By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
I have often misunderstood Jesus.
This is something that I have learned throughout my life as I have studied about the Hebrew culture in which the lowly Nazarene lived. Time after time, I have been amazed at how such and such a statement by Jesus that sounded so “strange” to me, and yet would have made very good sense to the people in His day and age. Certainly, there are examples of cultural expressions and idioms from here in the state of Kentucky that could readily serve as a parallel illustration of this cultural scenario.
Not long after moving to Kentucky, my friend Barbara Fields told me she would be attending a “hen party.”
If I had heard the phrase, “They have had the lick,” while living in West Virginia, I would have thought the person making such a statement was a bit odd.
Point is, there are lots of things which we say and do that may not be readily apparent to others simply because they do not understand the background of what we are saying.
This, I believe, is true in regard to what the Lord Jesus taught about Hell.
In this article, we will carefully study something that Jesus taught us about Hell in one of His sermons.
Mark 9:49-For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.
The Meaning Of Hell
The word “Hell” is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna, which was a translation of the Hebrew phrase “valley of Hinnom.” This was an actual valley outside the city of Jerusalem which was the site of some terrible atrocities and events. God used this place, which was rich in significant events (both horrible and hopeful) to describe to His people what the nature of Hell would be like.
Let’s consider three Old Testament themes that evolved from Gehenna that were well-known in Jesus’ day.
Gehenna: A Place Of Terrible Suffering And Death
The valley of Hinnom was the site of terrible atrocities which included suffering, grief, and death. It was a place where children were ritualistically murdered and offered to the false gods Baal and Molech:
2 Chronicles 28:3- He burned incense in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and burned his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel.
2 Chronicles 33:6-Also he caused his sons to pass through the fire in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom; he practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger.
The ancient Jewish writers described these atrocious acts. Ken Johnson documents:
“The Canaanites worshiped a god called Moloch with human sacrifices . Children, (mainly their firstborn sons) were burned alive in their sacrifices to this god. This was their way of creating teraphim. See the chapter on Babylon and Sodom for a detailed description of teraphim. “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire …” Jeremiah 7:31 “Tophet is Moloch, an idol which was made of brass. The Canaanites heated him from his lower parts; and his outstretched hands were made hot. They put the child in his hands, and it was burnt alive. When the child vehemently cried out the priests beat a drum, so the father would not hear the voice of his son, and move his heart.” Rabbi Rashi’s Commentary on Jeremiah 7:31” (Ken Johnson, Th.D., Ancient Paganism: The Sorcery Of The Fallen Angels, 81 (Kindle Edition))
The Lord showed His fury to the people of Israel for these atrocities when He spoke through the Prophet Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 7:31-And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart.
Jeremiah 32:35-And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.’
Gehenna: The Place Of Final Judgment
The Lord promised that one day, all of the wicked would be cast into this valley themselves, to be destroyed in Judgment.
Jeremiah 7:32-Therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room.
Jeremiah 19:6-therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that this place shall no more be called Tophet or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
So the Lord took this well-known valley (which existed long before the time of Christ) and used it as an example of what the future state of the wicked would be like-unto. From these images, we see that the idea of Hell would include a place of weeping, suffering, anguish, guilt, hard-heartedness, and ultimately, destruction. As some other authors have written:
“So what was it about the Hinnom Valley that forged the word gehenna into an image of fiery judgment? In the Old Testament, the Hinnom Valley was the place where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. It was here, in fact, where they sacrificed their children to these gods (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) making them “pass through the fire” (Ezek. 16:20–21 NASB). When Jeremiah began to preach, the Hinnom Valley started to take on a metaphorical reference for the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast (Jer. 7:29–34; 19:6–9; 32:35): “Behold, the days are coming … when it will no more be called … the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:32). Jews living between the Testaments picked up on this metaphor and ran with it. The word gehenna was widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus to refer to the fiery place of judgment for the wicked in the end times, as we have seen.29” (Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, And The Things We’ve Made Up, 61 (Kindle Edition); Colorado Springs, CO; David C Cook)
Gehenna: A Place Of Purification
There was another idea about Gehenna which Jeremiah the Prophet teaches us about: that of redemption and restoration. This redemptive purpose of Hell is perhaps one of the most little known facts in our day and age, yet one that will help us to better understand and appreciate the words of Jesus.
Jeremiah 31:38-40-“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, that the city shall be built for the LORD—from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The surveyor’s line shall again extend straight forward over the hill Gareb; then it shall turn toward Goath. And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever.”
Please notice that in Jeremiah’s wording, Gehenna would be a place which would one day become holy to the Lord. It would be part of the “area” where God’s realm would extend.
The Discussion Among The Jews Between The Testaments
The Hebrews loved to study the Scriptures. Between the close of the Old Testament canon and the time of Jesus’ ministry (408 B.C.-30 AD), there was continual discussion about the subject of Hell. One researcher has provided a good summation of the thoughts of the Hebrews between those years:
“The Rabbis did not all agree on the nature or duration of Gehenna, their thoughts developing and regressing over centuries. But from what they taught, we can distill four general themes. 40 1. Gehenna is a metaphor for hell, a real location of suffering in actual flames in the afterlife. 41 That said: Gehenna’s creation, 42 size, 43 location, 44 gates 45 and vivid descriptions were much debated….2. Gehenna can have a time limit, most often seen as one year, corresponding to the Jewish bereavement time (praying the Kaddish), after which the suffering would end in either restoration or annihilation. 49 Others foresaw the truly wicked suffering for generations, or in some cases “ages of ages.” 50 Even the wicked in Gehenna lasted no longer than twelve months. 51 Hezekiah saith the judgment in Gehenna is six months heat and six months cold. 52 Rabbi Akiva used to say, “Of five judgments, some have lasted twelve months, others will do so;—those of the deluge, of Job, of the Egyptians, of Gog and Magog, and of the wicked in Gehenna.” 53 3. Gehenna can have an exit, at least for some. For example, you can be granted a release for good deeds done, whether acts of justice on behalf of the poor performed by the one who has died or by a loved one who offers service in the synagogue on behalf of the bereaved….4. Gehenna can be purgative, that is, it was designed not just for punishment but also for purification in preparation for Paradise. “God hath also set the one over against the other” (Eccl 7:14), i.e. The righteous and the wicked, in order that the one should atone for each other. God created the poor and the rich, in order that the one should be maintained by the other. He created Paradise and Gehenna, in order that those in the one should deliver those in the other. And what is the distance between them? Rabbi Chanina saith the width of the wall (between Paradise and Gehenna) is a handbreadth. 58 These rabbis did not claim their teachings as divine revelation. Rather, the Talmud consists of discussions on Jewish law, theology, customs, and traditions. Their speculations aside, rabbis like Akiva sometimes help us to see the OT passages with first century Jewish eyes.” i.e. The righteous and the wicked, in order that the one should atone for each other. God created the poor and the rich, in order that the one should be maintained by the other. He created Paradise and Gehenna, in order that those in the one should deliver those in the other. And what is the distance between them? Rabbi Chanina saith the width of the wall (between Paradise and Gehenna) is a handbreadth. 58 These rabbis did not claim their teachings as divine revelation. Rather, the Talmud consists of discussions on Jewish law, theology, customs, and traditions. Their speculations aside, rabbis like Akiva sometimes help us to see the OT passages with first century Jewish eyes).” (Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, And The New Jerusalem, 47-50 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Wipf and Stock Publishers)
With this background in mind, look carefully at Jesus’s words again in Mark:
Mark 9:49-For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.
Let’s carefully analyze this verse.
The word used here is the Greek preposition “gar.” This word is used to introduce the reason for a preceding statement. In other words, Jesus’ words here are designed to explain what He has been teaching. Starting in Mark 9:43, Jesus had been teaching about Hell and the condition of the persons who would one day be consigned thereto.
The text makes it clear that the “everyone” in the passage is limited to those who are in this realm of Gehenna. So the Lord is not stating that these conditions will apply to every person, saved and unsaved; but that these conditions regarding Hell will be for those who will be sent there.
The words that the Lord uses here remind us of the future tense of Hell. Currently, Hell is not filled with the wicked. Instead, one day (on the Day of Judgment-Matthew 7:21-23; John 12:48; Acts 17:30-31) the wicked will be sent there (cf. Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 20:11-15).
“Seasoned With Fire”
The word “seasoned” is from the Greek halizo, and usually carried the idea of arranging and making something better. This is how the word family is often used elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 5:13; Colossians 4:5-6). The idea seems to be that the “fires” are applied in order to try and make one better. In fact, the last part of the verse makes this connection clear.
“And Every Sacrifice Will Be Seasoned With Salt”
Most commentators that I have read suggest that the idea of this phrase is that as salt preserves food, so the fires of Hell will preserve the sinner to live forever without dying. However, there are at least two major problems with this interpretation.
The first problem is that throughout Mark 9:43-49, the illustrations which Jesus uses to describe Hell actually suggest that the suffering of those in Hell would cease at some point. For example, notice that Jesus refers to Hell as a place of “fire that shall never be quenched.” In fact, this phrase is used five times in these verses! Now, just looking at this phrase, I may be quick to think that this must have reference to fires that are never put out.
However, to the people in Jesus’s day who knew the Old Testament Scriptures, they would understand that this phrase had reference to something which was eventually destroyed. Indeed, the phrase is found in several places in the Old Testament with this meaning:
Jeremiah 17:27-“But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.”
This prophecy was made of the Babylonian invasion, and was fulfilled in 2 Chronicles 36:19-21. Do the “fire which would never be quenched” in Jerusalem from Nebuchadnezzar’s siege still burn hot today? Of course not! The phrase had reference to something which was destroyed, not to that which continued to burn ceaselessly.
Again, we read:
Ezekiel 20:47-48-and say to the forest of the South, ‘Hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD: “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.”
Is the land of Israel still burning from the fires of these wars? Far from it!
Then there is the passage which Jesus Himself references in the passage, from the Book Of Isaiah.
Isaiah 66:24-“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.
Please notice that in this description of Hell, Jesus defines it as a place where the “corpses of men”’are found. These are not sinners burning continually throughout eternity. These are corpses! This argues powerfully against the idea of endless suffering and torment.
Yet it is the second fact from this verse that shows us the Lord means something far different for the purposes of Hell then we have perhaps considered.
You see, the Lord here is actually referencing the Old Testament Scriptures. In the Book Of Leviticus, God instructed the priests how to worship. In one particular exhortation, we are told:
Leviticus 2:13-And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Please consider that the people needed to offer salt with all of their sacrifices. Why? Did the salt preserve the food in the flame? Certainly not! Then, what is the purpose for salting the sacrifices? The answer is found two verses earlier:
Leviticus 2:11- ‘No grain offering which you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey in any offering to the LORD made by fire.
Leaven was often used in the Old Testament as a symbol of corruption (Exodus 12:19-20; Leviticus 6:17), just as it is often used in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9).
So notice the contrast: leaven corrupts, while salt purifies.
The purpose of the salt in the sacrifices was not to preserve the meat, but to purify it.
Following that same analogy with Jesus’ ministry, how would the Jews of the first century understood His words about Hell?
They would have seen that God had designed Hell to be a place where He desired that the most wicked would be purified and redeemed.
In fact, the idea of “salt”’was common place in the time of Christ to refer to establishing and maintaining good relations! As Mounce points out:
“In fact, in the ancient world, sometimes when a covenant was sealed between two parties, they would do so around a meal and the expression was used, “they had salt together.” A similar usage is reflected in Acts 1:4, which records Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples before his ascension. This took place “while he was eating with them,” a phrase that literally translates, “while he was having salt together with them.”” (William Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 24445 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
This is especially interesting when we consider the next verse, where Jesus tells us:
Mark 9:50-Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.”
Notice that the Lord teaches it is far better to be purified here in this life (with all its hardships and heartaches and trials and tribulations), and to establish and maintain good relationships with God and each other, then to face the terrible purifying fires of Hell.
Everything that God has done-and is doing-including His desired goal in creating Hell- is for the purpose of reconciling the entire Creation back to Him.
Now, it’s important to remember: just because that is the Lord’s desire, it does not mean that this goal will necessarily be achieved. While there is hope that those in Hell would repent, there are also indicators that the inhabitants of this realm will be characterized by weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:11-12). This speaks to us about the hardened and unrepentant hearts of the ones who will be in Hell:
“The phrase ‘gnashing of teeth’ focuses on another emotion, as we can discover by looking at its use elsewhere in Scripture. At one point in his life, when he felt at the end of his tether, Job cried out, ‘[God] has torn me in his wrath … he has gnashed his teeth at me’ (Job 16:9). When Stephen was about to be stoned to death he accused his opponents of betraying and murdering Jesus, the righteous Son of God. Their response was predictable and passionate: ‘Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him’ (Acts 7:54). From these two examples we can see that ‘gnashing of teeth’ is a way of expressing anger. In hell, that anger will be more intense than any this world has ever seen. The wicked will be angry at the things which gave them pleasure on earth but now give them pain in hell. They will be angry at the sins that wrecked their lives; angry at themselves for being who they are. They will be angry at Satan and his helpers for producing the temptations which led them into sin. Even while compelled to acknowledge his glory and goodness, they will be angry at God for condemning them to their dreadful fate.” (John Blanchard, Whatever Happened To Hell? 2786-2797 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; EP Books)
Here is the bottom line friends: God wants every person to be saved and to go to Heaven (2 Peter 3:9). He even designed Hell in such a way to be a place where He hoped that people would repent. Since God is not present in that place (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10), it is difficult to imagine how terrible it truly is. I cannot even begin to conceive of a place where God isn’t found. Can anything be more horrible? Yet because God is Love (1 John 4:8), He will honor the Freewill of mankind (John 5:40; Luke 7:30; Acts 7:51).
Thanks to the incredible love of God, you do not have to go to Hell. Dying for our sins on the cross, Jesus paid the debt that we couldn’t pay (Isaiah 53). He was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day, with the promise that He will return one Day for the salvation of His people and judgment on the world (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; John 12:48; 14:1-6).
Why not turn away from all of the sin of this world and give yourself fully to Jesus?
If you are not a child of God, become one today:
Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
If you are a Christian who has turned from the Lord, why not repent of your sin today and confess it to the Lord in prayer to be forgiven and restored?
1 John 1:9-If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
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