The HyperTexts

Jesus's Teaching on Hell

What did Jesus Christ say about "hell," really? Did Jesus believe in "hell"? Does Jesus damn human beings to "hell" for not believing in his godhood? What does the Bible teach about "hell"? What did the first great Christian evangelist, Saint Paul, say about "hell"? Is there any clear teaching anywhere in the Bible about a place where human beings suffer for all eternity?

Would it surprise you to learn that "hell" was never mentioned, not even once, in the entire Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament)? If there is a hell, why was it never mentioned, not even once by God and the Hebrew prophets, in biblical chronologies covering many thousands of years? Why was neither "hell" nor any possibility of suffering after death ever mentioned to Adam, Eve, Cain, Able, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, or a long line of Hebrew prophets? Why were the worst people even at the worst times never threatened with "hell" or suffering after death: ... not Cain (the first murderer); not the wicked people at the time of the Great Flood; not even the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites and defied God repeatedly?

Would it surprise you to learn that Sheol does not mean "hell" in the Old Testament, and that Hades does not mean "hell" in the New Testament?

Would you be surprised to learn that even the conservative Bible scholars trusted by the famously literal Southern Baptist Convention to create the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) found absolutely no occurrence of the word "hell" in any book of the Old Testament, and only a scant ten verses in the New Testament, with nearly half of those being duplicate verses in the parallel gospels of Matthew and Mark? Would it surprise you to know that even in those few unique passages the word used, Gehenna, does not seem to mean "hell" either? And doesn't this suggest that only one major Bible writer (the writer of the original text that became the Gospel of Mark) knew anything about Gehenna being "hell," if indeed he intended it to mean "hell"?

How is it possible, if there really is a "hell," that a loving, wise, just God would have told only one person about it?

Would it surprise you to learn that the Apostle Paul, who wrote most of the books of the New Testament, never mentioned a place called "hell" in any of his epistles? Would it surprise you to learn that only verse in the entire Bible (2 Peter 2:4)  contains a word that actually means "hell"? But that verse which mentions Tartarus, the Greek hell, is about a pit where fallen angels await judgment, meaning it is not eternal and not for human beings! If such things interest you, the following article studies the issue of "hell" in the Bible systematically and comprehensively. The author makes the point that we know "purgatory" was the non-biblical invention of Catholic theologians ... but so was "hell." We also know that there is no mention of "limbo" or infant baptism in the Bible, because these too were inventions of Catholic theologians ... but so was "hell." In order for Christians to believe in hell, there should be at least one verse in the Bible that either says hell preexisted from the beginning, or that God created it later for some purpose. But there is no such verse anywhere in the Bible. This is clearly and unmistakably true: from beginning to end, the Bible is absolutely silent about either the preexistence or creation of "hell." If you read the Bible from beginning to end, you will never hear God, or any Hebrew prophet, or Jesus Christ, or any of his apostles ever say a word about either the preexistence or creation of "hell." Why? Because "hell" is not a biblical teaching. The Hebrew language doesn't even have a word that means "hell," an inexplicable omission if Moses and the Hebrew prophets spoke directly to an all-wise God. Therefore, my personal conclusion is that "hell" has always been a mistranslation of a very few verses in the Bible, because for thousands of years there clearly was no mention of "hell" at all, and when a smattering of verses started popping up that might possibly be taken to be talking about "hell," there was never any confirmation from God, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, or any of his apostles that such a place even existed.Michael R. Burch

Jesus' Teaching on Hell
Copyright © 1996, revised © 2004, expanded © 2007 by Samuel G. Dawson 

Most of what we believe about hell comes from Catholicism and ignorance of the Old Testament, not from the Bible. This study will cause you to re-examine current teaching on hell and urge you to further study on what happens to the wicked after death.

I was righteously indignant when, a number of years ago, a caller uttered these words on a call-in radio show I was conducting. Perturbed by his haphazard use of Scripture, I pointed out to him and the audience, that hell couldn’t possibly be something invented by Catholic theologians because Jesus talked about it. I forcefully read some of the passages where Jesus did, and concluded that hell couldn’t possibly be the invention of an apostate church.

I now believe that hell is the invention of Roman Catholicism; and surprisingly, most, if not all, of our popular concepts of hell can be found in the writings of Roman Catholic writers like the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of Dante’s Inferno. The English poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost, set forth the same concepts in a fashion highly acceptable to the Roman Catholic faith. Yet none of our concepts of hell can be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ! We get indignant at the mention of purgatory—we know that’s not in the Bible. We may also find that our popular concepts of hell came from the same place that purgatory did-Roman Catholicism. The purpose of this study is to briefly analyze Jesus’ teaching on hell (more correctly gehenna, the Greek word for which hell is given), to see whether these popular concepts are grounded therein.

A Plea for Open-Mindedness as We Begin

If we strive for open-mindedness and truly want to know what the Bible teaches, the following quotation will help us in our search:

We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has moulded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, or “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958], pp. 69-70.)

Of course, Packer just reminds us of Biblical injunctions to test everything proposed for our belief. For example, in II Cor. 13.5, Paul told the Corinthians:

Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves.

Likewise, in Eph. 5.8-10, Paul commanded the Ephesian Christians to be involved in such testing:

for ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord, walk as children of light, proving what is well-pleasing unto the Lord.

In New Testament times, one was only a disciple of Christ when he was willing to examine himself, his beliefs, and everything proposed for his belief as a child of light. Nothing less is required now.

Hell vs. Sheol and Hades

We first begin by eliminating the problem the King James Version of the Bible introduced to this study by indiscriminately translating three different words in the Bible as hell: sheol, hades, and gehenna.

Sheol Used of Unseen

In the Old Testament, the word for which hell is given in the King James Version is sheol, a word whose root meaning is “unseen.” The King James Version translates sheol as “hell” 31 times, “the grave” 31 times (since someone in the grave is unseen), and “the pit” three times.

Yet in the Old Testament sheol was not exclusively a place of punishment, for faithful Jacob was there (Gen. 37.35, 42.38, 44.29, 31). Righteous Job also longed for it in Job 14.13. David spoke of going to sheol in Ps. 49.15 and Jesus went there, Ps. 16.10 and Acts 2.24-31. In all these cases, these men were “unseen” because they were dead.

Sheol Used of National Judgments

Many times the Bible uses the word sheol of national judgments, i.e., the vanishing of a nation. In Isa. 14.13, 15, Isaiah said Babylon would go to sheol, and she vanished. In Ezk. 26.19-21, Tyre so vanished in sheol. Likewise, in the New Testament, in Mt. 11.23, 12.41, Lk. 10.15, and 11.29-32, Jesus said that Capernaum would so disappear. These nations and cities didn’t go to a particular location, but they were going to disappear, and they did. They were destroyed. Thus, sheol is used commonly of national judgments in both the Old and New Testaments.

Hades Used of Anything Unseen

The New Testament equivalent of sheol is hades, which occurs only eleven times. Like its synonym sheol, the King James Version translates the word “hell.” However, the correct translation is hades, or the unseen. The Bible doesn’t use hades exclusively for a place of punishment. Luke 16 pictures righteous Lazarus there. Acts 2.27, 31 says Jesus went there. In I Cor. 15.55, Paul used the same word when he said, “O grave, where is thy victory?” In Rev. 1.18, Jesus said he had the controlling keys of death and hades, the unseen, and in Rev. 6.8, death and hades followed the pale horse. Finally, in Rev. 20.13, 14, death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and were then cast into the lake of fire. These verses illustrate that hades refers to anything that is unseen.

Hades Used of National Judgment

Like its companion word in the Old Testament, hades was also plainly used of national judgments in the New Testament. In Mt. 11.23 and Lk. 10.15, Jesus said Capernaum would go down into hades, i.e., it was going to vanish. In Mt. 12.41 and Lk. 11.29-32, Jesus said his generation of Jews was going to fall.

About hades in Greek mythology, Edward Fudge said:

In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, then the name of the nether world itself. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron into this abode, where the watchdog Cerberus guarded the gate so none might escape. The pagan myth contained all the elements for medieval eschatology: there was the pleasant Elyusium, the gloomy and miserable tartarus, and even the Plains of Asphodel, where ghosts could wander who were suited for neither of the above...The word hades came into biblical usage when the Septuagint translators chose it to represent the He­brew sheol, an Old Testament concept vastly different from the pagan Greek notions just outlined. Sheol, too, received all the dead...but the Old Testament has no specific division there involving either punishment or reward. (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 205.)

We need to make sure that our ideas concerning hades come from the Bible and not Greek mythology. We have no problem using sheol the way the Old Testament used it, orhades, as the New Testament used it. Both refer to the dead who are unseen, and to national judgments.

Tartarus Is Also Translated Hell In the King James Version

In II Pet. 2.4, we read:

For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits of darkness who were being punished when II Peter was written, to show that God knew how to treat disobedience among angels. It says nothing about fire, torment, pain, punishment of anyone else, or that it will last forever. It simply doesn’t pertain to our subject.

The Popular Concept of Hell Unknown to the Old Testament

Before we move to the gospel’s teaching on hell, we want to think further concerning that the word gehenna (popularly mis-translated hell, as we’ll see) didn’t occur in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Let’s take a few paragraphs to let the significance of that fact soak in. In previous editions of this material, I merely remarked that prominent Old Testament characters like David and Abraham never heard the term or its equivalent. They were never threatened with eternal torment in hell or heard anything like our popular concept now. However, Gehenna’s absence in the Old Testament is a much more serious omission than that. (The concepts in this section are suggested by Thomas B. Thayer in his 1855 Edition of Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment.)

Before the Mosaic Law

Adam and Eve in the Garden

When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he never mentioned the concept of eternal torment to them. Read for yourself--it’s just not there. Don’t you think it strange that as human history began on this planet, while God explained which tree they could not eat of, that he didn’t give the parents of all mankind some kind of warning about eternal punishment, if there was potential for it to be in their future, and the future of all their posterity?

Most of us think eternal torment will engulf the vast majority of mankind, nearly all of Adam and Eve’s descendents, yet here’s a father, God, who didn’t warn his children of the potential of what might befall them. What would you think of a father who told his young child not to ride his bike in the street, and if he did, he would get a spanking. Suppose he also planned to roast him over a roaring fire for fifty years? After he spanked him, would you think him a just father for not warning his child? Can you think of an apology or a defense for him? Yet to Adam and Eve, the father of all mankind failed to mention a much greater punishment than the death they would die the day they ate of the forbidden tree. Was this just a slip of the mind on God’s part, to not mention at all the interminable terrible woes that lay ahead for the vast majority of their descendants? No, God announced to them a tangible present punishment the very day they committed the sin: “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” They found that the wages of sin was death.

Cain and Abel

The same is true with Cain and Abel, a case of murder of a brother. Surely, we would think that God might roll out the threat of eternal torment that Cain was to receive as a warning to all future generations. In the whole account, there’s not a hint, not a single word on the subject. Instead, Cain is told, “And now art thou cursed from the earth...When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Again, Cain received an immediate, tangible physical punishment administered, with absolutely no warning of future eternal torment. Like Adam, Cain heard none of the dire warnings preached from pulpits of the fiery wrath of God, tormenting his soul throughout eternity.

Now, if Cain were to receive such punishment from God without warning, would God be a just lawgiver and judge to impose additional, infinitely greater punishment with no word of caution whatsoever? In Gen. 4.15, God said, “Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him seven-fold.” If, with no warning, Cain was going to receive eternal fiery torment, would those who killed him receive seven times endless fiery torment?

I’m not making light of endless torment, I’m just pointing out that it’s remarkable that God hadn’t said a word about it thus far in the Bible story.

Noah and the Flood

When we come to Noah and the flood, God noted that “every thought of man’s heart was only evil continually,” and that “the earth was filled with violence, and all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.” If not before, wouldn’t this be the ideal time to reveal eternal torment ahead for nearly all inhabitants of the earth? If any circumstances warranted such punishment, this would be the time, would it not? However, Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” didn’t threaten endless punishment to evildoers. If warnings of such punishment serve to turn man aside from his evil way, surely this would have been the time to have revealed it, but there’s nary a whisper of it. Instead, they were destroyed by the flood, a physical, tangible punishment for their sin, with absolutely no warning of endless torment. Nor was there such a warning when mankind inhabited the earth again after the flood. One word from God might have set the world on an entirely different course. Surprisingly no such word was given.

Sodom and Gomorrah

We could go on with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the physical destruction of the cities and their inhabitants, with not even a rumor of endless future torment that we probably think they unknowingly faced. What would we think if our government passed a new law with a huge fine as the punishment, but when a guilty party was found, he paid the fine, but also had to serve endless torment that the citizens had no warning of? What kind of judge explains the law and known penalty, while carefully concealing a much more awful penalty? What would the penalty of a few thousand dollars matter in a case where he was also going to be tormented horribly and endlessly? Yet the popular concept is that the Sodomites were sent into such a judgment.

We could go through the accounts of the builders of the tower of Babel, the destruction of Pharoah and his armies, and Lot’s wife, yet we would notice the same thing. All these received a temporal physical punishment, with no mention of an infinitely greater torturous punishment awaiting them in the future.

Was this teaching deliberately excluded from the record, or did it never belong? We know that it isn’t there. Neither the word gehenna nor the concept of endless torment was given in the millennia before the giving of the Law of Moses. From the creation to Mt. Sinai, there was simply no insinuation of it in the entirety of human history up to that time. By the conclusion of this study, we’ll see that God never had a plan of inflicting such dreadful torment on the people of his own creation.

Under the Mosaic Law

Most of us are familiar with the blessings and cursings Moses pronounced upon the Israelites in Deuteronomy 28-30 before they entered the promised land. If the Jews were disobedient to God, he promised them every conceivable punishment: he would curse their children, their crops, their flocks, their health, the health of their children, the welfare of the nation, etc. He foretold that they would even go into captivity, and would have such horrible temporal physical judgments to drive them to eat their own children. Among such an extensive list of punishments that would come upon his disobedient people, God uttered not even a whisper of endless torment upon them in any case of rebellion. All these physical, temporal judgments would take place in this life.

We could multiply such cases of temporal punishments for rebellion, corruption, and idolatry under Moses. He spelled them out in minute detail. The writer of Hebrews (in 2.2) said: “...the word spoken through angels (the Mosaic Law) proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward...” As we’ve seen, the punishment was physical and temporal with no promise of endless torment whatsoever. Endless torment was simply unknown under the Law.

The question now arises, did every transgressor and disobe-dient Jew receive just punishment, or not? If they did, will their punishment continue to be just if in the future, they will also receive endless torment in “hell” that they were never told of and knew nothing of? If so, will eternal torment on top of their just physical temporal punishment still be just? It cannot be, can it? How can adding infinite torture in the future that they knew nothing of to a just punishment they received in the past under the Old Testament still be just?

In summary, the popular concept of hell is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. The word gehenna is not even contained in the Greek Old Testament, endless torment is nowhere to be found in its pages.

Where Did the Concept of Endless Torment Originate?

As we’ve seen, it most certainly did not originate in the Old Testament, either before or during the Mosaic Law. A great deal of evidence (more than we’ll give here) suggests that it originated in Egypt, and the concept was widespread in the religious world. Augustine, commenting on the purpose of such doctrines, said:

This seems to have been done on no other account, but as it was the business of princes, out of their wisdom and civil prudence, to deceive the people in their religion; princes, under the name of religion, persuaded the people to believe those things true, which they themselves knew to be idle fables; by this means, for their own ease in government, tying them the more closely to civil society. (Augustine, City of God, Book IV, p. 32, cited by Thayer, Origin & History, p. 37.)

Contriving doctrines to control people? Who would have believed it? Well, the Greek world did, the Roman world did, and evidently between the testaments, the Jews got involved, as well, as the concept of endless torment began appearing in the apocryphal books written by Egyptian Jews.

Thayer wrote further:

Polybius, the historian, says: “Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions. B. vi 56. .

Livy, the celebrated historian, speaks of it in the same spirit; and he praises the wisdom of Numa, because he invented the fear of the gods, as “a most efficacious means of governing an ignorant and barbarous populace. Hist., I 19.

Strabo, the geographer, says: “The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, and by those terrors and threatenings which certain dreadful words and mon­strous forms imprint upon their minds...For it is impos­sible to govern the crowd of women, and all the common rabble, by philosophical reasoning, and lead them to piety, holiness and virtue-but this must be done by su­perstition, or the fear of the gods, by means of fables and wonders; for the thunder, the aegis, the trident, the torches (of the Furies), the dragons, &c., are all fables, as is also all the ancient theology. These things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.” Geog., B., I

Timaeus Locrus, the Pythagorean, after stating that the doctrine of rewards and punishments after death is necessary to society, proceeds as follows: “For as we sometimes cure the body with unwholesome remedies, when such as are most wholesome produce no effect, so we restrain those minds with false relations, which will not be persuaded by the truth. There is a necessity, therefore, of instilling the dread of thoseforeign torments: as that the soul changes its habitation; that the coward is ignominiously thrust into the body of a woman; the murderer imprisoned within the form of a savage beast; the vain and inconstant changed into birds, and the slothful and ignorant into fishes.”

Plato, in his commentary on Timaeus, fully endorses what he says respecting the fabulous invention of these foreign torments. And Strabo says that “Plato and the Brahmins of India invented fables concerning the future judgments of hell” (Hades). And Chrysippus blames Plato for attempting to deter men from wrong by frightful stories of future punishments.

Plutarch treats the subject in the same way; sometimes arguing for them with great solemnity and earnestness, and on other occasions calling them “fabulous stories, the tales of mothers and nurses.”

Seneca says: “Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, &c., are all a fable, with which the poets amuse themselves, and by them agitate us with vain terrors.” Sextus Empiricus calls them “poetic fables of hell;” and Cicero speaks of them as “silly absurdities and fables” (ineptiis ac fabulis).

Aristotle. “It has been handed down in mythical form from earliest times to posterity, that there are gods, and that the divine (Deity) compasses all nature. All beside this has been added, after the mythical style, for the purpose of persuading the multitude, and for the interests of the laws, and the advantage of the state.” Neander’s Church Hist., I, p. 7. , (Origin & History, 41-43.)

Mosheim, in his legendary Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, described the permeation among the Jews of these fables during the period between the testaments:

Errors of a very pernicious kind, had infested the whole body of the people (the Jews—SGD). There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood. The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Savior had brought from Chaldaea and the neigh­boring countries many extravagant and idle fancies which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in con­sequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and supersti­tious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines. (Mosheim’s Institutes of Ecclesias­tical History,Century I pt. I chap. ii.)

A similar statement is made in an old Encyclopedia Americana, cited by Thayer:

The Hebrews received their doctrine of demons from two sources. At the time of the Babylonish captivity, they derived it from the source of the Chaldaic-Persian magic; and afterward, during the Greek supremacy in Egypt, they were in close intercourse with these foreigners, particularly in Alexandria, and added to the magician notions those borrowed from this Egyptic-Grecian source. And this connection and mixture are seen chiefly in the New Testament. It was impossible to prevent the intermingling of Greek speculations. The voice of the prophets was silent. Study and inquiry had commenced. The popular belief and philosophy separated; and even the philosophers divided themselves into several sects, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes; and Platonic and Pythagorean notions, intermingled with Oriental doctrines, had already unfolded the germ of the Hellenistic and cabalistic philosophy. This was the state of things when Christ appeared. (Encyclopedia Americana,art. “Demon, “ cited by Thayer (Origin & History, p. 120).

Note that Luke wrote in Ac. 7.22 that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” yet knowing the Egyptian concepts, he gave not a whiff of endless torment in any of his writings.

Thus, we see that the concept of endless torment afterlife was not found in the Old Testament. It evidently crept in among some Jews during the period between the testaments.

Thayer summarizes the intertestamental period on this subject in the following words:

The truth is, that in the four hundred years of their intercourse with the heathen, during which they were without any divine teacher of message, Pagan philosophy and superstition had, so far as regarded the future state, completely pushed aside the Law of Moses and the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and set up in place of them their own extravagant inventions and fables respect­ing the invisible world. (Ibid., p. 53)

The First Use of Gehenna

Most of our modern translations no longer translate hades and sheol with the word “hell.” Now we want to examine the remaining Greek word, gehenna, that is still commonly rendered “hell.” (We will discuss whether this is an appropriate translation near the end of this study.) Notice the first occurrence of this word in the Bible in Mt. 5.21-22. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

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 (gehenna—SGD) of fire.

When Jesus used the term “hell of fire” in these verses, he actually used the Greek wordgehenna for the first time in inspired writing.

We want to begin with this first occurrence of gehenna and then study all of its occurrences in the New Testament. In this way, we can determine the totality of the Bible’s teaching on what is now commonly called hell.

The Message of John the Baptist and Jesus

To understand Jesus’ first use of gehenna in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first put his ministry, and that of his contemporary, John the Baptist, in their proper contexts. We saw there that Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, and that Jesus confirmed that fulfillment by John. John’s preaching consisted of announcements of an imminent (“the axe lieth at the root of the tree”) fiery judgment on Israel if she didn’t repent. This was the same fiery judgment of which Malachi had spoken, and said that John would announce. With this idea of imminent fiery judgment in the context, John continued in Mt. 3.11-12:

I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

Al Maxey, a serious student of these matters, has noticed the following about the word translated “burn up” here:

This is the Greek word katakaio which means "to burn up; consume." It signifies to completely, utterly, totally destroy with fire. It is enlightening, in the context of this study, to note that this word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) in Exodus 3:2 where Moses beholds a burning bush --- "The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was NOT consumed. (Al Maxey, “The Consuming Fire, Examining the Final Fate of the Wicked in Light of Biblical Language,” Reflections #46, June 6, 2003.)

Hence John and Jesus said the wicked would be consumed with unquenchable fire, yet we popularly read it to mean they will not be consumed, thinking folks in hell will no more be consumed than the burning bush was!

Remember this “unquenchable fire.” It will figure in our study throughout. It is the fire spoken of by Malachi, John, and Jesus.

Old Testament Background of Gehenna

Gehenna, the word hell is given for in the New Testament, is rooted in an Old Testament location. It is generally regarded as derived from a valley nearby Jerusalem that originally belonged to a man named Hinnom. Scholars say the word is a transliteration of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, a valley that had a long history in the Old Testament, all of it bad. Hence, Gehenna is a proper name like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and New Mexico. This being true, the word should never have been translated “hell,” for as we’ll see, the two words have nothing in common.

We first find Hinnom in Josh. 1.8 and 18.16, where he is mentioned in Joshua’s layout of the lands of Judah and Benjamin. In II K. 23.10, we find that righteous King Josiah “defiled Topheth in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.” Josiah, in his purification of the land of Judah, violated the idolatrous worship to the idol Molech by tearing down the shrines. Topheth (also spelled Tophet) was a word meaning literally, “a place of burning.” In II Chron. 28.3, idolatrous King Ahaz burnt incense and his children in the fire there, as did idolatrous King Manasseh in II Chron. 33.6. In Neh. 11.30, we find some settling in Topheth after the restoration of the Jewish captives from Babylon. In Jer. 19.2, 6, Jeremiah prophesied calamity coming upon the idolatrous Jews there, calling it the valley of slaughter, because God was going to slaughter the Jews there, using Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. In Jer. 7.32, Jeremiah prophesied destruction coming upon the idolatrous Jews of his day with these words:

Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall burn in Tophet, till there be no peace.

Notice the mention of Topheth, “the place of burning,” again. Isaiah also spoke of Topheth this way in Isa. 30.33, when he warned the pro-Egypt party among the Jews (i.e., those trusting in Egypt for their salvation from Babylon rather than God) of a fiery judgment coming on them. In Jer. 19.11-14, Jeremiah gave this pronouncement of judgment by Babylon on Jerusalem at the valley of Hinnom:

And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, shall be defiled as the place of Tophet, because of all the houses upon whose roofs they have burned incense unto all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings unto other gods.

From these passages we can see that, to the Jews, the valley of Hinnom, or Topheth, from which the New Testament concept of Gehenna arose, came to mean a place of burning, a valley of slaughter, and a place of calamitous fiery judgment. Thus, Thayer in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, said, con­cerning Gehenna:

Gehenna, the name of a valley on the S. and E. of Jerusalem...which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch, i.e., of an idol having the form of a bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah (2 Kings xxiii.10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was calledGehenna.

Actually, since Gehenna was a proper name of a valley, it would have been calledGehenna whether or not any idolatry, burning, or dumping of garbage had ever occurred there, and it did, as we now see.

Valley of Hinnom

The Valley of Hinnom

More Photographs of Hell

Fudge said concerning the history of the valley of Hinnom:

The valley bore this name at least as early as the writing of Joshua (Josh. 15:8; 18:16), though nothing is known of its origin. It was the site of child-sacrifices to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (apparently in 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). This earned it the name “Topheth,” a place to be spit on or abhorred. This “Topheth” may have become a gigantic pyre for burning corpses in the days of Hezekiah after God slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a night and saved Jerusalem (Isa. 30:31-33; 37:26). Jeremiah predicted that it would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged them for their sins (Jer. 7:31-33; 19:2-13). Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews follow­ing the Roman siege of Jerusalem about A.D. 69- 70...Josiah desecrated the repugnant valley as part of his godly reform (2 Kings 23:10). Long before the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom had become crusted over with connotations of whatever is “condemned, useless, corrupt, and forever discarded.” (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes [Houston: Providential Press, 1982], p. 160.)

We need to keep this place in mind as we read Jesus’ teaching using a word referring back to this location in the Old Testament.

The Twelve Gehenna Passages
in Chronological Order

Mt. 5.21-22

In Mt. 5.21-22, Jesus used gehenna for the first time in inspired speech:

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, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire (gehenna—SGD).

As we mentioned earlier in this study, Jesus actually used the Greek word gehenna for the first time in inspired writing. The word had never occurred in the Greek Old Testament, theSeptuagint. When we read the word hell, all kinds of sermon outlines, illustrations, and ideas come to the fore of our minds. None of these came to the minds of Jesus’ listeners, for they had never heard the word before in inspired speech. It is very significant that the word did not occur even once in the Septuagint, quoted by Jesus and his apostles.

I suggest that to the Jews in Jesus’ audience, Jesus’ words referred merely to the valley southeast of Jerusalem. In their Old Testament background, Gehenna meant a place of burning, a valley where rebellious Jews had been slaughtered before and would be again if they didn’t repent, as Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus urged them to do. Jesus didn’t have to say what Gehenna was, as it was a well-known place to the people of that area, but his teaching was at least consistent with the national judgment announced by Malachi and John the Baptist. The closest fire in the context is Mt. 3.10-12, where John announced imminent fiery judgment on the nation of Israel.

Let’s notice the other gehenna passages to ascertain more about Jesus’ use of gehenna.As we do so, let’s analyze each passage thus: Does the passage teach things we don’t believe about an unending fiery hell, but which fit national judgment in gehenna?

Mt. 5.29-30

The next passage is Mt. 5.29-30, where Jesus used gehenna twice when he said:

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 (gehenna—SGD). 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 (gehenna— SGD).

In our traditional idea of hell, unending fire after the end of time, we normally don’t think of people having their physical limbs at that time. This is not an argument, but just the realization that we don’t think in terms of some people being in heaven with missing eyes and limbs, and some in hell with all of theirs. As William Robert West said in his excellent work on the nature of man, “No one that I know of believes that the ‘soul’ shall ‘enter into life,’ which he or she says is in heaven, with a hand of that soul in hell.” (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].)

However, these words do fit a national judgment. It would be better to go into the kingdom of the Messiah missing some members, than to go into an imminent national judgment of unquenchable fire with all our members. This was equivalent to John’s demand that his Jewish audience bring forth fruits worthy of repentance or receive imminent unquenchable fire. The whole body of a Jew could be cast into the valley of Gehenna in the fiery judgment of which John spoke.

Mt. 10.28

The fourth time Jesus used gehenna was when he said:

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 [gehenna—SGD].

Again, Jesus spoke of gehenna consistently with imminent national judgment on Israel. This verse is often used to affirm that the soul of man cannot be destroyed, that we’re all born with an eternal soul, and it’s that soul that we think Jesus spoke of in this verse. This directly contradicts the plain language of Jesus. If the body and soul of man cannot be destroyed, the language of Jesus has no meaning whatsoever! To help us understand Jesus’ teaching here, let’s briefly review the Bible’s teaching concern­ing man being a living soul. The word soul in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew nephesh, which fundamentally refers to man’s animal life, i.e., the life he shares with all animals. Hence, in Genesis 2.7, we read:

And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Here, Adam consisted of (1) a physical body, composed from the earth, which was not living. However, when God gave this body (2) the breath of life, Adam was a living soul (nephesh). It’s interesting that the term nephesh is applied to animals many times in that same creation chapter. For example, in Gen. 2.19, it’s applied to animals: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures (nephesh).” In Gen, 1.21, the same word is translated living creature: “And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that moves wherewith the water swarmed.” In Gen. 1.24, it’s again translatedanimals: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth.” In Gen. 1.30, it’s translated life: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is life.” Hence, the term a living soul, is applied to animals as well as man. They are all living souls.”

Since both animals and man are living souls or beings, we can read the Bible’s saying that souls (nephesh) can be smitten with the sword and utterly destroyed, as in Josh. 11.11:

And they smote all the souls [nephesh] that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterlydestroying them; there was none left that breathed: and he burnt Hazor with fire.

Thus, as Israel invaded Canaan, the national judgment they were carrying out on the inhabitants was referred to as destroying their souls with their swords. A similar usage of souls in the same context is in Josh. 10.35, 39:

...and they took it [the city of Eglon] on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword; and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein he utterly destroyed that day, according to all that he had done to Lachish.

...and he took it [the region of Debir], and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein; he left none remaining: as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir, and to the king thereof; as he had done also to Libnah, and to the king thereof.

Likewise in Lev. 23.30, we read of the penalty for working on the Day of Atonement:

Whosoever soul [nephesh] it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people.

In none of these examples was the word soul referring to an immortal part of man. Significantly, this usage is how the Jews listening to Jesus in Mt. 10.28 and Lk. 12.4-5 would have understood such language. They knew from their Old Testament background that God could, and had many times, destroyed both bodies and souls in various national judgments.

The question arises, “What’s to keep anyone else from carrying out such judgments of destroying both bodies and souls?” The answer is absolutely nothing, if they’re capable of doing it. Not everyone is, and this passage doesn’t say that only God is capable, does it? We may have thought that only deity could destroy a soul because thought soul implied an immortal part of man. However, that wasn’t what any of these passages contemplated. The same comments apply to the following passage.

Lk. 12.4-5

This is the fifth time Jesus used gehenna, when he said: Lk. 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 [gehenna-SGD]: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

Here Jesus taught the same thing John taught in Mt. 3.10-12, that unquenchable fire (gehenna, Mk. 9.43) was coming upon rebellious Israel.

Notice also in verse 49 that Jesus said:

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?

The fiery judgment of which Jesus spoke was not far off in time and place, but imminent and earthly. In verse 56, Jesus noted that the judgment of which he spoke was imminent, for he said:

Ye hypocrites, ye know how to interpret the face of the earth and the heaven; but how is it that ye know not how to interpret this time?

The word for earth in both these verses is gn, the standard word for land or ground, not necessarily the planet, which we might think. Thayer defined the word as:

1. arable land, 2. the ground, the earth as a standing place, 3. land, as opposed to sea or water, 4. the earth as a whole, the world. (p. 114)

This is the word used in Mt. 2.6 (the land of Judea), Mt. 2.20 (the land of Israel), Mt. 10.15 (the land of Sodom and Gomorrah), Mt. 11.24 (the land of Sodom), Mt. 14.34 (the land of Gennesaret), Jn. 3.22 (the land of Judea), Ac. 7.3 (into the land which I shall show thee), Ac. 7.6 (seed should sojourn in a strange land), Ac. 7.11 (a dearth over all the land of Egypt), etc. Thus, Jesus again spoke of imminent fiery destruction on the land of Israel, just as Malachi and John the Baptist said he would announce.

Please click here for part two of this article