Depending on what translation you are using, there will be somewhere between thirteen and twenty-three references to “hell” in your Bible. Did you know that there are many different words which have been translated as the English word “hell”? Of these words the most common one is the word Gehenna. Gehenna is in the text of the New Testament twelve times. In modern times, largely because of the way our translating has gone but also because of the Greek way of thinking most of us in the west have, we have made Gehenna strictly about the afterlife. This is unfortunate because by doing this we have lost so much from Jesus’ teachings by eliminating the word Gehenna and its historical context from the New Testament of the Bible.
The valley of Hinnom is an actual place in Jerusalem. It’s a valley close to Mt. Zion. The Valley of Hinnom, Ge Hinnom, or in Greek, Gehenna, is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. Gehenna was not a good place in Jewish history. This is where the Israelites went to sacrifice their children to the false Ammonite god, Molech. Israelites burned their children alive to appease this “god” Molech. It’s interesting that pretty much every time Molech is mentioned in the Bible the phrase “the detestable god” comes right before the name. The OT writers knew that a god which demands the blood of children was especially evil.
However, Israel served Molech as well as Ba’al and other pagan gods in Gehenna. They served these gods because they believed that they would bring them protection as well as provision and military success. Essentially, Israel had come to the conclusion that any amount of destruction was acceptable as long as it was for the good of the empire. Sound familiar? I wonder if the Israelites referred to their children they sacrificed to Molech as collateral damage?
In Jeremiah chapter seven and verses thirty through thirty-two we see how God felt about Gehenna and what was taking place there;
“The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth [a place in Gehenna] in the valley of Ben Hinnom [Gehenna] to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.”
Jeremiah goes on to declare just how brutal this destruction will be, but you get the picture. Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the Babylonian siege of 587 B.C. The Jewish people recognized that their actions in Gehenna were the seed they had sown which they had reaped as total annihilation and captivity. For the next several centuries Gehenna became a symbol of Israelite destruction. When the Jewish people were able to return to Jerusalem they still recognized that Gehenna was a symbol of where they went off track.
It was more than just a reminder of their poor choices though, it was a reminder of the very mindset which led them to that destruction. They had fallen into a mindset of domination. They wanted to dominate the nations around them and they wanted to dominate one another. Gehenna was a symbol of where the Israelites had forsaken the revolutionary teachings of Yahweh. They had forsaken the law which told them to treat one another with dignity and respect and to give away freedom and excess and care to all who needed it. They had forsaken these things for security, for prosperity, for the good of the nation…or so they thought.
So when Jesus used Gehenna in His teachings, His Jewish audience would have immediately recognized what He was talking about. This is why there is only one reference to Gehenna in Luke’s gospel (written to Gentiles) while the rest of the references in the gospels come in Mark (largely believed to have been dictated by Peter), and Matthew (which was written to the Jewish people). I believe Luke mostly leaves out references to Gehenna because it would not have anywhere close to the significance to his non Jewish audience as it did to Matthew and Mark’s predominantly Jewish audience.
Jesus was imploring His listeners to get out of this mindset which caused them to want to dominate others. He was telling them to stop with the violent revolts against their Roman oppressors. This was by no means a popular teaching. Throughout Jesus’ public ministry His followers repeatedly tried to get Him to step into the role of leading a rebellion.
This sort of came to a head on Palm Sunday. Jesus came into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration riding on a baby donkey and He was welcomed with palm branches and people shouting “Hosanna!” or “Save us!” These same people called Jesus Son of David, a reference to Israel’s greatest king and military leader. In my Bible the title for this passage says, “Jesus comes to Jerusalem as King.” Some Bibles may have the title, “The triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” and that is certainly what it appeared to be. The Jewish people were ready to make Jesus king and start the revolution against the evil, Roman Empire. What do you think Jesus’ response to His people wanting to make Him king and start the good fight against the evil Romans was? You think He celebrated? Do you think He had a time of praise? Well let’s take a look at Luke chapter nineteen verses forty-one through forty-four where we see Jesus’ response;
“As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Picture Jesus, tears streaming down His cheeks, possibly with a mob still behind Him imploring Him to lead their just war, looking out over the city where God had said His presence would dwell and crying out, “If only you knew what would bring you peace!” You see, the Jewish people believed, as do many of us, that sowing violence and by dominating the enemy, they would receive peace. Jesus was constantly trying to show them that love of enemy (which is the same as love of neighbor), was how they would receive peace. Love God and love people. This was Jesus’ message. This was the culmination of God’s message to the world. Jesus saw the direction the Jewish people were headed and it broke His heart.
Sadly the Jewish people did not heed Jesus’ warning and in 70 A.D. the occupying Roman forces put down a Jewish revolt with unbridled force. Jewish historian Josephus describes the destruction of Jerusalem vividly in his book The Wars of the Jews. Josephus said the army only demolished the temple, “after there were no more people to slay or plunder,” Josephus also writes that, “men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers.” [emphasis mine]
Israel had truly returned to Gehenna. I believe Jesus looked over Jerusalem and saw this carnage coming as He heard the shouts of “Save us Son of David!” behind Him. So what does all this mean for us? I am glad you asked. We must learn from the story of Israel. We must look at the teachings of Jesus in their TRUE historical context and see that we too are headed to Gehenna. Friends, we must redirect our course. We have to understand that our ways of pushing ourselves up by pushing others down is exactly what Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for, even at one point saying they make others twice as much a son of Gehenna as they are.
I can see Jesus looking out over our nation saying, “if only you knew what would bring you peace!” Tears are still streaming down the face of our messiah. He is still imploring us to get out of Gehenna, love God and love people. Every time we engage in an us vs them mentality or any sort of ideology that elevates us while pushing down someone else, we enter into the fire of Gehenna. Every time we choose dominance over mercy, respect and dignity we enter into the fires of Gehenna.
We must learn that we are ALL intrinsically tied together on this planet. ISIS is comprised of our brothers and sisters, the man on death row is your brother, the woman smoking crack and living off government help is your sister. We must learn to love. Let us leave the fires of Gehenna my friends, and follow Jesus as He shows us just what it is that will ACTUALLLY bring us peace.