We all know what the Bible teaches about hell.  Or Do we?

Most Christians believe that hell is the place where the unsaved will be tormented in flames for all eternity. They firmly believe that this teaching comes straight from the Bible and that the greatest teacher on this subject is Jesus himself.  After all, it was Jesus who said:

“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. ” (Matthew 5:22, KJV)

But what exactly is this ‘hell’ Jesus spoke of?  Are you sure you know?

The Greek word which has here been translated ‘hell’ is gehenna. But when I study this Greek word, this is what I find:

1) The word literally means ‘The Valley of the Sons of Hinnom“. This is a literal place in Jerusalem referenced many times in the Old Testament – you can go visit it today if you’d like.

A red flag immediately goes up. How did the name of a valley in Jerusalem which exists to this day get translated into an English word which stands for a fiery place of eternal punishment in some other place or dimension. I don’t get it, so I keep studying and find out that:

2) According to the Old Testament evil Jewish Kings made this valley a place for idolatry and sacrificed children there to false gods. Later, king Josiah abolished these practices and made the place into the city garbage dump. Fires continually burned there to consume the refuse. This still doesn’t tell me how gehenna turned into ‘hell’ in our English Bibles. So, I keep going…

3) The prophet Jeremiah pronounced curses over the valley and prophesied that because the Jewish nation had abandoned God, he would make the whole nation as the Valley of Hinnom (a burning trash heap). There would be a great slaughter and they would bury their corpses there until there would be no place left to bury (See Jeremiah 19). Surely a somber warning of a horrible judgment which would befall the Jewish nation, but still no information on how this relates to ‘hell’ as we know it. I search in vain through the Old Testament for any information on this place which connects it with a future place of eternal torment.

Now, every student of the Bible should stop right here and consider the significance of this. Jesus never spoke the word ‘hell’. No, he spoke of ‘Gehenna’. Gehenna was a physical place in Jerusalem; a place to which he could point – the audience to which he spoke was familiar with this place. The history of this valley was well known from the Hebrew scriptures. But NONE of that had anything to do with the concept of ‘hell’ as a place of future punishment as we know it.

Consider then that for ‘Gehenna’ your English Bible has inserted an INTERPRETATION, not a TRANSLATION. A proper translation of gehenna would be ‘Valley of Hinnom‘, but certainly not ‘hell’. Knowing this information, what conclusions would you draw about ‘Gehenna’ by using the Bible alone?  Think about it. What if the translators of the Bible had inserted ‘valley of hinnom’ (a literal translation) every time this word appears. Could you find a place of eternal torment connected to this place?  No, you would be forced to conclude that Jesus was pronouncing upon those who rejected him and his message the well-known curses and judgments associated with this place as described in the Old Testament prophets. What other conclusion could you possibly come to? Scripturally, nothing in the Old Testament concerning the ‘valley of the sons of Hinnom’ has anything to do with hell as we’ve been taught to understand it. Why then do our Bible translations feel justified in inserting this interpretation into our Bibles?

The answer (which should be called the ‘dirty little secret’) is unsettling because it raises questions that most Christians simply do not want to deal with. Most want to continue to preach ‘hell’ from their Bibles while remaining ignorant of the gymnastics and machinations which turned a Greek word meaning ‘Valley of Hinnom’ into a fiery place of torment in the afterlife.

The fact is, translators of the Bible really do believe that Jesus had more in mind when he spoke of ‘Gehenna’ than the literal Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem and the curses and judgments associated with the place as found in the Old Testament prophets. But why? Aren’t we told time and again that we must base our interpretations on the scriptures alone?  The answer is disturbing.

Here’s the story which the average Christian is never told.

Scholars know that the Old Testament verses concerning the ‘Valley of Hinnom’ have nothing to do with ‘hell’ as we understand it. What they also know is that after the Old Testament was completed, in the 400 years between the writings of the Old and New Testaments, that the Jews began to be seriously influenced by Greek culture and philosophy, and that these GREEK ideas began to be assimilated into Jewish interpretations of the scriptures. The idea of the immortality of the soul (a concept foreign to the Hebrew scriptures) gave rise to different thoughts about reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the minds of some Jews, the idea of ‘Gehenna’ began to be associated with a place of future punishment, and these ideas found their way into various ‘apocryphal’ (uninspired) writings in that period. 1

What the average Christian is never told is that scholars have assumed that Jesus understood the word ‘Gehenna’ in this way – a way that they KNOW is foreign to the Old Testament, and one which they KNOW only developed under the influence of Greek thought in the period between the close of the Old Testament and the writing of the New.

If this is true then it gives rise to some very disturbing thoughts, namely:

1) This would mean that the Old Testament understanding of gehenna is incomplete, and you CANNOT come to a proper understanding of this place by using the scriptures alone.

2) That the Jews did not have a proper understanding of gehenna until they came under the influence of pagan Greek thought and philosophy.

3) That the apocryphal writings which are considered to be uninspired, contain a more correct understanding of gehenna than is found in the inspired Hebrew scriptures.

4) But most disturbing, that Jesus’ understanding of gehenna represents, not the view of the Hebrew Scriptures, but that of hellenized (Greek influenced) Jewish thought.

The situation becomes even more troubling when we consider that even among the Greek-inspired Jews, ideas about gehenna were so varied and conflicted that we would be hopeless to try and figure out exactly WHICH of these conceptions of gehenna Jesus had in mind, if in fact this was the case. Simply translating ‘gehenna’ into ‘hell’ with the justification that some Jews may have understood the word to mean a place of future punishment in the afterlife is a gross oversimplification.

The bottom line is this: When an English translation uses the word ‘hell’ for ‘gehenna’ they are assuming that Jesus is using the word in a way that is foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures. If that doesn’t disturb you, then it should.

Scholars know that you cannot turn the ‘Valley of Hinnom’ into ‘hell’ without knowing what they know. But they also know that their justification for doing this raises a lot of serious questions. Did the Jews need Greek philosophy in order to properly interpret their scriptures? Did Jesus? So, instead of giving you a translation of gehenna (‘Valley of Hinnom’), they’ve hidden from you the whole process and instead have inserted their interpretation (‘hell’).

So how did a valley in Jerusalem get  turned into Hell? Only with a lot of help from Greek philosophy, and scholars who assumed that Jesus understood gehenna in a way that was completely foreign to the Old Testament scriptures.

May God help us from making the same assumption!

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1 B. Intertestamental Period
One product of the development of a concept of the afterlife during the Hellenistic Period was the notion of a fiery judgment (1 En. 10:13; 48:8–10; 100:7–9; 108:4–7; Jdt 16:17; 2 Bar. 85:13), a judgment usually in a fiery lake or abyss (1 En. 18:9–16; 90:24–27; 103:7–8; 2 En. 40:12; 2 Bar. 59:5–12; 1QH 3). The Valley of Hinnom, often referred to simply as “the accursed valley” or “abyss,” then came to represent the place of eschatological judgment of the wicked Jews by fire (1 En. 26–27; 54:1–6; 56:1–4; 90:24–27).
Freedman, D. N. (1996). The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday.