I am a proponent of trying to understand, at the very least, the Gospels in light of their Jewishness. When Christ mentions Gehenna, He always does so in parabolic or hyperbolic language. This is not make the statements contained therein untrue, but it does tend to prevent the language from being taken literally, at times. Discernment is key in trying to look at these issues.
In that regard, I want to look at the Jewish Gehenna at or near the time of Christ and how it developed.
Remember, in the Old Testament, the only word use for the the afterlife is sheol, but it was said to be inhabited by the saints and the sinners. So, who did we go from that to a heavenly reward and hellish punishment?
What is Gehinnom?
R. Joshua b. Levi stated: Gehinnom has seven names, and they are: Nether-world (or ‘Sheol’), Destruction, Pit (or, ‘pit of destruction’), Tumultuous Pit, Miry Clay, Shadow of Death and the Underworld. ‘Nether-world’, since it is written in Scripture: Out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou heardest my voice (Jonah 2.3); ‘Destruction’, for it is written in Scripture: Shall Thy Mercy be declared in the grave? Or thy faithfulness in destruction (Psa 88.12); ‘Pit’, for it is written in Scripture: For Thou wilt not abandon thy soul to the nether-world; neither wilt Thou suffer Thy godly one to see the pit (Psa 16.10); ‘Tumultuous Pit’ and ‘Miry Clay’, for it is written in Scripture: He brought me up also out of the tumultuous pit, out of the miry clay (Psa 40.3); ‘Shadow of Death’, for it is written in Scripture: Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death (Psa 107.10); and the [name of] ‘Nether-world’ is a tradition.
But are there no more [names]? (to Gehinnom) Is there not in fact that of Gehinnom? — [This means,] a valley that is as deep as the valley of Hinnom and into which all go down for gratuitous acts. Is there not also the name of Hearth, since it is written in Scripture: For a hearth is ordered of old? (Isa 30.33) — That [means] that whosoever is enticed by his evil inclination will fall therein (Erbin 19b)
Is there a duration to the punishment?
Beit Shammai taught: There are three groups – one is destined for eternal life, another consigned to eternal ignominy and eternal abhorrence (these are the thoroughly wicked) while those whose deeds are balanced will go down to Gehinnom, but when they scream they will ascend fro there and are healed…but Beit Hillel taught: [God is] rich in kindness’ (Ex. 34:6) [He is] inclined toward mercy (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3)
This argument is reiterated elsewhere in the Talmud over the most wicked people the Rabbis could imagine – the generation that drove God to undo creation:
‘The judgment on the generation of the Flood was for twelve months, on Job for twelve months, on the Egyptians for twelve months, on Gog and Magog in the Hereafter for twelve months, and on the wicked in Gehinnom for twelve months. (M. Eduyot 2:10; Gen. Rabbah 28:8)
The great schools of Jewish thought before the time of Christ until afterwards revolved around two Rabbi’s – Shammai and Hillel. Shammai required a believe in eternal torment, but allowed that some would return from Gehenna. He cited Zechariah 13.9 and 1st Samuel 2.6. A third of the people would be immediately given eternal life while a third eternal torment, but another third would go into Gehenna and return. Hillel’s school taught punishment for sinners and Gentiles for 12 months but allows for a certain class of people to spend eternity in hell. There are nuances here, especially for those who would be sent to hell – those, it seems, who completely and utterly rejected God. Hillel is a key figure in Judaism right before the time of Christ. He is arguably, except out Lord, the most influential Jewish teacher of the time and indeed, has become a very integral part in Talmudic Judaism.
The punishing afterlife is temporal; there is no eternal punishment:
Rabbi Akiba said:…The duration of the punishment of the wicked in Gehinnom is twelve months. (Shabbat 33b)
Rabbi Akiba was a very important rabbi during the time which the Church was moving past Jerusalem. It is very possible that Akiba can lead us to thoughts which were shared by the early movement of The Way.
I note that in the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote something about a year long torture.
If there are any unredeemable souls, their fate is annihilation and non-being, not eternal torment:
After 12 months, their body is consumed and their soul is burned and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Rosh Hashanah 17a)
The wicked stay in Gehinnom till the resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it redeems them. (Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4)
Remember, that in the Old Testament, thus the Jewish thought world, there was only sheol, or grave, which was the afterlife for both the saint and the sinner. It wasn’t until nearing the time of Christ which speculation started to occur.