In Chapter 5, Hell on Earth, we looked at the idolatrous history of the Valley of Hinnom, the putrid, smoldering refuse dump below the wall of the city of Jerusalem that may have burned for nearly 1,000 years. This heap of everything rancid on the floor of the valley was called ge Hinnom in the Hebrew tongue, but it was called Gehenna in the Greek.
So, the question that comes to my mind is this – what was Jesus saying here?
This is a familiar passage of scripture, in which Jesus seems to be telling us how important it is to avoid eternal damnation in hell, even to the point of gouging out an offending eye to do so.
The problem is, the word hell is translated here from the original Greek, Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom. Yes, that smoldering cesspool of a dump – a terrible place, but it is not hell. Six times Gehenna is render “hell” in the context of this one teaching. (Matthew 5:29-30; 18:8-9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47)
Jesus is not offering a “better to be a one-eyed Christian” analogy here, because the hell contrast does not work.
In the parallel passage found in Matthew 5:28-29, we discover the context. Jesus is teaching that if a man looks at a woman to lust after her, he has committed adultery with her already in his heart. So, carving out an eye to avoid hell would not work. The eye is not offending, the heart is. However, just like a murderer tried and convicted, an adulterer caught in the act would have been put to death, his or her body most likely ending up in Gehenna. So, the proper contrast is not the eye-plucking metaphor to avoid hell, but it is the cost of lusting after women (which takes place in the heart), one’s dead body ending up in the Valley of Hinnom.
The end of verse 29 from one rendering and some transliterations reads, “…it is better for you to lose one of your members than that your whole body should be thrown on to the rubbish-heap.” (Matthew 5:29 PHILLIPS)
Also, Jesus referenced the Kingdom of God, which is here and now (Romans 14:17). Gehenna, interpreted as “hell” is somewhere else and in the future. Gehenna, understood to be the garbage dump, is in the here and now. The contrast makes more sense.
Another point, if Jesus was talking about hell literally, why mention worms? Are there worms in hell? There certainly were worms (and maggots, too) in the Valley of Hinnom, lots of them, and they would not die if there was offal to feed on. He is referencing a passage in the Old Testament about this very spot, “the worms that eat them will not die”. Isaiah 66:24
The typical Greek word meaning “to die”, apothnesko, is not the word rendered here in Mark 9:48. Here, we have the Greek, teleutao, meaning to “end” or to “finish”. The idea here is that there will be no end of worms in Gehenna, to feed on the corpses of criminals cast into it. The point is not the torment of the victim, but the loathsome disgrace of his death.
Jesus is drawing this imagery from a passage that is unequivocally referencing a literal place where, God said, “…they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me.” According to Jeremiah 19:2-6, it was a valley where the wicked were going to be slaughtered. So, the Old Testament leaves us with the Valley of Hinnom firmly set in the mind as a geographical location and I do not believe anyone present missed the reference.
The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament completed in 132BC) does not ever use the word Gehenna and Josephus, an important first century Jewish theologian and historian does not mention it either1. It is questionable as to whether Gehenna was ever used in Jewish writing as a name symbolic of final punishment until well past the first century.
In the writings of the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud, the word Gehenna appears well over fifty times, by and large attributed to Rabbis of the third and fourth centuries. It is in these writings that Gehenna became an eschatological term2. There is no evidence that, at the time the gospels are written (Mark in AD 66 and Matthew in AD 67) Gehenna referred to anything but a literal place – this place: 31°46′6.262″N 35°13′49.58″E
Could the translators have gotten this wrong, too? The earliest English translations of the Bible were completed between AD 1380 (Wycliffe) – AD 1611 (King James). Could the English-speaking scholars first translating the Latin Vulgate into early English versions of the Bible (the most prominent being the King James Version) have been influenced by the church fathers, who themselves were influenced by Greek philosophy?
It turns out I am not the first to ask this question. Modern translators have begun inserting the word Gehenna in the new Bible revisions where it appears in the original manuscripts rather than the word “hell”. The New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) and the Holeman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) and others have done so.
Jesus is just speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point. No one is looking for a child of God to remove a foot or a hand. After all, it is our rogue hearts that are the problem and the contrast works much better, given the arguments above, if Gehenna refers to the city dump as opposed to hell.
Not speaking to the implications here, but I think the case for the rendering of Gehenna as “hell” in the New Testament being problematic is compelling, at least in these six occurrences. There are six more passages in the New Testament in which Gehenna appears and all are rendered “hell”. If we can make the case that these next six passages are able to contextually support a rendering of the Valley of Hinnom, literally, then we would be forced to look at these, and all the “hell” passages in the entire Bible in a new light.
We will address those six passages in the next chapter.
1 Joachim Jeremias, “γέεννα,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), eds. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 657-658, referenced in Gehenna: The History, Development and Usage of a Common Image of Hell, website Rethinking Hell, (accessed 5/4/2021), https://rethinkinghell.com/2018/01/23/gehenna-the-history-development-and-usage-of-a-common-image-for-hell/
2Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), p. 21, referenced in Gehenna: The History, Development and Usage of a Common Image of Hell, website Rethinking Hell, (accessed 5/4/2021), https://rethinkinghell.com/2018/01/23/gehenna-the-history-development-and-usage-of-a-common-image-for-hell/