I have argued in The Coming of the Son of Man (91-94) and frequently on this blog that in Jesus’ teaching the Greek word geenna, which is usually erroneously translated “hell”, signifies not a general “place” of punishment of sinners after death but divine punishment of Jerusalem by means of military invasion.
The argument is quite straightforward: Jesus believed that in the absence of national repentance his people faced the destruction of war (cf. Matt. 22:7; Lk. 21:20); Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem that because of the evil that they had done in the sight of the Lord they would fall by the sword when the Babylonians invaded, and the bodies of the dead would be thrown into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Jer. 7:32-34; 19:10-11); Josephus later describes how during the Roman siege the Jews were compelled to throw the dead over the walls of the city into the surrounding valleys for lack of space to bury them (Jos. War 5.12.3); so it seems highly likely that Jesus intended to make the same point. I think the argument is exegetically sound and makes a lot of sense as part of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.
Mitchell Powell, however, asks a pertinent question: “who is the earliest recorded reader of the New Testament you know of to advocate such a view?” Well, I have to say that to the best of my knowledge it appears to be very much a minority position.
The commentaries generally note that the valley was a place defiled by the practice of human sacrifice which became a rubbish dump where fires continually burned, though the last point has recently been contested. Nolland concludes: “it is not difficult to understand that Gehenna could become an image for the place of God’s judgment.”1 But I don’t think I’ve come across the particular connection that we have in Jeremiah with the besieging of Jerusalem. It seems to be widely agreed amongst mainstream scholars that Jesus is speaking of the final judgment of humanity. If anyone knows otherwise, I would love to hear about it.
The argument can be found, however, more or less, in Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. He hints in this direction when he quotes Mark 9:43-49 and then says: “The judgment was coming upon ‘this generation’, now caught in the act of rejecting the final messenger who had been sent to call it back to obedience” (330). But a couple of footnotes make the point explicit. First, he says with reference to Jeremiah 7 that the passage “goes on to warn that the valley of Hinnom (= ‘Gehenna’) will become a mass grave” (419). Secondly, he makes this hesitant and not entirely transparent observation:
The extent to which [Gehenna] is used in the gospels metaphorically for an entirely non-physical place of torment, and the extent to which, in its metaphorical use, it retains the sense of a physical conflagration such as might accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by enemy forces, ought not to be decided in advance of a full study of Jesus’ meaning. (454-55)
I see no reason for the hesitation. I think that Jesus used the language of geenna only metonymically to speak of the horrors of military invasion and the destruction of the city.
So my view is not entirely without precedent, though I’m pretty sure that I had not come across those footnotes in Jesus and the Victory of God when I wrote The Coming of the Son of Man. But I could be wrong.
[I have recently discovered that Brad Jerzak presents more or less the same reading of the Gehenna tradition in the Gospels in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem (2009), chapter 3.]
- 1. J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 678).