Having seen how Gehenna really refers to a trash heap outside of Jerusalem, and secondly as a picture of national judgment, there remains a few comments I feel will further dismantle the idea of Gehenna as a picture of Hell.
Paul’s Writings Exclude Gehenna
First is the fact that Gehenna was a physical location, one known to all who lived near or traveled to the city. It is for this reason that Gehenna is only mentioned by Christ and James. For Christ ministered in the areas and cities surrounding Jerusalem. His brother James was also the head of the Church at Jerusalem and thus his letter would have been well understood. But Gehenna is not once mentioned by the Apostle Paul, for his letters were written to places like Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia and Rome. Places that took months and even years to travel to during those times. People living so far away would have no concept of Jerusalem’s city dump, and so Paul had no reason to employ its imagery.
This is important b/c it tells us that Gehenna was not some philosophical concept concerning the afterlife. If it were, then it would have been well known by all and Paul might have referenced it. But since he did not, it is further support that it was a locally known concept.
Rabbis and Gehenna
Secondly, the Rabbis whose teachings were preserved in the Talmud and Targum refer to Gehenna as a judgment of annihilation, not endless suffering. The Talmud and Targum are a collection of Jewish teachings, or expositions on the Old Testament writings.
“all who go down into Gehenna rise up again, with the exception of those who do not rise, the adulterer, etc…” (Baba Metzia f. 58, 2)
This is referring to those who will be resurrected from the dead, and those who will not – thus by implication – annihilation. Some Rabbis even taught that those who suffered the fate of Gehenna would be redeemed!
“The wicked stay in Gehenna until the Resurrection, and then the Messiah passing through it redeems them.” (Emek Hammilech f. 138, 4)
It is easy to see how at that time they understood that those who were put to death and then cast into the burning city dump Gehenna were so punished b/c of their wickedness. In fact, for the Jewish culture, burning a body was not only a dishonor, but they were afraid that such a body could not be put back together at the resurrection. Which is why they reserved this punishment for only the worst of criminals. Thus those who believed in annihilation believed such wicked people would never be resurrected; while a small fraction of Jewish Rabbis believed that even the wicked would be redeemed. But it is important to note that none of them taught that Gehenna was a place of endless living torment.
I personally am not convinced that these references are vital in understanding the concept of Gehenna, for I believe that what we have previously seen from Scripture paints the clearest picture. Therefore I will leave further Rabbi quotes for others. Anyone wishing to investigate this specific area further can easily find the information for themselves.
And lastly, concerning the phrase that Christ employed when referencing Gehenna “where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.” Some would point to the fact that it says their worm “will not die” and the fire “is not quenched” to prove that whatever Jesus was referring to must be unending. But this is not the case.
For we saw earlier that the worms not dying is merely referring to the fact that they have the perfect environment to continue multiplying. The fire not being quenched is also easily explained, for as long as Gehenna was a trash heap, the fire would continue to consume it. As long as there is fuel a fire will continue to blaze, but once the fuel runs out, the fire will also. Proverbs 26:20 says,
“For lack of fuel the fire is quenched,”
That word “quenched” is the same exact word used in Isaiah 66:24, which is the verse that Jesus is quoting when He was referring to the fire of Gehenna not being quenched. The quenching thus is not referring to the unending state of the fuel, but to some outside force that stops the fire before it is finished consuming the fuel. For instance, we see many times in Scripture where this word is used and it clearly refers to an outside force quenching, (all the following verses employ the same exact Hebrew word used in Isaiah 66:24 that Jesus quotes)…
“For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love,” (song 8:6,7)
“Thus they shall both burn together, and there will be none to quench them.” (Isa. 1:31)
The quenching is referring to the premature extinguishing of the fire before the fuel has been consumed. So when Jesus uses it, He is saying that there is nothing that will help you in your judgment, your punishment will not be cut short, it will run its FULL course. On top of this the word is used to describe things that though they were “unquenchable” did actually cease…and ironically enough, most of those instances refer to fire!
“Then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” (Jer. 17:27)
This fire obviously went out as soon as the fuel did, for Jerusalem today is certainly not still ablaze.
“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not be quenched, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning; and he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer up in smoke the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to be quenched.” (Leviticus 6:12,13)
Though God spoke that the fires were to be unquenchable, they still died out. The Jews no longer have a temple with an altar where they keep a fire burning to sacrifice animals. In fact Scripture itself records that fact,
“They have also shut the doors of the porch and quenched the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 29:7)
This verse is referring to shutting down the temple. Not only that but the lamps that were quenched were also required to burn “perpetually,” like the altar (see Exodus 30:8 and Leviticus 24:2).
On top of all this, the Greek word “unquenchable” that Jesus uses is the word asbestos. Perhaps you have heard of asbestos, we gave that name to certain types of insulation in the 70s that were considered fire resistant. Asbestos turned out to be extremely toxic to breathe and was thus banned. Nevertheless we see why they named it asbestos, b/c fire was not able to consume it; it would “quench” the fire so to speak.
However, Greek literature does not support the assumption that it therefore means unending fire. Homer, in his epic poem Illiad, uses asbestos to describe a fire that consumed the Grecian fleet in a few short hours (Book 16.123). He also employs this word to describe Hector’s gleaming helmet, as well as other things like glory, laughter, and (most frequently) shouting (Book 1.599, 11.50, 16.267, etc…).
The Septuagint uses this word only once in Genesis 11:3 to translate the word “tar,” which was a form of lime that water would not disintegrate; a.k.a quench.
F.W. Farrar in his book Mercy and Judgment mentions that the Church Father Eusebius employs this word to describe a fire that several martyrs were burned at the stake with (Cronion, Julian, Epimachus and Alexander – pg. 406). It would be absurd to claim not only that this fire is still burning, but that these martyred saints will be burning alive forever, simply b/c they suffered an ‘unquenchable fire.’
So we see that when the Scripture uses a Greek phrase like “their fire is not to be quenched,” it does not imply an endlessness and therefore it does not give Gehenna a meaning beyond its contextual intention.
This is further proof that our idea of Hell being frequently taught in Scripture is vastly skewed. There remains only one more phrase in the New Testament that is mistaken as proof of the Hell doctrine. That phrase is “the outer darkness,” also referred to as “the furnace of fire” where it is said that, “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
That will be the focus of the next blog.