The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment

Chapter IV. The Jews Borrowed the Doctrine from the Heathen

Thomas B. Thayer, 1881: It is allowed on all hands that the Jews in our Saviour's time believed the doctrine of future endless punishment; that it was a part of the common faith. Of course, as the doctrine is nowhere to be found in their Scriptures, the question arises, where did they find it? At the close of the Old Testament Scriptures they did not believe it; at the beginning of the New they did.

Between these two points of time there was an interval of some four hundred years, during which there was no prophet in Israel. Malachi was the last of the Hebrew prophets, and from him to Christ there stretches this waste period of four centuries, when the Jews were without any divine teacher or revelation from heaven. And all this while they were in constant and close intercourse with the heathen, especially the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, who held the doctrine in review as part of the national faith. From these, therefore, they must have borrowed it, for it is certain that they could not have obtained it from any inspired source, since none was open to them during this period.

Beside, they were, all this time, as one might infer from their previous history, departing further and further from the law, and growing more and more corrupt; till at last they had, as the Saviour charges upon them, utterly made void the law of God by their traditions. Mark 8:9, 13,

Brucker says that "after the times of Esdras, Zachariah, Malachi, and the inspired men, the Jews began to forsake the sacred doctrine, and turned aside to the dreams of human invention (humani ingenii somnia); though up to this time they had preserved pure the Hebrew wisdom received from the fathers." Hist. Philos. Judaica. Tom. ii. 703,

The last part of this statement is, perhaps, too strongly worded. They did not, certainly, preserve the wisdom of their ancestors, and the sacred doctrine pure, till after the times of Malachi and the close of the prophetic period. Their departure from the simplicity of the law dates further back than this, even to the time of the Babylonian captivity. The oriental philosophy made considerable impression on the general as well as on the speculative mind, and by degrees crumbled down the walls that guarded the sanctuary of the ancient faith, and prepared the way for the general corruption which followed the death of the last of the prophets. A careful study of the later books of the Old Testament will show this very plainly.

Speaking on this point, Guizot has the following: "The Jews had acquired at Babylon a great number of Oriental notions, and their theological opinions had undergone great changes by this intercourse. We find in Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon, and the later prophets, notions unknown to the Jews before the Babylonian captivity, which are manifestly derived from the Orientals. Thus, God represented under the image of light, and the principle of evil under that of darkness; the history of good and bad angels; paradise and hell, etc., are doctrines of which the origin, or at least the positive determination, can only be referred to the Oriental philosophy."

(Milman's Gibbon. Note near the beginning of chapter xxi. With regard to "paradise and hell," we think the matter overstated - there is no proof of the Babylonian origin of the last at least.)

Thus we see that the cords which bound them to the authority of Moses, and to the written law and revelations of God, had been slowly relaxing for a long time. Of course, when the last prophet had departed, and God had withdrawn all special guidance, the growth of corruption among them, and conformity to Pagan opinions, rapidly increased.

The process is easily understood. About three hundred and thirty years before Christ, Alexander the Great had subjected to his rule the whole of Western Asia, including Judea, and also the kingdom of Egypt. Soon after he founded Alexandria, which speedily became a great commercial metropolis, and drew into itself a large multitude of Jews, who were always eager to improve the opportunities of traffic and trade. A few years later, Ptolemy Soter took Jerusalem, and carried off one hundred thousand of them into Egypt. Here, of course, they were in daily contact with Egyptians and Greeks, and gradually began to adopt their philosophical and religious opinions, or to modify their own in harmony with them.

"To what side soever they turned," says a careful writer, "the Jews came in contact with Greeks and with Greek philosophy, under one modification or another, It was around them and among them; for small bodies of that people were scattered through their own territories, as well as through the surrounding provinces. It insinuated itself very slowly at first; but stealing upon them from every quarter, and operating from age to age, it mingled at length in all their views, and by the year 150 before Christ, had wrought a visible change in their notions and habits of thought." (Universalist Expositor, vol. for 1834, p. 423.)

At Alexandria, too, was established that celebrated school of philosophy and theology which exerted such a corrupting influence on both Jewish and Christian doctrine and teaching.

"This school," says Enfield, "by pretending to teach a sublimer doctrine concerning God and divine things, enticed men of different countries and religions, and among the rest the Jews, to study its mysteries, and incorporate them with their own .... Hence, under the cloak of symbols, Pagan philosophy gradually crept into the Jewish schools - and the Platonic doctrines, mixed first with the Pythagoric, and afterwards with the Egyptian and Oriental, were blended with the ancient faith in their explanations of the law and their traditions."

"This corruption, which began in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus (B.C. 283), soon spread into Palestine, and everywhere disseminated among the Jews a taste for metaphysical subtleties and mysteries," Again he says: "Under the Ptolemies the Jews began to learn the Egyptian and Oriental theology, and to incorporate those foreign dogmas with their ancient creed." And once more he says: "Some among them were so unfaithful to their country and their God, as to court the favor of the conqueror (Antiochus Epiphanes), by mixing Pagan tenets and superstitions with their own sacred doctrines and ceremonies." (History of Philosophy, Book iv, sec. 1, See also Murdock's Mosheim, vol. i. 39.)

In these extracts we have some very important facts in aid of our inquiry. "The Pagan philosophy gradually crept into the Jewish schools," and the Jews incorporated into their ancient faith the dogmas of both the philosophy and theology of Egypt, the very fountain-head from which came the doctrine of future endless torments. But not only did they borrow from the Egyptian, but also from the Oriental and Pythagorean philosophy, in both of which, as well as in the Egyptian, one of the distinguishing features was the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, as a method of retribution after death, Indeed, Pythagoras made so much of this dogma, that it was often called specially by his name; and it was almost universally believed by the Oriental nations, and is to this day, especially by the Hindoos, the Burmans, the followers of the Grand Lama, and by the Buddhists generally.

As this particular doctrine has an important bearing on our inquiry, it may be well to enlarge a little on this point. The opinions of the Egyptians have already been stated, Pythagoras taught that souls were sent into bodies corresponding to their several characters. The good were allowed to inhabit those of a gentle and social kind, as bees, doves, ants, etc. The bad were sent into such as resembled them in disposition and life; the angry and malicious into serpents; the ravenous and robbing into wolves - the fraudulent into foxes; and, with the incivility of a Muhammadan, cowards and effeminate into the bodies of women.

The Buddhists, according to Judson, believe that mankind pass into other bodies, the character of which is determined by their conduct in the present life. They may be sent into the bodies of birds, beasts, fish or insects, from a higher to a lower grade, if wicked, until they reach hell, or a place of unmixed torment. In cases of atrocious crime, as the murder of a parent, or a priest, they pass through no transmigration, but go directly to hell. (Wayland's Life of Judson, vol. i. 144-152.)

This, it will be seen, corresponds with what Wilkinson says of the Egyptian doctrine, that only those sinners whose crimes admit of purification are allowed the benefit of this purgatorial transmigration, while the unpardonable sinner is condemned to endless fire.

The Hindoos have brought the doctrine to such a degree of perfection, that they profess to be able "to tell precisely the sin which the person committed in another body, by the afflictions which he endures in this. For instance, they say the headache is a punishment for having, in a former state, spoken irreverently to father or mother. Madness or insanity is a punishment for having been disobedient to parents, or to the priest or spiritual guide. Epilepsy is the penalty for having in another body administered poison to any one at the command of a master. Pain in the eyes is retribution for having, when in a former body, coveted another man's wife. Blindness is a punishment for having killed one's mother - but this person, before coming into another body, will be subjected to many years' torment in hell." (Clarke's Commentary on John ix 2.)

Such are the views respectively of the Egyptians, Pythagoreans, and Orientals, on the subject of transmigration as a system of retribution beyond death. And from these sources Enfield and others say the Jews borrowed largely, incorporating the dogmas both of their philosophy and theology with the sacred - doctrines of their ancient creed. Is there any proof that they borrowed the particular doctrine in question? We answer, there is abundant proof, which we will proceed to offer.

Of course, in doing this, we shall not distinguish between the particularly Egyptian and the particularly Grecian elements. Indeed, they were so blended after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, and the influx of Greeks into the country, that it would be next to impossible to separate the two in their influence on the Jewish mind and opinions. In presenting the evidence, we shall do with the Jews as we did by the heathen - let them speak for themselves.

In the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, written perhaps from fifty to ninety years before Christ, by an Egyptian Jew, we have the following: "I was a witty child, and had a good spirit. Yea, rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled." Chapter viii, 19, 20,

Josephus, who wrote about one hundred and fifty years later, says of the Pharisees: "They believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth (in sheol or Hades) there will be rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life. The latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison; but the former shall have power to revive and live again." This, it will be seen, is a great advance on the Old Testament sheol or underworld. We find nothing of this sort among the patriarchs or prophets.

Again he says: "The souls of the pure and obedient obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies;" while the souls of those committing suicide "are received into the darkest place in Hades."

Once more: "All souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies; but the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment." (Jewish Antiq., B. xviii., c. i. 3; Jewish Wars, B, iii, c. viii. 14; B, iii., c. viii. 5.)

These testimonies are sufficient to show how thoroughly the doctrine of transmigration had fixed itself in the Jewish creed by the time of Christ.

It will be seen that the extracts indicate that transmigration, or permission to enter other bodies on earth, was regarded by the Pharisees and Jews as a reward of virtue and goodness; while the privilege was denied to the wicked, who were kept in the underworld, or Hades, subject to punishment. It is probable that the silent, inactive, and gloomy character of sheol, or the underworld, of the early Hebrews, which we have already described at large (chap. ii., sec. v.), may have given this form to the doctrine among the Jews, and caused them to regard deliverance from it into the cheerful life of earth a favor and a reward.

It certainly was a common opinion with many, and that as far back as the Second Book of Maccabees, perhaps 150 B. C., that the wicked would be punished, by being deprived of a resurrection, or confined in the underworld as shadowy ghosts, without action or enjoyment (chapters vii., xiv). This is, I think, the first glimpse we have of future punishment among the Jews, coming, as we see, not in the form of torment, but of a refusal of the privilege of a resurrection.

This doctrine has prevailed extensively among the Jews. David Kimchi (A.D. 1240) says: "The benefit of the rain is common to the just and to the unjust, but the resurrection of the dead is the peculiar privilege of those who have lived righteously." Moses Gerundensis says: "No one can be partaker of an interest in the world to come, but the souls only of just men, which, separated from their body, shall enter into it." Manasseh Ben Israel, in a treatise on the resurrection of the dead, says: "From the mind and opinion of all the ancients, we conclude that there will not be a general resurrection of the dead, and one common to all men." Pocoke has brought a large mass of evidence from Rabbinical writers to prove this point. (See Bush on the Resurrection, p. 253, from which I have taken these quotations.)

The assertion of Ben Israel, that this was "the mind and opinion of all the ancients," is probably too broad for the facts; but it shows that at a very early period this notion had taken place in the Jewish belief. The second Book of Maccabees, written two hundred and fifty years after Malachi, shows that it was held at that period.

Still this was not the universal opinion, for evidently transmigration in the time of Christ was regarded by some as a method of punishment. Hence, in the account of the blind man restored to sight by Jesus, we have the question: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" John 9. This shows plainly that the people thought the man might have been sent into a blind body as a punishment for some sin in a preexistent state; which is an exact copy of the Egyptian and Oriental doctrine.

In Luke 16:14, we have another trace of the doctrine among the people. In answer to the question of Jesus, "Whom do men say that I, the son of man, am?" the disciples reply, "Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some say Elias; and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets." They seemed to think the soul of some one of these ancient men of God had returned again to the earth in the body of Jesus, which to them was a satisfactory explanation of the miracles he wrought. Many of the Jewish doctors have believed that the souls of Adam, Abraham, and others, have at different times animated the bodies of the great men of their nation.

It is not easy to see how those alluded to by the disciples could believe the soul of John Baptist, who had so recently been put to death, could have entered into the body of Jesus, who was thirty years old. But then the ideas of the common people on this subject, as well as of the learned, were very much mixed and confused; and, moreover, there was every variety of opinion respecting the moral theory of the system.

The Egyptians believed in transmigration as a punishment of vice; the Pharisees believed in it as a reward of virtue; and the Pythagoreans believed in it both us a reward and a punishment. The Egyptians excluded the extremely wicked; and the Pharisees excluded the wicked generally, who were punished in the underworld; while Pythagoras excluded the extremely good, or pure and philosophical souls, who were sent directly to heaven, or the society of the gods. So great was the diversity of opinion in regard even to the leading features of the system.

Philo, an Egyptian Jew contemporary with the Saviour, believed the air to be full of spirits, who from time to time descended "to unite themselves with mortal bodies, being desirous to live in them again." And Josephus reports the Essenes, one of the three chief sects among the Jews, as holding the same views in regard to the preexistence of spirits, which in fact is equivalent to transmigration. (Whitby and Clarke, on John 9:2. Schoettgen says the Jews believed in the preexistence of all souls. Horae Hebri, as cited by Norton, Translation of the Gospels, ii. 408.)

A sufficient number of witnesses has now been cited to prove that the Jews borrowed from the Pagans the doctrine of transmigration, with all its accompaniments of future retribution, and endless punishment. And they abundantly justify the statement of Enfield, that "the purity of the divine doctrine was corrupted among the Jews in Egypt, who, under the disguise of allegory, admitted doctrines never dreamed of by their lawgiver and prophets and adopted a mystical interpretation of the law, which converted its plain meaning into a thousand idle fancies."

But other views of punishments after death were entertained, approaching nearer to the crude notions exhibited in the preceding chapter. The apocryphal book, called the Wisdom of Solomon, written from fifty to seventy years later than the second of Maccabees, contains the doctrine of future retribution in a more positive form. The habitation of the wicked is in darkness and amid terrors, and the Almighty turns all the elements against them, thunderbolts and hailstones, tempestuous winds and the waves of the raging sea.

Philo also taught that the souls of the wicked were cast down into the depths of Tartarus, into blackest darkness and night, where they are surrounded by all kinds of ghostly shadows and fearful apparitions. Here they suffer a never-ending death, agonizing with present torture, and with the terror of evils to come, without relief and without hope. This sounds like the very echo of the classic fables, and brings us into the very sanctuary of Pagan belief. It is Greek, with a slightly Jewish accent.

But, not to extend this part of the inquiry too far, I shall close with citing the authority of the learned Dr. Campbell, which states very clearly the process and growth of the doctrine of retribution after death among the Jews, according to the Greek and Roman model:

"From the time of the captivity, more especially from the time of the subjection of the Jews, first to the Macedonian empire, and afterwards to the Roman, as they had a closer intercourse with Pagans, they insensibly imbibed many of their sentiments, particularly on those points where their law was silent, (We have seen that it was silent in regard to endless punishments, and indeed all punishments after death, And it is precisely at this point where they have most freely copied from the heathen,) and wherein by consequence they considered themselves as at greater freedom. On the subject of a future state, we find a considerable difference in the popular opinions of the Jews, in our Saviour's time, from those which prevailed in the days of the ancient prophets. As both Greeks and Romans had adopted the notion that the ghosts of the departed were susceptible both of enjoyment and of suffering, they were led to suppose a sort of retribution in that state, for their merit or demerit in the present. The Jews did not adopt the pagan fables on this subject, nor did they express themselves, entirely, in the same manner; but the general train of thinking in both came pretty much to coincide." (Dissertation vi., Pt. ii., where the subject is discussed with equal candor and ability.)

Perhaps they did not adopt the Pagan fables in every particular, but they appropriated the basis and framework of them, and invented others of their own equally gross and absurd. Le Clerc says they "borrowed so great a number of fables (ont debite un si grand nombre de fables), that their history, after the time of the last of the sacred historians, was scarcely more reasonable than the most fabulous histories of Paganism." And he adds, that "as they were better instructed than the Pagans, they were, therefore, more blamable for having invented so many falsehoods." (See Jortin's Remarks, i. 113. Those who have seen some of the stupid fables of the Talmud will not think this judgment of Le Clerc any too severe.)

They invented and borrowed, till, as Tytler says, about the time of Christ, "they had so vitiated the Law by the intermixture of heathen doctrines, and ceremonies borrowed from the Pagans," in short, "Judaism itself had become so corrupted and disguised, as to be a source of national discord and division among its votaries." (Universal History, Book vi, chapter iv, Note.)

These facts and testimonies are enough, I trust, to satisfy the reader of the sources from which the Jews derived the doctrine of endless punishment, and other false notions which they entertained respecting the future state. And, after this review, with what force and directness the Saviour's words return upon us: "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Matt. 15:6-9. And we see the point of his charge against the Pharisees, that they rejected the divine commandments, that they might follow their own tradition, by which they "made the word of God of none effect" (Mark 7:9, 13); and, also, his warning to his disciples to "beware of the doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Matt, 15:6-12.

The truth is, that in the four hundred years of their intercourse with the heathen, during which they were without any divine teacher or message, Pagan philosophy and superstition had, so far as regarded the future state, completely pushed aside the Law of Moses and the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and set up in place of them their own extravagant inventions and fables respecting the invisible world. (The reader will find other testimonies on this important point in chap, x., sect, iii.)

The corruption of the Jewish religion, and the numerous pagan dogmas which had been incorporated into the national creed prior to the time of Christ, are important points in the argument; inasmuch as they show how the way was prepared for the reception of the doctrine of endless punishment into the popular belief. We give place, therefore, to the following additional testimonies under this head.

"Errors of a very pernicious kind," says Dr. Mosheim, "had infested the whole body of the people (Jews). There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, etc., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood." Again he says, "The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Saviour had brought from Chaldaea and the neighboring countries many extravagant and idle fancies, which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in consequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and superstitious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines." (Mosheim's Church History, century i. pt. i. chap. ii. See also Guizot's note in Milman's Gibbon, chap. xxi Neander's History, i. pp. 49-62.)

"The Hebrews received their doctrine of demons from two sources. At the time of the Babylonish captivity, they derived it from the source of the Chaldaic-Persian magic; and afterward, during the Greek supremacy in Egypt, they were in close intercourse with these foreigners, particularly in Alexandria, and added to the magian notions those borrowed from this Egyptic-Grecian source. And this connection and mixture are seen chiefly in the New Testament. It was impossible to prevent the intermingling of Greek speculations. The voice of the prophets was silent. Study and inquiry had commenced. The popular belief and philosophy separated; and even the philosophers divided themselves into several sects, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes; and Platonic and Pythagorean notions, intermingled with Oriental doctrines, had already unfolded the germ of the Hellenistic and cabalistic philosophy. This was the state of things when Christ appeared." (Encyclopedia Americana, art. "Demon.")

This witness of the learned and accurate historian is directly to the point, and opens to us the sources of the gross corruption, the false doctrines, and pagan superstitions and fables, which overlaid the simple faith of Moses and the prophets in the days of Christ.

Do sinners burn forever in hell fire?...

The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment

by Thomas B. Thayer, New and enlarged edition. Boston: Universalist Publishing House. 1881.


Why this book was written.
Chapter I. The Period before the Law of Moses.
No Law announced to our First Parents with the Penalty of Endless Punishments annexed
Not revealed in the History of their Transgression, nor in that of Cain, the Deluge, or Sodom and Gomorrah
Chapter II. The Period under the Law of Moses.
Sect. I. - Endless Punishment not taught by Moses in the Law nor is it mentioned anywhere in the Bible History of the Jews
Sect. II. - Testimony of Orthodox Critics and Theologians to this Point
Sect. III. - Old Testament Doctrine of Hell, Sheol
Sect. IV. - General Application of the Argument
Sect. V. - Objections to the foregoing Argument answered
Chapter III. Endless Punishment of Heathen Origin.
Sect. I. - Description of the Heathen Hell, its Location, Inhabitants, and Punishments; compared with Church Doctrines
Sect. II. - The Doctrine invented by Heathen Legislators and Poets; shown by their own Confession. Its Egyptian Origin
Chapter IV. The Jews Borrowed the Doctrine from the Heathen.
The Historical Argument on this Point
Chapter V. Endless Punishment Not Taught in the New Testament.
Sect I. -Salvation of Christ not from this
Sect. II. - New Testament Doctrine of Hell
Sect. III. - Unquenchable Fire; how used in the Scriptures; how used by Greek Writers
Sect. IV. - Everlasting, Eternal and Forever, not Endless
Testimony of Lexicographers and Critics
Usage of Greek Authors
Scripture Usage
Sect. V. - The Second Death
Chapter VI. The Introduction of the Doctrine into the Christian Church
The general Corruption of the early Church
First Appearance of the Doctrine - its Form
First, The Wicked not raised from the Dead, or Underworld
Second, Raised and Punished
Third, Future Punishment ending in Annihilation
Fourth, Endless Punishment
Condemnation of Universalism, and Endless Punishment decreed Orthodox, A. D. 553
Chapter VII. The Doctrine Creates a Cruel and Revengeful Spirit - Illustrated from History.
Influence of Faith on Character
Tertullian's Exultation
Catholic Crusades against the Albigenses
Massacre of St. Bartholomew
The Catholic Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition; its Influence on Society
The Influence not confined to Catholic Believers of the Doctrine
Chapter VIII. The Comparative Moral Influence of Belief and Disbelief in Endless Punishment - Historical Contrast.
Its Influence on the Morals of the Heathen; Greeks, Romans, Burmans
The Character of the Pharisees and Sadducees contrasted in reference to this Point
Chapter IX. The Influence of the Doctrine on the Happiness of its Believers - Illustrated from their own Confessions.
Testimony of Saurin, Stuart, Barnes, Henry Ward Beecher, etc.
Chapter X. Additional Testimonies on the Questions Discussed in the Preceding Chapters.

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