For some time now I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meaning of the word Gehenna (Gr. γέεννα) in the New Testament. Gehenna is the Greek word that normally stands behind the word “hell” in modern translations of the New Testament. The reason why I wanted to write on this topic is because there are several writers who suggest that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death (i.e. hell) but refers to some type of judgment that would be experienced during this lifetime.
Now most of the time writers who say that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death say that the word Gehenna should be understood in light of Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in passages like Matthew 24. The argument goes something like this: The word Gehenna ultimately derives from the Hebrew term גֵּיא הִנֹּם (gê’ hinnōm), which refers to a literal valley that lies just outside of the wall of Jerusalem – the Valley of Hinnom or, as the Old Testament refers to it, the Valley of Ben Hinnom. So when Jesus was referring to Gehenna in the Gospels, he was literally referring to this valley, not a place of punishment for the wicked after death. Jesus warned the people that if they didn’t give up their revolutionary and rebellious ways and accept God’s way for ushering in his kingdom, their bodies would be literally thrown into the Valley of Hinnom when the Romans attacked Jerusalem and conquered the city.
Recently, however, I came across a blog post that was shared by a friend on Facebook that, on first glance, seemed to be making the exact same argument (https://michaelpaul.com/2017/10/02/jesus-and-hell). So I decided that this might be a good opportunity to finally get around to writing on this topic and show why this particular understanding of the term of Gehenna is completely mistaken and doesn’t actually work when you try to apply it to the New Testament’s use of Gehenna. However, when I finally read the full post, the argument that the author was making was quite a bit different from what I was expecting. The post did come to the conclusion that the term Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death but he argued for a metaphorical meaning for the term Gehenna that was quite different from the view that relates it to the destruction of Jerusalem.
There were six main points that that the author wanted to make about Gehenna based on the background material he found in the Old Testament (note that these are direct quotes):
- The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.
- God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.
- They were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.
- Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.
- It’s a “reap what you sow” judgment – if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.
- It’s a judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarches.
In this post, I want to show why this author’s understanding of Gehenna is completely mistaken and that there are some very serious problems with how he came to his conclusions. So this post is really about two things: it is about the meaning of the word Gehenna in the New Testament and it is about the dangers of misusing background material to interpret passages of Scripture.
There are at least four main problems with the conclusions that the author comes to and with the way that he came to these conclusions:
1. First, while the imagery of fire associated Gehenna can certainly be traced back to the fire that was used in child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, this does not seem to be the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.
The author points to Jeremiah 7:31 as the immediate background for the imagery of fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament:
Jeremiah 7:31 – They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. (NIV)
The author concludes that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”. The problem, though, is that the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 are not the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became associated with God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the unleashing of the covenantal curses that are found in Deuteronomy 28 (see Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-9). This association was then extended to include God’s eschatological judgment on the wicked (i.e. the judgment that would take place at the final judgment). As Bruce Chilton points out, the Targum of Isaiah associates Gehenna with the place of final judgment on the wicked in several places (26:15, 19; 30:33; 33:14, 17; 53:9; 65:5). The most important reference, however, is Isaiah 66:22-24, which describes a scene of judgment that will take place in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment) during the same time period as the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17):
Isaiah 66:22-24 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (NIV)
While the term Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:22-24, it does appear in the Targum of Isaiah:
וְיִפְקוּן וְיִחזוֹן בְפִגרֵי גֻברַיָא חַייָבַיָא דִמרַדוּ בְמֵימְרִי אְרֵי נִשמָתְהוֹן לָא יְמוּתֻן וְאִשָתְהוֹן לָא תִטפֵי וִיהוֹן מִידְדָנִין רַשִיעַיָא בְגֵיהִנָם עַד דְיֵימְרוּן עְלֵיהוֹן צַדִיקַיָא מִיסָת חְזֵינָא׃
Isaiah 66:24 – And they will go out and see the corpses of the guilty men who rebelled against my word because their soul will not die and their fire will not be extinguished and the wicked will be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, “It is enough!” (Translation mine)
This example is particularly important because the language of the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched in the Hebrew version of Isaiah 66:24 is picked up by Jesus in Mark 9:47-48 in connection with Gehenna:
Mark 9:47-48 – And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehenna), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
This should make it clear that the immediate background for the fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament is not the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 but the fire of God’s judgment in Isaiah 66:24.
This means that the observation that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna” cannot be sustained because they are reflections on the wrong background material. The context of Jeremiah 7 cannot be used to say that the fires of Gehenna that Jesus spoke about were not made by God and that God abhorred the fires of this Gehenna: it is talking about a different kind of fire.
2. Second, even if passages like Jeremiah 7:31 were the immediate background for the New Testament’s use of the word Gehenna, it is illegitimate to import the entire context of Jeremiah 7:31 into Jesus’ use of the term unless there are strong indicators in the text to point in that direction.
Is it really true that Jesus is talking about consequences “for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grace injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized”?
The problem, though, is that when you actually read what Jesus has to say about Gehenna within the context of the Gospels themselves, it doesn’t sound a thing like the way the author described Gehenna in his post. All we have to do is take a look at one example to make it clear that his definition simply does not fit. So let’s take a quick look at Matthew 5:27-30:
Matthew 5:27-30 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna). (NIV)
When you take a look at how the word Gehenna is used in this passage, it is clear that it has nothing to do with powerful people oppressing the weak; it has to do with the consequences of committing adultery in one’s heart. And, as we’ll see in our next point, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t simply speaking about the natural consequences for committing adultery in your heart; he’s speaking about the consequences that a person will have to experience on the Day of Judgment.
But this example should be sufficient to show that the definition given by the author for the meaning of the word Gehenna simply does not work. Whenever we’re dealing with potential background material for a particular passage of scripture (or any piece of literature for that matter), privilege needs to be given to the context of the passage of scripture we are trying to interpret. Background material should not be used to overthrow the plain-sense meaning of the passage we are interpreting.
3. Third, the New Testament’s use of the term Gehenna makes it clear that it does not refer to punishment that happens in this lifetime but refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment).
The reason why the author of this post said that the punishment in Gehenna was punishment that would be experienced in this lifetime rather than in the eschaton is because the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is punishment that would happen in human history (i.e. the Babylonian army would come and destroy Jerusalem).
However, there are at least four strong reasons for believing that when the New Testament uses the term Gehenna that it refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton rather than punishment in this lifetime:
First, Matthew 18:8-9 equates the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna with eternal fire (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον):
Matthew 18:8-9 – If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna). (NIV)
Now, of course, there definitely is some debate about what the word “eternal” means in the phrase “eternal fire” but it should be clear that whatever the precise meaning of the word “eternal” in this phrase, it is referring to eschatological judgment, not judgment in this lifetime.
Second, Matthew 18:8-9 makes it clear that the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna takes place at the same time that the righteous enter into eternal life. In verse 8 and verse 9 Jesus contrasts the fate of the wicked being thrown into eternal fire or Gehenna with the righteous entering life. Life, in this case, clearly refers to resurrection life in the kingdom of God (see Dan. 12:2), not something that takes place during this lifetime. Since entering life takes place during the eschaton, it is difficult to argue that being thrown into eternal fire or the fire of Gehenna takes place during this lifetime: it is clearly a punishment that takes place in the eschaton.
Third, Matthew 10:28 clearly places the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna in the eschaton rather than during this lifetime:
Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” (NIV)
In this passage, Gehenna is clearly a place that a person should fear even after they die. Human beings might be able to kill the body but they cannot kill the soul. God, on the other hand, is able to extend punishment beyond the death of the body, which clearly places the punishment in Gehenna beyond this lifetime. We can discuss the reasons why “the One who can destroy both soul and body” is God rather than Satan in another post.
Fourth, Jewish literature outside of the New Testament, including the Targums, Rabbinic literature, and books like 1 Enoch make it clear that Gehenna was understood by many Jews to be a place of eschatological judgment for the wicked. In other words, the term Gehenna is used quite frequently in Jewish literature outside of the New Testament to refer to what we would call hell. See the discussion, for example, in Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna? Retribution and Eschatology in the Syoptic Gospels and in Early Jewish Texts,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249 or the discussion of Gehenna in the Jewish Encyclopedia available online here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna. The use of the term Gehenna in the New Testament clearly comes from this same tradition.
Once again, the author of this post is using background material to overrule the plain-sense meaning of the text. The New Testament makes it clear that punishment in Gehenna takes place during the eschaton and this is confirmed by the similar usage in other Jewish texts.
4. Finally, the author of this post is simply mistaken when he says that the punishment in Jeremiah 7 and the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament are simply the natural consequences of human sin rather than something that God actively inflicts on the wicked.
While it is true that the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 ultimately came about through the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament views God as the one who was behind this punishment, so much so that some texts ignore the secondary agent and attribute the violence directly to God himself (e.g. Lam. 2:1-8). In fact, the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7:33 echoes the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:26 – and Deuteronomy 28 attributes the execution of this curse to God himself. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is not simply the natural consequence that comes about for people who act violently: it is punishment that comes from God because the people violated the terms of the covenant in Deuteronomy.
It is even more difficult to see the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament as simply the natural consequence for human violence and oppression. Gehenna is a place of eschatological judgment. The person who gives the orders for the eschatological judgment to be carried out is Jesus himself (e.g. Matt. 13:36-43). The language of angels throwing people into a fiery furnace in Matthew 13:42 is parallel to the wicked being thrown into the eternal fire in Matthew 18:8 and into Gehenna in Matthew 18:9. Clearly God is active in the punishment in Gehenna: these are not simply earthly punishments that come about as a natural consequence for sin.
The main lesson that we can learn from this post is this: the immediate context of the passage we are looking at trumps any background material we bring to the text that does violence to the plain-sense meaning of the text. If the background material we bring to text clashes with the plain-sense meaning of the text, chances are we are wrong about the relevance of the background material.
This was clearly the case in this blog post. Gehenna does refer to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. hell) and the context of Jeremiah 7 is clearly the wrong lens through which to view the New Testament’s use of Gehenna.
Mark Steven Francois
 Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scriptures of His Time (Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock, 1984) , 102.