I don’t think I’d noticed this before. I have frequently maintained that what Jesus means by the “judgment of geenna” is not post mortem torment in what we call “hell” but the suffering and destruction that would result from the war against Rome. Basically, the argument is that Jesus adapted the imagery from Jeremiah’s predictions of the horrors of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). For lack of space to bury the dead in the city, corpses will be thrown over the walls into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom—the valley of Gehenna—where they will be “food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away” (Jer. 7:33). For the details see “Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of” and my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective. But I may have overlooked the significance of this passage:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell (geennēs)? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous 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 these things will come upon this generation. (Matt. 23:33–36 ESV)
This comes at the climax to Jesus’ impassioned denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”, and so on…. They will not escape the “judgment of Gehenna” (tēs kriseōs tēs geennēs). This generation of Jews will pay the price for Israel’s history of violent rejection of the prophets.
Jesus then laments over Jerusalem, the “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”. He warns that “your house is left to you desolate”, which is also an echo of Jeremiah’s prophecies regarding the fate of Jerusalem:
I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies. (Jer. 12:7)
But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation. (Jer. 22:5)
Jeremiah means the “house of the king of Judah”. Jesus may have in mind the “house of Israel”, but more probably, since he is addressing Jerusalem, “your house” is a reference to the temple. He will later speak of the “abomination of desolation” that will be set up in the temple (Matt. 24:15).
After this, as they are going out of the city, Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed: “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). The “apocalyptic discourse” that follows makes it clear that he expected this to happen within a generation: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34). He was spot on.
This seems to confirm rather emphatically that the “judgment of Gehenna” that was to come upon this generation of unrighteous Israel, represented by the corrupt scribes and Pharisees, would be the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans and the eventual destruction of the city and the temple. We only need to read Josephus to appreciate how “hellish” the experience would be:
Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. (Jos. War 5.12.3)
That passage seems to have a lot of resonance with Matthew 3:7-12:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
(Matthew 3:7-12 ESV)
This wrath that John the Baptist warns about most likely stands in the OT prophetic tradition and refers to a historical judgment coming very soon.
Andrew: I came across your hell book when Peter Enns featured “How are you to escape …” on his blog. I ordered the Kindle edition and just finished the preliminary discussion. Excellent stuff. A wonderful summary of biblical and post-biblical history. Since I am working on a book for post-evangelicals living after the demise of Christendom I find your views very engaging.
Alan Bean, Arlington, Texas
Thanks, Alan. You might also be interested in my The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.