Paul, James, and Jesus on Hell (Gehenna)

I’m not exactly sure where the church got its ideas of hell from, especially as the scriptural support for our traditional notion of hell—as a place or state of eternal conscious torment—is slim. I haven’t got this all worked out, but here are some of my observations of what Paul, James, and Jesus say, and don’t say, about hell.

Paul on Hell

Paul never mentions hell in any of his letters. Not once. For Paul, the two paths for humanity do not culminate with heaven or hell, but with life or death. Paul writes about this several times in his letters, but it is succinctly expressed in Romans 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul was not concerned about hell, and he was not waiting for heaven. Paul was waiting for the Day of Christ when Jesus would come from heaven and transform our bodies and renew the earth and creation. In Philippians 3:18-21, he writes about the two different destinies of humanity:

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction (to telos apōleia) . . . . [But] our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. Philippians 3:18-19a, 20-21 (NASB, italics added).

We have a heavenly citizenship and we are divine image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-28), but our “colony”, or domain, is earth. The first human was made from the earth and for the earth (Gen. 2:7; cf. Gen. 3:19; 5:2).[1] This fundamental truth continues. Note also that God warned the first human that the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit was death, and not “hell” or some kind of eternal torment (Gen. 2:17; cf. Gen. 3:3, 22b).

James on Hell

Like Paul, James also writes about the two options of life and death, rather than heaven and hell. He writes that when sin is fully grown it gives birth to (apokuō) death, but that God gives birth (apokuō) to us so that we can be a kind of firstfruits of his created beings (James 1:15, 18 NIV) (James 1:18 echoes the theme of restored creation found in Romans 8:19ff.)

James does mention “hell” in his letter, however; just once. He uses the imagery of a fiery and wicked hell (or more specifically Gehenna) figuratively in James 3:6:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by Gehenna (or “hell”).

This verse says nothing about judgement or eternal torment. Rather, Gehenna is used as a metaphor by James, as it is elsewhere in scripture. But Gehenna is also a real place.[2]

Gehenna: The Valley of Hinnom or Tophet

Gehenna is otherwise known as the Valley of Hinnom[3] and, like Sodom and Gomorrah, it is known for its wickedness. During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, the valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites committed the unspeakable act of sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah prophesied about God’s judgement on the apostate Israelites, and said the valley would be called the “Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:32; 19:5-7).[4]

Isaiah also mentions this valley of slaughter, but gives it a different name.

Another name for this valley was “Tophet,” a term used by Isaiah when he described the forthcoming destruction of the Assyrians by fire in the valley near Jerusalem, where the Lord would have a fiery furnace ready to devour the Assyrian princes and king (Isa. 30:31-33; 31:9). The same valley is probably in view in Isaiah 66:24, which speaks of a climactic slaughter of the wicked in the future . . .”[5]

Interestingly, James mentions a “day of slaughter” in his letter (Jas 5:5 NLT). “Slaughter” sounds fairly final to me, as do other words used by the biblical authors which refer to the judgement of unrepentant sinners (i.e. the unredeemed).[6] The repeated message of the Bible is that death is the penalty for sin. Thankfully, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin with his death!

Jesus’ References to Gehenna

Outside of the Gospels, James is the only New Testament author to mention Gehenna. Jesus, on the other hand, mentions Gehenna several times.[7] Did he use it for rhetorical effect? Or did he indicate that sinners actually go to a place called hell? Here are all the verses where Jesus mentions Gehenna (“hell”) so that you can see for yourself how he used the term.

Matthew 5:22: But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna (hell).

Matthew 5:29: If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna (hell).

Matthew 5:30: And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Gehenna (hell).

Matthew 10:28: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (hell).

Matthew 18:9: And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna (hell).

Matthew 23:15: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of Gehenna (hell) as you are.

Matthew 23:33: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna (hell)?

Mark 9:43: If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna (hell), where the fire never goes out.

Mark 9:45: And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into Gehenna (hell).

Mark 9:47: And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into Gehenna (hell),

Luke 12:5: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna (hell). Yes, I tell you, fear him.

It seems to me that Jesus is using the rhetorical device of hyperbole (exaggeration) in most, if not all, of these statements. Furthermore, just as the scribes and Pharisees were not in reality snakes, and just as Jesus was not teaching that people should actually cut off or remove body parts that were causing them to stumble, it is probable that Jesus uses Gehenna as a metaphor. Note also that there is no sense of eternal torment conveyed in any of these statements.

The word “Gehenna”, which is typically translated into English as “hell”, appears to be used a metaphor in the New Testament, and without any connotation of eternal torment for the unredeemed. There are other New Testament verses, which do not mention hell at all, but speak of a fiery judgement and punishment. I look at these verses in my next post.


Endnotes

[1] The Hebrew word adam (“human”) is derived from the Hebrew word adamah (“earth” or “dust”).

[2] A commonly taught idea is that Gehenna was a smouldering rubbish dump in Jesus’ day. But there is simply no credible basis for this idea.

The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. A.D. 1200). He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into it. However, Strack and Billerbeck state that there is neither archeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources (Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, 5 vols. [Munich: Beck, 1922-56], 4:2:1030). Also a more recent author holds a similar view (Lloyd R. Bailey, “Gehenna: The Topography of Hell,” Biblical Archaeologist 49 [1986]: 189.
Hans Scharen, “Gehenna in the Synoptics”, Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (Jan-Mar 1998) 324-337, 328 (fn17). (View online here.)

Quotations from different scholars who dismiss or have doubts about the rubbish dump theory can be read here. See also David A. Croteau’s book, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2015) 49-53.

[3] The word in the New Testament is γέεννα (“Gehenna”) which is derived from the Hebrew word gê’ hinnom, meaning the “valley of Hinnom”.

[4] Some take Jeremiah’s prophecy to be an end time prophecy, and they see Gehenna as the place of God’s end time battle with evil. Revelation 19 mentions an end time battle. At the conclusion of the battle, the Beast and the False Prophet are thrown alive into the lake of fire (which is typically equated with hell) but all the other enemies are killed—they die (Rev. 19:20-21 cf. Rev. 20:10). In Revelation 20:11-15 we read that all humanity is raised from death and judged. After the judgement, the unredeemed, along with death itself and Hades, are thrown into the lake of fire. It says, “the lake of fire is the second death” (Rev. 20:14-15). There is no mention here of eternal torment, but death—the second and final death (Rev. 21:8).

[5] Scharen, “Gehenna in the Synoptics”, 328 (fn 18)

[6] E. Earle Ellis has noted that nouns for the judgement of the unrighteous connote obliteration. They include annihilation (apōleia): Matt. 7:13; John 17:12; Acts 8:20; Rom. 9:22ff; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9; Heb. 10:39; 2 Pet. 2:1; destruction (olethros): 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:9; death (thanatos): Rom 1:21; 6:21ff; 7:5; 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:21f; 15:56; 2 Cor. 2:16; 7:10; Jas 1:15; 5:20; 1 John 5:16; Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 20:14; 1 Pet. 4:17; end (telos): Rom. 6:21f; 2 Cor. 11:15; Phil. 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:17; and disintegration or corruption (phthora): Gal. 6:8; 2 Pet. 1:4; 2:12.
“The most important and frequent terms for the punishment of sin are death and destruction or annihilation and their corresponding verbs.” E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (Leiden: Brill, 2001) 193 & 195.

[7] Jesus mentions “Hades” (which is equivalent to the Hebrew “Sheol” and distinct from Gehenna and hell) in Matthew 11:23; 16:18; and Luke 10:15; 16:23. The Greek word Hades occurs 10 times in the New Testament.

Image credit: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852 (Wikimedia) The twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned over 40 times in the Bible; the cities are often given as an example, or type, of God’s judgement. 

Further reading: 

For more on the subject of hell, I recommend the website Rethinking Hell. Also, Preston Sprinkle has four engaging blog posts on his website Theology in the Raw where he discusses eternal conscious torment and what he calls “terminal punishment” here.