End of Life Questions (part 3) - Gehenna
John Telgren

There are several other words and metaphors to describe the condition, and/or place of those who die physically, such as "Geenna" in the New Testament. This comes from the Aramaic, "ge-hinnam," which comes from the Hebrew, "ge-hinnom." We usually render it "Gehenna" into English, and usually translate it, "Hell."

This word originally meant, "The valley of Hinnom." In the Old Testament, this valley eventually became the site of detestable pagan worship, which included child sacrifice (2 Chr. 28:3; 2 Chr. 33:6; 2 Kings 23:10ff).

As a result, Jeremiah prophesied that the Valley of Hinnom will become the "Valley of Slaughter," a place of judgment (Jer. 7:31ff; 19:1ff). Jewish writings from the second temple period (after the return to Babylon), began to gradually refer to the valley as the site of the final judgment with fire. Eventually, this word was used for God's eschatological punishment in general and was no longer localized to the valley of Hinnom. In later Jewish apocalyptic literature, "Gehenna" came to mean the place of punishment after death and before the final judgment. It is well known that this valley eventually became the place where the inhabitants of Jerusalem dumped and burned their trash. What was once a pagan worship site had become a garbage dump with smoldering trash.

Thus, when we come to the New Testament and encounter, "Gehenna," we get a "word picture" that is full of horrible history, memory, and imagery. The New Testament uses "Gehenna" 12 times (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; Jas 3:6).

In these passages, Gehenna is a place of punishment that involves fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9; etc.). It is a place where body and soul are ruined eternally (Matt. 10:28). It is a place for the hypocrites, the unjust, the wicked, and the like (Matt. 23:33).

Jesus gives a vivid picture of Gehenna in Mark 9:43ff. He calls it the place of unquenchable fire. He calls it the place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. The imagery is a combination of a perpetual fire and that of maggots, of worms that feed on dead carcasses.

This is not a "purifying" fire. Gehenna is a place where God punishes evil with unquenchable fire. It does not let up. There is no end. The worm does not die. Rotting and burning take place eternally.

No wonder Jesus says, "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28)."

Jesus came to rescue us from all of this. Rom. 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. The ultimate death is where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. This is the "second death," and "the lake that burns with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8). Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave, and offers forgiveness and life to those who obey the Gospel by committing to him as savior and Lord and demonstrating this through baptism. We then can look forward to Heaven, not Gehenna.