Hell and Purgatory According to Tanach. What is on the Other Side?

Posted by on Oct 8, 2023

Tanach rarely speaks of “heaven” (only in Gen 1:1) and “hell” (only on a few occasions which we will expound below), and whenever the Hebrew Scripture refers to them, it always mentions them “passing by” and never as a reward or as a threat respectively. Yet, good and evil are laid out for everyone to see. Tanach does not concern itself with the concepts of “heaven” and “hell”, for all the laws given by Mosheh in the Torah are primarily focused on our physical existence and life on earth, and not on going to heaven, as it is said in Eze 18:9, “if he walks in My laws, and he has guarded My ordinances in truth, he is righteous, he shall certainly live”.

“If you have practiced Torah much, claim not merit to yourself, for to that were you created.” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai

For Torah it is therefore not relevant how long man would live, but how he will conduct his life on the earth, according to the Torah of YHVH. This is not to say that heaven and hell are irrelevant, or even worse, they do not exist. Heaven and hell do exist, but the Lord never uses them to influence and control the free will of men, as religion does. For the Lord has further says in verse 23 thus, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that he should turn from his ways, and live?”

With that said, the present study, to which we now turn, deals with the subject of Heaven and Hell that has been scarcely touched upon in the Tanach. In this endeavor and considering the unique standing of the subject, we are fully aware that we cannot remove all the obscurity and difficulty we will come across, as the reader will understand below.

What is on the other side?

“The irony of life is that when you have learned how to live in the world, you have to leave it.” Navah

Illustration of Dante's Hell, by Antonio Manetti (1423–1497), The circles of Hell. Ironically, Dante’s comedy “Inferno” has become the main religious doctrine of hell.

Illustration of Dante’s Hell, by Antonio Manetti (1423–1497), The circles of Hell. Ironically, Dante’s comedy “Inferno” has become the main religious doctrine of hell.

Unlike religion, which depicts heaven as place of disembodied souls and hell as eternal condemnation in fire, the Tanach does not provide a clear picture of what happens to a person upon death. After the sin of Adam and Chavah, Elohim prepared a place for the new generations where they should dwell and die in. That place was called “Earth”. It was decreed that men were to till the ground of the Earth with hard work until they die and return to it. And the place where the dead return to was called שְׁאוֹל sheol, for it is depicted as a place below, “the underworld”.

The path of life is upward for the wise, that he may turn away from She’ol below. (Pro 15:24) (See also Job 7:9)

Whether the dead simply go to the grave or whether they enter some kind of underworld, the ancient Hebrews did not know where or even what that place was. To them that place was unknown. Yet, the Hebrew Bible is consistent in its depiction of she’ol (with its 65 occurrences) as a place where all dead go, the righteous and wicked alike. That she’ol could simply mean a state of death and more than just a grave can be seen in Isa 38:10 with a reference to the “gates of she’ol”. The term the “gates of she’ol” seems to imply something like entry into an underworld,

I said, “Am I to go into the gates of She’ol in the silence of my days? Shall I be deprived of the rest of my years?(Isa 38:10)

“The evil days that come after the end of life

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew Kohelet, “preacher”) is one of the two philosophical books of the Tanach. In it, King Shlomoh explores the meaning of life, reckoning with death, futility, and purpose. The book often suggests that “all is emptiness” and “nothing is new under the sun,” but also concludes on the positive side by asserting that life’s purpose can be found in fear of Elohim and adherence to His laws. It is believed that Ecclesiastes is written at the sunset of the king’s life as a repentance for the acts of apostasy he had committed. This is how Shlomoh begins the last chapter of his work,

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw near when you say, “I have no pleasure in them”. (Ecc 12:1)

What does the phrase “the evil days come” depict in this verse? In the conclusion of his preaching, Solomon advises us to remember the Creator, while we are still young, but to remember Him before “the evil days come”, for the end of life draws near and some may say they have not had pleasure in it (Ecc 12:1). The wise man seeks to describe in Ecclesiastes how man, having reached his old age, goes to his everlasting home (see further Ecc 12:5) where he had come from. The mind and senses of the old man begin to be darkened and the autumn of life with its clouds and rains approaches (Ecc 12:2). This is all given as a description of the consequences under which human life comes to an end. The dissolution of life by which the separation of the soul and the body passes, and the return of both to their original condition is thus completed, while the ordinary day-to-day life continues in its course (Ecc 12:3-5).

But then, Solomon begins to depict something that seems deviating from the usual course,

Until the silver cord is removed, and the golden bowl is broken, and the jar shattered at the well, and the wheel broken at the pit, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to Elohim who gave it, emptiness of emptiness, said the preacher, all is emptiness. (Ecc 12:6-8)

What is being described here? What in the human body is compared to a silver cord and to a golden bowl? And what is compared to a jar at the well, or to a wheel at the pit? It appears that the wise man is merely being poetic here, unless these are allegorical pictures of coming death suggested by the use of what follows: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to Elohim who gave it”.

When a man dies, the departure of life-force (ruach) and the cessation of the bodily functions are demonstrated upon death. The life-force is figuratively represented by the golden bowl holding golden oil which is as a figure of the soul. The golden bowl is hung up by a silver cord which is animated by the soul (Hebrew, neshamah) and is dependent on it. When the cord (neshamah) which holds the bowl is broken, the bowl falls down and is shattered to pieces, and life-force (ruach) is released from it. The end of life is represented by the earthly jar broken at a well or spring. The breaking of the jar at the well is a figure of a dying man, who has expired his last breath. And “the wheel is shattered into the pit”, according to its simple interpretation, is a wheel with which water is drawn from the well. Thus, the jar and the wheel shattered at the well are a poetic figure for the end of human life. And the end of the golden bowl (the life-force) and the earthly bowl (the body) are figures of the perishing man. The body returns to the dust from which it was made (Gen 3:19) and the life-force goes back to its Creator to whom it belongs (Psa 104:29), for the Eternal created man from dust. The body thus returns to the earth and turn into dust as it was originally. The wise man (Solomon) has now reached the end of his preaching after he has made all earthly things insignificantly small, saying (literal Hebrew), “Transition! Transition! All is transitory” (Ecc 12:8), meaning “Life is nothing but transience. All is passing by; all is short-lived in a transformation”.

So, what is “the evil days come” in our verse? Evidently, the term “the evil days” refers to something that comes after the end of life. But what is it?

When death atones for sins

The Book of Isaiah (“Yeshayahu”) is known for its Messianic visions of universal peace and renewal. Isaiah rebukes Israel for abandoning their Elohim and pursuing corruption, calls for change, and warns the nations of their ultimate downfalls and judgment. The last third of the book contains comforting prophecies about returning to Jerusalem and redemption.

It was revealed in the prophet’s hearing the words of the Eternal, which He spoke,

For this iniquity shall certainly not be purged from you until you die, said the Master Yehovah of hosts. (Isa 22:14)

Sins forgiven after death? This concise wording seems to indicate that there are sins that can be forgiven after death expressed by “this iniquity shall certainly not be purged from you until you die”. This is what we learn from Yoma 86a concerning the verse. If one violates a positive command and repents, he is forgiven immediately, as it is stated in: “Return, you backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding” (Jeremiah 3:22). If one violates a negative command (prohibition) and repents, repentance suspends his punishment and Yom Kippur atones for his sin, as it is stated: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). If one commits a sin punishable by death from the earthly court and then repents, Yom Kippur suspends his punishment, and suffering absolves and completes the atonement, as it is stated: “Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with strokes” (Psalms 89:33). But if one has desecrated of the Name (the Tetragrammaton), even his repentance has no power to suspend punishment, nor does Yom Kippur, nor does suffering. Rather, death alone absolves him, as it is stated in Isaiah 22:14: “This iniquity shall not be atoned for until you die”. Only death atones for such sins. The sages have thus stated that the day of death equals the day of repentance (Yom Kippur).

The authorities who interpret this concept in the manner described above based themselves primarily on Isaiah 22:14 and the way Targum Yonathan renders that verse. Targum Yonathan (Targum, Aramaic for “translation”) paraphrases “until you die” as a second death in the World to Come. In the words of Targum:

The prophet said, with mine ears I was hearing when this was decreed from before the Lord of hosts, namely, that this your iniquity shall not be forgiven you till you die the second death, said the Lord, the God, the God of hosts.

Note: The term “the World to Come” (Hebrew Olam ha-ba does not occur in the Hebrew Scripture) refers in the Rabbinic literature to a world in which a righteous person goes after death.

Therefore, according to this view and Targum Yonathan, the verse in Isaiah refers to the second death of a person whose punishment is thus interpreted to mean that he will not participate in the ultimate resurrection of the dead. All this suggests that something happens after death. We make this statement in accordance with what we have written about second death in the article The Second Resurrection and the Second Death – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

The day Gehinnom was created

For Topheth was ordained of old, even for the king it has been prepared. He has made it deep and large, its fire pit with much wood; the breath of Yehovah, as a stream of burning sulfur, is burning in it! (Isa 30:33)

The Hebrew word in our verse תָּפְתֶּה tophteh, is used only here and nowhere else. But probably it is a form of תֹּפֶת tophet, used in Jer 7:31-32, Jer 19:6, Jer 19:11-14. In all probability, Tophteh or Tophet, was a place near Jerusalem called “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom”. This place was used for cremation, i.e., burning children sacrificed to the idol Molech (See also 2Ki 23:10 and Lev 18:21, Lev 20:2-5). This peculiar word comes from the verb תָּפַף taphas, to drum, because drums were bitten to silence the scream of the children being burned alive.

Rashi interprets the words “Topheth was ordained of old” to mean that the place Tophet had been set up from the second day of Creation of the world. Literally, the Hebrew text reads that Tophet was ordained “yesterday” or “before that time”. Tophteh is Gehinnom, says Rashi, which has been prepared for Sennacheriv, King of Assyria, who invaded Judah twice. About him the prophet prophesied in Isa 30:33 that the king of Assyria and his legions will burn in Tophet.

But when that idolatry of human sacrifices was abolished with the return of Babylonian exile, Tophet became the place for burning the city waste, i.e., Jerusalem’s landfill. The disgust for this place was so great that it gave its name to the place of the wicked after death. Hence, “the Valley of Hinnom” (Hebrew Gan Hinnom) became Gehinnom, or hell. The smoke and stench rising from the constant burning of waste in the landfill suggested the idea of the eternal fire in hell. It is believed that such a place where the city waste was burned still existed in the first century Judea.

The rabbis say that on account of Tophet (Gehinnom) the word tov, “good”, was omitted on the report of the creation of the second day, because on this day Gehinnom was created. We have already argued in the article The Second Day of Creation from another point of view that indeed it had not been said about the second day, “it was good”.

The eternal torment of the condemned

The sages understood from the scriptures that the coming of the Messiah to establish his kingdom, would be preceded by a time of intense suffering of Israel and of the world. These intense suffering and distress before the coming of the Messiah is likened to a woman who goes into labor. Once labor begins, the woman cannot turn back time. She has to go through the entire suffering before she can experience the joy of seeing her baby. Likewise with the coming of the Messiah. The worse things become, the more painful the birth pains, the nearer is his coming until he finally comes to the earth. This is how the final scene of the prophetic book of Isaiah begins (Isa 66:1-20), as it is prophesied,

Before she labored, she gave birth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a male child. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Is a land brought forth in one day? Is a nation born at once? For as soon as Tsiyon labored, she gave birth to her children. Shall I bring to birth and not give delivery?, says Yehovah. Shall I who give delivery shut the womb?, said your Elohim. (Isa 66:7-9)

This Messianic scene does not end however with the optimism of the verses 21-23. The prophet decided to close up the prophecy with his last words of chill,

And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched. And they shall be repulsive to all flesh! (Isa 66:24) See also Isa 24:6 and Isa 34:2-3.

The prophecy predicts in Isa 66:18, that in the last days of the world all enemies of Israel will summon against it with the goal of getting possession of it. But instead, they will see the glory of YHVH, when Jerusalem becomes a scene of heavenly judgment. It is very difficult however to imagine the picture which floated in the prophet’s mind, when he wrote down the last words in his scroll, saying “their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched”. He is speaking of a future state but in images drawn from his present world.

Also, how is it possible that all nations of the world could gather in Jerusalem? This appears inconceivable. And again, how can the corpses in the last verse of the prophecy be eaten by worms at the same time as they are being burned without extinguishing? Or it is therefore completely obvious that the scene is to be realized in images which the prophet has drawn from what it has already been given to him to see in Isa 30:33: “its fire pit with much wood; the breath of Yehovah, as a stream of burning sulfur, is burning in it”. This last scene of the prophecy seems to depict no other than the eternal torment of the condemned.

As Ibn Ezra comments of Isaiah 66:24, if we look around Jerusalem, where Topheth is, we will learn that there will be a day of judgment in the city, on which day there will be fire that will never be quenched. He goes on to say that many of the sages have discovered here an allusion to the fact, that the soul, when it leaves the body, remains within the sphere of fire, if it is does not deserve to ascend to heaven. According to them, this will take place after the resurrection of the dead and supported this opinion by a reference to Daniel (Dan 12:10), who asserts, that all the wicked, when called to life again, will be called to an abhorring.

But how long will the judgment of the wicked take place? In Mishnah Eduyot 2:10, we learn that there are five things that lasted twelve months: (1) the judgment of the generation of the flood; (2) the judgment of Job; (3) the judgment of the Egyptians; (4) the judgment of Gog of Magog in the time to come will continue twelve months, and (5) so will the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom, for it is said, and “It will be from one month until its [same] month” (Isaiah 66:23).

The Gan Hinnom (the Valey of Hinnom) outside Jerusalem has now become Gehinnom, a place of torment. And what appeared to us inconceivable has now come to signify that YHVH will perform such a miraculous sign on the summoned nations as He formerly performed on Egypt, but this time it will outperform the ten plagues and complete the destruction of the enemies of Israel that commenced with the Egyptians. The prophet thus intentionally closes the Messianic book with this terrible picture of judgment on the nations that had come against Israel: the eternal torment of the condemned.

The Purgatory

The Book of Daniel covers the period spanning the end of the First Temple and the beginning of the Second Temple. In the book’s second half, Daniel describes prophetic visions about the declines of the world empires and the end of days. We read from the last chapter of the book thus,

Now at that time Micha’el shall stand up, the great head who stands over the children of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation until that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall wake up, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches, everlasting abhorrence. (Dan 12:1-2)

If there are any doubts (until Daniel 12) that the prophecy in the book is not concerning the end of times, but King Antiochus of Greece, the last chapter shreds them all, in which the end of the world is described at a time that will have no parallel. At the end time, this great tribulation described in Daniel will come not only upon Israel but also upon the whole earth.

We are told in verse 2 that there will be resurrection of the dead which not all people will enjoy but some. Some will be resurrected for everlasting life, while others will be resurrected in order to face everlasting shame and abhorrence. This is what Daniel refers saying that many will awaken from their sleep to a physical resurrection (the dead will come to life) to experience a judgment which will determine their fate. This is what the prophet describes when he wrote that some would remain alive while others would be doomed to everlasting abhorrence. According to the prophecy, this resurrection of the dead will occur shortly after the ingathering of the exiles of Israel.

In Rosh Hashanah 16b we learn that on the Day of Judgment three books will be opened before the Eternal in which three groups of people are sealed. They are: (1) the righteous people who will immediately be written and sealed for life in the world to come; (2) the wicked people sealed for Gehinnom, as it is stated in Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall wake, some to eternal life and some to shame and everlasting contempt”; and (3) the “average” people (those with mostly transgressions) who will descend to Gehinnom for punishment, as it is stated in Zechariah 13:9, “And I will bring the third part through the fire”.

In his commentary on Dan 12:2, Rabbeinu Bahya further expounds this concept saying that Daniel speaks about “many” who will awake, but not all will awake. The people who will awake, according to Rabbeinu Bahya, are those who deserve a life in heaven and will not undergo the metamorphosis of thousands of years in a grave, but their souls will be transferred to eternal life immediately. He says, “You have learned that the hidden life of pre-universe times and the lofty regions which God built when He created the luminaries are the pleasures of the souls who experience the teachings of the Torah. In due course, they will again merit to enjoy these pleasures with which they had been familiar”.

Rabbeinu Bahya goes on to say that concerning the people, who will fall between the two extremes of being totally righteous and totally wicked, will go through punishment. If their merits exceed their faults, they will go through cleansing for 11 months and will rise and join the righteous. Most likely, the Roman Church has taken this concept of “hell” from the rabbinic sources and adopted it, as a place of “purging”, hence “Purgatory”: in Roman Catholic theology, the place where those who have died in a state of grace undergo limited torment to atone for their sins.

But those whose faults exceed their merits will descend into Gehinnom where they will be tormented for a period of 12 months. At the end of that period their bodies will cease existing, and their souls will be destroyed (probably this means that their souls will turn into “generic energy”).

Then, Daniel was told to hide the words and seal the book until the time of the end, when many will diligently search, and knowledge will increase. As for Daniel himself, he was told to go his righteous way until his end, when he will rest and arise to his fate at the end of the days (Daniel 12:13). With this the prophecy concerning the last days ends.

One final thought which we intend to expound in a future study. While “going through hell” is the experience of regrets, pain, and anguish for what the sufferer could have done better juxtaposed to what he had exactly done, heaven is the joy of the soul in the radiance of the Eternal. For without heaven and hell there is no justice.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!


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