We have all come across modern-day Pharisees on the Internet. These are the people whom I would define as those who consider it their God-given duty to criticise and correct others in matters religious.
While the original Pharisees were of course a strict Fundamentalist religious sect in Jesus’s time, still, they embodied the exact same attitudes of legalistic, religious people that we’ve seen all down the centuries since, right up to the present day.
It’s quite an education reading the comments of today’s online Pharisees and then comparing them with the things that the first-century Pharisees said and did to Jesus, and the things they accused Him of.
Most of that is an essay for some future date; I am still working on it.
But today I want to talk about the glaring major difference between the attacks of Pharisees in Jesus’s day, and those of today’s Religious bigmouths. It’s quite striking when you notice it; you can’t unsee it, and to be honest it’s made me wonder how it’s taken me so long to notice it. I suppose it’s all come out in God’s good timing!
It’s this: the major missing ingredient from the criticisms, threats and other hassles that the Pharisees threw at Jesus is the threat of Hell.
I mean, we know from personal experience what Pharisees are like. Everything that the first century Pharisees were to Jesus, they are now to us, and vice versa. They are judgemental, critical, exclusive, condemnatory, self-righteous, and the list goes on. Every behaviour that is exhibited by today’s Pharisees is mirrored throughout the Gospels in the behaviour of the first century ones. It’s all there.
Except for the threat of Hell.
Given our experiences with the exact same people in today’s world (it’s almost enough to make one believe in reincarnation!!), and given that today’s Pharisees use the threat of Hell a lot, we can be sure that if the ‘nuclear option’, the threat of Hell, were in the arsenal of first-century Pharisees, then they would have used it for sure. It would have been their number-one go-to, boring backstop cliché to use on Jesus. You healed someone on the Sabbath? Wup, yer goin’ straight ter heyyyul fer that one. Associatin’ with them there tax collectors an’ sinners? Well, son, you don’ wanna be seen doin’ that, now, else it’s the bad fiyyuure fer you fer sure. Said in love, brother.
This suggests to me a number of interesting points.
The main point is this: the Pharisees did not believe in Hell.
And I can think of a number of reasons why they didn’t believe in it. It could be because they didn’t know about the idea (even though it was around at the time, both in Greek thought, and earlier in Babylonian mythology, or because it hadn’t been invented yet, or because they had heard about it but had discarded the idea as untenable.
The former idea, of not knowing about it, is likely not correct because these were learned men. For all their faults, they understood their version of Judaism inside-out, just like many modern Evangelicals know their Bibles inside-out. The Pharisees were the ancient Fundies, remember. And for that reason they would have seen the alien philosophies of Greece and Babylon as being ‘heresy’ and therefore not acceptable to a good thinking Jew.
To me, the idea of it not having been invented yet is the most improbable, because as we have seen they would likely have heard of those Greek and Babylonian ideas. But, to reiterate, that would mean that even had they heard of it from Greek/Babylonian thought, they had decisively discarded the idea as untenable, possibly because it came from an alien source outside their own tradition. I consider this quite a feasible explanation.
Either way, and whatever the reason, whether they had not invented the idea of Hell, or whether they had heard it from the Greeks/Babylonians but had discarded it as untenable, it is clear that they did not believe in it at all, even to the point that we have no record whatsoever of them having asked Jesus about it. You’d have thought they would, wouldn’t you, if it was important to them?
So because of all this, I personally consider that they hadn’t really given it any serious credence. This is particularly likely as, had they believed in it, it would have been the perfect tool for abusing Jesus and others they didn’t like, as we ourselves have personally experienced in our day. And they would have used it. They wouldn’t have been able to stop themselves.
The Religious never once asked Jesus a serious question about the ‘afterlife’, except for the facetious one about the woman widowed seven times (Mt 22:25-32; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40), but this was more the Sadducees (not the Pharisees) trying to knock the idea of any afterlife at all rather than to discuss any heaven/hell question, and that’s why I don’t count it as a ‘serious’ question.
But, in fact, the occasion of that question, and Jesus’s replies, would have been the ideal time for a discussion about afterlife things, but Jesus never differentiated between the fates of the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’ at that point, and nor did anyone present question Him on that point. And we know that the Pharisees stalked Him just like today’s Internet Pharisees stalk people (Mk 3:2). Had they believed in Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), any Pharisees there would have immediately taken Him up on the ‘eternal fate’ of people after the Resurrection that Jesus was speaking about, but they did no such thing. Just like today’s Pharisees who just can’t let a point like that go, surely if they had believed in, or were even considering believing in, some sort of afterlife punishment, they would have wanted to discuss that with Jesus at that time, or at least criticise Him for not mentioning it in that ideal context? And then throw it at Him as a threat because He didn’t believe in it, like they do with us?
And not once in Acts, when confronting Stephen, Paul or any of the other early disciples, did the Pharisees threaten them with Hell. Even in the glimpses we have of the Sanhedrin’s attitudes towards the new group of believers, in Acts 4 and 5, they never once threaten them with Hell, nor do they discuss amongst themselves that the believers will end up there for being ‘heretics’. They wanted to have them put to death, sure, but that is not the same thing by any means.
And Jesus never preached against it either. If He’d known about it, He would have either preached against it or for it, and that in clear and unambiguous terms. The lack of any such clear teaching tells me that the idea of Hell was not in His thinking. If you’re thinking about the Sheep and the Goats, or Rich Man and Lazarus, see below.
It could reasonably be counter-argued (and I have touched on this idea above) that the Pharisees never mentioned Hell because they didn’t know about it, and that Jesus came to tell us/them about it. If this was the case, and He was the One Who first introduced the idea, then He would have been the first teacher to teach on the subject. He would therefore have been recorded as going into a LOT more detail on what Hell was like, because it would be so important, and this teaching would have been mainly as an incentive for why to avoid it (like today’s Pharisees do). Also, if He did believe in it, or if He really did teach on it (apparently He spoke about it more than He did about Heaven! Actually that’s not true at all!) then He’d have gone into great detail on how to avoid such a terrible fate. Certainly if He was the One Who introduced the concept to the religious community of the time, then the Pharisees’ extremely sharp minds would have wanted to hammer out every single detail with Him, and there would have been a record of this. He would have taught in much clearer and unambiguous detail than He is recorded as having done.
Let’s make no mistake here: if Hell is true, then preventing people from ending up there has to be the single most important thing in all of Christendom; more important by far than potluck suppers, coffee and that old lady in the tweed skirt who always wants people to bake cakes for the church fête. It would consume the Church, the Bible would be full of clear and unambiguous teaching on it, and (to come back to the point) Jesus’s ministry would have been about nothing else.
And if Jesus really did teach on the idea of a terrible postmortem torture chamber, then the Pharisees would have loved it simply because of the power it would have given them. But you know what, I think I am not mistaken in saying that the idea of Hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) is still not a part of modern Jewish thought on the afterlife. So it seems unlikely to me that it was ever a concept that was generally accepted.
These ideas also carry this corollary: if the idea of ECT was not a part of the Pharisees’ arsenal, and therefore not part of first century religious thought, then Jesus was not talking about Hell when He told the famous parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Sheep and the Goats. Nor did He mean that, when He spoke of ‘Gehenna’, He referred to anything to do with any afterlife punishment. And therefore Jesus did not teach on ECT at all. Because, if the belief in ECT was common enough for Jesus to have spoken about it and have His audience understand His teaching as referring to that, then the Pharisees would have known about that belief too. And they would, as we have both seen and experienced ourselves, have used it as a weapon on ordinary people, and they most certainly would have used it on Jesus.
And that, to me, is the clearest indication that the Pharisees never considered Hell in their thinking or their practice. The Silence of the Pharisees shouts out the message: Hell was not a part of religious thought in first century Israel, either for the Pharisees or for Jesus.
[Edit] Since writing this piece, I have learned that apparently the idea of Hell was in fact present in Talmudic writings, with which the Pharisees would have been familiar. The reason it was in those writings was because it had infiltrated itself into Jewish thought via Greek ideas, as I mentioned above. To me, this is a fascinating point that makes the ideas presented in my essay even more plausible; that even though the Pharisees likely did know about at least the concept of ‘hell’, still they did not use it against Jesus. The ramifications of this I will leave you to work out for yourself, but they are certainly interesting. But rather than change my essay, I thought I would let my readers make up their own minds on this fascinating, glaring omission on the part of the Pharisees 🙂
Oh, and one more thing: they would not in their time have known it by the name of ‘Hell’ in the way we do, because this term was introduced into Christian ideas from Norse mythology sometime in the seventh or eighth centuries. The term ‘Hell’ derives from the name of the Norse goddess ‘Hel‘ or ‘Hela’, the goddess of the underworld. It is easy to see how Norse mythology has influenced the modern Christian concept of Hell. Also, any fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will be familiar with Hela, the sister of Loki and Thor, from the movie ‘Thor: Ragnarok‘ in which Hela is played by actress Cate Blanchett.