In 2015, the Watchtower Society published a simplified edition of What Does the Bible Really Teach? named What Can the Bible Teach Us? In one of its end notes on Gehenna, it says:
“Gehenna is the name of a valley near Jerusalem where garbage was burned and destroyed. There is no evidence that in Jesus’ time animals or humans were tortured or burned alive in this valley. So Gehenna does not symbolize an invisible place where people who have died are tortured and burned forever. When Jesus spoke of those who are thrown into Gehenna, he was talking about complete destruction. – Matthew 5:22; 10:28. (Chap. 6, par. 5; Chap. 15; 1: 17)
JWs believe Gehenna is a figurative place where the wicked dead who won’t be resurrected back to paradise earth would go. This seems hard to sustain, that someone will be “in a place” and still be non-existent. This is pure nonsense. But to a JW it makes perfect sense.
According to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Gehenna is the Greek translation of the Valley of Hinnom which was used as garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. Refuse, waste materials, and dead animals were burned here. Fires continually smoldered, and smoke from its burning debris rose day and night. Hinnom thus became a graphic symbol of woe and judgement and of the place of eternal punishment called Hell.
There is no need for living animals or humans be thrown into a literal site for it to be used to symbolize hell fire. Jesus used a physical place the people were familiar with to give them an idea of what hell is like, particularly its unquenchable fire. There is no human expression or description that can accurately explain how terrible hell is.
The two Bible texts cited are:
Matthew 5:22 “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Matthew 10:28 “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Both verses refer to eternal judgement and are not “symbolic”. Now, there are different Greek words rendered as “hell” in the New Testament and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), but I will discuss only two which are germane to this topic: Gehenna and Hades.
Gehenna is a place of punishment, torment and destruction. It is associated with fire (Mt. 18:9, Mark 9:43; James 3:6) and from the verses cited by the Watchtower Society, it’s clear that those that will be there will have bodies. It is a place of eternal punishment after the general resurrection of the damned and their judgement at the Great White throne (John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:11-12).
From the way the lake of fire is described in Revelation (19:20; 20:10, 14, 15 etc.) it suggests it’s one and the same with Gehenna. This is different from Hades (hell), the current abode of the wicked after death (Luke 10:15).
Those that are currently in hell are disembodied so to speak, but in Gehenna they will be in their immortal bodies, and the punishment will be far, far worse than hell, because hell will be thrown into the lake of fire. So we can say hell – as terrible as it is – is like jail where the damned are held until the judgement, while the lake of fire/Gehenna is the prison – their final destination.
It should also be pointed out that it is in Gehenna that Satan, the antichrist and his demons will be tormented as well. The Bible calls it “the second death,” a death which is the final outcome of a life of sin and unbelief resulting in a place of torment (Rev. 21:8).
The Bible also used the term “destruction” to describe it. The Greek word here is apoleia which actively refers to utter destruction of vessels (as in Romans 9:22) and passively refers to perishing, ruin, loss of eternal life, eternal misery and perdition (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database, 2011).
The term “destruction” does not mean it ceases to be, but that it is so ruined that it no longer serve the use for which it was designed. The Greek word apoleia is also used in Luke 19:10, 2 Peter 3:7,16 and Philippians 3:19 and not once does it mean becoming non existent or annihilation. For example, old bottles are said to be destroyed in Matthew 9:17, yet no one would say they ceased to exist.
In Revelation 17: 8, 11, we read: “The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction … The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction”
The Bible later defines what it means by this destruction:
“But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Rev. 19:20)
“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10).
The Watchtower leaders have horribly deceived Jehovah’s Witnesses in the most crucial area they ought to be seriously concerned about: their eternal destination. This is a tragedy.