As I have gone back and re-read this chapter several times, I realized that there are really only a few points that Yarbrough makes, scattered amongst so many divisions in this chapter. The first issue he takes up is Jesus’ use of the term “hell, “which is a translation of the Greek term “Gehenna.” The second issue brought is that of the term “unquenchable fire.” The third issue is with the word “eternal” or its synonyms. Because the evangelical world puts so much weight on the words of Jesus, it is imperative that the reader understands what the definition of those words are and what Jesus meant when he used them, and also, what His readers would have understood the terms to mean (or what Jesus was saying)
One question came immediately to my mind upon reading this chapter and the few references (12), 11 of which are attributed to Jesus, concerning what “hell” was. Since Jesus lived in the Old Covenant and referenced only the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets, (what we have as the Old Testament), was His understanding of hell the same as the Old Testament or was it wholly other-worldly ( in other words divine, right from the Godhead in the form of new revelation)? Other questions start coming to mind as well. Why is there no reference in all the Old Testament to hell, a place of unending torment, as we know it today? If our understanding of the Gospel is such that it saves people from hell, why did Paul never mention this? One of the most important concepts regarding life and death, the subject of hell, is only spoken of a few times in over 60-70 years of inspired history (much of the 1st century). Why is this? Finally, why was the Old Testament term “sheol,” defined everywhere as a place of the dead, and translated in the Greek Old Testament by the words “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, later translated in the New Testament Greek as gehenna, (an actual place southeast of Jerusalem outside the city where the conquered dead were piled and burned), then suddenly in Jesus’ ministry transformed into a place of eternal torment called hell? Jesus said several times, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Why, if He was changing the meaning of the word sheol/gehenna (which in the New Testament is translated as hell), did He not include this in His teachings, such as, “You have heard it said that when people die they go to a place called sheol, a place where the righteous and the wicked dead go, but I say to you that the righteous will go to heaven upon death and the wicked to a place of eternal torment called hell”?
I hope to answer some of these questions as I go through this chapter. But first, let me briefly explain the chapter at hand. Yarbrough goes through, and from a basic modern traditional standpoint describes, all 11 of Jesus’ uses of the term, gehenna, translated as hell. Because most everyone who will read this blog has a fairly thorough understanding of the modern view of hell, equated to eternal conscious torment, I will not belabor this point. Every usage by Jesus, according to Yarbrough, refers to judgment in hell as a final reward for the wicked dead. This is a state of forever being separated from God, being burned in the fires of hell but not consumed, and the wicked are conscious during this forever-ness. The only escape is to believe in Jesus during this life. He also claims that Paul teaches this very same belief as Jesus whether directly or indirectly. He cites such verses as 1 Cor 11:23 as a direct teaching of Paul on hell, and indirect passages such as Rom. 15:19, 30; 1 Cor 2:10-14; 7:40; Eph 3:5; 1 Thess 1:5; 1 Tim 4:1. Yarbrough goes on and makes the assertion that Hebrews and Revelation also teach the same thing Jesus taught regarding hell.
Yarbrough does not stop there though. He continues by asserting that annihilationism (the belief that the wicked dead will be judged and one day cease to exist) is false, as asserted by Edward W. Fudge, who wrote The Fire That Consumes. Finishing out the chapter, Yarbrough refutes the idea that hell came from Plato, and quotes some patristic fathers, (those disciples taught by the apostles) as supporting the concept of hell as eternal conscious torment. He concludes by saying, “If our aim is to be faithful to Scripture, we must face what Jesus’ teachings have been understood to assert by most biblical interpreters over many centuries, cutting across a wide assortment of confessional and denominational settings.” With all this spouted by Yarbrough, I go back to the initial paragraph where what he writes can be broken down into three basic categories: definition of Gehenna/hell, unquenchable fire, and eternal. It is to these categories I shall now turn.
Definition of the term hell
There are several words in the Bible that are translated from the Hebrew or Greek that some Bible translations translate as hell. The first of these terms is Sheol. This Hebrew term is found in the Old Testament scriptures. The King James Version, which most of our modern translations stem from, originally translated Sheol as “hell” 31 times. It also translated it as grave 31 times, and pit 3 times. The root meaning of the Hebrew word “Sheol” is “unseen.” It was a place where Jacob went (Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31), where Job longed to go (Job 14:13), David spoke of going there (Psa 49:15) and even Jesus Himself went there (Psa 16:10; Acts 2:24-31). Can you see that the original definition of sheol as “unseen” makes perfect sense? This place was a place where the wicked and the righteous went after death and were no longer “seen” by people. Consequently, in more modern translations that are trying to be more faithful to the original text, the word “hell” has totally dropped out of the Old Testament. (see The RSV, ASV, NRSV, and NASB which are all technically revisions of the original King James Bible, the NKJV has gone from 31 references to 19).
Sheol also is used in the Old Testament for national judgments, i.e., the vanishing of a nation. In Isa 14:13, 15, Isaiah said Babylon would go to sheol, and she vanished. In Ezek. 26:19-21, Tyre vanished in sheol. And when we look at similar type judgments in the New Testament, in Matt 11:23; 12.41; Luke 10;15, and 11;29-32, Jesus said that Capernaum would disappear. These nations and cities didn’t go to a particular location, but they were going to disappear, and they did. They were destroyed. Thus, sheol is used commonly of national judgments in both the Old and New Testaments.
Sheol is also the equivalent of the New Testament “Hades” which is also, likewise translated as “the unseen.” Hades occurs 11 times in the New Testament. Luke 16 pictures righteous Lazarus there. Acts 2:27, 31 says Jesus went there. In 1 Cor 15:55, Paul used the same word when he said, “O grave, where is your victory?” In Rev. 1:18, Jesus said he had the keys that control both death and hades, the unseen, and in Rev 6:8, death and hades followed the pale horse. Finally, in Rev 20:13-14, death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and were then cast into the lake of fire. These verses illustrate that hades refers to anything that is unseen.
One of the curious things that I have found in my study is that the terms sheol, in Hebrew the unseen or a national judgment, and the Greek term Gehenna, literally translated as “The Valley of the Sons of Hinnom or The Valley of Hinnom” are both translated into the New Testament as “hell,” a place of unending torment. One major problem for Yarbrough and all who believe in an eternal conscious torment is the fact that Gehenna is never used in the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint. The Valley of Hinnom is an actual place and is generally regarded as a valley nearby Jerusalem that originally belonged to a man named Hinnom. This valley had a long history in the Old Testament, all of it bad. Hence, Gehenna is a proper name of an actual place, and that place was never identified as a place of eternal conscious torment. Gehenna should never have been translated as hell, a place of unending torment.
This valley was a place where children were sacrificed on the fire to Molech, and mainly understood by Jews as God’s judgment upon a rebellious people (see Joshua 1:8; 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Nehemiah 11:30; Jeremiah 7:32; 19:2, 6, 11-14) . So, when Jesus used the word Gehenna, signifying Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, the Jews He came to minister to would have likely known this term to refer to God’s judgment on the Jews, and maybe specifically even how their ancestors sacrificed their children by burning them in a fire to Molech, just as the pagans did. Taking this understanding to Jesus’ teachings, the 11 times He used the term Gehenna, sheds a better light on the true meaning of these passages.
Next, we will examine the passages more closely that Jesus used the term Gehenna (translated hell) and then begin dealing with the concept of unquenchable fire, followed by eternal. I will also explain why this is such good news for you and I, the fact that eternal conscious torment seems to have no support biblically. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to comment below with them, or email them to us for a private answer.
One other thing before I leave. It has been brought to my attention that the common person has no access to the ancient Hebrew or Greek bible texts, study information, helps, etc., as well as to historical teachings related to the Bible and its milieu. I believe that is untrue, emphatically untrue. Should you, as a reader here, not have tools for Bible study, and desire to understand more (though not necessary for a right relationship to God and true worship of Him!), I suggest you go to http://www.biblesupport.com and download first, the E-Sword Bible software. It is totally free. Then, once installed, you may download any other resources (most are free!) for E-Sword, either at this site or others. They have gigabytes of resources should you desire to study further. If you need help or would like recommendations for books to download for that library, please let me know.
God’s richest blessings to you as you rejoice in His total victory over sin and death through the precious blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross for all!