Having seen what we have about Gehenna and its local, historical and cultural context, we can confidently say that the majority of its references do not concern an endless hellfire. There is however one occurrence of Gehenna in Scripture that can fairly easily be mistaken as a reference to endless hell. However a closer look at the context in which it occurs, as well as other related aspects involved within that context, will show us that it is not describing hell. Lets take a look.
It occurs in Matthew 10:28 where Christ said,
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
Now I admit, this presents a very difficult hurdle to overcome when trying to present a unified concept that Gehenna does not refer to a judgment in the afterlife. However there are certain problems that hinder this as being a true reference to hell.
The first problem is that it refers to “killing” the soul and “destroying” the soul. It does not refer to some sort of perpetual, unending state of living torment. When we read about “killing the body” and “destroying the body” there is no doubt what it is referring to – the body is no longer alive. The body is empty, dead, lifeless. There is no electrical impulses, no organ function, no brain activity; everything has ceased to function b/c there is no more life in the body. At this point it is beginning its rapid transition into decomposition.
In contrast when we read about God “killing the soul” or “destroying the soul” we generally assume that it refers to a state of unending conscious torment in hell. The problem is that these two concepts are diametrically opposed to each other. The latter state, though it is in agony, necessarily requires the suffering soul to be alive in order to experience said torment. Death on the other hand, is the absence of life. I do not think that the death of the body and the death of the soul were meant to be different; I think they were speaking of the same thing, but applied to two different aspects of our being.
Now if this is true, then it is necessary to define the death of the soul…but how exactly do we do that? There are many who believe that the soul is not immortal, and can point to how ancient Greek philosophy invented the idea that the soul continued to live on and on forever after death. They then proceed to show how this concept came to be accepted by the Church. I, however, do not entirely agree with that. I must admit that I have not taken the time to truly study it out, so for now I must claim ignorance.
But for the issue at hand, I think it is safe to say that whatever the soul being killed and/or destroyed means it is not a reference to a state of living torment. It is something final. And therefore cannot be a confirmation of our modern idea of hell. That being said, if you find the idea of the soul dying uncomfortable, just remember that like the body the soul can also be raised from the dead. That aside, lets look at some other issues regarding this verse.
To begin, lets look at the rest of this chapter in Matthew to get the overall context. It begins with Christ commissioning the 12 Disciples for a short term mission trip to preach the gospel (vs. 1-15). He tells them to go only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (That word “lost” is important b/c it is the same word that is used in our verse in question; we will examine that in a moment.)
Christ then begins to describe the resistance that they will encounter in obeying His commission. His description here seems to bear more upon their future endeavors than the one at hand, and is most likely even prophetic of all disciples from then until His Return who follow His call to preach the gospel to the lost of this world. He mentions scourging, and rejection by synagogues, the legal system, and also the ruling class. He then moves into betrayal by one’s own family, being hated, slandered, persecuted and even executed (vs. 16-25).
It is here that Christ mentions Gehenna. Encouraging his disciples not to lose heart amidst such an uninviting path. (vs. 26-31)
He then begins to reveal the hard part…that we must endure to the end if we wish to be saved. That if we are ashamed of Christ and deny Him, then He will be ashamed of us and deny us. That if we love anyone or anything more than Him, then we will not be worthy of Him. That if we value any aspect of our comfort more than obeying Him, then we are not worthy of Him (vs. 32-37). He then sums it all up saying,
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (vs. 38,39)
This is the context in which our difficult verse on Gehenna is sandwiched. The first thing I wish to mention is that the words used here (“lost” and “lose”) are both the Greek word apollumi. Apollumi comes from the root word meaning “destruction, death” and according to the Strong’s Concordance it means “to destroy, destroy utterly” (Strong’s Greek #622). The Louw and Nidia Greek Lexicon defines it as, “to destroy or to cause the destruction of persons, objects, or institutions — ‘to ruin, to destroy, destruction.’”
The majority of times that this word is used in the Bible it is translated as “destruction, perish or ruin.” We will look at this word in much more detail in the next series on “judgment.” But for now here is one example of its use; Luke 17:29 says,
“…but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed (apollumi) them all.”
It is obvious that destruction here means destruction. Anyone could look up every usage of this word and see dozens of examples just as clear as this one in how the Greek word apollumi is used. This is important b/c our verse on Gehenna uses this word apollumi,
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy (apollumi) both soul (psuche) and body in Gehenna.”
And yet Christ says just a few verses later that, “he who has lost (apollumi) his life (psuche) for My sake will find it.” This is one of the very few phrases/teachings that is recorded by all 4 gospels, and is recorded twice by Matthew and Luke! (see also Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33 and John 12:25)
Matthew uses this phrase again later with just a little bit different wording,
“For whoever wishes to save his life (psuche) will lose (apollumi) it; but whoever loses (apollumi) his life (psuche) for My sake will find it.”
Mark and Luke also record it in this wording. Not only that, but notice also that the word “life” used here is the Greek word Psuche, which is the same word our verse on Gehenna uses for “soul” (see above). So according to Christ the prerequisite for saving one’s life/soul is destruction! This seems confusing, I know, but there is a good reason for this which we unfortunately don’t have time to get into, it must wait for the next series.
Getting back to our topic…this I believe fully disarms this verse from being a solid reference to hell. For the threat is that God will destroy (apollumi) the soul (psuche), but Christ said that this must happen anyways if we ever wish to save our soul (psuche)! So this threat of Gehenna is not final, for though it is a judgment (and a terrible one at that) it is also the requirement for following and becoming worthy of Christ! So rather than teaching the endless torments of hell, it exemplifies the opposite! That such a judgment will result in one’s salvation and restoration unto Christ.
I believe that what we have looked at proves that the majority of evidence in Scripture points away from the idea of Gehenna referring to hell. And that Gehenna was referring to a city dump which was the symbol of a physical judgment of disgrace reserved for the worst of sins – heart idolatry and rebellion against God’s Words. And occasionally used symbolically of the defiling of our life as a manifestation of what the true condition of our hearts are.
There remains only a few more thoughts related to Gehenna that I want to address. And I will do so in the next blog.