By Femi Aribisala
God’s fire and brimstone is not rained on disembodied spirits in hell in the world to come.
The Christian concept of hell; a place where God allegedly burns sinners forever in the world to come, is non-existent in the bible. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus never preached it. What he did was to proclaim national judgment on Israel in the tradition of the prophets. This judgment was fulfilled in Israel in this life and not in the life to come. Jesus said: “When you see all these things, know that it is near- at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Matthew 24:33-34).
Worms not dying
Jesus warned the Jews: “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 fire, where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48). The hell Jesus ostensibly speaks of here is a mistranslation of the Greek word “Gehenna” in the English bible. This Gehenna has no applicability to Christian notions of hell. Gehenna is physical: hell is spiritual. Gehenna is time-bound: hell is eternal.
Jesus’ Gehenna is actually a valley outside Jerusalem where little children were sacrificed to Moloch; an idol god. The sacrifices were abolished by King Josiah. Thereafter, Gehenna became a place where all manner of refuse and even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals were incinerated. It was also referred to as Tophet; a place of burning, a valley of slaughter, and a place of calamitous judgment. Thus, Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, declared the fiery judgment of Tophet on recalcitrant Jews. (Isaiah 30:33; Jeremiah 19:13).
Following this prophetic tradition, Jesus’ choice of words, “their worm does not die,” is exactly the same as that used by Isaiah to prophesy God’s destruction of Jerusalem in the messianic age: “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.” (Isaiah 66:24).
This means it would be physically possible to see corpses burning during the fulfilment of this prophecy. Worms are physical; they cannot exist in the Christian hell, which is spiritual. But Isaiah and Jesus talk of physical worms eating decomposing physical bodies. Isaiah says this would be abhorrent to “all flesh” as opposed to “all spirits.” Therefore, this will take place on earth and not in the Christian hell.
Moreover, there is nothing here about the sufferings usually associated with the Christian hell. The decomposing bodies are of dead men who can no longer feel any pain. Since the process is physical, it cannot be deemed to continue for eternity, as in Christian notions of hell.
Similarly, when Jesus proclaimed “unquenchable fire” on unrepentant Jews, his audience would have known he was talking of physical national judgment in the prophetic tradition. For example, God said to Israel in Ezekiel: “Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree and every dry tree in you; THE BLAZING FLAME SHALL NOT BE QUENCHED, and all faces from the south to the north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I, the LORD, have kindled it; IT SHALL NOT BE QUENCHED.” (Ezekiel 20:47-49).
Again, this is essentially apocalyptic prophetic language. The “unquenchable fire” is kindled in this life as opposed to the life to come. As in Isaiah’s prophecy, “all flesh,” and not “all spirits” would see it. Therefore, God cannot be referring here to the Christian hell.
Unquenchable fire was also proclaimed on Jerusalem by Jeremiah: “Execute judgment in the morning; and deliver him who is plundered out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire and burn so that NO ONE CAN QUENCH IT, because of the evil of your doings.” (Jeremiah 21:12). This unquenchable fire was set by the Babylonians during Jeremiah’s lifetime in 586 B.C. It devoured the palaces and gates of Jerusalem. However, it was only metaphorically unquenchable; it came physically to an end.
Amos also warned the Jews: “Seek the LORD and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, WITH NO ONE TO QUENCH IT in Bethel.” (Amos 5:6). Note that the fire is not in the Christian hell in the world to come but in Bethel, which is in this world. This prophecy was fulfilled on earth in 722 B.C. It was not kindled by demons but by Assyrians. In consuming Israel, it was prophetically unstoppable. However, no one believes it is still burning today.
Jesus says: “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). This statement is location-specific. The fire Jesus says he came to send is on earth and not in hell. Its object is the nation of Israel, which is in this world and not in the world to come. Jesus says furthermore: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” (John 15:6).
This is the same kind of apocalyptic language Isaiah used when he proclaimed God’s national judgment upon Assyria: “You shall conceive chaff, you shall bring forth stubble; your breath, as fire, shall devour you. And the people shall be like the burnings of lime; like thorns cut up they shall be burned in the fire.” (Isaiah 33:11-12). Assyria is in this world and this fiery judgment began and ended in this world.
Fire and brimstone
The same applies to other prophetic proclamations. Christians need to understand that God’s fire and brimstone is not rained on disembodied spirits in hell in the world to come. It is rained on human-beings on earth. That is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 19:24-25). All Jesus did was to proclaim similar judgment on Israel: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17:28-30).
Thus, Jesus proclaimed the same kind of national judgment that the prophets proclaimed on Israel. He said it would take place in Gehenna, a location outside Jerusalem. He also said it would happen within a generation. (Matthew 23:36). Thus, Peter wrote to the Israelites of his day: “The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God.” (1 Peter 4:17).
This shows Jesus’ Gehenna has nothing to do with Christian notions of hell, which were unknown to Jesus’ Jewish audience. The condemnation Jesus proclaimed on Israel was surely the “unstoppable” fiery destruction of Jerusalem which actually took place in A.D. 70. According to Josephus, over one million Jews were slaughtered by the Roman army. Their bodies were then physically dumped in Gehenna and burnt.