It feels misleading to have a title like “ Gehenna in Luke’s Gospel ”, which gives the impression that I’m going to look at all the instances where Luke uses the word γέεννα (gehenna). Strictly speaking, this is true, but Luke only uses the word once in Luke 12:5. When he does, he paints a grim but illuminating picture of final judgement in which God ends the life of the lost forever and then does away with them completely.
Some time ago at Afterlife, I wrote about Matthew 10:28, a well-known passage that teaches the final destruction of life and body in gehenna, translated “hell” in our English Bibles. There I explained that, contrary to what some might say about the passage, the passage does not clearly teach a dualistic theory of human nature where we have a physical body and an immaterial soul (in fact the use of the English word “soul” in the verse is misleading). We cannot be certain of the precise words that Jesus used on this occasion, partly because Matthew and Luke use very different words to express it. Jesus may not have even used the word “life” at all. In Luke’s version that word is not used to make the point. But while Matthew’s version contributes to the case for conditionalism by overtly stating that God can (and presumably will) destroy the whole self in gehenna, Luke’s version may make the case for conditionalism in a slightly different way.
Here is how Luke records this saying of Jesus in Luke 12:4-5:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (NRSV)
The saying contrasts the worst a person can do to you with what God can do. When humans unleash their wrath, the limit is death. But God has the power over death, so while what men may be able to do to us is pretty fearful, it is not final. God can do more. God can kill us and then throw us into gehenna. The judgement of man vs the judgement of God.
Those of us who hold to a conditionalist perspective may have under-utilised this passage. We believe, as the Bible repeatedly teaches, that eternal life in any form is found in Christ alone, and that rejecting God will ultimately lead to final and literal death. Many of us treat Luke 12:5 as though it doesn’t conflict with our point of view, but it really doesn’t help it either. It only states that God will cast people into hell, but it doesn’t say what will happen there. Those who subscribe to the traditional doctrine of the eternal torments of the damned in hell know about this passage, of course. They list it among their proof-texts because it contains the word “hell,” so it must refer to what they believe in, namely a place of torment. The lost will die like everybody dies, and after that they will go to hell. But this glosses over a couple of crucial details.
Firstly, as noted, the word for hell here is gehenna, not hades (ᾅδης). Hades is the Greek word used in the Bible for the state of the dead. It is used to translate the Hebrew word sheol, and is translated variously as the grave, the pit, and – quite unhelpfully – as hell. It describes the state of those whose bodies are dead. Gehenna, on the other hand, is probably more deserving of the English word “hell,” as it refers to the future punishment at the judgement. It is derived from the name of the Valley of Hinnom, a place with a fearsome history in Jewish history, a place associated with idolatry but also with a great slaughter.1 This counts against the interpretation that Luke here refers to a place where people go when they die.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, these are God’s actions in final judgement. It is true, of course, that Scripture speaks elsewhere about the fact that God owns all life and it is really God who makes people alive and who ends their life because God is sovereign. But in context (which is always the key to meaning), killing people in this life – that is, prior to divine judgement – is what men do, both to the righteous and the wicked alike (which is why Jesus told his followers not to fear those who kill you and then can do no more). Saints and sinners alike might fall prey to murder at the hands of their fellow human being. So the passage is not referring to a place where we might go when we die at the end of this life (perhaps at the hand of our fellow man), but to something beyond that. It refers to a killing that is not carried out by the hand of man, and to a casting into the final state, gehenna.
Supposing that the actions attributed to God here are those of the final judgement, surely we have here a saying of Jesus that offers strong support for the conditionalist view. God will slay his enemies and cast them into the fire.
On the face of it, the teaching of Jesus here seems to undermine the traditional view of hell and to support a conditionalist view: The life of the lost will one day come to an end forever. How do traditionalists get around apparently clear language like this?
Maybe the “killing” isn’t done by God
The first way out for the traditionalist might be to say that God isn’t the one who does the killing here. Rather, humans do the killing, after which God will cast the person into gehenna.
Although a minority, a few dynamic equivalent Bibles do support this translation. The NIV is an influential example (undoubtedly the most influential):
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
The wording here is ambiguous, not specifying who does the killing, only saying that it happens.
Evangelical New Testament scholar Darrell Bock translates the passage this way too, in his commentary on Luke: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who can kill the body and after this can do nothing more. But I will show you who to fear. Fear the one who after the killing has authority to cast into Gehenna.”2 Despite opting for the minority report on how the verse should be translated, however, Bock offers no explanation of this choice. In fact, and somewhat discouragingly, Bock summarises this passage under the heading “Fear the one who can cast souls into Gehenna.” Souls? That word is not even mentioned here – that’s in Matthew’s version, and in Matthew’s version the writer is clear that God will destroy “both soul/life and body in gehenna.” If we put Matthew’s version alongside Luke’s version, it becomes quite clear that the “killing” in verse 5 is a divine act.
|What humans do:||What God does|
|Matthew 10:28||Kill the body [i.e. kill you] but not the soul/life||Destroy body and soul in hell|
|Luke 12:4-5||Kill the body, but after that nothing more|
The empty box is easy to fill in if we read Luke’s account while keeping Matthew’s account in front of us. In Matthew, the human act of killing the body just means to kill you, which is what Luke says humans can do. In Matthew, the act of destroying the body (which means to kill) and the soul/life in hell is the divine act. What belongs in the empty box, showing that Luke was reporting on the same words of Christ as Matthew, is the killing and casting into gehenna. Indeed, if we appreciate that psuche refers to a person’s life in the ultimate sense, to destroy the life and body in gehenna (as in Matthew) means the same as to kill and to cast into gehenna (as in Luke), signifying that the death is final (or as another biblical writer put it, the second death).
As we browse through scholarly New Testament commentaries, we find that Bock’s translation is the minority view. Two examples are illustrative. Joel Green endorses the wording of the NRSV.3 I. Howard Marshall explains that “The disciples are to fear the one who after killing has power to cast into Gehenna.”4 Luke Timothy Johnson translates the passage as follows: “Fear the one who after killing you has the authority to throw you into Gehenna.”5 John Nolland, in the Word Biblical Commentary, gives us “fear the one who after he kills has authority to cast into Gehenna.6
When we turn to the way Greek scholars have translated Luke 12:5 in their translations, the consensus becomes clear. The idea suggested by the NIV and Bock – that the killing might not be an act of God – is rejected by virtually every literal translation that I can lay my hands on: The KJV, NAB, NASB, RSV, NRSV, ESV and the New Jerusalem. Of the most literal translations, only one agrees with the NIV, namely Young’s Literal translation. Even the majority of mainstream dynamic equivalent translations agree with us here: New Century Version, New Living Translation, English Revised Version, New English Bible, International Standard Version, God’s Word Translation, Weymouth, New International Reader’s Version, Word English Bible and others. So the community of New Testament Greek scholars and the Bible Versions they created speak with almost one voice on this.
The reason for this consensus is probably as follows: The verb that is translated along the lines of “after he has killed” is ἀποκτεῖναι (apokteinai). The verb here is an infinitive, which does not have an explicit subject named. How do we find the intended subject of this verb? In 1896 Clyde Votaw explained the following in his doctoral dissertation devoted to the use of the infinitive in New Testament Greek:
As a general rule, the subject is omitted when it is the same as the subject of the governing verb, or when it is the same as the object of the governing verb, or when by reason of its general, indefinite character or its easy inference from some other portion of the sentence, it is sufficiently clear.7
As Kim Papaioannou notes that subject is God:
The first and last occasions verify that God is the subject of ἀποκτεῖναι: (a) He is the subject of the governing verb “has authority to cast” and (b) is the only subject in the sentence as Luke 12:4 consists of a sense unit with verse 5 proceeding to a new thought.8
On grammatical grounds, then, we should accept the meaning of the translation given to us by most New Testament scholars.
What is more, if we suppose that the correct translation here is “after the killing,” where the killer in question is the human beings mentioned in verse 4, we arrive at a strange conclusion. Let’s look at one of the very few writers who actually propose this meaning, H. K Moulton. Writing in 1974, he forthrightly admitted that he was speaking out against all Bible translations in existence, and that the translation as I have given it here “is standard, with slight verbal modifications, in all the versions I know, from the Vulgate, Wyclif and Tyndale onwards.”9 He alleges that because the verb for “kill” is in the infinitive and there is no explicit subject, it follows that “ ‘He has killed’ is an assumption. It could equally well be ‘after they have killed’.”10 Moule appears unaware of the grammatical argument that Votaw made in 1896. But the strange thing about Moule – illustrating the problem I am about to turn to – is that he believed that the context supported his reading of “after they have killed.” After all, he reasoned, when the power of those who persecute and kill Christians ends, God’s power continues. And so, he says, the verse should read: “Fear God, who after the killing (referred to in the previous verse) has the power to throw into hell-fire.”11 But how can this be? We should not fear the men who can kill us but do nothing more than make us martyrs. Instead, we should fear God who, after we have been martyred, has the authority to throw us into hell? Since when does God throw his martyrs into hell? Such a bizarre conclusion should be an alarm bell that the killings in verses 3 and 4 are not the same.
Lastly, there is an Old Testament background that explains why Luke would likely see the killing and the casting into Gehenna as God’s actions. Luke 12:5 is a very strong echo of the scene portrayed in Isaiah 66:15-16,23-24.
For the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire.
For by fire will the LORD execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh;
and those slain by the LORD shall be many. [emphasis added]
From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
What is coming to those who rebelled against God, in this vision of the future, is that they will be slain and disposed of, cast into the fire. In Mark 9, Jesus quotes from this passage in Isaiah 66 and labels this fate as gehenna. This should make the language of Luke 12 familiar territory for us. Jesus told people that unlike humans who can kill us in this life, God can kill us and then dispose of us in gehenna, a warning that evokes Isaiah’s picture of Yahweh finally slaying his enemies and burning their bodies. Since God has the power over life and death, God can still save us even if men kill us. But if God kills us and ends our existence, there is nobody else who can bring us back.
That the killing is an act of God is supported by the majority of New Testament translators, by grammatical considerations and by the Old Testament background that Luke may have in mind.
Maybe the killing is done by God indirectly
But maybe, our critic may say, we can still manage to remove the killing from the last judgement. Maybe this is about God’s ability to kill in his sovereign oversight of everything that happens in creation. So God might kill us indirectly when we are killed by our fellow man, or when we die of old age, or when we are killed in a car accident. After that, God may cast us into gehenna, which will not kill us but rather is a state of eternal torment (or for our gentler more modern traditionalists, conscious misery apart from God, or something else that no longer makes us squeamish). So the killing may still be carried out by human beings after all.
A very wide range of things is logically possible, including this explanation of the meaning of Luke 12:5. But several factors make it very unlikely. Of course it is true that God is sovereign over all things, and God’s sovereignty over life and death in particular is explicit elsewhere in the Bible. “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6). “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39). But in context it is patently obvious that Luke is quite happy to say that humans are the ones who kill. After all, in verse 4 he has just recounted Jesus’ words: “do not fear those who kill the body.” Who are these people who can kill the body, those whom we should not fear? If Luke is really writing with an eye on divine sovereignty so that all killing is ultimately done by God, then God is the one who kills the body no matter who carries the act out. Evidently Luke means to contrast the actions of men with the actions of God, so it makes no sense to construe God’s action in killing as the human act of killing (since God is still in control). This is a lesson in not reaching for proof texts in 1 Samuel or Deuteronomy when the immediate context is not in our favour. Wherever possible, context must be the determining factor in what a particular phrase means.
A second worry with this interpretation – one that is actually a problem for the previous objection as well – is a question: Where is the resurrection? The straightforward reading of the passage (which favours conditionalism) means that men can kill you, but at some point in the future, God will kill people, with the innuendo that God can kill people even after they have already died (since some of God’s enemies have already died). This reading (which again, I say, is the simplest reading) means that Jesus is talking about people being alive again after death. This makes sense in light of the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Scripture teaches that there will be a future resurrection and judgement (John 5:28-29, for example). But if this passage in Luke 12 means that people might kill you, but God, after that killing (which is really his action anyway because he is sovereign), can throw people into hell, something is missing. Where is the resurrection? This is not an intermediate state of hades but the final state, gehenna. There was supposed to be a resurrection to judgement. True, this interpretation does not mean that the resurrection is explicitly denied, and it is possible that Jesus might have simply neglected to mention it, but surely it would be an important oversight.
There is therefore no good reason to set aside the simple reading of this saying of Jesus, the one suggested to us by nearly all Bible translations: Men may kill you now, but God has the authority to kill people at some future point and cast them into gehenna, a fiery and permanent end. Of course there is room to question whether or not the reference to gehenna should be taken literally. There is no reason to suppose that people will be thrown into the literal Valley of Hinnom (which is where the word gehenna comes from), and there is room to question whether or not the fire is literal. Whether it is or not, the point of this language (especially with one eye on Isaiah 66) is quite clear in emphasising death and finality. It would be highly misleading to say that God will kill and to use language drawn from a scene of fiery disposal when Jesus actually meant to convey a state in which nobody is killed and really lives forever.
A last hope: Killing doesn’t mean killing!
Surely the last way out for the traditionalist is to somehow downplay the reference to “killing” in verse 5. Maybe it says that God has the authority to kill and to cast into gehenna, but it doesn’t quite mean “kill” in the literal sense. Maybe the traditionalist might express indignation at the “naturalistic” way in which we are reading this. But that would surely be a rhetorical gesture with little lurking behind it. When human beings kill us, as in verse 4, it’s pretty straight forward what is meant: You were alive, then you’re dead. It would be of no use to appeal to the claim that death is really just separation of body and soul, because the traditional view of hell is one in which people bodily live forever in hell. There isn’t a separate hell for bodies and souls, in the traditional view, so it would make no sense to say that God “kills” people at the judgement by separating their bodies from their souls. Similarly, it would be futile to search for something like “spiritual death” in this reference to God killing. That is a concept unknown in Luke’s Gospel, and even if it were a Lukan theme, people are spiritually dead, if we can use that term, before they face the final judgement. Indeed, if spiritually dead means sinful and estranged from God, then they are judged in this way because they are spiritually dead already.
The truth is, I have not yet come across a traditionalist writer who wants to claim some secondary meaning of “killing” here. It would be a tortured, almost embarrassing argument to have to make, virtually an admission that there is no way out of the irritating conclusion that this passage appears to offer strong support for a conditionalist perspective.
If anybody has an explanation for how this passage can be reconciled to a traditional view on hell then I welcome it, but in the meantime it looks like Luke 12:4-5 is one of the clearest examples in the Gospels where Jesus and our authors offer a conditionalist perspective on the last judgement.
- a number of writers allege that the Valley of Hinnom had become a smouldering garbage dump by Jesus’ time, but I cannot find any primary source to support this claim. Still, a garbage dump like this would be a place where things are burned up and destroyed.
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), electronic edition.
- Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 478.
- Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 514.
- Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegevill: Michael Glazier, 1991), 36.
- Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 675.
- Votaw, The Use of the Infinitive in Biblical Greek (Chicago: Self-published, 1896), 58. This book is now freely available online at https://archive.org/details/useofinfinitivei00votarich
- Papaioannou, Places of punishment in the synoptic gospels, PhD dissertation (University of Durham, 2004), 105. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: https://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3095/.
- H. K. Moule, “Luke 12:5,” Bible Translator 25 (1974), 246.
- Moule, “Luke 12:5,” 246.
- Moule, “Luke 12:5,” 247.