Hell (Gehenna) in the Bible

From J.W. Hanson’s Bible Threatenings Explained. “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell (Gehenna).” (Matt. 10:28) “But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him which, after he hath … Continue reading Hell (Gehenna) in the Bible

From J.W. Hanson’s Bible Threatenings Explained.

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell (Gehenna).” (Matt. 10:28)

“But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into Hell (Gehenna); yea, I say unto you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5)

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into Hell (Gehenna). And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into Hell (Gehenna).” (Matt. 5:28-29)

While nearly all “orthodox” authorities of eminence concede that sheol and Hades [e.g. in Luke 16:19-31] do not denote a place of torment in the future world, most of those who accept the doctrine of endless torment claim that Gehenna does convey that meaning. This place is the last ditch of those who are struggling to establish the fact of the endless supremacy of sin and sorrow. It is the malakoff of orthodoxy.

But no such force resides in this word, nor is there a scintilla of evidence that it ever was imagined to carry such an idea until many years after Christ. An examination of the Bible use of the term will show us that the popular view is obtained by injecting the word with current pagan superstition. Its origin and the first references to it in the Old Testament, are correctly stated by eminent critics and exegetes.

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OPINIONS OF SCHOLARS

Says Campbell: “The word Gehenna is derived, as all agree, from the Hebrew words ge hinnom; which in diverse forms; e.g., Chaldee Gehennom, Arabic Gahannam, Greek Gehenna. The valley of Hinnom is a part of the pleasant wadi or valley which bound Jerusalem on the south (Josh. 15:8; Josh. 18:6). Here, in ancient times, and under some of the idolatrous kings, the worship of Moloch, the horrid idol-god of the Ammonites, was practised. To this idol children were offered in sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10; Ezek. 23:37,19; 2 Chron. 28:3; Lev. 28:21; Lev. 30:2). If we may credit the Rabbins, the head of the idol was like that of an ox; while the rest of the body resembled that of a man. It was hollow within; and, being heated by fire, children were laid in its arms and were literally roasted alive. We cannot wonder, then, at the severe terms in which the worship of Moloch is everywhere denounced in the Scriptures. Nor can we wonder that the place itself should have been called Tophet, i.e., abomination, detestation (from toph, to vomit with loathing).” (Jer. 8:32; 19:6; 2 Kings 23:10; Ezek. 23:36-39)

Gehenna, originally a Hebrew word, which signifies the valley of Hinnom, is composed of the common noun, Gee, valley, and the proper name Hinnom, the owner of this valley. The valley of the sons of Hinnom was a delightful vale, planted with trees, watered by fountains, and lying near Jerusalem, on the southeast, by the brook Kidron. Here the Jews placed that brazen image of Moloch, which had the face of a calf, and extended its hands as those of a man. It is said, on the authority of the ancient Rabbins, that, to this image, the idolatrous Jews were wont not only to sacrifice doves, pigeons, lambs, rams, calves and bulls, but even to offer their children (1 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 15:3-4). In the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer. 7:31) this valley is called Tophet, from Toph, a drum; because the administrators in these horrid rites, beat drums lest the cries and shrieks of the infants who were burned, should be heard by the assembly. At length, these nefarious practices were abolished by Josiah, and the Jews brought back to the pure worship of God (2 Kings 23:10). After this, they held the place in such abomination, it is said, that they cast into it all kinds of filth, together with the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary, in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially a shameful kind of death, was denominated Gehenna.” (Schleusner)

As we trace the history of the locality as it occurs in the Old Testament, we learn that it should never have been translated by the word Hell. It is a proper name of a well-known locality, and ought to have stood Gehenna, as it does in the French Bible, in Newcome’s and Wakefield’s translation, in the Improved Version, Emphatic Diaglott, etc. Babylon might have been translated Hell with as much propriety as Gehenna.

It is fully described in numerous passages in the Old Testament, and is exactly located on earth.

“And the border went up by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite; the same is Jerusalem, and the border went up to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward.” (Joshua 15:8)

“And he (Joshua) defiled Tophet, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or daughter to pass through the fire to Moloch.” (2 Kings 23:10)

“Moreover, he (Ahaz) burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen.” (2 Chron. 28:3)

“And they (the children of Judah) have built the high places of Tophet which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. 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 bury in Tophet till there be no place.” (Jer. 7:31-32)

“And go forth into the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the east gate, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more be calledTophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter.” (Jer. 19:2-6)

These and other passages show that Gehenna was a well-known valley, near Jerusalem, in which the Jews in their idolatrous days had sacrificed their children to the idol Moloch, in consequence of which it was condemned to receive the offal and refuse and sewage of the city, and into which the bodies of malefactors were cast, and where, to destroy the odor and pestilential influences, continual fires were kept burning. Here fire, smoke, worms bred by the corruption, and other repulsive features, rendered the place a horrible one, in the eyes of the Jews. It was a locality with which they were as well acquainted as they were with any place in or around the city. After these horrible practices, King Josiah polluted the place and rendered it repulsive.

“Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the sons of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall bury in Tophet till there be no place. And the carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beast of the earth; and none shall fray them away. Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judea, and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride; for the land shall be left desolate.” (Jer. 7:32-34)

“And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them. And they shall bury them in Tophet, till there be no place to bury. Thus will I do unto this place, saith the Lord, and to the inhabitants thereof, and even make this city as Tophet. 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. Then came Jeremiah from Tophet, whither the Lord had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house, and said to the people: Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Behold I will bring upon this city and upon all her towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words.” (Jer. 19:12-15)

These passages show that Gehenna or Tophet was a locality near Jerusalem, and that to be cast there literally, was the doom threatened and executed. Every Bible reference is to this world.

In Dr. Bailey’s English Dictionary, Gehenna is defined to be “a place in the valley of the tribe of Benjamin, terrible for two sorts of fire in it, that wherein the Israelites sacrificed their children to the idol Moloch, and also another kept continually burning to consume the dead carcasses and filth of Jerusalem.”

But in process of time Gehenna came to be an emblem of the consequences of sin, and to be employed figuratively by the Jews to denote those consequences. But always in this world. The Jews never used it to mean torment after death, until long after Christ. That the word had not the meaning of post-mortem torment when our Savior used it, is demonstrable: Josephus was a Pharisee, and wrote at about the time of Christ, and expressly says that the Jews at that time (corrupted from the teachings of Moses) believed in endless punishment, but he never employs Gehenna to denote the place of punishment. He uses the word Hadees, which the Jews had then obtained from the heathen, but he never uses Gehenna, as he would have done, had it possessed that meaning then, This demonstrates that the word had no such meaning then. In addition to this neither the Apocrypha, which was written from 280 to 150 B.C., nor Philo, ever uses the word. It was first used in the modern sense of Hell by Justin Martyr, one hundred and fifty years after Christ.

Dr. Thayer concludes a most thorough excursus on the word (“Theology”) thus:

“Our inquiry shows that it is employed in the Old Testament in its literal or geographical sense only, as the name of the valley lying on the south of Jerusalem–that the septuagint proves it retained this menaing as late as B.C. 150–that it is not found at all in the Apocrypha; neither in Philo, nor in Josephus, whose writings cover the very times of the Savior and the New Testament, thus leaving us without a single example of contemporary usage to determine its meaning at this period–that from A.D. 150-195, we find in two Greek authors, Justin and Clement of Alexandria, the first resident in Italy and the last in Egypt, that Gehenna began to be used to designate a place of punishment after death, but not endless punishment, since Clement was a believer in universal restoration–that the first time we find Gehenna used in this sense in any Jewish writing is near the beginning of the third century, in the Targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel, two hundred years too late to be of any service in the argument–and lastly, that the New Testament usage shows that while it had not wholly lost its literal sense, it was also employed in the time of Christ as a symbol of moral corruption and wickedness; but more especially as a figure of the terrible judgments of God on the rebellious and sinful nation of the Jews.”

The Jewish talmud and targums use the word in the sense that the Christian Church has so long used it, though without attributing endlessness to it, but none of them are probably older than A.D. 200. The oldest is the targum (translation) of Johathan Ben Uzziel, which was written according to the best of authorities between A.D. 200 and A.D. 400.

“Most of the eminent critics now agree, that it could not have been completed till some time between two and four hundred years after Christ.” Univ. Expos. Vol. 2, p. 368.

At the time of Christ the Old Testament existed in Hebrew. The Septuagint translation of it was made between two hundred and four hundred years before his birth. In both Gehenna is never used as the name of a place of future punishment. A writer in the Universalist Expositor remarks, (Vol.2)): “Both the Apocrypha and the works of Philo, when compared together, afford circumstantial evidence that the word cannot have been currently employed, during their age, to denote a place of future torment. And we cannot discover in Josephus, that either of these sects, the Pharisees or the Essenes, both of which believed the doctrine of endless misery, supposed it to be a state of fire, or that the Jews ever alluded to it by that emblem.”

The Apocrypha, B.C.150-500, Philo Judaeus A.D.40, and Josephus, A.D.70-100, all refer to future punishment, but none of them use Gehenna to describe it, which they would have done, being Jews, had the word been then in use with that meaning. Were it the name of a place of future torment then, can any one doubt that it would be found repeatedly in their writings? And does not the fact that it is never found in their writings demonstrate that it had no such use then, and if so, does it not follow that Christ used it in no such sense?

Canon Farrar says of Gehenna (Preface to “Eternal Hope”): “In the Old Testament it is merely the pleasant valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom) subsequently desecrated by idolatry, and especially by Moloch worship, and defiled by Josiah on this account. (See 1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31, Jer. 19:10-14; Isa. 30:33; Tophet). Used according to Jewish tradition, as the common sewerage of the city, the corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied, and fires were lit to purify the contaminated air. It then became a word which secondarily implied (1) the severest judgment which a Jewish court could pass upon a criminal–the casting forth of his unburied corpse amid the fires and worms of this polluted valley; and (2) a punishment–which to the Jews as a body never meant an endless punishment beyond the grave. Whatever may be the meaning of the entire passages in which the word occurs, ‘Hell’ must be a complete mistranslation, since it attributes to the term used by Christ a sense entirely different from that in which it was understood by our Lord’s hearers, and therefore entirely different from the sense in which he could have used it. Origen says (c. Celsus vi:25) that Gehenna denotes (1) the vale of Hinnom, and (2) a purificatory fire (eis tem meta basanon katharsin). He declares that Celsus was totally ignorant of the meaning of Gehenna.”

JEWISH VIEWS OF GEHENNA

Gehenna is the name given by Jews to Hell. Rev. H. N. Adler, a Jewish Rabbi, says: “They do not teach endless retributive suffering. They hold that is is not conceivable that a God of mercy and justice would ordain infinite punishment for finite wrong-doing.” Dr. Deutsch declares: “There is not a word in the Talmud that lends any support to that damnable dogma of endless torment.” Dr. Dewes in his “Plea for Rational Translation,” says that Gehenna is alluded to four or five times in the Mishna, thus: “The judgment of Gehenna is for twelve months;” “Gehenna is a day in which the impious shall be burnt.” Bartolloci declares that “the Jews did not believe in a material fire, and thought that such a fire as they did believe in would one day be put out.” Rabbi Akiba, “the second Moses,” said: “The duration of the punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is twelve months.” Adyoth iii:10. Some rabbis said Gehenna only lasted from Passover to Pentecost. This was the prevalent conception. (Abridged from Excursus v, in Canon Farrar’s “Eternal Hope,” He gives in a note these testimonies to prove that the Jews to whom Jesus spoke, did not regard Gehenna as of endless duration). Asarath Maamaroth, f. 85, I: “There will hereafter be no Gehenna.” Jalkuth Shimoni, f. 46, I: “Gabriel and Michael will open the eight thousand gates of Gehenna, and let out Israelites and righteous Gentiles.” A passage in Othoth, (attributed to R. Akiba) declares that Gabriel and Michael will open the forty thousand gates of Gehenna, and set free the damned, and in Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4, we read: “The wicked stay in Gehenna till the resurrection, and then the Messiah passing through it redeems them.”: See Stephelius’ Rabbinical Literature.

Rev. Dr. Wise, a learned Jewish Rabbi, says: “That the ancient Hebrews had no knowledge of Hell is evident from the fact that their language has no term for it.”

Before considering the passages of Scripture containing the word, the reader should carefully read and remember the following.

IMPORTANT FACTS

  1. Gehenna was a well-known locality near Jerusalem (see Josh. 15:8; 2 Kings 17:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; Jer. 7:31-32; Jer. 19:2).
  2. Gehenna is never employed in the Old Testament to mean anything else than the locality with which every Jew was familiar.
  3. The word should have been left untranslated as it is in some versions, and it would not be misunderstood. It should no more be rendered Hell than should Babylon. 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 attatch to it, when the heard it used by our Lord?”
  4. The French Bible, the Emphatic Diaglott, Improved Version, Wakefield’s Translation, and Newcomb’s retain the proper noun, Gehenna, the name of the well-known place.
  5. Gehenna is never mentioned in the Apocrypha as a place of future punishment, as it would have been, had such been its meaning before and at the time of Christ.
  6. No Jewish writer contemporary with Christ, such as Josephus, or Philo, ever uses it as the name of a place of future punishment, as would have been done had such then been its meaning.
  7. No classic Greek author ever alludes to it, and therefore, it was a Jewish locality, purely.
  8. The first Jewish writer who ever names it as a place of future punishment is Johnathan Ben Uzziel; who wrote, according to various authorities, from the second to the eighth century, A.D.
  9. The first Christian writer who calls Hell Gehenna, is Justin Martyr, who wrote about A.D. 150.
  10. Neither Christ nor his apostles ever named it to Gentiles, but only to Jews, which proves it a locality only known to Jews, whereas, if it were a place of punishment after death for sinners, it would have been preached to Gentiles as well as Jews.
  11. It was only referred to twelve times, on eight occasions, in all the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and in the Gospels and Epistles. Were they faithful to their mission, to say no more, on so vital a theme as an endless Hell, if they intended to teach it?
  12. Only Jesus and James ever named it. Neither Paul, John, Peter nor Jude ever employed it. Would they not have warned sinners concerning it, if there were a Gehenna of torment after death?
  13. Paul says he “shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God,” and yet, though he was the great preacher of the Gospel to the Gentiles he never told them that Gehenna was a place of after-death punishment. Would he not repeatedly have warned sinners against it, were there such a place? Dr. Thayer signigicantly 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 Revelations, 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 a part of divine revelation, a part of the gospel message to the world?”
  14. Jesus never uttered it to unbelieving Jews, nor to anybody but his disciples, but twice (Matt. 23:15-33) during his entire ministry, nor but four times in all. If it were the final abode of unhappy millions, would not his warnings abound with exhortations to avoid it?
  15. Jesus never warned unbelievers against it but once in all his ministry, (Matt. 22:33) and he immediately explained it as about to come in this life.
  16. If Gehenna is the name of Hell then men’s bodies are burned there as well as their souls (Matt. 5:29; Matt. 18:9)
  17. If it be the place of endless torment, then literal fire is the sinner’s punishment (Mark 9:43-48)
  18. Salvation is never said to be from Gehenna.
  19. 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 dogma of endless torment.
  20. Clement, one of the earliest Christian fathers, was a Universalist, and yet he uses Gehenna to describe the sinner’s punishment, showing that then the word did not denote endless punishment.
  21. A shameful death, or a severe punishment, in this life, was, at the time of Christ, denominated Gehenna, (Schleusner, Canon Farrar and others) and there is no evidence that Gehenna meant anything else, at the time of Christ.

With these preliminaries let us consider the twelve passages in which the word occurs.

DANGER OF HELL-FIRE

“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of Hell fire.” (Matt. 5:22)

The purpose of Jesus was to show how exacting is Christianity. It judges the motives. This he affirms in the last sentence of the verse, after referring to the legal penalties of Judaism in the first two. The “Judgment” here is the lower ecclesiastical court of twenty-three judges: the “council” is the higher court, which could condemn to death. But Christianity is so exacting, that if one is contemptuous toward another, he will be adjudged by Christian principles guilty of the worst crimes, as “he who hateth his brother has already committed murder in his heart.” We give the true meaning of this passage in the words of “orthodox” commentators.

Dr. Adam Clarke says:

“It is very probable that our Lord means no more here than this: ‘If a man charge another with apostasy from the Jewish religion, or rebellion against God, and cannot prove his charge, then he is exposed to that punishment (burning alive) which the other must have suffered, if the charge had been substantiated.’ There are three offenses here which exceed each other in their degrees of guilt.

  1. Anger against a man, accompanied with some injurious act.
  2. Contempt, expressed by the opprobrious epithet ‘raca’, or shallow brains.
  3. Hatred and mortal enmity, expressed by the term moreh, apostate, where such apostasy could not be proved.

Now proportioned to these three offenses were three different degrees of punishment, each exceeding the other in severity, as the offenses exceeded each other in their different degrees of guilt.

  1. The judgment, the council of twenty-three, which could inflict the punishment of strangling.
  2. The Sanhedrim, or great council, which could inflict the punishment of stoning.
  3. The being burnt in the valley of the son of Hinnom. This appears to be the meaning of our Lord. Our Lord here alludes to the valley of the son of Hinnom. This place was near Jerusalem; and had been formerly used for those abominable sacrifices in which the idolatrous Jews had caused their children to pass through the fire to Moloch.” Com. in loc.

We do not understand that a literal casting into Gehenna is here inculcated–as Clarke teaches–but that the severest of all punishments are due those who are contemptuous to others. Gehenna fire is here figuratively, and not literally used, but its torment is in this life.

Barnes: “In this verse it denotes a degree of suffering higher than the punishment inflicted by the court of seventy, the Sanhedrin. And the whole verse may therefore mean, He that hates his brother without a cause, is guilty of a violation of the sixth commandment, and shall be punished with a severity similar to that inflicted by a court of judgment He that shall suffer his passions to transport him to still greater extravagances, and shall make him an object of derision and contempt, shall be exposed to still severer punishment, corresponding to that which the Sanhedrin or council inflicts. But he who shall load his brother with odious appellations and abusive language, shall incur the severest degree of punishment, represented by being burnt alive in the horrid and awful valley of Hinnom.” (Com.)

A. A. Livrmore, D.D., says: “Three degrees of anger are specified, and three corresponding gradations of punishment, proportioned to the different degrees of guilt. Where these punishments will be inflicted, he does not say, he need not say. The man who indulges any wicked feelings against his brother man, is in this world punished; his anger is the torture of his soul, and unless he repents of it and forsakes it, it must prove his woe in all future states of his being.”

Whether Jesus here means the literal Gehenna, or makes these three degrees of punishment emblems of the severe spiritual penalties inculcated by Christianity, there is no reference to the future world in the language.

CAST INTO HELL-FIRE

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into Hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into Hell.” (Matt. 5:28-29)

“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into Hell-fire.” (Matt. 18:9)

“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into Hell-fire.” (Mark 9:43-49)

These passages mean that it is better to accept Christianity, and forego some worldly privilege, than to possess all worldly advantages, and be overwhelmed in the destruction then about to come upon the Jews, when multitudes were literally cast into Gehenna. Or it may be figuratively used, as Jesus probably used it, thus: It is better to enter the Christian life destitute of some great worldly advantage, comparable to a right hand, than to live in sin, with all worldly privileges, and experience that moral death which is a Gehenna of the soul. In this sense it may be used of men now as then. But there is no reference to an after-death suffering, in any proper use of the terms. The true idea of the language is this: Embrace the Christian life, whatever sacrifice it calls for. The latter clause carries out the idea in speaking of the undying worm.

“Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Undoubtedly Jesus had reference to the language of the prophet:

“And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for the worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched: and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” (Isa. 66:23-24)

The prophet and the Savior both referred to the overthrow of Jerusalem, though by accommodation we may apply the language generaly understanding by Hell or Gehenna, that condition brought upon the soul, in this world by sin. But the application by the prophet and the Savior was to the day then soon to come. The undying worm was in this world. The worms that bred in the filth of “Gehenna are made emblems of the corruption of the sinful soul in this world; so Isaiah taught, and Jesus quoted his language.

Strabo calls the lamp in the Parthenon, and Plutarch calls the sacred fire of a temple “unquenchable,” though they were extinguished ages ago. Josephus says that the fire on the altar of the temple at Jerusalem was “always unquenchable,” abeston aie, though the fire had gone out and the temple was destroyed at the time of his writing. Eusebius says that certain martyrs of Alexandria “were burned in unquenchable fire,” though the fire was extinguished in the course of an hour! The very expression in English, which Homer has in Greek asbestos gelos, (Iliad, i:599) unquenchable laughter.

Bloomfield says of this text in his Notes: “Deny thyself what is even the most desireable and alluring, and seems the most necessary, when the sacrifice is demanded by the good of thy soul. Some think that there is an allusion to the amputation of diseased members of the body, to prevent the spread of any disorder.” Dr. A.A.Livermore adds: “The main idea here conveyed, is that of punishment, extreme suffering, and no intimation is given as to its place, or its duration, whatever may be said in other texts in relation to these points.”

Dr. Ballou says (Vol. I, Universalist Quarterly): “Jesus uses this well-known example of a most painful sacrifice for the preservation of corporeal life, only that he may the more strongly enforce a corresponding solicitude to preserve the moral life of the soul. And if so, it naturally follows that those prominent particulars in the passages which literally relate to the body, are to be understood as figures, and interpreted accordingly. If one’s eye or hand become to him an offence, or cause of danger, it is better to part with it than to let it corrupt the body fit to be thrown into the valley of Hinnom.”

DESTROY SOUL AND BODY IN HELL

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell.” (Matt. 10:28)

“But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into Hell; yea, I say unto you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5)

The reader of these verses and the accompanying language, will observe that Jeus is exhorting his disciples to have entire faith in God. The most that men can do is to destroy the body, but God “is able,” “hath power” to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. It is not said that God has any disposition or purpose of doing so. He is able to do it, as it is said (Matt. 3:9) he is “able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” He never did, and never will raise up children to Abraham of the stones of the street, but he is able to, just as he is able to destroy soul and body in Gehenna, while men could only destroy the body there. Fear the mighty power of God, who could, if he chose, annihilate man, while the worst that men could do would be to destroy mere animal life. It is a forcible exhortation to trust in God, and has no reference to torment after death. fear not those who can only torture you–man–but fear God who can annihilate, (apokteino).

  1. This language was addressed by Christ to his disciples, and not to sinners.
  2. It proves God’s ablility to annihilate (destroy) and not his purpose to torment. Donnegan defines appollumi, “to destroy utterly.”

As though Jesus had said: “Fear not those who can only kill the body, but rather him, who, if he chose could annihilate the whole being. Fear not man but God.”

“So much may suffice to show the admitted fact, that the destruction of soul and body was a proverbial phrase, indicating utter extinction or complete destruction.” Paige

Dr. W. E. Manley observes that the condition threatened “is one wherein the body can be killed. And no one has imagined any such place, outside the present state of being. Nor can there be the least doubt about the nature of this killing of the body; for the passage is so constructed as to settle this question beyond all controversy. It is taking away the natural life, as was done by the persecutors of the apostles. The Jews were in a condition of depravity properly represented by Gehenna. the apostles had been in that condition, but had been delivered from it. By supposing the word Hell to denote a condition now and in the present life, there is no abusurdity involved. Sinful men may here suffer both natural death and moral death; but in the future life, natural death cannot be suffered; whatever may be said of moral death. Fear not men, your persecutors, who can inflict on you only bodily suffering. But rather fear him who is able to inflict both bodily suffering, and what is worse, mental and moral suffering, in that condition of depravity represented by the foulest and most revolting locality known to the Jewish people.”

“Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of Hell than yourselves.” (Matt. 23:15)

Looking upon the smoking valley, and thinking of its corruptions and abominations, to call a man a “child of Gehenna” was to say that his heart was corrupt and his character vile, but it no more indicated a place of woe after death, than a resident of New York would imply such a place by calling a bad man a child of Five Points.

THE DAMNATION OF HELL

“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers! how can ye escape the damnation of Hell?” (Matt. 23:33)

This verse undoubtedly refers to the literal destruction that soon after befell the Jewish nation, when six hundred thousand experienced literally the condemnation of Gehenna, by perishing miserably by fire and sword. The next words explain this damnation:

“Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them ye shall scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you all these things shall come upon this generation.”

This was long before prophesied by Jeremiah, (Jer. 19): “Then came Jeremiah from Tophet, whither the Lord had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house, and said to all the people, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I will bring upon this city, and upon all her towns, all the evil that I have pronounced against it; because they have hardened their necks, that they might hear my words.”

Isaiah has reference to the same (Isa. 66:24): “And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” This explains the “unquenchable fire” and the “undying worm.” They are in this world.

SET ON FIRE OF HELL

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire of Hell.” (James 3:6)

A tongue set on fire of Gehenna, when James wrote, was understood just as in London a tongue inspired by Billingsgate, or in New York by Five Points, or in Boston by Ann Street, or in Chicago by Fifth Avenue, would be understood namely, a profane and vulgar tongue. No reference whatever was made to any after-death place of torment, but the allusion was solely to a locality well known to the Jews as a place of corruption, and it was figuratively and properly applied to a vile tongue.

CONCLUSION

We have thus briefly explained all the passages in which Gehenna occurs. Is there any intimation that it denotes a place of punishment after death? Not any. If it mean such a place no one can escape believing that it is a place of literal fire, and all the modern talk of a Hell of conscience is most erroneous. But that it has no such meaning is corroborated by the tesitmony of Paul, who says he “shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God,” and yet he never, in all his writings, employs the word once, nor does he use the word Hadees but once, and then he signifies its destruciton; “Oh Hadees, where is thy victory?”

If Paul believed in a place of endless torment, would he have been utterly silent in reference to it, in his entire ministry? His reticence is a demonstration that he had no faith in it, though the Jews and heathen all around him preached it and believed it implicitly.

A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that the vale of Hinnom was a well known and repulsive valley near Jerusalem, and an equally careful reading of the New Testament teaches that Gehenna, or Hinnom’s vale was explained as always in this world. (Jer. 7:29-34: 19:4-15: Matt. 10:28) and was to befall the sinners of that generation (Matt. 24) in this life (Matt. 10:30) that their bodies and souls were exposed to its calamities. It was only used in the New Testament on five occasions, either too few, or else modern ministers use it altogether too much. John, who wrote for Gentiles, and Paul who was the great appostle to the Gentiles, never used it once, nor did Peter. If it had a local application and meaning we can understand this, but if it be the name of the receptacle of damned souls to all eternity, it would be impossible to explain such inconsistency.

The primary meaning then, of Gehenna is a well-known locality near Jerusalem; but it was sometimes used to denote the consequences of sin, in this life. It is to be understood in these two senses only, in all the twelve passages in the New Testament. In the second century after Christ it came to denote a place of torment after death, but it is never employed in that sense in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Apocrypha nor was it used by any contemporary of Christ with that meaning, nor was it ever thus employed by any Christian until Justin and Clement thus used it (A.D. 150) and the latter was a Universalist, nor by any Jew until in the targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel, about a century later. And even then it only denoted future, but did not denote endless punishment, until a still later period.

The English author, Charles Kingsley, writes (“Letters”) to a friend:

“The doctrine occurs nowhere in the Old Testament, nor any hint of it. The expression, in the end of Isaiah, about the fire not quenched, and the worm not dying, is plainly of the dead corpses of men upon the physical earth, in the valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, where the offal of Jerusalem was burned perpetually. The doctrine of endless torment was, as a historical fact, brought back from Babylon by the Rabbis. It may be a very ancient primary doctrine of the Magi, an appendage of their fire-kingdom of Ahreman, and may be found in the old Zends, long prior to Christianity. St. Paul accepts nothing of it as far as we can tell, never making the least allusion to the doctrine. The Apocalypse simply repeats the imagery of Isaiah, and of our Lord; but asserts distinctly the non-endlessness of torture, declaring that in the consummation, not only death but Hell shall be cast into the lake of fire. The Christian church has never held it exclusively till now. It remained quite an open question till the age of Justinian, 530, and significantly enough, as soon as 200 years before that, endless torment for the heathen became a popular theory, purgatory sprang up synchronously by the side of it, as a relief for the conscience and reason of the church.”

Canon Farrar truthfully says, in his “Eternal Hope”: The word rendered Hell is in one place the Greek word “Tartarus”, borrowed, as a word, for the prison of evil spirits, not after, but before the resurrection. It is in ten places ‘Hadees’, which simply means the world beyond the grave, and it is twelve places ‘Gehenna’, which means primarily, the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jeruslaem, in which, after it had been polluted by Moloch worship, corpses were flung and fires were lit; and, secondly, it is a metaphor, not of final and hopeless, but of purifying and corrective, punishment which, as we all believe, does await impenitent sin both here and beyond the grave. But, be it solemnly observed, the Jews to whom and in whose metaphorical sense, the word was used by our blessed Lord, never did, either then or at any other period, attach to that word ‘Gehenna’, which he used, that meaning of endless torment which we have been taught to apply to Hell. To them, and, therefore, on the lips of our blessed Savior who addressed it to them, it means not a material and everlasting fire, but an intermediate, a metaphorical, and a terminal retribution.”

In Excursus II, “Eternal Hope,” he says the “damnation of Hell,” is the very different “judgment of Gehenna;” and Hell-fire is the “Gehenna of fire”. “an expression which on Jewish lips was never applied in our Lord’s days to endless torment”. Origen tells us (c. Celsus vi:25) that finding the word Gehenna in the Gospels for the place of punishment, he made a special search into its meaning and history; and after mentioning (1) the Valley of Hinnom, and (2) a purifactory fire (eis teen meta basanon katharsin) he mysteriously adds that he thinks it unwise to speak without reserve about his discoveries. No one reading the passage can doubt that he means to imply the use of the word “Gehenna” among the Jews to indicate a terminable and not an endless punishment.”

The English word Hell occurs in the Bible fifty-five times, thirty-two in the Old Testament and twenty-three in the New testament. The original terms translated Hell (Sheol-Hadees) occur in the Old Testament sixty times and in the New Testament twenty-four times; Hadees eleven times, Gehenna twelve times, and Tartarus once. In every instance the meaning is death, the grave, or the consequences of sin in this life.

Thus the word Hell in the Bible, whether translated from Sheol, Hadees, Gehenna, or Tartarus, yields no countenance to the doctrine of future, much less endless punishment.

Note: This chapter is taken from J.W. Hanson’s “Bible Threatenings Explained” from 1883. Some points made by the author may not be perfectly in sync with modern scholarship.

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