Friday, June 8, 2012

Gehenna

One of the primary words of Jesus that is translated as hell in many translations is Gehenna.  In fact, there are only two occasions in the NIV New Testament where the word hell is something other than Gehenna: Luke 16:23 with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; and 2 Peter 2:4, discussing the destination of the fallen angels.  So I thought it might be interesting to look at bit more closely at Gehenna: what was it in Jesus day; and what does he say about it.

Not much appears to actually be known about Gehenna, or Valley of the Son of Hinnom.  The Old Testament identifies it as a place of idol worship and is likely synonymous with Topheth.  There is some thought that it served as a garbage dump in the time of Jesus but that is not known for sure.  The assumption that it had become a garbage dump does have some appeal based on its history as a place of defilement and what Jesus has to say about it.

A burning garbage dump

I spent a few years in Sicily while I was in the Navy and commuted past the garbage dump below the town of Misterbianco.  This dump was in the process of filling the valley alongside the road I traveled on.  The place was always smoking from the fires that smoldered there, and the number of flies swarming the place was truly amazing.  I can't imagine how many maggots must have been happily dining on whatever was thrown into the dump from passing cars.

Jesus describes Gehenna as a place where the wicked are cast (Matt 23:33), a place where body and soul are destroyed (Matt 10:28), a place where the fire never goes out and the worm does not die (Mark 9:42-48).  How like the Misterbianco dump: a place where refuse is tossed; a place that destroys whatever is cast into it; a place where the fires burn continuously; and a place where maggots and other decomposers are continuously at work.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement

But I find it interesting that nowhere in Jesus description of Gehenna is the idea that the garbage cast into the dump will survive the fire and worms.  On the contrary, those cast into the dump are destroyed body and soul. The fire and worms will always be available to consume whatever garbage is thrown into the dump.

In fact, apart from a couple of passages in Revelation, a writing filled with symbolism, I can find nothing in the New Testament to support the traditional view of hell being a place of eternal conscious torment for unbelievers.  Rather it appears to be a place where unbelievers are completely destroyed, or annihilated. I realize this is contrary to the more traditional view, and I am open to correction here, but I just don't see eternal torture in the New Testament.

I would love to discuss this with anyone who would care to at Rational Christianity.

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