Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, May 05, 2006

a hell of a subject - 1. gehenna

This is the first of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

Gehenna is the Greek word that is most consistently translated as "hell" in the New Testament. The word is derived from the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, which is a shortened form of Gai-Ben-Hinnom, "Valley of the Sons of Hinnom." This valley was located to the southwest of Jerusalem, and in Jesus's day was the site of a landfill. Heaps of garbage were burned to control the stench. According to one of my sources, there was almost always a fire burning somewhere within the landfill. At some point in rabbinic teaching, the valley was used as a metaphor for punishment of the wicked. When Jesus spoke of the "fires of hell," his listeners would have mentally pictured this garbage dump.

The word gehenna appears in seven passages in the New Testament. Because some of them are parallel passages, I'm going to look at them in four groups.

First is a group of three passages, two of which are in Matthew.

"But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire... You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

- Matthew 5:22, 29-30

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire."

- Matthew 18:8-9

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."

- Mark 9:43-48

The first set of passages speak of hell as a consequence of sin. It's worse than having one's eyes gouged out or one's limbs torn off. And it's permanent. That's pretty serious stuff. Whatever hell is, it won't be pleasant.

There are several indications, too, that this is an important teaching. First, it's the words of Jesus, not of Paul or James or anyone else. Second, it's repeated, not only within each passage, but the teaching itself appears twice in Matthew's gospel, just in case anyone missed it the first time.

The first passage from Matthew lists specific sins, but the other two passages speak in generalities. Whatever it means for a hand, foot, or eye to cause one to stumble, is left for the reader to discern.

That bit about worms and unquenchable fire sounds pretty gruesome. In fact, this is a passage that is often quoted in support of the "eternal torment" view of hell. But is that what it really means? For the answer, we'll need to look at the end of the book of Isaiah.

For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

- Isaiah 66:22-24

The image in the Mark passage, then, is of dead, rotting corpses, not conscious beings who feel the effects of the fire and the worms. I'll go a step further and suggest that since Isaiah says "all flesh" will worship God, the corpses should be considered no longer even human. They are no better than garbage.

If I've read it correctly, then this first set of passages suggests something that is possibly even worse than eternal torment -- utter dehumanization. That's not something I'd wish upon my worst enemy.

Well, to be honest, if I was in a bad mood I might wish it on my worst enemy.

The next passage appears in Matthew and Luke.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

- Matthew 10:28

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

- Luke 12:5

Here Jesus says hell is frightful. No wonder, after what we saw in the previous passages. There is a bit of tension between Matthew and Luke here. In Luke, people are "cast into" hell, while in Matthew, they are "destroyed." This is a tension that runs throughout the New Testament, as we will see.

Next are a couple of woes that Jesus aimed at the scribes and Pharisees, compliments of Matthew.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves... You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?"

- Matthew 23:15, 33

In light of the above statements about hell, it is clear that Jesus is delivering a severe warning. If this "brood of vipers" knew what was good for them, they would change their ways; nobody would ever want to be sentenced to hell. For the purpose of this blog series, though, this passage doesn't really tell us anything about hell.

Outside the gospels, the one place the word gehenna appears in the New Testament is in the book of James.

"And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell."

- James 3:6

Here gehenna is used metaphorically. Hell is the spark that sets the tongue ablaze with iniquity. Again, for the purpose of this blog series, this passage does not give any information about hell.

In summary, the word gehenna, as used in the New Testament, refers to a terrible, frightful consequence of sinful behavior. This consequence is worse than being maimed or crippled. It's possibly equivalent to having one's corpse thrown into a landfill and burned.

That's it for the word gehenna. Next up is hades.

Labels: ,


At 5/09/2006 11:20 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

Jesus spoke of Hell as a literal place and literal torment in Luke 19:16-26.

At 5/09/2006 11:36 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

I should have said Hades, not Hell. I did a post on Hell a while back.

At 5/09/2006 11:33 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm including that passage from Luke in part 2 of the series.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home