The Words We’ve Fudged: Hell (Gehenna)
Right. We’re in the middle of looking at fudged words and we’re about to turn an already hot topic decidedly hotter. For this reason, I have a small favour to ask. If you’re landing on this article without any context of the ground we’ve covered, please do yourself a big favour and familiarise yourself with the context. I highly recommend that you start at the beginning of the series. If that’s too much ground to cover, at least start at the beginning of this mini-series on fudged words. I think it will help you see the bigger picture I’m coming from. If you don’t agree with what I’m saying, that’s fine. But at least you’ll be disagreeing with what I am actually saying.
Okay, the Greek word Gehenna is the word translated “hell” in our English Bibles, and therefore, speaks most directly to our concept of Hell and the idea of endless, unending torment. It appears in the New Testament twelve times, used eleven times by Jesus and once by James.
In talking about the power of the tongue, James used the word poetically and so, says nothing about the issue of unending damnation (James 3:6). Consequently, it is on the words of our Teacher, and Him alone, that we must focus.
This is the 10th article in our series on Messy Dogma as we seek to re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this fourth of the sub-series, The Words We’ve Fudged, we look at another word we’ve muddled. If you’re just joining us, you’ll probably find it helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2365 words (c. 6 pages) = 25 minute read
Gehenna: Another Fudged Word
In this article, we continue looking at the word Hell, specifically turning our focus on the Greek word Gehenna.
But first, a question that’s screaming to be asked.
Since we derive so much of our understanding of the Gospel from Paul, why did he never mention the word? Not once?! If Hell — never-ending damnation — is a fundamental part of Christian doctrine, why the hell did Paul not mention it? (Pardon my language.)
And as we saw in the previous article, he only used Hades once (1 Corinthians 15:55), as a poetic synonym for death, a passage in which he lauds Christ’s sovereign victory over death, reducing Hades to a virtual non-entity. Paul used other words to describe eternal judgment, which we’ll look at soon, but it’s telling that he did not use Hell or Hades to teach on the subject.
Okay, of the eleven times that Jesus used the word Gehenna; since there’s overlap between the Gospel writers’ accounts, He speaks directly about ‘hell’ on only four separate occasions. Before we look at each passage, let’s clarify what Gehenna actually was by quoting William Barclay (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1):
Gehenna … means the Valley of Hinnom, a valley to the southwest of Jerusalem. It was notorious as the place where Ahaz had introduced the fire worship of the heathen God Molech, to whom little children were burned (2 Chronicles 28:2-4). Josiah had stamped out that worship and ordered that the valley should be forever after an accursed place … it became the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was cast out and destroyed. It was a kind of public incinerator. Always the fire smouldered in it, and a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and bred a loathsome kind of worm which was hard to kill (Mark 9:44-48). So Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, became identified in people’s minds with all that was accursed and filthy, the place where useless and evil things were destroyed.”
With this in mind, let’s look at the way Jesus used this word:
But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”
In teaching on the danger of unresolved anger, Jesus said: “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of Gehenna fire.”
Referring to the accursed and filthy place of Gehenna was sure to capture His audience’s attention. The implication is that unresolved anger will set in line consequences that one will deeply regret. His message seems to be that our choices now create life and blessing or … result in destruction and despair.
Referring to Gehenna as a metaphor, Jesus did not casually threaten His audience with endless damnation: deal with your anger, or burn forever! To conclude this from the passage would not only be a leap of logic, but would involve sucking out of thin air, a Greek concept not even in the mind of His audience. That is to say, when Jesus used the word Gehenna, His audience thought of Jerusalem’s dumpsite not the netherworld.
Jesus’ metaphoric use of Gehenna may, in fact, be similar to one saying, “Consistently making wrong choices will shipwreck your life.” In other words, there is no direct or implied statement here of unending punishment; only of the damage wrong choices cause in our lives. The Jews, Jesus’ audience, didn’t have Augustine’s Greek-tinted framework of never-ending torment in mind.
Matthew 5:29, 30 (Also Matthew 18:8,9 and Mark 9:43-47)
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”
Now focusing on the danger of lust, Jesus said: “if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna” (v. 29). He then repeated the point by referring to the amputation of one’s hand (v. 30).
Again, this would have stabbed at the hearts of His hearers as He repeated the word Gehenna having used it only a few minutes earlier (in verse 22). Jesus is using vivid, dramatic language to make a point. Did He really advocate brutality as a strategy for heart purity? Of course not! None of His disciples walked around with missing body parts in “obedience” to His teachings. So did Jesus really suggest that the consequence of disobedience is to literally chuck the guilty onto Jerusalem’s dumpsite? “Hey, Bob watched a naughty movie. Off to the trash heap with him!” Of course not. That’s ridiculous. That would be an appalling misunderstanding of the metaphor.
Yet isn’t it even more ridiculous to suggest Jesus taught that the consequence of looking at the wrong person with desire is to suffer endless, unending torture? That would not just be a butchering of the metaphor, but it would require a complete hack job too. It would necessitate importing an entirely foreign idea from Greek philosophy. Sadly, that’s what we’ve done.
Jesus is teaching that our choices have consequences in this life, and therefore, a disciplined Kingdom life aligned to the King is essential. In this case, giving into a life twisted by lust will cause untold misery and suffering.
In Mark’s Gospel, the third repetition of foot amputation is added (Mark 9:45). Mark also adds the phrase: “into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (vv. 44, 46).
First of all, the word “never” as in “the fire that shall never be quenched” does not appear in the original; it was added at the privilege of the translators more than likely betraying their Augustinian bias.
Second, the metaphor of the “worm” that “does not die” and “the fire [that] is not quenched” again refers to Jerusalem’s dumpsite where, according to the William Barclay, fires were always kept alight and, which bred a kind of worm that was hard to kill. Once again, this is poetic imagery intended to provoke thought, not formulate a doctrine of endless torment.
In The Gospel of Luke, William Barclay reminds us that “it was the eastern custom to use language in the most vivid possible way. Eastern language is always as vivid as the human mind can make it.”
While the consequence of judgment at the end of one’s life might be implied in these passages in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was primarily focused on a new way of living in this life … now. Of course, these are only snippets from a body of teaching starting in Matthew 5:3 and concluding at 7:27; a body of teaching that overwhelmingly revealed the Father-heart of God, calling us to the higher way of His Kingdom. The concept of unending damnation, however, cannot be drawn from these verses or their context.
In fact, Jesus’ use of another metaphorical consequence sandwiched between these two references to Gehenna in verses 22 and 29 — that of being “thrown into prison” (v. 25, 26) — imply just the opposite of unending punishment. Jesus said: “you will by no means get out of [prison] till you have paid the last penny” (v. 26). In other words, the consequence is real but remedial, and continues until justice is fulfilled. The time fits the crime.
I think it’s healthy to take stock, and question just how indoctrinated we might be. For example, when we read Matthew 5:29, “for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna,” do we instinctively presume He’s saying, “cast into the flames of unending torment?”
Of course, that is not what Jesus’ audience heard. They would have heard Him say something like, “your whole body will be cast onto the dumpsite.” And just as they’d recoil at the thought of literally plucking out their eye, yet understand it metaphorically, so they’d recoil at the thought of wasting their lives.
Jesus was calling them to a higher way of living “down here, right now” using an extreme and graphic metaphor, not threatening people with endless torture after they died.
Matthew 10:28-30 (Also Luke 12:5)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Now, in teaching on the fear of God, Jesus again used vivid language to make His point. In comparison to men who can only destroy our body, how much more should one show appropriate fear before God who can destroy one “in Gehenna” (v. 28)? Again, His audience would have immediately had Jerusalem’s accursed dumpsite in mind, not unending flames in the afterlife.
Jesus then reminded them of God’s nature with another comparison — how much more does God care about us if He cares so deeply for the sparrows (vv. 29-31)? In light of God’s goodness, Jesus then concludes: “do not fear” (v. 31).
Jesus referred again to the word Gehenna to explain how God could destroy us (as easily as we chuck out the trash); in contrast to the empty threat of men (v. 28). Concluding with God’s caring nature and encouraging us not to be afraid, Jesus assured us that He won’t. Is this any different from saying: “God could squash us like a bug, what threat does man hold?” We know He won’t, but the point is that He can. And thus, the fear of man is inconsequential in the light of His supreme power and care. Again, a doctrine of never-ending damnation cannot be logically drawn from this passage.
Matthew 23:15, 33
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves … Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?”
Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day and condemned their proselytising where they turned their converts into “twice as much a son of Gehenna” (v. 15). Again, this has nothing to do with a doctrine of endless damnation; it is a solemn rebuke, implying they make their converts twice as bad as they are.
Again, and I apologise for the repetition, the audience Jesus addressed associated Gehenna with Jerusalem’s dumpsite, not with unending torment after death. Gehenna was a symbol of that which was cursed, “the place where useless and evil things were destroyed.” Thus, a “son of Gehenna” referred to the product of a misguided, worthless and wicked agenda.
As He continued to reprove the scribes and Pharisees in verse 30ff, Jesus declared: “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of Gehenna?”
For one, we don’t assume that they were literal serpents, right? Why is it harder to accept that Jesus used the word Gehenna metaphorically here?
The word “condemnation” was translated “damnation” in the Old King James Version further inflaming the prevailing view of eternal hell. Importantly, it’s been dropped in the New King James Version. It is important to realise that the word damnation does not appear in the Bible.
The Greek word translated “condemnation” (krisis) here referred to a “tribunal” and hence, spoke of a trial, of judgment. Jesus is certainly referring to the judgment these religious leaders face, intending to provoke them to change. But again, the concept of unending torment is neither stated nor implied. His hearers would have heard Him suggest that if they continued along the path they were on, they would be like the refuse tossed out on the Jerusalem dumpsite: their lives horribly wasted, their potential for good tragically lost, their contribution to mankind sadly meaningless … their legacy a curse, not a blessing.
Today, we might say something like: “If you continue down that direction you’re going to flush away your potential.” We’re certainly not threatening someone with a cosmic toilet bowl that never ceases to flush!
CONCLUSIONS: AMEN OR O-ME?
In conclusion then, we cannot build a doctrine of unending damnation from Jesus Himself, the one who predominately used the word Gehenna.
Yes, there are other passages in which Jesus referred to judgment without using Gehenna but again, the concept of never-ending torment is not stated or implied (for instance, Matthew 7:19; 13:40-42, 49, 50; 25:41). Of course, every person will face the Righteous Judge at death, but we cannot establish a doctrine of a hell that lasts forever and ever from Jesus’ teachings.
In short, Jesus used Gehenna as a metaphor relating to the consequences of our self-serving, self-advancing choices in this life, not mismatched, eternity-threatening (unfair and illogical) consequences after death. Every day, we make choices that bring heaven — God’s will — to earth (Matthew 6:9, 10), or cause hellish consequences on earth for ourselves and others.
But … but here is the horror: by translating this word as “hell” (a word that has immortalised the theory of endless damnation), and then using it with the baggage attached to it, we actually put words in Jesus’ mouth He never said. We misrepresent Him and distort the nature of God.
What’s the key point to ponder?
When we understand what Gehenna is, Jesus’ teachings make sense. When we understand that He was using the local rubbish dump as a metaphor, we gain the perspective necessary to grasp His message.
Remember that ominous, foreboding image I started this article with?
An evening bonfire enjoyed during a celebration of family and friends.
Perspective makes all the difference.
Where we’re going next?
For the sake of completeness, we’re going to look at Revelation’s Lake of Fire next and then turn to the six words Paul used to describe eternal judgment.
At no point have I said that God’s judgment is a cakewalk. It certainly is not. The time will fit the crime. And God’s justice is fair and impartial; it is not a sugar-coated slap on the wrist.
But to claim that it’s never-ending torment is to borrow from pagan philosophy and to quote Augustine. Not Jesus. Not Paul. And not any writer of the Scriptures.