Wayne Jackson on “gehenna”
The following is a critique of a portion of an article published by Christian Courier, which discusses gehenna.
Wayne Jackson, The Use of “Hell” in the New Testament
The final and eternal abode of those who die apart from God is Gehenna. The word is found twelve times in the Greek New Testament. In eleven of these instances, it is Jesus Christ himself who employs the term.
Each place in the NT where Jesus used the word “gehenna,” the KJV has “hell,” which is a misleading translation. Whenever Jesus spoke of gehenna, he spoke in the context of Jewish geography, Jewish history, and Jewish culture. Later, in the early centuries of the church era, Gentile scholars reinterpreted the word “gehenna,” and adapted it to the pagan idea of infernal punishment of impious unbelievers, that was invented centuries earlier by heathen philosophers as a device for controlling the people, who were encouraged to believe in superstitions and myths. Jackson wrote:
Bertrand Russell, the agnostic British philosopher, once penned an essay titled: “Why I Am Not A Christian.” One of his main objections was this: “[Jesus] believed in hell.” At least he knew what the Lord taught on this matter, which is more than can be said of some who profess an acquaintance with the Scriptures.
Jackson identifies with the views of Bertrand Russell, but IMO, it is unlikely that Russell really understood Jesus’ teaching, which was rooted in Jewish culture, and prophecies of Jeremiah.
Gehenna is a transliteration of an Old Testament Hebrew expression, “the valley of Hinnom,” which denoted a ravine on the southern side of Jerusalem. This valley was used by certain apostate Hebrews as a place where their children were offered into the fiery arms of the pagan god Molech (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). It was thus an area of suffering and weeping. When Josiah launched his reformation, this valley was regarded as a site of heinous abomination (2 Kgs. 23:10-14). It finally became the garbage depository of Jerusalem where there was a continual burning of refuse. Gehenna, being associated with these ideas, appropriately served as a symbolic designation for the place of suffering to which evil persons will be consigned following the Lord’s return. Let us now consider the New Testament passages in which Gehenna is mentioned.
There is a parallel between the shameful heathen practices of Jews who caused their infant offspring to “pass through the fire unto Molech,” and the common beliefs about infernal punishment of unbelievers in hell. In the Jewish practice, described by Jeremiah, the parents of the victims were humans, while in the theological doctrine of infernal punishment of the wicked, God is the Creator and the parent of all men. But God labels the idolatrous rites of those Jews an abomination. Jeremiah wrote:
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. [Jer. 32:35]
Does God himself practice what he condemns? Obviously not, which I suggest highlights the significance of Jesus’ use of “gehenna,” which alludes to the evil practices of Jews before the exile, and God’s condemnation of them. Since Jeremiah said such practices had “never come into God’s mind,” bringing children into the world, merely to have then pass through the alleged fires of gehenna is far removed from God’s plan for any of his offspring.
Jesus spoke of Gehenna several times in his “Sermon on the Mount.” For instance, he warned that whoever addresses another: “You fool!” shall be in danger of the “hell of fire” (Mt. 5:22). This does not mean that a legitimate use of the appellation “fool” (or its derivatives) is prohibited (cf. Psa. 14:1; 1 Cor. 15:36; Gal. 3:1). Rather, the Lord condemns the explosive use of pejorative barbs for the sake of venting one’s personal rage.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:
‘Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of gehenna.’ [Matt. 5:21-22]
Scholars have been at a loss to find any significant difference between saying “Raca” on the one hand, and saying “Thou fool” on the other. But in the one case, the offender is in danger of facing a judicial council, by which Jesus probably referred to a council of elders, and in the other case, which differs imperceptibly, the speaker is thought to be threatened with unending infernal suffering and punishment. But surely that belief is unfounded. Jesus could not have meant anything so absurd and unfair. The reality is, I think, that gehenna is a symbol of a judgment, where every word will be subject to scrutiny. [Matt. 12:26]
Gehenna signifies the fate of those who, having had opportunities in the present age to qualify to be in Christ’s kingdom, are considered unworthy. Thus Jesus warned, “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” [Luke 21:36]
Employing several examples of hyperbole (for the sake of emphasis), Christ stressed that it would be better to proceed through life with great loss (e.g. deprived of an eye or a limb), rather than having Gehenna as a final destiny (Mt. 5:29-30; cf. 18:9; Mk. 9:43-47).
Eventually, according to the prophet Jeremiah, gehenna will be incorporated within Jerusalem, and will be “holy to the Lord.” The city boundaries will be extended, so that its walls will include the region of gehenna, referred to as “the valley of the dead bodies.” Jeremiah 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.” [Jer. 31:40]
What else could this signify, but that there is hope and a promise for those who were once rejected, and cast into gehenna?
On another occasion, the Lord said: “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28; cf. Lk. 12:5).
In his blistering rebuke of the Jewish leaders who were on the brink of crucifying their own Messiah, Jesus charged:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, you make him twofold more a son of hell than yourselves” (Mt. 23:15).
Jesus did not say “a son of hell,” but rather, “a child of gehenna.” This alludes to the location of gehenna, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, the holy city, where Christ reigns as king. To be cast into gehenna is a figure of being rejected from God’s heavenly kingdom. This figure could have applied to Jews in the time of Jesus, as they had the opportunity to follow Jesus, and believe the gospel he brought, and to participate in the kingdom of God. Some of them later became members of the New Testament church. Jesus’ warnings about gehenna were warnings about not being counted as worthy to be included among the firstfruits of his kingdom. Instead, such people are consigned to the judgment of gehenna. This does not apply to unbelievers, who have not heard or understood the gospel, and those who have not been called; it applies to members of the church, who have come to the heavenly Jerusalem. One must be in Jerusalem to be cast out of it.
Then in the same discourse: “You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how shall you escape the judgment of hell?” (33).
Again, Jesus did not say “the judgment of hell,” but rather, “the judgment of gehenna.”
Thus Jesus showed that gehenna refers not to infernal punishment, but a judgment, no doubt one that is intended for reproof and correction. Those who believe the gospel and remain faithful, seek a place in Christ’s heavenly kingdom, represented by heavenly mount Zion and heavenly Jerusalem. Jesus encouraged people to seek his kingdom, and his righteousness, and avoid the rejection and disappointment that gehenna represents. [Matt. 6:33] The benefits of his kingdom are available to us now. In former ages, the great truths of the gospel were not known. Jesus said,
“The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” [Matt. 12:41]
Apparently, in the judgment, the men of Nineveh will have some advantage over those who heard, but rejected the gospel Jesus taught.
The final use of Gehenna in the New Testament is where James affirms that the tongue “is set on fire of hell” (3:6). This may suggest that the ability to control one’s tongue (speech) is about as difficult as it would be to contain the continuously raging (the participle is a present tense) flames of Gehenna. The point may be with reference to character, namely that the tongue is frequently given to such poisons as are hellish in nature. Or maybe the destructive quality of the tongue is in view.
James uses gehenna (not “hell”) as an epithet that signifies things of the flesh, opposed to the spirit of Christ, and things that are to be “mortified.” This agrees with Paul’s statement:
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. [Rom. 8:13]