Get The Gehenna Out of Here?

People love talking about the love of Jesus. Man, that Old Testament was brutal—the God there equally so: ordering death of people, constantly warning of impending judgment, horrid stuff. But the Jesus of the New Testament is fundamentally different: loving, warm, drawing all men to himself, eating with sinners and judging no one! Not like that nasty Pharisee Paul.

But these folk forget that the person who spoke about hell most was not Paul or James or even good old Peter: it was Jesus. Metaphor after metaphor, story after story, constantly making the point of a judgment to come and a punishment to follow. This same Jesus who would sit with sinners is the one who would tell sinners that it was better that they rip their eye out of their socket and throw it into hell than their whole body gets thrown into the fiery hell (Matt 18:19).

Of course, the word there isn’t technically hell: it’s Gehenna.  Nay-Hellsayers are quick to point out that it’s a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term which is Hinnom Valley. This valley was a deep ravine near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where trash was thrown.  The stuff there was cut off from the life of the people and sent over there. Jesus, the master of metaphor, knew the place well and had no problem using it.

What they forget to mention is that the site wasn’t merely for garbage; it was a place for burning. The place wasn’t only a dump, it was a crematorium. The bodies of dead criminals were thrown and consumed there. And it was that same location where children were sacrificed to Molech the God of the Fire (2 Ki 23:10; Je 7:31): Topheth which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom. If you recall in the last post, Isaiah actually uses this same place to connote a place for punishing a certain wicked King and he speaks about it as a place prepared long before (Isaiah 30:33).

Christ would often mention that place but adds details that have nothing to do with the actual Gehenna. He’d say that there is one who has authority to throw people into that place ( Luke 12:5). Well, that’s weird since almost anyone could throw junk into the fire, but here’s one who does have the authority to throw people. Whereas the real Gehenna could kill a person just fine, and burn up corpses equally fine, Jesus ups the ante with the use of Gehenna saying it is a place where also the very living soul is destroyed along with the body (Matthew 10:28). Or in Mark 9:43 where Christ points out that one is either entering into life one way or entering into Gehenna another way but the latter is completely undesirable. The place, he says, was prepared for the angels (Matt 25:41-56) but the actual Gehenna wasn’t prepared for angels at all. While it was a very deep ravine, he calls it an abyss (Lu 8:31). He recalls imagery from Isaiah (Isa 14:11; 66:24) and calls it a place of the worm (Mk 9:48) but unlike the real Gehenna, the worms don’t die in the flames. He calls the place the outer darkness and a place of weeping and gritting ones teeth (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) but who was weeping for garbage and criminals beside fellow criminals?

These are all important differentiations Christ is making with the actual Gehenna near the Temple Mount.  This isn’t nice imagery. It’s horrifying. It indicates separation, punishment, lack of joy and something to be repulsed. I know that modern Christians don’t like to hear that—especially the ones who say “Hell is not what you learned in Sunday School” but there it is: Christ is just adding all these awful details that stand beyond the actual place.

And in so doing, he echoes concepts from the Old Testament as well. It is the ultimate destination of the wicked (Matt 13:41-42). The place is eternal (Mt 25:41). It’s below, somewhere (Mt 11:23; 12:40; Lu 10:15) The place is hot (Mt 13:50). The place is to be shunned ( Mt 5:22). Christ is ultimately master over it (Mt 16:18). Indeed, with the revelation of the Son of God the revelation of Hell seems much more crystalline: the term Gehenna doesn’t have the same semantic range as Sheol, for instance. The pictures for Hades and the Abyss and the Pit are almost exclusively eschatological in nature.  Christ seems to indicate that only the wicked are there (Lu 16:23).

The New Testament has other important details. For example, in the apocalypse, John sees the Lake of Fire being the ultimate destination for the devil, his cohorts, hell itself and the wicked (Re 19:20; 20:14; 21:8). Echoing the repeated Scriptural theme of separation from life he calls this the second death.  Peter might call the place a prison for certain spirits (1 Pe 3:19) waiting the day of judgment (2 Pe 2:4) and though he doesn’t use the Hebrew term, he uses the Greek term of Tartarus. Jude calls it a place of punishment and eternal fire (Jud 7) and somehow ties Sodom and Gomorrah to it but he only does that after saying that angels who left their place are bound there with eternal chains under darkness (Jud 6).

And just like in our last post, we’re left only scratching the surface of the intermediate and eternal states. We have more information, surely, but not all. I didn’t touch on the intermediate state of the righteous or of the ultimate destination. I didn’t touch on how one can be in one and not the other. I didn’t mention the passages that speak of eternal damnation without using either Gehenna, Tartarus or Hades. I didn’t even really offer an apologetic for or against theses readings: I wanted to just list the passages as they stand.

They accord with what the Old Testament says but, as expected since it is usually Christ who does most of the explaining, they expand on it. There are still many core elements there but there are enough other details to still justify that the place is to be shunned. Just like in the Old Testament, the sorrow is not so much the worm—whatever that is—or the darkness or the fire: it is the separation from life. One of the most horrifying pictures that Christ attaches the imagery of wailing and gnashing of teeth is the one of outer darkness.

To understand that you have to envision what it’s like in an pre-industrial agrarian culture. If these guys had a party with their lamps and lights at night, you would be able to see the light from all around—but no one would see you. If you were out in that pitch black night you would see the laughing and the joy but you’d be out there, staring, angry, jealous and separated.  Christ tells a similar story of a rich man who is looking across a chasm, after death, at someone he had mistreated. The man he mistreated never seems to even notice him but he, oh he sees Lazarus drinking while he sits parched and afraid. But the man doesn’t ask freedom from his situation, he asks for the Lord to send a ghost to his brothers to warn them.

It’s a horrid place, says the Lord—and it should be shunned. The horror is that people will still head in that direction even if someone came back from the dead and warned them.

*Updates and Retractions: Apparently the historicity of Gehenna being a crematorium for the corpses of criminals or a burning garbage heap is lacking historical evidence so I retracted those sentences and have written a fuller post here. (HT: Keith Keyser)

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