The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Rabbis and the Afterlife

People often ask questions about Rabbinical views of the afterlife on this site. Here are Fredrick Farrar’s notes from Excursus V to the published version of his Eternal Hope sermons 1877. His scholarship is diligent (even though it is old and more can be said). The sermons are online – so I’ve copied and pasted the relevant section.

III. I have already stated that the Jews, studying the Old Test-
ament without any polemical bias about this subject, and with every
temptation to interpret every passage of it in the darkest sense
which might gratify their passionate, and not unnatural, indignation
against a world which has treated them with such unbounded cruelty
and scorn, have yet never held or taught the doctrine of endless
torment as any part of their religion. I have consulted Rabbi H.
N. Adler on this subject, and in his very full and courteous reply
he assures me that ** the Jews do not possess any authorised dog-
matic teaching on the subject of endless punishment ; and that the
views of each rabbi depended on his interpretation of the
several Scripture texts bearing upon this point and upon the
results of his own reflection and investigation,*’ I have refeired to
the principal passages of the Talmud bearing upon the question.
There are two loci dassici,

Rosk Hashana^ p. 17. — "But unbelievers, &c., go down into
Gehenna and are adjudged therein for generation after generation.*’
This phrase does not, I thmk, imply endless punishment.

BabaMaia^ p. 58. — “All who go down into Gehenna rise up
again, with the exception of those who go down and do not rise, the
adulterer,” &C.1

** With respect to the teachings of the present day, I think it
would be safe to say that they do not teach endless retributive suffering.
They hold that it is not conceivable that a God of Mercy and Justice
would ordain infinite punishment for finite wrong-doing."

So writes the Rev. H. N. Adler. ** Of this you may be quite
sure," wrote the late Dr. Deutsch, with his usual impassioned energy,
to the Rev. S. Cox, “that there is not a word in the Talmud ihzt
lends j^y support to that damnable dogma of endless torment”

“The upshot is,” says Rabbi Marks, " that the Jewish doctors
laboured rather to adorn the future of the good, than to adorn the
destiny of the wicked. Stronger than their fear of justice is their
belief in the Divine mercy. * He will not contend for ever^ neither
will He retain His anger to eternity * (Ps. ciii 9), which is a power-
ful argument against the modem Christian doctrine of everlasting

The Chief Rabbi of Avignon, B. Mosse, has written against the
doctrine of endless torments in his local journal. La Famille de

The Chief Rabbi Michel A. Weill, in his elaborate work, Le Juda^
'isnUt ses Dogmes et sa Mission, distinctly decides that the doctrine of
endless torment is Scripturally untenable. He treats Gehenna not
as a real denomination, but as a figurative expression for chastise-
ment. Of the fire and flames he says, " Qui ne reconn&it dans ces
termes I’hyperbole prophetique et poetique, qui est comme le genie
de la litt^rature sacree." He refers to other passages, such as
Is. xlviii. 22, Ivii. 21, I Sam. xxv. 29, &c., to show the spirituality
of punishment, while he explains that " they shall no more see the
light," of Ps. xlix. 20, as perhaps identical with the JTO, kareth^
or “excision” of the Mosaic code. “Would there not,” he asks,
" be a flagrant contradiction between endless torments and the good-
ness of God so magnificently celebrated in Biblical annals ? Does
not Moses announce to us, does he not himself invoke in solemn
circumstances the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious,
long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy
for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin
xxxiv, 6, 7) ? Does not the prophet say, in the name of the Lord,

  • I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth, for the
    spirit would fail before me and the souls that I have made ’ (Is.
    Ivii. 16) ? And the Psalmist of Israel, how does he speak on this
    subject ? * His wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, but
    His favour a lifetime * (Ps. xxx. 5). Nothing, therefore, seems more
    incompatible with the true Biblical trculition than an eternity of suffer^
    ing and chastisement" ^

But while it is interesting to find this unanimity of- opinion in a
matter of simple exegesis among modem Rabbis, it is to the Mishna
that we should look for the nearest approach to the Jewish view of
Gehenna in the time of our Lord. Now according to Dr. Dewes,*
Gehenna is alluded to four or five times only in the Mishna, and
from these passages we learn that '‘the judgment of Gehenna is for
twelve months," that ** it shall fail ^ though they who go into
it shall not fail,’’ and that “Gehenna is nothing but a day in
which the impious shall be burnt” Even Bartolocci, after fifty-
six quarto pages on Gehenna, is obliged to confess that the Jews
** did not believe in a material fire, and thought that such fire as
they did believe in would one day be put out.

Just as in the middle ages we have the most pitiless and the most
material picture of hell, so it is in the dark and evil days in which
the Pirke R.Eleazar and the Zohar were written that we find the most
intimidating pictures of Gehenna. But so incontestable an autho*
rity as the great Rabbi Akiba, the second Moses, the second Ezra
of the oral law, said, " The duration of the punishment of the wicked
in Gehenna is twelve tnonths^* (Adyoth, ii. lo). He quotes Is.
Ixvi. 23 in this sense. This indeed was the prevalent conception.’
Some Rabbis said Gehenna only lasted from Passover to Pentecost.
Even in Zohar (in Genes, col. 205) it is said that Noah stayed twelve
months in the Ark because the judgment of sinners lasts so long, and
Rabbis Jose, Jehuda, and Eliezer are quoted in favour of this view
(Buxtorf, Lex. Talm, s. v. ^IH?). The figurative nature of our
Lord’s language finds striking illustration in such passages as
** Better put thyself in a fiery oven than make thy neighbour blush
in public" (Berachoth,/ 43, 2).

Even the few Rabbis who held another opinion were far more
merciful in their interpretation than modem Christians. They held
that the least repentance, even the slightest velleity of repentance,
was an impenetrable shield against retribution, even at the moment
-of death ; ^ and the due performance of even a single precept of the
law entitled’ a man to the future world {plain ha-ba),^ They inter-
preted Job xxxiii. 23 in the sense that 999 hostile testimonies before
God were outweighed by one favourable testimony.’ They thus
hold the salvation of the vast majority of men, and reduce almost
to zero the number of those whose doom they regard as final— those
only who have not done one meritorious act, or had one desire to
repent ** So that, even taken littrally^^^ says Chief Rabbi Weill,
“endless torment loses its terror, since it does not involve concep-
tions which militate against a merciful God, whose loving-kindness
is over all His works.”

R. Saadja, in his Sepher ka-emunahy does, indeed, hold the doc-
trine of endless torment, but holds that even Without repentance the
majority of mankind are admitted into grace if they have not com-
mitted capital crimes. If their good deeds preponderate over their
evil, the sorrows of earth are sufficient to present them pure to
heaven. In fact, Saadja extends so widely the range of penitence,
and diminishes so greatly the numbers of the doomed, that he
brightens his own horizon after making it seem dark.

If any Rabbi may be regarded as specially entitled to explain the
views of the Jews, it is surely Moses Maimonides, ** the eagle of the
doctors," of whom the Jews say ** that from Moses to Moses there
was no one like Moses." * In his Yad Hachazaka he makes the
future life immaterial, and says that the worst of all punishments is
Karethf ** excision," which he explains as annihilation (Num. xv.
31), and says that it is allegorical ly described by the prophets as
Abaddon, Tophet^ and **the horseleach, expressions of destruction
and corruption, in consequence of there being that destruction after
which there is no existence, and that ruin which admits of no repa-
ration. " ^ He makes Gehenna a name or metaphor, explained by
some of the sun^ by others of an inward fire (of remorse).’

Maimonides’ opinion as to the annihilation of the wicked is doubt-
less derived from the famous passage of the Talmud (Rosh Hash-
anak, 17), which says that after twelve months of expiation the
bodies of the wicked cease to exist, their soul is burned, and a
wind scatters their cinders under the feet of the just."

Rabbi Bar Nachman regards this passage as so metaphorical
that he interprets it as a quietude after Gehenna, a relative beati’
tude inferior to that of the just It is only for a few atheists and
renegades that he reserves a more temble kareth. But even in
these cases he finds it impossible to get over the distinct state-
ment of the Talmud, ^* After the last judgment Gehenna exuts no
longer.*^ ’ ** The future world," he says, ** the olam haba, will
have its Gehenna, but the last times {Leadoth labo) will have it
no more."

R. Albo ♦ is another of the few Rabbis who admit endless tor-
ment — if indeed these few really do mean endlessness by the
expressions which they use. He ranks future retribution under
three grades: (i) Gehenna for a year, and then blessedness;
(2)- Gehenna for a year, and then annihilation; (3) ** Eternal"
chastisement for a few renegades, &c. Yet he dwells on the bound-
less mercy of God, and founds the remission of eternal punishment,
for all except the worst, on Ps. Ixii. 14, Micah vii. 18 — 20, &c.

It will be seen, therefore, that even the few exceptional Rabbis
who divergetl into this view held it in a form unspeakably less
repellent than modem ^vriters ; and that their Gehenna was far more
like Purgatory than Hell. And in arriving at this conclusion they
can barely reconcile it with the more ancient authority of the Mishna
and Gemara.

Further, the Rabbis, like all Romanist theologians, held that
“nothing can resist repentance.” In the MUrash on KoheUth the
answer to the question, ** Why did God create Paradise and
Gehenna," we read, **In order that the one may save from the
other." But what is the distance between them? According to
Johanam, a wall ; according to Acha, a palm ; according to other
Rabbis, only a finger (see Eisenmenger, pp. 314, 315). And the
inference drawn is that even from Gehenna the guilty can be
redeemed by a return to duty.

Generally, it may be stated with confidence that the Rabbinic
opinion was that of Abarbanel,* that the soul would only be punished
in Gehenna for a time proportionate to the extent of its faults ; and it
is in accordance with this belief, and that in annihilation as being
** the second death," that we must interpret the passages which are
sometimes adduced from the Targums of Jonathan and Onkelos
and from various parts of the Book of Enoch. ^ I have not referred
to the vague testimony of Josephus,’ because I regard him as an
utterly untrustworthy witness, and because what he says is contra-
dicted on this as on a multitude of other subjects by overwhelming
and untainted testimony.

Thanks. That confirms with sources something I had heard anecdotally.

OK Wormwood – I just thought I’d produce some further sources on this matter – that I’ve found on the Internet. Och well – it’s good to have a few more sources - it seems the question is often asked.

First is the entrance on Gehenna from the encyclopaedia Judaica – that confirms Farrar.

Second is a section from a book by an Christian Annihilationist – it concerns the Inter-testamental Literature that I think must have had great influence on the Judaism of Jesus’ time – and I’m not sure that this is as merciful as the later Rabbinical consensus – so there is a bit of a problem here that I’m not sure of the solution to. But my hunch is that Jesus subverts this tradition in the direction of mercy.

Third is a homily on the World to Come by a contemporary Rabbi

Fourth is a link to a site that argues that the apocalypse of Enoch – mentioned in the Epistle of James – is describing a purgatorial Hades.


Gehenna (Hebr. ; Greek, Γέεννα):
The place where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch was originally in the “valley of the son of Hinnom,” to the south of Jerusalem (Josh. xv. 8, passim; II Kings xxiii. 10; Jer. ii. 23; vii. 31-32; xix. 6, 13-14). For this reason the valley was deemed to be accursed, and “Gehenna” therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for “hell.” Hell, like paradise, was created by God (Soṭah 22a); according to Gen. R. ix. 9, the words “very good” in Gen. i. 31 refer to hell; hence the latter must have been created on the sixth day. Yet opinions on this point vary. According to some sources, it was created on the second day; according to others, even before the world, only its fire being created on the second day (Gen. R. iv., end; Pes. 54a). The “fiery furnace” that Abraham saw (Gen. xv. 17, Hebr.) was Gehenna (Mek. xx. 18b, 71b; comp. Enoch, xcviii. 3, ciii. 8; Matt. xiii. 42, 50; 'Er. 19a, where the “fiery furnace” is also identified with the gate of Gehenna). Opinions also vary as to the situation, extent, and nature of hell. The statement that Gehenna is situated in the valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem, in the “accursed valley” (Enoch, xxvii. 1 et seq.), means simply that it has a gate there. It was in Zion, and had a gate in Jerusalem (Isa. xxxi. 9). It had three gates, one in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem ('Er. 19a). The gate lies between two palm-trees in the valley of Hinnom, from which smoke is continually rising (ib.). The mouth is narrow, impeding the smoke, but below Gehenna extends indefinitely (Men. 99b). According to one opinion, it is above the firmament, and according to another, behind the dark mountains (Ta’an. 32b). An Arabian pointed out to a scholar the spot in the wilderness where the earth swallowed the sons of Korah (Num. xvi. 31-32), who descended into Gehenna (Sanh. 110b). It is situated deep down in the earth, and is immeasurably large. “The earth is one-sixtieth of the garden, the garden one-sixtieth of Eden [paradise], Eden one-sixtieth of Gehenna; hence the whole world is like a lid for Gehenna. Some say that Gehenna can not be measured” (Pes. 94a). It is divided into seven compartments (Soṭah 10b); a similar view was held by the Babylonians (Jeremias, “Hölle und Paradies bei den Babyloniern,” pp. 16 et seq., Leipsic, 1901; Guthe, “Kurzes Bibel-wörterb.” p. 272, Tübingen and Leipsic, 1903).

Because of the extent of Gehenna the sun, on setting in the evening, passes by it, and receives from it its own fire (evening glow; B. B. 84a). A fiery stream (“dinur”) falls upon the head of the sinner in Gehenna (Ḥag. 13b). This is “the fire of the West, which every setting sun receives. I came to a fiery river, whose fire flows like water, and which empties into a large sea in the West” (Enoch, xvii. 4-6). Hell here is described exactly as in the Talmud. The Persians believed that glowing molten metal flowed under the feet of sinners (Schwally, “Das Leben nach dem Tode,” p. 145, Giessen, 1892). The waters of the warm springs of Tiberias are heated while flowing past Gehenna (Shab. 39a). The fire of Gehenna never goes out (Tosef., Ber. 6, 7; Mark ix. 43 et seq.; Matt. xviii. 8, xxv. 41; comp. Schwally, l.c. p. 176); there is always plenty of wood there (Men. 100a). This fire is sixty times as hot as any earthly fire (Ber. 57b). There is a smell of sulfur in Gehenna (Enoch, lxvii. 6). This agrees with the Greek idea of hell (Lucian, Αληθεῖς Ιστορίαι, i. 29, in Dietrich, “Abraxas,” p. 36). The sulfurous smell of the Tiberian medicinal springs was ascribed to their connection with Gehenna. In Isa. lxvi. 16, 24 it is said that God judges by means of fire. Gehenna is dark in spite of the immense masses of fire; it is like night (Yeb. 109b; comp. Job x. 22). The same idea also occurs in Enoch, x. 4, lxxxii. 2; Matt. viii. 12, xxii. 13, xxv. 30 (comp. Schwally, l.c. p. 176).

It is assumed that there is an angel-prince in charge of Gehenna. He says to God: “Put everything into my sea; nourish me with the seed of Seth; I am hungry.” But God refuses his request, telling him to take the heathen peoples (Shab. 104). God says to the angel-prince: “I punish the slanderers from above, and I also punish them from below with glowing coals” ('Ar. 15b). The souls of the sons of Korah were burned, and the angel-prince gnashed his teeth at them on account of their flattery of Korah (Sanh. 52a). Gehenna cries: “Give me the heretics and the sinful [Roman] power” ('Ab. Zarah 17a).
It is assumed in general that sinners go to hell immediately after their death. The famous teacher Johanan b. Zakkai wept before his death because he did not know whether he would go to paradise or to hell (Ber. 28b). The pious go to paradise, and sinners to hell (B. M. 83b). To every individual is apportioned two shares, one in hell and one in paradise. At death, however, the righteous man’s portion in hell is exchanged, so that he has two in heaven, while the reverse is true in the case of sinners (Ḥag. 15a). Hence it would have been better for the latter not to have lived at all (Yeb. 63b). They are cast into Gehenna to a depth commensurate with their sinfulness. They say: “Lord of the world, Thou hast done well; Paradise for the pious, Gehenna for the wicked” ('Er. 19a).

There are three categories of men; the wholly pious and the arch-sinners are not purified, but only those between these two classes (Ab. R. N. 41). A similar view is expressed in the Babylonian Talmud, which adds that those who have sinned themselves but have not led others into sin remain for twelve months in Gehenna; “after twelve months their bodies are destroyed, their souls are burned, and the wind strews the ashes under the feet of the pious. But as regards the heretics, etc., and Jeroboam, Nebat’s son, hell shall pass away, but they shall not pass away” (R. H. 17a; comp. Shab. 33b). All that descend into Gehenna shall come up again, with the exception of three classes of men: those who have committed adultery, or shamed their neighbors, or vilified them (B. M. 58b). The felicity of the pious in paradise excites the wrath of the sinners who behold it when they come from hell (Lev. R. xxxii.). The Book of Enoch (xxvii. 3, xlviii. 9, lxii. 12) paraphrases this thought by saying that the pious rejoice in the pains of hell suffered by the sinners. Abraham takes the damned to his bosom ('Er. 19a; comp. Luke xvi. 19-31). The fire of Gehenna does not touch the Jewish sinners because they confess their sins before the gates of hell and return to God ('Er. 19a). As mentioned above, heretics and the Roman oppressors go to Gehenna, and the same fate awaits the Persians, the oppressors of the Babylonian Jews (Ber. 8b). When Nebuchadnezzar descended into hell, all its inhabitants were afraid that he was coming to rule over them (Shab. 149a; comp. Isa. xiv. 9-10). The Book of Enoch also says that it is chiefly the heathen who are to be cast into the fiery pool on the Day of Judgment (x. 6, xci. 9, et al.). “The Lord, the Almighty, will punish them on the Day of Judgment by putting fire and worms into their flesh, so that they cry out with pain unto all eternity” (Judith xvi. 17).
Valley of Ge-Hinnom.(From a photograph by Bonfils.)
The sinners in Gehenna will be filled with pain when God puts back the souls into the dead bodies on the Day of Judgment, according to Isa. xxxiii. 11 (Sanh. 108b). Enoch also holds (xlviii. 9) that the sinners will disappear like chaff before the faces of the elect. There will be no Gehenna in the future world, however, for God will take the sun out of its case, and it will heal the pious with its rays and will punish the sinners (Ned. 8b).
Sin and Merit.
It is frequently said that certain sins will lead man into Gehenna. The name “Gehenna” itself is explained to mean that unchastity will lead to Gehenna (; 'Er. 19a); so also will adultery, idolatry, pride, mockery, hypocrisy, anger, etc. (Soṭah 4b, 41b; Ta’an. 5a; B. B. 10b, 78b; 'Ab. Zarah 18b; Ned. 22a). Hell awaits one who indulges in unseemly speech (Shab. 33a; Enoch, xxvii.); who always follows the advice of his wife (B. M. 59a); who instructs an unworthy pupil (Ḥul. 133b); who turns away from the Torah (B. B. 79a; comp. Yoma 72b). For further details see 'Er. 18b, 101a; Sanh. 109b; Ḳid. 81a; Ned. 39b; B. M. 19a.

On the other hand, there are merits that preserve man from going to hell; e.g., philanthropy, fasting, visiting the sick, reading the Shema’ and Hallel, and eating the three meals on the Sabbath (Giṭ. 7a; B. B. 10a; B. M. 85a; Ned. 40a; Ber. 15b; Pes. 118a; Shab. 118a). Israelites in general are less endangered (Ber. 10a) than heretics, or, according to B. B. 10a, than the heathen. Scholars (Ḥag. 27a; comp. Men. 99b and Yoma 87a), the poor, and the pious (Yeb. 102b) are especially protected. Three classes of men do not see the face of hell: those that live in penury, those suffering with intestinal catarrh, and those that are pressed by their creditors ('Er. 41b). It would seem that the expressions “doomed to hell” and “to be saved from hell” must be interpreted hyperbolically. A bad woman is compared to Gehenna in Yeb. 63b. On the names of Gehenna see 'Er. 19a; B. B. 79a; Sanh. 111b; et al.

Bibliography: Winer, B. R. i. 491;
Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 527-530;
Hastings, Dict. Bible, ii. 343-346;
H. Guthe, Kurzes Bibelwörterb. pp. 271-274, Tübingen and Leipsic, 1903;
G. Brecher, Das Transcendentale, etc. pp. 69-73, Vienna, 1850;
A. Hilgenfeld, Jüdische Apocalyptik, Index, Jena, 1857;
F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie, pp. 336 et seq.;
E. Stave, Der Einfluss des Parsismus auf das Judenthum, pp. 153-192 et seq., Haarlem, 1898;
James, Traditional Aspects of Hell, London, 1903.


Immortality or Resurrection?
Chapter VI
Hell: Eternal Torment or Annihilation?
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

The Witness of Intertestamental Literature

The literature produced during the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew is far from being unanimous on the fate of the wicked. Some texts describe the unending conscious torments of the lost, while others reflect the Old Testament view that the wicked cease to exist. What accounts for these contrasting views most likely is the Hellenistic cultural pressure the Jews experienced at that time as they were widely dispersed throughout the ancient Near East.

Unfortunately, most people are not aware of the different views because traditionalists generally argue for a uniform Jewish view of the final punishment as eternal torment. Since Jesus and the apostles did not denounce such a view, it is assumed that they endorsed it. This assumption is based on fantasy rather than facts.

Eternal Torment. The Second Book of Esdras, an apocryphal book accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church, asks if the soul of the lost will be tortured immediately at death or after the renewal of creation (2 Esd 7:15). God answers: “As the spirit leaves the body . . . if it is one of those who have shown scorn and have not kept the way of the Most High . . . such spirit shall . . . wander about in torment, ever grieving and sad . . . they will consider the torment laid up for themselves in the last days” (2 Esd 7:78-82).16

The same view is expressed in Judith (150-125 B. C.), also an apocryphal book included in the Roman Catholic Bible. In closing her song of victory, the heroine Judith warns: “Woe to the nations that rise up against my race; the Lord Almighty will take vengeance of them in the day of judgment, to put fire and worms in their flesh; And they shall weep and feel pain for ever” (Judith 16:17). The reference to the fire and worms probably comes from Isaiah 66:24, but while Isaiah saw the dead bodies consumed by fire and worms, Judith speaks of “fire and worms” as causing internal, unending agonies inside the flesh. Here we have an unmistakable description of the traditional view of hell.

A similar description of the fate of the wicked is found in 4 Maccabees, written by a Jew with Stoic leanings. The author describes the righteous ascending to conscious bliss at death (10:15; 13:17; 17:18; 18:23) and the wicked descending to conscious torment (9:8, 32; 10:11, 15; 12:19; 13:15; 18:5, 22). In chapter 9, he tells the story of the faithful mother and her seven sons who were all martyred under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes (see 2 Macc 7:1-42). The seven sons repeatedly warn their wicked torturer of the eternal torment that awaits him: “Divine vengeance is reserved for you, eternal fire and torments, which shall cling to you for all time” (4 Macc 12:12; cf. 9:9; 10:12, 15).“The danger of eternal torment is laid up for those who transgress the commandments of God” (4 Macc 13:15).

Total Annihilation. In other apocryphal books, however, sinners are consumed as in the Old Testament. Tobit (about 200 B.C.), for example, describes the end time, saying: “All the children of Israel that are delivered in those days, remembering God in truth, shall be gathered together and come to Jerusalem and they shall dwell in the land of Abraham with security . . . and they that do sin and unrighteousness shall cease from all earth” (Tob 14:6-8). The same view is expressed in Sirach, called also Ecclesiasticus (about 195-171 B.C.) which speaks of “the glowing fire” in which the wicked will “be devoured” and “find destruction” (Eccl 36:7-10).

The Sibylline Oracles, a composite work, the core of which comes from a Jewish author of perhaps the second century B. C., describes how God will carry out the total destruction of the wicked: “And He shall burn the whole earth, and consume the whole race of men . . . and there shall be sooty dust” (Sib. Or. 4:76). The Psalms of Solomon, most likely composed by Hasidic Jews in the middle of the first century B. C., anticipates a time when the wicked will vanish from the earth, never to be remembered: “The destruction of the sinner is forever, and he shall not be remembered, when the righteous is visited. This is the portion of sinners for ever” (Ps. Sol. 3:11-12).

Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Traditionalists often cite Josephus’ description of the Essene belief about the immortality of the soul and the eternal punishment of the wicked to support their contention that such a belief was widely accepted in New Testament times. Let us look at the text closely before making any comment. Josephus tells us that the Essenes adopted from the Greeks not only the notion that “the souls are immortal, and continue for ever,” but also the belief that “the good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean,” in a region where the weather is perfect, while "bad souls [are cast in] a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments."17 Josephus continues explaining that such a belief derives from Greek “fables” and is built “on the supposition that the souls are immortal” and that "bad men . . . suffer immortal punishment after death."18 He calls such beliefs "an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste for their [Greek] philosophy."19

It is significant that Josephus attributes the belief in the immortality of the soul and in unending punishment not to the teachings of the Old Testament, but to Greek “fables,” which sectarian Jews, like the Essenes, found irresistible. Such a comment presupposes that not all the Jews had accepted these beliefs. In fact, indications are that even among the Essenes were those who did not share such beliefs. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are generally associated with the Essene community, speak clearly of the total annihilation of sinners.

The Damascus Document, an important Dead Sea Scroll, describes the end of sinners by comparing their fate to that of the antediluvians who perished in the Flood and of the unfaithful Israelites who fell in the wilderness. God’s punishment of sinners leaves "no remnant remaining of them or survivor (CD 2, 6, 7). They will be “as though they had not been” (CD 2, 20). The same view is expressed in another scroll, the Manual of Discipline which speaks of the “extermination” of the men of Belial (Satan) by means of “eternal fire” (1QS 2, 4-8).20

It is noteworthy that the Manual of Discipline describes the punishment of those who follow the Spirit of Perversity instead of the Spirit of Truth in an apparent contradictory way, namely, as unending punishment which results in total destruction. The text states: “And as for the Visitation of all who walk in this [Spirit of Perversity], it consists of an abundance of blows administered by all the Angels of destruction in the everlasting Pit by the furious wrath of the God of vengeance, of unending dread and shame without end, and of disgrace of destruction by fire of the region of darkness. And all their time from age to age are in most sorrowful chagrin and bitterest misfortune, in calamities of darkeness till they are destroyed with none of them surviving or escaping” (1QS 4.11-14).21

The fact that the “unending dread and shame without end” is not unending but lasts only “till they are destroyed” goes to show that in New Testament times, people used such terms as “unending,” “without end,” or “eternal,” with a different meaning than we do today. For us,“unending” punishment means “without end,” and not until the wicked are destroyed. The recognition of this fact is essential for interpreting later the sayings of Jesus about eternal fire and for resolving the apparent contradiction we find in the New Testament between “everlasting punishment” (Matt 25:46) and “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess 1:9). When it comes to the punishment of the wicked, “unending” simply means"until they are destroyed."

The above sampling of testimonies from the intertestamental literature indicates that in this period, there was no consistent “Jewish view” of the fate of the wicked. Though most of the documents reflect the Old Testament view of the total extinction of sinners, some clearly speak of the unending torment of the wicked. This means that we cannot read the words of Jesus or the New Testament writers assuming that they reflect a uniform belief in eternal torment held by Jews at that time. We must examine the teachings of the New Testament on the basis of its own internal witness.


By Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz

I am often asked by Jews and non-Jews to explain the Jewish view of heaven and hell. A few prefatory remarks will help guide us on our exploration and understanding of this seemingly obscure concept.

The Torah says, “and the Almighty formed man of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life” (Genesis 2:7). Human beings are composed of two aspects: The physical body which is formed from the dust of the earth and the spiritual soul (our real essence) which is directly from God.

This is why the soul is described by King Solomon as, “The candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul is a part of God, pure and unblemished.

The body does serve an important purpose. It enables us (our souls) to live a life in this physical world. This presents us with the unique opportunity to serve God by following His divine game plan as outlined in the Torah. Following God’s will by fulfilling His commandments in this physical world connects us to God spiritually (the root of the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is “tzavta” which literally means “to connect”), refines the physical world, and proclaims the glory of God — that He exists everywhere. This is our mission while on earth.

At death the soul and body separate. King Solomon said, “The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:17). This means the soul returns to heaven, back to God, where it is enveloped in the Oneness of the Divine.

Solomon also said there is an “advantage of light over darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). This means that when a person perseveres and serves God in a world full of darkness, the soul is rewarded with an enhanced sensitivity to appreciate Godliness. In heaven the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure—a greater perception and feeling of closeness to God than it had previously.

Although Judaism believes in heaven, the Torah speaks very little about it. The Torah focuses less on how we get to heaven and considerably more on how to live our lives. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get something in return.

There is a practical reason for this. If we lived a righteous life for the sake of a monetary or heavenly reward it would be serving God for an ulterior motive.

A story is told of a Jew who gave away his portion in the World to Come in order to rescue a kidnapped family being held for ransom. When asked why he was not sad over losing his place in heaven, he responded, “I was always concerned that I was serving God for the wrong reasons. Now that I don’t have a portion in the World to Come I can serve Him reassured that I am doing it purely out of love and devotion.”

This is true service of God.

After we die we are judged by God, since He is the only true judge who knows our actions as well as our motives. Our place in heaven is determined by a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives. God also knows if we have repented for transgressions committed during our lifetime and takes this into account.

Repentance has always been God’s preferred and primary means for obtaining forgiveness. Even in the time of the Temple, sacrifices were only offered for certain “unintentional” sins (Leviticus 4:2). Obviously, if a sacrifice was presented without remorse and repentance the sin was not atoned for. The sacrifice served as a tool to motivate the sinner to repent. This was necessary because a person might rationalize that he didn’t need to repent because it was only an accident. Sins performed intentionally never require a sacrifice, only repentance.

After the Temple was destroyed the repentance aspect of atonement remained intact and sacrifices were replaced by sincere prayer. This is clearly stated in the following two correctly translated passages:

“Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: 'Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks (sacrifices) the offering of our lips.” (Hosea 14:3)

“I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 2:10)

Sins that were not cleansed prior to death are removed by a process described as Sheol or Gehinom. Contrary to the Greek and Christian view of eternal damnation in Hades or Hell, the “punishment” of Sheol, as described in the Jewish Scriptures, is temporary.

This is why King David said, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Psalm 16:10).

Additionally, the prophet Samuel says, “He [the Lord] brings down to Sheol and brings up again" (I Samuel 2: 6), and the prophet Jonah described it in the following way, “I called out of my affliction to the LORD, and He answered me; out of the depth of Sheol cried I, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:3).

Judaism’s view of hell more closely resembles purgatory. However, the pain the soul experiences is not physical. It has been compared to psychological anguish, shame and healing upon reviewing the history of one’s life in a body, and how it wasted opportunities to serve God. This may explain why people who have near death experience often claim their entire life flashed in front of them.

This self-inflicted chastisement cleanses and refines the soul of blemishes that interfered with the soul’s perception of God. The concept of refinement is found in the prophets, “I (God) will refine them as silver is refined” (Zechariah 13:9).

Everyone can merit a portion in the World to Come. However, the completely evil (like Hitler) cannot merit this. As it says, “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

It is essential to our understanding to appreciate that the Hebrew word for repentance is Teshuvah, which literally means “to return to God.” Most people are not completely evil or completely good. God does not expect perfection or He wouldn’t have provided repentance as a way of returning to Him. God’s message of love and compassion is: “Return to Me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you,” (Zechariah 1:3). This is an invitation from God to return directly to Him without the need for an intermediary to help us.

This personal and direct relationship with God is within everyone’s grasp as it says:

“For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ It is within your close reach to serve God in your mouth and heart, to do" (Deuteronomy 30:10-14).

In very clear and distinct language King Solomon summarizes how we should live our life in service of God saying, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: be in awe of God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

NUMBER 4 … lyHkJ.dpbs

Good collection, Dick, thanks! :slight_smile:

I’ve found a good source for the passages from the Talmud that seem to imply a severe eschatology among the Pharisees of the first century – passages that were overruled by later Rabbis. Anyway – I hope Professor Ramelli considers these passages properly in her great work; somone needs to read them in Hebrew to really talk sense about them. But for the time being here we go (and remember these passages are defined as ‘aggadah’ in the Talmud - they are speculative and not necessarily to be taken literally or as normative):

Judgment and Purgatory

It has been taught (that) the school of Shammai says:
–"(There will be) three groups on Judgment Day [yom haDin]:
(a) one that is completely righteous,
(b) one that is completely wicked,
© and one that is in between."
The completely righteous will be recorded and sealed at once for eternal life. The completely wicked will be recorded and sealed at once to Gehinnom,
as it says:
–“And many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall rise up, some to eternal life and some to shame and eternal rejection” (Dan 12:2).
Those in between will go down to Gehinnom and cry out and rise up,
as it says:
–“And I will bring the third part through the fire
and refine them as silver is refined
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name and I will answer them” (Zech 13:9)…"

— Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah< 16b

Ok this is Shammai the severe. He teaches that Gehinnom is purgatory for those who are not completely righteous or completely wicked. Only the completely wicked will remain in Gehinnom. The translator has translated a Hebrew word or phrase as ‘eternal rejection’. If the word for ‘eternal’ is olam which seems probable to me it doesn’t mean everlasting but rather the ‘hidden world’ or ‘world to come’. And here is the rejoinder to Shammai the severe from Hillel the merciful:

Who goes to Gehinnom?

*(But) the school of Hillel says:

–“He who is Master of grace tends towards grace…”
Those Israelites who sin with their body and those star-worshippers who sin with their body go down to Gehinnom and are punished there for twelve months.
After twelve months their body is consumed and their soul is burnt up and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous, as it says:
–“And you shall trample the wicked
as if they were ashes under the soles of your feet” (Mal 3:21).
But the sectarians [minim] and the informers and the scoffers –
those who reject the Torah and deny the resurrection of the dead,
those who forsake the ways of the community,
those “who spread terror in the land of the living” (Ezek 32:23c)
and those who sinned and made the masses sin,
like Jeroboam ben Nebat and his colleagues –
they shall go down to Gehinnom and be punished there for all generations…
Gehinnom will be consumed, but they shall not be consumed.*

— Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17a

OK so the school of Hillel say that Shammai is too severe – for God is gracious adn tends towards grace/mercy. Notably Hillel does not think it necessary for those who are not completely righteous or completely wicked to spend time in Gehinnom. As for ‘those Israelites who sin with their body and those star-worshippers who sin with their body’ (my hunch is he’s talking about idolaters here) being made into ashes under the feet of the righteous, the image is obviously poetic and not a metaphor for ECT (later Rabbis understood this as spekaing of a state of rest, inferior to the beatitude of the righteous but still a state of rest). The really wicked will be punished ‘for all generations’ (generation to generation?) – but this does not necessarily imply everlasting punishment (according to Farrar) – and the last line seems to imply that when Gehinnom cases to exist, those in Gehinnom will still exist (in other words, that there will be an end to the suffering of the wicked and they will not be annihilated?)

Three Not Raised**

*Rabbi cHanina (bar Hama) said:

–“All go down to Gehinnom except for three!”
All? Can you believe it?
Rather, (say) this:
–“All who go down to Gehinnom will rise up except for three!”
Those who go down to Gehinnom and do not rise are:
–he who goes in to (another) man’s wife; and
–he who exposes his comrade [chaber] in public; and
–he who hangs a bad name on his comrade.*
— Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b

This passage – the other proof text in the Talmud used for Rabbinical exponents of severe eschatology - does not seem to give any information of the ‘world to come’. I note that the most terrible sins – murder, genocide etc are exempted from the list. Rather the Rabbi is talking to his congregation and exhort them to avoid the sorts of sins that sow strife in a small community.


P.S. Having done a wee bit of research on the Pharisees and eschatology over the past week I think that Farrar (first article on this thread) is completely right to discount Josephus as a credible source on their beliefs (for at least five very good reasons). Also, if you’d like to have a look at an article that places Jesus in the context of debates within Pharisaic Judaism here’s a link, and I think the article is excellent

duplicate post deleted

I wonder if the book of Judith & Judith 16:17 might actually be harmonious with universalism:

The translation of ἕως αἰῶνος as "for ever” (Judith 16:17) may be errant.

ἕως αἰῶνος is rendered “unto the eon” in 2 Samuel 22:51, LXX, of this version:

Likewise with 1 Chronicles 15:2, Jeremiah 7:7 & Psalm 49:19, LXX:

2 Then said David, No one is to lift the ark of God except the Levites for [chose them the LORD] to lift the ark of the LORD, and to officiate to him unto the eon.

7 then i will settle you in your place, in the land which i gave to your fathers, from the eon and unto the eon.

19 He shall enter into the generation of his fathers; unto the eon he shall not see light.

Which may imply rather a limited duration, “until” a certain time, age or eon, as opposed to “all eternity” or “for ever”.

“Jesus is with us until the end of the age (ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος).” In Mt.28:20 ἕως…αἰῶνος is usually rendered “to/unto/until…age”.

To me that seems a bit odd. It reverts God back to just being a retributive God tormenting people, albeit not forever, but just for vengance unto annihilation. It would serve no greater purpose. Just a means to repay evil with evil imo. Wonder how many grieving mother’s there would be in the new heavens and earth knowing their children were of the few, or many, who didnt make it. who would grieve at their loss for eternity unless God lobotomizes their memories of unsaved loved ones.

More over I guess it would mean God hates His enemies. while likewise telling the circumcision to love theirs though He, Himself, could not do the same.

While certainly this all is more palatable than e.c.t. it surely does not seem like the best outcome in which God could provide. Nor does it, imo, do justice to God’s overwhelming love and mercy and long-suffering and will to have all men be saved and have His son be glorified as “savior of the world”. For if even one be lost could it truly be said to be savior of the world? Much less a couple thousand or million who were annihilated by some means of egyptian scale measuring the heart against a feather to determine who is worthy of God’s grace.

Though it is interesting I think it still falls short of all glory being given to God.

I agree :slight_smile: As far as I remember it is one opinion among several in the Talmudic literature.

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As long as we are talking about Rabbis and the afterlife…let me present this story.

Let me quote in full.

Legend has it that Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, Lituania, an itinerant preacher, was granted permission to visit both heaven and hell. Upon his return to earth, he traveled from town to town sharing his journey.


With an angel for his guide, the Rabbi is first ushered through the gates of Hell, which, he is surprised to find, are made of finely wrought gold. The gates are exquisitely lovely, as is the lush green landscape that lies beyond them. He looks at his angelic guide in disbelief. “It’s all so beautiful,” he says. “The sight of the meadows and mountains . . . the sounds of the birds singing in the trees . . . the scent of thousands of flowers . . . ” And then the tantalizing aroma of a gourmet meal catches his attention.

Entering a large dining hall, he sees row after row of tables laden with platters of sumptuous food; yet the people seated around the tables are pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. Coming closer, he sees that each man is holding a long spoon, but that both his arms are splinted with wooden slats so that he cannot bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth.

The angel then took the rabbi to Heaven, where he encountered the same beauty he had witnessed in Hell. Entering the dining hall there, he saw the same scene, except in contrast to Hell, the people seated at the tables who had their arms splintered with wooden slates were sitting contentedly, cheerfully talking with each other, as they enjoyed their sumptuous meal.

As the rabbi came closer, he was amazed to watch how each person at a table would feed the person sitting across from him. The recipient of this kindness would express gratitude and then return the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

The rabbi urged his angel to bring him back to Hell so he could share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. Racing into the dining hall, he shouted to the first starving man he saw, “You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.”

“‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ the man said angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!”

It was then that the rabbi understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The only difference is in the way that people treat each other.