Jesus and Gehenna

I cannot think of a more annoying response to speaking about Universal Salvation than that of people changing words to suit their agenda.  It is as if red only means red if they want it to, but in order to defend Eternal Conscious Torment, sometimes red must actually mean green. 

This is most egregious when dealing with Infernalists who love to pull out verses which they think prove the tired old saying,  ” Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else.”  No, He didn’t. He didn’t speak about hell at all.  He spoke about two places which are dishonestly translated in Scripture as hell – Gehenna,  and Hades. He didn’t even mention Sheol, which word is found exclusively in the Old Testament.

When confronted, these folks will earnestly say, “Well, Jesus may not have used the exact word ‘hell,” but that’s what He meant.” Hogwash! Jesus had a habit of using language in precisely the manner in which it was to be understood. This is why when He said that we must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, He lost most of His disciples as they turned away in confusion and disgust. In like manner, when He spoke of Hades and Gehenna, He spoke the words meaning exactly what they were understood to mean.

Neither of them even remotely has anything to do with some place where sinners are “immersed in the boiling blood forever, each according to the degree of his guilt”. It used to be that words meant things, but in the discussion of salvation, Infernalists are like Humpty Dumpty in Alice’s Wonderland: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  And can some of them be quite scornful as they explain to you that even if the word Gehenna doesn’t directly mean hell, nonetheless that is what Christ intended it to mean. 

In looking at and interpreting the Scriptures, one long lost art appears to be considering the time and the milieu in which Christ spoke. The time was first century Israel and the milieu, so important, was Judaism. Jesus was speaking to Jews, not to Roman emperors or twentieth century evangelicals. His language therefore is to be understood in the common parlance and understanding of the day, not as we wish to see it, nor as it has been so mangled by punishment-minded clerics laboring under wretched translations of the Scriptures or with an agenda to fulfill. When Jesus spoke, He expected those listening to Him to understand as Jews.  Thus, if He spoke about the afterlife, He would have spoken in the context of Jewish teaching and understanding at that time.  In addition – and this is very important – if errors, corruption of text, or just plain old misunderstanding had crept into discourse about life and God, He is seen in the Scriptures challenging and correcting that which was wrong in Jewish thinking.

No Jew listening to Jesus speak of Gehenna would have thought of Dante’s lurid descriptions of the next life. Jewish first century thought on the afterlife had nothing to do with Geheena:

“The place of the soul in the afterlife was Sheol. The vision of Sheol is rather bleak (setting precedents for later Jewish and Christian ideas of an underground hell) there is generally no concept of judgment or reward and punishment attached to it. In fact, the more pessimistic books of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free man (Job 3:11-19). 

The name is taken from a valley (Gei Hinnom) just south of Jerusalem, once used for child sacrifice by the pagan nations of Canaan (II Kings 23:10). Some view Gehinnom as a place of torture and punishment, fire and brimstone. Others imagine it less harshly, as a place where one reviews the actions of his/her life and repents for past misdeeds.

The soul’s sentence in Gehinnom is usually limited to a 12-month period of purgation before it takes its place in Olam Ha-Ba (Mishnah Eduyot 2:9, Shabbat 33a). This 12-month limit is reflected in the year long mourning cycle and the recitation of the Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead).

Only the utterly wicked do not ascend to the Garden of Eden at the end of this year. Sources differ on what happens to these souls at the end of their initial time of purgation. Some say that the wicked are utterly destroyed and cease to exist, while others believe in eternal damnation (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Law of Repentance, 3:5-6).” [1]

“The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for ‘tomb’ or ‘grave.’ It’s not a place where someone actually goes.”  [2]

“In Sheol, the good and the wicked shared a common fate, much as they had in the Babylonian underworld. The place did not conjure up images of an afterlife, for nothing happened there. It was literally inconceivable, and this is what made it frightening: death was utterly definitive, even if rather ill-defined.” [3]

From these sources  and others I have read, it appears there was no concept of a place of eternal torture in the Jewish mind prior to the first century.

The Jewish eschatological vision does not support Jesus teaching there is an eternal hell, and especially does not support Him speaking of an eternal place of punishment. As a faithful Orthodox Jew, Jesus would have believed in the context of Jewish belief – believing Sheol (Hades) as the place where all mankind go. But as God in the flesh, He would have had a deeper insight than His contemporaries. He would have known that He was going to go through the portal of physical death down to Sheol, where He would tear down the gates, preach the Gospel Good News to those waiting there, and free the prisoners.

Where then do the defenders of eternal conscious torment get off rewriting the words of Christ to make them say what He is not saying? If anything, the Jews of that day would have gone home to dinner and spoken about how to avoid winding up in the trash dump of Jerusalem – the Valley of Gehenna, where trash and corpses were thrown. Because of this constant source of fuel, the flames never died, and the worms had an ongoing feast. It must have been a horrific place with a most odious stench about it. Any Jew hearing Jesus speak would have gone home that night thinking about this place – not some Roman Catholic fantasy invented by Augustine in his despicable view of human beings.They would have wondered what it meant and when it would happen. As Jesus’ ministry continued, they would have realized that He was speaking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, spoken about at length in Matthew Chapters twenty-three to twenty-five. Not only was Jesus warning about the possibility of being caught in this event, but some of the uses of the word “saved” have nothing to do with eternal salvation.  They have to do with saving ones self from the destruction which was about to come upon the city in which He preached.

If eternal conscious torment were true, surely Jesus would have corrected the listening crowds with dire warnings about the place.  He might have said something like, “You have heard it said that Sheol is a place of darkness and unconsciousness, but I say to you, there is no such place, but rather a place called Hell where men are tortured foreveer for the sins they have commited. Repent before you are cast into it by my Father, whom you have angered to such a great degree, for you will never escape if you are cast into its jaws.” 

Did He not correct other examples of wrong thinking?

Matthew 5:38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Look at how much detail our Lord goes into in order to correct wrong thinking. And again he says,

Matthew 5:43  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

Important Question: Would He who is the Truth promote a lie? Would He really allow such misinformation to go unchallenged? Or would He correct the understanding of those who were wrong, as He did in the verses shown from Matthew? In fact, neither Christ nor St. Paul use the word Sheol, which is the Jewish understanding of the next life as found in the Old Testament. This, too, is dishonestly translated as “hell.” If this Jewish understanding of the next life were true, surely Christ would have used it and St. Paul would have spoken of it. It is Hades which is spoken of, and that only eleven times. Additionally, there is no warning from Christ or St. Paul to avoid Hades, nor any lurid description of it with dire warnings of being cast into it. If eternal conscious torment in hell is true, then the lack of such warnings in the New Testament is either an act of extreme cruelty or an egregious oversight utterly lacking in love and concern for the souls of men.

It is neither, for in three mentions of Hades in the New Testament we see this:

Great Feast Icons: Resurrection Icon | Monastery IconsActs 2:27  because Thou wilt not leave my soul to hades, nor wilt Thou give Thy Kind One to see corruption;

Act 2:31 having foreseen, he did speak concerning the rising again of the Christ, that his soul was not left to hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

1 Corinthians 15:55 where, O Death, thy sting? where, O Hades, thy victory?’

This is the glorious cry of victory which Paul exualts in. Death has not won.  Hades will not have victory. In five weeks in the Orthodox Church we will sing, with considerable joy and gusto:

“Christ is risen from the dead!  By death He conquered death! And to those in the graves, He granted life!”

Those who believe in eternal hell, making death victor over most of the human race, should stop being dishonest with words like Hades, and Gehenna. Words mean things, and none of these words carried any such meaning as a place of never-ending torment.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to get annoyed when people change my words to mean something I didn’t say. One has to wonder what Christ thinks about it, especially when the Good News of the Gospel is changed into theological terrorism designed to make men behave rather than to serve our heavenly Father out of love for what He has done to redeem us. [4]


[2] Bart D. Erhman @  Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity


[4] Regarding Universal Salvation, Emperor Justinian most famously said, “It will render men slothful, and discourage them from keeping the commandments of God. It will encourage them to depart from the narrow way, leading them by deception into ways that are wide and easy.”

In all fairness to Justinian, it should be noted that St. Maximus the Confessor specifically says that if the fathers broke this silence, “it was only after they first discerned the capacity of their listeners. Maximus also says in several passages that the fear of hell helps to keep “beginners” from sin, while more mature Christians are motivated through love, and in one passage of “honorable silence,” says he will only share the interpretation that is suitable for both beginners and the advanced. The Fathers knew the foibles of mankind and the ease with which we can justify our sins. Nonetheless, there should come a time when the joy of knowing the Father’s deep love for us in universal salvation supercedes serving Him in fear of eternal fire.

One comment

  1. By death He conquered death! Amen and Alleluia! Alleluia!

    I don’t know where the idea that the Gospel (the GOOD NEWS, right?) involves “preaching the bad news, too.” Aren’t all the examples we have of what preaching the Gospel means (many in the Acts of the Apostles) examples of preaching the Resurrection!

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the graves life bestowing!

    Can I say how much I like that line? No!


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