Home > Gehenna, Heavenly Jerusalem, Preterism, Promised land > The Bishop, the Ghost, and Gehenna

The Bishop, the Ghost, and Gehenna

April 13, 2011

The Bishop

N.T. Wright, author of Surprised by Hope, was Bishop of Durham 2003-2010, and is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. On the meaning of Gehenna, he wrote: [1]

The most common New Testament word sometimes translated by hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the southwest corner of the old city of Jerusalem. There is to this day a valley at that point that bears the name Ge Hinnom. When I was in Jerusalem a few years ago, I was taken to a classy restaurant on the western slope of this famous valley, and we witnessed a spectacular fireworks display, organized no doubt without deliberate irony, on the site to which Jesus was referring to when he spoke about the smouldering fires of Gehenna. But, as with his language about heaven, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently distanced from the original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament but by the stock of images, some of them extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination.

The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a 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. His message to his contemporaries was stark and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless dreams about 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 smouldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.

Wright sees Gehenna as fulfilled completely in the events of 70 AD, which is a typical preterist interpretation of Gehenna. A more extensive quote from Wright’s discussion can be found at N.T. Wright on Hell and Judgment.

Problems with Wright’s view are obvious, in the light of the context in which Jesus referred to Gehenna. Jesus did not connect the threat of Gehenna with political policies of the Jews, as Wright suggested in the quote above. Rather, he connected it with personal human relationships, especially those between believers. He warned against calling one’s brother a fool. He encouraged people to seek to enter his kingdom, whatever the cost, whether it be a right eye, or a right hand, or a foot. Being cast into Gehenna represents being found unworthy to enter the kingdom, which is represented by Jerusalem.This was expressed in the following quotation from a poster who referred to himself as “Ghost.”

The Ghost

In contrast to Wright’s interpretation, consider these comments by GhostontheNet, posted in a forum discussion on 28 July 2004, under the topic Re: Questions for Faramir about Preterism and related topics. The author referred to Kenneth Gentry and Gary Demar, and quoted the entry for Gehenna in Strong’s Concordance. He wrote:

That this place of damnation is called Gehenna which is outside Jerusalem implies the just are in Jerusalem while the damned are not, but rather outside of it. If my memory serves me right, several passages with Gehenna also mention fire there. Late in Revelation, there is a scene after the final judgement where the just go to a New Jerusalem while the damned go to the Lake of Fire. In my opinion both passages explicitly say one element of the Jerusalem vs. Gehenna destination, but merely imply the other way.

This paragraph contains, in a nutshell, the solution to the mystery about Gehenna. It is explained in more detail below, under the following headings:

  • Gehenna is a geographical location that Jesus mentioned several times
  • Gehenna is a valley
  • Gehenna contrasts with Jerusalem, being outside the walls of the city
  • Gehenna is associated with everlasting fire
  • Gehenna is a place of worms, and shame
  • Gehenna is in the promised land
  • Gehenna will eventually be “holy unto the Lord”

Jesus mentioned Gehenna

In the Gospels, there are few places which Jesus referred to more often, than Gehenna. There are 11 verses where he is quoted referring to Gehenna. This compares with 14 verses where he is quoted referring to Jerusalem. These are: Matthew 5:35; 20:18; 23:37; Mark 10:33; Luke 10:30; 13:4, 33, 34; 18:31; 21:20, 24; 23:28; 24:49; John 4:21.

In Matthew 4:12-17, where Jesus begins preaching the gospel, his ministry was characterized by the prophecy of Isaiah: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” [Isaiah 9:2] The gospel Jesus preached is the great light. All humans “dwell in the land of the shadow of death,” as all are mortal. The gospel preached by Jesus provides light to all mankind on the subject of death and judgment, including the subject of Gehenna. John said Jesus is the “true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” [John 1:9]

Gehenna is a valley

John the Baptist said, mountains will be made low, and all the valleys will be filled. He referred to a prophecy of Isaiah.

Isaiah 40:4-5
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

Mountains represent revelations of God, and promises; valleys, which are formed by erosion and the removal of rock and earth, represent things that are not revealed, and missing information. Valleys being filled mean missing information is to be revealed.

Gehenna is a valley and its meaning has been mysterious, but the mystery of Gehenna will be resolved and will be understood by the saints.

Gehenna contrasts with Jerusalem

Jesus spoke of Gehenna in contrast to Jerusalem, which he said is “the city of the great King.” [Matthew 5:35] Gehenna lies outside the city, and the city represents “the camp of the saints.” [Revelation 20:9]

Jerusalem is raised up to heaven, as Isaiah foretold, in the New Testament. [Isaiah 2:1-3; Hebrews 12:22] John wrote of the New Jerusalem:

Revelation 21:27
And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Gehenna is associated with everlasting fire

Zechariah said that God will be a “wall of fire” to Jerusalem.

Zechariah 2:4-5
And said unto him, Run, speak to this young man, saying, Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein:
For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her.

The fire that cannot be quenched is God’s word, which Jesus said will not pass away. [Mark 13:31]

Gehenna it is associated with worms, & shame

Maggots usually don’t die; they turn into flies!

In the 22nd chapter of Revelation, those outside the holy city are described in terms of shame.

Revelation 22:15
For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Gehenna is located in the promised land

Jesus did not select a valley outside the boundaries of the land of promise, to represent the judgment of those unfit for the kingdom, but a place well within it, and quite near to the holy city. Because of the geography of the area, those cast into Gehenna are close enough to the city for the saints within to hear their cries.

In Revelation 12:15, the “flood from the mount of the serpent” is a flood of misinformation, and flawed interpretations. The flood threatens to carry away the woman, who represents the church. The serpent’s flood includes various flawed interpretations of Gehenna. Understanding the true significance of Gehenna, which represents the state and condition of those outside the camp of the saints, and the beloved city, fulfills the prophecy of John: “the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” [Revelation 12:16]

Jesus’ warnings about Gehenna apply specifically to those who have heard the gospel, and those who are associated with the church, as one has to be within the holy city, to be cast out of it.

Gehenna will be “holy unto the Lord”

Jeremiah showed that the area of Gehenna will be “holy unto the Lord.” He wrote: “And the whole valley of the dead bodies, and of the ashes, and all the fields unto the brook of Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the LORD; it shall not be plucked up, nor thrown down any more for ever.” [Jeremiah 31:40]

The promise to Abraham, that Paul called the gospel, was that in his seed all the nations will be blessed. Paul also said all things in heaven and earth and under the earth will be reconciled to God.

Colossians 1:19-20
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.

References

1. N. T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008. pp. 175-177.

 

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  1. May 14, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Keep up the good work on this blog!

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