Gehenna, in Jesus’ sayings, is translated as ‘hell’ in most English translations. Both Matthew (chapters 5 and 18) and Mark chapter 9 relate that Jesus said it was better to lose body parts than to be cast into hell. The fullest expression is found in Mark, which mentions worms that do not die and fire that is never quenched,
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
What is Gehenna?
Mark’s rendition incorporates the imagery of worms and fires from Isaiah chapter 66, which simply refers to death and destruction; what does Jesus mean here? For many years, I understood this to describe the fires of hell where the eternal flame never goes out. I thought the worm was the soul of the damned that would never cease to exist in this eternal burning hell. However, the passage in Isaiah is a picture of the defeated rebels who are dead, unburied, heaped together, and set ablaze outside Jerusalem. The worm is not the soul of the deceased but the maggots that thrive in such an environment.
Jesus often spoke with hyperbole and vivid imagery; his exaggerated language about self-mutilation was meant to grab attention and make a point. So was his evocation of the familiar imagery of the valley of judgment. The valley of Gehenna was a well-known site just outside Jerusalem and had become associated with disaster, worms, and smoldering flames.
Gehenna is Not Eternal Hell
What was his point? I think Jesus was using the familiar imagery to draw a graphic contrast between entering life with the Father and a continuing existence void of the Father’s gift of a new kind of life. There is no suggestion here of eternal torture in a burning hell.
Jesus mentions the fire of Gehenna in one other place. Matthew chapter 5 reports him to say,
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
This too reflects the imagery and associations of the valley of Ben Hinnom. The same applies to a statement recorded in Matthew chapter 10 and Luke chapter 12.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew)
Finally, in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus mentions Gehenna twice. In the first instance, he tells the zealous, but misguided, Pharisees that they make their convert more a candidate for spiritual calamity than they.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
He follows a bit later by asking how they plan to escape the destruction themselves,
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
This, along with a previous post, is the extent of Jesus’ references to hell. By patching them together some believe that Jesus taught that non-believers will burn forever in eternal punishment. This is not so. He was speaking of spiritual destruction.
Next time we will look at what New Testament writers had to say about hell and will discover additional influences on the concept of hell from outside the Bible.