Gehenna — its name conjures up a picture of a dark, fiery, evil place of refuse and pain, filled with gnashing of teeth and agony beyond all comprehension.
Jesus referred to it nearly a dozen times in the gospel accounts, and today, the word is often synonymous with hell, a terrible, vile place that evokes violent images of anguish, unrelenting misery, and destruction.
But what is Gehenna in the Bible? Here, we delve into its Hebrew origin and meaning.
What Does ‘Gehenna’ Mean in the Bible?
Most of the time, Christians think of Gehenna as the place Jesus referred to in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to illuminate the dangers of not falling in line with the way of the Lord. Those who walk astray — the hypocrites, the wicked, the enemies of the Father — are destined to an eternity of excruciating destruction in the fiery pits of hell.
But we first learn about Gehenna in the Old Testament. The word Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew ge Hinnom, or the “valley of Hinnom.” Mention of the place comes in 2 Chronicles 28 in relation to Ahaz, a king of Judah who did evil in the eyes of God.
In addition to making worship sacrifices for the Baals, false gods, 2 Chronicles 28:3 tells us, “He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites” (NIV).
A few chapters later, we read about another king of Judah, Manasseh, who was even more evil than his ancestral predecessor. Manasseh not only worshipped the stars, erected altars to the Baals, and made sacred poles to honor the false mother goddess, Asherah, but he also desecrated God’s temple.
As the Bible tells us, “He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritualists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger” (2 Chronicles 33:6).
These children were thought to have been sacrificed to the false god Molech, or Molek, who was particularly despised by the Lord. Molech was referred to as the “detestable god of the Ammonites” in 1 Kings 11:7 and was associated with child sacrifice and gruesome orgies.
In Isaiah 30:33, it is referred to as Topheth, a horrible, fearsome place: “Its fire pit has been made deep and wide, with an abundance of fire and wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of burning sulfur, sets it ablaze.”
Later, the valley was used as a place to contain the garbage and filth of the city. As Easton’s Bible Dictionary illustrates, “Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning. It thus in process of time became the image of the place of everlasting destruction.”
What Did Jesus Say about Gehenna?
It is this violent, disgusting place of filth — the dumping ground of the city — that Jesus uses to illuminate his point about the evil awaiting those not in alignment with God the Father.
Jesus mentions Gehenna at least 11 times in the New Testament, and some of the apostles refer to it as well. The word is mostly rendered “hell,” with Gehenna in the margins or footnotes.
For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the word several times. In Matthew 5, He warns that it is far better for the body to endure temporary pain, loss, destruction, or other maladies here on earth than to suffer an eternity of destruction in hell. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:29-30,
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
While the NIV and most modern English translations use the word “hell,” the word in Greek is geenna, or Gehenna, defined by Strong’s Concordance as “a valley west and south of Jerusalem, also a symbolic name for the final place of punishment of the ungodly.” This concept of a “final place” for the ungodly and evil naturally becomes, for most people, tantamount to hell.
A few chapters later, Jesus again uses this fearsome symbol of the hellish valley, urging His followers, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Better short-term suffering than everlasting torment in the Valley of Slaughter, Jesus is saying in essence.
In case it’s not clear, Matthew shows Jesus repeating this warning in Matthew 18:9 — better one eye on earth than two forever in hell — and again in Matthew 23, proclaiming impending woe and destruction to the Pharisees and other hypocrites, a “brood of vipers.” “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”, Jesus asks (Matthew 23:33).
Only by following Him, by losing their lives to become born again in Jesus Christ the Risen Son of God, can they hope to escape their doom.
These same references can be found in Mark 9 (v. 43, 45, and 47) and Luke 12:5. Gehenna here is a synonym for hell. While they are not exactly the same, the word is used by Jesus as a symbol to help people comprehend the dangers they face.
Gehenna, a tangible, actual place on earth people despise, fear, and loathe, is not nearly as bad as the spiritual place of torment awaiting those who choose not to believe. But they are used to represent the same.
Where Else Does the Bible Mention Gehenna?
Gehenna and other references to the torment and consequence of hell are also mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. In James 3, the apostle urges people to tame their tongue, for it has great power despite its size. As James explains,
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).
The Apostle Peter does not use the word Gehenna but Tartarus, but many scholars believe 2 Peter 2:4 is also referring to the same place.
And in Revelation, the Apostle John is shown a vision of a fiery lake of sulfur, death, and hell (Revelation 20:14-15, 21:8), which some scholars also believe is the same pit of everlasting destruction Jesus was referring to in Matthew 25:41 and other gospel references.
Whatever the word used — Gehenna, Tartarus, hell, or the eternal lake of fire — none of these places hold any value or hope for the child of God, who is called to put his or her hope, trust, faith, and soul in the Lord above all.
Willingly, we are to exchange the temporary fleshly temptations and desires of this life, and all the false gods and pleasures of the short term, for the eternal bliss awaiting God’s beloved in heaven.
For as Jesus tells us in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
And as Romans 6:23 reminds us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Gehenna, hell… these places are fearsome, gruesome, despicable, and terrible. But as believers, we bypass this misery.
In the words of the Risen Christ, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).
Amen — take comfort!
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.