A major part of my argument against the traditional doctrine of “hell” is that in Jesus’ teaching “Gehenna” is not a place of unending conscious torment after death but a symbol for the devastation and loss of life that Israel would suffer as a consequence of the war against Rome. I think that Jesus has basically reworked Jeremiah’s prediction that Jews who died during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians would be thrown into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom because there would be no place left to bury the dead in the city (Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7).
In response to the last piece on Tim Keller’s defence of the doctrine, several people pointed out, here and on Facebook, that the name “Gehenna” is not found in the Old Testament but appears frequently in the literature of second temple Judaism, including texts which predate Jesus, and in the Rabbinic writings, where it very clearly refers to a place of darkness and fire deep in the earth where dead sinners are judged and punished. Doesn’t this have a bearing on Jesus’ use of the term? Doesn’t it suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the punishment of the wicked was closer to contemporary and later Rabbinic notions of a metaphysical “hell” than to the prophetic narratives?
This is a rather long post in answer to these questions. It sets out much of the data from the relevant literature. If you don’t want to wade through it, by all means jump to the concluding sections on Jesus and Gehenna. I do not, for the most part, dispute the fact that Jews from the period had bought into an unscriptural belief in Gehenna as a place of torment after death. But I will argue that Jesus puts the language to very different rhetorical ends, and that there may be something quite deliberately subversive about his engagement with the tradition.
Gehenna in the Aramaic Targum
When Jesus warns about being thrown into Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48; cf. 9:43), he is quoting from Isaiah 66:24: the corpses of the men who rebelled against YHWH are consumed by undying worms and an unquenchable fire. The quotation is very close to the Septuagint, but there is no reference to Gehenna in either the Hebrew or Greek text of this verse. The Targum, however, which is an Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew text dating from around the time of Jesus, reads differently (“Memra” is the “word” of God):
And they shall come out and see the bodies of the sinful men who rebelled against My Memra, for their breaths shall not die, and their fire shall not be extinguished, and they shall be judging the wicked in Gehenna until the righteous say to them, “We have seen enough.” (Tg. Is. 66:23–24)
So although the actual quotation has been taken from the Septuagint, it could be argued that in Jesus’ mind it is linked to the distinctive conception of Gehenna which is found in the Aramaic text. Numerous references to Gehenna have been inserted into the Targum in order to heighten the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. For example, whereas the Hebrew text of Isaiah 26:19 reads “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! …and the earth will give birth to the dead”, the Targum has:
You are the one who revives the dead, You raise up the bones of their corpses. They will live and praise before You, all who were cast into the dust…. But the wicked whom You have given power, though they have worked against Your Memra, You will hand over to Gehenna.
Whereas in the Hebrew Old Testament all the dead go to Sheol, the Targum tends to consign the wicked dead to Gehenna, which is a place of judgment, characterised by darkness and fire. The wicked will be “judged in Gehenna, in darkness” (1 Sam. 2:8; cf. Is. 26:15, 19; Is. 53:9; Hos. 14:10); for them “Gehenna has been prepared from eternity”, the “fire burns in it as with much wood” (Is. 30:33; cf. 33:14); from his sanctuary God will “see those who go down to the land of Gehenna” (Is. 33:17). There is some suggestion of suffering in Gehenna, but the main thought is of destruction: the “inferno of Gehenna will consume them” (Ps. 21:10); “the wicked will perish and be destroyed in the smoke of Gehenna” (Ps. 37:20); “their bodies will decay in Gehenna” (Ps. 49:15). Notably the paraphrase of Isaiah 65:5-6 says that retribution for Jews who sacrifice to idols “is in Gehenna in which the fire burns all the day. Behold it is written before me, I will not give to them a respite in life, but will repay them retribution for their sins, and I will hand over their bodies to the second death” (Is. 65:5–6). So that’s where John got the idea from!
The punishment of Antiochus Epiphanes
The tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is threatened with “unceasing tortures” by the seven sons as they suffer martyrdom (4 Macc. 10:11). The “everlasting destruction (aiōnion… olethron) of the tyrant” is contrasted with the “everlasting life of the pious” (4 Macc. 10:11, 15). He is told that “justice will store up for you a fire more fierce and everlasting and tortures, which for all time will not release you” (4 Macc. 12:12). The author adds his own summation to the story: “The tyrant Antiochus was punished on earth, and now that he has died, he continues to undergo chastisement” (4 Macc. 18:5). No reference is made to Gehenna in the Maccabean literature, but at least in this instance of outstanding wickedness there is the prospect of an unending torment after death as punishment for the suffering inflicted on faithful Jews.
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha
In the largely Hellenistic writings that make up the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Gehenna or Tartarus is the lowest part of the earth, a place of darkness and fire (2 En. 40:12; Sib. Or. 1:9-10). Conceptually it is an extension of the Old Testament Sheol or Hades (1 En. 51:1). It is governed by the angel Uriel (1 En. 20:2). Guards like “great serpents” stand at the gates (2 En. 42:1). At the final judgment, after the whole world has been destroyed by an “unspeakable fire”, the dead will be raised; sinners will be buried again under a heap of earth and “murky Tartarus and the black recesses of Gehenna” (Sib. Or. 4:186). The “furnace of Gehenna” is the “pit of torment” that will be revealed at the final judgment (4 Ezra 7:36).
It is said that the Watchers went down to Tartarus, “kept in firm chains to pay full penalty in Gehenna of strong, furious, quenchless fire”. After this God sent a “race of overbearing and terrible men” into “mighty Tartarus down under the foundation of the earth” (Sib. Or. 1:102–119). The wicked will be flayed by angels with “chains of flaming fire”, and “in the gloom of night, will they be cast beneath many horrid beasts in Gehenna, where darkness is immense (Sib. Or. 2:290–292). They will “repay three times as much as all the evil work they did, burned with much fire, they will in anguish gnash their teeth and all of them, consumed by raging thirst and hunger, will call death beautiful, and death will flee away from them. For neither death nor night will ever give them rest” (2:304-308).
In the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra the seer exclaims: “Woe to sinners when they see one who is just more than the angels, and they themselves are in the Gehenna of fire!” (Apoc. Ezra 1:9). He is taken “lower down into Tartarus” and sees “all the sinners lamenting and weeping and mourning bitterly”, and he also weeps, “seeing the race of men thus tormented” (5:27-28).
Dating is obviously an important consideration. The material that makes up 1 Enoch is usually assigned to the third and second centuries BC. The dating of 2 Enoch is extremely problematic, but parts of it may go back to the first century. According to Collins the Jewish sections of Sibylline Oracles 1-2 were probably written in Phrygia in the first part of the first century AD. Much of Book 4 dates from the period after Alexander, but Collins notes that the account of the end-time could originally have been written by a Gentile. 4 Ezra is thought to have been written around AD 100. The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra is a Christian text dated by Stone between AD 150 and 850.
The name “Gehenna” is not found in the Qumran literature, so this is a very limited survey. There is the occasional reference to a place of fire and darkness where the wicked will be punished. For example, the wicked will suffer
multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil, and dark happenstance, until their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue” (1QS 4:12–14, modified).
Arguably, however, this describes the historical affliction of a section of humanity, from generation to generation, that will culminate in extinction or annihilation in the fire of a final judgment. This somewhat mangled passage from the War Scroll may also describe the effect of God’s glory on the living enemies of God throughout the coming ages: “Let the light of Your majesty shi[ne forever upon gods and men, as a fire burning in the dark places of the damned.] Let it burn [the damned of Sh]eol, as an [eternal] burning [among the transgressors … in all the appointed times of eternity” (1QM 14:17–18). The phrase “damned of Sheol” would only mean that they are condemned ultimately to death.
The Rabbinic literature
In the Rabbinic literature1 Gehenna is the place of the dead beneath the earth, but it is also a place of punishment. Generally speaking, the wicked inherit the punishment of Gehenna (Qidd. 40b:7; Mishneh Torah 5:4; Ned. 40a:4), while the righteous inherit the Garden of Eden or Paradise or the life of the world to come. There may also be an “intermediate class” of people who descend to Gehenna “but they weep and come up again” (Roš Haš. 1:12); and various other exceptions or exemptions are considered. The souls of parents, for example, can be “redeemed from the torture of the Gehenna” by filial piety (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). Rabbi Yoḥannan was able to get Rabbi Meir “released from the sentence of Gehenna and brought to the World-to-Come” (Ḥag. 15b:4). According to the school of Hillel, rebellious Jews and Gentiles who sin “with their bodies” are judged in Gehenna for twelve months; then their bodies and souls are burned to ashes to be scattered by the wind under the feet of the righteous (Roš Haš. 17a:3).
Suffering may exempt people from Gehenna: “Three classes of people do not see the face of Gehenna, because the suffering that they bear in his world atones for their sins, and they are: Those suffering the depths of extreme poverty, those afflicted with intestinal disease, and those oppressed by creditors. And some say: Even one who has an evil wife who constantly harasses him” (Eruvin 41b:14). Those who give to the poor will be “saved from the judgment of Gehenna” (B. Bat. 10a:2; cf. Ned. 40a:5). According to Rabbi Elazar “The fire of Gehenna has no power over Torah scholars” (Ḥag. 27a:7).
Idol worship is the one transgression that “causes the wicked to burn in Gehenna” (Taanit 5a:13). The Persians or Babylonians were “sent by God to carry out his mission of anger”, but for that reason also they were designated for Gehenna (Ber. 8b:16). In an interpretation of Isaiah 66:24 it is said that Jewish heretics will “descend to Gehenna and are judged there for generations and generations” (Roš Haš. 17a:4).
So what can we learn from this about Jesus’ references to a judgment of Gehenna?
The word “gehenna” is the Grecized form of the Hebrew gyʾ Hinnom (“valley of Hinnom”). It gets its eschatological significance from the fact that sacrifices—including child sacrifices—were made to the god Moloch at a site called Topheth in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom during the reigns of Solomon, Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 32:35). Because of this desecration the valley became a refuse pit for Jerusalem, perhaps burning with an unquenchable fire. For Jeremiah, and perhaps for Isaiah, it also became the place where the bodies of dead Jews would be thrown during the siege of the city by the Babylonians (Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7; cf. Is. 66:24).
By the time of Jesus there were Jews who knew of “Gehenna” as a place of fire and darkness under the earth, an extension of the Old Testament Sheol or the Greek Hades, where the wicked would be judged and punished after death. The development is presumably attributable to pressures of Hellenisation. The imposition of Greek culture on Jewish thought provided both the conceptuality (a subterranean place of punishment, Tartarus) and the occasion (apostasy and the persecution of loyal Jews) for intensifying the belief in the punishment of the wicked. Jesus’ language owes something to this development: the name “Gehenna” and perhaps the phrase “Gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22) suggest that he was familiar with the contemporary apocalyptic terminology.
Regardless, the controlling prophetic narrative of the Synoptic Gospels is that unrighteous and unrepentant Israel is on a broad path leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome, a greater Babylon, and needs to be saved. This establishes a strong presumption that when Jesus spoke of a punishment that would come upon Israel, and especially upon the corrupt leadership of Israel, he was thinking specifically of the impending historical catastrophe.
This makes Jeremiah’s warnings about the bodies of the dead being thrown into the Valley of Hinnom, gyʾ Hinnom, singularly relevant for interpretation, as is clear from Matthew 23:29-24:2. The scribes and Pharisees are serpents, a brood of vipers, who will not escape the “judgment of Gehenna” (tēs kriseōs tēs geennēs). They will suffer punishment for the historic rebelliousness of Israel: “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” Jerusalem’s house will be left desolate, the temple will be cast down. Clearly here Jesus’ judgment of Gehenna is Jeremiah’s judgment of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom: “all these things” would come upon Israel: the besieging of Jerusalem by a foreign invader, massive loss of life, and the destruction of the city and the temple.
Conversely, Jewish writings that present Gehenna as a place of punishment for dead sinners have no interest in the narrative of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. They are not written from the perspective of an early first century prophet in Galilee and Judea who was thoroughly and exclusively reliant on the Old Testament scriptures, and who at numerous other points invoked Old Testament narratives of judgment and renewal.
In the Jewish conception, Gehenna is deep beneath the earth. According to the Rabbis, there are three entrances—one in the sea, one in the wilderness, and one in Jerusalem (Eruvin 19a:12). People typically “go down” into Gehenna. Jesus, however, tends to speak of people being “thrown” into Gehenna (Matt. 5:29; 18:9; Mk. 9:47; Lk. 12:5), which accords more closely with Jeremiah’s imagery.
The subversion of hell
So I maintain that the narrative of judgment on Jerusalem gives us the basic meaning of “Gehenna”. But if we wish to take seriously the connotations that “Gehenna” had in the literature of second temple Judaism and of the Rabbis, there is perhaps a further layer of interpretation to consider.
First, I would suggest that the conception of Gehenna as a place of punishment after death—our notion of “hell”—belongs to a particular current of Jewish thought running from the earliest encounters with Hellenism, through the apocalyptic writings, to be inherited by the Rabbis, that was deeply and painfully conscious of divisions within Judaism, between the righteous and the wicked, and between the Jews and the dominant pagan powers.
A highly conservative, separatist group such as the Pharisees would have found itself at home in this tradition. Indeed, according to Josephus, the Pharisees “say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment (aidiōi timōriai)” (War 2:163). Another passage highlights the close connection between the Pharisees’ belief in the subterranean punishment of the immortal souls of the dead and the popular regard for their virtuous lifestyle:
They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also. (Ant. 18:14–15)
Secondly, the prophetic argument about a coming judgment has the character of a turning of the tables, a reversal of fortunes: “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52).
In light of this, we may imagine that Jesus has taken the language of the popular conception of Gehenna and has turned it back against the scribes and Pharisees, whose “virtuous conduct”, in his view, was largely a sham (cf. Matt. 23). This self-righteous class had used Gehenna to reinforce its sense of religious privilege and priority. Jesus took the idea but restored it to the prophetic narrative from which it was originally derived, and then aimed it squarely at the hypocritical leadership of this “evil and adulterous generation”. They would be destroyed in the fires of the Valley of Hinnom. Their corpses would lie unburied on the ground, consumed by undying worms and an unquenchable fire. They would be excluded from the coming restoration of God’s people, cast into outer darkness, where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a good illustration of this. Like much of Jesus’ teaching it addresses the question of who can claim Abraham as father and whether those who assume that their position in the kingdom of God is secure will repent. The rich man, representing a complacent Jerusalem elite, is buried, and goes down into Hades, where he is tormented by fire. Lazarus, by contrast, is transported to the side of Abraham. It’s not a “literal” account of what happens to people after death. It’s a parable about judgment and renewal from the margins. If Israel did not heed the words of Moses and the repeated demands of the prophets, the servants sent to the vineyard of Israel, they would face the catastrophic judgment of Gehenna.
Briefly then: Jesus agreed with the Pharisees that there would be a judgment of Gehenna, but 1) it would be Jeremiah’s Gehenna of war and slaughter, not the popular and unbiblical notion of torment after death; and 2) it was the Pharisees and the rest of this “evil and adulterous generation” who would find themselves thrown into this Gehenna, not the likes of wretched Lazarus.