Worms and Fire: The Rabbis or Isaiah?

Imagine that you had never heard of “hell.” The eternal misery of the damned in dungeons of fire, Dante’s Inferno, Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” you hadn’t heard of any of it. And now imagine that you were about to open a book that tells us what the judgement of God on his enemies will be like. You read this:

The LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire.

For by fire will the LORD execute judgement, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the LORD will be many.

From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

(Isaiah 66:15-16, 23-24)

It’s pretty fearsome stuff, granted, but beyond that, what would you make of it? Endless suffering? Torment forever in the fires of hell? Not likely. Such ideas would never even occur to you when reading a passage like this. Anyone able to read the above passage can see what it describes: Death. Any claim that Isaiah 66 contains anything that would lend support to the doctrine of the eternal torments of the damned in hell is indefensible, even laughable. You cannot find a doctrine like that in this text on the basis of any standard methods of responsible exegesis.

But things do not end there when it comes to this text in Isaiah 66. As those familiar with the evangelical discussion of final judgement are well aware, Jesus is said to have quoted this passage when teaching people to avoid sin. In the Gospel of Mark, this teaching of Jesus marks his first use of the word Gehenna, literally referring to the Valley of Hinnom (it is the Greek equivalent of Gehinnom, “valley of Hinnom” in Aramaic). Mark 9:47-48 reads,

If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

If all we knew about Jesus’ teaching on hell is that he said this and where he got it, there could be no doubt what he is saying. Sin is so serious that we would be better off without an eye that leads us into sin, than to lose not only our eye, but our entire self in Gehenna, ending up like those enemies of God in Isaiah 66 – dead and gone. Outside of disputes of the doctrine of hell, New Testament commentators apparently see this without difficulty. Commenting on Mark 9:48, R. Alan Cole notes that

The Old Testament context (Is. 66:24) helps to explain this solemn imagery. It has reference in Isaiah to “the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me.” Gehenna, the eternally smouldering rubbish-dump outside Jerusalem, is the symbol of the final state of those who have rebelled against God, amongst whom Jesus warns us that we may find ourselves, unless we enter God’s kingdom (verse 47), equated with life (verse 45). 1

The point, then, is not that the valley of Hinnom is hell (and the claim that the valley was a smoldering rubbish dump, although popular, is not supported by evidence). Rather, it is a fitting symbol, illustrating what final judgement is like. Jeremiah referred to the valley of Hinnom in terms of slaughter and death (see later). More importantly, Isaiah 66 (which does not mention the Valley of Hinnom), as Hare notes, explains Mark 9. It refers to dead bodies, to those who miss out on life in the end.

Reflecting on the way this passage is frequently used in traditional theology, Douglas Hare advises us that

It is clear in the Isaiah passage that the apostates whose worm and fire are unending are “dead bodies.” There is no suggestion that these evil persons will suffer eternally; their carcasses will remain indefinitely as a reminder of their rebellion against God. 2

I think in general terms Hare has it right, but how can carcasses “remain indefinitely” – especially those being consumed by maggots and/or fire? In Isaiah 66, a reasonable inference is that we are being shown how such language can be used – to stress permanence and irreversibility. But the point is clear. Jesus is using Isaiah to make a point, and unless he is intentionally meaning something fundamentally different from what Isaiah said – but not telling anyone that he was doing so (hardly a helpful teaching tactic) – we have in Mark 9 nothing to suggest that Jesus taught the doctrine of the eternal torments of the damned in hell. Even when Jesus also refers to an “unquenchable fire” (9:43), this overall appearance is not changed. After all, fires so large and fierce that they cannot be quenched (put out by people fighting it) can still, after they have run out of fuel, burn out. Indeed, the Old Testament clearly speaks of unquenchable fires in exactly this way, as seen in Ezekiel 20:47-48.

[S]ay to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord God, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree; the blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.

It seems clear enough that what is in view (whether the picture itself is literal or figurative) is a blazing fire that will destroy the forest, and nobody is going to save the forest, because the fire will not be quenched by anyone. So the language of unquenchable fire in Mark’s Gospel does not suggest endless suffering any more than it did in Isaiah. Bearing this in mind, Morna Hooker is right to say, commenting on Mark 9, that “It should be noted that nothing is said here about eternal punishment: on the contrary, the image seems to be one of annihilation, in contrast to life; it is the fire, and not the torment, which is unquenchable.” 3
So far, so good. The facts aren’t complicated, so it’s a straightforward matter: Isaiah 66 does not teach eternal torment, but actually teaches something resembling annihilationism. One day God will judge his enemies and destroy them, leaving them dead. Jesus quoted Isaiah in passing, indicating what he thought the final judgement of God would be like. So, one would think, Jesus probably agreed with all this. Why quote a passage of the Bible to make your point when you don’t agree with it? But as is no secret, when we turn from the biblical commentaries and to the polemical works advocating the traditional view of hell, we see that plenty of evangelicals don’t interpret Jesus this way. Instead, they see his reference to fire and worms as a reference to the sufferings of the damned throughout eternity. What then do they make of the above evidence? In truth, many of them make nothing of it, and are surprised to discover it. Anecdotally, most evangelicals I have spoken to who believe in the eternal torment of the damned don’t actually realise that Jesus is quoting from Isaiah, let alone know what Isaiah 66 is about. But in the literature, some have realised that their theology has a problem on its hands that needs to be resolved. If traditionalists are to preserve any interpretation of Mark 9 that does not undermine the doctrine of eternal torment, a question plainly needs to be answered: Why would Jesus quote a Scripture that so clearly does not indicate eternal torment but actually indicates annihilation, when his intention was to teach eternal torment and not annihilationism?

It’s a pickle, but one solution has been proposed: Regardless of whether or not Isaiah 66 offers support for the doctrine of eternal torment, other books among Jewish literature modified Isaiah’s imagery to refer to eternal torment. When Jesus quoted from Isaiah, although he didn’t mention any of these other books or what they had to say, his audience would have been familiar with the literature, they would have known of the references to divine judgement in those other books, and so when they heard Isaiah being quoted, they would have filtered what they heard through what they knew about the other books that spoke about divine judgement, and they would have therefore interpreted Jesus as referring to eternal torment, rather than to the conquest and death that Isaiah spoke about.

Several Evangelical theologians have suggested this line of argument while defending the doctrine of the eternal torments in hell. Peter Head’s approach is representative:

Is it possible that the recent emphasis on the completeness of the destruction is an over-reaction? Certainly Jewish thought, relating Isaiah 66:24 to passages of Judgment promised in the valley of Hinnom (e.g. Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6f.), related Gehenna to the place of eternal punishment. The language of Gehenna, chosen by Jesus, echoes this tradition and suggests a durative aspect to the unquenchable fire and continuing destructive activity of the worm. A thorough study of the influence of Isaiah 66:24 within second temple Judaism would also be a useful (and large) research project. Some clear examples in which Isaiah 66:24 functions to support statements of eternal duration for judgment include:

Judith 16:17: ‘Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgement; fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain for ever.’

1 Enoch 27:2ab-3: ‘This accursed valley is for those accursed forever; here will gather together all (those) accursed ones, those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord and utter hard words concerning his glory. Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their judgement, in the last days. There will be upon them the spectacle of the righteous judgement, in the presence of the righteous forever. The merciful will bless the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, all the day.’

Cf 1 Enoch 54:1-6: a deep valley burning with fire where kings and rulers were to be imprisoned with iron chains, cast into ‘the abyss of complete condemnation’.

In the Sibylline Oracles 1.103, Gehenna is associated with ‘terrible, raging, undying fire’; in 11.292 Gehenna is associated with God’s terrible judgments; it is described (paradoxically) as a place of darkness, it is the place of punishment for the wicked angels (the Watchers; cf 1 Enoch 10:13; 18:11) and extended to sinful humanity (cf 1 Enoch 90:23f.). 4

In arguing that Jesus was really endorsing the doctrine of eternal torment in spite of using Isaiah 66 and its reference to dead bodies, Robert Yarborough simply makes reference to Head’s article, assuming that it settles the matter of Jesus assuming a later tradition of interpretation. In the 19th century Alfred Edersheim suggested a similar line of argument, which Robert Morey included in his 1984 work defending the traditional view. 5 I may as well admit up front that the above argument looks implausible from the outset to me. The idea that although Jesus is quoting a text that says nothing about eternal torment, we should still interpret Jesus as meaning to refer to eternal torment because his audience would have known that some other books referred to eternal torment, looks to me like an undignified effort to get Jesus to say something he clearly did want to not say. It would be wrong of me to suggest, then, that I’m quite open to this interpretation. I’m not. That being said, I want to explain why I don’t think this argument has anything going for it. In doing so I need to answer a number of questions:

    • Is it true that there was one (more or less) universally held view on final punishment in Jesus’ day?
    •  Is it true that Jewish literature did not just teach eternal torment, but actually interpreted Isaiah 66 as doing so?
    • What effect, if any, does the notion of canonicity have on the way that we address this issue?
    • What role does the reader response (or hearer’s response) play in constructing the meaning of what a speaker or author says?

There are probably other questions to ask here, but I think these four are the most important, because the argument in question relies rather heavily on specific answers to these questions being the right ones. For each of these questions that Head, Yarborough and others answer wrongly, their argument becomes weaker (in fact I maintain that a wrong answer to any of these questions will render the argument highly implausible). Let’s turn to each of them now.

Is it true that there was one (more or less) universally held view on final punishment in Jesus’ day?

Implicit in this argument is the belief that when a first century Jewish audience heard reference to Gehenna and to Isaiah’s foreboding of divine judgement, there is a specific idea that we should have expected them to all latch onto, one view of hell that they would all have had a shared understanding of and that would have come to mind for all of them.

This argument requires this assumption, or else it fails. After all, if there potentially existed a range of views on final punishment in Jesus’ audience, then there is no reason to think that just referring to Isaiah’s prophecy would have prompted them to think of the eternal torments of the damned in hell. Remember, this was not a teaching from Jesus on the nature of hell. Not at all It was moral teaching on how we should strive to avoid sin, because hell is such a bad thing. But nothing is added, and no question about what hell is like is answered in Mark 9. Isaiah is doing all that work. On hearing his words, is there a common view to which people could immediately assume that Jesus was making reference to?

The rather naïve expectation to be able to look back into first century history and easily find one true and universally held Judaism is not something any historian would presume to do. On the contrary, “Examining all evidences of … Judaism, within some broad limits, we find everything and its opposite.” 6 As Scott summarises things,

The intertestamental documents provide inescapable evidence of the variety that characterized first-century Judaism. There was a common Jewish religious-historical heritage based on the OT. But through four eventful centuries numerous groups arose with different understandings of the OT and whose conceptions and practical expressions of religion were at variance with each other. So widespread was the diversity within Second Commonwealth Judaism that it is almost impossible to speak dogmatically about the pre-Christian Jewish view of anything. 7

Nor, for that matter, am I attributing that belief to those who make this argument about hell. But whether they believe it when pressed for an answer or not, the argument certainly seems to require something like it when it comes to questions of the world to come.

In fact some Jewish thinkers interpreted parts of the Old Testament to suggest that the lost – or some of them at least, will not even rise again to face judgement:

“The generation of the wilderness has no portion in the world to come and will not stand in judgment, for it is written, ‘In this wilderness they shall be consumed and there they shall die’ (Numbers 14:35),” the words of R. Aqiba.

Y R. Eliezer says, “Concerning them it says, ‘Gather my saints together to me, those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice’” (Psalms 50:5). “The party of Korah is not destined to rise up, for it is written, ‘And the earth closed upon them’ – in this world.” 8

The diversity of opinion that existed in the “intertestamental literature,” the Jewish literature composed in the centuries leading up to the first century AD, is widely acknowledged even by those who reject annihilationism: “The intertestamental literature constructed divergent scenarios for the wicked dead, including annihilation (4 Ezra 7:61; 2 Apoc Bar 82:3ff.; 1 Enoch 48:9; 99:12; 1QS iv. 11-14 ) and endless torment (Jub 36:11; 1 Enoch 27:1-3; 103:8; T Gad 7:5).” 9 Reading through these examples verifies this diversity. To pick an example, the passage cited from 2 Baruch claims that the lost will be like “vapour,” and that “as smoke they will pass away.” By contrast, Jubilees 36:10 states – using noticeably less biblical language than 2 Baruch – that those who devise evil against others will “depart into eternal execration; so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease for ever.”

Even while making the argument that Jesus’ audience must have interpreted him to be referring to eternal torment, Edersheim concedes that the doctrine of annihilationism (although he does not name it) existed in the work of very influential rabbis. He acknowledges that in the view of Rabbi Hillel, many sinners of Israel and of the Gentiles are “tormented in Gehenna for twelve months, after which their bodies and souls are burnt up and scattered as dust under the feet of the righteous,” a comment in the Talmud that is doubtless influenced by the teaching on divine judgement found in Malachi 4:3 (“You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing”). However a small number of this group, Hillel claimed, would suffer forever instead. And on this basis Edersheim notes, “However, therefore, the school of Hillel might accentuate the mercy of God, or limit the number of those who would suffer eternal punishment [by which Edersheim more specifically means eternal torment], it did teach eternal punishment in the case of some. And this is the point in question.” 10 However, this is not the point in question. After all, Edersheim and all who hold the traditional view must say that Hillel was half wrong. He taught that great numbers of sinners would be finally annihilated, and as such it is the case that annihilationism, was a well known and honorable teaching in the time of Jesus, and therefore references to hellfire and judgement certainly cannot be assumed to preclude annihilationism. And yet, almost incredibly, Edersheim moves directly from this observation to this claim: “But, since the schools of Shamai and Hillel represented the theological teaching in the time of Christ and His Apostles, it follows that the doctrine of eternal punishment [again, here meaning eternal torment] was held in the days of our Lord, however it may afterward have been modified. Here, so far as this book is concerned, we might rest the case.” Rest the case! After showing that according to a Rabbi whose teaching was highly influential in the time of Jesus, the punishment of many of the lost consisted of annihilation?

Edersheim can be excused, up to a point. J. Julius Scott points out notes that as Edersheim simply did not have access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, he engaged in “using Talmudic and similar writings uncritically and assuming for the New Testament era concepts and practices that arose centuries later.” This is a “methodological error that limits the reliability and usefulness of Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.” 11 But this fact, regrettably, did not stop Morey from drawing on Edersheim for support even though his evidence came solely from the Babylonian Talmud. Although Edersheim’s approach comes up short, those (like Dr Head) who make the argument in more recent times arguably have more to answer for. The twentieth century saw an explosion in our understanding of first century Jewish theology, more than anything due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In one of those titled The Rule of the Community, a reference to the community at Qumran, we read:

The visitation of all those who walk in it [the Spirit of Deceit] (will be) many afflictions by all the angels of punishment, eternal perdition by the fury of God’s vengeful wrath, everlasting terror and endless shame, together with disgrace of annihilation in the fire of the dark region. And all their times for their generations (will be expended) in dreadful suffering and bitter misery in dark abysses until they are destroyed. (There will be) no remnant nor rescue for them. 12

Here we have a Jewish community, contemporary with Jesus, who overtly describe final punishment in terms of final annihilation – whatever they might have believed to precede that final fate.

Or again:

The Community Council shall say, all together: “Amen. Amen.” [Blank] And afterwards they shall damn Belial and all his guilty lot. Starting to speak, they shall say: “Accursed be Belial in his hostile plan, and may he be damned in his guilty service. And cursed be all the spirits of his lot in their wicked plan, and may they be damned in their plans of foul impurity. For they are the lot of darkness, and their visitation will lead to the everlasting pit. Amen. Amen. [Blank] And cursed be the wicked … of his rule, and damned be all the sons of Belial in all the iniquities of their office until their annihilation … Amen. Amen. [Blank] And cursed be the angel of the pit and the spirits of destruction in all the designs of your guilty inclination and your wicked counsel. And damned be you in the rule of … and in the dominion … with all … and with the disgrace of destruction without remnant, without forgiveness, by the destructive wrath of God … Amen. Amen. 13

Or again, proclaiming God’s judgement on the wicked:

You were created, and your return will be to the eternal pit, for it shall awaken your sin. The dark places will shriek against your pleadings, and all who exist for ever, who seek the truth will arise to judge you. Then all the foolish of heart will be annihilated, and the sons of iniquity will not be found any more. 14

One more example:

For all foolish and evil are dark, and all wise and truthful are brilliant. This is why the sons of light will go to the light, to everlasting happiness and to rejoicing; and all the sons of darkness will go to the shades, to death and to annihilation. 15

The evidence has simply overtaken any claim that we should assume that Jesus’ Jewish audience would have taken eternal torment for granted and interpreted all his references to divine judgement accordingly. We know that this is not true. Those who keep making that claim are not progressing the discussion. Still, some might want to say that eternal torment was the majority view among first century Jews. Just how relevant this might be will be discussed later when assessing an audience-response theory of meaning, but as a claim not actually grounded in the teaching of the Jewish literature, it is obviously highly speculative. There is evidence that belief in eternal torment was prominent among the Pharisees. Josephus described their view, saying, “They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison.” 16 The Sadducees, by contrast, held “That souls die with the bodies.” 17 There is little ground for the speculation that belief in endless torment was the view that Jesus’ audience would have assumed, and even if one were to make the argument that the Pharisees outnumbered the Sadducees, very little would follow. Nearly all first century Jews were neither Pharisees nor Sadducees, nor would they have necessarily had any interest in what either party thought about hell. For that matter, it isn’t even obvious that first century Jewish common folk in Judea would necessarily have been intimately familiar with the Septuagint at all. The Septuagint is the Greek version of the Hebrew Scripture in which Judith appears. Indeed, Jews of that region shortly began to make it quite clear that they did not want to be thought of as using the Septuagint, when the Christian literature (to some extent) began using it because they were writing to a Greek reading audience. This culminated in the so-called “council of Jamnia” in the late first century, where the books of the Hebrew Canon (which excluded Judith) alone were deemed to be truly Scripture. Certainly it would have been the norm in first century Palestine for everyday Jews to read, hear and be familiar with the Hebrew Scripture, rather than the larger number of books that existed in Greek compositions.

The long and short of it is this: There was no one Jewish view on final punishment in the first century. There was a diversity in the Jewish intertestamental literature (which large numbers of Jews – likely most of Jesus’ audience – probably would not have known about anyway), and there is no good grounds for thinking that the majority of average Jews allied themselves with the Pharisees on most things in general, let alone on hell. There can thus be no convincing argument that while Isaiah 66:24, in context, seems to teach annihilationism, Jesus’ audience would, on the whole, have associated his teaching with a later tradition that taught eternal torment, and they would, on the whole, probably have agreed with that tradition, and so they would have interpreted Jesus as teaching or affirming eternal torment.

Is it true that Jewish literature did not just teach eternal torment, but actually interpreted Isaiah 66 as doing so?

Recall Head’s argument noted earlier: That those intertestamental authors who did refer to the idea of eternal torment gave us “Some clear examples in which Isaiah 66:24 functions to support statements of eternal duration for judgment.” In other words, the authors in question, Head claims, actually took themselves to be unpacking what Isaiah himself meant. But is this true? In the first place, of all the passages in the intertestamental literature that Head refers to, only one actually appears to use Isaiah’s language at all (Judith’s reference to fire and worms). It is rather misleading, then to say that Jesus’ use of Isaiah “echoes this tradition” when in fact it echoes virtually none of it. Head makes this connection because one of the books he cites (1 Enoch) singles out the valley of God’s judgement, just as Jeremiah had referred to the Valley of Hinnom as a valley of slaughter (certainly not torment), and the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek) had come in Jewish thought to represent the place or state of divine judgement in the end. But the mere fact that Jesus uses the word Gehenna cannot legitimately be taken to imply that there was a specific tradition of the theology of Gehenna that he was endorsing just by using it. As we know, there was more than one view of what Gehenna would amount to, and it would be plainly question begging to say that since he referred to it, and since we know just what it really refers to (eternal torment), it follows that Jesus was endorsing the tradition that taught eternal torment! The reality is that the passages that Head lists, with one exception, have little or not connection to Isaiah’s language, and they certainly do not seem to teach anything resembling what Isaiah actually taught.

But what of the brief reference to divine wrath in Judith? What of the one line that reads, “Woe to the nations who rise up against my kindred! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance upon them on the day of judgement by putting fire and worms in their flesh; and they will feel them and will weep for ever”? Is it an interpretation of what Isaiah really means? And if it is, how would we know? I take it as relatively obvious that the two passages (Isaiah and Judith) are not saying the same thing. In Isaiah’s writing, the targets of God’s wrath are clearly dead, having already been judged and dealt with by God. Then we see the picture of events after this, where all that remains are… well, remains! By contrast, in Judith God punishes living people by putting worms and fire in their flesh. If Judith was meant to do something with Isaiah, it was not simply to reinforce or interpret it, but rather to take it in a new direction altogether. The statement in Judith seems clearly to be part of the evolution of a concept of divine wrath that is literally never suggested in Isaiah.

If, as I maintain the evidence suggests (outlined earlier), the idea that God will torment people alive in fire and worms is indefensible as an interpretation of Isaiah 66, then forcing anyone who quoted it in the first century to be endorsing a text that makes this interpretation is simply to insist that nobody who quoted Isaiah 66 could ever have intended to express what Isaiah (apparently) originally attempted to say. I put my view gently when I say that this isn’t exactly fair. It also suggests an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If Jesus (or any other teacher) had not meant to endorse one specific later tradition of using the language of Isaiah 66 but had instead simply wanted to let Isaiah speak – or even if he had wanted to align himself with a different later tradition of referring to Gehenna (say, Rabbi Hillel’s strange sequence of events with annihilation for some and endless torment for other, that Edersheim alludes to), how exactly would this quote from Isaiah have been worded differently? Once we realise that the answer is “not at all,” we see just how patently weak the argument of Head and Yarborough is.

The earliest example of any Jewish writer actually claiming that Isaiah 66 supports a doctrine of eternal torment is not in the intertestamental period, but rather in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled in approximately AD 500). There, in tractate Rosh Hashana chapter 1 we read:

Transgressors of Jewish birth and also of non-Jewish birth, who sin with their body descend to Gehenna, and are judged there for twelve months; after that time their bodies are destroyed and burnt, and the winds scatter their ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous, as we read [Mal. iii. 23]: “And ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be as ashes under the soles of your feet”; but as for Minim, informers and disbelievers, who deny the Torah, or Resurrection, or separate themselves from the congregation, or who inspire their fellowmen with dread of them, or who sin and cause others to sin, as did Jeroboam the son of Nebat and his followers, they all descend to Gehenna, and are judged there from generation to generation, as it is said [Isa. lxvi. 24]: “And they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men who have transgressed against Me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.” Even when Gehenna will be destroyed, they will not be consumed, as it is written [Psalms, xlix. 15]: “And their forms wasteth away in the nether world,” which the sages comment upon to mean that their forms shall endure even when the grave is no more. 18

Although this is the passage Edersheim quoted from, it is problematic to do so for reasons of timing – it is a relatively late work as far as we know and it is not easy to verify that the kind of exegesis of Isaiah 66 advanced here was also advanced nearly five hundred years earlier at the time of Christ. Just as problematic for the traditionalist who appeals to this passage in the Babylonian Talmud, for reasons noted earlier, is that it teaches eternal torment and annihilationism and purgatory. Those who use this as an argument against annihilationism, as far as I can tell, accept only one of those options and really do not endorse the view that this passage represents the view that Jesus would have taken for granted.

The argument that Jewish thought in the time of Jesus understood Isaiah 66 to be teaching eternal torment then is weak. The only example we have prior to the time of Christ is Judith, and there it is far from clear that the author is trying to explain Isaiah 66, and is more plausibly seen as representing an evolutionary step from the teaching of Isaiah into something else.

What effect, if any, does the notion of canonicity have on the way that we address this issue?

“Canonicity” is the issue of whether or not there is any unique role to be played by the status that a piece of writing has in virtue of belonging to the canon of Scripture. There were obviously many, many Jewish writings in existence in the first century. As readers of Scripture defined in a restrictive way, some of that writing matters more to us than others.

It is impossible to explain the way canonicity affects our own interpretation of passages of Scripture without giving the game away and revealing certain theological commitments we have about Scripture. If we think that what we have in the Bible is no more than a sample of ancient religious writing from the Jewish and subsequent Christian traditions, then the views expressed in books that are not part of the Bible might be just as formative for our own theology as the views expressed in the Bible itself. So if there exists a range of Jewish literature written before (and for that matter after) the time of Jesus, and that literature expresses a given view on divine wrath (actually, multiple views), then it would be perfectly legitimate to bring that literature alongside the canonical Gospels and put them into chorus with what we find there. If this affects the way we understand that Gospels as a result, then so be it.

The trouble is, that is not how the evangelical critics (or proponents) of annihilationism view the Bible. I set aside for now the question of the scope of the canon, which is where Catholics (who, with Aquinas and others, accept the larger Greek Canon of the Septuagint) differ from Protestants (who, with Athanasius and others, accept the shorter Hebrew canon). The critics of annihilationism that I am concerned with are evangelical Protestants, so I will take their own view of the canon for granted. By their own standards, they are appealing to writings, whether among the deuterocanonical books or the rabbinical writings, that are outside of the canon of Scripture. Mainstream evangelical views on canonicity have something to say about this. Norman Geisler and William Nix put it this way:

[A] canonical book is valuable and true because God inspired it. That is, canonicity is determined or fixed conclusively by authority, and authority was given to the individual books by God through inspiration. 19

Similar thoughts can be found in the books and sermons from throughout evangelicalism. Other ancient writings are useful, but there is a difference between those books that are in the Bible and those that are not. Now, I want to be careful that I do not miss the point. As I said, those books that are outside the Bible really are useful. They can help to show us what people thought (and in this case they show us that a lot of people thought different things). But if we are going to say that Jesus wanted to draw on a theological source, we have to ask which source he would have been more concerned with drawing on. It would have been very easy for him to quote from Judith or one of the few Jewish sources that did teach eternal torment, had he wished to do so. That he chose not to do so is best explained, in my view, by the fact that he simply didn’t want to teach eternal torment. But the best explanation for evangelicals who do not accept this assessment is still, in my view, explained in terms of canon. Jesus, immersed as he was in the world of first century Judaism, held Scripture to have an authority that towered over other pieces of writing. It is doubtless true that what evangelicals regard as non-canonical works were influenced strongly by the writings of what we regard as the Old Testament, that influence should not be construed – either in theory or in practice – the other way around. Jesus quoted from a piece of canonical Scripture that influenced the way later writers thought, but later writers get things wrong. Traditionalists are committed to accepting this, since a number of later writers taught annihilationism. Those later writings are illuminating and they tell us much about how others interpreted the Scripture, but they do not tell us how to interpret the Scripture.

What role does the reader’s response (or hearer’s response) play in constructing the meaning of what a speaker or author says?

The previous question leads naturally into this one. If we grant that the issue of canon really does matter, we can go on to ask how much it matters how Jesus’ audience interpreted canonical Scripture. We’ve already seen that we mustn’t assume that there was a uniform view on what they thought about final judgement, but what if, on a given day, Jesus happened to be talking to a group of Jews who, as it turned out, really did all believe in eternal torment? For what it’s worth I think they would have been frankly turned off by some of what Jesus had to say. Matthew 10:28, for example, simply would not have sat well with them. But what of the more ambiguous passages, where Jesus simply refers to divine judgement? How much difference should it make to us that some of his hearers would naturally have associated those references with their own concept of hell as eternal torment?

One of the great doctrines of postmodernity when it comes to art and literature is that there’s no such thing (or at least hardly any such thing) as objective meaning. Certainly the meaning of a text or a work of art is not decided by the author or artist. Instead, meaning is a much more subjective affair, being created by a cooperation (a “dance,” some postmodernists might prefer to call it) between the author and the audience as it encounters the medium. This view has become known as a “reader response theory of meaning.” Endorsing this view, Elizabeth Berg Leer explains:

Because reader-response theorists posit that each reader is actively and individually involved in the construction of meaning, they question the New Critical view that if readers attend closely enough to a text, they should come up with its “correct,” intended meaning. Reader-response critics insist that because individuals bring different backgrounds, cognitive abilities, and reading experiences with them to a given text, one “correct” response to literature cannot exist. According to Louise Rosenblatt (1978), one of the earliest reader-response theorists, objective meaning cannot be found within a given text any more than it can be found exclusively within the reader of that text. Instead, Rosenblatt argues that meaning is derived, or, in her terms, a poem is evoked from the transaction between the reader and the text during a particular act of reading, and therefore meaning is unique to an individual within a specific context and in each successive act of reading. A change in either the reader, the text, or the situation will, in Rosenblatt’s terms, result in “a different event—a different poem.” No two readers will have the exact same response to any text, and no single reader will have the exact same response to a text read multiple times. 20

If one adopts a reader-response theory of meaning when it comes to understanding passages of Scripture, then not only will there be different theological communities; Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Anglican, or for that matter Qumran Jews (likely Essenes), Hasidic Jews, the followers of Hillel etc, but there will also be an attitude of conventionalist or relativism to the meaning of the passages of Scripture that are interpreted by each of these communities. There will not simply be a range of different opinions as we look from one community of readers to the next. Instead, there will be a range of very different but equally correct views of the meaning of the same texts. A readers response approach would deem it arrogant or paternalistic to presume to pass judgement on the legitimacy of the interpretation that each community comes up with. If Jesus offers a teaching that is interpreted by his community a given way (setting aside for now our knowledge that actually Jesus’ community was fairly diverse), then that is the right way for them to understand him. Any who heard his reference to Isaiah’s dead bodies and still interpreted Jesus to be talking about the lost suffering in hell have therefore entered into a partnership with the author of the message, and through their cooperative effort, they have in fact created the meaning of the message.

I have a number of major difficulties accepting this theory of meaning. For one, I doubt that those who hold it really take it seriously in normal life. Surely if they were approached by someone who claimed that the have read defences of the reader-response theory of meaning, and they have interpreted it to mean that the meaning of a text is established through the intention of the author, they would be told that they must surely have interpreted things wrong, and that the meaning they have found is simply not the correct one. Hence, the meaning was not created by the interplay between reader and author after all.

Secondly, this view on meaning can potentially make it impossible for a reformer to be heard. Jesus made numerous references to the final destruction of the lost: He compared them to plants burned up in a furnace, he said that they would be destroyed body and soul, he said that their way led to death and so on. But if a readers response theory is correct, anyone who used that language in an indefensible way and interpreted it to fit a view of hell as eternal torment could not simply declare that in his community of interpretation, that’s what these terms signify and this makes it legitimate for him to interpret Jesus as a theological ally. For that matter, virtually any school of interpretation on virtually any theological issue could, on the reader-response theory of meaning, claim to be faithfully interpreting Scripture, since on this view, interpreting a text is not a quest for the true meaning but rather a creative exchange that creates meaning.

All of this raises the doubt for me that evangelicals who appeal to what looks like a reader-response theory of meaning when it comes to interpreting Jesus on hell are really sincere. It may well be that a number of Jesus hearers might have associated references to Gehenna with the torturous hell of the Pharisees, and maybe there was the occasional well read diaspora Jew (who was well versed in the Septuagint) who did in fact associate Isaiah 66 with Judith, in spite of the differences between the two passages. But that does not somehow make it legitimate for them to have interpreted Jesus that way, and even if Jesus knew full well that he would be misunderstood by them, it certainly does not mean that his teaching needs to be shoe-horned into whatever they might have happened to think. I take the view – ironically that ostensibly held by the very same conservative Evangelicals who reject annihilationism, that there really is a fact of the matter about what Jesus and Isaiah meant, and that fact is not established by the way that their respective audiences, either at the time or later, responded to what they had to say. There is no evidence in the context of Isaiah 66 that the writer had any intention of referring to eternal torment and much to indicate that he was not. Similarly, there is no evidence in the Gospels that in quoting from Isaiah 66 Jesus intended to change Isaiah’s meaning. I think this is all the more obvious when we read all the other things that the Gospel writers tell us about Jesus’ theology of final judgement.

Concluding thoughts

Where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with four likely observations: Firstly, those who use this argument for finding eternal torment in the teaching of Jesus are wrong in their apparent assumption about just what Jesus’ audience must have believed about divine judgement. Secondly, those who use this argument are probably wrong about how Jewish scholars in the time of Jesus and before used Isaiah 66. While they may have used Isaiah’s imagery, they make it clear that they are not simply reproducing Isaiah’s meaning but substantially developing it. Thirdly, in my view those who use this argument underestimate the proper role that the canon of Scripture should play in our formation of theology. Fourthly and lastly, I think that they rely – whether they realise it or not – on an indefensible view of interpretation in general, one that ultimately robs the authors of Scripture (and Jesus himself) of the ability to say things that their audience does not wish to hear, a tendency that many have lamented when looking at how so many traditionalists themselves handle the Scripture in their quest to bolster a theology of eternal torment.

Liked it? Take a second to support Rethinking Hell on Patreon!
  1. R. Alan Cole, Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1989, 2nd ed.), 224.[]
  2. Douglas R. A. Hare, Mark, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 117-118.[]
  3. Morna D, Hooker, The Gospel According to St Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: A & C Black, 1991), 232.

    Those who actually try to make the case that Isaiah 66 proclaims a doctrine of the eternal torment of the damned in hell must make what is, in my view, a ludicrous interpretation of the image of dead bodies. Peter Head for example reasons, “The point of this language seems to be to stress the permanence of the experience of judgment. The worm and fire relate to the bodies of rebellious men: their destructive, distasteful activity continues eternally as an abhorrence to ‘all flesh’ (that is, those saved at the end)” [emphasis added]. Peter Head, “The Duration of Divine Judgment in the New Testament,” in K. E. Brower and M.W. Elliot (eds), ‘The Reader Must Understand’: Eschatology in Bible and Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 1997), 223.
    In reality there isn’t a single reference to the ongoing activity of the enemies of God in Isaiah 66. The whole point seems to be that their activities, whatever they may have been, have through an act of divine judgement been brought to a final end, leaving only dead bodies, which are themselves loathsome, being consumed by worms and fire (the word translated “an abhorrence” here is elsewhere and in other versions translated “loathsome,” meaning something disgusting or revolting, or “gross” in modern language). It is likewise simply dumbfounding to see Robert Yarborough presuming to take Edward Fudge to task over this issue. Observing that Jesus quotes from Isaiah and refers to a fire that is not quenched, he then notes that Fudge refers to the unquenched fire in Isaiah 66 as one that “continues to destroy until nothing remains,” which, as noted above, is exactly how Ezekiel uses such language. But Yarborough seems totally unaware of Ezekiel’s usage, insisting: “[T]he logic is strained. A fire “that continues to destroy until nothing remains” is not unquenchable; it is rather quenched – if “nothing remains” as Fudge claims, the fire must go out. Fudge makes exactly the opposite point of Jesus and Isaiah. Their fire never goes out; Fudge’s goes completely out.” Robert Yarborough, “Jesus on Hell” in Christopher A. Morgan and Robert W. Peterson, Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 82.
    But this is no more than a string of clearly false claims. Of course a fire that is not quenched (i.e. put out by somebody or something) can burn out, and there is no sensible reason to think otherwise. Apart from this, the glaring fact that a word search of the Old Testament would have shown Dr Yarborough that Ezekiel refers to a fire that is not quenched in references to a forest fire would surely have given him pause, were he made aware of it. I can only imagine that a critical peer reviewer would have caught an error like this. I take it that most readers will grant it as self-evident that whether or not a fire can be quenched does not tell us how long it will endure, but rather that it is especially large or fierce, or simply that nobody is going to put it out.[]

  4. Head, “The Duration of Divine Judgment,” 224.[]
  5. Robert Yarborough, “Jesus on Hell,” 82. Alfred Edersheim, “On Eternal Punishment According to the Rabbis and the New Testament,” an appendix in Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1984), 267-271.[]
  6. Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs (London: Routledge, 1995), 1.[]
  7. J. Julius Scott, Jr., “On the Value of Intertestamental Jewish Literature for New Testament Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23:4 (1980), 319.[]
  8. Mishnah-tractate Sanhedrin 10:3A–CC, cited in Chilton and Neusner, Judaism in the New Testament, 75-76.[]
  9. Elwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘Hell’”. “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology”[]
  10. Edersheim in Morey, Death and the Afterlife, 269.[]
  11. Scott, “On the Value of Intertestamental Jewish Literature,” 320.[]
  12. (1QS IV 11–4), in James H. Charlesworth (ed), The Dead Sea Scrolls (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), vol. 1, 17.[]
  13. Fragment from 4Q287 6, from Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (eds), The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 647.[]
  14. Fragment from 4Q418, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 871.[]
  15. Fragment from 4Q548, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1095.[]
  16. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, 1:3. It is interesting to note that whereas many traditionalists today want to respond to annihilationists by denying outright the claim that their view is the product of their belief in the immortality of the soul, Josephus has no such defensive agenda, actually grounding the Pharisaical view in the doctrine that souls are immortal.[]
  17. Josephus, Antiquities,Book 18, 1:4.[]
  18. Michael L. Rodkinson, Babylonian Talmud, Book 2: Tracts Erubin, Shekalim, Rosh Hashana <http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/t02/ros03.htm>[]
  19. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1986, revised ed.), 211.[]
  20. Elizabeth Berg Leer, “Reader Response: Learning from Teacher Research,” Minnesota English Journal 42:1 (2006), 129-130.[]