What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell

What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell June 25, 2014

What was Jesus talking about when he talked about hell? Well, that’s actually a great question.

Growing up I was often told that “Jesus talked more about hell than he did heaven”, but I don’t once remember being encouraged to actually research from a historical and grammatical perspective what Jesus was actually talking about when he used the word “hell”. (In their defense, I don’t think I ever had a religious leader with advanced theological training, so they probably didn’t realize that someone might want to “look this up” either).

The first discovery one will make on such an investigation, is the inconvenient truth that the word “hell” didn’t exist in first century Israel. This brings up one crucial problem when translating/interpreting the Bible apart from any scholastic work: we see English words that have specific linguistic and cultural connotations and meanings, and read those meanings into an ancient text which may, or may not, have intended to send the same meaning.

The word “hell” becomes a prime example: the word we use today, doesn’t actually appear in language until approximately AD 725– long after the first century. In addition, the word doesn’t come from Hebrew at all, but rather is ultimately rooted in Proto-Germanic. According to the The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the word “hell” was adopted into our vocabulary as a way to introduce the pagan concept of hell into Christian theology– which it did quite successfully.

Therefore, we know right off the bat that when we read scripture in English, we’re not actually reading what was originally said and risk reading into the text instead of getting back to the original historical and grammatical meaning of the text. We do this in many areas, which is why competency in Biblical languages or at least Koine Greek, is a mandatory requirement at legitimate institutions of higher theological learning– and why one would do well to hold theology in humility until they are well versed in the grammatical and historical realities of any given ancient text.

It is true however, that we do see– and not infrequently– Jesus refer to “hell”. So what was he talking about?

It’s easy to dismiss something in scripture as just being “metaphorical” without having an intelligent reason to back that up, so we’ve got to go deeper. In this case, we find that Jesus was actually referring to a literal place– and not a literal place of the future, but a literal place of first century Israel. “Hell” was a place that the people of Jesus’ time could actually go and see (image below). So, what was it? Here you go:

The word Jesus uses in Greek is γέεννα (Gehenna), which actually means “The Valley of the Son of Hinnom”. An over simplified description of Gehenna would be that it was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem; this was the place where both garbage and dead bodies would be discarded and consumed by a fire that was likely always burning. The location goes all the way back to the book of Joshua, and was a place where bad things happened– child sacrifice, bodies were cremated, etc. Basically, imagine a dump where garbage is burned– add into that the vision of burning bodies and a historical connotation of child sacrifice, and you’ll see that it wasn’t a very desirable place. However, it was a very literal place and the original audience of Jesus would have understood it as such. They would not have heard the word “Gahenna” and thought of our concept of hell– they would have realized Jesus was talking about an actual place outside the city.

Jesus did talk of Gehenna as a warning to his audience, but not in the same contextual framework you and I see it from a modern perspective. As my friend and co-Kingdom Conspirator Kurt Willems previously wrote on this same topic:

“When Jesus appeals to Gehenna, he evokes a literal place, not in the underworld, but outside of Jerusalem. Most of the time Jesus uses “hell” in the context of parabolic imagery. To say “hell” is to use imagery that helps listeners understand the danger in this life and the next of not joining up with God’s kingdom purposes.”

As Kurt said, I think the warning of Gehenna is two-fold, one with a very practical application for his audience and one that is symbolic of consequences in the afterlife. For example, it Matthew 23:33 we see Jesus issue the religious leaders a stern warning:

“You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to Gehenna?”

Now, going back to our historical context, we know that the original audience who heard this warning would not have thought Jesus was talking about the “hell” that you or I think of. Instead, he is warning them about their pending risk to literally be burned in the Valley of Hinnom.

Here’s what they would have heard: “You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?”

When we look at historical context, we remember that Jesus clearly warned people about the coming judgement against Israel. At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment). However, I still affirm that his warnings of hell also have implications for the afterlife– which is why I remain an annihilationist with the hope there will be opportunities for the unjust to come to postmortem repentance, and be reconciled to God through Christ.

All things considered, I believe it important to realize that when Jesus discusses hell, a primary purpose (not negating secondary) was a warning of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and that refusal to heed his advice would result in one being killed and burned in Gehenna.



This article was part of a series on hell. You can find a directory of the entire series by clicking here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bevin H.

    Help me understand why you make this conclusion “However, I still affirm that his warnings of hell also have implications for the afterlife” after understanding it as a literal place? I think I’ve missed something. Not arguing your conclusions, I just feel like we went from A-Z without a piece of crucial logic.

  • It is because of other passages– in Matthew 25, he warns that some will end up on the wrong side of the judgement, and we see a return of fire symbolism in Revelation (the lake of fire), etc, which is clearly linked to the afterlife. The fact that it was a literal place would not negate other verses that talk about eternal judgement. What it does do, however, is really change how we see that– frees us from the evangelical version of hell to begin to ask a different set of questions.

  • $105158253

    What Jesus meant when He talked about hell: Hell.

  • Tyler Whipkey

    Benjamin, I appreciate the effort that you’re putting into writing this series. You’ve made me think about a few things that I might not have otherwise thought about. Thanks for pushing me out of my comfort zone here.

  • Wonder

    shorter Frank: tl:dr

  • Erin McDonald Sweeney

    I have never before been so challenged in what I believe than I have been reading your blog. Between this series on hell and your views on Revelation my head is spinning! I have to say that the psycho apocalyptic end times stuff I grew up with never sat well with me, but I had never heard any other view point so I didn’t know there were other options. As for hell…I had no idea there were three view point on that either! Why isn’t this stuff taught in churches? Why aren’t pastors laying it all out for people no matter what they believe personally? I am so grateful that you take the time to express your thoughts and beliefs about scripture and why you have come to the conclusions that you have, because it has opened up so many new ideas for me. Thank you!

  • OwenW

    Benjamin. I enjoyed reading what you wrote and there is much I do find I agree with you on, but here is some further thoughts on understanding ‘gehenna.’

    The difficulty of assigning Jesus usage of ‘gehenna’ primarily as a reference to the literal place, rather than a designation that uses the literal place as a symbol, is that he uses it many times in a way that does not readily fit with such a literal designation. Matthew 10:28 is most salient, as he attributes God destroying “body and soul in gehenna,’ which clearly is a reference to activity that goes beyond simply the physical location in the Valley of Hinnon. He also talks about the converts of the Pharisees who are “twice a child of hell” (Matthew 23:15).

    To add, later Jewish belief saw that gehenna was the place for God’s final judgment would take place (According to the BDAG lexicon). This belief is more than simply a burning of the body that occurred in the physical location, but that something more would happen as gehenna. It is plausible that the very things that occurred in the Valley of Hinnon conveyed a sense of humiliation, degradation, contempt, and uncleanliness that they associated it with the place that God would reject evildoers in the final judgment. Given the dead bodies there, it is very conceivable this placed conveyed such a rejection to a intensively unclean (a great Jewish fear) and perpetually destructive place (everlasting fire). While we can not be 100% sure that Jesus was influenced by the same ideas regarding ‘gehenna’ as later Jewish belief, the additional fact that he clearly speaks of it in a way that evokes a meaning beyond simply the physical burning of bodies does lend validity that ‘gehenna’ could have other connotations, most particularly of God’s definitive judgment.

    So, it is true to say that ‘gehenna’ is not consistent with our popular understandings of ‘hell,’ but I do think we should avoid overcorrecting by ‘literalizing’ the usage of gehenna (with only making room for ‘dual fulfillments’) and miss the strong, symbolic (and eschatological) significance that place had taken when Jesus spoke of it. This still fits with much of what you said elsewhere and can still work with annihilationism, but we also see Jesus language being a directly intended as a reference to a particular, final judgment of the whole person’s life (body and soul), not just a description of physical death or simply the destruction event of Jerusalem in 70 AD. (To borrow a couple metaphors that Paul uses but in a different context, these events may be the “pledge” and ‘first fruits’ of the full judgment, but ‘gehenna’ refers to something even more final.)

  • Guest

    useful information, bad conclusion.
    used so many metaphors, why should we look at this as an exception?
    Just to be another “annihilationist with the hope there will be
    opportunities for the unjust to come to postmortem repentance, and be
    reconciled to God through Christ”?

    Not only this thing cannot be, but it cannot be drawn as result from the data presented.

  • Caspian

    Another interesting thing about Gehenna is that the refuse and bodies were sent there to be burned (destroyed), not tormented.

    Thanks for this Ben.

    As an evangelical I find your posts challenging in all the right ways. I particularly enjoy these last two posts regarding Hell. I have two friends going through seminary and some of the theological conversations that have come up have been intriguing. I had never given a lot of thought about hell other then what I (thought) I knew about it. Whenever I did, the puzzle of doctrine never seemed to come together. Every time I’d get one piece to fit (God’s Justice), another would fall out (God’s Mercy).

    You’ve actually switched out a piece of the puzzle that didn’t even belong. After doing so, not surprisingly, a bunch of pieces fell into place.

    Keep it up!

  • John Bickham

    This is very good Ben! Thanks for posting this!

  • That was some convincing exegesis. If you tease that out a bit more, you could probably get it published.

  • Jeff Preuss

    Because Jesus.

  • John W. Morehead

    In editing a volume for Pickwick one of the essays touched on hell and mentioned this idea of Gehenna and the garbage dump. However, further research revealed that “despite the prevalence of this belief, scholars like George Beasley-Murray have noted that ‘the notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimchi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source.'”

  • He would be incorrect. We have biblical mentions of bodies being burned here all the way back in Jeremiah, and the Jewish historian Josephus talks of the bodies taken here after the siege of Jerusalem. See, Jos. War 5.12.3

  • gimpi1

    Apparently Frank can’t be bothered to waste his” pearls of wisdom” on we worthless heretics. If he can’t offer his drive-by shots in 10 words or less, he won’t bother.

  • John W. Morehead

    “The traditional explanation that a
    burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave
    rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi
    David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13
    (ca. A.D. 1200). He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were
    kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into
    it. However, Strack and Billerbeck state that there is neither
    archeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either
    the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources (Hermann L.
    Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch,
    5 vols. [Munich: Beck, 1922-56], 4:2:1030). Also a more recent author
    holds a similar view (Lloyd R. Bailey, “Gehenna: The Topography of
    Hell,” Biblical Archeologist 49 [1986]: 189. (p. 328n.17)

  • Johnny25343

    Guest, men of the first century Judea, Jesus included all spoke in metaphor. Its just how they spoke. Keep in mind the idea of hell was likely brought about as a method of scaring people into the Kingdom. Sad to think that we need to scare people into doing anything when more often than not you hear the phrase “fear not dozens if not hundreds of times in scripture.

  • Kevin Breen

    If I remember right, most of the time when Jesus (or whoever wrote the Bible) talked about Hell, he opened with “Verily I say unto you” (Ancient Hebrew for “Word” or “No lie”. Most of his parables also used this intro. This leads me to believe that references to Hell were to be taken as parables, not reality.

  • Something to keep in mind is that Jesus was also talking about religious purity and breaching that boundary. The tradition of keeping someone out of the gates of the Temple or out of the gates of the city was something carried long into the early church. This was for them to repent of certain sins through askesis before being allowed back in. This was carried through the eastern church. Much like the Prodigal son who hits “bottom” among swine (the purity reference is obvious – he was as unclean as unclean can be), the image of Gehenna as a place of death and decay carries even more weight regarding the religious ritual of the time. Jesus was deeply religious and rooted in the practices of Judaism which is why we find him in the temple in Luke’s Gospel and his story is about him coming back to the Temple to restore it rather than destroy it. Yes, it is a literal place. No, the reference in the language was not to be taken literally. This is about the ultimate distance from God which is death. This is indeed how the early church understood hell.

  • Herro

    Reading Jos War 5.12.3 I just see a reference to the besieged people throwing bodies “from the walls into the valleys beneath” the walls.

    I don’t see anything there about the valley of Hinnom specifically, the bodies are thrown into “the valleys” (plural!).

    And they aren’t talking about bodies being taken there after the siege, but people just throwing the bodies of the city walls during the siege.

    And do we have mentions of bodies being burnt there in a garbage dump in Jeremiah?

  • Herro

    Benjamin Corey, could you explain to me how you would understand Lk 12:4-5

    >“I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into [Gehenna]; yes, I tell you, fear Him!

    Here we havev the contrast:

    1. People can kill the body, but can’t do anything more.
    2. God can kill the body, but he can also throw people into Gehenna.

    If “throwing into Gehenna” just means throwing the corpses into a valley outside Jerusalem, then this makes no sense, because people can easily do that (and according to you, they did!)

    But the contrast perfect sense if Gehenna refers to some sort of eschatological place of punishment.

  • I think He was talking about Cleveland…

  • Elizabeth Niederer

    Perhaps you’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but allow me to point out that these narratives were written well after the Roman siege of Jerusalem.

  • Chuck McCoy

    I think the word in Psalms was sheol, not gehenna. Sheol just means grave and was used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to mean grave.

  • Ellen H.

    Very interesting and informative. I have always argued that to truly understand the Bible, one must look at the historical context. Thank you.

  • John Fincher

    This is why I’m confused by annihilationism (I’ve no dog in the hunt, so to speak, but am merely thinking about the problems with various views on this subject), is that, we can assume, that after death, you’ll see everything clearly. That is, you wouldn’t be on Earth anymore, and no longer see, “thru a glass, darkly”. Why would one NOT repent at that point?

  • Guest

    The end of Revelation lists groups of people being thrown into the “lake of fire.” How do you reconcile Jesus’ teaching with John if Patmos’ warning?

  • This is one of the most interesting and valuable piece of theology I have ever read. It so illustrates how the concept of hell lines up with the organic parables of Jesus. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Caspian

    I think your onto something. It’s just about the right length for a Fortune Cookie.

  • Keelan
  • Walt Fulps

    In Revelation, it’s referred to as “the second death.” Also not eternal torment in a spiritual place. Death.

  • I think most would. Why I remain an annihilationist is because scripture does frequently talk about some who face a second death, and I don’t see any way around it. I certainly think most would repent after death, the only problem is that scripture doesn’t say that opportunity will exist, so one can only hope for it.

  • I think they were speaking of different things, one in the here and now and one in the future. This is why I remain an annihilationist.

  • Andrew Dunlap

    yes, ask LeBron, lol!

  • John Fincher

    It also doesn’t say there’s not a chance for repentance after death. As a matter of fact, there’s precidence for it when Jesus preached to the “captives” after his crucifixion. Now, we can debate what that really means, but something happened after these people died.

  • BT

    Hell, like Cleveland, is only bad if you’ve actually been somewhere – anywhere – else.

  • I don’t disagree– did you read the first two parts of the series? I discussed this same point.

  • I strongly disagree. It was Detroit.

  • I don’t think it only means a literal throwing into Gehenna, which is why I said I leave it open for symbolism and dual fulfillment. I certainly think there were additional connotations of judgement, etc. The Luke passage I dealt with earlier in the series pointing to the fact that it talks about death, not eternal torment.

  • Ben, you say that «the inconvenient truth that the word “hell” didn’t exist in first century Israel». But the notion of the torments of the wicked is clear in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Although this might be a real parable, nevertheless, Jesus takes his parables only from real, existing frames. And here, the rich man is not annihilated.

    I think you have a problem understanding the concept of sin. The sin is the self-distancing of the subject (sinner) from God. Sin is self-destruction. It’s not God who punishes, but the intrinsical nature of the sin.

    Therefore, annihilation is not an option.

  • Simon

    For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
    19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
    20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

  • I would respectfully counter that for some, sin could become so self destructive that in the end, there’s nothing left to destroy– which would lead to ceasing to exist. There are many annihilationists who see the postmortem refining process to produce some who have good remaining and choose to be reconciled to God, and some who, when all the negative is burned away, have nothing left.

  • Julie

    If you would like to read one of the best and most convincing works of someone who was probably a universalist, read George MacDonald’s Lilith. It’s more mystic than theological maybe, but it’s an interesting read by someone whose depth of love for Christ and consequent understanding of him is unquestionable. (Make sure you have a basic understanding of MacDonald’s biography to help you understand him a little bit.)

  • DB

    ba… Cleveburg aint so bad

  • $105158253

    The truth is simple. Sorry you keep missing it.

  • Captain Scorpio

    The thing is, a church service is not a school of religion, or a referendum.0 There isn’t all that much room for a discussion of many viewpoints there; it’s generally structured as one cleric/minister leading in his or her view. That’s not to be a negative; it is what it is, and s/he’s only one person, after all.

    I think the problem comes from people relying solely on their chosen church, or perhaps their particular denomination, for their theological views; when their social circle is composed primarily of those same people, that compounds it.

    In this way, it’s similar to American politics; we each have our chosen party/movement/causes, and fill up our social calendar, our Facebook, our twitter, with the people who more or less agree with us, and tend to dismiss those who think something else. It’s a kind of mental/spiritual entropy, and it can take significant effort to resist, especially at first.

  • Levi

    Read the parable again. The rich man is definitely in agony. But Jesus never says what happens to him after Abraham denies his requests. This cannot be used as evidence against annihilationism.

  • RebekahTheGrey

    Does this HAVE to be a prediction, could it not just be an idiom? “If you don’t, you might as well live in the garbage dump” or “If you don’t, you might as well be dead.” Personally, I’d rather live in the words of God than be burned garbage.

    In any case I am always amused that most of what people think they know about hell seems to come from the Book of Nicodemus, which wasn’t even good enough to get into the Bible.

  • Exactly. I’m not opposed to the possibility that there could be a conscious waiting- my argument is regarding the final disposition of the unjust. Between now and that moment, all kinds of things are up for debate.

  • Personally, I’m not seeing any linguistical or historical reason to take it as an idiom.

  • sovdep

    I find it perplexing that the author writes “competency in Biblical
    languages or at least Koine Greek, is a mandatory requirement at
    legitimate institutions of higher theological learning– and why one
    would do well to hold theology in humility until they are well versed in
    the grammatical and historical realities of any given ancient text”,
    yet seems himself to be not very well versed in the actual ancient texts
    or source languages.

    While “Gehenna” is indeed a physical place, it is clearly used as a
    metaphor for a place of eternal punishment because God will destroy both
    the soul and the body there (Matt. 10:28) and it is unquenchable (Mark
    9:43). However, anyone versed in Koine will understand that Jesus also
    used other words that are popularly translated as “Hell”. For example,
    in Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the word used is
    not “Gehenna”, but “Hades” : καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ,
    ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις (Luke 16:23). This itself “introduces a pagan
    concept of Hell into Christian theology”, to borrow the author’s words.

    Not only that, but it is undisputed that at the time of Christ, the
    Hebrew notion of the world of the dead as a hollow and sad place but not
    one of punishment (שְׁאוֹל or Sheol being the most common term used,
    though other words and phrases occur) had changed, perhaps under Persian
    Zoroastrian influences. It was therefore not the use of the Germanic
    word “Hell” that introduced a notion of punishment into Christian
    theology. This notion was present at the start and in the New

    There also seems to be a level of willful ignorance regarding the
    ability of the Bible to serve as a metaphor. After all, no serious
    student of the Bible would attempt to limit the understanding of “Zion”
    to the actual mountain by Jerusalem; to do so would be not only absurd
    but also destroy much of the meaning of the Bible itself. Likewise,
    attempting to limit the understanding of Gehenna to be a physical place
    (which archaeology does not support the popular myths surrounding) is
    clearly a modern attempt to explain away Hell. While I understand that
    issues such as theodicy and how a just God could punish souls in Hell
    are thorny to contend with, attempting to explain away Hell in such a
    crude fashion is not worthy of any serious theology. It’s not enough to
    throw in a vague phrase about “implications for the afterlife” after
    having just lopped off layers and layers of meaning and depth.

    As a final note, Jesus certainly didn’t discuss Hell more often than He
    did Heaven. Gehenna is only mentioned 12 times in the New Testament and
    Hades is only mentioned 9 times (which includes the epistles,
    Revelation, Act of the Apostles, etc.). Jesus personally mentioned
    Heaven, or the Kingdom of Heaven, over 100 times. I would think this
    would be immediately apparent to anyone who has read the Bible
    (regardless of language).

  • Did you skip the part where it says it can also be symbolism and a concept that has dual fulfillment? It appears so.

  • sovdep

    Oh, I read it. It’s like putting a band-aid on an amputated limb. You’ve just rewritten the meaning of large parts of the Bible and then make an aside that shows you’re magnanimously willing to consider that there is something more there. One paragraph later, however, you are back at it, stating that the “primary” meaning was the literal one, in contradiction not only to a careful reading of the source text but also two thousand years of Biblical scholarship.

  • Just me

    No precedence at all, the captives were in sheol where the righteous went to await for Jesus to be sacrificed and open the gates of heaven, and unrighteous went after death to await their final judgement.

  • John Fincher

    Nice that you can say that with such certainty. Maybe when I grow up, I can be as certain, too.

  • Just me

    If you grow up you will also realize that scripture does not leave room for repentance after death.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    The problem with making an equivalence between Gehenna and a tortuous afterlife go even deeper than this. First off, we have written Jewish records and teachings dating back to before the time of Jesus and the first time we see the word Gehenna used in reference to the afterlife by a Jewish teacher is in the 6th century CE. So if Jesus meant to be warning about the afterlife, he was using the word Gehenna in a unique and novel way which would have had to be explained to his audience.

    Secondly, Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom is also called Tophet in the bible. Tophet plays a prominent role in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is all about the Israelites being sent into exile in Babylon. So, when Jesus spoke of Gehenna, it would have called to mind in his audience not only the physical location, but the painful, traumatic events of being sent into exile. It was commonly believed during the second temple period that while Israel had been restored at least partially as a political state, it was still in spiritual exile until the arrival of the Messiah. Importantly, Jeremiah is also the source of the good shepherd language which Jesus employs.

    By warning about Gehenna while also claiming to be the good shepherd, Jesus is communicating the times they lived in as well as his role in the whole thing. As Corey points out, there was a very real destruction awaiting Israel. And it would end, literally or metaphorically, in Gehenna for those who did not turn away from their battle stances. To escape, people needed to follow the good shepherd God had promised to send to lead them into safety and freedom. Which would be Jesus.

    (I flush this out a bit more fully here: http://theupsidedownworld.com/2012/08/17/what-the-hell/)

  • «Between us and you there
    is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may
    not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us.» It’s very clear that the rich man is not annihilated; rather he dwells in torments. And it’s very clear that the torments are NOT annihilation, lest he couldn’t speak about his kinsmen.

  • Levi

    It obviously isn’t clear, or careful readers of the text wouldn’t be reaching different conclusions, would they? (Sorry… pet peeve)

    The existence of a great gulf or chasm doesn’t tell us what happens next. We don’t know if the rich man is eventually consumed by the flame (the annihilationist view) or continues to endure them in agony forever (the ECT view). The fact that he can carry on a conversation about his family is not sufficient to establish either alternative.

  • Not annihilated yet. He’s awaiting the resurrection of the just and unjust, at which time the unjust will meet their final disposition after the judgement.

  • atalex

    Oh, I doubt that. You seem to be one of those “Christians” for whom belief in hell is much more important than belief in heaven because it reassures you that everyone who disagreed with you on any point will be punished eternally for it.

  • John Fincher

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  • Julian Skidmore

    One thing to note though is that this passage and the corresponding one in Matthew 10:28 the object isn’t second person singular / plural (at least not in the translations). It’s natural to read the verses as though Jesus is saying:

    “If you don’t preach the Gospel when faced with persecution then God might throw you into Gehenna, that’s worse than just being killed.”

    But given the grammar, it could mean that we should be afraid of God because the people who threaten us because of the Gospel, are heading for Gehenna.

    In which case, again the reference is to the same judgemental snake-like religious leaders as earlier. The kinds of people who are apt to condemn others for their failure to live up to 600+ religious laws, are the people for whom Jesus primarily directs his warnings about Gehenna. [cf God will judge us as we judge others].

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Scripture also talks about a second birth. Further, death is strongly associated with new life; “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit”. I think that just as there are two births – a natural and a spiritual – there are two deaths we must all pass through. Those of us who walk the way of the cross pass through the second death willingly, supported and encouraged by Jesus and all the witnesses of heaven. Those who do not must pass through the second death by having their eyes opened and all they had put their trust in destroyed.

  • Lbj

    What do you think of Matthew 25:41-46?

    “41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

  • Levi
  • Lbj

    Here is how death is defined in Revelation 20:14 from a Greek lexicon of the NT: “Often in the Sept., thánatos has the sense of destruction, perdition, misery, implying both physical death and exclusion from the presence and favor of God in consequence of sin and disobedience, but never as extinction.

    Sept (Septuagint)

    Zodhiates, Spiros: The Complete Word Study Dictionary : New Testament. electronic ed. Chattanooga, TN : AMG Publishers, 2000, c1992, c1993, S. G2288

  • Walt Fulps

    “Exclusion from the presence of God” would be more in keeping with much of what Jesus had to say about the consequences of sin — being left outside, excluded from the party going on the Master’s house. I personally have no problem with that interpretation. I take issue with the eternal torture and torment in eternal hellfire that is typically taught in Sunday school, though.

  • θάνατος is used all throughout the NT to refer to plain old death. The dictionary you’re using is importing a bias for ETC into it’s definition. He’s essentially telling you that when you see θάνατος in the NT, you should interpret it as dead, but when it comes to a passage that impacts the doctrine of ECT, you should translated it as “misery” or “excluded” which is ridiculously inconsistent. If you check Louw-Nida you’ll see the primary definition is plain old “death”.

  • Lbj

    Here is what Vines says-“”death,” is used in Scripture of: (a) the separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust, e.g., John 11:13;”…
    the separation of man from God; Adam died on the day he disobeyed God, Gen. 2:17, and hence all mankind are born in the same spiritual condition, Rom. 5:12,14,17,21, from which, however, those who believe in Christ are delivered, John 5:24; 1 John 3:14. “Death” is the opposite of life; it never denotes nonexistence.”

    Here is what Strongs dictionary says:

    “the death of the body. 1a that separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul and the body by which the life on earth is ended. 1b with the implied idea of future misery in hell. 1b1 the power of death. 1c
    since the nether world, the abode of the dead, was conceived as being very dark, it is equivalent to the region of thickest darkness i.e. figuratively, a region enveloped in the darkness of ignorance and sin. 2 metaph., the loss of that life which alone is worthy of the name,. 2a the misery of the soul arising from sin, which begins on earth but lasts and increases after the death of the body in hell. 3 the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell. 4 in the widest sense, death comprising all the miseries arising from sin, as well physical death as the loss of a life consecrated to God and blessed in him on earth, to be followed by wretchedness in hell.”

    Vines and Strongs are saying the same thing as Zodhiates

  • TorontoKev

    I truly wish Jesus hadn’t told that parable. But he did. I love your thoughts on this Benjamin but while that parable’s “out there”, so will traditional “hell” IMHO.

  • Ollie

    Captain, you are completely right. Many pastors I know encourage their congregations to read the Bible for themselves, study for themselves, ask questions etc. But that’s more research than most people are willing to do; it’s too time consuming. This is why most people have secondhand beliefs (religious and political). It’s is absolutely ridiculous for one to expect a preacher to do all of the work for them in an hour-long church service on Sunday morning.


    Also, if you take articles like this as fact without doing your own research then you’ve still missed the point. Just because it’s something you haven’t heard before doesn’t make it a revolutionary truth. Ask questions. Don’t just take anyone’s word for it.

    I am a lover of linguistics and history but my purpose is to chase Christ and become more Christ-like in this life, the rest will figure itself out. Articles like this are interesting and maybe even intriguing but I’m not “mind-blown.” Rather, these nuggets of information add certain textures to my faith.

  • sovdep

    No he doesn’t. Don’t lie – he simply says ἐρριπτον ἐις τας φαραγγας – they threw them into “the valleys”. No specific mention of which valley. Furthermore, the bodies weren’t taken there – when they couldn’t bury the bodies and the stench was too great they threw them from the walls into the valleys. They didn’t burn them either; the city was still under siege. The next passage even mentions their rotting corpses leaking all over the place.

  • Did you not notice the theological statements in their definition? Those are not linguistical statements– their definition assumes eternal, conscious torment. They even admit it– “implied misery in hell”. They are importing a theological attachment to a word that isn’t a theological word– it’s the word for “death” in Greek antiquity.

  • Ollie

    “As a final note, Jesus certainly didn’t discuss Hell more often than He did Heaven. Gehenna is only mentioned 12 times in the New Testament and Hades is only mentioned 9 times (which includes the epistles,
    Revelation, Act of the Apostles, etc.). Jesus personally mentioned
    Heaven, or the Kingdom of Heaven, over 100 times. I would think this
    would be immediately apparent to anyone who has read the Bible
    (regardless of language).”

    Spot on. I noticed that immediately and I’m no scholar, I just grew up in the church.

  • You missed the context– I said that’s what I was told as a kid, I didn’t say it was correct.

  • Lbj

    That does not mean its wrong. Can you point me to one Lexicon on the Scripture that says death means annihilation, cease to exist?
    Even a dead body does not cease to exist.

  • sovdep

    Yes, but who was stupid enough to tell you that? Obviously someone who never even bothered to read the New Testament (or the Old, for that matter). And if it’s wrong, why waste the reader’s time mentioning it, especially without mentioning that it is wrong?

  • Jeff Mc Donald

    Every time I hear this argument, I like to ask, “Well, what about Matthew 25:41, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”? Um, was Jesus referring to an imaginary place, a literal place, or a place he knew to exist outside the physical realm?

  • Kudos for being open minded and allowing your beliefs to be challenged. Wherever you end up on your journey of spiritual beliefs know you at least questioned and did not blindly follow. This will make what you believe truest for you and strong.

  • Jeff Bys

    What do you make of all the writings during the Intertestamental Period that seem to indicate the word Gehenna had come to mean much more than a geographical location prior to the birth of Jesus?

  • manofredearth

    Right, because if anything, we shouldn’t advocate for literal truth in the Bible. Oh wait…

    I guess one agrees with what one likes when it’s ideologically convenient.

  • manofredearth

    Right. Metaphor. Not literal. But only special people with special knowledge now know which is literal and which is metaphor…


  • manofredearth

    Stop lying.

    See: Others can do that, too. :P

  • manofredearth

    Good thing God provided clear ways to discern between what we should take literally and what we should take figuratively…

    Since the Bible didn’t tell you that, don’t put much stake in it. It’s simply a human assumption.

  • manofredearth

    Hmm, cite the passage? Oh, that’s just your fallible assumption. Thanks.

  • manofredearth

    Except no one ever truly understand the Bible. It is only accessible for interpretation, not authoritative proclamation. It’s a mix of literal & figurative and NO ONE offers a sound method to discern between the two. Every person’s faith hinges on choosing what to believe, not on knowing that the belief is backed by fact.

  • manofredearth

    Having not even died once, those espousing such thoughts would be merely offering extremist speculations. Except no Christian wants to admit that their beliefs are directly on par with a belief in receiving 72 virgins after death. We have a long, soul-searching way to go in this area.

  • manofredearth

    Let the adults discuss, children.

  • Glaiza Vasquez

    Gehenna or Hell is symbolical which means a total
    destruction of wicked one. When wicked are destroyed they will never exist again.God don’t torment wicked on fire eternally for that is detestable
    to him as recorded in Jeremiah 32:35: “Furthermore, they built the high places of Ba′al in the Valley of the Son of Hin′nom, in order to make their sons and their daughters pass through the fire to Mo′lech, something that I had not commanded them and that had never come into my heart to do such a detestable thing, causing Judah to sin.’”

  • Michael Gura

    Regarding annihilation, it could be said that all of us experience episodes of that each time we sleep. Unless we reach REM sleep and have a dream, are any of us truly aware of the passage of time, the environment around us, etc? I would posit that we experience annihilation of a sort. The annihilation of consciousness. Unless our heart ceases beating while we slumber, we rise from that state of annihilation and face the day anew. Question: could it be said that the annihilation we experience is a form of punishment? Is there any suffering involved? We may miss out on an exciting or blissful activity while we sleep, but there is no active punishment, torment, suffering, in and of itself while sleeping. I see this as a microcosm of annihilationism vs. eternal life. Specifically, the viewpoint that annihilationism can in any way be compared to damnation, eternal suffering, etc. in comparison to the bliss that the redeemed are to eternally enjoy.
    I say this to illustrate that Jesus, while referring to the valley of Gehenna for illustrative purposes, is sternly warning humanity that there is an eternal, conscious suffering and separation from God awaiting those who reject Him. He isn’t talking about the unredeemed souls simply vanishing from existence, never to experience ANYTHING at all again. He is clearly warning us that following death, there is a conscious, experiential eternity waiting . How we spend that eternity is up to us, based on whether or not we accept Him as Lord and Savior. Consider the parable of the Rich man & Lazarus. The Rich man is obviously conscious of where he is, the torment he is feeling, and the fact that Lazarus is experiencing the exact opposite, safe in Abraham’s bosom. The Rich man doesn’t implore Abraham to send someone to warn his family about annihilation, He desperately wants Abraham to ensure his family does not meet the same doom as he has met. Also, consider what Jesus says at the conclusion of the parable of the sheep & goats. Matthew 25:46 states that these (the goats, or the damned) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. The contrast is clear here. Very clear. Eternal punishment vs. eternal life. Matthew 25:41 has Jesus telling the “goats” to depart into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil & his angels…..He doesn’t tell them to depart into oblivion, the cessation of consciousness. It could be argued that the cessation of consciousness isn’t an eternal punishment at all. Certainly the annihilation of the soul negates that soul from experiencing the heavenly bliss promised to the redeemed. But it is in no way an active, eternal punishment. If anything, it is the loss of eternal life & bliss in favor of eternal nothingness. And the nothingness isn’t to be experienced consciously in some cosmic void. Annihilation is cessation of consciousness, experience of any kind. But not eternal punishment.
    God does not wish for any to experience eternal death. That is why He sent the Lord Jesus, God almighty Himself (John 8:58, Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1) in human form, to suffer death in order that we wouldn’t have to. That is how serious eternity is, that is how serious God’s love for us is.

  • Ellen H.

    Did I say it was based on fact? To interpret any work of literature everything needs to be looked at. I know the Bible is a mix of literal and figurative language along with allegories and parables. I was commenting that Corey was making a good point. There are parts of the Bible that can be understood with the help of historical context and linguistic knowledge i.e. what the words meant at the time and a good translation from the original language.

  • Robert Estienne

    I have heard (I have no sources) that, at some point during the intertestamental period, Hebrew writers began using Gehenna as metaphoric for the place of eternal punishment of the wicked. Also, don’t forget that γεενναν is not the only name given to the place of eternal punishment. There is also λιμνη του πυρος (lake of fire), used in Revelation to refer to the place where Satan (a spiritual, not carnal, being, who cannot be burned by physical fire) is thrown, along with the resurrected bodies and souls of the wicked who have been judged.

  • If you were actually sorry (in either basic meaning of that word), you’d try harder.

  • Lynn

    Also curious about this. I want to believe Jesus didn’t believe in “hell” / eternal punishment in afterlife… really want to believe. But the Book of Enoch makes that especially hard. I know it’s apocalyptic and highly metaphorical in many ways but I think it’s also hard to argue against its being dualistic and communicating life-after-death is real, and will be highly unpleasant for some folks.

  • Lebanon

    Note: The Arabic word for Hell is Gehannam.

  • Ers

    Well it was really interesting to read this article because really logical :) even im not christ or muslim :) but it was really good …

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    Thank you, OwenW.Frankly your exposition makes WAAY better sense than Benjamin’s; I myself have NO doubt Jesus’ iillustration using Gehenna points to a deeper warning concerning the world to come; it’s certainly not limited to pseudo – theological speculation in ANY language!

  • Never said that it didn’t have a deeper warning. In fact, I said that it had a dual warning with implications for this life and the next.

  • Ann

    When I was in jr. high I asked my “triple Ph.d” minister, where preachers got the impetus to push, “Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven.” He grinned and said, “You know that I don’t do that, but here.” He handed me a well-worn copy of Mark Twain’s LETTERS FROM THE EARTH. Twain’s discussion is in Letter X. “The first time the Deity came down to earth, he brought life and death; when
    he came the second time, he brought hell.” Twain’s LFTE can be found online and Letter X specifically: http://www.classicreader.com/book/1930/11/

    I thought then, that using Twain to support an argument against Twain’s satiric thesis, was brilliantly . . . dirty play? Hypocritical? Unimaginative but effective for people who have not read the Gospels. So, as a 13 yr. old, I got busy with the first 4 gospels recording the times that Jesus spoke of “hell” in metaphors translated into English: his discussions of heaven (translated into English) are FAR MORE cited! He discusses heaven many more times than he does “hell” or metaphorical references to “hell.” Even Twain was wrong, lol.

    I too would like to think that a loving God would give anybody a “postmortem” opportunity.

    The metaphor (and reality) of Gehenna was a powerful one with which concurrent listeners to Jesus’ words would have understood as a consequence, but perhaps not an absolute/irrevocable consequence.

    Also, referencing Matthew (sheep/goats) I could imagine no greater punishment than “everlasting” separation from God! Because I have experienced it in this life. (No; am not a “born againer” in the sense that is often over-employed, but have experienced complete divorcement from God, consciously. No fire of hell or cold–since extreme cold feels hot–in Satan’s mouth, considering Dante’s idea of the pits of hell, could be worse.)

    Jesus says many times, in varieties of terminology, that he has not come to condemn/judge humankind but to save humankind.

    As for John and Revelation (these are not the words of Jesus) “lakes of fire,” and graphic visual treats . . . another minister once gave me a book that COULD explain John’s uh, “paintings with words.” That would be Allegro’s THE SACRED MUSHROOM AND THE CROSS:-) Don Juan Matus’ Yaqui “ways of knowledge” have been used all over the world for millennia. Perhaps John was no exception. “Hallucinations from Patmos”? (And then one studies Tim Leary’s circles and diagrams and the difference is . . . ? Well, Leary is less harmful, considering the ways that “Xians” have used fear and hate, while using Jesus as a prop to do violence unto “The Other.”) And also, there’s the thought that John was writing to his time, in that his visions were to come to pass IN THAT TIME! Not in ours.

    But Corey was not writing of John nor of Paul, but of Jesus’ words. And clearly, Jesus speaks more of heaven than he does of any other place of consequence in after-or-present life. Thanks for everybody’s contributions to this discussion.

    In 12-step groups we have a saying: “Religion is often about people who are afraid of going to hell while spirituality is about people who’ve already been and don’t want to return.” Thank you for this article!

  • Brad

    When it comes to these questions, I think a non Christian theist and a questioning Presbytarian said it best…

    “Better not to believe in God at all than to believe something unworthy of God.” – Martin Gardner

    “Hell? Eternal punishment? What is the point of it? – Steve Allen

  • Josh

    Wow, really appreciate this, sovdep. Sounds like you’re very well read, and have a good grasp on what’s being said. I know I haven’t studied so deeply as to be able to reply with such an assurance in what I’m saying with backup from research. Glad to have your input in the article; it makes a whole lot of sense!

  • Lou

    The theme of this post embodies the exact problem with Christianity in general. Its a system of supernatural beliefs based on scriptures which have been translated and misinterpreted for thousands of years. Its interpretations are unfounded and unsound, and most importantly unfalsifiable.

  • Phlegon

    In a country like Judaea, any material capable of sustaining a fire would not be garbage, it would be valuable fuel.