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Gehenna

September 13, 2010
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There’s a meme making the rounds (especially on the internet) about Hell. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I’m getting tired of swatting it down, so I figured maybe some of you would have seen it as well. The claim is pretty simple: Gehenna, the Greek word translated “Hell” in most English New Testaments, actually refers to the Valley of Hinnom, which is a dump. This is then supposed to make us realize that everything we thought about Hell was wrong. It’s possibly the worst-reasoned claim I’ve ever heard twice.

The actual Valley of Hinnom, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, is a valley near Jerusalem which, as we understand from Chronicles (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6) and Jeremiah (32:35), was used for human sacrifice. This made the valley a deeply unclean location and by the time of the New Testament this valley is supposed to have been used as a dump.

Unfortunately for the claim we’re investigating this doesn’t mean much. This is the first problem. Imagine, for a second, that we replaced every instance of the word “Hell” in the Bible with “dump”. It would be better for you to pluck out your eye than be thrown into the dump. You should fear him who can destroy both body and soul in the dump. We’ll note, too, that this is an unusually fiery dump, and several of the verses don’t make any sense unless we add that dimension to the dump. The tongue is set on fire by the dump? Odd. What I don’t see, though, when I make this switch, is any substantial change in meaning. Is it actually better to be thrown into a fiery dump than Hell? What, actually, is the difference? Perhaps, at best, this translation would lean one towards annihilationalism (the belief that the damned are permanently destroyed, not tormented), but it’s certainly not about to shake the foundations of theology.

The second problem is that there aren’t many uses of the word Gehenna in Scripture. In fact, there are only twelve: seven in Matthew, three in Mark, and one each in Luke and James. If we add in the only other proper name for Hell, Hades, into the mix we only up this number by ten, with two mentions each in Matthew, Mark, and Acts, and four in Revelation. So assuming, for a minute, that both Gehenna and Hades mean something other than Hell, we’re still left with a conundrum: there are a lot of outstanding Hell-references to deal with. (We should note that Hades appears to be the standard translation of the Hebrew She’ol, on which I have an article written and which is essentially the shadowy netherworld.)

So where are the other references? What about John, which is entirely absent so far, as are all the Pauline Epistles? Revelation gives us another term, the lake of fire, which it uses pretty consistently. In fact, fire is a good search term for finding these references. We have “unquenchable fire” in Matthew 3:12, eternal fire in Matthew 18:8 and Matthew 25:41 (with, in the second instance, the additional caveat that this fire was prepared for the devil and his angels), and more fire in Matthew 7:19, Matthew 13:40. That’s just the book of Matthew. These ideas, including the famous undying worm (probably maggot) and fire, continue on throughout the gospels. John’s gospel even includes one mention (the branch that does not remain in Jesus is burned), but John tends to prefer a different set of terms. Those who do not obey the Son will not see life, because God’s wrath will be on them (John 3:36). In John 5 we hear that those who believe pass from death and judgment to life (5:24) while those who have done evil will be raised to the resurrection of judgment (5:29). In John 8:24 people are told that they will simply die in their sins. In John 12 (see, for instance, verse 46) the central metaphors are light and darkness. John’s gospel as a whole is much more concerned with the positive benefits Jesus offers (eternal life, which is tied to concepts such as truth, love, and light) and speaks of the other path mainly as the path that is not these things, but even so it is not a pleasant path.

The problem with these statements is that they aren’t names. There’s no way to make “burned in unquenchable fire” something other than “burned in unquenchable fire”. It’s not a name that might actually mean “hanging out toasting marshmallows”. It’s a description, and as such it assigns characteristics to Hell that cannot be removed, even by assuming all these descriptions are metaphorical. You don’t use a metaphor of fire and destruction for something that’s actually pleasant, you use metaphors of fire, death, and maggots to describe things that are terrible.

Finally, there’s the actual word. “Gehenna” is not exactly how one says “Valley of Hinnom” in Greek. In Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom” is “gay hinnom”. When the translators of the Septuagint translated this phrase into Greek in the centuries before Jesus they handled the phrase in a number of ways. Sometimes the phrase moved entirely into Greek, as in “γαι βαναι εννομ” (a transliteration of the Hebrew sounds for the three words “valley of” “the son of” “Hinnom”). Sometimes “valley” got translated into Greek and only Hinnom got transliterated. The closest we see to Gehenna (γεεννα) is “γαιεννα”, “gaienna”. So why Gehenna? Did the translations just stabilize on one easy-to-pronounce form? Perhaps. But Judaism already had a need for a hell. Daniel 12:2 is perhaps the only canonical hint of this, but the idea that some would rise to life only to live in “shame and everlasting contempt” appears to have been a major concept in New Testament Judaism. As we’ve already seen in John, Jesus refers to the “resurrection of judgment”, and apparently this phrase is familiar enough to his listeners or John’s readers not to merit further explanation. Similarly, Paul asserts in Acts 24:15 that there will be a resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked, and that his Jewish opponents believe the same. The idea that the wicked would be tormented eternally was not a new concept introduced by Christians, either by Jesus or by his followers. It was already part of Judaism. In fact, the apocryphal book of Enoch had already placed hell within local geography. The “accursed valley” of Enoch 27:1 (and elsewhere) was identified by the rabbis as none other than the Valley of Hinnom. Gehenna. The mouth of Hell.

When Jesus uses the word “Gehenna” and speaks of fire, the same fire that appears in judgment parables and metaphors, he is almost certainly not speaking of a valley full of burning trash. He is speaking of a well-known Jewish concept, that the wicked were locked in torment beneath the floor of the valley in a place called Gehenna. And this should not surprise anyone. Where did the idea of Gehenna as Hell come from, if not from the first Christians? And where did they get the idea if it was not part of their language and culture? What leg up on them do we have, at the best of our scholarship? Did we, at the end of the day, really think we had learned to read koine Greek better than Polycarp? That we had, twenty centuries late, learned for the first time to understand the past in which the early Fathers lived? I am not entirely willing to write off the idea that scholarship can add something to our understanding that the early (and often quite flawed) Christians missed, but surely we should not expect it to do so regularly. It should, at the least, set off some warning bells when these claims are made. The experts on these subjects, the real experts, have already spoken.


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Rabbinical sources include Pirkei Avot 1:5, 5:22-23, and the Berekhot subsection of the Tosefta, chapter 5:31. Both of these documents are readily available online.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 7:37 pm

    Thanks for the comment, likewise I’ve been a little delayed in the blogosphere too! Classes are picking up in the semester now, fun. Love the post, as always. A funny note- here in SC the Southern Baptist tradition is prominent in huge churches of the area and on several local radio stations. Our pastor (dcf-clemson.org) sometimes throws in all-in-good-fun jests at some of the stereotypes that accompany. This post reminded me of last Sunday when the lights were dimmed. He asked someone to turn them up, despite the increased heat that would result in the room. Then he quipped, “but that’s appropriate, because we’ll be talking about HELL today!!!” and beat the pulpit. Anyway, great clarification between Hinnom and hell.

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