One of the most crucial issues which determines our understanding of what the Bible teaches about death and the afterlife is the proper interpretation of such key terms as Sheol, Hades and Gehenna. No study of death is complete without a thorough understanding of these terms.
The Hebrew word Sheol is found 66 times in the Old Testament. While the Old Testament consistently refers to the body as going to the grave, it always refers to the soul or spirit of man as going to Sheol. The nature of Sheol and the condition of those in it is crucial to our understanding of what the Bible teaches about what happens to man after death.
The Lexicographical Material
The first step in understanding any ancient or foreign word is to check the lexicons, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc., which deal with that language. Brown, Driver and Briggs based their A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament on the work of Gesenius, one of the greatest Hebrew scholars who ever lived. They define Sheol as: “the underworld whither man descends at death” (p. 982.). They trace the origin of Sheol to either sha-al, which means the spirit world to which mediums directed their questions to the departed, or sha-al, which refers to the hollow place in the earth where the souls of men went at death. Langenscheidt’s Hebrew/English Dictionary to the Old Testament (p. 337) defines Sheol as:
“netherworld, realm of the dead, Hades.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia in Vol. IV, p. 2761, defines Sheol as: “the unseen world, the state or abode of the dead, and is the equivalent of the Greek: Hades.” Keil and Delitzsch state that “Sheol denotes the place where departed souls are gathered after death; it is an infinitive form from sha-al, to demand, the demanding, applied to the place which inexorably summons all men into its shade.”1
The lexicographical evidence is so clear that the great Princeton scholar, B. B. Warfield;
stated that with modern Hebrew scholars, there is no “hesitation to allow with all heartiness that Israel from the beginning of its recorded history cherished the most settled conviction of the persistence of the soul in life after death. The body is laid in the grave and the soul departs to Sheol.”2 George Eldon Ladd in The New Bible Dictionary (p. 380), comments:
In the Old Testament, man does not cease to exist at death, but his soul descends to Sheol.
Modern scholarship understands the word Sheol to refer to the place where the soul or spirit of man goes at death.3 None of the lexicographical literature defines Sheol as referring to the grave or to passing into nonexistence.
In order to understand what a certain word meant in an ancient language, it is sometimes helpful to find any parallel words in the other languages of that time. Thus comparative studies of Sheol have been done which demonstrate that Sheol’s parallels in other languages meant the place where the soul of man goes at death. No research has found a place where Sheol’s parallel means the grave or nonexistence. For example, The Ugaritic ars and Accadian su alu clearly refer to the netherworld.4 The Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Greek parallels to Sheol clearly meant the place of departed spirits.5 The Ethiopian Si’ol cannot mean anything other than the netherworld, the place of conscious life after death.6
The Historical Context
What is important about comparative studies is that they place biblical words in their historical context. The word Sheol should thus be understood in terms of what it meant in the Hebrew language and by its parallel in the other languages of that time. Why?
When God wanted Israel to believe something which was unique and contrary to what the surrounding cultures believed, He always clearly condemned and forbade the pagan beliefs and then stressed the uniqueness of the new concept. For example, in order to establish monotheism, God repeatedly and clearly condemned the pagan concept of polytheism and stressed monotheism.
While God clearly condemned polytheism in the Old Testament, at no time did He ever condemn belief in a conscious afterlife. At no time did God ever put forth the concept of annihilation or nonexistence as the fate of man’s soul at death.
Also, when Israel had a unique and contrary belief, the pagan societies around Israel would use this belief as the grounds to persecute the Jews. Thus the Jews were persecuted for rejecting polytheism and believing in monotheism. Daniel’s three friends who were thrown into a fiery furnace are an excellent example of such persecution.
Yet, where in recorded history did pagan religions or societies persecute the Jews because they denied a conscious afterlife? To think that the Jews could go against the universally held concept of a conscious afterlife and that the pagans would not seize upon this as a pretense for persecution is absurd.
Since the universality of belief in a conscious afterlife is irrefutable, and there is no evidence that Israel deviated from this belief, we must assume that the Old Testament taught a conscious afterlife in Sheol as the fate of man’s soul or spirit.
The Rabbinic Literature
It is universally recognized by modern Talmudic scholars that Sheol never meant the grave or unconsciousness in rabbinic literature. Ginzburg states that in rabbinic writings one finds a consistent conviction that”there exists after this world a condition of happiness or unhappiness for an individual.”7 Guttman adds, “The Talmud, like the Apocryphal literature, knows of a kind of intermediate state of the soul between death and resurrection; true retribution will be dispensed only after the resurrection of the body. But along with this, we also find the fate in a retribution coming immediately after death and in a life of blessedness for the soul in the beyond.”8
The rabbinic tradition before, during, and after the time of Christ describes the soul departing the body and descending into Sheol at death.9 The rabbis consistently pictured both the righteous and the wicked as conscious after death.10 The evidence is so overwhelming that the classic Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, stated, “That the Jews believed in a conscious life after death is beyond dispute.11
The annihilationists have never discovered any evidence that the majority of Jews believed that the soul was extinguished at death. There is no conflict in the rabbinic literature over this issue.12
Sheol and the Grave
The KJV translates Sheol as “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times, and “pit” three times. Because of this inconsistency of translation, such groups as the Adventists, Armstrongites, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught that Sheol means the grave. All the conditional immortalitists have traditionally capitalized on the KJV’s translation of Sheol as the “grave.”
For example, in The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (Vol. I, pp. 162 and 298), Froom emphatically stated that both Sheol and Hades meant the grave. It is to be regretted that even some modern versions have carried on the tradition of translating Sheol as grave.
Since the conditional immortalitists stress that Sheol means the grave, we will pause at this point to demonstrate that Sheol cannot mean the grave.
First, exegetically speaking, the initial occurrence of Sheol in the Old Testament cannot mean the grave. The word Sheol is first found in Gen. 37:35. After the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, they informed their father that Joseph had been killed and devoured by a savage beast. As Jacob held the bloodied and tattered remains of Joseph’s coat in his hands, he declared:
“A wild beast has devoured him: Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” (v. 33)
As a result of the shock of the death of Joseph, Jacob cried:
“Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” (v. 35, lit. Heb.)
There are several things about this first occurrence of Sheol which should be pointed out.
One thing is clear: [Joseph's death] was not a state of nonbeing Jacob was going to be with his son; he was still his son; there was yet a tie between him and his son; he was still spoken of as a personality; he is still regarded as having a being somehow and somewhere.13
The second reason for not identifying Sheol as the grave is that when the biblical authors wanted to speak of the grave, they used the word kever. That they did not view kever and Sheol as synonymous is clear from the way these words are used throughout the Old Testament. For example, in Isa. 14:19, the king is cast out of his grave (kever) in order to be thrown into Sheol where the departed spirits can rebuke him (vv. 9, 10). In this passage, Sheol and kever are opposites, not synonyms.
Third, in the Septuagint, Sheol is never translated as mneema, which is the Greek word for grave. It is always translated as Hades which meant the underworld. Kever is translated as mneema 36 times and as taphos 45 times. But kever is never translated as Hades just as Sheol is never translated as mneema.
Fourth, kever and Sheol are never used in Hebrew poetic parallelism as equivalents. They are always contrasted and never equated. Kever is the fate of the body, while Sheol is the fate of the soul (Ps. 16:8-11).
Fifth, Sheol is “under the earth,” or “the underworld,” while graves were built as sepulchres above the earth, or caves, or holes in the earth. Sheol is called the underworld in Isa. 14:9. It is also called “the lower parts of the earth” (KJV) in Ps. 63:9; Isa. 44:23; Ezek. 26:20; 31:14, 16, 18; 32:18, 24. Sheol is the opposite of heaven (Ps. 139:8). One must go “down” to get to Sheol (Gen. 37:35).
Sixth, while bodies are unconscious in the grave, those in Sheol are viewed as being conscious (Isa. 14:4-7; 44:23; Ezek. 31:16; 32:21). Seventh, an examination of the usages of kever and Sheol reveals that Sheol cannot mean the grave. The following twenty contrasts between kever and Sheol demonstrates this point:
Sheol and Its Inhabitants
Given the Principle of progressive revelation, it is no surprise that the Old Testament is vague in its description of Sheol and the condition of those in it. While the Old Testament prophets stated many things about Sheol, they did not expound in any measure of depth on this subject. Another reason for this vagueness is that a conscious afterlife was so universally accepted that it was assumed by the biblical authors to be the belief of anyone who read the Scriptures. Since it was not a point of conflict, no great attention was given to it.
The following things are stated about Sheol with the caution that figurative language was used by biblical authors in their description of Sheol and the conditions of those in it. Much harm has been done by literalizing what was intended to be figurative.
First, Sheol is said to have “gates” by which one enters and “bars” which keep one in (Job 17:16; Isa. 38:10). Such figurative language conveys the idea that Sheol is a realm from which no escape is possible.
Second, the Old Testament describes Sheol in the following ways:
Third, the condition of those in Sheol is described in the following ways:
From the meaning of rephaim, it is clear that when the body dies, man enters a new kind of existence and experience. He now exists as a spirit creature and experiences what angels and other disincarnate spirits experience. Just as angels are disincarnate energy beings composed only of “mind” or mental energy and are capable of supra-dimensional activity and such things as thought and speech without the need of a physical body, even so once man dies, he too becomes a disembodied supra-dimensional energy being and is capable of thought and speech without the need of a body. This is why the dead are described as “spirits” and “ghosts” throughout the Scriptures.
This concept is carried on into the New Testament in such places as Luke 24:37-39. A belief in “ghosts” necessarily entails a belief that man survives the death of the body.
It is obvious that nonexistence can hardly experience anger, distress, or pain. Thus, there are hints in the above passages that not everyone experiences blessedness in the afterlife.
Beyond these three passages, the Old Testament does not speak of torment in the intermediate state. While it speaks of the “everlasting humiliation and contempt” which awaits the wicked after the resurrection (Dan. 12:2), the Old Testament tells us very little about the intermediate suffering of the wicked in Sheol.
Given the principle of progressive revelation, Old Testament saints simply did not have all the information which was needed to approach death with peace and joy. Just as the lack of New Testament revelation prevented them from obtaining a clear conscience and full assurance of faith (Heb. 10:1-14), even so they could not approach death with joy. That this is true can be established upon several lines of reasoning.
First, the writer to the book of Hebrews tells us that the Old Testament saints were in bondage to the fear of death and that Satan used this to oppress them.
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Heb. 2:14, 15)
Only after the Messiah came and wrested the keys of death and Hades from the Evil One would God’s people experience freedom from the fear of death (Rev. 1:18).
The bondage of fear which gripped the Old Testament saints expressed itself in different ways. They had a fear of being separated from their living loved ones. They were afraid of being severed from the joys of life (Ps. 6). They begged to be delivered from death and Sheol because they did not look forward to death (Ps. 13). This is why they spoke of the “sorrows” (KJV) and “terrors” of death (Ps. 18:4; 55:4; 116:3) instead of the triumph in death which New Testament saints express (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
Second, while the overall picture of death was somewhat gloomy in the Old Testament, yet God had begun to reveal to His people that they would be ushered into His joyous presence after death. To be sure, these were only hints of glory, but hints they were. The ascension of Enoch and Elijah to heaven indicated that the righteous could be taken into God’s presence (Gen. 5:24, cf. Heb. 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11). The verb which described Enoch’s and Elijah’s ascension (laqach) was later used to describe the passage of the righteous out of Sheol into heaven (Ps. 49:15; cf. 73:24). Asaph expressed the hope that he would go to dwell at the throne of glory at death. Later rabbinic writers consistently spoke of the righteous going to the throne of glory at death.
Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. (Ps. 73:23-25)
The Old Testament saints looked forward to reuniting with their departed loved ones (Gen. 37:35). This must have afforded them some comfort.
Also, the Old Testament believers knew that Sheol was open to God’s sight (Job 26:6) and that they would still be in God’s presence and protection (Ps. 139:8).
While the patriarchs went in mourning to Sheol, by the time of the Wisdom literature, a more optimistic note was beginning to be sounded. The progress from Gen. 37:35 to Ps. 73:24 indicates a gradual change of attitude toward death which progressive revelation made possible. While Old Testament saints knew that they were going to Sheol at death, there were hints that they might be taken to heaven to be at God’s throne after death.
The second key term in the biblical understanding of death and the afterlife is the Greek word Hades. This word forms a linguistic bridge which takes us from the Old Testament view of death to the New Testament position. The importance of a proper interpretation of this word cannot be overstressed.
In the Septuagint, Hades is found 71 times. It is the Greek equivalent for Sheol 64 times. The other seven times it is found in the Septuagint, it is the translation of other Hebrew words, some of which shed significant light on what Hades meant to the translators of the Septuagint.
In Job 33:22, Hades is the translation of the Hebrew word memeteim, or “destroying angels [KJV]Öthe angels who are commissioned by God to slay the man.”19 In this sense it refers to disincarnate spirit creatures.
It is also used in Job 38:17 as the translation for the Hebrew, “the realm of ghosts or shades” (KJV).20
It is used for “the shades of the underworld” in Prov. 2:18.21 This refers to the spirits of the departed in Sheol who are viewed as “the dwellers in the Kingdom of the dead as in Homer and Virgil and like the Latin word Inferi, it stands for the realm of disembodied souls.”22
Not once is Hades the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for grave (kever). Not once does it mean nonexistence or unconsciousness. The times it is used for words other than Sheol, it clearly means the world of spirits. There is, therefore, no way to escape the conclusion that the translators of the Septuagint clearly understood that Hades referred to the realm of disembodied souls or spirits; and, we must also emphasize, that the translators of the Septuagint did not obtain this concept from Platonic Greek thought but from the Hebrew concept of Sheol itself.
The Lexicographical Evidence
When we turn to the lexicographical material, we find that the authors of the Septuagint were correct in their usage of Hades as the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew Sheol.
Arndt and Gingrich based their A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament on the work of W. Bauer, one of the greatest Greek scholars who ever lived. They define Hades as “the underworld the place of the dead” (p. 16). Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (p. 11) states that Hades comes from two words which joined together mean “invisible,” or “unseen.” Thus it refers to “the common receptacle of disembodied spirits.”
The lexicographical material is so unanimous in defining Hades as the world of disembodied souls that the Princeton theologian, A. A. Hodge, stated:
Modern Hebrew and Greek scholars unite with near unanimity in maintaining that these words (Sheol and Hades) never on a single occasion in the Bible mean either “hell” or “the grave,” but always and only the invisible spirit world.23
Modern commentators do not hesitate to define Hades as the place of disembodied souls.24 This is why no Hebrew or Greek scholar defines Hades as “the grave” or the “state of unconsciousness or nonexistence.”
The historical context of Hades and comparative studies or parallel words in other languages have so firmly established that Hades refers to the place of disembodied souls that there is no controversy on this point among biblical scholars. The conditional immortalitists, whether cultic or neo-orthodox, simply ignore this linguistic and lexicographical material.
Hades and Its Inhabitants
The KJV mistranslated the word Hades in every occurrence just as it did with the word Sheol. It is found ten times in the Greek New Testament. The Greek text underlying the KJV has it an eleventh time in 1 Cor. 15:55, but this is a corrupt reading.
Perhaps the best way to clarify what the New Testament teaches about Hades is to first of all state what Hades does not mean. Once we have cleared away any misconceptions of this word, then we can present its meaning in the New Testament.
First, Hades does not mean death, because the Greek word thanatos is the word for death in the New Testament. Also, Hades and death appear together in such passages as Rev. 1:18 where they cannot be viewed as synonyms.
Second, Hades is not the grave, because the Greek word mneema is the word for grave in the New Testament. Also, all the arguments which demonstrated that Sheol cannot mean the grave apply equally to Hades seeing that Hades is the equivalent for the Hebrew word
Sheol. The New Testament’s dependence upon the Septuagint demonstrates this point.
Third, Hades is not “hell,” i.e., the place of final punishment for the wicked, because the Greek word Gehenna is the word for “hell” in the New Testament.
Fourth, Hades is not “heaven,” i.e., the place where the soul of the righteous goes at death to await the coming resurrection, because the Greek word ouranos is the word for heaven in the New Testament.
Fifth, Hades is not the place of eternal bliss for the righteous after the resurrection, because the new heavens and the new earth or the everlasting kingdom refer to this place (Matt. 25:34; Rev. 21:1).
Having clarified what Hades does not mean, we can now state the New Testament meaning of this crucial word.
First, we must once again emphasize the importance of the principle of progressive revelation. While Hades was consistently used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word Sheol, this does not mean that Hades should be limited to the Old Testament meaning of Sheol. The New Testament picks up where the Old
Testament left off by progressively developing the concept of what happens to the soul of man after death. We should expect that the fuller revelation of Christ and the apostles will clarify what was vague in the Old Testament (Heb. 1:1-3).
During the intertestamental period, the Jewish concept of Sheol had progressed to the stage where it was believed that Sheol had two distinct compartments, or sections. One section was a place of torment to which the wicked went while the other was a place of conscious bliss, often called “Abraham’s bosom” or “paradise,” to which the righteous were carried by angels.25 The rabbis even discussed how many angels it took to carry the righteous to Abraham’s bosom.
The rabbinic understanding of Sheol is the basis for Christ’s illustration in Luke 16:19-31. While only the rich man was directly said to be “in Hades” (v. 23), the phrase “Abraham’s bosom” to which the angels carried Lazarus (vv. 22, 23) must be interpreted as the section of Hades reserved for the righteous. The dialogue between the rich man and Lazarus is an echo of multiple stories in which such dialogues were described. Thus, initially, the first occurrence of Hades in the New Testament refers to a concept of an afterlife which had evolved beyond the Old Testament concept of Sheol and reflected, the progress of understanding which had been accomplished during the period between Malachi and Matthew.
Given the principle of progressive revelation, that Hades would evolve from merely being the equivalent of Sheol into a word which meant more than Sheol is understandable and expected. That Hades would have an intertestamental rabbinic meaning at the beginning of the New Testament and then evolve to mean more than the rabbinic understanding is also expected.
It is on this basis that all attempts to limit New Testament teaching on the afterlife to the gospel materials such as Luke 16 must be rejected as a defective view. This view is built upon the assumption that what Hades meant in the Gospels is what it must mean in the Epistles. This is a failure to observe the principle of the progress of doctrine as well as the principal of progressive revelation as given in the New Testament itself.26
We must also point out that when we state that the Old Testament saints and the intertestamental Jews did not have a clear and precise understanding of what happened after death, this does not mean that their experience was not greater than their understanding. To deny that they understood where they were going at death does not mean that they did not get there!
This also leads us to avoid the unnecessary debate on whether or not the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 should be viewed as a literal account or as a parable.
Many orthodox writers treat Luke 16 as a literal account.27 They deny that it is a parable on the grounds that (1) the beggar must have been a real historical character because his name was given; (2) Abraham was a real historical character; and (3) in parables names are not given. Thus many orthodox writers demand that the story of the rich man and Lazarus be viewed as a literal account.
Other writers usually treat Luke 16:19-31 as a parable and end up denying that it teaches anything about death or the afterlife. They usually give interpretations which are quite wild and far fetched.28
The basic problem is both sides assume that if Christ’s story is a parable, it is meaningless, and if it is not, it must be a literal account. They both fail to recognize that Christ’s teaching was rabbinic in methodology and that rabbinic parables often revolved around real historical characters.
The rabbinic literature before, during, and after the time of Christ is filled with parables which built imaginative stories around real historical characters.29
There are multiple examples in the Talmud and Midrash of parables in which Abraham had dialogues with people such as Nimrod, with whom he could never have spoken literally.30 Everyone understood that these parables and dialogues did not literally take place. It was understood that the rabbis used imaginative stories and dialogues as a teaching method. It was understood by all that these dialogues never took place.
Therefore, it does not bother us in the least to say that Christ used a rabbinic story and dialogue in Luke 16:19-31 which was not “true” or “real” in the sense of being literal. It is obvious that Lazarus did not literally sit in Abraham’s literal bosom. The rich man did not have literal lips which literal water could quench.
What is important for us to grasp is that Christ used the mental images conjured up by this rabbinic parable to teach that, in the hereafter, the wicked experience torment and the righteous bliss. This is clear from the rabbinic sources from which he drew this parable.
Since the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham was a teaching tool used by the rabbis before Christ, it is obvious that Christ was not trying to teach that we will talk with the wicked in the hereafter. He was merely using the dialogue method to get across the concept that there is no escape from torment, no second chance, and we must believe the Scriptures in this life unto salvation.
That the Epistles would further develop what happens to the soul after death and go beyond the gospel material is also expected. The apostles were conscious of the fact that their understanding was clouded during their sojourn with Christ (John 12:16). It was only after Pentecost and the final revelations given to the apostles that they could, at last, speak of death and the afterlife with clarity. It was only after the last pieces of the cosmic puzzle of revelation were given that they could see the whole picture.
Before Christ’s ascension, believers as well as unbelievers were said to enter Sheol or Hades. After Christ’s resurrection, the New Testament pictures believers after death as entering heaven to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23), which is far better than Hades. They are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8), worshiping with the angelic hosts of heaven (Heb. 12:22, 23) at the altar of God (Rev. 6:9-11). Thus believers do not now enter Hades but ascend immediately to the throne of God.
In the New Testament, there is, therefore, a development of understanding which took place after Christ’s resurrection. Before Jesus was raised from the dead, the apostles assumed that everyone went to Sheol or Hades. This Hades had two sections, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. But Christ’s resurrection changed this picture. Thus Paul uses the language of transition when he speaks of Christ taking the righteous out of Hades and bringing them into heaven (Eph. 4:8, 9).
That Christ went to Hades, i.e., the world beyond death, is clear from Acts 2:31, While in Hades, Peter pictures Christ as proclaiming to “the spirits now in prison” the completion of His atonement (1 Pet. 3:18-22). Whereas “paradise” in the gospel account (Luke 23:43) referred to the section of Hades reserved for the righteous, by the time Paul wrote 2 Cor. 12:2-4, it was assumed that paradise had been taken out of Hades and was now placed in the third heaven.
According to the post-resurrection teaching in the New Testament, the believer now goes to heaven at death to await the coming resurrection and the eternal state. But, what of the wicked? The wicked at death descend into Hades which is a place of temporary torment while they await the coming resurrection and their eternal punishment.
First, it is clear that the souls of the wicked are in torment during the intermediate state in Hades. The Apostle Peter stated this in language which could not be clearer:
Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of Judgment. (2 Pet. 2:9)
First, Peter says that the wicked are “kept” unto the day of judgment. This word is in the present, active, infinitive form, which means that the wicked are being held captive continuously. If the wicked merely pass into nonexistence at death, there would be nothing left to be “kept” unto the day of judgment. Obviously, Peter is grammatically picturing the wicked as being guarded like prisoners in a jail until the day of final judgment.
Second, Peter says that the wicked are “being tormented.” This word is in the present, passive, participle form and means that the wicked are continuously being tormented as an on-going activity.
If Peter wanted to teach that the wicked receive their full punishment at death by passing into nonexistence, then he would have used the aorist tense.
Instead, he uses those Greek tenses which were the only ones available to him in the Greek language to express conscious, continuous torment. The grammar of the text irrefutably establishes that the wicked are in torment while they await their final day of judgment.
When the day of judgment arrives, Hades will be emptied of its inhabitants, and the wicked will stand before God for their final sentence (Rev. 20:13-15). Thus, we conclude that Hades is the temporary intermediate state between death and the resurrection where the wicked are in conscious torment. Hades will be emptied at the resurrection, and then the wicked will be cast into “hell” (Gehenna).
The third and last crucial term is the word Gehenna. This word is found twelve times in the New Testament and is correctly translated each time by the KJV as “hell.” It is a word which describes the ultimate fate of the wicked after the general resurrection and judgment. While Sheol and Hades describe the temporary abode of the dead until the resurrection, Gehenna is the place of future punishment in the eternal state.
The Lexicographical Evidence
The word Gehenna is the Greek equivalent for “the valley of Hinnom” (Josh. 15:8; 18:16; Neh. 11:30). It thus originally referred to the Valley of Hinnom, which was just outside the city of Jerusalem. According to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (p. 111), it was the place where idolatrous Jews gave human sacrifices to pagan deities (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6).
Because of these horrible idolatrous practices, the Valley of Hinnom was hated and considered “unclean” by pious Jews. In Christ’s day, this hatred of the Valley of Hinnom caused the valley to become the town dump where all the garbage of Jerusalem could be thrown. Unclean corpses as well as normal garbage were thrown into it. Because garbage was constantly being thrown into the valley, the fires never stopped burning and the worms never stopped eating.
This picture of an unclean garbage dump where the fires and the worms never died out became to the Jewish mind an appropriate description of the ultimate fate of all idol worshipers. Gehenna came to be understood as the final, eternal garbage dump where all idolators would be thrown after the resurrection. The wicked would suffer in Gehenna forever because the fires would never stop burning them and the worms would never stop gnawing them.
Arndt and Gingrich also point out that the Jewish belief, before Christ, placed the last judgment of the wicked in the Valley of Hinnom. They concluded that it means “the place of judgment.”31 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. II, p. 1182) states that Gehenna refers to “the place of eternal punishment of the wicked.” McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature defines Gehenna as “the place of eternal punishment.” Both Coon and Mills define Gehenna as referring to “the place of eternal punishment.32
The Intertestamental Literature
The wicked do not descend into Gehenna at death, because it is the final place of punishment for the wicked after the resurrection.33
In that hour the Lord will requite the nations of the world with a great and ceaseless retribution, and hurl them down to the Gehenna, where they will be punished for generation upon generation. (Mid. Gen. 908)
The talmudic literature states that there are two classes of people who descend into Gehenna. The disobedient among Israel descend into Gehenna for “twelve months” in order to be cleansed of their sins in its fire. They then ascend to the throne of glory in paradise where the righteous among Israel had already ascended at death (Bab. Tal. RH64). Idolators and blasphemers remain in Gehenna “to be punished for all generations” (Bab. Tal. RH65).
The figurative language utilized in the rabbinic description of Gehenna, such as “fire” (Mid. Gen. 214), “worms” (Bab. Tal. Shah 777, 778; The Wisdom of Sirach 7:17), “weeping” (Bab. Tal. ER129), “darkness” (Mid. Gen. 257), “judgment” (Bab. Tal. ER126), etc., are all carried over by the teaching of Christ and the apostles into the New Testament itself. The descriptive language of the Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as “fire and torment” (4th Macc. 12:12, 13), “fire and sulfur” (Enoch 67:6), “black recesses of hell” (Sibylline IV, p. 83), etc., are clearly utilized by Peter, Jude and John in their descriptions of the ultimate fate of the wicked after the resurrection.
This intertestamental evidence is so strong and consistent that the great Church historian Phillip Schaff states:
Everlasting punishment of the wicked was and always will be the orthodox theory. It was held by the Jews at the time of Christ, with the exception of the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection.34
After an extensive research of intertestamental literature, the greatest Christian Talmudic scholar, Alfred Edersheim, a noted Hebrew Christian, concluded that Gehenna was understood in Christ’s time to refer to the place of eternal, conscious punishment for the wicked after the resurrection.35 We have placed his discussion of the rabbinic sources in Appendix I for the benefit of the reader.
Christ and Gehenna
The awful mental image of everlasting torment in the fires of Gehenna was conjured up in the minds of the early disciples by the Master himself. Out of its twelve occurrences in the New Testament, Gehenna is found no less than eleven times on the lips of the Lord Jesus himself.
To think that Christ was ignorant of what Gehenna meant to the common people of His day or to assume that He was mistaken in using the rabbinic descriptions of Gehenna is to do great injustice to Him who was the greatest teacher who ever lived. Indeed, the mere fact that Christ utilized the rabbinic language connected with Gehenna, such as “unquenchable fire” and “never-dying worms,” demonstrates beyond all doubt to any reasonable person that He deliberately used the word Gehenna to impress upon His hearers that eternal punishment awaits the wicked after the resurrection. No other conclusion is possible.
The teaching of Christ concerning Gehenna is as follows:
First, Gehenna is the place of judgment (Matt. 23:33). He even used the
rabbinic expression, “the judgment of Gehenna” (Bab. Tal. ER126).
Second, Gehenna is always placed at the end of the world after the resurrection (Matt. 5:22; 23:33). This was expounded by John in Rev. 20:1-15. This was also the rabbinic position (Mid. Gen. 159).
Third, Gehenna is the place where the body as well as the soul is punished (Matt. 5:22; 10:28; Mark 9:43-48). The rabbis saw that the resurrection of the wicked was necessary in order for them to receive their full punishment in the body (Mid. Gen. 159; 211n4).
Fourth, Gehenna was the place of conscious torment. When Christ used the phrases “unquenchable fire” and “never-dying worms” (Mark 9:47, 48, author’s paraphrase), He was utilizing biblical (Isa. 66:24), apocryphal (Judith 16:17), and talmudic (Mid. Gen. 214) images which all meant conscious suffering.
The annihilationists have a counter argument at this point. They point out that, literally speaking, while the worms and the fire in a city dump may destroy a dead carcass, it cannot be said that the dead carcass feels any torment.
Therefore, they conclude that Christ’s language must be interpreted to mean that the wicked will be annihilated, not tormented.
The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to take into account that when Christ spoke of Gehenna in such terms as “worms and fire,” He was clearly using rabbinic phraseology.
Thus, it is more crucial to discover how these words were understood in rabbinic literature than by pointing to modern city dumps.
The intertestamental literature is clear that the Jews believed that the departed could feel what was happening to their dead body. Indeed, when the worms start gnawing on the body, “the worms are as painful to the dead as a needle in the flesh of the living” (Bab. Tal. Shah. 777, 778).
Since the “gnawing worms” clearly meant conscious torment in rabbinic thought, the annihilationists’ argument is invalid due to their ignorance of the meaning of such rabbinic terminology. That Judith 16:17 also teaches conscious torment is clear.
Fifth, the wicked are cast into Gehenna and will remain there for all eternity (Matt. 5:29, 30). In Gehenna, the wicked are “destroyed” (Matt. 10:28).
That the word “destroyed” (apollumi) does not mean “to annihilate” or “to pass into nonexistence” is clear from the rabbinic meaning of the word, the lexicographical significance of the word, and the way the word is used in the New Testament.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines apollumi as “to be delivered up to eternal misery” (p. 36). Since Thayer himself was a Unitarian who did not believe in eternal punishment, his definition could only be the result of his knowledge of the meaning of this Greek word. There is no lexicographical evidence for the annihilationist’s position that apollumi means “to annihilate” or “to pass into nonexistence.”
That this word cannot mean “nonexistence” is clear from the way it is consistently used in the New Testament (Matt. 9:17; Luke 15:4, 6, 8, 9; John 6:12, 27; 2 Cor. 4:9; etc.). Do people pass into nonexistence when they are killed by a sword (Matt. 26:52) or a snake? (1 Cor. 10:9). Do people become nonexistent when they are hungry? (Luke 15:17). Do wineskins pass into nonexistence when they are destroyed by bursting? (Matt. 9:17). Is food annihilated when it spoils? (John 6:27).
In every instance where the word apollumi is found in the New Testament, something other than annihilation is being described. Indeed, there isn’t a single instance in the New Testament where apollumi means annihilation in the strict meaning of the word.
Gehenna as a place of final punishment was a clear rabbinic teaching before Christ was ever born. The Midrash, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and apocryphal literature refer to Gehenna hundreds of times. The Midrash alone refers to Gehenna over seventy-five times.
The vivid imagery and striking phraseology found in the intertestamental literature, which described Gehenna as the ultimate place of eternal torment for the wicked, was clearly carried over into the New Testament itself by the teaching of Christ and the apostles.
That the ultimate fate of the wicked will be eternal, conscious torment will be further argued in a later chapter, but we have demonstrated in this chapter that Gehenna is the ultimate fate of all impenitent sinners according to rabbinic and New Testament literature. The concept of Universalism, which sees no one going to Gehenna, or Gehenna ultimately being emptied of all sinners, is an ideal which is absolutely foreign to the intertestamental and New Testament literature. The idea of annihilationism, in which the wicked cease to exist, may indeed be found in some of the intertestamental literature, particularly those works which were influenced by the Sadducees or Stoics. But enough has been given in this chapter to demonstrate that the majority view, that of the common man in the street, was of an eternal, conscious torment of the wicked in Gehenna.
From Death And The Afterlife, Ch. 3
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