The Evangelical Universalist Forum

What did Jesus mean by Hell


I appreciate your grappling with my minority view that the Jesus of history would understand ‘Gehenna’ in terms of Jeremiah’s language that he so closely follows, where it literally refers to bodies being historically burned in Hinnom Valley as a result of actions that hurt others. As I said privately, I think it’s possible that Jeremiah’s concept was later re-shaped to image other realms of future judgment. But again, my bias is that those arguing it can’t bear its’ classic Biblical meaning, known to Jesus’ hearers, have the burden of proving Jesus changed it into an extra-terrestial fiery chamber beyond time that is now the penalty for not believing in him. For when Jesus describes his understanding of Israel’s judgment in his plainest language, it is clearly pagan armies in their generation destroying Jerusalem for its’ unfaithfulness, and throwing bodies into its’ Hinnom Valley, just as Jeremiah’s clear language about Gehenna describes.

Thus, arguing that Matthew 18 on “God’s Kingdom” & Gehenna is “clearly” a “CHURCH chapter” remains questionable to me. When Jesus says "the kingdom’s subjects will be thrown into darkness, I think he means unfaithful Israel. For I see Jesus’ consistent focus is addressing Israel (not the non-Jewish entity we later understand as “Church”). I see no reason to reject his statement,“I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 15:24). Thus 18:17’s “ecclesia” can be the the regular Hebrew term for their local assemblies, and treating a stubborn sinner as a “pagan” (lit: a ‘non’-Jew’) fits my contention that Jesus is assuming a Jewish gathering.

You add that vs. 9’s threat of being (literally) “thrown into Hinnom Valley” for sinning against others can’t mean a historical consequence for Jews such as AD 70, since this “eternal fire” (more literally: fire of the coming age) parallels Matthew 25 which applies this to those who don’t care for rejected outcasts. But I see this standard for their judgment (in both references to facing ‘fire’) is actually quite consistent with Jesus’ regular indictment of Israel for not being a “light” to the Gentiles who peacefully love outsiders the way Jesus did.

Your best argument is that “the nations” parallel judgment by fire (Mt 25) sounds like Jesus is not addressing Israel’s current fate. But I see that he always uses the language of their own future expectation when he argues that it actually is being fulfilled in their generation in a way that reverses their assumptions. E.g., they will soon ‘see’ “God’s kingdom” restored, their enemies and the nations judged, and blessing brought to all the world, just as the prophets promised. But they expected this meant Israel would again be God’s trimphal kingdom, the nations would be judged in a deadly thrashing, followed by a great day of all bowing to Israel. But like all the prophets, Jesus’ reversal means Israel will in fact unwelcomely bear the brunt of God’s deadly judgment, and the ‘kingdom’ will come, but without Israel’s triumph. Thus, I’m not sure Jesus’ reference to the judgment of the nations is any more than another similar use by Jesus of the traditional language that means these events thought to be beyond history are being fulfilled by Jesus in their generation in an unexpected way. Thus, events foreseen in that generation (including the cross, resurrection, and the Temple’s AD 70 destruction) can be seen as fulfilling a judgment of the nations, a triumph of God’s kingdom, blessing to all the world, etc. If this makes no sense to you, I welcome further development of your own interpretation.

Grace be with you,

P.S. I’m sympathetic that “fire” sometimes has a “cleansing” purpose, and in fact am inclined to see some references to whatever future judgment remains as consistent with that very expectation of its’ purpose. Yet I don’t see enough indication of that function in Jesus’ references to Gehenna to overturn the bias that they should be assumed to be consistent with their Biblical background, and perhaps that AD 70 has purifying purposes and leads to the day when Jesus says they will see him again.

" He is clearly not talking to Jews"

It seems obvious to me that Jews are his only audience in Matt 18. None of his disciples were gentiles right? Perhaps you mean he was talking to Jews regarding the church and not Israel? But that’s very dubious, at least to me.

Thanks for that Bob. I made the point in my question that Jesus makes a direct parallel between “gehenna fire” and “eternal fire” in Matt 18 thus equating. You mentioned that it refers to the “fire of the age to come”. I fully agree with that realising that aionios can refer to the age to come - but not always. The issue is this: when does the fire of the “age to come” take place? I have a feeling that preterists are going to suggest that it was AD 70? Based on 2 Thes 1:6-10 and Rev 20:10ff it would seem to me to take place after the final judgment and final resurrection of every single person who has ever lived. It seems that 2 Thes is talking TO CHRISTIANS about the fate of the UNBELIEVING PERSECUTORS who will experience the flaming fire destruction - not saying that JEWS will experience destruction by Romans in AD 70. As we read 2 thes 1 into chapter 2 Paul seems to be talking about events transpiring surrounding the PAROUSIA. Please understand, I am a universalist - and I see references to “eternal” destruction, punishment, fire as purifying and redemptive and that all those who experience this will eventually turn in faith to Jesus - and in this way the fire comes to an end. Do you see 2 Thes and Rev 20 as referring to AD70 or do they refer to events surrounding the final eternal state still future? There is no doubt in my mind that at places Jesus has AD 70 in mind and can use gehenna language to describe it. But does this mean that 2 Thes 2 is not referring to a future FIRE FROM JESUS FOR UNBELIEVING PERSECUTORS OF THE CHURCH? Paul is clearly referring to CHRISTIANS about the FATE OF UNBELIEVERS WHO ARE PERSECUTING THEM. I see this as a cleansing fire IN THE PRESENCE OF JESUS. Also do you see Rev 20 and the lake of fire as AD70? I understand that neither of these passages uses the word Gehenna - this word is very HEBREW. Nonetheless as similar concept seems to be discussed. Interested in your response. Santo


Thanks! I sense growing consensus. We’ve agreed that Matt. 18 calls ‘Hinnom Valley’s fire" "aionios which can mean fire of the ‘coming age,’ and thus can fit A.D. 70 (esp. so if one follows my prof, George Ladd, in holding Jesus’ emphasis on God’s kingdom meant precisely that the realities of the coming age were already happening in the present age).

You say fire in 1 Thes. 2 & Rev. 20 don’t seem like AD 70, or focused on Jews, but suggests some future “parousia.” I sympathize! But as you say, neither is called ‘Hinnom Valley fire,’ and need not be identical to Jesus’ warnings, which like Jeremiah’s are fleshed out in historical terms. I’m unsure what Paul envisioned in such fire, either for enemies or believers. And I doubt the apocalypse should be taken literally. It seems most of Rev. applies to Rome’s destruction (i.e. preterist), but the final chapters seem to remain future realities presented in hyperbolic apocalyptic language.

So as I’ve said, I personally assume that the principle of purifying correction will extend beyond this life and age. Thus, I agree that Paul and John can allude to this. My paper only argues that this may well not be the focus of Jesus’ own warnings about Gehenna, and thus we should avoid using them as if they provide a basis of claiming that we know the ‘furniture’ of an other-worldly ***‘hell’ ***in some Dantesque fashion. Bob

Thanks for that Bob. I have been a ardent reader of GE LADD for many years and in many respects he has been my mentor for years. Yes I agree about his position on realised and consummated eschatology and how we “taste” the age to come now and so can see how “eternal fire” can have relevance to this age since we have one foot in either age now.

But one thing Bob … there seems to be an apparent lack in Universalist writings on the Second Coming of Jesus. By taking the Preterist view the 21st Century Believer is left without any concrete future? If 2 Thes 1 and Rev 20 refer to the destruction of Rome etc then what is there left you us? Do we have any hope for the Return of Jesus to this earth? What about Acts 1:9-11 1 Thes 4:16ff and 1 Cor 15:51-54 and Phil 3:20-21 Hebrews 9:28 etc which speak of an ACTUAL return of Jesus? Acts 1:9-11 seems to be very clear that “this SAME Jesus who was taken up into the clouds will return THE SAME WAY they saw him go into the clouds” and to the right hand of the Father. But I can see strong overtones in Matthew of Jesus’ use of Jeremiah’s Gehenna language. Blessings. Santo

Actually this is to misunderstand the preterist position. The concrete hope preterism affords is that of a fulfilled hope i.e,. that which Jesus promised HAS been fulfilled and complete… that being sin is defeated and redemption and reconciliation brought to fruition.

Futurism on the other hand is ALWAYS WAITING for a hope that is forever over the horizon, always out of grasp and as a consequence left the heart of many a believer “sick” through “deferred hope” Prov 13:12]. Futurism [and to a degree many preterists that cling to exclusivism] has not adequately understood what Christ’s Parousia was all about.

Christ’s Parousia was all about the redemption of Israel which was the catalyst for the reconciling of man. IOW, a consistent preterism is fully inclusive, what I call pantelism - all pan] is complete telos] - redemptively AND eschatologically.

This is something important to consider… the is NO eschatology end] relative to the new covenant age, only the old; THAT’S why it was all fulfilled then.

Actually, “the same way” Jesus ascended to the Father hidden from sight in the clouds Act 1:9b] replicates exactly “the same way” the Father came parousia] in Judgement in the OT… hidden in clouds of glory Isa 19:1; Mt 24:30; 26:64; Nah 1:3 et al ] - it is apocalyptic language used to describe divine judgement. This all came to fruition on the OC world in Ad70.

Christ’s Cross and Coming were the book-ends of God’s one time redemptive event on behalf of all Israel Rom 11:26-27] and the world wherein she was His firstfruits Jer 2:3]. With Israel redeemed the world came into reconciliation.


You reflect Dr. Ladd well! Many universalist are not preterists, and I assume they affirm some ‘second coming,’ even if their writings don’t focus on such scenarios. My bias now is that despite rejecting dispensationalism, Ladd was an over detailed futurist. So e.g. I now find Gordon Fee’s more preterist Revelation commentary more persuasive. But even he sees 20-22 as more future than Rome’s demise. Davo offers a preterist interpretation of how “seeing” Jesus in Acts 1 could fit AD 70. But with N.T. Wright, my sense is that Jesus’ own apocalyptic discourses were describing first century events, not a still future coming (he sees Daniel 7’s son of man coming on the clouds as describing being raised UP vindicated into God’s presence, and thus more about Easter & Ascension, and AD 70, than a yet future event). Yet he thinks after the resurrection, the disciples and Paul naturally assumed any consumation of God’s purposes would have Jesus’ presence returning to be at the center. Then, Acts 1 could be more literally read as such a reality.

In all candor, what sort of future state and events such prophetic language requires us to grasp or expect is beyond my comprehension. My impression is that most of Scripture emphasizes a future transformation that restores life on earth. So I don’t know how literally we should understand Paul’s words about “going up,” meeting him in the clouds, or even what it would mean to “see” Jesus. I do know that the N.T. interpretation of some O.T. expectations is often loose and creative, and that what O.T. experts thought Messiah would look like in his first coming turned out very differently than they expected. Frankly, I think what really matters in all the language used by Biblical writers to express their hope, is that it implies that evil is not something that will just keep going in circles, but that whatever the ‘mechanics’ are, faith in God’s goodness and power means that ultimately, all things will be well. Sorry, I can’t insist on one of the more definitive alternatives, but perhaps faith is about trusting in God, and that means trusting the details into his good hands.

Actually I’m inclined to go along with this as well. Wright like Fee are technically speaking “partial preterists” in that they still hold to some future redemptive working of God upon tangible creation, whereas the more “full preterist” understanding views the “creation” language in terms of “covenant” - which is one reason why preterism has also been called ‘covenant eschatology’.

Thus when Paul says… “if any man be in Christ he is a new creation…” full preterists pantelist i.e., an inclusive preterist] read Paul as saying… “if any man be in Christ he is new Israel”. Jesus came as true Israel Jn 15:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 2:21], and so those called into God’s redemptive plan “in Christ” were now also true, or new and now according to Paul “the Israel of GodGal 6:16 i.e., those through whom He was now moving ON BEHALF OF all.

Thanks for the contributions :slight_smile: As I read 1 thes 4:13-18 I see a pastor writing to CHRISTIANS who are grieving. He certainly is NOT talking to unbelieving and unfaithful Israelites who are going to be judged in AD70. Here was a church that had certain folk die. What had happened? Would they see they again? To this specific situation Paul replied and told them to grieve but not like others. They would see them again. When? How? A discourse on AD70 certainly does NOT fit in the context of this particular passage. Paul wrote back and reassured these grieving Christians that they would see them again when Jesus returns. For when Jesus returns he will bring those who have fallen asleep with him [v.13]. He will physically return with those who have died in him. Then the living at the return of Jesus will meet the Lord in the air and be reunited with Jesus and those who have died forever “so encourage one another with these words”. Seems pretty clear that AD70 is not referred to here and there is no idea of Apocalyptic Judgment symbolism going on here. Here we have real people with loved ones who have died. And Paul simply tells them that they will see them again when Jesus returns. Find it hard to see this passage any other way. How would a discourse on AD70 be relevant to the specific pastoral situation Paul is dealing with? These folk want to know if they will see their loved ones again so replying with AD70 seems rather silly in this case. Paul gave them words that “encouraged” them as they grieved. Blessings Santo.


Who are you addressing? I responded 1-1, "You say, Thes. doesn’t seem like AD 70, but some future parousia. I sympthatize, and then explained that my paper only argues that Ad70 is what Jesus meant by 'gehenna.

Sorry Bob :frowning: I have had a few individuals write to me personally at my email address. I shouldve only replied back to them privately. I just got a little concerned that they didnt believe in any form of the return of Jesus to the earth and so I wrote to them. Love reading your material. Feeding me! Blessings Santo

Bob can you explain or make reference to other writings that might explain why Jesus was the only one to use this terminology?

Gehenna as always been the tipping point for me. If He meant Hell as traditionally understood then it should be treated that way, if not then I have reason for a Greater Hope.

Cool reading, thanks.

I’d be interested in your reply to nimblewill’s query also, since I largely subscribe to an NT Wright-Ian AD70 perspective on Jesus’ use of Gehenna/ apocalyptic language in general ( though I also allow for a possible secondary end-time fulfilment meaning). Also, I haven’t had chance to read Perriman, but does anyone know if he addresses this issue?

Nimblewill and Pog,

I’m not sure what you mean by “Hell as traditionally understood.” Jersak, etc argue that a later tradition which informs our predominant interpretation is different from Jesus’ tradition. E.g. he asserts that the evidence for Hinnom Valley’s image as a smoldering garbage dump appears way past Jesus’ day in rabbis about 1200AD. What matters is the “tradition” of Jesus and his hearers. My impression is that the development of ‘hell," a painful after-life judgment, had barely begun in Jesus’ day, and that Hinnom Valley itself could be widely understood as a metaphor for imminent historical events, as in Jeremiah (what leads you to conclude that such usage is “unique to Jesus”?). I don’t know first-century literature enough to cite documentation on how they used it, much less whether it agrees with whatever concept Jesus is actually intending to imply. But Jerzak argues that even if Pharisees,etc already took Gehenna as a symbol of post-death punishment (as can be documented in much later literature), Jesus was often antithetical to their interpretations anyway. Thus, our bias should be that Jesus would be using references to Hinnom Valley, understood in terms of its’ Biblical usage, as I detailed from Jeremiah. As Santo has pointed out, these references themselves don’t seem to clearly settle what his meaning was. The tie-breaker for me is that when Jesus does refer in the plainest language to coming judgments on Israel and Jerusalem, it clearly fits both AD 70, and the sort of historical event that Hinnom Valley language plainly meant for Jeremiah. So I conclude that both of these have the same thing in mind.

Blessings to you,

Andrew Perriman has written quite a few good articles on this. He is in a similar vein the Tom Wright. Although neither hold to what I would consider to be the more consistent ‘full preterist’ view both Perriman and Wright are definitely heading in the right direction. Here are some of Perriman’s thoughts on Gehenna…

Was Gehenna a burning rubbish dump, and does it matter?

Who else has argued that Gehenna is a place of historical judgment?

Killed and thrown into Gehenna

The destruction of body and soul in gehenna

The rich man and Lazarus, and what the story tells us about hell

Thanks bob; thanks davo! :slight_smile:

I agree that the OT should be the primary lens for interpreting Jesus’ gehanna sayings, though itd be cool if someone could point me to an article where they are compared with the various 1st cent ideas/texts floating around, and see if that helps any.

I’ve ordered the Perriman book (cant recall title) - but it seems delayed in getting to me (is it out of print?)

Hi everyone :slight_smile:

I am a personal friend of Jersak and I have told him about the discussions going on re his Jeremianic interpretation of Gehenna. He said he would be more than happy to join this discussion if you all wanted. What do you think? Santo

Sounds great to me, though im not 100% sure yet exactly what questions I’d ask. 'Im sure he’d be welcomed and his input prove very valuable. thanks :slight_smile:

Santo, I think it would be great if Jersak would be willing to offer his evaluation of our discussion, including my characterization of his approach, and even my brief paper. I certainly don’t want to misrepresent his views. While my paper incorporates my own perceptions, I do see it as largely influenced by Jersak’s book.

I guess I mistakenly assumed that “hell” was traditionally understood as ETC as taught by American protestants. I haven’t read much on Gehenna outside scripture so I meant that no other writer in the NT used the word used by Jesus other than James of course.