content="The beliefs of Ancient Christian groups about the afterlife">
Ancient Christian beliefs: Heaven,
Limbo, Purgatory, Reincarnation, etc.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Marcionism survived until the end of the 3rd century CE. Their congregations eventually
dissipated, or were adsorbed by other Christian faith groups.
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.