Gehenna and Other Words for Hell

This post follows on from the previous post. I’m sorry to say that it’s rather long, but there wasn’t an easy, logical, way to break it down into smaller posts.

I don’t believe in hell. There, I’ve said it. Actually, I need to qualify that slightly - I don’t believe in a hell of eternal conscious torment - a place where recalcitrant souls are sent to be punished forever. I don’t believe that the concept is to be found anywhere in the pages of the bible if the bible is translated honestly from the original languages.

The concept of hell is one which is owed almost entirely to medieval thought on reward and punishment… The threat of hell was, in essence, a means of keeping the ‘Christian’ population ‘in line’ - set opposite the promise of the rewards of heaven if you were a good Christian. Our mental images of a place of fiery torment are owed, almost entirely, to the rather lurid imaginations of people such as the poet Dante Alighieri (circa 1265-1321) and his ‘Divine Comedy’.

Traditionally, certain Hebrew and Greek words have been translated as ‘Hell’, perpetuating our association of part of the Christian message with being about avoiding punishment for sin. So let’s take a brief look at these words, and what they seem to have meant in their original context.

In the Old Testament, the word which traditional English translations (beginning with the King James, or Authorised, Version) render as ‘hell’ is ‘Sheol’ (שְׁאוֹל). In Hebrew, this simply means the ‘realm of the dead’ - i.e. where the dead go, and probably better translated as ‘the grave’. Sheol corresponds very closely to the Greek ‘Hades’ - indeed, when (roughly 200 years before the birth of Jesus) the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, producing the Septuagint, Sheol was translated as Hades.

In the New Testament there isn’t a single Greek word which means anything like the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hell’, nor is there any word at all which represents our traditional picture of hell - a place of eternal tortures ruled over by the devil - which, as the medieval period wore on, became ever more explicitly horrific, and from under whose awful shadow Christianity has never quite managed to escape… If, indeed, it has ever really tried.

Instead of one word there are three, and they seem to have different meanings.

First, there is the frequently-occurring ᾍδης (Hades) - the realm of the dead beneath the earth, where they await the end of all things, or where perhaps disembodied souls heard the gospel from Jesus before his resurrection, and so on.

Secondly, there is Τάρταρος (Tartarus - which is mentioned only once, in 2 Peter 2:4), a name drawn from pagan Greek myth which refers to a place of postmortem incarceration, most especially to the prison of the Titans, but in the New Testament referring not to some sort of final “hell” of perpetual torment, but solely to a subterranean prison where fallen angels and demonic spirits are held captive until the day of judgment.

Thirdly, there is γέεννα (Gehenna), the Aramaic form of the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, “Valley of Hinnom” (which originally seems to have been Ge-ben-Hinnom, “Valley of Hinnom’s Son”). We will consider this last-mentioned in more detail below.

Gehenna appears eleven times in the synoptic Gospels (seven in Matthew, three in Mark, and one in Luke), and only once in the rest of the New Testament (in the Letter of James). It’s hard to fathom precisely why, by the time of Jesus, this particular valley (which seems, if the modern and ancient names refer to the same place, to lie to the south-west of the old city of Jerusalem) had become in Rabbinic tradition and apocalyptic literature, the name for a place of purificatory punishment (usually, presumably, post-mortem).

In Leviticus, 2 Chronicles, 2 Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, it is said that the the place of child sacrifice for worshippers of Moloch and Ba’al was in Ge-Hinnom. This practice, for which there is as yet little, if any, archaeological evidence associating it with the sacrifice of infants to evil gods, was well-established long before the Christian period.

There is also a small amount of evidence for the existence of tombs in one part of the valley and (after the arrival of the Romans) of it also being used for cremation. There is a medieval tradition, which may well be based on earlier accounts, that the valley served as a rubbish tip and charnel ground, where refuse was burned and where animal and human corpses were left as carrion, but again the archaeological evidence for this is lacking. However, in favour of this possibility, Christ’s words as reported in Mark 9:45-48, where he describes the valley in terms of the description in Isaiah 66:24 of human corpses being consumed by immortal worms and inextinguishable fires (not that either is couched in terms which indicate that their consumption of particular corpses is without end, merely that there are always worms and fires in that place; nor does it imply any sort of ‘other-worldly’ punishment).

This, of course, aligns with Jeremiah’s vision:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place {Jerusalem} 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.(Jeremiah 19:3-6, NIV)

Of course this passage is echoed in some of Jesus’ teachings around the fate of Jerusalem, such as that in Matthew 23, 24 andLuke 19:

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate."(Matthew 23:33-38, NIV)

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.(Matthew 24:1-34)

And in Luke…

The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.(Luke 19:43-44)

As such, there is a school of thought which maintains that these words of Jesus do not refer to some cosmic eschatological event, still yet-to-come, but rather to the ransacking of Jerusalem which happened in AD70 at the culmination of the Great Jewish Revolt - following which there was an huge slaughter of the inhabitants (the corpses of which, it is believed by many, were disposed of by being burnt in Ge-Hinnom), and both city and temple were destroyed. Later, after yet another revolt, Jerusalem was destroyed completely and a new city, Aelia Capitolina was built in its place, dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian (Aelius was his family name) and the Capitoline gods with a temple to Jupiter built on Temple Mount. Following this later revolt of AD132-8, all Jews were expelled from the city and province - which was renamed Syria Palaestina from Judaea in order to expunge all memory of those who had lived there. Those events, it seems to me, amply fulfil Jesus’ prophecies. And, of course, don’t forget that Jesus clearly states that the events he prophesies will happen during the lifetimes of at least some of his hearers. It’s not clear to me, therefore, how those words, and others, of Jesus became associated with an apocalypse lying in all our futures - indeed it makes Jesus’ words in Matthew very hard to make sense of:

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28, NIV)

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matthew 24:34)

But we don’t really know precisely what significance ‘Ge-Hinnom’ held for Jesus and others of his time. We do know that it was commonly held, by many sects and rabbinical schools, to be any or all of several things - sometimes a place of final destruction; sometimes simply a place of punishment; sometimes as a sort of purgatory. The schools of Shammai and Hillel (whose teachings tended to dominate debate around Christ’s time) both spoke of it as a place of punishment or correction of strictly limited duration.

Jesus was clearly, as we can see in the gospel accounts, a master of metaphor, with language speaking of sheep, goats, harvests, feasts, threshing floors, logs, and so on. We have to be careful how literally we read what he said! So was his language here, speaking of Gehenna, any more literal than his speeches around virgins with lamps and the closed doors of feasts? How literally do we think his hearers would have taken his warnings, and their imagery?

The earliest Christian documents we possess, Paul’s epistles, make no mention whatsoever of Gehenna, nor of any sort of everlasting punishment for the wicked. Later Christian tradition sheds no clear light on the matter either, given the disparate range of views expressed on all sorts of topics, including the apocalypse.

Thinking again of Gehenna and its fires, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether he viewed the fire as one of final destruction or instead of purification. The former seems to be consistent with the ‘annihilationist’ imagery in several of Jesus’ parables - chaff, weeds and dead branches being consumed by fire… Of course, even the intent of those images isn’t clear - are they metaphors for the fate of sinners or, rather, as many of the church fathers believed, symbolising the destruction of the sins rather than the sinners? - the fires being seen as purificatory rather than punishment… Though, of course, there is his talk of Gehenna’s power to destroy both body and soul.

Of course, those who adhere to the doctrine of hell are going to introduce to the conversation what happens at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Then they {the goats} will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.(Matthew 25:46)

First of all, it’s a parable! Who are the sheep, and who the goats? We think, because we’re taught that way, that it’s obvious - the sheep are the righteous, and the goats the sinners! It’s a parable, it’s not a picture of a literal event - how it’s interpreted is open to, er, interpretation!

The translation is (deliberately?) a little skewed too. The word translated as ‘eternal’ is αἰώνιον (aionion), which means ‘age’ (and its root is the root of the English word ‘eon’) - it implies a period of time of indeterminate length, but having an end, though that end may not be visible to us. The word translated as ‘punishment’ is κόλασιν (kolasin) - a word which originally referred to pruning a tree or vine so it was more fruitful, and which is associated with remedial correction rather than punitive retribution. If the writer of Matthew’s gospel had intended it to mean punishment, he would have been far more likely to have used τιμωρία (timoria) which is associated with vengeance and punishment.

Clement of Alexandria, in his ‘The Stromata’ (Book VII, Chapter 16), says:

“For there are partial corrections, which are called chastisements (kolasin), which many of us who have been in transgression incur, by falling away from the Lord's people. But as children are chastised (kolazo) by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoreitai), for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil. He chastises (kolazo), however, for good to those who are chastised (kolazo), collectively and individually.”

It’s clear, from this and from writings by other authors, that kolasin was always considered beneficial (though not necessarily pleasant at the time) for the one receiving it.

So it seems clear to me that this parable is not about consigning the ‘goats’ to a hell of eternal conscious torment, but rather about them undergoing a period of correction - so that, presumably, they are then fit to join the sheep, because otherwise, why bother to ‘correct’ them anyway?

Having said that I don’t believe in (the traditional) hell, I can confirm that we are quite capable of making and living in a kind of hell ourselves, in this life - either because of things we’re responsible for ‘doing to ourselves', or because of illnesses of different kinds. A friend has written a poem on his blog about Hell wasn’t the place I thought it was, which describes this quite graphically, so I shan’t bother!

There is much more I could say about why I don’t believe in a hell of eternal conscious torment including, amongst other things, the idea that it’s unjust (not least due to its lack of proportionality - i.e. ’the punishment doesn’t fit the putative crime'). But this post is plenty long enough already, so let’s leave it there for now.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022