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:
- 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).
- During this period of time, the souls of the faithless are eventually damned and experience a foretaste of eternal Hell.
- The souls of the faithful who have not become dispassionate (i.e. they hunger not for 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.
- The souls of the faithful (who have repented of their sins) after angelic visitation are translated to Heaven and grow in Christlikeness eternally.
- 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.
As I said earlier, the Catholic position does not hold that purgatory is “an abode of pain”, in the sense of a “place”, or “a third place” in the sense of a “material place”, but rather of a state of being, albeit depicted in paintings, literature and art as such. I did not know that the Orthodox position involved ” a *material* Hell and the saints will go to a *material* Heaven.”
You say yourself that “In fact, because the experience of Gehenna is seen by some Jews as punishment”, which contradicts your statement that “there is no Jewish concept of there being a payment of debts or additional atonement for the temporal effect of sins”.
However this is a very interesting article and I thank you for it.
I addressed this in my first article. If RCism is leaving its position of the middle ages for Orthodoxy on this point, good! The debt thing though is not implied by the punishments of hell, as Orthodox simply call purgatory hades much like the Jews calling it gehenna.
No problem with calling purgatory Hades.
Matt 18:32-34 “32 Then the master sent for the man and said to him, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me.
33 Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?”
34 And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.”
35 And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’
A clear reference to purgatory here. The payment of a debt is evident here. Where is this place of “torture”? Not on earth. Not in heaven, but in purgatory, “till he should pay all his debt.”
As a Catholic Catechist about reading to begin his master’s, nowhere have I ever seen purgatory described as this:
“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.”
Unless the sentence just isn’t clear to me …? And I don’t know what you’re articulating ?
So no rc ever taught it was a place separate from heaven? Have Orthodox always got this wrong?
What I find troubling with your description is that even during the scholastic and middle age period of the Catholic Church, Purgatory is not a place to “experience Hell itself.” It’s never been equates to that of Hell, even in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes mention that the souls are progressing whereas in Hell they’re State is constant. All those in purgatory salvation is assured, which is often the confusion from Protestantism and their understanding of Catholic purgatory.
Orthodox had no problem calling it hell and neither did the Shammaites. Just saying
Okay… but they’re not the same state or experience… so it doesn’t matter what others have called things; this is the fallacy from authority, which is weakest of all arguments.
Can those in Orthodoxy’s theology of purgatory still be damned? In Catholicism they cannot therefore it becomes a necessity to distinguish the two for clarification sake, this is an organic development to describe what actually occurs.
Essentially you are making an argument out of the historic terminology of the church and pre Apostolic Judaism for that matter. Why does the church have to update its language just because people don’t like how it sounds?
To better spread the Gospel…
For instances, if by natural laws, philosophical laws, anecdotal experience etc. indicate that two things cannot contradict and both be true then there needs to be a development of language clarification for an easier understanding.
For instance, The matter becomes confusing when you state that purgatory is experiencing state of hell. Okay, my dear Protestant brother says, “Rubbish, Hebrews 10 says Christ sacrifice is once and for all, I cannot go to hell because I am sanctified in the blood of the lamb fully.”
So, far, I think your piece here simply further confuses the matter.
I fundamentally disagree because the church when several centuries perhaps even a millennium without the word purgatory being mentioned. If that word and the philosophical speculations that differentiate the Roman view from the Jewish and Orthodox views causes division I think we’re better off going back to the original terminology and framing are discussions with those.
Unfortunately, we cannot come to an agreement, and I think it’s because the historical development within the Roman Church and its Counter-Reformation to being Protestantism back into the fold. Historically, these are not discussions that the East has had to deal with as much.
But honestly, I can tell from experience that attempting to persuade Protestants with language presented will convince almost zero… if any.
However, in regards to purgatory, as stated before in prior on other posts papal documents and Saints like Catherine of Siena do describe a purifying process rather than a place, so again, what the Roman Church professes needs to be stated as a whole rather than bits in pieces. I even presented primary documentation and other sources in that particular post. The one thing that I think is puzzling is that Catholics, whom seem to take their faith seriously, reject your descriptions on what they believe. From experience usually people affirm proudly their beliefs. And I think that shows that overall is because the beliefs are generalized into strawmen.