Exploring Hell – Part 3

By: Jason Wermuth
Friday, July 30th, 2010

In our last discussion, I wrote about hell in the Second Temple Period and how certain texts such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees portray eternal judgement. What we saw was that the place of judgment in Second Temple Jewish literature was primarily the place of judgment for the fallen angels and their offspring. Now we must enter the New Testament to find out what Jesus thought about eternal judgment. This week we will focus on Jesus’ use of the term Gehenna in the gospels:

A sampling of passages translated “hell” that use the term Gehenna:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matt 5:22)

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matt 5:29)

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:30)

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matt 23:15)

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 hell. (Mk 9:45)

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Lk 12:5)


A few things stand out to me almost immediately. 1) Jesus rarely mentions hell; 2) When Jesus speaks about hell in the sermon on the mount, he appears to be speaking with a great deal of hyperbole; 3) Luke only has Jesus mentioning Gehenna once, and it is an echo of a passage in Matthew; 4) In Matt 10:28, Jesus speaks of being thrown into hell in terms of being destroyed in both body and soul.

It is particularly significant that Jesus actually speaks of Gehenna so rarely. His other mentions of hell are with the use of the phrase Hades, which we have already seen is likely a reference to the Jewish idea of Sheol. This is not normally understood as a place of fiery torment (except in Lk 16:23), but simply the grave or the place of the dead. When speaking of fiery judgment, Jesus normally uses the term Gehenna. There is no doubt that Jesus is attempting to explain a very real experience to his listeners. He is warning that the penalty for sin is Gehenna, a fiery place of judgment. As he speaks of Gehenna, however, he tells his listeners to cut off parts of their body rather than to be thrown into this place of judgment. This hyperbole is striking and should cause us a bit of pause before we move on to quickly. Does Jesus really mean that we should cut off body parts if they cause us to sin? Most commentators note the hyperbolic rhetoric that Jesus is employing here. Jesus does not really intend us to cut ourselves limb from limb (as Origen thought he had). No, Jesus is trying to paint a very stark picture using symbolic language.

In ancient Israel, Gehenna was a reference to a place called the valley of Hinnom. This is apparently a place where children were sacrificed to false gods (e.g. 2 Chron 28:3). The New Testament writers and Jesus himself adopt the imagery of this place of torment and destruction to describe the fate of sinners. To his Jewish audience though, the valley of Hinnom would have been a place in the material world where people were burned and put to death not a spiritual underworld with demons and hobgoblins. To be sure, the vision that Jesus is casting here is one of great terror. His audience would likely have known the stories of this place and would have shuddered with fear at the thought of being annihilated in Gehenna.

What appears to be happening then is that Jesus is painting a visual picture of the very real consequences of sin, but it seems unlikely that he literally means that these people will be burning in the valley of Hinnom. A literal interpretation of Jesus’ description of Gehenna here is not any more likely than the idea that he actually means that they should cut off their limbs if they sin. What seems more likely, to this author at least, is that Jesus is speaking about a very real situation but using very symbolic language.

In the next post, we will pick up at this point and discuss the significance of Jesus’ use of this language and what other New Testament authors have to say on the subject.

Do you think that Jesus’ use of “Gehenna” is symbolic or did Jesus really mean that sinners would be tormented in the valley of Hinnom?

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Jason Wermuth
This entry was posted by on Friday, July 30th, 2010 at 1:15 pm and is filed under Biblical Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Exploring Hell – Part 3”

  1. Chris Stefko says:

    What I really enjoyed about this post is when the questions arise at the end. It was kept honest in the terms that “we couldn’t really know” but our best speculation is our educated guess. It would be hard to imagine the visual of what the valley of Hinnom was really like, but I could imagine was very real to the jews of the time.
    When I first started learning about Gehenna I was living in Detroit. On Monday nights I would drive north on I-75 and there is this area everybody there knows of. You would know you were coming to it because the first thing that would hit you was the smell. It was inescapable, windows up or down. It was so horrific. At night you could see fire burning out of multiple smoke stacks. As you look at all the black pipes moving all over the place over black buildings you get an eerie sense of lifelessness in the whole region. There is something painful about being around desolate lifelessness.
    I used to imagine this would be somewhat of a modern equivalent to the valley of Hennom. I could imagine Jesus not needing to say much about it because the visual impact of it all was so great. It has been 2 years since I left Detroit, and out of the memories I have of that city, this image in particular seems to always stay.

    Experience seems to always communicate better than words.