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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? 

Tags: Gehenna, Hell, Judgment, Purgatory, Sin

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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.

Daniel

Yes, of all the possible interpretations of Gehenna, imo "Hell" is the worst. The trash thrown into Gehenna was burnt up, consumed. Though the flames were kept continuously burning fueling the flames by adding sulfur (brimstone), the trash and dead flesh (beggars, criminals, animal remains, etc.) cast into the flames were consumed. And Jesus even says in a couple of the verses that we should fear Him who can "destroy" both body and soul in Gehenna. To me this seems to imply that the worst "potential" punishment imagined by Jesus would be annihilation, not conscious unending torture.


Apolojedi (Daniel Eaton) said:
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.

Daniel

Sherman Nobles said:
To me this seems to imply that the worst "potential" punishment imagined by Jesus would be annihilation, not conscious unending torture.
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.

Daniel

Daniel, tranditionally the parable of the "Sheep and Goats" in Mt. 25 is interpreted to speak of the judgment and the separation of believers from unbelievers, with believers going to heaven and unbelievers going to hell. But of course, this is not actually what that passage says. The most important point and the focus of the judgment mentioned is how one actually lives - works, not faith. Secondly, the passage was written to believers, not unbelievers. Thirdly, the word translated "punishment" in Mt. 25:46 is kolasis and can be understood as remedial in nature, not just punitive. And of course, there is significant debate about the meaning of aionios (eternal), is it quatitative (endless) or qualitative (perfect, complete, and from God)? Aionios is used to speak of both judgment and the fire that destroyed Sodom, neither of which were/are endless, but both of which fully accomplished their desired effect and are from God.

These words (aionios, kolasis) are found in the context of Gehenna, so it is of utmost importance to me what the 1st Century Jew would have understood, even assumed, from Jesus' use of that metaphor. Would Jesus' Jewish audience have understood Jesus to be warning of "Hell"?
So if I'm reading you right, the 1st century jew might hold either of these views (burned up or eternal torture) depending on who his rabbi was?

Peace
James

Dr Mike said:
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."
Hi James,

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.
Thanks for your explanation. I had never heard this before.
Yes, being a catholic myself, I immediately thought of "Purgatory" as I was reading through the "School of Shammai" description.

Peace
James

Sherman Nobles said:
Hi James,

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.
Going along with the two verses in Matt that Daniel provided, there is the description of the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation (19:10, 20:14-15). It does not use the word Gehenna but describes something akin to what most would think of as hell. The word Hades is often translated hell as well. Acts 2:27 and Psalm 16:10 seem to line Hades up with Sheol the latter being another term also often translated as hell.

How do these factor into the discussion regarding Gehenna?
The verses in Matthew that Daniel mentioned reference Gehenna indirectly, using terminology from the Gehenna (trash dump) metaphor and do not necessarily relate to Revelation's lake of fire. As you know, Revelation is a different book, a different literary style, written by a different author, to a different culture; and thus the "lake of fire" imagery of Revelation should be interpretted from it's own literary and cultural context.

Sheol means grave or realm of the dead. All go to Sheol and thus Sheol does not relate to either Gehenna or Hell. In the LXX Hades was used to translate Sheol. In Greek Mythology, all who died went to Hades. Within Hades there were three realms, the Elysium fields (heavenly, for heros and virtuous), the Asphodel meadows (neither good or bad, just existing almost mechanical), and Tartarus (for Titans and those cursed by the gods, torturous, hellish). And thus Hades is best understood as the realm of the dead and does not necessarily speak of torture or torment.

Revelation's lake of fire and brimstone is interesting. Of course, its interpretation is very dependant upon how one interprets Revelation as a whole - historically (rise & fall of nations, especially Rome), metaphorically (constant struggle between good and evil in our lives), Preteristically (fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem), and futuristically (yet to come, with many different varieties).

Because of it's metaphorical, even prophetic/poetic style, and the vastly different ways it is translated in the church, I tend to not look to it to establish doctrine. It is interesting to note though that in Revelation, the LoF is "in the presence of the Lamb and the presence of the angels" (Rev. 14.10). "Death and hades" were cast into it (Rev. 20:14), and it is called the "second death" where the cowardly, unbelieving, murders, liars, etc. are cast into it (Rev. 20:14-15, 21:8).

And it's interesting that the word torment (basinizo) in this imagery is a word related to the purification of metals. And brimstone, theon, means divine fire, sulfur, and was burnt as incense amoung the Greeks for both spiritual purification and physical healing. And hot sulfur springs were widely known and people would come from all over to avail themselves of their healing properties.

The LoF being in the presence of the Lamb and the angels is to me especially interesting; it's like being in a blast furnace of the revelation of the atonement and the supernatural provision of God for us. And I know for me, it was the revelation of the atonement, the love and provision of God that brought me to faith in Him. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and angels surround the throne of God. Anyhow, considering all of this, the LoF speaks to me of the all-consuming, healing, purifying, presence of God that is especially revealed in the All-Sufficient Atonement of Christ! Hallelujah!


Anyhow, back to Gehenna. I find the Mark 9:43-50 warning of Gehenna to be especially revealing for it seems to link Gehenna to the concept of purification in 9:49. As noted in previous quotes, the school of Shammai affirmed that some who were especially righteous (likely themselves) would not need to be purified by the fires of Gehenna. And Hillel said that most people did not need such purification. The facinating thing though is that Jesus says "everyone shall be seasoned by fire." It's as if Jesus is affirming the truth that none of us are righteous, but we all need to be purified. We all need the fire of God's judgment to burn the evil from us - which was much stricter than either Hillel or Shammai.

On the other hand, Mt. 10:28 and 18:9 both seem to affirm that the worst possible outcome of Gehenna would be annihilation. And note that such was only mentioned as a "possibility", not a certainty for anyone. It's like God says, "Don't fear man who can only kill you, you'd better fear God whou brought you into existance, for He can surely can take you out!"

So on one hand, Jesus' words seem to counter the Pharisaic belief that some are righteous enough to gain Ga Eden without repentance; and on the other hand He seems to counter their teaching that some people are so wicked as to be unredeemable, to be so wicked that even God cannot cleanse and heal them. We're all in the same boat, needing God! And there is hope for us all - even adulterers, liars, and murderers!
It's also interesting to note that Jesus uses the concept of Gehenna when clearly speaking in hyperbole, overstatement. "If your hand sins, cut it off... if you eye sins, gouge it out, for it's better than being cast into Gehenna." The language is meant to appeal strongly to our emotions, to call us to Radical Practical Righteousness! Jesus did not mean for us to literally gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands! Why then would we then seek to take Gehenna as literal instead of metaphorical?

I tend to think Jesus used Gehenna to metaphorically warn of the devastation that comes into our lives because of sin and the terrible weeping (sorrow) and gnashing of teeth (angry remorse) that will come to us (whether in this life or the next) if we continue in sin! Man, your life will be trashed if you don't repent! It'll go to dogs! And you'll be consumed by sorrow and regret! I don't see Gehenna warning though that God plans to endlessly torture anyone; and thus do not believe "Hell" is a good translation of Gehenna. I'd translate it using the Trash Dump imagery and thus leave it open for people to hear the message of the passage, the call to righteous living that warns of a trashed life if one gives themselves over to sin.

This also seems to be the message of Mt. 5:21-26, which seems to have a progression in the devestation of different types of sin. "21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment (chastizement, condemnation). Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court (Civil Authority). And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Gehenna, a trashed life)." The more we are given over to sin, the more devestation in our lives we will see. Some will result in chastizement from God, some can result in even civil authority being needed to correct us. And some sinful attitudes like Pride will result in a trashed life and even possibly punishment in the life to come!

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!
Another important, imo, fact that I believe is usually overlooked in interpreting passages that warn of Gehenna is the fact that Jesus was speaking to people who considered themselves children of God. He was not warning the heathen, the unbeliever of judgment to come; He was warning the children of God, especially those who consider themselves to be religious leaders! And the passages warn of how we actually live our lives, not just our intentions or whether we believe in God or not.
Sherman Nobles said:
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!

I agree with the principle that a translation should use the more open reading (in this case Gehenna over hell) and let the reader work through the interpretation of what is meant by Gehenna rather than let the reader assume what it means because of the way we use hell today.

I know that Revelation has a wide set of approaches toward its interpretation. I tend to be a futurist in regards to much of the book.

Something else to consider for those sifting through this. Luke 16 (which I know is a parable so we must be careful how much we read from it) uses the term Hades and suggests (at least) two divisions in the afterlife. One a good place (Abraham's bosom) and one a place of torment. Presumably aligning with the Greek concepts of Elysium and Tartarus (per Greek mythology as you noted). Since you have done a lot of thinking and study on this topic what are your thoughts regarding this parable and the corresponding verse in 2 Peter 2:4 where the angels are kept in Tartarus until further judgment. The latter verse is not part of a parable and suggests a place of torment and future judgment.

It may be that Gehenna was another way to explain Tartarus (the bad side of Hades) where those who are unredeemed are sent. The imagery of fire, punishment, and torment are found in both. This may have been a way for Jesus to bridge the Greek concepts that would have also been prevalent during the first century to a more Jewish/local understanding (the Trash heap in the valley of Hinnom).

Your post and comments leaves much to think through so thanks. I know Sheol/Hades sort of strays from the OP (Gehenna) but see them as being inter-related if for no other reason than they all are interpreted as hell (depending on the translation) and appreciate you providing your view here regarding these as well.

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