I am going on holiday on Monday June 26. When I looked ahead at the Gospel reading appointed for Sunday June 25, the day before my holidays start, I realized I should have started my holidays a day earlier and left someone else to struggle with Matthew 10:24-39.

Problems abound in this passage, beginning with the problem of 10:28 –

28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Starting at the back end of the verse, what is meant by the word “hell”?

The Greek word translated “hell” is gehenna.  It occurs only four times in Matthew’s gospel. Gehenna is a transliteration into Greek of the two Hebrew words ge and  hinnom which mean the Valley of Hinnom.  The Valley of Hinnom was an actual physical place below the south wall of the city of Jerusalem. It was used as the garbage dump for the city. By all accounts it was a dreadful, smelly, sickening place.

The earliest English translators of the Greek New Testament decided that the Gospel writer must be using this horrible place as a symbol of eternal punishment after physical death. So the translators chose to translate the Greek place name gehenna using the English word “hell.”  This may be a correct interpretation, or it may be incorrect.  There is actually no way to know for sure.

The important thing is to keep in mind that the English translation “hell” is an interpretation by contemporary translators of a physical image Jesus used to describe something; he did not specify what he intended by using this image.

Imagine I wrote a letter and saying, “If you continue to be dishonest in your work you are going to end up in Wilkinson Road.”  Anyone who lives in Victoria would probably know that I meant an actual physical place with high walls, barbed wire, and bars on the windows.  But 1,500 years from now, someone might read what I had said and come to the conclusion that I was using Wilkinson Road as a metaphor for hell. Perhaps I was and perhaps I wasn’t; who could know for sure?  Our New Testament translations would be more honest if they simply allowed the image to stand as it is. What Jesus says in Matthew 10:28 is

Do not fear the ones who can destroy the body but not the soul. But rather fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in gehenna.

To make things even more complicated in this verse, it is not clear about whom Jesus is speaking when he refers to “the one who is able to destroy the soul in gehenna.”  In the first half of this verse Jesus is clearly referring to people he has mentioned earlier in verses 16-23 who will persecute his followers; these persecutors of Jesus’ followers are able to kill the body; they cannot kill the soul.

So who can kill “both soul and body in ghenna“?

It is important to be honest here. We do not know who Jesus is referring to when he speaks of “the one who is able to destroy the soul in gehenna.” Jesus does not say, “fear God who is able to destroy both body and soul.” He does not say, “fear Satan who is able to destroy both body and soul.” Jesus says, “fear the one who is able to destroy both body and soul.”  Jesus does not identify who this “one” might be.

This is going to require some more work.