It has often been claimed that Jesus spoke of hell more often than any of the other New Testament writers. I’ve read that claim in books. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit. And many people have told it to me as if this was the definitive proof that Endless Punishment is the true teaching of Jesus and the Bible.
The claim is based on the number of times Jesus used the word Gehenna – the term most commonly translated “hell” in the modern versions of the Bible. Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament, and eleven of those times it is used by Jesus Himself.
However, Gehenna never meant endless punishment beyond the grave during the time of Jesus. It didn’t mean that in the Old Testament. And it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.
What Was Gehenna . . . Really?
What comes to your mind when you hear the word Auschwitz?
For my grandchildren, it’s possible that the word will take on a more metaphorical meaning. But for me right now, and even more so for those of my father’s generation who fought in Germany in World War II and saw it firsthand, Auschwitz is an actual place. A place reminiscent of the repulsion, shame and horrible deaths experienced by those who suffered in Nazi concentration camps.
Like Auschwitz, Gehenna was a place the people of Jesus’ day could actually visit. It was well-known as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with gross idolatry and child sacrifice in the past, and was then used as the common dump of the city. The corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied. Its stench was stifling. Fires were lit to purify the contaminated air.
To those listening to Jesus, it spoke of corruption, filth and shame. Instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience immense dishonor – their bodies disposed of in a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses.
Solomon expressed very well the thought that would be in the minds of those listening to Jesus’ words.
“A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.”
In an honor/shame culture like that in the ancient and even modern Near East, that was a fate worse than death.
When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, it brought to mind ideas of repulsion, shame and horrible death, but not anything like the meaning that is pre-packaged in the English word, “hell.” His listeners did not think of it as a place of endless punishment beyond the grave.
If it had not been translated by such a loaded term into English, we wouldn’t, either.
Adapted from Heaven's Doors . . . Wider Than You Ever Believed!
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