Gehenna - “Fiery Hell or Something Much Different”
Question: What is Gehenna?
We noted in the last segment that there are 3 words that are translated as hell in the New Testament and we looked at one, Hades. The other two words are Tartaroo which only appears one time in 2nd Peter 2:4 and Gehenna which appears 11 times. Without doubt, Gehenna is the primary word that creates the idea of a place of fiery torment. Gehenna is fascinating because of what the translators have done with this word in the Bible. We will start with our Strong’s Concordance. Gehenna is #G1067 and this is what it says.
G1067 γέεννα geenna gheh'-en-nah
Of Hebrew origin ([H1516] and [H2011]); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment: - hell.
We are told the Gehenna comes from 2 Hebrew words. This immediately creates a question. Why would the Greeks need to create a word from two Hebrew words to describe an eternal place of eternal torment? Wouldn’t you think that there would be a word in Greek for “hell,” i.e. a place of eternal punishment? Isn’t that supposedly “hades” (though we now know that it truly isn’t)?
H1516 is a Hebrew word pronounced gah-ee that means a gorge and is translated as valley in the KJV. H2011 is Hinnom which is a proper name, a person’s name, so putting the two together we have gah-ee Hinnom or the valley of Hinnom and Strong’s tells us that this is the actual meaning of Gehenna. Note as well that Strong’s includes (the son of) in the definition. Strong’s then states that figuratively Gehenna means the place or state of everlasting punishment and finally Strong’s tells us that Gehenna is translated as hell. Questions we might ask are “Who decided and when was it decided that Gehenna figuratively meant a place of everlasting punishment and why should it be translated as hell?”
The first mention of the valley of Hinnom occurs in the Bible in Joshua 15:8 where we read “the valley of the son of Hinnom” as well as “the valley of Hinnom.” The valley of Hinnom is mentioned 13 times in the Old Testament and most of the references include “the son of” which explains why Strong’s included it under Gehenna. In Hebrew we read gah-ee (valley) ben (the son) Hinnom (proper name). If we omit the son (ben) and instead of translating the words we transliterate the Hebrew gah-ee Hinnom as best we can into Greek, we end up with Gehenna.
The valley of Hinnom is a literal place, a valley bordering Jerusalem. In every case when the translators came across this phrase in the Old Testament, they translated it as the valley of (the son of) Hinnom. Never once is it translated as “hell” in the Old Testament. The valley of Hinnom has a rather unpleasant history. Among other things, some believe that child sacrifice was carried out in this valley.
By the time of Jesus, the valley of Hinnom had become a garbage dump for Jerusalem with fires burning constantly to consume the garbage. However, garbage wasn’t the only thing dumped in the valley. It has been suggested that the bodies of those so poor they couldn’t afford a proper burial were sometimes dumped in the valley of Hinnom along with the bodies of some executed criminals whose bodies were not claimed by family. There the bodies would be consumed by the burning fires. In essence, to tell someone that their body deserved to end up in the valley of Hinnom meant that you viewed their life to have little meaning or value. You were basically telling them that the value of their life wasn’t much more than garbage.
Within Judaism, bodies are treated with great respect and burial places are viewed as holy and sacred locations. Hebron has the Cave of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site to Jews. It is reputed to be the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. They honour Joseph's burial spot in Shechem/Nablus and Rachel's burial spot near Bethlehem as well as the graves of many great rabbis.
To be buried in Hinnom would be disgraceful and knowing this, Jesus says to those listening to him that they should do all they can in this life to avoid ending up in "Gehenna" or the Valley of Hinnom, the local garbage dump of the time. When we understand Jesus' words within the culture and context of 1st century Israel, he isn't telling his listeners that they are going to have to "convert' or "get saved" or they will end up being punished forever in some place of eternal torment called hell. He is telling them that they need to change the way they are living so that at the end of their lives, their lives will have been lived with meaning and significance and will warrant an honourable burial as opposed to those who end up in the valley of Hinnom.
To expand upon this let me ask a question. When we read the word “hell” or the Greek word Gehenna in Matthew and Mark, did Jesus actually say hell or Gehenna? No, he didn’t. He wasn’t speaking English or Greek. He spoke Hebrew and/or Aramaic so using the Hebrew words, he have said gah-ee Hinnom (the valley of Hinnom) and every one of his audience would have known full well what he was referring to.
Consider the following if all of humanity is destined to end up in Gehenna if they don’t get “saved.” In 27 books of the New Testament, Gehenna is mentioned in only three, Matthew, Mark and James. In Matthew there are 3 mentions of Gehenna in the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly most of those listening that day were Jewish and very familiar with the Valley of Hinnom which is what Jesus would have said. In Matthew 10 and 18 Jesus uses the term Gehenna in conversations with his 12 Jewish disciples. In Matthew 23 Gehenna is used twice as Jesus chastizes the Jewish scribes and Pharisees. In Mark 9 Gehenna appears 3 times as Jesus again addresses his 12 Jewish disciples. And finally Gehenna appears in James 3:6. To whom was the book of James written to? According to James 1:1 it was written to the 12 tribes scattered abroad, in other words, to the Jews, Jews who would know all about the Valley of Hinnom.
Apparently all of mankind could end up in Gehenna and yet Luke sees no reason to mention it in either his gospel or the Book of Acts. John sees no reason to mention Gehenna in his gospel, in his 3 epistles or the book of Revelation. Peter ignores it in his two epistles and Paul, author of 14 books of the New Testament counting Hebrews, doesn’t mention Gehenna even one time. How can that be if all of mankind needs to be warned that they could end up in Gehenna? How do you explain that half of the references to Gehenna occur in private conversations between Jesus and his disciples? Shouldn’t Jesus, the disciples, Paul and the Bible as a whole be shouting the warning concerning of Gehenna to the entire world? Shouldn’t someone in the book of Acts which is all about evangelization have mentioned Gehenna even one time?
Did we all have to wait for future Latin and English translators to show us the light when it comes to Gehenna?
Or might it be that Jesus used a very “infamous” location that virtually all Jews would know the history of as an allegory to exhort those who heard his teachings to change their lives, to transform their lives into something that would warrant a burial, not in the fires of the garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom, but in a place that would be respected and honoured? The valley of Hinnom and the story behind it was “Jewish” and this explains why the Greeks had no word for it so they transliterated the name of the valley and got Gehenna. It wasn’t some universal place of eternal punishment so trying to tell Gentiles about it or use it as a warning to transform their lives would have been pointless. Hence, Paul never tries to use it.
If we consider Jesus’ warnings regarding Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom, perhaps we could summarize them as follows.
If you are a person who gets angry over nothing, you speaks badly of and denigrates others, you need to change because you are in danger of living a life that has very little value and would warrant your body being disposed of in the local garbage dump.
If you are a person whose lusts are out of control, externally and internally, you are in danger of living a life that will be very destructive and again would warrant having your body dumped in the garbage heap.
Do not fear the person who can kill the external body but instead be more concerned about that which can kill not only the external but the internal as well. It truly isn’t the external that you need to be concerned about. Take care of, clean up the inside and the outside/external will be taken care of automatically. (By the way, for the most part your biggest enemy when it comes to the internal is “your egoic self” or the carnal mind as Paul puts it. It is about time that we start taking responsibility and quit blaming the devil or our so-called enemies for the problems in our lives. You are a co-creator with God, you have the power within to change and transform yourself.)
If our carnal bodies are going to lead us into all kinds of trouble and cause us to live a unproductive and hurtful life, we would be better off to enter this life minus some of those parts. (When we go to an extreme and interpret these words of Jesus literally, we can end up with people like Origen castrating himself.)
About the only thing worse than living a worthless life is influencing others so much that they lead a worthless life as well, sometimes in fact, even more worthless than your’s. Do that and you can be sure your life will warrant little beyond having your body dumped at the local landfill.
If you do not change, if you do not transform your lives, there is no way you can avoid your lives being judged as worthless and deserving of the garbage dump.
Our tongue, our words can get us in a lot of trouble and are often as consuming and destructive as the fires in the Valley of Hinnom are in consuming the local waste.
Needless to say, if you realized that Jesus was suggesting that the way you were currently living really warranted your body being dumped out in the Valley of Hinnom, you wouldn’t be too pleased with Jesus, especially if you were the religious leaders of the time and viewed your lives as being pious and holy. Who knows, doing something like that just might get you killed in the end by those same religious leaders.
Hopefully we have shown that the concept of an eternal place of punishment simply isn’t found in the Old Testament. If that is the case, do we really believe that God left humanity in the dark for some 4000 years and then Jesus came along and dropped a bombshell on mankind concerning their "eternal destiny" or was Jesus speaking to the Jews of his time, using figures of speech that were relevant to his culture in order to make a very profound point? Ultimately we each must decide for ourselves but hopefully this series is piling up enough evidence to make you think about the choice you will make.
Let me conclude with a quote from Polybius, a Greek historian who lived from about 203 to 120 B.C. Regarding a place of eternal punishment, he wrote: “Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions.”
I think Polybius is very wise when it comes the doctrine of eternal punishment. He sees it as a totally man-made belief created to control the people and without question, the doctrine of hell is all of that and more. If you don't belong to our church and believe what we believe you are going to burn in hell for ever! If you are trying to control people, I am not sure it can get any better than that. Just keep pounding into peoples' heads that your group is the one true religion and if they don't accept your beliefs, they are going to burn in hell for ever. It’s sheer brilliance. Create the ultimate fear and then announce that you have the antidote. Talk about creating the situation so you can exercise authority, control and power. Make the people sick and then produce the so-called cure. You know, you could make a lot of money doing that even today both in and outside the religious world.
Blessings, shalom, namaste