Judaism Doesn’t Believe in Hell …? Does It?

I personally am a fan of The Big Bang Theory. And as a self-confessed nerd, this should not surprise you. I would describe myself as a cross between the characters of Amy Farrah-Fowler and Howard Wolowitz – with includes having an awkward, sarcastic humor most often at my own expense, etc.

Wolowitz represents the typical Jewish individual today – religiously Reform at best and for the most part agnostic/atheistic in his understanding of God. This reality is illustrated well when he explains to Sheldon, Leonard and Raj what he perceives as the Modern Jewish understanding of hell…

However, is Wolowitz’ view of HELL really the Jewish, even the Modern Jewish understanding of the afterlife for the damned? Let’s look at some other thoughts:

Reuven Alcalay – “The way from Paradise to Hell is very short, the way back: impossible.”

Midrash, Tehillim – “When justice is not meted out on earth, it is meted out in heaven.”

Ibn Gabirol – “Live as if you expect to live forever, but plan as if you expect to enter the hereafter tomorrow.”

Talmud, Chagigah – “For everything that the Lord created, He created its opposite: He made Heaven and He made Hell.”

Obviously there are lots of conflicting messages and opinions are there not. So … let’s explore the issue a little further.


Who Goes to Hell?

The Modern/Rabbinic Jewish understanding of who goes or who does not go to Hell is a little complex because it is based on whether (1) you believe it is there and (2) who you think deserves to go there.

Adolf Hitler and all the Nazis – YES

Inventor of Air Conditioning if you live in Texas in August – NEVER because he must have been good to his mother

Righteous Gentiles during World War II even if they believed that Jesus is God – Well… that is a tough one because…!

(Trust me – I have had the discussion above with an anti-missionary Yeshiva student in Bensonhurst Park, Brooklyn during a thunderstorm)

Jews for Judaism compares Hell to the modern Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory (hmm…?). Interesting that THEY would use such a weird comparison don’t you think? What is even more interesting is that they state the following:

“God does not expect perfection or He wouldn’t have provided repentance as a way of returning to Him. God’s message of love and compassion is: “Return to Me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you,” (Zechariah 1:3). This is an invitation from God to return directly to Him without the need for an intermediary to help us.”

Obviously, Jews for Judaism is responding to people like Tzedakah Ministries and Explore Messiah…? and that is perfectly fine. And you should know their arguments in order for your exploration to be fully developed; however, could I point out some flaws in their argument:

  1. God does demand perfection. As we have already shown in the Leviticus account of requiring holiness. This is what God requires from us and in our sacrifices but we cannot satisfy His demand. This is why Jesus became our sacrifice for humanity. His Perfect Sacrifice became what we could not deliver. There is an older church chorus that explains it better than I could — see below.
  2. The passage in Zechariah 1 has absolutely nothing to do with what Jews for Judaism is saying. The context is about the return of the refugees from Babylon and their confessional repentance to not be like their ancestors who were dispersed in the first place. This is not a salvation (heaven/hell) text and to pretend to be so is to do you and the folks in Zechariah a disservice.
  3. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of an intermediary is present (Moses and Exodus 20 anyone) and this “not so subtle dig” at Christianity was immature to say the least.

So who goes to Hell according to Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament canon? Let’s look at it fairly and objectively…

What Is Hell Like?

Every Halloween where I live in Texas, some church in the area will present their version of “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames.” This presentation creates a scenario that allows people to see characters die and face eternity. Some will go to Heaven and others will go (cue dramatic music) to Hell. I don’t care for this presentation for a multitude of reasons that I often share with others but I will share one of those reasons with you here – the reality of Hell will be far worse than anything we can imagine.

Evangelical Christians often focus on the physical suffering of Hell (the wailing and gnashing of teeth that we find described in such places as Matthew 8:12). And, yes, Tzedakah Ministries and Explore Messiah…? believes that Hell will be a place of fire, brimstone, pain and physical suffering. Here is what we officially believe and why:

We believe in the bodily resurrection of the redeemed and the reprobates. The redeemed of Messiah Jesus will be raised to receive the reward of eternal life in heaven and those who rejected the salvation gift of Jesus will be condemned to an eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire also known as hell. (Daniel 12:1-3; Matthew 7:13-27; 16:27; 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31; John 3:36; 5:19-29; 14:1-3; Acts 17:29-31; Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 4:15; 15:51-58; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-2:17; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 1:18; 14:9-13; 20:11-15; 21:1-8)

However, I think we do Hell a real disservice if we overlook “the emptiness of Hell.” Hell will be empty of love, light and hope. Hell will be empty of possibility, future and joy. Hell will be crowded with people but empty of anything resembling presence, especially and eternally the presence of God Himself. And it is unnecessary for as C. S. Lewis wrote –

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. (The Great Divorce, 1945)

Now I might disagree with Mr. Lewis on some nuances of his view of eternal abomination but I would recommend The Great Divorce as well as the Evangelical work Four Views of Hell, ed. William Crockett. Both are worth a read even if I personally do not agree with everything written on the pages. For Hell is real but it doesn’t have to be a destination worth exploring because of the emptiness that awaits … unless once chooses to not recognize the gift that was given in Messiah Jesus.

Is there really a Biblical difference between the Jewish and Christian understanding of Hell?

Tzedakah Ministries and Explore Messiah…? will admit that our statement on Hell is dominated with verses from what we call the New Testament. There is a reason for this fact – the Hebrew Scriptures do not broadly explain Hell; however, this does not mean that the concept is not present in the Tanakh.

One of the great Baptist theologians of the 20th century, and admittedly a personal friend, James Leo Garrett, writes in his second volume (page 661) of his Systematic Theology that in order “to understand the entire Old Testament perspective, we need to identify and explain several strands with the [Hebrew Scripture.]” He then goes on to explain eight issues (pages 661-664) related to death and life after death that are found in the Tanakh with in-depth explanations of not only Sheol but also Abaddon and others.

Therefore, let us just look for a moment at the one verse from the Tanakh that we do list in our statement of faith – Daniel 12:1-3, specifically verse 2.

“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Yes, I know that Daniel is rarely if ever touched in the synagogue. This passage along with Daniel 7 and Daniel 9 are troublesome but they need to be explored as you are on your journey. For the writer of Daniel (who I personally think was Daniel but that is a story for another day), believed in resurrection from the dead but not all went to heaven, but not all went to some Jewish form of Purgatory as Jews for Judaism teaches, and not all went through some form of super-duper extra but temporary cleansing as the Lubavitch/Chabad teach today. Some in Daniel 12:2 went to what Daniel described as eternal contempt/ abhorrence which incidentally is the actual translation on the Chabad website. Why did they go such to horrible place – the word for contempt/abhorrence gives us a clue because we find in its root the idea of blasphemy.

Is this not what Jesus taught in Matthew 12:31 that any sin could be forgiven but the sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? What sends someone to Hell is not God’s capriciousness but our defiance. And how do we illustrate our defiance is to reject the ultimate gift that He gave to the world – the gift of Messiah Jesus who was the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This is blasphemy. This is contemptible. This is abhorrent when you think about it. But it is avoidable if one simply accepts the gift of the debt He paid for…

Truly, the question of exploring the idea of Hell and Heaven is life’s ultimate and eternal decision and we would love to talk with you about it on the CAFÉ Kehillah Discussion Board. Will you continue the exploration with us?

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