Historical context can be of immense help. When deciding whether to invade Viet Nam, Iraq, or Afghanistan it would be good to do some homework on the culture, the values, and the demographics of these countries. Such a study might save you lots of heartache and loss down the road. Context can also sometimes blur the edges just a bit.
Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the sociological and historical studies but the one contextualizing: maybe he just failed to dig as deeply as he should. Maybe he just stopped when his shovel hit the first stone that supported his fixed intention: “We did our due diligence and found clear evidence of WMD’s, thus, we have decided to take preemptive action.” The result of that bit of wrong context was Shock and Awe.
If I wanted to, let’s say, undermine belief in an archaic pit filled with shrieking demons, the sounds of “weeping and the gnashing of teeth, where the worm dieth not,” some historical context could come in handy. I could investigate and find that “Gehenna” used by Jesus was actually a reference to a ditch that existed during His time. It was a geographical location traditionally believed to run outside the southern wall of ancient Jerusalem, stretching from the foot of Mount Zion eastward to the Kidron Valley. The location is in dispute and many now argue that it is actually a reference to Wadi er-Rababi which runs along the southwest boundary of Jerusalem.
But what is contested is its function. Bell in Love Wins describes it as “the city dump” in Jesus’ day; the place where the citizens of Jerusalem “tossed their garbage and waste” and where there was a fire “burning constantly to consume the trash.” There also were wild animals fighting “over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.” (LW 68).
What is omitted from this helpful bit of contextualizing is that before Gehenna was turned into an unpleasant, smoky landfill, it was something much, much worse. It was so much more heinous that the word became a euphemism for “Damn!” If I lost my temper and told you to go there I was thinking of something more horrific than a stinky dump with sooty fires around which dogs bullied each other. Though it did eventually become the municipal garbage dump, the truth of it is that the gnashing was more likely caused by gnawing on a human femur since bodies of criminals were also tossed out with the refuse.
Gehenna was not only physically disgusting, it was spiritually terrifying. Think of a haunted house. Think of Freddie Kruger and Hannibal Lekter rooming with Ted Bundy in that house and you are getting the picture. It was a place of horrific evil where the abominable demon-god Moloch was worshiped.
oloch (from the Hebrew melech, or king) was the god of the Ammonites, portrayed as a bronze statue with a calf’s head adorned with a royal crown and seated on a throne. His arms were extended to receive the child victims sacrificed to him. The ritual required that a great fire be lit inside the hollow idol, so that its body would glow an ominous red.
According to Rabbi Rashi in the 12th century, “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt. [W]hen it vehemently cried out the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
It is possible that the reason the name Topheth was attached to this valley is because the Hebrew toph, means “drum.” It is also possibly connected with a root word meaning “burning” and so was known as “the place of burning” (Jer. 19:6)
Around 740 BC the Valley of Hinnom became notorious as the place where King Ahaz sacrificed his sons to the Moloch (II Chron. 28:3). Manasseh followed the example of his grandfather by “causing his children to pass through the fire” (II Chron. 33:6). It is in the time of Jeremiah that it was referred to as Topheth where the Israelites descended “to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire” (Jer. 7:31). In 624 BC, King Josiah, as part of sweeping religious reforms, finally “defiled Topheth” so that the Israelites could never again use it to sacrifice their children to the dreaded fire god (2 Ki. 23:10).
While the Book of Isaiah does not mention Gehenna by name, it does however refer to the “burning place” in which the Assyrian army is to be destroyed as “Topheth.” (Is. 30:33). In that day of great deliverance, God is depicted as coming “with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; His lips are full of wrath and His tongue is a consuming fire” (Is. 30:27). It is clear what Isaiah is doing, he is contrasting Yahweh with the false calf-headed “king” who rather than burning innocent children, consumes the wicked enemies of His chosen people.
“The Lord will cause men to hear His majestic voice,” he continues, “and will make them see His arm coming down with a raging anger and consuming fire. . . . The voice of the Lord will shatter Assyria; with His scepter He will strike them down (Is. 30:30-31). Lest we miss the not-so-subtle point, Isaiah explains that “Topheth has long been prepared; it has been made ready for the melech (the true king). . . “the breath of the Lord like a stream of burning sulfur sets it ablaze” (Is. 30:33). Since the prophet is intent on making the allusion obvious he includes this evocative statement: “Every stroke the Lord lays on them with His punishing rod will be to the music of tambourines and harps” (Is. 30:32). (Is this also to drown out the cries of the rebel army being destroyed?)
At the end of his book Isaiah related the future day of gracious restoration where “Jerusalem” will be comforted, and some of God’s chosen people will scatter throughout the nations to proclaim the Lord’s glory. “And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord. . . . and all mankind will come and bow before Me” (Is. 66:19-20, 23).
While Bell uses Scriptures like these to establish his point that Love (eventually) Wins over everyone, he fails to quotes the whole context. For example, the prophet qualifies his assurance of complete restoration with these words: “the hand of the Lord will be make known to His servants, but His fury will be shown to His foes” (Is. 66:14). And though “all mankind will come and bow down before Me” they will be taken out “to look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against Me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” Is. 66:23-24). With these chilling words this major prophet closes out his book.
The picture we are presented is one of nations turning to Yahweh to worship and turning also to look at the place of (eternal) burning. It is no stretch at all to conclude that when Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, prophesies: “I am coming to gather all the nations and tongues, and they shall come and see My glory (Is. 66:18), He is referring to His sovereign prerogative and majestic greatness displayed in forgiving and in judging.
Bell finds this possibility repugnant. He cannot conceive of a God who can be glorious in pouring out both unmerited favor and fierce and holy anger. Since God is fatherly and not kingly it is impossible for Bell to accept God’s absolute right to punish all those who have not only willfully chosen to refuse His love but have also attacked, defaced and destroyed the creation He loves and the bride He has chosen for His beloved Son.
Since in his mind God is not also King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Bell confidently asserts that, “Restoration brings God glory, eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory, endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine though the universe, never-ending punishment doesn’t (LW, 108). However, unlike Jesus, he fails to address Isaiah 66, for it is from Jesus that we get the haunting King James phrase about Gehenna “where the worm dieth not” (Mark 9:48).
This is an incredibly evocative image. One can hardly imagine a more vivid and unforgettable phrase to describe the awfulness of a punishment that has no end. And these are the words Jesus chose to warn about the place of judgment. While He refers to Gehenna 11 times in the synoptic Gospels, He only uses this phrase once, no doubt, concluding once should be enough for anybody.
It is not altogether clear how Bell conceives of Hell. He finds Jesus’ teaching on the subject to be “a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experience and consequences of rejecting our God-give goodness and humanity” (LW, 73). It is real. But it is not really awful. After all, Gehenna is only a stinky, smoky dump.
But when Jesus used that word He was thinking about Moloch. He was envisioning little children roasting in honor of a demon-god and of implacably cruel priests pounding drums to cover up the sounds of the shrieks. He was seeing in His mind’s eye glib prophets assuring His people that by offering their innocent babies they would gain the favor of the god. And when He added the words “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (seven times), maybe He was not thinking about dogs chewing on human limbs. Perhaps what Jesus was recalling was the response of parents watching their infants writhing in pain on glowing red arms.
This is how Jesus depicted Hell.
It is not a dump.
It is a place to run away from as fast and as hard as you possibly can.
It is a place that you would not risk going to for a minute, not for all the pleasure in Las Vegas or all the riches in Saudi Arabia.