Jesus’ use of Gehenna is a primary argument for annihilationism. Adherents to this belief claim the historical and prophetic use of Gehenna as proof that the punishment of the wicked results in their physical and spiritual erasure from existence. Jesus says God will kill the wicked and cast them into hell. The Greek word for hell in Luke 12 is Gehenna.
“And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5)
What is Gehenna? Gehenna is the Greek name of a valley mentioned in the Old Testament, the Valley of the son of Hinnom. (Jeremiah 7:31) This valley was the scene of horrific idolatry. In the Valley of Hinnom the Israelites burned their children alive as sacrifices to the false god Molech. God promised to judge the Israelites for their idolatry and the book of Jeremiah describes the Valley of Hinnom as the place of the Israelite’s judgment. (Jeremiah 19:1-10) Some believe this valley is also the place of God’s judgment of the wicked described in Isaiah 66:24. Gehenna was a place of horrible wickedness that was turned by God into a place of terrible judgment.
The place of judgment described at the end of Isaiah 66 is a place where the people of God will be able to view the corpses of those who have rebelled against God. The final chapter of Isaiah is the culmination of Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah, His glorious kingdom, His defeat of the wicked and His redemption of His people. As part of the Messiah’s conquest the dead bodies of the wicked will be cast into this place, presumably the valley of Hinnom, where they will be consumed with fire and devoured by maggots. The dead bodies of the wicked will be a continual reminder to the people of God of the righteous judgment of God.
The warnings of Jesus to beware hell (Gehenna) describe it as a place “where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched”. His words are an echo of the words of Isaiah 66. “And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases 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.” The judgment Jesus describes as taking place in Gehenna is one of perpetual worms and unceasing fire.
Annihilationists believe because Jesus uses Gehenna to describe the place of final judgment then the suffering in hell is not eternal. The next article will address will address the way in which Gehenna shapes our understanding of eternal, conscious torment of souls in hell.