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Op-Ed: How Christians came to believe in heaven, hell and the immortal soul

Illustration of a human figure whose soul is swirling to the light.
(Jarred Briggs / For The Times)

Billions of Christians around the world believe that on Easter, Jesus was raised from the dead and taken up to heaven to live with God. They also believe that when they die, their own souls will go to heaven. The great irony is that this is not at all what Jesus himself believed.

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. 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.

Most Christians today view the soul as an immaterial essence inside the physical frame of the body; once the body dies, the soul lives on, intact, forever. That is the view handed down to us not from the Bible but from ancient Greek thinking known best from the writings of Plato.

The Bible portrays the human as a creation of God that is one unified entity: an animated body. The soul does not exist once the body dies. When God created Adam, he gathered “dust from the ground” and made it alive by breathing into it the “breath of life.” This “breath” did not exist as an independent entity (the “soul”) outside the body. It was simply what made the body alive. That is why in the Old Testament we are told that at “death,” or in the “grave,” the “pit,” or “Sheol” — all used as synonyms — no one can worship God and God no longer remembers them. Once the breath/soul left the body, the person did not and would not exist anymore.

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It was only many, many years after the Old Testament, in the days of Jesus, that some Jews came to see things differently. The shift in thinking arose largely because of the problem of suffering. Why is it that so many people who follow God experience such pain and misery, but others who live godless lives prosper? Is there no justice? Death cannot be the end of the story. Otherwise, how can God himself be just?

These Jews ultimately concluded that there is something to come after this life, but they did not believe, as the Greeks did, in an immortal soul that would live on, apart from the body. Their view instead developed within the Jewish framework of the unified human. Life to come would involve body and soul in tandem. How? Human bodies would be brought back to life to be rewarded or punished. There would be a bodily resurrection of the dead and eternal life would be lived here on Earth.

This was the view found among a wide array of Jews in Jesus’ day: the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various apocalyptic prophets, the Pharisees and regular folk. It was also the view of John the Baptist and Jesus himself.

Jesus based his preaching of the coming “kingdom of God” on this doctrine of bodily resurrection. This world had become wicked, but God was soon to bring salvation by intervening in history and destroying the forces of evil. God had originally designed a paradise for humans, a Garden of Eden. Humans had botched the arrangement, but God’s purposes would not be thwarted. Paradise would return to Earth and God’s people would inherit it — in their bodies, just as he originally planned.

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This divine justice would come not only for those who happen to be alive at the time, but for all those who sided with God throughout history. They would be vindicated for their faithfulness.

Jesus urged people to repent in preparation. Some did. Most did not. Jesus’ enemies considered his teachings of coming destruction a threat to the existing social order. They had him arrested. The Roman authorities executed him for declaring that God would destroy the world that they themselves ruled.

And then came Easter. Soon after Jesus’ death, his followers came to believe that his own body had been brought back to life. For them, that meant the resurrection he had anticipated had started. God was soon to raise all people from the dead to be physically rewarded or punished. Only those who followed Jesus would be saved.

Thus began the momentous changes that would transform the Jewish beliefs of Jesus himself into the Christian beliefs about Jesus.

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By the end of the 1st century, most Christian converts came from pagan rather than Jewish stock. As inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world, they brought with them their own “Greek” ways of thinking about bodies and souls, not the Jewish views of Jesus and his followers. This new generation of non-Jewish Christians continued to believe that justice would be done after death. But it would not be a bodily kingdom on Earth; it would be a spiritual kingdom in heaven above. For them, eternal life comes to souls after death, without the body. The souls of those who are not saved will also live on, in the torments of hell. This view (which first appears in two of the late writings of the New Testament, Luke and John) rapidly became the standard belief throughout all Christendom.

Jesus himself did not share these beliefs. But within a century, the vast majority of Christians believed that a soul would be judged after the body had died. Those who believed in Jesus would have eternal life, not in a bodily kingdom on Earth but in the spiritual realm above. This remains the belief of billions of people today.

Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.”


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