John Piper, Scot McKnight, and Second Temple Judaism on eternal conscious punishment

In response to this tweet by John Piper, Scot McKnight has posted a collection of Jewish texts from the second temple period which he thinks demonstrate a spectrum of views, from annihilationism (the destruction of the wicked at or after death) through “earthly judgment” to the dreaded eternal conscious punishment. On examination, however, the evidence for eternal conscious punishment appears to be less clear than Scot takes it to be.

The first point to make is that because these are second temple Judaism texts, they naturally have in view either judgment of the unrighteous in Israel or of the nations which opposed Israel. If such ideas had any influence on the views of Jesus and the apostles, we have to assume that the apocalyptic narratives were no less important than the beliefs about judgment embedded in them. For this reason, there is no real difference between McKnight’s first two categories: the destruction of the wicked is part of the “earthly” and “historical” judgment described in Baruch 4:32-33:

Wretched will be the cities that your children served as slaves; wretched will be the one that received your sons. For just as she rejoiced at your fall and was glad for your ruin, so she will be grieved at her own desolation.

Fire and worms

Woe to the nations which rise against my race; the omnipotent Lord will be avenged against them in a day of judgment to send fire and worms for their flesh, and they will wail in full awareness for ever. (Judith 16:17, my translation)

This is a judgment not simply of individuals—in the way that we might conceive a final judgment—but of the nations which rise against Israel. It may be, as Scot notes, an amendment of Isaiah 66:24: the dead bodies of the Jews who rebelled against YHWH are imagined lying unburied outside Jerusalem, consumed by worms that never die and a fire that is never quenched. But the imagery appears to have been more generalized in Hellenistic Judaism: “Humble your soul greatly, because the punishment of the impious is fire and worm” (Sir. 7:17; cf. 10:11; 19:3). In the context of Judith’s hymn, it seems more likely that her victory over the Assyrians is seen as an example of how God will always judge the nations, which is why the “Persians shuddered at her daring, and the Medes were alarmed at her boldness” (Judith 16:10). The thought is not that the nations are all dead, their bodies consumed by fire and worms, and are eternally conscious of the experience. Rather, the nations will for ever lament the fact that they have been judged in such a manner. 

Josephus on the Essenes

…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. (War 2.157)

Josephus attributes to the Essenes a distinctly Hellenistic belief (“this is like the opinion of the Greeks”) in the immortality of the soul (Jos. War 2.154-56). The wicked are somewhat restrained by the fear that they will suffer “immortal punishment” after the separation (dialusin) of soul and body. This is very different to the usual of the bodily resurrection of the dead for judgment (cf. Dan. 12:2-3) and cannot be thought to have influenced Jesus or the apostles—unless we think that Matthew 10:28 reflects this sort of dualism.

Extinction in the fire of dark places

The judgment of all who walk in such ways will be multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil, and dark happenstance, until their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue. (1QS 4:11–14)

The thought of eternal conscious punishment is certainly found in this Qumran text, but not in the sense that John Piper understands it. Humanity is ruled by the opposed spirits of good and evil until the last age (4:16-17). The judgment spoken of in this passage precedes the last age. Those who walk according to the good spirit will benefit from healing, peace, long life, many offspring, “followed by eternal blessings and perpetual joy through life everlasting” (1QS 4:7). The wicked, however, will suffer afflictions, damnation, unending terror and reproach, culminating at the end of the age in “a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness” (1QS 4:13). That is, they will suffer throughout the final age on earth, from generation to generation, and then will be extinguished or annihilated. The phrase “fire of Hell’s outer darkness” is an over-translation: it means simply “fire of dark places”.

Scot also cites T. Reub. 5:5 and T. Benj. 10:7-8 in connection with this passage. The first text consigns women who dress seductively to a “punishment of the age”. The second echoes Daniel 12:2-3: “Then also all men shall rise, some unto glory and some unto shame.” This is followed by a judgment of the nations, but nothing is said about punishment.

Hate, execration, wrath, torment, etc., for ever

But on the day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger, with flaming devouring fire as He burnt Sodom, so likewise will He burn his land and his city and all that is his, and he shall be blotted out of the book of the discipline of the children of men, and not be recorded in the book of life, but in that which is appointed to destruction, and he shall depart into eternal execration; so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease for ever. (Jub. 36:10)

Shortly before his death Isaac warns his sons Esau and Jacob that if either of them “devises ill against his brother”, he “shall be rooted out of the land of the living, and his seed shall be destroyed from under heaven” (Jub. 36:9). The judgment, in effect, is that the descendants of the treacherous brother will be for ever condemned “in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease”. The passage does not describe an eternal conscious punishment after death.

The accursed valley

Here all the accursed will be gathered together, whoever will speak with their mouth against the Lord an unsuitable voice, and concerning his glory will say harsh things. Here they will be gathered together, and here will be the dwelling. In the last ages, in the days of the true judgment before the righteous for all time here. The impious will bless the Lord of glory, the eternal king. In the days of their judgment they will bless on account of mercy, as it is apportioned to them. (1 En. 27:1–3)

Enoch sees an “accursed valley”, where the accursed will be gathered together—those who say harsh things about the Lord. When they are judged in the last days, the impious will bless the Lord of glory “as it is apportioned to them” (1 En. 27:1-4). I don’t see any reference to eternal conscious punishment here.

Two other Enoch passages are mentioned. In 1 Enoch 67:8-13 we have Noah’s account of the punishment first of the wicked angels and then of “the kings and the mighty and the exalted, and those who dwell on the earth” in the waters of the flood. The “proud and magniloquent man” will be cut down by the sword of death and thrown into the fire; his body will burn for all time (cf. Is. 66:24), but nothing is said of conscious torment (2 En. 63:4).

The tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes

The seven brothers martyred by Antiochus advise the tyrant that he will suffer “eternal torture through fire”, “torture from the threats that hang over impiety”, “unceasing tortures”, “everlasting destruction”, “fire more fierce and everlasting and tortures, which for all time will not release you” (4 Macc. 9:9, 32; 10:11, 15; 12:12). This is the one instance of a clear notion of torment after death. It is reserved for an extreme persecutor of the Jews and is designed explicitly to match the reward of the martyrs: “we, through this suffering and endurance, shall gain the prizes accorded virtue and shall be with God…, but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will endure ample and everlasting torture by fire imposed by divine justice” (4 Macc. 9:8–9). Just as their resurrection to life is exceptional, so his condemnation to torment is exceptional.

Like I said…

Scot’s list of ECP passages may not be complete, but as it stands, with the exception of Josephus’ account of Essene beliefs and the aggrieved condemnation of Antiochus, the dominant thought is of a temporal judgment, perhaps extending through subsequent generations, culminating at worst in destruction or extinction. The language has been intensified, but the conceptuality differs little from that of the Old Testament. So I would put nearly all the texts in Scot’s middle category of “earthly judgment”.

This is in line with my general contention that the New Testament texts that supposedly support a doctrine of “hell” or post mortem torment actually refer to historical judgments against Israel and against Rome. See Hell, The unbiblical doctrine of, and my little book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective.

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I don’t want to be unfair to John Piper, but I think it shows how little the church thinks about the new creation when absence from it doesn’t seem to be much of a punishment.

Charles | Sun, 02/01/2015 - 13:59 | Permalink

Andrew, you’ve worked tirelessly to point out the importance of context when interpreting texts— with 2nd Temple Judaism as a baseline marker.  In my humble…as you quote tweets of American pop pastors (non-scholars), evangelical rock stars, well…charge, charge ahead, but their constituency is firm and unyielding. 

Piper once said that he was not at all sad that his unrepentant son (who has since repented back into evangelicalism), that he would lose no sleep, for God is the potter, man is clay.  I don’t think we’re dealing here with a neutral scholar (calvinism on steroids?), nor one aware of 1st century texts, so this kind of sound-bite philosophy of what is “dread” (therefore what hell should be like (?)), is less than convincing.  Sounds more like what he wants and is working toward rather than what God would administer justly.  Sounds like a lot of anger.

(correction) “Piper once said that his unrepentant son, if consigned to hell by God, into everlasting torment, would lose no sleep….”

No, I wouldn’t expect Piper to take any notice. I was a bit disappointed, though, that Scot McKnight hadn’t looked a bit more closely at the texts. There is a scholarly tendency, sometimes, to be exegetically even-handed in the interests of doctrinal balance, and I’m not sure it always works. I had rather assumed before that strands within second temple Judaism had developed some notion of eternal conscious punishment. Looking at these texts made me question that assumption. But in any case, I would still argue that the thinking of Jesus and the apostles was shaped almost exclusively by the Old Testament, which does not have a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, and not by extra-biblical Jewish texts.

Have a read Erasing Hell by Chan and Sprinkle?  As I recall they argue that Second Temple Jews, and thus Jesus, would have had a conception of hell and judgement that more closely aligned with modern orthodox views (although I think they left open anhiliation and ECT). But it has been a while since I read it. May should go back and see their sources. 

OK, I took a glance at the chapter dealing with 1st century Jewish beliefs about hell. I had earlier said second temple but they use 1st century to refer to the time of Jesus.

Interestingly, The Coming of the Son of Man is referenced a couple of times in dealing with Gehenna. They lump you in with Rob Bell :-)

They argue that for Jews of Jesus’s day:

1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgement

2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament

3. Hell is a place of annhiliation or never-ending torment

It is a little difficult to piece together references to speficic arguments but I will list the passages that are in the notes and then the literature he seems to rely on.

Passages (I assume you wil be able to decipher these:

4 Ezra 7:32-38, 4 Ezra 7:80-82

1 Enoch 10:1,3; 1 Enoch 22:10-13; 1 Enoch 27:2-3; 1 Enoch 40:13; 1 Enoch 63:1-7; 1 Enoch 90:26-27; 1 Enoch 100:9; 1 Enoch 103:5-8;1 Enoch 108:3-4;

2 Baruch 44:15; 2 Baruch 59:5-12

2 Enoch 10:2

4 Maccabees 12:12

He cites Duane F. Watson, “Gehenna,” in David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible DIctionary: 2.296-298, and Ricahrd Bauckham, “Early Jewish Visions of Hell,” Journal of Theological Studies 41 (1990): 355:-85 as among the most helpful of the secondary literature.

Re-reading the chapter, however, makes clear that it is really not a full attempt to exegete the passages but to simply give a quick overview of the larger points.  They give the notes but very little background or context but insist that the evidence is overwhelmingly as they describe in the three points above.

Hope this helps.