Gehenna is Hades. At least, that is my current understanding. I remain unconvinced by the arguments to the contrary that I have encountered thus far in my research.
I would suggest that just as Jerusalem is a type prefiguring the antitype of the “New Jerusalem,” Rev. 21:2), Gehenna (type), once a smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem, prefigured and warned of the underworld Hades (antitype); and further, the Dead Sea (type) prefigures the lake of fire (antitype), into which Hades will one day be thrown, Rev. 20:14.
(Note: in an article titled “Biblical Archeology: Sodom and Gomorrah,” Leibel Reznick shows that Josephus referred to the Dead Sea as “Lake Asphaltites,” and wrote that the lake–which was still smoking in his day–was formed as a result of the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.)
Hades and the subsequent lake of fire are very real and very agonizing. They are literal, not allegorical, places; nevertheless, they are spiritual in nature, and therefore non-physical. To reiterate:
- physical Jerusalem ≅ (congruent to) spiritual New Jerusalem
- physical Gehenna ≅ spiritual Hades
- physical Dead Sea ≅ spiritual lake of fire (Consider Matthew 25:41 and Jude 1:6-7, Young’s Literal Translation.)
In the New Testament, Jesus introduced the Greek term “Gehenna,” thus continuing, and expanding on, the Hebrew Old Testament “Valley of Hinnom” theme of Jeremiah 7:31 and Isaiah 66:24—with their stark imagery of appalling destruction, where the wicked are completely destroyed—in order to graphically illustrate, and warn about, that holding place of suffering for all wicked dead before their Final Judgment in Rev. 20:13-15. Jesus amplified the “Valley of Hinnom” motif of a loathsome burning dump outside Jerusalem to include not only the destruction of the body after death, but also of “the soul,” Mt. 10:28.
Here are all 12 instances of “Gehenna” in the New Testament, eleven by Jesus, one by James. And although Jesus did also prophesy the soon destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, e.g., Mt. 24:2, Lk. 19:44, his instances of “Gehenna” do not appear to be announcing ‘a prophetic metaphor to describe the end of the Old Covenant system,’ as per preterism’s assertion. After all, the Law of Moses was abrogated at the cross, through the body of Christ, not through the Roman army in 70 AD. Rom. 7:4, Eph. 2:15. No, with “Gehenna,” Jesus seems to be warning about something more.
To support my argument that Gehenna and Hades are synonymous terms, here is a supportive quote—from advocates of the King James Version of the Bible, no less (with my emphasis):
Critics claim that the KJV is wrong for translating two Greek words “αδης (Hadēs)” and “γεεννα (Gehenna)” both as “hell.” These critics claim that Hades is merely a place of the dead, and not a place of torment and fire. However, we must get our understanding of biblical words from the Bible rather than from Pagan lore. The biblical definition of “Hades” indicates that it is a place of fire and torment. Luke 16:23-24 portrays the rich man being “tormented” in the “flame” of Hades. Thus, “hell” is an appropriate translation of “Hades.”
Since “Gehenna” is Hebrew and “Hades” is Greek, it would make sense for the Greek-influenced Hebrews of the New Testament to use the two words interchangeably in referring to hell. Paul, despite referring to Hades numerous times, never uses the word “Gehenna” in all his letters which were addressed to Greek-speaking Gentiles. The only place outside of the Gospels where “Gehenna” is referred to is in James’ epistle (3:6) which was addressed to Jews. We must understand that the Greek of the New Testament is not a uniform dialect. Jesus used a Semitic dialect to Jews in Judea whereas Paul used the standard Greek dialect in his letters to the churches throughout the Roman Empire. “Hades” was the word for hell when the audience may not have understood “Gehenna”. Apparently with the Hellenistic influence the word “Hades” was gaining currency even in Judea. But “Hades” was the only word for hell for the Gentiles. Why in the world would a Gentile in Rome understand the Hebrew word “Gehenna”? Common sense must be applied in ascertaining why the Bible uses both “Hades” and “Gehenna”. There seems to be no difference between the biblical Gehenna and the biblical Hades. “Gehenna” is the Hebrew word for hell and “Hades” is the Greek word for hell. The KJV, being a translation, translates both words for hell as “hell.”
I have argued elsewhere that up until the cross, the souls of humans who died all went DOWN to one of two places; but that ever since the cross, the saved who die go UP to Paradise, whereas the unsaved still today go down into suffering in Hades:
Consider: here are two very different places of suffering which are both described as fiery:
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
2) the subsequent lake of FIRE.
But I believe Hades and the lake of fire are qualitatively very different: Hades is a POW camp for those who died captive to the devil, and so remain captive to the devil after death; whereas the later lake of fire, also known as “the second death” (the death of death), is the restorative, healing ministry of a loving God who will bring about freedom from bondage and death to those captives, through His “wise fire.”
In Revelation, we read that after Judgment Day, Hades and its occupants will be thrown into the lake of fire:
13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.
14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.
15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
The lake of fire is part of our temporal classroom (a classroom which also includes Paradise, earth, and Hades), and is only “age-during,” not never-ending, as we learn here:
I would argue that everyone in the lake of fire will, one by one, eventually come out and go through the gates of the New Jerusalem which are never closed (Rev. 21:25), in order to take the water of life (Rev. 22:17) being freely offered by the Spirit and the bride to “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” who are “outside,” in that lake of fire (Rev. 22:15).
Make no mistake: “Salvation is found in no one else [except Jesus of Nazareth], for there is NO other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." Acts 4:12.
Have no doubt: “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God UNLESS they are born again.’” John 3:3.
But my most important argument is that there is still opportunity postmortem, post-Judgment to repent and receive Jesus and his gift of salvation. I further argue regarding the non-physical nature of the lake of fire here:
Some argue (I think mistakenly) that Gehenna is not Hades, but rather that Gehenna is synonymous with the yet to be occupied lake of fire (into which Hades will be thrown). But in contradistinction to the lake of fire, “Gehenna,” like “Hades,” appears to be an active malignant force in the present. Compare:
Matthew 16:18 YLT
And I also say to thee, that thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it;
James 3:6 YLT
And the tongue is a fire, the world of the unrighteousness, so the tongue is set in our members, which is spotting our whole body, and is setting on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by the gehenna.
The three following examples of reasoning in support of the idea that Gehenna is not Hades but rather the lake of fire are considered, and rejected.
1. “We read in Matthew 10:26-31 that we are to fear God, who destroys both physical body as well as soul in Gehenna —and since that punishment is specified to include the physical body, we recall we only elsewhere see reference to physical bodies being thrown into fiery punishment in relation to the lake of fire punishment, as indicated in Rev. 20:15. Therefore, Gehenna is the lake of fire.”
However, the Matthew 10:26-31 passage does not actually say it is “God” who does the destroying. I believe it is the devil who does that destroying, not God: the devil is the one whom we should fear, not God. God strenuously warns us to avoid Gehenna at all costs: “But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna,” Mt. 5:29 YLT. (But for those who do end up in Gehenna, the God of love’s saving work in the subsequent, temporary lake of divine fire is remedial).
Consider the following important alternative interpretation of Matthew 10:26-31, which defends the lovingkindness of God, and contrasts Him with Satan (and recognize that this alternative interpretation is in harmony with the distinction between God and the devil spelled out by Jesus in John 10:10):
2. “In Matthew 18:8-9, Jesus warns of the ‘eternal’ fire of Gehenna; and since Hades fire is temporary, whereas only the subsequent lake of fire fire is ‘eternal,’ Gehenna must be the lake of fire.”
It is true that many translations erroneously employ the word “eternal”—with its idea of something timeless, having no beginning or end—to translate the Greek adjective aiōnios, e.g.,
Matthew 18:8-9 (NIV)
8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into ETERNAL [aiōnios] fire.
9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell [Gehenna].
But thankfully there exist less biased literal translations, which recognize that “aiōnios” is used to designate something as temporary:
Matthew 18:8-9 Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
8 And if thy hand or thy foot doth cause thee to stumble, cut them off and cast from thee; it is good for thee to enter into the life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast to the fire the AGE-DURING [aiōnios].
9 And if thine eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee; it is good for thee one-eyed to enter into the life, rather than having two eyes to be cast to the gehenna of the fire.
3. “After his Second Coming, Jesus will judge between the sheep and the goats, and then send the sinners (the goats) to the never-ending Gehenna of fire”:
Matthew 25:41, 46
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal [literally, age-during] fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
46 “Then they will go away to eternal [literally, age-during] punishment, but the righteous to eternal [literally, age-during] life.”
We do know that the devil, shortly afterward followed by those whose names are not found in the book of life, will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10, 15). However, although this Matthew 25 passage about the separation of the sheep and the goats does speak of the “age-during [lake of] fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” it never actually refers to it as “Gehenna” (or “Hades” or “hell”) anywhere. (Further regarding the fate of the devil and his angels, please consider, “Will the devil be saved?”)
The overriding question in this debate, as in most theological debates, has to do with the true nature of God. I would like to conclude with some additional Bible verses with Universalist implications:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
1 Corinthians 15:22
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ ALL will be made alive.
1 Timothy 4:10
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
When the classroom of time ends, the real adventure begins:
Isaiah 9:6-7a (ESV)
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
All those evil doctrines about God that work misery and madness have their origin in the brains of the wise and prudent, not in the hearts of children. -George Macdonald
Postscript: according to the entry on “Gehenna” in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), “Gehenna” is figuratively equivalent to “hell,” which I discuss in this comment (below).
Also, please see my related post, "The Temple, the Antichrist, and the Structure of Revelation."