Where Did Heaven
Come From?

The idea that Christians go to heaven upon dying isn't found in the oldest books in the New Testament, such as the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark. In this excerpt from the new book The Evolution of God, Robert Wright suggests that early Christianity adopted the idea from a competing religion in the Roman Empire.

The idea of followers of Jesus getting to join him in heaven upon dying probably didn't take shape until about a half-century after Jesus died. To be sure, Jesus's followers believed from early on that the faithful would be admitted to the "Kingdom of Heaven," as the New Testament calls it. But "Kingdom of Heaven" is just Matthew's synonym for what an earlier Gospel, Mark, had called the "Kingdom of God." And this kingdom was going to exist on Earth, when God righted history's many wrongs by establishing an enduringly just rule.

The Gospel of Luke, written around 80 or 90 CE, half a century after the crucifixion, offers the New Testament's earliest clear expectation of a rewarding afterlife upon death. Luke says that the godfearing criminal hanging on the cross next to Christ will find himself in "paradise" alongside Christ that very day. Luke also tells a story about the afterlives of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man, who died without repenting his sins, goes to a part of the underworld where, he observes, "I am in agony in these flames." The poor man has better luck. He finds himself in the company of Abraham—perhaps, as some have argued, in heaven, but, at the very least, in a more hospitable part of the underworld: someplace where "he is comforted".


Some scholars contend that this idea of immediate reward for the Christian dead goes back to Christ himself—who, after all, is the one who in Luke makes these two references to the afterlife. Yet neither reference is found in the earliest gospel, Mark, or in the earlier-than-Luke "Q source" (the hypothesized source of stories shared by Luke and Matthew).

What caused this shift in expectations by the time Luke was written? For one thing, as the decades rolled by and the supposedly imminent Kingdom of God failed to materialize, there was growing concern among Jesus's followers over the state of the not-yet-resurrected dead. The Apostle Paul, writing around two decades after Jesus's death, had reassured followers that recently departed family and friends of believers would join "the rest of us" in the Kingdom once the Kingdom came. But by the time of Luke, more than a decade after Paul's death, hopes for the Kingdom's near-term arrival had dimmed.

Now the attentive Christian was concerned not just about whether dead friends and relatives would eventually be resurrected but about what death would feel like until resurrection—since it increasingly looked as if the Christian in question would join his or her friends and relatives in that state before Judgment Day.

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