Many Christians believe in hell because Jesus talks about hell. But what does Jesus actually say? Do Jesus’ words support our understanding of a place of eternal torture and punishment?
In Jesus’ sayings, hell is the English translation of two different words in the Greek New Testament—Hades and Gehenna. Last time we discussed the use of Hades; today we will look at Gehenna.
Running just south of Jerusalem was the Valley of Ben Hinnom, called Gehenna in New Testament times. It was known from the Old Testament as a place where Israelites practiced Canaanite rites and sacrificed their children. Jeremiah, chapter 19 declared God’s judgment on the valley, saying:
Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.
They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds.
In later Jewish literature, Gehenna became a familiar reference for judgment. Jesus sometimes used these familiar images as part of his sayings.
Besides this passage on Gehenna, there is another interesting Old Testament passage that provided Jesus with imagery. The last verses of Isaiah paint a picture of a time when worshipers coming from the temple in Jerusalem will see a grim scene:
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh. (KJV)
Read the Isaiah passage in the NIV translation,
And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.
This is certainly gruesome, but it does not describe eternal punishment and torture in a place called hell.
The Old Testament contributes nothing to support the concept of eternal punishment or a burning hell. Our idea of hell is based primarily on comments and scenarios from the New Testament, most of them from Jesus himself; but they are mistakenly patched together from disparate passages to form a picture of hell that simply does not hold up. It is a fantasy.
We will continue our discussion on Jesus and hell next time.