Last time, we looked at the Greek word Hades, which is usually translated as “hell” in most English versions. It refers to the “realm of the dead,” both of the righteous and unrighteous dead. Now let’s look at the word Gehenna and how different it is from Hades. Literally, Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a place not far from Jerusalem. This valley is referred to eleven times in the Old Testament, but we will look at six because they are particularly significant for how Gehenna is used in the New Testament:
- “He [King Josiah] desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.” (2 Kings 23:10)
- “He [King Ahaz] burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)
- “He [King Manasseh] sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)
- “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.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)
- “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.” (Jeremiah 19:6)
- “They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded — nor did it enter my mind — that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” (Jeremiah 32:35)
In the New Testament, Gehenna is used twelve times — eleven times in the books of the Gospel and once in the book of James. In the book of Matthew, it is used seven times, all from the mouth of Jesus. We will look closer at these since the three uses in Mark and the single use in Luke are in parallel accounts. In all these instances, the NIV translates Gehenna as “hell,” but let us use the Greek word so we can more clearly note the distinction:
- “Anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
- “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:29)
- “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:30)
- “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10:28)
- “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna.” (Matthew 18:9)
- “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of Gehenna as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
- “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33)
To consider these important questions adequately, we need to look at the larger context, which is about the kingdom of God. That is what the preaching and teaching ministry of Jesus was about (Matthew 4:17), and was manifested in his healings and miracles. It is what the “Sermon on the Mount” was about, which begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus warned his listeners that the way of God’s kingdom is not like the way the Pharisees and others had been following, who had failed to recognize Messiah. He exhorted them concerning these two ways: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
The narrow gate is the way of the kingdom. The wide gate and broad road is the path the Pharisees, zealots and others were on, and it led to destruction. For even though the kingdom was promised to the Jews, it was possible for many of them to miss it. It was important, then, that they not let anything keep them from entering God’s kingdom, or else they would be caught in the destruction to come.
This theme of coming judgment intensifies throughout Matthew and especially in Jesus’ pronouncements and warnings toward the end of the book. In chapter 23, where we find Gehenna mentioned twice, Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees with a series of eight “woes” (Matthew 23:13-32). In verses 33-36, he spoke of the destruction that would come upon them in their generation. Then he lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (vv. 37-38).
This “house” Jesus referred to was the temple, the destruction of which was the subject of Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse. Not only the temple but the entire city of Jerusalem was going to be destroyed as well — and within the generation of the scribes and Pharisees. This was fulfilled in the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome, in AD 70. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during that time, recorded how the city was under siege and multitudes died of the resulting famine. Some were so desperately hungry, they engaged in cannibalism, even killing and eating their own children.
In August of AD 70, the temple and city were finally destroyed by fire. In all, over one million inhabitants died of siege famine or were violently killed, most of them Jews. Their corpses filled the streets and were thrown over the siege walls into the valleys below. It was a very sobering fulfillment of what the prophet Jeremiah wrote hundreds of years earlier about Jerusalem and the Valley of Hinnom:
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 this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate. (Jeremiah 7:32-34)This, then, is the Gehenna that Jesus warned about, fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a very different reality from the one that is called Hades. It was not an otherworldly or underworld event but one very much a part of this world. It is not an experience yet to come but one that has already come and been and gone, and can be located in history. By contrast, Hades consistently refers to the realm of the dead, a post-mortem netherworld. It is difficult, then, to see how these two very different realities, Gehenna and Hades, should be lumped together, treated as if they were the same thing and called by the one name, “hell.”
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 want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them. Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 19:6-11)
Now, to be clear, we need not expect Jeremiah had the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem in mind but the one that occurred in 587 BC, when the people were carried off into Babylonian captivity. But the Valley of Hinnom became a reference point for destruction and over the centuries took on layers of meaning. In rabbinic tradition, Gehenna came to refer to an otherworldly judgment, although there was never a consensus on its duration or purpose.
It is doubtful, however, that Jesus was following such ideas about Gehenna — he does not seem to have minded breaking with rabbinic tradition in many other regards. It is more likely that he was following the prophetic tradition, and where the mention of the Valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah referred to the 587 BC destruction, Jesus used it in regard to the one that was to come in AD 70, the destruction he makes explicit in Matthew 24. Given his understanding that the law and the prophets were about him, it seems a stronger point that he would identify more with the biblical prophet than with the mixed, non-biblical tradition of the rabbis.