Recovering the Biblical Meaning of Hell

Recovering the Biblical Meaning of Hell

The word most often used by Jesus and translated "hell" in our English Bibles, is actually the Greek word Gehenna. Gehenna referred to a literal place in Jerusalem, much like we would say "Central Park" or "Fisherman’s Wharf" to designate places within New York City or San Francisco. This place Gehenna in the first century was a valley just outside Jerusalem known as the "valley of Hinnom". It was a place used to burn garbage and the fires were continually burning there. It was also a place filled with worms and maggots feeding on the garbage.  Not a pretty picture. 

During the time of Israel's Kings, hundreds of years prior to the time of Jesus, this same valley was a place where worshippers of Molech sacrificed their children to the false god by burning them alive. This is referred to in the book of 2 Kings 23:10. Jeremiah prophesies three times in his book that Jerusalem will be destroyed and judged by God because of the horrible slaughter of innocents that took place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. (see Jeremiah 7:32-34, 19:1-15, and 31:38-40 ). This place was also called Topheth in the Old Testament. These prophecies of Jeremiah were literally fulfilled in 587 BC with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus used the word "Gehenna" 11 times in the gospels. Each usage is talking about the literal garbage dump outside of Jerusalem and may also metaphorically be pointing to the national judgment by the Romans which would come in 70 AD.  Jesus was pointing to another national judgment similar to the judgment that was prophesied by Jeremiah and occurred in 587 BC.   Jesus prophesied about this national judgment coming to Israel many times in which the Temple and the city would be destroyed because they had rejected their Messiah. (see Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13)

Isaiah prophesied of a time when people would go forth and “look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me [God], for their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.”  (Isaiah 66:24)  Note that he was not talking about the suffering of disembodied souls, but merely dead bodies being burned.  When Jesus spoke of the fate of some being on the garbage heap of Gehenna he was echoing Isaiah’s words and his hearers would have understood that this was a judgment of death and destruction in this lifetime – not a metaphor for some kind of post-mortem torture. 

Here is one of the passages where Jesus used the word Gehenna.  Note the direct quotation from Isaiah:

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

In other words, in the Gehenna passages Jesus was saying "look, it is better to enter into a real life with God in holiness than to risk being killed in the judgment that is coming on Jerusalem and having your body thrown on that garbage heap in Gehenna outside the city where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die."

The historian Josephus confirms in his book on the Jewish Wars that when Rome destroyed Jerusalem some 40 years later in 70 AD they threw thousands of bodies on the garbage heap in Gehenna there to be burned along with the garbage. This was the literal fulfillment of Jesus' words about Gehenna. It has nothing to do with the afterlife or an extended time of punishment in a fiery hell.  Those who were faithful followers of Jesus escaped from the city shortly before this destruction, and this is recorded by Josephus.

New Testament scholar NT Wright remarks concerning Gehenna, that, "The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one." ("Surprised by Hope", pages 176-177)

And again, NT Wright states concerning Gehenna, "Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap." (ibid, page 177)

Here is another passage from NT Wright:

"Most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don't in fact refer to any such thing. The great majority of them have to do with the way God acts within the world and history. Most of them look back to the language and ideas in the Old Testament, which work in quite a different way from that which is normally imagined." (
"Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship" pages 92 to 93.)

It is important that we recover what Jesus really meant when He talked about Gehenna.  This does not take away from God’s justice, holiness, or the fact that the Bible teaches that the wicked will be punished.  However, we need to find clarity and understanding about what Jesus really taught.  This is difficult given the past 1600 years of false teachings about these passages from the church.  I am confident that the Lord Himself will help us in these endeavors. 

I believe that the Holy Spirit is helping us in these days to understand some of these passages in a fresh light and He is leading us into a fuller understanding of the truth.

I want to give credit both to NT Wright and to John Noe for helping me to see the connection between the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah with the Gehenna passages in the gospels.

For further reading, I highly recommend “Surprised by Hope” by NT Wright and “Hell Yes, Hell No” by John Noe.
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