What did the first-century Jews believe? This is a question I did not intend to address, since Francis Chan uses an entire chapter of his book, Erasing Hell, to address the first-century view of Hell. But, when I considered the information Chan omitted from this chapter, the question became a speedbump in the road. Consequently, I must slow down a bit. In a lengthy introduction to what would otherwise be a very concise blog, let me tell you what Chan did not include in chapter two.
His bullet points about the first-century Jewish view of Hell are:
1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.
2. Hell is described in images of fire, darkness, and lament.
3. Hell is a place of annihilation.
4. Hell is a place of never-ending punishment.
Food for thought: Of these four views, which one is the most horrifying? I’d pick number four, for sure. Of these four views, to which do most Christians believe/adhere as “orthodox”? I’d guess numbers one, two, and four. But you probably won’t get shunned out of church for believing number three, unless, of course, you bring it up too much in Sunday school (aka, “causing division”). Are these four views of Hell the only views among first-century Jews? No!
WARNING: The following information is very relevant, and I am surprised and disappointed that Chan did not expound upon it in chapter two of his book. There was a large sect of Jews, mentioned many times in the New Testament, who did not believe in Hell at all. In fact, according to the first-century historian, Josephus, Sadducees believed that “souls die with the bodies.” They did not believe in the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, or rewards or penalties after death. That’s why the Sadducees posed particular questions to Jesus, in an attempt to stump Him. For example, they posed a hypothetical situation to Jesus in which a woman’s first husband dies, she remarries, then he dies, and so on, until the wife goes to her grave, having been married seven times. The Sadducees asked, “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” Rather than mumbling and fumbling absurdity, Jesus replies, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”
Furthermore, among first-century Jews were the ordinary people, the crowds that congregated to hear Jesus, but were not included among (and even shunned by) the Sadducees or Pharisees. The New Testament and other non-biblical records give us glimpses of them from time to time, but their beliefs are not as explicitly explained. This people-group that outnumbers all the religious sects combined, are not represented at all in Chan’s argument. I’m not blaming Chan, because he would have to rely on assumption and conjecture to explain their beliefs, but I do think that it is worth mentioning that the majority of the Jewish population in the first century is not included in Chan’s summary of the first-century Jewish view of Hell.
Now that I’ve cleared the bump in the road, let me pick up where I left off in the previous blog, “Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus, Lord of Distance“. Considering the fact that we only have enough information about first-century Jewish views on Hell to give a Swiss cheese answer (i.e. chapter two of Erasing Hell), I asked a different question, one that we actually have enough information to answer accurately and fairly:
“What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?”
The source of first-century Jewish beliefs, obviously, is debatable. A knee-jerk answer is “the Old Testament”. But the Old Testament is silent about Hell. And the Sadducees only believed portions of the Old Testament. Plus, there were likely those who did not believe any of it but played along with the social-religious formalities. Maybe if we narrow the question a bit, we might actually be able to find an answer.
What is the source of first-century beliefs in Hell?
Chan asks, “Is Hell a garbage dump?” The reason Chan asks this question is that Rob Bell, in his book, Love Wins, addresses the subject of the Greek word, “Gehenna”, often (mis)translated, “Hell”. Bell asserts Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, where people used to burn their trash. He concludes, “Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it.” Instantly, Jesus’ references to Gehenna seem less horrifying. A less horrifying hell means less fear. For those who use fear as a tool to influence or control the beliefs or behaviors of church members or potential church members, a less horrifying hell means less influence and control. Less influence and control could lead to declining church attendance. Consequently, the offering plate would be lighter, and clergy or support staff might actually have to take pay cuts or lose their jobs altogether. We can’t have that now, can we?
In response to Bell, Chan writes,
The whole theory [of Gehenna as a garbage dump] actually stands on very shaky evidence. Some commentaries and pastors still promote the idea, but there’s no evidence from the time of Jesus that the Hinnom Valley […] was the town dump. […] In fact, the first reference we have to the Hinnom Valley, or gehenna, as a town dump is made by a rabbi named David Kimhi in a commentary, which was written in AD 1200.
First, I must applaud Chan for doing his homework. Great job. Let’s suppose that Kimhi was very wrong when he wrote about the origins of the analogy that compares the judgment of the wicked to Gehenna. Let’s suppose that Gehenna was never used as a garbage dump. Let’s suppose, as Chan suggests, that for first-century Jews, Gehenna references were “a fitting analogy for God punishing the wicked in hell.” If this is true, then do we, by default, have to assume that when Jesus references Gehenna that He speaks in agreement with such a view? Does Jesus use the word as a “fitting analogy” for eternal torment in the flames of Hell? Is this really what Jesus teaches?
First, we need to consider what Jesus explains about Himself to the Jews:
The works that the Father gave me, that I might finish them, the works themselves that I do, they testify concerning me, that the Father hath sent me.
What kind of works did Jesus do? What did it look like when Jesus performed His Father’s work? He healed people. He brought dead people back to life. He made a point to spend time with religious outcasts. He exhausted Himself traveling and teaching about the Reign of God. In obedience to the Father, Jesus allowed Himself to be put to death for being the King of the Jews.
Jesus also said:
And the Father who sent me Himself hath testified concerning me; ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor His appearance have ye seen; and His word ye have not remaining in you, because whom He sent, him ye do not believe. Ye search the Writings, because ye think in them to have life age-during, and these are they that are testifying concerning me; and ye do not will to come unto me, that ye may have life; glory from man I do not receive, but I have known you, that the love of God ye have not in yourselves. I have come in the name of my Father, and ye do not receive me; if another may come in his own name, him ye will receive; how are ye able – ye – to believe, glory from one another receiving, and the glory that [is] from God alone ye seek not? Do not think that I will accuse you unto the Father; there is who is accusing you, Moses – in whom ye have hoped; for if ye were believing Moses, ye would have been believing me, for he wrote concerning me; but if his writings ye believe not, how shall ye believe my sayings?
As I mentioned in the previous blog, Jesus went out of his way to distance Himself from the behavior and teaching of the Jewish religious leaders. He called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and said, “[You are] setting aside the word of God for your tradition that ye delivered […]” To me, Jesus is teaching the onlookers (and us) that through religious protocol and practice, hypocrites deliver a different message than the one that comes from God.
Let’s get this straight.
1. Jesus tells the Jews that they “are in error because [they] do not know the Scriptures or the power of God”, the same power that He demonstrated through healing the sick and raising the dead (not setting them on fire).
2. Jesus pointed out that the Jews spend a lot of time studying scripture, thinking that they have all the answers, but without understanding the love of God, they can’t understand what they are reading. That’s why they would not believe what Jesus said.
3. Jesus specifically warned people that the Jewish religious leaders were teaching their own inaccurate ideas about God.
With this in mind, let’s read what God (the Father who sent Jesus to do what He does and say what He says) has to say about the practice of people throwing other people (their own children) into the fire of Gehenna. Keep in mind that this was written at least 600 years before Christ spoke of Gehenna and at least 1800 years before Kimhi’s commentary:
They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of [Gehenna] to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
Notice that God defines the practice of burning people in Gehenna as sin. Also notice that God does not make such commands, nor does He conjure up such horrifying ideas. He calls the burning of people in Gehenna an abomination.
If Chan is right, that Jesus taught eternal torment in Hell, the implication is that God commits sinful acts and abominations by sending people to Hell (Gehenna). In fact, He uses His power to take the sinful acts and abominations to a whole new level in that He is able to make the torment of His victims continue eternally, not just for a short time as was the case in Judah’s sin. Does that sound accurate to you?
Isn’t it possible that one who holds to the doctrine of eternal torment “search the writings” but don’t understand God’s love, therefore, don’t understand the writings? Jesus asked, if the “writings ye believe not, how shall ye believe my sayings“? Here we have writings that tell us the intentions of God and God’s very negative reaction to the idea of burning people in Gehenna fire. Are we to discard or “believe not” the teaching of the Father in exchange for our own traditions? Are we to assume that Jesus taught something that completely contradicts the will of His Father? Jesus demonstrated the work and words of the Father to us, directly, in flesh and blood. Let’s set Chan’s and traditional Christianity’s version of God (think eternal torment in Hell, angry, vengeful) next to the version of God Jesus demonstrated to us (healing the sick, raising the dead, selfless sacrifice, love). Do the two versions seem at odds? Which one should we keep? Remember, Jesus specifically warned people that the Jewish religious leaders were teaching their own inaccurate ideas about God. Isn’t it possible that the religious leaders of our day are also teaching inaccurate ideas about Jesus and the message He was giving us about the Father, about the Reign of God in which He will “reconcile all things to Himself, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross”?
*Because of the length of this blog, the next blog will answer the second part of the question, “What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?”
**Francis Chan includes this small note in the notes section following chapter two: The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in an afterlife, certainly wouldn’t have believed in hell. Why not include this in the body of the chapter, since not everyone reads the notes sections of books? It reminds me of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”