ETERNAL LIFE vs. EVERLASTING PUNISHMENT
The two possible outcomes of one’s life in the minds of most Christians are “eternal life” and “everlasting punishment.” Most denominations teach that “eternal life” will be spent in heaven. Conversely, most think that unbelievers will go to hell, a place of fire and brimstone where sinners, along with Satan and the fallen angels, will be punished for eternity. Some Christians believe that sinners will be annihilated in the fires of hell, never again to exist.
These general conclusions about eternal life and everlasting punishment can be clearly seen when examining the statements of belief proclaimed by various Christian denominations:
The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever. . . . God does not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivers his elect out of it, and brings them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace. . . . They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body the church. (Evangelical Presbyterian Church-Westminster Larger Catechism)
The Son of God . . . will return to judge the living and the dead, bringing his people (with glorious, resurrected bodies) into eternal life, and consigning the wicked to eternal punishment. (Orthodox Presbyterian Church-What We Believe)
The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ. . . . Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord. (The Baptist Faith and Message)
The unrighteous will be consigned to the everlasting punishment prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25-41, 46; Revelation 20;10). The righteous, in their resurrected and glorified bodies, will receive their reward and dwell forever with the Lord (Philippians 3:20-21; II Corinthians 5:10; I Thessalonians 4:13-18). (North American Baptist Conference Statement of Beliefs)
We believe in the personal and visible return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth and the establishment of His kingdom. We believe in the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, the eternal felicity of the righteous, and the endless suffering of the wicked. (Baptist General Conference Affirmation of Faith)
We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell. (Church of the Nazarene-Articles of Faith)
We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation. (The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church)
WE BELIEVE…in The Blessed Hope – When Jesus Raptures His Church Prior to His Return to Earth (the second coming). At this future moment in time all believers who have died will rise from their graves and will meet the Lord in the air, and Christians who are alive will be caught up with them, to be with the Lord forever.
WE BELIEVE…A Final Judgment Will Take Place for those who have rejected Christ. They will be judged for their sin and consigned to eternal punishment in a punishing lake of fire. (Assemblies of God USA-Fundamental Truths)
We also believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28, 29; Revelation 20:12, 13); and that the just shall be raised incorruptible and shall be changed and made like unto Christ’s own glorious body. (I Corinthians 15:52; Philippians 3:20, 21). The unjust shall be resurrected also, but unto everlasting damnation and punishment. (Revelation 20:14-15). (Church of Christ Holiness U.S.A.-Statement of Beliefs)
The inheritance of believers is salvation and eternal life in Christ as children of God in communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Hell is the separation and alienation from God chosen by incorrigible sinners. (Statement of Beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God)
There are many other denominations, and certainly they do not all profess the same doctrines. But this sample of beliefs clearly shows that most Christian sects have concluded that God is going to cause those who embrace Jesus and his sacrifice to live forever, but that He will eternally torture and/or destroy those who don’t have the blood of Christ to cover their sins.
The majority of believers are confident that they understand exactly what the Bible reveals regarding heaven and hell. But is the common belief what the Scriptures truly teach about the fate of people in the afterlife? To determine what the Bible really has to say about eternal life and everlasting punishment, we will closely examine both of these concepts in this article. The Bible teaches something much different than what most people currently believe.
Let’s start by looking at a couple of passages found in Matthew’s Gospel:
MATTHEW 18:8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting [aionion] fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [gehennan] fire.” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 25:41 “Then he will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting [aionion] fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting [aionion] punishment, but the righteous into eternal [aionion] life.” (NKJV)
Most people picture hell as a place of torment where sinners will be tortured in “everlasting fire,” while the saints enjoy eternal bliss in heaven. But is this really what the Bible teaches?
The KEY to comprehending the biblical truth about “eternal life” and “everlasting punishment” is a proper understanding of the words translated “everlasting” and “eternal” in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, these words are translated from various forms of the Greek word aionios. This adjective is derived from the Greek noun aion, which is generally translated “ever,” “forever,” “evermore,” or “eternity” in the New Testament. However, aion is also translated “world” and “age” in several places. To fully understand the biblical teaching on “eternal life” and “eternal punishment,” we must first comprehend what the words aionios and aion truly mean.
Dr. Marvin Vincent, a noted New Testament scholar, wrote the following regarding the words aion, aionios, and their variations:
Αιων, transliterated aeon, is a period of time of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (περι ουρανου, i.9, 15) says: “The period which includes the whole time of each one’s life is called the aeon of each one.” Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (αιων) is said to leave him or consume away (Il. v. 685; Od. v. 160). It is not, however, limited to human life; it signifies any period in the course of events, as the period or age before Christ; the period of the millennium; the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not a “stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of a fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached.
It is sometimes translated world; world representing a period or a series of periods of time. See Matt. xii.32; xiii.40, 49; L. i.70; 1 Cor. i.20; ii.6; Eph. i.21. Similarly οι αιωνες the worlds, the universe, the aggregate of the ages or periods, and their contents which are included in the duration of the world. 1 Cor. ii.7; x.11; Heb. i.2; ix.26; xi.3.
The word always carries the notion of time, and not of eternity. It always means a period of time. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the plural, or for such qualifying expressions as this age, or the age to come. It does not mean something endless or everlasting. . . . The adjective αιωνιος in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. (pp. 58-59, vol. IV, Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament)
As Dr. Vincent explains, these words do not convey the concept of “eternity” or “endlessness” as we understand it. He is not the only one to hold this position; several other Greek scholars and writers have overcome theological tradition and recognized this also. The following information on the use, meaning, and origin of the word aionios comes from Greek language experts James H. Milligan and George Moulton:
Without pronouncing any opinion on the special meaning which theologians have found for this word, we must note that outside the NT, in the vernacular as in the classical Greek . . . it never loses the sense of perpetuus . . .
In the Sanskrit ayu and its Zend equivalent the idea of life, and especially long life, predominates. So with the Germanic cognates (Gothic aiws). The word . . . is a primitive inheritance from Indo-Germanic days, when it may have meant “long life” or “old age” . . . In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view . . . (p. 16, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament)
Milligan and Moulton clearly state that, in contradiction to the “special meaning” which theologians seem to have found for aionios in the New Testament, in both common and classical Greek this word simply refers to an unspecified, but finite, period of time.
The classical Greek writings confirm the historical meaning of aion, as an 1875 study by John Wesley Hanson conclusively demonstrates:
. . . Ezra S. Goodwin patiently and candidly traced this word through the Classics, finding the noun frequently in nearly all the writers, but not meeting the adjective until Plato, its inventor, used it. He states, as the result of his protracted and exhaustive examination from the beginning down to Plato, “We have the whole evidence of seven Greek writers, extending through about six centuries, down to the age of Plato, who make use of Aion, in common with other words; and no one of them EVER employs it in the sense of eternity.”
When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek by the Seventy [Jewish translators of the Septuagint], the word aion had been in common use for many centuries. It is preposterous to say that the Seventy would render the Hebrew olam by the Greek aion and give to the latter (1) a different meaning from that of the former, or (2) a different meaning from aion in the current Greek literature. It is self-evident, then, that Aion in the Old Testament means exactly what Olam means, and also what Aion means in the Greek classics. Indefinite duration is the sense of olam, and it is equally clear that aion has a similar signification. . . .
Aionios is found in none of the ancient classics . . . Finding it in Plato, Mr. Goodwin thinks that Plato coined it, and it had not come into general use, for even Socrates, the teacher of Plato, does not use it. Aidios is the classic word for endless duration.
. . . To say that Plato, the inventor of the word, has used the adjective to mean eternal, when neither he nor any of his predecessors ever used the noun to denote eternity, would be to charge one of the wisest of men with etymological stupidity. (ch. III, The Greek Word Aion–Aionios, Translated Everlasting–Eternal in the Holy Bible)
As the quotations above show, the idea of “eternity” or “endlessness” was not conveyed by these related Greek words until theologians assigned such meanings to them many centuries after the New Testament was written. Once we understand that aion denotes an indefinite “age” or “ages,” and that aionios means “age-lasting,” we can begin to see how the doctrine of “everlasting” punishment has been misunderstood.
As mentioned by Hanson, the Greek word aion is the equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘olam. This word, or a variation of it, appears 439 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘Olam is a form of the root word ‘alam, which literally means “to hide.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) says this about ‘olam:
Probably derived from ‘alam I, “to hide,” thus pointing to what is hidden in the distant future or the distant past. . . . The LXX generally translates ‘olam by aion which has essentially the same range of meaning. That neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word in itself contains the idea of endlessness is shown both by the fact that they sometimes refer to events or conditions that occurred at a definite point in the past, and also by the fact that sometimes it is thought desirable to repeat the word, not merely saying “forever,” but “forever and ever.” Both words came to be used to refer to a long age or period . . . (pp. 672, 673, vol. II)
A good example of determining the meaning of ‘olam by context is found in Jonah 2:6. This Scripture shows that ‘olam sometimes indicates a period of time with both a known beginning and an end:
JONAH 2:6 I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever [le’olam]; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. (NKJV)
Jonah, speaking of his time in the belly of the great fish, states that it lasted “forever” (Heb. le’olam). However, we know from the Scriptures that his ordeal actually lasted for only three days and three nights (Jon. 1:17; Matt. 12:40). Jonah’s case is important in understanding the true meaning of ‘olam. Shut away in complete darkness inside the great fish, Jonah would have had no means of judging the passing of time.
As mentioned earlier, the Hebrew noun ‘olam is derived from the verb ‘alam, which means “to hide,” “keep secret,” or “obscure.” Included in each occurrence of the verb is the idea of hiddenness, of inability or unwillingness to perceive or disclose something. This underlying idea is probably best expressed in English by the term ‘obscurity’. In Jonah’s case, ‘olam was a definite period of time lasting for only three days and three nights, but the idea of obscurity is obvious in the context.
Let’s look at a couple of other instances of ‘olam from the Torah:
EXODUS 29:9 “And you shall gird them with sashes, Aaron and his sons, and put the hats on them. The priesthood shall be theirs for a perpetual [‘olam] statute. So you shall consecrate Aaron and his sons. (NKJV)
According to the New Testament, Yeshua has replaced Aaron and his sons as our High Priest (Heb. 4:14; 6:20; 8:1). Therefore, this statute was not “perpetual” as we understand the word in English, but rather it lasted for a long, indefinite time (from the time of Moses until the ascension of Yeshua after his resurrection).
DEUTERONOMY 23:3 “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever [‘olam], (NKJV)
Ammonites and Moabites were not allowed to enter the assembly of the LORD “forever,” an ambiguous period of time which is here defined as “ten generations.” Clearly the Scriptures demonstrate that ‘olam does not mean the same as the English words “eternal” or “forever.”
Bearing this in mind, we may readily anticipate that when ‘olam is applied to time, some element of concealment, obscurity, or indefiniteness will be present. One need read only a few of the more than four hundred occurrences to realize that this is so.
Though we could spend significant time looking at more of those verses, let’s proceed instead to the New Testament and examine the Greek equivalent aion and its variations. The Scriptures we will review below plainly show the true meaning of this word:
MATTHEW 13:37 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. 39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age [aionos], and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age [aionos]. (NKJV)
MATTHEW 13:49 “So it will be at the end of the age [aionos]. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, (NKJV)
MATTHEW 24:3 Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age [aionos]?” (NKJV)
LUKE 20:34 And Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age [aionos] marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are counted worthy to attain that age [aionos], and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; 36 nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (NKJV)
I CORINTHIANS 2:6 However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age [aionos], nor of the rulers of this age [aionos], who are coming to nothing. 7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages [aionon] for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age [aionos] knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (NKJV)
II CORINTHIANS 4:4 Whose minds the god of this age [aionos] has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. (NKJV)
GALATIANS 1:4 Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age [aionos], according to the will of our God and Father, (NKJV)
EPHESIANS 1:20 Which He worked in Christ when He raised him from the dead and seated him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age [aioni] but also in that which is to come. (NKJV)
EPHESIANS 2:1 You were dead in your transgressions and sins 2 in which you once lived following the age [aiona] of this world [kosmou], following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. (NAB)
EPHESIANS 6:12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age [aionos], against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (NKJV)
I TIMOTHY 6:17 Command those who are rich in this present age [aioni] not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. (NKJV)
TITUS 2:11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age [aioni], (NKJV)
HEBREWS 9:26 He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages [aionon], he has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (NKJV)
The Scriptures we have just reviewed conclusively prove that the Greek word aion and all its variations mean an “age” or “ages.” Although an “age” can deviate in length, it is a finite period of time. It does NOT mean “endlessness.”
Now let’s look at some Scriptures that have not been accurately understood because of a mistranslation of these related Greek words:
JOHN 12:32 “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.” 33 This he said, signifying by what death he would die. 34 The people answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever [eis ton aiona]; and how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (NKJV)
Yeshua was speaking here to Jews who had just heard a voice from God responding to him (John 12:28). Because of his resurrection of Lazarus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the donkey colt (Matt. 21:1-10; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-38), many of these people truly believed that Yeshua was the prophesied Messiah. Yet when he referenced his being “lifted up,” the Jews understood that Yeshua was speaking of his impending death on the cross. They replied to his statement by asking a question: How could the Messiah die before fully accomplishing his mission?
This leads us to a very important question: What was the 1st-century Jewish expectation of the Messiah and his kingdom? The answer to this question is vital to understanding the biblical concepts of “eternal life” and “everlasting punishment.”
The millennial prophecy of Isaiah clearly shows the conditions these Jews expected to have when Messiah came:
ISAIAH 2:1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. 3 Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come and let us walk in the light of the LORD. (NKJV)
There were several 1st-century Jewish theories about the nature and activities of the Messiah. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) states:
The whole Jewish literature agrees on only one feature of the Messiah: he will be a political ruler and national hero. His saving power requires that he deliver Israel from its oppressors and restore the authority of the law. (p. 333, vol. 3, “Messiah”)
The Messiah was expected to be the king sent by God to restore the national fortunes of Israel. In the 1st century, it was believed that he would throw off the shackles of Roman rule and make Israel the foremost nation in the world once again. He would rule over the entire earth from Jerusalem for the period of the golden age we now call “the Millennium,” with the Mosaic Law serving as the basis for his government.
Because of the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel, many religious Jews at the time of Yeshua were expecting the appearance of the Messiah (the “Anointed” one). In his writings, Josephus gives historical details about self-proclaimed and popularly-embraced “messiahs” who arose during the 1st century. These included:  Judas of Sepphoris, son of Hezekiah the “brigand chief”;  Simon of Perea, a former royal servant;  Athronges the shepherd of Judea;  Judas the Galilean (mentioned in Acts 5.37);  Menahem, (grand)son of Judas the Galilean;  John of Gischala, son of Levi; and  Simon bar Giora of Gerasa. The fact that so many “messiahs” arose during this era substantiates the theory that many 1st-century Jews were expecting the prophesied Messiah during this period of time.
This eagerly anticipated Messianic age was foremost on the minds of the Jews Yeshua spoke to in Jerusalem just before that pivotal Passover in 30 CE. With this view in mind, let’s now go back to John 12:34 and look more closely at the Greek phrase eis ton aiona, rendered as the one English word “forever.” Properly, this phrase should be translated “into the age.” Let’s substitute the literal translation and see if the meaning of the passage is changed:
JOHN 12:32 “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.” 33 This he said, signifying by what death he would die. 34 The people answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah remains into the age [eis ton aiona]; and how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (literal)
The Jews’ question “who is this Son of Man” was based on their understanding of the Messianic “Son of Man” spoken of by Daniel (Dan. 7:13) in “the Law” (here used to denote the entire Tanakh):
DANIEL 7:13 “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before Him. 14 Then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.” (NKJV)
The Jews’ question to Yeshua wasn’t “who is THE Son of Man?” but rather “who is THIS Son of Man” you are portraying? They couldn’t picture their expected Messiah in the context Yeshua was presenting. In their view of the Scriptures, the Jews thought that the Messiah would establish God’s kingdom soon after his appearance. Then he would usher in the Messianic age spoken of in numerous Old Testament prophecies and remain as king over Israel throughout this age. Because of their understanding of who the Messiah was and what he would do, they couldn’t conceive of the Messiah dying before the Messianic age was completed. They believed that when the Messiah came, he would remain “into the age.”
We can clearly see from the Gospels that there was a Messianic expectation at the time of Yeshua (cf. Matt. 2:4; 26:63; Mark 14:61; Luke 3:15; Luke 22:67; John 1:19-20, 41; 4:29, 42; 6:69; 7:26-31, 40-42; 10:24; 11:27). The Jews were anxiously waiting for the Messiah and the golden age (aion) that he was to bring.
Now we need to examine the concept of “eternal life” as it is used in the New Testament, because it is intricately tied to the Jewish concept of the Messianic age (and also the concept of “hell”).
Does eternal life really mean what we’ve been taught all our lives? Were Jews in the 1st century waiting for the Messiah to come so they could live forever? Or were they instead waiting for King Messiah to come so that they could live in the Messianic age, when Israel would be free and Jerusalem would be the capital of the world?
Unlike most Christians, Jews did NOT expect being in the kingdom of God to mean that they would be whisked away to heaven. They understood the prophets to teach that this divine kingdom would be here on earth, and their desire was to live in this kingdom under the Messianic king God would raise up.
A Pharisee Yeshua was dining with one Sabbath made a statement that shows the mindset and expectation of many religious Jews in the 1st century:
LUKE 14:12 Then he also said to him who invited him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” 15 Now when one of those who sat at the table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (NKJV)
As this passage shows, the Pharisee expected his existence in the “kingdom of God” (a title understood to refer to the coming Messianic kingdom) to be physical. Spirit beings in heaven do not need to “eat bread,” but human beings on earth certainly do. The Pharisee’s expectation of “eternal life” was that he would live until the prophesied Messianic kingdom arrived or that he would be resurrected (with all the “just”) to physically live in that kingdom.
Dr. Vincent says this about “eternal life” as it is spoken of in the New Testament:
Ζωη αιωνιος eternal life, which occurs 42 times in the N.T., but not in LXX, is not endless life, but life pertaining to a certain age or aeon, or continuing during that aeon. I repeat, life may be endless. The life in union with Christ is endless, but the fact is not expressed by αιωνιος . . . (p. 60, vol. IV, Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament)
Eternal life, as understood by devout Jews in the 1st century who were awaiting the Messiah, was simply life during the age that the Messianic king would rule. With this understanding, let’s look at some of the Scriptural mentions of “eternal life” to see what was really being spoken of:
MATTHEW 19:16 Now behold, one came and said to him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life [zoen aionion]?” 17 So he said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” 20 The young man said to him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect [teleios], go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NKJV)
Because of tradition, most Christians believe that this Jewish ruler came to Yeshua desiring to know how to live “forever.” But would that hope or concept have been something that a 1st-century Jew would have held? For clarification, let’s look at a literal translation of verse 16:
MATTHEW 19:16 Now behold, one came and said to him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have age-lasting life [zoen aionion]?” (literal)
Rendered literally, we see that the man was inquiring about what he had to do to live during the age of King Messiah’s rule over Israel and the world. He was not asking how he might live for all eternity.
Yeshua’s response clearly delineates the requirements for entrance into the “kingdom of heaven” (also called the “kingdom of God”-v. 24). Notice that his first reply was that the man should keep God’s commandments. When the ruler asked which commandments Yeshua was referring to, he left no doubt by listing five of the ten commandments given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. As Yeshua himself noted (Matt. 19:19), these commandments can be summed up as the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jam. 2:8).
The ruler replied that he had kept the Law since he was a child, and wanted to know if he still lacked anything. In Mark’s parallel account, we are told that after this question Yeshua looked at him and “loved him” (Mark 10:21). He went on to state that the man still lacked one thing which would make him “perfect.” The Greek word teleios is better translated “complete” or “mature.” The thing that would have completed the ruler and made him worthy to live in the kingdom of God would have been for him to forsake his riches and follow Yeshua. Unfortunately, he was unable to do that because he placed more value on his wealth in the present age than he did on his status in the coming Messianic age.
By his statement in verse 23, we see that Yeshua equates “eternal life” with entering the coming the kingdom of God. This kingdom is also called the “kingdom of heaven” because it will be sanctioned by God who dwells in heaven. But it will be an earthly kingdom, as the prophecy cited earlier from Isaiah plainly shows (Isa. 2:1-4; cf. Mic. 4:1-3). The book of Revelation tells us that this kingdom will last for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:4).
It is interesting and enlightening to see the reaction of Yeshua’s disciples to his statements about a rich man’s chances of getting into the kingdom of God:
MATTHEW 19:25 When his disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved [sothenai]?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter answered and said to him, “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?” 28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (NKJV)
Yeshua’s disciples were astounded by his pronouncement and reacted by questioning who could possibly be “saved” given such stringent requirements. In verse 25, “saved” is a translation of the Greek word sothenai (a form of the root verb sozo). Regarding the physical sense of this word, Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (ALGNT) states that it means:
Save, preserve from harm, rescue; (1) of natural dangers and afflictions; (a) in relation to acute physical danger deliver, save, rescue (AC 27.20); (b) in relation to a stressful and threatening situation save, bring out safely (JN 12.27); (c) in relation to sickness and disease heal, cure, restore to health (MT 9.21).
Staying in context, the disciples’ question obviously referenced PHYSICAL salvation resulting in rescue from Roman subjugation and life during the Messianic age. Essentially, they questioned how anyone could do the things necessary to deserve to live in the coming kingdom of heaven.
Yeshua replied that it is impossible to do these things without help from God. But he then went on to outline the position of these disciples in the “regeneration” or “restoration” of Israel. Yeshua stated that the disciples would be ruling under him as judges over the twelve tribes of Israel. The term “judging” here is used in the sense that it had in the Old Testament, when judges ruled over Israel (Jdg. 2:16-19).
A review of some other verses where zoen aionion (“eternal life”) is mentioned in the New Testament will help to see what the common Jewish expectation of this “life” was:
LUKE 18:28 Then Peter said, “See, we have left all and followed you.” 29 So he said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age [aioni] to come age-lasting life [zoen aionion].” (literal)
Yeshua’s promise to Peter and the other disciples was that they would be blessed with numerous spiritual family members in the present age to replace parents, siblings, wives, or children they had left behind. Additionally, he stated that they would live in the Messianic age to come, which is synonymous with the “kingdom of God.”
JOHN 5:39 “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have age-lasting life [zoen aionion]; and these are they which testify of me.” (literal)
Here Yeshua was speaking to the Jewish Pharisees, who were renowned for their study of Scripture. He was pointing out the irony of them rejecting him, when it was the very same Scriptures they studied that spoke of his coming. The expectation of these Pharisees was that they would be found worthy to live in the age of the Messiah’s rule because of their diligence in the Scriptures.
Those pious Jews who died before the Messiah’s 1,000-year reign expected to be resurrected to live in his kingdom, as Martha’s conversation with Yeshua about her brother Lazarus plainly shows:
JOHN 11:23 Yeshua said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Yeshua said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in me shall not die, into the age [eis ton aiona]. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (literal)
Yeshua spoke about being resurrected to “age-lasting life” in his discourse about being the “bread from heaven”:
JOHN 6:47 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me now has age-lasting life [zoen aionion]. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live into the age [eis ton aiona]; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” 52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Then Yeshua said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood now has age-lasting life [zoen aionion], and I will raise him up at the last day. . . . 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven — not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live into the age [eis ton aiona].” (literal)
This passage is generally misunderstood because of poor translation. Here Yeshua compares the manna eaten by the Israelites as they wandered in the desert to himself, the true bread from heaven. The forefathers of the Jews Yeshua was addressing had perished in the wilderness because of disbelief and disobedience; they never made it into the Promised Land. However, Yeshua states that if they ate (figuratively) of him, they would not suffer a similar fate, but instead would live “into the age” of the Messiah’s reign. They would enter that future “Promised Land” and not suffer the same fate as their ancestors. Even physical death would not bar their entry into the Messianic kingdom, because Yeshua vowed that he would raise them up from the dead “at the last day.”
JOHN 12:25 “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for age-lasting life [zoen aionion]. (literal)
Here we see another example of the true meaning of zoen aionion. Yeshua contrasts the present world system with that which will exist during the Messianic age. His implication is that the one who values those things associated with his coming kingdom above the things of the present world will be blessed to live in the kingdom of God.
In his final prayer to the Father before his trial and crucifixion, Yeshua actually specified what “eternal life” would mean:
JOHN 17:1 Yeshua spoke these words, lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, 2 as You have given him authority over all flesh, that he should give age-lasting life [zoen aionion] to as many as You have given him. 3 And this is age-lasting life [zoen aionion], that they may know You, the only true God, and Yeshua the Messiah whom You have sent. (literal)
Yeshua stated clearly here that zoen aionion (“eternal life”) was knowing him and the only true God, the Father. His definition in John 17:3 fits perfectly with the prophet Jeremiah’s description of those who will live during the Messianic age:
JEREMIAH 31:34 “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (NKJV)
Yeshua stated that knowing him and the Father was “eternal life.” Jeremiah was told that all who lived in the Messianic kingdom would know God, from the least to the greatest. It will be a time when the knowledge of God will fill the earth, just as the waters cover the seas (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). Clearly, zoen aionion (“eternal life”) in the New Testament, when understood properly, refers to life during the Millennial rule of the Messiah on the earth.
As Dr. Vincent stated in the quote above, this does NOT preclude some who are raised to live in that kingdom from having “everlasting life” as we commonly understand it. The apostle Paul plainly speaks of mortal believers putting on a spiritual body which will never again be subject to decay or death:
I CORINTHIANS 15:50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (NKJV)
Those changed to spirit at the coming of Messiah will inherit the kingdom of God (v. 50) along with Yeshua (Rom. 8:17). However, there will be many more Israelites resurrected to physical life who will simply inhabit the kingdom of God. Those resurrected to mortality once again are spoken of in the “valley of dry bones” prophecy given to Ezekiel:
EZEKIEL 37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and He led me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones. 2 He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were! 3 He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? “Lord GOD,” I answered, “You alone know that.” 4 Then He said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. 6 I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD. 7 I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone. 8 I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them. 9 Then He said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life. 10 I prophesied as He told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army. 11 Then He said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” 12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! 14 I will put My Spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD. (NAB)
This prophecy shows that myriads of long-dead Israelites will be resurrected to PHYSICAL life at the time of Yeshua’s return. This is the resurrection of the just and the unjust spoken of in both the Old Testament (Dan. 12:2) and the New Testament (Acts 24:15):
DANIEL 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life [lechayey ‘olam], some to shame and everlasting contempt [ledire’on ‘olam]. (NKJV)
ACTS 24:14 [Paul said] “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. 15 I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.” (NKJV)
Both the spiritual and physical inhabitants of Jerusalem during the Messianic age are shown in a prophecy from Isaiah:
ISAIAH 30:18 Therefore the LORD will wait, that He may be gracious to you; and therefore He will be exalted, that He may have mercy on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him. 19 For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will be very gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when He hears it, He will answer you. 20 And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore, but your eyes shall see your teachers. 21 Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the Way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left. (NKJV)
In this prophecy of the Millennial kingdom of God, we see that those who are raised as immortal spirit beings will teach the Law to those who are still mortal. Even before these mortal Israelites can get off track, they will be corrected and instructed in “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) of “truth” (II Pet. 2:2) and “righteousness” (II Pet. 2:21).
As shown above, a proper understanding of the Greek noun aion and the related adjective aionios is one of the most important keys to grasping God’s plan as revealed in the Bible. The expectation of 1st-century Jews waiting for the appearance of the Messiah wasn’t what we today understand as “everlasting life.” Instead, these believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hoped to attain “age-lasting life.” They wanted to live during the glorious time period of the Messiah’s rule prophesied in the Old Testament. They wanted to be subjects of the kingdom of God and live to see Israel once again become the preeminent power in the world, just as it had been during the days of King David and King Solomon.
Now that we’ve properly identified the 1st-century Jewish expectation of “eternal life,” let’s turn our focus to “eternal punishment.” How would Jews in the 1st century have understood the concept of “hell”?
There are three Greek root words in the New Testament that are translated “hell” in the Authorized Version (KJV). These are geenna (appears 12 times), hades (appears 11 times), and tartaroo (appears once, in II Pet. 2:4). Unfortunately, this has led to considerable confusion on the topic. Let’s review the biblical usage of each word in an attempt to determine what the Bible really says about “hell.”
Most modern English translations simply transliterate hades (which literally means “unseen place”) instead of translating it “hell.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says this about the origin of Hades:
hades occurs in Homer (in the form of Aides) as the proper name of the god of the underworld (Il., 15, 188), while in the rest of Gk. literature it stands for the underworld as the abode of the dead who lead a shadowy existence in it (cf. Hesiod, Theog. 455; Homer, Od. 4, 834). After Homer it can mean the grave, death. Only gradually did the Gks. also attach to the concept the ideas of → reward and → punishment. . . .
In the LXX hades occurs more than 100 times, in the majority of instances to translate Heb. she’ol, the underworld which receives all the dead. It is a land of darkness, in which God is not remembered . . .
. . . In the NT there is no description of ideas about the beyond . . . There is no doctrine of the beyond or any geography of the beyond. This is in sharp contrast to certain Rab. Jewish and also Christian writings down to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps, however, it was the very silence of the NT about the details of the beyond and of the temporary state which excited the curiosity of the pseudo-pious and led to dissatisfaction with placing one’s hope in Christ alone. The idea that the statements of scripture have to be enlarged upon by human imagination indicates a lack of faith. A contributory factor here is the substitution of the Gk. doctrine of the immortality of the soul in place of the NT doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15). This comes about in unreflective Christianity which fails to ask whether the belief is grounded in the NT or in pagan Gk. thought. (pp. 206, 208, vol. 2, “Hell”)
“Hades” in the New Testament most frequently simply refers to the grave (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27, 31; I Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18). At times, it is used as a personification for the grave (Rev. 6:8; 20:13-14). Once, it is used in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:23). Regarding this occurrence of Hades, ISBE states:
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) should not be used as a definitive statement about the afterlife, since parables were told to illustrate a point, not to give a systematic account of any doctrine. Thus Jesus intended not to describe Hades, but to warn his listeners about their hardheartedness. . . . (p. 592, vol. 2, “Hades”)
Next, let’s look in II Peter 2:4 at the only occurrence of a variation of the Greek verb tartaroo:
II PETER 2:4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell [tartarosas] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; (NKJV)
Here, Peter references a Greek myth about the fate of the Titans, a family of giant gods descended from Uranus (heaven) and Gaea (earth). The most famous of the Titans was Cronus, who led the Titans in their war against Zeus and the Olympian gods. After being defeated by Zeus, the Titans were imprisoned in a section of the underworld called Tartarus, which was said to be located below Hades.
The apostle Peter uses tartarosas, a verbal form of the proper noun Tartarus, to explain the fate of some of the fallen angels. He states that for their sins, these angels had been tartarosas, which ALGNT says literally means to “hurl into Tartarus.” Tartarus is also known in the Bible as “the Abyss” (cf. Luke 8:31; Rev. 9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3). This is the place where some of the fallen angels are kept chained in darkness, awaiting “the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). The Bible strongly implies that only fallen angels and demons are currently restrained there.
Lastly, let’s examine geenna, the Greek word most commonly translated as “hell” in English. Geenna is often associated with “fire” when it is used (Matt. 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Jam. 3:6).
The derivation of geenna is extremely important to understanding its meaning. Geenna is a transliteration of the Hebrew גי הנם (gey-“valley” and Hinnom-“lamentation”). Gehenna (the Latin form of the name) refers to an actual place: the Valley of Hinnom (Jos. 15:8; 18:16; Neh. 11:30), also called the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Jos. 15:8; 18:16; II Kings 23:10; II Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31-32; 19:2, 6; 32:35).
This valley, which lies to the south of Jerusalem, had a sordid reputation. It eventually became the Israelite place of worship for Molech (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; I Kings 11:7; II Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35), an Ammonite god. A central focus of Molech worship was human sacrifice; specifically, the offering of children in fire. This place was also known as “Tophet” (II Kings 23:10; Isa. 30:33; Jer. 7:31-32; 19:6, 11-14). TWOT has this to say about Tophet:
The name “Tophet” referred to a place in the Valley of the Son(s) of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10; Jer 7:31ff; Jer 19:6) where children were burned to death as an offering to pagan deities. More specifically, it was a “high place” (Jer 7:32), an open-air shrine, located most probably at a point outside the southern end of Jerusalem where the Hinnom Valley meets the Kidron Valley in the vicinity of Akeldama, the “Field of Blood” (Acts 1:19). . . . Jeremiah’s reference to the “valley of the dead bodies and the ashes” (Jer 31:40) perhaps relates to the horrible practice of child sacrifice at Tophet. . . . The place itself was probably a deep, wide pit containing a bonfire of blazing wood (Isa 30:33) into which the hapless children were thrown. From the abbreviated name “Valley of Hinnom” (see especially Josh 15:8; Josh 18:16), Hebrew ge-hinnom, so infamous that it could also be called simply “the Valley” (Jer 2:23), came Gehenna, Greek geenna . . .
Child sacrifice among the ancient Israelites, though presumably infrequent, was nevertheless common enough to warrant its absolute prohibition in the Mosaic laws (Lev 18:21; Deut 18:10). In spite of the Lord’s stern warnings, both Ahaz (2 Chr 28:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6) burned their sons as offerings. . . .
Understandably, Jeremiah inveighed against the abominable practice of child sacrifice at Tophet in the Hinnom Valley and predicted divine judgment on those involved in perpetrating it (Jer 7:31-34; Jer 19:1-15). His contemporary, good King Josiah, defiled Tophet so that no one could ever practice the rite there again (2 Kings 23:10). (p. 979, vol. II, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)
After their return from the Babylonian exile, the Jews turned the Valley of Hinnom into the city dump. Garbage and everything else deemed unclean (including the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals) was incinerated there. For that reason, a fire was kept burning constantly in the Valley of Hinnom. Even though it was no longer used for evil worship, the waste and acrid smoke there made it a dreary place.
Interestingly, the transliteration geenna NEVER appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Where this place is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is translated into Greek by the phrases “pharaggos Onom” and “napes Onnam.” This indicates that geenna didn’t come into common usage until sometime after 250 BCE, at the earliest.
Keeping in mind that Gehenna is a specific place, let’s look at all the times it appears in the New Testament. We’ll start with three related passages of Scripture that are pivotal to understanding the 1st century Jewish conception of “hell”:
MATTHEW 5:29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [geennan]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [geennan]. (NKJV)
MATTHEW 18:8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting [aionion] fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [geennan] fire.” (NKJV)
MARK 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell [geennan], into the fire that shall never be quenched — 44 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell [geennan], into the fire that shall never be quenched — 46 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [geennan] fire — 48 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ ” (NKJV)
It’s important to note that in the parallel passages from Matthew 18 and Mark 9, Yeshua equates “entering into life” with “entering the kingdom of God.” Clearly he’s speaking of “age-lasting life” during the Millennial kingdom.
In all three of these passages, Yeshua uses hyperbole to make his point about the seriousness of sin. He wasn’t advocating the literal removal of body parts; rather, he was highlighting the severe consequences of habitually breaking God’s Law. Lawlessness is the biblical definition of sin (I John 3:4). According to Yeshua, a lawless life will lead to being cast into the fires of Gehenna.
Mark’s version of Yeshua’s exhortation to avoid sin (Mark 9:43-48) is the most telling of all the usages of geenna, because it adds a detail not found in the parallel accounts in Matthew. Three times, Yeshua specifically ties the concept of punishment in “hell” with worms that don’t die and fire that isn’t quenched. These statements are a quote from Isaiah 66:24, the final verse of an Old Testament prophecy about the coming kingdom of God. Let’s examine the entire prophecy to see the context for Yeshua’s mention of Gehenna:
ISAIAH 66:15 For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For by fire and by His sword the LORD will judge all flesh; and the slain of the LORD shall be many. 17 “Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine’s flesh and the abomination and the mouse, shall be consumed together,” says the LORD. 18 “For I know their works and their thoughts. It shall be that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see My glory. 19 I will set a sign among them; and those among them who escape I will send to the nations: to Tarshish and Pul and Lud, who draw the bow, and Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off who have not heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the Gentiles. 20 Then they shall bring all your brethren for an offering to the LORD out of all nations, on horses and in chariots and in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the LORD, “as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD. 21 And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,” says the LORD. 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “so shall your descendants and your name remain. 23 And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD. 24 “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (NKJV)
A key principle in understanding the Bible is allowing it to interpret itself. To accurately understand what “hell” truly is, we must evaluate Yeshua’s use of geenna in the CONTEXT of Isaiah’s prophecy. This prophecy, the final one in the book of Isaiah, describes for us the return of the Lord Yeshua from heaven. In it, Isaiah speaks of the Messiah’s wrath against those who oppose God and defy His commands. He tells us that Israelites scattered all over the world will be repatriated to the Holy Land by those nations where they then dwell. Isaiah prophesies that from Sabbath to Sabbath, and at the start of every new month, ALL FLESH will worship before the Messiah.
One of the factors motivating such worship will be the public display of the dead bodies of law-breakers before those worshipers who come to Jerusalem. As is clear from this prophecy, once again the Valley of Hinnom on the southern end of Jerusalem will become a garbage dump where unclean and despised things will be cast. The final verse of the prophecy speaks of the dead bodies of those transgressors that will be thrown into Gehenna. Their corpses will be fed upon by worms and burned by fire. It is this detail regarding those who are cast into the Valley of Hinnom that Yeshua included in his statement on the dangers of sin (Mark 9:44, 46, 48).
“Their worm” is a reference to the many worms which will be found there feasting on the dead bodies. These worms “do not die” in the sense that they never “finish” or “complete” their task (aiding in the decomposition of the corpses). It does NOT mean that these worms are immortal, as some might imagine from the English. Figuratively speaking, there will be “no finish” for the worms in Gehenna. Similarly, the reference to the fire not being quenched simply means that the fires in the Valley of Hinnom will not be put out before they accomplish their task of burning up those cast there.
Clearly, Yeshua’s mention of Gehenna was a warning that all those who wished to live in the coming kingdom of God should avoid sin. Otherwise, they would find themselves judged unworthy of this reward, and instead would receive the wages of their sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23).
In Matthew 7, Yeshua spoke of those who, at the time of their judgment, would be expecting to be rewarded with “eternal life” in the kingdom of God because of their perceived service to him:
MATTHEW 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’ ” (NKJV)
This statement by Yeshua is a warning to all those who seek to enter the millennial kingdom of God. It is not enough to talk the talk; one is also required to walk the walk. As the Scriptures plainly state, it is NOT the hearers of the Law that will be justified in the sight of God, but rather the doers of the Law (Luke 8:21; Rom. 2:13; Jam. 1:22-25). All those who fail to do what the Law requires will find themselves cast into Gehenna.
There is another prophecy in the book of Isaiah that speaks of the return of Yeshua and the part to be played by the Valley of Hinnom:
ISAIAH 30:25 There will be on every high mountain and on every high hill rivers and streams of waters, in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall. 26 Moreover the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the LORD binds up the bruise of His people and heals the stroke of their wound. 27 Behold, the Name of the LORD comes from afar, burning with His anger, and His burden is heavy; His lips are full of indignation, and His tongue like a devouring fire. 28 His breath is like an overflowing stream, which reaches up to the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of futility; and there shall be a bridle in the jaws of the people, causing them to err. 29 You shall have a song as in the night when a holy festival is kept, and gladness of heart as when one goes with a flute, to come into the mountain of the LORD, to the Mighty One of Israel. 30 The LORD will cause His glorious voice to be heard, and show the descent of His arm, with the indignation of His anger and the flame of a devouring fire, with scattering, tempest, and hailstones. 31 For through the voice of the LORD Assyria will be beaten down, as He strikes with the rod. 32 And in every place where the staff of punishment passes, which the LORD lays on him, it will be with tambourines and harps; and in battles of brandishing He will fight with it. 33 For Tophet was established of old, yes, for the king it is prepared. He has made it deep and large; its pyre is fire with much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it. (NKJV)
The “Name of the LORD” is used here as a title for the Messiah (cf. Isa. 60:9; Jer. 3:17; etc.). We see once again that the Scriptures speak of a great slaughter of God’s enemies that will occur at the return of Yeshua. At the same time, salvation will come to all of Israel. The final verse of the prophecy tells us that Tophet (i.e., Gehenna) has been prepared for “the king” (Matt. 25:41) and that the “breath of YHVH” will kindle it.
Parallel Scriptures show that this “king” is the coming Antichrist. He will be slain by “the breath of the Lord’s mouth” (II The. 2:8) in the “lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20). The “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation appears to be a reference to the fires that will burn outside the city of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom during the Millennium (and also outside the New Jerusalem after the Millennium ends).
The next two usages of geenna we’ll examine in the NT are often used to “prove” that Gehenna is a place of everlasting punishment:
MATTHEW 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [geenne].” (NKJV)
LUKE 12:4 “And I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell [geennan]; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (NKJV)
In the Bible, the “soul” is the combination of the physical body and the human spirit. The soul is the whole person; their flesh, character, personality, disposition, nature, etc. The Scriptures plainly tell us that man does not HAVE a soul, man IS a soul:
GENESIS 2:7 Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living SOUL [nephesh]. (JPS)
Yeshua’s point in Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:4-5 is easily understood if a person recognizes the distinction between the body and the soul. The Messiah cautioned his listeners to fear the One who could not only kill the physical body, but also destroy the soul. God can (and will) resurrect the righteous so that they may live in the Messianic kingdom. Therefore, the righteous have no reason to fear death; they have the sure promise of God that they will be raised to life once again.
Not so for the wicked, however. Yeshua warned the lawless that disobedience would mean they would not be qualified to live in the coming Messianic age. Instead, they would at that time suffer the fate of those who transgress against God (Isa. 66:24). They would be put to death during the Millennium and would not be allowed to live during that marvelous age of peace and justice. Their bodies would be cast into Gehenna as a witness to all regarding the penalty for disobedience.
Now let’s look at another occurrence of geenna in the New Testament:
MATTHEW 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell [geennan] fire.” (NKJV)
In this passage of Scripture, Yeshua magnifies the Law (Isa. 42:21) and shows the true spiritual intent of the command against murder (Exo. 20:13; Deu. 5:17). He states that one who discounts the worth of a brother and is angry with him for no reason has broken the spirit of the Law and is in danger of being punished for murder by being executed (Exo. 21:12; Lev. 24:17) and having their body thrown into the fires burning in the Valley of Hinnom. Consequently, they would lose their opportunity at “eternal life” during the Messianic age.
In his stinging rebuke of the hypocritical Pharisees, Yeshua twice mentioned Gehenna:
MATTHEW 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell [geennes] as yourselves.” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 23:33 “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell [geennes]?” (NKJV)
The Pharisees thought that their diligent study of the Tanakh would ensure them a place in the coming kingdom of God (John 5:39). Therefore, Yeshua’s claim that they would instead merit being cast into Gehenna must have shocked and outraged them.
In the final New Testament occurrence of geenna, James speaks to the “twelve tribes scattered abroad” (Jam. 1:1) about the difficulty mankind has in controlling their words:
JAMES 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell [geennes]. (NKJV)
James’ point here is that one who does not control his tongue will be led into sin by the things idly said (Matt. 12:36). According to James, this will ultimately cause a person who is not careful with their words to be cast into the fires of Gehenna.
We’ve now examined all occurrences of geenna in the New Testament. In each case, the implication of the usage is that suffering age-lasting (“everlasting”) punishment by being physically killed and burned up in Gehenna is the OPPOSITE of enjoying age-lasting (“eternal”) life in the 1,000-year kingdom of God here on earth. The practical effect of being consigned to Gehenna means death and missing out on the golden age of the Messiah’s rule, a time when “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa. 2:4). No other conclusion is supported by the original text or the context.
Now let’s look at a few related passages that speak of reward and punishment in the age to come. We’ll start by revisiting Yeshua’s comments on the judgment he will bring when he comes to reign over the world from Jerusalem:
MATTHEW 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And he will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of THESE my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting [aionion] fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of THESE, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into age-lasting punishment [kolasin aionion], but the righteous into age-lasting life [zoen aionion].” (literal)
This passage says something quite different than what most people understand. First, notice that it is “all the nations” that are gathered before King Messiah as he sits on his throne (v. 32). Next, he separates the people from these nations into two groups: sheep on the right, goats on the left. What is the criteria for this division? The prior treatment of Yeshua’s brethren (vv. 40, 45). Yeshua here is speaking as the “Son of Man.” Based on the context of this passage, his brethren are all those standing before him; in other words, all of humanity.
The apostle Paul spoke of this same judgment criteria in his letter to the Romans:
ROMANS 2:11 For there is no partiality with God. 12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; 13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (NASU)
Paul here states that those who do not have the Law will be judged by Messiah Yeshua based on whether they did what the Law requires. And what does the Law require? To love your neighbor as yourself. Those who because of their conscience show love to their neighbors will be rewarded by life in the kingdom of God, even though they may not have known the Law or the true God.
However, those who selfishly seek their own fulfillment to the detriment of their neighbor will be found unworthy to live in the Millennium. They will suffer capital punishment and have their bodies desecrated and burned in the Valley of Hinnom. Yet this “everlasting punishment” (kolasin aionion) will not last FOREVER, but rather only for the age of Yeshua’s rule.
Finally, when discussing “eternal punishment,” the topic of the “unpardonable sin” is usually raised. The “unpardonable sin” is a reference to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This sin is mentioned in Mark’s Gospel:
MARK 3:28 “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; 29 but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never [eis ton aiona] has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal [aioniou] condemnation” — 30 because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (NKJV)
On the surface, this Scripture appears to say, in a very straightforward manner, that there is no forgiveness for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. However, an accurate English translation of the underlying Greek text and comparison to the parallel account in Matthew 12:31-32 significantly changes the meaning of this passage:
MARK 3:28 “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; 29 but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness into the age [eis ton aiona], but is subject to age-lasting [aioniou] condemnation” — 30 because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (literal)
MATTHEW 12:31 “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age [aioni] or in the one to come.” (literal)
As the literal translation of Mark 3:28-30 shows, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven “into the age,” and those who blaspheme God’s Spirit will be subject to “age-lasting condemnation.” Matthew’s account fully supports this, stating that those who speak against the Holy Spirit won’t have forgiveness in the current AGE (before the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth) or in the AGE TO COME (when Yeshua reigns from Zion). However, the prospect for forgiveness after this time period is not addressed. The implication of specifying the two time periods where forgiveness won’t be possible is that, after this time passes, forgiveness may become available.
In the New Testament, “eternal life” refers specifically to life during the AGE of the Messiah’s rule over the nations of the earth. While the saints will experience this life as immortal spirit beings after being resurrected at the return of Yeshua, many others will live “eternal life” in the kingdom of God as mortal human beings. “Everlasting punishment” in “hell” is the opposite of “eternal life.” Biblically, it refers to a person being executed for breaking the Law during the Millennial rule of Christ and the subsequent disposal of their body in the official garbage dump of the kingdom, the Valley of Hinnom (located south of Jerusalem). The common beliefs about living “eternal life” in heaven or suffering “everlasting punishment” in hell are myths built on speculation and tradition, NOT Scripture.
Bryan T. Huie
May 9, 2003