how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Some questions about judgment and hell

I got an email from Don Lambirth, who has read material on this site about hell and also my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective and has some questions. I have edited the questions slightly. Thanks, Don. Hopefully, my answers will be of interest to others.

1) On your view of Gehenna being AD70 and not final who else, whether in church history or in recent theological circles, holds this view? I see that NT Wright hinted at it. Brian McLaren seemed intrigued by it, and I found a guy named Walter Balfour… in the 1800s wrote a book about it. But I’m having trouble finding others. I think this view point is very plausible.

I have not been able to do an exhaustive historical study of the interpretation of “Gehenna”. I’ve just searched through the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and it appears that for the Fathers it was consistently a place of final punishment by fire. Jerome identifies it with the Greek Tartarus: “We should indeed mourn for the dead, but only for one whom Gehenna receives, whom Tartarus devours and for whose punishment the eternal fire burns” (Letter 39.3). As I mentioned in the post to which you allude, Wright considers the possibility that Gehenna has “the sense of a physical conflagration such as might accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by enemy forces”. I rather think that quite a few scholars will note the relevance of AD 70 for Jesus’ apocalyptic vision without making the connection with Gehenna.

In this passage from his commentary on Matthew Hagner highlights the association of the valley with the practice of human sacrifice in Jeremiah 7:31 but he fails to mention the fact that this is part of Jeremiah’s prediction of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

The name Gehenna is from the Aramaic words גֵּי חִנָּם, gê ḥinnām, for the “valley of Hinnom” (cf. Josh. 15:8; 18:16), a despised place to the southwest of Jerusalem where at one time human sacrifices were offered to the god Molech (cf. 2 Kgs. 23:10; Jer. 7:31) and where in later times the city’s refuse was burned. The constant burning there made the valley a particularly suitable metaphor for eternal punishment….1

I find this strange. He picks up on an incidental detail about human sacrifice, which has no relevance for Jesus’ teaching, and misses the main point of the passage, which has huge relevance for Jesus’ teaching. I hadn’t come across Balfour before, but he makes note of the oversight, though whether he has any more credibility as a scholar than I do is another matter:

Those who believe Gehenna designates a place of endless punishment in the New Testament, entirely overlook its meaning in the Old. All admit its literal original signification to be the valley of Hinnom. But not one of them takes the least notice that Gehenna was used also by Jeremiah, as a source of imagery or emblem, to describe the punishment God threatened to the Jewish nation. But why overlook this sense of it in the Old Testament? Is it not possible, yea, is it not probable, that this may be its sense in the New? All critics admit the language of the New Testament is derived from the Old, and ought to be interpreted by it.2

The connection with Isaiah 66:24 reinforces the historical construal. Jesus says: “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into geenna, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk. 9:47–48; cf. Matt. 3:12). Isaiah describes the horrific effects of God’s punishment of the inhabitants of Jerusalem who had rebelled against him. In the Aramaic Targum the passage reads:

And they shall come out and see the bodies of the sinful men who rebelled against my Word, for their breaths shall not die, and their fire shall not be extinguished, and they shall be judging the wicked in Gehenna until the righteous say to them, “We have seen enough.”

Israel’s “hell” was the festering, smouldering corpses of the unburied dead forever strewn across the land outside Jerusalem—a warning not to rebel against YHWH.

2) The Sheep and Goats parable is a troubling one for me to figure out…. In your view, and I read your post, do you think Jesus, when speaking of the goats, is speaking of the Jews or Romans? Or both? It makes so much sense to me being about the Jews who rejected Jesus and about Gehenna and the AD 70 judgement until He says, “the fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels” which then seems to allude to the Lake of Fire in Revelation and no longer Gehenna. Confusing.

This is explicitly a judgment of the nations at the time when “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him”. I argued again recently that for Matthew this symbolic moment follows “immediately” after judgment on Jerusalem. It entails the acknowledgement of Jesus’ glory by the tribes of the land or earth, the rescue of his disciples from their enemies, and the reward and punishment of the disciples by their master. It wraps up a historically framed narrative about the end of the age of second temple Judaism in which the disciples will have played a critical role.

The judgment scene belongs to this limited narrative. It is a judgment of those, perhaps both Jews and Gentiles, who encountered the suffering disciples as they proclaimed the good news about Jesus to the nations in the period leading up to the end of the age (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). Some attended to their needs and are included in the future reign of Jesus over the nations; others showed no compassion and are excluded from God’s future.

Don is right in thinking that the “lake of fire” imagery has a different frame of reference to the “Gehenna” imagery. It has to do, in the first place, with God’s judgment of the nations and of the imperial aggressor in particular (cf. Dan. 7:10-11). The judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 is a synecdoche for this larger prospect—a part that stands for the whole—designed primarily to reassure the disciples that Jesus himself will hold their enemies accountable. 

3) I have trouble differentiating whether Paul is speaking of the AD 70 event or some other event when he speaks of the wrath to come or the Day of The Lord. Or whether he is speaking of the final days—still future to us, but perhaps he thought would come in his lifetime. Help?!

This is a very good question. I asked Paula Fredriksen at the Jesus and Brian conference last weekend whether it was conceivable that Paul’s eschatology had in view something like the conversion of the empire. She didn’t think so. Paul said nothing about the need to have children. I forget what else—it was rather rushed. But the point is, she assumes that Paul expected the world to end fairly soon.

I think we need to differentiate between wrath against the Jew and wrath against the Greek, but it’s quite likely that Paul expected one to follow hard on the heels of the other. Perhaps he even imagined that they were effectively the same event. But the question is what he thought would happen next. My argument is that the logical outcome is the rule of Jesus over the nations—a new political-religious situation in which the nations of the Greek-Roman world have abandoned their idols to serve the God of Israel (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10).

4) Do you think we are in the millennium now? I’ve often wondered if it is the church age and the time where the gospel is being preached throughout the world (in faraway places that Paul wasn’t even was aware of in his time). Perhaps we are in the time currently where the devil is being loosed from the pit to deceive the nations again for a little while? I wonder sometimes if that time started during the Enlightenment and how we’ve seen a once healthy Christian Europe become secularized. I dunno. It’s just a thought.

Yes, I think that we are in the millennium now—between judgment on pagan Rome as the arch-antagonist to YHWH and his king and the final judgment of Revelation 20:11-15. I don’t, however, see the preaching of the gospel as the defining characteristic of this church age. In the New Testament a gospel is proclaimed first to Israel, then to the nations, concerning what the creator God was doing or was about to do in, through, and for the sake of his people and for his own glory in the world. That message culminated in the proclamation of judgment on an idolatrous civilization:

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev. 14:6–7)

What follows is not primarily more preaching of the gospel but the people of God being the people of God in the midst of the nations, as it was always meant to be. That said, there is always something to be proclaimed that is good news.

Oddly, I’ve also wondered whether it would make sense to think of the 1000 years ending with the enlightenment, but I don’t think so. I would say that historical developments subsequent to the triumph of Christ over the empire are beyond the prophetic purview of the New Testament. There is no basis in the text for interpreting the release of Satan is the rise of secular rationalism.

5) Just to set my mind at ease. You do believe in a general resurrection at the end of time? You do believe that is still a future event? And also do you believe that Christ returns and heaven and earth are joined together in new creation where we will never die?

Not quite. I think that the New Testament envisages a final judgment of all the dead according to what people have done and a new heaven and new earth, and if our names are written in the book of life, then we will be part of this new creation. But I don’t think that references to the coming or return or parousia of Christ have anything to do with this. They have in view essentially the vindication of the disciples/churches in the course of the historical crises of the early centuries—judgment on Jerusalem, judgment on the pagan oikoumenē. In my view this is about the fulfilment of kingdom hopes, not new creation. These are two different things.

  • 1. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC 33A, 1993), 117.
  • 2. An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna, translated Hell in the Common English Version, 1-2.



thanks for your gracious reply.

I am not sure who Walter Balfour is either. But he does hold to the view that Gehenna was a historical judgement as you do. And he gives quite a lengthy argument. and quite compelling as well. You can see his views in a PDF called the Gehenna Controversy if you google it. I also downloaded a book of his on kindle called “An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Import of the words Sheol, Hades, Gehenna.” He makes the same point in both but the PDF appears to be a letter back and forth with someone he is debating.

If you get a chance to read it let us know what you think.

Don Lambirth

One question: as far as the historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, does it really matter what “Gehenna” meant in the Old Testament? Meanings change over years and centuries. It seems to me that the only thing that matters is how Jesus’ hearers or Paul’s readers would have understood the use of this word. What we need is a survey of how “Gehenna” was understood in second temple Judaism.

Balfour hits on that subject about how those in the 2nd Temple period would have interpreted “Gehenna”. His argument is that the Targum’s and Talmud interpreted it as hell and not judgement on the Jewish nation but that these were written post-Jesus and 70 AD so the meaning was changed. He argues that Jesus’ hearers would have made the connection to Jeremiah and the Valley of Hinnom and not the afterlife. I’m not sure how accurate that is because I think Gehenna is mentioned in the Apocraypha as the afterlife- hell and is mention by Shammai. Check me if I’m wrong. I’m merely trying to recall things off the top of my head. So of that is the case then we have at least two views of what Gehenna is or could mean and the challenge is to detirmine contextually what it was that Jesus was refering to.

The question, I think, is: Where does Jesus appear to get his language from? Are there any indications in his teaching that he characteristically drew on extra-biblical Jewish-apocalpytic ideas, supposing that there are any that were historically relevant? Is there anything to suggest that he has taken the word out of the relevant linguistic traditions and given it an entirely new meaning?

It seems to me that all the evidence points to the fact that Jesus drew almost exclusively on the Old Testament, so I would argue that the only interpretive context allowed by the text is Jeremiah 7. It’s not just about the details of Jesus’ language—his whole message to Israel is like the message of the Old Testament prophets to Israel. For example, the action in the temple is interpreted by reference to the same passage:

He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt. 21:13)

It makes the action a symbolic prophecy of judgment against a corrupt temple system. I would argue, therefore, that the onus is on anyone who does not accept the continuity with Jeremiah to show that when Jesus spoke of the dead being thrown into the valley of Gehenna, he did not have in mind a situation analogous to the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.


Doug Wilson answered your responses to his commenst quite well I thought. It would be great to see you reply to his point by point repsonse to your post. I cant imagine anyone more exciting/worthy (save for wright) to have interacting with your ideas. The kids here at the concert are shouting “one more song!” and youre relaxing off stage. So please, Encore and respond!

And If i missed your response somwhere, please point me the right direction.


Darren Doane

Darren, I answered Doug here.

To restrict Jesus’ understanding of Gehenna to Jeremiah 7 seems, to me, to be completely unhistorical. Is that how his fellow Jews in the first century read the Scriptures? I doubt it. That would place him among the Sadducees, who could not find the resurrection within the Scriptures. We need to put Jesus in his historical context. I do not know what the results will be when we do so.

I don’t understand why that would put him among the Sadducees. It would put him among the prophets, who criticized the temple hierarchy because they made the temple a den of robbers. Jesus repeatedly associates himself with the tradition of the persecuted prophets who opposed the corrupt leadership of Israel and warned of its coming destruction.

Balfour argued that most Jews would have understood the reference to be about the Valley of Hinnom. He spends many pages on that point.