Signs of a Delusional Mind
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
hell 101, part 2: gehenna and apocalypse
Please note, this is the second post of a series.
You can read the first post here.
In our English Bibles, Gehenna is usually translated as 'hell.' Such a translation feeds our theological concepts of hell as a (spiritual) place where the wicked go to be tortured for eternity.
In reality, Gehenna was an actual place—ge Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom—and was located just south of the city of Jerusalem. The valley was used in the days of the prophets as a place where people would make child sacrifices to other gods, such as Moloch and Baal. King Josiah ended these human sacrifices (2 Kings 23) which left the valley a wasteland and it was used instead as the city dump. The fires there would burn continually while the maggots and scavenging animals would feast on the rotting waste.
The Jews began to use the image of the always-burning fire outside the great city of Jerusalem as symbolism for the fate of those who rebelled against God and his people—that is, those who oppose God would be thrown outside the kingdom and be destroyed.
Jeremiah uses this exact imagery to tell Israel what will happen to those who aren't faithful and obedient—and Jeremiah is talking about the Jews themselves who have ignored their ethical responsibilities as God's people. Because Israel has forsaken the widow and the orphan and has oppressed the poor, God will allow the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, and the Jewish people will be thrown out into the burning Valley of Hinnom—and the valley would be so full of the bodies that there would be no room for more (Jeremiah 19:11). In Jeremiah 7:12-14, the prophet tells Israel they will also lose the Temple as part of the divine punishment.
These are the same things Jesus is telling the Israelites in his time, some 550 years later—only their war is with Rome. Rome will attack Jerusalem and cast out the unfaithful Jews, and the Second Temple will be destroyed as divine punishment.
The language of Jeremiah and of Jesus after him is the same: of bodies being thrown out of the city walls, bodies being consumed by worms and fire, and bodies being food for birds and beasts. Both Jeremiah and Jesus state that the devastation God's judgment would bring will have no equal before—Jeremiah says God will bring such disaster on Israel that 'the ears of all who hear about it will tingle,'(19:3) and Jesus similarly proclaims the disasters that will happen as God's judgment will be 'unmatched from the beginning of the world until now' (Matthew 24:21).
Jesus even accuses the Jewish leaders of being vipers (echoes perhaps of the adders in Jeremiah 8:17) and asks them how they plan on escaping the 'sentence of Gehenna' (Matthew 23:32)1—that is, how they will avoid the destruction and devastation that is coming as God's punishment on Israel.
These images are not to be taken to mean the conscious torment of 'hell.' In fact, the argument could be made that Jesus' words have nothing to do with the so-called after-life at all. Instead, Jesus is speaking in the vein of Jeremiah to prophesy that those who neglected their duties as the people of God would be destroyed as a sign of God's judgment—and that sign of destruction would be obvious (i.e., the seige of Jerusalem and the decimation of the Temple) and it would also be final.
Jesus elsewhere uses different images in his parables to mean the same thing—such as burning weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 and discarding the bad fish in Matthew 13:47-50.2 Perhaps here we can draw parallels with the future judgment of the world in that the unrighteous world will be judged similarly to the way the unrighteous Israelites were—by threat of being destroyed.
In Revelation, John's vision does include the judgment of the entire world—those who worship sin are thrown into the lake of fire. This 'lake of fire' is also called the 'second death,' (21:8) which means that it is a final and unalterable destruction.
Many of the images of Revelation (and Jesus for that matter) refer to the book of Daniel which talks about the river of fire that flows from the throne of the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:10). This river is a river of fire that destroys empires and cultures. In the book, there as a great beast which represents the oppressing kingdoms and this beast is killed and its body is thrown into the fire to be burned to nothing.
The river is not a place where the wicked will remain conscious and are tormented—the final judgment against those who oppose God and his people will be to be ultimately destroyed. The fire is not a place of eternal punishment but instead the fire is a symbol that means the unrighteous are 'burned' to nothing. They are blotted out from the earth.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the author says that when God brings the suffering of his people to an end then those who persecuted his people will suffer the punishment of ‘eternal destruction’ and they will be ‘kept far from the presence of the Lord.’
In the next post we're going to jump back to why underlining the Jewishness of these texts is so important.
1. The Greek word used is γεέννης which should be translated as gehenna but translators usually and unsurprisingly render it as 'hell,' therefore feeding into the traditional hell narrative.
2. There are many extra-biblical examples of rabbis speaking about a place of torment where souls would end up after death—these souls would be punished for their sins for a maximum of 12 months before annhiliation. However, there are some scholars—with whom I would agree—that believe Jesus was redefining and reclaiming Gehenna language for the prophetic concept that it was originally meant to be. That is, the usage Jeremiah employs of Gehenna as destruction for those who are thrown out of the Kingdom because of their rebellion or opposition of God.