I originally intended to write a 4 part blog on hell and what we believe about it. After I started putting down some thoughts on the different viewpoints though I realized that I could not adequately explain them without first doing a piece on Gehenna. The more I studied the word, the more I realized that it is a loaded term and that the different parties involved were all interpreting it through different lenses.
To illustrate this, take the word “church” for example. In modern times we have associated it with a Christian place of worship. A church is a pointy building with a cross on the wall. Just ask someone where they go to church and they will know exactly what you mean. Yet the word ‘ekklesia’ in scripture originally meant a “gathering of those summoned” and had a judicial meaning attached to it (see Acts 19 where it is used for non believers). Christ’s Church to the early believers was understood as a gathering of his body with clear Kingdom objectives attached to it. So today when I hear the word church and Johnny Baptist hears it we may have 2 totally different things in mind depending on mine and Johnny’s understanding or interpretation of the word. This is very much true of the word Gehenna as well and this is why we need to look at the two traditions associated with it.
In the Old Testament the word Gehenna, which usually gets translated as hell in the New Testament, referred to a literal place. It was a valley South of Jerusalem just below Mount Zion. It was associated in the Old Testament with child sacrifices to the pagan god Molech/Baal (Jer 7:28-31, 19:5-6, 32:35, 2 Ch 28:3). This was met with judgement from God which included a prophecy that Jerusalem itself would be conquered and laid desolate (see Jeremiah chapter 19:2-14).
Later on during the intertestamental period (time between the Old and New Testament writings), Hellenistic culture, and Plato in particular, began to have a huge influence on Judaism and their concepts of the afterlife. It was during this time that Gehenna became a metonymy for “hell”. Writings appeared that depicted Gehenna as a place of punishment in the afterlife. For some odd reason, the longest that one could go there was a period of 12 months after which they were released to be burnt and destroyed (with the exception of 5 people who would spend eternity there). Different intertestamental books later developed and supported all kinds of views on the afterlife. Annihilation is supported in 4 Ezra 7:61, 1 Enoch 48:9, 99:12 and eternal torment in Judith 36 and 1 Enoch 27:1-3, 103:8. In addition to this, the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all taught that the soul was immortal which was picked up by the Pharisees as well (Josephus Wars 2.8.14) which the eternal torment group embraced and the annihilationalists rejected.
Fast forward to the New Testament, and we see Jesus uses the term several times (11 if I remember correctly). But exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke of Gehenna is the part people seem to disagree on. Did he use it in the Rabbinic tradition which was popular in his day or did he use the Gehenna of the Old Testament as an example and a warning to his listeners? Using the Rabbinic interpretation people tend to land on the eternal torment view reasoning that the soul is immortal and that Jesus is warning us specifically of events in the afterlife and the nature thereof. People who believe that Jesus spoke from the Jeremiah tradition as some call it normally associate the NT Gehenna scriptures with warnings of Jerusalem and the temples imminent destruction by Rome which happened a few years later. This seems plausible when we consider the links between scriptures like Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:48. But it does not hurt to be 2-dimensional in our reading either as pretty much everyone is in agreement that it is clear from other scriptures that there is a judgment in the afterlife (Mathew 25:32-46).
Hopefully this lays the foundation for discussing the different views in the next posts.
See Part 1 in this series here.