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Hell from a First-Century Perspective

The word “Hell” is used today usually with no mind to its meaning. It is a word so ingrained into our society and language that its definition goes without saying. And yet, there are many misunderstandings present today concerning this dreadful place. So, a closer look at Hell from a biblical perspective is in order.

Even though the word “Hell” is found 14 times in the Bible (ESV), the word, by itself, fails to explain the original idea of this place. The English word “Hell” is from the Indo-European word “helan” which means “to cover or hide”. Thus, the word relates to the grave, and corresponds to the words Sheol (Hebrew), and Tartarus (Greek). This is a bit troubling, because Hell is not thought of as the grave, and yet that is the true meaning behind the word. It is like using a word for another word that does not carry the same meaning. Nevertheless, we will make do with the word Hell, as long as we understand the biblical meaning of the everlasting condemnation of the wicked.

English translations of God’s Word will generally use the word “Hell” in place of the Greek word “Geenna”, often spelled by the way it is pronounced: “Gehenna”. This is how the Greeks referred to the valley of Hinnom that was south of Jerusalem. To me, this is what is most striking about Hell, is how the Bible never ascribes an original name to the place of everlasting condemnation. Jesus’ words in the gospel are the primary sources of discussions concerning Hell, and yet, He only refers to it by the name of the valley south of Jerusalem. A good exercise to help our frame of mind would be to find the places where Jesus speaks of “Hell” and replace that English word in our minds with “the valley of Hinnom”. For example, what if we considered Matthew 10:28 to read this way: And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in the valley of Hinnom. Or if we thought of Matthew 18:9 in this way: And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into the fire of the valley of Hinnom. Doing this exercise probably doesn’t resonate well with us, the word “Hell” would resonate better in our paradigm. But it is important to consider this because, in the two examples above, this is exactly what the Jews heard Jesus say when these words were first spoken. So then, Jesus was not giving a concrete name to the place of everlasting condemnation, but He was directing his audience to a physical, geographical place on earth from which they could relate to the likeness of eternal condemnation. Thus, there is something about the likeness of the valley of Hinnom that resembles in some way the place that today we call “Hell.”

The valley of Hinnom has a past shrouded in great evil. The first great evil recorded to have happened there was when Ahaz, King of Judah, sacrificed his sons in this valley (2 Chronicles 28:3). Following Ahaz’s lead, King Manasseh also sacrificed his sons there (2 Chronicles 33:6). But this practice did not stop with the wicked kings; Jeremiah spoke of how the people of Judah had used the valley of Hinnom to worship Baal, building high places for the idol, and they burned both their sons and daughters in service to Baal (Jeremiah 7:31, 33:35). Following this, God tells the people of Judah that they will be slaughtered and tossed to the valley of Hinnom, where their carcasses will be meat for the birds and wild animals (Jeremiah 7:32-33; 19:6-7). God even likens the fiery destruction of Jerusalem to the valley of Hinnom (Jeremiah 19:13), which is also called “Tophet”, that is, “the place of fire”. Lastly, Isaiah spoke concerning the judgment and fall of the Jews who rejected Jesus in the first century; he described the scene of their corpses, saying “their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24). This was the very last sentence in the book of Isaiah. Jesus, referencing the book of Isaiah, spoke of Gehenna as a place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Although Isaiah’s prophecy pertained not to Gehenna specifically, Jesus did apply this type of language to Gehenna (Mark 9:43-44). This is fitting, because, by the time of the First Century, Gehenna (the valley of Hinnom) was a smoldering garbage dump used by the city of Jerusalem and surrounding villages. The smoke from Gehenna constantly ascended from the burning dump. Thus, in the first century, physical Gehenna, due to its background of great wickedness and its current unending flames, was a relevant illustration of the final abode of the wicked; the spiritual Gehenna, which we call “Hell” today.

Considering the whole biblical record, there is very little given to us to understand concerning Hell. There are a number of figurative pictures that many believe to be revelations of Hell, but closer consideration of the context would demonstrate that such pictures are usually figurative of the defeat of God’s enemies at various times and in various places of past history (Such as “the bottomless pit” and “the lake of fire and brimstone” in the book of Revelation). While the pictures are hellish, they are not specifically Hell. However, this does not mean that we have nothing to learn from these things, or that they share no likeness to Hell. I am confident that past judgments of God upon nations share a key commonality to Hell, that is the burning flame of utter darkness. For all judgments of God, whether national judgments or the final judgment, share the commonality of the wicked facing outer darkness (Matthew 22:13; Isaiah 5:30, 13:10, 34:4, 50:3; Ezekiel 32:7; Amos 5:20, 8:9; Joel 2:2, 10, 31, 3:15; Zephaniah 1:15;  Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24; Jude 1:13; Revelation 16:10). These references are mostly concerning past national judgments of God. The picture of darkness is even used for past judgments of God against angels (2 Peter 2:4). And this great darkness suggests that the light of God would shine no longer upon them. If this be true of all past judgments of God, how much more on the final day of judgment? To be tossed into spiritual Gehenna is to “be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). And all condemnation from God, ultimately results in everlasting condemnation, as seen in this statement of Jesus: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels… these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (Matthew 25:41, 46).

Article by Tanner Campbell