Gehenna was a valley just outside Jerusalem. Back in King Hezekiah’s day, the Assyrian army attacked Jerusalem and many thousands of Assyrian soldiers died in their camp at night. When Hezekiah found their dead bodies in the morning, the corpses were thrown into Gehenna as a type of dump, to be consumed by fire and by worms.
This event entered into Israel’s symbology, depicting how they expected God to deal with all their enemies. Assyria became symbolically known as Gog and Magog, a symbolic name for all Israel’s enemies, especially when the Messiah would come and defeat them and set up his kingdom. This is what the Jews were expecting at the time Jesus came.
Gehenna was also a symbol. The literal valley outside Jerusalem was still there in Jesus’ day. When Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, many Jewish bodies were thrown into the literal Gehenna outside Jerusalem and burned. But the term Gehenna was also a symbol about all those who would not enter God’s eternal kingdom. They would be consumed and destroyed. Jesus affirmed this in his teaching. He likened it to a place where the fire is not quenched, nor does the worm die. This phrase doesn’t mean eternal torment. Unquenchable fire means that nothing is able to stop the fire completely consuming its object. It’s like the grave that consumes the flesh fully.
Death in the Old Testament was called sheol, or hades, meaning the grave. It came to be associated with hopelessness. There was no hope in the grave. No hope of life again, of seeing children, or experiencing any of the good things God had created for us. It meant to be cut off from life. The grave was associated with symbols like fire, because of its consuming power and the anguish of loss.
Darkness was also used in the Old Testament as a symbol of the grave. In the grave there is no light of life, only darkness, and shame. This is not an ongoing experience of shame in an afterlife, but regarding the person’s legacy on earth: they missed it. Instead of glorious resurrection, it is shame and the finality of the second death. “Eternal fire”, like that which struck Edom (Isaiah 34), or Sodom, meant fire that brought the eternal punishment of death. The weeping and gnashing of teeth Jesus spoke of is the sorrow and anger of those who are faced with this death, especially those who would be in a state of shock, thinking they were covenant people. There is no mention in the Old Testament of eternal conscious torment after death. Death is destruction: Deut 29:20, 32, Psalms 1:4, 6, 2:9, 9:6, 34:16, 21, 37:2, 910, 20, 27, 34, 38, 50:22, 58:78, 69:28, Proverbs 8:36, 10:25, 12:7, 24:20, Isaiah 1:28, 3031, 5:24, Dan 2:35, Nahum 1:10, Malachi 4:1.
This is how sheol, or hades, is used in the parable about Lazarus and the rich man. The destructive power of the grave, consuming the body and life of the rich man, is depicted by his torments in heat. The indication in these texts is that torment represents the hopelessness, darkness and loss of the grave. In Revelation, torment is a symbol of the destruction of Babylon, and of the beast (Rome) and the false prophet (Jerusalem). These are not literal people being tormented after death. In apocalyptic literature, torment is a symbol of the destruction of sinful communities. In Isaiah 34:810 the use of “smoke rising forever” means a complete and irreversible loss. The smoke didn’t go on forever, but the loss did: it was permanent. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man depicts the rich man calling out from his destruction, so that no one else will follow his life of folly while on earth. It shows that there is no hope in the grave.
Parables like this are used in the Old Testament, like in Isaiah 14 when the King of Babylon dies, sheol speaks to him as he enters. This is a Hebrew poetic device. It is a parable about how the mighty fall, just like any simple person, and receive no special help. It is very likely that Jesus was employing the same poetic device in his parable, even deliberately alluding to Isaiah 14 as a type of his lesson. The mighty, like the oppressive ruler of Babylon and the oppressive rich people, fall without help. Lazarus means “God is my help”, and so the chosen name forms the point of the parable. The rich man wouldn’t help him, but God does receive him and help him. This is what the text points out about God and his kingdom: kindness to those in need, especially to those we normally think are cursed and useless.
Some texts such as this parable are used to support the idea that hell is a particular location for departed souls, who languish in torment. This teaching is a Greek idea, not founded in the Old Testament. It is similar to the idea of the great abyss for fallen demons. The abyss is not a prison in the lower parts of the earth, like Greek mythology states. The abyss is symbolic for a deep place, or a dry place, where demons are cut off from rebellious expression, unless freed by God’s judgment to wreak havoc because man desires it.
But let’s get to the main point of Jesus’ teaching. In the passages surrounding the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus was sharing with the Jews of the need to care for others around them. This overthrew their common theology. Beggars like Lazarus were cursed of God, they thought. The poor and lowly people were of no significance. The rich were blessed, as Deuteronomy 28 suggested to them. But Jesus turns all this common theology on its head. The point of the parable is our service to others. No matter our arguments about this parable’s details, are we dedicating our lives to such service of others? This is what matters here.
Jesus’ teaching about Gehenna and the destruction of God’s enemies would not have surprised the Jewish people then. They were mostly aware of the traditional symbol on Gehenna and knew what it meant. They knew it depicted the end of Gog and Magog, God’s enemies. They were expecting the Messiah to come and do this in their time. But the big surprise, and yet another reason why Jesus was rejected in that century by his people, was that Jesus reversed the concept on who these enemies were. They were not the Gentiles, as the Jews thought. Instead, Jesus applied Gog and Magog to the Jewish people themselves. Even though they had God’s promises, and believed all the right things about doctrine, the law and nature of God that had been revealed to them, yet Jesus told them they were in danger of Gehenna.
He spoke of anger and of lust within the heart and said that those who harboured such things were in danger of Gehenna. He was addressing Jews, the called people. Then he said another shocking thing. Many would come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham in the kingdom, but the children of the kingdom would be cast out. So again, Jesus isn’t speaking about the Greek idea of the end of the ages, such as eternal life in heaven, or eternal torment in a lake of fire. Instead, he is speaking about the Jewish theme: who shall receive eternal life in the kingdom of God with resurrected bodies and who will be excluded from life. What shocked the Jews was that Jesus was speaking to them, and by their own symbology clearly calling some of them Gog and Magog.
We may think Jesus was speaking about the Jew’s bad life, only to point them to himself, so they could believe in his sacrifice and be saved. Jesus was saying to them, “Look, you aren’t serving others, just yourselves.” Some say Jesus meant, “Look, you aren’t believing in me. All you need is 13 to believe in me.” This gives us a false understanding of what “believe” means. Jesus was calling the people to believe in him, but believing meant to follow him and his suffering service to the nations. This also applies to us, even if we are Christians. Are we following Jesus? Are we answering his call to serve our enemies? Believing means that we are done with our old way of life and are ready to follow Jesus and his way of reconciling love with our world.
The point of Jesus calling us to believe in him is so that we will follow him, so his kingdom may then come among us and our relationships with others. He was pointing us to his kingdom and good land coming among us. It’s how we deal with our enemies, and with the scum of the earth, like Lazarus.