INTRODUCTION: Knowing what the Scriptures teach about Gehenna is key to understanding what Jesus was referring to when He taught on it, and whether this is a place which awaits “those that do not believe” or a place for those with “detestable practices”.
Gehenna / Gehenom in Hebrew (גהנום) is a term derived from one of two valleys just outside of Jerusalem called Gai Ben-Hinnom (גֵיבֶן־הִנֹּם ) in Hebrew and Valley of the Son of Hinnom in English, which was a place of horrible idolatry. Gehenna appears in the Rabbinic texts of the Mishna and Talmud (3rd century CE) and plays an important role as a place where unrighteous souls are punished.
Rabbinic literature describes Gehenna as a place of fire, brimstone and darkness:
“Ordinary fire is a sixtieth of the fire of Gehenna”
“Why does a man’s soul shrink from the odor of brimstone? Because it knows it will be judged in the world to come”
Genesis Rabbah 51:3
“The wicked are darkness, Gehenna is darkness, the depths are darkness. I lead the wicked to Gehenna and cover them with the depths.”
Genesis Rabbah 33:1
In the Scriptures, Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom was the place where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba’als and false gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chronicles 28:3, 2 Chronicles 33:2, Jeremiah 7:31 , Jeremiah 19:2-6).
God’s Judgement Against Detestable Practices
“He burned incense in the Valley of Hinnomand burned his children in the fire imitating the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites.”
2 Chronicles 28:3
Speaking of Manasseh Scripture says;
“He passed his sons through the fire in the Valley of Hinnom. He practiced witchcraft, divination, and sorcery, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did a great deal of evil in the Lord’s sight, provoking Him“.
2 Chronicles 33:6
In Jeremiah 7, God says;
“For the Judeans have done what is evil in My sight.”
This is the Lord’s declaration. “They have set up their detestable things in the house that is called by My name and defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire a thing I did not command; I never entertained the thought. “
He judged the kings of Judah and the people of Judah for abandoning Him, burning incense to other gods, and filling the place with the blood of the innocent and offering their children as burnt offerings to Baal — something He never commanded;
“This is what the Lord says: “Go, buy a potter’s clay jar. Take some of the elders of the people and some of the leading priests go out to the Valley of Hinnom near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. Proclaim there the words I speak to you. Say: Hear the word of the Lord, kings of Judah and residents of Jerusalem. This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on this place that everyone who hears about it will shudder because they have abandoned Me and made this a foreign place. They have burned incense in it to other gods that they, their fathers, and the kings of Judah have never known. They have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built high places to Baal on which to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, something I have never commanded or mentioned; I never entertained the thought.”
“Assyria will be shattered by the voice of the Lord.
He will strike with a rod.
And every stroke of the appointed staff
that the Lord brings down on him
will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres;He will fight against him with brandished weapons.Indeed! Topheth has been readyfor the king for a long time now.
Its funeral pyre is deep and wide,
with plenty of fire and wood.
The breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone,
In all of these passages, God’s judgement was against the people for what their detestable practice — what they did, not for unbelief in Him.
Isaiah 66 – The Final Judgement
Chapter 66 of Isaiah mentions the corpses of a battle like the one Lord fought against the Assyrian army in Topheth, in the Valley of Hinnon (Isaiah 30) but this is the final battle against those who have rebelled against Him — and Jesus said that the bodies of those who rebelled against God will be in this place (see below). This battle follows His final gathering of all nations and all languages (Gentiles) and His final gathering of the nation of Israel, to Himself, and the outcome of this battle will be that those who worship Him from all the nations — both Jews and Gentiles will come to worship Him from “one New Moon to another” and “from one Sabbath to another” in the “new heavens and new earth“.
We are going to look at this passage from the beginning, as Jesus refers to it.
At the beginning of the Isaiah 66, God says that He will “look favorably on the kind of person who is humble, submissive in spirit and trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2) and that He will judge those with detestable practices (Isaiah 66:3);
“So I will choose their punishment,and I will bring on them what they dreadbecause I called and no one answered;I spoke and they didn’t hear;they did what was evil in My sightand chose what I didn’t delight in.”
“You who tremble at His word,
hear the word of the Lord:
“Your brothers who hate and exclude you
because of Me have said,
‘Let the Lord be glorified
so that we can see your joy! ’
But they will be put to shame.”
A sound of uproar from the city!
A voice from the Temple —
the voice of the Lord,
paying back His enemies what they deserve!
“Be glad for Jerusalem and rejoice over her,
all who love her.
Rejoice greatly with her,
all who mourn over her —
so that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her comforting breast
and drink deeply and delight yourselves
from her glorious breasts.
For this is what the Lord says:
I will make peace flow to her like a river,
and the wealth of nations like a flood;
you will nurse and be carried on her hip
and bounced on her lap.
As a mother comforts her son,
so I will comfort you,
and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.”
…and in verse 14-17, God speaks of His judgement against His enemies as the Lord coming “with fire“, and that His rebuke comes with “flames of fire” and His judgement with His “fiery sword“;
“You will see, you will rejoice,
and you will flourish like grass;
then the Lord’s power will be revealed to His servants,
but He will show His wrath against His enemies.
Look, the Lord will come with fire —
His chariots are like the whirlwind —
to execute His anger with fury
and His rebuke with flames of fire.
For the Lord will execute judgment
on all flesh with His fiery sword,
and many will be slain by the Lord.
Those who dedicate and purify themselves to enter the groves following their leader, eating meat from pigs, vermin, and rats, will perish together.”
God says that He will gather all nations and all languages (Gentiles) and that they will come and see His glory;
“This is the Lord’s declaration.
Knowing their works and their thoughts, I have come to gather all nations and languages; they will come and see My glory.”
Then God says that He will ‘send the survivors to the nations who have not heard of His fame or seen His glory, and they will proclaim His glory among the nations, and they will bring back His People from all the nations as a gift to the Lord, to His holy mountain, Jerusalem’ ;
” I will establish a sign among them, and I will send survivors from them to the nations — to Tarshish, Put, Lud (who are archers), Tubal, Javan, and the islands far away — who have not heard of My fame or seen My glory. And they will proclaim My glory among the nations. They will bring all your brothers from all the nations as a gift to the Lord on horses and chariots, in litters, and on mules and camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the Lord, “just as the Israelites bring an offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. I will also take some of them as priests and Levites,” says the Lord.”
Clearly, this is before the final judgement, as God's glory is still being proclaimed among the nations and there are still those of His People who He is gathering back from the nations, and bringing them back to Jerusalem. This is confirmed in the next verse, which speaks of the "new heavens and new earth" that God will make (future tense).
God says “just as this new heavens and new earth” will endure before Him, so will the descendants of Israel and their name endure — and all mankind (Jews and Gentiles, both) will come to worship Him;
“For just as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
will endure before Me” —
this is the Lord’s declaration —
“so your offspring and your name will endure.
All mankind will come to worship Me
from one New Moon to another
and from one Sabbath to another,”
says the Lord.”
The last verse of Isaiah 66:24 says that as they leave, they will see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against God; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all mankind.
It is these same words which Jesus said refer to Gehenna (Mark 9:42-48).
Jesus’ Teaching on Hell
Jesus picks up the last verse of Isaiah (Isaiah 66:24) and refers to Gehenna the same way that the Tanakh (Old Testament) does — as the place destined for those who have rebelled against God;
“But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell — the unquenchable fire, where
Their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.
And if your foot causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell — the unquenchable fire, where
Their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.
And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge 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
Their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.
Jesus is referring to judgement against sins that a person does — what they touch (hand), where they go (foot), what they see (eye). Such sins are wide and vast — and include adultery, fornication, idolatry (even in the modern sense, of worshiping our money, prestige or position), and pornography.
Hell is destined for people who will not turn from these sins.
How many Christians flippantly sleep with their boyfriend or girlfriend (fornication), thinking ‘it’s no big deal’?
How many Christian men — from teenagers, young adults, to older men continue to look at pornography?
Do we not know that we will be judged for what we do?
This is not an “Old Testament” concept that is no longer applicable. Jesus taught this to the unbelievers, the believers and the religious authorities.
I – Jesus Teaching on Hell to Unbelievers
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Jesus speaking to the Jews that had followed Him there from “from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25) says:
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool! ’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron! ’ will be subject to hellfire.”
Are there people you just “can’t forgive”? Jesus said we will be judged for this and that Hell is the place for those who rebel against God and His word.
Unforgiveness is a deadly sin.
“Hellfire” is confirmed as Gehenna a few verses down in Matthew 5:29-30, which is a cross reference to the passage in Mark 9: 42-48, above;
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!”
II – Jesus teaching on Hell to Believers
Jesus repeats this very same teaching that He gave to the Jewish believers in Matthew 5 — this time to the Disciples;
“But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea! Woe to the world because of offenses. For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes. If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire
Jesus warn the Disciples, who were clearly believers, against God’s judgement that will come against those that continue to practice sins of the hand, foot or eye — saying that what they touch (hand), where they go (foot), what they see (eye) matters.
He reminds them from the teachings of Scripture, from the Tanakh, that God will judge them for what they DO and that the destiny of those that continue to practice “detestable things” is hell.
Speaking of the end of days, Jesus said to His Disciples, who were clearly already believers in Him;
Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.“
III – Jesus Teaching on Hell to the Religious Authorities
In Matthew 23, after Jesus address the crowds and His Disciples (verse 1) admonishing them to
“do whatever they (the Scribes and Pharisees) tell you, and observe it”
…when they are “seated in the chair of Moses” (i.e. teaching the Law of Moses with the authority given them) and adds;
“But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach”
Then Jesus goes in the many “woes” addressed to the Scribes and Pharisees (Mathew 23:13-23) and in the midst of those says;
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!
Jesus is saying that religious leaders who KNOW what God’s Word teaches yet do not DO it are “fit for hell“.
Concluding all these “woes” Jesus says;
“Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?
Jesus has very strong words to those who know His word and do not DO it — for not practicing what they teach. He says to them “how can you escape being condemned to hell?”
They are, as He says, “fit for hell“.
Hell is the place created for those who will not turn from their detestable practices (Isaiah 66:3).
Hell is the place where those who have rebelled against God go (whether they once believed in Him or not) — where their worm will never die, their fire will never go out.
Hell is the place where someday those who will say to Him, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?” (Matthew 7:21) and to whom He will answer
“I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!”
That is why He says;
“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.”
God cares greatly about what we DO and what we PRACTICE, about us observing His Law — both written in His word and written on our hearts.
Hell was not created for “those that do not believe in Him”. It was created for those with detestable practices, for those that know of Him and do not do the things He commands.
God says He will “look favorably on a person who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at His word” (Isaiah 66:2), to the repentant and contrite who do whatever it takes to forsake their sins.
What He will not do is wink at sin.
Hell (Gehenna) is the place where those who have rebelled against God go; where their worm will never die, their fire will never go out.