Did the Jews Believe
in Eternal Torment?
Zion's Watch Tower, March 15, 1900, page 108
By Charles Taze Russell
(Placed in Public Domain by Restoration Light)
Noting that we teach that the doctrine of everlasting torment was engrafted
upon the doctrines of the Christian Church during the period of the apostasy,
the great falling away which culminated in Papacy, some have inquired whether
it does not seem, according to the works of Josephus, that this doctrine
was firmly held by the Jews; and, if so, they ask, does it not seem evident
that the early Christians, being largely converts from Judaism, brought
this doctrine with them, in the very outstart of Christianity?
We answer, No; the doctrine of everlasting torment sprang naturally from the doctrine of human immortality, which as a philosophic question was first promulgated in anything like the present form by the Platonic school of Grecian philosophy. These first affirmed that each man contained a fragment of deity, and that this would prevent him from ever dying. This foundation laid, it was as easy to describe a place for evil-doers as for well-doers. But to the credit of those heathen philosophers be it recorded that they failed to develop, or at least to manifest, that depth of degradation from benevolence and reason and pity, necessary to paint, by word and pen and brush, such details of horrors and agonies as were soon incorporated into their doctrine, and a belief thereof declared "necessary to salvation" in the professed church of Christ.
To appreciate the case, it is necessary to remember that, when the Christian
Church was established, Greece stood at the head of intelligence and civilization.
Alexander the Great had conquered the world, and had spread respect for
Greece everywhere; and though, from a military point of view, Rome had
taken her place, it was otherwise in literature. For centuries, Grecian
philosophers and philosophies led the intellectual world, and impregnated
and affected everything. It became customary for philosophers and teachers
of other theories to claim that their systems and theories were nearly
the same as those of the Grecians, and to endeavor to remove differences
between their old theories and the popular Grecian views. And some sought
to make capital by claiming that their system embraced all the good points
of Platonism with others which Plato did not see.
Of this class were the teachers in the Christian Church in the second,
third and fourth centuries. Conceding the popularly accepted correctness
of the philosophers, they claimed that the same good features of philosophy
were found in Christ's teachings, and that he was one of the greatest philosophers,
etc. Thus a blending of Platonism and Christianity took place.This became
the more pronounced as kings and emperors began to scrutinize religious
teachings, and to favor those most likely to awe the people and make them
law-abiding. While heathen teachers were truckling to such imperial scrutiny,
and teaching an everlasting punishment for those who violated the laws
of the emperors (who ruled as divinely appointed),we cannot suppose otherwise
than that the ambitious characters in the church at that time, who were
seeking to displace heathenism and to become the dominant religious power
instead, would make prominent such doctrines as would in the eyes of the
emperors seem to have an equal hold upon the fears and prejudices of the
people. And what could be more to the purpose than the doctrine of the
endless torment of the refractory?
The same motives evidently operated with Josephus when writing concerning the belief of the Jews. His works should be read as apologies for Judaism, and as efforts to exalt that nation in the eyes of Rome and the world. It should be remembered that the Jews had the reputation of being a very rebellious people, very unwilling to be ruled even by the Caesars. They were hoping, in harmony with God's promises, to become the chief nation. Many rebellious outbreaks had occurred among them, and their peculiar religion, different from all others, came in for its share of blame for favoring too much the spirit of liberty.
Josephus had an object in writing his two principal works, "Antiquities"
and "Wars of the Jews." He wrote them in the Greek language while
living at Rome, where he was the friend and guest successively of the Roman
emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, and where he was in constant contact
with the Grecian philosophers. These books were written for the purpose
of showing off the Jewish people, their courage, laws, ethics, etc., to
the best advantage before the Grecian philosophers and Roman dignitaries.
This object is covertly admitted in his preface to his "Antiquities,"
in which he says:
"I have undertaken the present work as thinking it will appear to
all the Greeks worthy of their study....Those that read my book may wonder
that my discourse of laws and historical facts contains so much of philosophy...However,
those that have a mind to know the reasons of everything may find here
a very curious philosophical theory."
In a word, as a shrewd man who himself had become imbued with the spirit
of the Grecian philosophers then prevailing, Josephus drew from the Law
and the Prophets, and from the traditions of the elders and the theories
of the various sects of the Jews, all he could find that in the most remote
degree would tend to show:--
First, that the Jewish religion was not far behind popular Grecian philosophy;
but that somewhat analogous theories had been drawn from Moses' Law, and
held by some Jews, long before the Grecian philosophers broached them.
Secondly, that it was not their religious ideas which made the Jews as a people hard to control or "rebellious," as all liberty-lovers were esteemed by the Caesars. Hence he attempts to prove, at a time when virtue was esteemed to consist mainly in submission, that Moses' Law "taught first of all that God is the Father and Lord of all things, and bestows a happy life upon those that follow him, but plunges such as do not walk in the paths of virtue into inevitable miseries." And it is in support of this idea, and for such purposes, evidently, that Josephus, after saying: "There are three philosophical sects among the Jews; first, the Pharisees; second, the Sadducees, and third, the Essenes," proceeds to give an account of their three theories; especially detailing any features which resembled Grecian philosophy. And because the last and least, the Essenes, most resembled the doctrines of the Stoics and leading Grecian theories, Josephus devotes nearly ten times as much space to their views as to the views of both Sadducees and Pharisees combined. And yet the Essenes were so insignificant a sect that the New Testament does not even mention them, while Josephus himself admits they were few. Whatever views they held, therefore, on any subject, cannot be claimed as having Jewish sanction, when the vast majority of Jews held contrary opinions. The very fact that our Lord and the apostles did not refer to them is good evidence that the Essenes' philosophy by no means represented the Jewish ideas. This small sect probably grew up later and probably absorbed from Grecian philosophy its ideas concerning immortality and the everlasting torment of the non-virtuous. It should be remembered that Josephus was not born until three years after our Lord's crucifixion, and that he published his "Wars" A.D. 75 and "Antiquities" A.D. 93 -- at a time when he and other Jews, like all the rest of the world, were eagerly swallowing Grecian philosophy and science falsely so called, against which Paul warned the church.-- Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20.
Josephus directed special attention to the Essenes because it suited his
object to do so. He admits that the Sadducees, next to the largest body
of Jewish people, did not believe in human immortality. And of the Pharisees'
views he makes a blind statement, calculated to mislead, as follows: "They
also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them [this might be understood
to mean that the Pharisees did not believe as the Sadducees that death
ended all existence, but believed in a vigor or life beyond the grave --
by a resurrection of the dead], and that under the earth there will be
rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously
in this life; and that the latter are to be detained in an everlasting
prison [death -- not torture], but that the former [the virtuous] shall
have power to revive and live again."
Is it not apparent that Josephus has whittled and stretched the views of
the Pharisees, as much as his elastic conscience would allow, to show a
harmony between them and the philosophies of Greece? Paul,who had been
a Pharisee, contradicts Josephus. While Josephus says they believed "that
only the virtuous would revive and live again [Does not this imply a resurrection,
and imply also that the others would not again, but remain dead, in the
great prison -- the tomb?]" Paul, on the contrary, says: "I have
hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be
a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust."-- Acts 24:15.
We have no hesitancy about accepting the testimony of the inspired Apostle
Paul, not only in regard to what the Jews believed, but also as to what
he and the early Church believed; and we repeat, that the theory of the
everlasting torment of the wicked, based upon the theory that the human
soul cannot die, is contrary to both the Old and the New Testament teachings,
and was introduced among Jews and Christians by Grecian philosophers. Thank
God for the purer philosophy of the Scriptures, which teaches that the
death of the soul (being) is the penalty of sin (Ezek. 18:20); that all
souls condemned through Adam's sin were redeemed by Christ's soul (Isa.
53:10); and that only for wilful, individual sin will any die the Second
death -- an everlasting punishment, but not an everlasting torment.