GEHENNA AND UNQUENCHABLE FIRE
There is another Greek word in the New Testament that is translated "hell," and with which the word fire is sometimes associatedthat word is Gehenna. It is this word that Jesus uses in Matthew 10:28, which reads, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]."
In examining the meaning of this word Gehenna the point to which we wish to call attention in the passage just quoted is that it is presented by Jesus as a place, or condition of destruction, not of torment. That which the Lord consigns to Gehenna is destroyed, not preserved or tortured. And this is fully in keeping with the significance of the word at is was understood by the Jews of Jesus' day.
Gehenna, literally, was a deep valley, or ravine, just outside the ancient city of Jerusalem which was used as a place for the disposal of the offal of the city. In the Hebrew language it was know as the "Valley of Hinnom." Fires were kept constantly burning in this valley in order to assure the destruction of everything that was cast into it. Not only, therefore, was Gehenna a place of destruction, but that which was destroyed therein was worthless.
In Jesus' day the people were well acquainted with the purpose for which Gehenna was used, and when he employed it as a symbol of the utter destruction of those unworthy of life everlasting, they would be quick to get the force of the illustration. Nor would the idea of torture ever enter into their minds when they heard Jesus use this illustration.
Thus seen, while both hades and Gehenna represent the death condition, Jesus seems to have used the Gehenna symbolism more particularly with respect to those who will prove to be incorrigible, hence unworthy of everlasting life; while the Bible indicates that those who are in hades are to be awakened from death, either as members of the church who will come forth in the "first resurrection," or else as those who come forth to participate in the trial, or judgment, of the millennial age.
Jesus used the word Gehenna in his Sermon on the Mount, saying, "Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire." (Matt. 5:22) The literal Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, was not far distant from where Jesus uttered these words, and those who heard them would not think for a moment that he was teaching that all who do not accept him before they die were to be tortured forever. And no one reading his words today would ever think of such an absurd interpretation were it not for the background of distorted and god-dishonoring teachings which have come to us from the Dark Ages.
While the literal Gehenna of Jesus' day was used for the destruction of the city's garbage, it is said that the carcasses of dead animals were also often destroyed therein. It is also said that the dead bodies of human beingscriminalswhom the Jews judged as unworthy of a resurrection, were also destroyed in Gehenna. In view of this, those to whom Jesus ministered would be quick to catch the thought of eternal destruction when he used Gehenna as a symbol of the punishment of the wicked.
Twice more Jesus used the Word Gehenna in his Sermon on the Mount. We quote: "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna]. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna]."Matt. 5:29,30
So far as we are aware, no one has ever claimed that the human body of a sinner is cast into a place of torment. Certainly we all know that the body returns to the dust, yet some try to use this passage to support their torment theory. These words of the Master should readily be recognized as highly symbolic. No one supposes that he had any intention of teaching that in order to escape eternal torture it would be necessary for one literally to pluck out an eye, or cut off a hand. Rather, he is using these as symbols of those things which might seem very precious to us as Christians; but, if they should stand in the way of our gaining eternal life in the kingdom, it would be better to give them up as mere temporal advantages in order to make sure of the eternal glories.
In the illustration, Jesus uses Gehenna as a symbol of the utter loss that would be experienced by those who, after tasting of "the good word of God," and being "partakers of the Holy Spirit," and of "the powers of the world to come," should through unfaithfulness, do despite to the grace of God. (Heb. 6:4,5) But no suggestion of torment is in any way implied by the lesson.
In Matthew 18:8,9, Jesus presents a lesson identical in meaning with the one he gave in his Sermon on the Mount. Once in this passage he speaks of "Gehenna fire," and refers to the same thing as "everlasting fire." Since fire is a symbol of destruction, and quite properly so because of its destructive qualities, the expression "everlasting fire" would simply denote everlasting destruction. Again, no torment is suggested.
In Matthew 23:15 we find the word Gehenna used again by the Master. Here he is upbraiding the scribes and Pharisees for their wrong, hypocritical attitude, and tells them that despite their zeal to make converts to the Jewish religion, anyone who was influenced by their teaching was made "twofold more the child of hell [Gehenna]" than they were themselves. This is simply the Master's way of saying to the Pharisees that they were far out of line with the true God of Israel and with his plans, and that those whom they taught would likewise be far afield from the divine arrangementsso far that they would be in danger of not gaining everlasting life at all, unless they changed their position. But even so, there is no threat here of eternal torture, but rather a warning as to the danger of losing the privilege of living everlastingly, that glorious opportunity that was to be provided through the blood of Christ.
In Matthew 23:33, Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees again, calling them a "generation of vipers," and adding, "How can ye escape the damnation [judgment] of hell [Gehenna]?" The translators took the opportunity to use the word "damnation" in this text, thinking no doubt, to make the threat of the statement sound more sinister. And if we think of hell erroneously as meaning torture, and couple with it the word damnation, we do have a blistering text.
But the plain facts of the case are quite simple. The Greek word here translated damnation simply means judgment, and hence the condemnation of Gehenna would simply be that of eternal oblivionthat which is described in the Book of Revelation as the "second death"a death from which the Scriptures nowhere promise a resurrection. The Revised Version uses the proper word "judgment" instead of "damnation."
In Mark 9:43-47 we have a repetition of the lesson which speaks of the advisability of parting with one's eyes, and feet, and hands, rather than be cast into Gehenna fire. In Jesus gave in his Sermon on the Mount, and in which he this passage, however, Jesus intensifies the illustration by speaking of the worms which do not die, and the fires which are not quenchedunquenchable fire.
As we have seen, fires were kept continually burning in Gehenna, which at all times assured the destruction of whatever was thrown into the valley. Anything reaching those fires was sure to be destroyed, hence from this standpoint, they were unquenchable. But there was always the possibility that carcasses thrown into the fires of Gehenna might lodge on the jagged sides of the ravine and not reach the fires below. These would be destroyed by the ever-present worms which infest dead bodies thus exposed to the elements. It was to this that Jesus referred as the undying, or ever-present worms.
How absurd, as some have tried to teach, that Jesus is here describing the alleged immortal souls of human beings as worms! In this passage, as in many others of the Bible, it is only because people have erroneous notions in their minds that they see a meaning which was never intended by the Lord. Let us try to comprehend the hideousness of the torment theory, and realize that a God of love would not make such a plan for the punishment even of his enemies. Through Jesus our Heavenly Father teaches us to love our enemies, and certainly he does not want us to believe that he tortures his.
The last use we find of the word Gehenna in the Gospels is that of Luke 12:5. Here Jesus tells us that we are to fear him who is able to cast one into hell (Gehenna). The construction of the text is very revealing. A man may kill another, but the eternal existence of his victim would not be jeopardized. But those whom the Heavenly Father considers incorrigible, and not worthy of life, are cast into Gehenna. This, of course, is not a literal casting into that valley which was located outside of the city of Jerusalem. The thought is, rather, that Gehenna is a fitting symbol of the destruction of that which is not worthy of life.
The last, and one of the most interesting uses of the word Gehenna in the New Testament is that recorded in James 3:6. Here James tells us that the tongue is set on fire of Gehenna. It would be difficult to explain the meaning of this text should we have in mind the traditional misconception of hell. But when we think of Gehenna as being a symbol of destruction, it is readily seen that what James means is that the tongue, moved by selfishness and hate, is set on fire or caused to speak, by influences which, if not checked, are sure to lead to death, either of the one whose tongue is thus incited to speak evil, or of those concerning whom he speaks.
And now we have examined every text in the Bible in which the words sheol, hades, and Gehenna appear, and we have found that not even once is there justification for supposing that these Hebrew and Greek words which are sometimes translated hell are descriptive of a torture chamber into which God purposes to consign all unbelievers at death.* Let us then dismiss from our minds this blasphemy against the good name of our loving God, and endeavor to learn more concerning his loving plan to bless all nations during the thousand years of Christ's kingdom.
* NOTEThe word hell appears one other time in the New Testament; namely, in II Peter 2:4. Here it is a translation of the Greek word tartaroo. The text, however, is not discussing the penalty for sin which comes upon human beings, so is not important to our present discussion.
We have found the Scriptures clearly to teach that man was created to live on the earth forever as a human being, that he forfeited this privilege by transgressing God's Law. The Scriptures, nevertheless, teach that Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost, and that in order to make restoration of the race possible, he died as man's Redeemer.
During this present age, the work of the Lord has been, not to convert all mankind to be followers of the Master, but to call out from the world a people to be associated with him in his kingdom. At the end of the age these are brought forth from hades in the "first resurrection," exalted to glory, honor, and immortality to live and reign with Christ a thousand years.Rev. 20:6; Rom. 2:7
In Matthew 25:31-46 is an account of a parable which Jesus gave to his disciples to illustrate the work of the next agethe judgment work, when the Lord will be dealing with all mankind and proving their worthiness or unworthiness of everlasting life. It begins with the time when the "Son of man shall come in his glory, and all his holy angels with him." In the Greek text the term angels means messengers, and the reference here is to the churchall who have suffered and died following in the Master's footsteps. Together with him, these will be the judges of the world of mankind"Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?" asks Paul.I Cor. 6:2
There are two other important points in this parable to which we wish to call attention. The first is the reward that is given to those who are represented by the sheep, that is, those who qualify for life under the terms of that judgment-day period. To these the invitation is given, "Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Verse 34) This is the kingdom, or dominion, that was given to our first parents, but which they lost on account of sin. Here we are told that it will be restored at the close of the thousand-year judgment day.
But let us notice also the final disposition of those represented by the goats of the parable; that is, those who prove themselves to be incorrigible sinners. These, it is stated, go away into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Some have seized upon this statement in an effort to prove the torment theory, but no such thought is attached to the text. Fire here, as always in the Bible, is a symbol of destruction, not torment. Everlasting fire would simply be everlasting destruction.
In the last verse (46) of the chapter the same thought is referred to as "everlasting punishment." Death is the punishment for sin, and eternal death would be everlasting punishment. The thought is made more definite when we examine the Greek word here used, translated "punishment." It is a word which denotes a "cutting off." The willfully wicked will be cut off from life, but as the text declares, the righteous of that time will enter into "life eternal." And to these the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world will be restored. The parable reminds us that the devil and his angels will also then be destroyed.
In Revelation 20:10 Satan is represented as being destroyed in the "lake of fire." As we have already noted, the lake of fire is a powerful symbol of destruction. Death and the Bible hell are represented as being destroyed therein. The "beast" and the "false prophet" of Revelation are said to be destroyed in the lake of fire. (Rev. 19:20) It is conceded that the "beast" and the "false prophet" are symbolic of corrupt politico-religious systems dominated by Satan. These are to be destroyed preparatory to the full manifestation of the kingdom of Christ.
Revelation 20:10 speaks of the torment of Satan in the "lake of fire," but as other scriptures declare definitely that he is to be destroyed, this expression must be understood symbolically, even as the lake of fire is itself symbolic. Satan's torment following his destruction is evidently the everlasting derision that will be heaped upon him in the minds of the people. Even now we speak of not letting people rest after they die; but the thought is not that their rest is actually disturbed, but rather that the living remember and deride them. So it will be with Satan. His course of willful opposition to God and its terrible results, will serve as an everlasting object lesson to all the restored of mankind.
Thus we have found that the entire Bible is in agreement with Paul's declaration that the "wages of sin is death," not torment. And how glad we are that an opportunity to escape eternal death has been provided by our loving God through the gift of his Son to be our Redeemer and Savior! Believers during the present age receive life through faith; and while temporarily they fall asleep in death, they will be raised to glory, honor, and immortality in the "first resurrection," to live and reign with Christ a thousand years.Rev. 20:6
During the thousand years of Christ's reign all mankind will be given the opportunity to accept God's loving provision of life through Christ, and those who do accept and obey the laws of the divine kingdom then in force will be restored to perfection of human life. Instead of sickness and death, there will be health and life, for the promise is that God will "swallow up death in victory" and wipe away tears from all faces.Isa. 25:8,9
Truly we should rejoice that our God, the God of the Bible, the Creator of heaven and earth, is a God of love. May the length and breadth and height and depth of his love inspire us with a greater desire than ever to serve him, and to make known to all the glories of his character.
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