Letter: Christian responsibility for the concept of Hell

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The Independent Online
Sir: Bishop Montefiore, having previously derived the concept of Hell from Judaism, now says (letter, 21 December) that it comes from the 'Jewish apocalyptic literature'. This literature, produced by fringe Jewish groups, was rejected by mainstream Judaism but accepted and given central significance by Christianity.

Thus, it was the decision of Judaism to reject the concept of Hell (ultimately derived from the pagan sources Zoroastrianism, Pythagoreanism and Stoicism), and of Christianity to accept it. The same thing happened in relation to the concept of the Devil. There is a familiar pattern of prejudice, however, in which everything unpleasant in Christianity (eg the position assigned to women) is blamed on Judaism.

Later, in the Talmud, we find the idea that eternal punishment is for a handful of great sinners, while the vast majority suffers a very limited purgatory (estimated at periods from three months to a year). This contrasts with the medieval Christian belief that the majority of mankind suffers eternal hellfire and that even purgatory lasts for centuries (see Aquinas). Also, the Talmudic teachings on Hell do not have the status of dogmas, but merely of opinions. Hell is central in Christianity because implied by the doctrine of salvation, which plays no part in Judaism.

I am surprised that Professor Ashley Grossman (21 December) saw fit to say that Christianity 'replaced the avenging God of the Old Testament with a more 'human' representative'. To replace the merciful God of the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 78:38) with a God who condemns the majority of mankind to eternal torment was hardly a step in the direction of humanity.

Yours sincerely,

HYAM MACCOBY

Leo Baeck College

London, N3

22 December

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