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.
In May National Geographic published an article entitled “The Campaign to Eliminate Hell”. The tagline reads, “A new generation of evangelical scholars are challenging the idea that sinners are doomed to eternal torment—but traditionalists are pushing back.” Annihilationism is the teaching that sometime in the future the condemned will be completely destroyed, body and soul. The historic evangelical doctrine has been that those who die without having received Jesus for salvation will suffer forever physical and spiritual torment in the lake of fire. Annihiliationism teaches that the unsaved will not suffer forever, but at some time will entirely cease from existing. Though some well known evangelical leaders have held to annihilationism, very few evangelical Christians believe the teachings of annihilationism.
The Bible states that those who suffer in hell will do so forever. Jesus describes hell as a place where, “The worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Those who have rejected Jesus will, “go away unto everlasting punishment”. (Matthew 25:46) Reading these statements would lead one naturally to believe the suffering of the lost has no end. Annihilationists seek to explain these passages as metaphorical descriptions of the greatness of the suffering of the unsaved or as teaching that the result of God’s judgment are eternal effects but the punishment itself is not eternal. The biggest problem with reading these passages in this way is the significant similarity between the warnings of eternal suffering and the promises of eternal joy. If the lost in hell will not suffer everlasting torment, then why should anyone believe the saved in heaven will enjoy everlasting bliss. The annihilationists cannot consistently define words like eternal and everlasting. They must define them one way when describing punishment and another when decscribing salvation.
Some arguments for annihilation are based on a misdefinition of death. Most people view death as a ending of life. Medically speaking life is over, death occurs, when the heart stops and the brain ceases to function. The Bible does not define death according to that modern, medical perspective. Death as used in the Bible is a separation. When Adam and Eve sinned they died. They died on the day of their sin just as God had warned. They suffered the first death in being physically and spiritually separated from God, the author and sustainer of life. The end result of the first death, separation from God, was physical death, separation from physical life. The person dies when the spirit and body are separated. This is why the Bible often speaks of death as “giving up the ghost”. When the spirit and the body are separated the person is physically dead. The eternal punishment for sin is called the second death. The condemned dead in the modern sense of ceasing to have existence, they are dead in the Biblical sense of separated from the presence of God. (2 Thes. 1:9) The unsaved are eternally separated from God and thus they are eternally dead.
Annihilation is emotionally easier to accept than eternal torment. The idea that God would remove His offending creature from existence is easier to accept than the idea that God would punish them forever. Appealing or not, the Biblical doctrine is that the unsaved will suffer God’s wrath, actively and consciously, for all eternity. Annihilationism is not a Biblical doctrine. Historically this doctrine has had very few defenders and discerning Christians today should reject it as contrary to the plain meaning of Scriptures.