Didn’t Jesus teach hell himself? What about “whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell” (Mt 5:22 NET)? How does that fit together with the reconciliation of all people? By giving the Old Testament background of Gehenna, I’ll show that Jesus didn’t teach eternal punishment in hell but imminent national judgement.
Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek language have a word that has the meaning which is usually associated with the word hell. Learn more about the biblical words that are wrongfully translated as hell in this article.
Mt 5:22 is often translated like this:
“And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.” (Mt 5:22 NET)
When we read verses like this we immediately understand them through the theological glasses we are wearing. All kinds of sermon outlines, illustrations, and ideas come to our minds. None of these came to the minds of Jesus’ listeners. Because of what we were taught we associate these verses with hell, eternal punishment and so on. To us the meaning is clear. But what if our theological glasses conceal the real meaning of the verses? We need to ask what the Israelites heard when Jesus said these words. We need to take off our own theological glasses and put on the glasses of the Jews in the time of Jesus. This is what I hope to accomplish with this article.
The Greek word which is translated here as hell is actually Gehenna (γέεννα). Gehenna is a real place which you can visit until today. You can even check it out in Google Maps. Gehenna has a rich history in the Old Testament (OT). The only way to correctly understand the words of Jesus is by reviewing what the OT says about Gehenna.
Gehenna is a transliteration of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. For Jews Gehenna/Hinnom was associated with sin and judgement because it was the place where King Ahaz (2 Ch 28:3) and King Manasseh (2 Ch 33:6) burned their own sons as a sacrifice for Moloch.
Especially, Jeremiah and Isaiah coined the understanding of Gehenna in the OT. In their writings Gehenna is a place of slaughter (Jer 7:31-32; 19:6+11-14 – note: Topheth is a place in the Valley of Hinnom) and fire (Is 30:33). Thereby, Hinnom became a place of fiery judgement. It was the place where the dead Israelites where pilled after the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem (Jer 7:31-33; 19:2-13). But in the whole OT it’s never associated with eternal judgement in the afterlife but with imminent judgement in this world (e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem through the Babylonians).
Jesus associates Gehenna with unquenchable fire Mk (9:47-48). What did the Jews associate with unquenchable fire? In the OT we find many references to unquenchable fire. For example Jerusalem was burned down with unquenchable fire by the Babylonians (Jer 21:10-12). When Ezekiel prophesied the coming of the Babylonians he said that the whole Negev (southern portion of Israel) will be scorched by unquenchable fire (Ez 20:47-48). Amos speaks of unquenchable fire as a national judgement on the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians (Amos 5:5-6). Isaiah used it to describe the national judgment on Edom (Is 34:10). Is any of all these places burning until today? Obviously not! Unquenchable fire had nothing to do with eternal punishment but was all about imminent national judgement in this world.
All of this was probably in the heads of the Jews who listened to Jesus. So when Jesus used terms like Gehenna and unquenchable fire the idea of eternal punishment most likely never crossed their head. Instead they likely remembered the horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians. And I think that’s exactly what Jesus wanted to communicate. His message was not that the unrepentant will eternally be punished in hell. His message was: if you Israelites won’t repent and follow my way of love then the same will happen to you again as when Jerusalem was destroyed the first time.
Sure enough, the Israelites didn’t repent and didn’t follow Jesus teaching. They chose the way of violence and rebellion and exactly what Jesus prophesied happened: 70 AD the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, burned it down and Josephus indicates that all the dead bodies were thrown in the valley of Hinnom.
Conclusion: When Jesus used the term Gehenna he very likely talked about an imminent national judgement and not about eternal punishment in the afterlife.
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