None of us likes thinking about death, but there are times when we have little choice. The virus spreads, hospitals fill, and systems become overwhelmed. Our greatest concerns, personal and national, are for survival. But for many people – even the otherwise healthy — the crisis has unexpectedly raised the specter of death itself, our constant companion even if, most of the time, we do our best to ignore it. Or, in more normal times, try to laugh it off. The most recent and memorable effort was NBC’s smash hit comedy series The Good Place; but the humor even there was rooted precisely in terror, as Eleanor Shellstrop and her companions desperately worked to avoid the afterlife they deserved in the Bad Place and its eternal torments.
The fear is as ancient as civilization’s oldest surviving records. The hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh writhes in agony at the prospect of spending eternity groveling in dust being eaten by worms. Few people today may share Gilgamesh’s terror of consciously living forever in the dirt. Plenty, however, tremble before the possibility of eternal misery. Possibly this is a good time to help people realize that it simply will not be that way.
There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment (or purgatory en route). This is true even in the land of increasing “nones”: Americans continue to anticipate a version of the alternatives portrayed in The Good Place: regardless of religious persuasion, 72% believe in a literal heaven, 58% in a literal hell.
The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught. But that is not true. Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.
Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. On the contrary, for them, the soul was more like the “breath.” The first human God created, Adam, began as a lump of clay; then God “breathed” life into him (Genesis 2: 7). Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
Ancient Jews thought that was true of us all. When we stop breathing, our breath doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. So too the “soul” doesn’t continue on outside the body, subject to postmortem pleasure or pain. It doesn’t exist any longer.
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.
And so, traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death. That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink – no communion even with God. God would forget the person and the person could not even worship. The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now.
But Jews began to change their view over time, although it too never involved imagining a heaven or hell. About two hundred years before Jesus, Jewish thinkers began to believe that there had to be something beyond death—a kind of justice to come. Jews had long believed that God was lord of the entire world and all people, both the living and the dead. But the problems with that thinking were palpable: God’s own people Israel continually, painfully, and frustratingly suffered, from natural disaster, political crises, and, most notably, military defeat. If God loves his people and is sovereign over all the world why do his people experience so much tragedy?
Some thinkers came up with a solution that explained how God would bring about justice, but again one that didn’t involve perpetual bliss in a heaven above or perpetual torment in a hell below. This new idea maintained that there are evil forces in the world aligned against God and determined to afflict his people. Even though God is the ultimate ruler over all, he has temporarily relinquished control of this world for some mysterious reason. But the forces of evil have little time left. God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died. Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence. And God will bring all the dead back to life, not just the righteous. The multitude who had been opposed to God will also be raised, but for a different reason: to see the errors of their ways and be judged. Once they are shocked and filled with regret – but too late — they will permanently be wiped out of existence.
This view of the coming resurrection dominated the view of Jewish thought in the days of Jesus. It was also the view he himself embraced and proclaimed. The end of time is coming soon. The earthly Kingdom of God is “at hand” (Mark 1:15). God will soon destroy everything and everyone opposed to him and establish a new order on earth. Those who enter this kingdom will enjoy a utopian existence for all time. All others will be annihilated.
But Jesus put his own twist on the idea. Contrary to what other Jewish leaders taught, Jesus preached that no one will inherit the glorious future kingdom by stringently observing all the Jewish laws in their most intimate details; or by meticulously following the rules of worship involving sacrifice, prayer, and observance of holy days; or by pursuing one’s own purity through escaping the vile world and the tainting influence of sinful others. Instead, for Jesus, the earthly utopia will come to those who are fully dedicated to the most pervasive and dominant teachings of God’s law. Put most simply, that involves loving God above all things despite personal hardship, and working diligently for the welfare of others, even when it is exceedingly difficult. People who have not been living lives of complete unselfish love need to repent and return to the two “greatest commandments” of Jewish Scripture: deep love of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and committed love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).
This may be simple, but it is not easy. Since your neighbor is anyone you know, see, or hear about, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, true love means helping everyone in need, not just those in your preferred social circles. Jesus was concerned principally for the poor, the outcasts, the foreigners, the marginalized, and even the most hated enemies. Few people are. Especially those with good lives and abundant resources. No wonder it’s easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom.
Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.
In traditional English versions, he does occasionally seem to speak of “Hell” – for example, in his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount: anyone who calls another a fool, or who allows their right eye or hand to sin, will be cast into “hell” (Matthew 5:22, 29-30). But these passages are not actually referring to “hell.” The word Jesus uses is “Gehenna.” The term does not refer to a place of eternal torment but to a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods. The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place.
In the ancient world (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish), the worst punishment a person could experience after death was to be denied a decent burial. Jesus developed this view into a repugnant scenario: corpses of those excluded from the kingdom would be unceremoniously tossed into the most desecrated dumping ground on the planet. Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist.
Jesus’ stress on the absolute annihilation of sinners appears throughout his teachings. At one point he says there are two gates that people pass through (Matthew 7:13-14). One is narrow and requires a difficult path, but leads to “life.” Few go that way. The other is broad and easy, and therefore commonly taken. But it leads to “destruction.” It is an important word. The wrong path does not lead to torture.
So too Jesus says the future kingdom is like a fisherman who hauls in a large net (Matthew 13:47-50). After sorting through the fish, he keeps the good ones and throws the others out. He doesn’t torture them. They just die. Or the kingdom is like a person who gathers up the plants that have grown in his field (Matthew 13:36-43). He keeps the good grain, but tosses the weeds into a fiery furnace. These don’t burn forever. They are consumed by fire and then are no more.
Still other passages may seem to suggest that Jesus believe in hell. Most notably Jesus speaks of all nations coming for the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Some are said to be sheep, and the others goats. The (good) sheep are those who have helped those in need – the hungry, the sick, the poor, the foreigner. These are welcomed into the “kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The (wicked) goats, however, have refused to help those in need, and so are sent to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” At first blush, that certainly sounds like the hell of popular imagination.
But when Jesus summarizes his point, he explains that the contrasting fates are “eternal life” and “eternal punishment.” They are not “eternal pleasure” and “eternal pain.” The opposite of life is death, not torture. So the punishment is annihilation. But why does it involve “eternal fire”? Because the fire never goes out. The flames, not the torments, go on forever. And why is the punishment called “eternal”? Because it will never end. These people will be annihilated forever. That is not pleasant to think about, but it will not hurt once it’s finished.
And so, Jesus stood in a very long line of serious thinkers who have refused to believe that a good God would torture his creatures for eternity. The idea of eternal hell was very much a late comer on the Christian scene, developed decades after Jesus’ death and honed to a fine pitch in the preaching of fire and brimstone that later followers sometimes attributed to Jesus himself. But the torments of hell were not preached by either Jesus or his original Jewish followers; they emerged among later gentile converts who did not hold to the Jewish notion of a future resurrection of the dead. These later Christians came out of Greek culture and its belief that souls were immortal and would survive death.
From at least the time of Socrates, many Greek thinkers had subscribed to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Even though the human body dies, the human soul both will not and cannot. Later Christians who came out of gentile circles adopted this view for themselves, and reasoned that if souls are built to last forever, their ultimate fates will do so as well. It will be either eternal bliss or eternal torment.
This innovation represents an unhappy amalgamation of Jesus’ Jewish views and those found in parts of the Greek philosophical tradition. It was a strange hybrid, a view held neither by the original Christians nor by ancient Greek intelligentsia before them.
Still, in one interesting and comforting way, Jesus’ own views of either eternal reward or complete annihilation do resemble Greek notions propagated over four centuries earlier. Socrates himself expressed the idea most memorably when on trial before an Athenian jury on capital charges. His “Apology” (that is, “Legal Defense”) can still be read today, recorded by his most famous pupil, Plato. Socrates openly declares that he sees no reason to fear the death sentence. On the contrary, he is rather energized by the idea of passing on from this life.
For Socrates, death will be one of two things. On one hand, it may entail the longest, most untroubled, deep sleep that could be imagined. And who doesn’t enjoy a good sleep? On the other hand, it may involve a conscious existence. That too would be good, even better. It would mean carrying on with life and all its pleasures but none of its pain. For Socrates, the classical world’s most famous pursuer of truth, it would mean endless conversations about deep subjects with well-known thinkers of his past. And so the afterlife presents no bad choices, only good ones. Death was not a source of terror or even dread.
Twenty-four centuries later, with all our advances in understanding our world and human life within it, surely we can think that that both Jesus and Socrates had a lot of things right. Jesus taught that in this short life we have, we should devote ourselves to the welfare of others, the poor, the needy, the sick, the oppressed, the outcast, the alien. We should listen to him.
But Socrates was almost certainly right as well. None of us, of course, knows what will happen when we pass from this world of transience. But his two options are still the most viable. On one hand, we may lose our consciousness with no longer a worry in this world. Jesus saw this as permanent annihilation; Socrates as a pleasant deep sleep. In either scenario, there will be no more pain. On the other hand, there may be more yet to come, a happier place, a good place. And so, in this, the greatest teacher of the Greeks and the founder of Christianity agreed to this extent: when, in the end, we pass from this earthly realm, we may indeed have something to hope for, but we have absolutely nothing to fear.
Ehrman’s new book, from which this essay is adapted, is Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.