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What is Hell? Gehenna and the Outer Darkness

Hell is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Bible, in part due to loss of meaning in translation.

The New Testament uses no less than six different terms that describe negative and/or neutral places in the afterlife which people can experience that are clearly not the New Heaven and the New Earth. These six terms often are mistakenly conflated and lumped together as “hell.”

The six terms the New Testament uses to describe consequences that are often associated with the common use/understanding of the word “hell” include:

  1. Hades
  2. Tartarus
  3. Gehenna
  4. The Outer Darkness
  5. The Lake of Fire
  6. The Eternal Punishment

This article will provide a brief summary of each, then explain in detail the middle two terms on this list: Gehenna and The Outer Darkness.

To learn more about Hades or Tartarus please read: “What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus in the Bible .”

To learn more about the Lake of Fire and The Eternal Punishment, please read: “What is Hell? the Lake of Fire and the Eternal Punishment.”

SUMMARIES 

Hades is a temporary holding place of the dead until the final judgment. Within Hades are two separated regions: a place of coolness and comfort for the good people which is called, “Abraham’s Bosom”; and a place of agony for the wicked. This region of agony within Hades may be the same place as “Tartarus.” Hades is a Greek word, used in the New Testament. The Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol” is sometimes used to reflect the concept of Hades; Acts 2:27 translates “Sheol” as “Hades” when quoting Psalm 16:10.

Tartarus is a dark holding place for the fallen angels and possibly is the region of Hades where the unrighteous are held in agony and torture as they await their final judgment. “Tartarus” is a Greek word that appears only once in the New Testament, in 2 Peter 2:4; it is there translated as “hell.”

Gehenna and the Outer Darkness are cultural illustrations that describe the shame-filled, bitter, sorrowful experience of a believer in Jesus at his judgment if he is unfaithful. The tragic situations Gehenna depicts are the worst thing a believer who has the Gift of Eternal Life  can experience. Gehenna is Hebrew, “Hinnom Valley,” transliterated to Greek, and refers to a valley adjoining Jerusalem that is used as an illustration. Gehenna is most often translated “hell.” Outer Darkness describes being excluded from a celebration, such as an honor banquet. Neither terms usually (if ever) describe the final end for unfaithful believers; both usually refer to negative consequences for poor choices.

The Lake of Fire is the final destination for the devil and his angels. It is also where humans whose names are not written in the Book of Life shall be cast (Revelation 20:15).

The Eternal Punishment (which is likely the same place as the Lake of Fire) is where unbelievers in Jesus will be condemned to spend eternity.

DETAILED EXPLANATION OF “Gehenna” and “hell.”

The Greek word most often translated to English as “hell” in the New Testament is “Gehenna.” “Gehenna” is a Greek transliteration of “Hinnom Valley” in Hebrew. “Gehenna” appears twelve times in the New Testament.

Every usage of Gehenna is translated as “hell” in both the KJV and NASB English translations. In fact, the only time the word “hell” appears in the NASB, where the Greek word it translates is not “Gehenna,” is 2 Peter 2:4. In 2 Peter 2:4, the Greek word translated to English as “hell” is a form of the Greek word “Tartarus” which was the compartment of torment in Hades. Therefore, other than this instance in 2 Peter, the NASB reader can gain clarity by mentally substituting “Hinnom Valley” or “Gehenna” each time they encounter “hell.”

“Gehenna” is the English transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word “Hinnom Valley.” Hinnom/Gehenna was the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem’s walls. In Jesus’s time, the Hinnom Valley, or Gehenna, was utilized as the city garbage dump and sewer. Its name stemmed from a family name, being originally called the Valley (“Gay” in Hebrew) of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35).

The Hinnom Valley or Gehenna was also called “Topeth” and “Valley of Slaughter” (2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:32). Each of these alternate names are connected to a time when the Kingdom of Judah fell into idolatry. When it did, this valley was used as a location for child sacrifice to the pagan god Moloch (2 Kings 23:10). During the Babylonian invasion, mounds of dead human bodies were piled in Gehenna (Jeremiah 7:32). The valley’s name carries forward to current times; it is currently called the “Hinnom Valley” and still sits just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem (although it is no longer a dump).

Jesus uses Gehenna as a visceral reference to the place where trash and the carcasses of dead animals were burned, and where dung was disposed. Consequently, Jesus describes Gehenna as a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 48). Gehenna is a place of wickedness, decomposition and burning carcasses. It is foul and unappealing.

Gehenna refers to a geographic location, and is figurative for foulness, death, corruption, evil, and rot. It is a geographical place with figurative meaning, such as saying “Wall Street” to refer to the world of high finance, or “Hollywood” to refer to the movie industry. It depends on the context what sort of foulness and death is being referred to by Gehenna. It seems that if Jesus had intended to mean “Hades ”, the Gospel writers would have used “Hades” in the text as they do at other times.

“Gehenna” appears a total of eleven times in the Gospel accounts: Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 18:9, Matthew 23:15, Matthew 23:33; Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5, and once more in James 3:5. In each instance it is translated “hell.” In each instance, a better approach would be to translate it as “Valley of Hinnom” and allow the reader the opportunity to interpret what Jesus meant by referring to this image of the smoldering combination of landfill and sewage dump.

Gehenna, then, is a geographic, cultural image for foulness, corruption, evil, death, rot, and corruption. But how is it an image for hell?

It does not make sense for Gehenna to be an image for Hades (the holding place of the dead) because Gehenna is always used as a negative, undesirable image and Hades contains a pleasant holding place for the righteous who have died before their final judgment. This place of comfort is called by Jesus “Abraham’s Bosom” (Luke 16:23). Abraham’s Bosom is likely the same thing or at least very similar to “Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Neither does Gehenna appear to be the eternal Lake of Fire because the eternal Lake of Fire is something that believers in Jesus have been saved from. Only unbelievers whose name is not written in the Book of Life will experience the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15). But Gehenna is something Jesus repeatedly warns His disciples (who were eternally saved believers) against experiencing (Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 18:9, Matthew 23:15, Matthew 23:33; Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5).

So then, if Gehenna is neither an image of Hades nor the Lake of Fire, what does it represent?

It is unlikely that it could be a description of Tartarus—the holding compartment within Hades for the wicked (believers and unbelievers) until the Day of Judgment. (See “What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus ”). One of the reasons it is unlikely that Tartarus and Gehenna are the same place is because Tartarus seems to be the name of the holding place for the wicked before their judgment (2 Peter 2:4) and Gehenna describes an experience that unfaithful believers suffer after their judgment.

A more Biblically-sound understanding of Gehenna would be a description for what it is like for a believer to fail to live a life pleasing to Jesus, which is to say, to choose a path of sin. Sin is simply walking in our own way rather than in Jesus’s way. Sin always has a negative consequence. Anyone who chooses sin will be separated from something they could have had that was good. The Bible describes this separation as death (Romans 6:23).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts His kingdom with Gehenna multiple times. In context, He is speaking to His disciples and wants them to fully participate in His kingdom. Full participation in the Kingdom is gained by righteous living from the heart. Believers who are unfaithful and live unrighteous lives still go to Heaven when they die, but to their deep regret, they will miss out on the present reward of enjoying Christ in this life and participating fully in Christ’s future reign in the next life (Matthew 25:14-30; Romans 8:16-17; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; 2 Peter 1:10-11; Revelation 21:6-7).

Gehenna is an image of the negative consequences for what this failure looks like both in this life, and at our judgment.

In this life, Gehenna is an image for what it is like to not enjoy the abundant life that comes from following and befriending Jesus.

  • It is an image of being hindered in life by holding onto our cherished sins (Matthew 5:29-30).
  • It is the image of taking the wide road and ignoring the opportunities to partner with God by faith and missing His kingdom day after day (Matthew 7:13-14).
  • It is an image of struggling under the heavy and unsatisfying yoke of busyness and legalism instead of finding rest for our souls with Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30; 23:15).
  • It is the image of seeking to cling to the illusions of self instead of dying to them for Christ’s sake and thereby finding our souls (Luke 9:23-25).
  • It is an image of the wrath of God upon ungodly behavior by giving people and their minds over to the depravity of sin (Romans 1:18-32).
  • It is an image of remaining in the bondage of sin and slavery instead of reigning in the liberty to which Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1).
  • It is an image of bitter strife and broken relationships that come from the deeds of the flesh instead of enjoying the sweet fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:13-21).

In this sense, Gehenna is a depiction of something that everyone (believers and unbelievers) experiences in this life, because every believer sins (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8). When they sin, believers experience the corruption and rot pictured by Gehenna. Believers reap corruption when they persist in living life according to the corrupt world systems and the desires of their flesh, instead of repenting and living according to the Golden Rule (Galatians 6:8; Matthew 7:12). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This means that choices to walk after the ways of the world have real consequences, and those consequences lead to separation from what is good. Life can become a proverbial “Living Hell on earth” for anyone who consistently defies the good commands of God. A more precise account for this state of misery might be a “Living Gehenna.” This is primarily practical. For example, seeking to exploit others, rather than love others, leads to a culture of the strong exploiting the weak, which results in a society of violence and poverty.

When the Bible speaks of Gehenna in the life to come, Gehenna is consistently used as an image for what it will be like for believers to lose their eternal reward of the inheritance because they did not follow Jesus by faith.

  • It is an image of being denied the reward of entering into the Kingdom (Matthew 18:9; 2 Peter 1:10-11).
  • It is an image of disappointing Jesus and being ashamed at His coming (Luke 9:26; Revelation 3:16)
  • It is an image of losing our reward at the Bema (judgment) of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
  • It is an image of being denied the reward of reigning with God because of our lack of faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:12).
  • It is an image of sinful believers falling into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 10:26-31, 12:29).

Jesus uses the image of Gehenna as a contrast to entering His Kingdom (Matthew 18:9). The contrast is between living in the dump/sewer outside the city walls in squalor and stench vs. living inside the city in a comfortable house.

Gehenna, and similar descriptions, are frequently used to portray the weighty consequences for a believer’s sinful deeds. It is ironic that the term most frequently translated as “hell” in the Bible is not a Biblical description for spending eternity separated from God. The Bible teaches that spending eternity with God is unconditionally and graciously given on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, and is not connected to our deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9). No one who has received God’s Gift of Eternal Life  will be eternally damned. But this does not mean that they are immune to reaping the bitter shame of God’s wrath and chastisement of Gehenna.

This is true in this present life; if we persist in sin, God will judge us in this life by granting our wish, and giving us over to our desires (Romans 1:24,26, 28). This results in slavery (addiction) and a loss of ability to see reality (a debased mind). Because Gehenna is a consequence for unfaithful believers, it is not the same thing as the eternal punishment of the Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and His angels (Matthew 25:41).

When it comes to the afterlife, Gehenna is one of the descriptive images that Jesus (and James) uses to explain the painful consequences that believers can face for not following Christ by faith.

  1. OUTER DARKNESS

The expression, “Outer Darkness,” comes from the Greek words “Exsoteron (outer) Skotos (darkness). It appears three times in the Greek New Testament—all in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). And all three occurrences are used as a way to express the missed joy or lamentable sense of loss from being excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven.

Outer Darkness is a term Jesus uses to depict what it is like for a believer and/or “son of the kingdom” to miss the blessings of the Kingdom. All three uses of Outer Darkness are used to illustrate being excluded from an evening celebration, which would have been lighted.

In Matthew 8:11-12, Outer Darkness is used to contrast reclining at the Messianic banquet table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the most honored guests. Apparently, some of those who should be celebrating with the King—the “sons of the kingdom”—will be excluded in the outer darkness, while Gentiles of Faith will recline and dine at the table of honor. The honor banquet would occur at night (when it is cool) and would feature the best at the center. This would include the honored guests (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and the brightest light. To be in “outer darkness” means complete exclusion from the event. Thus Jesus creates an illustration by means of contrasting extremes in order to teach Jewish followers the importance of living by faith: “sons of the kingdom” (Jews) will be excluded from honor (in outer darkness) due to lack of living by faith, while gentiles who lived by faith will recline at the honor table with the founders of Judaism.

In Matthew 22:11-13, Outer Darkness is again used to contrast celebrating the Messianic Wedding feast in Jesus’s “Parable of the Wedding Feast” (Matthew 22:2-14). Instead of rejoicing, friends of the King who are not appropriately dressed will be led outside the banquet and cast into the Outer Darkness. This means they are excluded from the celebration altogether. Again it is a contrast of extremes.

In Matthew 25:30, Outer Darkness is used to contrast entering the joy of the Master who elevates and partners with the faithful servants in Jesus’s “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Instead of being promoted and celebrating the new partnership—ruling with the Master—the wicked, lazy slave who buried his talent is left outside with bitterness and regret.

In all three teachings about Outer Darkness, Jesus describes it as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). This is an expression of terrible regret, with painful sadness (weeping) and bitter resentment and anger (gnashing of teeth). The people there are mourning that they are not celebrating with the King. And they are angry (most likely at themselves) for the choices they made in life that led to their exclusion. Those who stoned Stephen were so furious at him that they were said to have “gnashed their teeth” at him (Acts 7:54).

The expression, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used similarly in Matthew 25:30 and Luke 13:28—both of which describe the sadness and regret at the loss unfaithful believers will experience at their judgment.

It is worth noting, that unlike Gehenna and Outer Darkness, this expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not limited to believers. This expression is used to describe the felt experience of the unbelievers represented by the “tares” in Jesus’s “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares” (Matthew 13:24-30; 13:36-43) and again by the “bad fish” in His “Parable of the Dragnet” (Matthew 13:47-50). In both of those instances, the unbelievers are thrown “into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42; 13:50).

But while both the unfaithful sons of the kingdom and the unbelieving sons of the evil one each experience weeping and gnashing of teeth, they will be expressing their sorrow and anger over different things. Unfaithful believers in the Outer Darkness will weep because they have failed to please their King, and become acutely aware of their resulting loss. Unbelievers banished to the eternal Lake of Fire will weep because they are God’s enemies, and have been vanquished.

The expression “Outer Darkness” is used to contrast between being inside or outside the Kingdom, similar in its effect to the use of the term “Gehenna.” But instead of referring to the city dump, as Gehenna does, Outer Darkness refers to being outside the party or honor banquet. In Jewish culture, banquets were often held outside and at night. The center of the party or the main table was lit up. The Outer Darkness was outside the warm and welcoming glow of the party. To be in the Outer Darkness was to be excluded; on the outside looking in.

In both of Jesus’s parables (Wedding Feast—Matthew 22:2-14, and The Talents – Matthew 25:14-30), and His teaching in Matthew 8, the expression “Outer Darkness” was always used as a way to contrast a banquet or celebration where someone who should or could have been a participant is excluded from the festivities. The “sons of the kingdom,” the friend, and the servant all represent believers who had an opportunity to participate in the celebration if they were faithful.

Jesus’s teaching on Outer Darkness reveals that not everyone who has an invitation to participate in this offer will accept it. Acceptance requires living a life of faithfulness to enter into these Kingdom privileges. As Jesus said at the end of the Parable of the Wedding Feast: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

Like Gehenna, the Outer Darkness is a lamentable place/experience that believers in Jesus who have the Gift of Eternal Life  can experience if their lives are revealed to be unfaithful at their judgment (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). It is only Jesus who will determine that faithfulness. We are not deputized to judge one another (Matthew 7:1-2).

All rewards will be a matter of God’s mercy, for God cannot be held to any standard, since He Himself is the standard (2 Timothy 1:17-18). God will judge each person based on their stewardship of the opportunities they had (Luke 12:48). God will reward based on contributions to the kingdom, which include helping those who minister (Matthew 10:41) as well as making the smallest gesture to serve others (Matthew 10:42).

Both Gehenna and Outer Darkness are unlike the Eternal Fire/Lake of Fire, which is reserved for the devil and his angels and is where unbelievers in Jesus (who do not have the Gift of Eternal Life, those identified as goats in Jesus’s “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” Matthew 25:31-46) will be banished forever (Matthew 25:41, 46). It is these whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).

The similar usages of Gehenna and Outer Darkness indicate that the two expressions are functional synonyms.

Consequently, just as Gehenna did not mean “Hades”—the place of the dead—neither does Outer Darkness.

And just as the term “Gehenna” was not a description of eternal damnation into the Lake of Fire, neither is the expression, “Outer Darkness.” Eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire is reserved for those whose names are not written in the Book of Life because they did not believe in Jesus (Revelation 20:15). (See “Hell – The Lake of Fire and the Eternal Punishment ”.) The Outer Darkness is something believers can experience. This is actually the case in our physical lives as well. Any person can experience regret and loss from the consequences of sin.

Both Gehenna and Outer Darkness are descriptive images and accounts for what it is like for believers to experience the displeasure of Jesus for failing to live a life of faith and love that He commands. They depict the painful consequences of missing the Kingdom and squandering their divine inheritance of eternal life. But neither term depicts the loss of the Gift of Eternal Life  – because this Gift, once received, cannot be lost (John 10:28-29, Romans 8:38-39; 11:29). And the Gift of Eternal Life has nothing to do with our faithfulness (Romans 11:6, Ephesians 2:8-9). Receiving the Gift of Eternal Life only requires enough faith to look upon Jesus on the cross, in hope of being delivered (John 3:14-15).

To experience Gehenna/the Outer Darkness will be a terrible loss. To be excluded from the joyful celebrations with the King as He inaugurates His Kingdom will be a painful separation. It will be accompanied with the regret of being disqualified from being a part of the most joyful event in human history. But it will be a time that will pass, as all believers will be conformed to the image of Christ, and all tears will be wiped away (Romans 9:29; Revelation 21:4). Contrasting this, all unbelievers will be consumed in the Lake of Fire.

As painful as a Gehenna/Outer Darkness experience will be, there is great comfort in that He will never forsake us, even if we are unfaithful (2 Timothy 2:13). We can hope in the fact that there is a purpose for all this refining, that we might be conformed to the image of Christ, and thereby gain the greatest fulfillment available to us as humans. But these verses make clear that our opportunity to gain the benefits of knowing God by faith in this life is a one-time opportunity.

In summary, the Biblical terms of Gehenna and Outer Darkness are consistently and exclusively used as a way to illustrate the sense of bitter disappointment, loss, and emptiness that believers in Jesus can experience at their judgment if they live lives that disregard His commands.

The Bible never directly uses either term to describe the fate of unbelievers.

To learn more about Hades and Tartarus please read: “What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus in the Bible” .

To learn more about the Lake of Fire, please read: “What is Hell? The Lake of Fire and the Eternal Punishment. ”




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