Who’s afraid of the little ole Gehenna?

Who’s afraid of the little ole Gehenna?

Posted on 27. Mar, 2011 by Tim Stoner in Articles, Blog, Love Wins


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.    

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9 Responses to “Who’s afraid of the little ole Gehenna?”

  1. Spencer

    27. Mar, 2011

    A word to everyone: I hope that no one conflates Bell’s universalism with all universalists. While I am not yet persuaded that the Bible definitively teaches the restorationism/universalism, I think that we should have more discussions about verses in the Bible (especially the prophets and Paul) that have traditionally been either ignored or written off as referring only to the corporate elect (first Israel, then the believers in Christ). I think that your blog does well to engage these issues, Tim!

    Bell is assuredly committing grave historical error by missing the Valley of Hinnom’s role in the lexicography of Gehenna. However, I don’t know what help its inclusion provides for the case of Gehenna being equivalent to our modern-day eternal Hell. Keep in mind that the Greek word “pyr” used in “the fire is not quenched” comes from a root meaning “to purify”, and the following verse talks of how all will be salted by fire — as a sacrifice was salted in order to make it acceptable to God. Also consider that Jesus frequently used hyperbole and metaphorical imagery, like many rabbis and itinerant preachers of His day. Failure to respect this means that we interpret a few verses prior to indicate that I should have gouged my eyes out many times over since they have caused me to sin. Even if we are intent on taking verse 48 literally, an undying ravenous worm or an unquenchable fire need not indicate that the soul ITSELF is eternally enduring these torments — perhaps they are instruments of God to purify the soul for a period or an age (a much better rendering of “aionios” than “eternal”), after which the soul is no longer subject to their effects since there is no more sin for the worm to eat nor is there any dross for the fire to burn away. Both of these lend some credence to the concept of “fire of Gehenna/hell” as used by Jesus meaning a temporary cleansing fire and not an unending punitive fire.

    But truly and without duplicitousness I say that I am merely presenting these ideas for discussion and consideration, to refine my and others’ positions and thinking. I am not unequivocally advocating for their truth.

  2. David Beelen

    27. Mar, 2011

    Well done, Tim. This is the kind of exegetical thoroughness and depth analysis that Love Wins lacks.

  3. Kyle Douglass

    29. Mar, 2011

    Rob is very aware of all the historical context you’ve mentioned, as he included it in his previous teachings (the complete teaching archive isn’t available for free anymore but I found a blog that dated a previous “gehenna” sermon to September, 2006: http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/archives/45). It was Rob who informed me for the first time of the historical context of the Valley of Hinnom and the atrocities of Molech, so I found it strange that he didn’t touch on that anywhere in his book.
    And not to pick on you, but you’ve done the same thing to Rob that you’re claiming he did to the Scriptures: you didn’t do your homework. That’s what I’ve seen often before regarding whole Rob deal; people rail him who have never listened to his teaching, or maybe only a few until their “shovel hit the first stone that supported their fixed intention.” How do you resolve this? That’s tough. It could mean a lot of hours listening to Rob’s preaching, which for you might be a Rob Bell-ian gehanna of your very own?

    All that to say, I’m much more aware and critical now of Rob’s teaching. I’m not sure the sermon referenced in the blog noted above (from his series “Jesus Wants to Save Christians”) is the one I had listened to before, but it shows that the concepts of hell in Love Wins have been around for quite awhile, since at least 2006, and I either didn’t catch the subtlety of the nuanced orthodoxy or choose to ignore it. And it’s possibly because Bell is in many ways right that I let it slide. I agree that it’s dangerous to care so much about eternal punishment that we neglect God in the here and now. That’s a compelling observation, but one that doesn’t need to come at the expense of what I see as clear scriptural teaching on eternal damnation.

    Spencer, thanks for your comments as well. There is much mystery (I think a better case can be made for annihilation following final judgement than the purifying second chance hell), and I don’t think Rob was wrong to pull these questions up. I just think the execution hermeneutically was poor to the point of bewilderment (especially for such a controversial topic) and deserves the harsh critique that so many, like Tim here, are supplying.

  4. Tim Stoner

    29. Mar, 2011

    Kyle: Thanks so much for the clarification. Not to get overly defensive, but while I agree that I didn’t delve into the whole Bellian corpus, I don’t think it necessary when one is focusing on the distilled essence of an author’s current position as explained in his most recent, internationally marketed book on the subject.

    The reason I think that is relevant is because people change–for good and for ill. People slide from orthodoxy to heterodoxy and the reverse, as well. So, when evaluating a popular writer’s current position in his recent book I don’t know that anyone would expect the critic to read the writer’s position five years prior, unless he is wanting to show his drift. If I were writing a book and not a blog . . . . then maybe.

    In Bell’s case this is even more relevant, I think, because he really has been drifting. He began his ministry preaching verse by verse from Leviticus making the case brilliantly for the historic penal, substitutionary and propitiatory view of atonement, which I think it fair to say, he has left far behind. But, in a way, you are almost making my point even more forcefully. Since, as you say, Bell clearly understands the historical, demonic context now he is intentionally leaving it out completely. That then feels more like an issue of strategy not laziness.

    Thanks for the heads up and for keeping me honest.

  5. [...] to Gehenna. He notes that before Gehenna was a city dump, it was something far more gruesome. He writes: But when Jesus used that word He was thinking about Moloch. He was envisioning little children [...]

  6. Thomas Jones

    19. Apr, 2011

    You didn’t even come close to doing any research here. Moloch? Really? 700 years before Jesus and you think that’s what Jesus had in mind? When I say “New York City”, do you think of New York City from 400 years ago, or today’s version? There is absolutely no proof that Jesus had the Moloch version in mind when speaking about it. In fact everything points to him speaking about it in 1st century Rabbinical terms, and not 7th BC, pre-exile terms. A 10 minute google search on the term would have done some good. Your mistreatment of the subject is sinfully lazy.

  7. Tim Stoner

    20. Apr, 2011

    Thomas, by making the strong contrast between garbage pit and demon hole, I did not intend to convey that Jesus was completely ignoring the image of a city dump. I was trying to say that he had much much more on his mind. By quoting Isaiah’s “worm dieth not” He was signaling that He had in mind lots more than a smoky, stinky place outside the city where refuse was thrown. It was an image of demons much more than garbage.

  8. [...] examples of where Bell’s arguments fall short: his arguments about ghenna are deconstructed HERE, most of his main biblical points are deconstructed well HERE and HERE. Also some of his [...]

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