The Gospel means good news, good story, good telling – stuff like that. They are simple words that capture the larger event of the arrival of the kingdom of God. It can even be said that Jesus himself is the gospel: a joyful story worth sharing. The Good News is that God’s grace and hope has been intertwined and revealed directly to us through Jesus.
The New Testament book of Acts tells the story of how the apostles and first christians began to spread the gospel and includes about nineteen sermons. These public preachings share who Jesus is, often through the personal witness of the speaker. They assure people that God cares about them and encourage them to repent and turn from sin, inviting God’s Holy Spirit to live within them.
More than that, their sermons proclaim something larger – the cosmic truth that literally everything on earth has now changed.
None of those sermons mention hell.
I can’t explain to you why, but I suspect part of the answer is that Jesus had filled his followers with so much life that death was no longer a message of importance. In my opinion that’s the way it should be. By definition, Christianity is about life. It is in the DNA of a christian; we are carriers of life, not death.
When Jesus was walking that little patch of middle-eastern land two thousand years ago, he spoke about many things and even occasionally about hell. Sorry, that’s misleading because Jesus didn’t literally mention hell, he used the word Gehenna. Gehenna was a small, deep valley outside of Jerusalem that Jesus referenced a total of eleven times.
Gehenna had a long and dirty history. It was originally known in Hebrew as the valley of (the sons of) Hinnom (obviously some old-timer named Hinnom had a valley). It was also known as Tophet, or the valley of bones which Jeremiah spoke about (because using one name for the place would be too easy).
Unfortunately the valley’s infamy came about because it was used as a site for child sacrifice. Jeremiah wrote about kings of Israel who offered children to the god Molech, an idol built with the head of a bull, a literal fire burning in its belly, and outstretched arms to receive the sacrifices. King Josiah later put a stop to the sacrifices and turned the area into a literal garbage dump where a fire was maintained to manage it.
It is also traditionally the area where Akeldama is located – the place where Judas Iscariot died following his betrayal of Jesus. You can see how it became associated with death and evil.
As I mentioned in our last post Gehenna valley came to represent the Hellenistic idea of a place where undying souls were sent to be punished. When Jesus arrived on the scene, this was a principle that was being argued among Jewish academics.
These four verses are representative of how Jesus used the word:
- In Mark 9:43 he warns that we would be better off to remove whatever causes us to stumble than be thrown into Gehenna. The previous context is Jesus’ reminder of the innocence of a child, the importance of ‘a cup of water’ in his name;
- Luke 12:5 is a reminder to his his disciples not to be afraid of the Pharisees but instead be afraid of the one who can throw you into Gehenna;
- Matthew 5:22 suggests that Gehenna is the destination of someone calling another a ‘fool’ (judging or dehumanizing);
- And Matthew 23:15 is part of an extended diatribe against religious hypocrites who mentor their followers to be the same ‘sons of Gehenna’ as they are.
When we consider Jesus’ uses of Gehenna, some common factors come into view. He typically uses the word when he is annoyed. He is usually annoyed with self righteous types, though there are also general warnings for his followers. The Gehenna-worthy issues are typically hypocrisy, judging, causing to sin, taking advantage of the innocent.
I’m not suggesting it is an all-inclusive list of sins but I am saying they are the ones Jesus connected to Gehenna. The ‘friend of sinners’ as he was known, seems much more preoccupied with Gehenna when addressing religious hypocrites.
But ultimately it all comes down to this problem: When Jesus spoke of the valley outside of Jerusalem, what did his audience understand him to mean?
Can we read the words literally and assume that Gehenna represented the evolved idea of a literal, conscious, eternal torment? This is the most straightforward interpretation of the readings and it would be possible for listeners to understand him in those terms. In other words, justice demands that sinners be punished in a literal, endless ‘lake of fire’.
Or is Jesus using a common method that Old Testament prophets had used called Apocalyptic Hyperbole? This language technique was notably used by Isaiah and Jeremiah (and others) to predict actual catastrophic events that would happen to Israel if they disobeyed God. In other words, there are real consequences in this life to ignoring God and going our own way.
And that, my friends, is where it gets difficult to determine what Jesus means when he talks about Gehenna – everlasting torture after death or dire consequences before death?
In my opinion, a good place to start is to get to know Jesus: who he was, what he cared about, what he said, what he did, how he treated people. Even better, take on the way of a disciple and walk and talk with him.
Then ask yourself: who would Jesus send to hell?
Oh, by the way, I thought you might want to know that today the valley of Gehenna is a well maintained park area outside Jerusalem where people relax in the shade of the trees. And children laugh and play on the green grass…
Next up: What about God the Father? He’s the one in the Bible who hates sin – who does he send to hell?