a bible, theology, politics, news, networking, and discussion site
Gehenna is translated as Hell in most English translations, though in some newer ones it is not translated, but transliterated, leaving it open for interpretation. Gehenna is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Ga Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom that was used as Jerusalem's trash dump where there was a continuous (eternal) fire and no shortage of maggots (worm dies not). In denunciation of sin and warning of God's judgment of sin, Jesus warned of Gehenna (Mt. 5:22, 5:29, 5:30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33, Mk. 9:43, 9:47, Lk. 12:5). (ESV translates Gehenna as Hell.)
How would the 1st Century Jew have understood Gehenna? As a metaphor of unending punishment (Hell)? As a metaphor of a trashed life? As a general, non-specific, metaphor of the fearsome judgment of God and punishment of sin in this life and possibly the life to come, analagous to the previous destruction of Jerusalem? As an allusion to remedial punishment, similar to the Catholic concept of Purgatory? As Preterists suggest, it being metaphorical of the coming destruction of Jerusalem? Or something else? What do you believe would be the best interpretation of Gehenna, and why?
Also note that James is the only other NT author to speak of Gehenna and he seems to speak of it as a current reality in James 3:6. How are we to understand his use of the word Gehenna?
Great question! Don't know how the 1st Century Jew would have understood it, but I agree with you that it would have probably been metephorical. If it *is* a metaphor though, it totally destroys a lot of the folk theology taught about hell.
So it would be akin to those that spend their entire fortunes to continue their lives as long as possible regardless of how much pain they are in. Not existing is worse than the worst day of existing. Personally, I haven't fully worked out the afterlife of redeemed souls, much less spent time on trying to figure out the afterlife or annihilation of the unredeemed. Once all life here is over though, what would be the need of an eternal fire (Matt. 18:8) if everyone thrown into the "pit" was already gone? Matt. 25:46 appears to indicate that the punishment is eternal regardless of whether gehenna as a location is a metaphor or not. So I don't really know if I'm ready to embrace annihilation until I figure out what to do with these "eternal" verses.To me this seems to imply that the worst "potential" punishment imagined by Jesus would be annihilation, not conscious unending torture.
From The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:
"“The hell of fire” is literally “the Gehenna of fire,” which refers to the standard Jewish concept of Gehinnom, the opposite of paradise; in Gehinnom the wicked would be burned up (according to some Jewish teachers) or eternally tortured (according to other Jewish teachers). Not only the outward act of murder but also the inward choice of anger that generates such acts violates the spirit of God’s law against murder."
It's actually even more complicated than either annihilation or endless torment. The two primary schools of thought in the time of Christ - the schools of Shammai (President of the Sanhedrin) and Hillel (Head of the Sanhedrin) used Gehenna as a metaphor of God's judgment and punishment.
The School of Shammai offered this description: There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment: one of thoroughly righteous people, one of thoroughly wicked people and one of people in between. The first group will be immediately inscribed for everlasting life; the second group will be doomed in Gehinnom, as it says, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" [Daniel 12:2], the third will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, "And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name and I will answer them" [Zechariah 13:9]... [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a]
The school of Hillel suggested a more merciful view, in which the middle group are sent directly to Gan Eden (Heaven) instead of Gehinnom after death. Rabbi Hanina added that all who go down to Gehinnom will go up again, except adulterers, those who put their fellows to shame in public, and those who call their fellows by an obnoxious name [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metzia 58b].
It seems from this information then that the primary aspect of Gehenna, was remedial punishment, similar to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. Of course, it is debatable how well developed the concept of Gehenna was during the time of Christ. Shammai and Hillel were both contemporaries of Christ, but their schools continued to expand after the time of Christ.
By translating (mistranslating) Gehenna as "Hell", we loose the vital warning for us who believe. I don't care whether one believes in Jesus or not, if we give our lives over to sin we run the risk of Chastizement, civil punishment, and even having our lives end up in the dumps, given over to the dogs, an utter waiste, and even possibly chastizement by God in the life to come!