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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 6

(To read the earlier posts in this series, click here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5)
Objection #4: “One of the New Testament words for hell is “gehenna” which refers to a site just outside of Jerusalem where children were once sacrificed to the pagan god Molech.  Josiah, out of disgust for the practice, turned the site into a garbage dump.  Doesn’t it make sense that when Jesus used this word he was warning people against making a waste of their lives?”
It is possible that gehenna refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which would have burned constantly to dispose of the garbage, and it is possible that it was the location of child sacrifices to Molech.  (I say “possible” because there is no evidence in any primary sources that there was once a fiery dump there.[1]) But to use these referents to limit Jesus’ teaching on final judgment is to ignore all that Jesus says about gehenna.  Consider a couple of references.

Matthew 18:8-9
 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell [Greek: gehenna] of fire.
It’s important to look at these two verses together because they are clearly describing the same situation.  V8 warns of the penalty of being thrown into “eternal fire.”  V9 warns of being thrown into the “gehenna of fire.”  I won’t rehash what we have already discovered concerning the word “eternal” in the New Testament other than to remind you that it means eternal.  When Jesus uses the term “gehenna” here He is referring to a place of eternal fire. (See also Mark 9:43,45,47.)
Further, Jesus contrasts entering “life” with being thrown into gehenna.  Of course, this isn’t a reference to literal birth, but rather life after death, an existence that Jesus repeatedly describes as eternal (Matt 19:29, John 3:15-16,36; 5:24; 6:40; 17:3).  This is an example of Jesus describing the two possible eternal destinations, heaven and hell (see also Matt 25:46).

Matthew 10:28
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].
Now we see that gehenna is a place where the body AND soul are destroyed.  (See last week’s post on the use of “destroyed” here.)  The parallel passage in Luke 12:5 is helpful: But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, we see that the casting of the body and soul into gehenna takes place after death.  If we pile up Jesus descriptions of this place so far, we find that it is a place of post-mortem, eternal torment of both the body and soul.  This does not work if Jesus intends for us to understand gehenna as the finite dump outside of Jerusalem, or even as a metaphor for annihilation.
So what are we to make of this?  When Jesus used gehenna, He was using a frightening geographical reference familiar to Him and His listeners to warn about an eternal destination that people should seek to avoid at all cost.[2] In other words, it is best to take gehenna to be a reference to the place traditionally referred to as hell.

[1] Peter Head, “Duration of Divine Judgment,” in Eschatology in Bible and Theology, eds. Kent E. Brower and Mark W. Elliot (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 223.
[2] Robert W. Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell” in Hell Under Fire, eds. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 79.

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