|True Grace Ministries
The Biblical Doctrine of Hell
From “The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment”
By Thomas B. Thayer
Written in 1855
THE WORD “SHEOL,” OR THE OLD TESTAMENT DOCTRINE OF HELL.
The word Hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which occurs sixty-four times, and is rendered “hell” thirty-two times, “grave” twenty-nine times, and “pit” three times.
1. By examination of the Hebrew Scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is, The place or state of the dead.
The following are examples: “Ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” Gen. xvii 38. “I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.” xxxviii 35. “O that thou wouldst hide me in the grave!” Job xiV 13. “My life draweth nigh to the grave.” Ps. lxxxviiI 3. “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?” lxxxvi 5. “Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth.” cxlI 7. “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Ecc. ix. 10. “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.” Ps. cxxxix. 8. “Hell from beneath is moved to meet thee, at thy coming. It stirreth up the dead for thee,” &c. Isaiah xiV 9-15.
These passages show the Hebrew usage of the word sheol, which is the original of the word “grave” and “hell” in all the examples cited. It is plain that it has here no reference to a place of endless torment after death. The patriarch would scarcely say, “I will go down to an endless hell to my son mourning.” He did not believe his son was in any such place. Job would not very likely pray to God to hide him in a place of endless torment, in order to be delivered from his troubles.
If the reader will substitute the word “hell” in the place of “grave” in all these passages, he will be in the way of understanding the Scripture doctrine on this subject.
2. But there is also a figurative sense to the word sheol, which is frequently met with in the later Scriptures of the Old Testament. Used in this sense, it represents a state of degradation or calamity, arising from any cause, whether misfortune, sin, or the judgment of God.
This is an easy and natural transition. The state or the place of the dead was regarded as solemn and gloomy, and thence the word sheol, the name of this place, came to be applied to any gloomy, or miserable state or condition. The following passages are examples: “The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me.” Psalm xvii 4-6. This was a past event, and therefore the hell must have been this side of death. Solomon, speaking of a child, says, “Thou shalt beat him, and deliver his soul from hell;” that is, from the ruin and woe of disobedience. ProV xxiiI 14. The Lord says to Israel, in reference to their idolatries, “Thou didst debase thyself even unto hell.” Isaiah lvii 9. This, of course, signifies a state of utter moral degradation and wickedness, since the Jewish nation as such certainly never went down into a hell of ceaseless woe. Jonah says, “Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardst me.” ii 2. Here we see the absurdity of supposing sheol or hell to mean a place of punishment after death. The hell in this case was the belly of the whale; or rather the wretched and suffering condition in which the disobedient prophet found himself. “The pains of hell got hold on me: I found trouble and sorrow.” Ps. cxvi 3. Yet David was a living man, all this while, here on the earth. So he exclaims again, “Great is thy mercy towards me. Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.” Ps. lxxxvi 13. Now here the Psalmist was in the lowest hell, and was delivered from it, while he was yet in the body, before death. Of course the hell here cannot be a place of endless punishment after death.
These passages sufficiently illustrate the figurative usage of the word sheol, “hell.” They show plainly that it was employed by the Jews as a symbol or figure of extreme degradation or suffering, without reference to the cause. And it is to this condition the Psalmist refers when he says, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” Ps. ix. 17. Though Dr. Allen, President of Bowdoin College, thinks “the punishment expressed here is cutting off from life, destroying from earth by some special judgment, and removing to the invisible place of the dead” (sheol).
It is plain, then, from these citations, that the word sheol, “hell,” makes nothing for the doctrine of future unending punishment as a part of the Law penalties. It is never used by Moses or the Prophets in the sense of a place of torment after death; and in no way conflicts with the statement already proved, that the Law of Moses deals wholly in temporal rewards and punishments.
This position, also, I wish to fortify by the testimony of Orthodox critics, men of learning and candor. They know, and therefore they speak.
1. CHAPMAN. “Sheol, in itself considered, has no connection with future punishment.” Cited by Balfour, First Inquiry.
2. DR. ALLEN, quoted above, says: “The term sheol does not seem to mean, with certainty, anything more than the state of the dead in their deep abode.”
3. DR. CAMPBELL. “Sheol signifies the state of the dead without regard to their happiness or misery.”
4. DR. WHITBY. “Sheol throughout the Old Testament signifies not the place of punishment, or of the souls of bad men only, but the grave only, or the place of death.”
5. DR. MUENSCHER. This distinguished author of a Dogmatic History in German, says: “The souls or shades of the dead wander in sheol, the realm or kingdom of death, an abode deep under the earth. Thither go all men, without distinction, and hope for no return. There ceases all pain and anguish; there reigns an unbroken silence; there all is powerless and still; and even the praise of God is heard no more.”
6. VON COELLN. “Sheol itself is described as the house appointed for all living, which receives into its bosom all mankind, without distinction of rank, wealth, or moral character. It is only in the mode of death, and not in the condition after death, that the good are distinguished above the evil. The just, for instance, die in peace, and are gently borne away before the evil comes; while a bitter death breaks the wicked like as a tree.” 2
These witnesses all testify that sheol, or hell, in the Old Testament, has no reference whatever to this doctrine; that it signifies simply the state of the dead, the invisible world, without regard to their goodness or badness, their happiness or misery. The Old Testament doctrine of hell, therefore, is not the doctrine of endless punishment. It is not revealed in the Law of Moses. It is not revealed in the Old Testament. To such result has our inquiry led us; and now what shall we say of it?
THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCTRINE OF HELL.
Do we find the doctrine of endless punishment revealed in the use of the word Hell? Let the facts answer. There are three words translated “Hell” in the New Testament, Hades and Tartarus, which are Greek, and Gehenna, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew words Gee and Hinnom, meaning “the valley of Hinnom.”
1. HADES. This word occurs eleven times, and is rendered “grave” once, and “hell” ten times. It may be profitable first to consider what one of the most accomplished orthodox scholars says in regard to it. “In my judgment,” says Dr. Campbell, “it ought never in Scripture to be rendered hell, at least in the sense wherein that word is universally understood by Christians. In the Old Testament the corresponding word is Sheol, which signifies the state of the dead in general, without regard to the goodness or badness of the persons, their happiness or misery. It is very plain that neither in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, nor in the New, does the word hades convey the meaning which the present English word hell, in the Christian usage, always conveys to our minds. The attempt to illustrate this would be unnecessary, as it is hardly now pretended by any critic that this is the acceptation of the term in the Old Testament.” 1
1st. HADES is put for the grave, or the state of the dead. Our translators have so rendered it in 2 Cor. xv 55. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave (hades), where is thy victory?” Let us look at some other passages where it is rendered “hell.” “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption.” “He spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.” Acts ii 27, 31. Was the soul of Christ ever in hell, in the orthodox sense of the word, as a place of endless torment? But the sacred writer himself explains the word, when he says he is speaking of the resurrection of Christ, that is, from the grave, or the dead.
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed him.” ReV vi 8. There is no necessary connection between death and a place of endless punishment, as all men die, good or bad; but there is a connection between death and the grave, or the state of the dead; and there is a propriety in representing the last as following the first. “And death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them.” ReV xx. 13. This is the reverse of what is usually taught and believed of hell; for the leading idea is that it will not give up those who are in it. Surely the hell the Revelator speaks of is not a place of endless torments. This is further confirmed by the next verse, where it is said, “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire,” that is, utterly destroyed. Of course, then, this hell cannot be a place of endless woe, since it is not itself endless.
These passages, which are without point or meaning in the common view of hell, are full of significance when we give to hades, or hell, its true sense. For we know that the grave (hades) will deliver up its dead, and that death and the grave will be destroyed in the resurrection, when death shall be swallowed up in the victory of immortal life. Then with a meaning it will be said, “O grave (hades, hell), where is thy victory?” for then will be fulfilled the saying, “O grave (hades, hell), I will be thy destruction.” Hosea xiiI 14.
2d. HADES is also used in a figurative sense to represent a state of degradation, calamity, or suffering, arising from any cause whatever.
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell” (hades). Matt. xi 23. The parallel passage is in Luke, x. 15. No one supposes that the city of Capernaum went down to a place of endless woe. The word hell here, as Dr. Clarke says, is a figure to set forth “the state of utmost woe, and ruin, and desolation, to which these impenitent cities should be reduced. This prediction of our Lord was literally fulfilled.” Bp. Pearce says, “It means, thou shalt be quite ruined and destroyed.” So also Hammond, Beausobre, Bloomfield, and others. The last named says it is a “hyberbolical expression, figuratively representing the depth of adversity.”
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus furnishes another example. “And in hell (hades) he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.” It will be remembered that the Jews had borrowed their ideas of torment in a future state from the heathen, and of course they were obliged to borrow their terms to express this. Accordingly, after the manner of the Greeks, Hades, or the place of departed spirits, is represented as receiving all, as Sheol did, good and bad; but we have also the additional idea of separate apartments or districts, divided by a great gulf or river; on one side of which the blessed are located, and on the other side the damned, near enough to see each other, and converse together, as in the case of Abraham and the rich man.
It must also be remembered that this is only a parable, and not a real history; for, as Dr. Whitby affirms, “we find this very parable in the Gemara Babylonicum.” The story was not new, then, not original with Christ, but known among the Jews before He repeated it. He borrowed the parable from them, and employed it to show the judgment which awaited them. He represented the spiritual favors and privileges of the Jews by the wealth and luxury of the rich man, and the spiritual poverty of the Gentiles by the beggary and infirmity of Lazarus; and while the former would be deprived of their privileges and punished for their wickedness, the latter would enjoy the blessings of truth and faith.
The question may arise, “If Christ employed the language used by the Jews to express the torments of hell after death, did He not virtually sanction the doctrine?”
If so, then He sanctioned their views as set out in this parable, which, as we have already shown, they borrowed from the heathen. He puts Himself on a level with the Pagan poets, and teaches a heaven and hell in Hades, divided by a great gulf, torments by flame, conversational intercourse between the blessed and the damned, &c.
Now no one believes in such a hell as this. A material hell of fire, and torments by flame, have been long ago abandoned. And the Savior cannot be understood as believing or teaching future torments, by using this parable, any more than He can be supposed to believe and teach the existence of Beelzebub, the Philistine god of flies (or filth), when He alludes to him, and uses his name as if he were a real being. See Matt. x. 25; xii 24.
So He says (Matt. vi 24), “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” “Mammon” is the name of the god of riches; but surely no one would pretend that Christ, by speaking of serving him, sanctioned the doctrine that he was really a god. And yet He speaks of his service in the same connection, and in the same language, with that of the true God; showing the latitude with which these comparisons and figures are used, without sanctioning the errors on which they are founded. He takes their own language and opinions in both cases, without believing or approving, in order to teach and warn them.
Dr. Macknight (Scotch Presbyterian) has spoken well on this point. “It must be acknowledged,” he says, “that our Lord’s descriptions (in this parable) are not drawn from the writings of the Old Testament, but have a remarkable affinity to the descriptions which the Grecian poets have given. They, as well as our Lord, represent the abodes of the blessed as lying contiguous to the region of the damned, and separated only by a great impassable river, or deep gulf, in such sort that the ghosts could talk to one another from its opposite banks. The parable says the souls of wicked men are tormented in flames; the Grecian mythologists tell us they lie in Phlegethon, the river of fire, where they suffer torments,” &c. Then he adds, “If from these resemblances it is thought the parable is formed on the Grecian mythology, it will not at all follow that our Lord approved of what the common people thought or spake concerning those matters, agreeably to the notions of the Greeks. In parabolical discourses, provided the doctrines inculcated are strictly true, the terms in which they are inculcated may be such as are most familiar to the ears of the vulgar, and the images made use of such as they are best acquainted with.” Whittemore’s Notes.
The sum of the matter is, that Christ takes up a parable or story current among the Jews, and, without approving the heathen opinions on which it was founded, uses it to show that the Gentiles (Lazarus) would be received into the Gospel kingdom with Abraham and Isaac, while the Jews (the rich man) would be thrust out into darkness and desolation. And this judgment he represents by the figure of casting into hell, as He had described the destruction of Capernaum by saying it would be “thrust down to hell.”
A perfect commentary on the parable is found in such passages as these: “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Matt xxi 43. “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye see many coming from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and sitting with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, while you yourselves are thrust out.” Matt. viiI 11, compared with Luke xiiI 28, 29. “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but, seeing ye put it from you, and judge (show) yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” Acts xiiI 46.
2. TARTARUS. This word occurs only once, and then in a participial form, in 2 Peter ii 4. “If God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, &c. Tartarosas. This is of the same character with the parable just considered, Tartarus being the place of torment in Hades, where the rich man was supposed to be. Bloomfield says that “Tartarus here is derived from the heathen, and chains of darkness from the Jewish mythology;” and adds “it is an expression truly Aeschylean,” that is, dramatic, not literally true, a figure of something else.
It cannot be supposed that the divine apostle believed in the heathen hell or Tartarus, of which we have given some account in Chapter iiI, and which the heathen themselves confess is a mere fable, an invention of legislators and poets. His use of the word does not prove his belief of the doctrine of torments after death, any more than Jude’s mention of the dispute between Michael and the devil about the body of Moses, makes him responsible for the truth of that idle and ridiculous fable of the Jews. It might as well be argued that he believed the angels or messengers were bound in literal “chains of darkness,” as that he believed they were literally cast into Tartarus or the heathen hell. Both expressions are figures to represent the desolation or destruction into which they were brought by their disobedience.
This is not the place to enter into the question of who are meant by the angels, or to give an exposition of the passage. Whether men or spirits, the word “hell” here furnishes no proof of their endless punishment – and this is all we are concerned with in the present inquiry.
3. GEHENNA. This word occurs twelve times in the New Testament, and is always translated “hell.” But as the Evangelists repeat the same discourses, the Savior did not really use it more than six or seven times in all His ministry. The following are the texts: Matt. V 22, 29, 30, x. 28, xviiI 9, xxiiI 15, 33; Mark ix. 43, 45, 47; Luke xii 5; James iiI 6. By consulting these passages the reader will see how many of them are simply repetitions, and how very few times this word is used, on which, nevertheless, more reliance is placed than on all others, to prove that “hell” is a place of endless torment.
The following from Schleusner, a distinguished lexicographer and critic, will show the origin of the word, and indicate its scriptural usage: “Gehenna, originally a Hebrew word, which signifies valley of Hinnom. Here the Jews placed that brazen image of Moloch. It is said, on the authority of the ancient Rabbins, that to this image the idolatrous Jews were wont not only to sacrifice doves, pigeons, lambs, &c., but even to offer their own children. In the prophecies of Jeremiah (vii 31), this valley is called Tophet, from Toph, a drum; because they beat a drum during these horrible rites, lest the cries and shrieks of the infants who were burned should be heard by the assembly. At length these nefarious practices were abolished by Josiah, and the Jews brought back to the pure worship of God. 2 Kings xxiiI After this they held the place in such abomination that they cast into it all kinds of filth, and the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death, was described by the word Gehenna, or hell.” 2
It is proper to add that Schleusner also says that it was used to represent the future torments of the wicked, and attempts to show it by quoting the texts given above. But this, as the reader will see, is assuming the whole question; it is taking for granted the thing to be proved.
In Jeremiah xix., it seems to be used as a comparative symbol of the desolation of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, or, as Dr. Clarke thinks, by the Romans. The Lord says to the prophet, “Go forth into the valley of the Son of Hinnom (Gehenna, hell); and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee…I will even make this city as Tophet (or Gehenna); and the houses of Jerusalem and the kings of Judah shall be defiled as the place of Tophet,” &c. Here Tophet, or Gehenna, is employed in the way of comparison to set forth the utter overthrow of Jerusalem; as we say of a place, “It is barren as a desert,” “It is silent as the grave,” &c.
Isaiah says, “They shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” lxvi 23, 24. Here the unquenchable fire and the undying worm of Gehenna, or hell, are used as figures of judgment to happen on the earth, where there are carcasses, new moons, sabbaths, &c. Gehenna, with its accompaniments, was an object of utmost loathing to the Jew, and came to be employed as a symbol of any great judgment or woe.
We say of a great military or political overthrow, “It was a Waterloo defeat.” So the Jews described a great desolation by a like use of the word Gehenna – “It was a Gehenna judgment;” that is, a very terrible and destructive judgment.
In Matt. V 29, 30, there is mention of the “whole body cast into hell.” No one supposes the body is literally cast into a hell in the future state. The severity of the judgments falling on those who would not give up their sins, is represented by Gehenna, which, as Schleusner says, was “a word in common use to describe any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death.” These wicked people should perish in a manner as infamous as that of criminals, whose bodies, after execution, were cast into Gehenna (hell), and burned with the bodies of beasts and the offal of the city.
The same thought is expressed in Matt. xxiiI 33, where “the damnation of hell” is a symbol of the tremendous judgments coming upon that guilty nation, when inquisition would be made for “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, slain between the temple and the altar.” Vs. 34-39.
Mark ix. 33, 45, 47, are repetitions of Matt. V 29, 30, with the addition of “the undying worm and the unquenchable fire,” which is a repetition of Isaiah lxvi 24. There is nothing in the passage to show that the Savior used these phrases in any sense different from that of the prophet; who, as we have seen, employs them to represent judgments on the earth, where, “they shall go forth to look on the carcasses of the men who have transgressed against me…for they shall bury in Tophet (the place of sacrifice in Gehenna or hell) till there is no place;…and the days shall come that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the Son of Hinnom (the Hebrew for Gehenna or hell), but the valley of Slaughter.” Jer. vii 19; Isa. lxvi 24.
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matt. x. 28. Luke says, “Fear him, which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.” xii 5.
Here is a mixed reference, figurative and literal, to the valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, hell. There is a literal allusion to casting the dead bodies of criminals into the valley, to be burned in the perpetual or unquenchable fire kept up there for this purpose; but the association of soul and body in the same destruction indicates the figurative use to represent entire extinction of being, or annihilation.
Isaiah employs the phrase in a similar way. “The Lord shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire,…and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day; and shall consume the glory of his forest, and of his fruitful field, both soul and body.” x. 16-18. Dr. Clarke says this is “a proverbial expression,” signifying that they should be “entirely and altogether consumed.” So Christ represents God as able to destroy the wicked and apostate, “soul and body in Gehenna,” the word familiarly used to express any great judgment or calamity. 3
But the Savior is not to be understood as teaching that God will annihilate soul and body, because He said He was able to do it, any more than He is to be understood as teaching that out of stones God would raise up children to Abraham, because He said He was able to. Matt. iiI 9. And, moreover, He tells them in the very next words not to fear, because God watched over them, numbering the hairs of their head even, in His special keeping of them, and would surely protect them so long as they were faithful to Him and His truth.
The method of argument seems to be the same as that pursued with the Pharisees, when they complained of His keeping company with publicans and sinners. Matt. ix. “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” If you are righteous, as you pretend, that is good reason why I should not keep company with you, for I came to save sinners. But He did not allow that they were righteous. He only admitted their premises for the time, in order to show the absurdity of their reasoning.
So, here, He says: If you are moved by the selfish consideration of fear to abandon the Gospel in order to save your lives (as Peter was afterward tempted to do), then, to be consistent, you ought to fear the power which can do you most injury. And this surely is God, who can bring destruction and death, not only on the body, but on the soul also, and that amid the most terrible of judgments. And to picture the dreadfulness of this destruction more vividly to their minds, He uses the well-known symbol of Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, the synonym of all that was horrible in the mind of a Jew. 4
Then, in the next words, He proceeds to tell them that really they had no cause to fear either God or men. So long as they did their duty, God, who provided for the sparrow (vs. 29), and numbered the hairs of their heads, in the watchfulness of His love (vs. 30), would surely protect them. And, then, as if to convince them that what He had said was only a supposition, and not a fact, He says: “FEAR YE NOT, THEREFORE, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (vs. 31.)
In the two passages following, Gehenna seems to be employed as a figure or symbol of moral corruption.
James says of the tongue, “It defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (Gehenna). iiI 6. Here Gehenna, that place of filth and corruption and perpetual fires, is made a fitting emblem of the foul passions and corrupt appetites, set on fire by a foul and seductive tongue, which inflames in turn, to the defilement of the whole body.
So, in Matt. xxiiI 15, 27, Gehenna or hell, and the whited sepulcher, “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness,” are fearful symbols of the moral foulness of the “Scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites,” whom the Savior was addressing. “Two-fold more the child of hell,” signifying that they made their converts two-fold more corrupt than themselves.
The word Gehenna, or hell, then, in the New Testament is used as a symbol of anything that was foul and repulsive; but especially as a figure of dreadful and destructive judgments.
And, now, let us consider some of the facts connected with this word Gehenna. They are the more important because this word is specially relied upon as teaching the doctrine of endless torments, the doctrine of hell, as popularly believed. Whatever other forms of speech may be employed to express the thought, this is surely one of the terms clearly declarative of future endless punishment.
Admitting this statement for a moment, let us see what follows. If this is the word by which the tremendous fact is to be revealed, we shall have it notified to us in a fitting manner. We know with what solemn preparations, and awful accompaniments, the Law was introduced at Sinai; and we may certainly expect this doctrine will be announced with a solemnity and awfulness corresponding to its infinitely greater importance, and which shall concentrate upon it the attention of all the world. Neither the patriarchs, nor Moses, nor the prophets, have uttered a word on the subject; but now a new teacher is come from God, and he is to make known the dreadful doctrine; and the words he selects for this purpose will be employed with a power of emphasis, with a marked distinction, which will shut out all possibility of mistake.
Let us see if it be so. The first time Christ uses the word Gehenna is in Matt. V 22, 29, 30. But not a word of preparation or notice that now, for the first time, the terrible dogma is announced on divine authority. He speaks as calmly as if He were wholly unconscious of the burthen of such a revelation; and the people seem equally unmoved under the awful declaration. And what is singular, it is not presented by itself, in a positive form, unmixed with anything else, as its importance most surely demanded; but is slipped in merely as a comparative illustration, among other judgments, of the greater moral demands of the Gospel, and the strictness with which it enforced obedience.
They, the Jews, had said, “Whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment;” but Christ says, whosoever is angry with his brother without cause, is in danger of a punishment equal to that of the judgment (the inferior court of seven judges); and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca (a term of contempt, shallow-brain or blockhead), shall be in danger of a punishment equal to that inflicted by the council (the superior court of seventy judges, which took cognizance of capital crimes); but whosoever shall say, “Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire,” or of a punishment equal in severity to the fire of Gehenna.
Now, if Christ used the term Gehenna to reveal endless woe, and that for the first time, would He not have said this, and fixed forever the meaning of the word? And yet not the slightest intimation do we have of any such new and awful meaning. The Jews were familiar with it, and used it constantly to symbolize any great punishment or judgment coming on the earth; and they must of course suppose He used it as they did, since He gave them no notice to the contrary. If, therefore, He did give it the new signification of endless punishment after death, they could not understand Him, and He failed of His purpose for want of such explanation as they, and we, had a right to expect.
But there is another consideration deserving notice. The difference between the sinfulness of saying Raca or Blockhead, and Fool, is hardly great enough to warrant such a difference in punishment as is involved in the supposition. Townsend justly says, to imagine that Christ, for such a slight distinction as Raca and Thou fool, “would instantly pass from such a sentence as the Jewish Sanhedrim would pronounce, to the awful doom of eternal punishment in hell-fire, is what cannot be reconciled to any rational rule of faith, or known measure of justice.” There is no proportion between the slight difference in guilt and the tremendous, infinite difference in punishment. But if the comparison is between penalties symbolized by stoning to death, inflicted by the Sanhedrim council, and burning alive in Gehenna, then there is proportion, some relation of parts; because the difference between death by stoning and death by burning is not certainly very great; but the difference between death by stoning and endless torment is infinite.
It is impossible, therefore, to believe that Christ, in this first use of Gehenna, intended to reveal the doctrine, without an accusation against His fidelity and justice.
But let us note other facts equally pertinent.
1. Though Gehenna occurs twelve times, the Savior actually used it only on four or five different occasions, the rest being only repetitions. If this is the word, and the revelation of this terrible doctrine is in it, how is it possible that Christ, in a ministry of three years, should use it only four times? Was He faithful to the souls committed to His charge?
2. The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word. John Baptist, who preached to the most wicked of men, did not use it once. Paul wrote fourteen epistles, and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it, nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelations, never employs it in a single instance. Now if Gehenna or hell really reveals the terrible fact of endless woe, how can we account for this strange silence? How is it possible, if they knew its meaning, and believed it a part of Christ’s teaching, that they should not have used it a hundred or a thousand times, instead of never using it at all; especially when we consider the infinite interests involved?
3. The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the Church among the Jews and Gentiles, and embraces a period of thirty years from the ascension of Christ. In all this history, in all this preaching of the disciples and apostles of Jesus, there is no mention of Gehenna. In thirty years of missionary effort, these men of God, addressing people of all characters and nations, never, under any circumstances, threaten them with the torments of Gehenna, or allude to it in the most distant manner! In the face of such a fact as this, can any man believe that Gehenna signifies endless punishment, and that this is a part of divine revelation, a part of the Gospel message to the world?
These considerations show how impossible it is to establish the doctrine in review on the word Gehenna. All the facts are against the supposition that the term was used by Christ or His disciples in the sense of future endless punishment. There is not the least hint of any such meaning attached to it, nor the slightest preparatory notice that any such new revelation was to be looked for in this old familiar word.
We have now passed in review, as far as our limits will permit, the New Testament doctrine of Hell, and we have not, surely, found it to be the doctrine of endless punishment, but something very wide from this. Let us now turn to other phraseology supposed to embody this thought, and to establish it as a doctrine of divine revelation.
1 Prelim. Diss. vi, Pt. ii.
2 Lexicon on Gehenna. The same statements are made by Prof. Stuart, Whitby, Clarke, and others.
3 Our Lord may refer to that great day of wrath, when the Jews and apostate Christians (He is warning against apostasy) would be destroyed amid “tribulation such as was not from the beginning of the world to that time; no, nor ever shall be.” Matt. xxiV 21. It is impossible to prove endless misery from this passage, for the soul is involved in the same destruction with the body. The advocates of an endless life of suffering find in this text a greater stumbling-block than any other class of believers; for, if it teaches what is certain and not what is possible only, it necessitates the doctrine of annihilation.
4 Dr. Albert Barnes says: “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 ever acquainted.”