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2. 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 darkness 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.

PART 3 - The Witness of Jesus