There is a fascinating passage in Jeremiah chapter 7 in which Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the God of Israel and says this:
“The people of Judah have done what I said was evil, says the Lord. They have set up their hateful idols in the place where I have chosen to be worshiped and have made it unclean. The people of Judah have built places of worship at Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom. There they burned their own sons and daughters as sacrifices, something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind.” (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
The Valley of Hinnom was a specific location outside of Jerusalem that evolved into what the New Testament authors called “Gehenna” in Greek and what our contemporary bibles call “hell.” (This is also the roots of Islam’s concept of hell called “Jahannam“) As one can see from the Jeremiah text, the Valley of Hinnom was a horrific scene where pagan idol worship led to human sacrifice. Isaiah also alluded to this scene when he wrote of a “burning place” (30:33) where “the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die,” (66:24). This real, historical scene provides the background to our contemporary notion of hell. The similarities are obvious: fire, suffering, death, etc. Over hundreds of years it evolved from a particular location associated with a particular cult into a concept associated with the fate of the wicked. This is the same location/concept (Gehenna) that Jesus spoke no less than 11 times according to the Gospels.
It is for this reason that I find the passage in Jeremiah 7:31 so fascinating. Maybe you didn’t catch it in your reading, but Jeremiah, who is speaking on behalf of God, describes this hellish scene of fire and human suffering as ” something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind.” Hold the phone. Is God saying that the mere thought of humans being consumed in fire is abhorrent? Jeremiah mentions the Valley of Hinnom a second time:
“And they built the high places of Ba’al, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” (32:35)
I won’t belabor the point. These passages in Jeremiah are extremely interesting because they portray God as totally repulsed by the Valley of Hinnom. How, we may ask, can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom be the same God that sends people to a place of fire and torment? How can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and speak of hell? The traditional view answers with the disturbing picture of God as both compassionate and wrathful, loving and “just,” abhorring death and also dealing eternal death.
Universalism, on the other hand, offers a consistent picture of the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, and all hells. Let us, therefore, take a closer look at what to do with the concept of hell as found in the Bible.
Hell Prior to the New Testament
The word “hell” never appears in the Old Testament. Aside from the Valley of Hinnom, the only thing we find is the concept of Sheol, an “underworld” or “place of the dead” that is neither positive nor negative; it is simply the place of all the dead. Old Testament Judaism really had no concept of hell. It was during the Exile (500’s BCE) that Judaism began to adopt myths of the afterlife from surrounding cultures. Brian McLaren writes, “The Jews have a lot of contact with these people of other cultures and religions during the Exile in Babylon and during the continuing occupation by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans, so it’s natural that there would be some amount of syncretism or mixture between the very this-worldly Judaism of the pre-Exilic period and these other-worldly, speculative elements, especially with the Persian religion of Zoroaster,” (The Last Word and the Word After That, 81).
Other-worldly speculations became popular during the Exile as Jews attempted to make theological sense of their experience. The Jews saw themselves as God’s chosen people. Their entire story was based upon the covenant that God had made with Israel. Therefore, when the exiles and foreign occupations occurred they were forced to speculate as to how their current oppression would be resolved. The answer that many adopted was that the faithful would be vindicated in the afterlife, while their oppressors would have ‘hell’ to pay in the afterlife. It was also during the Second Temple period that many Jewish freedom fighters revolted against foreign occupiers (e.g. the Maccabean Revolt). Belief in postmortem justice was an essential element to such revolutionary violence. For more on this see N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (especially 216ff).
The major point here is that the concept of hell is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. It is obviously something that developed sometime between the Exile and the New Testament.Indeed, David Powys writes, “Gehenna’ is nowhere found in the Hebrew Bible but may be found in the Pseudopigrapha, Palestinian Targums, and New Testament,” (Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question,177). James A. Brooks confirms that it was “During intertestamental times [Gehenna (Greek), or the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew)] became the garbage and sewage dump of Jerusalem and a symbol of the place of punishment (1 Enoch 27:3; 4 Ezra 7:36) because worms and fires were always consuming the refuse,” (Mark: The New American Commentary). If you want a detailed development of hell in the intertestamental period then see David Powys’ book.
Hell in the New Testament
The above chart reveals the various words translated as “hell” (thank you, Wikipedia). As you can plainly see, the Jewish concepts of Sheol and Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinom) evolved, notably in step with Hellenistic thought. The classical Greek term “Hades” occurs 10 times and is used to convey both a general realm of the dead (Rev. 1:18, 20:13-14) and that of a negative fate (Matt. 11:23). Also Greek, the term “Tartaro” (from “Tartarus”) is used once in 2 Peter 2:4 to refer to God sending angels to a place of punishment. More than any others, however, the word “Gehenna” appears in the New Testament 11 times, namely on the lips of Jesus. Thus it is upon this word and Jesus himself that I wish to focus. Let the reader not forget what we have learned about the history of “Gehenna” above.
Jesus and Hell
Reformed pastor Timothy Keller denounces Universalism after saying, “Jesus talks more about hell and punishment than all the rest of the authors and speakers in the Bible put together.” Yes, Jesus talked about hell a lot. But mere quantity of usage is not an argument. Words have to be interpreted in their context to understand their meaning. I’m sure there are plenty of old books that use the word “gay”a lot. Should the quantity of that one word lead us to believe that the authors intended what we now mean by the word “gay?” Obviously not.
We must interpret Jesus’ speaking about hell and punishment in the context of his prophetic ministry in first-century Judea at a climactic moment in the story of Israel.
First of all, Jesus was a prophet. “Prophets in the Jewish tradition characteristically announced the judgment of the covenant god upon his rebellious people, and (sometimes) announced also the inauguration of a new movement, a time when Israel’s god would again act graciously for his people. Part of Jesus’ prophetic persona was that he did both.” (N.T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 182-3). “Jesus’ message, so far from omitting or toning down the warning of judgment, seems from a wide variety of texts to have emphasized it continually. We might have guessed as much from the traditions which report on his public image: he was likened not only to John the Baptist but to Elijah and Jeremiah… Once we see Jesus in this light, a great many sayings come together and make sense.” (Wright, JVG, 326-7)
So how exactly ought we interpret Jesus’ warnings and talk about hell? Wright continues: “We may regard these warnings as threatening the end of the present nation of Israel, if they do not repent. In the sad, noble and utterly Jewish tradition of Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the coming judgment of Israel’s covenant god on his people, a judgment consisting of a great national, social and cultural disaster, ultimately comprehensible only in theological terms.” (Wright, JVG, 184-5) Let us examine some examples.
In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus pronounces judgment upon various Galilean towns because they do not heed his message of the coming judgment and the kingdom of God. In Matt. 10:14-15 he says to his disciples:
‘If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.’
Wright explains, “Once again, this was not a prediction of a non-spatio-temporal ‘last judgment’. It was a straightforward warning of what would happen if this or that Galilean village refused his way of peace which Jesus had come to bring. This was amplified in the words of woe uttered over Chorazin, Bethsaida, and even Jesus’ own adopted home town of Capernaum. Judgment would fall upon them which would make the judgment of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom seem mild by comparison. The horrifying thing was that Jesus was using, as models for the coming judgment on villages within Israel, images of judgment taken straight from the Old Testament…” (JVG, 329)
“The catalogue of judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees, as it appears in the material common to Matthew and Luke, concludes with a further warning that is specific to ‘this generation’:
‘Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.’ (Matt. 23:32-36)
Faced with this prospect, it would be better to abandon that which was most cherished rather than go straight ahead into the conflagration:
‘If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown intoGehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For every one will be salted with fire.’ (Mark 9:43-49)
The judgment was coming upon ‘this generation’, now caught in the act of rejecting the final messenger who had been sent to call it back to obedience.” (Wright, JVG, 330)
“Luke 13 opens with a double solemn warning. Unless Israel repents of her headlong rush into destruction, she will suffer the same fate as those whom Pilate killed, or who were crushed by the tower of Siloam: in other words, Roman swords and falling masonry will be their fate if they persist in going the way of idolatrous nationalism (13:1-5).” (JVG, 331) As one begins to understand the socio-historical context of Jesus’ ministry, as well as the story of Israel, it becomes increasingly clear that his teaching about Gehenna is nothing less than a prophetic warning of present tense, this-worldly destruction.
One classic passage that is often cited as proof of Jesus’ teaching the traditional view of hell is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Again Wright is helpful:
“The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through that city without a map. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of evidence, that Jesus ‘must really’ have been primarily concerned to teach people ‘how to get to heaven after death’. The reality is uncomfortably different.
The welcome of Lazarus by Abraham evokes the welcome of the prodigal by the father [Luke 15:11-33], and with much the same point. The heavenly reality, in which the poor and outcast would be welcomed into Abraham’s bosom (as everyone would know from [a well known] folk-tale), was coming true in flesh and blood as Jesus welcomed the outcasts, just as the father’s welcome to the returning son was a story about what Jesus was actually doing then and there. … The point of this, when the story is seen as a traditional tale with a new ending, was not so much what would happen to both in the end… but rather what was happening to both rich and poor in the present time. (255)
Another popular passage in which Jesus speaks of hell is Luke 12:4-7:
‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.’
“Some have seen ‘the one who can cast into Gehenna’ as YHWH [God]; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let a lone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not the one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan.” (Wright, JVG, 454-5)
What we see over and over again in Jesus’ career as an itinerant prophet is that he announced imminent judgment upon Israel if they did not turn from their self-righteous, violent, nationalistic ways and follow Jesus’ way of peace: “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword,” (Matt. 26:52). This is evidenced again in the Olivet Discourse as Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
At the end of Jesus’ life we find a final, cogent warning as Jesus warns the women who weep for him that they should instead weep for themselves. “There will come a time when they will utter a terrible ‘beatitude’: Blessed are the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ The great blessing of children will be turned into shame; for if they (the Romans) do this when the wood is green, when the condemned one is innocent of violent revolt, what will happen when the wood is dry, when the children at present playing in the streets grow up into a revolutionary force that will pit itself directly against Rome? Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in a war that she cannot but lose, and lose horribly.” (Wright, JVG, 332)
And lose horribly she did. About 30 years later, in the same generation, the Jews revolted against the Romans in 66 C.E., which led to the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. “The entire city was plundered and burned in A.D. 70 and it must have seemed that not one stone remained upon another (see Luke 19:43-44). Christians in the city are reported to have escaped to Pella. Tens of thousands of Jews perished and were thrown outside the wall into the Valley of Hinnom.” (The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archeology, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer, 323)
Let that sink in.
Though I have not examined each of the 11 occurrences of “Gehenna” on Jesus’ lips, the above study clearly demonstrates that Jesus’ talk about hell was not about the afterlife but rather about apresent tense, this-worldly devastation. Jesus was warning that if Israel did not repent and “enter the kingdom of God,” that is, Jesus’ way of living, then there would come a time when the whole city of Jerusalem would be indistinguishable from the smoldering trash dump outside the city. Every single occurrence of “Gehenna” in the Synoptic Gospels should be interpreted in this manner. To read our contemporary [Greek mythological] understanding of hell back into Jesus’ words is to miss his point entirely and prolong the harm caused by this absurd [mis]interpretation that is behind the traditional view of hell.
In Jesus of Nazareth we find the incarnation of the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom. In Jesus we find the prophet of God who warns us to turn from our wicked ways so that we might not turn our world into Gehenna. In the final analysis, Gehenna is no mere metaphor for a place in the afterlife, it is a literal, present tense place of evil where humankind has turned from the will of God.
I cannot think of anything more EVIL than to twist the meaning of hell as Jesus used it into an other-worldly concept or metaphor that turns our eyes from the current hells in this world happening all around us. This is the ultimate evil of the traditional view of hell. And it is this distorted understanding of hell that prevents us from seeing the Gehennas of our world.
With the God who abhors Gehenna, may we weep for ourselves and the hell we have caused for refusing the Way of Jesus and His Kingdom.