Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister, and theology professor at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Scotland, has been reviewing Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, on his blog Shored Fragments. In the seventh part of an on-going series he examined Bell’s chapter 3, a discussion of hell.
Valley of Gehenna. Image from Wikipedia
One aspect of the great controversy about hell, and about Bell’s thesis, is the meaning of the word Gehenna in the New Testament. Most English translations contribute to the confusion by replacing the word Gehenna with hell, instead of leaving it untranslated, as it should be, since it is the name of a specific geographical place on earth.
This is illustrated by various translations of Matthew 5:29, where the King James Bible has:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Jesus actually said Gehenna, not hell. It is rather ironic that the KJV presents a show of meticulous scholarship by using italics for “it” and “that,” yet passes over the rather glaring error of the substitution of a geographic place name with the word “hell,” a fine example of straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel!
Numerous other translations follow the tradition established by the KJV. The word hell was substituted for Gehenna in Matthew 5:29 and similar scriptures, in the following versions:
New International Version (©1984)
New Living Translation (©2007)
English Standard Version (©2001)
New American Standard Bible (©1995)
New International Version (©1984)
International Standard Version (©2008)
GOD’S WORD® Translation (©1995)
American King James Version
American Standard Version
Bible in Basic English
Darby Bible Translation
English Revised Version
Webster’s Bible Translation
“Gehenna” is left untranslated in Matthew 5:29 in the following versions:
Weymouth New Testament
World English Bible
Young’s Literal Translation
Another factor that complicates the question of the meaning of Gehenna in the New Testament is Jewish traditions and misunderstanding about the afterlife in the intertestamental period.
Steve Holmes wrote, on Bell’s discussion of Gehenna,
Bell starts with Biblical references to hell. Nothing in the OT except Sheol, the shadowy realm of the dead. OK, we knew that. In the NT we have ‘Gehenna,’ identified with the Valley of Hinnom, which Bell identifies with the Jerusalem garbage dump. That’s true, but rather incomplete, as I assume Bell knows. Intertestamental Jewish apocalyptic, picking up the hint from Jer. 7:32 & 19:6, began to use Gehenna as a name for the final fiery judgement that would come. 1 Enoch (Ethiopian Enoch) is full of it; it’s there in 2 Esdras, the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch – and even in the Christian interpolations to the Sibylline oracles (see 1:127-9). The rabbis of Jesus’ day probably saw Gehenna (and Hades, which was taken to be a synonym) as a place of fiery purgation where evil souls resided until the final judgement (this idea was certainly common by the second century AD. (There may be a hint of this in Rev. 20, where ‘Hades’ is thrown into the lake of fire.)
So to read ‘Gehenna’ in the NT as nothing more than a reference to the town rubbish dump is either to be remarkably ill-informed, or to be rather disingenuous.
Holmes refers to the use of Gehenna in intertestamental Jewish literature, and the views of the rabbis at the time of Jesus, as if those would have determined the meaning that Jesus attached to Gehenna. But the significance of Gehenna in scripture may not correspond to Jewish beliefs associated with the afterlife reflected in Pseudepigrapha, or Apocrypha, or Dead Sea Scrolls.
No doubt, Jesus was aware of popular Jewish tradition and folk-lore related to Gehenna. However, his statements on Gehenna were not based upon tradition, or Jewish superstition, but instead, were founded entirely upon the scriptures. In Matthew 15:1-8, Jesus condemns Jewish traditions that violated the intent and sense of the law, and says to the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” His attitude to the traditions of the Jews is shown by his statement, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” [Matthew 15:9]
Jesus discredited the Jewish tradition, including their misunderstanding of the meaning of Gehenna. Why assume that his use of the word Gehenna was burdened with their errors and superstitions? Jesus was a prophet, and his references to Gehenna were based on Old Testament precedent. In Jeremiah we read:
But thou shalt say unto them, This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the LORD their God, nor receiveth correction: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth.
Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the LORD hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.
For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the LORD: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it.
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.
Jeremiah said that the Jews had burned their sons and their daughters in the fire of Molech in the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is the Gehenna of the New Testament. It was a practice which Jeremiah said had “never come into God’s heart,” a cruel and evil act, specifically condemned in the law, and an abomination to God.
How does the behavior Jeremiah described compare with the traditional idea of infernal torment for the wicked? Humans, after all, are the offspring of God.
What kind of father subjects his own children to roasting in a fire? According to Jeremiah, the Jews did it. The idea of unending infernal torment of the wicked is similar, except for the duration of the victim’s suffering. In the latter case, according to the traditional view, it is the soul, rather than the body, that is subject to torment. And the suffering is prolonged, to be unending, or eternal. But the prophet Jeremiah said such a thing had “never come into God’s heart.”
Since Jeremiah said that for the people to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire as a religious sacrifice had “never come into God’s heart,” and because it was evil, and condemned in the Mosaic law, how much more is it inconceivable that God himself would subject his own offspring to such a fate!
It is God’s condemnation of that evil, that the scriptures associate with ‘Gehenna.’ This suggests a possible reason why Jesus used Gehenna as a metaphor for the fate of those who rejected his gospel, and for those who are counted unfit for the kingdom. Clearly he was not referring to a place of infernal suffering, as such things ‘never came into the mind of God’. It was a place associated with God’s condemnation of cruel, inhumane abominations.
To attribute behavior to God, such as he condemns, would be a serious error indeed!
God’s law condemns the pagan practice of infanticide, and reveals God’s character. Why do some Christians say God not only throws people into a fiery hell, but that their suffering is to endure forever? Clearly, they don’t understand the gospel, or believe that God is a God of love!