Jesus and the Fires of Hell

Gehenna, in Jesus’ sayings, is translated as ‘hell’ in most English translations. Both Matthew (chapters 5 and 18) and Mark chapter 9 relate that Jesus said it was better to lose body parts than to be cast into hell. The fullest expression is found in Mark, which mentions worms that do not die and fire that is never quenched,

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Mark’s rendition incorporates the imagery of worms and fires from Isaiah chapter 66, which simply refers to death and destruction; what does Jesus mean here? For many years, I understood this to describe the fires of hell where the eternal flame never goes out. I thought the worm was the soul of the damned that would never cease to exist in this eternal burning hell. However, the passage in Isaiah is a picture of the defeated rebels who are dead, unburied, heaped together, and set ablaze outside Jerusalem. The worm is not the soul of the deceased but the maggots that thrive in such an environment.

Jesus often spoke with hyperbole and vivid imagery; his exaggerated language about self-mutilation was meant to grab attention and make a point. So was his evocation of the familiar imagery of the valley of judgment. The valley of Gehenna was a well-known site just outside Jerusalem and had become associated with disaster, worms, and smoldering flames.

What was his point? I think Jesus was using the familiar imagery to draw a graphic contrast between entering life with the Father and a continuing existence void of the Father’s gift of a new kind of life. There is no suggestion here of eternal torture in a burning hell.

Jesus mentions the fire of Gehenna in one other place. Matthew chapter 5 reports him to say,

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

This too reflects the imagery and associations of the valley of Ben Hinnom. The same applies to a statement recorded in Matthew chapter 10 and Luke chapter 12.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew)

Finally, in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus mentions Gehenna twice. In the first instance, he tells the zealous, but misguided, Pharisees that they make their convert more a candidate for spiritual calamity than they.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

He follows a bit later by asking how they plan to escape the destruction themselves,

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

This, along with a previous post, is the extent of Jesus’ references to hell. By patching them together some believe that Jesus taught that non-believers will burn forever in eternal punishment. This is not so.  He was speaking of spiritual destruction.

Next time we will look at what New Testament writers had to say about hell and will discover additional influences on the concept of hell from outside the Bible.

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17 Responses to Jesus and the Fires of Hell

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  9. I think you make a pretty good case.

    Is the idea then that the worm and the fire are both destructive forces that will not be prevented by God? Some will be saved from death others will not.

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    • T&R, I think the imagery relates to the scenario of destruction in Jerusalem, but I don’t think it has further reference to some end-time judgment.

      Keep in mind that it is a pronouncement of an ancient person who feels strongly about his message and should not be taken as a literal prophecy of any kind; it is a message from the anguished heart of the speaker about the situation of his time.

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  10. Rick says:

    So how do you convince someone like my wife who says that no matter how you interpret it there is definitely something bad that happens to you after you die for those that don’t believe or do what is right. She is beating herself up that our son has turned from God and doesn’t believe anymore. She thinks there is something that we could have done or should have done differently.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Rick, I really sympathize with your wife’s concerns. I know from experience that it is terrifying to reflect on someone’s potential suffering after death–especially if it is someone we love very much. However, I don’t think there is a basis for such concerns; I don’t think the Bible tells us ‘something bad’ will happen to anyone after death.

      I don’t know if you read any other posts from the series of which this post is a part, but I make a case that there is no eternal punishment and that our thinking that there is based on misunderstandings of texts that often have nothing to do with each other or the afterlife.

      The last two posts in the series describe what might happen to those who choose, finally, to reject the offer of eternal life.

      You can see links to all those post at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/key-baggage-issues/hell/. I hope you find something there that helps your wife lose her fear; Jesus teaches us that we do not need to fear.

      The other issue you raise is whether you, as parents, could have done something to guide your son to a continuing belief in God. No matter what we do, we can never assure that our children will not adopt beliefs different from ours. But consider this, your wife is greatly concerned with your son’s afterlife; do you not think the Father is as concerned as she? The Father wants the best for your son just as much as you do, and I think he understands your son’s heart even more than you do.

      I hope she can reduce her worry. Please let me know if you think I can be more helpful. This blog exists to support people who are struggling with thoughts such as your wife’s.

      Have a great day, and I hope to hear from you soon. ~Tim

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  11. Zach Van Houten says:

    Matt. 10:28 is one of the most blatantly disregarded verses in the Bible. I don’t know if there is a word that’s meaning is twisted more violently by theologians than the Greek apollumi (destroy).

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  12. Charles says:

    HI Tim.
    Finding your series of blogs on hell has been very helpful for me. Lately, I have been struggling with the question: “How can a just God infinitely punish a finite crime?”. I don’t think He can. And yet, Matthew 25:46 (NIV) says this: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
    I don’t believe your blogs on hell at this point have covered Matthew 25:31-46 (The Sheep and the Goats). Would you consider writing an additional blog on this section? In particular, how can v46 be explained in a theology that denies hell and eternal punishment? I do hope it can be explained.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Charles, I am glad you have found my series on hell to be useful. Your question about Matthew 25 is a very valid one. My answer is that the parable of the sheep and the goats is just that–a parable. It is a story to illustrate a point and that point is that the way we treat others is vitally important in light of the good news that the Father loves us (instead of being angry and harsh with us). As we respond to the Father’s love and Jesus’ emphasis on loving others we should act toward other in their best interests. Loving actions matter–not following legalistic religious rules.

      As in all such stories, the details are not important, doctrinal, or predictive of the future but are merely to illustrate the point. Jesus did however use language from the popular culture of his day (the judgment) to make his point, but the point turned the familiar concept on its head.

      After I finish my current series on harmful beliefs among believers, I will begin a series on the words and acts of Jesus to see whether it is true that the way of genuine love instead of legalism is demonstrated in his words and acts. It will include a review of this parable.

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