The Gehenna Of Fire

Death and Judgment


The Old English “hell,” denoted that which is covered (hidden or unseen). Consequently, it once served as a suitable translation of the Greek hades, which means “imperceptible” or “unseen.” In modern English, however, due to the corrupting influence of human tradition, “hell” has come to mean “the abode of the dead; the place of punishment after death [in which the dead are alive].” Consequently, since in modern English the notion represented by the term “hell” constitutes, to say the least, interpretation, not translation, it is unconscionable for modern translators to render either the Hebrew sheol or the Greek hades by this expression.

Yet it is worse still, whether in old English or modern English, to render the Greek tartarosas and especially the Greek geenna, also as “hell.” Such “translations” are not translations at all; they are but the product of circular reasoning and hoary tradition. Whatever one’s understanding may be concerning the matters to which these words make reference, as a translation of the Original, the rendering “hell,” in all cases, is wholly unjustifiable. Yet it is this very rendering, the single term, "hell," for all these distinct words in the Original, which has spawned all the familiar talk concerning "hell" which prevails among "Bible-believing Christians" today.

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Just as “anathema,” which was originally a cursing formula found in pagan imprecatory texts, was adapted in the Septuagint to represent that which was devoted to destruction (Lev.27:28,29), and was later adapted by the apostle Paul to speak of one who was following a destructive course (Gal.1:8,9), the apostle Peter, as his own figure of likeness, coins the verbal form tartarosas, which he adapts from the pagan Greek noun, Tartaros, which was the name of the Greek unseen world. It appears in works such as Plato’s Phaedo and Homer’s Iliad. It is the name given to the murky abyss deep beneath Hades in which the sins of insurgent and defeated immortals (such as Kronos, or the Titans) are punished.

When Peter says that “God spares not sinning messengers,” but “[subjects them] to-CAVERNS OF-GLOOM TARTARUSing” (CONCORDANT GREEK TEXT sublinear, p.667), “tartarusing” is a coined verbal form used as a figure of speech. In employing this expression, Peter is by no means giving legitimacy to the Greeks’ fantastic notions about their unseen world, called Tartarus. Instead, he is simply adapting this word for his own purpose. Since there is a certain likeness between that to which God actually subjects sinning messengers and that to which the Greeks imagined their gods to be subjected in punishment, Peter employs this name for the Greek underworld accordingly.

Sinning messengers are decidedly not in “Tartarus.” Except in the deluded minds of Greek idolaters, Tartarus does not exist. Indeed, according to the Scriptures, the sinning messengers are not even said to be undergoing chastening judging at present. Instead, in an estate which may somewhat be likened to the taverns of gloom in the Greeks’ fanciful Tartarus, they are said to be “being kept for chastening judging” (2 Peter 2:4). Jude adds that “messengers who keep not their own sovereignty, but leave their own habitation, [Yahweh, cp Jude 5] has kept in imperceptible bonds under gloom for the judging of the great day” (Jude 6). Since “chastening” kolasis speaks of discipline (i.e., “training”; literally, “hitting”) with a view to amendment, we may rejoice that for this they are being kept (cp Heb.12:7-11).

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In popular theology, in accord with ancient tradition, it is claimed that “Gehenna” is a symbolic expression used in reference to eternal punishment. Milton also employs it thus in his familiar lines:

“The pleasant Valley of Hinnom, Tophet thence
And black Gehenna call’d, the Type of hell"
Paradise Lost, Book One, lines 404,405

In the Scriptures, however, “Gehenna” (“hell,” AV)—all incredible myths to the contrary notwithstanding—does not speak of “the place of the eternal torments of the damned.” Instead, it refers to an actual place on earth, namely, the valley (or “ravine”) of Hinnom (Neh.11:30) in the land of Israel. The ravine of Hinnom is a valley to the southwest of Jerusalem (“the ravine of the son of Hinnom”; Joshua 15:8). The Hebrew phrase (“ravine of”) hinnom became geenna in Greek, whence Gehenna in Latin and English.

In time, Moloch, a god worshiped by the Ammonites, came to be worshiped by Israel as well (Lev.18:21; 1 Kings 11:3,5,7; 2 Kings 23:10; Amos 5:26; Acts 7:43). In Jeremiah’s day, the ravine of Hinnom was associated with the worship of Moloch (Jer.32:35). Josiah, in Judah, defiled this shrine by destroying the high places of Moloch, thus putting a stop to the sacrifices offered there (2 Kings 23:10,13).

Moloch worship incorporated human sacrifice, namely, the sacrifice of children by fire. In the days of the Kings, under Ahaz (2 Chron.28:3) and Manasseh (2 Chron.33:6), children were sacrificed by fire on altars erected within the valley of Hinnom. In later times, according to some, this valley was used for burning the corpses of criminals and animals, and indeed refuse of any sort. Jeremiah spoke of the day when this ravine would no longer be termed the ravine of the son of Hinnom, “but rather, the ravine of the killed, and they shall entomb in Tophet[1] because there is no other place” (Jer.7: 31,32; cp Jer.12:3; 19:6; Zech.11:4-9). Perhaps this was first carried into effect through the reforms of Josiah (cp 2 Kings 23: 10-20).

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These considerations rehearse Gehenna’s place in the past. It is in Isaiah 66:23,24, however, that we learn of Gehenna’s future role, in the kingdom eon. The book of Isaiah closes with these words, which the Lord Jesus Himself, in the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), identifies with “Gehenna”:

23 And it will come to be,
As often as
the new moon comes in its monthly time,
And as often as
the sabbath comes in its sabbath cycle,
All flesh shall come to worship before Me in
Says Yahweh.
24 And they will go forth and seei the corpses of the mortals
.Who transgressed|iagainst Me,
For their worm shall not die,
And their fire shall not be quenched,
And they will become
a repulsion to all flesh.

The meaning of Gehenna must be established from facts furnished by the Scripture, not by falsehoods foisted by human tradition. To the reader of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, Gehenna can only mean a verdict which, besides condemning a man to death, also ordains that, after death, his body should be cast into the loathsome valley of Hinnom. This being the sense of Gehenna in the Hebrew Scriptures, we may be sure that this is the sense in which Christ used it.

It must be kept in mind, then, as Isaiah 66:23,24 makes clear, that in the era of Israel’s restoration, the “judging of Gehenna” (Matt.23:33) will be instituted. In the stated seasons of worship, representatives of the nations who will come to Jerusalem, will go forth and see the corpses of the mortals who transgressed the law in such a way so as to be subjected to death. Their corpses will remain unburied: worms will prey upon the corrupting flesh, and fires will always be at work to purify the air from pestilential infection.[2]“Gehenna” appears in the Greek Scriptures twelve times (Matt.5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). Not one of these passages has reference to the so-called “final state.” The Lord explicitly identifies Gehenna with Isaiah 66:23,24 by speaking of it as the place of “unextinguished fire, where their worm is not deceasing[3] and the fire is not going out” (Mark 9:46). All whose bodies are destroyed in Gehenna will be raised to be judged at the great white throne, and go into the lake of fire. Gehenna is the capital punishment of the kingdom, without burial.

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In Matthew 10:28 the Lord declares: “And do not fear those who are killing the body, yet are not able to kill the soul. Yet be fearing Him, rather, Who is able to destroy the soul as well as the body in Gehenna.” Since, as explained in the previous exposition, “The Soul and the Unseen,” we know that “soul” speaks of sensation, and that in death there is no sensation, we will not imagine that the reason why man is not able to kill the soul is because the soul is immortal. Besides, since, as this very passage plainly states, God is able to destroy the soul, we will be certain that the soul is not immortal. In this phrase, then, “not able to kill the soul,” “kill” is figurative, and is a relative statement with reference not to their present life, but to their life in the coming eon. With reference to the delights of the kingdom, those who would kill one of these faithful ones, would not be able to hinder (i.e., put a stop to, or “kill”) the bliss which they will enjoy in that day. Those who come under God’s judgment in the Messiah’s kingdom will not only have their bodies destroyed in the valley of Hinnom, but they will be subjected to total loss (i.e., “destruction”) of the joys which their souls long for in the kingdom. “The martyrs who die for the sake of the kingdom have nothing to fear. So far as their souls [i.e., their sensations] are concerned, death gives them an immediate entrance into the delights of the earthly paradise, even though at their martyrdom it was thousands of years in the future.”[4]

The fact that a fire is unextinguishable (e.g., Matt.3:12; Mark 9:43), does not entail its burning for all eternity. It does not follow that a fire which is not put out will never go out. After rebuking Israel for her sins and idolatry, Yahweh declared that He would pour out His indignation upon Jerusalem, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground: “it shall burn and shall not be quenched” (Jer.7:20). This was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity. The fires of that day burned themselves out long ago. Surely the fires of Gehenna, if indeed they are still burning at that time, will themselves be consumed by fire, in the day, following the thousand years, in which the earth’s elements are dissolved by combustion (2 Peter 3:10).

Similarly, the fact that “the Gehenna of fire” is “fire eonian” (aiõnion; Matt.18:8,9) affords us no reason to claim that it is an endless fire, and, therefore, that it is a fire that is to be identified with so-called “everlasting punishment.” Indeed, the fact that, following the kingdom eon, the valley of Gehenna, together with the entire earth, will be dissolved by combustion (2 Peter 3:10-13; cp Rev.20:11; 21:1), proves that Gehenna fire is not everlasting fire but eonian fire. “Eonian” (OF-EON) is the adjectival form of “eon.” In every usage, it denotes not endlessness, but that which pertains to or is concerned with one or all of the eons.

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The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which are usually associated with it, in fact, have no connection with Gehenna. This expression usually occurs in connection with “outer darkness,” quite the opposite of the lurid flames of Gehenna. Even so, since this fearful phrase is so often predicated of the final condition of the damned, it will be worthwhile to put it where it belongs.

In Matthew 8:12, our Lord, commenting on the faith of the centurion said, “yet the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness. There shall be lamentation and gnashing of teeth.” The kingdom (“the kingdom of the heavens”) is likened to a wedding (Matthew 22:2-14). The sons are Israelites according to the flesh. Just as an unfit guest would be thrust out into the dark night, while within the marriage feast was being enjoyed in brilliant light, so it will be for certain living Israelites who seek to enter the kingdom on earth.

Among those who remain alive after the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer.30:7), “the great affliction” (Matt.24:21), will be some who while not overtly lawless nonetheless are unworthy of the kingdom. They will continue to live, yet be barred from it. They will have no part in the wedding festivities, that is, in the glorious reign which will be centered in Jerusalem. Accordingly, they will lament and gnash their teeth in the day when they see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, while they themselves are cast outside (Luke 13:28; cp Matt. 22:11-13; 25:30).

Before the kingdom eon, however, in the concluding period of the present eon, the Son of Mankind will send His messengers to be “culling out of His kingdom all the snares and those doing lawlessness, and they shall be casting them into a furnace of fire. There shall be lamentation and gnashing of teeth” (Matt.13: 41,42). In the nature of the case, lamentation and gnashing of teeth, here, must be confined to those who while observers of this judgment nonetheless are not among its subjects, as well as to those wicked ones among its subjects, who, through circumstances, find it impossible to avoid the contemplation of their own imminent doom. The figure is that of clearing a field for planting. Many will be destroyed, some by literal fire (Rev.9:17,18; 16:8; 18:8, 18). Matthew 13:49 limits this judgment to the conclusion of the present eon.[5]

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Under the Circumcision evangel, personal righteousness according to law is essential to life in the kingdom. Only those working righteousness may enter into life. Nevertheless, the chosen ones, who, indeed, are worthy, are only so according to the choice of grace (Rom.11:5). They will be saved, yet not apart from an upright walk. Though they will endure, still, they must endure in order either to enter the kingdom without dying or to be worthy of the resurrection of the just. The salvation of the Circumcision, which though through works accords with grace, nonetheless does not accord with fatalism. Hence, in all gravity, the Lord warns even His own disciples of the judging of Gehenna which will come upon all capital transgressors.

All of this is contrary to the grace which we enjoy today as members of the body of Christ, through the evangel proclaimed by the apostle Paul. We are not under law (Rom.6:14); we are justified apart from law (Rom.3:21,24); eonian life itself is a gracious gift (Rom.6:23). Indeed, in our case, if sin should be increasing, grace will superexceed (Rom.5:20). This is not true concerning the chosen under the evangel of the Circumcision, but it is true concerning those who are chosen according to the evangel of the Uncircumcision.

Gehenna fire only concerns the transgressors of Moses’ law in the coming kingdom on earth. It has no reference whatever to the members of the body of Christ, nor to the final destiny of the lost. It is confined to the coming eon and to the nation of Israel in that day.

James Coram

[1] “Tophet was a locale, apparently an elevation, within the ravine of Hinnom; it was the location of the “fane [i.e., temple] heights” where sacrifices were made to Moloch.

[2] excerpted and adapted from UNSEARCHABLE RICHES, vol.4, p.94, by V. Gelesnoff

[3] “Their worm” is a figure of association for the many worms which will be found there. The root of the verb “is not deceasing” (not, “dieth not,” in the sense of never die, as some might imagine from the AV) does not signify “die” but FINISH. The sense is that, figuratively speaking, there will be “no end” (for, literally, there will be no end in sight) of worms in Gehenna to feed on the corpses cast into it.


[5] cp UNSEARCHABLE RICHES, vol. 24, p. 118, by A. E. Knoch

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