Gehenna and the Gospel

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The Creation Concept

Does Gehenna mean hell?

Is the fire literal?

Immortal worms?

Jewish superstition

What are the NT warnings about Gehenna?

Did God create a place of torment?

The history of Gehenna

Will those cast into Gehenna be restored?

Hades in the NT

Hades in the Lazarus story

Gehenna was a garbage dump

Saviour of all men

Twelve references to Gehenna in the NT

Does Gehenna mean hell?

In the New Testament, the word Gehenna occcurs 12 times. These are in Matthew 5:22, 5:29, 5:30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33, Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5, and James 3:6. They are quoted here.

Is Gehenna a symbol of hell? The translators of the Bible were influenced by ancient pagan superstition.

For example, the phrase "damnation of hell" in the KJV for Matthew 23:33 is a mistranslation, that would be better rendered, the "judgment of Gehenna," which can be interpreted as meaning being rejected from the kingdom of God. See Young's Literal Translation, or the World English Bible.

The idea of infernal torment of unbelievers was introduced in ancient Rome as a means for controlling the people.

Most of the references to "hell" in the New Testament are translations of the word "Gehenna," the valley of Hinnom.

For centuries, theologians have claimed Gehenna represents the place of infernal torment of the souls of the wicked. 

The valley of Hinnom has a detailed history in the Bible. Below is the account provided in Easton's Bible Dictionary:

Gehenna: (originally Ge bene Hinnom; i.e., "the valley of the sons of Hinnom"), a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem, where the idolatrous Jews offered their children in sacrifice to Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning. It thus in process of time became the image of the place of everlasting destruction. In this sense it is used by our Lord in Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5. In these passages, and also in James 3:6, the word is uniformly rendered "hell," the Revised Version placing "Gehenna" in the margin.

The sacrifice of children to Molech was proscribed in the law of Moses.

Leviticus 18:21
And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 20:2
Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

Did Jesus refer to Gehenna as "the place of everlasting destruction," implying hell is a place of infernal torment, as the pagans believed?

I suggest Jesus was influenced more by what the law of Moses said, and by the history of Gehenna recorded in the holy scriptures, and by what the prophets wrote, than by all the traditions and superstitions of men. So we should look in the scriptures for the significance of Gehenna, rather than assume that human tradition and speculation is correct.

Is the fire literal? 

The "fire that shall never be quenched" of  Mark 9:45 is not a literal fire, as all literal fires will eventually cease. This fire, will never cease.

Jesus said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." This saying occurs in Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, and Luke 21:33.

Jesus said, "I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?" This was the metaphorical fire of his word. It was "already kindled" because his word had already been revealed by the prophets!

Jeremiah wrote, "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" [Jeremiah 23:29]

Taking these scriptures together, it is clear that God's word is the only "fire" that will never be quenched. And it is the "fire" that burns those who are cast into Gehenna!

The "fire" of Matthew 5:21-22 is a metaphor of God's word, which consumes all the false ideas about death, hades, the afterlife, infernal torment, etc.

Jesus associated Gehenna with judgment in Matthew 5:21-22. In the judgment, the knowledge of God fills the earth, as water covers the sea. [Isaiah 11:9] And it is a 'fire' that destroys all false beliefs.

Revelation 20:14
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

Immortal worms?

Are the worms in Gehenna immortal?

Worms or maggots that infest exposed corpses turn into flies; they do not, in general, die as maggots! The imagery is repulsive, as a warning to Christians about the dangers of suffering the fate of rejection as unfit for the kingdom of God. What a shame it is, for a person to know and believe the gospel, but to disqualify! Some turn away deliberately, others are deceived, and some simply neglect God. These are all stars who are drawn by the tail of the dragon, and return to the earth, in the prophecy of Revelation 12. Jesus said, "Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man." [Luke 21:36]

Paul wrote:

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power: That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jewish superstition 

Indeed, belief in a subterranean place of torment for the souls of the unrighteous dead was a popular superstition among the Jews in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul, according to Josephus, who says they taught "that every soul is imperishable, but that only those of the righteous pass into another body, while those of the wicked are, on the contrary, punished with eternal torment" -Josephus Wars 2.8.14

Also, "they hold the belief that an immortal strength belongs to souls, and that there are beneath the earth punishments and rewards for those who in life devoted themselves to virtue or vileness, and that eternal imprisonment is appointed for the latter, but the possibility of returning to life for the former" -Josephus Ant. 18.1.3

Jesus warned his disciples, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees", referring to their doctrines. [Matthew 16:6, 12]

What are the NT warnings about Gehenna? 

Consider the things that can result in one being thrown into Gehenna. These include calling your brother a fool; not plucking out your eye, when it causes offence; not cutting off your right hand, when it causes offence; hypocrisy; and having an unruly tongue. Compare with the things that according to Jesus, in Matthew 25:40-46, disqualify people from entering into life: not feeding a hungry person; not giving a drink to a thirsty person; not taking in a stranger; not giving clothes to someone who is naked; and not visiting those who were sick, or in prison.

According to many theologians, failure in the manner described above is punished with everlasting infernal torment in hell! How unfair, and unreasonable that would be!  Does it make any sense? The penalty seems out of proportion to the sin. But I suggest, that is not what Jesus meant. Instead, when Jesus referred to Gehenna, it was symbolic of being declared unfit for the kingdom of God. "Jerusalem," for Jesus, represented the church, his bride, and his kingdom, the holy city of the saints. Gehenna, the garbage dump of the earthly Jerusalem, represents the spiritual condition of those who are rejected as unfit for the church of Christ, and the kingdom.

One can be cast aside spiritually, and be outside of the kingdom of the saints, in this present life, even when one is involved in the visible church. This condition is portrayed by the Gentiles who occupy the outer court of the temple in Revelation 11:2. The flaws that are listed above, that can get a person thrown into Gehenna, depict sins against the spirit of Christ.

The reference Jesus made in Mark 9:47 to plucking out one's eye should not to be taken literally. I think he meant the "eye" figuratively, as in the "mind's eye." One can "see" the scriptures from various points of view. Consider the Mormon point of view; they "see" through the "eye" of Joseph Smith and the book of Mormon. In the SDA church, people "see" with the "eye" of Ellen G. White. Many "see" with the "eye" of Calvin, or the "eye" of Jonathan Edwards (1703 - 1758), the "eye" of John N. Darby, etc. Whatever "eye" it is that offends, we need to be willing to "pluck it out," and follow Christ, or we risk being "cast into Gehenna," meaning being rejected from Christ's kingdom. Some treasure as their "right hand" the books of their favourite theologians; if any of these cause you to stumble, cut them off; get rid of them!

The valley of Hinnom or Gehenna was a literal place, a garbage dump. For one to be cast into it, meant being rejected from the holy city, which is a figure of the kingdom of God and the church in the New Testament. And so the references to Gehenna in the gospel accounts apply to Christians, as a warning, about being rejected from the kingdom. John wrote:

Revelation 22:4-5,
Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Did God create a place of torment? 

In the creation account, there is no mention of God creating a place for the unending torment of souls of the wicked. Jews in the hellenistic period were influenced by pagan superstitions about infernal suffering in hell, as well by false concepts about the nature of the heavens, and a rigid firmament revolving around the earth, and planetary spheres, etc. They even corrupted the Bible to support these beliefs. The theologians and scholars in later centuries were also deceived.

The history of Gehenna

Jeremiah 7:28-31
But thou shalt say unto them, This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the LORD their God, nor receiveth correction: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth.
Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the LORD hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.
For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the LORD: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it.
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.

In the scripture quoted above, Jeremiah reports that the children of Judah burned their sons and their daughters in the fire of Molech, which he says was a notion that had "never come into God's heart." Obviously, that was a cruel and evil act, specifically condemned in the law. Clearly, it was an abomination to God.

Consider how the behaviour of the children of Judah who burned their sons and their daughters in the fire of Molech compares with the doctrine of infernal torment of unbelievers; the acts are similar, as humans are the offspring of God, our father in heaven.

What kind of father subjects his own children to roasting in a fire? According to Jeremiah, the Jews did it. The idea of unending infernal torment is similar, except for the duration of the victim's suffering. In the latter case, it is the soul, rather than the body that is subject to torment. And the suffering is prolonged, to be unending. But scripture says such a thing had "never come into God's heart." Since Jeremiah said that for the people to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire as a religious sacrifice had "never come into God's heart," because it was evil, and condemned by the law, how much more, is it unthinkable that God himself would subject his own offspring to such a fate!

It is God's condemnation of that evil that the scriptures associate with 'Gehenna', and perhaps that is the reason why Jesus uses it as a metaphor for the place of the unrighteous dead. It is NOT a place of infernal suffering, as such things 'never came into the mind of God'. It was a place associated with God's condemnation of cruel, inhumane abominations.

Of course, to attribute similar behaviour to God, is a serious mistake indeed! God's law shows us his character, and his law condemns that sort of cruelty. Why do some Christians say God not only throws people into a fiery hell, but that their suffering is to last forever? Clearly they don't understand, or believe, that he is a God of love!

Will those cast into Gehenna be restored? 

When the prophet Jeremiah described the boundaries of the holy city, he included the area of Gehenna, which he referred to as "the valley of the dead bodies."

Jeremiah 31:38-40
And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever.

Eventually, Gehenna is to become holy to the Lord! Does not this prophecy suggest there is hope for those cast into it?

Hades in the NT

Matthew 11:21-24
21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

IMO, the above scripture passage actually discredits the notion of unending infernal torment, which had its origin in ancient Rome, as a superstition introduced by rulers to control the plebs. It was later introduced into the church by Augustine. Details can be found one of the chapters of Edward White's book "Life in Christ" 1875, available here.

The contrast Jesus draws between heaven and hades is easy to understand; One is up, the other refers to the underworld, the unseen, as the lowest part of the world. So the metaphor is one of relative elevation. Was Capernaum literally in heaven? Of course not; neither is it literally in hades; it became, like other ancient cities, a ruin. And the notoriety of Jews who lived there lies in their rejection of Jesus and the Gospel.

Since Jesus said it will be more tolerable for Sodom, than the people of Capernaum, the judgment is the hope of salvation for the people of Sodom; and also for the Jews! But the people of Sodom are described as having a more tolerable experience. The judgment is also described as "great tribulation" in Revelation 7:14.

Hades in the Lazarus story 

There is no mention of Gehenna in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. It seems that "hades" was simply used in place of the Hebrew "sheol," the grave.

Scripture says, "the wages of sin is death," not unending infernal torment. And, "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." [Romans 6:23]

The Lazarus story mentions "torment," and this has been used by some to promote the idea of infernal torment of the souls of the wicked. The rich man was in "torment" as he was anticipating judgment, but there is a great difference between "a torment to come," and "unending infernal torment." The latter says something about the nature of God, which is untrue. God, who created everything, did not prepare a place for the infernal torment of his creatures. Scripture says all things, in heaven and earth, were created in six days. In none of those days was such a place created by God. And God declares, about the burning of infants in the fires of Molech, that such a thing had not entered his mind. Why allege that in fact, he intends an even more sinister fate for most of humanity? Why say God not only send the souls of men into a fiery hell, but prolongs their torment forever? That is quite revolting to any normal, sane person!

Whether one is Muslim, Jew, or Christian, it would be wise to get rid of the old superstition of unending infernal torment of unbelievers, as it is clearly blasphemous. Cut it off, like the hand that offends! Pluck it out, like the eye that offends, and causes people to miss out on entering God's kingdom! I doubt that Jesus meant a literal hand or a literal eye. But the "eye" of the mind, if infected with belief in the infernal torment of unbelievers, is blinded to the true nature of God, and the gospel. God promised Abraham that in his seed all nations will be blessed! That is incompatible with the idea of unending infernal torment.

Gehenna was a garbage dump

Most theologians don't think that Jesus meant that the people who suffer the fate that Jesus refers to get literally thrown into a garbage dump on the south side of Jerusalem. But this has to do with something else. They take Gehenna as a metaphor, which they interpret as unending infernal torment. They assume there is some infernal region, either within the earth, as Dante said, or beyond the limits of the universe as Milton claimed, where the souls of the wicked suffer unending torment.

The problem is, they may have misinterpreted the metaphor. Gehenna was not just any garbage dump. It had a long history, and it is a place that was notorious for centuries. And it is discussed many times in scripture. So its significance should be determined, not from pagan superstition, but from scripture.

Gehenna is mentioned several times in the New Testament, but not once does it have anything to do with torment. There are references to worms that don't die, and fire that cannot be quenched, but nothing about souls suffering torment. These are based on the prophecy of Isaiah 66:24. Note that a worm or maggot usually does not die, but turns into a fly!

Gehenna was valley near Jerusalem, and in the New Testament, Jerusalem is a figure or type of the church. The meaning that Jesus intended us to understand by his references to "Gehenna" is obvious when one considers that Jerusalem was a type of the holy city of the saints, the church. Jesus referred to Jerusalem as "the city of the great King," Matthew 5:35. It is the "Jerusalem which is above," and "the mother of us all," in Galatians 4:26. It is "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," and "the general assembly and church of the firstborn," in Hebrews 12:22-23. The valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, was where people in the earthly Jerusalem disposed of their refuse. So Gehenna pictures the sorry fate of those who are rejected from the kingdom of God, and does not allude to some place of infernal torment. Jesus gave many warnings, that we should seek to avoid being rejected from his kingdom.

Luke 21:36
Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

Gehenna represents the refuse and garbage that is cast out by the church of God! And Jesus emphasized seeking the kingdom, and not being cast out as unfit for the kingdom. He particularly warned against false doctrines, and false teachers.

Those who hold to false doctrines, when Christ reveals the true meaning of his word, might find themselves fighting against the Spirit of Christ!

John wrote, "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." [John 1:9] John the Baptist said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." [John 1:29] Jesus said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." [John 12:32] And, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." [Matthew 11:28]

The idea of God tormenting his own children forever is a wretched superstition. They misunderstand the words of Jesus, who think that is what his message was about.

The fire that can't be quenched. I suggest, is the word of God, that destroys all the false teachings and superstitions. Jeremiah wrote: "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that steal my words every one from his neighbour. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that use their tongues, and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the LORD, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD." [Jeremiah 23:29-32]

For centuries, false religious teachers, both Muslim and Christian, have spread fear by means of the superstition of unending infernal torment of unbelievers, a blasphemous doctrine, IMO.

That doctrine which is so precious to them, needs to be plucked out like the eye that offends, that Jesus spoke of! And cut off like the right hand that offends! It is contrary to the gospel of Christ.

Colossians 1:19-20
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.

Saviour of all men 

The phrase "everlasting torment" is nowhere found in the Bible. And when Jesus referred to Gehenna, he referenced a known place, that has a detailed history in the Old Testament, and which is even included in a remarkable prophecy of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah's prophecy, the "valley of dead bodies" will one day be "holy unto the Lord."

Instead of looking at these scriptures, Chuck appeals to the traditions of men, and ancient pagan superstition. It is these superstitions that Christ came to destroy!

Hebrews 2:14-15
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

Both a "fear of death" and the "power of death" are mentioned in the above scripture. Christ came to deliver those who are kept in bondage because of the "fear of death." Who are they? Most of mankind! The fear of death is increased greatly by superstition. Religions have exploited this fear; but Christ and the true Gospel deliver us from it! The purpose of God is not to condemn most people to unending infernal torment as some deluded people think! They are in darkness, and this is the same darkness that the prophet Joel talked about, when he said, "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD come." [Joel 2:31] Peter quoted this on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2. The sun is the gospel, which clothes the woman in heaven in Revelation 12:1, and it is turned to darkness by the false teachings and superstitions, such as the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the idea of unending infernal torment of unbelievers. Those who teach unending infernal torment are promoting that darkness! They are enemies of the Gospel, which is Good News for all mankind!

Jesus spoke of a resurrection, people coming out of their graves; they are not brought up from an infernal region of torment! And the scripture says, "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." [Revelation 21:4] How can there be no more pain, or sorrow, or crying, if people know their relatives and loved ones are suffering unending torment? That makes no sense! Notice these scriptures, in Paul's letter to Timothy.

1 Timothy 1:15
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

Sinners will be saved, Paul said, and that is why Jesus came.

1 Timothy 2:4-6
Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.

Paul said God wants "all men" to be saved.

1 Timothy 4:10
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

How can God be the "Saviour of all men" if some (or most, according to many) are to be punished with unending infernal toment? Either God is indeed the "Saviour of all men," or Paul must have been  a liar!

Twelve references to Gehenna in the NT

Matthew 5:21-22
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell [i.e., Gehenna] of fire.

Matthew 5:29
And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell [i.e., Gehenna].

Matthew 5:30
And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell [i.e., Gehenna].

Matthew 10:28
And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [i.e., Gehenna].

Matthew 18:9
And if thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell [i.e., Gehenna], into the unquenchable fire.

Matthew 23:15
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell [i.e., Gehenna] than yourselves.

Matthew 23:33
Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell [i.e., Gehenna]?

Mark 9:43-44
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [i.e., Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Mark 9:45
And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell [i.e., Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched:

Mark 9:47
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell [i.e., Gehenna] fire:

Luke 12:4-5
And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell [i.e., Gehenna]: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

James 3:6
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell [i.e., Gehenna].

Copyright © 2009 by Douglas E. Cox
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