Historian Bart Ehrman on Life After Death

Historian Bart Ehrman on Life After Death April 4, 2021

Dr. Bart Ehrman is a leading historian on Christian Origins even though he is an agnostic. I’ve met him due to both of us being members of the Society of Biblical Literature. Ehrman graduated at Moody, Princeton, and is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Since today is Easter, The Los Angeles Times has op-ed by Dr. Ehrman entitled “How Christians came to believe in heaven, hell and the immortal soul.” Ehrman begins this op-ed by correctly relating that Christians believe “Jesus was raised from the dead and taken up to heaven to live with God,” though he so ascended forty days later. Ehrman correctly adds concerning most Christians today and for many past centuries, “They also believe that when they die, their own souls will go to heaven.” But that is unclear since Ehrman doesn’t say when. They believe they immediately go to heaven.

I was taught, as are most Christians, that when we die, our souls, which are immortal and thus cannot die, go to heaven immediately when we die to enjoy conscious bliss. But I was challenged about this in the 1980s by attending a conference on resurrection. There, I became enlightened by British Bible teachers who showed correctly that the Bible does not teach that; rather, the Old Testament has over a hundred texts which indicate that when the righteous die, their souls go “down” to “Sheol” to await resurrection. These teachers taught that the New Testament does not change this fundamental teaching and that Christians wrong understand Phil 1.21-23 and 2 Corinthians 5.1-8.

Most English-speaking Christians, even those who read their Bibles, know nothing about this–that when people die, their souls go to Sheol. The main reason they don’t know this is that most English Bibles do not have the word “Sheol” in them. Sheol is a Hebrew word, and these Bibles translate it “grave,” “pit,” etc.

I believe Sheol, which occurs in the Hebrew Bible (=Hebrew Old Testament) 67 times, should not be translated into any language but be transliterated, thus left as Sheol. The reason is that I think Sheol is the Hebrew Bible’s name of the place of the dead, just as many English New Testaments have the word “hell,” which is the translation for the Greek word hades/Hades in the Greek New Testament.

Both Hebrews and Greeks believed that when people die, their souls or spirits or both went immediately to the place of the dead, when Hebrew people called Sheol and Greek people called Hades. Many ancient cultures believed this or something like it, and they often referred to the place of the dead as “the underworld.” They visualized it as a place underneath the surface of the earth.

This view of death therefore is quite different from what most Christians are taught, as I was. Bart Ehrman continues therefore by correctly stating regarding this Christian belief, “Jesus did not think a person’s soul would live on after death, either to experience bliss in the presence of God above or to be tormented in the fires of hell below.” However, I don’t think Ehrman is correct in next saying, “As a Jew of the 1st century, Jesus did not think the soul went anywhere after death. It simply ceased to exist with the body.”

IMO, for Ehrman to make this bold statement, that Jesus didn’t believe “the soul went anywhere after death,” he should have then addressed Jesus’ parable in Luke 16.19-31. It is about a beggar named Lazarus who ate scraps from a rich man’s table. Jesus said, “The poor man died was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16.22-23). The rest of the narrative does not concern the reason I mention this. My point, here, is that both died, yet the angels carried the poor man to the place of the dead, where Abraham was. What did the angels carry? The answer can only be his soul, and it was the same with the rich man.

Now, it can be argued that since this is a parable, Jesus was not teaching what scholars called “the intermediate state,” referring to what happens to human souls/spirits during the interim period of time between death and resurrection. Thus, all of its elements should be regarded as fiction.

However, these elements Jesus mentions–death, souls/spirits carried to the place of the dead–are what many Jews believed as truth during the time of Jesus. They believed at death human souls were taken to Sheol, which Greeks called Hades, to await resurrection. Pharisees believed strongly in a future resurrection of the dead, which we witness in dialogues Jesus had with them recorded in the New Testament. At least Daniel 12.1-2 affirms a future resurrection, and the early Christians applied Ps 16.10 to Jesus concerning his resurrection on Easter.

I quit believing in the immortality of the soul and at death, Christian souls going to heaven, because it conceptually makes resurrection irrelevant and thus unnecessary. I believe the Bible teaches that when all people die, their unconscious souls go to Sheol/Hades to await resurrection and judgment at the second coming of Christ Jesus.

I think Ehrman gets it all correct in the remainder of his op-ed regarding Christian Origins. He relates that the early Christians, who were Jews, did not believe the soul was immortal and that when Christians died, their souls immediately went to heaven. That is what many Greeks believed as taught by Plato. Greeks ridiculed the idea of the resurrection of the body (Acts 17.30-32). Rather, Jews in Jesus’ time and prior to it believed that after death there would someday be a resurrection of the dead, so that the righteous would then be raised to glory and possess eternal life in God’s kingdom.

But Ehrman rightly shows that Gentile Christians, influenced by Hellenism in the succeeding centuries after the first century, taught the Greek belief that souls are immortal and go to heaven at death. Thus, this common belief among Christians to this day had its origin in pagan Hellenism, which was Greek, and thus a departure from true, biblical teaching. The main reason is that most people regard it as more palatable. That is, they would rather think of their deceased loved ones in heaven, enjoying a conscious and blessed life, than their souls going to Sheol to await resurrection.

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