Rather, as shown at Matthew 10:28, Jesus pointed out that God can “destroy,” not merely the body, but the entire person, the soul, in Gehenna. Just what is the nature of this destruction? An understanding of this is gleaned from a closer examination of the word “Gehenna.”
GEHENNA—THE VALLEY OF HINNOM
Though found in the Christian Greek Scriptures, “Gehenna” is drawn from two Hebrew words, Gaʹi and Hin·nomʹ, meaning Valley of Hinnom. This valley lay south and southwest of Jerusalem. In the days of faithless Judean Kings Ahaz and Manasseh the Valley of Hinnom served as a place for idolatrous religious rites, including the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice. (2 Chronicles 28:1, 3; 33:1, 6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2, 6) Later, good King Josiah put a stop to the idolatrous worship carried on there and made the valley unfit to use for worship.—2 Kings 23:10.
Tradition relates that the Valley of Hinnom thereafter became a place for the disposal of garbage. And the Bible provides confirmation for this. At Jeremiah 31:40, for example, the Valley of Hinnom is evidently called the “low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes.” There was also the “Gate of the Ash-heaps,” a gate that seems to have opened out onto the eastern extremity of the Valley of Hinnom at its juncture with the Kidron Valley.—Nehemiah 3:13, 14.
That Gehenna should be linked with the destructive aspects of a city dump is in full agreement with the words of Jesus Christ. With reference to Gehenna, he said, “their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” (Mark 9:48) His words evidently allude to the fact that fires burned continually at the city dump, perhaps being intensified by the addition of sulfur. Where the fire did not reach, worms or maggots would breed and feed on what was not consumed by fire.
It should also be observed that Jesus, in speaking of Gehenna in this way, did not introduce a concept completely foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures. In those earlier Scriptures practically identical wording appears in references to what will befall the ungodly.
Isaiah 66:24 foretells that persons having God’s favor “will actually go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that were transgressing against [God]; for the very worms upon them will not die and their fire itself will not be extinguished, and they must become something repulsive to all flesh.” Clearly this is not a picture of conscious torment but of a terrible destruction. What are left are, not conscious souls or “disembodied spirits,” but dead “carcasses.” The scripture shows that it is, not the humans, but the maggots or worms upon them that are alive. No mention is made here of any “immortal soul.”
In the prophecy of Jeremiah the Valley of Hinnom is similarly linked with a destruction of faithless humans. “‘Look! there are days coming,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘when this place will be called no more Topheth and the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the killing. And I will make void the counsel of Judah and of Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those seeking for their soul. And I will give their dead bodies as food to the flying creatures of the heavens and to the beasts of the earth.’”—Jeremiah 19:6, 7.
Note that Jeremiah’s reference to the Valley of Hinnom contains no hint of conscious torment after death. The picture drawn is one of total destruction, the “dead bodies” being consumed by scavenger birds and beasts.
A SYMBOL OF DESTRUCTION
In keeping with the Biblical evidence, then, Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom could appropriately serve as a symbol of destruction but not of conscious fiery torment. Joseph E. Kokjohn, in the Catholic periodical Commonweal, acknowledges this, saying:
“The final place of punishment, evidently, is Gehenna, the Valley of Hinno[m], which at one time had been a place where human sacrifice was offered to pagan gods, but in biblical times had already become the city dump, a refuse heap on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Here the stench and smoke and fire were a constant reminder to the inhabitants of what happened to things that had served their purpose—they were destroyed.”
That the destruction symbolized by Gehenna is a lasting one is shown elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures. The apostle Paul, when writing to Christians at Thessalonica, said that those causing them tribulation would “undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength.”—2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.
Biblical evidence thus makes it plain that those whom God judges as undeserving of life will experience, not eternal torment in a literal fire, but “everlasting destruction.” They will not be preserved alive anywhere. The fire of Gehenna is therefore but a symbol of the totality and thoroughness of that destruction.
“Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”—Matthew 10:28.