Gehenna, a Place of Eternal Punishment
OUTSIDE of the small number of serious students of the Bible there are very few people who know what Gehenna really is. The vast majority of people are totally ignorant on a subject they should be very much concerned about. This is a pity, because, for the most part, they are not responsible for their ignorance. Hundreds of years ago creed-bound men mistranslated into the many Bible versions certain Greek words. This is one reason for the general misunderstanding on the subject of what the eternal punishment of the wicked is. Another reason is the fact that the clergymen of Christendom, although many of them know the truth of the matter, have done very little to inform the people concerning Gehenna’s true nature.
To the west and south, and immediately outside the ancient city of Jerusalem, was a valley first known in Hebrew as gey ben [b’ne] hinnom, “the valley of the son [or, sons] of Hinnom.” Later it was just called gey hinnom, “valley of Hinnom,” or in the Greek tongue, Gehenna. It was a rather deep and narrow gorge, with steep rocky slopes, situated not far from the great temple and palace of Solomon. One portion of this valley was later called Topheth, and it was here, some believe, that a music grove was located where Solomon’s royal singers and musicians gathered to fill the valley with songs of praise to Jehovah.—Josh. 15:8; 2 Ki. 23:10; Jer. 19:2, 6.
However, in his old age, when Solomon’s heart was turned away from serving the only true God, he built abominable altars in this ravine to the pagan gods and goddess of Molech, Baal, Chemosh and Ashtoreth. (1 Ki. 11:5-7) It is said that a monstrous idol of brass was here erected which was heated from within, and into whose red-hot arms the idol worshipers cast alive their sons and daughters. As a consequence, this valley that once resounded with Jehovah’s praise was filled with the screams of little children who were offered up as sacrifices to the fire-god Molech.—2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6.
In due time, faithful King Josiah stamped out this fiendishness, and in order that the practice might not spring up again he polluted the valley by defiling it with dead men’s bones. (2 Ki. 23:10, 14; 2 Chron. 34:4, 5) From that time on Gehenna became the common cesspool for the city’s sewage, a place where all of Jerusalem’s garbage and filth were dumped. Here the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals were thrown. It was the city’s incinerator, and to keep the fires burning sulphur or brimstone was added. The sides of the cliffs were jagged and some of the refuse thrown over clung to the rocks, and as putrefaction set in worms or maggots consumed the fleshy parts rather than the sulphurous fires below. To the Jewish mind Gehenna became a vivid symbol of destruction and an abomination, an abhorrence to the eye, and a stench to the nostrils.
What a fitting example and illustration Gehenna was for Jeremiah to use! When that prophet of God pointed to that defiled place as an example of what Jehovah purposed to do to that rebellious nation they got the point. They knew that Almighty God purposed to destroy them as completely as anything thrown into the literal Gehenna was annihilated. “Thus will I do unto this place, saith Jehovah, and to the inhabitants thereof, even making this city as Topheth: and the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, which are defiled, shall be as the place of Topheth.” “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that it shall no more be called Topheth, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of Slaughter.”—Jer. 19:12, 13; 7:32, 33, AS.
And so it was when Jerusalem was finally destroyed A.D. 70. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 inhabitants died of famine or disease or were killed by the Romans, and it appears that many of their dead bodies were thrown into Gehenna after that terrible struggle.
Now then, in view of what Gehenna was, literally and symbolically, what better illustration or symbol could the Great Prophet, Christ Jesus, use when telling Jews what was in store for the wilfully wicked? When he said certain ones were liable to wind up in Gehenna, his listeners two millenniums ago knew exactly what he was talking about. They knew that if the sulphurous fires did not consume their dead bodies, the ever-present maggots would. In either event, they knew full well that to be cast into Gehenna meant they were criminals unworthy of either a burial or a resurrection, only annihilation.
But some may ask: ‘When or where did Jesus speak of Gehenna? In our Catholic Douay and Protestant King James Bibles we do not find the word Gehenna.’ Quite true. This is the point made earlier, that those men who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek and from the Latin Vulgate into English in the early seventeenth century were so mentally bound up and constrained by man-made creeds of “eternal torment” and “hell fire” they were not free to make even an honest translation. Consequently, at the twelve places in the Christian Greek Scriptures, commonly called the “New Testament”, where the name Gehenna occurs, they translated it “hell”, which English word they also used to translate the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek words Hades and Tartaros.
All modern translators of any repute, both Catholic and Protestant, have been forced to make note of and apologize for the gross blunder in the following texts: Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6. The English Revised, American Standard, Revised Standard, Catholic Confraternity, Spencer’s (Catholic), Young’s, Rotherham’s, Weymouth’s, Moffatt’s, Emphatic Diaglott, the New World Translation, and many other modern versions, either correct the error in the text or make note of it in their footnotes.
NO TORMENT IN GEHENNA
‘What is that? No eternal torment in the never-dying fires of Gehenna?’ That is correct even though contrary to popular opinion. The general idea held by organized religionists is that Gehenna is just another name for the fantastic ecclesiastical firepool so fanatically taught by the clergy. Simply carrying over the Greek word Gehenna into English Bibles means nothing if the clergy continue to deceive the people into believing that Gehenna is a place of eternal torment. As the Encyclopedia Americana (1942 ed., v. 14, p. 81) observes: “Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused through the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception.”
There is a vast distinction between eternal torment and eternal destruction. Gehenna symbolizes the latter, a place of everlasting destruction. There was no thought of torment in the ancient Gehenna outside the walls of Jerusalem, for nothing alive was cast therein. To be tormented it would have to be alive! Hence, Gehenna cannot possibly symbolize torment or torture, either temporary or eternal.
On this point, it is well to consider what modern translators have to say. The footnote of Matthew 5:22, in the Catholic Confraternity translation of 1941, does not say that criminals were cast alive into Gehenna to be tortured in its fire and brimstone, but rather it was the place “where the bodies of criminals were burnt after execution of sentence”. Commenting on this same text, the Roman Catholic Dr. F. A. Spencer, in his translation of 1937, says that when King Josiah desecrated the valley of Gehenna “the Jews thereafter used it as a dumping place for all kinds of refuse and the bodies of dead animals and criminals. To prevent infection, fires were kept always burning there; and the place became a type of the state of punishment of the lost”. You see, there were fires in the literal Gehenna all right, but they were not used to torture even the worst criminals, criminals whose dead bodies were thrown there because they were considered unworthy of a resurrection.
After giving a brief history of the place, the appendix, page 891, of Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott (1864), declares: “Gehenna, then, as occurring in the New Testament, symbolizes death and utter destruction, but in no place signifies a place of eternal torment.” To which can be added the following significant paragraph found in the appendix, page 767, of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (1950): “No living animals or human creatures were pitched into Gehenna to be burned alive or tormented. Hence the place could never symbolize an invisible region where human souls are tormented in literal fire and attacked by undying immortal worms for ever and ever. (Isa. 66:24) Because the dead criminals cast here were denied a decent burial in a memorial tomb, which symbolizes the hope of a resurrection, Gehenna was used by Jesus and his disciples to symbolize everlasting destruction, annihilation from God’s universe, or ‘second death’, an eternal punishment. Hence to be sentenced to have one’s dead body cast into Gehenna was considered the worst kind of punishment. From the literal Gehenna and from its significance the symbol of the ‘lake burning with fire and sulphur’ was drawn, at Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8.”
“Fire” is a symbol of utter destruction. Consequently, Revelation says in symbolic language that those who do not get life are hurled into the fiery lake which is the “second death”. Likewise Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah are punished with “eternal fire”. This is not literal fire, for those cities are now under water on the bottom of the Red sea. Jesus says in the parable that the “sheep” receive everlasting life, but the “goats” the opposite, “everlasting cutting-off” in destruction. (Matt. 25:46, NW; ED) The narration of the rich man and Lazarus at Luke 16:19-31 is just a parable, hence not literal. There is not one scripture that supports “eternal torment” or “everlasting torment” when correctly understood. What the Devil and his followers justly receive is everlasting cutting-off from life in annihilation.