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The Afterlife

Ancient Christian beliefs: Heaven, Hell,
Limbo, Purgatory, Reincarnation, etc.

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Topics covered in this essay:

Various faith groups within the early Christian movement developed a variety of conflicting concepts of the afterlife, based largely on their interpretation of early Christian writings.

bullet Christian Church before the Reformation: Hell seen as a warehouse for Pagan Gods, unsaved individuals, and most of the rest of the population. They taught some rather sadistic ideas about the treatment of humans in Hell.
bullet Gnostic Christians: 1st century CE to present: A very few with special knowledge will go to be with God when they die; the rest will go to Hell, which is similar to life on earth.
bullet Marcionist Christians: 2nd to 3rd century CE. Jehovah is evil. Faith in the love of a "Higher God" is the only factor needed for salvation.
bullet Manichaest Christians: 3rd to 20th? century CE. A few achieve Heaven after death; most will be reincarnated and live again until they get it right.

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Christian Church: Pre-Reformation

The English word "Hell" comes from "Hel:" the name of the world of the dead in Norse mythology. Later it meant the name of the Pagan Norse Queen of the Underworld. 1

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8: "We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (NIV translation from the original Greek). This is generally interpreted as implying that when a believer dies, their soul is immediately in the presence of God, waiting for the resurrection of their body. 4

The Christian church taught that all of the Pagan Gods and Goddesses from the Middle East, Rome, Greece, the Germanic and Celtic tribes etc. were sent to Hell for eternal punishment. This included Attis, Baal, Diana, Hermes, Lilith, Medusa, Molech, Venus, and dozens more. Satan was there, with all of his demons and fallen angels. But most of the inhabitants were wicked people. The vast majority of humans went to Hell when they died; few escaped this fate.

Johann Weyer wrote a book describing Hell: Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. He accepted the Talmud's estimate that there are exactly 7,405,926 demons, grouped into 72 companies. His book described the hierarchical structure of Hell. Although it was intended as a joke and a criticism of worldly hierarchies, it was eagerly analyzed by generations of ceremonial magicians who relied on it for source material. 1

A widespread belief in the Church was that the small minority of people who were accepted into heaven would enjoy being allowed to watch the vast majority of people as they were tortured in Hell. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: "In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned." Other church leaders of the era made similar statements. The concept is preserved in many pieces of religious artwork.

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Gnostic Christian Beliefs:

The Gnostics formed one of the three main groups within the early Christian movement. They believed in a very remote and unknowable High God. An angel of Wisdom, called Sophia, gave birth to the Demiurge (Lower God). The latter God, referred to as Jehovah in the Hebrew Scripture, was seen as an inferior God who was unaware of the existence of the High God and of his own mother Sophia. Jehovah created the earth, universe and human life. But his creation was defective. As a result, our life on earth is in a form of Hell. Jesus came to earth to convey Gnosis (specialized knowledge) to a few select people. When they died, they would know how to travel across the universe to the place where God resides. The vast majority of people who are lacking this information are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But it will be a Hell very similar to their previous life on earth.

Gnosticism had a major influence on the rest of the early Christian movement, if for no other reason than it forced "mainline" Christians to formulate and document their beliefs about the nature of God, of Jesus, Resurrection, etc. Gnosticism continues today and is a rapidly growing movement.

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Marcionist Christian Beliefs:

Marcion was a Christian from Asia Minor who settled in Rome circa 144 CE. He taught that Christianity was a completely new revelation, that was unrelated to the Jewish religion. The Marcionites established a church organization which came close to becoming the dominant Christian force in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire by the end of the second century CE. He published the first known Christian Bible, which eliminated the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), and included only edited versions of the Gospel of Luke and Paul's epistles. The Marcionites regarded themselves as the true followers of St. Paul. They  adsorbed some of the Gnostic beliefs about deity: Jehovah was considered to be imperfect, weak, evil creator-god who held humanity as captives. He had given mankind the Law, which they were incapable of following. The "Higher God of Goodness" took pity on humanity and sent his son as a savior. Jesus appeared human but was really a God cloaked in a human body. At the Last Judgment, Jehovah and his imperfect creation will disappear.

Marcion taught that the only requirement for salvation was that the believer have faith in the Higher God's love. Those without this faith would presumably be lost at the end of history.

Marcionism survived until the end of the 3rd century CE. Their congregations eventually dissipated, or were adsorbed by other Christian faith groups.

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Manichaeist Christian Beliefs:

Mani was born into a Jewish Christian community in Persia circa 215. He preached a new religion which he regarded as true Christianity. It incorporated many beliefs of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. He taught that there were two deities: a God of Light and Satan. By avoiding sensual and sexual activity, and by following the teachings of Mani, the elect (called "perfecti") can gather sufficient credits so that they will ascend directly to the Kingdom of Light at death. The rest must be reincarnated; they live through a number of lives until they can become part of the elect. Unrepentant sinners will be consumed by the flames which will burn for 1,468 years after Jesus returns.

The movement that he founded survived for over a millennium in western Europe, and may have lasted into the 20th century in China.

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  1. "Hel," Encyclopedia Britannica, at:
  2. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, (1983), Pages 380 to 391
  3. J. O'Grady, "Early Christian Heresies," Barnes & Noble, New York NY, (1985).
  4. John Gills, "Bible study tools," at:
  5. Brandon Showalter, "Most Christians misunderstand what Heaven really is, theologian NT Wright says," The Christian Post, 2019-DEC-26, at:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2019-DEC-29

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