Jesus' Teaching on Hell
Copyright © 1996, revised © 2004, expanded © 2007
by Samuel G. Dawson
These verses contain the sixth,
seventh, eight, and ninth times Jesus used the word gehenna. These
are verses like Mt. 5.29-30, which speak of it being better to enter life or the
kingdom without some members of one’s body rather than going into gehenna with
a whole body. However, we want to pay special attention to Mark’s account,
because in it, Jesus further described gehenna:
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, into
the unquenchable fire [emphasis
Notice that Jesus specifically said
what’s coming in gehenna—unquenchable
fire. John the Baptist said he
would baptize with unquenchable fire, not necessarily fire that would burn
unendingly, but which would not be quenched. Unquenchable fire is unstoppable!
It’s fiery destruction brought about by a divine being. In Jer. 17.27, God
warned the Jews of his time of imminent fiery judgment on themselves:
If ye will not hearken unto me...then
will I kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem, and it shall devour the palaces
of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
Likewise, in Jer. 7.20, Jeremiah foretold the same thing:
Therefore, thus saith the Lord God:
Behold mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and
upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground,
and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched
This unquenchable fire, brought on by
the Babylonians, devoured the palaces and gates of Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s
lifetime, in 586 B.C.
In Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised such a national judgment on Judah:
Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says
the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume
every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the
blazing flame will not be quenched, and
the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And all flesh will
see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
Of course, Babylon fulfilled these
words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched, but
Jerusalem didn’t burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.
Likewise, in Amos 5.6, God had
promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the
Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.:
Seek the Lord that you may live, lest
He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to
quench it for Bethel.
The unquenchable fire that consumed
Israel was unstoppable, but no one believes it’s still burning unendingly. Thus,
when Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire in Mk. 9.43, he used language that his
Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on
nations in the Old Testament.
In fact, they had never heard such
language used any other way! Of course, we have, but not from the teaching of
Thayer mentioned the use of the word
unquenchable in the Greek language by Josephus and others:
celebrated geographer, speaking of the Parthenon, a temple in Athens, says:
“In this was the inextinguishable or unquenchable lamp” (asbestos,the
very word used in Mark iii 12, Luke iii 17, and Mark ix. 43). Of course, all
it means is that the lamp was kept constantly or regularly burning during
the period alluded to, though extinguished or quenched ages ago.
the phrase asbestos gelos, “unquenchable
laughter.” But we can hardly suppose they are laughing now, and will laugh
to all eternity.
well-known author of the biographies familiarly known as “Plutarch’s Lives,”
calls the sacred fire of the temple “unquenchable fire” (pur asbeston, the
exact expression of Jesus), though he says in the very next sentence it had
sometimes gone out.
of a festival of the Jews, says that every one brought fuel for the fire of
the altar, which “continued always
unquenchable,” (asbeston aei).Here we have a union of the word supposed
to mean specially endless, when in the form of aionios, with the word
“unquenchable,” and yet both together do not convey the idea of duration
without end; for the fire of which Josephus speaks had actually gone out,
and the altar been destroyed, at the time he wrote! And still he calls the
fire “always unquenchable.”
5. Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, describing the martyrdom of several Christians
at Alexandria, says: “They were carried on camels through the city, and in this
elevated position were scourged, and finally consumed or burned in unquenchable
fire” (puri asbesto). 6 Here, again, we have the very phrase employed by our Lord, and applied to a literal
fire, which, of course, was quenched in the short space of one hour, probably,
or two hours at the longest. All that is implied is, that it burned till it had
consumed the victims. (Thayer, Ibid., p. 68-69.)
These are perfect illustrations of the
scriptural use and definition of the word unquenchable. Jesus used the word the
way his audience had always heard it used, of something unstoppable, not
In the tenth time Jesus used gehenna, he said:
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 (gehenna—SGD) than
These Jews knew what Gehenna was,
and Jesus and John had foretold the unquenchable fiery judgment awaiting them
there. He told these Jews that they were headed for it, and the people they
taught were as well. It is the same national judgment he’s been speaking of thus
Eighteen verses later, Jesus used gehenna for the eleventh time. Continuing in the same address, he said:
Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell [gehenna—SGD]?
Just three verses later, Jesus said, in Mt. 23.36:
Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.
About these same things, Jesus said in Mt. 24.34:
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished.
Thus, Jesus gave the time element when
this fiery destruction on the land would be carried out: in that generation,
i.e., in the time of his dealing with the then present generation of Jews. To
sum up, Jesus threatened the Jews in the environs of Jerusalem that they were
headed for the valley named Gehenna where
there would be unquenchable fire (Mk.
9.43)upon his generation (Mt.
23.36) in his generation (Mt.
24.34), when God destroys the
souls of those of Jesus’ generation after killing their bodies (Lk.
12.5, Mt. 10.28). We cannot make it more precise! If hell is what Jesus said it
was, hell was
the unstoppable fiery destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
There remains but one more occurrence
of gehenna in
the Bible. It’s the only time the word occurs outside the gospels, where James,
writing to Jews shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, said:
And the tongue is a fire: the world of
iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and
setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell [gehenna—SGD].
While this is the only passage
speaking of gehenna outside
the gospels, it is consistent with how Jesus defined it. James condemned misuse
of the tongue, specifically in terms Jesus used the first time he used the word
in Mt. 5.22, where he spoke of cursing one’s brethren putting one in danger of
the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD). In Jas. 3.9, James said:
Therewith bless we the Lord and
Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God: out
of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing.
Thus, the last time gehenna occurred
in the Bible, it taught the same thing it taught in the first. The Jew of Jesus’
day that abused his brother with his tongue was in danger of imminent, fiery,
national destruction. He was headed for unquenchable fire on his generation, in
We see the same imminence of this
judgment against Jesus’ generation of Jews later in James. For example, in Jas.
5.5, James mentioned a day of slaughter coming. In Jas. 5.7, he mentioned the
coming of the Lord. In Jas. 5.8, he said the coming of the Lord was “at hand.”
In Jas. 5.9, he said “the judge standeth before the door.”
Summary of the Twelve Gehenna Passages
From these twelve gehenna passages,
we learn that Gehenna would
be the familiar valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem where an imminent
fiery judgment was coming on the Jews of the generation in which Jesus was
crucified. It was unquenchable fire on that generation in that generation. It
was a national judgment against the Jews. Gehenna was
to the Jews of Jesus’ day what it was to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day-where the
term originated-the city dump! But it entailed all the horror of being rejected
and abandoned by God to the merciless enemy who surrounded the gates and who
would cause their dead carcasses to be thrown into the burning, worm-infested
place. Thus, when Jesus used the term He used it in the same sense that Jeremiah
did: as Jerusalem then was abandoned to Babylon’s invasion, so Jerusalem of
Jesus’ day was about to be abandoned to Roman invasion-unless they repented. None
of these hell passages say that anyone of our day can go to hell. None of them
associate hell with Satan. None of them say that Satan’s domain is hell. Though
they speak of men being killed and destroyed in Gehenna, none of them speak of
men being tormented there.
As we’ve seen, the concept of endless
punishment was completely foreign to inspired writing before the Law of Moses,
during the Law of Moses, and now we see it’s foreign to the teaching of Jesus.
Contrast Jesus’ use of hell with
traditional preaching on the subject. For example, we quote a Rev. J. Furniss,
See on the middle of that red-hot
floor stands a girl: she looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare.
Listen; she speaks. “I have been standing on this red-hot floor for years! Look
at my burnt and bleeding feet! Let me go off this burning floor for one moment!”
The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven.
Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the
fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet
on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it
would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be
punished more severely in hell. So God in His mercy called it out of the world
in early childhood. (J. Furniss, The
Sight of Hell [London and Dublin:
Duffy], cited by Edward William Fudge, The
Fire That Consumes [Houston:
Providential Press, 1982], p. 416.)
Charles H. Spurgeon, renowned Baptist
When thou diest thy soul will be
tormented alone-that will be a hell for it-but at the day of judgment thy body
will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, body and soul shall be
together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of
blood and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment,
memory, all tortured. Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at
an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and
yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out
undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel
on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune.
Fictions, sir! Again I say they are no fictions, but solid, stern truth. If God
be true, and this Bible be true, what I have said is the truth, and you will
find it one day to be so. (Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermon No. 66, New Park Street
Pulpit, 2:105, cited by Edward William Fudge,The Fire That Consumes [Houston:
Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
Only conceive that poor wretch in the
flames, who is saying, “O for one drop of water to cool my parched tongue!” See
how his tongue hangs from between his blistered lips! How it excoriates and
burns the roof of his mouth as if it were a firebrand! Behold him crying for a
drop of water. I will not picture the scene. Suffice it for me to close up by
saying, that the hell of hells will be to thee, poor sinner, the thought that it
is to be for ever. Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God-and on it shall
be written, “for ever!” When the damned jingle the burning irons of their
torments, they shall say, “For ever!” When they howl, echo cries, “For ever!”
“For ever” is written on their racks, “For ever” on their chains; “For ever”
burneth in the fire, “For ever” ever reigns.” (From a sermon preached in 1855,
cited by Edward William Fudge, The
Fire That Consumes [Houston:
Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
Jonathan Edwards, famous Calvinist
preacher of an earlier century, said:
So it will be with the soul in Hell;
it will have no strength or power to deliver itself; and its torment and horror
will be so great, so mighty, so vastly disproportioned to its strength, that
having no strength in the least to support itself, although it be infinitely
contrary to the nature and inclination of the soul utterly to sink; yet it will
sink, it will utterly and totally sink, without the least degree of remaining
comfort, or strength, or courage, or hope. And though it will never be
annihilated, its being and perception will never be abolished: yet such will be
the infinite depth of gloominess that it will sink into, that it will be in a
state of death, eternal death.
To help your conception, imagine
yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst
of a glowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much
greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the
heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of
an hour, full of fire, as full within and without as a bright coal of fire, all
the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of
such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you!And how
much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole
year, and how vastly greater still, if you knew you must endure it for a
thousand years! O then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew,
that you must bear it forever and ever! That after millions of millions of ages,
your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never,
never should be delivered! But your torment in Hell will be immeasurably greater
than this illustration represents. How then will the heart of a poor creature
sink under it! How utterly inexpressible and inconceivable must the sinking of
the soul be in such a case. (Jonathan Edwards, cited by A. W. Pink, Eternal
Punishment [Swengel, PA: Reiner
Publications, n.d.], cited by Edward William Fudge, The
Fire That Consumes [Houston:
Providential Press, 1982], p. 417.)
The world will probably be converted
into a great lake or liquid globe of fire, in which the wicked shall be
overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to
and fro, having no rest day and night, vast waves and billows of fire
continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of a
quick sense within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their
hands, their feet, their loins and their vitals, shall forever be full of a
flowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and
also, they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel
the torments; not for one minute, not for one day, not for one age, not for two
ages, not for a hundred ages, nor for ten thousand millions of ages, one after
another, but forever and ever, without any end at all, and never to be
delivered. (Cited by Gary Amirault, The
Ancient Inventors and Modern Perpetrators of Hell, p.
Did all that preaching come from the
twelve gehenna passages
we’ve just analyzed? Didany of
it? We can find none of this language of red-hot floors, dungeons, red-hot
ovens, vessels of hot oil, being able to see the throne of God, brick-kilns,
torture racks, chains, or great furnaces anywhere in these twelve passages that
deal with the subject of gehenna in
the Bible. However, they are easily found in Milton’s Paradise
Lost and Dante’s Inferno..
Such concepts are also found in Islamic writings:
As for the disbelievers, they know at
the moment of death that they are destined for Hell. The angels beat them up on
the faces and rear ends (8:50 & 47:27), order them to evict their souls (6:93),
then “snatch their souls” (79:1). The Quran teaches that the disbelievers go
through 2 deaths (2:28 & 40:11). They will be put to death - a state of
nothingness during which they see Hell day and night in a continuous nightmare
that lasts until the Day of Judgment (40:46). Hell is not yet in existence
(40:46, 89:23). (Dr. Rashad Khalifa., Submission.org)
The reader may wonder, “Well, if Jesus
didn’t teach that the wicked presently living will finally go to hell, then what
did he teach about the final destiny of the wicked?” First, we don’t have to
know the answer to that question to know that traditional teaching on hell is
Biblically bankrupt. Second, Jesus didn’t teach anything about the final destiny
of the wicked, that is, at the end of time. If we’re tempted to use the account
of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), let’s recall that in this account,
Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham were all in hades (they
couldn’t be seen), and the passage doesn’t address what happens after the end of
time at all. Whatever the passage teaches, it doesn’t deal with the final
destiny of the wicked.
One other observation deserves to be
made. As we’ve seen, the word gehenna occurs
sparsely in the Bible-none in the Greek Old Testament, and only twelve times in
the New Testament, eleven by Jesus, and one by James. Amazingly, the word is
nowhere used in the book of Acts. Luke recorded thirty years of preaching by
Paul (who claimed to have declared “the whole counsel of God”) and others in
Acts, yet the word is not used once. Not only does Acts not record any of the
teaching on hell that we’ve just seen samples of, it doesn’t even mention the
word! The gospel being preached in Acts didn’t contain such a concept at all,
but it did carry a lot of preaching to Jews about the inescapable fiery judgment
that was coming upon them if they didn’t repent.
Other Terminology Commonly Thought
to Eternal Fiery Hell
Now we want to notice other
expressions of fiery judgment which we traditionally use to describe hell. These
include fire burning to sheol, the
worm dying not, unquenchable fire, fire that is not quenched, everlasting fire,
weeping and gnashing of teeth, gnashing of teeth, fire and brimstone, rising
smoke, no rest day or night, being cast into fire, and melting.
Fire Consuming a Nation
In Isa. 33.10-11, Isaiah said about Assyria:
Now I will arise, says the Lord, now I
will be exalted, now I will be lifted up. You have conceived chaff, you will
give birth to stubble; my breath will consume you like a fire, and the peoples
will be burned to lime, like cut thorns which are burned in the fire....Who
among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual
A careful study of the Old Testament
prophets shows these expressions of the Assyrians being consumed by fire, and
burned to lime are expressions of national judgment upon that nation. These
expressions are similar to Jesus’ statement in Lk. 12.49 that he came to send
fire on the land of Israel. This is also the Old Testament basis for Jesus’
statement to the Jews in Jn. 15.6:
If a man abide not in me, he is cast
forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the
fire, and they are burned.
Isaiah’s language was also similar to
that in Dan. 7.9-12, where Daniel foretold the judgment of the beast about to
overcome the saints of the Most High:
I kept looking until thrones were set
up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and
the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its
wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from
before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon
myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, and the books were opened. Then
I kept looking because of the sound of the boasting words which the horn was
speaking: I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed
and given to the burning fire.
This scene portrayed the national
destruction of the pagan power attempting to destroy the saints of the Most
High. This is the same scene described in Rev. 20.11-15:
And I saw a great white throne, and
him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and
there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small,
standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened,
which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which were
written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and
they were judged every man according to their works. And death and Hades were
cast into the lake of fire. And if any was not found written in the book of
life, he was cast into the lake of fire.
Both of these scenes depict national
judgments against a nation persecuting God’s saints, both have judgment scenes,
both have people judged out of things written in the books, and both have those
not pleasing God in the judgment being cast into a river or lake of fire. This
national judgment goes with John’s expressions of imminence in Rev. 1.3 (“the
time is at hand”), Rev. 22.6 (“things which must shortly come to pass”), and
Rev. 22.10 (“Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book: for the time is
at hand”). Those who take the early date of Revelation (A.D. 67) believe these
words refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, while those who take the later date
for Revelation (A.D. 90-96) believe these words refer to the destruction of the
Roman Empire. Whether they refer to Jerusalem or the Roman empire, they refer to
a national judgment.
Fire Burning to Sheol, Consuming
the Earth and Mountains
This language is generally associated
with a fiery judgment at the end of time, and hell. However, in Dt. 32.22, Moses
said the same about the punishment God would bring on Israel for her idolatry:
For a fire is kindled in My anger, and
burns to the lowest part of Sheol, and consumes the earth with its yield, and
sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
This language described national
judgment that caused a nation to vanish.
Worm Dieth Not, Fire Not Quenched
While this language is generally
applied to hell, it’s not so used in any of the gehennapassages
in the Bible. In Isa. 66.24, we read of God’s destruction of Jerusalem in the
generation when Jesus was crucified:
Then they shall go forth and look on
the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall
not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence
to all mankind.
This passage contains nothing about
conscious suffering, much less enduring to the end of time. Yet this is the same
kind of language we saw in Mk. 9.47-48, the passage where Jesus described gehenna with
“unquenchable fire.” There Jesus said:
It is good for thee to enter into the
kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell;
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
When Jesus spoke these words, the
Bible had never used such language of anything but a national judgment.
Likewise, when John the Baptist and
Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire, the Jews had never heard such language used of
anything but a national judgment. For example, in Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised
national judgment on Israel:
Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says
the Lord God, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume
every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not
be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. And
all flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
In Amos 5.5-6, we have the same
language used of national judgment on Israel again. God had promised a similar
judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722
Seek the Lord that you may live, lest
He break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume with none to
quench it for Bethel.
In Isa. 66.15-16, 24, Isaiah spoke of
New Jerusalem’s enemies being burned with unquenchable fire, as he spoke of the
destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70:
For behold, the Lord will come in
fire, and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and
His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment by fire, and
by His sword on all flesh. And those slain by the Lord will be many....Then they
shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against
Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they
shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.
In Jer. 21.10-12, we read of Babylon’s
burning Jerusalem with unquenchable fire, a national judgment fulfilled in 586
For I have set My face against this
city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the
hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire. Then say to the
household of the king of Judah, Hear the word of the Lord, O house of David,
thus says the Lord: Administer justice every morning; and deliver the person who
has been robbed from the power of the oppressor. That My wrath may not go forth
like fire and burn with none to extinguish it, because of the evil of their
Again, at the time John the Baptist
and Jesus used this language in the gospels, the Bible had only used it of
Fire That Is Not Quenched
The same thing is true of this
expression. In Jer. 4.4, Jeremiah used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In
Jer. 21.12, he used it to describe the destruction of the house of David. In
Amos 5.5, 6, Amos used it of the destruction of Jerusalem. In II K. 22.17, it’s
used of the destruction of Judah. In Isa. 34.10, Isaiah used it of the
destruction of Edom, and in Isa. 66.24, he used it of the destruction of the
enemies of the Messiah’s people. See also Jer. 7.20, 17.27, where Jeremiah used
it of the destruction of Judah, and Ezk. 20.47-48, where Ezekiel spoke of God’s
destruction of Jerusalem.
Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
These words are so often thought of as
applying to people suffering unending conscious torment in hell, that it will
surprise many to find that the Old Testament used this language exclusively of
In Isa. 22.12, speaking of the time Jerusalem would be destroyed by Babylon, Isaiah said:
Therefore in that day the Lord God of hosts, called you to weeping, to wailing, to shaving the head, and to wearing sackcloth.
See also Isa. 16.9, Jer. 9.1, and
48.32. The entire book of Lamentations contains such language as Jeremiah
lamented the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. In the New Testament, Jas. 5.1
uses the same kind of language to describe the weeping of the rich for fear of
God’s imminent judgment on Jerusalem:
Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for
your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your
garments are moth-eaten.
This judgment was also imminent in
Jas. 5.5-9, where the day of slaughter was spoken of as at hand, as the judge
was standing before the door. John used this same language in Rev. 18.9, of the
pagan kings lamenting the destruction of spiritual Babylon:
And the kings of the earth, who
committed fornication and lived wantonly with her, shall weep and wail over her,
when they look upon the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of
her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! for in
one hour is thy judgment. And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over
On the gnashing of teeth in
particular, an adversary about to kill his victim did this in Job 16.9, Ps.
35.16, Ps. 37.12, Lam. 2.16, and Acts 7.54. Ths Psalmist used it of gnashing of
teeth by the victim in Ps. 112.10, where the psalmist said:
The wicked man will see and be vexed,
he will gnash his teeth and waste away: the longing of the wicked will come to
Thus, when Jesus and John the Baptist
issued their warnings of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, they used
language that the Old Testament had only used of national destruction.
Fire and Brimstone
In Isa. 34.9, Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom:
And its streams shall be turned into
pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land shall become burning
In Isa. 30.33, Isaiah used it of such a judgment on Assyria:
For Topheth [the place of human
sacrifice to Molech, an Assyrian god—SGD] has long been ready, indeed, it has
been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with
plenty of wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it
Psalm 11.6 spoke of fire and brimstone
on the wicked, Ezk. 38.22 used this language to speak of national judgment on
Gog, a pagan nation opposed to God’s people in the restoration after Babylonian
captivity. In Rev. 14.9-11, John used fire and brimstone of national judgment on
the empire attempting to eradicate the Messiah’s people. Scripture uses this
language only of national judgment.
Isaiah used this language of national judgment against Edom in Isa. 34.10:
It shall not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke shall go up forever; From generation to generation it shall be
desolate; None shall pass through it forever and ever.
No Rest Day or Night
Isaiah used this language of national judgment on Edom in Isa. 34.10, quoted above.
Cast Into Fire
In Ezk. 5.4-5, this language described Israel being cast into the fire, in her destruction by Babylon:
And take again some of them and throw
them into the fire, and burn them in the fire, from it a fire will spread to all
the house of Israel...Thus says the Lord God, This is Jerusalem; I have set her
at the center of the nations, with lands around her.
Thus, this expression is used consistently of national destruction.
Unfruitful Branches to Be Burned Up
In Ezk. 19.10-14, Ezekiel used this language of the national destruction of Israel:
Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters; It was fruitful and full of branches Because of
abundant waters. And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers, And its
height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the
mass of its branches. But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the
ground; And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off So
that it withered; The fire consumed it. And now it is planted in the wilderness,
In a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its branch; It has
consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A
scepter to rule. This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation.
In Mic. 1.2-7, God said he would melt
Israel and Judah. In Ps. 75.3, the Psalmist used this language of the
destruction of God’s enemies in the Old Testament. Peter may well have used this
language of the destruction of Jerusalem in II Pet. 3.10-12. Like all the other
expressions, melt portrays national destruction.
This section shows that none of the
language we usually associate with hell is so associated in the Bible, and most
of that language was used of strictly national judgments.
Is Hell Even a Proper Translation for Gehenna?
Having seen the concept involved in
Jesus’ use of gehenna, that
it was an unstoppable fiery punishment on his generation in his generation, we
now ask whether hell is even a proper translation for gehenna. Does
our English word “hell” fit the concept of gehenna we
find in the teaching of Jesus?
Did Gehenna Even Need Translating?
As we have seen, Gehenna was
the proper name for a location just outside Jerusalem. Why did it even need
translating at all? We don’t translate other proper names, such as Gethsemane,
Calvary, or Bethlehem, all in the vicinity of Jerusalem. People living far away
from Jerusalem, say in Ephesus or Rome, might not have known what these names
referred to, but residents of the environs of Jerusalem certainly did, and
didn’t need the word translated.
When interpreting the Bible, or any
other writing, for that matter, one
of the fundamental rules is that we take a passage in its most literal sense
unless something in the context forces us to interpret it otherwise. Thus,
we should take any expression as literal, or at face value, unless the evident
meaning forbids it. By evidently forbidden, we mean there’s evidence that
forbids the idea that it should be taken literally. By evidence, we don’t mean,
“I just hope it’s taken figuratively, or I can’t figure out what this means; so
therefore, it must be figurative.” That’s not evidence. By evidence, we mean
things like the correct definition of a word or something in the context or
other verses that demonstrate that it is not to be taken literally.
Applying this rule to the present
case, we ask, “Is there evidence that forces us to think thatGehenna is
anything other than the valley just outside Jerusalem? What is the evidence that
Jesus’ language cannot mean that?” In the absence of such evidence, Jesus simply
warned the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, that unless they repented, their
city was imminently to be destroyed.
A second rule for the interpretation
of potentially figurative (non-literal) language is that expressions are
figurative when the literal meaning would involve an impossibility. Applying
this rule to the present case (the interpretation of Gehenna),
we ask, “Does interpretingGehenna literally
involve us in an impossibility? Does interpreting ‘Jesus as warning the Jews in
the region of Jerusalem that unless they repented, their city was to be
imminently destroyed’ involve an impossibility?” Of course not, because
historically, that is exactly what happened.
A third rule is that a passage isn’t
literal if the literal view places it in conflict with another. Applying this
rule to the present case, we ask, “Does interpreting Gehenna literally
place these passages in conflict with any others?” Again, the answer is,
obviously not, since Old Testament prophets foretold of Jerusalem’s destruction
(including John the Baptist, and Jesus himself). Why didn’t translators obey
these rules when interpreting Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna? Is
there anything in the context that forced them to think that Gehennadoesn’t
mean exactly what it says, i.e., a physical, literal location just outside
Jerusalem? Of course, people who lived far away from Jerusalem probably wouldn’t
have known whatGehenna was,
any more than people outside New York City may not know about Fishkills (the
proper name of their municipal dump). But no one outside the region of Jerusalem
was threatened by the destruction of Jerusalem. No one in Ephesus or Rome was
ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if
he didn’t repent. No Gentile was ever threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if
he didn’t repent. We are not threatened with the prospect of Gehenna if
we don’t repent.
As one reviewer commented, “Of all things—Gehenna just means Gehenna!”
What Is the Origin of the English Word “Hell”?
Concerning the word “hell,” the Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Hell, the abode or state of being of
evil spirits or souls that are damned to postmortem punishment. Derived from an
Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to conceal,” or “to cover,” the term hell originally
designed the torrid regions of the underworld, though in some religions the
underworld is cold and dark. (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, 15th
edition [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.], p. 813.)
Britannica’s lexicographer (whose job
is to define words as they are now used) correctly defined hell as it’s used now
as the place of punishment after death. However, notice that the word
historically meant “a cover.” Our word “helmet” comes from the same origin, as
it covers the head. Scholars tell us this word was used in the middle ages of a
farmer, who would put a “hell” or “cover” over his potatoes to preserve them
during the winter.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says:
Hell [ME, fr. OE; akin to OE helan to
conceal, OHG hella, hell,
to conceal, ON hel] heathen
realm of the dead, Goth halja hell,
L celare to
hide, conceal, Gk kalyptein to
cover, conceal, Skt sarana screening,
protecting, basic meaning: concealing. (Webster’s Third New International
Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, editor
Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1993], p.
Webster agrees that the Old English
origin of the word means “cover.” This word had nothing to do with a place of
punishment or eternal torment. Those connotations came much later, just in time,
we might say, to be corrupted by Roman Catholicism into its present form. To
translate “gehenna” (which
didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment), with the word
“hell” (which also didn’t contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment)
isn’t a translation at all, but a substitution of a man-made doctrine into a
word convenient to be corrupted.
This would be like the proper noun
“Palo Duro Canyon,” a familiar feature in the Texas Panhandle near the author’s
residence. People living far away have never heard of it. If someone translated
the words “Palo Duro Canyon” with a completely unrelated word, and then said
that new word meant “eternal torment,” it wouldn’t make sense, would it? That is
exactly what happened with the proper noun Gehenna, a
location familiar with inhabitants of Jerusalem. But to then suggest that the
word Gehenna should
be translated by the word “hell,” a word that has none of the meaning of the
word Gehenna, compounds
the problem. “Hell” is not a translation of Gehenna, any
more than New York is a translation of Jerusalem.
Another example of this unjustified
substitution of a completely unrelated English word for a Greek word is the word
“Easter” in Ac. 12.4. The King James Version tells us that Herod arrested Peter:
And when he had apprehended him, he
put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep
him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
The word “translated” Easter is Pascha, the
standard word for Passover throughout the New Testament. The translators of the
King James Version, all members of the Church of England, essentially the
English version of the Roman Catholic Church, knew the word “Easter” didn’t mean
Passover, and didn’t have any relation to the Passover. Rather than translate Pascha as
Passover, they just jammed Easter into its place. The same thing happened when
the translators jammed the word hell into the place of gehenna. Hell
is no more related to gehenna than
Easter is to Pascha.
Universalist J. W. Hanson wrote
something on this subject worth considering, even though we do not agree with
his theory of salvation:
The word should have been left
untranslated as it is in some versions, and it would not be misunderstood. It
was not misunderstood by the Jews to whom Jesus addressed it. Walter Balfour
well says: “What meaning would the Jews who were familiar with this word, and
knew it to signify the valley of Hinnom, be likely to attach to it when they
heard it used by our Lord? Would they, contrary to all former usage, transfer
its meaning from a place with whose locality and history they had been familiar
from their infancy, to a place of misery in another world? This conclusion is
certainly inadmissible. By what rule of interpretation, then, can we arrive at
the conclusion that this word means a place of misery and death?”
The French Bible, the Emphatic
Diaglott, Improved Version, Wakefield’s Translation and Newcomb’s retain the
proper noun, Gehenna, the name of a place as well-known as Babylon.
Dr. Thayer significantly remarks: “The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word.
John Baptist, who preached to the most wicked of men did not use it once. Paul
wrote fourteen epistles and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it,
nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel, three epistles, and the Book of
Revelation, never employs it in a single instance. Now if Gehenna or Hell really
reveals the terrible fact of endless woe, how can we account for this strange
silence? How is it possible, if they knew its meaning and believed it a part of
Christ’s teaching that they should not have used it a hundred or a thousand
times, instead of never using it at all; especially when we consider the
infinite interests involved? The Book of Acts contains the record of the
apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the church among
the Jews and Gentiles, and embraces a period of thirty years from the ascension
of Christ. In all this history, in all this preaching of the disciples and
apostles of Jesus there is no mention of Gehenna. In thirty years of missionary
effort these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations never
under any circumstances threaten them with the torments of Gehenna or allude to
it in the most distant manner! In the face of such a fact as this can any man
believe that Gehenna signifies endless punishment and that this is part of
divine revelation, a part of the Gospel message to the world? These
considerations show how impossible it is to establish the doctrine in review on
the word Gehenna. All the facts are against the supposition that the term was
used by Christ or his disciples in the sense of endless punishment. There is not
the least hint of any such meaning attached to it, nor the slightest preparatory
notice that any such new revelation was to be looked for in this old familiar
Salvation is never said to be from
Gehenna. Gehenna is never said to be of endless duration nor spoken of as
destined to last forever, so that even admitting the popular ideas of its
existence after death it gives no support to the idea of endless torment. (J. W.
Hanson, D.D., The Bible Hell, fourth
edition [Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1888. Available on World Wide
Robert William West gave a good summary of the popular use of the word “hell”:
Hell: No such word was in their vocabulary, and they knew of no such place. No word with the meaning that the
English word Hell has now was used, or known about unto long after the Bible. It
is not in Greek literature in New Testaments times or before, first century
writers did not use it, Josephus, or any other historian of that time did not
use it, it is not in the Septuagint. A place where God will torment the lost
forever after the Judgment Day was not known about. the concept of the place
called hell, or the name hell is not in the bible, and does not occur in any
writing of either the Hebrews or the Greeks until long after the Bible. The Old
Testament Hebrew, or the New Testament Greek, has no word that is even close to
today’s English word “hell.” How do we know about this place called hell? Where
did hell come from? It is not in the Bible. Neither is the name “hell” in the
Bible. Where did it come from? Not by faith that comes by hearing God’s word. It
is from the doctrines and precepts of men [Matthew 15:9]. It was not used in the
first century because it was a word that was not in their vocabulary, and a
place they know nothing about. (William Robert West, If
the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead,Third
Edition, originally published as The Resurrection and Immortality[Bloomington, IN: Author House, September 2006]
Summary of Jesus’ Teaching on Hell
False theories of eternal punishment
of the wicked have done unfathomable damage in the religious realm. Untold
millions of people have obeyed God purely out of fear of a false concept of
hell. Other untold millions have turned their backs on God because of a false
sense of hell, as described by Roman Catholic sources, and their followers in
This study shows that when John the
Baptist and Jesus used these terms, they used language familiar to the Jews whom
they taught. The Jews had heard this language no other way than in scenes of
national judgment. While it is easy for us to read these passages from the point
of view of enduring conscious punishment, we should read them as the Jews who
heard them first.
Rather than our present day beliefs
about hell coming from the Bible, the caller to the radio program was right. Our
beliefs come from Roman Catholic theologians. As a result of an earlier version
of this material, many have asked the author to deal with the final destiny of
the wicked. While we are not prepared to deal with that larger subject at
present, we can see, if our conclusions are correct thus far, that the subject
of the final destiny of the wicked was never part of Jesus’ teaching on gehenna
or hell. That connection was given to us courtesy of Roman Catholicism, just
like it gave us purgatory, the sale of indulgences, Limbo Patrum, Limbo
"Jesus' Teaching on Hell,"
comes from the book The Teaching
of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns
Rebellious Israel by Samuel G.
Dawson © 2004 by Samuel G. Dawson, and Essays on Eschatology: An Introductory
Overview of the Study of Last Things by
Samuel G. Dawson © 2009. Used by permission of the publisher.
Check out Samuel G. Dawson’s books at The Teaching of Jesus at Amazon.com.
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You may not charge for this material.
All Old Testament scripture quotations are taken from The
New American Standard Bible, ©
1960-1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All New Testament
scripture quotations are taken from The
American Standard Version New Testament, ©
1901, 1929 Thomas Nelson and Sons. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1996, revised
© 2004, expanded © 2007 by Samuel G. Dawson.
What did Jesus teach about Hell?
Is the Bible infallible, or the inerrant word of God?
Was hell in the Original Bible?
Is the word "hell" in the Bible?
mentioned in the Old Testament?
Hell in the New Testament
many times is "hell" mentioned in the Bible?
Hell is not Biblical!
Hell is not in the Bible!
Hell in Hebrew