Jesus and Gehenna (Or Jesus and Hell)

Like many of you, I grew up with the heaven/hell gospel being taught to me by various preachers. These two concepts were simply assumed, and it only took a couple bible-verse bombs to confirm this assumption. Besides being over simplistic, this understanding of Christianity is just plain wrong, which is why I want to focus on the “hell” verses. Whenever you read the word “hell” in the Bible and assume the hell in question is an eternal destination where sinners endure an eternal conscious torment, you are a victim of what some think is a poor and biased translation decision. This is because the word translated as “hell” is “Gehenna”. The significance of this is that Gehenna was a real, physical location familiar to the Jews. Since I see no need to reinvent the wheel (and because Fudge summarizes the info better than I can), here is a description of Gehenna by Edward Fudge in The Fire That Consumes:

But to Jesus’ hearers gehenna had a long history, and it was all bad.

The Greek word gehenna transliterated the Hebrew “Valley of (the sons of) Hinnom.” Several sites have been identified, but most authorities now locate it on the west and south of Jerusalem. A “deep and yawning gorge” that never contains water, the valley descends over 600 feet from its original source. […]

The valley bore this name at least as early as the writing of Joshua (Josh. 15:8; 18:16), though nothing is known of its origin. It was the site of child-sacrifices to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (apparently in 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). This earned it the name “Topheth,” a place to be spit on or abhorred. This “Topheth” may have become a gigantic pyre for burning corpses in the days of Hezekiah after God slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a night and saved Jerusalem (Isa. 30:31-33; 37:36). Jeremiah predicted that it would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged them for their sins (Jer. 7:31-33; 19:2-13). Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews following the Roman siege of Jerusalem about A.D. 69-70. In what is probably the classic Old Testament passage behind New Testament teaching on hell, Isaiah pictures the same kind of scene following the Lord’s slaughter of sinners at the end of the world (Isa. 66:15, 16, 24). Josiah desecrated the repugnant valley as part of his godly reform (2 Kings 23:10). Long before the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom had become crusted over with connotations of whatever is “condemned, useless, corrupt and forever discarded”.

Between the Testaments a tendency arose in Jewish literature to relate visions of last things to names and persons from the Old Testament[…]The thought of Gehenna as a place of eschatological punishment appears in intertestamental literature shortly before 100 B.C., though the actual place is unnamed. It becomes “this accursed valley” (1 En. 27:2, 3), the “station of vengeance” and “future torment” (2 Bar.. 59:10, 11), the “pit of destruction” (Pirke Aboth 5:19), the “furnace of Gehenna” and “pit of torment” (4 Esd. 7:36).

The imagery becomes almost commonplace in Jewish literature of this period, but there is contradictory testimony as to exactly what happens there[…]a few passages in the Pseudepigrapha which specifically anticipate everlasting torment of conscious bodies and/or souls, as well as one such verse in the Apocrypha. Many other passages within the intertestamental literature also picture the wicked being punished by fire, but it is the consuming, unquenchable fire of the Old Testament which utterly destroys forever, leaving only smoke as its reminder. It is fair to say that, to those who first heard the Lord, Gehenna would convey a sense of total disgust. Beyond that, however, one must speak with extreme caution.[1]

For a list of the Gehenna/hell verses, see Matt. 5:22, 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33, Mark 9:43-47, Like 12:5, James 3:6. The basic implication of Jesus invoking Gehenna is to warn of judgement. Gehenna signifies more than merely judgement however. The dreaded valley seems to imply a final end. No one, whether the innocent children sacrificed to false Gods or the bodies of dead armies, survived the totality of death or the unquenchable fire found in the gorge.

Take Matthew 10:28 for example. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell[Gehenna].” Gehenna is ultimately a place where those who are sentenced to it are “destroyed”. Considering that there are at least 11 examples where “destroy” means “destroy”[2]  (Matt 8:25; 12:14; 16:25;  21:41; 22:7; 26:52; 27:20; John 11:50; Acts 5:37; 1 Cor 10:9-10; Jude 5, 11), why not have “destroy” mean “destroy” in Matt. 10:28? To add to this, we should not read this as Jesus saying that we have a body and a soul as though these are two separate components of man. The Jewish understanding of man is much more complicated than this:

“This verse need not be taken as affirming a separation of body and soul, especially in the light of our understanding of bodily resurrection. We are not souls that happen to inhabit material bodies, but persons who have both body and soul. It is the whole person that is enjoying new life in Christ and the whole person, body-soul, that will be raised in Christ. All the earthly authorities can do is to hasten death – they cannot destroy the whole person. Any destruction of the whole person is the purview of God alone, left to the final judgment. This we should fear.”[3]

To clarify, the contrast present in Matt. 10:28 is between mere death of the person (which can be undone by God through the resurrection) and death of the entire person (destruction of the body, annihilation) with no hope of resurrection. Those who kill the body have done all they can do. God is the one to fear, as He can not only kill but destroy the entire person completely with eternal consequences.

Let us then turn from the sins that Jesus regarded as worthy of the judgement of Gehenna. The Father stand ready to freely offer forgiveness, and Jesus pleads on our behalf. We must be willing to forego our old lives and accept this offer of new life. The joy that awaits those who accept the wedding invitation is beyond description, and the punishment of not being accepted into this feast will be dreadful. Terribly dreadful.



[1] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 160-161

[2] Scot McKnight’s summary of Hell: A Final Word

[3] RJS,

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