Our task is to trace the steps from Genesis through to the development of the NT concept of Gehenna – translated as “hell” in our English Bibles.
Many of us will be familiar with the fact that there are also other words which have been translated as “hell” in our English Bibles.
Sheol = The Hebrew word in the OT used for the place of the dead. Its meaning moves between the ideas of the grave, underworld and the state of the dead. It is used over 60x and most frequently in the Psalms.
Hades = The unseen place of the departed – the lower regions – the grave. It is the Greek word substituted for Sheol by the translators of the Septuagint LXX (200 BC). It is used in the NT 10x. Only in Luke 16:23 are people spoken of as being conscious there – yet in a parable!
Tartarus = The deepest abyss for the incarceration of disobedient “angels.” The term is used only once in 2 Peter 2:4 but shows up in the Jewish writings that pre-date the NT.
Gehenna = Used 11x in the NT. Ten of those times by the Lord Jesus himself in the Gospel accounts and once in James 3:6. The Hebrew term Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, which lay just outside ancient Jerusalem.
Was Gehenna a Perpetual Burning Rubbish Dump in the 1st Century?
It has been popularly said that the Lord Jesus borrowed the imagery of Gehenna from a perpetually lit rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was used for consuming the cities rubbish and even to destroy the godless. It is understood that such graphic imagery would have helped Jesus to convey what the end-time judgment will be like. Apparently this idea was first written about in a commentary by a Rabbi by the name of David Kimhi who lived around A.D. 1200.
However, this notion of Gehenna as a perpetual rubbish dump has been contested by some notable scholars. Herman Strack & Paul Billerbeck, scholars of Judaism and its related writings, state that there is neither archaeological nor literary evidence to support this claim in either the early intertestamental literature or later rabbinic sources. In 1986 Lloyd R. Bailey in his book “The Topography of Hell” came to the same conclusion.
There is evidence, however, that part of the valley was used for a cemetery over many centuries due to a number of burial chambers that have been found there by archaeologists (6th cent. BC – 1st cent. AD). Also the Romans apparently performed cremations there in the first century. Perhaps these facts may have influenced Rabbi Kahli’s speculation that the valley was a perpetual rubbish dump in Christ’s day.
So if the Lord Jesus did not draw his imagery from the popular concept of the “rubbish dump” where did he draw the concept from?
To answer this question we now turn to the OT account of Genesis to see if we can find any reference to its origin there.
The Genesis Account – Judgment & Death
At the outset we notice that the “Valley of Hinnom”, from which developed the concept of Gehenna, was nowhere near the Garden of Eden which we read about in Genesis chapters 1-3. It was geographically located just outside the city of Jerusalem in the New World following the Flood. However, what we do find at the outset of the OT is the all important general theme of “Judgment” which we could liken to an umbrella under which all later concepts, such as Gehenna, need to be considered.
We are told that this “Judgement” for Sin, in Genesis, entails nothing more than the ultimate price of death – “from dust you are and to dust you will return (Gen 3:19).” When God confronted Adam and Eve with their act of disobedience, in taking from the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were to pay with their lives. It was only by a remarkable act of grace that God took the lives of animals, as a substitute, to extend the lives of the first human beings in order to perpetuate the human race – “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them (Gen 3:21).”
This would be the model, or pattern followed in the OT sacrificial system, upon which we would be redeemed by our Lord and Saviour’s atoning death as our substitute. Therefore, the judgement of God, upon Sin, was death.
As Paul so succinctly writes in Romans –
“The wages of sin is death!” (Romans 6:23).
Israel’s Introduction to the Valley of Hinnom
So thus far, from the very outset, there is no mention of the “Valley of Hinnom”, from which developed the concept of Gehenna, until we read of it for the very first time in Joshua (near the end of the 15th century B.C.). We are introduced to it after the Israelites had entered into the Promised Land of Canaan when the land was being described for allotment to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
“Then it ran up the Valley of Ben Hinnom along the slope of the Jebusite city (that is Jerusalem). From there it climbed up to the top of the hill west of the Hinnom Valley at the northern end of the Valley of Rephaim (Josh 15:8).
“The boundary went down to the foot of the hill facing the Valley of Ben Hinnom, north of the Valley of Rephaim. It continued down the Hinnom Valley along the southern slope of the Jebusite city and so to En Rogel (Josh 18:16).”
So, thus far, the Valley of Ben Hinnom is described as nothing more than a geographical location.
The Horrors of Canaanite Practices in the Valley of Hinnom
We now pause to consider what took place in this valley.
But before we do, I want to draw attention to the fact that many people believe that God is cruel and unfair because in the book of Joshua, from which we have just read about the Valley of Ben Hinnom, God instructed the Israelites to destroy all the human life in the land which God had told them to take possession of.
Why? Well for one reason the existing inhabitants of Canaan, whom the Israelites were told to disposes, through annihilation, had been sacrificing their children to a god by the name of molech for centuries. This practise was a detestable way of treating human life in the eyes of the Sovereign God who made heaven and earth.
We read in Leviticus 18, after listing all the sexual sins that characterised the Canaanite inhabitants, – “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord (Lev 18:21).”
In other words, do not follow the evil practises of the Canaanites, whom God used the Israelites to remove from the land, after the land becomes yours.
Who was Molech and where or what was Topheth?
Who was Molech and how were the Canaanite’s children sacrificed to him? In the Valley of Ben Hinnom there was what was termed a high place called Topheth. The etymology of the word Topheth might suggest a fire place and also shame. It was here that the Canaanites burnt their children to death in the fires lit for sacrifice. This was appalling, detestable, and inconceivable. No wonder these people had to be destroyed.
The Israelites Followed Suit
It is difficult to imagine any culture on earth becoming so depraved. However consider this: King Ahaz of Judah (732-715BC), 7 centuries after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, along with making cast idols for worshipping the Baals, sacrificed his sons in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.
He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites (2 Chron 28:3).”
This is shocking!
However, if that is not enough, King Manasseh of Judah (696-686 BC) continued the practise into the next generation.
“In both courts of the temple of the Lord, he built alters to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his sons in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practised sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger (2 Chron 33:5-6).”
The grandson of this evil King Manasseh, Josiah, who came to the throne at only 8 year old (640-609 BC), attempted to reform Judah in the hope of averting God’s judgment upon the nation for these practises.
“He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech (2 Kings 23:10).”
How could the Jews, of all people, stoop so low?
These practices certainly put colour into the geography of Ben Hinnom now don’t they? We note that our contemporary traditions around the NT Gehenna (as a place for disembodied eternal conscious torment) is not remotely related to what we have looked at so far.
Anyway, what was God to do with his chosen people?
The Valley of Ben Hinnom in the Writings of the Prophets
We now turn to consider the writings of the OT prophets, in regards to the geographical location of Ben Hinnom, in search of further illumination to the development of the NT concept of Gehenna that the Lord Jesus used.
Jeremiah is the only prophet to take up the imagery of the Valley of Ben Hinnom in his writings. He does so in order to use the graphic horror of fiery sacrifice in order to confront Judah’s sin. Although Jeremiah is the only prophet to draw on the place name Ben Hinnom in the prophet Isaiah we do have one reference to Topheth which was the high place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom for these child sacrifices.
“Topheth has long been prepared; it has been made ready for the king. Its fire pit has been made deep and wide, with an abundance of fire and wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of burning sulphur, sets it ablaze (Isa 30:33).”
We see here, in Isaiah, that Topheth has been conceptually modified into a place prepared for a future judgment upon Israel’s enemies. The “king”, to whom the prophecy is referring to, is the king of Assyria (see Isa 30:31). It is interesting to note how familiar the language of the breath of the Lord is in the way it sets its wood on fire and a stream of burning sulphur sets it ablaze. (Compare Rev 14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8).
The Valley of Hinnom becomes an Image of Judgment for Jerusalem’s Sin
However, Jeremiah’s conceptual modification of Ben Hinnom, I think, is of the greatest interest to us this afternoon as we pursue this subject; particularly in light of his message being delivered in relation to the imminent judgment upon Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
We read –
“The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire- something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of the people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away (Jer 7:30-33).”
Now, for the first time, the Valley of Ben Hinnom has become a scene of future judgment upon those of Jerusalem. It is a judgment that bears strong similarity to how the earlier Kings Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their children to the god Molech. The cup that they filled up is now the cup which the prophet has them drinking from. Notice the familiar end-time language of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field feeding on the slain (compare Rev 19:21) – but more importantly note that it is the Jews who are in view here!
Let’s read some further on in Jeremiah chapter 19 of this use of Ben Hinnom as a place of judgment against Jerusalem.
“This is what the Lord says” ‘Go and buy a clay jar from the potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears them tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fires as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth (Jer 19:1-7).”
Ben Hinnom is referred to once again in Jeremiah 32:30-41. However, in that chapter, we are told that even though they sacrificed their children in Ben Hinnom, God will still show mercy on them and gather them back to Jerusalem following the imminent Babylonian invasion. So from the writings of Jeremiah Ben-Hinnom appears to have been used as a Jewish prophetic metaphor for temporal historical judgments upon the Jews. These prophecies on Judah and Jerusalem should be factored in to our considerations of the concept of Gehenna, under the general umbrella of God’s Judgment, when we read of it in the NT.
Jesus Christ’s teaching on Gehenna
So what do we now find in our 10 usages of the concept of Gehenna off the Lord Jesus own lips (Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).
Firstly, in the very Jewish book of Matthew, note that it is used 6 times. Yet in the very Gentile book of Luke it is used only once.
Only in the one reference in Mark (9:48) does Jesus combine the term Gehenna with the imagery of the “unquenchable fire and worm that dieth not” that we find in Isaiah 66:24. In Isaiah those who are subjected to the unquenchable fire and non-perishing worm perish! It is only the righteous in verse 22 who are said to endure before God. This is not an ethereal image but an image rooted in this physical world. The wider context of the chapter, in which we find this “fire and worm” verse, tells us clearly that the ungodly are slain (Isa 66:16).
Further, the other well known imagery of the “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth”, which has its origins in Psalm 112:10, is never connected to the technical term Gehenna (compare Mt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30 and note that all the references are in Matthew). It is, however, used to convey that the Jews, who thought that they were guaranteed heirs of the Kingdom, will react this way when they are shut out and others, whom they naturally excluded, are invited in. From the original source in Psalm 112:10 these, gnashing their teeth, are said to waste away and all their hopes perish along with them.
We find that that this term Gehenna is being used, in its original setting, to address Jews who presumably would have known of Jeremiah’s development of the concept into a future judgment reserved for Jerusalem’s sin.
So, was the concept of Gehenna, as developed in the writings of Jeremiah, intended for a specific audience’s ears? Was Jesus drawing on the Scriptural associations that his original Jewish audience would have been familiar with?
Why such an Absence of Gehenna in the Rest of the NT?
The reason that I ask this question is because the term Gehenna is never used in Acts, in Paul’s writings, Peter’s writings, John’s writings and even in the Book of Revelation with all its graphic apocalyptic imagery.
The only other use of the word is found in James 3:6 where we read –
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (Jam 3:6).”
James does not give us many clues as to how the fire of Gehenna can light the tongue. Perhaps James is drawing associations with the level of depraved evil, practised in historical Ben Hinnom, as a similar evil which can motivate the misuse of the human tongue. Certainly he is writing very creatively.
If the Lord Jesus teaching on Gehenna was aimed at a particular Jewish audience, for which the concept of Gehenna was a prophetic judgment upon Jerusalem, as we have seen in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, is it appropriate that we use it today? None of the NT writers used it but for James. Or should we treat the technical concept of Gehenna as a concept synonymous with the future judgment of fire?
There are many references in the NT to fire being the agent used in the final judgment to purge the world of sin (e.g. 1 Cor 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; Heb 10:27; 2 Pet 3:7). Perhaps using the term “fire”, is a much less loaded word than using the prophetic Jewish concept of Gehenna? Perhaps the technical term Gehenna simply didn’t hold currency in the Gentile world. So what do we all think?
(Conditional Immortality Association Conference address May 5th 2012)