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.
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
darkness till they are destroyed with none of them surviving or escaping"
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.