The Evangelical Universalist Forum

where did first century Jews learn about eternal punishment?

Francis Chan assures us that the first century Pharisees and other Jews were very aware about eternal punishment and that they believed in it clearly. My question is this: where did they get this belief from? They didn’t have the New Testament and the Old Testament didn’t have much to say about it at all. There are a few verses but for the most part it taught that the grave was unconsciousness. If they had a well developed belief in eternal punishment then they would have had to get it from somewhere other than the bible. I heard that the book of Enoch was widely used during that time and that it taught eternal punishment, but it was never in the canon of scripture and therefore could not be used for authoritative doctrine. Whatever doctrine they got from the book of Enoch would be irrelevant since it didn’t come from God.

I know that the Greeks taught eternal punishment. Do you know of other religions that taught eternal punishment? It seems to me that any well developed idea about eternal punishment would have had to come not from God but from extra biblical literature and religion.

i think the Jews picked up ECT from other religions they encountered. first of all, there may have been thinks like that involved in worship of Baal etc (though not sure about that), but they definitely would’ve encountered it with the Zoroastrians.
the Zoroastrians had a heaven and a hell…but it went a bit further and they also had an …antiGod: a being equal in strength to the good God that they worshiped, but pure evil. the struggle between the two gods was part of how everything worked in their view. i suppose it’s a bit like ying and yang.

this is only my limited understanding of Zoroastrianism though, so take me with a pinch of salt.

i don’t believe the Jews accepted a vew of the afterlife that involved consciousness before the exile. that would, in my mind, put the blame for such doctine on the heads of the Zoroastrians.

in fact, due to God calling Isreal to be separate and apart from their neighbours, all of whom had SOME idea of “afterlife”…it makes perfect sense that they accepted the grave as oblivion, though there is the promise of resurrection in various OT references. i believe personally that they were correct in this.

now, the statement that the Pharisees were all in “agreement” is false…we know from TEU (i think) and other sources that the Pharisees were in fact debating that very issue. some believed in ECT, some in annihilation for the very wicked, some in a “year” in a bad place.

really, Francis Chan has made a very boldly inaccurate statement here.

Yes, if Chan said the Pharisees were in “agreement” concerning the things of the afterlife, he’s mistaken. Hillel and Shammai had significantly different views. The school of Hillel taught that most people when they died went straight to Ga Eden, Paradise. Only the most wicked went to GaHenna; and their the person was tormented and possibly annihilated. The school of Shammai who was the President of the Sanhedrin during the time of Jesus’ ministry and possibly DBR (Shammai died around the same time as Jesus), anyhow, Shammai affirmed that only the most righteous went to Ga Eden upon death; most people went to GaHinna for a period of up to 12 months for purification. Again though, those who were especially wicked were considered irredeemable and either continued to suffer in GaHinnom for indefinitely long, until God saw it was enough, or annihilated at the end of 12 months. Neither group had a well defined doctrine of ECT.

Considering these things I find it significant that Jesus warns to not fear man who can only kill the body, but fear God who can destroy both body and soul in GaHenna. And in Mk.9.49 Jesus seems to indicate that we shall all be salted by fire, which seems to indicate to me that we shall all need some level of purification before we can fully experience the presence of the Lord. I know I do. But I trust that one day the fire of Truth will burn the hell out of me, and fully deliver me from deception, especially self-deception.

As to where they picked this up from, it’s likely they picked it up from the Zorastrians in Babylon where Phariseeism was born. And its interesting that it is primarily Matthew that quotes Jesus warning of GaHenna for one of Matthew’s primary themes is Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees. And when I look at the context of where Matthew quotes Jesus use of Gehenna, it’s as a warning to the Pharisees, warning them of punishment to come, turning their doctrine around to use against them, showing that how we treat people is more important that following a bunch of rules, etc. 7 of the 9 passages in the Gospels where Gehenna is used are in Matthew, 1 in Luke, and 1 in Mark. Paul never mentions Gehenna, and James uses Gehenna as a metaphor of evil, maybe trash in our hearts.

And I find it especially significant that God did not inspire Moses to even once warn of ECT in the Law; and Moses was fully trained in the law and religion of Egypt. If ECT was a real threat then it sure seems to me that God would have inspired Moses to make that part of the Law, or at least to use such as a pronouncement against Israels enemies.

You know, “IF” Paul, or the other writers of the NT would have intended to warn of ECT, the word to use would have been Tartarus for Tartarus was the realm of ECT in Hades where the gods, especially Zeus, consigned those who ticked him off. Tartarus was a place where the punishment fit the crime.

I do wish others were open to really considering whether or not scripture actually affirms ECT. The concept of ECT has much stronger roots in Egyptian mythology, Babylonian mythology (Zorastrianism), and Greek mythology than in Scripture!

I would continually bring up the matter to Chan. If he is deceiving himself, one can do him a favor by repeated exposures!

I also find it interesting that Jesus warned; “Beware the leaven (doctrine) of the Pharisees”.

Please forgive me for mis-stating the issue. Chan didn’t say that they were in agreement. I was generalizing. He was basically saying that the belief was widespread. I should have been more clear.

Here’s an interesting chapter on the development of such ideas during the intertestamental Period:

The book is The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment by Harry Buis © 1957, and is pro-ECT.


ok, forgiven!

The belief in Gehenna was widespread amoung the Pharisees, BUT,

  1. the nature of Gehenna was debated over.
  2. they agreed that most people, Jew & Gentile alike eventually went to Ga Eden
  3. they debated over what would happen to the most wicked of people
    . a) annihilation after 12 months in Gahenna
    . b) continued punishment indefinitely longer than 12 months.

Jesus, in warning the Pharisees of Gehenna, seemed to indicate that annihilation was the worst punishement, and seemed to affirm it as remedial (Mk. 9:49).

I just don’t see any compelling evidence that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed in temporary/remedial punishment for most (or even some) people. According to Josephus, the general view of the Pharisees was that “under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as [people] have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison (eirgmon aidion), but that the former shall have power to revive and live again” (D. Ant. 18.14-15). And in another work, Josephus states that the Pharisees believed that the souls of the wicked would be “subject to eternal punishment (aidios timoria).” (B. War 2.162-64) This description of the Pharisees’ views does not really convey to me the idea of temporary or remedial punishment.

From my study of this subject, the view that post-mortem punishment was temporary or remedial for some seems to have been a later development among the Jewish people, appearing almost 200 years after Christ. And if we’re going by the Talmud, this later development seems to have been confined to the less-popular, conservative school of Shammai, or “Beth Shammai” (I don’t see any evidence that the position expressed in the Babylonian Talmud was that of Shammai himself). According to the Talmud, only the school of Shammai believed in temporary post-mortem punishment for some (which was only for those not considered “thoroughly wicked,” whose sins didn’t outweigh their good deeds). The school of Hillel believed that the thoroughly good and those who weren’t thoroughly wicked would bypass “Gehenna” and go straight to paradise (i.e., no post-mortem punishment, remedial or otherwise), while the thoroughly wicked would go to “Gehenna” to be either annihilated after twelve months or suffer endless torment.

This seems to be a fairly comprehensive look at the history of Judaism and the afterlife. Let me know what you guys think. … afterlife/

Hi Aaron,

Note that Shammai was the President of the Sanhedrin during the ministry of Jesus, possibly dying just before or after Jesus’ DBR.

The School of Shammai offered this description:
There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment: one of thoroughly righteous people, one of thoroughly wicked people and one of people in between. The first group will be immediately inscribed for everlasting life; the second group will be doomed in Gehinnom [Hell], as it says, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” [Daniel 12:2], the third will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, “And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name and I will answer them” [Zechariah 13:9]… Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a]

As implied in the Book of Daniel, the Jewish notion of resurrection in the Maccabeean period was tied to a notion of judgment, and even to separate realms for the judged. In rabbinical thought, the model for heaven was Eden. The rabbinic word for hell, “Gehenna”, is taken from the name of a valley of fire where children were said to be sacrificed as burnt offerings to Baal and Moloch (Semitic deities). Gehenna is a place of intense punishment and cleansing. This place is also known as “She’ol” and other names. This line of Jewish thought argues that after death the soul has to be purified before it can go on the rest of its journey. The amount of time needed for purification depends on how the soul dealt with life. One Jewish tradition states that a soul needs a maximum of 11 months for purification, which is why, when a parent dies, the kaddish (memorial prayer) is recited for 11 months. The concept of Gehenna as a place for temporary purification was the source for the orthodox Christian doctrine of “purgatory.”

Only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden. The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She’ol or by other names. According to one mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.

As noted in previous posts, Matthew is the one who predominantly uses the word Gehenna. Luke and Mark only mention Gehenna once each, and each of those is a copy of a passage in Matthew. And it’s interesting that Luke, in the parable/story of the rich man and Lazarus does not use Gehenna, but the generic term Hades. And it’s interesting that Mark and Luke transliterate Gehenna, instead of translating it as Tartarus. If ECT was intended by Gehenna, then Tartarus would have been THE term to use to convey that concept. Of course, Matthew was written to the Jews, possibly in Hebrew or Aramaic originally, and focused on Jesus countering the attitudes, doctrine, and practices of the Pharisees especially and the Sadducees; so using the transliteration Gehenna was only natural for his Jewish audience would have understood the cultural context of that word, and the debates it fostered.

As you noted, Josephus does use wording indicating that the Pharisees taught ECT, and some of them did, for the most wicked such as Herod or Pharoah; but others taught annihilation. Josephus doesn’t mention that Shammai taught that most people suffered the flames of Gehenna for a season for purification before the rose to Ga Eden. But to me the quotes in the Mishnah and Talmud concerning the teachings of the school of Shammai carry more weight as evidence of what they actually taught than Josephus’ brief notes.

Anyhow, I believe that Jesus used the Pharisees’ Gehenna metaphor as a means of warning them of their bad attitudes and practices, and denouncing their doctrines. One of the most interesting uses of it was in Mt. 23:15 where Jesus uses it as a source or orientation, “son of Gehenna”. It’s not a place they being consigned to, but from which they live according to.

So, was Jesus affirming the Pharisees’ doctrine of Gehenna? I don’t know that He was, but he was certainly using it to challenge their attitudes and actions. The Pharisees tended to be exclusive, prideful, and self-righteous, condemning all “others” as not being acceptable to God and thus would be consigned to Gehenna for who knows how long. Jesus turned this weapon of fear on them affirming that if they did not repent, they need to fear the flames of Gehenna and will be judged by God themselves for mistreating others, for their pride, for their doctrine that nullifies the Word of God, for their…

Will there be punishment in the afterlife, remedial and/or punitive? I trust that in making things right, God will do as needed to accomplish His will in us all. What I fear most and believe will be the most devestating is the fire of undiminished Truth! I believe we shall all face, without choice, the absolute Truth concerning our lives, individually and collectively. And this Truth will burn the Hell out of us! All of our self-deception, cultural-deception, and demonic-deception will be stripped from us and we’ll face the Truth! And well, the truth will likely cause much weeping and grinding of teeth. We’ll need to ask forgiveness of those we’ve hurt and of the Lord. All of this will be done though on the foundation of the truth of the Love of God for us all, the revelation of the Atonement which redeemed us, provided for the forgiveness of all of our sins, and justified us in God’s sight. In order for forgiveness to reign, the truth must prevail. In order for there to be Justice, things made right, I believe there must be restitution and reconciliation. How God accomplishes all this in the eternal, I don’t know, and don’t know that anyone has a firm grasp on it. I just trust that He does because of the exceeding great and precious promises of such in His Word. And I live my life knowing that one day “I” will face the judgment. I even seek the Lord’s judgment Now, in my life, for I trust His judgments are good and true.

I didn’t see any mention of Gehenna. They did mention Rabbi Gamaliel (??- 50 CE) who became President of the Sahedrin after Shammai, around 30 CE. But they did not mention the teachings of Shammai (50 BCE - 30 CE) or Hillel (Gamaliel’s grandfather, 1?? BCE - 10 CE).

Do keep in mind that it was the general concensus for the next 1400 years that the earth was also flat . . .

Didn’t the Greeks talk about celestial spheres. I reckon most educated people knew the world was round, but until quite recently they also believed that the sky was solid. (Luther taught as much.) If you’re interested, here’s a fascinating article: … nt-WTJ.htm

Hi Sherman,

There is no evidence that the quote above was the personal opinion of Shammai himself. The students of the school he established (“Beth Shammai”) were known to have held to theological positions in opposition to the school of Hillel (“Beth Hillel”), which were not necessarily the exact positions of the two rabbis themselves: … illel.html … 6&letter=B

The school of Shammai continued a good while after the death of Christ. In the article from Jewish Encyclopedia we read, “Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel continued their disputes—probably interrupted during the war times—after the destruction of the Temple, or until after the reorganization of the Sanhedrin under the presidency of Gamaliel II. (80 C.E.)” So what you quote above could simply have been the most recent known position of the students of Shammai’s school (which was the less popular of the two schools). By the time the statement expressing the position of his school appeared in the Babylonian Talmud (the codification of which took place in the 5th century), this was the known consensus of the students of the school, and not necessarily a direct quote from Shammai himself or even a reflection of his personal opinion while he was alive. So the quote from “Beth Shammai” as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud is actually no evidence that the Pharisees in Christ’s day believed in temporary or remedial punishment.

What is the source of the last quote above? The Babylonian Talmud speaks of people being punished for 12 months, but the implication is that they would be annihilated after that. Akiva ben Joseph is said to have believed that the suffering of the wicked in Gehenna was for only 12 months ( … A9&f=false - see Chapter 2 Mishnah 10) but he lived after Christ’s day (ca.50–ca.135 CE). If this had been believed and taught by a rabbi before him I think it’s likely that the Mishnah would’ve mentioned it. Since it doesn’t, I think we can safely assume that this was not being taught before or while Christ was alive. Also, there is no suggestion that Akiva ben Joseph’s opinion was prevalent among the Jews even in his day.

I think Josephus failed to mention it because it was either a minority view among the Pharisees or it was not known to him. As far as the Mishnah and Talmud, I do think these works carry much weight as evidence of what was being taught by certain rabbis when these works were redacted, but they were redacted after Christ’s day.

This is a very interesting discussion.

Aaron, would you say that Jews generally did believe in a form of ECT as a whole at the time of Jesus?

If, as Aaron seems to be asserting, the majority belief among the Jews was Gehenna as ECT, how does this change the UR perspective of Jesus’ words and warnings, since he never explicitly corrected this belief?

Where does Jesus uphold their view of eternal punishment? As I understand correctly, there was a fairly diverse belief in the first century. Some believed in the resurrection and some did not. Some Jews believed in reincarnation and some did not. Some believed in ECT and some did not. However, what is interesting is even though many supposedly believed in ECT, where did they get this? It’s not from the Old Testament because the OT is almost completely silent on it. My point for this thread was that, based on the scriptures, they would have had to have gotten most of their post mortem beliefs from non biblical sources since the OT is pretty quiet on such things.

i agree with this.
also Jesus, in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, could almost be seen to be satirising their views as He tells them they would understand if they but listened to Moses and the Prophets, none of whom taught these strange doctrines. they taught Sheol as death: a place of unconscious nonbeing.

That’s an interesting question. I think that Aaron has some challenges for Sherman to answer. Chris, even if the OT would be the authority on such issues (is it, or is Christ?), Jesus is speaking of Gehenna (not spoken of as post mortem suffering place in OT) which is “non biblical” in the sense that it isn’t in the OT.