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Walter Balfour’s discussion of Gehenna

April 7, 2011

The following is part of Walter Balfour’s discussion of Gehenna, in which he shows that it cannot designate a place of endless torment for the wicked. This exert is from:

An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna, translated Hell in the Common English Version, by Walter Balfour. Revised, with essays and notes, by Otis A. Skinner.
Boston: published by A. Tompkins. 1854. [pdf ]


BEFORE we consider the texts, where Gehenna occurs in the New Testament, it is of importance to notice the following facts. They have been altogether overlooked, or but little attended to in discussions on this subject.

1st. The term Gehenna is not used in the Old Testament to designate a place of endless punishment. Dr. Campbell declares positively that it has no such meaning there. All agree with him; and this should lead to careful inquiry whether in the New Testament it can mean a place of endless misery. This has been too long believed without examination. The admitted fact that it has no such sense in the Old Testament ought to create the suspicion that its sense is misunderstood in the New.

2d. Those who believe Gehenna designates a place of endless punishment in the New Testament, entirely overlook its meaning in the Old. All admit its literal original signification to be the valley of Hinnom. But not one of them takes the least notice that Gehenna was used also by Jeremiah, as a source of imagery or emblem, to describe the punishment God threatened to the Jewish nation. But why overlook this sense of it in the Old Testament? Is it not possible, yea, is it not probable, that this may be its sense in the New? All critics admit the language of the New Testament is derived from the Old, and ought to be interpreted by it.

3d. Those who believe Gehenna in the New Testament designates a place of endless punishment give it this sense on mere human authority. Dr. Campbell, above, says, Gehenna came gradually to assume this sense, and at last came to be confined to it. But no divine authority is referred to for the change. Professor Stuart refers to the later Jews, the Rabbinical writers, as authority: and finally tells us, “Gehenna came to be used as a designation of the infernal regions, because the Hebrews supposed that demons dwelt in this valley.” But who can believe the term Gehenna in the New Testament is used in a sense which originated in a silly, superstitious notion?

4th. The word Gehenna only occurs twelve times in the New Testament. The following are all the texts. Matt. 5: 22, 29, 30, and 18: 9; Mark 9: 43–47; Luke 12: 5; Matt. 10: 28, and 23: 15; 33; James 3: 6. The rendering of Gehenna in these texts is uniformly hell in the common version. The fact that Gehenna is only used twelve times in the New Testament deserves notice; for Dr. Campbell and others say, this is the only word in the Bible which designates a place of endless punishment. If this is true, the place of endless punishment is only mentioned twelve times. But, really, Gehenna was not used even twelve times. It occurs eleven times in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which all know are only three histories of the same discourses in which Gehenna was used by our Lord. Viewing the subject in this light, few words of such importance occur so seldom in the New Testament as the word Gehenna. I notice this, to show the difference between our Lord and modern preachers as to the frequency of their use of the word hell. Allowing it used twelve times in the New Testament, this is not so often as many preachers use it in a single sermon.

5th. The word Gehenna is used by our Lord, and by James, but by no other person in the New Testament. Any person who can read English may satisfy himself of this fact, by reading the texts referred to above. John wrote the history of our Lord, as well as Matthew, Mark and Luke; but he does not use Gehenna either in his gospel or epistles. What is more remarkable, Luke, though he uses Gehenna once in his gospel, does not use it in Acts, which contains the history of the apostles’ preaching for thirty years. Paul, Peter and Jude are entirely silent about Gehenna, which is very strange, if it designated a place of endless punishment. The writings of those persons who do not use it form two thirds of the New Testament. But, surely, it is a very natural expectation, warranted by the frequent mention of other important subjects, that all the writers in the New Testament should often speak of Gehenna, if it means a place of endless misery. And if they believed this, yet were silent about it, they were not so faithful as most modern preachers. But can any man believe that our Lord’s disciples understood him to mean by Gehenna a place of endless misery, yet most of them never said a word about it in their preaching, or in their letters to the churches? Is it at all probable that they would lay aside the term used by our Lord to designate such a place, and adopt some other language to express it? We strongly doubt this.

6th. All that is said about Gehenna in the New Testament was spoken to Jews, and to Jews only. No Gentile is ever threatened with Gehenna punishment. Any person can satisfy himself of this by simply reading the texts where Gehenna is used, with their respective contexts. It is of no consequence to decide to whom the gospels were originally addressed, for, in the eleven places where our Lord used the term Gehenna, it is certain he was speaking to Jews. And in the only place where it occurs, it is certain James wrote to the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad. James 1: 1, comp. chap. 3: 6. It forms no objection to this fact, “that our Lord’s ministry was among the Jews, and not among the Gentiles, hence he could not say to the Gentiles as to the Jews, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell (Gehenna)?” The apostles’ ministry was among the Gentiles; but they never say anything to them about Gehenna in any shape whatever, which shows that the “damnation of Gehenna” only concerned the Jews. This fact is of great importance in the present investigation. Let us, then, attach what sense we please to the term, it is certain that Jews are the only persons concerned in its punishment. As proof of this it may be observed, that Matthew, Mark and Luke, are thought to have written their gospels for the use of the Jews, and in them Gehenna is used. It seems certain that John wrote his gospel for the use of the Gentiles, for he explains Jewish places, names, and customs, altogether unnecessary in writing to Jews. But it deserves especial notice that John does not mention Gehenna, and omits all the discourses of our Lord in which he spoke of it. If the damnation of Gehenna or hell only concerned the Jews, we see a good reason for such an omission; but if it equally concerned the Gentiles, how shall any man account for the omission on rational and scriptural principles? If Jews and Gentiles were alike concerned in the punishment of Gehenna, why were not both alike admonished concerning it? How, I ask, could the Gentiles avoid the punishment of Gehenna, seeing no sacred writer said anything to them about it? Does not this very omission prove that the New Testament writers did not mean by Gehenna a place of endless misery, but that it designated the temporal punishment which Jeremiah predicted to the Jewish nation?

To the above it may possibly be objected, “Were not all the Scriptures written for the benefit of mankind? Why, then, make this distinction between Jews and Gentiles?” Answer: “Whatsoever was written aforetime was written for our instruction.” But notwithstanding this, who does not make this very distinction? As Gentiles, we may derive much instruction from Matt., chaps. 23d and 24th; but all allow that these two chapters had a particular reference to the Jews. In the first, some of the most important things occur which our Lord ever delivered respecting Gehenna. Who denies that the words, “Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers,” had a special reference to the Jews as a nation? By why not also the very next words, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” And as this is the only instance where our Lord ever threatened the unbelieving Jews with the “damnation of Gehenna,” and no sacred writer ever threatened the Gentiles with it, who can doubt this punishment only respected Jews? This fact ought to lead all to suspect that our Lord, by Gehenna, meant the temporal punishment coming on the Jewish nation, and not a place of endless punishment. The man who can avoid such a suspicion must have some way of accounting for this and other facts of which I am ignorant.

7th. Nearly all that our Lord said about Gehenna was spoken to his own disciples. In the twelve places where it occurs, only in two instances is there an allusion to the unbelieving part of the Jewish nation. In nine of the other instances our Lord was addressing his own disciples. They are the persons principally warned against Gehenna. In the only other instance James was addressing believing Jews of the twelve tribes scattered abroad. A reference to the texts will satisfy the reader as to the correctness of these statements. I then ask, if our Lord by Gehenna meant a place of endless misery, why was he so solicitous that his few disciples should escape this punishment, yet say so little concerning it to the unbelieving multitude? How is this to be rationally and scripturally accounted for? Besides, he always spoke about Gehenna to his disciples as a thing they might escape; but to the unbelieving Jews he said, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” Why warn those so often, who were in the least danger of Gehenna, yet only threaten once those in the greatest danger of it, if the common opinions on the subject are correct? Our Lord’s conduct differs very much from that of preachers in the present day. What preacher now shows more solicitude that the few in his church should be saved from Gehenna or hell, than the multitude he considers living in disobedience? Why they act so differently from our Lord, I must leave for others to explain. I am satisfied that this can never be rationally accounted for on the common opinions respecting Gehenna. I may add, either our Lord said a great deal too little about Gehenna, or hell, to the wicked, or modern preachers say a great deal too much. Which of these is the truth must be left for themselves to determine. This, with the other facts above, must create more than a doubt that Gehenna in the New Testament does not mean a place of endless punishment.

8th. Wherever Gehenna is mentioned in the New Testament, the persons addressed are supposed to be perfectly acquainted with its meaning. No explanation is asked by the hearer, none is given by the speaker, nor is it supposed by either to be necessary. The Jews were always the persons addressed about Gehenna. The first time our Lord addressed his disciples about it, Matt. 5: 22, they had no more occasion to ask him what he meant by Gehenna, than what he meant by the judgment and council. And when he said to the unbelieving Jews, “How can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?” they understood as well what punishment he meant, as if he had spoken of stoning to death. If all this be true, and we think it indisputable, the question arises, Did the Jews our Lord addressed understand Gehenna to mean a place of endless misery? As this is generally asserted, I have a right to ask, from what source of information did they learn this sense of the word? I can think of no other sources from which they could possibly derive it, except the following:–

1st. From immediate inspiration. But no evidence of this can be produced; nor is it even alleged by those who contend that Gehenna in the New Testament means a place of endless punishment. No man will assert this, who has considered the subject.

2d. The preaching of John the Baptist. But this cannot be alleged, for John never said a word about Gehenna in his preaching, if a correct account is given of it in the New Testament.

3d. The instructions or explanations of the Saviour. This, no man will aver who has read the four gospels; for our Lord never explained Gehenna to mean the place of endless punishment.

4th. The Old Testament. All admit that Gehenna is not used in the Old Testament to designate a place of endless misery. Dr. Campbell declared that in this sense it is not found there.

5th. The assertions of uninspired men. This is the source whence originated the sense now given to Gehenna. Indeed, no higher authority is quoted than this; no one contends that God first gave it such a sense. Dr. Campbell said, “Gehenna in process of time came to be used in this sense, and at length came to be confined to it.” And Professor Stuart refers us to Rabbinical writers as his authority that Gehenna in the New Testament means a place of endless punishment. In fact, he traces the origin of this sense given to Gehenna, to the silly superstition among the Jews, who thought demons dwelt in the valley of Hinnom. Such is the way, the believers in endless hell torments say, Gehenna came to have such a sense attached to it. We presume no man can devise a better.

But let us suppose the Jews understood our Lord, by Gehenna, to mean a place of endless punishment. How were they likely to relish such a threatening? Not very well, for we shall see afterwards, from Dr. Whitby, that the Jews believed no Jew, however wicked, would go to hell. I ask, then, how was it possible for our Lord to say to the unbelieving Jews, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” without exciting their wrath and indignation against him? But nothing is said in the four gospels that this threatening excited their indignation, or that it was ever brought up as an accusation against him.

There is no evidence that the unbelieving Jews understood our Lord in one sense, and the disciples in another. No; nor have we ever seen or heard that this has been alleged by any one. How, then, did both understand him? I answer this question by asking, how ought they to have understood him according to the meaning of Gehenna in their own Scriptures? Certainly either as meaning the literal valley of Hinnom, or symbol of the punishment God had threatened their nation, as seen from Jeremiah. In no other sense was Gehenna used in their Scriptures. In the last of these senses they must have understood him; for when our Lord spoke to them of Gehenna, it was the punishment of Gehenna; and that such a punishment had been threatened by Jeremiah, no Jew could be ignorant who was acquainted with the Scriptures. If the Scriptures were the common source of information, both to believing and unbelieving Jews, none of them could understand our Lord, by Gehenna punishment, to mean endless punishment in a future state; for they contained no such information. Those who contend that the Jews so understood our Lord, are bound to inform us how they came by this information, seeing it was not found in their Scriptures. Who taught them this doctrine? Was it from heaven or of men? These are the questions at issue. To assume that Gehenna means a place of endless punishment, will not satisfy candid inquirers after truth. And to refer them to Rabbinical authority for this sense of Gehenna, is plainly admitting that it cannot be supported by a fair appeal to the Bible.

We have some additional facts to produce, to show that Gehenna, in the New Testament, does not designate a place of endless misery to the wicked. But these will be more appropriately introduced, after we have considered all the texts in the New Testament where the word occurs.