Hell? Or Gehenna?

[Editoial note: I’m going to continue writing about my journey and struggles to come to grips with the idea of hell over the next few weeks. However, it will probably be on an on-again-off-again basis.]

I have previuosly mentioned that most of what scripture tells us about “hell” comes from the teachings of Jesus and, more particurlarly, those found in the gospel of Matthew.

The word that Jesus almost always uses for “hell,” however is NOT a direct reference to an otherworldly place of eternal torment. Instead, it is a garbage dump.

Outside the Southwestern gate of Jerusalem is a valley that was known as Gehenna. Pagans once used the valley to offer child sacrifices to Molech. Thereafter, it became a garbage dump, probably because of its dark history. During Jesus’ day, fires were known to burn there continuously (“fires that are never quenched”?), consuming the most undesirable refuse of the Holy city.

Vicious dogs would reportedly lurk about the fires, waiting for scraps of food or bone to be tossed toward the flames. When the dogs would fight over the scraps, their teeth clashed together, making what was no doubt a very unpleasant, frightening sound. Thus, this hot, stinky garbage dump had a reputation as a place where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

As I have started taking a closer look at the idea of hell in recent days, this has been a startling (and liberating) revelation to me: Jesus’ references to a place of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” were conjuring images of an actual, physical location, rather than an otherworldly place of eternal torment. That doesn’t resolve the question of whether Jesus’ use of Gehenna is symbolic of such an otherworldly place, but it does leave room for argument that he is talking about something much different than our traditional, Dante-esque notions of hell.

More to come.


5 Responses to Hell? Or Gehenna?

  1. […] 1. In the New Testament, the English word that is translated as “hell” is actually describing ”Ghenna,” a trash dump that was located outside of Jerusalem. […]

  2. Shaffik says:

    It must also be remembered that Gehenna, as well as the center for the Holy City’s refuse was also the home of the leppers, outcasts, poor, and ceremonially unclean of Torah (Mosaic Law). Jesus also talks about the liberation of the poor and of the broken who were realy the human refuse of the society. On the Sermon of the Mount Jesus draws a pretty stark contrast of Hell and Heaven, but also brings His reconciliation into it as redeeming the unclean from Gehenna itself. When the stereotypical Evangelical concept of “Salvation” is revisited it is transformed from being “saved from our sins and hell” and it takes on a present, relevant (saved from sins is relavent, I realize) and interpersonal as well as a “personal” salvation encompassing society and the World as a whole. As you say, quite opposite The Divine Comedy

  3. Jesusfreak says:

    It is also important to know that when the children were sacrificed to Molech, they were forced to walk into the fire alive. One could argue, in addition to the dogs knashing their teeth, it could refer to the unbearable pain of bein burned to death (weeping and knashing of teeth). I believe, as Robert Morris (Gateway Church) says, “Jesus was essentially saying ‘I don’t know how to explain to you how bad hell is, the best illustration I can give you is Gehenna.'” Then would indirectly say, “I don’t want you to go there, it wasn’t prepared for you!”
    Just a thought…Jesus is the ONLY one who can confirm or deny what was meant by this.

  4. Julie says:

    Hey, I came across this blog while looking for maps of Gehenna. Did you ever come to grips with God’s plan to redeem all His children and the fallacy of eternal torment? I hope so. But if not, I can help you with this. I only just began the journey you described a few months ago, and after incredible amounts of study, I am confident there is no hell and that God came to save all His children. Let me know…


  5. Tony says:

    I greatly enjoy the process of discovery and all of the analytical process that leads to personal and corporate enlightenment. With that said, I often wonder if we don’t over analyze every detail of a metaphor, to the point that we lose the simpler meaning. Is it possible that Jesus is referring to a refiners fire? The fire that we all are promised we shall pass through, to burn up the wood, hay, and stubble. All of creation is promised to pass through this fire; God wills that none should perish. Jesus died for all sin, once and for all. As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive. David is referred to as a type of Christ. David slew Goliath and saved the whole of Israel despite their unbelief. Israel had no faith in a child’s foolish salvation from so great a giant, yet they were saved. Faith has become a fuzzy word. Like it’s some invisible spiritual currency that requires collecting. Faith is a relational word, like love. It requires more than one person. It’s easier to see when we use the word in the context of faithfulness, or being faithful, that it describes the quality of relationship. So you could say, it’s not that we first had faith in Jesus, but that he first had faith in us…or rather we are saved through the faithfulness of Christ. These are the things I ponder…it’s been a long road. I haven’t read all of your postings and realize my comments may be redundant.

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