What Does Gehenna Mean?
The Words We’ve Fudged: Hell
In this article, we look at the word Gehenna, how the pagan words, Hell and Hades became associated with it, and explore the implications to our views on post-mortem judgement.
Clarifying the Objective
We cover a number of fudged words in this Messy Dogma series and in this article, we’re about to turn a hot topic decidedly hotter. For this reason, if you’re landing on this article without any context of the ground we’ve covered, I suggest that you first read What Does Aionios (Eternal) Mean?
Bible translation is an extremely tricky process. Not only do translators work with languages that are thousands of years old, but they have to take into account the prevailing culture that shaped the language. This is especially difficult when pagan ideas and concepts of the time heavily influenced colloquial idioms and jargon.
The aim of exegesis is to draw out the full meaning of the Biblical text accepting the limitations of the translation process. In some cases, tracking how words were imported into the common vernacular helps us to uncover where words took on a meaning beyond the original intent.
One such word that is bent beyond redemption, if you’ll pardon my pun, is the word Hell. It is a deeply loaded word that instantly provokes graphic imagery of the unending punishment of the damned, a concept stoked by Medieval art and humanity’s fixation with the underworld.
Our objective here is to discuss the original meaning of the word, why it was imported into Christian thinking and more importantly, how it’s influenced our view of the doctrine of future states; specifically, the post-mortem judgement of the unbelieving.
The Pagan Word Hell
As you may know, the word Hell is a pagan word, of proto-Germanic origin (including Old Norse hel), that referred to the netherworld of the dead, a concept that had long fascinated the ancient pagan mind. Ever mindful of their mortality, human beings have always pondered over what lies beyond death.
The word hell then entered Old English sometime in the eighth century where it was incorporated into Christian tradition to marry a concept that had already infiltrated Jewish culture, namely Hades, the Greek concept of the netherworld, the infernal regions, the abode of the damned.
In other words, a pagan word (Hell) was imported into the English language to match another pagan word (Hades) that had already crept into Jewish thought.
So, when did Hades make its entrance?
Greek philosophy had made headway into Hebrew thinking well before the New Testament was written. With the prevalence of the Greek language in the ancient world (and the Jewish diaspora leaving many Jews living outside their ancestral homeland), the Old Testament was translated into Greek as early as the third century BC.
In this translation, called the Septuagint, many Greek concepts were married to Hebrew ideas during the translation process. Hades, the realm of the dead in Greek mythology, was considered a metaphorical equivalent for the Hebrew word Sheol by the translators.
What is Sheol?
It’s important to note that the Old Testament offers no complex picture of the afterlife. In Hebrew, the word Sheol was considered the great leveller, primarily a place of silence to which all people go. Yes, it refers to the post-mortem state of both the righteous and unrighteous, often translated with the words “death” or the “grave” (Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27). It was not a permanent place of punishment (1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 30:2, 3; 49:15; 86:13; 116:3-8; 139:8; Hosea 13:14) and the ancient Hebrew people were content to trust God’s just nature beyond the grave.
It is interesting that Rabbinical Tradition holds that unbelievers face remedial punishment (purification) after death, a sentence that never exceeds twelve months, and ends in the redemption of the sinner, or their destruction (they cease to exist). Rabbinical Tradition teaches that Sheol is not a physical place, but more an experience of intense shame and remorse.
While some Jewish traditions began to mesh the pagan view of the afterlife into their views around the time of the Septuagint, Judaism by and large steered clear of the gruesome and gory imagery associated with the pagan view of the wicked’s judgement.
In A Guide to Jewish Knowledge, Rabbi Chaim Pearl and Dr Reuben Brookes explain that “the Jewish faith teaches us to concentrate all our efforts and energy in conducting ourselves as children of God in this world, here and now.” In his Commentary to the Prayer Book, Rabbi Dr Joseph H. Hertz wrote, “our most authoritative religious guides … proclaim that no eye hath seen, nor can mortal fathom, what awaiteth us in the Hereafter, but that even the tarnished souls will not be forever denied spiritual bliss. Judaism rejects the doctrine of eternal damnation.”
Thus, Greek philosophy spiced up what was considered an overly simplistic view of the afterlife, and through the Septuagint (the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek), the Greek’s more convoluted view, Hades, became synonymous with the Hebrew idea of Sheol.
When the Scriptures were first translated into English in 1611, the translators of the King James Version looked for a contemporary synonym for Hades. They chose the word Hell and used it as a catch-all phrase for the Hebrew word Sheol, and the Greek words Hades, Tartaroo and Gehenna. In doing so, Hell was cemented into Christian dogma as the future state of the unbeliever.
While newer translations now make it clear when Hades is used, due to the strength of entrenched tradition, most continue the unfortunate use of the word Hell in translating the Greek words Gehenna and Tartaroo. In other words, this pagan concept continues to colour our understanding of words associated with the afterlife and post-mortem judgement.
Let’s then consider the three words originally translated Hell in the New Testament. The word Gehenna appears twelve times, Hades eleven times and Tartaroo just once. We’ll start with Hades and Tartaroo and then focus on Gehenna before looking at the words Paul chose for post-mortem judgement and John’s Lake of Fire.
What is Hades?
In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld and the realm of the dead was named after him. Thus, Hades referred to the place or state of departed souls. In the Greek view of the afterlife, the souls of both good and evil people went to Hades after death. The souls of good people flitted around the underworld in ghostlike meaninglessness (only demigods and heroes were granted access to Elysium, a more blessed place in the realm of Hades)—while the wicked were tormented in Tartarus, the torture dungeon. Hades was a permanent place, free from all concept of time, which is one of the reasons that the Greek mind scoffed at the idea of the resurrection.
Due to popular books and movies, we’re generally familiar with the gods of the Greek pantheon and Hades is the archetypal villain. Today, we correctly associate it with the genre of fantasy and fairytale but our familiarity doesn’t help us fully grasp just how pervasive these Greek beliefs were in the centuries before and after Christ. Many of the first Christian converts were first Greeks who held strong pagan ideas of the afterlife. With the Old Testament brief on the concept, Greek ideas filled the vacuum.
Indeed, the great minds of the early church during the second and third century were predominantly Greeks who converted to Christ. Many of them were first disciples of Plato before they were disciples of Jesus. In other words, those who influenced early Christian thinking in the era post the Apostles did so in the midst of the challenge they themselves faced; that is, reconciling the Message of Jesus, and its deeply Hebraic roots, with their own prevailing Greek culture and mindset.
This is not a criticism of the early church fathers (or the translators of our English Bibles). Not at all. It’s merely stating the obvious. All missiologists face this challenge in attempting to incarnate the Scriptures into their own culture and language.
To add to the complexity (and in their defence), the early church fathers (and later, the translators of the Bible) were only following the New Testament writers in borrowing from these pagan concepts in the first place.
However, it seems that they took what the New Testament writers used as colloquial speech, metaphor and allegory, and turned it into cast-iron dogma.
As spurious as Hades may be due to its pagan origins and as much as we’d prefer to cut all ties with it, we don’t have this luxury. Jesus Himself used the word.
Jesus’ Use of Hades
Jesus used many contemporary pictures held by the people of His day, including pagan concepts. For example, He referred to “Beelzebub” (Matthew 12:27), the “lord of the flies”. Beelzebub was a name derived from a Philistine god (2 Kings 1:2-16) and Jesus used it as a synonym for the devil.
In doing so, He referred to a pagan image His audience was familiar with. It does not mean Jesus taught that the mythological figure of Beelzebub was Satan in disguise. In other words, when Jesus used these contemporary stage props to connect the audience to His message, He was not validating them as dogma.
We do this same thing today, For example, we may refer to the movie The Matrix as a telling metaphor for understanding society’s framing narrative. We don’t for one second believe we’re subdued by sentient machines who are feeding on the heat of our bodies as an energy source while we’re stuck in a simulated reality.
Similarly, Jesus merely used Hades to point them to the implications of His Kingdom message. He only used the word Hades three times, and He used it in a different way on each occasion.
The first reference in Matthew 11:23 (repeated in Luke 10:15) is in His judgement of the city of Capernaum:
And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades…”
It seems obvious that just as Capernaum wasn’t literally in heaven, it stands to reason that Capernaum wasn’t literally about to sink into the realm of the dead. Jesus was using poetic hyperbole to express Capernaum’s demise; crashing from their once giddy heights to their eventual dismal depths, as we might say today.
Jesus’ second use of Hades is Matthew 16:18,
I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus’ reference to the “gates of Hades”—note, not the “gates of Hell” as many are in the habit of misquoting—is interesting.
The phrase referred principally to the power of death. Jesus could simply be stating that even death is now a non-issue, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15:55.
However, there does seem to be a secondary meaning in Matthew 16 especially given that Jesus then spoke about “keys of the kingdom”, a reference to authority, and then used the rabbinical terms, binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19).
In the ancient world, governmental and official affairs were conducted in the city gates, serving as “command and control centres”, and the Pharisees and Sadducees had assumed this moral gate-keeping role. Consequently, Jesus is probably alluding to the religious command-and-control systems of His day. He was, thus, referring metaphorically to man-made authority structures that oppress and exploit others (see Matthew 16:18, 19 c. 5-12).
Most importantly, Jesus then cast the vision of a victorious ekklesia that would not only trump these oppressive authority structures but model a new way of being, thinking and living.
That this idea, which is profoundly powerful when understood in context, has been misconstrued into caricatures that the devil himself personally inhabits “Hell” overseeing the torture of the damned is terribly unfortunate, and plays more to the Greek concept of Hades, the god of the underworld, and Tartaroo than the Biblical record.
For more on this powerful verse and the meaning of the word “church”, see What Does Ekklesia (Ecclesia) Mean?
The third time Jesus used Hades is in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Yes, the Greek word used in verse 23 is Hades; too often, the word Hell is used glibly here, which again adds to the confusion.
The concept of Hades, with flames and all, situated alongside but separate from “Abraham’s bosom” (v. 22)—another non-biblical Jewish idiom—was a first-century mix-match of Greco-Roman and Hebrew syncretism. While one might think it’s better to stay away from such a jumble of hodgepodge, Jesus again used a contemporary idea to serve as a teaching illustration.
The important thing to note here then is that Jesus is not validating this worldview. For example, in saying Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom,” He makes no mention of any metaphors consistent with a Biblical view of the afterlife such as “Paradise” or the “Tree of Life”. Nor is He teaching on the hereafter. He is pointedly instructing His audience concerning the Kingdom of God—specifically, how we use our privileges: selfishly or selflessly for the good of others (see v. 14)—a prevailing theme in Jesus’ message. Thus, He merely used Hades as an allegory in this passage. Significant people in Christian tradition, such as Martin Luther, likewise considered this parable allegorical.
So, to be clear, the audience Jesus was addressing here were the Pharisees, who Luke deliberately points out “were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). In this parable, Jesus was addressing greed and apathy, not teaching on post-mortem judgement. Furthermore, there is no direct or implied statement that the rich man’s punishment was unending. In fact, Jesus’ use of Hades might imply the opposite.
Recall that Hades was used as a metaphorical equivalent for Sheol, and the Pharisees themselves held to the Old Testament view that Sheol was not a permanent place of punishment (see, for example, 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 30:2, 3; 49:15; 86:13; 116:3-8; 139:8; Hosea 13:14). Plus, it seems that the rich man was actually changing, becoming more humane. The once self-absorbed and conceited man becomes thoughtful and caring of others (vv. 27-30). It might be argued that this offers hope that God’s judgement, even after death, is remedial.
That being said, it’s unwise to come to dogmatic conclusions on the nature of post-mortem judgement based on a parable, especially one that leans so heavily on syncretism and where the topic itself is greed not the afterlife.
Paul’s Use of Hades
Since we derive so much of our understanding of the Gospel from Paul, how did he use the word?1
Paul, the great apostle and evangelist, used the word Hades on but one occasion. Yes, just once. In 1 Corinthians 15:55, he wrote:
O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
In his single use of the word, Paul used it as a poetic synonym for death, consistent with its metaphorical connection to the Hebrew word Sheol. And he only mentions it to proclaim Christ’s sovereign victory over death, reducing it to a virtual non-entity. That’s it. That’s the sum total of Paul’s contribution to this matter, which is, in itself, telling.
In other words, Hades at best is a metaphorical equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol (death). In itself, the word does not implicitly or explicitly convey the idea that the unbeliever faces unending punishment after death.
1 In fact, the word Hades only appears in the Textus Receptus version of 1 Corinthians 15:55, the text on which the New King James Version is based. In the Critical Text, the word “death” is used instead. Thus, in most modern translations, 1 Corinthians 15:55 reads as, “O Death, where is your sting? O Death, where is your victory?” In this case, the apostle Paul did not use the word Hades at all. Not once.
What is Tartaroo?
Tartarus was, in Greek mythology, the deepest abyss of Hades. While Hades referred to the abode of the dead, Tartarus was considered a torture chamber or dungeon where pain and suffering were inflicted on the wicked. In the Greek view, the Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus. Similarly, in Roman mythology, the gods condemned their enemies to Tartarus.
Tartaroo, the verb form of Tartarus, is used in 2 Peter 2:4 in a rather cryptic reference to the imprisonment of certain fallen angels who are “reserved for judgement”. No matter how one thinks Peter used the word, it is clearly not a permanent place.
In his second epistle, Peter condemned false teachers who were denying the sovereignty of Christ and he certainly pulled no punches (2:1-22). In making the point that God is well able to deal with such transgressors, he used a Greco-Roman idea to explain metaphorically the judgement of fallen angels, possibility linking it to the imprisonment of 200 angels described in The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish work. Admittedly, it’s terribly obscure and we cannot jump to any conclusions about what is clearly a metaphorical reference.
Sadly, the more adverse (and hideous) images of Hell as a place of torture derives from this Greek concept of Tartarus. In fact, most Medieval art that attempted to graphically depict the artist’s idea of post-mortem judgement were tragically more alike unto this bogus Greco-Roman concept than anything in the Biblical record. In doing so, they terribly askew the nature of God’s justice.
Unfortunately, most English translations still use the word Hell to translate the word Tartaroo. Why is this a problem?
Since they also use Hell to translate the Greek word Gehenna, it equates Gehenna directly with Tartaroo, the torture chamber of Hades. And as we’ll see in a moment, this is not just a completely erroneous connection but it also entrenches the Greek concept of the afterlife in our dogma.
What is Gehenna?
The Greek word Gehenna is translated Hell in our English Bibles, and therefore, alludes most directly to the idea of the unbeliever’s unending post-mortem torment.
Gehenna appears in the New Testament twelve times, used eleven times by Jesus and once by James.
In talking about the deceitful power of the tongue, James used the word in poetic hyperbole,
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell [Gehenna].”
In this passage, James waxed eloquent about the consequences of an unbridled tongue. Apart from the fact that Gehenna had a specific meaning to his Jewish audience, which we’ll see shortly, James said nothing about the issue of post-mortem judgement. Consequently, it is on the words of Jesus, and Him alone, that we must focus.
What? Paul didn’t use the word Hell (Gehenna)?
Not once. Not one time.
Since we base so much of our understanding of the Gospel on Paul’s writings, why did he never mention the word? If Hell is a fundamental part of Christian doctrine, why the hell did Paul not use it? (Pardon my language.)
And as we saw above, Paul only used Hades once (1 Corinthians 15:55) and did so as a poetic synonym for death in a passage lauding Christ’s triumph over death. Paul used other words to describe post-mortem judgement, which we’ll explore below, but it’s telling that he did not use Hell or Hades to teach on the subject.
Jesus’ Use of Gehenna
Of the eleven times that Jesus used the word Gehenna, as there’s overlap between the Gospel writers’ accounts, He referred to Hell on just four separate occasions.
Before we look at each passage, let’s clarify the meaning of Gehenna. In The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1. (p. 138), William Barclay explained,
“Gehenna is a word with a history… it means the Valley of Hinnom, a valley to the southwest of Jerusalem. It was notorious as the place where Ahaz had introduced the fire worship of the heathen God Molech, to whom little children were burned (2 Chronicles 28:2-4). Josiah, the reforming king, had stamped out that worship and ordered that the valley should be forever after an accursed place … In consequence of this the valley of Hinnom became the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was cast out and destroyed. It was a kind of public incinerator. Always the fire smouldered in it, and a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and bred a loathsome kind of worm which was hard to kill (Mark 9:44-48). So Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, became identified in people’s minds with all that was accursed and filthy, the place where useless and evil things were destroyed.”
In other words, Gehenna was a small valley in Jerusalem, one shrouded in ignominy.
In the minds of Jesus’ audience, Gehenna metaphorically represented that which was accursed, disgraced and shameful due to its association with some of Israel’s worst historical atrocities. As William Barclay states, it may have been used as a rubbish dump.
In discourse, Gehenna was used as a metaphor, one that graphically symbolised the opposite of God’s best intentions for us.
Importantly, it did not refer to the damned. It was not an equivalent of the Greek’s Tartaroo. In fact, when God rebuked ancient Israel for the atrocities committed in the Valley of Hinnom, which included idol worship and child sacrifice, He lamented,
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination.”
(Jeremiah 32:35, italics added)
God detested ancient Israel’s fiery practice of child sacrifice. His judgement on this “abomination” caused subsequent generations to see this very geographical location, now called Gehenna, as accursed. To now put into Jesus’ mouth the idea that the word represents the equivalent of God doing the same to His lost children is a terrible misunderstanding of the metaphor.
So, let’s look at the way Jesus used the word Gehenna.
But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire.”
In teaching on the danger of unresolved anger, Jesus said: “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of Gehenna fire.”
Referring to the accursed and filthy place of Gehenna was sure to capture His audience’s attention. The implication is that unresolved anger will set in line consequences that one will deeply regret. Jesus’ point was that our choices create life and blessing or … result in destruction and despair.
Given Jesus referred to Gehenna metaphorically in this statement, it would be hard to make the case that He intended His audience to conclude that an outburst of raw anger would threaten their post-mortem fate. To do so, would be claiming that Jesus was casually threatening His audience with endless damnation, something like, Deal with your anger, or burn forever!
To conclude this from the statement would not only be a leap of logic, but it would involve copy-pasting the Greek concept of Tartaroo onto Gehenna. That is to say, when Jesus used the word Gehenna, His audience thought of the metaphorical implications of a small valley in Jerusalem, not the torture chamber in the fabled netherworld.
Jesus’ use of Gehenna may, in fact, be similar to one saying, “Consistently making wrong choices will shipwreck your life.” In other words, there is no direct or implied statement here of post-mortem punishment, only of the damage that unresolved rage can cause in our lives.
MATTHEW 5:29, 30
(Repeated in Matthew 18:8,9 and Mark 9:43-50)
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [Gehenna]. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [Gehenna].”
Focusing now on the danger of lust, Jesus spoke of mutilation as an alternative to being “cast into Gehenna”. Again, this graphic language would have stabbed at the hearts of His hearers as He repeated reference to Jerusalem’s accursed valley having mentioned it only a few moments earlier (in verse 22).
Jesus is, of course, using vivid, dramatic language to make a point. Did He really advocate brutality as a strategy for heart purity? Of course not. None of His disciples walked around with missing body parts in obedience to His teachings. Likewise, did Jesus really suggest that those guilty of lust should be tossed into Jerusalem’s accursed valley like trash if they refused to self-mutilate? “Hey, Bob watched a naughty movie. Off to the trash heap with him!” Of course not. That’s ridiculous. That would be an appalling misunderstanding of the metaphor.
It seems even more absurd to suggest that Jesus taught that the consequence of looking at the wrong person lustfully was not merely a sentence to Jerusalem’s accursed valley but to endless, unending torture after death. That would not just be a butchering of the metaphor, it would require a complete hack job too. It would necessitate copy-pasting an entirely pagan idea of literal post-mortem torture in Tartaroo onto Jesus’ illustrative use of Gehenna.
In this passage, Jesus is again teaching that our choices have consequences in this life, and therefore, a disciplined life aligned to the King is essential. In this case, giving into a life twisted by lust will cause untold misery and suffering.
In Mark’s Gospel, the third repetition of foot amputation is added (Mark 9:45). Mark also adds the phrase: “into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (vv. 44, 46).
First of all, it’s telling that the word “never”—as in “the fire that shall never be quenched”—does not appear in the original; it was added at the privilege of the original translators betraying the bias of the Greek view of unending port-mortem torture.
Second, the metaphor of the “worm” that “does not die” and “the fire [that] is not quenched” may again refer to the waste burned in Jerusalem’s dumpsite where, according to the William Barclay, “fires were always kept alight and, which bred a kind of worm that was hard to kill”. Once again, this is poetic imagery intended to provoke thought, not formulate a doctrine of endless torment.
Moreover, in Mark’s account, Jesus goes on to speak about believers who are “seasoned with fire” (Mark 9:49, 50), referring to the way trials or adversity purify us in this life. In other words, the metaphor of Gehenna and fire are used directly of believers.
In The Gospel of Luke, William Barclay reminds us that “it was the eastern custom to use language in the most vivid possible way. Eastern language is always as vivid as the human mind can make it.”
Jesus primary focus in Matthew Chapter 5, and throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), was on a new way of living in this life … now. Throughout the entire discourse, Jesus revealed the Father-heart of God, calling us to the higher way of His Kingdom on earth. The concept of post-mortem judgement or unending damnation cannot be drawn from these verses or their context.
In fact, Jesus’ use of another illustrative consequence sandwiched between these two references to Gehenna in Matthew 5:22, 29—that of being “thrown into prison” (v. 25, 26)—imply just the opposite of unending punishment. Jesus said: “you will by no means get out of [prison] till you have paid the last penny” (v. 26). In other words, the consequence is real but remedial, and continues until justice is fulfilled. The time fits the crime.
I think it’s healthy to take stock, and question just how indoctrinated we might be. For example, when we read Matthew 5:29, “for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna,” do we instinctively presume He’s saying, “cast into the flames of unending torment”?
Of course, that is not what Jesus’ audience heard. They would have heard Him say something like, “choosing a path of lust will so corrupt your life, it may as well be tossed out with the rubbish.” And just as they’d recoil at the thought of literally plucking out their eye, yet understand it metaphorically, so they’d recoil at the thought of wasting their lives.
Jesus was calling them to a higher way of living on earth by using an extreme and graphic metaphor, not threatening people with endless torture after they died.
(Repeated in Luke 12:5)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Now, in teaching on the fear of God, Jesus again used vivid language to make His point. In comparison to men who can only destroy our body, how much more should one show appropriate fear before God who can destroy one “in Gehenna” (v. 28)? Again, His audience would have immediately had Jerusalem’s accursed valley in mind, not unending flames in the afterlife.
Jesus then reminded them of God’s nature with another comparison—how much more does God care about us if He cares so deeply for the sparrows (vv. 29-31)? In light of God’s goodness, Jesus then concludes: “do not fear” (v. 31).
In other words, Jesus used the word Gehenna to explain how God could destroy us (as easily as we chuck out the trash) in contrast to the empty threat of men (v. 28). Concluding with God’s caring nature and encouraging us not to be afraid, Jesus assured us that He won’t.
Is this any different from saying: “God could squash us like a bug, what threat does man hold?” We know He won’t, but the point is that He can. And thus, the fear of man is inconsequential in the light of His supreme power and care. Again, a doctrine of never-ending damnation cannot be logically drawn from this passage nor was it what His audience would have heard.
MATTHEW 23:15, 33
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell [Gehenna] as yourselves … Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell [Gehenna]?”
Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day and condemned their proselytising where they turned their converts into “twice as much a son of Gehenna ” (v. 15). Again, this has nothing to do with a doctrine of endless damnation; it is a solemn rebuke, implying they make their converts twice as bad as they are.
Again, and apologies for the repetition, the audience Jesus addressed associated Gehenna with Jerusalem’s accursed valley, not with unending torment after death. Gehenna was a symbol of that which was cursed, “the place where useless and evil things were destroyed.” Thus, a “son of Gehenna” referred to the product of a misguided, worthless and wicked agenda.
As Jesus continued to reprove the scribes and Pharisees in verse 30ff, Jesus declared: “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of Gehenna?”
For one, we don’t assume that they were literal serpents, right? Why is it harder to accept that Jesus used the word Gehenna metaphorically, too?
The word “condemnation” was translated “damnation” in the Old King James Version further inflaming the prevailing view of Hell. Importantly, it’s been dropped in the New King James Version and modern translations. It is important to realise that the word damnation does not appear in the Bible.
The Greek word translated “condemnation” (krisis) here referred to a “tribunal” and hence, spoke of a trial, of judgement. Jesus is certainly referring to the judgement these religious leaders face, intending to provoke them to change. But again, the concept of unending torment is neither stated nor implied. His hearers would have heard Him suggest that if they continued along the path they were on, they would end up like the rubbish tossed out on Jerusalem’s dumpsite: their lives horribly wasted, their potential for good tragically lost, their contribution to society sadly meaningless … their legacy a curse, not a blessing.
Today, we might say something like: “If you continue down that direction, you’re going to flush away your potential.” We’re certainly not threatening someone with a cosmic toilet bowl that never ceases to flush!
In other words, we cannot build a doctrine of eternal punishment from this passage either. On the four occasions that Jesus used the word Gehenna, He did not directly or indirectly teach about post-mortem judgement.
If this is the first time you’ve heard the word Gehenna or the first time you’ve understood what Jesus meant by using the phrase, you may be confused or even a little uncertain.
You may also assume that I’m making a statement about the doctrine of future states and claiming that the doctrine of endless torment of the unbelieving is invalid.
I am not making this claim.
There are at least five valid views on the post-mortem judgement of unbelievers in the Christian tradition, which we cover below.
I am not advocating for one or the other in this article.
What I am showing is that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, He was not conveying the pagan view of afterlife torture, which Hell does convey.
I am also trying to show what Jesus did mean when metaphorically referring to Jerusalem’s accursed valley.
More generally, I am attempting to highlight how carefully we must tread when throwing the word Hell around in references to the post-mortem judgement of unbelievers. Not only does it convey an incorrect pagan image, it casts aspersions on the nature of God and His justice.
In order to look at the subject thoroughly, we now turn our attention to the words Paul specifically used for post-mortem judgement.
Paul’s Choice of Words
As mentioned, Paul never used the word Hell. And he used the word Hades once, as a poetic synonym for death over which Christ has unquestionably triumphed. In fact, the only time Paul mentioned fire as a metaphor for judgement, he applied it to the judgement of the believer!
In discussing the judgement of the believer, specifically when apostolic workers give account of their labour to God, Paul used fire metaphorically to allude to purification.
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
(1 Corinthians 3:10-15, italics added)
Both fire and salt were associated with purification in the first century. Jesus used this idea too. In Mark’s Gospel, He said: “For everyone will be seasoned with fire … Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavour, how will you season it?” (Mark 9:49, 50). Note, Jesus was talking to believers in this passage, stressing “everyone will be seasoned by fire”.
The Big 4
That being said, Paul used very strong words to describe the post-mortem judgement of the unbeliever, the most common of which is the “wrath of God”. For example, he warned the hypothetical unrepentant person,
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
The Greek word “wrath” (orge) is actually the common Greek word for anger. Unfortunately, it’s taken on a bit of a life of its own, and many modern translations keep using the word “wrath” rather than the more appropriate word, “anger” such is its pride of place in our spiritual jargon.
Another reason for persisting with the word “wrath” might be because it describes God’s ultimate anger at judgement. While God is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11), His wrath does seem to convey the intensity of His angry displeasure when the unrepentant give account to Him after death.
Paul explained that those who put their faith in Christ in this life are “saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9). In other words, believers are spared this sense of God’s anger reserved for the unrepentant (even though they still have to give account of themselves). However, in God’s righteous and just anger, the unrighteous are punished “according to [their] deeds” (Romans 2:6). It’s interesting that Paul uses similar words to explain the judgement of the believer (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Now, as sober as this judgement is, there is no implication in the word “wrath,” and the way it is used, to suggest that God remains angry forever and ever. The way some salivate over the phrase “the wrath of God,” it’s not difficult to picture a sadistic God wielding a giant flyswatter eager to squash the ungodly. However, in light of His merciful, gracious and just nature, we’re always provoked with a sense of hope instead. “For His anger is but for a moment, His favour is for life” (Psalm 30:5; see also Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Lamentations 3:22-23).
It is rather unfortunate that the word “wrath” has taken on such a vindictive, menacing tone. If we read the word “anger” instead of “wrath” in these passages, we may strip off this incorrect cruel sense of the word. Using the phrase righteous anger or righteous displeasure instead of the heavy, loaded phrase wrath of God, better captures the point.
It’s interesting that Paul defines the “impenitent” person, a Greek word (ametanoetos) meaning unrepentant or unwilling to change, as one who is “self-seeking” and one who practices “unrighteousness” (Romans 2:8)—not one who hasn’t said the sinner’s prayer or one who doesn’t claim mental accent to specific doctrinal points.
Just as Jesus’ focused on confronting the deceitful power of self-interest, Paul makes self-seeking (and self-advancement) the critical issue. The unrepentant resists or rejects God’s wooing because they are obsessed with self. It’s their love of self; their love of independence, pride and self-gratification that keeps them separated from God. And it is this worship of Self that draws God’s intense righteous displeasure after death. The unbeliever’s life-orientation decides what judgement they face. However, at the risk of redundancy, there is nothing in this word orge, or Paul’s use of it, that implies the idea of unending damnation.
Along with the word wrath, Paul also used the words indignation (meaning, ‘passionate displeasure’), tribulation (meaning, ‘pressure’) and anguish (meaning, ‘distress’) in Romans 2:8, 9.
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.”
(Romans 2:5-9, italics added)
So, The Big 4 are…
- wrath (anger)
- indignation (displeasure)
- tribulation (pressure)
- anguish (distress)
These four words stress the definitive, unbearable reality of the unrepentant facing God’s judgement after death.
The use of vivid language is intended to provoke sober and vigorous reflection. To say it more emphatically, God’s post-mortem judgement is unimaginably horrible. Words like bitter regret, chronic isolation, overwhelming loneliness, devastating meaninglessness, crushing despair … probably still fail to capture it fully.
However, these are all figurative ideas meant to provoke a sober fear of God. In fact, the same could be said of passages that refer to believers “suffering loss” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)—a phrase meaning, “to injure”—and to believers experiencing God’s “chastening,” described as “painful” (Hebrews 12:5-11).
Thus, while The Big 4 are very strong words, they do not, in themselves, convey any sense that the judgement delivered is unending (forever and ever).
John’s Lake of Fire
The Book of Revelation is a book that stands alone in the Scriptures due to its apocalyptic genre. Only sections of the Book of Daniel come close to matching its type and style. For this reason, it is easily the most misunderstood book in the Bible.
John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, like all ancient apocalyptic writing, is meant to be experienced figuratively and interpreted allegorically. The vivid imagery and symbolism means we should tread lightly in any literal interpretation, whether it’s a six-winged creature “full of eyes” (Revelation 4:9) or the “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10-15).
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said it best,
“All the Scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible … People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
This admonishment applies to much of the Biblical language, which is loaded with metaphor and symbolism typical of ancient writing. For instance, the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42; 13:15; 22:13; 24:51 and 25:30) doesn’t denote the consequence of literal punishment or torture but communicates a sense of anguish and bitter regret. Remembering that Scriptural imagery is a “symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible” is especially important when reading John’s Revelation.
The Lake of Fire and Great White Throne
Without question, the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10) and the “great white throne” (Revelation 20:11) are powerful pictures proclaiming the devil’s final defeat and lauding the sovereignty and ultimate victory of Christ respectively. These vivid images, along with the personification of Death and Hades, the beast and the false prophet, their torment “day and night forever and ever”, fire and brimstone, the fleeing of heaven and earth, the Book Life, and the proclamation of the “second death” arrest the emotions and capture the imagination.
And that’s the point. Through apocalyptic writing, and understanding the symbolism used, we’re supposed to cheer at the ultimate defeat of evil and roar with excitement at the triumph of good. We’re supposed to feel, taste and smell it. Apocalyptic writing was the ancient equivalent to CGI special effects and surround sound.
So, let’s touch on just a few aspects of this imagery and symbolism in the verse below to get a feel for how the figurative drama is to be appreciated.
The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
(Revelation 20:10, italics added)
Firstly, “fire and brimstone” were symbols of purification in the first century. An entire lake of the stuff was a dramatic way of picturing the sheer extent of the enemy’s wickedness and God’s sovereign power over it.
In Is Hell Eternal? Or Will God’s Plan Fail?, Charles Pridgeon, the president and founder of the Pittsburgh Bible Institute, explains,
“The Lake of Fire and Brimstone signifies a fire burning with brimstone; the word “brimstone” or sulfur defines the character of the fire … sulphur was sacred to the deity among the ancient Greeks; and was used to fumigate, to purify, to cleanse and consecrate to the deity; for this purpose they burned it in their incense … To any Greek, or any trained in the Greek language, a lake of fire and brimstone would mean a lake of divine purification.”
In other words, the Lake of Fire is a metaphor for divine purification not never-ending damnation.
Interestingly, there’s no mention of Gehenna, which makes sense. By the time John wrote the Book of Revelation, Jerusalem’s accursed valley had little meaning to his largely Gentile audience.
Secondly, the word “torment” is the Greek word basanizo, which is used of a sick person (Matthew 8:6), a ship tossed by waves (Matthew 14:24), Lot’s grief (2 Peter 2:8) and birth pains (Revelation 12:2). Accordingly, torment is fundamentally different from torture.
Again, in Is Hell Eternal? Or Will God’s Plan Fail?, Charles Pridgeon explains,
“The original idea of [basanizo] is to put to the test by rubbing on a touchstone … to test some metal that looked like gold to find whether it was real or not … The meaning and usage of this word harmonizes with the idea of divine purification and the torment which is the test to find whether there has been any change or not in the sufferer.”
In other words, the sentiment here is that the torment experienced by God’s enemies is more akin to chastening than torture.
Thirdly, the phrase “forever and ever”, in reference to the judgement of the devil, the beast and the false prophet, is the Greek term eis aion aion—eis means “to or into” and aion means “age.” Thus, it literally means, “age to age” or “age into age.”
The double use of the word aion or “age” is a poetic way of dramatically expressing the severe consequence reserved for the devil and his underlings. And as we discussed in What Does Aionios Mean?, the word “age” does not mean “without ending”.
The unfortunate translation “forever and ever”—again, an indication of translation bias—incorrectly gives the impression that this is a quantity rather than quality issue. To be clear, the phrase speaks of the intensity of the punishment and though unquestionably severe, it does not convey the sense of punishment without end.
In other words, the language and imagery is graphic and poetic not literal. What’s more, John’s primary subject is the devil in this verse. Thus, some argue that this verse—and its focus on purification—actually hints at his restoration.
That said, the point is that we simply cannot make dogmatic assertions about post-mortem judgement from an allegory that portrays the final battle of the ages between God and the devil in apocalyptic symbolism. If you read Revelation and end it breathless, your senses tingling as you punch the air, “We win!”, then you’ve read it correctly.
In Christ Triumphant, Thomas Allin explains,
“The whole Bible is Oriental. Every line breathes the spirit of the East, with its hyperboles and metaphors, and what to us seem utter exaggerations. If such language be taken literally, its whole meaning is lost. When the sacred writers want to describe the dusky redness of a lunar eclipse, they say the moon is turned into blood.
He who perverts Scripture is not the man who reduces this sacred poetry to its true meaning. Nay, that man perverts the Bible who hardens into dogmas the glowing metaphors of Eastern poetry—such conduct Lange, in his preface to the Apocalypse, calls a “moral scandal.” So with our Lord’s words … Am I to hate my father and mother or pluck out my right eye literally? … Therefore, I maintain that no doctrine of endless pain can be based on Eastern imagery, on metaphors mistranslated very often, and always misinterpreted.”
Views on Post-Mortem Judgement
So, now what?
What is the Bible’s view on the post-mortem judgement of unbelievers?
The Bible does not have one single dogmatic viewpoint on how post-mortem judgement unfolds.
The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, for instance, state only that Jesus will return to “judge the living and the dead”. They don’t even distinguish between believers and unbelievers.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean the doctrine is unimportant. To the contrary, the doctrine that every human being will face their Father and Creator after death is a first principle of Christianity on par with repentance, faith and the resurrection (Hebrew 6:1, 2). Ultimate justice is a core theme throughout the Scriptures.
However, the question of how this judgement unfolds is secondary and a matter of conscience.
There are at least five different viewpoints within Christian tradition. And we are free to settle on how it unfolds based on our understanding of God’s nature.
The Old Testament offers no complex view of the afterlife and unless you read Greek Mythology into the New Testament, you can be content with two simple truths: firstly, we all give account to God in death and secondly, God’s nature is just and merciful.
Simply put, we can be content in trusting God’s just nature beyond the grave. Only He knows the condition of our hearts and only He balances mercy and justice perfectly.
Confident in this knowledge, our evangelism can focus on the wonder and joy of a relationship with God and the adventure of following Him. Now. In this life … and into the age to come.
So, that’s it? We just trust God’s mercy and justice beyond the grave? What does post-mortem judgement look like? How does it unfold?
Admittedly, many find this first viewpoint unsatisfactory. But before we consider the other viewpoints, it’s important to acknowledge the validity of this first view and admire the faith of those who hold it.
The goal of this section is not to advocate for one viewpoint over another. Yes, due to the entrenched view of Endless Torment, this article is written in a way that attempts to profile the other viewpoints, as many people are unaware of them.
God’s ultimate justice is one of the central themes of the Scriptures and it’s essential to Christian doctrine.
What ultimate judgement looks like, or how it works, is not. It’s a matter of conscience.
We are free to settle on a viewpoint that harmonises best with our understanding of God’s nature.
And yes, we are invited to be fully convinced in our own minds about our choice on non-essential matters. However, we are exhorted to extend the same freedom of choice to others (Romans 14:1-12).
Jude is as fiery as it gets in the New Testament.
He refers to fallen angels who are “reserved in everlasting chains under the darkness for the judgement of the great day” (v. 6). He writes of Sodom and Gomorrah, who are set forth as an example, “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (v. 7). And speaks of the apostate, who are “reserved [for] the blackness of darkness forever” (v. 13).
Unquestionably challenging words, words meant to beget a wholesome fear of the Lord in the hearers, specifically those who are the subject of his righteous ire: “ungodly men, who turn the grace of God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 4).
That said, in an attempt to understand these phrases, let’s approach them honestly and accurately.
The words “everlasting,” “eternal” and “forever” translate the Greek word aionios (or a derivative of the word), a concept that does not mean “unending” or “never-ending.”
As we’ve discussed in What Does Aionios Mean?, it refers to a qualitative measure not a quantitative one. In each case, the judgement described is a time-fits-the-crime measure, not a never-ending one. And yes, these are among some of the sternest pronouncements in the New Testament. No soft soap here. However, substitute the word “appropriate” in each case and you get a better sense of the intent.
For instance, fallen angels are “reserved in appropriate chains under the darkness for the judgement of the great day” (v. 6). Sodom and Gomorrah, who are set forth as an example, “suffering the vengeance of appropriate fire” (v. 7). The apostate are “reserved [for] the blackness of darkness appropriately” (v. 13).
I’m not suggesting that the translators should have used the word “appropriate” instead of “everlasting,” “eternal” or “forever.” There are no adequate English words, and that’s the issue. The translators’ choices are unquestionably flavoured by Augustine’s theory of “endless torments”. I suggest the word “appropriate” only to flush out the preconceived, erroneous assumptions we read into the words.
Jude spoke of “eternal fire” in one breath and then the “blackness of darkness” in the next. So, is it fire or blackness? In a literal sense, the two are mutually exclusive, but he’s not talking literally.
He’s using graphic figurative language to make a point. In fact, Jude loves a good metaphor or three. In two verses, he describes the guilty using no less than five metaphors: “spots in your love feast,” “clouds without water,” “autumn trees without fruit,” “raging waves of the sea” and “wandering stars” (vv. 12, 13). Like many writers of the East, he’s using graphic language to paint a picture. We know these are obvious metaphors, but why do so many then switch logic when encountering the metaphoric use of fire and blackness? One reason: a preconceived misunderstanding of the words.
Are you saying Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed by a figurative fire? (Yes, I’ve been asked that question, dripping with sarcasm, by someone who then said, Gotcha! before I could offer a reply.) My answer, after a pause to allow him to revel in his moment, was a gentle, No. Of course not. Jude, like all the apostolic writers, used the literal concept of fire metaphorically. And in this case, he used what literally happened to Sodom as a metaphor of judgement on the opponents of the truth.
In His wisdom, God determined that such severe punitive physical action was warranted in these extreme cases—rare cases that occurred on earth, in a specific sublunary time and space. However, to then conclude that such action, necessary in the temporal here and now, translates into either post-mortem physical torture and never-ending punishment, is to draw on a Greek view of the afterlife, not the Scriptures. Without question, those so judged would face severe consequences after death, too. But unless we’re importing a Greek construct into our theology, we can trust that whatever happens post-mortem—to the guilty in such cases, to others, to us—God’s loving justice is both merciful and just.
And we can (and should) also remain consistent in our application of logic to these verses. As already mentioned, in the ancient world, fire was a symbol of purification. Like metaphoric chains that bind angels, like metaphoric wandering stars, Jude uses fire metaphorically.
Finally, let me point out another bias in the translation process. Consider the phrase “vengeance of eternal fire” (so translated in the NKJV). What does the word “vengeance” convey? It portrays a vengeful God out for his pound of flesh.
Fortunately, most modern translations correctly use the word “punishment” instead, a word far more consistent with the Father’s just chastisement.
Extreme Measures or Compassionate Intervention?
Let me make a comment on a related matter that surfaced in this section.
The literal judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah (like Genesis 6’s flood, of course, and Ananias and Sapphira, to point to a New Testament example) raises questions for some about God’s willingness to use extreme measures to punish the guilty. Personally, I think we ought to tread sensitively in addressing these questions. I have far more patience with someone who honestly struggles to correlate God’s loving nature with these severely punitive actions than those who uncaringly responds to such honest enquiry with pat answers like, “because He can.”
So, let me offer a comment on the matter even though I think it is only a small glimpse into a more complex issue.
In my opinion, God deemed such action necessary whenever He determined redemption was not possible and allowing evil to prevail would continue to cause untold misery and suffering on subsequent generations. Imagine Sodom and Gomorrah: cities in which evil ran rampant, societies in which unborn generations would be abused, molested and so corrupted, that they too would perpetrate such abominable atrocities in continued cycles of deepening and widening destruction.
In His wisdom (having no doubt exhausted every other possible means of appeal), God may determine that a severe intervention in the temporal here and now is, in fact, an act of salvation for those suffering such horrors in the present and for those who would in the future. To put a finer point on it, God is not only saving the victims (women and children unable to escape from this deplorable society), but He is saving the victims from themselves becoming perpetrators and thus, saving their future victims, too.
As dramatic and terrible as such an intervention was, God’s judgement ended the lives of the inhabitants of these cities on earth but ushered them into the age to come. In other words, this drastic action ended their sublunary existence, not their eternal one. In this sense, what appears to be a brutal and inhumane act to us is, in fact, a compassionate and redemptive intervention on God’s part.