When Jesus talks about hell, he uses two different words: hades and gehenna.
We've explored the two possible meanings of hades - that Jesus is referring back to the Hebrew idea of sheol, and that Jesus is tapping into the popular cultural beliefs about the afterlife (ie. Greek and Roman tales of hades). It's my observation that Jesus uses both meanings of hades, depending on the point he's trying to make.
With gehenna, we explored the use of the word in context - it seems to be a real place - associated with the idea of judgment. In a previous note we observed that gehenna is Greek word for the Aramaic word for the Hebrew word Valley of Hinnom. So what is this valley and why is it used by Jesus as a place of judgment? What is this hell that Jesus refers to?
If you go to your Old Testament you'll find several interesting references to this Valley of Hinnom. First in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16 we are introduced to the valley, it's a sort of boundary, rather innocuously located at the southern shoulder of Jerusalem. (See also Nehemiah 11:30)
But then in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles we are introduced to a Valley of the Son of Hinnom where kings of Judah are burning their sons and daughters as a sacrifice to the local gods. Not only that but the Valley is a place for sorcery, necromancy, obsession with the dead and knowing the future. It becomes a very evil place.
In 2 Kings 23:6 we read about King Josiah trying to clean up this accursed valley - one polluted by his father and grandfather. "And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech." King Josiah had mixed success. His sons did not follow in his steps, nor did they listen to the prophet Jeremiah - who prophesied doom and bloodshed, judgment and destruction for this idolatry and murder."
In 2 Chronicles 28:3 we read about King Ahaz, the great-great grandfather of King Josiah and his introduction of Molech worship in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (Ben is Hebrew for Son): "and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel."
In 2 Chronicles 33:6 we read about King Mannaseh, the grandson of King Ahaz and the grandfather of King Josiah: "And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger."
So now we know a bit more about the ugly history of Gehenna, of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. What we also need to learn about is why it became a place to be cast for judgment. The prophet Jeremiah is the one to confront the kings of Judah, to turn them from their wicked ways and unveil to them the consequences of their sins. Three different prophesies against those that do evil in the high places of Topheth in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom:
Jeremiah 7:31-32 "And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere."
Jeremiah 19:2, 6 "...and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you.
6 therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter."
Jeremiah 32:35 "They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin."
Read these verses in context, read the chapter (the link is there for your convenience).
Jeremiah renames the Valley of the Son of Hinnom the Valley of Slaughter. It's a place of judgment for Moloch worship, where bodies will be thrown, their corpses will rot in the sun - Babylonian arrows, swords and spears dripping with blood. The nation would be judged - and another nation would be used to do the judging.
There must be consequences when a king and a nation thumb their nose at God, they sacrifice their children in the fires, when the rich indulge in gross luxury while the poor have their noses ground into the dust. How does God turn Israel around? After a few hundred years of sending messengers announcing the need to repent, to return to God and Torah, the LORD had certainly gone out of his way to make his plans known. And still God was ignored. And so God used Babylon to bring an end to the disgrace Israel had become.
We learn that Potsherd Gate led down to the Valley of Hinnom. Some contend that in Jesus' day Gehenna was the town garbage dump. It's become a popular characterization for that valley, but it is unsubstantiated. The legend goes way back to the seventh century, but it can't be verified as true for first century Jerusalem.
Potsherd Gate would indicate that somewhere in the region of the Hinnom Valley was a dumping place for potsherds. Pottery was used for most cookware and dining. When a jar of clay cracks and is no longer useful, it is cast out through the Potsherd Gate, in the general direction of the Gehenna. We can't verify whether the Valley of Hinnom was the city dump, but we can verify the legacy of that accursed place, the vile stories of burning children as sacrifices, of the Babylonian slaughter, of the judgment.
Becoming familiar with these stories in Kings and Chronicles, and of Jeremiah's sermons regarding the Valley of the Son of Hinnom helps add context to Jesus' use of the Gehenna. Jesus said people were in the danger of "the gehenna of the fire" if they didn't quit being angry and lusting. This is different then going to hell because you don't believe in Jesus.
Interestingly, the teaching on anger and lust are connected to Jesus' teaching on murder and adultery - killing and sex, this is what the Valley of the Son of Hinnom had become known for. Jesus also directed his threats of "the gehenna of the fire" towards the Pharisees - he even calls them sons of hell, or literally "sons of gehenna" or more literally: "sons of the valley of hinnom!" What were the Pharisees doing that induced Jesus to so vehemently denounce their work? It was their leading people astray from God! Which is exactly what the kings of Judah had done with their Molech worship.
Jesus' teaching on hell is rooted in his teaching on Gehenna. Rather then guessing what Gehenna means, we can go to the Old Testament to put the valley in context. Gehenna was a real place with a real history with a real accursedness. To be thrown into that valley was another way of referring to God's judgment brought by the Babylonians in the fifth century. And Jesus had another empire in mind, that would be used by God to judge Israel. Rome was the new Babylon.
Jesus could see where the nation was headed. Their political, economic, and religious leadership were headed towards a clash with Rome that would result in destruction, devastation, slaughter. In 66AD Rome initiated a siege of Jerusalem that resulted in annihalation of many citizens. By 70AD the Romans prevailed, the Temple was razed, and the Valley of the Son of Hinnom once again flowed with blood and bloated corpses.
Jesus came as a prophet, just as Jeremiah did, to turn the nation away from destruction, back to God. It was Babylon for Jeremiah, and Rome for Jesus. And both times the words of the prophet were ignored by the masses. But not all. The remnant that believed Jeremiah survived the slaughter, and endured into the Exile. And the remnant Jews that believed Jesus were the first and second generation Christians who heeded their Lord's words to both forgive their enemy and flee the slaughter. Gehenna was much more about the political, economic, religious and national judgment of God upon Israel then it is about a comprehensive teaching on hell.