Pseudo-Philo, Hell, and Soul Sleep

I have been reading the Book of Pseudo-Philo for my daily quiet time.  My Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha dates Pseudo-Philo to the first century C.E.  Pseudo-Philo is a Jewish work, and it contains interpretations and elaborations of biblical stories that may have been used in synagogues.

The topic of the afterlife has been on my mind as I have been reading Pseudo-Philo.  Here are three items:

1.  In Pseudo-Philo 33, the judge Deborah is exhorting the Israelites to direct their hearts towards God while they are still alive, for they will not have a chance to repent after they die.  I follow her so far.  One will hear a similar message at a lot of Southern Baptist or other conservative Christian churches: repent and get right with God now, for you will not have a chance to do so after you die, and you will go to hell if you have not done so in this life.  That was a prominent message within Second Temple Judaism, yet there was at least one source that held that the dead could repent in hell prior to the day of the final judgment (see here), and one can find within rabbinic Judaism the view that those with intermediate righteousness will be punished in Gehenna before they enter Paradise (see here).

2.  What especially got my attention, though, was what Deborah says soon after, about the state of the people in hell.  “For even if you seek to do evil in hell after your death, you cannot, because the desire for sinning will cease and the evil impulse will lose its power” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  People cannot sin in hell, nor are they influenced by their evil impulse, according to Deborah in Pseudo-Philo.

This passage reminded me of a debate that I heard a while back on Justin Brierley’s radio program, Unbelievable.  You can find the debate here.  In this debate, James White was defending the view that the wicked dead are consciously tormented in hell for all eternity, whereas a British couple, Roger and Faith Forster, were arguing that the wicked dead are annihilated.  The Forsters, as I recall, were saying that the wicked dead may suffer in hell for a while, but they are eventually annihilated, and how long their suffering lasts is based on the intensity of their sins.  James White, however, raised an interesting point.  White said that the wicked are continuing to sin in hell, and thus they are still earning God’s wrath.  If that is the case, can the wicked dead in hell ever pay their sentence then pass quietly into annihilation?  Even in hell, they are continuing to do things that earn God’s wrath, that earn more years of suffering.  It’s an unending process, a vicious cycle!

Well, Pseudo-Philo offers a different view, even though I have my doubts that Pseudo-Philo was an annihilationist (but I have not finished the book).  For Pseudo-Philo, those in hell do not sin or even want to sin.  They are still being punished for their sins that they committed in this life, however.  (UPDATE: I was looking through passages in Pseudo-Philo again, and, in Pseudo-Philo 16, God talks about the destruction of the wicked.  Pseudo-Philo may have believed in the ultimate destruction of the wicked, or perhaps he had a loose understanding of death and destruction, one that would be consistent with eternal torment.)

According to the note at the bottom in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, “The idea that the evil impulse ceases after death is unique to Ps-Philo.”  Off and on, I have been reading a nineteenth century book called The Ancient City, which is by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges.  The book is about the religion, families, and cities of early Greece and Rome.  The author says that people were believed to have the same flaws after their death that they had in life.  The author is not discussing this in the context of hell, but rather in the context of the ancient obligation to provide food and sustenance to one’s ancestors, lest they become unhappy ghosts.  Still, his discussion stood out to me, in light of what I read in Pseudo-Philo about whether the dead in hell have any moral agency.

3.  A topic that I visit and revisit on this blog is soul sleep.  Soul sleep is the view that the dead are unconscious until they are resurrected from the dead at or after Christ’s return.  It contrasts with the doctrine of the immortal soul, which holds that the soul of the dead leaves the body immediately at death and is conscious some place, whether in heaven, hell, the underworld, or someplace else.  My religious upbringing embraced soul sleep.  I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, and the Seventh-Day Adventist churches that I would later attend embraced soul sleep.

Believers in soul sleep often point out that there are numerous references in the Bible in which death is called a sleep.  Does that mean that the dead are unconscious?  I said in my post here: “I think that believers in soul sleep do well to point out that death in the New Testament is presented as a sleep.  My question would be: Was it possible in ancient literature to call death a sleep, while also believing that the dead could be conscious?  I would not be surprised if such were the case.”

I would say that Pseudo-Philo may be a case in which death is called a sleep, and yet the dead are still believed to be conscious.  In Pseudo-Philo 35, the dead are called those who have “fallen asleep” (Harrington’s translation).  And yet, the dead in Pseudo-Philo clearly are conscious.  There is a place in Pseudo-Philo, for example, in which God informs the dead Israelites who failed to enter the Promised Land that their descendants made it into the Promised Land.  (I hope that God was telling them this to encourage them rather than to rub it in their face, but that is another issue.)  In the ancient world, does calling death a sleep imply a belief that the dead are unconscious?  Not necessarily.  It could just be an expression, for dead bodies do appear to sleep (i.e., their eyes are closed, they are lying down, etc.).

On the other hand, as I talk about in this post from a while back, is this an either/or?  In parts of the Hebrew Bible, the dead do seem to be asleep ordinarily, but they can be disturbed and woken up.  We see this with Samuel in I Samuel 28, and with the kings in Sheol in Isaiah 14.  To what extent, if any, this corresponds with Pseudo-Philo’s views, I do not know.

Another relevant issue would be the authorship of Pseudo-Philo: could it contain different views?  Could it be saying that the dead are conscious in some places, while maintaining that they are asleep in others?  I would have to read more to know the answer to that.  My understanding right now is that Pseudo-Philo probably draws from different traditions, but it also has common themes throughout.  And post-mortem reward and punishment is one of those common themes, indicating (to me) that whoever put Pseudo-Philo together had a robust belief in a conscious afterlife.  My hunch is that, if he calls death a sleep, that may indicate that he did not deem calling death a sleep to be inconsistent with a conscious afterlife.  There is always the possibility of him including something that went against the overall beliefs of the book, however, either on account of carelessness, or other factors.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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