Jewish and OT Views of Hell and Eternal Punishment

Jewish and OT Views of Hell and Eternal Punishment April 18, 2017


“Hell”: photograph by “Hans” (6-28-13) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]




Many doctrines develop from the Old to the New Testament. The inclusion of the Gentiles into the Covenant People of God is a development. The New Testament (particularly, Pauline) understanding of the relationship of the Law, Jewishness, and grace to salvation is a development, as is baptism (as the continuation of circumcision, in terms of an initiatory rite). Angelology highly developed in the intertestamental period. And so did the doctrines of the afterlife. The New Testament is the fullest revelation of God, and development of the Old Testament. And it clearly teaches eternal hellfire. It is not a contradiction to go from a vague afterlife to a more clearly defined one. It would be one if the OT denied hellfire and the NT asserted it. But that is not the case.

The New Bible Dictionary (ed. J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan Eerdmans, 1962, 518, “Hell”) elaborates upon later Jewish eschatological development:

. . . the idea is not explicitly formulated in the Old Testament . . . In the later Jewish literature we meet with the idea of divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the imagery of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament.

. . . In later Jewish writings Gehenna came to have the sense of the place of punishment for sinners (Assumption of Moses 10:10; 2 Esdras 7:36). The rabbinic literature contains various opinions as to who would suffer eternal punishment. The ideas were widespread that the suffering of some would be terminated by annihilation, or that the fires of Gehenna were in some cases purgatorial. But those who held these doctrines also taught the reality of eternal punishment for certain classes of sinners (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1894, vol. 2, 440, 791 ff.). Both this literature and the Apocryphal books affirm belief in an eternal retribution cf.Judith 16:17, Psalms of Solomon 3:13). The teaching of the New Testament endorses this belief.

The Old Testament hints at a conscious afterlife in the following passages:

Daniel 12:2: And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (KJV)

Furthermore, Isaiah 14:9-17 seems to describe a conscious torment of those who are judged in Sheol, with other conscious beings there mocking them. It refers to maggots and worms (14:11). Jesus referred to worms in His teaching on hell (Mk 9:47-48). Ezekiel 32:24, 30 describes “shame” of the wicked judged, though it might be metaphorical. The common OT motif of being delivered from Sheol or the “pit” (e.g., 1 Sam 2:6; Ps 16:10; 71:20; Hos 13:14) implies that the righteous were conscious there, and so by extension, one might assume the wicked were also conscious, but not delivered. This teaching is merely elaborated upon and assumed by Jesus in His teaching on Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk 16:23-28). No big change there.

It has been argued that Jesus, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was making a satirical rebuke of the Pharisees’ eschatology, or beliefs about the afterlife. That would be quite strange, given His repeated teaching of eternal hellfire with conscious torment. Jesus agreed with Pharisaical eschatology. He disagreed with the Sadducees’ views. They were the liberals of that time, who denied things that ought to have been accepted. The Sadducees rejected the resurrection, belief in angels and spirits and demons, the soul, the afterlife, and eternal reward and damnation. Jesus and the early Christians differed from them in all these respects. The Sadducees are never referred to as Christians, whereas Pharisees are (Acts 15:5, Phil 3:5), and Jesus never renounces Pharisaism per se; only hypocritical Pharisaism. Likewise, Paul takes the same stance when referring to his own Pharisaical background.

In fact, Jesus explicitly upholds Pharisaical authority and teaching, while at the same time acknowledging hypocrisy in their ranks, on a human level:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. (Mt 23:2-3).

Doctrines develop. Christianity is, most definitely, a development of Judaism. The Jews didn’t have a full-fledged messianic theology. Jesus came and greatly developed, or “fleshed” that out. They didn’t have much notion of the Trinity or the Incarnation (but those doctrines were there in kernel form in the OT — very shadowy indeed, but some indication). Again, Jesus and the Apostles came and gave authoritative interpretations of OT texts, and developed theology proper.

Likewise, with doctrines of the afterlife. We have kernels and tantalizing hints in the OT (which is why later Judaism definitely adopted conscious eternal existence for both the righteous and the wicked, and a form of purgatory as well). Christianity came down firmly on the apocalyptic and Pharisaical side with regard to eschatology. There is no question of this, either in the NT evidence itself, or given all the historical evidence of Jewish beliefs at the time of Christ and a few preceding centuries, which I have presented in great depth above.

The Old Testament doesn’t deny eternal punishment. It doesn’t assert it, in its earlier phases, or vaguely at best, in its later more highly-developed portions. To not teach something is not the equivalent of a denial or contradiction of it. Development is necessary in order to understand how doctrines grow and how our understanding of them increases over time.

Both major schools of Judaism in Jesus’ time (Shammai and Hillel) had notions of eternal punishments in hell for at least the most wicked folks. And they also had a notion of purgation before entering heaven (which is a precursor to Catholic purgatory).

I don’t believe that one can very easily defend or establish from texts the fully-developed doctrine of eternal hellfire in the Old Testament, just as one cannot do so with the Trinity or the Incarnation — i.e., they are not sufficiently developed to allow for one to present a compelling case from the OT alone; it’s not that the concepts are not there at all. One would expect this. That’s why it poses no difficulty at all for my position. But my critics have great difficulties when it is demonstrated that the Jews’ own opinion of their own Scriptures during the rabbinic period is in accord with my interpretation, not theirs. They are forced to assert that they not only know more than the Jews themselves, concerning their own teaching, but more than Jesus, too, who agreed with the Jewish mainstream.

Nothing Jesus said was really new (Mt 5:17). But it could often appear novel or new, because it delved so deeply into OT and Jewish thought and interpreted it in such a fresh and exciting fashion, bringing out its heart, soul, and essence, which was there all along.

My RSV Bible reads at 2 Esdras 7:35-38:

And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight. Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, ‘Look now, and understand whom you have denied, whom you have not served, whose commandments you have despised! Look on this side and on that; here are delight and rest, and there are fire and torments!’

So, this is Jewish belief. It is true that the book is likely of first or second-century origin (written by a Palestinian Jew), but for the purposes of this discussion, that merely strengthens my case, which is that the Jews believed such things before, during, and after the time of Christ.

Judith 16:17 (RSV):

Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain for ever.

The notes for the book in my Bible say that “the story was probably written in Hebrew during the latter part of the second century B.C.” The New Bible Dictionary agrees with that dating. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (rev. 1983, 765) states:

It probably dates from the Maccabaean period, though some modern scholars have connected it with the time of Artaxerxes Ochus (359-338).

Jesus develops the OT concept of Gehenna (already recently developed in the same fashion by the Jews) as eternal hellfire. The fact that He utilizes metaphorical imagery is to be altogether expected. That was how the Hebraic mind (as it remains to this day, to a large extent) understood things: they had to be related to concrete, practical realities. It is only a wooden literalism that would restrict the allusions to Gehenna to a literal dumping-ground and refuse-heap, and that only. The Maccabean, rabbinical, and NT-period Jews and the early Christians differ with such a view.

An opponent of the doctrine of hellfire wrote:

Let’s get even more specific. Jesus’ called hell unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) upon his generation (Matthew 23:36) in his generation (Matthew 24:34). How could he have stated it any clearer?

How could he be guilty of any more atrocious eisegesis than this? The context of Mark 9:43 makes no mention of a time limitation or “generation.” Matthew 23:36 speaks of “this generation” in terms of persecutions and bloodshed that would occur. The fact that a sentence to hell is mentioned in there does not logically limit its duration at all, because it is the sentence or judgment) or beginning of the punishment which is referred to. That doesn’t confine the length of time in the least. It has nothing whatever to do with it, neither linguistically nor logically. This passage, logically, is the same as saying:

In 2004 [name: my opponent] will persecute ‘hell-apologists’ and will scourge them on his bulletin boards, and he will murder one of them. How can he escape being sentenced to prison? Truly I say to you, all of this will come upon [name] in that year.

Now, note that the prison sentence is not confined to the year 2004. Presumably, you would get more than a year sentence, even for killing a lowly “hell-apologist.” Yet this is your “logic” when you approach Scripture and vainly try to show that the duration of punishment in hell is limited, on this flimsy basis. Matthew 24:34 is equally irrelevant to your case. In the very next chapter, Jesus consigns the wicked to “eternal fire” (25:41). Words mean things . . .

One must understand how Old Testament concrete, agricultural-type language and terminology is constantly reinterpreted in spiritual terms in the New Testament. This is so obvious that only a brainwashing of some sort (based on desire to promulgate or hold unorthodox doctrines) could cause anyone familiar with the Bible to miss it, and to deny it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of biblical hermeneutics and biblical languages and styles.

Even the very term “salvation,” for heaven’s sake (to use one example of countless similar ones) is used primarily in the OT of physical deliverance from enemies or calamities of various sorts. The NT then expands upon that and develops a spiritual salvation where one’s soul (not just their body) is saved and lives, not just for a few more years on earth, but forever in heaven.

It is argued that hellfire and consciousness after death was first believed by the Greeks, not the OT-period Jews. But truth is truth, wherever it is found. The ancient Greeks developed classical logic, too, which everyone now utilizes, including — very much so — the Apostle Paul and Jesus Himself. So we are to reject logic because the pagan Greeks figured it out rather than the ancient Hebrews, who were not at all of that mindset? C.S. Lewis talked about “chronological snobbery,” whereby newer beliefs were favored. But some people commit the opposite fallacy. And they often have not the slightest inkling of development of doctrine and ideas.

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