In previous posts, I’ve made two points:
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. Generally speaking, Jesus’ teachings are riddled with references to people who are useless in the Kingdom of God, and who therefore find themselves on the outside of it. Ghenna fits perfectly within this theme of uselessness in the Kingdom of God.
I’d now like to get down to something more specific: what, exactly does Jesus have to say about Ghenna? How is he using it in his teachings?
We’ll begin with the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes two references to Ghenna. However, before we get to those references, lets make sure we understand the overall theme of Jesus’ teachings in this section of Matthew.
In verses 17-18, Jesus points out that he is not abolishing the law of Moses. He then says this about the commandments that are contained within the law of Moses:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Notice something right away: Jesus does not say that those who break the commands, or even teach the breaking of the commands will be thrown out of the kingdom and into Ghenna. Rather, it is a matter of the status they will enjoy within the kingdom. Jesus does not teach that Ghenna is a place where imperfect, or even intellectually wrong teachers, are bound. Instead, as we discover in the following verse, his complaints are directed at people who are much worse than law-breakers or even incorrect teachers:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Pharisees, Jesus believes, are even worse off than those who are “in” the kingdom, but still “least” because they break commandments or incorrectly teach that commands should be broken. Why? Because they are not honest about who they are, and therefore cannot be changed.
Jesus begins his critique of the Pharisees with the theme of hatred. Sure enough, murder is a bad thing and may subject one to “judgment.” But it is also wrong to be angry. Thus, one will not only be subject to judgment, but to being thrown out into the fires of Ghenna if one says insulting things to others out of anger:
Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Ghenna.
The Pharisees, he says, are “in danger” of being thrown out of the kingdom and into the trash heap because they are vile and full of hatred toward others. They may hold themselves out as righteous because they do no violence, but a fatal flaw still haunts them – one which they apparently refuse to recognize.
Next, Jesus turns to the subject of sexual lust, and his point is almost identical: adultry is a bad thing, but it is also wrong to treat others disrespectfully by thinking of them as an object of secret sexual gratification. His point, which tastefully avoids referring to a more obviously applicable body part, could not be clearer:
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Ghenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Ghenna.
The message of the Sermon on the Mount on the subject of Ghenna is simple: God can “work with” people who break commandments, but who are willing to change inwardly – those people are welcome to take a place in the kingdom. But he cannot work with those who refuse to repent of the inward causes of sin, such as anger and lust – such people will never be useful in God’s kingdom, and they will find themselves tossed out of the kingdom and into the garbage dump.
More to come.