What the Gehenna?

In my last post I discussed the lake of fire, and how it’s impossible that any human could suffer forever there. A lot of Christians are under the impression that a particular “hell” in certain Bible versions is a reference to the lake of fire, however, specifically the “hell” that is mistranslated from the word “Gehenna” (as opposed to the “hells” that are mistranslated from the words “sheol/hades” or “tartarus”). They seem to think the references to the worm that “dieth not” and the fire that is “not quenched” helps support the idea that this is a never-ending punishment. The fact that they think this, however, demonstrates that they haven’t actually looked particularly closely at what Jesus was talking about there, and aren’t very familiar with the Millennial context of nearly all of Jesus’ teachings either (the Great White Throne Judgement, and the casting of anybody into the lake of fire, takes place after the Millennium has concluded, so that alone reveals to those who are aware of the context of Jesus’ message just how unlikely it is that Gehenna is a reference to the lake of fire, although it is possible that the location of the lake of fire will end up being in the same place, but we don’t know for sure so we can’t be dogmatic about that).

Even without going into all the details on what Gehenna is a reference to in Scripture, though, we already know from my last post that the only way to suffer forever in the lake of fire is to first be given an immortal body, and only those who have experienced salvation will have been made immortal at that time, making it impossible for someone who hasn’t experienced salvation yet to continue existing consciously in the lake of fire after they’ve burned up, so even if Gehenna were a reference to the lake of fire, it remains impossible for it to be somewhere that any human could suffer in forever anyway. However, it’s still helpful to know what Gehenna actually is.

One of the keys to understanding Jesus’ teachings is to remember that, when He talked about the future to His audience, all possible outcomes for people (whether positive or negative) will take place in this physical universe, not in an ethereal afterlife realm for ghosts. The kingdom of heaven has a spiritual dimension to it as well, but it was mainly a reference to an actual kingdom that will exist here on earth (specifically in Israel) in the future. And as far as His negative “threats” go, His primary one was Gehenna (Geenna [γέεννα] in Greek), also known as the Valley of Hinnom (or the Valley of the son of Hinnom, depending on your Bible version), which was an actual, physical valley in Israel (again, not in another dimension one enters after death) — although it’s actually quite pleasant at the moment — and Jesus’ Jewish audience would have immediately recognized it as a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy about the place the corpses of lawbreakers during the Millennial Kingdom here on Earth would be burned up and devoured by worms in.

I don’t know how, but somehow almost everybody has failed to notice the word “carcases” in the passage in Isaiah that Jesus was referencing, missing the fact that he was writing about dead bodies that living people would be able to see during the Millennium here on Earth and not about conscious souls in some afterlife dimension, and that Jesus would have then been speaking about the same thing.

The worst punishment a Jewish person could experience after death was to be denied a proper burial (there couldn’t be a worse consequence than that because most Jews believed that one ceased to exist consciously after death, as Scripture also teaches and as I’ve covered elsewhere on this site), which is why cremation is forbidden for Jews to this day for the most part. In fact, Jews are basically obligated to bury any and all corpses, even if it’s the body of a criminal who had been put to death, so to be told that they not only might be kept from living in the kingdom of heaven when it begins on Earth but that they could potentially be left unburied and might instead have their cadaver unceremoniously cast into the most unholy place in all of Israel when the Millennium begins as well (the valley in which certain ancient Israelites burned their children to death as a sacrifice to the god Molech) would be the most humiliating indignity Jesus’ audience could have been threatened with.

So Jesus wasn’t threatening that anybody would be tortured in Gehenna; He was simply giving a warning that certain sins would result not only in death so one couldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven when it begins in Israel (and that certain sins during the Millennium will have the same result as well), but also that they risked losing out on a proper burial so that their corpse would instead be seen burning up by everyone who looked upon it as well, which would be (and will be) a great source of shame before they die. Like Judas, it would have been far better for them to have died in the womb or in childbirth than to have been born at all, since babies who aren’t born never have to deal with such indignities (and are also far more likely get to live on the New Earth than Judas or any of those who will be cast into Gehenna are as well, at least prior to the consummation of the eons).

As far as the reference to the worm that “dieth not” goes, this isn’t talking about human souls not dying, or to some sort of magical worms that never die either. The Greek word for worm there is skōlēx (σκώληξ), which refers to regular maggots, not to human souls or even to mystical, immortal worms that chomp on the souls of sinners for eternity. To put it simply, it’s talking about actual living creatures who consume actual dead (unconscious) bodies. Jesus and Isaiah were just saying that any dead body that will be thrown into the valley will be totally consumed, either by maggots or by fire. And while it is technically true that the “worms” won’t die, that’s just because maggots are simply larval flies which go through a process known as pupation and grow into adult flies, so they won’t die while still in their larval, “worm” form but will instead grow up and lay eggs so that there are then more “worms” to consume more of the bodies in the valley. That said, the idea that something or someone “would not die” is used in various other parts of Scripture as well, but they did still eventually die, so it’s important to realize that this phrase doesn’t mean the thing said to “not die” never will; it just a figure of speech that means it won’t die before it’s supposed to.

Likewise, the fire that “isn’t quenched” (which really just means it’s not deliberately put out) will burn for as long as there is fuel (dead bodies) to keep it burning. But, just like the fire on the altar in Leviticus that was said to never be quenched but is no longer burning (among other things Scripture says will not be quenched but eventually stop burning), it will also eventually go out once it’s done its job and there are no more carcasses to consume.

Thanks to certain bad translations of Scripture, as well as a simple lack of understanding of how these passages should be interpreted, Gehenna has been thought by most Christians to be referring to a place all non-Christians will go to suffer forever in after they die, when it really only applies to a very specific (and relatively small) set of people living in a very specific period of time that hasn’t even occurred yet (at least not as of the time this was written), and nobody will even be conscious in it, much less actually be suffering.

And as far as the fate of anyone whose corpse is burned up in Gehenna goes, it’s the same fate as anyone else who hasn’t experienced salvation (meaning been made immortal and sinless) at that time. They’ll be resurrected into physical, mortal bodies, and they’ll be judged at the Great White Throne, and some — if not all — of them will even end up being cast into the lake of fire to die and be burned up a second time. But, just like everyone else who ends up in the lake of fire, they’ll also eventually be resurrected, and this time to immortality.