Gehenna is a Greek word used in the New Testament. In the King James, it is translated as “hell” 9 times, and “hell fire” 3 times. Jesus uses gehenna 11 out of the 12 times, and James uses it once. First look at Matthew 5:
Matthew 5:22 – But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (gehenna) (KJV, comment added)
Matthew 5:27-30 – Ye have heart that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (gehenna) And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (gehenna) (KJV, comments added)
This is an important passage that many people argue over. Let us break it down. In verse 22, Jesus says here that whoever calls his brother Raca (fool) will be judged and in danger of gehenna. In verse 29, Jesus says that any man who simply looks at a woman in a lustful way should have their eye plucked out and if that doesn’t work, their whole body should be cast into gehenna. Now if this passage is taken literally, everyone would be guilty of calling someone a fool or lusting after a woman (or man). Thus, everyone would have to pluck out their eyes, cut off their hands, and be thrown into hell fire. This cannot be right, because we know that through salvation, simply obeying and loving God saves us from the lake of fire.
So what is Jesus really saying here? Jesus is making an argument. He is saying that sin is a constant problem that we cannot avoid. We constantly sin everyday. Even those that have been strong Christians for many years are constantly sinning. So what can we do about it? By ourselves, nothing; only God can destroy sin. So “pluck out your eyes” should not be taken literally for man to do, because it will not destroy our sin. However, if we take “pluck out your eyes” in a spiritual sense, this means to destroy the evil or sinful part of man. This is similar to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which says that God wants to destroy the wood, hay, and straw, or sinful part of us, to purify the gold, silver, and precious stones, which is the good part of us. This is what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us in a purification process to destroy the bad and purify the good. However, some people will not accept the Holy Spirit into their lives and will choose to disobey God. Thus, Jesus says they should be cast into Gehenna, which is simply another term for the Lake of Fire. Now here is another similar passage:
Mark 9:43-49 – And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell (gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell (gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire (gehenna): Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. (KJV, comments added)
In this passage, Jesus is again talking about the same concept. However, there is a bit of a twist. Why is it better to enter heaven than enter gehenna? If gehenna is the lake of fire, which is a purification, that also leads to heaven, why does it matter which path you took? This is because gehenna or the lake of fire is a painful and brutal process. It is nothing compared to the trials which we encounter today. Therefore it is better to suffer now and be purified, then wait until the lake of fire to be purified. Jesus is saying it is not pleasant, and it is not something you want to go through.
There are a couple of other interesting things in this passage. One is the phrase “salted with fire” in verse 49. What does that mean? Salt is used to preserve food in a method we now call curing. Curing uses salt, sugar, and nitrates to slow down the breakdown of protein and fats through chemical reactions of autolysis and oxidation. So this idea of preserving fits into the lake of fire because the lake of fire preserves one’s soul, it does not destroy nor torture it for eternity.
Another interesting thing in Mark 9 is these worms that don’t die. What is this talking about? The word for worm here is the Greek word skolex, which means maggot. Maggots are the larval stage of the common house fly, which as many of you know, are always around garbage. During Jesus’ time, the word gehenna was used to describe the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. There are always flies and maggots around garbage, because they keep reproducing, and live off of the garbage. So in this sense they “don’t die.” In medicine, maggots feed off of necrotic (dead) tissue and promote wound healing, while leaving the living tissue. Although they were not used until the 19th century, it is very possible that God knew this usage, and put it in the Bible ahead of time, because He knew that there would be people with the wisdom to figure it out. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted permission to produce and use maggots as therapy for ulcers and severe wounds. In 2006, about 50,000 people were treated with maggots. So maggots eat garbage, which represents sin and evil. Also, maggots destroy the bad tissue and leave the good tissue. That sounds just like Matthew 5 as well as 1 Corinthians 3. As usual, God repeated Himself several times just to make sure we get the point.
The four words for hell: tartaroo, sheol, hades, and gehenna do not match our current definition of hell as stated in the beginning of this article. Somehow the Catholic Church and Greek mythology convinced people that the “hell” in the Bible was referring to some realm of eternal punishment ruled by Satan and demons. Tartaroo, sheol, and hades are all referring to a literal or spiritual grave where your soul goes after death. There is no consciousness, pain, torture, or fire in the grave. Out of the four terms for hell, gehenna is the only one which is associated with fire. However, it is referring not to a literal fire, but a spiritual fire, also know as the lake of fire.
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