Josephus on the Jewish Theologies of Hell

Sometimes (although thankfully, not often), you might hear an argument that goes a bit like this: We should assume that Christians agreed with Jews about most things. And we know the Pharisees, an important group of Jews, believed in eternal torment. We know this because that’s how Josephus described them. So without any good evidence to the contrary, we should assume that Jesus and the early Jewish Christians held that view, too.

What should Evangelicals make of this argument?

A toothless challenge

The appeal to Josephus is, of course, fairly impotent as a refutation of the case that Scripture teaches that the lost will one day finally perish. Even if Josephus was a first rate source for Jewish theology whose description of Pharisaical theology was an accurate description of the whole group and he reported that they taught eternal torment, we could still (and would still) observe that it is a theology directly in conflict with biblical theology. Since we are Christians and not Pharisees, our attitude to Christ and hence to Apostolic teaching and to the New Testament is completely different from that of the Pharisees. There were times when Jesus taught contrary to Pharisaical theology as described by Josephus, affirming that God will destroy both body and life (or “soul,” ψυχή / psuche) in the place of final punishment (Matthew 10:28), that the alternatives are a road to life or a road to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14); that at the judgement the lost will be burned up like weeds (Matthew 13:36-43), that only those who eat the bread of life (something Jesus equated with believing in him) will live forever (John 6:47-51), and so on. If Josephus said that the Pharisees believed in eternal torment, Christians could just thank him for his observation about the beliefs of the Pharisees and get on with being Christians.

All the same, somebody might want to press the point and argue that since Josephus is such a trustworthy source and he describes Judaism as affirming eternal torment, that should somehow skew our reading of the New Testament to make eternal torment a possible interpretation, since the first Christians who wrote it were Jewish, and they didn’t go out of their way to specifically complain that Judaism got this wrong. There are two responses to this. One is that there are reasonable limits on “interpretation.” We cannot just interpret anything in such a way as to allow for eternal torment, and the New Testament decisively rules the doctrine out. The second response is to, if out of nothing more than curiosity, say: Very well, let’s see what Josephus had to say.

A misattributed work

One piece of evidence that might be offered from Josephus is in the Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades. In it, Josephus allegedly says that the souls of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained in Hades, a place literally under the ground. There, the lost are punished with temporary punishments, while the righteous are said to rest in a place called “the Bosom of Abraham” while they await heaven. In Hades there is a “lake of unquenchable fire,” which awaits the day of judgement, when the lost will be cast into it as an eternal punishment.

This short treatise is a goldmine for some proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment. It presents Jewish theology as containing precisely what these Christians believe about the proper interpretation of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the latter of whom relaxes in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, in Hades, suffers punishment (Luke 16:19-31). This work also affirms their views on human nature and the doctrine of hell. But there is a good reason this piece of writing resembles the views of some Christians. It wasn’t written by Josephus at all. Instead, the Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades was written by Hippolytus of Rome, a somewhat elusive Christian theologian born in the late Second Century. The work has been incorrectly attributed to Josephus since at least the Ninth Century, and it was, unfortunately, included in the popular edition of Josephus’ works translated by William Whiston, which is why so many Christian laypeople treat it as a work of Josephus. There simply was no Jewish theology of a place in the underworld called the Bosom of Abraham in the first century. This was Hippolytus’ concoction based on his interpretation of Jesus’ story in Luke 16:19-31, just as the existence of an actual lake of fire in Hades is his interpretation of the symbolic imagery in the book of Revelation. This work, therefore, has no value in describing first century Jewish theology.

Josephus on the Pharisees and Essenes

In book 2 of Josephus’ War of the Jews, he describes three philosophical sects among the Jews: The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes (spelled “Essens” in translations of Josephus). He does so as though each group were fairly uniform in thought and practice First, he describes the Essenes as a morally strict separated community, before discussing their view of the afterlife:

For their doctrine is this. That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever, and that they come out of the most subtil air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural inticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is such as is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, that is perpetually blowing from the ocean; while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments. And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion, when they allot the islands of the blessed to their brave men, whom they call heroes, and demi-gods; and to the souls of the wicked, the region of the ungodly in Hades, where their fables relate that certain persons, such as Sisyphus, and Tantalus, and Ixion, and Tityus, are punished; which is built on this first supposition, that souls are immortal; and thence are those exhortations to virtue, and dehortations from wickedness collected; whereby good men are bettered in the conduct of their life by the hope they have of reward after their death, and whereby the vehement inclinations of bad men to vice are restrained, by the fear and expectation they are in, that although they should lie concealed in this life, they should suffer immortal punishment after their death. These are the divine doctrines of the Essens about the soul, which lay an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste of their philosophy.

Notice how he urges his Greek and Roman readers to view Essenes as holding a view very similar to their own: Not mentioning the resurrection of the dead (something Greeks rejected) and emphasising the immortality of the soul. He draws parallels between the views of the Essenes and views expressed in Greek myths. The souls of the lost, rather than being tormented in fire, receive an “immortal punishment” in a cold place, a tempestuous den.

Next, Josephus describes the Pharisees, again, as a monolith.

These ascribe all to fate, and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men; although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.

Although not crystal clear, the first part of this description may indicate that Josephus thought the Pharisees held to a compatibilist view of free will, maintaining that God’s predetermining and human free will and responsibility can coexist.

It again appears that Josephus is trying to make the Judaism he describes sound appealing to a pagan Greek audience, skipping over the resurrection of the lost altogether, and re-describing the resurrection of the just in such a way as to make it sound suspiciously like the transmigration of the soul…

Notice the strange way Josephus describes the doctrine of resurrection here. The New Testament indicates that Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), but Josephus describes this as the soul’s being removed into another body. Although strictly true, given the dualistic view of the soul Josephus is supposing, this is a very strange way for a Jew to describe resurrection, since Jews who believed in the resurrection held that those same bodies that sleep in the dust will rise (Daniel 12:2). What is more, Josephus here says that Pharisees thought only the souls of the righteous would enter a body again. When he presented the views of the Pharisees again in his work Antiquities, he said the same thing:

They also believe that souls have an immortal vigour 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; but that the former shall have power to revive and live again.

Again, only the righteous will live again, while the souls of the wicked remain detained in an everlasting prison. But the Jews who believed in the resurrection held that the righteous and the wicked would be raised for judgement. Indeed, when St Paul was brought before Felix, he appealed to the fact that his conviction that “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” was one that he held in common with his Jewish accusers (Acts 24:15). On the face of it, then, this very short description of what the Pharisees believed looks a bit strange. It again appears that Josephus is trying to make the Judaism he describes sound less like the version found in the New Testament, and more like something appealing to a pagan Greek audience, skipping over the resurrection of the lost altogether, and re-describing the resurrection of the just in such a way as to make it sound suspiciously like the transmigration of the soul, the view that souls transfer between bodies – a view that was held by a number of Greeks. But let’s set that aside for now.

Lastly, Josephus describes the views of the Sadducees, who are noted in the New Testament as those who deny the resurrection. But Josephus’ description is extraordinary:

But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behaviour of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.

I will comment on this description below, but let’s just say for now that something doesn’t seem right here.

So there is Josephus’ description of Jewish beliefs. The Essenes are described as strongly resembling pagan Greeks in their view of the world to come. The Pharisees are described as believing in incorruptible souls that are “removed into other bodies” if one is righteous, or else subject to eternal punishment. And the Sadducees are described as antinomian in their approach to ethics, denying a future life, and generally hostile and mean people.

Suppose for now that Josephus’ description of the Pharisees’s view of the fate of the unjust amounts to eternal torment in hell. This naturally leads to the question of how much faith we should place in Josephus.

How accurate was Josephus?

Obviously the challenge (weak as it may be, as discussed under “a toothless challenge”) stands or falls on the credibility of Josephus as a witness to first-century Jewish theology. Is there any way to assess this? In fact there are several ways. We can compare what Josephus says with what we know from other ancient sources, we can compare it with the writings of the very people he is describing, where possible, and we can consult the scholarly opinion of experts in Judaism.

The first issue I want to raise regards the Sadducees. Recall that Josephus described the Sadducees as believing that God doesn’t care if we are good or evil, so people can decide for themselves what to do. This seems incredible. One of the key differences between Sadducees and Pharisees is that while Pharisees accepted the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, the Sadducees accepted only the Law / Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Since the afterlife is not mentioned there, they did not believe in it (which is why, when arguing with the Sadducees for the resurrection in Mark 12, Jesus used the book of Exodus). We do not have any of the writings of the Sadducees, so we know what we do about them because of the New Testament, Josephus (maybe!), and Rabbinical writings from the second century. What we know from this last source indicates that they held to a literal interpretation of the Torah. How could they also believe in doing what they please, thinking that God isn’t concerned one way or the other? The Sadducees, along with Pharisees, made up the Great Sanhedrin, a kind of supreme court on legal and religious matters. The Sadducees were religious heavyweights with a particular interest in God’s law and its application in their society. Josephus’ quick and somewhat shocking characterisation of them as lawless and “barbarous” is surprising at the very least.

Secondly, consider Josephus’ description of the theology of the Essenes. It seems like Josephus is describing the group as a whole (or at least, intending to). For centuries we had no writings of the Essenes, so Josephus’ colourful account is what we had to go on. His description of the soul being bound inside a body like a prison sounds like a statement directly from Plato’s Phaedo, and the rest of his description floats freely between implications about Essene thought and descriptions of Greek myths. It seems clear, though, that he is saying the Essenes held to some type of eternal torment of the souls of the lost. This is what the world relied on to understand Essene belief, until the twentieth century. In 1947, a major discovery was made, namely the scrolls that are now called the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. It is widely believed that the Essenes either wrote or collected these scrolls, although there is no consensus. Some maintain the Essenes had nothing to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It would be unwise, therefore, to dogmatise.

These primary sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls, do not teach eternal torment. Instead they teach the doctrine of annihilationism – that all evildoers will finally be destroyed and be no more, leaving only the righteous to live forever. The fate of the wicked figure Belial is said to be annihilation in 4Q286.

Afterwards [they] shall damn Belial and all his guilty lot. They shall answer and say, Cursed be [B]elial in his hostile design, and damned in his guilty dominion. Cursed be all the spirits of his [lo]t in their wicked design, and damned in their thoughts of unclean impurity. For they are the lot of darkness and their visitation is for eternal destruction. Amen, amen.

Cursed be the Wicked One in all the ages of his dominions, and may all the sons of Belial be damned in all the works of their service until their annihilation [for ever, Amen, amen.] 1Geza Vermes (trans.) The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin, 2004, Rev. Ed.), 394

Similarly, in the hymns and poems in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fate of all the lost is total destruction.

For Thou wilt bring Thy glorious [salvation] to all the men of Thy Council, to those who share a common lot with the Angels of the Face.
And among them shall be no mediator to [invoke Thee], and no messenger [to make] reply;
for …
They shall reply according to Thy glorious word and shall be Thy princes in the company [of the Angels].
They shall send out a bud [for ever] like a flower [of the fields], and shall cause a shoot to grow into the boughs of an everlasting Plant.
It shall cover the whole [earth] with its shadow [and its crown] (shall reach) to the [clouds];
its roots (shall go down) to the Abyss [and all the rivers of Eden shall water its branches].
A source of light shall become an eternal ever-flowing fountain, and in its bright flames all the [sons of iniquity] shall be consumed;
[it shall be] a fire to devour all sinful men in utter destruction. 2Hymn 14, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 277-278.

And similarly:

Thou wilt destroy in Judgement all men of lies, and there shall be no more seers of error;
for in Thy works is no folly, no guile in the design of Thy heart.
But those who please Thee shall stand before Thee for ever;
those who walk in the way of Thy heart shall be established for evermore. 3Hymn 12, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 270.

One final example for now, on the last judgement:

… you have been shaped and your return is to eternal destruction. For it shall wake up … your sin
Darkness will roar against your dispute. And all those who will exist for ever, those who search truth will be aroused for your judgement [and then] all the foolish hearts will be destroyed, and the sons of injustice will be found no more. 4The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 434.

That is, of course, a very short survey (just as this is a relatively short article). But you get the idea. These passages teach the doctrine of annihilationism, not eternal torment.

It seems clear that in his description of the Pharisees’ doctrine of resurrection as well his description of Essene thought, [Josephus] is trying to endear the Jews to Roman readers.

What, then, should we make of Josephus’ comments about the Essenes? Remember that his description of the Pharisees and the Essenes reads as though he intends to describe the group, rather than just a few here and there within the group. There is disagreement about who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and delving into that issue is not germane to my purpose here, but if they were written by Essenes and are our exposure to an Essene point of view (for we have no other writings by them), then Josephus was mistaken about what he group thought about hell. For him to have made such a sweeping error in his detailed description of Essene theology surely calls into question his reliability as a witness to Jewish schools of thought. If he cannot be trusted to represent the Essenes, why trust his scant comments about what Pharisees believed? This is all the more so given that he represents them as not believing in a resurrection of the lost, when the New Testament indicates they did believe this. Should we treat Josephus as right and the New Testament as wrong?

However, if the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written by the Essenes, who were they written by? Josephus lists three schools of Jewish philosophical thought, as though they cover the spectrum of Jewish philosophy: The Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. There is clearly a doctrine of the eternal life of the righteous in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it was not written by the Sadducees. But if it was written by Pharisees, then we must again view Josephus as a highly dubious source on their theology, if he is to be understood to mean that the Pharisees believed in eternal torment. Don’t misunderstand – I am well aware that there were Jews who believed in eternal torment. The focus just now is on the trustworthiness and objectivity of Josephus. It seems clear that in his description of the Pharisees’ doctrine of resurrection as well his description of Essene thought, he is trying to endear the Jews to Roman readers. That is his agenda, and the Dead Sea Scrolls cast doubt on his accuracy when it comes to the theology of these groups.

Even in the 1800s there was ample evidence that Josephus should not be granted much weight on the subject of eternal punishment.

Finally, Jewish historians do not see Josephus as a reliable expounder of Jewish belief – or even Jewish history! This has been pointed out previously in Christian conversations about final punishment. Nineteenth-Century theologian E. B. Pusey wrote a well-known book defending the doctrine of eternal torment, What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? The book was a response to F. W. Farrar, accused of teaching Universalism. Farrar denied being a universalist (holding to a hope that all will be saved, rather than to the dogma that all will be saved), but I am not defending his view on hell here. Farrar penned a response to Pusey called Mercy and Judgement: A Few Last Words On Christian Eschatology With Reference to Dr. Pusey’s “What Is of Faith?” One of Pusey’s arguments was based on the claim that the Jews believed in eternal torment. Part of this argument was grounded in ignorance of Jewish literature, because we simply know more about what first-century Judaism taught now than we did in the nineteenth century. Pusey cannot be blamed for that. But he can be blamed for his hasty reliance on Josephus, as Farrar pointed out. Even in the 1800s there was ample evidence that Josephus should not be granted much weight on the subject of eternal punishment. I will quote from Farrar at length. He gives his own assessment of Josephus in light of Scripture, the view of other Christian scholars, and the view of Jewish scholars. I will simply reproduce Farrar’s footnotes, although I do not have full information on the sources he is quoting. Note that when Farrar refers to an “endless durance,” this means an endless imprisonment (the word is rarely used in English anymore).

Dr. Pusey proceeds to the testimony of Josephus. I had alluded to it, but set it aside as valueless. I did not enter into my grounds for doing so, because I was not pretending to write an elaborate and exhaustive treatise, but only at brief notice, to throw together a sort of outline defence of the half-obliterated truths — for nine-tenths of what I urged is now acknowledged to be truth even by those who write against me — for which I had pleaded. I did, however, give the references to the very passages which Dr. Pusey has quoted, and briefly stated my reasons for paying no further attention to them.

a. In the first of those passages, 5Jos. Antiq. xviii. I, 3. speaking of the Pharisees, Josephus says that “it is their conviction that souls have an immortal force, and that under the earth there are judgments and punishments to those who, in their life, have practiced virtue or vice, and that to the one is adjudged a perpetual imprisonment, and to the others, a facility to live again.”

b. In the second passage, 6Jos. B. F. ii. 8, 14. which throws light on the last words of the former, he says that the Pharisees think “that every soul is indestructible, but that the soul of the good alone passes into a different body, and that the soul of the bad is punished with endless punishment.” And in section xi. Of the same passage he says that the Essenes set apart for the souls of the bad “a gloomy and wintry den, teeming with incessant punishments.”

Now in alluding to this evidence I set it aside because I regard Josephus as an untrustworthy witness. Dr. Pusey calls this an instance of “my wonted impetuosity.” It may be so, but I had reasons for what I said, and I will now give them. My “wonted impetuosity” has never led me to make a single statement for which I could not produce evidence which seemed to me to be ample, nor have my many critics been able to convict me of one demonstrable error.

a. Josephus is an untrustworthy witness, because again and again he falsifies Jewish history, and colours Jewish opinions, in order to please his Pagan readers. He smooths away whatever he though that they would be inclined to ridicule, and deliberately gives to his narrative the tone which seemed likely to make it suit their views. In other words, he Graecises, and he Romanises, and he philosophises, and he Caesarises. How are we to estimate the opinion of a Jew who could speak of the Messianic prophecies as an “ambiguous oracle,” and sink so low, in a peculiarly shameless moment, as to imply that a bourgeois adventurer like Vespasian was the promised Messiah of his race? 7Jos. B. F. vi. 5, 4.

b. I regard Josephus as an untrustworthy witness concerning the religious opinions of the Jews, because they themselves, who are surely the best judges as to their own beliefs, think very slightingly of his assertions. “Josephus,” says ARARBANEL, “wrote while he was in the hands of his masters, under their eyes, and trembling under their law.”

“The representations of Josephus (Ant. xii. And B. F. viii), are of small value,” writes the Jewish historian, DR. JOST. 8Gesch. D. Fudenthums, i. 224.

“We attach but slight weight to Josephus,” says RABBI H. ADLER, “on matters of religious dogma. The first clause of the passage in which he speaks of the belief of the Pharisees betrays the untrustworthiness of the second. There is not the slightest evidence to support the view that the souls of the good only passed into another body. Such a doctrine is not even alluded to in the Talmud.”

“Josephus,” says Hamburder, “was a weak character. The splendour of Rome utterly blinded him. He did not possess the strength of mind to rise above it.” After his visit to Rom “he returned back to Judaea a different man. The object of his Antiquities was to set forth Judaism in a favourable light in the eyes of the educated Gentile world, and it requires a critical eye to distinguish, in his writings, between the false and the true.”

And Christian writers have no less emphatically rejected his testimony. “If we have not cited Josephus,” says DR. POCOCK, “it is no wonder, since in giving the views of the sects he names respecting the other world, he seems to have used words better suited to the fashions and ears of the Greeks and Romans, than such as a scholar of the Jewish law would understand, or deem expressive of his meaning.” 9Notae in Portam Mosis, c. 6

“It is not to be disguised,” says ARCHBISHOP USHER, “that having promised to derive his materials from the sacred records of the Hebrews, without diminution or addition, he has done this with little fidelity.”

Alluding to his total suppression of the most memorable sin of the desert wanderings, namely, the worship of the golden calf, BISHOP WARBURTON says that “this shows his artful address throughout his whole work”; and in a note to the treatise against Apion he says, “This was carrying his complaisance to the Gentiles extremely far, and he misses no opportunity of conciliating their good will.”

“Josephus” says MOSHEIM, “as is well known, attempted to show that there was less difference between the religion of the Jews and those of other nations than people generally supposed; in which he very frequently exceeds all abounds.”

His Antiquities, says M. CHASLES in Etudes sur le premier temps du christianisme, “is a masterpiece of finesse. Never was the truth falsified with a skill more resolute, more subtle, and more deceptive.”

“At the present moment,” says his translator DR. TRAILL, “no well-informed writer taking the religious side of the argument, would think of defending the Jewish historian, or of vouching for his affirmations.”

c. I called him an untrustworthy witness because his Eschatology, as well as his Messianism, is expressly repudiated as of no value. 10(1) Hamburger, Talm. Worterb. ii. 508. Professor Marks and others speak to the same effect. In the remarks which I have quoted from him he refers to the Greeks, and compares the views of the Essenes with theirs. It is to please and conciliate the Greeks that he omits the distinctly Pharisaic belief in the Resurrection (Acts xxiii. 6, 8; xxiv. 15; 2 Macc. 7), because the idea of the Resurrection of the body was made a jest among the Greeks 11Bottcher, De Inferis, 238, 519. He says that Josephus only used the word “Anastasis” once, and then in the sense of “overthrow.” — B. F. vi. 6, 2. Any one who will carefully read the story of the Witch of Endor in the Antiquities (v. xiii.) will see that the selection of words is dictated by a desire to conform to Greek notions. Ewald (History of the People of Israel, v. 366) speaks of his account of the sects as specially arbitrary and devoid of thorough knowledge. (Acts xvii. 18, 32). He deliberately compares the Pharisees to the Stoics, just as he compares the Essene Eschatology with the fables of the Greek Tartarus.

But, waiving these objections altogether, the testimony of Josephus bears but very slightly on my argument. His words, “endless durance,” ειργμος ἀΐδιος are unscriptural. 12In Jude 6 it is used poetically of the chains in which devils are reserved for future judgment; in Rom. i. 20 of the power of God. The latter word is used by Greeks, but never in the New Testament for the future punishment of men; the same remark applies still more strongly to his evidently Greek-coloured account of the fancies of the Essenes, for neither “incessant” nor “vengeance,” nor “den” nor “gloomy” nor “wintry” are words that find, in this connexion, any Scriptural authorization. 13ζοφώδη καὶ χειμέριον… μυχὸν γέμοντα τιμωριῶν ἀδιαλείπτων. – B. F. ii. 8, 11. The three first words do not occur at all in the New Testament. ἀδιάλειπτος in Rom. ix. 2, and 2 Tim. i. 3 (both times within the limits of early life); timwria only in the singular, and only once, Heb. x. 29. If we accept on such authority, the conclusion that the conception of “endless torment” was not unknown to the Graecising Jews of that day, this proves absolutely nothing against my assertion that Gehenna (which Josephus does not mention) had no such meaning normally; and that it is entirely indefensible to make it mean endless torment for all who incur it. Our Lord could only have used the word in its Jewish sense; and for the sake of all who love truth better than human tradition, I must again and again insist that its Jewish sense was not that which is now popularly attached to the word “hell.”

Our assessment of Josephus should be worse now than it was in the nineteenth century, given the discoveries that have been made since then.

There has been evidence for a long time that Josephus is not a dependable historian of theology. Christians have a perfectly understandable fondness for Josephus because he is an early non-Christian witness to the existence of Jesus. When it came to the presentation of Jewish history and thought, however, he was strongly driven by bias and allegiance, and cannot sensibly be thought of as an objective source.

We have evidence from the New Testament that Josephus misrepresents the Pharisees, who, contrary to Josephus, believed in the resurrection of the just and the unjust, as taught in the Hebrew Scripture. We have some reason to believe that he intentionally makes the Sadducees look bad. We have evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that he misrepresents either the Essenes or the Pharisees (depending on who actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is an open question). We also have a strong witness to appeal to, among both Jewish and Christian scholars knowledgeable in Josephus, that Josephus knowingly distorts Jewish history and theology to make it more agreeable to pagan Romans and Greeks.

Lastly, let’s not lose sight of what is at stake in considering Josephus’ description of the views of the Pharisees: Very little! Most Jews were not Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes. They were just everyday religious Jews. There is no evidence that the Pharisees determined what most Jews thought about speculative theological matters, and there was no need for Jesus or his disciples to make a big issue about the fact that their view on hell was mistaken. The average Jew would have neither known nor cared about the theological issues and debates that fascinated Pharisees. We also know that both eternal torment and annihilationism was present in the intertestamental literature, so there was more than one view present in Jewish literature at the time. Finally and of course most importantly, when Jesus and his followers taught about final judgement, they plainly contradicted the notion of hell described as a Pharisaical doctrine by Josephus. If a Christian has resorted to appealing to Josephus in order to defend the doctrine of eternal torment, the well must surely have run dry!

Glenn Peoples

1 Geza Vermes (trans.) The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin, 2004, Rev. Ed.), 394
2 Hymn 14, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 277-278.
3 Hymn 12, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 270.
4 The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 434.
5 Jos. Antiq. xviii. I, 3.
6 Jos. B. F. ii. 8, 14.
7 Jos. B. F. vi. 5, 4.
8 Gesch. D. Fudenthums, i. 224.
9 Notae in Portam Mosis, c. 6
10 (1) Hamburger, Talm. Worterb. ii. 508. Professor Marks and others speak to the same effect.
11 Bottcher, De Inferis, 238, 519. He says that Josephus only used the word “Anastasis” once, and then in the sense of “overthrow.” — B. F. vi. 6, 2. Any one who will carefully read the story of the Witch of Endor in the Antiquities (v. xiii.) will see that the selection of words is dictated by a desire to conform to Greek notions. Ewald (History of the People of Israel, v. 366) speaks of his account of the sects as specially arbitrary and devoid of thorough knowledge.
12 In Jude 6 it is used poetically of the chains in which devils are reserved for future judgment; in Rom. i. 20 of the power of God.
13 ζοφώδη καὶ χειμέριον… μυχὸν γέμοντα τιμωριῶν ἀδιαλείπτων. – B. F. ii. 8, 11. The three first words do not occur at all in the New Testament. ἀδιάλειπτος in Rom. ix. 2, and 2 Tim. i. 3 (both times within the limits of early life); timwria only in the singular, and only once, Heb. x. 29.

Iron and Clay: Mixed Messages From Clay Jones on What We Should Fear

Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Talbot Seminary, has recently written a blog about annihilationism—sort of. It’s called “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist,” a title that quite evidently calls to mind the thought that the atheist and the annihilationist have a sort of peace or union over an issue, in much the same way that “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” in peaceful coexistence. The article is just not very good (sorry), and in his better moments (such as when writing a recent and excellent book about the human fear of death), I would hope that the author would recognize this.

Tainted by Association

This rather scandalous sounding title is followed up with such section titles as: “The Sadducees Expected Annihilation,” “Naturalists Expect Annihilation,” along with other headings citing Epicurus, Sam Harris, and Mark Twain. You might well wonder (if you’re a bit on the innocent side), right at the outset, what is going on here. When you then scan to then end of the article to see where all of this was supposed to be leading, however, you’ll notice that there is no conclusion. What exactly was the point of all this? Was there a central truth claim in play that the author was trying to defend?

I’ll get into the apparent logic behind what these sections contain shortly, but the fact that this short article is essentially a series of statements linking annihilation to people and groups who reject Christianity is doing something non-cognitive. That is, the presentation is doing something that is not a matter of persuasion by fact and reason, but is something more emotive. The author has already said that he is not arguing that annihilationism is not true (fortunately, as nothing in the article seems to lend support to that claim). Instead, the emotive impact of a piece like this is that the doctrine of annihilationism is associated with a list of boogeymen, points of view that the Christian quite understandably wants nothing to do with. I pointed this out when Clay shared his article on Facebook, and the response, unfortunately was one of indignation—do I have the ability to read his heart and assess his motives? Naturally, it is awkward to be confronted with the claim that you are doing something like insinuating guilt by association, but in all honesty the response to the question of “can you read my heart?” is: Look, we’re not idiots. Just look at the title of this article. It’s not “Annihilation just isn’t a threat,” or “Eternal torment is punishment. Annihilation isn’t.” No, it’s “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Annihilationist”! We are, in some way at least, on the same team! So yes, Clay, inasmuch as reading your heart is necessary to know that this is in part a game of association, we can read your heart. The idea that a person’s words reveal their motives is hardly shocking. It is even biblical, as Jesus remarked that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Minor Factual Quibbles

After clearing aside the sort of rhetorical flair we see in the article’s title, what remains, in terms of persuasive arguments? We might quibble with some of the fact claims being made here. For example, Jones alleges that tens of millions of “Eastern religionists” hope to be annihilated by attaining Nirvana. Well… maybe, and plenty of “Eastern religionists” believe and hope for the opposite! As Jones gets close to granting, the fact that plenty of Eastern religionists might hope for nonexistence (or rather, might expect nonexistence), is no less true than the fact that millions of the people he is referring to do not have this hope or expectation at all. Nonexistence is in no sense inherent in the concept of nirvana, and there are millions upon millions who hope for a nirvana in which something of themselves still exists, albeit free of all the desires and vices they now have.1Cousins, L.S., “Nirvana,” in Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, Nihilism to Quantum Mechanics (Taylor & Francis: 1998). But this would be a side issue.

Another factual concern is over the way Jones describes the view of the Jewish sect called the Sadducees, who are referred to in the New Testament. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. But then after noting that this is what they believed, Jones, quite inexplicably, says:

So, as opposed to living in desperate fear of annihilation, instead of trusting Jesus who had offered them eternal life, the Sadducees were satisfied with annihilation.

“Satisfied” with annihilation? On what basis does Jones think the Sadducees didn’t fear death? None of the sources he cites, the New Testament or the works of Josephus, support this contention. As it turns out, Jones is on record maintaining that people do indeed fear death, in his book Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It. Why would the Sadducees be an exception to this observation? Their position was not that they did not want there to be a resurrection of the dead. Rather, their position was that there will not be a resurrection of the dead.

Yet another possible factual concern here is that Jones has relied on Josephus’ scant comments on the Sadducees maintaining that the soul dies with the body. It is worth at least noting that this claim has been described in the literature as a misrepresentation on Josephus’ part. The Sadducees, T. W. Mason contends, although they rejected the later doctrine of resurrection, did not give up all hope for the future, locating it instead in Sheol. The hope of resurrection, of course, dissolves the need to try to shoehorn anything that might provide hope into Sheol, something the Hebrew Scripture describes as a state of death, lack of thought, of sleep in the dust, and a state of inability to worship God. But without the resurrection, hope must be located somewhere other than in future bodily life, so it must, reasoned the Sadducees (on Manson’s view), be located in Sheol, the state when the body is dead.2T. W. Manson, “Sadducee and Pharisee—The Origin and Significance of the Names,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 22:1 (1938), 154.

But let’s set the factual concerns aside for now, as they are distractions from the point of Jones’s article. What is actually going on in this article, and what force is it supposed to have against annihilationism?

Is death really no big deal?

Jones gives numerous examples of people or groups who expect to no longer exist one day, and who say that this fact does not bother them. Although on face value Jones is committed to saying that this is not the appropriate response to death and that death really is fearful (as he is on the record saying in Immortal), he nevertheless writes, “the fear of eternal torment dwarfs the fear of annihilation to insignificance.” So what the rest of this article does, in effect, is to allege that death as a final fate really isn’t all that frightening for people who don’t believe in God. Eternal torment would be a lot worse, and so death is something of a relief by contrast.

The trouble (or at least one of Jones’s problems) is, the examples cited here are in general not examples of people who say that they fear death but are glad because (my paraphrase) “at least it’s not eternal torment.” What Jones ends up doing, for the most part, is accumulating a list of names of people who alleged that they just don’t fear death at all—full-stop. How is this not screamingly obvious to him? Just look at the quotes he draws on for support. Charles Darwin said, “I’m not the least afraid to die.” Not the least afraid! Jones quotes Epicurus as saying, “death means nothing to us.” Nothing! Sam Harris is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing to worry about.” Bart Ehrman is quoted as remarking that death “does not greatly bother me anymore.” Mark Twain is quoted as saying that his own nonexistence would be a “holiday” for goodness’ sake.

Clay Jones is a man trying to have it both ways, I’m afraid. On the one hand, he has published a book that explores a perfectly obvious fact: People do fear death. On the other, however, when groping around for a stone to throw at annihilationists, he passes himself off as accepting as true the claims of atheists who allege that they really don’t fear death at all. Again, they are not just saying, “death is comparatively less nasty than eternal torment.” No, they are saying that they aren’t worried about death at all. They aren’t afraid of it. It’s nothing at all. No, in fact it’s better than nothing at all, it’s a holiday!

But as we will see in a moment, Jones does not believe this. He knows very well that people do not view death as a holiday or as no big deal. Why in the world is he suddenly willing to throw his own knowledge of this fact out the window and simply take these people at their own word? Elsewhere he has complained of precisely this sort of falsehood coming from the mouths of atheists. It is almost unbelievable, after reading this hit piece on annihilationism, to read the following words, from Clay Jones himself in his book:

Even though many psychologists, anthropologists, and, most importantly, Scripture tell us that humans fear death, if you ask people if they fear their own deaths, most will say no. … But when they find a lump, have a chest pain, or receive a positive blood test, their fear of death towers in front of them and won’t leave the room.3Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House: 2020), 22.

This comes right after Jones has shared one after another piece of evidence that people simply do dread death, citing a variety of individuals and psychologists or sociologists who provide vivid testimony of how frightening people find the prospect of their own non-being. One of my favorite examples—purely for its imagery—is Jones’s quote from Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, who claim that if people “had an ongoing awareness of their vulnerability and mortality,” they would be reduced to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”4Ibid., 20. Jones’s examples are sobering, and it is perfectly obvious that he thinks descriptions like these are true and that is why he is quoting them. This is what he actually thinks is the human view of our own annihilation. He openly refers to “the fear of death” and “the terror of death,” and he even, like an Evangelical annihilationist himself, explicitly says that it is specifically the fear of death that “compels everyone to seek some salvation,” going on to quote Romans 2:7, where St Paul speaks of seeking immortality and finding immortality in Christ.5Ibid., 21.

If Clay Jones wrote that book, then who on earth wrote this article? The writer of this article did not believe the things Clay Jones believed, Clay Jones who said that in spite of their false denials, in fact people are terrified—terrified!—of death, death to which the remedy, eternal life, is found in Christ. No, the writer of this article is a different man, a man who is immediately credulous when an atheist says that “death is nothing,” or even more ludicrously, that it is a holiday!

Jones is not alone. Other proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment have trivialised the severity of losing one’s life this way. When trying to reason that annihilationism just didn’t present a fate that was scary enough, Robert Peterson rejected the claim that “the obliteration of the wicked is a terrible destiny when measured against the bliss of the righteous,” insisting that “it is simply not that bad to cease to exist,” an observation he thinks is true in its own right, but all the more so given how terrible endless torment would be.6Peterson, “Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999), 27.

It’s hard to know what line of defense we should prepare. On the one hand, traditionalists (like Jones or Peterson) insist that loss of being really doesn’t amount to a serious fate. On the other, there are those (like Hank Hannegraaff, Norman Geisler, or J. P. Moreland) who insist that annihilation is too severe a fate—a horrific evil—to inflict on a person made in God’s image in response to the misuse of human freedom. My hunch is that such arguments about annihilation being too severe or, as in Jones’s argument, not severe enough, is not a principled argument. The point is that it is an argument which, in the moment, serves a rhetorical function against annihilationism, so it will do.

But how will we scare people?

Lastly, Jones briefly makes a pragmatic argument for teaching the eternal torment, rather than the final end, of the lost. He observes that “the fear of eternal torment leads many to repent.” Given the context in which this observation appears, namely the disagreement between those who believe in eternal torment and those who believe the lost will finally die one day, one can only surmise that the response to the observation is meant to be something like “and therefore we should teach eternal torment.” Really, though? Is the idea that all we want to do is come up with the most persuasive story possible to get people to make a decision for Christ? I am sure that is not what Jones thinks, but that is certainly what is suggested by such purely pragmatic approaches as this.

My fear is the fear of death, pure and simple. It is, without even the slightest hint of doubt, the king of all fears in my mind. If it is any sort of fear that keeps me from leaving the faith (and no, I did not just say that it is simply fear that keeps me from leaving the faith), it is a fear that might be expressed in the words of Simon Peter in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” I would be giving up the only hope there is of eternal life, committing everlasting suicide. I know very well that I am not alone, if the discussions I have with fellow annihilationists are anything to go by.

… there is every reason to think that more people think the doctrine of eternal torment is so objectionable that they reject it and possibly God altogether than those who are not believers but who are somehow scared of the possibility of hell and so become Christians.

What’s more, the argument from pragmatic concerns backfires in a way that should surely have been obvious to Jones. He teaches apologetics, of all things, at a Christian college. He knows all too well that the doctrine of eternal torment is frequently offered up as an objection to the Christian doctrine of God, as a reason to reject, rather than accept, the Christian message. Jones might not think the objections are sound, but so what? We are being purely pragmatic now, rather than talking about what’s true. I don’t think the message of eternal torment is true, but that in itself doesn’t stop people from being scared by it. As I have explained at more length elsewhere, the doctrine of eternal torment is an apologetics liability, providing an opportunity to reject the Christian God because he is a torturer. The apologetic problem cannot be dismissed with pat answers like “well, that’s what happens when humans have free will,” or “but God is a God of justice as well as love.” Moreover, there is every reason to think that in our day and age, more people think the doctrine of eternal torment is so objectionable that they reject it and possibly God altogether than those who are not believers but who are somehow scared of the possibility of hell and so become Christians. If the mere fact that some people are scared into the church by the doctrine of eternal torment counts as a reason to teach eternal torment, then similarly the mere fact that some people reject Christianity because of the doctrine of eternal torment counts as a reason to teach against it. If Jones wants to object that subjective human responses to the doctrine of hell don’t tell us much about whether or not we should believe it, then he must abandon his own appeal to subjective human experience.

In Short

In the end, “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist” does not read like a clear argument for anything in particular. It’s a disagreeable title linking Evangelical Christians who are annihilationists to atheism, followed by a list of people with an anti-Christian worldview that we’re supposed to associate somehow with belief in annihilation, coupled with a strange about-face on Jones’s own view that people really do fear death, instead suggesting that annihilation is no biggie. This is all topped off with a purely pragmatic gesture to the fact that there are people who were scared into the faith with tales of eternal torment. But in the end, what’s even going on here? Is there an argument for eternal torment, and against annihilationism? Well, no. There isn’t an argument for anything. There’s just this hodge-podge of sentiments about annihilation and hell pushed together on the (virtual) page, and on closer inspection those sentiments are either false (such as the suggestion that people don’t really fear death) or easily countered (such as the suggestion that eternal torment scares people to God, so we should teach it).

There’s a better version of Clay Jones, and that version wrote a book called Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It. In it, he makes the point made already by Scripture that in fact people do fear death terribly, and that no human effort can do a thing to avoid the fate. The real solution, Jones tells us, is the divine gift of a “wonderful forever.”

The fear of death is at the heart of what we call existential dread, and it is a fear that God can deliver us from—and a fate from which we can ultimately be saved, passing from death to life. According to the Bible, and contrary to Clay Jones (version 2.0, who wrote “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist”), it is not the fear of eternal torment, but the fear of death itself from which God delivers us through the Gospel.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
(Hebrews 2:14-15)

If only Jones would rethink hell! His book about death would suddenly become a jigsaw piece that fitted perfectly into the Gospel, into the biblical hope of deliverance from death and the hope of everlasting life, a worldview in which eternal torment simply has no place.

1 Cousins, L.S., “Nirvana,” in Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, Nihilism to Quantum Mechanics (Taylor & Francis: 1998).
2 T. W. Manson, “Sadducee and Pharisee—The Origin and Significance of the Names,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 22:1 (1938), 154.
3 Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House: 2020), 22.
4 Ibid., 20.
5 Ibid., 21.
6 Peterson, “Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999), 27.

Infinity, Divine Value, and Hell: A Rejoinder to Jacob Brunton

Sin plus God does not equal eternal torment, in spite of traditionalists frequently telling us otherwise.

Jacob Brunton of For The New Christian Intellectual lives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, which happens to be where we recently held our annual Rethinking Hell Conference. Mr. Brunton heard of the upcoming conference and marked the occasion by writing an article arguing against conditional immortality (or annihilationism as he prefers to call it), however we wish that he had been able to join us in person. At our conference we received critical engagement from scholars such as Dr. Gregg Allison, demonstrating how we strive to uphold the standards of Christian intellectual inquiry by fostering dialogue between different positions on hell. Mr. Brunton could have helped to sharpen our views by engaging in conversation there, and hopefully benefited from finding his own views sharpened by the experience (although as you’ll see below, in my view his argument may not have fared very well when exposed to other able minds!).

In any case, prior to publishing this response to his argument, we followed standard practice by reaching out to a representative of the organization, letting them know that we’d seen Mr. Brunton’s critical argument, and offering to share a link to our pending response. Surprisingly, we were told, “I’m not interested in your article, thanks.” Although others do have the right to remain ignorant of our responses to their criticism, it must be said that in reality this preference doesn’t reflect the spirit of Christian intellectual inquiry that we are used to in the world of theology. We do often encounter critics of our view that are better described as mere apologists, compared to intellectuals in that more virtuous sense, so we’d like to take this opportunity to call the important movement of Christian apologetics to the higher standard of back-and-forth critical engagement.

Continue reading “Infinity, Divine Value, and Hell: A Rejoinder to Jacob Brunton”

What I would have to deny in order to teach eternal torment

For some people, the concept of hell as a state of eternal torment is so central to their faith and their portrait of God that giving it up would mean giving up the faith altogether: giving up the authority of Jesus; giving up, in principle, the authority of Scripture; discarding the testimony of the church; and ultimately denying the gospel. This is the stance Tim Challies takes, somberly telling his readers that “If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.” Of course, by “hell,” he means eternal torment, not the biblical picture of final judgement and the loss of life and being forever.

Setting aside more popularist visions of hell like that of Challies and turning to the biblical account of life, death, judgment, and eternity, we could ask a similar question: If we were to give up the biblical position of immortality and eternal life found in Christ alone and to instead embrace the doctrine of eternal torment, what would we have to give up? What would be the cost of embracing the traditional view instead of the biblical one?

Continue reading “What I would have to deny in order to teach eternal torment”

Answering Answers in Genesis: An Infinitely Bad Argument

RETHINKING Hell doesn’t take a stance on many issues other than final punishment, including questions about the age of the earth or the right way to interpret the creation narratives in the book of Genesis. Some of our team members are sympathetic to Answers In Genesis’s points of view on these matters, others less so. If you want to hear two fine fellows who share AIG’s stance, you can listen to Chris Date interviewing Chuck McKnight, whom AIG forced to resign (i.e. fired) when they learned that he held to (what we consider to be) a biblical view of judgment.

Speaking of Answers in Genesis and fire, while Rethinking Hell does not take a stance on such secondary matters as the right way to read early Genesis, Answers in Genesis does take a strong view on the doctrine of hell. This was brought to the forefront again recently when AIG published an article by Tim Challies called “What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment?

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Hell in the Times: Were the Early Church Fathers “Vague” in Their Support of Conditional Immortality?

Rethinking Hell was recently brought to the attention of readers of the New York Times, along with work of Edward Fudge and the subject of conditional immortality. Not too shabby! In the article, one theologian dismissed the comments of Church Fathers who supported conditional immortality as “vague.” But are they really? Continue reading “Hell in the Times: Were the Early Church Fathers “Vague” in Their Support of Conditional Immortality?”

Did Jesus preach hell more than heaven?

Before Rethinking Hell was forged—which is now more than two years ago—our own Dr. Glenn Peoples had already been writing and speaking on this topic for a number of years. With surprising frequency these days, one hears from those who credit Glenn with having been instrumental in their journey toward conditionalism. As a matter of fact, this includes a number of others on our team.

One of the many perks for those attending the Rethinking Hell 2014 Conference will be the opportunity to meet and hear from Glenn in person. If you were thinking of joining us in Houston on July 11-12 but haven’t yet secured your registration, don’t leave it too late!

Continue reading “Did Jesus preach hell more than heaven?”