Of the twelve times the Greek word ‘Gehenna’ is found in the New Testament Bible, eleven of those were uttered by Jesus himself!
With this solemn introduction, I learned the severity of Gehenna—aka, Hell—the final abode of the wicked. Now, the fact that such an important word registered only 12 mentions in the whole New Testament did not escape me at the time, but the one who spoke the overwhelming majority clinched it for me. After all, I counted on the fact that Jesus could not be wrong, and if he had said it even one time, it was sufficient. However, it did seem awfully odd that my teachers, my peers and I could not get by without mentioning Hell several times in most every message, as well as throughout the day as we preached the gospel. Had we penned the letters of the New Testament, Gehenna/Hell would have shown up way more than twelve times.
While many believe Gehenna to be the final destination of the damned, I suspect only a small number realize the location actually existed in Jerusalem. Had you lived in that time, you could have walked to the Valley of Hinnom—Ge Henna—and witnessed a fitting place for the unwanted, the despised, and the shameful. However, its negative connotation only culminated in its function as Jerusalem’s dump, as it held centuries of shameful memories for Israel.
The name is derived from a geographical site in Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom, one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City. Initially the site where idolatrous Jews sacrificed their children to the god Molech (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6), the valley later became the common wasteyard for all the refuse of Jerusalem. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and rubbish, were cast and consumed by a constant fire. In time it became the image of the place of everlasting destruction in Jewish tradition. However, Jewish tradition suggests the valley had a ‘gate’ which led down to a molten lake of fire. (Possibly ‘The furnace of Yahweh’ in Zion to which Isaiah refers 31:9, 30:33). It is unknown whether this ‘gate’ was an actual geophysical feature within the valley that provided the focus for cultic activity (2 Kings 23:10) or simply a metaphorical identification with the entrance to the underworld that had come to be associated with the valley. Quote from Wikipedia
Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:46
Much like today, certain geographical locations represented insults back then, and Nazareth obviously made for a good slur among those in Jerusalem. More than that, suggesting that someone belonged to or came from Gehenna would have been taken as an ultimate judgment upon anyone in Israel. Unless we recognize that Gehenna’s association with God’s judgment had been based upon Jewish tradition, we will most likely assume that Jesus authored or even approved the concept. But why should Jesus’ mention of Gehenna validate it as a viable truth anymore than Paul’s speech about the Athenian Unknown God (in Acts 17) meant that he endorsed their system of gods? Are we to assume that Jewish tradition came any closer to the truth?
If we listened with unbiased ears, we might hear Jesus telling the religious leaders—in front of all Israel—that their Gehenna was reserved for those like themselves. How else do we suppose Jesus attracted the “sinners” and repelled the “righteous”? After all, Jesus did not direct his proclamations of “fiery hell” to the usual types of sinners like we do today, but to those who would have been speaking it against them, as well as to those who would have been amen-ing the preacher.
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.Matthew 5:17-32
“You have heard…but I say…”
There are a couple trains of thought on Jesus’ repeated use of the above phrase, and I will try to simplify them. One says that he made a contrast to Moses’ Law so he could present his own new teachings; another, that he called his disciples to a higher plane of living within God’s Law. I suggest that both views totally miss the gist of the message. Notice that Jesus did not simply say, “The ancients were told…”, but rather, “You have HEARD that the ancients were told…” You see, Jesus was not challenging or even commenting on what Moses told the people; instead he confronted them in view of what they heard from their leaders. And whether you realize it or not, this consideration creates a monumental shift in how Jesus’ words are understood. For you need to realize that the significance of the “You have heard…but I say…” would not have escaped them. Instead, its all part of the reason they were blown away by what he said. Consider:
The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.Matthew 7:28-29
What these people heard from Jesus differed so clearly from that of their religious teachers that it amazed them. It was more than just WHAT he taught, it was HOW. His words came across with authority—that is, as from God himself. Not so with the scribes and Pharisees. The spoke merely from an illusion of authority. They had the scrolls, they sat in the seat of Moses, but they pretended to represent God. After all, how can leaders be truly authoritative when they create special rules for themselves by which they think to avoid the judgment they heap upon others? Do not miss this significance, for it shapes the meaning of his continuing discourse—especially as he pulls out all the stops by inserting his famous statements about hell.
I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law. Matthew 5:17
The scribes and Pharisees often threw accusations toward Jesus of disregarding Moses, but it was they who whittled away at the Law by a process of annulling one command after the other in exchange for their own self-serving traditions (see Matthew 15).
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20
When Jesus criticized the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, he did not merely refer to their religious activities, but to the world of their imaginations. In other words, Jesus addressed the crowd in view of the perceptions that formed life as they understood it. Consider this in stark contrast to reality as expressed by Jesus in the passage leading up to this point—that which is called the Beatitudes. Such a world does not make sense to those who glory in their own perception of right and wrong, no matter how many Bible verses may be found to support it.
What Jesus continued on to say amounts to a commentary on the false righteousness created by their religious leaders. This is the kind of righteousness that held the common man accountable for murder, and yet justified a privileged few for the same hatred that led to murder. To those of this righteousness, Jesus declared more severe penalties for seemingly lesser offenses, culminating with a judgment so startling it must have made their heads spin.
…and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.Matthew 5:22
You can be sure that any scribe or Pharisee in the crowd—as well as any religious zealot—would have been seething. After all, they were the ones who judged others as either worthy of God’s kingdom or Gehenna. And here, Jesus had the audacity to turn it all around on them in front of those they claimed superiority over. Furthermore, having come to realize that Jesus did not create empty illustrations to make a point, I suspect that the specific things he exposed to judgment had already found a place within the “tradition of the elders”. I’ll bet that could sound like a desperate attempt to justify my own view, eh? :)
But why not? Don’t we have our own religious loopholes to cover such things? Consider how often the phrase “righteous indignation” surfaces to justify religious anger. As to the singling out of the words, “Raca” and “You fool”, consider how the Pharisees used another word to violate another command of God:
But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.Matthew 15:5-6
Notice the quoted phrase, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,” That whole thing comes from just one word: Corban. It means gift. Now, before you fault the translators for altering a “sacred” verse, realize that they merely desired to communicate its full meaning. After all, we have many such words that would not translate well to another time or culture without some expansion. Anyhow, that word found a place in their tradition as a way to by-pass God’s command to provide for one’s own parents. If an ordinary person failed to take care of his mother or father he would have to answer for it; Pharisees, however, created a godly sounding loophole by which they could keep it to themselves under the guise that it was being given to God. All he had to do was say, “Corban”, and—Poof!— a broken commandment magically became a righteous deed.
The scribes, the Pharisees, and other wannabes were probably known for their ability to justify their use of certain put-downs designed to make themselves appear more superior than those among the ignorant masses (that would be you and I). I have little doubt that they often judged people as either “Raca,” meaning something akin to empty-headed, worthless, or as “You fool”. Now, if you search out information on these terms, you will no doubt find some insane references as to what Jesus may have meant. However, all this wrangling comes from the same source, which is the same legal mindset as in those Jesus confronted. Jesus simply exposed the game played by the religious leaders and equated it with their concept of ultimate judgment, a judgment they claimed as being from God. But Gehenna was the epitome their own judgment.
Now, if the use of Gehenna was meant to validate the common Christian doctrine of Hell, why did Jesus jump from there into a situation that had to do with—not Hell—but an extended prison term? That’s right, Jesus did not conclude with a plea to get right with God in order to escape Hell. Instead he told them to first get right with their brother before legal action could be taken, and then they could get back to God. Notice, this is not an example that emphasizes the inescapable prison of hell, as it is the other way around. Gehenna is the picture which led him to say “Therefore” go deal with the real problem. You see, the religious mind creates the illusion that man can isolate his dealings with God from his dealings with people. In truth, there is no distinction. And please don’t let the religious mind reinterpret that for you, for we have been truly set free in Christ to live in reality. But let me move on to the next Law Jesus addressed.