The Punishment of Gehenna
One begins a study on the destiny of the lost with mixed emotions. We are made to feel how small we are as we attempt to probe the mind of God in order to discover what He has said about the future state of the lost, and we are frustrated as we realize that there are some things that we just don't know now about the destiny of men. We experience a feeling of sadness as we discover that the lost will be punished and we are humbled at the realization of the possibility that we could be among those lost ones who will suffer punishment. And yet we have a feeling of confidence that some day God will do what is right in all cases that come before Him for judgment, and a feeling of relief to know that ultimately those malicious, malignant practitioners of evil will receive what is due them.
There are some preliminary propositions that we need to establish as we begin our study. The Bible is clear that there is such a thing as being lost (Lk. 19:10) and that there are more who will be lost than there are who will be saved (Matt. 7:13-14). These are unpopular affirmations with some but they can hardly be denied if Christ is to be believed when he speaks on other subjects. A logical question that arises from these statements of Christ is, "What is the final, ultimate destiny of this multitude of lost individuals?
The answer to this question is likewise unpopular but just as clear and difficult to deny. Numerous passages affirm that the destiny of the lost is punishment (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:8-9; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 21:8). But just what is the nature of this punishment? To answer this question is the purpose of our study. In order to appreciate what is involved in punishment we need to acquaint ourselves with a number of Greek words which convey this idea in the New Testament.
Ekdikesis (2 Thess. 1:8) "lit. '(that which proceeds) out of justice,'" W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol. 4, p. 184.
Dike (2 Thess. 1:9; Jue 7) Thayer (p. 151) says this word can be applied to the execution of the sentence that comes from a judicial hearing or decision.
Kolasis and kolazo (Matt. 25:46; 2 Pet. 2:9) Several sources say these words signify a cutting off, a pruning. "Punishment is designed to cut off what is bad or disorderly", Kittel, Theological Dicteionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, p. 814.
Timoreo and timoria (Heb. 10:29) "Primarily, to help, then to avenge...i.e. to help by redressing wrongs", Vine, vol. 3, p. 230
Punishment, then, is a cutting off, a severing of the righteous from the unrighteous. It is likewise justice, a sentence that is fair. And it is vengeance, the redressing or compensation one receives for wrongs done.
In order to impress upon our minds the nature of this punishment, Jesus spoke to the Jews in language they would have no difficulty understanding. He compared the punishment that lost individuals will experience to their being in a geographical locality near Jerusalem with which every Jews was familiar. And in order to help us appreciate Jesus' use of this place we need to acquaint ourselves with it: The Valley of Hinnom.
The name "Gehenna" (Greek, "geena") is a transliteration of the Hebrew "gehinnom", a valley outside of Jerusalem (Josh. 15:8), the exact location of which is uncertain and irrelevant to this study, although generally thought to be somewhere on the south side of the city. In this valley of Hinnom was place called Topeth (2 Kings 23:10) and it is probable that at one time Hinnom and Topeth were both very beautiful and garden-like in their appearance and pleasant places to visit. However, this beautiful valley underwent a change (possibly as early as the reign of Solomon, 1 Kings 11:7) which allowed Jesus to make use of it as a graphic illustration of what the punishment of the lost would be like.
The exact meaning of the words "hinnom" and" topeth" are uncertain and various meanings are given to them. But whatever the names mean, it is what happened here that is significant to our study. It was here that the Jews, in their lowest spiritual moments, had practiced every form of idolatry possible (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:4-5; 32:35) which included the offering of their children in fire to the god "molech" (see comments on 2 Kings 16:3 in The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5, p. 313. During the reign and reforms of Josiah he had this place "defiled" by tearing down the idols and filling the place with the bones of those who had participated in the idol worship (2 Kings 23:10-14; 2 Chron. 34:4-5), and under Jeremiah the name was changed to what it would now be used for (Jer. 7:31-34; 19:3-6, 10-12).
Concerning Hinnom and Topeth, Albert Barnes says "...it was made the place where to throw all of the dead carcasses and filth of the city; and was not infrequently the place of executions. It became, therefore, extremely offensive; the sight was terrific; the air was polluted and pestilential; and to preserve it in any manner pure, it was necessary to keep fires continually burning there. The extreme loathsomeness of the place; the filth and putrefaction; the corruption of the atmosphere, and the lurid fires blazing by day and by night, made it one of the most appalling and terrific objects with which a Jew was acquainted". Barnes' Notes on the New Testament, one volume edition, p. 23. In the areas of the valley not on fire, scavenger dogs roamed looking for food, and maggots were teeming, feeding on the abundance of rotting matter on which such thrive.
Thus it was that Jesus, when wanting to impress his hearers with the nature of the punishment of the lost, pointed to Gehenna and, by implication, to Topeth. "Gehenna" is used twelve times in the New Testament (Matt. 5:22, 29, 20; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; Jas. 3:6) eleven times by Jesus Himself, and is the one word that should be translated "hell" for its very derivation connotes every misery and unpleasantness usually associated with all that is "hellish".
But "Gehenna" was not the only term employed by Christ and others to describe the nature of punishment. A consideration of these other terms will shed further light upon the nature of the fate of the wicked.
"Worm dieth not" (Mk. 9:48). This worm is the maggot already alluded to, "a worm which preys upon dead bodies...The statement signifies the exclusion of the hope of restoration, the punishment being eternal." Vine, vol. 4, p. 234
"Fire and brimstone" (Rev. 21:8) It is probably that "brimstone" originally referred to the gum or resin of trees like cypress or gopherwood, and then "...it was transferred to all inflammable substances, and especially to sulphur...It is exceedingly inflammable, and when burning emits a peculiar suffocating smell" John McClintoch and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 1, pp. 893-894.
"Unquenchable fire" (Mk. 9:43) Our word "asbestos" comes from this word and means that which is inextinguishable.
"Eternal" (Matt. 25:46) Robertson says "The word aionios...means either without beginning or without end of both. It comes as near to the idea of eternal as the Greek can put it in one word". Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 202
What, then, can be legitimately deduced about the nature of eternal punishment of the lost in Gehenna?
1-Their punishment will be that of agony and torment. The fact that Jesus alluded to places such as Genenna and Topeth as representative of that punishment seems to justify that conclusion, as does the reference to brimstone with its putrid stench. Such language can only be pointing to what is the ultimate in discomfort. But just as we should be careful not to literalize the language describing heaven (Rev. 21-22), we should exercise the same caution in the interpretation of the language describing hell. Descriptions of both places are couched in accommodative language that is highly figurative. Literalizing the fire, worms, brimstone, etc., misses the point. Regardless of the specifics of the punishment in hell, it is horrible beyond our abilities to understand.
2-The condition of the lost will be eternal in its duration. Because of the language of Matt. 25:46, whatever argument is made against eternal punishment can be made with equal force against eternal life. If one is not eternal, neither is the other. However, if heaven and all of its splendor goes on unending, so does hell with all of its horrors. If allusions to the worm not dying and an unquenchable fire are not figurative ways of expressing the literal idea of eternity, then language means nothing. "It adds to the terribleness of these sayings that, as before remarked, there is nothing to put against them; no hint or indication of a termination of the doom. Why did Jesus not safeguard His words from misapprehension, if behind them there lay an assurance of restoration an mercy? One may ask with Oxenham, in a reply to Jukes, 'whether if Christ had intended to teach the doctrine of eternal punishment, He could possibly have taught it in plainer terms.'" James Orr, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 2502.
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 12.5; May 2005