- Category: A Hell of a Question
Theme Text– ‘Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]’ (Matt 10:28 NASB).
1) Aren’t there warnings about fire in the New Testament?
Whenever we read a biblical passage, there’s always a key question – Is this supposed to be taken literally? Or is this mentioned as a symbolic depiction of something else?
For instance, Jesus says the grass of the field is daily thrown into the fire (Matt 6:30 NIV). Does that mean there’s a plant-hell? No, he just uses this symbolic language to indicate the short lifespan of plants. Fire is symbolically used across the Bible to denote death – eternal destruction. Not eternal torture.
2) We studied Sheol/Hades earlier. Which other word is translated as hell in the New Testament?
It’s Gehenna. It's translated as hell 12 times. If Gehenna denotes hell, we can actually book a flight and go to hell! Intrigued?
Yes, it’s a real place in Israel. That’s why translations like YLT render it as Gehenna instead of hell. When Jesus says ‘the fire in Gehenna’, it’s like a New Yorker saying ‘the water in Brooklyn’.
3) Where exactly is Gehenna?
The Valley of Hinnom, named Gehenna in Greek, lies just outside the city of Jerusalem. During Jesus’ time, it was the city’s garbage burner. Its fires were kept continually burning (everlasting fire) to fully consume all things dumped there. Brimstone used to be added to fuel the incineration. It ensured total destruction.
4) Was any living thing ever permitted to be thrown into Gehenna?
Not at all. Never! God's Law to Israel prevented torture of any kind to any creature.
Apart from garbage, animal carcasses (dead dogs) and dead bodies of some vile criminals (those who were denied an honorable burial) were thrown into Gehenna.
There they got burnt up i.e. destroyed. No living thing, not even an animal, suffered any torture there.
5) So what was the symbolic meaning of Gehenna?
Gehenna’s lake of fire illustrated God’s assurance to destroy the impure entities of this earth in the future, to prevent pollution of the New Jerusalem (God’s obedient people symbolized by the city). Scriptures directly explain this figurative burning of wicked components in a lake of fire as the Second Death - final destruction (Rev 20:14).
It’s described as the ‘fiery indignation which shall devour [destroy] the adversaries’ (Heb 10:26-27).
6) Could we look at an example where Gehenna is used?
‘Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]’ (Matt 10:28 NASB) - Just like the lifeless dead bodies of the criminals in Jerusalem were cast into Gehenna Valley to be destroyed.
- No torture. Only complete destruction. Jesus used the same Gehenna in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:22). The Gehenna Valley was not far from where Jesus uttered these words.
- Those who heard him would not think for a moment that he was saying all who reject him were to be tortured forever. And no one reading his words today would ever think of such an idea were it not for the background of distorted Dark Age interpretations that have crept into Christendom.
Gehenna Valley – The Curious Case of the Undying Worms
7) Jesus says in Gehenna ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:47-48 NIV). Many assume that it must be only in a mystic hell that worms don’t die even in fire. Isn’t that the case?
Only those who know Jesus’ first century Gehenna Valley will know the true meaning of this phrase.
- Even today, we know that fire is kept continually burning in city waste burners. In the same fashion, fires were kept burning (not quenched) in the Gehenna Valley of that time.
- But, why did the worms not die? Because these worms were not exactly amidst the fires. Fires used to burn at the bottom of the Gehenna Valley. It was in the vegetation that lined the slopes of the valley that the worms thrived. Jesus was referring to those worms.
8) What does Jesus signify with all these in terms of the Gehenna Valley?
Dead bodies thrown into Gehenna Valley would be destroyed by the fires burning below. The ones that might get stuck in the slopes would be consumed by worms. Bodies dumped into Gehenna would be destroyed one way or other without fail. Likewise, sinners cannot escape destruction is the point Jesus is making. No living person was ever burnt alive or eaten alive by worms in Gehenna!
Gehenna’s Everlasting Fire – What’s everlasting?
9) Is the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation 20 and eternal fire in Matthew 25:41 related to Gehenna?
- Revelation says those not found worthy of life are to be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). Fire, as always, is used as a sign of destruction. The symbol, lake of fire, is drawn from the same Gehenna Valley outside Jerusalem. The trial of the Kingdom age of judgment (Rev 20:1-4) is a time of examining and separating the righteous sheep (who obey Jesus) from the goats (who disobey) (Matt 25:31-46). More on this here.
- The disobedient will meet utter destruction in everlasting fire (Matt 25:41). This everlasting fire is derived from Jerusalem’s Gehenna where fires were kept continually burning (everlasting). The everlasting adjective applies just to the fire. It does not mean anyone will burn eternally. Fire burns and destroys.
The Fate of the Beast & An Error ‘Forever’
10) Doesn’t Revelation 20:10 talk about the beast and false prophet being tormented forever in the lake of fire?
We know this verse is full of symbols (There is a beast!). The previous verse Rev 20:9 shows individuals who join Satan being destroyed in fire. So this Rev 20:10 doesn’t refer to humans. The beast stands for the political powers of the world - governments and authorities. The false prophet represents false religious systems.
But how can institutions be tormented? These worldly systems operating against the precepts of God today are to be destroyed by undergoing financial, social and religious difficulties and pains.
The ‘forever’ is a mistranslation. The root Greek word aionion means age-lasting i.e. to continue till the end of the age when they would be utterly destroyed in the [symbolic] lake of fire.
Hell Thrown into Lake of Fire – Say What?
11) Does the Bible have a direct definition of the lake of fire anywhere?
As a matter fact, Revelation defines it explicitly! It says the lake of fire is the second death (Rev 20:14) i.e. complete destruction.
That's a plain and straightforward scriptural declaration.
20:14 also says death and hell (HADES) are to be cast into the lake of fire! Many ask - Aren’t hell and lake of fire the same?
Now that we understand better, we know it means there would be no more death and grave (HADES) then! Being cast into the lake of fire shows the symbolic end of death and HADES.