Like I stated in the first post in this series, the word “Hell” cannot be found in the scriptures but from the KJV’s rendition of the words and some other older English translations. Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus which have a different meanings was conveyed as a place of eternal torment with full consciousness.
The English language is often very limited when trying to express certain concepts and they get lost in translation. A perfect Biblical example of this is the multiple Greek words translated to the single English word “Love”.
Definitions are very important. We cannot assume a theory or doctrine on what cannot be properly defined.
Agape is a special version of love that speaks about God’s love toward humanity. Phileo speaks about brotherly love and Eros refers to sexual love or desire.
Just like the sample above with “love”, the English word “hell” is unilaterally translated from the Greek and Hebrew words Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus, each of which have different meanings.
Now let’s look into some actual words with original language renderings with their root words.
- Sheol (H7585)
From H7592; hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranian retreat), including its accessories and inmates: – grave, hell, pit.
- Hades (G86)
From G1 (as a negative particle) and G1492; properly unseen, that is, “Hades” or the place (state) of departed souls: – grave, hell.
- Gehenna (G1067)
Of Hebrew origin ([H1516] and [H2011]); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem
- Tartarus (G5020)
From Τάρταρος Tartaros̄ (the deepest abyss of Hades); to incarcerate in eternal torment: – cast down to hell.
For our study today in this blog we will have a closer look at the word use for Gehnna using scriptures in the New testament.
Using the NASB, we see 13 references:
Matthew 5:22 – Gehenna
Matthew 5:29 – Gehenna
Matthew 5:30 – Gehenna
Matthew 10:28 – Gehenna
Matthew 18:9 – Gehenna
Matthew 23:15 – Gehenna
Matthew 23:33 – Gehenna
Mark 9:43 – Gehenna
Mark 9:45 – Gehenna
Mark 9:47 – Gehenna
Luke 12:5 – Gehenna
James 3:6 – Gehenna
2 Peter 2:4 – Tartarus
You will notice then that the full conversation of “Hell” comes down to 12 Gehenna mentions and 1 mention of Tartarus.
Tartarus is not a normal Greek word. Like Hades, it’s the name of a place/person in Greek mythology, appearing in writing 700 years before Christ as part of the Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony. It denotes a dark place below even Hades, and accordingly, is the only one of our 4 words to have “eternal” torment inherently linked to it.
I personally don’t think it is sufficient to use Greek mythology to defend our views of God and his operational standards. Due to the history of the Biblical text and the numerous influences in its popular translations, we’ve been given a very Plato-esque focus on this concept called eternity.
Interestingly 2 Peter 2:4 isn’t talking about people. It’s talking about where God sent fallen angels. Many people have used to state that men would also join angels in eternal judgment in the pangs of burning fire.
GEHENNA – A HISTORIC PLACE OF PERPETUAL BURNING
Gehenna accounts for 12 of the 13 Hell mentions, and most importantly, it comprises 100% of Jesus’ alleged references to “Hell”.
So what is Gehenna?
It’s a valley. A literal valley. A physical, geographic location. It’s known as The Valley of Hinom. The section of this valley referred to as “Gehenna” was well known throughout Israel as an evil and dark place, used for a variety of evil acts throughout Israel’s history. In the time of Hosea, we see the account of the rebellious Israelites. It was there they committed child sacrifice there to honor the pagan god Molech (Molek), as seen in 2 Chron 28:3.
“Moreover, he burned incense in the valley of Ben-hinnom and burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel.”
Later, in 2 Kings 23:10, it says that King Josiah “desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.”
This valley was known as a place of fiery torture and sacrifices to honor pagan gods. When King Josiah burned down the evil altars, the location remained a site for burning pagan artifacts as the country was purged of idolatry. As time went on and there were no more idols to burn, some accounts suggest the people of Jerusalem began dumping and burning their trash in the valley.
When Jesus refers to Gehenna as “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” in Mark 9, he is making a clear connection to the valley’s historic past, using the language of Isaiah 66:
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
That very place on its own was speaking about a forth coming judgment. So Jesus used the very words that would resonate in the minds of the average Jew.
When we look at Israel’s history, we see times when Gehenna was described literally a place of perpetual fire. We see a dump filled with so many bodies that the worms would never die from lack of sustenance. The valley contained so much trash, thrown out from the besieged city’s walls, that the bodies would burn perpetually without end.
Having settled on the historical background of Gehenna, let’s look at what Jesus says about this place.
Matthew 5:30 “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna).”
Remember that dead bodies were literally thrown into this dump during the time of Isaiah and would be again just 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus was not addressing the afterlife, he is using a well-known landmark to illustrate how significant the judgment of rejection of the Messiah would lead them to.
Jesus is literally saying that cutting off your hand will be less damaging to your life than loosing your entire life and risk being thrown out of the kingdom. The disciples indeed experienced this firsthand in the severe persecution that broke out post AD30.
Jesus used the most disgusting location in Jerusalem to illustrate how miserable their lives would end up being shut out of the kingdom. The path to destruction was paved by the fabrics of self-righteousness. The cursed fig tree symbolized that very well.
This same concept presents itself in the only non-Gospel use of Gehenna, used by James in James 3:6,
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).
Does this look familiar? “Evil from one body part corrupts the whole body.
Jesus’ same teaching on cutting off body parts accounts for 6 of our 12 Gospel mentions of Gehenna due to the story being repeated several times in the Gospels. The James reference gives us a 7th
Jesus used Gehenna in another place to make a point.
In Matthew 23:15 we see Jesus refer to the Pharisees as “Children of Gehenna” and later in verse 33, queries, “how will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?”
This place serves to handily solidify the argument for Jesus referencing literal Gehenna as a meaningful symbol of judgment.
The Pharisees were the epitiome of self-righteousness. They closely followed every part of the Law and made a continuous presentation of their cleanliness and piousness. You can imagine the irony Jesus comes and calls them children of the sewer – telling them that for all their pomp and circumstance, their own “righteousness” won’t be enough to save them from the dung heap. That alone was a slap on the face.
Some of those listening to him definitely and eventually experienced what he said when their own dead bodies was dumped into the burning place as Jerusalem itself became Gehenna during the Roman siege that was ahead of them.
In John 8, the Pharisees responded to Jesus’ teaching by boasting that they were sons of Abraham. They took pride in their lineage, and here is Jesus calling them children of the dung heap.
That’s our 8th and 9th Gehenna references. John the Baptist warned them a time was upon them when their claim to the lineage would not help them. He said that there was a wrath to come and that the fire would consume every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruits.
The 10th and 11th Gehenna references are found in Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5, where Jesus says:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
If you read Matthew 10:28 out of context, you’ll end up insecure and anxious. But read this verse in context and you’ll end up secure and confident of your Father’s great love.
Matthew 10:7-8 and Luke 21 gives us a complete picture to look at.
Now I am going to lay it the way that Paul Ellis narrates the summary in one of his blog post on Matthew 10:28.
- Go out and reveal the kingdom by healing the sick and driving out demons (Matt 10:7-8).
• But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Lu 12:1). Those guys have the key to knowledge but have not used it to help themselves or others enter the kingdom. Woe to them!
• Since you’re going to be sheep among wolves, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Mat 10:16).
• Understand that you will face opposition. You may even be persecuted and tortured (Matt 10:17).
• If these men have persecuted the head of the house (i.e., me) how much more will they persecute the members of his house (Matt 10:25).
• But don’t be afraid of these men because a day of reckoning is coming when their hypocrisy will be exposed for the sham it is (Matt 10:26).
• Ha – you want to know who to be afraid of? It’s not these clowns who can only hurt your bodies. There is One far scarier than these guys – One who is able to destroy both body and soul (Mat 10:28).
• That scary One is your Father who loves you and cares for you (Mat 10:29).
• As you encounter the opposition of wicked men, remember that Almighty God is for you and will vindicate you. So don’t be afraid (Mat 10:30).
• Jesus is not sending a mixed message to his disciples. He is not saying be afraid and don’t be afraid. There is no fear in love. Rather, he’s putting persecution into perspective.
But someone may still ask “What about the destroying of the body and soul in Gehenna (not hell)?
Let’s look at that word “destroy”.
From G575 and the base of G3639; to destroy fully (reflexively to perish, or lose), literally or figuratively: – destroy, die, lose, mar, perish.
That’s a word of finality. It’s not a word of continuous torment.
Those killing the followers of Christ between the cross and the fall of Jerusalem were the unbelieving Jews according to both Jesus and Paul. Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in Mat. 23:31-36, “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. FILL UP, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of GEHENNA? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them YOU WILL KILL and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon THIS generation.”
Paul said in 1 Thess. 2:14-16, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who KILLED both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to FILL UP up the measure of their sins; but wrath is about to come upon them to the uttermost.”
Notice the scriptures there doesn’t tell us about a spirit being tormented in Gehenna eternally.
See below the definitions of soul:
Strongs 5590 psyxḗ (from psyxō, “to breathe, blow” which is the root of the English words “psyche,” “psychology”) – soul (psyche); a person’s distinct identity (unique personhood), i.e. individual personality.
Thayer: [can be] the soul (Latinanimus), a. the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our soul, heart, etc. (R. V. almost uniformly soul); for examples from Greek writings see Passow, under the word, 2, vol. ii., p. 2589b; (Liddell and Scott, under the word, II.
The soul as used in the NT can either mean the inner life, the hopes, dreams, thoughts desires, and plans of a person.
Let’s see its use in Acts 14:2, 21-22 it was the unbelieving Jews who stirred up trouble for the believing Jews and so they needed their hopes strengthened,
“But the THE UNBELIEVING JEWS STIRRED UP THE GENTILES and poisoned their minds against the brethren… And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, STRENGTHENED THE SOULS of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
What does all this mean? It means that the unbelieving Jews had hopes and dreams and plans of removing the Roman rule from their nation. They believed that the kingdom was due to be received in their time. The Messiah was to ensure that happened. Unfortunately Jesus did not fit that bill. They had to have him crucified.
Their deepest expectations in their souls was that God would rescue them from Rome. Jesus on the contrary warned them to flee the coming wrath of Rome instead (Matthew 24).
They would lose everything; their houses, lands, wealth, friends, family, and even their lives. Their heritage as Jews was about to go up in flames. Their dream of the physical kingdom being restored to Israel would be destroyed. Their world would come to an end.
Their only hope and deliverance would be to trust Jesus and not the law, depart the Old Covenant System and flee when they saw the Roman armies approaching with their eagle war banners waving in the wind (Matthew 24:28, “For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”)
So the passage in Matthew 10 is not about God but the Romans being the ones to end their hopes in flames. God on the other hand would be their strength, hope and encouragement despite the persecution that lay ahead of the disciples. That is why he says;
“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s WILL.”
Clearly this aspect fails to convey a doctrine where spirits would eternally tortured by a physical fires throughout eternity, time without end.”
As seen above it will take a good level of objectivity to see through these scriptures and reassess if this doctrine holds any form of truth in it.
We’ll continue in the next installment.