The Language of Hell - Gehenna



In the last essay/video, I looked at two of the 4 original words that have been translated Hell by older English translations. Hades and Sheol refer to the realm of the dead or an intermediary state between our death in this life and judgement. In this video I’ll be discussing the word Gehenna. This is the word that is most often connected with our modern understanding of what hell is – a place of fire and torment and endless suffering away from the presence of God.


This is a study on the biblical usage of the word as many assume it is the place of eternal torment without really digging into the history of the word. There are two main aspects of the word that I’ll look at: 1) the geographical history and 2) the language of judgement. The second point will look mostly at the New Testament usage but this does rely on the understanding and foundation of point 1. We will then dig into what Jesus meant when he talked about Gehenna.


Gehenna is a shortened word based off the Hebrew Ge’ Hinnom or Ge’ Ben Hinnom which means the valley of Hinnom or the valley of the sons of Hinnom. For the rest of this essay I’ll be using the term Gehenna. It is located south, south west of Jerusalem and connected to the Kidron valley. It has a long history connected with death and some evidence of ancient tombs have been located in its slopes[1] though the clearer evidence of its connection with death comes from the bible.


2 Chronicles[2] connects the valley of Hinnom to child sacrifice and idol worship where Ahaz and Mannassah burned their sons as offerings to other gods. It is in this valley that Josiah brings reform and desecrates the altars. He defiles the altar and makes it unusable by burning bones of the dead which then cleanses Judah and Jerusalem[3]. Even in the geographical history, there is evidence of death and fire that kills and destroys rather than a history of torment and torture.


The prophet Jeremiah was alive when some of the sacrifice and evil in Gehenna took place. Jeremiah acknowledges the altar of fire, also known as places of Topheth, in the valley of the sons of Hinnom where sons and daughters were killed in the fire. He then prophecies that the valley will be where God brings judgement due to the sacrifices they made and the evil they are responsible for. The valley will be known as the ‘Valley of Slaughter’, there will be no room to bury the dead and the bodies will become food for birds.[4] Jeremiah repeats this warning in chapter 19 to highlight that people will die by the sword and it will become a valley of dead bodies.[5] Though Jeremiah may have meant this prophecy for a future battle with the Assyrians, we will look into Jesus’ use of the valley shortly. At the end of Jeremiah, he references a field of dead bodies and ashes, which given earlier verses can be assumed to be referencing Gehenna as part of God’s future restoration plan for Jerusalem.[6]


Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to mention judgement in a valley though not all of the other references are so overtly connected with Gehenna. For the purpose of this essay we will only focus on Isaiah but both Ezekiel and Joel[7] prophecy that God’s judgement on the wicked will lead to their death but it will also lead to the rescue of God’s people.


Isaiah is the most quoted prophet within the New Testament in terms of direct quotes and allusions and this is also the case when it comes to judgement and the outcome of judgement for those who reject God. Two particular references are important for understanding Gehenna. The first is Isaiah 30:33 which references Topheth (ESV translates Topheth as ‘a burning place’) which is made ready for the king of Assyria and it is kindled by the breath of the Lord which is likened to a stream of sulphur. Topheth, as already seen in Jeremiah is connected to the altars on which children were sacrificed. God’s judgement is a sign of hope that those who commit evil will face the Holy judge who’s very breath is a consuming fire. Yet this fire is seen as salvation for those who suffer under the oppression of an evil empire.


Topheth and Gehenna are linked directly with death, evil and God’s judgement and ultimate destruction of both. The final Old Testament reference we’ll look at here is Isaiah 66:24:

“And they [the righteous] shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”.

The valley of Gehenna is outside of the city of Jerusalem. Those who are brought to the holy mountain Jerusalem are those who are saved by God’s judgement[8] and outside of Jerusalem will be those who rebelled against God. Those who rebelled will be dead. The abhorrence and everlasting contempt mentioned by Daniel[9] will be felt by the righteous. You only need a basic understanding of the bible and Ancient Near Eastern culture (and current Middle Eastern) to know that not being buried is a very shameful and dishonourable way to be left. This is highlighted in the Easter story in the need to bury Jesus before the Sabbath (see Matthew 27:57-61). No honourable Jew would want their legacy to be left a corpse, being eaten by worms and destroyed by fire until there was nothing left of them.


Before we review Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna, I want to emphasise that in no aspect of the Old Testament view of God’s wrath or judgement, harsh though it might seem to our modern ears, is there any view of everlasting suffering or torment. The valley of judgement for Isaiah, Joel and Ezekiel which is connected to Gehenna by Jeremiah, is filled with the dead. Worms eat the dead and the emphasis on the worm not dying[10] is an emphasis on the amount of bodies as opposed to an immortal worm. The emphasis on a fire that cannot be quenched is a statement that the fire is not affected by anyone who tries to put it out, not that it will never go out. Both of these ideas, an immortal worm and unending fire, are ideas placed into the text by our culture, not from what the authors are saying.


Jesus is the only person that talks about Gehenna in the New Testament aside from one reference by James. Most of the 11 references come from the gospel of Matthew, the gospel that is understood to be written for a Jewish audience. In most of the quotations given, Jesus does not explain what he means by Gehenna. Because of this lack of extra explanation given it is safe to assume that his audience knew the geographical and historical background including Jeremiah’s prophecy. Kim Pappaioannou, author of The Geography of Hell, has done an in depth study of the term Gehenna and found no other author from the Intertestemental Period to after 70AD directly connected Gehenna to judgement. Even Jeremiah’s contemporaries didn’t make the connection.


It has been argued by those who hold a traditional view that the OT is fairly quiet on what hell will be like[11] and we should let Jesus’ teaching bring revelation on the matter. I agree that we should let Jesus clarify our understanding of hell and I genuinely believe he does. But I also genuinely believe Jesus disagrees with the first idea because he directly quotes the OT over and over again when talking about God’s judgement. In fact, he couldn’t be any clearer what Gehenna represents as we will soon see.


In terms of contemporary geography at the time of Jesus, there is no archaeological evidence of a rubbish dump in Gehenna and the supposed evidence of a dump in writings was from too late a date to warrant believing it to be true.[12][13] Unfortunately many who see the rubbish dump as a good fit with what they already believe about hell don’t bother looking into the accuracy of the story. Confirmation bias is something we all need to be wary of!


Many of the following verses will come up in their own videos over time but a summary of how Jesus used Gehenna is needed to bring this to a conclusion. Matthew references Gehenna the most so we will look at Mark and Luke briefly first.


Mark 9:42-50 is the only reference to Gehenna in the book and it is a tough passage to work through but Mark makes it easier for his readers and listeners to understand what is meant by Gehenna[14] by directly quoting Isaiah 66:24. Mark is understood to be written for a more non-Jerusalem based audience and so many wouldn’t know the geography of Jerusalem but may have still known the Old Testament prophets. Using the word Gehenna would have connected some to Jeremiah’s prophecies but Mark hammers home the point that Gehenna is the final judgement in a valley filled with the dead by also quoting Isaiah.


Understanding Gehenna, or hell as we read it in most of our bibles, as a place where those not held by God’s grace through Christ will die makes far more sense of this passage. The idea that it is better to lose an arm to gain life is far more logical than the traditional view that losing an arm is better than being eternally tormented by worms and fire. This also makes the most sense of the parallel to Mark 9 found in Matthew 5:27-30.


Luke 12:4-5 is the only direct reference to Gehenna in Luke though Luke has recorded many parables that are connected with judgement and hell. The most quoted parable is actually the most misused and though it was touched on briefly in the last video, my next video will look at the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in more detail. Just as a quick note, though many translations have translated the word 'Hades' in Luke 16 and the 'Gehenna' in Luke 12 to be ‘Hell’ they are not the same place as can be seen by comparing this essay with my last one!


Luke 12:4-5 parallels Matthew 10:28 and we will need more time to cover these passages in detail in their own essays but I will try and be as succinct as possible here. In Luke, Jesus is talking to his disciples while a crowd is around them and potentially getting hostile as they are ‘trampling one another’[15]. Jesus tells the disciples,

‘do not fear those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do.’

This is then contrasted with

‘fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you fear him!’

Jesus goes on to say that his disciples are highly valued and remembered by God.

The controversy and difficulty with verse 5 is our discomfort with the idea that God can kill anyone. The ‘he’ in this passage cannot be the devil as we are never taught to fear the devil but to resist him and he shall flee[16]. It makes no sense that it is anyone else other than God because verse 4 and 5 removes any possibility that humans or anyone else have the authority to cast anyone after being killed into Gehenna. There is no evidence for eternal torment here, but it does show that Jesus intended Gehenna to represent his judgement. The background to that judgement as we’ve already discussed is a valley of slaughter, death by the sword and unburied corpses that will eventually be burnt to ash[17]. It makes sense because in Jeremiah and Isaiah it is God bringing the sword and fire against the wicked rather than anyone else. God will be the salvation for the oppressed, those who are oppressed can find peace in the God who is a victorious warrior.


The discussion on Luke makes even more sense when we look at the parallel in Matthew 10:28. The disciples are about to be sent out into hostile territory where being stoned or at the very least, beaten, is a very real possibility. Jesus tells the disciples,

"And do not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy body and soul in Gehenna"

Destroy here, within context means kill. With another video I’ll look a bit more closely at the word that is rendered “destroy” but again it makes better sense of the context to see that God brings judgement, it is God not man we should fear, and judgement for those who are unrepentant means complete destruction.


Matthew 5:21 compares the judgement for murder with the Gehenna of fire. Though there is more going on in the structure of verses 21-22, we can accept the overview without controversy. Just a little background is needed to understand in Old Testament law, the judgement for those who commit murder was death[18]. Jesus is comparing the thought of committing murder and even insulting another with the act of murder. He then says that both thought or action are liable to the ‘Gehenna of fire’. Any reference to fire along with Gehenna links back to the valley of slaughter or any valley of judgement such as Isaiah 66:24. With this background again, there is no reason to think Gehenna’s fires will not ultimately destroy.


So as a summary, Gehenna was a geographic location that became renowned for death and evil and by Jeremiah it became a location of God’s judgement and destruction of evil and those who are rebellious against God. It was Jesus who reconnected judgement with Jeremiah’s prophecy over Gehenna and in so doing he also connected Isaiah’s prophecy with the valley.


When Gehenna is referenced in the Old Testament, it may well have been a geographical location but Jesus used it to represent the judgement and ultimate death of the unrepentant. As a final conclusion it strengthens this argument to note that no other author in the New Testament aside from James, uses Gehenna but instead uses language like eternal destruction[19], death[20], perish[21], consume[22] and eternal fire[23] though that last one will need to be looked at in more detail. This would make sense given that the majority of New Testament authors aside from James, were writing to an audience who would have been far less familiar with both the location and history of Gehenna as well as its direct connection to Jeremiah and Isaiah’s prophecies.

Instead of teaching that hell is a place of ongoing endless suffering and torment, Jesus used a symbol of slaughter and death. No this isn’t necessarily a more pleasant picture but for us who suffer, those who are oppressed by evil regimes, institutions or people, it highlights that God will fight for them and we do not have to fear those who can harm our physical bodies. We have a hope that God will bring justice but he will not keep those who walk in wickedness alive and in a state of torment forever.[24]


Let me know your thoughts in the comments, is this brand new information? Have you ever been taught this in church? For those of you who hold to a traditional view, the burden of proof to find torment in the concept of Gehenna is really on you.


Thanks for watching, feel free to subscribe and share if you want to see more videos! I am Phil Duncalfe and this is The Hell Project.

[1] The Geography of Hell references Bailey’s Gehenna to support this.


[2] 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6, 34:6


[3] 2 Kings 23:1-25 specifically verse 10


[4] Jeremiah 7:31-34


[5] Jeremiah 19 specifically verses 6-9.


[6] Jeremiah 31:40


[7] Ezekiel 39:11-16, Joel 3:1-21


[8] Isaiah 66:20


[9] Daniel 12:2


[10] Isaiah 66:24


[11] Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, who is now an annihilationist, make this statement. Many books defending the traditional view of hell also rarely reference the Old Testament. Even Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology references the OT 3 times with no further comment and makes no connection to valleys of judgement in Jeremiah or Isaiah when talking about hell.


[12] More authors are making this point but Kim Pappaioannou also makes the point that the idea of the rubbish dump weakens the power of Luke 12:4-5 in that people as well as God can throw people into Gehenna if that is what Jesus was pointing to.


[13] Chris Loewen also argues this point in his article on RethinkingHell.com http://rethinkinghell.com/2018/01/23/gehenna-the-history-development-and-usage-of-a-common-image-for-hell/


[14] Verse 43, 45 and 47 are all rendered ‘Hell’ by the majority of translations despite hell being an inaccurate term for Gehenna (see also video/essay on Sheol/Hades)


[15] Luke 12:1


[16] James 4:7


[17] Malachi 4:3


[18] Numbers 35:16


[19] 2 Thessalonians 1:9


[20] Romans 6:23


[21] John 3:16


[22] Hebrews 10:27


[23] Jude 7


[24] Psalms 1:5-6

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