Comments on Walter Balfour’s interpretation of Gehenna
In the interpretation of New Testament references to Gehenna proposed by Walter Balfour, it was a figure or an emblem that represented the destruction that came upon the Jewish nation in 70 AD. He wrote: 
Schleusner observes, that among the Jews “any severe punishment, especially a shameful kind of death, was denominated Gehenna.” If this remark is correct, it well agrees with the prediction of Jeremiah. He had used Gehenna as imagery to describe the punishment to be inflicted on the Jewish nation, when on them came all the righteous blood shed on the earth. That this punishment was severe is certain. Our Lord declared, “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved.” Matt. 24: 21, 22. Josephus said, six hundred thousand dead bodies were carried out of Jerusalem and suffered to lie unburied. Their punishment, then, was both severe and shameful, and might well be denominated Gehenna, for no place was more horrible to Jews than the valley of Hinnom. It was a fit emblem to describe their punishment.
With this interpretation of Gehenna, Balfour waged war upon the notion that it was intended to be an emblem or figure of the unending infernal torment of the wicked. Balfour’s views on Gehenna were challenged by a Unitarian minister named Bernard Whitman, who defended the idea that Gehenna represents a “spiritual hell.” Whitman appealed to Jewish traditions, and interpretations of Gehenna in the Targums and Talmuds, to support his argument, claiming that the idea of infernal punishment is represented by Gehenna in the New Testament. Balfour responded to Whitman’s critique, dismissing his argument . Their respective views on Gehenna are presented in The Gehenna Controversy.
In their disputes about the meaning of Gehenna, both men overlooked the significance of Gehenna as a topographical feature in the land of promise, and one of the valleys which Isaiah said will be filled, as John the Baptist proclaimed. [Luke 3:5]
From Gehenna, one views Jerusalem as an outsider; the teachings of Jesus encourage us to get into the kingdom of God, and obtain life. The photo at right shows a view of the walls of the city from the valley of Hinnom.
The 14th chapter of Zechariah describes a number of changes in the topography in the environment of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives will be cleaved in the midst, and half the mountain will move to the north, and half to the south. [Zech. 14:4-5] Other changes foretold in his prophecy affect an area that includes the valley of Hinnom.
All the land shall be turned as a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem: and it shall be lifted up, and inhabited in her place, from Benjamin’s gate unto the place of the first gate, unto the corner gate, and from the tower of Hananeel unto the king’s winepresses.
And men shall dwell in it, and there shall be no more utter destruction; but Jerusalem shall be safely inhabited.
Zechariah said all the area around about Jerusalem will become a plain. This idea is very similar to the prophecy of Isaiah, about Jerusalem being raised up, and established in the top of the mountains. [Isaiah 2:1-3] In the New Testament, Jerusalem is located in heaven, which fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. [Heb. 12:22]
In a commentary on Zechariah by William Lindsay Alexander, Geba and Rimmon are said to be located on the northern and southern borders of Judah. Alexander wrote: 
Geba was situated on a rocky ridge overlooking the eastern slopes of the mountains of Benjamin, about six miles to the north of Jerusalem (Hod. Jeba); Rimnion was a city on the southern border of the territory originally assigned to Judah (Josh. xv. 21, 32), here described as to the south of Jerusalem, to distinguish it from the Rimmon in Galilee, to the north of Nazareth and the Rock Rimmon (Judges xx. 45), probably represented now by the ruins of Um-er-Rummanim, four hours north of Beersheba. These places marked the northern and southern extremities of the territory of Judah; and the phrase “from Geba to Rimmon,” equivalent to “from Geba to Beersheba” (2 Kings xxiii. 8), describes the whole land of Judah. This is for the most part a hilly region; but this whole district should become like the Arabah (Deut. i. 7; Josh xii. 1, 3, 8, &c.), the Great Plain … extending from the Sea of Tiberias to the Elanitic Gulf.
The city of Jerusalem is to be exulted, Zechariah said, while the area around about becomes a plain. The prophecy highlights the contrast between dwelling within the city, and being outside.
Alexander explained the figurative nature of Zechariah’s prophecy; it applies to the heavenly Jerusalem, that is, the church: 
The highly figurative description of the prophet, couched in language which does not admit of a literal interpretation, of itself necessitates our resorting to a spiritual application of his utterance. The appearance of Jehovah on Mount Olivet, the sudden cleaving of that mountain by an earthquake, so as to cause a valley to stretch through its centre, the extinguishing of the heavenly luminaries, causing a darkness that might be felt to overspread the land, the breaking forth of light at evening when, according to natural law, darkness should begin to assume the sway, the sending forth of streams from one point in diametrically opposite directions, the making of the whole hilly region round Jerusalem into a plain like the Arabah, so as that Jerusalem should come to be elevated over the whole land–all that is so conspicuously figurative that a literal interpretation of it has never been seriously proposed by any one except some of the Rabbins. Figurative also is the representation of a gathering of all nations against Jerusalem; this at no time has been realised, nor could it be so at any time. But if all this be figurative, it cannot be of Jerusalem as the actual metropolis of Judea that the prophet here speaks; it must be to Jerusalem as to the centre of the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and as representing that kingdom that the oracle relates.
Jerusalem, as Alexander suggests, represents the kingdom of God. Among those outside the city are those who are cast into the valley of Hinnom!
In Zechariah 14, the saints are encouraged to flee towards the east, as if from an earthquake, through the great valley that forms between the two halves of the Mount of Olives when the mountain is cleaved and the two halves are displaced in opposite directions. In contrast, the valley of Hinnom or Gehenna lies to the west and south of the city.
The topography of Jerusalem and its environs is used in prophecy to represent spiritual things. I suggest the Mount of Olives represents the Olivet Discourse of Jesus, and its cleaving in the midst, and the displacement of the two sections of the mountain towards the north and towards the south represent the two opposing interpretations of prophecy prevalent today, preterism, and dispensationalism. To flee to the valley formed between the two sections represents applying the Olivet Discourse, and related prophecies, to the present, rather than to the past, as preterism does, or to the future, as in dispensationalism.
The sayings of Jesus about Gehenna also apply to the present age. Gehenna is a judgment. [Mat. 5:22, 23:33] Jesus referred to it as something we should avoid at any cost, even if it means loss of our right eye, or our right hand, or our right foot. [Mat. 5:29, 30] Jesus said God is able to destroy “both soul and body” in Gehenna, and that we should fear him. [Mat. 10:28, Luke 12:5] This suggests that the warnings about Gehenna apply to our present lives; being cast into it represents the spiritual condition, of being outside the holy city.
Being cast into Gehenna contrasts with entering into life. [Mat. 18:9] Scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites are called “children of Gehenna.” [Mat. 23:15] Balfour correctly pointed out “no Gentile is ever threatened with Gehenna punishment,” as that threat applies especially to those in Jerusalem. One must be in the holy city, in order to be cast out of it. While the threat of “the damnation of Gehenna” applies only to Jews, the heirs of salvation, who are “in Christ,” are called Jews, and “the circumcision,” in a spiritual sense; Jesus used the threat of Gehenna figuratively and metaphorically to warn the saints who dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Gehenna is associated with “the fire that can’t be quenched.” [Mark 9:43, 45, 47] The fire that is never quenched is God’s word, that endures forever, which is called a fire in several scriptures. James said the tongue is a fire; it defiles the whole body, and it is set on fire of Gehenna. The things James said about the tongue show Gehenna represents a condition of people in this life, who do not live according to the spirit of Christ. [James 3:6]
1. Walter Balfour. An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna, translated Hell in the Common English Version. Revised, with essays and notes, by Otis A. Skinner. Boston: published by A. Tompkins. 1854.
2. William Lindsay Alexander. Zechariah: his visions and warnings. 1885. p. 314.
3. Ibid. pp. 317-318.
- Walter Balfour’s discussion of Gehenna
- Hope in Gehenna?
- John Calvin on Gehenna
- Gehenna applies to the church, not the world
- Gehenna in the ‘Love Wins’ controversy