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The Jewish View of Hell

 

 

 

 

Most of what passes for "facts" about the nature of Hell and the Afterlife among Christians is not derived from the Bible at all, but from a variety of other sources. One of the most influential of these sources was medieval Italian author Dante Alighieri. In his 14th century poem The Divine Comedy  (including The Inferno, the section on his alleged visit to Hell), he relied for inspiration and details extensively on Greek mythology, along with teachings derived from Jewish fables, apocryphal writings, and speculative traditions that had worked their way into Roman Catholic views on the nature of Hell over the centuries. (For an extensive overview of the nature and content of apocryphal writings, see the article "Where Angels Fear to Tread" on the companion website Answers About Angels.)

The Jewish Tanach (the same collection of writings that Christians label "The Old Testament") contains the slimmest of vague hints on what happens after death. (See Old Testament Hell for a brief overview of the references to the Afterlife in the Old Testament.) And thus Jewish beliefs about Hell are not based on biblical exposition, but on those fables, speculative traditions, and extra-biblical writings.

Here is a brief overview of the Jewish approach to Hell from the Wikipedia.com article on Jewish Eschatology:

If you ask many secular or liberal Jews whether Judaism teaches that the soul is immortal or if there is an afterlife, they will likely answer that Judaism doesn't believe in afterlife; rather, most people will say that Judaism is a this-worldly religion which concentrates on the here and now. While it is certainly true that Judaism does concentrate on the importance of this world, the fact is that much (not all) of classical Judaism does posit an afterlife. Much of the Jewish tradition affirms that the human soul is immortal, and thus in some way survives the physical death of the body. The existence of the soul after death is described with terms such as Olam Haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden, or Paradise) and Gehenna (Purgatory)

Classical rabbinic afterlife teachings varied in different places and times; they were never synthesized into one coherent philosophy. As such, the different Jewish views of the afterlife are sometimes contradictory. This is especially true for "Olam Haba", the world to come. In some rabbinic works this phrase refers to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth. However, in other works this phrase means Gan Eden, Paradise, a purely spiritual realm.

There is much rabbinic material on what happens to the soul of the deceased after death, what it experiences, and where it goes. At various points in the afterlife journey, the soul is said to encounter: Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave; Dumah, the angel of silence; The angel of death; The Kaf ha-Kela, the catapult of the soul; Gehenna (purgatory); and Gan Eden (Heaven; Paradise).

Gehenna is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as "hell", but Jews must take note that the Christian version of hell is extremely different from the Jewish view of Gehenna. For Christians, hell is an abode of eternal torment where sinners go; it is important to note that any person who does not accept Jesus as their messiah/god is defined by most Christian sects as someone destined for eternal damnation. For Jews, gehenna - while certainly a terribly unpleasant place - is not hell. The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not tortured in hell forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months. It is a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden [Heaven], where all imperfections are purged.

The reality is that the common Orthodox Jewish views of Hell and the Afterlife are not based on the clear teachings of the Old Testament at all, but, just as with much of Christian teaching on these topics, are derived from pure speculation and superstitions handed down orally or in writings outside the Bible. In fact, as is established in other articles on this website, much Christian teaching about these topics doesn't come from the Bible, Old or New Testament, either. It is an outgrowth of two millennia of development of a mish-mash of these non-Biblical Jewish fables, speculations, and apocryphal writings, combined with pagan Greek and Roman mythology and alleged "visions" of the Afterlife by religious people throughout the centuries,

Here is a brief excerpt from an article on traditional Jewish speculation on the Afterlife from The People's Almanac (David Walleschinsky and Irving Wallace, 1975-1981) that reflects this eclectic source of the beliefs. Just as with the claims of Dante in The Inferno, absolutely none of this has any roots in the Bible.

The soul may have difficulty separating from the physical body at death and may experience a loss of identity. To prevent this from happening, Dumah (Silence), guardian angel of the dead, asks each soul for its Hebrew name. If the soul in life has learned a Torah verse that begins with its first initial and ends with the last letter of its name, it will remember its name in death, for the Torah is eternal.

The newly dead soul may be unable to silence all the sensory images and noise that cling to it from this world. Two angels stand at each end of the world and toss the soul back and forth to get rid of this earthly static. Otherwise, the lost soul would wander in the world of Tohu (Confusion and Emptiness), perhaps for hundreds of years.

After death the impure soul goes to Gehenna (Gehinnom). It is located beneath the land and the sea and has entrances in both places. It is immeasurably large, dark, and cold, but within it are rivers of fire. Here the soul is purged of all defilement that it has accumulated during its lifetime. Punishments may consist of being cast into fire and snow or being hanged from different limbs of the spirit body. The thoroughly wicked remain here in everlasting disgrace. The ordinary soul need stay no more than 12 months, during which time it can be helped by prayers and sacrifices made by the living. (It is an insult to recite prayers for more than 11 months, because it implies that the deceased would be required to serve the full term.) Gehenna is emptied on the Sabbath, and the souls are given a glimpse of the light of Paradise. Without this respite, they would be unable to endure the anguish of the other six days in Gehenna.

Now the soul is ready to enter Gan Eden (Paradise, or the Garden of Eden) where it will be bathed in a River of Light to cleanse away all lingering earthly illusions. First it goes to the lower Gan Eden, the heaven of emotional fervor. It will revel in benign emotions extended toward God and other souls. Souls with interests in common form heavenly societies in which they serve God according to their area of specialization. Each group has its own leader, or rabbi, to help it progress in celestial attainments.

 

It is very puzzling that so many Christians who claim to base their theology on Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) accept a doctrine as profound as the nature of the Afterlife on so little from the Bible and so much from sources such as Jewish fables and Greek Mythology!

For more information on the unbiblical underpinnings of the ever-burning Hell doctrine, see in particular the articles "Dante's Hell," "Pagan Hell," "Humorous, Harmless Hell--or Horrific, Hopeless Hell?," and "Hell--The Devil's Playground?"

 

 

This site contains a collection of articles, on the topic of Hell and the Afterlife, that may each be used independently for research purposes. But it also is designed as a systematic, sequential overview of the whole topic, which can be read like a book.

For those who would like to take advantage of this perspective of the content, the articles are arranged in the Reading Guide as they would appear as chapters in a book, along with a few reference chapters at the end such as would appear in a book Appendix. 

Use the links below to go to the next article, previous article, or first article
in the Reading Guide sequence.


       
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PLEASE NOTE:
No single short article can comprehensively cover any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have questions or concerns regarding the material in this article, be sure to first read through the site FAQ before writing to the author. It may already specifically address the very points you are wondering about.

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references in this and other articles on the
Is It True What They Say About Hell? website are from the New International Version (NIV).

 

All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

All website content 2007, Pam Dewey and Common Ground Christian Ministries

All rights reserved. Material may be copied for personal use of the site visitor. For permission to copy for any other purposes, please contact the author at

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