Before you freak out and accuse me of heresy, hear me out. I am not talking about Hell in terms you probably think I am. I am not articulating my thoughts on Hell as an afterlife phenomenon. I am merely pointing to a Biblical theological theme that reminds us of an oft-forgotten aspect of eternal damnation: Hell begins well before the afterlife.
Hell is a Real Dump
Contrary to what you may think, “Hell” is never actually mentioned in the New Testament. The New Testament speaks instead of “Gehenna.” Hell is a name we have come up with to designate the metaphor that Gehenna fosters in the NT.
Popular translations render Gehenna as “hell,” and occasionally provide a footnote to let you know that the Greek is actually Gehenna. The original translations of world renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright and Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart have better renderings of this word. In Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation he renders it as “Gehenna.” In Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation he renders it as “Hinnom’s Vale of Fire.” Both of these renderings are preferable to the misleading and erroneous word “Hell” provided in most translations (in my opinion).
Gehenna is a transliteration of the Aramaic geyhinam which is a derivative of the Hebrew gey-hinom (“Valley of Hinnom”). The Valley of Hinnom was originally a piece of the Promised Land given to the Hinnom family – hence the name (Josh. 15:8; 18:6). Child sacrifice to false gods was eventually performed in this valley (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6). This is why Josiah has it desecrated (2 Kings 23:10). According to the Hebrew prophets, this valley was one day to become the place of God’s judgement (Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7; see also Isa. 30:33; 66:24). This tradition was further developed in Jewish second temple literature. For example, 1 Enoch speaks of “a valley deep and burning with fire” (1 Enoch 54.1; 56.3). Thus in Jewish thought Gehenna came to be seen a a place of eschatological punishment which took some cues from the Greek idea of Hades. Some rabbis thought Gehenna was more akin to what we would now call “purgatory” (Str-B 4:1022-1118).
In the time of Jesus, this valley was used for burning trash and the bodies of dead criminals. Gehenna is mentioned only 12 times in the New Testament and is used primarily in Matthew and Mark. Even in places where the specific word “Gehenna” is not used it is still the primary metaphor being employed to describe an eschatological dark ending for the wicked. The New Testament never describes any torments in Hell except for the generic “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; et al). Neither does the New Testament ever teach that Satan is in charge of Hell or of torturing people in Hell. In fact, Revelation depicts Satan and his crew being thrown into Gehenna rather than being in charge of it (Rev. 20:10).
What the Hell?!?
C. S. Lewis once said that the door to Hell is locked from the inside. Hell is really not a thing that God sentences us to so much as something we create ourselves and confine ourselves to. Gehenna was originally part of the promised land, but because of the evil practices of people who were supposed to be in covenant with God it became the place of primary metaphor for the annihilation of the unrepentant. Perhaps it is not that heaven and hell are strictly “after life” phenomenons. Perhaps it is that when we look back from eternity it will be that heaven and hell were a place on earth.
For Israel we can certainly say that, at least in one sense, Hell was a place on earth. That place on earth was right in the Promised Land! Today, we still have burning trash dumps in our holy places: Churches that cover up or ignore abuse, pastors who misuse and abuse their power, and more. May we never forget that Hell is more insidious than to take the form of the big bad monsters and scary fiery infernos. Hell tends to look more like the little inconstancies we tolerate in our Church policies, the things we see and never tell anyone about, and the idols we cherish.
- Evolution of Hell – Blog post by the Rev. Wil Gafney
- “geenna” in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis edited by Mosiés Silva (1:548).
- “Hell: The Eternal Tragedy” in Theology for the Community of God by Stanley J. Grenz (pg. 642-644).
- “Hell” in Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. by Alister E. McGrath (pg. 457-459).
- The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.