Christianity and the Afterlife — Post Jesus and Paul
Many of us were raised in the western Christian culture with the belief system that assumes there is:
- An afterlife, and
- It will be spent in either heaven or hell for eternity.
These are universal truths that have been around forever, right? No. Let’s review what the New Testament actually says, and then how the church elders reinterpreted the afterlife in the first couple of centuries after Paul and Jesus laid things out.
Both Jesus and Paul were proponents of apocalyptic teaching. They thought the end of times was imminent — any day now. And both mostly retained the Jewish traditional way of thinking that both body and soul would remain in the ground until the final Day of Judgement. That was not a big deal when the final Day was next week.
But Paul and Jesus left several questions on the table:
- Is there eternal punishment for the wicked? The key word here is
- Do both body and soul continue in the afterlife?
- If the body comes back, does it return ‘as is’, or is it in a new spiritual form that no one will recognize?
- Does the afterlife come only at the end of times? If the answer is ‘yes,’ what happens to the body and the soul in the interim?
And … y’know … there’s nothing like a good theological void to provide an opportunity for church leaders to step in and fill the gaps.
Did Paul and Jesus speak of hell? Not really. We agree that they mention punishment for the wicked (e.g. parable of the sheep and the goats). But the punishment was not eternal. Ultimately, for Paul and Jesus, the wicked will merely cease to exist (after that short intense punishment).
Sooo, Paul and Jesus spoke of an afterlife, but only for ‘good’ people? Kinda. But “Good” is such a nebulous term. Jesus was pretty much a ‘do good things’ guy in order to get to the afterlife. In contrast, Paul preached that it was only through a belief in Jesus as the Messiah that we can gain access to the afterlife. But that raises an additional problem of equity — why should the sinister, misogynistic, philanderer (but who made a death bed profession of faith) get the same afterlife treatment as the pious person who went to church every day? Paul was silent on the matter. And we have not seen where the Christian church has fully resolved that conundrum 2,000 years later.
When did the concept of heaven and hell develop in Christianity? Hell as we know it (a little metaphysical humor there) was largely a construct developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by the church hierarchy after Jesus and Paul.
Heaven and hell were not part of the Jewish tradition. And were not a major part of early Christian thinking. But these concepts were frequently incorporated into Greek mythical stories.
If we look at this from a marketing standpoint, hell is especially appealing to people who like to believe that their enemies (obviously like your a$$-h0%& boss) will be tormented forever after they die. But from a historical perspective, hell was not a thing until the third century, when the Christian leaders adopted the marketing plan thinking that there was eternal punishment for bad people.
Regarding timing, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries Christianity began to teach that rewards and punishments occur right away after dying. This is corroborated from some of the written accounts of martyrdom from this time period, where we see that the martyrs firmly believed they would be eternally rewarded in return for their last ditch defense of Christianity.
The early Christian church adopted the system that if you were a believer in Jesus as the Christ, that was good enough to get into heaven (akin to Paul’s general teaching). But as the Christian church got bigger by the end of the 4th century (after Constantine mandated it), the leaders had to devise another set of criteria for heaven and hell. Because it became obvious that even those folks who became ‘believers’ may not have been … how do we say … people you want to hang out with in heaven for an eternity.
A brief digression into reincarnation. Early Christianity also had a faction that believed in reincarnation. But even that faction further split into whether the reincarnation was to allow people to experience all aspects of being human, or whether one had to live a more and more ascetic life (think lower animal forms) until you got it right. Reincarnation never got much traction in the Christian church.
Closing thoughts. We are not going to explore the entire church history of heaven and hell (that’s for Biblical scholars and theologians). But it is important to realize that heaven, hell, and the afterlife in general, were not always accepted as universal truths. These belief systems have evolved over the centuries. So what makes us think any of us have it right today?
And an acknowledgement. We continue to enjoy (and hopefully absorb) insights on early Christianity from Professor Bart Erhman, his blog of the same name, and his book about the afterlife entitled Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.
Dana Horton is from Ohio, United States and has recently retired as Director of Energy Markets a large utility company. In August 2019, he earned his ministerial license through a New Thought religious organization called Centers for Spiritual Living based in Denver, Colorado. He acted as interim minister at the Columbus Center for Spiritual Living for several months afterward, where he learned a lot more about religious and spiritual organizations. At this time has no interest in returning to any formal religious structure. But he enjoys investigating spiritual principles, how they originated, and how they might be applicable to everyday living.