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

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.

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