“I.” The addition of the first person personal pronoun egō along with the first person singular verb, legō (I say) is emphatic (BDAG). Jesus not only demonstrated his authority when he taught by doing signs and miracles, he taught with authority, i.e., he taught as one who had the authority to say what he was saying (cp. Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:27).
“Raca.” An Aramaic word that is meant to be an insult. Probably means something like “empty” with the idea of denoting someone as having an “empty-head” or “blockhead.” The point Jesus is making has little to do with the exact word, as if there was some “magic word” that got you in trouble with God. The point is that the word—in this example, raca,—expresses the contempt of the heart and one person’s judgment on another person, and it is that contempt and judgment that is the real sin in the eyes of God.
“the fire of Gehenna.” The Greek is literally, “the Gehenna of the fire,” which can be understood as “the fiery Gehenna” (Rotherham), or more clearly, “the fire of Gehenna,” because Revelation 20:14-15 make it clear that the Gehenna of the Day of Judgment refers to the Lake of Fire and not a literal garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom..
There are levels of sin and darkness in the human heart. We all have some darkness because we all have a sin nature, but sin does not keep a person from being saved or else no one would be saved. It is the rejection of God and his ways of forgiveness that keeps a person from being saved. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was using an example that in the biblical culture was so heinous and unfeeling that it revealed a heart that had never known forgiveness and salvation, so the person would be in danger of death in the Lake of Fire (Gehenna) if they did not change. Although what Jesus said sounds harsh, it is a great example of being a loving, honest teacher. If a person finds themselves constantly saying hateful, hurtful, and nasty things about others, then they have a dark heart (Matt. 12:34), and it is likely that they are unsaved or at least are in danger of having little or no rewards in the kingdom of Christ. Christ’s warning could help people see the danger they were in and decide to change their ways.
“Gehenna” is Greek for the “Valley of Hinnom.” Gehenna is the Greek word that comes from the Hebrew words “ge,” meaning “valley,” and “Hinnom,” which was a man’s name. In the Old Testament, the valley is known both as the Valley of Hinnom (Neh. 11:30; and some Hebrew texts of Josh. 15:8) and also as the “valley of the sons of Hinnom” (Josh. 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31). It seems that Hinnom’s descendants eventually took over and controlled the valley, and thus “the valley of Hinnom” became “the valley of the sons of Hinnom.” The “Ge Hinnom,” the Valley of Hinnom, is first mentioned in the book of Joshua as part of the northern boundary of the tribal area assigned to Judah (Josh. 15:8). It is the valley immediately south of the city of Jerusalem. This geographical point is very important because the history of the Ge Hinnom is closely tied to Jerusalem.
In Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom became associated with pagan sacrifice and even child sacrifice. For example, Ahaz, king of Judah, offered his children as human sacrifices there (2 Chron. 28:1-3). The prophet Jeremiah spoke out against these evils and foretold that the Valley of Hinnom would be so full of buried bones that there would finally be no more room to bury anyone else (Jer. 7:31, 32). Although Jeremiah spoke of dead bodies and ashes being thrown there, he also mentioned that it would one day be clean, which will happen in the Millennial Kingdom of Christ (Jer. 31:40). The bones made the whole area a place to avoid, because if an Israelite touched a human bone then that person would be unclean for seven days (Num. 19:16). This could be a serious hindrance to worship, especially if someone had come a long way to Jerusalem to worship but then became unclean and unable to worship for seven days because he or she accidentally touched a bone on the way into the city.
Because it was unclean, the Valley of Hinnom came to be used as the garbage dump by the people of Jerusalem. This was very handy because, as anyone who has to take out the garbage knows, it is always nice if you can carry it downhill and not too far. The inhabitants of Jerusalem would just carry their garbage, including dead animals, bones and other waste, outside the south gate of the city (still to this day called “the dung gate”), down the hill and into the “Valley of Hinnom;” into Ge Hinnom. The waste that was dumped there was then either burned up in the fires that usually burned there, or it rotted away, being eaten by maggots and worms. The fire and maggots that continually consumed the garbage in the Valley of Hinnom is the reason Scripture says that after the Judgment, the fire will not be quenched nor the worm die (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:48). By the time of Christ, the Valley of Hinnom had been used for centuries by the inhabitants of Jerusalem as their local garbage dump.
When the Hebrew words, “GeHinnom” were translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the “Ge Hinnom” became the “pharagx Hennom,” because “pharagx” is the Greek word for “valley.” Then, by the time the New Testament was written, the Greek name for the valley had simply become “Gehenna.” The Greek word for “valley,” pharagx, dropped off and the Hebrew word for valley, “ge,” was brought directly from the Hebrew into the Greek even though it did not have a meaning in Greek. Of course, something got lost when that happened, and what got lost was that Gehenna was a real geographical valley south of Jerusalem, and that real place became thought of as some otherworldly fiery region and eventually translated “hell” in some English Bibles, including the King James Version.
Christ spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew, so his audience was never confused about the identity of the place he was talking about. Christ’s audience knew the Ge Hinnom very well, and a large percentage of them had probably thrown garbage there. They understood perfectly what Jesus was saying and the seriousness of his words: if someone purposely continues in flagrant sin, then on the Day of Judgment that person would not be let into the wonderful Millennial Kingdom, but like the garbage, would be thrown out and destroyed. The garbage was worthless, and people who arrogantly and flagrantly lived a life of sin were worthless to their Creator, and both the garbage and the unsaved sinners were to be destroyed. These are hard words, but they are the truth, and Christ taught them.
Christ’s audience knew about the valley of Hinnom where the garbage was burned until it was gone, but they would have known nothing about a place where people are burned alive forever. The Old Testament certainly does not mention such a place. However, when Gehenna is translated “hell,” English readers are led to believe that when Christ spoke of Ge Hinnom he was speaking of a place of eternal torment. He was not. He was speaking of the simple concept that the wicked and unsaved will be destroyed. The wicked will, like the garbage, be totally consumed into nothingness. Their lives will end in every way—they will be annihilated.
The concept of “burning forever in hell” came into Christianity from the Greeks who believed in an “immortal soul.” It is important, however, to realize that the phrase “immortal soul” is not in the Bible. Eternal torment is not the teaching of Scripture. John 3:16, and many other verses teach the simple truth that each person will either live forever or be destroyed and be totally gone.
Although many Christians believe that the unquenchable fire and worms that do not die refer to everlasting torment, that is not the case. No one in Christ’s audience thought the garbage thrown into Gehenna burned forever or that the worms (maggots) were “eternal maggots.” Christ's audience knew that the fire burned and the worms ate until the garbage was gone, and after the judgment, the garbage people thrown into Gehenna will one day be gone too. The picture of Gehenna is one of the total destruction of the sinner.
At the Judgment, sinners will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15), which Christ compared to the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). In the Lake of Fire, sinners will burn until they are completely consumed. There will be no repentance accepted and no restoration to life. The punishment is not for a specific time of repayment, as if the sinners were only in jail, after which they are restored to everlasting life. The death of the unsaved sinner will be ultimate and final. The fire will not be “quenched,” it will burn until all the garbage is gone. Similarly, the worms in Gehenna (if there are actually some kind of maggots there) will not die off until there is no more garbage to consume. Thus, the “punishment” of the sinners is eternal. The people whose bodies are burned up in the Lake of Fire (which Jesus compared to the Valley of Hinnom) never receive eternal life. They die, and that punishment, their death, lasts forever.
[For more on annihilation in the Lake of Fire, Gehenna, see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire”].