Recently, I presented a series of articles that compared and contrasted the Orthodox view of the afterlife vis a vis Roman Catholicism. Interestingly enough, there exists compelling first century evidence that buttresses the Orthodox viewpoint. In this article, I will argue that the Orthodox position was, not coincidentally, also the position of the main rabbinical schools before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

In Review. Orthodox Christianity teaches the following pertaining to the afterlife:

  1. The souls of all the dying are not immediately translated to their ultimate destination, but are met by angels. This meeting with the angels occurs for a limited period of time (traditionally 40 days).
  2. During this period of time, the souls of the faithless are eventually damned and experience a foretaste of eternal Hell.
  3. The souls of the faithful who have not become dispassionate (i.e. they hunger not righteousness only, but also have desires for worldly things) after angelic visitation experience a foretaste of eternal Hell. Yet, even there they experience the grace of God through intercessions on their behalf and “they are aware of their future release” (Decree 18, Council of Jerusalem of 1672). They have hope and look forward to their heavenly reward. There is no incomplete atonement for sins being dealt with.
  4. The souls of the faithful (who have repented of their sins) after angelic visitation are translated to Heaven and grow in Christlikeness eternally.
  5. There will be a general resurrection where the damned get bodies and go to a material Hell and the saints will go to a material Heaven. There will be no souls of the faithful suffering as the result of their passions after this point.

Of particular focus in this article are numbers 3 and 4. For one, it clearly separates Orthodoxy from the Protestant position (instant Heaven and Hell, and no middle ground). Second, it differs from Roman Catholicism, which similar to pre-Christian pagan beliefs in Purgatory, taught that payment for wicked deeds done in this life is exacted after death in an abode of pain.

The First Century Jewish Position. In the first century, there were several “sects” (if we may call them this) within Judaism. The main sect the Scriptures themselves are concerned with are the Pharisees, as they were the most mainstream of the sects. Within Phariseeism were two main schools: those who followed Hillel and others who followed Shammai. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70 AD), essentially the only sect of Judaism that survived were the Hillellite Pharisees.

In what scholars believe is a pre-70 AD document (or one written soon thereafter preserving doctrines that existed before 70 AD), the “School Disputes” contain some of the arguments and agreements between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Within this document is an interesting passage which succinctly presents the mainstream Jeiwsh view of the afterlife at the time of Jesus Christ and the Apostles:

The School of Shammai says: There are three groups, “one for eternal life, one for shame and everlasting contempt” [Dan 12:2]—these are those who are completely evil.

An intermediate group go down to Gehenna and scream and come up again and are healed, as it is said: “I will bring the third part through fire and will refine them as silver is refined and will test them as gold is tested, and they shall call on my name and I will be their God” [Zech 13:9].

And concerning them did Hannah say, “The Lord kills and brings to life, brings down to
Sheol and brings up” [1 Sam 2:6].

And the School of Hillel says: “Great in mercy” (Exod 34:6)—He inclines the decision toward mercy, and concerning them David said: “I am happy that the Lord has heard the sound of my prayer” (Ps 116:1), and concerning them is said the entire passage. [Dan 12:2, see Tosephta Sanhedrin 13.3]

According to David Instone-Brewer (a Protestant scholar):

[The passage] must nevertheless be regarded as an introduction to the views of both Schools, because it tells us there are three groups, but describes only the two groups found in Daniel 12:2. The summaries by both Schools, on the other hand, each give an opinion concerning a single group. We can safely conclude that both Schools agree about the first two groups, and they state only their differences, which concern the third group. Therefore both Schools believed that God’s judgment would result in three groups: the absolutely good would go immediately to eternal life and those who were absolutely evil would go to eternal contempt, as stated in Daniel 12:2. It is likely that this view, which was common to both of these schools, was the view held by the majority of Jews in the early first century…The Shammaites concluded that this third middle group went to hell for a brief punishment and then went up to heaven. The Hillelites concluded that they went straight to heaven but didn’t enjoy its full benefits, at least to start with.  

The aforementioned passage is not some sort of historical outlier. We have two other (likely) first century century sources that invoke the same ideas, including Yohanan ben Zakkai’s parable of the wedding and chapter 14 of the Testament of Abraham.

Conclusion. In previous articles, I have detailed that there is evidence of pre-Apostolic Jewish veneration of the saints and prayers to them. In this article, we show that the Jews believed in some sort of middle-state after death, one that is described by the Jews as an ascent out of “Gehenna” itself. The fact that this middle state was interpreted by the Shammaites as a punishment and from the Hillelites as a lesser reward, to me, proves two things:

First, it is clear that the Orthodox doctrine of the afterlife–that the faithful who die in sin experience a foretaste of Hell and through prayers are liberated from this condition, is referred to in the above Jewish sources. Unlike the Roman Catholic concept of Purgatory, the punishment in the Jewish sources is not described as a third place between Heaven and Hell, but literally the experience of Hell (Gehenna) itself. Further, there is no Jewish concept of there being a payment of debts or additional atonement for the temporal effect of sins in Gehenna. This shows that the Jewish doctrine is the same as the Orthodox one and lacks the Roman Catholic distinctives which make the doctrine of Purgatory different than Orthodox doctrine. In fact, because the experience of Gehenna is seen by some Jews as punishment and others as decreased reward, a conclusion we may draw is that both Jewish schools were trying to describe Orthodox doctrine from two different vantage points. In Orthodoxy, the afterlife is essentially a spectrum of enjoyment (or displeasure) pertaining to the experience of looking upon God’s face. The fact that the afterlife is a spectrum of sorts is consistent with the sort of relativism we see in the Jewish school disputes over what the middle state is like.

Second, it seems to me curious that even a Protestant scholar admits that the majority of Jews in the first century believe in there being a middle state for some of the faithful. What is so curious about this is that what are the chances that the majority of first century Jews and then the majority of ancient Christians believed the same thing? Did the early Christians coincidentally imbibe in the exact theological views of Jews that were their enemies? Or, more likely, did the Jewish Apostles teach these doctrines as something they knew to be true as their Lord either taught it or never contradicted the Jewish teaching of His day on this matter?

Further, why did it take centuries for the West to formulate the doctrinal distinctives to either 1. create a Purgatory that is theologically distinct from the Orthodox doctrine or 2. can the idea entirely? Wouldn’t it make the most sense to return to the earliest and plainest Christian doctrine, especially because it explicitly has first century Jewish support?

In light of history, the standard Protestant trope that the Orthodox doctrine of life after death is some sort of pagan intrusion into Christianity is simply untenable. Further, it strengthens my earlier argumentation that the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory is a recasting of the Orthodox idea in a way consistent with the Western intellectual tradition and its development over the centuries.