Mark 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell [Gehenna], to the unquenchable fire.” (NET Bible).
I used to play a video game called Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines. In this game you play as a vampire in modern day LA. A big part of the story was Gehenna. Vampires in the game are scared of the impending vampire apocalypse where everything will be consumed in a fiery explosion of blood, violence and death. Many descriptions of Gehenna in this video game used fire imagery; in fact, a lot of the lore in game is influenced by the Bible. In the above verse, as well as every reference to hell used by Jesus, the word used is gehenna. I’m sure that the makers of Vampire were aware of this when they decided to call the vampire apocalypse gehenna. Anyway, if you haven’t figured it out, gehenna will be the topic of today’s post on the Myth of Hellfire.
First, it’s important to realize that there is a lot of debate among bible scholars about whether Jesus actually taught about hell in terms of the afterlife. I will leave that debate for a future post and, for now, assume that Jesus really is talking about the afterlife when he mentions hell. The word hell appears many times in the New Testament. What is interesting is that there are actually four words that are translated to hell: sheol, hades, gehenna and tartarus. When Jesus teaches, the word used for hell is gehenna. As mentioned above, I will focus on the word gehenna in this post.
According to interpretation that sees Hell as a place of literal fire, the word gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was where the people living in Jerusalem threw away and burned their garbage during Jesus’ time. It was constantly on fire, infested with maggots and stunk badly. Apparently, since Jesus is using this word that refers to a place that was constantly on fire, then Jesus obviously meant that hell is a place of literal fire that never goes out. Can Jesus be any clearer?
There are a few problems with this interpretation that I have discovered through some research. The biggest problem is that scholars just aren’t sure if this valley really was a garbage dump. Some scholars say that there is no evidence that this place ever was a garbage dump, much less one that was constantly on fire**. That’s the first problem; the second problem as to do with the image of a garbage dump. Many Christians that I know have built up this image as much as possible, making it sound like a blazing inferno that you never wanted to get close to in fear of being consumed as well. The problem with this image is that it is inaccurate. A garbage dump back then wasn’t a blazing inferno, but more like a smoldering pile of junk where flames rise only when new garbage is added***. How is this image supposed to support the idea of a fiery inferno consuming a never ending source of flesh? It seems like we are reading more into the text than we are supposed to with this image of a fiery garbage dump. In fact, I don’t think this was Jesus’ point at all when he referenced Gehenna.
What did Jesus have in mind when he referenced the Valley of Hinnom in his description of hell? Whether the place was a garbage dump or not, I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when referring to this valley. We also have to remember that Jesus was born into a Jewish culture and speaking to an audience who was immersed in Jewish culture and history. When Jesus refers to this Valley of Hinnom, he already knows the history behind it and is counting on his audience to know the history as well. This Valley was notorious in Jewish history because it was used by Israelites to sacrifice humans to pagan gods in the Old Testament. See Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5-6, 32:35 for some examples. If this is the case, then we can easily see the connection. The Valley had a horrible reputation; in essence, it was a place full of shame and disgust because of what happened there in Old Testament times. This is the more likely image that Jesus had in mind when he was teaching on hell. Hell will be a place of shame, disgust and dishonor in the same way Valley of Hinnom was to Jesus’ audience. When Jesus refers to Gehenna in his teaching on hell, his point is that it will be a place of shame, dishonor and disgust. Physical torture, pain and fire are clearly not the point of Jesus’ use of the gehenna imagery.
What do you think?
*See for example, Surprised by Hope by New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright
**Here’s a blog that mentions some of the scholars and provides references to the sources.
***See What in Hell is Going On by JP Holding