Hell in 1st Century Judaism

Rob Bell makes frequent appeals to “1st Century Judaism” as the proper background for understanding the New Testament. In Bell’s hands, this is all well in good in principle, but not so good in practice. At numerous points, his appeals to 1st century Judaism are highly suspect. This is especially the case when it comes to understanding the New Testament doctrine of hell. Since Bell does not have footnotes, his portrait of Judaism is impossible to verify in the primary sources. He argues by assertion, not by evidence.

Preston Sprinkle has done us all a great service in surveying some non-canonical texts that are contemporary with the New Testament. He shows that Jews in Jesus’ day believed in Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. Here are some of the texts Sprinkle brings forth:

Just a few passages will suffice. A book called 1 Enoch (about 100 B.C.), a book that Jude quotes, speaks extensively about this place of torment for the damned (25:4-5; 27:3-4; 54:6; 90:24-27). Those who reject God will go to “the place of condemnation…into an abyss, full of fire and flame” (90:24).

Another book called Pseudo-Philo, written in Palestine right around the time of Jesus and Paul, speaks explicitly about a hell (16:3; 23:6; 31:7; 38:4). It’s a place where the “fiery worm will go up into the tongue” of the unbeliever and “rot him away” in the “dwelling place…in the inextinguishable fire forever” (63:4).

Two other books, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, written near the end of the first-century (right around the time of Revelation) also describe an eternal place of torment for the damned (2 Bar 30:4-5; 44:15; 51:6; 54:14, 21-22; 4 Ezra 7:35-36, 45-51). And for 4 Ezra, most of humanity will be here! “I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many” (7:47).

You can read the rest here.


  • luxetveritas

    Kind of hard to take him seriously when he says “1 Enoch” is 100BC and then quotes indiscriminately from different parts of this composite work which were all composed at different times and which did not come together as a unity until much later than the 1st cent AD. Also, FYI, there is no “book called Pseudo-Philo”–it’s the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, attributed by later writers to Philo. And LAB 16.3 seems to point to an annihilationist view.

    So, another example of typically shoddy evangelical “scholarship” on “Jewish backgrounds” to the NT.

  • Charlton Connett

    For those concerned: a quick review of Wikipedia shows that, in fact, there are scholars who argue that 1 Enoch was composed sometime around 100 B.C., and that Pseudo-Philo is in fact a common name used for LAB. While I know Wikipedia is not perfect, nor necessarily scholarly, it does demonstrate that the scholarship of the author of the article is not necessarily “shoddy”.

  • Christiane

    Might be interesting to have the opinions of Orthodox Jewish rabbis concerning this matter.

    They ARE scholarly. And ethical.

  • Preston Sprinkle

    Hey luxe,

    Thanks for the comment. You’re right, 1 Enoch is a composite work. Since it’s a blog post and not a dissertation, I didn’t feel the need to get into composition and compilation. After all, does it really affect the point I was making? I tend to do my “scholarship” in books not blogs.

    And FYI, scholars–evangelical and non–use “Pseudo-Philo” as a designation for L.A.B. all the time. Not that big of a deal, bro.

    John, you raise a really good point here. And yes, I think some of the passages at least aren’t clear whether they speak of annihilation or ongoing torment (not every passage in the NT is clear either), though I think that some clearly speak of the latter. In any case, Bell isn’t arguing for annihilationism but something much different.

  • Dan

    Rob Bell also spends some time talking about Gehenna as a burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which is a myth from the 12th century. Todd Bolen posted about it here (although not in reference to Rob Bell):

  • John Holmberg

    Thanks for the comment Preston. I was mainly taking issue with Denny’s generalizing statement that “Jews in Jesus’ day believed in Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment.” The texts quoted do not seem to indicate this as decisively as he claims. I understand what Bell is arguing for, and I disagree with it, but one does not have to believe that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment to fall within the bounds of orthodoxy. The texts cited and many texts within the NT seem to indicate more of an annihilationism. To me, this also seems to be more consistent with God’s character and is a view that I think should be considered within the bounds of orthodoxy. Regardless, Bell is arguing for something altogether different, and I appreciate you bringing it back to the main point.

  • Murf

    Well done Preston!

    I do appreciate a vigorous response when I read one!

    Alas, there is learning and understanding. They help each other out.

  • Rick Plumlee

    Good post! I just read “Erasing Hell”. A little research on the web and in Barnes and Noble seems to restrict the time spent in the Jewish hell to less than a year (yes, I know that’s assuming that time will continue as we know it). Did Preston’s research uncover anything to dispute that as a first century concept?

  • Mike Clements

    The whole discussion of hell blurs when we concentrate only on the inter-testamental period. Not many seem troubled by the fact that, other than a reference in Daniel, hell does not exist in the OT. Sheol is a neutral place. So,it’s clear that the 1st century view of hell began to blossom in the few centuries before Jesus’ birth. The church has certainly accepted the OT canon, but Enoch,et al have been marginalized. I struggle with, and am seeking to understand how the notion of hell as an eternal lake of fire could have been so embraced by Jesus.

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