Surprised by Hell: Gehenna

In the New Testament, every reference to “hell” in the English is a reference either to Hades, Tartarus, or Gehenna. Gehenna is used 12 times.

It’s well known that Gehenna was the dump outside Jerusalem where trash was burned. And many times, Gehenna could be well translated as “trash dump,” although “trash dump” would be used metaphorically to refer to the fate of the damned.

(Mat 5:29) If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into [the trash dump].

(Mat 10:28 ) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [the trash dump].

Now, you should immediately notice that the threat of 10:28 is not eternal torment but destruction. “Destroy” translates apolummi, which means “die” or “destroy.” It does not mean “torture” or “be made to suffer.” And in the Gehenna trash dump, the fire burned perpetually, but the garbage that was dumped there was destroyed.

So, consider the conditionalist idea. What if the damned aren’t eternally tortured but are, instead, painfully destroyed? If that’s right, then these two verses certainly don’t contradict the theory. In fact, the idea of the lost being tossed into the Lake of Fire to be destroyed, as one throws away garbage, is parallel with 5:29, where the choice is between throwing an eye away or having your body thrown into the dump. It fits.

(See also Matt 18:9 and Mark 9:45, which are very similar to 5:29).

(Mark 9:43) If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into [the trash dump], where the fire never goes out.

(Mark 9:47-48 ) And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into [the trash dump], 48 where “‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Now, in Mark, Jesus emphasizes that the fire never burns out. But in 9:43 and :47, Jesus is quoting Jeremiah,

(Jer 7:20) “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.”

Jeremiah’s prophecy is speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. And God saw to it that Jerusalem was thoroughly destroyed, but the destruction was not eternal torture. Rather, it was destruction that could not be stopped once God’s decision had been made. Hence, “fire is not quenched” means that God will surely punish and destroy as he has promised, not that his punishment will involve perpetual suffering.

(9:43 also speaks of “unquenchable” fire in the Greek. Both passages parallel Jeremiah.)

The only use of Gehenna in Luke is found at —

(Luke 12:4-5) “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into [the trash pile]. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

Jesus’ point remains powerful if we understand that Gehenna means that you are painfully destroyed in the Lake of Fire rather than getting to enjoy eternity with God in the new heaven and new earth.

And Gehenna is used in the rest of the New Testament only in James —

(James 3:6) The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by [the trash pile].

And James’ language, obviously metaphorical, means that those who fail to control their tongue are heading toward their own destruction.

A couple of verses I skipped earlier —

(Mat 5:22) But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of [the trash pile].

(Mat 23:15) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of [the trash pile] as you are.

These verses fit with either interpretation.

And so, nothing in the Gehenna verses contradicts the conditionalist viewpoint, and Matt 10:28 in particular supports it, as do the various verses dealing with throwing away one’s eye or right hand.

Now, to be fair to N. T. Wright, whose title I’m ripping off, he interprets many of these verses in the Gospels as speaking of the Fall of Jerusalem. His interpretation is that Jesus is saying, “Become part of my Kingdom, rather than rebelling against Rome, or you will find yourself quite literally burning in the Valley of Gehenna.” And, indeed, many a Jewish rebel found himself dead and burning on the trash pile in AD 70.

And to give Wright his due, the Mark 9 verses, that parallel Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Fall of Jerusalem, can certainly be seen in that light. However, Matt 10:28 doesn’t fit such an interpretation —

(Mat 10:28 ) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [the trash dump].

After all, Jesus’ very point is that God can do much worse than the Romans and their ilk! And here the reference to destruction, rather than eternal torment, is quite plain.

Nonetheless, it’s too early to draw a conclusion.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Surprised by Hell: Gehenna

  1. Hey, what do you think of Wright’s explanation of Matt 10. That the one who can destroy body and soul is Satan the true enemy not just the Romans?

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Wright writes,

    What about the famous Matthew 10.28, where Jesus warns his followers not to fear the one who can kill the body but can’t kill the soul, but to fear the one who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna? The point Jesus is making is, I think, a redefinition of the Messianic battle: the real enemy is not Rome, but the satan, the dark accusing power that stands behind both Rome and the other powers of the world. It could be argued that Matthew’s version of the saying betokens some kind of anthropological dualism in which the soul survives the body’s death to face a further fatal challenge in another place; though it’s strange, if this is meant, that Jesus speaks of the one who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna. And I note that in the Lukan version of the saying, Luke 12.4-5, the word psyche is missing from the whole passage. Luke simply has, ‘Don’t fear those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. I will show you who to fear: fear the one who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna.’ Perhaps Luke knew that the word psyche at that point would send his Hellenistic audience in the wrong direction.

    It’s a very insightful and helpful essay.

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