The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Historical vs. spiritual Gehenna

Hello all,

Another first timer here on the forum. I come from the CADRE blog (hi Jason, it’s JD) and I’m just beginning to explore the possible biblical basis of universalism. My aim is to be as thorough and critical as I can, so I can only promise to be relentless in my questioning and as comprehensive as possible. So here goes:

I just finished reading Brad Jersak’s book “Her gates will never be shut” and found a lot of what he said intriguing. Especially interesting was his discussion of the meaning of the word Gehenna, usually translated fiery hell. He suggests that by the 1st Century there were still two separate traditions about the meaning of Gehenna, both stemming from its original historical referent, the valley of child sacrifice and of God’s judgment upon Israel: one, the apocalyptic tradition, started interpreting Gehenna spiritually as the place of divine punishment in the afterlife, while the other, the Jeremiadic(?) tradition, retained its historical referent and used Gehenna as a symbol of God’s historical judgment upon Israel. He suggests that Jesus stood within the later tradition, in that Gehenna referred primarily to the coming historical judgment of A.D. 70, and only in a few cases does it refer to something like spiritual deadness, or even a cathartic purging.

An intriguing suggestion, but my problem is that the historical judgment reference of Gehenna seems to apply only to a few of the cases in which it is used. For example, I can see how John the Baptist’s message could be primarily historical. When he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘generation of vipers’ and asks them who warned them to flee from ‘the wrath to come’ (Matt 3:7), and when he gives his parable of the axe being laid to the root of the trees, and that those who didn’t bear fruit would be cast into the fire, I can just about see him talking about the coming historical judgment. Similarly Jesus’ own condemnation of the ‘offspring of vipers’ can bear a historical meaning (Matt 23:33).

But I cannot see that interpretation applying to the parts of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus warns against saying ‘Thou Fool’, and advises that it is better to lose an eye or a hand than to be cast fully intact into Gehenna (Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 18:9). It seems rather odd to suggest that Jesus is literally suggesting that loping off a limb could somehow spare one from the destruction of Jerusalem! Similarly, the warning about whom one should really fear, the one who has power to cast into Gehenna after death, seems to make little sense on a historical-judgmental interpretation (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:5) Finally, the condemnation of the Pharisees’ evangelistic practice for making their converts twice as much a child of Gehenna as themselves (Matt 23:15) seems inexplicable as implying that they were dragging them into Jerusalem to be trapped by a historical judgment.

If anyone can shed some light on these passages, I’d be grateful. For my part, although Jesus did definitely speak of a national, historical judgment for Israel (I follow a partial preterist reading of the Olivet discourse), he also seems firmly rooted in the apocalyptic tradition and reflects the apocalyptic understanding of Gehenna as a fiery afterlife punishment.

I read the Jersek book and was utterly flabbergasted that he didn’t deal with “the unforgivable sin”. Talk about the elephant in the room!!!

My tired brain can’t seem to cause me to be able help with anything more concrete here, but hopefully this suggestion will assist in some small way. I think the problem may be related to our tendency toward an all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to these things. In other words, if part of the prophecy is literal (in the physical sense) then it all must be. Yes, there was a physical, historical judgment on that generation of Jewish people, but this judgment not only had physical, but spiritual consequences for Israel as a nation. It may be that you are only seeing the physical component and not the spiritual component of the historical judgment, and so assume that the spiritual component must necessarily refer to some future time beyond the historical judgment? I guess what I’m trying to say here is that we have a tendency for whatever reason to think of Gehenna as either purely physical or purely spiritual, and/ or we seem stuck in thinking of the spiritual component as something that must necessarily apply beyond the historical judgment.

It’s just a thought. I’m sure there are others who can do much better for you; I’m simply throwing my initial impression out there.

Roofus, I’m not sure that anyone has actually committed the unforgivable sin. After all, Jesus didn’t say in response to those who accused him of casting out devils through Beelzebub that they had just committed the unforgivable sin, and were therefore damned both in this age and the age to come. Rather, I think his reply was a warning, as in, “Are you sure you want to go there? Just think about what you’re suggesting here for a minute, and what the consequences would be for you if you really attributed the work of God to the devil.” And really, the retort that he was casting out demons through a demon already has a whiff of desperation about it. Those who accused him of such a thing must surely have been aware of the argument Jesus makes right afterwards, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I don’t think they really meant it, they were just blurting out whatever came to them to avoid confronting who Jesus really was. Of course, that in itself is pretty sinful, but we don’t learn whether these people had actually committed the unforgivable sin.

Thanks for your reply. I appreciate the speculation. I was surprised that Jersak didn’t deal with it as it seems so relevant! So you are saying that Jesus is speaking of a sin that theoretically nobody has ever committed? Hmm, I’ll ponder such!

Heyzeus7, welcome and I look forward to getting to know you.

There is a pretty good discussion of Gehenna on another thread, [Gehenna?).

I’ve share there that I believe that the literary context of Jesus warnings concerning Gehenna indicate that he was warning of personal judgment/punishment, not the coorporate punishment of Israel. And to me, it’s helpful, even important, to know that the Rabbis during the time of Christ used Gehenna as a theological metaphor to reference personal remedial punishment in the after-life (more along the lines of Purgatory, not Hell).


Hello Heyzeus7,

For starters, though the Jewish afterlife involved a purgatory. understand the Gehenna itself does not have a purgatory meaning. Though the evidence of such belief came from the Zohar, a book written in the 13th Century based on the Kaballah and later reformed in the 16th and 17th Century. Much of this evidence is, however, an anachoronstic fallacy and should not be accepted by anyone of sound mind and likewise is not accepted by the first century Jews in the first place. I have yet to find a person able to present credible and fallacy free evidence concerning this understanding.

Most orthodox Jews, follow the historical account of Gehenna, agreeing with Rabbi David Kimhi (1160-1235), in his comment on Psalm 27:13, in which he says “And it is a place in the land adjoining Jerusalem, and it is a loathsome place, and they throw there unclean things and carcasses. Also there was a continual fire there to burn the unclean things and the bones of the carcasses. Hence, the judgment of the wicked ones is called parabolically Gehinnom.”

Gehenna is a physical place, but it started out as a Spiritual Judgment against that apostate Hebrew people who sinned before God. It was set ablaze and defiled by King Josia, to serve as a symbol and sign of the coming judgment against plans of Jerusalem and Judah. Gehenna is the Valley of Ben Hinnom, a valley that was desecrated by the apostate Hebrew people who sacrificed their children to the idols of foreign gods such as Moloch and Baal. It is just outside the walls of Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin and Judah.

Now, we must recognize a few things. It WAS a loathsome place, and WAS continually on fire; it WAS a symbol and sign of a coming judgment. Today, it is NO LONGER a loathsome place, it is NO LONGER on fire and NO LONGER a symbol and sign of a coming judgment.

We must recongize when Gehenna is used, it is used as: 1) A Judgment 2) A garbage dump.

So now to address your question.

Jesus was talking to Jerusalem as a whole, a body of people each with their own parts. He was literally telling them, leave Jerusalem and be saved, leaving behind those who are too proud to leave, those who lead you by the hand and guide your by their eyes. Symbolically, Jesus was talking about the Pharisee and lawyers, Saducee and Priests of the Temple. It is better that people of Jerusalem survive the Judgment of Gehenna without these proud, blind fools than to enter fully into Gehenna because of these proud, blind fools.

That is because Jesus is talking about two different groups, those who can destroy your body, the pagans outside Jerusalem. Those who can destroy your body, and cast your soul to Gehenna, referring to the Apostate Jews inside, Jerusalem. The first group, all have problems with these barbarians, the second group purposely rebelled against God and doomed their entire country and people to the Judgment of Gehenna.

It is very simple, and it is very much demonstrated by Scripture and History.

If you need to know more, I will be happy to answer these questions in more detail.


StudentoftheWord and I have been through this discussion before, Jesus’ use and meaning of Gehenna, in the other thread I mentioned on my previous post. If you’re interested, you can read it there. There’s no need to rehash our differences on this thread. Though I will mention that the evidence that 1st Century Jews thought of Gehenna more as Purgatory than Hell is noted in the Mishnah (220 A.D) as quotes from Rabbis Shammai and Hillel (President and Head of the Sanhedrin) who lived just prior to the time of Christ.



  1. A “corporate punishment of Israel” would have necessarily involved individual Israelites.

  2. The earliest Rabbinic quote that I’m aware of that even comes close to referring to Gehenna as “a theological metaphor to reference personal remedial punishment in the after-life” is a statement of the position of the the school of Shammai (from what I’ve read, there is no indication that the more liberal school of Hillel understood the punishment of Gehenna as “remedial”; they simply exempted the less-than-thoroughly wicked from having to go there). But there is no conclusive evidence that this was even the personal opinion of Shammai himself, since the students of the school he established (which, if I’m not mistaken, was still around even after the first century) were known to have held to theological positions in opposition to the school of Hillel, which were not necessarily the exact positions of the two rabbis themselves (see, for example, the following articles: … 6&letter=B).

  3. Even if this was Shammai’s personal belief, it was by no means the prevailing Rabbinic view during the time of Christ, let alone the view of the “average Jew” in that day. It is more likely that the majority of Jews would have held to the most common beliefs of the Pharisees, and according to Josephus, the general view of the Pharisees was that “under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as [people] have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison (eirgmon aidion), but that the former shall have power to revive and live again” (D. Ant. 18.14-15). And in another work, Josephus states that the Pharisees believed that the souls of the wicked would be “subject to eternal punishment (aidios timoria).” (B. War 2.162-64) That certainly doesn’t sound like “remedial punishment” to me.

Oh well Aaron, concerning the passages where Jesus warns of Gehenna, to me their immediate literary context indicates that Jesus was warning of individual responsibility before God whether they live in Jerusalem or not, and was not warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. If you want to read the destruction of Jerusalem into those passages that’s your option.

Concerning the doctrines of Shammai and Hillel, on the other thread I’ve noted the quotes from them in the Mishnah. Whether you or anyone else accepts them as actual quotes from them, that’s your choice. As far as them disagreeing on specifics, yes that’s what they were communicating. Hillel was much more gracious, and Shammai was much more strict. People are welcome to research it for themselves. I understand it as I’ve shared.


Sherman, what is it exactly about their “immediate literary context” which indicates to you that Jesus was warning of “individual responsibility before God whether they lived in Jerusalem or not [which should read, “whether they were [i]Jews or not,” since it is not true that only Jews who lived in Jerusalem perished at the time of its overthrow; Jews from all over the world were present at this time to celebrate the Passover feast in 70 AD].” Because as I’ve noted elsewhere, at least the majority of the (individual) Jews who perished in this judgment perished because of individual moral decisions they’d made previously that led to their hearts being hardened against Christ, and which made them personally deserving of such a severe judgment. So I think it’s perfectly appropriate for a reader to understand Jesus to have been speaking to first century Jewish people about a first century Jewish judgment. But of course, it’s your option as well to read into these verses something different.

Please correct me if I’m mistaken on this (and I very well could be, since I haven’t done as much research on Rabbinic opinion as it seems you have), but are you saying that in the Mishnah there are direct quotes from both Rabbi Shammai and Hillel expressing their personal views on Gehenna? I mean if that’s the case I still don’t think it overturns my general argument that Gehenna was not thought of as a place of limited punishment by some or even most first-century Jews - but I’m curious as to what exactly Shammai said. Because as I noted in this thread and in the other thread, the quote in the Babylonian Talmud gives the position of “Beth Shammai,” which is the school that Shammai founded, and would have been the position of the students of this school at the time that the statement was included in the Talmud (or Mishnah, whatever the case may be). As such, the statement is not necessarily the personal view of the rabbi himself at the time he was alive, but was more likely the consensus of the students of his school at the time the statement was recorded. But if you know of direct quotes in the Mishnah from either Shammai or Hillel in which they express their personal opinions on Gehenna, I’d be interested in reading them.

Ok, so I was able to find the references to Gehenna in the Mishnah in the following places: Kiddushin 4.14 and Avot 1.5; 5.19, 20. However, in none of these passages is Gehenna referred to as a place of limited or remedial punishment.

Apparently Gehenna is also referred to in Tosefta t.Bereshith 6.15, but I haven’t been able to find it yet.

The literal Gehenna.

Hi Aaron, I’ve been busy the last few days and not able to get back to you but will as soon as I can. I appreciate the picture.


As I pointed out, and as others have noticed. Unless there is writings priort to 70 AD which spoke as Gehenna being remedial and not a consequence judgment upon an apostate people, there is no evidence despite written later, which has any authoritive support for Gehenna as a remedial or purgatorial thing or idea. If Hillel is what you say he was, then his words have no authority either, since the judgment was against the Sanhedrin, who by their ignorance brought upon themselves the judgment of their forefathers upon an innocent people.

Who’s words are more powerful, Scribes and Pharisees or the Son of God?

Matthew 23:29-36
Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. So that ye testify to yourselves, that ye are sons of them who did murder the prophets; and ye -- ye fill up the measure of your fathers.Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?

`Because of this, lo, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes, and of them ye will kill and crucify, and of them ye will scourge in your synagogues, and will pursue from city to city; that on you may come all the righteous blood being poured out on the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous, unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar: verily I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.

Can you explain why others, including Jesus, never saw Gehenna as a remedial punishment, but a cleansing of an apostate people and a destruction of a imperfect covenant which shed the blood of the innocent?

Hi Aaron,

I was mistaken, the quotes concerning Gehenna were from the Talmud (approx. 400 A.D.) not the Mishnah (200 A.D.), though the Talmud was primarily a collection of quotes that filled out the brief outline of the Mishnah. For me, the bottom line is that I believe that the Jews are the best source of information as to how words and concepts were commonly understood by the Jews of the 1st century. The Mishnah and Talmud are the now-written Oral Traditions of the Pharisees and thus are a primary source to me for understanding their doctrines and use of words. When Jesus sought to correct the doctrine of the Pharisees He was very clear about it. I also look to the writtings of Rabbis today to explain the Jewish meaning of words and phrases in the 1st Century. And thus to me, the evidence is sufficient that indicates Gehenna was understood to be primarily a place of remedial purification. I don’t know of any such evidence that suggests that the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have understood Gehenna to be a prophecy of doom for Jerusalem. Whether they should have or not is open for debate. To my knowledge they didn’t understand it that way and from what Jesus said He didn’t seek to correct that.

I believe that Jesus would have been very explicit if He meant to convey a different meaning of Gehenna than one the average Jew of that day would have understood. In other words, if Jesus meant Gehenna as a metaphor of the destruction of Jerusalem, He’d have stated such specifically and the literary context of the passage would have leaned heavily that direction; but they don’t. So tomorrow I’ll see if I can get around writing about each of the literary contexts where Jesus warns of Gehenna.



You are probably ignoring this, but it doesn’t matter. The fact is, the JEWS did know what Gehenna was! It was a consequence of the sin of Israel in the valley of Ben Hinnom. It was and never was understood to be a purification process. In fact, that is why King Josiah desecrated the valley.

You have yet brought up NO such evidence that the 1st Century Jews or prior believed Gehenna to be a purification judgment. Gehenna Judgment is as Jeremiah prophesied, and Jesus quoted. The elimination and destruction of an apostate people and flawed covenant who had forsaken God and misled His people. They knew it was the judgment against the apostate Hebrews who sacrificed their children to the fires of Moloch and Baal and those who murdered His prophets. The only ‘purification’ which was coming was the elimination of the Temple, the Law and those who prescribed and taught it.

The only remedial understanding comes in Christ, which under the veil of the Law, the Jews could not see reconciled not just sinners, but united all humanity (those who sinned and those who did not) in Him and under God.


Admittedly, the evidence that I’ve presented that the Jews understood Gehenna as Remedial Punishment is not written material from the 1st Century, but was written in subsequent Centuries. Origen (185-254 A.D.) for one studied the Jewish understanding of Gehenna and believed that they understood it as remedial punishment. And then of course, the quotes of Shammai and Hillel that, though orally transmitted from generation to generation, were not written down until the Talmud was written around 500 CE. Of course, Shammai and Hillel were the Head and President of the Sanhedrin just prior to the ministry of Christ. I’ve presented this before and you’re welcome to dismiss this evidence if you wish. To me, it is more than sufficient to indicate that that was the assumed meaning of Gehenna in the 1st Century. There was also the Jewish practice of prayers and offerings for the dead that is evidenced in Dueterocanonical materal. And of course, Paul even speaks affirmatively of baptism for the dead in 1 Cor. 15.

Concerning your statement that “the JEWS did not know what Gehenna was!”, to me this is completely illogical. Jesus’ was a good communicator and teacher and used words and images that people readily understood. Jesus not only spoke in the common language of the day, using common metaphors, but He also used common idioms; and when He did say something that was difficult to understand, it was noted and most often explained later to the disciples.

The better we understand the culture and language from and to which Jesus spoke, the more likely we are to understand what Jesus meant by what He said. A Text without a Context is a Pretext - an assumed meaning that often misses the author’s intended meaning. Frankly, I believe that if Jesus had meant to teach the Jews, or at least the disciples, some new or restored meaning of Gehenna, something they did not already commonly believe, then He’d have specifically noted such like He did with the many other doctrines of the Pharisees that He countered.

Aaron, as noted before I believe that the Literary Context of Jesus’ use of Gehenna indicates that He was speaking of personal punishment, not the corporate punishment of Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem. Over the next few posts I’ll share my understanding (or misunderstanding) of these passages.

21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother**will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

Note that Jesus is specifically countering the doctrine of the Pharisees concerning Murder. The Law says “Do not commit murder.” The phrase “you have heard it ‘said’” was an idiomatic means of referencing the Oral Law, the Pharisees’ Traditional interpretation and application of the Written Law. As you know, the Oral Law was later written down in short scentence out-line form in the Mishnah, and fuller written down later in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talumuds.

Anyhow, the Pharisees taught that this commandment, “Do not murder”, did not apply in many cases as a means of nullifying this word. For example, one was not guilty of murder if one killed a non-Jew. One was not guilty of murder even if one tied up another Jew in the morning and left him to die from heat-stroke, or pushed a man into the river who could not swim. It was the sun or water that killed the man, not the one that tied him up or pushed him in. Jesus counters this noting that ultimately a person is responsible before God, not just man (judgment of others and legally by the Sanhedrin). And God’s just punishment for such would be inflicted in Gehenna.

Note that the passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking of personal attitudes, practices, and actions; He is not speaking or warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, the Sanhedrin spoke of civil justices within Israel. Jesus is radically countering the teachings of the Pharisees pointing the Jews back to the heart of the problem concerning murder which is anger.**

Hi Sherman,

You wrote:

I think it would have been more accurate to say, “1st century Jews are the best source of information as to how words and concepts were commonly understood by the Jews of the 1st century.” It would not necessarily be the case that Jews living sometime after the 1st century are the best source of information as to how words and concepts were commonly understood by Jews during the 1st century. I think even you would agree that it would not be the case that Jews living after the Babylonian captivity are the best source of information as to how words and concepts were commonly understood by Jews before the Babylonian captivity.

Moreover, even if we had a fully accurate understanding of “how words and concepts were commonly understood by the Jews of the 1st century” it does not at all mean that the Jews were correct in their understanding of the words and concepts (which you’ve acknowledged).

In order for your theory to hold up (i.e., that the word “Gehenna” was commonly understood by 1st century Jews to be a place of remedial punishment beyond this lifetime), one would have to assume that the meaning attached to the word “Gehenna” by the Pharisees underwent no change from the early 1st century to the time that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted (since the Babylonian Talmud is the earliest Jewish writing we have in which Gehenna is even referred to as a place of limited punishment for some). However, I think that’s pretty unlikely. But not only that, one would also have to assume that the meaning of Gehenna that was held by the school of Shammai by the time the Talmud was written (for it was the position of this school, and not the school of Hillel, that Gehenna was a place of limited punishment for some) was not only well-known by Jews in the 1st century but was commonly accepted by them at this time. But this is even less likely.

Do you believe that we have recorded in the Gospel accounts Jesus’ explicit correction of every specific doctrine of the Pharisees with which he disagreed?

The earliest Jewish sources indicate that Gehenna was not understood to be a place of “remedial purification.” Again, this seems to have been a later development. And even this later development seems to have been confined to the position of the conservative school of Shammai (which, as you’re probably aware, was the least popular of the two schools).

In the other “Gehenna” thread (Conditional Futurism in Sum) I conceded that Jesus did not employ the word Gehenna as a metaphor. I’m not sure if you overlooked the post I’m referring to or simply haven’t gotten around to responding to it yet (I admit that it was a bit lengthy - probably more so than it needed to be!), but I was hoping you’d get to address at least some of what I had to say there. I argued that Jesus used the word quite literally, and that the implication of the literal usage would have been that Jerusalem was going to be overthrown just as it was in Jeremiah’s day. In the same post I also gave some reasons why we need not expect Jesus to have “stated specifically” what he meant by Gehenna if the meaning he ascribed to it was different than the understanding of the “average Jew.”