Digression 6: Gehenna: The Valley of Hinnom
It is a ground rule of Bible study that its words must be taken at face value unless there is reason not to from other parts of Scripture. One example of this is in the use of the word 'Gehenna', which we understand to have been a place of literal fire outside Jerusalem where material rejected by the city was burnt. We normally interpret this as representing the total destruction of the rejected at judgement; but why cannot the Lord's descriptions of the wicked being thrown into a Gehenna of age-lasting (A.V. "everlasting") fire refer to their destruction by literal fire in the literal locality of Gehenna, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom? This would chime in well with the copious hints that the judgement will be at Jerusalem; the rejected refuse from the spiritual Jerusalem will be taken out of the literal city to be destroyed by fire.
Christ is coming with "flaming fire" to punish two groups of people:
- Those who "know not God"
- Those "that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ", i.e. the responsible who have consciously rejected the Gospel's demands (2 Thess.1:8). Those responsible for Christ6s crucifixion will be at the day of judgement, and will be punished with fire and burning in the vicinity of where they crucified Christ (2 Sam.23:7), i.e. just outside Jerusalem.
In the same way as the world of Noah's time was destroyed by water, sot he Godless set up ("Heavens and earth") of modern man will be ended by fire (2 Pet.3:6,7). The water was literal- why not the fire too? Is.66:15,16 is in similar vein: "The Lord, will come with fire...to render...his rebuke with flames of fire", before new Heavens and earth are established (Is.66:22). The punishment on Jerusalem in AD70 involved literal fire- as it did in the Babylonian destruction. The parable of the tares has reference to both the judgement of AD70 and that to come. The unworthy then were burned up in the blazing ruins of Jerusalem; and literal fire is probably intended too when "the tares are gathered and burned in the fire...in the end of the world" (Matt.13:40). Mal.4:1 and Ps.21:9 describe the punishment of the wicked as being in an oven, which had a literal relevance to the fiery furnace of Jerusalem in AD70. Jesus likens "the days of the (coming of the) Son of man" to when Sodom (representing Jerusalem, Is.1:10) was destroyed by literal fire. Jude 7 interprets Sodom's destruction by fire as a type of the fate of the unworthy. It would seem likely in view of these precedents that the holocaust to come upon Israel will be with literal fire. Thus Malachi's description of the Jews being refined by fire in the last days to bring about their repentance (Mal.3:2,3) may have a literal aspect to it (cp. the description of Jerusalem as a furnace in Is.31:9). Two thirds of the Jews in the land will be "cut off" in this tribulation, but God will "bring the third part through the fire" (Zech.13:8,9). The language of coming through the fire must connect with the experience of Daniel and his friends in the fiery furnace- which was literal fire.
However, there are also references to the nations being punished with fire (e.g. Is.66:15; 2 Thess.1:8). The most notable is that in Ezek.39 of Gog and those who surround Jerusalem being consumed with fire for seven years, perhaps in the same way as her prototype Assyria was destroyed by an Angel as "a flame of fire" in Hezekiah's time, outside Jerusalem. There being a seven year period of Gog's burning would exemplify the idea of 'age-lasting' fire. Rev.14:10,11 describes the beast's followers being tormented in fire and brimstone so that they had no rest during the 'aion of the aions', and their (literal?) smoke rose up as a witness. A lot of expositional problems are solved (e.g. the consistently literal application of "fire and brimstone" in Scripture) if this is taken to describe the literal punishment by fire of these people throughout the Millennium. Rev.14:18-20 describes how the rejected are trodden in the winepress "without the city" implying a specific location. Thus we have seen that there will be a use of literal fire in the Jerusalem area in the day of judgement to achieve the destruction of three groups:
- The armies of Gog and her rebellious followers
- Wicked Jews in the land
- Unworthy saints
This fire will last for a period, varying in length for each individual involved. This would solve the problem of there being varying degrees of punishment at the judgement (Lk.12:47,48)- which is hard (though not impossible) to fit into a concept of the judgement as being an instant punishment of all the rejected with death. A period of punishment is implied.
This understanding of 'Gehenna' throws light on other passages- e.g. feeding your enemy is heaping coals of fire on his head (Rom.12:20)- i.e. 'your love to him will result in a more severe punishment at judgement'. Note that it will be the responsible who will be punished in the fire of Gehenna; the "enemy" is thus within the ecclesia. What does Rom.12:20 mean if it does not have a reference to literal fire? James 3:6 describes the tongue as a fire which is to be set on fire of Gehenna- i.e. those who don't restrain their tongue will be set on fire in Gehenna, as figuratively their tongue has set their spiritual lives aflame. In 1 Cor.3 Paul describes how his converts are the foundation stones of the spiritual temple of God, the ecclesia. He advises the elders to build up these converts, warning them that they will only receive a reward for this work if their work- i.e. the converts they have made- is not burnt up. If it is- i.e. if their work is shoddy so that these converts are rejected and burnt in Gehenna- then they personally will just about be saved (v.10-15).
Thus we have seen that it is a vital principle that "Our God is a consuming fire" (Heb.12:29). Any day now "The Lord whom (we Christians) seek, shall suddenly come to His (spiritual) temple...But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire" (Mal.3:1,2).