I finished Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles last night. According to John Collins, who translated and commented on the Sibylline Oracles in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, Book 2 probably dates to the second or the third century C.E. The Sibyls were female prophets who predicted the future, and Jews released editions of their prophecies that were consistent with Judaism. At some points, Christians edited the works.
In this post, I will talk about the topic of hell as it appears in Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles.
1. Within Christianity today, there are different views about hell. There is the view that the wicked will be consciously tormented in hell forever and ever. Then there is annihilationism, the view that I was taught growing up, and it states that the wicked will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire. I remember annihilationism being a rather marginal view within Christianity when I was growing up. Nowadays, however, there are prominent evangelicals who embrace it.
Believers in Conscious Eternal Torment refer to biblical passages about eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46) and the devil, the Beast, and the false prophet being tormented day and night forever and ever (Revelation 20:10). Annihilationists refer to Jesus’ statement that people should fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28), the reference in I Thessalonians 1:9 to everlasting destruction of the wicked, and Isaiah 66:24’s reference to carcasses of sinners, as the passage uses language that Jesus in Mark 9 would later use for Gehenna (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). Believers in Conscious Eternal Torment will then come back and question whether destruction in the New Testament necessarily means ceasing to exist. Ephesians 2:1 says that the Gentiles prior to becoming Christians were dead in trespasses or sins, after all, but they were physically alive. Maybe the people in hell are spiritually dead, even if they are conscious, I have heard believers in Conscious Eternal Torment argue. John Ankerberg suggested, drawing on a Greek reference work, that the Greek word translated as “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 could mean a loss of well-being, not necessarily a loss of being (see my post here).
The concept of Conscious Eternal Torment disturbs me, horrifies me, and even disgusts me. But, as I have read my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, the thought has occurred to me that believers in Conscious Eternal Torment may have a point in their argument that destruction in the Bible (or I would extend that to the ancient world) is not necessarily inconsistent with Conscious Eternal Torment. When I was reading I Enoch, it seemed to me that the punishment of the wicked was described in a variety of ways: as destruction, as conscious torment, etc. (I would have to reread I Enoch to provide specifics.) And I saw this as I was going through Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles last night. In vv 252-255, we read that everyone will pass through the unquenchable flame, and “the impious will then be destroyed for all ages” (Collins’ translation). In vv 307-308, however, we see the wicked longing for death so that they can rest from their torment, but “No longer will death or night give them rest” (Collins).
Maybe Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles did not see any contradiction between destruction of the wicked and their conscious eternal torment. One can ask about sources: Could vv 252-255 and vv 307-308 be from different sources, with different views on hell? Reading Collins’ introduction, it is difficult for me to tell. Collins states that it is not always easy to determine what in Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles is from the Jewish edition, and what is from the Christian edition, particularly on the issue of eschatological rewards and punishments. Sometimes, the distinction is pretty obvious: when the passage refers to Christ or exalts virginity or the virgin, then it is Christian; when the passage mentions the supremacy of the conquering Hebrews in the eschaton, it is probably Jewish. But the distinction is not always that obvious, for both Jews and Christians believed that the wicked would be punished in the afterlife.
Collins appears to vacillate between attributing vv 285-310 to the Jewish edition and the Christian edition, but he seems to settle on saying that the concept of hell as “an eternal place of punishment” is “a Jewish development,” and Collins refers to I Enoch 9:23f. According to Collins, “Eternal fiery punishment of the wicked is a standard feature of the end-time of intertestamental Judaism” (page 334 of volume 1 of the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha). That would be worth looking into, for it could shed light on how Jesus saw hell, or Gehenna. Granted, Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles came after the historical time of Jesus, but intertestamental Judaism came before that time. I wonder how exactly intertestamental Judaism depicted the eternal fiery punishment of the wicked. Annihilationists and universalists can say that the Greek term translated as “eternal” does not necessarily mean forever and ever, but could refer to a very long time that eventually comes to an end. They may have a point (see here), but the statement in Sibylline Oracles 2.307-308 that the wicked will not see death in the underworld does seem to me to imply Conscious Eternal Torment. Do we see statements like that in intertestamental Jewish literature? And, going back to my original question, does intertestamental Jewish literature ever, in the same work, refer to the post-mortem punishment of the wicked both as destruction and as eternal torment? Maybe I should read I Enoch again, along with other sources.
2. There are parts of Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles that appear to be open to the possibility that the wicked after their physical death can still be saved. In vv 311-312, we read that “he gave seven days of ages to erring men for repentance through the intercession of the holy virgin” (Collins). The note at the bottom of the page states:
“In 4Ezra 7:101 the souls of the dead have seven days of freedom after they separate from their bodies to see the eschatological secrets. Then they shall go to their destined abodes. 4Ezra goes on to say that there will be no intercession at the judgment. SibOr 2 apparently knew this tradition and so assigned the seven days to the intercession of the Virgin.”
What I interpret this to mean is that, according to Sibylline Oracles 2.311-312, the wicked between the time of their death and the time of their resurrection and judgment have seven days to repent, and the Virgin Mary intercedes for them. This is obviously Christian. The concept of post-mortem repentance in the interim between death and the resurrection appears also in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, which could date to the first centuries B.C.E.-the first century C.E. and could be from Second Temple Judaism or Christianity. According to Richard Bauckham, such a view is unusual in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity (see here).
Another passage in Sibylline Oracles 2 about post-mortem salvation for the wicked occurs in vv 333-338. There, after the renewal of the earth and the rewards of the righteous, the righteous can ask God to save people who are suffering in hell, and God will grant their request, placing the rescued souls in a blessed place. According to Collins, there is a gloss in psi manuscripts that express disagreement with this concept, affirming that “the fire which tortures the condemned will never cease” (Collins’ translation), even if the glossist desires it to cease. The gloss goes on to say, “let babbling Origen be ashamed of saying that there is a limit to punishment” (Collins).
3. Book 2 closes with the Sibyl’s repentance. She confesses that she has cared not for marriage and that, when she was living with a rich man, she did not care for the poor. She also says that she “committed lawless deeds knowingly” (Collins). In light of what comes before that confession in the book, she is probably praying for forgiveness so that she can escape punishment in the afterlife. This interests me because it seems to differ from a view some Christians have that one need only believe in Jesus to be saved. I do not know if this prayer is Jewish or Christian, but it does appear to imply that works are significant in terms of the eschatological judgment, and parts of Sibylline Oracles 2 that Collins identifies as (probably) Christian have that kind of message, too. That concept does not give me great comfort. Like Paul (as I understand him), I see the law as a path to condemnation because of my inability to keep it (II Corinthians 3), and that is why I feel that I need Christ for salvation. Still, we see in Matthew 25 that Christ judges the nations over how they treated certain vulnerable people.