Throughout these discussions a persistent question has been raised; how can anyone be blind to the obvious scriptural supports for the doctrine of Hell? It has even been pointed out that Jesus himself talks very clearly of a definite place called Hell.
Since both the scriptures and the Messiah are Jewish, it may help if we understand a little bit more of how the Jews have historically considered this idea of an afterlife, particularly one made up of eternal punishment. Here are just a few references that may easily be found on the internet;
While rabbinic Judaism subscribed to a notion of life after death and resurrection, it tolerated a great deal of speculation concerning the particulars, as well as a wide range of views concerning how this would all come to pass. Much less was said about punishment, and the concept of hell was never extensively developed in Judaism. Its origins are in a specific site, the Valley of Gehinnom (from Gei Ben hinnom) a valley that was the site of a heathen cult whose rituals included burning children (see the description in II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31). The Talmud paints a graphic and frightening picture of what happens in Gehinnom, but overall it receives only modest attention:
Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body, and wrongdoers of the gentiles who sin with their body, go to Gehinnom and are punished there for 12 months. 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]
In contrast to the opinion expressed above, Rabbi Akiba argued that punishment is not eternal; it is limited to one year: So, too, the Talmud affirms that the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom shall endure only 12 months [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eduyot 2:10]. Eventually Rabbi Akiba’s view was adopted. Jewish Ideas and Ideals
The Torah, therefore, might have been silent about afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death obsessed Egyptian religion. Throughout history, those religions that have assigned a significant role to afterlife have often permitted other religious values to become distorted. For example, belief in the afterlife motivated the men of the Spanish Inquisition to torture innocent human beings; they believed it was morally desirable to torture people for a few days in this world until they accepted Christ, and thereby save them from the eternal torments of hell. Jewish Virtual Library
Only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden (Heaven). The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She’ol or by other names. According to one mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.
Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period; their souls are punished for the entire 12 months. Sources differ on what happens at the end of those 12 months: some say that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist while others say that the soul continues to exist in a state of consciousness of remorse. Judaism 101
There were about 24 different Jewish religious/political groups during the time of Christ. The three main movements were:
….the Pharisees embraced much of the recently introduced Greek Pagan theology. They believed in resurrection and an associated system of rewards and punishment after death. They did not expect justice to be achieved on earth.
….the Sadducees believed that God would reward the righteous and punish the wicked during their lifetime on earth.
….the Essenes…taught that the soul separated from the body and was resurrected to eternal life.Religious Tolerance
Now, of course none of this effectively refutes the doctrine of eternal punishment nor the popular notions of Hell. But there is strong evidence to suggest that there was no true Jewish consensus on an afterlife during the time of Jesus’ ministry. The evidence also suggests (to me) that Jesus, speaking as a first century Jew and not a 21st century Christian, likely never intended for speculations about hell and damnation to become so critical for people of faith.