An extract from the “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski
About 40 years after the resurrection of Christ, the Jews were trapped within the walls of Jerusalem as a determined Roman army lay siege outside. It was the consequence of years of rebellion against Roman rule.
On the 10th of August 70 AD the Romans finally burned the temple and it was levelled to the ground. The historian Josephus claimed that over a million people were killed. It was a horrific scene of unimaginable carnage and destruction. At first they attempted to bury the bodies but eventually realised that this was not going to work. Then orders were given for the bodies to be cast down into the valley outside the city walls.1 The stench of death would have been unbearable as the smell of rotting flesh and the smoke from funeral pyres filled the air.
The valley into which these bodies were thrown was called Gehenna. It had traditionally been a rubbish dump, a place of execution and a place of judgment. It was symbolic of everything that was unclean. It had become a metaphor of destruction within Jewish history. Everything that went into Gehenna was destroyed. Nothing came out alive. Gehenna was a burning rubbish dump in which rotting garbage and filth was consumed by fire and maggots.
This was not the first time that Gehenna had been a place of destruction. Jeremiah had described how the people had established a site for sacrificing children to the god Molech, which ironically would become a dump for their own corpses. The nature of this judgment as an act of destruction was made clear by Jeremiah, who stated that the dead bodies would be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.2
Therefore, the name Gehenna came to be associated with judgment and the destruction of the wicked. Whatever went into Gehenna never came out alive. There was nobody alive in Gehenna during times of judgment because it was full of dead, decomposing bodies where fire and worm would do their work.
The use of this word is important to our understanding of eternal torment, because Gehenna is the original Greek word for which translators sometimes chose to use the word Hell. While Hell means a lot of different things to different people in society today, there are many that would agree that the word itself conjures up the idea of eternal torment, devils with pitchforks and flames of fire and brimstone.
Is this what Jesus meant when he used the word Gehenna? For a number of reasons, it is very unlikely that that is what he meant. While the Pharisees of Jesus’ time might have seen Gehenna as the entrance to the underworld and a place of limited purgatory, Jesus teaching and his use of Gehenna provides us with a clear picture of what he meant by the use of the word.
To start with, when Jesus used the fires of Gehenna,3 he was referring to a judgment of destruction. While this destruction could be considered a general event for the wicked, Jesus also had in mind the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and the disposal of over a million bodies in the valleys beneath the city walls. We know this because he clearly described this in vivid warnings and prophecy some 40 years before the event. For example, he wept over Jerusalem stating that days would come when its enemies would set up ramparts around it, surround it and hem it in on every side. This would happen because Jerusalem had not recognised the visitation from God.4
Jesus was not speaking about something far in the future. He was speaking of the Roman siege and destruction of the temple and its inhabitants, a mere 40 years after the rejection of Christ. Jesus came as a prophet like the prophets of old preaching and proclaiming repentance or destruction.
Jesus was very specific about whom he was warning. The Religious leaders were the targets of his complaints. He declared that they were responsible for all the blood from Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom they murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. He called them a brood of vipers and consequently, upon them would come the condemnation of Gehenna. Then Jesus said something remarkable…he said that all this judgment would come upon this generation.5
When Jesus said ‘this generation’, he meant the people alive at the time he gave the message. Generation did not mean race or people or nation or any other thing. It meant, the people listening to the message in a period of about 40 years. Some of the Religious Leaders of Jesus Day who heard this message would have survived to see the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. They would have lived through a great judgment, only to be slaughtered; their bodies thrown into Gehenna beneath the city wall to join the flaming funeral pyres or left to decompose as maggot ridden corpses.
The other point in this teaching, is that there was no indication that Gehenna fire did anything other than destroy the wicked. There was no teaching anywhere in the Bible that those subject to Gehenna fire continued to exist in a conscious state of eternal torment. If that had been an important truth, we would have expected Jesus or others to describe the never ending torment beyond this destruction. However, the Gehenna fire is the focus of the Judgment. It is not the possibility of eternal torment that is discussed. It is the judgment itself; a judgment of destruction.
The idea of Gehenna as a judgment of destruction is confirmed by Jesus’ parable of the Landowner. In this parable a certain landowner planted a vineyard and leased it to some vinedressers. The Landowner6 then went off into a far country. But at harvest time, he sent some servants back that he might receive its fruit. However, the vinedressers beat and killed the servants and eventually the landowner sent his own son who was also killed.
Jesus then asked the Religious Leaders, who had been listening, an important question. What would happen to the vinedressers? They replied by saying that the Landowner would come back and destroy the vinedressers. Jesus then replied by pointing out that the stone that had been rejected would become the chief cornerstone and linked this event with the Kingdom of God being taken away and given to another. He finishes by stating that this stone will crush anyone on whom it falls.
The Religious Leader’s response was one of anger. They now realised that Jesus had been speaking about them and sought to have him killed, but could not because of the crowds. This parable and Jesus’ prophecy of the siege of Jerusalem along with his woe of Gehenna Fire upon the Religious Leaders all point to the historical destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
At no point in his list of woes and judgments did Jesus indicate that there would be a never-ending torment. Israel had consistently refused to provide God with the fruit of righteousness. Now, the whole nation was found wanting and facing the wrath of her enemies. A force of evil was about to be unleashed because Israel had not recognised the visitation of God.
In addition to this threat of destruction by the Romans, Jesus clearly stated that the Kingdom would be taken from Israel and given to another.7 His teaching focussed on the lazy and unprofitable servants who would be cast into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The parables of the talents, the foolish virgins and the man not dressed for the wedding8 all point to an irretrievable loss for those that had failed to produce the fruit of righteousness. The result was that the sons of the Kingdom would lose their inheritance to others.
The language of outer darkness does not confirm the idea of a fiery hell. It was a clear and prophetic condemnation of a sinful generation. It signalled the loss of nationhood, religious identity and covenant relationship with God as explained by the use of the Wedding parables.9
The likelihood that these prophetic announcements referred to the current generation are strengthened by the sense of urgency in which they were given. Jesus was calling the nation to righteousness and he expected those listening to get right with God and time was running out. For example, Jesus said that if your enemy was taking you to court, it was a good idea to become friends before you got to court.10 However, because the one in jail might get out by paying all he owed, meant that it could not have referred to an afterlife judgment scene. It indicates that the judgment must work its way to completion, much like the siege by the Romans would have done so. There was nothing unusual in the fact that God used the Roman Empire to bring about this judgment. This sort of thing had happened to Israel many times before.
This sense of urgency explains Jesus use of hyperbole to make a point. For example, he said that it was better to cut off an offending body part to avoid sin, than to have the whole body cast into Gehenna.11 Jesus would not really expect someone to cut off their hand because they had sinned. Otherwise, we would have a lot of handless, armless, legless and blind Christians walking around. Jesus was saying that sin was serious and one could not escape the consequences. Israel needed to repent before it was too late.
The Old Testament agrees with the New Testament on a soon and certain Judgment within a generation of Christ. God had said through Malachi, that he would send Elijah the prophet before the terrible day of the Lord’s judging.12 Jesus had declared that this Elijah was in fact John the Baptist.13
John the Baptist himself foretold this judgment when he responded to the Religious Leaders who had come to his Baptism. With rhetorical cynicism he asked them who had warned them to flee from the wrath to come.14 John then went on to point out that the axe was already laid at the root of the tree and that every tree that does not produce good fruit would be chopped down and thrown into the fire.15
Malachi, John the Baptist and Jesus all declared a great and terrifying day of the Lord’s Judgment. This could not have been for a future afterlife event. It was for the generation to which the message was given and those spoken to could not escape the wrath to come.
The condemnation or judgment of Gehenna was a statement of intent. “Look at what happened in the past to those who rebelled against God. This very same Gehenna will once again feature in a great and final judgment upon the nation of Israel.” However, if we translate Gehenna with Hell we lose all sorts of important cultural and historical connections. We lose sight of the intended meaning because we make assumptions that fit our preconceived theologies.
Take for example Jesus’ statement that we should fear God who can destroy both body and soul in Hell.16 The full statement says not to fear those who can kill the body but not the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell. However, if we correctly translate Hell with Gehenna (a valley outside Jerusalem) then we are on our way to understanding what this passage of scripture really says.
Firstly, we must note that this is about an act of destruction. God can destroy both body and soul in Hell. The word destroy means what it says. It doesn’t mean eternal torment or separation from God. It means the complete and utter annihilation of the person. The word soul never meant an immortal and separable entity in Hebrew thought. The soul was the life of the person or the person himself, often translated by other words such as self or living being or creature.17
Secondly, Hell is not a lake of fire. It is the judgment scene described by making a historical connection with a physical location, well known to those to whom the judgment was given. While the Pharisees may have developed an afterlife view of Gehenna, there is no clear indication that this is what Jesus thought.
The third thing to note is that man can destroy the body, but not the soul. My body may be destroyed by man, but only God can determine what happens to me – the person.
Therefore, Jesus is saying that whatever God might do to us, is far worse what one can just do to the body. However, God’s worse cannot be eternal torment, because the soul and body are destroyed together. In addition, they are destroyed in Gehenna, which as we have seen, refers to a historical incident in which the wicked were judged and destroyed. This does not meant that this verse does not apply to us now. The truth is still the same. The wages of sin is death and God will destroy the wicked with everlasting destruction.18
For some, the idea that the destruction of the wicked is God’s plan will be difficult to accept. The common assumption has been that man will burn forever in agony, or in a more moderate form, suffer in eternal separation. Either way, the doctrine of Hell requires an unpleasant form of torment. These ideas about Hell arise for a number of reasons even though there are reasonable explanations for the passages of scripture from which they were derived.
An example of these passages is in the parables of the tares or weeds. The weeds grew up with the plants until harvest time when they were separated and the weeds were cast into the furnace of fire.19 While Jesus says that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, there is no indication that this means some form of eternal torment. The wailing and gnashing of teeth simply refers to the reaction of those being judged. Jesus does not say “cast them into the fire where there will be everlasting wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He means there will be a judgment; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It is important to note the difference between what Jesus said and what we might want the text to say. In the Greek there was no conjunction between the casting into the fire and the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Therefore, we cannot connect the wailing and gnashing of teeth with the idea of a continuous form of punishment. The wicked simply respond to the judgment by wailing and gnashing their teeth.
In addition to this, the parable was also likely to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 because it referred to the end of the age and not the end of the world. Because aion could be translated as either age or ever, depending on context, age is the preferred usage. When used as age it generally referred to the present era marked by certain spiritual and moral characteristics.
The disciples, who were listening to Jesus, would have understood it this way; at the end of the present era, there will be a judgment in which the wicked will be destroyed. It was certain that the disciples expected something to happen with their lifetime because they had asked Jesus what would be the signs of the end of the age and of his return. Jesus had then given them a very detailed prophetic description of events, which they themselves would personally experience and for which they must be prepared.
However, the obvious difficulty with this is that Jesus also seemed to time his return with the end of this age. Theologians propose a number of solutions to this problem including the possibility that the writer included two sets of material to answer the disciples’ two different questions. We can discern between those things that have already happened-the destruction of the temple-and those things that are yet to be fulfilled. A preterist view would argue that all or most of these things were fulfilled by AD 70, including the appearance of Jesus as a ‘parousia’ of judgment for Israel and not as an end of the world event.
Regardless of our views on these issues, one cannot read Matthew 24 and ignore the sense of urgency in Jesus’ response and the relevant nature of these events for his disciples. For example, Jesus warned them that when the abomination of desolation stood in the Holy Place, then those in Judea were to flee to the Mountains. They were not to take anything with them or to go back into the fields to get their clothes. It is significant that Jesus says to them that they were to pray that these things would not happen on the Sabbath.
Jesus very carefully answered their questions by pointing out that they would experience these things. His answers placed the events of these warnings into a contemporary Jewish context familiar to his disciples. There was no attempt by Jesus to say; ‘you don’t need to worry these things’. Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted, betrayed and put to death.20 He also exhorted them to be alert at all times, and that they would have the strength to escape all these things.21
The imagery of these parables is about a transitional period followed by a sifting period for the Church and Israel. The transition phase was necessary, because God could not judge one until the other was firmly established. John the Baptist supported this idea when he said that wheat would be gathered and the chaff burnt in unquenchable fire.22 It was evident to John that this sifting would occur within the current generation, because he tells the Religious Leaders that they were the tree to which the axe was already laid.23
The language of destruction by fire is synonymous with Gehenna fire, clearly fulfilled in the judgment of Israel by the Romans. The message was foremost for those who heard it. It was the current generation that would be subject to this sifting. There would be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some would be destroyed in the fires.
There was no specific teaching from Jesus about eternal torment. When Jesus says that the wicked will go into everlasting punishment,24 he does not mean that the punishment is an everlasting torment. It simply means that there is a punishment with everlasting effects; a punishment that cannot be undone. It is a synonym for the death or destruction of the wicked.
Within the same passage of teaching, Jesus also states that the destination of the wicked is the eternal fire.25 Eternal fire does not mean that those cast into the fire continue to exist in some form. The fire may be eternal but the wicked are destroyed. This idea is synonymous with the lake of fire in Revelation, which is called the second death.26
Death was a common theme of Paul and Jesus’ teaching. Avoiding death through the resurrection was the hope that Jesus offered. At no stage does Jesus suggest that we should believe in him to avoid the fires of hell. On the contrary, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”27
- War 5.12.3
- Jeremiah 7:33
- Matthew 23:33
- Luke 19:43-44 (NRSV)
- Matthew 23:29-36
- Matthew 21:33
- Matthew 25 for example
- Matthew 22:11-14
- Mark 2:19
- Matthew 5:25-26
- Matthew 5:30
- Malachi 4:5
- Matthew 11:14
- Matthew 3:7
- Matthew 3:10
- Matthew 10:28
- Genesis 1:24 (NRSV)
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9
- Matthew 13:39-42
- Luke 21:12-16
- Luke 21:36
- Matthew 3:12 (NRSV)
- Matthew 3:10
- Matthew 25:44-46
- Matthew 25:41
- Revelation 20:Eternity somewhere14
- John 11:25