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Gehenna: Where You Do Not Want to Go

This is the second of my two posts on Gehenna.  My ultimate point in this discussion is that when Jesus talked about people ending up there, he did not mean they would roast forever in the first of hell, but that they would end up very badly indeed because (a) they would not receive burial and (b) even worse, their corpses would be thrown into the most hideous literally-god-forsaken place a Jew could imagine.

The earliest evidence from outside the Hebrew Bible for Gehenna as a place of divine punishment comes in 1 Enoch 27, written, as we have seen, at least two centuries before the days of Jesus.   In one of his encounters with the angel Uriel, Enoch asks why such an “accursed valley” lies in the midst of Israel’s “blessed land.”  The angel tell him:

The accursed valley is for those accursed forever; here will gather together all those accursed ones, those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord….  Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their judgment in the last days.  There will be upon them the spectacle of the righteous judgment, in the presence of the righteous forever.

And so, well prior to Jesus, Gehenna was seen as …

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Did Jesus Believe Sinners Would Be Annihilated? The Sheep and the Goats
Jesus on Gehenna



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  September 10, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, you’re right on the money here. So far, it looks like your book is gonna be pretty good!

  2. tompicard
    tompicard  September 10, 2018

    the issue with fundamentalist (and even some ex-fundamentalist) is that they use linguistic gymnastics to claim they are properly reading the bible properly often times deciding in one instance ‘death’ (or ‘kill’) is literal and another time it’s non-literal. likewise ‘fire’
    examples are too numerous to list

    “not just physically dead, but completely dead, . . .”

    anyway when I read that Jesus used the word “death” how am i supposed to know which of the two adverbs (physically or completely) he left out ? it is very confusing . . .

  3. Avatar
    godspell  September 10, 2018

    Jesus was a Jew, and certainly familiar with the idea of Gehenna. It would not be unusual for him to take something from Jewish scripture and repurpose it.

    However, it wouldn’t be unusual for Matthew to do that either. Or any of the gospel authors, really. Perhaps none of them were born Jewish, but they spent some time pouring over the Jewish texts, looking for ways to get their points across to a Jewish audience (more true of the synoptics than John, probably). In particular looking for ways to prove Jesus was Messiah, but they had other interests–they may have been looking for ways to flesh out their sketchy information about what Jesus said and believed in life. And Jesus was often quite vague about what would happen once the Son of Man came. Here he seems to have been a bit more specific. Suspiciously specific. And Matthew is, after all, the angriest gospel. Matthew wants everybody who doesn’t accept Jesus to have a particularly nasty fate. It’s a thing.

    Couldn’t Jesus’ words about Gehenna simply be Matthew taking the Jewish concept of Gehenna and turning it against the Jewish leadership he so despises?

    How do we know Jesus said this? How do we know these aren’t words put in his mouth? Suppose all he meant by Gehenna was a place reserved for those unworthy of the Kingdom, which would be a hell because were its only denizens–and they would not know eternal life because that is reserved for the sheep. Many called, few chosen.

    Obviously I’m biased here, but somehow it doesn’t sound like him to gloat that much.

  4. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 10, 2018

    So was the addition of eternal fire/torture/damnation invented to scare people into converting or just an honest, lost in translation/cultural lines mistranslation?

  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 10, 2018

    Did all Jews expect “a future resurrection” or did some sects/cults believe that a physical death was the ultimate?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      The Sadducees were dead set against the idea of resurrection.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  September 13, 2018

        Good one, Bart. Intentional pun–or are you just that good?

      • Avatar
        Rogerwilkins  September 16, 2018

        A savant from my church asked if I knew if either the Pharisees or Sadducees believed in resurrection? He told me it was easy to remember that the Sadducees did not because “They were sad, you see”

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  September 10, 2018

    Observation and question:

    First, I think the line from 1 Enoch 92:9-10 is also on point:: “They shall be thrown into the judgment of fire, and perish in wrath and in the force of the eternal judgment.” (There is a translator’s note saying that it is not clear if “they” means the heathen or the towers/palaces – do you have an opinion on that?)

    And a question: Jewish custom is that everyone deserved burial, even executed criminals. So why would there be unburied bodies in Gehenna? From Roman executions, perhaps?

  7. Avatar
    doug  September 10, 2018

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming book on the afterlife telling us how belief in such a sadistic, merciless thing as eternal suffering in hell could have been considered consistent by early Xians with belief in an omniscient, omnipotent God of perfect love (if both those things were believed by early Xians).

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  September 10, 2018

    How do you interpret the ‘fire’ described in 4 Ez 13 ?

    it comes from the messiah’s/son of man’s mouth and it burns up sinners.

    does this ‘fire’ brought by the son of man annihilate sinners? what does it mean its coming out of his mouth?

    Is it possible Jesus read these verses and used ‘fire’ in same way? like in Luke 12:49? how about Matt 13:42 ?
    Is it possible John the Baptizer used ‘fire’ in this manner in Matt 3:12 ?

    to summarize into one single question
    why don’t you believe the ‘fire’ is in all the above instances means “God’s Word”?

    • tompicard
      tompicard  September 11, 2018

      [for the benefit of the blog readers besides Bart, here is the passage from 4 Ezra 13 I was referring to above – I have put the interesting references to fire in CAPS]

      . . ..
      As I kept looking the wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea. And I saw that this man flew with the clouds of heaven ; and everywhere he turned his face to look, everything under his gaze trembled . . . After this I looked and saw that an innumerable multitude of people were gathered together from the four winds of heaven to make war against the man who came up from the sea . . . When he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand, nor held a spear, or any weapon of war, but I saw only how HE SENT FORTH FROM HIS MOUTH SOMETHING LIKE A STREAM OF FIRE , AND FROM HIS LIPS A FLAMING BREATH . . .[which] fell on the onrushing multitude that was preparing to fight, and burned up all of them , so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke.
      . . . .

      The point I was trying to bring up is that apocalyptic preachers, like this author (was it Ezra?.) use fire and flames to symbolize something emanating from a person’s mouth, that is to mean “God’s Word”.
      On the other hand, the last verse there could support Bart’s thesis that those attacking this ‘man’ wind up annihilated as mere ashes and the smell of smoke

      Jesus too in Luke 12:49 said that “he came to cast fire on the earth” – it is not quite as clear as in Ezra that ‘fire’ is meaning God’s Word but I think it is a reasonably likely

      So since Jesus used the word ‘fire’ in his career on occasion in non-literal/symbolic manner, so a thesis other than that resurrected and non-resurrected sinners are cast into a literal fire should be considered too.

      Hope it makes you think

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I’m afraid I’ve never looked at it closely.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  September 10, 2018

    Of course none of us were taught this in the churches that we grew up in. How do your students react when they hear this explanation in class?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I”ve never given it. Just realized what it was all about while writing the book!

    • Avatar
      madi22  September 14, 2018

      of course they wouldn’t…otherwise all control over them is lost

  10. Avatar
    fishician  September 10, 2018

    Speaking of 1st Enoch, I know the letter of Jude makes reference to it. Are there any additional reasons for thinking the book was known and appreciated by the early Christians? Does Jesus ever say anything specific that suggests he was familiar with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      There’s no direct evidence that Jesus knew of it. It was talked about by some of the church fathers, including Tertullian.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  September 13, 2018

        Since the book of Enoch was so influential, how could Jesus not have known about it? (I am not asking this rhetorically.) If you think that Jesus wasn’t familiar with the book of Enoch, do you think that he got his conception of the Son of Man solely from the book of Daniel?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2018

          Since he was not highly educated and was from a remote rural area, he may never have run across it. (Just as most people who are highly educated today *still* haven’t)

  11. Avatar
    James Chalmers  September 10, 2018

    Eternal torment is a barbarous idea, incompatible with the providence of a just and loving God. Thank heavens, then, it didn’t come from Jesus or Paul.
    Would it be letting the cat out of the bag to tell us who you’ve found originated the idea and when it became Christian orthodoxy?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I won’t be able to name a name, but yes, part of the point of the book is to explain where it came from.

  12. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  September 10, 2018

    I have random question Dr. What is Peter holding in his hand in Da Vinci’s last supper? It changes the whole seen if it what I am seeing. Oh, maybe it was for bread. Was Peter was a jealous man?

  13. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  September 10, 2018

    I seen there is a hurricane heading for the Carolinas. I hope is well Dr.

  14. Avatar
    Eric  September 10, 2018

    As Miracle Max says, “It turns out your friend is only MOSTLY dead.”

  15. Avatar
    Jim  September 10, 2018

    Would you say that Jesus (and 1st century apocalyptic Jews) had a different view of body-soul duality compared to say one common Christian view where upon death, the soul immediately departs for heaven (or elsewhere)? Also, what seemed to be the view about the status of people who had died and were awaiting the resurrection – were they in some state of sleep/suspended animation?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      Yes indeed — the person was unitary, body and soul united together. they didn’t exist independently of one another. As to what happens in the interim, that’s a major issue I’ll be discussing int hte book.

  16. Avatar
    Hon Wai  September 10, 2018

    It appears Jesus depiction of a fate without burial and corpses thrown into the hideous Gehenna would have sent a shiver down the spine of his Jewish listeners who expected a bodily resurrection and eternal life in God’s presence. Would this imagery have provoked the same negative reaction to a Greco-Roman audience, as Jesus’ words were retold to Gentiles? Maybe it didn’t, and that was why later Gentile Christians felt the need to invent vivid accounts of torture in hell.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      Probably not, unless they had it explained to them.

  17. Avatar
    seahawk41  September 10, 2018

    Huh. As in my previous comment, this is a very new way of looking at Jesus’ sayings regarding Gehenna (etc.). Somewhere along the line, likely in a Bible commentary or perhaps the writings of another Bible scholar, I got the tale that Gehenna was a garbage dump. And I’ve repeated that tale–Gehenna is not Hell but a garbage dump, so it is very interesting to see this new and more accurate perspective. Live and learn!!

  18. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 10, 2018

    Thinking about Gehenna and how it evolved into the concept of Hell and eternal torment lead me to think about Salvation as taught be Jesus and Paul. Would it be a fair assessment to say that Jesus believed that Salvation and entry into the Kingdom of God was obtainable through keeping the Law while Paul taught that righteousness could not be obtained through keeping the Law?

    Will you be writing on the various teachings of Salvation in your book on the Afterlife? Have you written in any of your trade books much about how Jesus and Paul differ, ever thought writing a trade book on the differences between Jesus and Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I would say, roughly, yes. And I’ll be talking about that issue a bit, yes.

  19. Avatar
    toejam  September 11, 2018

    The book of Judith also riffs on Isaiah 66’s theme of eternal fire and worms for the unsaved. But it riffs on it toward an ECT reading (“eternal conscious torment”). This is all pre-synoptic gospels.

    Judith 16:17
    Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment. He will send fire and worms into their flesh. They shall weep in pain forever.

    My issue with those who are sure that the historical Jesus and/or ‘the [Protestant] Bible’ (i.e. the one minus Judith haha) doesn’t teach ECT is that if Judith was already riffing on these OT verses and turning them into ECT readings pre-synoptics, how can we be sure that when we read of “eternal fire”, seemingly perpetually-feeding “worms” on carcasses, a Lake of Fire that the unsaved are cast into in which it is also said will cause the Beast and his angels “eternal torment”, etc., that they too aren’t also moving in the same direction as Judith?

    I want to point out that I don’t have a horse in the race. I’m not a Christian and am under no illusion of biblical consistency. All I know is that when I read the synoptic gospels and the Book of Revelation, and study the arguments, etc., that I can’t say with a straight face that they’re DEFINITELY not teaching ECT as part of their eschatology. I understand the argument for Annihilation. And I think there are verses within these texts that are clearly Annihilationist (Matthew 10:28 being the most obvious). But I guess I’m hesitant in assuming biblical consistency, whether within the boundaries of ‘the Bible’, or its parts – the New Testament, a specific gospel, or even within a specific gospel.

    Thoughts? Why can’t Mark 9, Matthew 25, Luke 16, Revelation 20, etc., be riffing in the same direction as Judith 16? This isn’t an argument for ECT, but the possibility of them being ECT readings alongside Annihilationist ones…

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      Intersting parallel. My view is that they certainly can be all moving in the same direction. The question is always whether they are or not, based on a close reading of all the texts. (Just because one text reads one way doesn’t necessarily mean — or even provide evidence — that another is as well). IMHO.

  20. Avatar
    Silver  September 11, 2018

    Is there any indication in the NT that at death there is nothingness rather than the possibility of annihilation? The latter seems to indicate active destruction, however brief that act may be.
    In my part of the world I have heard the cycle of pre-birth, life and death rendered as “First you aint, then you are and then you aint again.”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      Only after being annihilated. The righteous live for ever.

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