Jesus, Jeremiah, and Gehenna

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 5.22)

This week I want to address a question I received recently in response to something I shared in one of my weekend presentations. I had shared that nowhere did the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ever teach the modern, western, evangelical construct of postmortem, eternal torture of immortal souls in literal fire, today referred to by many (not all) as “hell.” The question was how I interpreted the passages we are about to look at.

What Jesus actually warned about was not the modern Christian version of hell, but rather the deeply Jewish concept of Gehenna, which has a rich Jewish history.

Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). Keep in mind that most modern translations translate these passages using the English word hell, which I feel, given the history of the term Gehenna, is deeply misleading. I have taken the time to “untranslate” each occurrence of the Greek word to read simply Gehenna once again rather than the modern hell.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5.29-30)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18.9)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23.15)

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23.33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, (Mark 9.43¬–47)
In order to understand exactly what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.

1) The Jewish history surrounding Gehenna
2) The political climate of Jesus’ own day
3) How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both

Let’s dive in!

First, Gehenna was a literal place in the history of the Jews.

“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15.8)

This place became home to Judah’s terrible history of participating in child sacrifice.

“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28.3)

“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33.6)

Gehenna (the valley of the son of Hinnom) was the cultic location where children were offered to the god Molech. At some point it came to be referred to as Topheth. Topheth is thought to signify the hearth where the child was placed. The Hebrew term has parallel terms in both Ugaritic and Aramaic with the meaning “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars have thought that Topheth was at the edgeof the valley of the son of Hinnom before connecting with the Kidron Valley. The valley of the son of Hinnom has been identified as likely being located southwest of Jerusalem. An eighth-century BC Phoenician inscription speaks of sacrifices made to Molech before battle by the Cilicians and their enemies.

But its history does not end here.

Next we see it resurface in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:

“And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7.31–32)

What Jeremiah is saying is that Babylon is coming, and the result will be such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will be used as a burying place that will become full and overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of those who followed after gods which would require such nightmare atrocities. What I want you to notice at this stage is that Jeremiah is warning, not about a postmortem experience, but a distinctly this-life, this-world experience that could rightly be termed “hell” but which points to the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon.

What is also very interesting to note is that this passage in Jeremiah 7 is the identical passage Jesus quoted in his demonstration in the temple:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)

The same things (oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow) were taking place around Jesus in his day as well. Jesus, standing in the prophetic lineage of Jeremiah, not only used Jeremiah’s imagery of Gehenna but also quoted Jeremiah directly.

“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19.46)

Now back to Jeremiah’s use of Gehenna:

“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19.2–6)

It must be noted that for Jeremiah even Gehenna had a terminus. This was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God. Even Gehenna, in Jeremiah’s thinking, was temporary. It possessed a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31.38–40)

“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32.37)

“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29.10–14)

Now let’s address Number 2 (the political climate of Jesus’ own day) very briefly. The religious leaders of Jesus day were looking, remember, for a militaristic messiah, who would lead Israel to a victorious defeat of the Roman Empire, liberating Jerusalem from pagan oppression and enabling the Jews to exact eye-for-an-eye retribution on their enemies. Jesus came offering the way of enemy-love, enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiveness through the methods of nonviolent noncooperation, not as way of destroying Rome but of winning Rome and all the nations to the worship of Israel’s Messiah (Psalm 2.8; Daniel 7.13–14; Isaiah 11.6–9; 60.3; 66.18; Zechariah 2.11; 8.20–23; 9:9–10; 14.9). This offer of healing for the world through nonviolent enemy-love was rejected by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day in favor of a militaristic messiah who looked more like Judah Maccabeus (the hammer), hoping that Judah’s history in defeating the Greeks would be repeated in their day but now against the Romans. Jesus repeatedly warned that this would not go the way they were hoping but would instead end in Rome obliterating Jerusalem. We actually see this taking place in history, beginning in AD 66 and climaxing in Jerusalem’s violent destruction by Rome in AD 70. (For more on this, see the eSight series The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus.)

What we see is that Jesus picked up Jeremiah’s warning about Jerusalem being overthrown by a foreign oppressor. Jesus quoted from Jeremiah after overthrowing the tables that day in the Temple, symbolizing what would be done by Rome just forty years later. (Jeremiah shattered a vessel on the Temple floor, symbolizing how Babylon would shatter Jerusalem and saying they had turned the Temple into a “den of robbers”; Jesus overturned tables and scattered livestock in the Temple, symbolizing what Rome would do to Jerusalem and saying they had turned the temple also into a “den of robbers.”) Yet the point of all this is the fact that Jesus adopted Jeremiah’s Gehenna language as well. Jesus was not warning about some postmortem experience described by Dante or Jonathan Edwards. He, like Jeremiah before Him, was speaking of Gehenna referring to a horrific devastation that would be wrought on Jerusalem by a foreign power, not Babylon this time but Rome.

In wrapping this up, Jesus quoted a battle cry of the militaristic efforts of the Maccabean revolt, which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day romanticized, but Jesus subversively turned it on its head. Here is the original passage Jesus used as recorded in the Apocyrpha, which—though disputed between Catholics and Protestants—was one of those documents included in this historical library of the Jews:

“Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, ‘Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives, and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.’” (4 Maccabees 13.14–15)

Two things we must note. The Hellenistic idea of postmortem, eternal torment had already crept into Jewish thinking at this stage. Scholars agree this was a product of the diaspora and not a part of the pre-diaspora Jewish worldview. And secondly, the point is not to fear those who might kill us in our militaristic, violent revolt, but to fear a God who threatens us with eternal torment if we are not faithful to the law of our ancestors.

Jesus, in a rhetorical play on words, quoted the passage from 4 Maccabees, but then threw in a twist, transitioning into the words of Jeremiah instead:

“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12.5)

The him here is a militaristic messiah rather than Jesus, the nonviolent, enemy-embracing Messiah. If the religious leaders of Jesus’ day endeavored to follow the course of the Maccabean revolt, the militaristic messiah would not lead them to victoriously defeat Rome, but rather would hurl them into a Jeremiah “like” Gehenna.

Matthew’s version is even more telling:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [Jesus began with the words of 4 Maccabees, which were very familiar to the Jewish leaders of his day, and then transitioned into Jeremiah]; rather fear him [a militaristic messiah] who can [through an attempt to overthrow Rome through violence] destroy both soul and body [not eternal torment, but eternal annihilation of Jerusalem] in Gehenna [Jeremiah’s term referring to Jerusalem’s destruction by a foreign power].” (Matthew 10.28)

What Jesus was actually warning about is really an even worse fate than what Jeremiah warned about. For Jeremiah, the destruction by Babylon would be temporary. For Jesus, the destruction that would come from Rome would be permanent.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I’d like you to contemplate what all of this might mean to us today. Are we, the human family, on a trajectory toward our own Gehenna? Violence always escalates. The path of “eye for an eye” (Matthew 5.38–39) is a broad path that ends in destruction (Matthew 7.12–14). In America, today is a day that will be spent memorializing the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This same Dr. King warned shortly before his assassination that we were no longer faced with the options of violence versus nonviolence. The options, based on the technological advancements by which death was being so massively and efficiently exercised, were between nonviolence and nonexistence.

2. Prayerfully consider the options that lie before us today. Are we, too, faced with the choice between nonviolence or a “Gehenna?” Are our options the same today as they were in the days of Jesus—enemy-love and learning the way of enemy-forgiveness versus total annihilation?

3. Be prepared to share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

In the shadow of the cross, following in the footsteps of Jesus, may we learn the way of enemy-love. Grace for our enemies, rather than retribution, is our only hope of healing. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be healed (John 3.17). Jesus also said to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 20.21). This means that Jesus has not sent us into the world to condemn this world, but that through us, the world might be healed. May we fulfill this calling through learning to live like Christ, think like Christ, feel like Christ, and love like Christ. Till the only world that remains is a world where Love once again reigns.

Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

I love you guys.

I’ll see you next week.