Damnation, redux

13 04 2010

Very recently, I took John Hobbins to task for implying that hellfire and damnation preaching owes its origin to the literature of the Hebrew Bible – a corpus that I attempted to demonstrate was lacking such a concept. While I capitulated slightly in the comments (in that I realise that I may be reading as much into the literature as I had initially accused him of doing), I would like to respond quickly to the second part of his claim. It was in his likewise-recent post that John had made this assertion, and then buttressed it with the suggestion that the rabbis of the Talmud believed in a place called Gehennom. This is perhaps a moot point that I am making, for I am sure that John (along with the majority of my readers) is aware that the Talmud is a highly ideologically variegated corpus and that source texts can be used to justify just about anything. Even so, because John didn’t make it clear (it is made clear in the passage that he linked from Jewish Encyclopedia), I just want to make sure that people understand that Gehennom, unlike Christian depictions of hell, is not a place of eternal damnation. John produced a passage from bBer 28b, and I copy it below (with John’s translation):

כשחלה ריב”ז נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו. כיון שראה אותם התחיל לבכות. א”ל תלמידיו: נר ישראל, עמוד הימיני, פטיש החזק, מפני מה אתה בוכה

When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was sick, his disciples came to see how he was doing (lit., “look him over”). As soon as he saw them, he began to weep. His disciples said to him:
Light of Israel, Pillar on the Right [Yachin, in the Temple], Mighty Hammer, on what account are you weeping?

אמר להם: אלו לפני מלך בשר ודם היו מוליכין אותי שהיום כאן ומחר בקבר, שאם כועס אין כעסו כעס עולם ואם אוסרני אין איסורו איסור עולם, ואם ממיתני אין מיתתו מיתת עולם, ואני יכול לפייסו בדברים ולשחדו בממון –

He said to them,
If I were being taken before a king of flesh and blood, who is here today and in the grave tomorrow, who if he gets aggravated his aggravation is not eternal aggravation, and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is not eternal incarceration, and if he puts me to death his putting to death is not an eternal putting to death, and I could assuage him with words and bribe him with money (“Mammon”) –

ואף על פי כן הייתי בוכה. עכשיו שמוליכין אותי לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא, שהוא חי וקיים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים שאם כועס עלי – כעסו כעס עולם, ואם אוסרני – איסורו איסור עולם, ואם ממיתני – מיתתו מיתת עולם, ואיני יכול לפייסו בדברים ולא לשחדו בממון, ולא עוד אלא שיש לפני שני דרכים: אחת של גן עדן ואחת של גיהנם. ואיני יודע באיזו מוליכים אותי, ולא אבכה

all the more reason I have to weep, now that I am being taken before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who lives and abides for ever, who if he gets aggravated with me, his aggravation is eternal aggravation, and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is eternal incarceration, and if he puts me to death his putting to death is an eternal putting to death, and I cannot assuage him with words nor bribe him with money (“Mammon”) – and not only so, but there are two ways before me, one to the garden of Eden (=Paradise), and the other to Gehenna (=Hell). And I do not know to which I am being taken, and shall I not weep?”

I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t at least raise one complaint against somebody else’s translation, though it be only small. I would have broken the text up differently, with the initial clause in the third paragraph closing off the second paragraph with the assertion that “still [ie: despite all of these limitations on the mortal king] I would definitely weep”. Doing so highlights nicely the contrast between one’s agonising over a confrontation with an earthly ruler and one’s imminent confrontation with the divine. But does this passage evince a belief in eternal damnation? Decidedly not.

While the Talmudic text does evidence a belief in some nature of after-life, there is no reference given to the duration of time that is spent in either location. While the author refers to an eternal imprisonment and an eternal putting-to-death, the mention of paradise and Gehennom is prefaced by the Hebrew phrase “ולא עוד אלא”: “Not only [all] this, but“, which marks a clear distinction between the two ideas. There being no expressed equivalence between the former concepts and the latter, the notion of an eternal dying/imprisonment could just as easily be references to an infinitely delayed resurrection, rather than to an abode of eternal suffering. To highlight this point, I would like to draw your attention to another Talmudic passage – one that I reread recently in advanced preparation for Lag BaOmer (bShab 33b). This narrative, which involves the spiritual transformation of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, features an incidental detail highlighted below. I intend to revisit the entirety of this narrative shortly with a more comprehensive analysis:

[Update: For a fuller analysis, see my subsequent post]

איתבו תריסר שני במערתא אתא אליהו וקם אפיתחא דמערתא אמר מאן לודיעה לבר יוחי דמית קיסר ובטיל גזירתיה נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנותנים עיניהן מיד נשרף יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם להחריב עולמי יצאתם חיזרו למערתכם הדור אזול איתיבו תריסר ירחי שתא אמרי משפט רשעים בגיהנם י”ב חדש יצתה בת קול ואמרה צאו ממערתכם

They dwelt in the cave for twelve years.
Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said, “Who will inform Bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and his decree is annulled?”
They went out and they saw people plowing and planting. He said, “They cast off eternal life and engage in the life of the moment!?” Everywhere they looked was immediately consumed with fire.
A heavenly voice spoke up and said to them, “Is it to destroy my world that you have come out? Turn around, and go back to your cave!”
They stayed [another] twelve months, reasoning that the judgement on sinners in Gehennom is twelve months.
A heavenly voice spoke up and said, “Go out of your cave.”

Without providing any background, or any solid description of the events to have transpired during the cave, it is nonetheless worth quoting this passage for the incidental detail that it features. The text does not inform us that the maximum term in Gehennom is twelve months: it assumes that we already know. This is a key point, for without this one might be tempted to assume (erroneously) that Gehennom is a place of eternal damnation. Nonetheless, even though John does not state so specifically, this issue is one which brings me back to his analysis. He concluded his post with the suggestion that “even if you think there isn’t a heaven or a hell, you might at least believe… that there should be a hell.” I shall take it as read that John’s assumption was that there should be a hell, the nature of which is eternal.

I certainly don’t want to make it look like I’m picking on John here, but why might somebody feel that a place of eternal damnation is strictly necessary? To me, this smacks of sadism. Have I a wish to see those who hate me suffer? On a certain, baser level, yes. Part of growing up is learning to deal with that desire, to accommodate the differences in the world around me, and to tolerate that which I find ugly, threatening or obscene. To formalise this fantasy and tell ourselves that the just desserts of “the wicked” will come (whoever those people are is a mystery; very few identify that way) is merely to capitulate to our own latent infancy. Depictions of eternal torture, from iconography to rhetoric, have frequently been pornographic in their intensity, and it is no wonder that many people are simply terrified of something that does not actually exist.

One could “bring back” hellfire preaching (and I will concede the point, on my ignorance alone, that it has left the mainstream), but I’m left wondering why somebody would wish for such a thing in the first place. That the rabbis of the Talmud concocted a place of a post-mortem suffering is lamentable enough, but we can at least give them credit for making it so temporary. Whoever the first individual was to fill a child’s head with stories of an eternal abode for the wicked and the cruel was certainly lucky that there isn’t one.




6 responses

15 04 2010
John Hobbins

Hi Simon,

It is a very common Jewish apologetic trope that the Sages did not believe in a place of eternal damnation. Who knows, they could be right. Sometimes apologists are right, but not, if the history of Christian apologetics is any guide, very often.

I suppose it’s possible that Yochanan ben Zakkai thought of hell as of limited duration. But he doesn’t say so. I still think that the text above is most easily read in the sense I’ve suggested. Perhaps other will join in on the discussion and debate the question.

There are plenty of reasons why it was not unusual, in Judaism in the Greco-Roman period, for Gehenna, Gehinnom, Hades, etc., to be thought of as unlimited duration. It goes back to the diction of the texts in the Tanakh from which later Judaism(s) extrapolated. The “eternal” aspect comes from Isa 66:24 and Dan 12:2.

I can give you a nice long list of “hell” passages from Jewish texts of the Second Temple period if you wish, some of which are quite explicit about the “eternal” aspect, few of which hint at a limited duration.

I would think that this text is also relevant:

Beit Shammai taught: There are three groups – one is destined for eternal life, another consigned to eternal ignominy and eternal abhorrence (these are the thoroughly wicked) while those whose deeds are balanced will go down to Gehinnom, but when they scream they will ascend fro there and are healed…but Beit Hillel taught: [God is] rich in kindness’ (Ex. 34:6) [He is] inclined toward mercy (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3)

I haven’t gone over the text in the original yet. But I assume the translation is correct. What I am suggesting, and I believe it is the standard explanation of historians (I don’t have the references handy; it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at these things in detail), is that the dichotomy such as we find (apparently) in ben Zakkai is less innovative than the trichotomy that the house of Shammai imagined.

Finally, not that I trust my own eschatological imagination farther than I can a throw a 100 lbs. of potatoes, but no, as I note in the comment thread of my first post on this subject, the notion of hell as a sort of debtor’s prison from which one can be released (see Matthew 5) is paradigmatic for me.

I have fewer options than you. It is my vocational task, as a scholar, to defend the texts of tradition against those who would “improve” them. That’s what I take you to be doing in the case above, but I hope I’m wrong. Seriously. It is my vocational task, as a pastor of Christianity 3.0 or whatever, to collide with the texts as I understand them, preach on them, and relativize singular texts in light of the whole. You have no such misfortune hanging over your head. Akuna Matata, as the Lion King has it, though I guess that didn’t last for Simba forever. There it is, that word again, forever.

You take and leave whatever you wish from the Tanakh, the Talmud, the Midrashim, etc. Or that, sometimes, is how I interpret you. But most of the time, to be honest, I see you, if a little bit covertly, system-building. That’s good. Misery loves company.

Finally, all over again, you do remember how, in the Tanakh, the Prophets are brought to a close. Malachi 3:19-24. Envisioned, of course, as in Isa 66, is intramundane judgment. But it could not be otherwise (right?) that extra-mundane judgment, once that became a fixed belief, was posited by analogy with Isa 66 (with its “eternal”), Malachi 3, harmonized with Daniel 12 (with its “eternal”).

15 04 2010
Simon Holloway

Here is the passage from the Tosefta (in the version that I found online, it’s part of 13:1):

בית שמאי אומרים שלשה כתות הן אחת לחיי העולם הבא ואחת לחרפות לדראון עולם אחת לחיי עולם אלו צדיקים גמורים אחת לחרפות לדראון עולם אלו רשעים גמורים שקולים שבהן יורדים לגיהנם ומצפצפים ועולים ומתרפאים שנאמר (זכריה יג) והבאתי את השלישית באש וגו’ ועליהם אמרה חנה (שמואל א ב) ה’ ממית ומחיה

ובית הלל אומרים (שמות לד) ורב חסד מטה כלפי חסד ועליהם הוא אומר (תהילים קטז) אהבתי כי ישמע ועליהם נאמר כל הפרשה כולה פושעי ישראל בגופן ופושעי עובדי כוכבים בגופן יורדין לגיהנם ונדונין בה י”ב חדש לאחר י”ב חדש נפשן כלה וגופן נשרף וגיהנם פולטתן ונעשין אפר והרוח זורה אותן ומפזרתן ונעשית אפר תחת רגלי הצדיקים שנאמר (מלאכי ג) ועסותם רשעים כי יהיו אפר [וגו’]

אבל המסורות והאפיקורסין והכופרין בתורה ופורשים מדרכי צבור ושאין מודים בתחיית המתים וכל מי שחטא והחטיא את הרבים כגון ירבעם ואחאב ושנתנו חיתתם בארץ חיים ושפשטו ידיהם בזבול גיהנם ננעלת בפניהם ונדונין בה לדורי דורות שנאמר (ישעיהו סו) ויצאו וראו בפגרי האנשים וגו

[Any idea what המסורות might be in the final paragraph? The “Masoretes”??]

Not exactly the same as what you quoted (in this version, Hillel is the one who recommends that the sinners become dust beneath the feet of the righteous), but it’s worth noting that in both versions, Gehennom is a place of temporary punishment only. The reference to eternal disgrace, à la Shammai, is not Gehennom. What it actually is is unclear and, as in the passage from Isaiah 66 (which is from where the notion here is derived), it is likewise unclear whether or not the individuals there are apprehensive of their environment. Again, it may be that they are dead, thought of negatively forever by those who do survive them, and perpetually denied resurrection.

I don’t mean to repeat myself but, because our conversation is taking place on two different blogs, I wish to make the same point here as I made on yours: while the Greco-Roman Jewish world (its influence felt very heavily in the New Testament) might have produced texts that supported the notion of an eternal damnation, the influence of Greco-Roman ideas on the Babylonian Talmud is more negatively manifested. Given that, by this stage, Christianity had become a force to be rejected, much of the ideology that lent itself to an appreciation of Christianity was outright denied.

Furthermore, the rabbinic corpus is so vast that it becomes something of a culture in its own right, and ideas within the Talmud need to be compared to other ideas within the Talmud, to the same extent as they are compared to external sources. As for external sources, I don’t think that parallels with the second-temple literature (incl. Qumran) are at all illustrative here. I think one would do better to look for parallels with Sassanid literature and the Zoroastrian faith.

16 04 2010
John Hobbins

Thanks, Simon, for quoting the text in Hebrew.

We agree, I think, on the basic outline of interpretation of the text. My point is that the text posits a place of eternal damnation for the thoroughly wicked. one element in a trichotomy. You do not contest this. You note that this place is nameless, with the name of Gehinnom given to a torture chamber, a place of screaming and the like. Our points are not mutually exclusive.

You point out that the eternal damnation in mind may be something that the righteous alone apprehend, not the wicked. In that case, it would a stress-free location, Akuna Matata, a little bit like Job’s Sheol in Job 3 – though the denizens of Sheol are sentient in Job and everywhere else, so far as I know.

In a sense that makes the place reserved for the thoroughly wicked a more inviting place than Gehinnom, on all accounts a torture chamber. A little bit counter-intuitive. This is known as the annihilationist hypothesis. It has a distinguished pedigree in Christian thought. I would be surprised if it were *not* attested in Jewish thought, though it isn’t really attested here. For starters, you would want to have a text with the diction of “eternal death” in which non-sentience is adumbrated. For something like this, there are the last chapters of a New Testament text, the Apocalypse of John [but first comes the millennium, with roasted Leviathan-meat on the menu!].

If I understand you, you are saying that the Tosefta text is not to be understood as a tradition reflective of Greco-Roman belief systems, but of belief systems of the Sassanid period against the background of Zoroastrianism [do we even have Z texts that can be dated with confidence to this period?]. The houses of Shammai and Hillel, on this reading, would be stand-in stick-figures for conflicts of interpretation of a half-millennium later.

Fine and dandy. It cannot be denied that Greco-Roman Judaism(s), including Christianity, in that sense not innovative, posited a place of eternal damnation. We don’t need Sassanid period texts in order to say this.

If it be thought correct, methodologically, to read off Sassanid period belief systems from a Tosefta text that claims to represent earlier tradition, now you have evidence for a trichotomy of destinations, one of them, arguably the very last destination anyone should want to be located in, of eternal duration, as one of the live options in the Sassanid period. This is in line with my previous voiced hypothesis: first comes a dichotomy, later, a trichotomy.

16 04 2010
Simon Holloway

Apologies: I didn’t make myself clear. I wouldn’t suggest that the Toseftan text was of the Sassanid era – while I imagine that it probably is, I’m under the impression that it was composed in Palestine, and the influence of Hellenism would have been far greater. Be that as it may, my Sassanid comment was in relation to the Babylonian Talmud, any individual text within which (such as the one you quoted, concerning Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) may, to all intents and purposes, be as late as the 6th century.

That twelve months in Gehennom might have been construed as ‘worse’ than an eternal sleep and a shaming of one’s name is debateable. This is a value judgment, and I don’t think it really matters either way. You surely don’t think that this text, which may refer to an eternal damnation, does so as emphatically and unambiguously as do the texts within the Christian tradition, and I suppose that probably leaves us at pretty much the same place.

Would you read this text as construing eternal damnation if Christianity never came into existence, and you were reading it with a clean slate? Would I construe it as denoting a temporary damnation or an eternal death if Judaism had ceased to exist shortly after its composition? It’s impossible to know, but I think that the main issue here is what the text, on its own, appears to be saying and – in this instance – the weight of contemporary Hellenistic-period texts is the arbiter.

I conceded that point a while back – not in relation to the Bible as a whole, though maybe in relation to Daniel, and certainly in relation to post-biblical second temple literature. I may even extend that concession to include the Palestinian Tannaitic corpora, although I’m not sufficiently educated as regards their background and composition. I do still disagree so far as the Babylonian Talmud itself is concerned, but will happily defer to anybody sufficiently versed in the Talmud, and Sassanid-era Babylonian culture.

16 04 2010
John Hobbins

That’s an interesting thought experiment. One might make it into a controlled experiment. It would be important to find a few scholars with no obvious apologetic ax to grind, scholars at home in the Talmud etc. but not in (other) Jewish lit from the Greco-Roman period, and see how they read these texts.

Matters are complicated further by the fact, as James Davila emphasizes in his research program, that “Jewish” “Pseudepigrapha” in general and therefore also the ancient travelogues of hell (Martha Himmelfarb discusses 17 of them in her famous work; a review here:


preserved in Christian tradition may be merely that, and only apparently based on precedent Jewish tradition.

Davila makes a necessary methodological point, but in practice, it runs the risk of reeking ever so slightly of an apologetic stance.

I’m still inclined to follow Himmelfarb and trace a line of development from Jewish antecedents to Christian “redaction.” Note that Himmelfarb develops theses first put forward by S. Lieberman.

16 04 2010
John Hobbins

It might also be interesting to take up your homiletical point, to wit:

“Depictions of eternal torture, from iconography to rhetoric, have frequently been pornographic in their intensity, and it is no wonder that many people are simply terrified of something that does not actually exist.”

I think the analogy with pornography is very much to the point. I don’t know if you have ever read James Joyce’s Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, which contains I would have thought the best known full-length hell-fire sermon in 20th century literature. If you are familiar with it, my question is, does Joyce want to give us the impression, as you do, that the Wirkungsgeschichte of this genre is reducible to this, that “many people are simply terrified of something that does not actually exist.” My faint recollection of the matter: no, not at all. But I read that book who knows how many decades ago.

What I don’t like about your pornography analogy is that you give me too easy pass in that way. Though I think that using one’s eschatological imagination is basically inevitable (if you have no concept of post-mortem existence, that same imagination gets scrunched into the here and now), and that the least worst scenario is to use it responsibly (I know, that has to be defined), and non-pornographically (there we agree), a further question might be (you’re an outsider, so to speak, and a more impartial judge), what decent models do we have.

The most beloved example of hell-fire preaching in the New Testament is Luke 16:19-30. It is, I suppose, a terrifying text, but not terrorizing. At least that’s how the tradition I am a part of taught me to read it. Or is that a superimposition on the text.

Here are my favorite examples of contemporary hell-fire preaching:

Johnny Cash, of course. I discuss it a bit here:


Now admittedly, Cash doesn’t quite mention hell-fire or torment, temporary or eternal. But he’s so good at metalepsis, I would say that for most people, it is somehow in the background.

There is absolutely no doubt that all three texts touch (literally) millions of people deeply. Michael Lyons, whose essay I interact with, someone else who doesn’t himself give the least bit credence to the truth-claims of the texts, has a relatively positive take on Cash, less so, of the NT and early Christianity. This is the notion that religion is making progress, or at least some of it is. As if Christianity 3.0 and Judaism 3.0 are improvements over earlier versions.

I resist that conclusion, for heuristic reasons first of all, and on the merits, upon further examination.

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