By George W. Sarris
It has often been pointed out that Jesus spoke of Hell more often than any of the other New Testament writers. That claim is clearly true . . . and untrue at the same time.
The claim is based on the number of times Jesus used the word Gehenna – the term most commonly translated “Hell” in the modern versions. Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament, and eleven of those times it is used by Jesus Himself. The other use is in the book of James.
So, if we are looking at the number of times Jesus used the word that is translated “Hell” in English as compared to how many times others in the New Testament used that word, we would be correct in saying that Jesus spoke of Hell more often than anyone else in the New Testament. However, if we are looking at what Jesus meant when He used the word Gehenna and what His listeners understood by it, we would certainly have reason to question whether or not that observation is correct.
What Was Gehenna?
Gehenna is the name given to the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It is mentioned a total of 13 times in 11 different verses in the Old Testament, always as a literal valley in Jerusalem. In II Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6, we are told that this was the place where Ahaz and Manasseh burned their children alive as part of their idolatrous worship practices.
According to the ancient rabbis, this was a truly horrific practice. The head of the idol they worshiped was like that of an ox, while the rest of the body resembled that of a man. It was hollow, so a fire could be kindled inside. The children being sacrificed were laid in the arms of the idol, and literally roasted alive. The particular part of the valley where the sacrifices were made was called Topheth, which means either “a drum,” because the cries of the children sacrificed there by the priests of Molech were drowned out by that instrument, or “to burn,” because that is where the children were sacrificed to the flames.
This horrendous practice was everywhere condemned in the Scriptures. When Josiah instituted reforms in Judah,
He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech.
The valley later became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city where the dead bodies of animals, of criminals, and all kinds of filth were cast. To destroy the odor and germs that would be rampant in such a place, fires were kept burning. Hence, fire, smoke, and worms that resulted from the corruption and other repulsive features rendered the place a horrible one in the eyes of the Jews.
Jeremiah referred to the valley in his prediction of the future destruction of Jerusalem after a long and bitter siege.
. . . the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.
This reference is clearly referring to a future judgment, and that judgment will be intense. But, the judgment referred to is on earth. The sentence was literally carried out when the city was destroyed in 587/86 BC. Interestingly, after the judgment was meted out, the city was later rebuilt and restored.
Gehenna in the Time of Jesus
During the time of Jesus, Gehenna was well-known as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with gross idolatry in the past and was then used as the common sewer of the city. The corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied, and fires were lit to purify the contaminated air. For the Jews of that day, it also implied the severest judgment that a Jewish court could pass on a criminal – the casting forth of his unburied body amid the fires and worms of that polluted valley.
The major effect of Jesus’ words on His listeners was much like what the word “Auschwitz” would be to those familiar with the German concentration camps of World War II. Perhaps in future years, it will take on a more metaphorical meaning. But, while the actual place still exists – as a museum and in the memories of people today – it refers to the repulsion, shame, and horrible deaths experienced by those who suffered there.
For those in the first century who were listening to Jesus, the impact would be very similar. They were familiar with the location. It was a place they could actually visit. It spoke to them of the repulsion, shame, and horrible deaths experienced by those upon whom the judgment was pronounced. Instead of experiencing honor like some of their ancestors whose bones were placed in the tombs of their fathers when they died, they would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been cast into a dump and become an object of scorn for the masses. Gehenna was, indeed, a reference to God's judgment, but in temporal terms that resulted in a condition of repulsion and shame.
Solomon expressed very well the thought that would be in the minds of those listening to Jesus’ words –
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Its Use Outside of Scripture
It was not until after the destruction of Jerusalem that the term began to take on a metaphorical meaning. And, even then, it did not refer to a place of endless punishment.
The first uses of Gehenna in the modern sense of a place of punishment after death are by Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria about AD 150-195. Since Clement was a believer in ultimate restoration, it is clear that the word did not then carry with it the meaning of endless punishment. Nor did it carry the meaning of endless torment after death in the minds of the rabbinic Jews at the time of Christ or after.
The first Jewish reference to Gehenna as a place of future punishment is in the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, dating from the second century AD.
And the wicked shall be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, ‘We have seen enough'.
Other Talmudic and early Jewish texts also indicate that Gehenna was not understood to mean what is generally inferred by the modern term “Hell.” For example:
Gibborim, f. 70, I, Nishmath Chajim, p. 83, I, Jalkuth Shimeoni, f. 83, 3, &c., all say that twelve months is the period of punishment in Gehenna.
Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4: ‘The wicked stay in Gehenna till the Resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it, redeems them.’ The same treatise (f. 16, 2), says even of the worst sinners, like those of Sodom, and spies who betray Jews, that they are punished ‘till the time decreed is expired,’ and then allowed to transmigrate.
Midrash Rabba, I, 30. Avoda Zara, 3. ‘After the last judgment Gehenna exists no longer.’
Asarah Maamaroth, f. 85, I: ‘There will hereafter be no Gehenna.’
After studying the writings of the ancient rabbis, contemporary Jewish scholar Simcha Paull Raphael explained their understanding of Gehenna:
The Rabbis often discuss the duration of punishment in Gehenna. The generally accepted belief was that the punitive tortures of Gehenna are time-limited, not eternal. Eternal punishment was never accepted as a doctrinal belief in rabbinic Judaism. Gehenna was conceived of as a temporary abode widely believed to last a maximum of twelve months. This idea is reflected in both early and later texts. . . . The Rabbis always maintained that in addition to its punitive aspects, Gehenna served as a realm of purgation and purification.
Jesus spoke of Gehenna more than any other New Testament writer. Those who were listening to Him were familiar with the place He referred to when He used that term. It brought to mind ideas of corruption, filth, and shame, but not anything like the meaning that is pre-packaged in the English word, “Hell.” They did not think of it as a place of endless punishment beyond the grave.
If it had not been translated by such a loaded term into English, we wouldn’t, either.