When one thinks of Gehenna or Lake of Fire it typically strikes fear and even terror into the hearts and minds of many Christians. People associate these two words as having the same meaning as the orthodox Christian teaching of Hell. As we saw in the previous two articles in this series on Hell. Hell is not a place of endless torment for the wicked. Rather it is simply the grave (from the Greek word Hades meaning the unseen or imperceptible). Interestingly the words Hell, Gehenna and Lake of Fire are not describing the same thing. They are different and are not interchangeable. Gehenna is not Hell and Hell is not Gehenna! So why did Jesus talk about Gehenna and what did He mean when He used the word in the gospels (good news)? And why do most Christians think Gehenna is a place of eternal torment in a literal unquenchable fire?
While nearly all “orthodox” authorities of eminence concede that Sheol and Hades may not denote a place of never ending torment, most of those who accept the doctrine of endless torment claim that Gehenna does convey that meaning.
But no such capacity resides in the Word, nor is there a shred of evidence that it ever conveyed such an idea until many years after Christ walked the earth.
An examination of the Bible use of the term will show that the popular view is obtained by injecting the word with pagan superstition.
In this article we will look at this word Gehenna and see that it has nothing to do with a place of fiery torment for lost souls as is commonly believed. The word Gehenna is not even mentioned in the Old Testament and endless torment is nowhere to be found in its pages.
In the King James Version the translators decided to translate the word Greek word Gehenna as Hell or hell fire. In this popular version, as well as others, the Greek word Gehenna which stands for the Hebrew word “GeHinnom” is translated twelve times as hell or hell fire?” Does Gehenna fit the description of the Christian hell? NO! Any seminary student knows that Gehenna, spelled GeHinnom or GayHinnom according to Hebrew, is a historical and geographical location just southwest of Jerusalem’s walls.
In the Greek New Testament text the Scriptures that mention Gehenna are only found in the first three gospels and in the epistle of James.
Jesus referred to it 11 times and James once? Only Jesus and James mentioned it. So why didn’t the Apostles including Paul NOT mention Gehenna in their writings? Did they miss something?
Amazingly, the word is nowhere used in the book of Acts. Luke recorded thirty years of preaching by Paul and other Apostles in the book of Acts, yet the word Gehenna is not used once. Not only does Acts not record any of the teaching on Gehenna, it doesn’t even mention the word! Paul said he declared the whole counsel of God.
In this article we will examine every scripture that refers to Gehenna or Gehenna fire.
It is true, Jesus did speak of Gehenna fire (but never “hell” fire). Christ reintroduces the Old Testament valley of Hinnom into His New Testament teaching, but His use of this Old Testament symbol of evil, idol worship, and slaughter has nothing to do with the definition of a Christian hell.
Whatever Jesus meant when He spoke of Gehenna fire, it certainly was not what the pagans of the past or the Christians of the last five centuries mean by the doctrine of “hell.” His teaching on this has much to do with living a Christian life and judgement. Each time Jesus used the word Gehenna it was in the context of judgement. The purpose of Jesus was to show how exacting is and how narrow is the path. God judges the motives of the heart. Being His disciple is so exacting, that if one is contemptuous towards another, he will be judged by God’s principles of love, as “he who hates his brother has already committed murder in his heart.”
When Jesus spoke, was everything He said to be taken literally? Or was much of it figurative or metaphorical? Take for example the following parable of Jesus:
Mat 7:3 (KJV) And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Mat 7:4 (KJV) Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Mat 7:5 (KJV) Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
The parables of Jesus are certainly true, but they are not literally true. Example: one cannot possibly put a “beam” (a large wooden plank) in or out of one’s eye. The moral of this parable is certainly a great spiritual truth. The symbols used to teach that truth is, of course, not literally true. The beam represents a huge character flaw, not foreign matter in one’s eye. It’s a figure of speech.
Of course, those who contend that much of what is written in the Scriptures is figurative rather than literal will be accused of “spiritualizing away” the Scriptures. Not so. Sure many people have said that parables are to be taken literally. What they don’t realize is that parables have a deeper spiritual meaning than just taking them as literal. The very reason a parable is called a parable is so that we will know for sure that whatever is contained in the parable is not literal. Parables require spiritual understanding. The words Jesus spoke are spiritual.
John_6:63 (KJV)… the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
The Twelve Gehenna Passages:
The First Use of Gehenna
Mat 5:22 (KJV) But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (the Greek – Gehenna of fire).
Jesus did not use the term “hell fire” in this verse, He used the Greek word Gehenna of fire for the first occurrence in the gospel accounts. Should we assume that if someone calls a person a fool the result would be thrown into a literal eternal hell fire of torment? No it does not say that.?
Whosoever is angry without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.
Whosoever says Raca ( Chaldee – worthless ) shall be in danger of the council ( Sandheidren judgement).
Whosoever says you a fool shall be in danger of Gehenna fire.
Please notice that these three instances refer to a judgement situation.
Being angry with someone can result in judgement.
Calling someone worthless can result in judgement.
Calling someone a fool can result in judgement (in this case God’s chastising judgement which is Gehenna judgement).
Mans judgement is not the same as God’s judgement. God judges and chastens by spiritual fire. What is spiritual fire you ask? We will look at that more fully in another article. Gehenna is NOT eternal damnation in a fabled hell fire.
Obviously there is a problem with the Christian teaching of eternal hell fire! Does not this statement by Jesus prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that whatever Gehenna fire is, its judgement is not extraordinarily worse than being in danger of a council of judges, or by a local judicial court.
Being angry with anyone, calling a person Raca, calling another a fool, are for all practical purposes almost the same. They are all sins against others and they must be repented of or they will all be brought into appropriate judgements. This is one of the primary lessons we learn when we understand the meaning of Christ’s use of Gehenna of fire in the words He spoke. Gehenna fire is a vital ingredient in the process of acknowledging, repenting and overcoming sin, being chastened by God and growing in righteousness. Also we need to realize that Jesus said shall be in danger. He did not say that those judgements would occur. But if one is not mindful of their tongue, they could experience Gehenna fire which is figuratively the need to repent and avoid torment of the conscience.
What if Jesus called someone a fool? Should Jesus be considered as being in danger of Gehenna fire? Well Jesus did call someone a fool. In fact He called the Pharisees fools in 4 different verses. It would be irrational for us to even consider the thought that Jesus would be in danger of Gehenna fire.
Fire purifies and burns up unwanted character traits likened to “straw, hay, and stubble”. Every soul that sinned, and all have sinned, will go through God’s chastening process, His cleansing fire. It is part of the salvation process.
This phrase, “For our God is a consuming fire,” (Heb. 12:29 ) is not literal, so as to contradict the rest of Scripture, but rather is a spiritual statement – the words are literal words, but the statement, the declaration, is spirit. God, as invisible Spirit, spiritually burning up the spiritual wood, hay, straw, and carnality of the human heart, in a similar way that literal fire burns up these physical materials.
This whole Sermon on the Mount which begins in Mat. 5:1 and ends in Mat 7:29 is Christ’s teaching on how to live an exceedingly higher level of morality and righteousness than was taught previously in the Old Testament.
It should be noted that Christ’s words concerning Gehenna or Gehenna fire were for the ears of the disciples. This further proves that His admonitions were for His followers and not the general population. His disciples were to learn righteous living and not succumb to the trappings of sin and subsequent Gehenna judgement.
The only other time He mentioned Gehenna was in regards to His rebuking the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
The word “fire” is used with reference to judgement many times in Scripture: “Gehenna fire,” “salted with fire,” “furnace of fire,” “unquenchable fire,” “everlasting fire,” “burn by fire,” “baptism by fire,” “coals of fire,” “flaming fire,” “eternal fire,” “consuming fire.” Not one of these occurrences ever refer to an ever burning hell for wicked people!
The next pages will deal with God’s spiritual fire and the Lake of Fire and what they mean. We will also look at the phrases “unquenchable fire ” and “the worm dieth not”.
In James 3:5-6 James gives us further insight to a meaning of Gehenna and is consistent with the way Jesus Christ used it in the gospel accounts. Just like Jesus, James uses it as a figure of speech, a metaphor. Nothing at all to do with hell fire.
James 3:5 (KJV) Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
James 3:6 (KJV) And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell . (the Greek –Gehenna).
James is using the fire of Gehenna as a metaphor for the destructiveness of sin. Fire burns up and destroys things. And, James is using that metaphor in connection to the body, how that a small part of the body, like the tongue, is like a fire, which can create a larger fire. Just like a small spark can ignite a blazing forest fire.
He tells us that a tongue, a small member of the body is like a fire which can contaminate more of the members of the body A small destructive fire ( the tongue) can ignite a larger fire affecting the entire being — the heart and mind of a man resulting in sin. Evil thoughts and deeds contaminate and lead to sin.
James 3:8 (KJV) But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
James 3:9 (KJV) Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
James 3:10 (KJV) Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
After all, one moment you are verbally ridiculing someone, and soon after you could be plotting his murder. It can happen that way. The end result is sin unless it is caught and repented of before it blossoms into a serious sin.
James 1:14 (KJV) But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
James 1:15 (KJV) Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
Sin brings forth death not hell fire. See the first article on “What is Hell” for additional information.
Let’s notice other Gehenna passages to ascertain more about Jesus’ use of Gehenna. As we do so, let’s analyze other passages to see whether the passages of an unending fiery hell. We will find they do not, but validate the admonition of Christ to repent of sin, avoid Gehenna and thereby ultimately bring many sons to glory.
Mt. 5.29-30 , Mark 9:43 , 45, 47 and Mat. 18:9
The next passages are as follows:
Mat 5:29 (KJV) And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell . (the Greek – Gehenna).
Mat 5:30 (KJV) And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell . (the Greek – Gehenna)..
Essentially the same comments apply here that were made regarding Mat 5:22 regarding Gehenna. Gehenna or Gehenna fire being a figure of speech referring to the chastising and corrective process whereby our sins are burned out of us. Nothing to do with an ever burning hell fire! Also the verses below from Mark refer to the same event as Matt. 5:29-30 quoted above.
Mark 9:43 (KJV) And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell (the Greek – Gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched:
Mark 9:45 (KJV) And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell (the Greek – Gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched:
Mark 9:47 (KJV) And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire (the Greek – Gehenna fire):
Mat 18:8 (KJV) Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire (the Greek – Gehenna fire).
Mat 18:9 (KJV) And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire (the Greek – Gehenna fire).
Again this cannot be regarded as literal. Truly Jesus is not suggesting that we maim ourselves. He is saying it is better to be His disciple, destitute of some great worldly advantage (comparable to a right hand), than to live in sin, with all worldly privileges and accolades , and thereby experience that moral death which is a Gehenna of the soul.
If these Scriptures are to be taken literally, and if the consequences are eternal torment, then the church should be full of one-eyed, one-armed, one-footed members who have problems with lustful eyes and hearts, and greed. Extending this thought to the “after-life”, we don’t think in terms of some people being in heaven with missing eyes and limbs, and some in hell with all of theirs.
Compare James 3:6 to Matthew 5:29-30 which were quoted earlier, we see that they are saying same thing, with slightly different words. Jesus is warning of DANGER, just like James did. It is telling us why is it needful to cut out a body part (metaphorically) than to venture into sin.
If a body part is on fire, what do you do? You cut it off before the fire spreads. Then, you throw it out into Gehenna (metaphorically) to burn away until it’s gone, then you enter life thus avoiding that sin.
Doing this is much more profitable than if the tongue fire spreads to the whole body, and you find your whole body aflame in sin, from your feet to your hands and so forth. It’s better to stop the offending limb from guiding you into a bigger problem with sin.
Prov. 6:27 – 28 (KJV) Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?
Mt. 10.28 and Luke 12:4-5
Another occasion Jesus used Gehenna was when he said:
Mat 10:28 (KJV) And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (the Greek – Gehenna).
Luke 12:4 (KJV) And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.
Luke 12:5 (KJV) But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell (the Greek – Gehenna).; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.
A person can kill a another. But after that there is nothing else that person can do to the one killed. But God can destroy the soul and body. So, if God destroys the soul, what happens to the soul that He destroyed? Does it end up in Heaven or the pagan Hell. Neither. We already proved in the first article on Hell that man does not have an immortal soul. So what happens to a destroyed soul? Is it destroyed and obliterated, gone for good? Is being destroyed a condition from which there is no salvation?
The biggest problem in understanding these verses, is to understand who this is addressed to. The orthodox Church will tell you that it is talking about those who will suffer loss of salvation in the eternal fires of hell. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. This verse was addressed directly to and about the 12 disciples, and may apply to all Christ’s followers throughout all generations.
We already saw on the two previous occasions in the gospels that when Christ spoke about Gehenna, He was not referring to an ever burning hell fire for the wicked but rather He used it in a figurative sense for dealing with sin in our lives as a necessary step in the salvation process. Gehenna or Gehenna fire is JUDGEMENT.
Yes Jesus said He can destroy the soul.
Just a brief comment on the meaning of the word “destroy or “destroyed”. We need to look at the Greek word which was translated “destroyed” in English. This is a real eye-opener. The Greek word is apollumi.
There is no need to spend a lot of time on this critical word apollumi since it will be written about it in a future article on what the Greek means. Let it suffice to point out the following.
The Greek word “appolumi” has three basic meanings: “lose, perish, or destroy.” See Strong’s Concordance G622. Context can tell which of these three is most appropriate. Here are a few examples:
LOSE/LOST from “appolumi“ – The salt in Matt. 5:13 , “lost” ( appolumi) its flavour. The “lost”( appolumi) sheep in the wilderness that wandered from the 99 sheep was “found” (Luke 15:6). The prodigal Son of Luke 16:24, “…was dead, and is alive again; he was lost ( appolumi) and is found.”
PERISH from “appolumi” – The Apostles were afraid they would “perish” ( appolumi) in the sea (Matt. 8:25 ).
DESTROY/DESTRUCTION from “appolumi” – In Matt. 2:13 Joseph is warned to take Jesus to Egypt, because Herod wanted to “destroy” ( appolumi) Him.
Luke 9:56 (KJV) For the Son of man is not come to destroy (Gk: appolumi–destroy, lose, perish) men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
John 2:19 (KJV) Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy (Gk: appolumi–destroy, lose, perish) this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Joh 2:21 But he spake of the temple of his body.
Later they did destroy Jesus Christ and sure enough, three days later God raised (saved) Jesus from that destruction. Being “destroyed” is not permanent. Destroyed, perish and lost are virtually synonymous in the Scriptures.
Mt. 23.15 and Mt. 23.33
The final time Jesus used Gehenna was when He addressed the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. He said:
Mat 23:15 (KJV) Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell (the Greek – Gehenna) than yourselves.
This one might seem more severe on the surface than the others, but it’s not. In verse 15 Jesus says that they turn their proselytes into children of hell or Gehenna. Think about that.
Did the Pharisees encompass land and sea to make one proselyte and then turn that convert in a “child of Gehenna?” Yes, they did, Jesus said they did. But will that “child of Gehenna” loose salvation and be tortured eternally in some Christian eternal hell of fire because they were brainwashed by these evil men? Of course not. A child of Gehenna is a condition and not a place.
Mat 23:33 (KJV) Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation (Strong’s G2920 Greek -krisis meaning judgement) of hell (the Greek – Gehenna).
Verse 33 tells us how they will be saved. They will be saved by “the damnation of Gehenna.” What is this damnation? Damnation is an incorrect word. It means judgement. They will be saved through judgement which leads to salvation. The word translated “damnation” in the KJV is from the Greek word, krisis, and it means “tribunal, justice, accusation, condemnation, damnation, judgement.” What specific judgment is Jesus talking about? Why the damnation of judgement of Gehenna. This “judgment” is not an evil thing. It is a righteous thing! It’s just that the old English word “damnation” sounds so terrible and awful, when it is not., and would have been better translated as judgement.
It can be a stern word, but remember that Jesus is coming to judge the world in “righteousness”.
Acts 17:31 (KJV) Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge (Greek -krisis meaning judgement ) the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; …
The word judge in this verse is from the same Greek word krisis, and it is not an evil word. We just looked at Matt. 23:23 and saw exactly how fair and good this word krisis/judge is:
Mat 23:23 (KJV) Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment (Greek -krisis meaning judgement ), mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Many theologians have perverted the simple and righteous words of God. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for not exercising proper krisis/judgment with Israel.
To judge, is to set things right. Men can only make feeble attempts at doing this properly, but when God Almighty sets His hand to “set things right,” they will be set right! Just as God has brought many of us to our knees for the sins we have committed, so will God bring this whole world to repentance. It will be emotionally traumatic and painful, but it will be a good thing.
And so Gehenna fire is clearly seen as a way in which Jesus judges sinners, and specifically, the sins of the eyes, hands, and feet. Gehenna fire IS JUDGEMENT. God’s judgement is righteous judgement.
Another Valid Opinion:
Some bible scholars have commented that the reference by Jesus to Gehenna was addressed only to the nation of Israel in His day. When Jesus spoke the words about Gehenna in Mark 9: 42 to 48 He also said “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched”. This is the only place in the New Testament that this phrase is found. This may suggest to some that the Gehenna that Christ spoke about was literal. Perhaps. It refers to the verse in Isa. 66 which mentions the worm and fire.
Isa 66:23 (KJV) And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. 24 And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.
This verse in Isa 66 does not mention Gehenna. Earlier in this article we saw that Gehenna never meant an ever burning hell fire. Gehenna, the word hell is given for in the New Testament, is rooted in an Old Testament location. It is generally regarded as derived from a valley nearby Jerusalem that originally belonged to a man named Hinnom. Scholars say the word is a transliteration of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, a valley that had a long history in the Old Testament, all of it bad. Into it they cast not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called Gehenna. The literal Gehenna has long since vanished. The worms are dead and gone and the fire no longer burns.
So the words of Jesus concerning Gehenna were spiritual and not literal. This idea of a national judgment is not correct when one examines the context of Jesus’ comments and that He was addressing His disciples in all instances except when He addressed the Pharisees and scribes in Mat. 23. Some have suggested that in the millennium the Valley of Hinnom will again exist into which criminals and evil doers will be cast into. Maybe so.
Gehenna under Christ’s new covenant is judgment. It is not torture in literal fire. The word should never have been translated “hell,” for as we saw, the two words have nothing in common. The literal Gehenna of the Old Testament has long since disappeared. Under the New Covenant it should be recognized as judgement upon God’s people to purify them; to make them holy and blameless; and to make them spiritually mature. Jesus addressed His “Sermon on the Mount” to His disciples. This “Gehenna fire” is not for the world of unbelieving sinners, but for His own disciples. That truly is good news.
About the word Tartarus
The word Tartarus is found only once in the entire bible. It is found in second Peter chapter two and verse four. It has been translated by the word hell in the King James Version of the bible.
Let it be clear that it should not be translated by the word hell although some versions render it that way. It has nothing to do with hell., just as the Greek words Hades and, Gehenna have nothing to do with the orthodox Christian teaching about hell.
2 Pet 2:4 KJV) For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell Tartarus and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;
2 Pet 2:4 (CLV) For if God spares not sinning messengers, but thrusting them into the gloomy caverns of Tartarus, gives them up to be kept for chastening judging;”
It is unfortunate that this word, Tartarus, is translated “hell” in many versions.
The gloomy caverns of Tartarus (KJV – chains of darkness) are not the same as Hades (the unseen), as Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire . Tartarus refers to the temporary dungeons of sinning spirits. Jude says:
Jude 1:6 (KJV) And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting (perpetual) chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.,
Jude 1:6 (CLV) Besides, messengers who keep not their own sovereignty, but leave their own habitation, He has kept in imperceptible bonds under gloom for the judging of the great day.”
Jude 1:6 (Diaglott) messengers and those not having kept their principality, but having left the own habitation, for a judgment of a great day, with chains perpetual under thick darkness have been kept;
Notice that these passages speak of messengers, or angels, and not men; and that they do not refer to a final state, but to a place where they are kept in imperceptible (invisible) bonds under gloom for the judgment of the great day. There is not the faintest indication of any torment in Tartarus, but simply a temporary dungeon where sinning messengers are kept for chastening judgment at the Great White Throne.
In Matthew 8 there is the account of the evil spirits (demons) who possessed two men from the country of the Gergesenes which Jesus exorcised.
Mat 8:29 (KJV) And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?
These sinning spirits know there is coming a time when they will be judged at the White Throne and their judgement will be a time of torment. Not torture but torment. This is discussed under the topic of “Fire”.
There is not the faintest suggestion in text or context of the Scriptures that Tartarus carries the horrible conception which hell brings to the minds of people in general, and there is, not the slightest justification for so translating it as “hell”. It is simply forcing ideas into God’s word which He never intended to be there.
Next few articles will be on the meaning of God’s fire and the Lake of Fire (coming soon).
Back to Top of page