Did you know in the Gospels, Jesus never mentions the word “hell”, he actually talks about Gehenna? A literal place on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Of course this has been translated in many Bibles as the word hell, which is fine except the extra baggage that has commonly been attached to it over the centuries.
(Just to clarify this isn’t a treatise on the subject of hell. There are many books that do a great job on that. My number one recommendation is “Her gates will never be shut” by Brad Jersak.)
Anyways back to hell! So, you may ask, the word Jesus used is Gehenna and not hell, it still means the same thing so why does it even matter?
Well it matters because when most people think of the word hell it brings up images of a physical place of eternal conscious torment (ECT) after death. A place totally separated from the Divine creator for a never ending amount of time. Dante’s inferno was a popular 14th century medieval telling of what many believe hell to be like today. Never ending fire and brimstone. That’s hell right? But is that what Jesus really taught?
So we know that Jesus didn’t use the word hell, he used Gehenna. What in the hell is Gehenna and why did he use it?
Gehenna, a compound word meaning Valley of Hinnom (also Topheth) , can be found throughout the text in the Hebrew Bible (Old testament). It was and still is a literal physical place with a pretty colored past. (see picture above for its current state. Beautiful eh?)
We see it described in 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6 and 2 Kings 23:10 as it was used as a place of idolatry and child sacrifice by paganized Jews who worshiped the Cannanite God Moloch. (see also Jer 7:29 – 34; 19:1 – 15; 31:40)
Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes Gehenna as
“… a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem, where the idolatrous Jews offered their children in sacrifice to Molech. This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by the fire which was kept always burning.”
By the time of Jesus, this place had a very seasoned past and a stigma that was pretty negative. Jesus like most good Jews of his time knew the scriptures and often, as a rabbi, would use the same imagery as seen in the prophets writings when teaching. One of the prophets that Jesus often quoted and definitely in the case of Gehenna was the prophet Jeremiah.
Using the Jeremiah language would have been well understood to those hearing his warnings of this torturous place called Gehenna. Jeremiah 7 and 19 explains the consequences of the idol worship of the Israelites.
“So now the time is coming, declares the LORD , when people will no longer speak of Topheth or the Ben-hinnom Valley (Gehenna), but they will call it Carnage Valley. They will bury the dead in Topheth (also Gehenna) until no space is left. The corpses of this people will be food for birds and wild animals, with no one to drive them off… the country will be reduced to a wasteland.”
This is what the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: I’m going to bring such disaster upon this place that it will shock all who hear of it. They have deserted me and degraded this place into a shrine for other gods, which neither they nor their ancestors nor Judah’s kings have ever known. And they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. Yes, they have built shrines to Baal, to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded or ordered such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind. I will foil the plans of Judah and Jerusalem in this place and will have them fall in battle before their enemies, before those who seek their lives…. And they will bury the dead in Topheth (Gehenna) until there’s no room left. The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: I am about to bring upon this city and its surrounding towns every disaster that I have pronounced against them, because they have been stubborn and wouldn’t obey my words.
Jeremiah 19:3-5, 7-9, 11, 15
When Jesus used the word Gehenna, he is playing on this tradition. It’s important to note that what Jeremiah predicted came to fruition in 586 BCE when the Babylonians attacked and the Jewish temple was destroyed and thousands where killed and thrown into the fires of what came to be known as Gehenna. (This is what Isaiah is referring to in Isaiah 66:24)
The stigma of the wicked being destroyed in Gehenna (hell) was near and dear to the hearts of the Jews at the time of Jesus. When he used this imagery, just as Jeremiah, he was coming against those who were in his mind violating the law and thus committing idolatry (which to him was not showing love, the sum of the law). But note that traditionally the Jews did not have a doctrine of what Christians now call hell. The view of a place of eternal conscious torment among jews was just not common (and can’t be found at all in the Hebrew Bible) until pagan and Greek influence crept into the religion during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century and grew in some of the sects within Judaism.
Moving on we see Jesus use the word itself a few times in the Gospels. 11 times in 3 Gospels. All of the mentions are as follows:
Now in these 11 references of Gehenna (hell) by Jesus, the three each in Matthew 5 and Mark 9 are parallel verses, meaning it’s the same teaching. So are the Matthew 10 and Luke 12 verses. We see it’s really documented that Jesus really only mentions it around 4 times total. The opposite of that would be how many times Jesus uses the words Heaven, 118 times and the word Kingdom, 107 times (word count taken from the ESV) . One significance is that Jesus didn’t preach hell more than anything else in the Bible as many modern preachers espouse. In fact he rarely mentions it at all. You would think such an important teaching about where someone will spend eternity would be more important than just mentioning a few times.
This is why, as well as with all the historical and biblical evidence that is contrary to the modern belief, I believe the verses above do not constitute a place of eternal conscious torment separated from God and is not what is meant by the word Gehenna. That may be what comes to our modern minds because of what we were taught as children but as you can see from above it is not what came to mind to those hearing Jesus speak on it. The images that came to mind were certainly destruction but just not in the same train of thought as many consider “hell” to be today.
Renowned Bible scholar NT Wright has this to say about the way Jesus used the word in his book “Surprised by hope”.
“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. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.“
What was he warning his hearers of? NT Wright goes on to say:
” His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.“
It’s also documented by Jewish historian Josephus that in 70 CE the Jewish temple and around 1 million Jews were killed . Although it is claimed by some that this was God’s vengeance/punishment against the Jews and a way for God to end the old Covenant system, we know by Jesus, who I believe fully reveals the character of God that God does not evoke or condone violence. Blogger, Martin Goodman, for the Oxford University press says this about the Roman seige and Jewish massacre in 70 CE:
“The public statements of the Roman state, as expressed on coins and in architecture (such as the Arch of Titus, which still stands above the Roman forum), revelled in the defeat of Judaea and the humiliation of the Jewish God.”
That doesn’t seem like something the God we know that Jesus is the express image of would orchestrate. My only point here is that unlike the Jeremiah scripture tradition who says that God commanded the violence due to wickedness, we now know through Jesus’s revelation of God that God does not work that way.
The violence of the first temple massacre as well as the 2nd were done by empire (1st the Babylonians, then the Romans), not God. Now this is written in scripture as the wrath/judgment of God but with Christ as the full revelation of God we can see that more as a metaphor for consequences of sin (its like hell). Also just as Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the temple and Jewish lives that happened in 586 BCE; so Jesus, using the language those around him would understand and know, was prophesying and warning those who would listen about the soon to be destruction of 70 CE. So Jesus warning about Gehenna would be akin to someone warning those today that if love isn’t sown, if violence is escalated, if mercy and forgiveness gets shoved on the back burner, we will eventually have an Auschwitz again.
To be sure, Jesus preached the kingdom of God, so these warnings are about how to be here and how to be fully human, which is what allows us to participate in this kingdom that is already being ushered in. We get to participate in the restoration and regeneration that is happening. We to get to be living incarnations. To strictly narrow these warnings about Gehenna (hell) to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE is not completely honest. Hell is resisting this coming kingdom. It’s resisting love.
Hell as resisting love
One quote I really like is by Author and preacher Brian Zahnd. He said:
“Hell is the love of God wrongly received.”
This really resonates with me. I remember as a child being so angry at my mom for something that in trying to get away from her she chased down and embraced me and told me she loved me. I tried to escape, I kicked and screamed but I couldn’t get away. I was so mad. I was in hell. But she didn’t let up. Eventually I gave in and embraced her back and forgot why I was upset in the first place. I feel, just like the story of my mom’s embrace, you can’t escape God’s love either and you can’t escape the Divine presence. I don’t believe in separation of God. Ever. And my hope is, just like my experience with the pursuing love of my own mother, that resistance is futile and we all forget what we are mad at in the first place and come to embrace the arms of our Abba, Father.
So it seems to me Jesus warned about Gehenna. A specific place with a specific past. He used it metaphorically and prophetically and it is a timeless message. But if you want to use the language of Hell, “Hell” as a place separate from the Divine that tortures souls for a never ending amount of time for the finite choices or beliefs one had while on this tiny planet in the vast and expanding universe is just a religious scapegoat used to condemn, scare and control people. Hell does exist though. Just ask anyone who’s been raped, molested, trafficked, has had a loved one die, been picked on, beat up, cheated on, suffers from depression, diseased, displaced, burned, fired etc. Just ask anyone who flat out rejects acts of pure love and kindness. Hell is real. But it’s not a place invented by the God fully revealed in Jesus as an eternal torture chamber.
” Hell is not outside of Jesus. All things were created in Him and through Him and by Him and for Him. Nothing can possibly exist apart from or outside of Jesus; John and Paul are emphatic on that. So hell is real, but it has to be understood in relationship with Jesus. I think hell is what we experience, now and hereafter, when we live in rebellion and alienation to who we really are in Jesus. But Jesus has met us in our hell and intends to deliver us from our own evil.”
-Wm Paul Young
As the above quote says, whatever hell is, we can rest assured that God is there with us. If the incarnation of Jesus shows us anything it’s that the Divine is never “out there” while we are “down here”. God gets in it with us and shows us a better way and suffers with us. And to me, that’s good news because I believe in the end, love wins.