Is there a biblical case for universal salvation?: New Testament passages

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This is the seventh post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last post we looked at the Old Testament. We saw that God desires to relent from judging people, that we should expect for his judgment to always be followed by restoration, and that biblical passages speak of a future time when all of God’s creation will submit to and worship him. According to the Scriptures we examined, all of this is grounded in God’s love. If we’re seeing this correctly, we should discover the New Testament expanding on this and making it even more clear. Some might point out—rightly—that the passages we looked at in the Old Testament are poetic in nature, drawn from the Psalms and prophetic books. We need for these poetic references to be confirmed in more direct, didactic [intending to teach] scriptural books such as the letters to the churches. Let’s see what we find in the New Testament.

Romans 5:18-19 all “will be made righteous”

As we study through Romans, we see in 5:10 that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” This is a wonderful truth, but it prompts some questions. Who would be included in “God’s enemies”? Who are those in need of reconciliation? Wouldn’t that be everyone? Does that mean God has reconciled everyone to himself through Christ’s death? This leaves a question that needs to be resolved.

Moving on in this chapter, we come to verse 15:

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! [emphasis added]

We should clarify a couple of things in this verse. First, we see here a use of the word “many” with which most of you are probably already familiar. It wasn’t uncommon for them to use “many” in an understated way to actually refer to “all.” It says first that “many” died by the trespass of the one man (Adam). Who would this include? All of us, right? Paul has made this clear in previous chapters of Romans. Since the first “many” is referring to all, the second “many” must also refer to all. Paul shows this in the chapter by going back and forth between using “many” and using “all.” So death came to all of us because of Adam, and grace overflows to all of us because of Christ.

But also notice this isn’t a simple comparison of equally significant phenomena. Grace isn’t merely the positive equivalent of the death that comes because of sin. No, notice the “how much more” speaking of God’s grace. I like the way the REB brings this out:

But God’s act of grace is out of all proportion to Adam’s wrongdoing. For if the wrongdoing of that one man brought death upon so many, its effect is vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift that came to so many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ [emphasis added].

Verse 17 gives us another “how much more” contrasting the death through Adam and reigning in life through Christ. In verse 20, we read the familiar line: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Again, I think the REB gives us the vivid sense of the Greek: “where sin was multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.” Do you see the significance of this? God’s grace and life are immeasurably more powerful than sin and death. Grace always exceeds sin; grace always abounds much more than sin. So, in the context of all of this, Paul tells us this in verses 18-19:

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Notice again the interchangeable use in this chapter of the words “all” and “many.” Who are the “many” who were made sinners through the disobedience of Adam? That’s everyone, right? Then the very same word is used again: “so through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous.” If the many who were made sinners includes everyone, then the many who will be made righteous has to include everyone. There’s nothing in the text that would cause us to interpret the second “many” to have a different meaning than the first—especially considering the intentionally repeated and emphasized comparisons of the all and the many throughout this section, each referring to all humanity. If I was teaching this in a classroom setting, and drew a circle on the whiteboard to show those who were made sinners, and then drew a circle showing those who will be made righteous—it would be the very same circle. I don’t see any way around this without doing violence to the text.

But—some will say—there’s only one way to “be made righteous.” Paul has made it clear in chapters 3 and 4 that only those who have the same faith that Abraham had will be justified or considered righteous. The only way for us to be made righteous is through faith in Christ! To this, the evangelical universalist will respond, “Amen!” And since Paul says here that all will be made righteous, we must understand that all will come to faith in Christ. Notice he doesn’t say throughout this chapter that all were potentially made sinners. No, all were made sinners, because of the sin of one man, Adam. So, he’s not saying that all will potentially be made righteous. No, all “will be made righteous,” “through the obedience of one man [Christ].” Isn’t this saying the same thing we saw in the Old Testament, that all will come to submit to God and worship him? But now we see more clearly that this happens in Christ.

And let’s not forget the contrast in verse 20, that grace always immeasurably exceeds sin. But, wait a minute. We need to think about this. If sin results in death for everyone in God’s vast creation, but the grace of God only saves from death a certain number of those condemned to death—possibly even a relatively small number—how is grace increasing even more than sin? How is the salvation greater than the curse? If Adam’s sin affects everyone without exception, but Christ’s grace affects only some . . . how is God’s grace greater than Adam’s sin?

Romans 8:38-39 Nothing can separate us from God’s love

Romans 8:35 asks the question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And Romans 8:38-39 answers the question:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It’s hard to imagine how Paul could have been more all-inclusive. The message seems clear: Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love triumphs over anything that might try to separate us from that love. Even death can’t separate us from God’s love. And, if the wages of sin is death, is not hell the ultimate experience of death? Even hell can’t separate us from God’s love. Some might ask, “Yes, but can I separate myself from God’s love?” Well, am I saying that I am greater than God’s love? And are we not included in “all creation”? Then, according to this text, we can’t even separate ourselves from God’s love!

1 Corinthians 15:20-21 “in Christ all will be made alive”

The passage we just examined in Romans 5 compares very well to this one in 1 Corinthians 15:20-21:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Who dies “in Adam”? Everyone. So who will be made alive in Christ? Everyone. “But,” some will say, “it’s only those who are ‘in Christ’ who will be made alive.” Yes. All of us agree on this. But unless we have any place in Scripture where it clearly says that some will never come to faith in Christ—either in this life or the life to come—we have no reason to assume there are some of the “all” who die in Adam who are not in the “all” who will be made alive in Christ. Notice again what it says: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Just as all die because of Adam, so also all will be made alive in Christ.

And then we read what it says later in this chapter, in verse 55:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

If a great many of God’s created beings, possibly even the vast majority, remain locked in an eternal death or are extinguished and completely cease to exist, wouldn’t this be an empty boast? Wouldn’t death be able to respond: “Where’s my victory? Right here! Right here in the countless number of your precious created people who I will hold eternally with no one to take them away from me.”

Philippians 2:9-11 & Revelation 5:13 every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, every creature will worship

In Philippians 2:9-11, we read these familiar words:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

So let’s clarify something right away. Some will pick up on the wording in the NIV above that “every knee should bow,” and say: “Oh, this is just what everyone should do.” But this is simply an older way of saying that every knee will bow. This is why many other translations clearly say that “every knee will bow” (even the NASB). 

This passage is drawing from Isaiah 45:22-24, which we looked at in the last post. So is this describing people being forced against their will to bow to Christ and confess him as Lord? Are these people bowing to Jesus under the boots of his angels? Do we see anywhere in Scripture where God requires or even accepts insincere, forced worship? (Again, read Isaiah 29:13 and 1:11-18.) How could a forced, insincere confession of Christ as Lord be “to the glory of God the Father”? Or is this exactly what it sounds like, every knee bowing to Jesus and every tongue confessing Christ as Lord. And this will be every knee “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” It’s hard to get much more all-inclusive than that. And don’t forget that Romans 10:9 tells us that those who confess or acknowledge Jesus as Lord will be saved.

If we still want to see this as some kind of forced acknowledgment, we have a bigger problem when we get to Revelation 5:13:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

This is inarguably not a forced acknowledgment, but heartfelt, exuberant praise and worship. And who is doing this praising and worshiping? The text says it’s “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them.” Again, this is going to great lengths to describe everyone without exception. This description even includes those on and in “the sea.” This is particularly meaningful here because throughout Revelation the sea indicates rebellious humanity. It’s hard not to see here all of God’s creation—including those who were previously sinful and rebellious—pouring out to God lavish praises and worship. And who could deny that this would be profoundly to the glory of God the Father?! It’s hard to imagine an ending that would bring God more glory than to have all of his previous enemies now pouring out his praises in heartfelt, thankful worship!

Colossians 1:20 all creation is reconciled to God through Christ

Colossians 1:15-23 is a section focusing on the supremacy of Christ, the Son. Verse 16 says: 

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

That doesn’t leave out much of anything! The Greek word translated “all things” in this verse is used seven times in six verses (sometimes translated “everything” or “all”). This is a noticeable pattern, something Paul is strongly emphasizing. In verses 19-20 we read the final reference to “all things” in this section, the conclusion of this pattern of obvious, specific references to “all things”:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As we read through these verses, it’s very apparent that “all things” means just that: everything that was created (just as in verse 16). So who does God reconcile to himself through Christ? Everyone who was created. Who does that leave out? No one.

So let’s make sure we understand what this is saying. What does it mean to be reconciled? For people to be reconciled means their relationship is restored. If we have a family member who is estranged from us, and then we’re reconciled, our relationship with this loved one is restored. So, if a married couple is going through a difficult time, and even seek counseling, but end up divorced and going their separate ways—are they reconciled? No, they’re not. The relationship is not restored. In fact, the term often used in these situations is “irreconcilable differences,” right? If two Christians have been openly hostile to one another, but now come into the place where the church meets, intentionally never speak to each other, go to opposite corners of the room and try to not even look at the other person—are they reconciled? No, of course not. There is no restored relationship here.

So what does it mean for us to be reconciled to God? It means we’re no longer estranged, no longer separated. Our relationship has been restored. We’re reunited, brought back together again. And this passage tells us God reconciles everyone to him, he reunites everyone to him, he restores everyone’s relationship with him, not leaving anyone estranged or separated from him. We’re so used to reading things like this and assuming this can’t mean everyone, that it’s hard for us to just see what the text of Scripture is actually saying, that “all things” means all things.

Revelation the kings of the earth

So is there any place in Scripture that indicates people in hell actually coming to faith in Christ? The book of Revelation includes the most graphic descriptions of the torment of hell. But let’s see something even more fascinating we discover in this unusual (to us) book. 1 Let’s start with Revelation 6:15-17:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

So are “the kings of the earth” good guys or bad guys? They seem to be part of sinful, rebellious humanity, now subject to the wrath of God, right? Let’s look at what else we see about these “kings of the earth” in 16:14-16:

They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. . . . Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

So, the kings of the world—good guys or bad guys? Well, since they’re gathering to fight Christ at Armageddon, I think it’s safe to say they’re bad guys, right? Let’s look at 17:2 (speaking of the great prostitute):

With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.

Good guys? No, definitely bad guys. And we have another reference in verse 18:

The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.

Again in 18:3:

For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from here excessive luxuries.

And in verse 9:

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning they will weep and mourn for her.

And then we see in 19:19:

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army.

Is there any question which side these guys are on, or to whom they give their allegiance? And we see this repeated emphasis of these kings of the earth all through the book of Revelation. They’re never mentioned in a positive or even neutral context from the beginning of Revelation to this ultimate rebellion in chapter 19. And we know what happens to those who submit to the beast, don’t we? Remember what we read previously in Revelation 14:9-11:

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever [Greek unto the ages of ages]. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

And we see this fate mentioned also in 20:14-15:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Continuing immediately into the beginning of chapter 21, we have the new heaven and the new earth. In verse 2 and following we see the new Jerusalem. The descriptions make clear that the new Jerusalem is the church, after the resurrection and the judgment. But along with these wonderful images, we see some conflicting descriptions that can be confusing. 

In verse 1, we’re told that “there was no longer any sea.” This makes sense because throughout Revelation the sea has represented sinful, rebellious humanity. We’re also told in verse 4 that there will be no more death. This compares well with 1 Corinthians 15:26 that says the last enemy Christ will destroy will be death. And in verse 5, God says that he is making everything new! But then in verses 7-8 we read this:

Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

How can it indicate there is no more sinful, rebellious humanity (no sea) and then describe sinful, rebellious humanity? How can there be no more death—with death completely, finally defeated and destroyed—when there remains a second death? Is God making everything new . . . except for all of this? But then we read something really shocking in verses 23-27:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever into it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life [emphasis added].

So the city is the church, the covenant people of God, with God in their midst, heaven on earth. And nothing impure can be in the church, in this city, nothing shameful, only those whose names are written in the book of life. And into this city come the kings of the earth . . . but . . . these are the bad guys! All through Revelation they were obviously and consistently the enemies of God, submitted to the beast. We know what happened to them—they’re in the lake of fire! But here they are, coming into the city. To come into the city they can no longer be impure, their names must now be written in the Lamb’s book of life. How can this be . . . unless there remains an opportunity for repentance and salvation even after judgment. What this passage describes is impossible, unless God has also reconciled these enemies of his, these kings of the earth, to himself. And—if all of these kings of the earth and “the nations” with them repent, place their faith in Christ, and then come into the city, into the church, submit themselves to Christ, bow their knees to him and confess that he is Lord—if all of this happens, what would be the result? There would eventually be no more “sea,” no more sinful, rebellious humanity. There would be no more death. Death would be finally conquered—by emptying it. All creation would be reconciled to God and would be restored. “No longer will there be any curse [22:3].” God would have made everything new!

We have another description of this in 22:14-15:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

So the city is the church, and outside are all the lost, sinful people. This fits well with the references of Jesus to those who are “cast into outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, etc.). We have those on the inside and those on the outside. This passage speaks of those who wash their robes and then have the right to enter the city through the gates and partake of the tree of life. But, wait a minute—we’re already the city. We’re already inside. How—after the resurrection and after the judgment—can anyone else come into the city, into the church? There’s only one way to become part of Christ’s church, and that’s through faith in Christ. But this passage—showing how vile are the people on the outside—still describes people washing their robes (which must be in the blood of Christ, Revelation 7:14) and entering the city! And remember what it said in 21:25, the gates of the city are never closed! Putting this all together, doesn’t it mean there always remains the opportunity to repent and place our faith in Christ, and that eventually all will, in fact, be reconciled and restored? No wonder it says almost immediately after this in 22:17:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the ones who hear say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

So who are we and the Spirit inviting? I can’t see any way, in context, to say this doesn’t include an invitation to those outside the city, to those in outer darkness, experiencing the second death of judgment in hell.

When I was a teenager, a friend from work invited me home to have dinner with her family. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so it wasn’t a surprise when they invited me to join them for a study after dinner. The conversation quickly became focused on the issue of the deity of Christ, and they had some challenges I hadn’t heard before. So I went home and dragged out my “research library” consisting of three translations of Scripture, a Strong’s Concordance and a Halley’s Bible Handbook. I spent much of the next few days searching the Scriptures to make sure they really did teach that Jesus is God. When I was done, not only was my confidence in this belief confirmed, but I saw the deity of Jesus everywhere in the Bible. I couldn’t avoid it!

The more I’ve searched the Scriptures regarding universal reconciliation and restoration, the more I’ve had a similar experience. The passages I’ve listed above are by no means all of the texts that speak of universal salvation. And the more I’ve studied this, the more I’ve come to see this hope woven all through the Bible. Just recently, I was researching a completely different subject. I was using the REB translation at the time, and looked up Acts 3:21. My jaw dropped open when I read:

He must be received into heaven until the time comes for the universal restoration of which God has spoken through his holy prophets from the beginning.

I checked the Greek and, sure enough, the word here is apokatastasis, the same word the early Greek-speaking church leaders used for this belief. The ISV, NRSV and Phillips translate it similarly, while other translations speak of ‘everything being restored’ or ‘the restoration of all things.’ It was amazing to see the phrase right there in the text of Scripture in black and white. When people espouse belief in “universal restoration,” they’re using an expression right from Scripture.

In the book of Romans, Paul takes three chapters, 9-11, to answer the question of why so many of the Jewish people weren’t coming to faith in Christ. He brings all of this to his conclusions in chapter 11, and in 11:26 states boldly that “all Israel will be saved.” We’ve typically tried to qualify that to mean all Israel who remain on earth when Christ returns or something similar—but that’s not what the Scripture says, and it doesn’t do justice to the flow of Paul’s thought. Ephesians 1:10 tells us the end result of God’s plan that he always intended: “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Over and over again we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to be universal in scope, but which we assume can’t mean that. But what if we stop explaining away the clear wording of these texts? What if we take these Scriptures to actually mean what they say? What if the universal restoration that Scripture speaks of actually is universal?

We’ve seen in the last few posts that the biblical case for eternal conscious torment almost completely rests on what everyone seems to agree is a mistranslation of one Greek word. If we understand this word correctly, we have little exegetical support for eternal conscious torment. On the other hand, we’ve now seen extensive scriptural support for belief in universal reconciliation and restoration. But we still need to consider the broader theological arguments for and against these views. In the next post, we’ll think through the theological case for eternal conscious torment.

  1. I’m indebted to Robin Parry for describing this pattern in Revelation. For more on this, see:

    Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009)

    And for more in-depth exegesis of all the biblical passages, see:

    Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), particularly (in regards to the reference above) chapter 5: “A Universalist Interpretation of the Book of Revelation.”

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Photo by Jackson Hayes on Unsplash

This is the second post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We use words in church life that are familiar to us in English, but some of these words actually come to us from the original Greek. When it’s time to “baptize” someone, we take our name for this practice from the Greek word baptizo. When we speak of a “deacon” in the church, this comes from the Greek word diakonos. While this is true of many of the words we use, it’s not the case when we talk about hell. There are three different words in the original languages that have often been translated as “hell,” and they don’t all mean the same thing. It’s helpful for us to know what these words are, and what they mean.

Sheol

In early English translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the Hebrew word Sheol was often translated as “hell.” But now in most current translations you won’t find the word hell at all in the Old Testament. Instead Sheol is usually translated as “the grave,” but it can also descriptively refer to “the pit” or “the depths.” Sheol was a vague concept. It referred to the state of being physically dead (hence “the grave”), but it’s unclear whether this was meant to be a location or even a conscious state. Whatever it was precisely, everyone went to Sheol after they died; the righteous and the unrighteous alike—it didn’t matter—everyone went to the grave in the Old Testament. This is all very interesting, but the Old Testament concept of Sheol doesn’t tell us anything about the fate of those who fail to place their faith in Christ before they die.

Hades

In the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament period and the birth of Christ (what we refer to as the “intertestamental period”), Jewish understanding of the grave was influenced by other cultures in ways that went beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. These influences on early Jewish culture came from Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife, and it became common for first century Jews to use the Greek word Hades in place of the Hebrew Sheol. Hades had much the same meaning as Sheol, it was the grave or the “place of the dead.” And, as with Sheol, Hades was the fate of everyone who died, righteous or unrighteous (although there was now often the idea of some kind of separation within Hades). 

Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Notice that neither of these words (Sheol or Hades) refer to what happens to the lost after judgment, or to where someone might spend eternity. So these words in Scripture (and these passages) don’t tell us anything about the eternal fate of the unsaved. These words refer only to the grave—the state of being dead—not to what we think of in Christian theology as hell.

Gehenna

We often hear the observation that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Of course, as we saw above, Hades is more accurately translated “the grave” or “the place of the dead” rather than “hell,” so none of these verses should be considered as references to hell. Another word Jesus used that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. What do we know about Gehenna?

The first thing we should be aware of is that Gehenna was, and still is, a literal place. It’s a valley just southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew ge Hinnom. We see this place in the Old Testament as the “Valley of Hinnom” or sometimes the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” So what significance do we see in the Old Testament and in history for the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna? There were four events that Gehenna was known for, all having to do with fire:

  1. Gehenna was the valley outside Jerusalem where the people of Israel sacrificed their children, burning them in fire on altars to the pagan god Molech. (See 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6.)
  1. These idolatrous altars were later defiled and broken up, and the valley, Gehenna, was cleansed with fire. (See 2 Kings 23:10-16.)
  1. God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah of a coming judgment of fire that would be carried out in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). (See Jeremiah 7:28-34; 19:1-15; 32:32-35.)
  1. In AD 70, Titus—responding to the Jewish rebellion—destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed all the inhabitants and burned their bodies in Gehenna.

The word Gehenna began taking on different connotations with some Jewish teachers prior to the ministry of Jesus. Some merged the fire associated with Gehenna with their developing concept of Hades, with the righteous going to Paradise and the unrighteous to Gehenna, a fiery place of torment. There was widespread disagreement among these Jewish teachers concerning the nature and duration of Gehenna. In fact, it seems they debated just about everything having to do with Gehenna (who would go there, how long they would be there, what would be the final outcome, etc.). 1

As I mentioned earlier, some Christians make the claim that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. As we’ve seen, the places where he speaks of Hades would be about the grave, not hell. But it’s very true that Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else in Scripture. The word is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6), and all but one of these are in the words of Christ in the Gospels (and these only in the synoptic Gospels). So what did Jesus mean by Gehenna? Biblical scholars have different views. (I should note that many of these references are of parallel accounts in the Gospels, and that Jesus actually only spoke of Gehenna on 4 different occasions.)

Some think when Jesus used the word Gehenna he meant hell, much like these other Jewish teachers. Others aren’t so convinced. In the Old Testament ge Hinnom never refers to anything like hell. It’s always speaking of the literal Valley of Hinnom. Was Jesus following these contemporary Jewish teachers in their understanding of Gehenna, or was he using Gehenna in a way that would be consistent with Jeremiah and every other Old Testament reference? This question is especially meaningful when we consider that Jesus was always challenging their common assumptions and understandings regarding what were, to them, familiar concepts such as Messiah, kingdom, etc. Many scholars have concluded that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, he was following the understanding of Jeremiah, and applying this to the coming judgment of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, in AD 70.

There’s another aspect of this we need to consider. If this was their common word for “hell,” it’s curious that—other than one passing reference by James—Jesus is the only one in the New Testament who uses this word. Why is that? Paul never uses this word; Peter never uses this word; John never uses this word (even in his Gospel); the author of Hebrews doesn’t use this word. This word is only used by Jesus when ministering in a distinctly Jewish setting, and by James in a very early letter, also in a predominantly Jewish context (note James 1:1). Paul often uses other Jewish words and concepts in his letters—but not this one. It’s hard not to see this divergence as lending credence to the idea that Jesus is intentionally referring to the judgment of Jerusalem to come, which would be so vividly, literally and historically fulfilled in the actual Gehenna. This would follow the strong pattern of John the Baptist and Jesus warning of this very judgment: Matthew 3:10; 23:37-38; 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 3:9; 19:41-44; 21:5-6, 20-24. If Gehenna was the common word for hell, why didn’t Peter, John or Paul ever use it?

So, when we begin to look to what Scripture tells us about hell, we need to first recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t say anything explicitly about hell per se. (It does have a lot to say about judgment, of course, and we’ll look at this in a future post.) Many of the New Testament passages we may have thought speak of hell (the references to Hades) are actually speaking of death or the grave, not hell. And even the Gehenna passages are likely referring, not to hell, but to the judgment of Israel in AD 70. This still leaves many other passages that are relevant to our study of hell. For instance, the “lake of fire” is referenced in a 2-verse section in Revelation, and Jesus spoke of both “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” We’ll look at these verses in context very soon.

1. Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), “Chapter 3: The Gehenna Tradition(s)”

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]