Her grandparents had certainly heard about Christianity but had never adequately heard the gospel message. She wasn’t sure she wanted to follow a God who would summarily condemn them to eternal Hell. And with so few Christians in Japan, a hundred and twenty million more people were like her grandparents.
As I thought about it, I went one step further: On one hand, Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), and Peter says of Jesus that “there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So Jesus is the only way to Heaven, and without him I go to the hot and fiery place. On the other hand, the First Letter of John says twice in chapter four, “God is love.” He doesn’t just love believers; he is love.
Isn’t there a contradiction here—like the one repeated ad infinitum of “how could a loving God send people to Hell?” In responding to the question, I risk being vilified as a narrow-minded, judgmental Christian. And I risk being vilified as a doctrine-denying liberal.
When I hear people leaning Universalist and letting everyone into Heaven because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), I gasp and say, “What about all the times Jesus warned us about Hell?” He wasn’t just having a bunch of bad days.
When I hear people proclaim that anyone who does not confess Christ goes straight to eternal damnation, I sigh and say, “What about all the places where the Bible talks about God’s mercy?”
To say it’s a mystery is partly right, because there’s much we don’t know. Deuteronomy 29:29 sets the standard: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Some things we’re meant to know; some we’re not. But a lot of us ignore what’s actually been revealed to us.
The Problem with Hell
I wish we could take the word Hell out of our English vocabulary—not because it’s unpleasant, but because it creates so much confusion.
Hell is originally an English word, not biblical, derived from Old English, referring to the place of the dead. Whenever we take a single word outside of the Bible and impose it on several different biblical words, we can expect confusion. And that’s exactly what we have.
The mindset of applying Hell to all the bad people who don’t make it to a nice place in the afterlife is universal and deeply rooted, even in the minds of Bible translators. As a result, nearly every English Bible translation uses “Hell” for the words Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus. The only version that does not is Young’s Literal Translation, published in 1862 and not particularly popular today. As with everything else in his translation, Young keeps intact all the Greek words referring to the afterlife. But with all the modern versions dumping several different terms into one Hell basket, it’s no surprise that we have hundreds of millions of English speakers who view Hell simplistically and unbiblically.
The word and concept of Hell are used with countless religions, taking on all kinds of images and metaphors. Ancient mythologies and contemporary folk religions on every continent, as well as the major religions of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism all have concepts of Hell. And they’re all different. Images of other religions’ Hells get confused with biblical distinctives.
If we have to keep the term Hell, and I can’t imagine it going away, we should at least be careful which biblical word we apply it to. That one word—and only that one—is Gehenna.
What the Gehenna?
Every city needs a garbage dump. And before recycling, places like Jerusalem burned their garbage—day and night for millennia. In this same place, Kings Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their own sons (2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6). The dump was the valley on the south side of Jerusalem, the Valley of Ben Hinnom (son of Hinnom), or the Valley of Hinnom, in Hebrew Ge Hinnom. Jesus takes this imagery of refuse, perpetual fire, and human sacrifice, along with the name, to describe for us the eternal destiny of the damned, rendered in Greek as “Gehenna.”
With the exception of one reference in James 3:6 (by Jesus’ brother), Jesus is the only one in the Bible to use the term Gehenna. We should take to heart that the One who loves us the most is the one who gives the scariest warnings.
When Jesus recommends ridding ourselves of our hands and eyes rather than sinning, he uses the imagery of “eternal fire” and “the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 18:8–9) to describe the judgment. Mark 9:43’s version reads: “Gehenna, where the fire never goes out.” Mark adds that the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (9:48). Matthew 25:41 says Jesus will tell the people on his left to go to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Revelation 20:10 identifies this as “the lake of burning sulfur,” and says people will be thrown in it, three times calling it the “lake of fire” (20:14–15).
Jesus is also the only one to use the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for end time judgment—and only in Matthew. He uses the phrase in six different occurrences, every time in a parable. The phrase is joined with images of “the fiery furnace” (13:42, 50) and “darkness” (8:12; 22:13; 25:30). And it makes sense: though fire produces light, a furnace is always considered a dark place. This is also the place of “hypocrites” (24:51). Is Jesus talking about Gehenna? Consider this: In direct expository teaching he always uses the place name Gehenna. But in parables he speaks consistently in the genre of narrative and instead of saying Gehenna uses the imagery of fire, darkness, and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The term “judgment,” referring to God’s end-time judgment, is all over the Bible. It is the phrase Paul uses instead of describing Hell directly when he says to those who are stubborn and unrepentant, “You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). The Book of Hebrews brings the two together, saying that if we deliberately keep on sinning, we have “only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire” (10:27).
Gehenna, then, is what most people really mean when they say Hell: judgment, punishment, fire, eternal misery. But we do not see anything about the devil or demons poking people with pitchforks or anything close to that. According to Scripture, these fallen angels will suffer in Gehenna too—but only at the end of time (Revelation 20:7–15). Now they’re in Tartarus (more on that later).
Today the Hinnom Valley is a city park. No surprise that not much was built there, and it’s the city’s main venue for outdoor rock concerts. You can imagine all the jokes that go on. But the Gehenna we can’t see is no joke.
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