Friday, January 23, 2009

A Country Fried Parable

(Or a Lynyrd Synyrd Parable of the Kingdom of Heaven)

Appendix D from "Heaven for Skeptics"
© 2008 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing

Perhaps I should just do as Jesus did and tell a parable. And since I'm from the South, perhaps a country fried parable is called for.


Entering the kingdom of heaven is like this: You are incarcerated for life in a dark and crowded Birmingham maximum security prison when out of the blue a letter arrives containing your pardon and an invitation to a party. In the neighboring cells, all of your fellow jailbirds received the same.

Just then you hear a band from somewhere outside the prison launch into "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. And just then every prison door unlocks with a clang. The doors fly open. All of them.

You look around at the other prisoners. They're standing there rereading their pardons. They look at you and back at the papers. You read your pardon and your personalized party invitation again. Is this some kind of sick joke? Is it a test? Is it a trap?

You hold your breath and inch toward the open door. The others are watching you. You see your hand reaching for the opening like it's hot, like it's wired. But your hand goes through unharmed. Others inch toward their doors, suspicious eyes darting left and right, uncertain hands reaching out and quickly drawing back.

By now the chorus of "Freebird" is roaring in your ears, and something hopeful is growing in your heart. Without thinking, you bolt from your cell and run for your Life. Right behind you another prisoner runs for his. Then many run, tearing through the cellblock, all the doors wide open. Running and screaming like warriors charging into battle, you emerge from the prison into a green sunlit park.

You and your cellmates rush the stage where you see none other than Ronnie Van Zant himself smiling as he looks right at you. Then he grabs the mic and directs the crowd, an enormous chorus, millions and millions of pardoned cons singing,

"So won't you fly high free bird, yeah!"

Guitars roar. Apple wine is flowing. Lamb is served. And Life is good.


Pardon the interruption, but a couple of Bible verses come to mind. Jesus quoted Isaiah saying,

"He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . ." (Luke 4:18)

I quoted it before, but Paul's words may make better sense here:

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (bold italics mine) (Romans 11:32)

Oh, yeah. I forgot about hell. Hell is easy to forget at a party! My parable continues:


In the back of the prison, in the last cell at the end of a long ward, a prisoner sits in the corner fuming. "It's not fair," he says. Then he says it again. Louder. Again. And again. Like a chant. A chant that the other prisoners in nearby cells join in. "It's - not - fair," they chant. More join them. They begin banging and raking their tin cups across the cell bars. It is loud. Very loud. A multitude of freed prisoners refuse to leave their unlocked cells in protest of the general pardon of all. "It's - not - fair! It's - not - fair! It's - not - fair! It's - not - fair! It's - not - fair!"

It was loud as hell.Yet at the free-bird party in the park, Lynyrd Skynyrd was just warming up! The sound of "It's - not - fair!" coming from the unlocked prison was being drowned out by Ronnie and the boys, who were now singing,

"Won't you give me three steps, gimme three steps mister, gimme three steps towards the door?"

Ironical, isn't it?


While a Skynyrd concert might not sound like heaven to you, to a good old Southern boy, it's not bad at all. If you like, set the parable in a Detroit prison for women and let Janis Joplin sing "Bobby Magee."

"Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."

"The doors of Hell are locked on the inside." CS Lewis

If you like this parable, try my others: Pews Stink (A Black and White Satire)What Color Is a Green Apple?The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Gravity, and A Guitar Hero Parable (Or the Gospel According to Slash).

For Jesus' parables see The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

You're Saved - Whether You Like It or Not

"the Savior of the world"
1 John 4:14

"the Savior of all people"
1 Timothy 4:10

"bringing Salvation to all"
Titus 2:11


On December 26, 1944 at the age of 23, Japanese 2nd Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent to tiny Lubang Island in the Philippines. It was near the end of World War II. He became one of only four soldiers who survived the American landing there. They hid for years. Two of them died in 1954; that's ten years later. Still in hiding, the Lieutenant's remaining buddy died in 1972. Onoda was the lone survivor. "Despite the efforts of the Philippine Army, letters and newspapers left for him, radio broadcasts, and even a plea from Onoda's brother, he did not believe the war was over." (press) Onoda disbelieved all efforts to convince him of the war's end. He said he was waiting for orders from one of his commanders. Finally, Onoda's one-time superior commander, Major Taniguchi, was located and brought in March 9, 1974, thirty years after Japan's surrender, to deliver the oral orders for Onoda to surrender. He did. And he wept.

More on Onoda in a moment.

Salvation has three tenses in the Scriptures. The New Testament speaks of Christ's saving work in the past, in the present, and in the future.

In this brief pamphlet, let me show you how the Bible distinguishes what I will call Finished Salvation (past), Now Salvation (present), and Final Salvation (future).

To understand these three biblical distinctions is to understand the real good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with this:
When he saved the world, he saved you too. It is finished. (John 19:30) 

The Real Good News of God's . . . 
1. Finished Salvation 
2. Now Salvation 
3. Final Salvation


1. Finished Salvation - Jesus, says the New Testament, saved the world. Yes, everyone. All people.

He saved everyone

Hebrews 2:9 [B]ut we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (italics mine)

He saved the world

John 1:29 The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (italics mine)

2 Corinthians 5:19 [I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (italics mine)

1 John 2:2 [H]e is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (italics mine)

1 John 4:14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. (italics mine)

He saved all people

John 1:4 [I]n him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (italics mine)

John 12:32 "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (italics mine)

Colossians 1:20 through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (italics mine)

1 Timothy 4:10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (italics mine)

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all . . . (italics mine)

[See also Luke 2:10; John 1:9, 1:16, 3:17, 4:42; 6:33, 6:51; Acts 10:36; Rom 5:18, 6:10, 8:32, 11:32; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Col 3:11; 1 Tim 2:5-6; Heb 2:17, 7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:2, 10:10, 10:12; 1 Pet 3:18]


2. Now Salvation - New Testament salvation in this 2 sense refers to the present when a person freely trusts, lives, and rests in the acceptance that salvation in the 1 sense is already true for him. It's the present experience of a past event. It's salvation's nowness. It's discovering and trusting in the present that Jesus' universal atonement two millennia ago applies to me now.

John 10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. (italics mine)

Acts 4:12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (italics mine)

Acts 16:30-31 Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." (italics mine)

Romans 10:9-10 [I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (italics mine)

Romans 10:13 For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (italics mine)

2 Corinthians 6:2 See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (italics mine)

2 Thessalonians 2:10b [T]hey refused to love the truth and so be saved. (italics mine)

1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (italics mine)

Hebrews 7:25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (italics mine)

1 Peter 1:9 [F]or you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

[See also Luke 8:11-12; Acts 10:43, 11:14, 13:38-39, 16:30-31, 26:18; 1 Cor 9:22, 10:33]


3. Final Salvation- Biblical salvation has a not-yet-ness too. Final Salvation is in Jesus' second coming, in the resurrection of the dead, and in the full arrival of the kingdom of heaven. It's salvation's future tense.

Matthew 10:22 [Y]ou will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (italics mine)

Acts 15:11 [W]e believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. (italics mine)

Romans 5:10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (italics mine)

Romans 11:26 And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, "Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob." (italics mine)

Romans 13:11 [F]or salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; (italics mine)

1 Corinthians 5:5 [Y]ou are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (italics mine)

1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (italics mine)

Hebrews 9:28 [S]o Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (italics mine)

1 Peter 1:3-5 By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (italics mine)

The New Testament affirms that all people were reconciled to God through the death of Jesus. That's 1. And 2 is faith that 1 is true. But 3 claims that those with faith in 1 naturally hope for salvation's fruit on the last day—resurrection to Life with the Lord. Those who rest in 1 look forward to being saved in this final 3 sense.


A nationally known pastor and author hosted a Christmas Special from his California mega-church. He gave the standard, modern evangelical message. First he quoted from the Bible. Then he elaborated.

Colossians 2:13-14 And when you were dead in trespasses . . . , God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Then the very famous preacher said to a worldwide audience:

"Jesus wants to wipe it all out. He offers you a chance to be forgiven."

The Bible is at complete odds with this modern evangelical message. The Bible says God made you alive with him already—past tense—when he forgave you of all your trespasses—past tense. He erased your record—past tense—by nailing it to the cross two thousand years ago, says Scripture. That's the good news. But what does the famous preacher do with this good news? He takes it back. It isn't true, he says. It could be true. It could apply to you. But not now. Not yet. Now it is only a "chance," he says. Now it is merely an "offer." "Jesus wants to wipe it all out," he says, but it's all up to you.

The preacher is pressing you for a decision that you can make, he says, that will make his "big if" a reality for you. You must take Jesus up on his supposed offer of forgiveness and salvation for it to go into affect. Until you do this—assuming you do it absolutely correctly—you aren't forgiven, he says. But this so-called "gospel offer" is totally distorting what Scripture says. It says that something has already happened to you and to the cosmos in Jesus. He saved all.

2 Corinthians 5:14-15 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. (italics mine)

The good new is not that we can receive an absent Jesus into our hearts, but that Jesus has already received us all into his. This is exactly the good news that modern evangelicalism rejects. Modern evangelicalism has rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ and doesn't know it. It's both tragic and infuriating.

So what's the point here? It's that without 1, there is no 2. Again, biblically speaking, by 1 I mean the good news that Jesus saved the world including you, and by 2 I mean believing and living in 1's freedom and rest:

Matthew 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (bold italics mine)


So the peace was real, World War II having ended decades before, but Lt. Hiroo Onoda wouldn't believe it. This shows how something can be objectively true and still not subjectively believed or experienced. For thirty years this guy fought a war that was over. It's tragic, isn't it? All those hellish wasted years!

Onoda's story serves well as a parable of biblical salvation in the 1 and 2 senses. The first is objectively true. Jesus reconciled the world to his Father. The war is over. That's salvation in the 1 sense. But to believe that 1 is true is to understand and admit that the war is over. The New Testament says that you can surrender. You don't have to fight your way to God's approval anymore. You don't have to waste your life fighting a war that was long ago won. That's your subjective acceptance of an objective truth. That's salvation in the 2 sense. You can say to your heart, the war is over, thank God. This is the biblical gospel, the good news. The peace is already real, say the Scriptures. And they invite you to trust and live and rest in the liberty of that peace.

Colossians 1:20 . . . through him (Jesus) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (bold italics mine) (See also 2 Corinthians 5:19)

What I love about this eternally established peace, this objective good news, is that it cuts the legs out from under religious striving. The problem in modern evangelicalism is that it's based on that striving. Many don't realize they've rejected a gift in favor of trying to make a deal. They don't believe the war is over, so they continue to fight for their salvation. (You have to pray the sinner's prayer and really mean it this time. You have to stop drinking, smoking, and gambling. You have to attend a religious institution Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. You have to tithe. You have to pray and read the Bible daily. On and on.) Salvation is made into something you have the power to make true only if you do and say all the right things just so. But if it's already true that he saved you, then all that effort not only earns nothing, it steals your freedom and Life. That's the gospel punch line:

The peace with God for which you are striving was long ago achieved for you.

Tragically, our churches are full of Hiroo Onodas. They needlessly fight a war that they cannot win, that's long over anyway, that's won for the world by someone else. This someone else is the savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Scripturally, you're saved. Whether you like it or not is the only question.


This Is Not Universalism

Whenever I discuss Finished Salvation, I usually get this question:

Does that mean that everybody's going to heaven when they die?

This question is really a theological objection to universalism, not biblical Finished Salvation. Universalism is the belief that everybody is "saved" on resurrection day without exception, with humans having no choice in the matter. Universalism claims that in the end, God's grace will be irresistible. The heresy of universalism (or apocatastasis in Greek), though embraced by some theologians as early as Clement (A.D. 150-215) and Origen (A.D. 185-254), was rejected by the church in every age. Christ's universal salvation, however, is not universalism, though many theologians who affirm Christ's universal atonement are accused wrongly of universalism, including Karl Barth.

The reason I reject universalism is because it eliminates God's loving gift of free will. Jesus is not in the business of forcing anyone to trust him. Universalism leaves no room for the freedom to say No to God's grace in Christ.

Yes, we are all forgiven and atoned for, so say the Scriptures. But some don't want to be forgiven because they are eaten up by evil, and some because in their blindness they don't think they've done anything needing forgiveness, and still others because in their scorekeeping mindset they resent everybody being forgiven. God's love graciously allows everyone the freedom to say No to the salvation they already have, and No to the grace that God has showered indiscriminately on the earth like an insane farmer throwing precious seed everywhere, even on the road, among the rocks, and in briars. (Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; Luke 8:5-8) His grace is like the sun shining and the rain falling indiscriminately on the good and evil alike. (Matthew 5:45; Luke 6:35) Grace is for all, but not all want grace. (Matthew 20:15; Romans 2:4)

The love of Jesus may be written on every heart, but not every heart chooses to embrace it. Some choose darkness, evil, judgmentalism, and hate. Some even kill innocent people in the name of God. Is such sin unforgivable? No. But can you refuse the forgiveness you already have? Yes.

The urgency of telling the world that it is "saved" in the 1 sense is to get people off of their self-salvation schemes. Religious programs are endless treadmills of anxious climbing, scorekeeping, performing, and posing. But there is rest if 1 is true, if Jesus saved all on the cross, if forgiveness is universally inclusive, and if the Spirit is already at work in all flesh. (Joel 2:28) So if the Spirit of Christ is at work in every person seeking to communicate this truth (that the world has been saved and all can rest in this truth), then perhaps this good news will resonate when it is proclaimed unashamedly to the world. (Romans 1:16; 2 Timothy 1:8)

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Hell Defined 2


Gehenna—geenna {pronounced gheh'-en-nah}—occurs only a dozen times in the New Testament. The term is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew words ge hinnom meaning the “Valley of Hinnom,” or ge bene hinnom meaning “the valley of the sons of Hinnom.” (ISBE) Yes, it’s a real valley. It’s downhill from the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. I’ve been there many times. I’ve explored its length. The valley was notorious for two things:

First, children were sacrificed to Molech there. There is not consensus on this Ammonite cult, but the traditional view is this:

Molech – “an idol of the Ammonites, to whom they burned and sacrificed their children, . . . [it’s] face was like a calf: his hands were ever stretched out to receive gifts: his priests were called Chemarims, (2Ki 23:5, Ho 10:5, Zep1:4).” (Geneva Bible Notes)

Kings Ahaz and Manasseh of Israel, in accommodation to local pagan rituals, reintroduced “children passing through the fire to Molech,” probably child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3; 2Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). The Valley of Himmom was called Topheth (2 Kgs 23:10; Jer. 7:31f; 19:6, 11ff) which means “place of fire.” King Josiah outlawed the idolatrous and barbaric practice, (2 Kings ..23:10..) though it was already outlawed in Israel’s legal code:

NET Leviticus 18:21 You must not give any of your children as an offering to Molech, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD!

Second, the valley, so defiled so by idolatrous human sacrifices, became “a receptacle of carcasses and criminals' corpses” of the city of Jerusalem. The Hinnom Valley (Gehenna) became Jerusalem’s burning dump and sewer. For practical reasons (Waste in Jerusalem flowed from the city into the Hinnom Valley.) and because of its defiled past (It was a pagan worship center that practiced child sacrifice.), the Hebrews made the place their sewer, their dump, and their body disposal site. In Old and New Testament times, the fires of Gehenna reportedly never went out.

Hinnom in the Old Testament occurs only eleven times in eleven verses, none of them in reference to anything other than the literal Hinnom Valley of south Jerusalem. (Joshua 15:8; Joshua 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2Chronicles 28:3; 2 Chronicles33:6; Nehemiah 11:30; Jeremiah 7:31, 32; Jeremiah 19:2, 6; Jeremiah 32:35) None of these eleven references to the valley of Bar (son of) Hinnom in the Old Testament has anything to do with the afterlife. The Valley of Hinnom is a literal valley and is not referred to metaphorically.

Now the stage is set for Jesus’ few references to Jerusalem’s Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna.

NAB Matthew 5:21-22  "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,'will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (bold and italics mine)

Jesus gives us three words to ponder. These three little words could mean your destruction. Your life can be a living hell if you allow these three words to enslave you.

1. Orge - The word for anger (orge) also means wrath. Jesus says that the consequences for wrathful anger and judgmental words are severe. The judgment is the same for anger as for murder! Murder in your heart, just like adultery in your heart, is the same as if you had done the deed, spiritually speaking. Jesus doesn’t allow his followers to hide behind their good behavior, like the Pharisees did. He forces them to look inside. Inside, everyone is guilty. Inside, everyone has done evil and failed God. How dare you judge someone else when you yourself are not innocent? That’s his point. Those who are wrathful/angry to someone are answerable to judgment (krisis) for murder. The sentence is death.

2. Raca - Raca is an Aramaic word meaning empty-headed. No brains. If you judge someone to be stupid and call them Raca, you are answerable to the Supreme Court for murder, says Jesus. Spiritually,such name-calling judgment on your part is a killing, and your sentence is already pronounced; by pronouncing sentence on the brains of someone else,you’re already brain-dead and don’t know it. (How could you? You have no brain!) Those who judge others as brainless are answerable for murder. The sentence is death.

3. Moros – Moros means fool. It literally means moron. If you judge someone and call them a moronic nitwit, you will be answerable to the burning fires of the city dump (Gehenna) for murder. The sentence is death.

Now, how literally are you prepared to take Jesus’ three proclamations? Look at the three rulings. 1. Liable to judgment. 2. Answerable to Sanhedrin. 3. Liable to fiery Gehenna. Look at the middle one: Answerable to the Sanhedrin, ....Israel....’s Supreme Court. Do you really think Jesus is saying that the Sanhedrin will put you to death for calling someone stupid? Since when is name-calling a capital offense? It’s a silly idea if taken literally. Now think about the other two: Liable to judgment for being judgmentally angry? Liable to the burning dump for calling someone a fool? Both also silly ideas if taken literally.

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, that anger and name-calling gets you the death penalty? But there is Jesus’ sense of humor again, often missed, but much appreciated when discovered. Jesus says, Forget about murder. You don’t have to kill someone to get the death penalty. I tell you truthfully, the sentence is death for harboring anger (orge), for calling someone stupid (Raqa), and for calling someone a fool (Moros).

Ridiculously harsh, you say? How can Jesus judge,sentence, and condemn someone like that, and toss them in the burning dump,just for an emotion and an unfortunate choice of words? No, that’s missing the point. Jesus isn’t judging and sentencing or tossing anybody. A person’s harbored anger and his judgmental, cruel words are symptoms that he already stands judged, condemned, and dumped spiritually. He’s exhibiting Gehenna behavior. He’s already sentenced himself to death and doesn’t know it. Jesus isn’t judging him or executing him. Jesus is pronouncing him DOA—already dead on arrival. He’s spiritually dead. He’s walking worm food.

Welcome to the real hell, the Gehenna of Scripture, Jesus’ Gehenna, the valley of burning sewage and garbage and dead bodies. Death valley. This hell is all around us. We live in the stench of it every day. You need more proof of its presence? Look at these two quotes from Jesus:

NAB Matthew 23:15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.

NAB Matthew 23:33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?”

Notice Jesus says that the scribes and Pharisees are already children of Gehenna. Gehenna tragically defines whose they are and where they are from. They come from Gehenna, they are in Gehenna, and they belong to Gehenna. Why? Because they are hypocrites. Hypocrisy isn’t just the wrongdoing that earns you the death penalty in the burning dump. Hypocrisy is sewer born.Hypocrisy is a symptom that you are already dead in Gehenna. You are spiritually dead. Listen to another of Jesus’ pronouncements against these same leaders:

NAB Matthew 23:27-28 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs,which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth. 28Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.”

Hypocrisy, born of Gehenna, is to live a lie. You put up the front of a devout and righteous person. Inside you’re filled with hate, anger, murder, adultery, idolatry.Gehenna is in you. You can’t hide what’s inside from God. That’s why Jesus says that they can’t “flee from the judgment of Gehenna.” Take a second look:

NAB Matthew 23:33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?”

They can’t flee it because Gehenna is inside of them. You can’t flee from yourself. Because wherever you go, there you are! That’s why the scribe and Pharisee snakes can’t flee Gehenna. They’re already in it, and it’s in them. They’re in death valley,and it’s in them. They’ve applied judgment to themselves by judging others. If they try to flee the judgment by running around showing off the appearance of cleanness, they only take Gehenna with them because it’s inside.

Allow me to ask you some questions. Is Jesus saying that the scribes and Pharisees are literally snakes? Is he saying that they’re literally whitewashed tombs? Is he saying that the literal penalty for calling someone a bad name is death? Obviously not. Then is Jesus saying that hypocrites and name-callers will be thrown into the literal burning dump in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna)? Also, obviously not.

It’s not appreciated the extent to which Jesus used poetic pictures in his teaching. (See my blog He Speaks Of . . . .) Let me demonstrate by showing you Jesus’ best known quotes about Gehenna. They’re in Mark 9. Jesus salted his teaching with parabolic images, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures. For him, words that stir up your senses work better than abstract concepts. Mark 9:42-48, containing three mentions of Gehenna, is rife with such evocative words. (See also Matthew 5:29-30; 18:9; James 3:6) Here’s my outline of Jesus’ key teaching on Gehenna in Mark 9:42-48:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe (in me) to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”



43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”


45 “And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.”


47 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, 48 where 'their worm does not die,and the fire is not quenched.'” 

(Mark 9:42-48)


Let’s summarize. A. Jesus says that if you dissuade someone from believing in him (or in the Life that he brings), you’d be better off thrown overboard in cement shoes. (millstones excavated in Capernaum pictured) B. He says, you’d be better off maimed but alive than whole and dead in the dump.

What if Jesus wanted to warn those who might try to stop people from believing in him and in the Life that he embodies and brings? He could say, “It is wrong to dissuade people from entering Life by believing in me.” That sentence expresses his warning, but it’s not very evocative, is it? But Jesus says instead, and I’m paraphrasing, You’ll wish you’d drowned in cement shoes if you try to trip up those who are entering Life.

There’s humor again in this extreme penalty for a seemingly insignificant wrongdoing. To cause a little one to merely stumble is a drowning offense? Your hand, your foot, or your eye causing you to stumble is a burning offense? That’s what the man said.And boy does he bring vivid pictures to the mind!

In his evocative language in Mark 9, is Jesus threatening nonbelievers with literal afterlife punishment? Please allow me to answer that question with a question. How serious was Jesus about drowning someone by putting a millstone around his neck and throwing him into the sea? May I ask some more questions? How serious was he about amputating your hand? How serious was he about amputating your foot? How serious was he about plucking your eyeball? Are we talking about literally drowning someone, literally amputating hands and feet, and literally removing eyeballs? Obviously the answer to all these questions is No. He’s speaking figuratively about millstone drownings,hand and foot amputations, eyeball pluckings, and Hinnom Valley burnings—not literally.

Let’s take a commonsense approach. Look at each element in these verses and ask yourself: Is Jesus talking about a literal stumbling block? Are the “little ones” literally toddlers or children? Is a literal millstone hung literally around your literal neck? Is he talking about literally throwing you in the sea for putting a literal rock in front of literal children to literally make them trip and fall to the literal ground? No? Then I have two very serious questions for you:

1. If nothing else in this parabolic saying is literal, then why does Gehenna (the Hinnom Valley) have to be a literal afterlife place?

2. If we aren’t to take these things literally, then what is Jesus really saying?

To dwell in Gehenna is to become garbage, sewage, and filth. There was so much corruption and rot in that valley that the worms there, Jesus insists playfully, live forever!

NAB Mark 9:48 “. . . where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'”

Everyone who listened to Jesus knew the history of Gehenna (Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley, meaning the Valley of Wailing). Everyone knew of the idolatrous cult involving burnt offerings of children to the god Molech. (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35) Everyone knew that the place was called Topheth, meaning “a place of fire.” Everyone knew it was called Haragah, “a place of slaughter.” Everyone knew that people were slaughtered and burned there. For Jesus’ contemporary audiences, Gehenna was the perfect picture of a wasted life and a hellish existence. Who can live in Gehenna? The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is No one. Life is not possible in Jerusalem’s trash-burning ditch. But a hellish existence is, poetically speaking. Spiritual death is possible there. Gehenna—a place of pagan sacrifice, unclean corpses, raw sewage, burning entrails, and unmarked tombs—is Jesus’ perfect metaphor for people who reject Life.

So what’s Jesus getting at with these sayings? Why are your choices either Gehenna or amputation? Allow me, again, to answer a question with a question. Have you ever seen something take over a person’s life? More specifically, have you ever seen a person loose his family, his job, his life’s savings, his home, his car, his freedom, and even his life because of an obsession or addiction? Jesus’ insight is crystal clear about this kind of thing:

If your hand is addicted to something, it drags your whole self into slavery with it, resulting in enslavement in a living hell. If your foot is addicted to somewhere, it drags your whole self into slavery in that place, resulting in enslavement in a living hell. If your eye is addicted to an object, it leads your whole self into slavery to that object, resulting in enslavement in a living hell. Your hand, your foot, and your eye can enslave the rest of you in Gehenna. James wrote that your tongue can do the same:

NAB James 3:5-6 In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. 6 The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna.

I’m inviting you to stop imposing a literal afterlife underground place of punishment on Jesus’ teaching and look at what he’s really saying. Dr. Jesus gives the diagnosis, warns what will happen without treatment, and recommends surgery. If your appetite,obsession, or addiction leaves you with nobody and nothing, your abode is Gehenna. He doesn’t say this to condemn anyone. Rather it’s his invitation to Life and freedom. It’s his prescription for beating Gehenna. And what he’s calling “Gehenna” is much more immediate, tragic, and deadly than some future afterlife underground punishment. It’s a living death here and now.

In his examples about amputating your hand or foot, or plucking out your eye, is Jesus telling you to literally remove these body parts? Obviously not, or sales of eye patches and prosthetic hands and feet would be booming! Then why literalize Gehenna? By Gehenna, Jesus means death by spiritual slavery here and now. And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it: You will either lose your life or a body part. You are either dead or maimed. The only way forward into Life is maimed.

You live maimed or not at all.

Let’s not turn what Jesus is saying back into a new legalism. He’s not saying, “Don’t stumble, or else!” “Don’t trip, or I’ll send you to hell forever.” To stumble isn’t to misbehave. Stumbling isn’t a black mark on your goody-two-shoes scorecard. In Christianity, to stumble is to be enslaved to something (or someone) that isn’t Jesus, he who scripturally is Life. All other enslavements are idolatry. All other enslavements are Gehenna.

Any recovering alcoholic will tell you that recovery begins with admitting you’ve got a problem with no free and easy way out. You don’t ever stop being an alcoholic; you’re alcoholic for life. You’re maimed. You’re forever scarred. Once an amputee, always an amputee. But you don’t have to be a slave to alcohol. Because you’re an alcoholic doesn’t mean you have to stay in a living Gehenna, thought that is a real possibility. The only option to death(spiritual or physical or both) is maiming. If your hand has to be holding a drink, then your hand has drug you with it into Gehenna. If your foot has to go to the racetrack, then it has drug the rest of you with it into Gehenna. If your eye is voyeuristic, then your eye has drug the rest of you with it into Gehenna. And the only option to Gehenna is maiming. It’s better to cut yourself off from the addiction and those things and relationships that support and enable that addiction, than to keep intact your current actions and relationships that steal your Life of freedom and peace. Jesus is saying that maimed is survivable; but a living death in the idolatrous burning dump is not.

We all have our battle scars. It’s no shame. But I hear Jesus asking, Wouldn’t you rather live scarred and free than unblemished and in chains? Wouldn’t you rather be a pain-free amputee than for your whole self to be tormented? Wouldn’t you rather see heaven with one eye than see Gehenna with two?

If you can manage to stop making the mistake of trying to take these verses literally, you can see what Jesus is really getting at about Gehenna:

Gehenna is our blind, desperate attachments that separate us from real Life and liberty.

Folks, the only two choices Jesus gives are Gehenna or body-part removal, and he says that body-part removal is infinitely and eternally better than Gehenna. Yes, hands and feet and eyes are literal body parts. Yes, Gehenna is a literal Jerusalem valley. But if Jesus isn’t talking about literal body-part removal, then he isn’t talking about literally being thrown into Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley and its burning refuse and excrement either. They are “figures,” as he called his poetic parabolic images. (John 10:6, 16:25 & 29)


The term tartaroo {pronounced tar-tar-o'-o but often called tar-tar-oos} may be unfamiliar to you, first, because it occurs only once in the Bible, and, second, because it is usually translated incorrectly as “hell.” Look how our twenty-two English translations render Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4.

Tartarus 2 (NAB, YLT)
the lower hell 1 (DRA)
the deepest pit of gloom 1 (DBY)
the infernal regions 1 (MRD)
the underworld 1 (NJB)

The sixteen who translate it “hell” have missed the boat. To call it “lower hell” is closer because in Greek mythology, Tartarus is lower Hades. But the best way to translate it is not to translate it at all. Like the biblical words Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna, Tartarus should be left alone. The term Tartarus is what 2 Peter intended. Note that the only appearance of the word Tartarus is in one of the longest sentences in the Bible.

NAB 2 Peter 2:4-10   For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but condemned them to the chains of Tartarus and handed them over to be kept for judgment; 5 and if he did not spare the ancient world, even though he preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, together with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the godless world; 6 and if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (to destruction), reducing them to ashes, making them an example for the godless (people) of what is coming; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man oppressed by the licentious conduct of unprincipled people 8 (for day after day that righteous man living among them was tormented in his righteous soul at the lawless deeds that he saw and heard), 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the devout from trial and to keep under punishment for the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who follow the flesh with its depraved desire and show contempt for lordship. (bold italics mine)

The writer gives three examples from Jewish literature showing that God has well in hand the rescuing of the tormented and the punishment of the tormentors. He saved Noah’s family, yet punished his generation. He saved Lot’s family, yet punished Sodom and Gomorrah. He didn’t even give angels special treatment when some of them sinned, but put the bad ones in a prison. Second Peter called the prison Tartarus. Why? Because he’s referencing an ancient document that you may not have read.

The story of imprisoned angels isn’t biblical. And yet an ancient story is referenced in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 as if it were at least on a par with Scripture in the mind of the authors.

Jude 1:6
And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day.

The story comes from Jewish apocalyptic writings that we call apocryphal. Apparently the writers of 2 Peter and Jude were familiar with the intertestamental Book of Enoch. Also called 1 Enoch, this book tells of the imprisonment of angels. 1 Enoch 20:2 specifically states that some angels were imprisoned in Tartarus.

So, 2 Peter, because of 1 Enoch, borrowed a pagan Greek term for the prison basement of mythological Hades. Tartarus, or lower Hades, was the prison for the mythological Titans.The Titans were chained there by Zeus after his successful rebellion. Apparently the readers of 2 Peter were expected to be familiar with Tartarus found either in 1 Enoch or Greek mythology or both.

Pagan Greek Tartarus, or lower Hades, was certainly not a place of fire, nor even a place of punishment (as in torture), but it was a prison for defeated gods called Titans. It is only in later mythologies that a select few humans were sent to Tartarus because they had deeply offended the gods, and individual punishments were imposed on these few humans. For example:

Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock uphill forever.
Ixion is eternally bound to a fiery wheel.
Tantalus hungers and thirsts forever, standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree, "tantalized" by the presence of food and water that retreats every time he tries to eat or drink.

Again, punishment/torture really wasn’t the point anywhere in classical Hades, including the basement prison for the Titans called Tartarus. It wasn’t torturous pain that made the Greeks loathe Hades. It was eternal, lifeless tedium.

Tartarus then, the prison for Titans in Greek mythology, is retooled by the Jewish author of the non-biblical book of 1 Enoch as an angel lockup. Why then did Tartarus end up in the Bible's 2 Peter? It must have been because the place for angels and the place for Titans were both prisons that caused the author of 1 Enoch to poetically use the term Tartarus. The devout Jewish author of 1 Enoch in no way could have meant to be describing a literal underground prison containing the Titans of Greek mythology. He only used Tartarus as a nickname for God’s slammer for bad angels. The author of 2 Peter, then, was just quoting what he considered to be prophetic literature, though 1 Enoch is not considered scripture by almost all of the Christian church today.

Even though 2 Peter and Jude reference the angel prison idea from 1 Enoch, the early church did not include 1 Enoch in its canon. Second Peter only meant to use God’s imprisonment of angels in Tartarus as one of three examples demonstrating how God handled retribution in the past (2:4). He’s saying to his embattled church, Surely God will aid you in your torment, and surely God will punish your tormentors. God did so in the past, imprisoning even angels, and he will do so again.

Here is the single mention of the Greek word Tartarus in 1 Enoch.

1 Enoch 20:1-2 And these are the names of the holy angels who watch. 2 Uriel, one of the holy angels, who is over the world and over Tartarus. (The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, R.H. Charles, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.)

Then there is the author’s vision of Tartarus, the angel prison:

1 Enoch 21:9-10 Then I said: “How fearful is the place and how terrible to look upon!” Then Uriel answered me, one of the holy angels who was with me, and said unto me: “Enoch,why hast thou such fear and affright?” 10 And I answered: “Because of this fearful place, and because of the spectacle of the pain.” And he said unto me: “This place is a prison of the angels, and here they will be imprisoned for ever.”

The author of the Book of Enoch paints a picture of the afterlife that for perhaps the first time in history begins to resemble our modern English hell. Enoch is among the first Jewish writers to import pagan Greek concepts into Hebrew apocalyptic thought. It was the beginning of a slippery slope for both Jews and Christians. Plato’s nose was in the tent. The Christian canon today is contaminated, not within its own pages, but in the minds of we Christians who unwittingly wear Plato’s reading glasses when we read the Bible. Enoch helped start the contamination. So I’ve taken the opportunity to expose him in this appendix.

What’s my take on 1 Enoch? The writer of the Book of Enochis a syncretist,* compromising Hebrew views in merging them with pagan Greek views. His work still deserves no place in Scripture, and the pagan afterlife elements he brought in have no place in Christian afterlife belief. He (and his“friends”) successfully poisoned the well of Jewish and Christian thought for millennia. The well is still a mess today. That Christians today believe in both the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul is direct evidence of Enoch’s tragic success.

*A syncretist is one who attempts “reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.” ( Unabridged)

I’ve committed more ink to Tartarus than is merited by its single mention in the New Testament. But in this appendix it requires definition and explanation no less than Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna.

Concerns and summary

I have two concerns about hell as taught widely in the church today:

1. I hear church people (pastors and lay people) claiming that hell is mentioned more than heaven in the New Testament. Why would they say that? They’re dead wrong. Heaven (ouranos) is mentioned 77 times in Matthew alone, more than 250 times in the New Testament. Gehenna occurs only a dozen times. Hades only ten. Tartarus just once. If you tally these you only get twenty-three. Heaven is mentioned more than ten times (10x) that. Even if you add 65 mentions of the word Sheol in the Old Testament, you still don’t top heaven’s 250-plus mentions in the New Testament alone. Why would modern evangelicalism want hell to top heaven? If there is a reason, it probably has something to do with my second concern:

2. Today, hell is number one in the playbook for much of modern evangelism. Do two dozen mentions merit top billing? And don’t forget, as I’ve made clear, the words Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus have been but should not have been translated into English as “hell” in the first place. No biblical mention of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, or Tartarus is in reference to the afterlife.

For the sake of clarity, here is a summary of our four biblical words often wrongly translated into English as hell:

Sheol in the Old Testament means the grave.

Hades in the New Testament is a synonym for Sheol meaning the grave.

Gehenna in the New Testament is a literal valley south of Jerusalem used by Jesus as a poetic metaphor for how we end up due to our blind, desperate, idolatrous attachments that separate us from real Life and liberty.

Tartarus in the New Testament is a nickname borrowed from pagan Greece for an angel prison in an old, non-biblical Jewish document (Book of Enoch).

Go back and read about Sheol and Hades in Hell Defined 1.