Gehenna of Fire ­ Not Hell

Chapter 18

Gehenna of Fire ­ Not Hell

When people engage in a discussion of hell, it is not uncommon for many to state that Jesus spoke on hell more than anybody else; therefore, hell is real. They are correct that Jesus did speak on it more than anyone else; in fact, He was the only one to refer to it, but not as hell. He referred to it as the gehenna of fire.

It is rather telling that only Jesus referred to the gehenna of fire (aka hell); His disciples never did. Peter used the word tartarus, not hell, and James used the word gehenna in reference to the tongue, not in reference to an endless existence of torture. Paul, the apostle of the nations, never once used the word gehenna or referred to hell as a place of torment or torture. If hell, as it is taught today, were so important, don't you think that the apostles would have mentioned it in some manner as a warning? Of course, John saw the lake of fire and many call this hell; but, as is discussed in Chapter 19, this is not hell in the sense that it is viewed today.

Now, eleven of the twelve references to gehenna are directly attributed to Jesus (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). The twelfth citation is found in the book of James (3:6) in reference to the tongue.

To prove that this is not made up, the following are the gehenna verses according to Matthew.

Yet whoever may be saying, 'Stupid!' shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire [fiery gehenna]. (Matthew 5:22 CV [REB])

'But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna. (Matthew 5:29 YLT [CV, REB])

'And, if thy right hand doth cause thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna. (Matthew 5:30 YLT [CV, REB])

'And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna. (Matthew 10:28 YLT [CV, REB])

'And if thine eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee; it is good for thee one-eyed to enter into the life, rather than having two eyes to be cast to the gehenna of the fire [fiery gehenna] (Matthew 18:9 YLT [REB])


'Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye go round the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and whenever it may happen--ye make him a son of gehenna twofold more than yourselves. (Matthew 23:15 YLT [CV, REB])

'Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna? (Matthew 23:33 YLT [CV, REB])

A Garbage Dump

In Jesus' day, gehenna referred to a big garbage dump outside the city walls, south of Jerusalem, where refuse, including dead human bodies, especially those of criminals and beggars, was burned day and night and where worms consumed the organic matter, such as human flesh, that was not consumed by fire. It was a place of death, not a place of torment. One had to be physically dead to be thrown into gehenna.

The dead cannot be tormented, for they are dead! The dead know nothing! It was a literal place of death that all could see and smell as the smoke of its burning went up day and night. Thus, when He spoke of the gehenna of fire, Jesus referred to something that most Jews living in Jerusalem would have easily understood in a physical and literal sense.

The Jews, particularly the devout ones, would have also understood the historical significance of this dump, for gehenna was synonymous with the valley of Hinnom. One of the worst chapters in the history of Judah was played out in the valley of Ben-Hinnom or the valley of the sons of Hinnom (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Nehemiah 11:30; Jeremiah 7:31, 32; 19:2, 6; 32:35) that led to severe judgment of God's people.

According to Joshua, the valley ran south of Jerusalem, marking the territories of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Dung Gate, which was on the east side of Jerusalem, had a common sewer that ran to the brook Kidron and the valley of Hinnom. Within the valley of Hinnom, there was a place called Topheth, which means "a place that burns" (2 Kings 23:10; Isaiah 30:33; Jeremiah 7:31, 32 (twice), 19:6, 11, 12, 13, 14).

One of the lowest points in the history of Judah occurred at the high place called Topheth when God's people committed great acts of idolatry as they offered human sacrifices to the false gods of Baal and Molech (Jeremiah 7:30-31; 32:35). They had fallen away from the Lord by committing gross sin more in line with what would be expected of heathen nations. They were idolatrous and apostate. Consequently, the Lord spoke through Jeremiah of a pending slaughter of these idolatrous Jews.

(32) "Therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place. (33) And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away." (Jeremiah 7:32-33 NASB)


Please take special note of the fact that the Lord referred to their dead bodies as food for the birds and the beasts. This was not a place of torment for so-called living souls but a place of dead bodies.

Undoubtedly, when He spoke of gehenna, Jesus not only had the prophetic words of Jeremiah in mind but also those of Isaiah.

And they will go forth and see the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against Me, for their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched, and they will become a repulsion to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24 CV)

An unquenched fire means it will do its job fully and completely. Worms are also found in garbage dumps, for they feed off organic matter. Both will outlast the flesh, for their purpose is to consume all flesh. Notice that the fire and worms are associated with the consumption of corpses, which means the person is dead and not alive in some fiery torment. The Lord prophesied of the corpses of mortals, ones who are not beyond death. Contextually, Isaiah speaks of the fate of apostates that are denied entrance into the Kingdom of Christ. The fact of the matter is they are dead.

This should dispel any notion that the gehenna of fire is a living hell, as held by so many.

It is worth repeating. Ge-Hinnom or the valley of the sons of Hinnom was where the Jews who worshipped Baal sacrificed their children to Molech (Jeremiah 32:35), an act that was an abomination to the Lord that led to His divine judgment by death. Through Jeremiah, the Lord declared that it would become the valley of slaughter in which the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth (Jeremiah 7:32-33; 19:6).

By the way, the law of God requires that the victim of a crime be made whole by the perpetrator. Only the victim can forgive and show mercy to the perpetrator; however, if the victim is murdered, he or she cannot exercise this right. Consequently, the law demands death for premeditated murders, and judgment on the part of the victim is put on hold until the Great White Throne, at which time justice is meted out based on the crime.

Jerusalem A Broken Jar

Within this same context, the Lord directed Jeremiah to break the jar in the sight of the men and declare: Just so will I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter's vessel, which cannot again be repaired; and they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place for burial (Jeremiah 19:10-11).

Once an old jar is broken, it is of no further value because it cannot be repaired. According to the word of the Lord, there is only one place to dispose of the broken jar, and that is in Topheth. In other words, Jerusalem was going to be broken and cast aside like garbage thrown into a city dump. Jerusalem was going the way of gehenna. Jeremiah was commanded to speak


a death sentence to the city of Jerusalem and its people because they had turned away from the Lord, no longer trusting Him, but instead had turned to false gods, becoming so morally corrupt that their actions were an abomination to the Lord.

In the short term, this prophecy of divine judgment was fulfilled when the Babylonians captured and destroyed Jerusalem. However, it was later rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah, only to be destroyed again in 70 AD by the Romans. Like a cat with nine lives, Jerusalem was rebuilt again, and it is now the thriving capital-city of the state of Israel.

But take note that this sentence has finality to it. The potter's vessel was to be broken, which cannot again be repaired. In other words, the ancient city of Jerusalem must be broken (destroyed) in such a way that it will never be repaired. Given the fact that ancient Jerusalem has been rebuilt in Israel, there is only one fate awaiting the present Jerusalem; it is the divine judgment of gehenna. It must be cast out (Galatians 4:21-31).

If Jeremiah's prophecy is to be believed, and there is good reason to believe it, then a day must come when Jerusalem will be destroyed again, never again to be repaired.

The fact of the matter is that God is now building New Jerusalem, not an earthly city of bricks and mortar but a celestial city of glorified and immortal people, the Body of Christ. Therefore, the earthly Jerusalem, no matter how many times it is rebuilt, must one day be destroyed, never again to be repaired.

Now, why must Jerusalem face the divine judgment of gehenna?

(29) 'Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous, (30) and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. (31) So that ye testify to yourselves, that ye are sons of them who did murder the prophets; (32) and yeye fill up the measure of your fathers. (33) Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?' (Matthew 23:29-33 YLT)

(37) "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. (38) Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!" (Matthew 23:37-38 NASB)

"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify.... (Matthew 23:34 NASB)

Jesus is the Prophet who came to fulfill the Prophets (Matthew 5:17; 21:11, 46; Mark 6:4); and the very ones who should have accepted Him and believed in Him, for they knew who He was (Matthew 21:37-39), were the ones who rejected Him, even demanded His crucifixion (Mark


15:13, 14; John 19:15). The Jews both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).

Jesus spoke many parables to hide the mysteries of the Kingdom of the Heavens from the unbelieving Jews. His parables often spoke of those who will enter His coming Kingdom because they believe in Him and those who will not enter because they are enemies of God, that is, enemies of the cross, because they do not believe on God's Son. Excerpts from two of His parables prove the point.

(1) Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, (2) "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. ... (6) and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. (7) But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire." (Matthew 22:1-2, 6-7 NASB)

(14) "But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to reign over us.' ... (27) "But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence." (Luke 19:14, 27 NASB)

The enemies and citizens who refused His reign were unbelieving Judahites who lived in Judea and the city of Jerusalem, a fact that was not lost to Paul when he wrote to the Philippians.

(18) For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, (19) whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. (20) For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.... (Philippians 3:18-20 NASB) [Note the difference between enemies and citizens.]

Why would Paul weep over these enemies? Because they were of his kindred flesh; that is, they were Jews who rejected Christ (Romans 9:1-3).

These few points are enough to make it clear that the valley of Hinnom signified the death of God's people, not the heathen nations; and when Jesus spoke of gehenna, He spoke to Jews, not to gentiles (the nations).

In the context of Judah's apostate history, gehenna refers to the judgment of death and destruction due to moral corruption of the highest order, in the same vein as the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. They had failed miserably to obey God's law as given to them through Moses.

Consequently, when He walked among the Jews of that day, Jesus put His finger on the pulse of the condition of the Judahites. They were in danger of the gehenna of fire, which could be likened to capital punishment (judgment by death), because they had sunk to a low moral state in which they, as ones called of God through the fathers, refused to believe His Word, which led them to profanely demand the death of God's Son.


In 70 AD, they faced the gehenna of fire as Jerusalem was destroyed and many Jews were killed by the Romans. Contrary to the thinking of many Christians, the same destiny awaits the modern-day nation of Israel that has usurped Joseph's birthright and continues to reject Christ.

Gehenna is not the pagan concept of hell; it is God's judgment of those who profanely turn from Him, and it speaks of physical death, not torture.

However, in spite of how horrific this might sound, it is actually good news. Those who suffer the fate of gehenna (i.e., death) will be raised from the dead at the second resurrection to face the lake of fire, a judgment of works, a purifying work that will ultimately lead to their reconciliation and restoration.

Thus, gehenna refers to God's divine judgment that came upon ancient Jerusalem and its unbelieving, apostate citizens, and to a prophetic judgment that is yet to come upon modern Jerusalem and its unbelieving citizens that continue as enemies of the cross. If they, along with all the unrighteous of the world, are to avoid gehenna, they must repent and believe in the very One their fathers demanded be crucified, Jesus, the Savior of the world; they need the grace of God and the faith of the Son. If they do not believe, then gehenna and exclusion from the Kingdom of Christ awaits them.

Again, there is good news even in this seemingly bad news. Those Judahites, along with all the unbelieving and wicked born of Adam's race, who suffer the fate of gehenna (i.e., death) will be raised from the dead at the second resurrection to face the lake of fire, a purifying judgment of the works of the flesh; so all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) by being brought into subjection to Christ, along with all mankind, so that all things on earth and in heaven will be reconciled to God at the consummation of the eons, so that God the Father may all in all new.

Is the Soul Immortal?

Before closing out this chapter, there is one "gehenna" verse that is often cited in defense of man's hell and the immortality of the soul.

'And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna.' (Matthew 10:28 YLT)

How are we to interpret Jesus' word? Consider these few points.

First, the soul comes forth when the breath of the spirit of life is breathed into an inanimate body. When the spirit enters the body, it becomes animated as a living soul.

Second, if the soul only comes into being when the body and spirit are joined, then it only follows that the soul does not exist prior to the body becoming a living soul. It only becomes soul when the breath of the spirit of life enters the body. This is an important point, for it proves that the soul is not immortal, at least on the front end or before life comes into the


body. In other words, it does not exist in some mystical state that we have no conscious awareness of prior to our birth. Another way of stating this is that it is not eternal.

Third, the soul or, simply, soul is the animation of the body and its relationship and interaction with the environment in which it lives and partakes. It is not life per se but the human experience of living in a body that sees, touches, tastes, smells, etc. We could define soul as the experience of life in a body as experienced through the sensations and feelings of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. As such, soul could be likened to a phenomenon and a capacity.

Fourth, the soul [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11 DNT), which means that soul is intimately joined to the blood of the body. Take away the blood, and what happens to the soul? Herein lies the answer to the question of whether the soul is immortal or not.

If the blood is drained out of a body, what happens to the body and the blood? Obviously, the body dies and returns to the soil and so does the blood, except the blood dries up and is absorbed back into the soil much faster than the bones of the body.

Pour out (drain) the blood, and both the blood and the body die, meaning the living soul dies. So, if the soul of the flesh, that is, of the body, is in the blood, and death ensues when the blood is poured out, then logic dictates that the soul dies too. Death brings an end to the experiences of the body. They are no more, and surely their experiences are gone as well.

Death is death, which is a cessation of life; it is not life in what some call afterlife or life in heaven or in death or, for that matter, even in what people call hell. You cannot have life in death; it is an oxymoronic statement requiring death to be redefined to include life.

The fact of the matter is that there is no scriptural evidence that the soul departs the body and goes to heaven or into some afterlife in death. In other words, there is no evidence that the phenomenon called soul is immortal, for immortality means that one comes into a life that is beyond the reach of death, never to experience it again.

It is safe to state that believing in the immortality of the soul has led to the popular belief that when people die, they go to either heaven or hell. However, this concept is more in line with pagan religion traced to ancient Egypt and Babylon and, later, the Greeks. At the time of Jesus' first advent, the Jews came in contact with Greek philosophy that believed in the immortality of the soul, and this thinking began to infiltrate into Jewish teaching.

Some state that this error came through the philosophy of Plato (428-348 BC) and his student Socrates. Evidently, Plato's thinking was a strange blend of ancient Babylonian and Egyptian thinking. Plato and Socrates taught that the soul was immortal and, at the time of death, the body and soul separate. Unfortunately, Christians were corrupted by Greek philosophy early on as well. By 200 AD, the belief in the immortality of the soul had become a controversy amongst Christians.


This has become so entrenched in Christendom today that there is hardly any controversy, at least, until someone comes along who challenges or simply questions the common thinking of the day; thinking that seems more like the tradition of men that Jesus spoke strongly against. One recent example is Rob Bell who has been labeled a heretic by some for his book Love Wins. It is rather telling when someone writes on the love of God and is labeled a heretic by his own brethren in Christ. Are we any better than the Latin church of the Middle (Dark) Ages that labeled as a heretic anyone who disagreed with the doctrine of the pope?

When it comes to what Jesus spoke, especially to his detractors, many have taken His words and created church doctrine and dogma. One example is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, Jesus often exhorted the religious elite of His day by using things they believed even if they were error. Simply, He did not always correct them but, instead, sort of threw their error right back at them.

For example, when the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebub, Jesus did not correct them by telling them that the Baal-god, which was known as the god of flies or of dung, was a false god to be ignored. Instead, Jesus asked: "If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges" (Matthew 12:27). Some teach that Beelzebub is Satan, but Jesus was using the word as a parody, which treats a serious subject in a nonsensical manner, as in ridicule. Beelzebub is of Chaldean origin and referred to baal-zebub, which was a special deity of the Ekronites. Notice how Jesus hit them head-on using their own terminology. We could say that He threw dung at them.

We must be careful not to make every word of Jesus' into some deep theological or universal, doctrinal truth. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been done to support doctrines involving heaven, hell, and the immortality of the soul.

This leads to Matthew 10:28. What did Jesus mean by fear Him who is able to destroy (kill) both soul and body in gehenna (hell)?

Actually, taken at face value, this means no one is alive in hell, for they (soul and body) are annihilated (killed). However, Jesus was not building a doctrine of annihilation. Simply, He was challenging the Greek teaching on the immortality of the soul without directly propounding a doctrine that refuted it. He knew what was taught in that day and what some of the Jews, even His disciples, erroneously believed. They knew the body died but believed the soul went on to some afterlife in death. Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter that the soul and body die.

Actually, the message He conveyed was about fearing God who would judge the Jews in the gehenna of fire, which is divine judgment unto death or God's capital punishment. Those who are judged in this manner die and their dead bodies are not given a proper burial but are thrown into a fiery garbage dump that burns the refuse. The soul is included because it too dies with the body. The dead do not know anything. Likewise, in the gehenna of fire, the dead (body and soul) do not know anything either. There is no knowledge because death is the cessation of life; take the body away, and the soul ceases to exist, for it is the experience of the body.


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