Out of all the words/concepts that most resemble the Church’s current view of hell – “Gehenna” is the one that seems to come closest. Ironically, Gehenna happens to be the only one that has nothing to do with the afterlife!
Gehenna occurs 12 times in the New Testament in 5 different contexts. The majority of Bible translations happen to translate it as “hell.” This is quite unfortunate, as we will see, for it muddies the real issue that Christ was addressing. There are however, some versions of the Bible that transliterate it.
The first thing that we should notice about Gehenna, is that though it is written in Greek it was not a Greek word. We saw earlier how Sheol and Hades are transliterations (not translations) b/c English does not have a concept or word that can accurately translate them into our language. This is what happened with Gehenna except from Hebrew to Greek. Greek does not have a word or concept accurate enough to translate it, so they transliterated it. This is important b/c it means that Christ was teaching something that can only be understood from the Hebrew language. This means if we truly want to understand Gehenna, we must understand it from the Hebrew.
The Valley of Hinnom
Gehenna comes from the Old Testament Hebrew word Ge-Hinnom. It literally means “the Valley of Hinnom.” It was a literal place, located at the base of the hill on which Jerusalem was built, just outside of the southern wall. You can literally go to Gehenna (hell) today if you so desired! 😉
It is first mentioned in Joshua 15:8,
“Then the border went up the Valley of Ben-Hinnom to the slope of the Jebusite on the south – that is, Jerusalem.”
Fast forward a few centuries and you will begin to see Gehenna become a place of unparalleled horror! The kings of Judah began to incite the citizens to idolatry, causing them to worship the god Molech. Molech demanded the sacrifice of every first born child. 2 Chronicles 33:3 records how Manasseh (the son of Hezekiah) began this horrid practice,
“He (Manasseh) made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom…He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger.”
The following is extremely graphic, but it is necessary to fully comprehend the concept of Gehenna. The idol Molech was a Minotaur, it had the head of a bull and the body of a man. This specific idol had its hands stretched out, palms up, in the gesture of receiving a gift. The idol was hollow and made of brass. The worshipers would then start a fierce fire on the inside of this idol, and when it was unimaginably hot, they would place their infant children in his outstretched arms! Due to the sheer heat of this oven, the baby would immediately burst into flames. The child would burn this way until it was nothing but ashes.
This practice was so awful, that the idolaters would have to drown out the screams of their children by beating a large drum. It is from this drumming that the Valley of Hinnom received its nickname Topheth. Topheth comes from the Hebrew root word Toph meaning Drum or Cymbal (Strong’s Hebrew Number 8596). Jeremiah 7:31 shows the connection between Topheth and Ge-Hinnom…
“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, and it did not come into My mind.”
Jeremiah again speaks against this in 32:35 saying,
“They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”
It’s not difficult to imagine how this provoked God to anger, anyone with a beating heart should see how terrible this was. God forbade such a thing in His Law (Deuteronomy 18:10) and calls it an abomination. (On a quick side note – if burning people alive in a fire is an abomination in God’s mind, how much more abominable is it to burn people alive forever in an unending fire!? A fire where they are not even allowed to die!?)
Getting back to the issue at hand. It certainly is hard for us today to even comprehend how anybody would be capable of practicing such things. But in that time it was the cultural custom to pay tribute to the god of the land, and Israel was conquering a land that they were unfamiliar with, so the temptation for them was to seek the local god’s favor in order to be blessed in that land (see Deuteronomy 12:29-31).
But God forbade this, instead He promised to bless them if they forsook the local gods and served Him alone.
“Turn now every man from his evil way and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to worship them. Then you will dwell (be blessed) in the land which I have given to you and to your forefathers…” (Jeremiah 35:15)
But they refused to listen to God or follow His laws. So after a few generations God put it on the heart of a certain noble king to try to reform them. God caused the Valley of Hinnom to be defiled, or polluted, under the reform of Josiah, by burning all the idols and scattering the ashes around the valley. The King Josiah then dumped all the filth (trash) of the city of Jerusalem into the valley. 2 Kings 23:10 records this…
“[Josiah] also polluted Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.”
The City Dump
Josiah’s obedient act of polluting the Valley of Hinnom eventually became a custom for the people of Jerusalem. And thus the Valley of Hinnom became the city dump. It then became necessary to burn their garbage in order to break it down and keep it from overflowing. This would also help to quench the smell of the rot. You can imagine how with all the feasts observed each year, that when they would throw all the trash (including toilet waste) over the side of the wall into Gehenna that the garbage would pile higher and higher into a mountain of trash and the fire would never quite get to burn through to the bottom of the pile.
The fire only consuming the surface left everything underneath in a constant state of decay. And as is common with rotting filth, it breeds worms and the worms would multiply like crazy in such a perfectly suited environment. So the Valley of Hinnom was in a continuous state of burning and decomposition. Thus this city dump, always afire, continued for centuries even into the time of Jesus. This is the background for Christ’s references to Gehenna. Lets look at Mark 9:45,46,
“If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
We will look at those verses in more detail later. For now we just want to notice that Gehenna was well-known by the local inhabitants of Jerusalem as a place where garbage was thrown to rot and burn.
A Symbol of National Judgement
It also became a symbol and warning of nation wide judgment, for God always judges His people in a way that is reminiscent of their sin. Ezekiel 11:21 says,
“But as for those whose hearts go after their detestable things and abominations, I will bring their conduct down on their heads,” declares the Lord God.”
It is interesting to note that the word “idol” in Hebrew means dung or poop! So having idols in your heart meant that you had a heart full of garbage, and you would thus have a defiled, polluted heart. And so it was fitting and ironic (God’s judgments are always ironic) that God would judge and destroy their idolatry in the valley of Hinnom with garbage, filth and human waste.
Although God’s judgment upon the vile practice of worshiping Molech was so thorough that He made sure they would never again use the Valley of Hinnom for anything other than pollution, it did not deter them from worshiping other gods/idols. So God sent the prophets to them to call for repentance, but they did not heed His words, instead they persecuted and murdered His prophets.
“I have sent to you all My servants the prophets, sending them again and again, saying: ‘Turn now every man from his evil way and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to worship them. Then you will be blessed in the land which I have given to you and to your forefathers; but you have not inclined your ear or listened to Me. (Jeremiah 35:15)
The Valley of Slaughter – The Destruction of Jerusalem
‘Therefore, behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place.’ (7:32)
God used Gehenna as the token location to carry out this judgment upon the nation, for it was located at Jerusalem, the capitol of Judah. Isaiah, also speaking of this coming slaughter/destruction, said,
“For Topheth has long been ready, indeed, it has been prepared for the king (of Judah). He (God) has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with plenty of wood; the breath of the LORD, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire.”
Jeremiah expounds upon this coming doom in 19:2,11-15 saying,
“Go out to the valley of Ben-hinnom, which is by the entrance of the potsherd gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you…Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Just so will I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot again be repaired; and they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place for burial. This is how I will treat this place and its inhabitants,’ declares the LORD, ‘so as to make this city like Topheth. The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will be defiled like the place Topheth, because of all the houses on whose rooftops they burned sacrifices to all the heavenly host and poured out drink offerings to other gods.’ Then Jeremiah came from Topheth, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the LORD’S house and said to all the people: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am about to bring on this city and all its towns the entire calamity that I have declared against it, because they have stiffened their necks so as not to heed My words.’”
And so we see towards the end of the reign of Judah as an independent nation that Babylon was raised up by God to bring judgment upon them. Those who submitted to the judgment were carried away alive to Babylon. But those who resisted, deceived in their idolatry that God was still on their side, were all slaughtered. The number of dead was staggering, reaching into the hundreds of thousands! And they were all thrown unburied into Topheth, the Valley of Hinnom – Gehenna! Psalm 79:1-3 mentions this.
“O God, the nations have invaded Your inheritance; they have defiled Your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the dead bodies of Your servants for food to the birds of the heavens, the flesh of Your godly ones to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water round about Jerusalem; and there was no one to bury them.”
It became a massive open grave, letting them rot out in the open, which was and still is highly dishonoring. The bodies were left to desecrate and defile Jerusalem and act as a warning against all future disobedience. Isaiah speaks of this in 66:24 saying,
“Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”
This as we saw above and will look at again, is the phrase Jesus quoted when referring to Gehenna. The nation was destroyed and the few survivors were carried off into captivity. The judgment was so complete that the Jewish people never again entertained idols. But though they did not outwardly practice idolatry, they still worshiped the idols of their own hearts. Which is what causes one to be spiritually deaf and incapable of hearing God’s Word (see Ezekiel 14). And when you cannot hear God’s Word, you are in grave danger of not hearing God’s call to repentance…and repentance is the only way to avert judgment. Any nation that refuses to repent when God sends His prophets will certainly suffer judgment. And so we will see that centuries later Jesus warns against this same judgment if the people did not repent from their heart idolatry.
It is to this that we will turn in part 2.