What was Gehenna?
As most commentators note, Jesus appropriated the concept of Gehenna from Jeremiah’s prophecies against sixth century Judah. According to Jeremiah, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Hebrew: Ge Hinnom, Aramaic: Gēhannā) would become the “valley of Slaughter” when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC (Jeremiah 7:30-34, 19:4-6).
Besides the oracles of Jeremiah, Jesus betrays another source for his conception of Gehenna in Mark 9:47-48. Gehenna is said to be the place Isaiah spoke of: “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Isaiah 66:24). In Isaiah’s vision the inhabitants of the restored Jerusalem peer out of the city to see the corpses of those who had rebelled against God. The perpetual sight of the many “slain by YHWH” would serve as a deterrence to would-be transgressors (Isaiah 66:16).
These two texts then, Jeremiah and Isaiah, constituted the foundation upon which Jesus built his own vision of Gehenna.
What is Gehenna?
Under the influence of the New Testament and later theologians, however, the unfortunate valley would eventually evolve into a place of postmortem eternal torment. For all intents and purposes, Gehenna has since been equated with Hell in Christian consciousness.
Yet Gehenna’s origins in the oracles of Jeremiah and Isaiah may give us more accurate insight into what the term meant to Jesus. In Jeremiah and Isaiah the Gehenna of worm and fire serves as an image of catastrophic slaughter. It is a necropolis for the scorched and half-buried, rotting bodies generated by military defeat and destruction (cf. Jeremiah 7:33, 14:16, Isaiah 1:30-31, 14:11, 34:8-10). Had Jesus been interested in encapsulating a political disaster similar to Babylon’s decimation of Jerusalem into a single potent image, Gehenna would have been an appropriate choice.
And as it turns out, Jesus was interested. He foresaw Israel’s devastating war with Rome some forty years before it happened (Mark 13:1-23, Luke 13:1-9, 21:20-28). Like Jeremiah and Isaiah before him, Jesus knew that Jerusalem was going to be burned and its corpses heaped up into piles.
With all of this in mind, I want to now make a brief case that Jesus’ Gehenna has little to do with the postmortem Hell of later tradition and everything to do with the Jewish War with Rome. I think one critical piece of evidence has been overlooked.
Gehenna and the day of judgement
- Gehenna is used interchangeably with the day of judgement, that is, the day in which Jerusalem and the surrounding regions are swept away.
Jesus twice refers to a coming day of judgement (κρίσεως) that will level certain unrepentant cities in Galilee, namely, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matthew 10:15, 11:20-24). Along with Jerusalem’s current generation (Matthew 12:38-42), Jesus claims that these cities will suffer a fate similar to, but worse than, Sodom and Gomorrah. What Jesus has in mind then is clearly an eschatological earthly destruction of living inhabitants.
Yet in between his indictment of these 1st century Jewish towns Jesus also warns his disciples to fear the one who can destroy a person in Gehenna, that is, God (Matthew 10:26-30). This threat, unlike the first, is usually understood in terms of a postmortem punishment in Hell. Gehenna, we are told, refers to the hellish abode of the wicked who have died while the day of judgement refers to an earthly upheaval at the end of time. Thus while Gehenna relates to eternity, the day of judgement relates to eschatology. They are related but distinct.
This distinction, however, is probably not warranted by the texts.
One passage in particular demonstrates the large degree of conceptual overlap between Gehenna and the eschatological judgement. As part of a diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees Jesus prophecies that “this generation” will pay for the blood of all the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36). As Jesus goes on to describe how his generation was to pay for such sins he focuses his attention on the coming desolation of Jerusalem’s house, undoubtedly a reference to the destruction of the Temple during the Jewish War with Rome (Matthew 23:28, cf. Matthew 22:7, Isaiah 5:9). This is confirmed as Jesus continues. After the “abomination of desolation” is erected on the Temple’s grounds, Zion will be torn down (Matthew 24:1-28). “Immediately after” this the son of man will come with recompense to bring about the end of the age (Matthew 24:29-31, cf. Luke 21:20-28).
What makes this apocalyptic schema significant for our purposes is that Jesus condenses all of it into the phrase “the judgement that is Gehenna” (τῆς κρίσεως τῆς γεέννης) (Matthew 23:33). The generation that will be unable to escape the desolation of Jerusalem and the subsequent coming of the son of man will also be unable to escape Gehenna. The most straightforward explanation for this is that Gehenna and the day of judgement refer to the same thing, God’s action in history to judge first century Israel. Surely this is how Jeremiah and Isaiah would have understood Jesus’ prophetic imagination.