate of the wicked. Unfortunately, I lost the reference to Hart here (perhaps in this video?). There are several YouTube videos describing his thoughts about annihilation.  Ehrman’s chapter 9 on Paul, Heaven and Hell, continues to drive an unnecessary wedge between Paul and Jesus, by suggesting that Jesus preached a Gospel of social justice, which leads to salvation, and Paul preached a Gospel based on having faith in Jesus. Ehrman comes just short of calling this a “contradiction,” but the contrast suggested by Ehrman is quite heavy still. But the contrast is not as sharp as Ehrman contends in that could easily be argued that Paul’s emphasis on having faith is merely a development of the thought introduced by Jesus in the Gospels, and not some peculiar invention in the mind of Paul. In other words, it is quite plausible to see progressive revelation at work in the New Testament, just as we see it done in the Old Testament, contra Ehrman. …. Bart Ehrman locates Paul’s most sophisticated thought on the intermediate state in 2 Corinthians 5, which he sees as leaning away from “soul sleep” and leaning towards having a conscious non-bodily encounter with Jesus, immediately after dead. Alternatively, Doug Batchelor, a popular Seventh-Day Adventist Bible teacher, offers an alternative reading to 2 Corinthians 5, and other passages, that he argues supports “soul sleep.” 

16. See Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 221: Baptism for the Dead. While Ehrman is more agnostic about the meaning of “baptism for the dead” than he needs to be, he does offer helpful insight into understanding the context of 1 Corinthians 15 more broadly. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is not trying to prove the resurrection of the dead, though a case for the resurrection, and specifically Christ’s resurrection, can be made from here. Rather, Paul is assuming the resurrection of the dead, but he is trying to target the specific meaning of that resurrection. For Paul, resurrection is bodily resurrection. There is no permanent separation of the body from the soul after death. Rather, because Jesus is the first one to be raised from the dead, so we too, who are believers in Jesus, will also be raised from the dead in the same way. Apparently, there were Christians in Corinth who continued to accept the more Greek, Platonic idea that the soul is separated from the body at death, and then that soul permanently lives on without a body. The fact that the Corinthians were still practicing “baptism for the dead” meant that these Christians still believed that there is an afterlife. However, Paul wants to show that this resurrection for Jesus was a re-unification of body and soul, and that this type of re-unification of body and soul will be in the future of every believer. Without this hope, our faith is in vain. Paul believed that there have been witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, like himself, who have been persecuted, so perhaps the best way to understand 1 Corinthians 15:29 is to say that believers in Corinth were being baptism in honor of those who have died for the cause of Christ before them, who made it possible for the Corinthians to hear the good news. Think of the martyrdom of Stephen, James, etc. 

17. See Heiser, was Nero the Antichrist? : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1gNKv5eHE4

18. A blog reviewer of Ehrman’s book, Patrick Frost, linked here, was not impressed by Ehrman’s arguments in support of annihilation. I have not studied the arguments favoring annihilation well enough to make an informed judgment.

19. Helpful article at bible.org on reincarnation.

20. This descensus clause of the Apostles Creed was explored in this Veracity blog post, but a concise scholarly treatment has been summarized by Matt Emerson,  . My own view is that Wayne Grudem fundamentally misunderstands the descensus clause.

21. Historical theologian Michael McClymond argues that “In Orthodox Christianity, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion.” That sums it up rather nicely.

22. Chris Date thinks he has met the burden of proof. ….Ehrman suggests that a medieval period book, the Apocalypse of Paul, was quite influential in Christian thought in promoting the belief in ECT. The Apocalypse of Paul expands on the tortures described in the early Apocalypse of Peter, going into great detail about various levels of punishment. To be fair, the Apocalypse of Paul also goes into detail about the various levels of bliss experience by the righteous, but this is far outweighed by the punishments meted out to morally wayward priests and heretics. The Apocalypse of Peter is generally dated to the 2nd century, as we know that the ECT view was embraced by a number of Christians in the 2nd century, given the fact that Celsus, one of the most prominent pagan critics of Christianity in the 2nd century tried to refute the Christian view of ECT.

23. A fair summary of Bart Ehrman’s writings on Heaven and Hell is offered by former Christian and atheist YouTuber Drew McCoy, otherwise known as Genetically Modified Skeptic. The following 25-minute video illustrates the deconstruction of Chrisian faith in action. It is both informative and sad at the same time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGvcRnlId4k. …….. In several places in this review, I have chided evangelical scholars for not writing enough popular level material that interacts with various claims made by the plethora of books Bart Ehrman has published in recent years. But there are some books out that address some of these issue in part, which do quite well with their limited scope. The most recent is Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible, which was reviewed here on Veracity just a few months ago. I would also recommend Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe The Bible?, also reviewed here on Veracity. Blomberg’s book excels the best in correcting a lot of misguided evangelical Christian apologetics that sadly do more harm than good. Perhaps the finest of the lot is from 2006, Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus, with a review I wrote for the American Scientific Affiliation, p.162-163. It would be wonderful if Dr. Evans were to update this work and expand it for a new audience.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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