Was Gehenna a burning rubbish dump, and does it matter?

Read time: 5 minutes

Rob Bell takes the view in Love Wins that in Jesus’ day Gehenna was the “city dump”: “There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.” It is a metaphor for the terrible consequences of rejecting “the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us”. But in particular, Bell seems to be saying, it was a metaphor for the devastating historical consequences for Israel of “straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love”.

He continually warns them how tragic the suffering will be if they actually try to fight Rome with the methods and mind-set of Rome…. Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about.

Francis Chan, on the other hand, has questioned the garbage dump theory: “Much of what Bell says about hell relies upon a legend from the Middle Ages.” Hell is not just human suffering; it’s not a place where stuff just gets burnt up and is no more. “All I know is that from my best understanding of Scripture, hell is a real place for those who choose to reject God”—though in an interview with Mark Galli on the Christianity Today website Chan seems unsure whether hell is eternal conscious torment or annihilation.

Anyway, the question is this: Did Jesus speak of a “Gehenna of fire” because fires burnt continually in the Valley of Hinnom? If not, what are the implications for our understanding of hell. I think Rob Bell wins on points here, but it should really have been an exegetical knockout.

1. Jeremiah warns the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they face invasion by the Chaldeans, and one of the consequences will be that the bodies of the dead will be buried in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom because there will be no room elsewhere (Jer. 7:32). The valley outside the walls of Jerusalem had been defiled by association with the practice of human sacrifice by burning to the god Molech (2 Kgs. 23:10; Jer. 7:31). The bodies of the dead will become “food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away” (Jer. 7:33; cf. 19:7). God will make the besieged city “a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds” (Jer. 19:8). Apart from the reference to human sacrifice, there is no mention of fire.

2. Remarkably, Josephus later describes how during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, corpses were thrown over the walls into the encircling valleys because there was no longer room to bury them in the city (Jos. War 5.12.3).

3. Chan is right. There is no actual evidence for the commonplace belief that the city’s refuse was burnt in the Valley of Gehenna at the time of Jesus—apparently, the first recorded reference to fires in the Valley of Hinnom comes from a commentary on Psalm 27 by Rabbi David Kimhi, dating from around 1200 AD. We may still, however, consider the notion historically plausible.

4. The introduction of fire into the Gehenna imagery probably came about through association with Isaiah 66:24: Jews who come to restored Jerusalem to worship YHWH will go outside the city and will “look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched (ou sbesthēsetai), and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” This is a description not of “hell” but of the aftermath of God’s judgment on Israel. It is easy to conflate this image of burning corpses lying outside Jerusalem with Jeremiah’s image of the dead being thrown into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom during the seige by the Babylonians.

5. The connection is directly apparent in Mark 9:43-48, where Gehenna is a place of “unquenchable (asbeston) fire”, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (ou sbennutai)”. Matthew’s “Gehenna of fire” would be an abbreviated version of this conflation.

I would argue, therefore, that when Jesus speaks of unrighteous Jews being thrown into the “Gehenna of fire”, what he has in mind is not eternal punishment in a post mortem “hell”, as traditionally understood, but judgment on Israel in the manner imagined by Isaiah and Jeremiah and described by the historian Josephus. Whether the city’s rubbish was burnt in the Valley of Hinnom is not greatly significant: the allusion is literary, not topographical.

It is worth noting, finally, that Jewish apocalypticism appears to have conceived of Gehenna as a place of subterranean torment (4 Ezra 7:36; Sib. Or. 1.103; 2.290-92). But these texts are likely to postdate Jesus and, more importantly, have clearly been influenced by the Greek concept of Tartarus: “down they went into Tartarean chamber terrible, kept in firm chains to pay full penalty in Gehenna of strong, furious, quenchless fire” (Sib. Or. 1.101-103). I think we are on much firmer ground if we read Jesus simply against the Old Testament background. Gehenna is a symbol of God’s judgment on his people. Gehenna as a Tartarean place of punishment after death has its origins elsewhere.

Rick C. | Thu, 08/04/2011 - 19:09 | Permalink

Good p.ost.

Re: Intertestamental Writings (ca. 200BCE-200CE), and other apocalyptic literature, such as can be seen in Mishnah/Talmud, there's a very wide range of beliefs as to what may happen in an afterlife.  Josephus reported that Pharisees believed in a resurrection of only the Elect, while the souls of the wicked would be tormented in an underworld.  In this huge corpus of texts, the beliefs of different schools were probably as varied as what we see today--and maybe moreso.

Since you're so into narrative-historical readings, (and so am I!): you said: "I think we are on much firmer ground if we read Jesus simply against the Old Testament background."  Hmmm.  Most commentators and Christians think resurrection was "clearly taught" in Daniel 12:2.  But was it?  (I lean toward  this refering to a kind of 'spiritual resurrection' of the just in Israel.  That is, a "coming to life" in the Valley of Dry Bones, cf. Ezekiel 37, esp. Ez 37:10).  Has implications for what being "born again" could mean too (John 3).

So now, I'm wondering what the implications of Matt 10:28 might be.  Could Jesus have been giving His Own halakah in contrast to Pharisees and other sects?  

I used to see Matt 10:28 as a primary text that supports Conditional Immortality, and still do.  However, if the "Gehenna of fire" was truly rooted in Jesus' warnings to His generation (cf. Matt 24), well, I have a lot to think about here...thoughts?



@Rick C.:

I was going to mention what Josephus has to say about the Pharisees, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it and decided to keep it simple. Perhaps it has some relevance to the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

I tend to think of Daniel 12:2 as borderline. Given the context of the Maccabean crisis and the suffering of the saints, and the fact that personal resurrection certainly is found in the martyr stories in the Maccabean literature, I don’t think we can entirely rule out a realistic notion of resurrection in Daniel.

I suggest here that Matthew 10:28 has the same Old Testament background that I outlined in this post but also reflects reflects a Hellenistic martyr theology in the unexpected dualism of soul of body.

hilary | Sat, 08/06/2011 - 08:40 | Permalink

what about the "....and does it matter?" part of your title? Maybe what matters is not whether Bell or Chan wins on points, but whether an exegetical wrangle over Gehenna is a neat way of avoiding questions like why we don't have sermons on hell today? As a preacher, what would you want to say about these passages from Mark and Matthew? Bell moves on to the resurrection, and says "This is crucial for understanding the story, because the story is about Jesus' listeners at that moment. The story, for them, moves from then to now. Whatever the meaning was for Jesus' first listeners, it was directly related to what he was doing right there in their midst." Is he saying that we can't understand the rescue of God unless we understand the wrath of God? So do we have to scare people into the kingdom? Do we need a doctrine of Hell before we can preach salvation?

@hilary :

That wasn’t quite the sense in which I meant “does it matter?” to be taken. My point was that it doesn’t make any difference to the meaning of Jesus’ words whether rubbish fires burned in the Valley of Hinnom. Sorry for the ambiguity.

Nevertheless, it’s a valid question.

I’m not sure about Bell. What I would say is that we need a doctrine of the radical contrast between the old creation, the end of which is decay, destruction, and death, and the new creation, the end of which is, well, new creation, the remaking of the cosmos.

I certainly do not think that we need a doctrine of hell in order to preach salvation; and I would argue that any doctrine of salvation ought to be preceded in any case by a doctrine of election, if we could find a good way of articulating it. This is going to sound a bit clumsy, but I would say that people do not need to fear hell in order to be saved; they need to be called in order to be “saved”.

Thanks for a great post I agree with you. Just one thought. When I recently visited Jerusalem our guide (who also was a theologian) showed us the temple and and described the trenches where the blood from the sacrificial animals poured into the Valley of Hinnom where the remains were burned. It was quite a big activity at that time and it certainly was some spillage. So when Jesus talks of worms and fire it was a actual description of what was going on. The thought that the place also became a public place of garbage does not seem entirely farfetched. On location in Jerusalem it seemed like a credible explanation.

But as you explained, that's nor really important.

Thank you for a great blog by the way! 

@Joachim Elsander:

Some thoughts on the “was the valley of hinnom a trash dump.”  I’m going to say yes for a few reasons…one common sense…the other archaeological.  

1.  Notice the topography of Jerusalem.  Built on a hill sloping south with its lowest point where the Hinnom valley and the Kedron Valley. They merge and lead down to the dead sea.  So if you are living in Jerusalem in 50 b.c. and your donkey dies…which way are you going to drag it? Uphill or down?   If you head downhill you end up tossing the body into the valley of hinnom. A great use for the valley considering its history.  If you have trash? Uphill or down hill?  If you are emptying your chamber pot into the ancient sewer system…which way is it going to “roll”?  Downhill.  So at the bottom of this hill was quite an unpleasant place.  And yes when you have been underseige (as in Jeremiah) you through the bodies over the wall downhill.  Additionally, how do you eliminate dead bodies and trash?  Light them on fire. If one is going to argue that the hinnom valley ISN’T the dump…I would ask them “where is it then?”

2. My second comment is regarding Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle.  I was quite disappointed in their research for their book “Erasing Hell”.  As quoted above they say there has never been any evidence that it was a trash dump.  This is incorrect.  In 1997 Bargil Pixner discoverd the Essene gate right above the valley of hinnom.  Why did the Essenes need a gate there?  Deut 23:12 “designate a place outside the camp where you can go relieve yourself”  Would you go relive yourself “uphill” from the camp or city?  nope.  You relieve yourself in the valley of hinnom where it will continue the downstream journey.  Bargil Pixner also discovered the latrine system which was set up by the Essenes.  

If gehenna wasn’t the dump…where was it?  Surely a city of 80K needed a place for this. 

Doug in CO | Tue, 09/06/2011 - 00:22 | Permalink

I agree completely that Jesus’ comments about Gehenna in the New Testament come essentially from Jeremiah and Isaiah.  This has been impossible to see for modern eschatological futurists because they have ignored the importance of the sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD.  Jesus was warning the people listening to him that if they didn’t repent and follow him they would be burned up with the rest of the bodies during the national military disaster that he would bring on the nation for all the atrocities done to God’s people over the centuries, including his own martyrdom.

But for those concerned about “hell” (and Old English word that simply means “hidden”, and so a decent translatin of Sheol in its original sense), keep in mind that there is still the Lake of Fire from Revelation 20.  I consider Gehenna and the Lake of Fire to be two distinct events, with the Lake of Fire representing what most people think of as “hell”.  So, it’s not that there isn’t a final judgment with a destructive element, it’s just that it’s not called “hell”.

@Bill Ectric King:

Bill, the KJV has “death and hell,” but the word is hadēs—”death and Hades.” Hades is not “hell,” not even “Gehenna.” It is the grave, the Greek equivalent of Sheol. So I think that it is another way of talking about the end of death (cf. Rev. 21:4). There is no concept of “hell” as a place of punishment after death in the New Testament.

Marty Woodcock | Thu, 06/18/2015 - 17:57 | Permalink

For myself, I would like to read what archeologists have to say on the physical place. They would have a much better understanding than old and religious texts. If there were a garbage dump somewhere in the valley, it would be a treasure trove of information of that area. I have not searched for archeological papers on it, so I cannot comment with an opinion. (I can but I will not). I have read many religious writings on the place, but would rather base my opinions in facts than myths. All myths have slivers of truth, but are blown out of proportion to make poignant points thus should not be considered historical fact.

@Marty Woodcock:

Marty, this is a good point, but the question remains: what lay behind Jesus’ statements about Gehenna? Bell rightly, in my view, argues that Jesus was speaking about the coming judgment on Israel in the form of war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but he bases the interpretation on the belief that there was a rubbish fire burning in the valley outside the city. Chan claims there is no contemporary evidence for this burning rubbish dump, so he concludes that Bell’s historical interpretation is wrong.

Archaeology might be able to tell us whether rubbish was burned in the valley of the Sons of Hinnom or not. But my argument in this post is that this is beside the point. The primary source of Jesus’ imagery is Jeremiah’s prophetic description of the siege of Jerusalem. Perhaps the element of fire comes from the fact that rubbish was burned in the valley, but it may also derive from Isaiah’s similar vision of the bodies of those who rebelled against YHWH lying unburied outside the city: “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Is. 66:24; cf. Mk. 9:48). In other words, literary sources known to Jesus account for his language, whatever archaeology may teach us.

Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 when he was talking about hell and Isaiah 14 says “hell from beneath”. The prophet Ezekiel states several times that hell is in the center of the earth. Gehenna is just an example of what hell will be like so I think it would matter if it was actually burning during the time of Christ. He most likely used it as an example to get his point across to the people living in Jerusalem during that time period.

Jon Paul | Fri, 05/05/2017 - 14:59 | Permalink

If you are claiming an exegetical knock out for Rob Bell, maybe you should include all the verses for discussion? For Isaiah it was literal and he talks about the “burning place” or Topheth referring to the valley of son of Hinnom, located just outside the gate of southern Jerusalem, where children were sacrificed in the fire to molech and baal and probably was a place where they also burned rubbish continually . Jeremiah renamed it later “Valley of Slaughter”. It was a literal place for Jeremiah also. In the greek Hinnom becomes gehenna.
Isaiah 30:33 Topheth has long been prepared;
it has been made ready for the king.
Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,
with an abundance of fire and wood;
the breath of the Lord,
like a stream of burning sulfur,
sets it ablaze.
It was literal for the Rabbi’s also, from this verse in Isaiah they opined that God created Hell on the 2nd day of creation.
It was literal for the Rabbis, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Jesus but not for you and Rob Bell?
Fear God.

@Jon Paul:

Hi Jon,

No, I’m not claiming an exegetical knockout for Rob Bell. I said that he “wins on points”. He’s half right.

I agree that Isaiah is describing a “literal” place of fire. In fact, Rob Bell would agree that it’s a literal place of fire.

Isaiah refers to Topheth or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom as the place where the dead bodies of those who were killed in war would be burnt.

For Jeremiah it was the “valley of slaughter” because the corpses of Jews would be thrown there during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 7:32).

For Isaiah it is the place where the Assyrian armies would be defeated and the bodies of the dead consumed in the (literal) fires that burned there (Is. 30:31-33).

This sort of destruction was a terrible thing, so the Jews and the Assyrians might well have been advised to “fear God”.

But whatever the Rabbis may have made of it, it has nothing to do with a post mortem “hell”.

Thank you for highlighting the passage.

@Andrew Perriman:

H Andrew,
I appreciate your tone and honesty. I see you have written a book on this topic so i am obviously out of my league. I have been studying Isaiah for 2 years and still struggle with whether he is talking about immediate fulfillment in his day or fulfillment at the time of the first or second coming and then when he weaves the three together….argh? You could make the case he is a brilliant poet who makes Shakespeare look like a novice. I am not sure why you are so confident in light of the following scriptures
Isaiah 37
36 Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! 37 So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. 38 One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son succeeded him as king. The King of Assyria is also documented to have escaped in 2 Kings 19:36-37. I really don’t think he was brought back to Jerusalem after he died in Ninevah and dumped in the Tophath in the Valley of the son of Hinnom.

The other reason I don’t think Isaiah 30:27-33 is only speaking of Assyria is v.28 where he references nations and peoples (ie not just 1 nation or Assyria) and again in v.29, the result of the Lord’s deliverance is the nation going to the mountain of the Lord and to the Rock of Israel This never happened after the Lord delivered Israel from Assyria . There was no national coming to faith in the Messiah.

I obviously don’t put a ton of stock in the rabbis since they missed it with Jesus but I think it is interesting that in 30:33
Topheth has long been prepared; it has been made ready for the king.
The word for “long” is actually yesterday in Hebrew Literally, it says this place was prepared yesterday for the king.
Rabbinical traditional has taken this verse to mean that Hell was created
on the second day of creation.Since the second day of creation was the first day to have a “yesterday,” They go on to conclude that this is why that Day 2 is the only day that has no record of God saying anything is good in Genesis 1.
Nice talking to you! Cheers.

@Jon Paul:

Looking at the passage again, I would suggest that the funeral pyre burning in Topheth is a metaphor in more general terms for the overthrow of Assyria. Watts says that the passage “anticipates the breakup of the empire” (J.D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33 (1985), 475).

Assyria was the rod of God’s anger against Israel, but “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes” (Is. 10:5, 12).

Compare Isaiah 14:24-25:

The LORD of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand, that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him underfoot; and his yoke shall depart from them, and his burden from their shoulder.”

This is rather different to what we find in Jeremiah, where the valley is associated more directly with the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem.

The reference to the nations is not necessarily at odds with this interpretation. Watts notes that in Isaiah 17:12 and 29:7 “the plural was used to describe military actions involving Assyria. Its army was composed of different ethnic units.”

In verse 29 Isaiah says that will “have a song” and “gladness of heart”—that is, will celebrate—when the Assyrian empire is defeated. This celebration is compared to (“as… as…”) 1) the keeping of a holy feast, and 2) a procession to mount Zion—that is, to the temple—to celebrate a festival. There is no reference to a messiah. The “rock of Israel” is the “mountain of the Lord”, on which the temple stood.

So I can see no reason to find in this passage a reference to “hell”. It is a prophetic celebration of the eventual destruction—and funeral in a desecrated place—of the Assyrian empire.

Bill Ectric | Wed, 10/04/2017 - 20:07 | Permalink

From what I’ve read about Rabbi Kimhi (or Kimchi), he was a favorite of the translators of the King James Bible. This is ironic in that today’s King James Only people will say there is no evidence of a trash dump in the Valley of Hinnon. Which there isn’t. Except the Rabbi says there was and I believe him.

I ran across this claim mentioned in passing in a new volume on the Bible and demons in pop culture that I’m writing a review for. I ran into the refutation a few years ago when editing a book, and took a fresh look again the last couple of days. This blog includes some scholarly quotes noting that the garbage dump notion has no support. https://www.bibleplaces.com/blog/2011/04/fires-of-gehenna-v…

@John Morehead:

Thanks, John. I’m surprised he doesn’t take Isaiah 66:24 into account. It’s mentioned in the Beasley-Murray quote, and its relevance is obvious in Mark 9:43, but Bolen makes no reference to it. We could ask what sort of fires gave rise to Isaiah’s image, but I presume that Jesus has used it for literary rather than observational reasons.