Gehenna

Angry man in a robe holding a staff and pointing
Angry Pharisee pointing, presumably at Jesus. Photo credit unknown.
THE SONS OF A GARBAGE DUMP

Twelve times, the Greek word Gehenna appears in the New Testament manuscript. Twelve times it is rendered either “hell” or “hell fire”, at times, making an interpretive reading problematic. We addressed six of them in the last chapter and found that the context of the passages in question could support a literal interpretation of “Valley of Hinnom”.

If we are correct in our thesis, that there exists no hell, we are going to have to deal with the passages of scripture that contain the word and therefore seem to teach it’s existence. We have addressed the “unhappy” rendering of the Greek hades as “hell”. We have also lent our attention to the six times, in the context of one teaching, that Jesus refers to Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom) by name and have made a case for the interpretation that favors Hinnom as a literal place.

The purpose of this chapter is to address the remaining six passages and show that the literal rendering of Gehenna could work here as well. The ability of these passages to do so along with the argument made in the previous chapter should be sufficient to make the case that the Gehenna passages fail to support the existence of hell.

Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of [Gehenna]. Matthew 5:21-22 KJV

During the sermon on the mount, Jesus upped the game a notch, speaking to the condition of our hearts. This is the case in this passage. The law says, “Thou shalt not kill”, but He said do not be angry. Anger can lead to hate. There is no hierarchy of infractions here – angry with a brother, calling him stupid (Raka is Aramaic for “empty head”) or showing him contempt in considering him a fool. Do so and you will be judged, being in danger of the fires of Gehenna. Uncontrolled rage and contempt for others can lead to the ultimate “hate” crime – murder. Convicted of such one would suffer the death penalty and have his body cast into Gehenna. Jesus referred to the dump outside the city – not hell.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of [Gehenna] than yourselves. Matthew 23:15 KJV

Jesus, in calling out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day and their motives for what they did, shined a light on the fact that the Pharisees went to great lengths to win proselytes (converts to Judaism).  However, their efforts were to win them to their own sect, giving them more political clout with the increased numbers. This, Jesus said, made the new convert twice the child of Gehenna (a derogatory and contemptuous statement such as, son of a harlot).

The Pharisees loved nothing more than their outward righteousness. They adhered to every outward detail of the law and always presented themselves as pious, clean, and elevated. Unlike their fathers, the Jews of Jesus’ day have thrown off outward idolatry and were proud of their ancestry, being the sons of Abraham. And then, there is Jesus, calling them children of the worst garbage dump you could imagine. Jesus is referring to Gehenna as a literal place, as if to say, “You are not sons of Abraham, you are the sons of the Valley of Hinnom”. Imagine the horror of the Pharisees being called the offspring of that idolatrous place.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of [Gehenna]? Matthew 23:33 KJV

Just like it sounds. Jesus said, “How can you escape the destruction of the Valley of Slaughter?” They were such hypocrites, so treacherous and so far from God and proved it – just like their fathers killed the prophets, these crucified their Messiah. They were deserving of a dishonorable death, their bodies cast into the Valley of Hinnom. As a matter of fact, just a little more than 30 years later, the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem burning it to the ground, in effect, making the entire city a burning dump. So, they did not escape the destruction of Gehenna after all.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of [Gehenna]. James 3:6 KJV

The tongue does not only set things on fire but itself is set on fire of Gehenna – not a cleansing fire like on an altar, but a hideous fire that more resembles the smoldering, putrefied, smelly fires of the Valley of Hinnom. What is the course of the natural regarding the tongue? Like our political debates of today, they escalate to a heated level, things are said and done that cannot be taken back. Brothers and sisters are divided, hate begins to take grip and the whole country is set on fire of hate, like the Valley of Hinnom.

And fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna]. Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5 KJV

“But rather fear Him which is able to destroy both the body and the [life that animates it] in the garbage dump (Valley of Hinnom)”, not in hell.

Again, ninety-nine percent of the human body is made up of a compound of just six chemicals: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus.  Scientists can’t tell us what “life” is, but without it we are not much more than a lump of clay.  “Life” comes from God.

What Jesus is saying here is that we are not to fear those who can kill us, but can’t do much of anything more.  Fear God who can destroy both the body and the “life” that animates it in Gehenna.  (W.E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, points out that we are not talking about the loss of being, but the destruction of well-being.)

Notice I inserted “life” for psuche’ rather than “soul”. There is a much bigger problem here, if we take the word “soul” to mean that eternal part of us that carries on and is conscious past the death of our bodies. Look! Jesus just killed it! If there is a human soul (and there is not) it is not immortal as we have been taught. In one passage of scripture Jesus destroyed the concept of the eternal soul.

As discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, our idea of the soul is heavily influenced by the Greek concept of it. The Hebrews saw nephesh (soul) simply, as the life that animates the body.

Jesus bursts on the scene with the power to heal, cast out demons and raise the dead – but just as powerful, if not more so, were His words, “For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)

As one would expect from God Himself walking around as a man, Jesus seems to have used the words associated with the components of human life very differently than they had been used before. The human being is complex, and, in this chapter, we have examined the rendering of Gehenna as “hell”, not the existence of the soul. It suffices to say that, if our conventional understanding of the soul has been blown up by our Lord, our understanding of hell can certainly be as well. It needs to be, now that the soul is dead. What use is hell without the existence of the soul?

In any discussion about Hell, an examination of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus needs to be included and follows in the next chapter.

Endnotes

None

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