Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hell, Part 3

In my last post I described the progression of ancient Jewish thought about Sheol. In particular I brought up the influence of Babylonian and Greek theology in the development of Jewish views of the afterlife. I also pointed out that there is very little written in the Hebrew Scriptures about an afterlife, other than a few somewhat vague references to resurrection in some of the later writings. There is certainly no mention of Hell in the Old Testament.

Although for many ancient Jews Sheol came to resemble the Greek Hades, not all adopted the idea. The sect known as Sadducees--which existed from about 200 BC until 70 AD--did not believe in any kind of afterlife or resurrection. This is because they were faithful followers of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testamant) and there is no mention of an afterlife or resurrection in the Pentateuch. For the Sadducee, there was only Sheol--the grave--and there was no consciousness in Sheol (someone once quipped, "This is why they were sad, you see?"). Death was viewed as the end of existence. Sadducees were not a fringe group. Many of the civic leaders and high ranking members of the Jewish Temple priesthood were Sadducees.

Another Jewish sect of Jesus' day--the Pharisees--did believe in a resurrection. Many Pharisees also believed in the idea that prior to the resurrection the dead waited in an intermediary state of either conscious reward or punishment. Sheol had developed subdivisions; areas for the good and the wicked. The good part of Sheol was a garden called Gan Eden (Paradise). The bad part was called Gehenna.

The "Intertestamental period" (400 BC-1 AD) is sometimes described by Christians as "400 years of silence", but actually there was a tremendous amount of activity going on during this period. Profound cultural, political, philosophical and religious events occurred during the "Intertestamental period."

As we examine writings from this period, we see descriptions of the afterlife gradually becoming more and more elaborate and lurid. These descriptions can be found in a variety of Jewish documents known collectively as Apocryphal writings. There are dozens of Apocryphal writings that have survived from the "Intertestamental period." They were not considered to be be inspired or authoritative or on the same level as scripture, yet they did have considerable influence (in the same way that a book like "The Late, Great Planet Earth" shaped the eschatalogical views of millions in the 1970's). Apocryphal writings include many Pseudepigrapha and Apocalypes (more about this later). They are often rich in symbolism and were in many cases written by one sect or another to promote their views. (You can read many of the Jewish Apocryphal books online here:

Some Apocryphal books (Judith, 4 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras and 4 Ezra) make reference to a place within Sheol which is characterized by fire; worms; continuous weeping; pain; anguish and torments which would be experienced by tyrants, the impious and "despisers of the Most High." This place is often depicted as the valley of Gehenna.

The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish oral laws, traditions and wisdom--much of it in the form of quotations from learned rabbis. One thing we see in the Mishnah is that many rabbis viewed the purpose of post-mortem punishment in a similar way to how Catholics view Purgatory: as lasting for a limited amount of time in order to bring repentance and cleansing from sin. Many rabbis taught that the that maximum time period a wicked person would have to spend there was 12 months! Then they could be released and resurrected. This is why the Jewish mourning period was 12 months long. Only the most vile and wicked would have to spend more than 12 months in Gehenna.

At the time of Christ, the two most influential rabbis were Shammai and Hillel. Each had their own academy. The two rabbis and their schools often had opposing viewpoints on theological matters, but had mutual respect for each other. Both Hillel and Shammai were leaders of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). Hillel is credited with inventing the Golden Rule ("That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary."). Both Hillel and Shammai taught about Gehenna as a metaphor for God's judgment and punishment.

According to Shammai: "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 Gehenna, 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 Gehenna 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]"

Hillel suggested that the middle group (which comprised most people--neither terribly righteous nor terribly wicked) would go directly to Gan Eden (Paradise) instead of having to visit Gehenna. One is reminded of Jesus's words to the thief at the crucifixion: "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Hillel's grandson was the respected rabbi Gamaliel and Gamaliel's most famous student was the Apostle Paul.

It seems then that many of the leading Jewish teachers viewed Gehenna as a place for temporary remedial punishment after death.

It is probably the Book of Enoch (also known as 1 Enoch) that has done the most to define a vision of Hell--not just for Jews, but for modern Christians and non-Christians as well. Many Christians are--surprisingly--unaware of the Book of Enoch. This Jewish document was probably originally written around 300 BC with additional parts appended over time. The last portions were probably written sometime in the 1st century AD. The Book of Enoch purports to have been written by Noah's great-grandfather. This is a case of Pseudepigrapha--a common literary device of ancient times whereby the authorship of a document was falsely ascribed to a venerated ancient historical figure, in order to give the document an air of legitimacy. The word pseudepigraph literally means "false quotation". Pseudepigraghical documents were often political or religious in nature. After all, what better way to get people to listen to one's political or religious views than to claim they come from some venerated historical figure! Many pseudepigraphical documents survive from the ancient Jewish and early Christian eras, with titles such as The Book of Adam, The Book of Melchizedek, The Apocalypse of Abraham, The "Lost" Gospel of Peter, The "Secret" Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, etc.

Back to the Book of Enoch... Since the Book of Genesis does not say that Enoch died, but that he "...walked with God..." and then "...vanished, because God took him..." (5:18-23), it came to be believed by later generations that Enoch had avoided Sheol and instead traveled around the universe seeing all of the mysteries of God. The Book of Enoch claims to reveal these mysteries. 1 Enoch was massively popular before and during the time of Jesus. It was widely read by Jews and early Christians. It, along with other Apocryphal documents, was very influential in the shaping of certain Jewish (and, therefore, Christian) ideas about angels, demons and the afterlife. 1 Enoch is quoted from in the New Testament Epistle of Jude (verses 14-15) and looms large behind much of the dialog in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees. Church fathers ranging from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Origin to Clement of Alexandria quoted from (or referenced) the Book of Enoch in their writings. Tertullian referred to the Book of Enoch as "Holy Scripture". 1 Enoch described, in great detail, the origins, hierarchies and functions of angels and demons. It spelled out an afterlife of reward for the righteous and punishment for the unrighteous.

Much of what people in modern times believe about angels, demons and Hell comes from the Book of Enoch and other Apocryphal documents (as well as Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost--from the 14th and 17th centuries respectively). Many Hollywood movies that incorporate themes of angels or demons or Hell (such as Hellboy or the Keanu Reeves film Constantine or the Denzel Washington film Fallen or even the romantic film City of Angels) pull material (directly or indirectly) from the Book of Enoch. Likewise, many contemporary Christian ideas about demons and Hell come not from scripture but from Apocrypha such as 1 Enoch (as well as Dante and Milton). It is amazing to think that many of our popular cultural beliefs about Hell come from a 2,000 year old Jewish Apocryphal document that most people have never heard of!

My point in this post has been to show that Jewish views about Gehenna developed over time and, in particular, became more defined during the "Intertestamental period." These views, in turn, influenced early Christians and even modern-day Christians and popular culture. In general terms, the progression in Jewish thought about the afterlife looks like this:

1. Sheol as the end of existence.
2. Sheol as a barely conscious shadow existence for both good and wicked.
3. Sheol as a barely conscious shadow existence, but with possible resurrection for the righteous.
4. Sheol as a conscious waiting place for the righteous followed by their resurrection.
5. Sheol With multiple compartments of conscious afterlife where the righteous awaited resurrection while the wicked endured a time of torment in a burning valley called Gehenna.

To Part 4
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents


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