Gehenna is the only biblical “hell” that has a Hebrew origin in the Old Testament. It is simply the Greek spelling of the Hebrew phrase, Ge-Hinnom, “valley of Hinnom.” This, too, was a shortened form of the Old Testament place called “the valley of Ben-Hinnom” (son of Hinnom). This valley was at the base of the hill on which Jerusalem was built.
Gehenna is thus the only term of the three where we can use its biblical meaning. The valley of the son of Hinnom was the place where Baal-worshipping Israelites had sacrificed their children to Molech (Jer. 32:35).
35 And they built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
For this reason the prophet said that it would become a “valley of slaughter” when God brought judgment upon Jerusalem (Jer. 19:6). This is also the passage where God directed the prophet to break the jar in that valley in the sight of the elders of Judah. Verses 10 and 11 read,
10 Then you are to break the jar in the sight of the men who accompany you 11 and say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts, Just so shall I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot again be repaired. . . .
Jerusalem was destroyed shortly afterward by the armies of Babylon. But it was rebuilt a century later in the days of Nehemiah. The city was destroyed again in 70 A.D., this time by the Roman armies. But it was later rebuilt. It was destroyed a number of times during the past 2000 years, but each time it has been rebuilt. Currently, the city still stands. Hence, Jeremiah’s prophecy has only had its first fulfillment. There remains a later destruction of Jerusalem that will exhaust the prophecy of Jeremiah.
It is to that day Jesus was referring when He used the term Gehenna in Matt. 23:33. In that passage Jesus says,
29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. 31 Consequently, you bear witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up then the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of GEHENNA.
Later in the same passage, verse 37 Jesus applies this prophetic sentence of doom upon Jerusalem itself, saying,
37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!
After Jeremiah linked Gehenna to the destruction of Jerusalem through his prophecy of the broken jar, the term itself began to take on a prophetic meaning beyond the mere geographical location. It became a symbol of divine judgment upon those who rejected the word of the Lord through the prophets (and Jesus Himself). Jerusalem had killed the prophets as well as the Son, and this sealed its ultimate fate as Jeremiah said. In fact, in the same passage in Matthew 23 Jesus prophesied a later time in which Jerusalem would fill its cup of iniquity just prior to its final destruction. Verses 34-36 read:
34 Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city. 35 that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation [genea, “race, offspring”].
Jesus warned the believers to flee from Jerusalem when they saw the city surrounded by foreign armies. They did so in 66-67 A.D. at the first siege of Jerusalem. However, since Jerusalem was subsequently rebuilt, we see the same warning applicable today. Those believers living in Jerusalem and the Israeli state should take heed to Jesus’ words once again and flee the city before its destruction occurs. They should not count upon God saving the city at the last minute, for Jeremiah’s prophecy is very clear. The city and nation WILL be destroyed in such a way that it cannot be repaired again.
The term, Gehenna, was a Hebrew word that was not necessarily familiar to Greeks or Romans. So we find that Jesus used this term eleven times when speaking of judgment upon the unbelievers in His audience. (See Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5.) His use of this term, instead of Hades (“the place or state of the dead”) gives his words a specific flavor, for He was warning them that if they did not believe His words, they would see Jeremiah’s prophecy of destruction fulfilled. And they, as individuals, would find themselves cast into Gehenna. Jeremiah had prophesied that that valley would become “the valley of slaughter.”
Jesus spoke more of Gehenna than of Hades. We will not do a complete study of Jesus’ words about Gehenna, but it would be useful to look at one specific passage in Mark 9:47, 48,
47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [Gehenna], 48 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Jesus was quoting and commenting upon Isaiah 66:24, which says,
24 Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched [Greek: “is not quenched”]; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.
Isaiah was writing specifically about the old and new Jerusalem (66:10) and the new heavens and the new earth (66:22). That is why Jesus used the term Gehenna, rather than Hades. It was a symbol of judgment upon the wicked. By the time Jesus walked the earth, Gehenna was no longer used for human sacrifice, but was the city dump. It was also the place where they cast the unclaimed bodies of criminals that had been executed or crucified. Like many dumps today, Gehenna was always smoldering, because it was fueled by the trash that people threw into it. But because it also contained organic matter, dead animals and men, it also was continuously infested with maggots (“worms”).
It is often claimed that this is a picture of a burning “hell” torturing conscious sinners in an afterlife, but that is an extended and unwarranted interpretation of this passage. First of all, neither Isaiah nor Jesus meant to imply that the worms were immortal, but rather that there were always worms there. Maggots live for a while and die after breeding more maggots.
Likewise, the fire is not perpetual. The point is that no man can quench it. Only God can quench this fire. The NASB above shows the bias of the translators when it renders the phrase too strongly, “shall not be quenched.” The literal rendering of the phrase is simply “is not quenched,” that is, not by any man. That is, the fire of judgment will surely come, and no man can prevent it.
This word, Gehenna, refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter occurring at this city’s final judgment, because its citizens had become God’s enemies. Most have been taught that the “enemies” being slaughtered are non-Jews of some kind who come from other nations to destroy the Israeli state. But the prophecies do not tell us that they are non-Jews; they say simply that they are God’s enemies who have come from those foreign lands. The way God defines His “enemies” in the law, the prophets, and in the New Testament shows that the judgment is upon the unbelieving Jews who are returning to the old land without first repenting of their hostility against Jesus Christ.
The law of tribulation found in Lev. 26:40-42 (and, indeed, the entire chapter) sets forth the principle that if the people were hostile to Yahweh (who is Jesus Christ in His pre-incarnate form), then Yahweh would be an enemy to them as well. The only way to stop being God’s enemy is to do as He says in Lev. 26:40-42,
40 If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me— 41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.
An enemy is one who is not reconciled to another. As long as anyone—including any unbelieving Jew—is hostile to Jesus Christ, they are legally defined as God’s “enemies.” Furthermore, the laws of tribulation make it clear that God will not remember His covenant with Abraham until the people repent. In Isaiah 63:9, 10 the prophet gives us a specific example of this, saying,
9 In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them; and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old. 10 But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore, He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them.
This happened all through the book of Judges, where God “sold them” into the hands of their enemies because of their sin. (See Judges 3:8 and 4:2.) God never reversed their captivities until the people repented.
God also became their enemy when He gave their land to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Jer. 27:6). The captivity was finally reversed after 70 years, not only because it was the appointed time (Jer. 25:11; Dan. 9:2), but also because Daniel repented on behalf of his people for the sins of their fathers. This fulfilled the conditions of the law.
This idea carries over into the New Testament as well. In Matthew 22:1-7 Jesus told a parable about the servants who refused to come to the wedding. Verses 6 and 7 say,
6 And the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. 7 But the king was enraged and sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and set their city on fire.
Jesus specifically called the inhabitants of Jerusalem “enemies” in Luke 19, where the “citizens” (i.e., citizens of Judea) hated Him and did not want Him to rule over them (Luke 19:14). Jesus’ verdict in verse 27 was,
27 But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here [Jerusalem] and slay them in my presence.
The Apostle Paul likewise says in Philippians 3:18,
18 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ.
Jesus prophesied that Jerusalem (Matt. 23:27, 28) would be destroyed with its temple (Matt. 24:2) because of the unbelief of its citizens. This occurred in 70 A.D., and God imposed upon them a “yoke of iron” (Deut. 28:48), which was God’s sentence of exile. In the early 1900’s the Zionist movement began, by which the Jews—still in a state of unbelief—decided to end their exile by force, rather than by fulfilling the conditions laid down in Lev. 26:40-42. Hence, their return as “enemies” put them in a position of fulfilling the prophecies of destruction in Gehenna. In their blindness they are being led to slaughter, and much of the evangelical Church encourages them as they go into the fire.
Yet God in His mercy has caused the majority of the Jews to remain in other countries, in spite of Zionist browbeating. Perhaps when the final destruction comes, many of these will be sufficiently shocked and disillusioned with Zionism and Judaism itself and will be ready to hear the Word of the Lord and accept Jesus as the Messiah.
The only other one who used the term, Gehenna, was Jesus’ brother, James, in James 3:6. James most likely wrote his epistle in Hebrew, using the term Ben-hinnom, but it has come down to us in Greek, where the translation reads Gehenna. He says that a man’s tongue “defiles the entire body and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by GEHENNA.” James was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and so his audience was familiar with the term, both its geographical location as well as its symbolic application. James wrote that the tongue is a like the rudder of a ship. Even as the rudder sets the course of the ship, so also does the tongue set “the course of our life.” And if that course was evil, then those individuals would go down with the ship.
Gehenna, then, was really a prophetic judgment directed against Jerusalem and its citizens who refused to believe the prophets or accept the Messiah. It did not directly refer to the actual state or place of the dead, which is Hades.