Fit for the Trash Heap: Understanding Hell in the Gospel of Matthew

In a previous post, I talked about the origin of the word “ghenna” which most English bibles translate as “hell.” In short, ghenna was a stinky garbage dump, where Jerusalem’s refuse was taken to be burned. When he used the term “ghenna,” Jesus was talking about a garbage dump, not a place of eternal punishment, though many Christians believe that ghenna was used as a metaphor for such a place.

I also pointed out that most of what the New Testament says about ghenna comes from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that Matthew seems to have more to say about it than any other gospel. For that reason, I think it is important to understand how the idea of ghenna fits into the message in Matthew’s gospel.

In a nutshell, here is what I think is happening in the gospel of Matthew:

1. Jesus arrives on the scene, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God can be understood as God returning into his creation to restore it to its original, perfect state.

2. Jesus teaches about how life within the Kingdom should function (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) and he also teaches about how the Kingdom of God will grow and develop (for example, the parable of the sower in chapter 13).

3. Jesus’ teachings are accompanied by signs and wonders which demonstrate that God is present among his people and which indicate his concern for disease, death, and poverty.

4. Jesus’ authority is challenged by the religious and political powers of his day, who conspire against him and kill him. However, God raises him up from death, defeating those powers and proving him to be God’s son. Thus, the gospel concludes with Jesus’ announcement that “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” which is accompanied by a call to make disciples of all nations. (28:18-20).

Understanding the message of the Kingdom of God requires a way of thinking that is difficult for those of us who are steeped in modern culture. We tend to view something as either existing or not existing. Its either here or not here. But Matthew and the other writers in the New Testament didn’t think that way. They believed that there was a sense in which the Kingdom of God was already present, and a sense in which it was yet to come. Both of these ideas were true. Thus, the Kingdom of God is present and progressive: it is here, but not here fully.

Within this larger story about God’s kingdom being established in and through Jesus is the recurring theme of God’s judgment. That is, if God is going to set the world right, then he is going to have to deal with all of the people who are making it wrong. Thus, Jesus is often seen as a farmer, harvesting wheat. The wheat itself (which represents those who are worthy of the Kingdom) will be “brought in” to his barn, but the chaff will be destroyed. (3:11-12).  Similarly, those who are not “salty” – capable of enhancing and living in harmony within God’s creation – become God’s refuse, to be thrown out and trampled. (5:13).

I hope you can see how the idea of a notorious garbage dump fits perfectly within the overall theme of God’s judgment. Those who are not “useful” for God’s kingdom are put outside the city with the rest of the garbage.

In another post I’ll talk about who the ghenna-bound people are – because they aren’t who you think: they are the powerful, the greedy, and those who oppress and mislead others – Matthew never sees hell as a place for the poor and oppressed. Indeed, Matthew believes that by consigning the powerful and greedy to ghenna, Jesus is saving the poor and oppressed.

But for now, my point is this: ghenna is a description of someone’s relationship with God’s kingdom. Those who are outside of that kingdom, because they are found to be unfit, are described as existing in ghenna. They have no relationship with God or his kingdom because they are not useful within it or, worse yet, because they hinder it.

I also think that ghenna is similar to the kingdom of God in the sense that it is both already and not yet. That is, people can be seen as being in a ghenna relationship with God in the here and now as well as in the future.

Flickr credit: Ever Upward

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One Response to Fit for the Trash Heap: Understanding Hell in the Gospel of Matthew

  1. Louthan says:

    The best article I’ve read on the very first day of the year. Thanks :)

    Happy new year

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