This is the fourth in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.
The ultimate destiny of the wicked is the same habitation created for Satan and his demons – a place in English we call “hell,” and a place Jesus and the New Testament writers describe variously as Gehenna, “outer darkness,” “eternal fire,” “eternal punishment,” “lake of fire,” and “the second death.”
While Sheol and Hades generally depict the temporary abode of the dead, Gehenna and its associated terms describe the place of everlasting future punishment for those whose names are not written in the book of life (Rev. 20:15).
The term Gehenna is derived from the Valley of Hinnom. Located southwest of Jerusalem, this steep, rocky valley is the scene of human sacrifices to pagan deities (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6) and is declared the “Valley of Slaughter” by Jeremiah (Jer. 7:31-34).
The picture of a place where fires are never quenched and worms never stop feasting on corpses became to the Jewish mind an appropriate representation of the ultimate fate of idol worshipers.
How Jesus depicts Gehenna
Jesus seizes rabbinic language connected with Gehenna, such as “unquenchable fire” and “never-dying worms,” to impress upon His listeners that their choices in this life have everlasting consequences. In fact, of the 12 uses of Gehenna in the New Testament, 11 come from the lips of the Messiah.
The Gospel writers record Jesus’ use of Gehenna on four occasions: In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:22, 29-30); in warning the disciples not to fear men (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:5); in a discourse on relationships (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47); and in His denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:15, 33).
Traditionally, these passages are understood to speak of final judgment, with Jesus using images from everyday life to warn against a place of everlasting separation from God.
However, some scholars see Jesus speaking in more limited terms. Steve Gregg, in All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, argues that Jesus may have used Gehenna literally to warn first-century Jews that they are about to suffer fiery judgment for their rejection of the Messiah at the hands of the Romans – a judgment that falls hard on Jerusalem and its inhabitants in A.D. 70.
This is not to deny the existence of hell as a place of everlasting separation from God, since other texts speak of resurrection, final judgment, and fiery punishment for the wicked. But it is to encourage us to carefully consider the context so we do not glean more from a text than is warranted.
Is hell forever?
Anglican cleric John Stott, who wrote the influential book Basic Christianity, found the idea of eternal suffering in hell so repugnant he rejected it in favor of annihilationism.
Those who embrace the idea of body and soul ceasing to exist after a time in hell point out that the “fire” and “worms” to which Jesus refers are indeed eternal, but the body and soul are destroyed. Two responses are offered.
First, the rabbinic understanding of these terms is that the bodies and souls of the wicked are everlasting, not just the fires and worms, according to Robert Morey in Death and the Afterlife.
Second, the term “destroyed” in Matt. 10:28 does not mean annihilated. As Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines the word apollumi, it means “to be delivered up to eternal misery.” In every instance where the word apollumi is found in the New Testament, something other than annihilation is described, writes Morey.
For example, people do not pass into nonexistence when they become hungry (Luke 15:17), and wineskins don’t vanish into thin air when they burst (Matt. 9:17). In each of these instances, the writers use the term apollumi.
While rejecting annihilationism, other Christian leaders favor a form of universalism that requires suffering in hell as a prerequisite for heaven.
But Jesus’ teachings on “outer darkness,” “eternal fire,” and “eternal punishment” support the concept of Gehenna as a place of conscious, everlasting separation from God.
It’s important to note who and what are cast into the lake of fire: The beast and the false prophet (Rev. 19:20); Satan (20:10); anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life (20:15); the unrepentant wicked (21:8); and ultimately Death and Hades (20:14).
The fires of hell devour wicked humans and evil spirits. As the apostle Paul writes, those who don’t know God and those who do not obey the gospel “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the Lord’s presence …” (2 Thess. 1:9).
Next: A look into Tartarus.