In this article we will take up the proof-texts that Yarbrough uses in his chapter on Jesus On Hell. I raised some questions in the last article that I would like to address first.
Q. Why is there no reference in all the OT to hell, a place of unending torment, as we know it today?
A. I believe it is because God didn’t teach it. Adam and Eve were not taught it, though you would think this would be the prime place to find it. I picture God saying, “Not only did your disobedience of my command, called sin, bring death to you, both physical and spiritual, but all those who die without believing I am God will go to a place of eternal conscious torment.” Instead what we see is a loving Father giving His Son as the one who would crush the head of the serpent (typologically sin and death) and in the NT reconciling all mankind to the Father through Jesus. (see the verse in the header on this blog)
Q. Why was the OT term sheol suddenly in Jesus’ ministry transformed into a place of eternal torment called hell?
A. I will answer this with support coming in future articles on this blog. I will try to post this info quickly, but let me say, tipping my hand, that I believe this was one of those worldly situations devised by man to control the common person in society. Fear is a great motivator and I believe it is the fear of eternal torment that morphed into “biblical” teaching on the afterlife. There is ample evidence suggesting that as far back as 500-800 BC the Egyptians used this tactic to control people. And there is ample evidence the Roman Church (Roman Catholic Church) of the West used it in the same way; to control the rapid growth of the church from Constantine making Christianity the state religion and a major influx of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people now belonging to the church. From control (power) to money (extortion to buy buildings, power, influence, etc), the church leaders perpetuated this fear for at least 1500 years or more.
Now, back to the proof-texts Yarbrough uses to prove Jesus taught the concept of hell as eternal conscious torment, from here on known by the abbreviation ECT.
The following verses are used as proof:
Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:8; 23:13-15; Luke 12:5 (parallel to Matt 10:28); Mark 9:43-50)
All these passages have one thing in common. They all have the Greek term Gehenna translated into the English word “hell.” Jesus used the term Gehenna 11 times in the Gospels. We will look at all eleven occurrences, comparing Yarbrough’s interpretation (though he does not list all eleven occurrences found in the Gospels and the one in James) with the interpretation put forth by myself and many others. The comparison will be between Yarbrough’s hell as ECT and Jesus’ teaching of hell as judgment in this life.
This is the first time in all of Scripture that the term gehenna is used:
(Mat 5:21) “You have heard that it was said to the [people of old], ‘Do not commit murder,’ and ‘whoever commits murder will be subject to judgment.’
(Mat 5:22) But I say to you that everyone who is angry at his brother will be subject to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Stupid fool!’ will be subject to the council, and whoever says, ‘Obstinate fool!’ will be subject to fiery hell (Greek gehenna).
This section of Jesus’ sermon, vv. 21-26 in context, merely specifies judgment on those who become angry with a brother or remain unreconciled to a brother. If you substitute the term judgment (an understanding of the term Gehenna that the Jews would have understood) or even Valley of Hinnom, representing death, judgment, a strong word picture, does that not fit the context? How does someone go from Jesus talking about judgment for actions, temporal actions here and now, to eternal judgment in the hereafter? I believe the only way to do this is to read into the text our own concept of “fiery hell” as ECT.
Yarbrough’s only explanation of these verses is that “Christ warns against hateful anger…Such passages suggest that Jesus apparently viewed hell as real, awful, and “eternal.” That is his total treatment of the passage. He includes in this explanation Matt 5:29-30 and Matt 18:8, though he adds in inclusion of these last few verses that, “Jesus also presented hell as motivational, inciting people to take painful measures now, if necessary, to avoid a fate worse than mere physical death later, as fearful as that can be.” It is obvious to me that he assumes his own definition of hell is correct and requires little to no justification for it.
As we look at the other verses, keep these thoughts in mind: What is the most logical translation of the Greek word gehenna, can it sustain the definition of ECT, and what would Jesus’ listeners’ most likely have understood him to be saying.
The next passage is Mt. 5.29-30, where Jesus used gehenna twice (2nd and 3rd occurrences of gehenna) when he said:
(Mat 5:29) And if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it from you! For it is better for you that one of your members be destroyed than your whole body be thrown into hell.
(Mat 5:30) And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you! For it is better for you that one of your limbs be destroyed than your whole body go into hell.
Are these verses to be taken literally? When you die, will you have a physical body? Or is this hyperbole used by Jesus to show how serious sin is? Will anyone escape judgment for their sin? No, everyone will be judged for the sin they commit and will suffer for those sins, whether those sufferings are pain or loss of rewards, etc. Would it not then, by the same logic of hacking off body parts rather than sin, be better to commit suicide rather than continue sinning? These verses are not to be taken literally.
I believe Jesus’ teaching here is that of a coming judgment, maybe a coming national judgment. Remember John the Baptist calling the Jews to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand? Many came and repented and were baptized by John, but the Pharisees and Saduccees were turned away as unrepentant. John was preaching a message of judgment and I believe that is what Jesus is referring to here. John demanded the leaders to show fruits worthy of repentance. I believe this was similar to Jesus telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” Hell, or gehenna, here then is used as a term of judgment. It is better to not sin and thereby not face judgment, than it is to sin and face judgment.
Mt. 10.28 and its parallel Luke 12:4-5
These are the fourth and fifth times Jesus used gehenna.
(Mat 10:28) And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul, but instead be afraid of the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
(Luk 12:4) “And I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after these things do not have anything more to do.
(Luk 12:5) But I will show you whom you should fear: fear the one who has authority, after the killing, to throw you into hell! Yes, I tell you, fear this one!
Again, Jesus spoke of gehenna consistently with imminent national judgment on Israel. This verse is often used to affirm that the soul of man cannot be destroyed, that we’re all born with an eternal soul, and it’s that soul that we think Jesus spoke of in this verse. This directly contradicts the plain language of Jesus. If the body and soul of man cannot be destroyed, the language of Jesus has no meaning whatsoever! I think that we can very simply understand these verses. God is all powerful and has the power to not only take our physical life but also to annihilate us from all existence. He has the power to judge and is the only being with this power. Will He, in fact, follow through on this possibility? The answer is no. Could He? Yes. Barring any deeply philosophical ideas about the fear man should have based upon God’s power to kill or annihilate, a basic reading of this text seems pretty easy to understand. Implications for us are to obey God and not be judged versus disobey God and be judged.
Mt. 18.9, Mk. 9.43-45
These verses contain the sixth, seventh, eight, and ninth times Jesus used the word gehenna. These are verses like Mt. 5.29-30, which speak of it being better to enter life or the kingdom without some members of one’s body rather than going into gehenna with a whole body. However, we want to look a bit more closely at what Mark says here because Jesus gives a further or deeper description of gehenna:
(Mar 9:43) And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
(Mar 9:45) And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.
Notice that Jesus specifically said what’s coming in gehenna-unquenchable fire. John the Baptist said he would baptize with unquenchable fire, not necessarily fire that would burn unendingly, but which would not be quenched. Unquenchable fire is unstoppable! It’s fiery destruction brought about only by God. In Jer. 17.27, God warned the Jews of his time of imminent fiery judgment on themselves:
(Jer 17:27) But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.'”
Likewise, in Jer. 7.20, Jeremiah foretold the same thing:
(Jer 7:20) Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.”
This unquenchable fire, brought on by the Babylonians, devoured the palaces and gates of Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s lifetime, in 586 B.C.
In Ezk. 20.47-48, God promised such a national judgment on Judah:
(Eze 20:47) Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it.
(Eze 20:48) All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
Of course, Babylon fulfilled these words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched, but Jerusalem didn’t burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.
Likewise, in Amos 5.6, God had promised a similar judgment on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, fulfilled in 722 B.C.
The unquenchable fire that consumed Israel was unstoppable, but no one believes it’s still burning unendingly. Thus, when Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire in Mk. 9.43, he used language that his Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on nations in the Old Testament.
In fact, they had never heard such language used any other way! Of course, we have, but not from the teaching of the Bible.
The geographer Strabo, Homer, Plutarch, Jewish historian Josephus, and early church historian Eusebius all used the terminology “unquenchable.” The meaning of the term as they meant it (and the meaning the hearers of Jesus would have understood was not “eternal” or “forever” or “forever and ever”) was merely “unstoppable.” The fire was unstoppable until it had served its purpose, then it ended. If it was truly “eternal” then those same fires that burned as judgment in the OT days would still be burning today!
Mt. 23.15, 33
In the tenth time Jesus used gehenna, he said:
(Mat 23:15) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees–hypocrites!–because you travel around the sea and the dry land to make one convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are!
(Mat 23:33) Serpents! Offspring of vipers! How will you escape from the condemnation to hell?
These Jews knew what Gehenna was, and Jesus and John had foretold the unquenchable fiery judgment awaiting them there. He told these Jews that they were headed for it, and the people they taught were as well. It is the same national judgment he’s been speaking of that we have already addressed.
Just three verses later, Jesus said, in Mt. 23.36:
(Mat 23:36) Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
About these same things, Jesus said in Mt. 24.34:
(Mat 24:34) Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
Jesus gave the time element when this destruction on the land would be carried out: in that generation, i.e., in the time of his dealing with the then present generation of Jews. To sum up, Jesus threatened the Jews in the geographical area of Jerusalem, that they were headed for the valley named Gehenna where there would be unquenchable fire (Mk. 9.43) upon his generation (Mt. 23.36) in his generation (Mt. 24.34). We cannot make it more precise! If hell is what Jesus said it was, hell was the unstoppable fiery destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Hell, gehenna, used here in these verses by Jesus foretold of the coming JUDGMENT upon the unbelieving, obstinate Jews of Jesus’ day, resulting in the decimation of Jerusalem.
I think, as we have seen, Yarbrough’s understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment is unsustainable. As I have shown, a temporal judgment explains what Jesus was communicating to His hearers. Eternal conscious torment would have to be imported into the text from outside. Discussion of these outside sources will be forthcoming in future articles.
Next, I will discuss the term “eternal” as used by Jesus and what He meant, what His hearers would have understood, and if time permits, how this term has changed to become for us today a term meaning unending or without beginning and end.