Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Notes on Hell: Gehenna

There are four basic words in the Bible that form our understanding of hell - sheol in Hebrew, hades and tartarus in Greek, and the Aramaic word gehenna. (Click here for notes on those words.) The KJV translate these words as hell. When you explore these words in their original language and cultural context, they seem to all have different nuances. What is gehenna and how is it different from the other words?

Listed below is the references where gehenna is used by Jesus according to Young’s Literal Translation.

Following each given reference will be a commentary on how gehenna is used in this context.

Matthew 5:22 
but I -- I say to you, that every one who is angry at his brother without cause, shall be in danger of the judgment, and whoever may say to his brother, Empty fellow! shall be in danger of the sanhedrim, and whoever may say, Rebel! shall be in danger of the gehenna of the fire.

This first reference is found in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In this particular pericope he is discussing the Torah teaching on murder. Not only will murder put you in danger of the judgment, so will being angry with your brother without cause. What are two examples of the judgment? the Sanedrim and the Gehenna of the Fire. So what does this tell us about gehenna? It's a place of judgment for those that murder and are angry without cause, comparable to that of the Sanhedrim (the 70 elders of Israel, the ruling council for observance of Torah). Since there is not much of a difference between the words "Empty Fellow!" and "Rebel" - they are mere examples of being angry with your brother without cause; it's hard to argue that there is much of a difference between judgment with Sanedrim and Gehenna of the Fire.

Matthew 5:29-30
`But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna. 30 `And, if thy right hand doth cause thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.
This second usage of gehenna is also used by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, this time in his teaching on adultery. Looking at a woman lustfully is equated as adultery. How serious is Jesus about his disciples and Pharisees in accepting this teaching? He uses hypberbolic language to capture their imagination. Lust is about imagination, and so Jesus gives them images of gouged out eyes and hacked off hands as preventative measures for lusting and committing adultery. Jesus argues that it is better to use an eyeball or a limb then to have your whole body thrown into gehenna. Jesus isn't using literal language here - amputation doesn't stop adultery. Neither does the threat of gehenna. But Jesus promises that there will be judgment on the men who oppress women through their lusting and adultery.

Matthew 10:28
`And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna.
In this third use of gehenna Jesus is instructing his disciples just prior to sending out the twelve to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick. Part of his instructions include a warning about impending persecution. He tells them to not be afraid of those who will persecute them. 

Here's how Jesus' logic goes: don't be afraid of those who persecute. IF you were going to be afraid of suffering, be afraid of God who can destroy your body and soul in gehenna. But God cares for you, so you don't have to be afraid of God destroying you in gehenna. Therefore you don't have to be afraid of those who can kill your body. What do we learn here about gehenna here? It's a place of destruction of body and soul, that God is the one that sends people there. And that Jesus' followers have nothing to fear about gehenna.

Matthew 18:9
`And if thine eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee; it is good for thee one-eyed to enter into the life, rather than having two eyes to be cast to the gehenna of the fire.

This is another reference to gehenna by Jesus, similar to his usage in the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, instead of adultery being the context, it's being the cause for a child or young disciple to stumble. How serious is Jesus about people not being a cause for stumbling? First he says it's better for you to have a millstone hung around your neck and being cast into the depths of the sea. So the judgment of gehenna of the fire is compared with judgment of tossed into the chaotic sea. It's not a description of two different kinds of judgment, but a graphic attempt to make the same point. Do. Not. Cause. Kids. To. Stumble.

Matthew 23:15
`Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye go round the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and whenever it may happen -- ye make him a son of gehenna twofold more than yourselves.
Matthew 23:33
`Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?

In this powerful sermon against the Pharisees, Jesus declares seven Woes upon these religious leaders of Israel. It seems that he is purposefully drawing upon the imagery of the Old Testament Valley of Hinnom. You can read about it some in Jeremiah 7, 19, & 32. The old name of the landmark was Valley of the Son of Hinnom, south and west of Jerusalem. And in the one example, Jesus says that the Pharisees, by making proselytes, are making foreigners a Son of Hinnom even more than themselves. And in the second example, the idea of judgment is clearly linked with the idea of gehenna, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. Reading the prophet Jeremiah's words to Israel give great context about what is the nature and purpose of gehenna. That is next week's lesson!

Mark 9:43
`And if thy hand may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee maimed to enter into the life, than having the two hands, to go away to the gehenna, to the fire -- the unquenchable --

Mark 9:45
`And if thy foot may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into the life lame, than having the two feet to be cast to the gehenna, to the fire -- the unquenchable --

Mark 9:47-48
And if thine eye may cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is better for thee one-eyed to enter into the reign of God, than having two eyes, to be cast to the gehenna of the fire -- where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched;
The usage of gehenna here is an expanded teaching of the same material found in Matthew 18:9 about causing children to stumble. In Mark's version of the teaching, the threat of gehenna and to the fire is repeated three times. Jesus, in this case, doesn't want anyone to doubt how serious he is about this issue of causing children to stumble.

Jesus does something interesting here - highlighting the connection between gehenna and fire - with the the fire, the idea of it being unquenchable. This is an obvious allusion to Isaiah 66:24, which is quoted in part in Mark 9:48. The description of judgment in Isaiah 66 matches the kind of judgment that Jeremiah prophesies will happen in the Valley of Hinnom, gehenna. Jesus is not attempting to give literal descriptions of what gehenna is like, but rather link the kind of judgment that will come down upon those who cause children to stumble - the judgment will be like that which God brings down upon Israel through the nation of Babylon as prophesied by Isaiah. And we know from history that Rome was used by God to judge Israel, much like Babylon had been almost six hundred years earlier.

Luke 12:5
but I will show to you, whom ye may fear; Fear him who, after the killing, is having authority to cast to the gehenna; yes, I say to you, Fear ye Him.
This singular usage by Jesus in Luke's account is similar to that of Matthew 10:28, but here used in a set of warnings and encouragement to his disciples in the midst of the crowds of thousands who gathered around Jesus.

James 3:6
and the tongue [is] a fire, the world of the unrighteousness, so the tongue is set in our members, which is spotting our whole body, and is setting on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by the gehenna.
James, the brother of Jesus, is writing to Hebrew Christians about the dangers of the tongue. Like his brother, James knows how to use graphic language to capture imaginations and make his point. Everyone, especially teachers, will be judged for their use of the tongue. How many times have our words brought punishment on ourselves? The tongue can be a powerful tool for good, but it can also be a pervasive weapon of destruction - both for our own bodies and those around us. James effectively makes his point in his use of gehenna.

In all of these uses of gehenna, it is not obvious that Jesus is referring to an afterlife. The word gehenna is clearly connected the idea of judgment, but the idea of judgment is not obviously tied in these verses to an afterlife event. In context, Jesus makes a connection between actions now and the resulting consequences to come in this life. Just as the Valley of Hinnom became a real symbol of judgment in the lifetime of those who heard Jeremiah preach about it, so many of Jesus' listeners were around when Rome made the Valley of Hinnom once again a place of judgment.

An exploration next week will examine the Old Testament references to gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom. This will help us keep Jesus usage of gehenna in context. To be sure, Jesus was serious about people changing their actions, about fueling their imagination with graphic details to compel them to repent and act righteously. The threat of gehenna did not come across to those first readers like the threat of hell is used in our modern age. The threat of gehenna meant something different then. And we'd be wise to consider what the threat of gehenna meant then so that we can better understand what it is to mean today.

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