For 14 years, I’ve been seeking to understand what the Bible says about hell, the Jewish background, and the church’s understanding. Here are the results.
You may be surprised how few references there are. The main word (Gehenna) occurs just 12 times. Another word (hadēs) describes the dead, and some versions have mistranslated this word as hell (e.g. Matthew 16:21 ESV; Revelation 1:18 KJV). And there’s a mythical synonym once (tartaroō in 2 Peter 2:4).
All the references to Gehenna are from Jesus, with one from his brother (James 3:6). What Jesus said is therefore the definitive teaching on hell.
Here are the passages where Jesus mentioned the word:
- Matthew 5:22, 29-30: Better to lose part of your body than have your body thrown into Gehenna.
- Matthew 10:28 || Luke 12:5: Fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
- Matthew 18:9 || Mark 9:43-48: Better to lose a body part than have your body thrown into Gehenna.
- Matthew 23:15, 33: Children of Gehenna mislead God’s people, and can’t expect to escape.
Just four passages. How did it come to be such a big topic?
The Catholic view of hell
Those of us who’ve grown up in the Western Church (including the Reformed tradition and Evangelicalism today) inherited our view of hell from Roman Catholicism. In the Middle Ages, hell received a much more prominent place than you would expect. The church’s message was primarily about guilt, with the church claiming the power to justify people (through confession, penance, absolution, and the Mass).
Since Christ gave Peter “the keys to the kingdom,” the church claimed to determine people’s eternal destinies. You’ve probably heard the stories of Peter sitting at heaven’s gate deciding who goes in and who goes to hell.
Fear of hell, combined with a message of guilt, proved to be great tools for controlling the masses. The doctrine of purgatory allowed for some to pay for their sins after death, or a relative could pay the church to have them released from torment.
Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) was the official Catholic view of hell — a fiery place where the souls of the wicked suffer conscious torment unceasingly.
There are several inconsistencies between this view and what Jesus taught.
Gehenna was a real place
Did you know that Gehenna was the name of a place just south of the temple mount in Jerusalem? In Hebrew, it was Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom (since Hinnom and his sons originally owned the valley).
Gehenna was a dump where rubbish was burnt. It also had a very dark history including burning children in sacrifice, and burning the bodies of Jewish people after invasion. That’s why this valley became a symbol of judgment and destruction.
But it’s a real place, and normally our translations would bring the name across into English. Bethel can be translated “house of God” but we retain the name instead of translating it. Golgotha means “place of the skull” but we retain the proper name. To be consistent, Gehenna should also be retained in our translations because it’s a place name. We would have a much better chance of understanding what Jesus was saying if we knew what he was referring to. The picture above is of Gehenna.
Bodies were burned in Gehenna
The Catholic view (ECT) is that souls suffer in hell forever, assuming souls are immortal. But the notion of “immortal souls” comes from the Greek world. It was not part of the Jewish world of Jesus.
That’s why Jesus talks about bodies being thrown into Gehenna to be burnt. He says you’d be better to lose one part of your body (an eye or a hand or a foot) than to end up having your whole body burnt in Gehenna.
Just as some places have horrific associations for us, Gehenna was a place of horror. It was a place where people had burnt their own children as sacrifices. It was where the bodies of countless soldiers and civilians had been burnt when Babylon invaded. People remembered Gehenna as “the Valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6), a place of judgement and death.
If we take Jesus seriously when he spoke of bodies being burned in Gehenna, ECT makes no sense. Unlike the imaginary eternal souls of Greek thought, bodies do not burn forever. Jesus can speak of how the fires never seem to go out at the dump because more rubbish is always being added. But Jesus never intended us to imagine God miraculously sustaining each individual body so it kept burning without being consumed like some kind of burning bush. The Catholic view does not follow from what Jesus taught.
The wicked will be destroyed
Beyond the few passages that speak of bodies being burned in Gehenna, many other passages warn that the wicked will be destroyed. God is performing a global restoration, and ultimately every knee will bow and every tongue confess God’s anointed as our leader (Christ as Lord). But that does not mean every individual will be raised to life in his eternal reign. Those who cannot be renewed are lost forever.
It’s not universalism, as if everybody makes it in the end. The warnings Jesus gave are real. The wicked are destroyed.
A growing number of Bible scholars (especially since John Stott) view hell as annihilation. By speaking of bodies being thrown into Gehenna, Jesus meant some suffered destruction, ceased to exist.
Why does it matter?
Given how minor a theme hell is in the Bible, you may wonder why it matters. At stake is the way we represent God.
We drive people away from faith when we misrepresent God as an unrelentingly vengeful tyrant who expects us to forgive our enemies but tortures his forever. This is not the God revealed in Scripture and in the person of Christ.
We need to repent of manipulating people with guilt and fear, with ECT as Exhibit A. We have no place wielding such weapons in our presentation of the gospel. Paul never even mentioned Gehenna in any of his letters. Not a single gospel preacher in Acts threatens, “and you’ll go to hell if you don’t.” That is not the good news.
Universalism presents a weak view of God, a kind of Santa Claus who threatens to investigate if you’ve been naughty or nice but doesn’t take evil or justice seriously, so everyone gets the presents in the end.
Annihilationism presents a God who faithfully persists in his global restoration project, without forcing people to be renewed. Those who cannot be renewed are not forced to be part of the new creation. He gives them what they want — no place in his eternal reign.
I urge you to investigate what Jesus said about hell, in the context of his revelation of the Father. The danger of losing everything is real. At the same time, “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish (Matthew 18:9, 14).
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), 188:
The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem. There is to this day a valley at that point which bears the name Ge Hinnom. When I was in Jerusalem a few years ago, I was taken to a classy restaurant on the western slope of this famous valley, and we witnessed a spectacular firework display, organized no doubt without deliberate irony, on the site to which Jesus was referring when he spoke about the smouldering fires of Gehenna. But, as with his language about ‘heaven’, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently distanced from the original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament, but by the stock of images, some of them extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination.
The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one.
Related posts (where Jesus spoke of Gehenna)
- Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Mt 18:7-10)
- Where’s God’s justice in an unjust world? (Mt 10:26-31)
- Ripping out an eye? (Mt 5:29-30)
- If you’re angry, are you a killer? (Mt 5:21-22)
Photo: Gehenna today (Allen Browne, 2014-05-19)