Home > Gehenna > J. W. Hanson on Gehenna

J. W. Hanson on Gehenna

April 1, 2011

The following is an enlightening discussion of Gehenna by John Wesley Hanson. According to a recent post on the Dave Enjoys blog, content of chapter 3 of Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’ is very reminiscent of Hanson’s work.

John Wesley Hanson. The Bible hell: the words rendered hell in the Bible: sheol, hadees, tartarus, and gehenna, shown to denote a state of temporal duration: all the texts containing the word examined and explained. Universalist Pub. House, Boston. 1878. pp. 43-69.


While nearly all “orthodox” authorities of eminence concede that Sheol and Hadees do not denote a place of torment in the future world, most of those who accept the doctrine of endless torment claim that Gehenna does convey that meaning. Campbell, in his “Four Gospels,” says:

“That Gehenna is employed in the New Testament, to denote the place of future punishment, prepared for the devil and his angels, is indisputable. This is the sense, if I mistake not, in which Gehenna is always to be understood in the New Testament, where it occurs just twelve times. It is a word peculiar to the Jews, and was employed by them some time before the coming of Christ, to denote that part of Sheol which was the habitation of the wicked after death. This is proved by the fact of its familiar use in the New Testament, and by the fact of its being found in the Apocrypha books and Jewish Targums, some of which were written before the time of our Savior.”

But no such force resides in the word, nor is there a scintilla of evidence that it ever conveyed such an idea until many years after Christ. It is not found in the Apocrypha. Campbell mistakes.

Stuart says (Exeg. Ess.): “It is admitted that the Jews of a later date used the word Gehenna to denote Tartarus, that is, the place of infernal punishment.”

In the second century Clemens Alexandrinus says: “Does not Plato acknowledge both the rivers of fire, and that profound depth of the earth which the barbarians call Gehenna? Does he not mention prophetically, Tartarus, Cocytus, Acheron, the Phlegethon of fire, and certain other places of punishment, which lead to correction and discipline?” Univ. Ex.

But an examination of the Bible use of the term will show us that the popular view is obtained by injecting the word with pagan superstition. Its origin and the first references to it in the Old Testament, are well stated by eminent critics and exegetes.

Opinions Of Scholars.

Says Campbell: “The word Gehenna is derived, as all agree, from the Hebrew words ge hinnom; which, in process of time, passing into other languages, assumed diverse forms; e. g., Chaldee Gehennom, Arabic Gahannam, Greek Gehenna. The valley of Hinnom is a part of the pleasant wadi or valley, which bounds Jerusalem on the south. Josh, xv: 8; xviii; 6. Here, in ancient times, and under some of the idolatrous kings, the worship of Moloch, the horrid idol-god of the Ammonites, was practised. To this idol, children were offered in sacrifice. II Kings xxiii: 10; Ezek. xxiii: 37, 39; II Chron. xxviii: 3; Lev. xviii: 21; xx: 2. If we may credit the Rabbins, the head of the idol was like that of an ox; while the rest of the body resembled that of a man. It was hollow within; and being heated by fire, children were laid in its arms and were literally roasted alive. We cannot wonder, then, at the severe terms in which the worship of Moloch is everywhere denounced in the Scriptures. Nor can we wonder that the place itself should have been called Tophet, i. e., abomination, detestation, (from toph, to vomit with loathing).” Jer. viii: 32; xix: 6; II Kings xxiii: 10; Ezek. xxiii: 36, 39.

“After these sacrifices had ceased, the place was desecrated, and made one of loathing and horror. The pious king Josiah caused it to be polluted, i. e., he caused to be carried there the filth of the city of Jerusalem. It would seem that the custom of desecrating this place, thus happily begun, was continued in after ages, down to the period when our Savior was on earth. Perpetual fires were kept up, in order to consume the offal which was deposited there. And as the same offal would breed worms, (for so all putrefying meat does of course), hence came the expression, ‘Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.'” Stuart’s Exegetical Ess., pp. 140–141.

“Gehenna, originally a Hebrew word, which signifies the valley of Hinnom, is composed of the common noun, Gee, valley, and the proper name Hinnom, the owner of this valley. The valley of the sons of Hinnom was a delightful vale, planted with trees, watered by fountains, and lying near Jerusalem on the south-east, by the brook Kedron. Here the Jews placed that brazen image of Moloch, which had the face of a calf, and extended its hands as those of a man. It is said, on the authority of the ancient Rabbins, that, to this image, the idolatrous Jews were wont not only to sacrifice doves, pigeons, lambs, rams, calves and bulls, but even to offer their children. I Kings ix: 7; II Kings xv: 3, 4. In the prophecy of Jeremiah, (Ch. vii: 31), this valley is called Tophet, from Toph, a drum; because the administrators in these horrid rites, beat drums, lest the cries and shrieks of the infants who were burned, should be heard by the assembly. At length, these nefarious practices were abolished by Josiah, and the Jews brought back to the pure worship of God. II Kings xxiii: 10. After this, they held the place in such abomination, it is said, that they cast into it all kinds of filth, together with the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary, in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially a shameful kind of death, was denominated Gehenna.” Schleusner.

As we trace the history of the locality as it occurs in the Old Testament we learn that it should never have been translated by the word Hell. It is a proper name of a well-known locality, and ought to have stood Gehenna, as it does in the French Bible, in Newcome’s and Wakefield’s translations, in the Improved Version, Emphatic Diaglott, etc. Babylon might have been translated Hell with as much propriety as Gehenna.

It is fully described in numerous passages in the Old Testament, and is exactly located.

Gehenna Located In This World.

“And the border went up by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite; the same is Jerusalem, and the border went up to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward.” Joshua xv: 8. “And he (Josiah) defiled Tophet, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or daughter to pass through the fire to Moloch.” II Kings xxiii: 10. “Moreover, he (Ahaz) burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen.” II Chron. xxviii: 3. “And they (the children of Judah) have built the high places of Tophet which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall bury in Tophet till there be no place.” Jer. vii: 31, 32. “And go forth into the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the east gate, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter.” Jer. xix: 2, 6.

These and other passages show that Gehenna was a well known valley, near Jerusalem, in which the Jews in their idolatrous days had sacrificed their children to the idol Moloch, in consequence of which it was condemned to receive the offal and refuse and sewage of the city, and into which the bodies of malefactors were cast, and where, to destroy the odor and pestilential influences, continual fires were kept burning. Here fire, smoke; worms bred by the corruption, and other repulsive features, rendered the place a horrible one, in the eyes of the Jews. It was a locality with which they were as well acquainted as they were with any place in or around the city. The valley was sometimes called Tophet, according to Schleusner, from Toph, a drum, because drums were beat during the idolatrous rites, but Adam Clarke says in consequence of the fact that Moloch was hollow, and heated, and children were placed in its arms, and burnt to death; the word Tophet he says, meaning fire stove; but Prof. Stuart thinks the name derived from “Toph, to vomit with loathing.” After these horrible practices, King Josiah polluted the place and rendered it repulsive.

“Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; for they shall bury in Tophet till there be no place. And the carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away. Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judah, and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride: for the land shall be desolate.” Jer. vii: 32-34. “At that time, saith the Lord, they shall bring out the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of his princes, and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, out of their graves: and they shall spread them before the sun, and the moon, and all the host of heaven, whom they have loved, and whom they have served, and after whom they have walked, and whom they have sought, and whom they have worshipped; they shall not be gathered, nor be buried; they shall be for dung upon the face of the earth. And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family, which remain in all the places whither I have driven them, saith the Lord of hosts. And I will make this city desolate, and a hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished and hiss, because of all the plagues thereof. And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them. And they shall bury them in Tophet, till there be no place to bury. Thus will I do unto this place, saith the Lord, and to the inhabitants thereof, and even make the city as Tophet: and the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, shall be defiled as the place of Tophet, because of all the houses upon whose roofs they have burned incense unto all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings unto other gods. Then came Jeremiah from Tophet, whither the Lord had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house, and said to all the people: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold I will bring upon this city and upon all her towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words.” Jer xix: 8-15.

These passages show that Gehenna or Tophet was a horrible locality near Jerusalem, and that to be cast there literally, was the doom threatened and executed originally. Every reference is to this world, and to a literal casting into that place.

In Dr. Bailey’s English Dictionary, Gehenna is defined to be “a place in the valley of the tribe of Benjamin, terrible for two sorts of fire in it, that wherein the Israelites sacrificed their children to the idol Moloch, and also another kept continually burning to consume the dead carcasses and filth of Jerusalem.”

But in process of time Gehenna came to be an emblem of the consequences of sin, and to be employed figuratively by the Jews, to denote those consequences. But always in this world. The Jews never used it to mean torment after death, until long after Christ. That the word had not the meaning of post-mortem torment when our Savior used it, is demonstrable: Josephus was a Pharisee, and wrote at about the time of Christ, and expressly says that the Jews at that time (corrupted from the teaching of Moses) believed in punishment after death, but he never employs Gehenna to denote the place of punishment. He uses the word Hadees, which the Jews had then obtained from the heathen, but he never uses Gehenna, as he would have done, had it possessed that meaning then. This demonstrates that the word had no such meaning then. In addition to this neither the Apocrypha, which was written from 280 to 150 years B. C, nor Philo, ever uses the word. It was first used in the modern sense of Hell by Justin Martyr, one hundred and fifty years after Christ.

Dr. Thayer concludes a most thorough excursus on the word (“Theology, etc.,”) thus:

“Our inquiry shows that it is employed in the Old Testament in its literal or geographical sense only, as the name of the valley lying on the south of Jerusalem–that the Septuagint proves it retained this meaning as late as B. C. 150–that it is not found at all in the Apocrypha; neither in Philo, nor in Josephus, whose writings cover the very times of the Savior and the New Testament, thus leaving us without a single example of contemporary usage to determine its meaning at this period–that from A. D. 150-195, we find in two Greek authors, Justin and Clement of Alexandria, the first resident in Italy and the last in Egypt, that Gehenna began to be used to designate a place of punishment after death, but not endless punisnment, since Clement was a believer in universal restoration–that the first time we find Gehenna used in this sense in any Jewish writing is near the beginning of the third century, in the Targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel, two hundred years too late to be of any service in the argument–and lastly, that the New Testament usage shows that while it had not wholly lost its literal sense, it was also employed in the time of Christ as a symbol of moral corruption and wickedness; but more especially as a figure of the terrible judgments of Clod on the rebellious and sinful nation of the Jews.”

The Jewish talmuds and targums use the word in the sense that the Christian Church has so long used it, though without attributing endlessness to it, but none of them are probably older than A. D. 200. The oldest is the targum (translation) of Jonathan Ben Uzziel, which was written according to the best authorities between A. D. 200 and A. D. 400.

“Most of the eminent critics now agree, that it could not have been completed till some time between two and four hundred years after Christ.” Univ. Expos. Vol 2, p. 368. “Neither the language nor the method of interpretation is the same in all the books. In the historical works, the text is translated with greater accuracy than elsewhere; in some of the Prophets, as in Zechariah, the interpretation has more of the Rabbinical and Talmudical character. From this variety we may properly infer, that the work is a collection of interpretations of several learned men, made toward the close of the third century, and containing some of a much older date; for that some parts of it existed as early as in the second century, appears from the additions which have been transferred from some Chaldee paraphrase into the Hebrew text, and were already in the text in the second century.” Jahn Int. p. 66. Home’s Intro. Vol. 2. p. 160.

Dr. T. B. Thayer in his “Theology,” says; “Dr. Jahn assigns it to the end of the third century after Christ; Eichhorn decides for the fourth century; Bertholdt inclines to the second or third century, and is confident that it ‘cannot have attained its present complete form, before the end of the second century.’ Bauer coincides generally in these views. Some critics put the date even as low down as the seventh or eighth century. See a full discussion of the question in the Universalist Expositor, Vol. 2, p. 351-368. See, also, Home’s Introduction, Vol. 2, 157-163. Justin Martyr, A. D. 150, and Clement of Alexandria, A. D. 195, both employ Gehenna to designate the place of future punishment; but the first utters an opinion only of its meaning in a certain text, and the last was a Universalist, and did not, of course, believe that Gehenna was the place of endless punishment. Augustine, A. D. 400, says Gehenna ‘stagnum, ignis el sulphuris corporeus ignis erit.’ De Civitate Dei, L. xxi. c. 10.”

At the time of Christ the Old Testament existed in Hebrew. The Septuagint translation of it was made between two hundred and four hundred years before his birth. In both Gehenna is never used as the name of a place of future punishment. A writer in the Universalist Expositor remarks, (Vol. 2):

“Both the Apocrypha, and the works of Philo, when compared together, afford circumstantial evidence that the word cannot have been currently employed, during their age, to denote a place of future torment. . . . From the few traces which remain to us of this age, it seems that the idea of future punishment, such as it was among the Jews, was associated with that of darkness, and not of fire; and that among those of Palestine, the misery of the wicked was supposed to consist rather in privation, than in positive infliction. . . . But we cannot discover, in Josephus, that either of these sects, the Pharisees or the Essenes, both of which believed the doctrine of endless misery, supposed it to be a state of lire, or that the Jews ever alluded to it by that emblem.”

Thus the Apocrypha, B. C. 150-500, Philo Judaeus A. D. 40, and Josephus, A. D. 70-100, all refer to future punishment, but none of them use Gehenna to describe it, which they would have done, being Jews, had the word been then in use with that meaning. Were it the name of a place of future torment then, can any one doubt that it would be found repeatedly in their writings? And does not the fact that it is never found in their writings demonstrate that it had no such use then, and if so, does it not follow that Christ used it in no such sense?

Canon Farrar says of Gehenna (Preface to “Eternal Hope”): “In the Old Testament it is merely the pleasant valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom), subsequently desecrated by idolatry, and especially by Moloch worship, and defiled by Josiah on this account. (See I Kings xi: 7; II Kings xxiii: 10.) (Jer. vii: 31; xix: 10-14; Isa. xxx: 33; Tophet). Used according to Jewish tradition, as the common sewage of the city, the corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied, and fires were lit to purify the contaminated air. It then became a word which secondarily implied (1) the severest judgment which a Jewish court could pass upon a criminal– the casting forth of his unburied corpse amid the fires and worms of this polluted valley; and (2) a punishment–which to the Jews as a body never meant an endless punishment beyond the grave. Whatever may be the meaning of the entire passages in which the word Occurs, ‘Hell’ must be a complete mistranslation, since it attributes to the term used by Christ a sense entirely different from that in which it was understood by our Lord’s hearers, and therefore entirely different from the sense in which he could have used it. Origen says (c. Celsus vi: 25) that Gehenna denotes (1) the vale of Hinnom, and (2) a purificatory fire (eis ten meta basanon katharsin). He declares that Celsus was totally ignorant of the meaning of Gehenna.”

Jewish Views Of Gehenna.

Gehenna is the name given by Jews to Hell. Rev. H. N. Adler, a Jewish Rabbi, says: “They do not teach endless retributive suffering. They hold that it is not conceivable that a God of mercy and justice would ordain infinite punishment for finite wrong-doing.” Dr. Deutsch declares: “There is not a word in the Talmud that lends any support to that damnable dogma of endless torment.” Dr. Dewes in his “Plea for Rational Translation,” says that Gehenna is alluded to four or five times in the Mishna, thus: “The judgment of Gehenna is for twelve months;” “Gehenna is a day in which the impious shall be burnt.” Bartolocci declares that “the Jews did not believe in a material fire, and thought that such fire as they did believe in would one day be put out.” Rabbi Akiba, “the second Moses,”said: “The duration of the punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is twelve months.” Adyoth iii: 10. Some rabbis said Gehenna only lasted from Passover to Pentecost. This was the prevalent conception. (Abridged from Excursus v, in Canon Farrar’s “Eternal Hope.” He gives in a note these testimonies to prove that the Jews to whom Jesus spoke, did not regard Gehenna as of endless duration). Asarath Maamaroth, f. 8B, 1: “There will hereafter be no Gehenna.” Jalkuth Shimoni, f. 46, 1: “Gabriel and Michael will open the eight thousand gates of Gehenna, and let out Israelites and righteous Gentiles.” A passage in Othoth, (attributed to E. Akiba) declares that Gabriel and Michael will open the forty thousand gates of Gehenna, and set free the damned, and in Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4, we read: “The wicked stay in Gehenna till the resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it redeems them.” See Stephelius’ Rabbinical Literature.

Rev. Dr. Wise, a learned Jewish Rabbi, says: “That the ancient Hebrews had no knowledge of Hell is evident from the fact that their language has no term for it. When they in after times began to believe in a similar place they were obliged to borrow the word ‘Gehinnom,’ ‘the valley of Hinnom,’ a place outside of Jerusalem, which was the receptacle for the refuse of the city–a locality which by its offensive smell and sickening miasma was shunned, until vulgar superstition surrounded it with hob-goblins. Haunted places of that kind are not rare in the vicinity of populous cities. In the Mishna of the latest origin the word Gehinnom is used as a locality of punishment for evil-doers, and hence had been so used at no time before the third century, A. D.”

From the time of Josephus onwards, there is an interval of about a century, from which no Jewish writings have descended to us. It was a period of dreadful change with that ruined and distracted people. The body politic was dissolved, the whole system of their ceremonial religion had been crushed in the fall of their city and temple; and they themselves scattered abroad were accursed on all the face of the earth. Their sentiments underwent a rapid transformation, and when next we see their writings, we find them filled with every extravagant conceit that mad and visionary brains ever cherished. Expos. Vol. 2. Art. Gehenna, H. Ballou, 2d.

Before considering the passages of Scripture containing the word, the reader should carefully read and remember the following

Important Facts.

1. Gehenna was a well-known locality near Jerusalem, and ought no more to be translated Hell, than should Sodom or Gomorrah. See Josh, xv: 8; II Kings xvii: 10; II Chron. xxviii: 3; Jer. vii: 31, 32; xix: 2.

2. Gehenna is never employed in the Old Testament to mean anything else than the place with which every Jew was familiar.

3. The word should have been left untranslated as it is in some versions, and it would not be misunderstood. It was not misunderstood by the Jews to whom Jesus addressed it Walter Balfour well says: “What meaning would the Jews who were familiar with this word, and knew it to signify the valley of Hinnom, be likely to attach to it when they heard it used by our Lord? Would they, contrary to all former usage, transfer its meaning from a place with whose locality and history they had been familiar from their infancy, to a place of misery in another world? This conclusion is certainly inadmissible. By what rule of interpretation, then, can we arrive at the conclusion that this word means a place of misery after death?”

4. The French Bible, the Emphatic Diaglott, Improved Version, Wakefield’s Translation, and Newcomb’s, retain the proper noun, Gehenna, the name of a place as well-known as Babylon.

5. Gehenna is never mentioned in the Apocrypha as a place of future punishment, as it would have been, had such been its meaning before and at the time of Christ.

6. No Jewish writer, such as Josephus, or Philo, ever uses it as the name of a place of future punishment, as they would have done had such then been its meaning.

7. No classic Greek author ever alludes to it, and therefore, it was a Jewish locality, purely.

8. The first Jewish writer who ever names it as a place of future punishment is Jonathan Ben Uzziel, who wrote, according to various authorities, from the second to the eighth century, A. D.

9. The first Christian writer who calls Hell Gehenna, is Justin Martyr, who wrote about A. D. 150.

10. Neither Christ nor his apostles ever named it to Gentiles, but only to Jews, which proves it a locality only known to Jews, whereas, if it were a place of punishment after death for sinners, it would have been preached to Gentiles as well as to Jews.

11. It was only referred to twelve times, on eight occasions, in all the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and in the Gospels and Epistles. Were they faithful to their mission to say no more than this, on so vital a theme as an endless Hell, if they intended to teach it?

12. Only Jesus and James ever named it. Neither Paul, John, Peter nor Jude ever employ it. Would they not have warned sinners concerning it, if there were a Gehenna of torment after death?

13. Paul says he “shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God,” and yet, though he was the great preacher of the Gospel to the Gentiles he never told them that Gehenna is a place of after-death punishment. Would he not have repeatedly warned sinners against it, were there such a place?

Dr. Thayer significantly remarks: “The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word. John Baptist, who preached to the most wicked of men, did not use it once. Paul wrote fourteen epistles, and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it, nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelations, never employs it in a single instance. Now if Gehenna or Hell really reveals the terrible fact of endless woe, how can we account for this strange silence? How is it possible, if they knew its meaning, and believed it a part of Christ’s teaching, that they should not have used it a hundred or a thousand times, instead of never using it at all; especially when we consider the infinite interests involved? The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the church among the Jews and Gentiles, and embraces a period of thirty years from the ascension of Christ. In all this history, in all this preaching of the disciples and apostles of Jesus, there is no mention of Gehenna. In thirty years of missionary effort, these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations, never, ander any circumstances, threaten them with the torments of Gehenna, or allude to it in the most distant manner! In the face of such a fact as this, can any man believe that Gehenna signifies endless punishment, and that this is a part of divine revelation, a part of the Gospel message to the world? These considerations show how impossible it is to establish the doctrine in review on the word Gehenna.

All the facts are against the supposition that the term was used by Christ or his disciples in the sense of endless punishment. There is not the least hint of any such meaning attached to it, nor the slightest preparatory notice that any such new revelation was to be looked for in this old familiar word.”

14. Jesus never uttered it to unbelieving Jews, nor to anybody but his disciples, but twice (Matt, xxiii: 15-33) during his entire ministry, nor but four times in all. If it were the final abode of unhappy millions, would not his warnings abound with exhortations to avoid it?

15. Jesus never warned unbelievers against it but once in all his ministry, (Matt, xxiii: 33), and he immediately explained it as about to come in this life.

16. If Gehenna is the name of Hell then men’s bodies are burned there, as well as their souls. Matt, v: 29; xviii: 9.

17. If it be the name of endless torment, then literal fire is the sinner’s punishment. Mark ix: 43-48.

18. Salvation is never said to be from Gehenna.

19. Gehenna is never said to be of endless duration, nor spoken of as destined to last forever, so that even admitting the popular ideas of its existence after death, it gives no support to the idea of endless torment.

20. Clement, a Universalist, used Gehenna to describe his ideas of punishment. He was one of the earliest of the Christian Fathers. The word did not then denote endless punishment.

21. A shameful death, or a severe punishment, in this life, was, at the time of Christ, denominated Gehenna, (Schleusner, Canon Farrar and others), and there is no evidence that Gehenna meant anything else, at the time of Christ.

With these preliminaries let us consider the twelve passages in which the word occurs.

“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.” Matt, v: 22.

The purpose of Jesus here was to show how exacting is Christianity. It judges the motives. This he affirms in the last sentence of the verse, after referring to the legal penalties of Judaism in the first two. The “judgment” here is the lower ecclesiastical court of twenty-three judges: the “council” is the higher court, which could condemn to death. But Christianity is so exacting, that if one is contemptuous towards another, he will be adjudged by Christian principles guilty of the worst crimes, as “he who hateth his brother has already committed murder in his heart.” We can give the true meaning of this passage in the words of “orthodox” commentators.

Wynne correctly says: “This alludes to the three degrees of punishment among the Jews, viz., civil punishment inflicted by the judges or elders at the gates; excommunication pronounced by the great Ecclesiastical Council or Sanhedrin; and burning to death, like those who were sacrificed to devils in the valley of Hinnom or Tophet, where the idolatrous Israelites used to offer their children to Moloch.” Note in loc. Dr. Adam Clarke says: “It is very probable that our Lord means no more here than this: ‘If a man charge another with apostasy from the Jewish religion, or rebellion against God, and cannot prove his charge, then he is exposed to that punishment (burning alive) which the other must have suffered, if the charges had been substantiated. There are three offenses here which exceed each other in their degrees of guilt. 1. Anger against a man, accompanied with some injurious act. 2. Contempt, expressed by the opprobrious epithet raca, or shallow brains. 3. Hatred and mortal enmity, expressed by the term moreh, or apostate, where such apostacy could not be proved. Now proportioned to these three offenses were three different degrees of punishment, each exceeding the other in severity, as the offenses exceeded each other in their different degrees of guilt. 1. The judgment, the council of twenty-three, which could inflict the punishment of strangling. 2. The Sanhedrin, or great council, which could inflict the punishment of stoning. 3. The being burnt in the valley of the son of Hinnom. This appears to be the meaning of our Lord. Our Lord here alludes to the valley of the son of Hinnom. This place was near Jerusalem; and had been formerly used for these abominable sacrifices in which the idolatrous Jews had caused their children to pass through the lire to Moloch.” Com. in loc.

We do not understand that a literal casting into Gehenna is here inculcated–as Clarke and Wynne teach–but that the severest of all punishments are due those who are contemptuous to others. Gehenna fire is here figuratively and not literally used, but its torment is in this life.

Barnes: “In this verse it denotes a degree of suffering higher than the punishment inflicted by the court of seventy, the Sanhedrin. And the whole verse may therefore mean, He that hates his brother without a cause, is guilty of a violation of the sixth commandment, and shall be punished with a severity similar to that inflicted by the court of judgment. He that shall suffer his passions to transport him to still greater extravagances, and shall make him an object of derision and contempt, shall be exposed to still severer punishment, corresponding to that which the Sanhedrin, or council, inflicts. But he who shall load his brother with odious appellations and abusive language, shall incur the severest degree of punishment, represented by being burnt alive in the horrid and awful valley of Hinnom.” (Com.)–A. A. Livermore, D. D., says: “Three degrees of anger are specified, and three corresponding gradations of punishment, proportioned to the different degrees of guilt. Where these punishments will be inflicted, he does not say, he need not say. The man, who indulges any wicked feelings against his brother man, is in this world punished; his anger is the torture of his soul, and unless he repents of it and forsakes it, it must prove his wee in all future states of his being.”

Whether Jesus here means the literal Gehenna, or makes these three degrees of punishment emblems of the severe spiritual penalties inflicted by Christianity, there is no reference to the future world in the language.

“Unlike the teachings of Judaism, Jesus taught that it was not absolutely necessary to commit the overt act, to be guilty before God, but if a man wickedly gave way to temptation, and harbored vile passions and purposes, be was guilty before God and amenable to the divine law. He who hated his brother was a murderer. Jesus also taught that punishment under his rule was proportioned to criminality, as under the legal dispensation. He refers to three distinct modes of punishment recognized by Jewish regulations. Each one of these exceeded the other in severity. They were, first, strangling or beheading; second, stoning; and third, burning alive. The lower tribunal or court, referred to in the passage before us, by the term ‘judgment,’ was composed of twenty-three judges, or as some learned men think, of seven judges and two scribes. The higher tribunal, or ‘council.’ was doubtless the Sanhedrin, the highest ecclesiastical and civil tribunal of the Jews, composed of seventy judges, whose prerogative it was to judge the greatest offenders of the law, and could even condemn the guilty to death. They were often condemned to Gehenna-fire, or as it is translated Hell fire. Jesus did not intend to say, that under the Christian dispensation, men should be brought before the different tribunals referred to in the text, to be adjudicated, but he designed to show that under the new economy of grace and truth, man was still a subject of retributive justice, but was judged according to the motives of the heart. ‘But I say unto you. whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment.’ According to the Christian principle, man is guilty if he designs to do wrong.” Livermore’s “Proof Texts.”

Cast Into Hell-fire.

“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. 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. Matt, v: 28, 29. “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 east into Hell-fire. “Matt, xviii: 9. “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, into the fire that never shall be quenched. 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, into the fire that never shall be quenched. 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.” Mark ix: 43, 49.

These passages mean that it is better to accept Christianity, and forego some worldly privilege, than to possess all worldly advantages, and be overwhelmed in the destruction then about to come upon the Jews, when multitudes were literally cast into Gehenna. Or it may be figuratively used, as Jesus probably used it, thus: it is better to enter the Christian life destitute of some great worldly advantage, comparable to a right hand, than to live in sin, with all worldly privileges, and experience that moral death which is a Gehenna of the soul. In this sense it may be used of men now as then. But there is no reference to an after-death suffering, in any proper use of the terms. The true idea of the language is this: Embrace the Christian life, whatever sacrifice it calls for. The latter clause carries out the idea, in speaking of

The Undying Worm.

“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Undoubtedly Jesus had reference to the language of the prophet. “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. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses 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.” Isa. lxvi: 23, 24.

The prophet and the Savior both referred to the overthrow of Jerusalem, though by accommodation we may apply the language generally, understanding by Hell, or Gehenna, that condition brought upon the soul, in this world, by sin. But the application by the prophet and the Savior was to the day then soon to come. The undying worm was in this world.

Strabo calls the lamp in the Parthenon, and Plutarch calls the sacred fire of a temple “unquenchable,” though they were extinguished ages ago. Josephus says that the fire on the altar of the temple at Jerusalem was “always unquenchable,” asbeston aei, though the fire had gone out and the temple was destroyed at the time of his writing. Eusebius says that certain martyrs of Alexandria “were burned in unquenchable fire,” though it was extinguished in the course of an hour, the very epithet in English, which Homer has in Greek, asbestos gelos, (Iliad, i: 599), unquenchable laughter.

Bloomfield says in his Notes: “Deny thyself what is even the most desirable and alluring, and seems the most necessary, when the sacrifice is demanded by the good of thy soul. Some think that there is an allusion to the amputation of diseased members of the body, to prevent the spread of any disorder.” Dr. A. A. Livermore adds: “The main idea here conveyed, is that of punishment, extreme suffering, and no intimation is given as to its place, or its duration, whatever may be said in other texts in relation to these points. Wickedness is its own Hell. A wronged conscience, awakened to remorse, is more terrible than fire or worm. In this life and in the next, sin and woe are forever coupled together, God has joined them, and man cannot put them asunder.”

Says the Universalist Assistant: “Will any one maintain that our Lord meant to contrast the life his gospel is calculated to impart, and the kingdom he came to establish, with the literal horrors of the valley of Hinnom? I think not. Every one, it appears to me, must see the horrors of this place are used only as figures; and the question at once arises–Figures of what? I answer–Figures of the consequences of sin, of neglect of duty, of violation of God’s law. And these figures are not used so much to represent the duration of punishment, as to indicate its intensity, and its uninterrupted, unmitigated, continuous character, so long as it lasts, which must be as long as its cause continues, i. e., sin in the soul.”

Dr. Ballou says in Vol. 1, Universalist Quarterly: “This passage is metaphorical. Jesus uses this well-known example of a most painful sacrifice for the preservation of corporeal life, only that he may the more strongly enforce a corresponding solicitude to preserve the moral life of the soul. And if so, it naturally follows that those prominent particulars in the passages which literally relate to the body, are to be understood as figures, and interpreted accordingly. If one’s eye or hand become to him an offence, or cause of danger, it is better to part with it than to let it corrupt the body fit to be thrown into the valley of Hinnom. … It is better to deny ourselves everything however innocent and even valuable in itself, if it become an occasion of sin, lest it should be the means of bringing upon us the most dreadful consequences–consequences that are aptly represented in the figure by having one’s dishonored and putrid corpse thrown into the accursed valley of Hinnom.”

Destroy Soul And Body In Hell.

“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. Matt, x: 28. “But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into Hell; yea, I say unto you, fear him.” Luke xii:5.

The reader of these verses and the accompanying language, will observe that Jesus is exhorting his disciples to have entire faith in God. The most that men can do is to destroy the body, but God “is able,” “hath power” to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. It is not said that God has any disposition or purpose of doing so. He is able to do it, as it is said (Matt, iii: 9) he is “able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” He never did, and never will raise up children to Abraham of the stones of the street, but he is able to, just as he is able to destroy soul and body in Gehenna, while men could only destroy the body there. Fear the mighty power of God, who could, if he chose, annihilate man, while the worst that men could do would be to destroy the mere animal life. It is a forcible exhortation to trust in God, and has no reference to torment after death. Fear not those who can only torture you–man–but fear God who can annihilate (apokteino.)

1. This language was addressed by Christ to his disciples, and not to sinners.

2. It proves God’s ability to annihilate (destroy) and not his purpose to torment. Donnegan defines apollumi, “to destroy utterly.”

Says a writer in the Universalist Expositor, (Vol. 4): “That it was the design of Christ, to lead his disciples to reverence the surpassing power of God, which he thus illustrated, and not to make them fear an actual destruction of their souls and bodies in Gehenna, seems evident from the words that immediately follow. For he proceeds to show them that that power was constantly exerted in their behalf– not against them. See the following verses.”

The word rendered soul is psuche, life, same as in verse 39, “He that flndeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Also, John xiii: 37, “I will lav down my life for thy sake.” The word psuche is translated “mind,” “soul,” “life,” “heart,” “minds,” and “souls.” “And made their minds (psuche) evil affected against the brethren.” Acts xiv: 2. “Doing the will of God from the heart,” (psuche). Eph. vi:6. “Learn of me . . and ye shall find rest unto your souls,” (psuche). Matt, xi: 29. “Let every soul (psuche) be subject unto the higher powers.” Rom. xiii: 1.

The immortal soul is not meant, but the life. As though Jesus had said: “Fear not those who can only kill the body, but rather him, who if he chose could annihilate the whole being.” Fear not man but God.

“So much may suffice to show the admitted fact, that the destruction of soul and body was a proverbial phrase, indicating utter extinction or complete destruction.” Paige.

Dr. W. E. Manley observes that the condition threatened “is one wherein the body can be killed. And no one has imagined any such place, outside the present state of being. Nor can there be the least doubt about the nature of this killing of the body; for the passage is so constructed as to settle this question beyond all controversy. It is taking away the natural life, as was done by the persecutors of the apostles. The Jews were in a condition of depravity properly represented by Gehenna. The apostles had been in that condition, but had been delivered from it. They were in danger, however, of apostasy which would briDg them again into the same condition, in which they would lose their natural lives, and suffer moral death besides. By supposing the term Hell to denote a condition now and in the present life, there is no absurdity involved. Sinful men may here suffer both natural death and moral death; but in the future life, natural death cannot be suffered; whatever may be said of moral death. Add to this that the Jews used Gehenna as an emblem of a temporal condition, at the time of Christ; but there is no evidence that they used it to represent future punishment. That they did, has many times been asserted, but never proved. In conclusion, the meaning of this passage may be stated in few words. Fear not men, your persecutors, who can inflict on you only bodily suffering. But rather fear him who is able to inflict both bodily suffering, and what is worse, mental and moral suffering, in that condition of depravity represented by the foulest and most revolting locality known to the Jewish people.”

Dr. Parkhurst observes Hell-fire, literally Gehenna of fire, does “in its outward and primary sense, relate to that dreadful doom of being burnt alive in the valley of Hinnom.” Schleusner: “Any severe punishment, especially a shameful kind of death, was denominated Gehenna.”

The Child Of Hell.

“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 than yourselves.” Matt, xxiii: 15.

Looking upon the smoking valley, and thinking of its corruptions and abominations, to call a man a “child of Gehenna” was to say that his heart was corrupt and his character vile, but it no more indicated a place of woe after death, than a resident of New York would imply such a place by calling a bad man a child of Five Points.

The Damnation Of Hell.

“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers! how can ye escape the damnation of Hell?” Matt, xxiii: 33.

This verse undoubtedly refers to the literal destruction that soon after befell the Jewish nation, when six hundred thousand experienced literally the condemnation of Gehenna, by perishing miserably by fire and sword. The next words explain this damnation:

“Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them ye shall scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation.” This was long before prophesied by Jeremiah, (chapter xix): “Then came Jeremiah from Tophet, whither the Lord had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house, and said to all the people. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I will bring upon this city, and upon all her towns, all the evil that I have pronounced against it; because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words.” Isaiah has reference to the same in chapter lxvi: 24: “And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses 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 explains the “unquenchable fire” and the “undying worm.” They are in this world.

Set On Fire Of Hell.

“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.” James iii: 6.

A tongue set on fire of Gehenna, when James wrote, was understood just as in Loudon a tongue inspired by Billingsgate, or in New York by Five Points, or in Boston by Ann street, or in Chicago by Fifth Avenue, would be understood, namely, a profane and vulgar tongue. No reference whatever was had to any after-death place of torment, but the allusion was solely to a locality well-known to all Jews, as a place of corruption, and it was figuratively and properly applied to a vile tongue.


We have thus briefly explained all the passages in which Gehenna occurs. Is there any intimation that it denotes a place of punishment after death? Not any. If it mean such a place no one can escape believing that it is a place of literal fire, and all the modern talk of a Hell of conscience is most erroneous. But that it has no such meaning is corroborated by the testimony of Paul, who says he “shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God,” and yet he never, in all his writings employs the word once, nor does he use the word Hadees but once, and then he signifies its destruction, “oh Hadees, where is thy victory?” If Paul believed in a place of endless torment, would he have been utterly silent in reference to it, in his entire ministry? His reticence is a demonstration that he had no faith in it, though the Jews and heathen all around him preached it and believed it implicitly.

A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that the vale of Hinnom was a well-known and repulsive valley near Jerusalem, and an equally careful reading of the New Testament teaches that Gehenna, or Hinnom’s vale was explained as always in this world, (Jer. vii: 29-34; xix: 4-15; Matt, x: 28), and was to befall the sinners of that generation, (Matt, xxiv) in this life, (Matt, x: 39), before the disciples had gone over the cities of Israel, (Matt, x: 23), and that their bodies and souls were exposed to its calamities. It was only used in the New Testament on five occasions, either too few, or else modern ministers use it altogether too much. John who wrote for Gentiles, and Paul who was the great apostle to the Gentiles never used it once, nor did Peter. If it had a local application and meaning we can understand this, but if it were the name of the receptacle of damned souls to all eternity, it would be impossible to explain such inconsistency. The primary meaning, then, of Gehenna is the well-known locality near Jerusalem; but it was sometimes used to denote the consequences of sin, in this life. It is to be understood in these two senses only, in all the twelve passages in the New Testament. In the second century after Christ it came to denote a place of torment after death, but it is never employed in that sense in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Apocrypha, nor was it used by any contemporary of Christ with that meaning, nor was it ever thus employed by any Christian until Justin and Clement thus used it (A. D. 150) (and the latter was a Universalist,) nor by any Jew until in the targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel, about a century later. And even then it only denoted future, but did not denote endless punishment, until a still later period.

The English author, Charles Kingsley writes (Letters) to a friend:

“The doctrine occurs nowhere in the Old Testament, nor any hint of it. The expression, in the end of Isaiah, about the fire not quenched, and the worm not dying, is plainly of the dead corpses of men upon the physical earth, in the valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, where the offal of Jerusalem was burned perpetually.

“The doctrine of endless torment was, as a historical fact, brought back from Babylon by the Rabbis. It may be a very ancient primary doctrine of the Magi, an appendage of their fire-kingdom of Ahriman, and may be found in the old Zends, long prior to Christianity.

“St. Paul accepts nothing of it as far as we can tell, never making the least allusion to the doctrine.

“The Apocalypse simply repeats the imagery of Isaiah, and of our Lord; but asserts distinctly the non-endlessness of torture, declaring that in the consummation, not only death but Hell shall be cast into the lake of fire.

“The Christian Church has never held it exclusively till now. It remained quite an open question till the age of Justinian, 530, and significantly enough, as soon as 200 years before that, endless torment for the heathen became a popular theory, purgatory sprang up synchronously by the side of it, as a relief for the conscience and reason of the church.”

Canon Farrar truthfully says, in his “Eternal Hope”:

“And, finally, the word rendered Hell is in one place the Greek word ‘Tartarus,’ borrowed, as a word, for the prison of evil spirits, not after, but before the resurrection. It is in ten places ‘Hadees’ which simply means the world beyond the grave, and it is twelve places ‘Gehenna’ which means primarily, the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, in which, after it had been polluted by Moloch worship, corpses were flung and fires were lit; and, secondly, it is a metaphor, not of final and hopeless, but of that purifying and corrective, punishment which, as we all believe, does await impenitent sin both here and beyond the grave. But, be it solemnly observed, the Jews to whom, and in whose metaphorical sense, the word was used by our blessed Lord, never did, either then or at any other period, attach to that word ‘Gehenna,’ which he used, that meaning of endless torment which we have been taught to apply to Hell. To them, and, therefore, on the lips of our blessed Savior who addressed it to them, it means not a material and everlasting fire, but an intermediate, a metaphorical, and a terminal retribution.”

In Excursus II, “Eternal Hope,” he says the “damnation of Hell is the very different “judgment of Gehenna;” and Hell-fire is the “Gehenna of fire,” “an expression which on Jewish lips was never applied in our Lord’s days to endless torment. Origen tells us (c. Celsus vi: 25) that finding the word Gehenna in the Gospels for the place of punishment, he made a special search into its meaning and history; and after mentioning (1) the Valley of Hinnom, and (2) a purificatory fire (eis teen meta basanon katharsin,) he mysteriously adds that he thinks it unwise to speak without reserve about his discoveries. No one reading the passage can doubt that he means to imply the use of the word ‘Gehenna’ among the Jews to indicate a terminable, and not an endless punishment.”

The English word Hell occurs in the Bible fifty-five times, thirty-two in the Old Testament and twenty-three in the New Testament. The original terms translated Hell, Sheol-Hadees occur in the Old Testament sixty-four times and in the New Testament twenty-four times; Hadees eleven times, Gehenna twelve times and Tartarus once. In every instance the meaning is death, the grave, or the consequences of sin in this life. Thus the word Hell in the Bible, whether translated from Sheol, Hadees, Gehenna, or Tartarus, yields no countenance to the doctrine of even future, much less endless punishment.

It should not be concluded, however, from our expositions of the usage of the word Hell, in the Bible, that Universalists deny that the consequences of sin extend to the life beyond the grave. We deny that inspiration has named Hell as a place or condition of punishment in the spirit world. It seems a philosophical conclusion, and there are Scriptures that appear to many Universalists to teach that the future life is affected to a greater or less extent, by human conduct here; but that Hell is a place or condition of suffering after death, is not believed by any, and, as we trust we have shown, the Scriptures never so designate it. Sheol, Hadees and Tartarus denoted literal death, or the consequences of sin here, and Gehenna was the name of a locality well known to all Jews, into which sometimes men were cast, and was made an emblem of great calamities or sufferings resulting from sin. Hell in the Bible, in all the fifty-five instances in which the word occurs always refers to the present, and Never To The Immortal World.