What Jesus (as) Really Said About Heaven and Hell: A Response to an Article in TIME


Bilal Atkinson, Hartlepool UK

I was rather surprised to read what Professor Bart D. Ehrman had to say in a recent article What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell.[i] published by TIME on its website.

He states that there are over 2 billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in Heaven and Hell and goes on to say that, ‘the vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught. But that is not true. Neither Jesus (as), nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.’

As a practising Ahmadi Muslim, I firmly believe that Jesus Christ (as)  was a prophet of God; a special prophet in that he was accorded the title Messiah. All prophets of God taught the Unity and worship of the One God and by their own example, showed mankind the way to God and how to achieve the road to Heaven by leading righteous lives. Jesus (as) believed in Heaven and Hell, although not the Heaven and Hell as most people imagine.

Jesus Christ (as), according to the New Testament, was sent by God, only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.[ii] His mission, therefore, was to revive the true teaching of the Mosaic dispensation and to steer the Jewish nation onto the true path, discarding all the fabrications that had been accorded to their religion. Again we are told that the majority, especially the Jewish clergy rejected him.

Professor Ehrman in his article writes, ‘God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died. Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence.’

When he quotes that in the new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time but also those that have died, it means that when a prophet of God is sent by Him, people who are spiritually dead will arise from their ignorance after listening to his message. Paul writes: 

‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body following the prophet of the time’.[iii]

Professor Ehrman also writes: 

‘This view of the coming resurrection dominated the view of Jewish thought in the days of Jesus. It was also the view he himself embraced and proclaimed. The end of time is coming soon. The earthly Kingdom of God is ‘at hand.’[iv] God will soon destroy everything, and everyone opposed to him and establish a new order on earth. Those who enter this kingdom will enjoy a utopian existence for all time. All others will be annihilated.’

Jesus (as) was the last of a long line of Israelite prophets sent to the Jews. By rejecting him, they had completely and utterly rejected the covenant made by God to the progeny of Isaac. Jesus (as) was the last Prophet of Israel.

Jesus (as) pointed out that a new beginning, a new era in the history of the whole of mankind would take place after him and he completely clears up this issue in a parable, known as the Parable of the Tenants:

‘There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence round it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another and stoned another. Again he sent other servants more than at first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “they will respect my son”. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “this is the heir, come let’s kill him and have his inheritance.” And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.’

Jesus said to his followers: 

‘What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will l come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.’

Jesus said to them: 

‘Have you not read this Scriptures? ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.’’[v]

‘Therefore, I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’[vi]

Jesus (as) presents this marvellous parable for all those blessed with understanding. The Vineyard referred to means the world. 

The tenants mean mankind. The Fruits are virtue, righteousness, and devotion to God. The servants sent to the farmers are the Prophets of God. 

The son means Jesus (as), who was sent to be the last of many prophets sent to the Israelites. The son was slain by the tenants.

Jesus (as) spoke of the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The stone referred to here is the progeny of Ishmael (as). According to the prophecy, one from the progeny of Ishmael (as) was to appear and become the Head of the Corner. This was to be no ordinary Prophet, but one who would bring an everlasting faith which would not crumble. One who would bring a complete and final law from God.

As the tenants slew the son, so they completely rejected the covenant God made with their forefathers. For God sent Jesus (as) to them as a sign for them to uphold this covenant, but they rejected him out of hand.[vii]

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) completely fulfilled this parable, for he indeed was the final law bearing prophet. Muhammad (sa) claimed to be a prophet for the whole of mankind, even for the Jews.

There are quite a number of prophecies in the Bible that make reference to the advent of the Holy Prophet such as:

 ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.’[viii]

 Jesus, peace be upon him, continues:

 ‘’These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’[ix]

In other versions of the Bible the word ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Comforter’ has been used with regard to the word Helper.

In Deuteronomy, God speaks to Moses, peace be upon him, and says:

‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you (a Law bearing prophet) from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.’[x]

Professor Ehrman writes:

‘Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.’

If this statement is correct, then where is Jesus now? According to Christian belief, Jesus (as) was resurrected after death on the cross. Therefore, if eternal life is here on earth, then he must be seen physically as proof and a living example for all who pass away.

Jesus (as) himself said, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.’[xi]

Surely, if he came down from heaven, then to heaven he must have returned as all prophets of God have done.

We read in 2 Corinthians:

‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’[xii]

There are other references to the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, such as:

‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’[xiii]

As far as life after death is concerned it stated in the Holy Qur’an:

‘And they were wont to say, ‘What! when we are dead and have become dust and bones, shall we indeed be raised again?’[xiv]

It is also stated in Acts:

´Having a hope in God which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.’[xv]

Denial of the after-life whether by word of mouth or conduct is at the root of all sin and crime in the world. It is the inordinate desire for wealth and the comforts and pleasures of life which prompts a person to exploit other people and to deny accountability for his actions in the afterlife. This is why, next to belief in the existence of God the greatest stress has been laid on life after death. There can be no real and effective check on sin, or incentive to good works, without a true and real belief in life after death.

As far as our life in this world is concerned the teachings of the Holy Qur’an are presented in a clear and concise way. For instance, The Holy Qur’an states:

‘When the two Recording angels record everything, one sitting on his right and the other on his left. He utters not a word but there is by him a guardian angel ready to record it.’[xvi]  

According to some commentators the angel sitting on man’s right records his good actions and that on his left, his bad actions; the words ‘on the right’ standing for his good actions and ‘on the left’ for his bad actions. Every deed or spoken word leaves its impress in the atmosphere and thus is preserved. Elsewhere in the Qur’an, it is stated that the limbs of man- his hands, feet and tongue – will bear witness against him on the Judgement Day. Thus, different parts of a man’s body may also be the recorders referred to in this verse as the two recording angels.  

Accordingly, everything that we do on this earth is recorded and when we pass away, we have to account for all we have done. This report may determine whether we are sent to heaven or hell, depending on the mercy and justice of God. In similitude, in our earthly lives, especially in schools, children are presented with their annual report from the teacher/headteacher and they have to show the report to their parents or guardians. This report determines whether they receive praise or some form of admonition. 

1 Corinthians also addresses this issue and states:

‘Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor the drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’[xvii]

Titus also exhorts: 

‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and Godly lives in this present age.’[xviii]

As an Ahmadi Muslim, I belong to an Islamic community raised by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) who was a Muslim and claimed to be the Promised Messiah and Mahdi expected in these latter days by most of the world religions. He was subordinate to and a reflection of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa).

He explains:

‘What is the object of religion? 

It is that having the certainty of faith in the existence and perfect attributes of God Almighty, man should attain release from the passions of self and should develop personal love for God. That is the Paradise which will be manifested in diverse ways in the hereafter. To remain unaware of the True God and to keep away from Him and not to have true love for Him is the Hell which will be manifested in diverse ways in the hereafter.’[xix]

In the Holy Qur’an God states:

‘And give glad tidings to those who believe and do good works, that for them are Gardens beneath which flow streams.’[xx]

In this verse, God Almighty has called faith a garden and righteous actions, streams of water, This is the relationship between righteous actions and faith. As no garden can flourish and bring forth fruit without water, in the same way, no faith is helpful which is not accompanied by righteous action.

The Promised Messiah (as) elucidates:

‘So what is Heaven? It is the embodiment of faith and righteous action. Like Hell, paradise too is nothing external. Indeed, a person’s heaven is born within him.

Hell is Not everlasting. It is unreasonable and is contrary to the perfect attributes of God,  (the Glorious, that once a person has been condemned to hell, only the Divine attributes of chastisement should be manifested in his case and the attributes of mercy and forgiveness should be suspended forever and should not come into operation. From what God Almighty has said in His Book (Holy Qur’an), it appears that those condemned to hell shall dwell therein for a long period which is metaphorically described as forever, but then the attribute of mercy will be manifested and, as is mentioned in a Hadith (Sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa))), God will stretch forth His hand into hell and all those who fall into His grip will be taken out of hell. This hadith indicates that in the end all will attain salvation as the hand of God is unlimited and no one can be left out of it.’[xxi]

‘The roots of torment are the mistaken beliefs and wrong actions of a person. They will be personified by the wrath of God in the form of fire. As striking a stone hard produces fire, in the same way, Divine wrath striking these false beliefs and wrong actions will produce flames of fire and that fire will consume the disbelievers and the wrong doers. 

As you observe that the fire of lightning meets the inner fire of a person and the two consume him, in the same way, the fire of Divine wrath meeting the fire of false beliefs and wrong actions consumes a person. 

This is indicated in the Holy Quran: It is Allah’s kindled fire which rises over the hearts (104:8). This means that the hearts that contain the fire of misconduct and false beliefs will kindle that fire with the fire of Divine wrath and the two together will consume them as a person is consumed by lightning.’[xxii]

There are numerous passages in the Holy Qur’an showing that those in Hell shall ultimately be taken out. Thus, the Qur’an states:

‘God said, Verily the fire is your abode, wherein shall you abide, save what Allah may will. Surely, thy Lord is Wise, All- Knowing.’[xxiii]

The statement that the evildoers will abide in Hell only for a limited number of years clearly shows that, according to the Holy Qur’an, the torment of Hell are not everlasting, for infinite time cannot be measured by a finite number of years. 

In Revelations it is stated:

‘And night will be no more, They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.’[xxiv]

Again, the Holy Qur’an states:

‘That you shall assuredly pass on from one stage to another.’[xxv]

The whole mankind is addressed in these words and accordingly, as those in paradise shall make perpetual advancement, those in Hell will not be suffering fruitless torments. On the other hand, the torments of Hell will be the means of purging them of the evil effects of their deeds done in this life. 

This is the only philosophical explanation of Hell, and this explanation has been given by no other book but the Holy Qur’an. It is the Qur’an only which teaches that Heaven and Hell grow out of a man; that a heavenly or hellish life begins in this world and that the spiritual fruits of good or evil deeds done in this life assume a manifest form in the next.

Jesus (as) referred to this when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come. He answered them and said, ‘ The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’[xxvi]

As I mentioned in the beginning, all prophets of God led by example and showed mankind the way to God and how to achieve the road to Heaven and avoid the road to Hell by leading a righteous life. It is not an easy path, but nevertheless, it is the path we should all try to follow. Unlike Professor Ehrman, I do believe Jesus (as) did endorse the view that departed souls go either to heaven or hell and he taught how to achieve it when he said: 

‘Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’[xxvii]

All references from the Holy Qur’an are taken from The Holy Qur’an translated by Maulawi Sher Ali, published with alternative translation and footnotes to some of the verses by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad.

All references from the Bible are taken from the English Standard version 2016

About the author: Bilal Atkinson is Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions. He is a retired police officer having served in forensics of scenes of crime for over two decades. He is also serving as president of the Hartlepool Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK.

[i]BART D. EHRMAN MAY 8, 2020 1:32 PM EDT

[ii]Matthew 15:24

[iii]1 Corinthians 15:42-44

[iv]Mark 1:15

[v]Psalm 118:22-23

[vi]Matthew 21:33-44 and Mark 12:1-11

[vii]Muhammad in the Bible p.47 Majlis Ansarullah USA 2003 taken from Introduction to the study of the Holy Qur’an by Mirza Bashir-ud-din Mahmud Ahmad 1985 Edition p.121

[viii]John 14:16 -17

[ix]John 14: 25-26

[x]Deuteronomy 18:18-19

[xi]John 6:38

[xii]2 Corinthians 5:1

[xiii]Matthew 7:21

[xiv]The Holy Qur’an Surah Al Waqiah verse 48

[xv]Acts 24:15

[xvi]The Holy Qur’an Surah Al-Qaf verse 18-19

[xvii]1 Corinthians 6:9-10

[xviii]Titus 2:12

[xix]Chasma Masihi, Ruhani Khazain, vol .20 p.32

[xx]The Holy Qur’an Surah Al-Baqarah verse 26

[xxi]Chashma Masihi, Ruhani Khazain, vol. 20 p.369

[xxii]Tabligh Risalat, Vol. IV, p 55

[xxiii]The Holy Qur’an Surah Al-Anam v. 129

[xxiv]Revelations 22:5

[xxv]The Holy Qur’an Surah Al-Inshiqaq v. 20

[xxvi]Luke 17:20-21

[xxvii]Matthew 7: 13-14