The Town of Paradise is in Newfoundland, Canada and there is an area near Boston, Ohio, called Hell Town. Place names arouse particular connotations, connections and feelings. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus used such associations in their teaching. For example, when Jesus spoke about what we call hell, He used the Greek word Gehenna. But what did the word “Gehenna” mean to those living in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD?
The ancient city of Jerusalem was bounded by Kidron valley on the east and Hinnom valley on the south and west. The boundary between the Israelite tribes of Judah & Benjamin was along Hinnom valley (Josh. 15:8; 18:16). The Greek word for this valley was Gehenna (Strongs #1067). Today it is called Wadi er-Rababi. The valley was probably named after a Jebusite named Hinnom. The southern part of Hinnom (#2011) valley is also lowest point near the ancient city. This area, named Topheth, was where there was child sacrifice to the god Molech in the 7th and 8th centuries BC and after this it was a garbage dump.
Topheth in the valley of Hinnom was a place of idol worship. The wicked kings Ahaz and Manassah of Judah practiced child sacrifice here (2 Ki. 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). Parents would sacrifice their children in the fire on shrines to Molech, the god of the Ammonites (1 Ki. 11:5; 2 Ki. 23:10), which was prohibited by the law of Moses (Lev. 18:21; 20:2). It was a place of burning (Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Child sacrifices were also made to Baal (Jer. 19:5; 32:35).
During king Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century BC he demolished the pagan shrines and made them ceremonially unclean by covering the sites with human bones (Num. 19:16; 2 Ki. 23:10-14).
So in the first instance Gehenna was the site of horrendous fiery idolatry, which was destroyed by a godly king.
After this we time read that one of the southern gates of Jerusalem was called the Potsherd gate (Jer.19:2). Potsherd is broken pottery. This gate led to the valley of Hinnom where potsherds were thrown (Jer. 19:10-11). It was later known as the Dung gate (Neh. 2:13; 3:13-14; 12:31). The Potsherd/Dung gate overlooked the valley, which was the main dump for broken pottery and other garbage.
The sacrificial laws God gave Israel required that the dung and certain portions of sacrificial animals were to the taken outside the camp (beyond the city walls in temple times) and burned (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:11-12; 8:17; 16:27).
So in the second instance Gehenna was a garbage dump for the disposal and burning of refuse.
Symbol of God’s judgment on Judah
Jeremiah used a clay jar in a dramatic message to the people of Jerusalem (Jer. 19:1-15). It was delivered at the Potsherd gate overlooking Topheth. After he smashed the jar, he claimed that God says “I will smash this nation and this city” and “I will make this city like Topheth” (Jer. 19:11-13NIV). He also predicted that the valley of Hinnom would be a vast cemetery (Jer. 7:30-34; 19:6). Just as the jar was smashed, the city will be destroyed and the people buried in the valley of Hinnom. Jerusalem will become a waste land devoid of life and littered with corpses and fires like Topheth. This was fulfilled when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 586 BC.
So in the third instance Gehenna was a symbol of God’s judgment on Jerusalem when they were invaded by the Babylonians.
Symbol of hell
In the 7th century BC Isaiah used “Topheth” as a metaphor for hell when he says its burning fires are ready to welcome the wicked king of Assyria (Is. 30:33). Elsewhere the Bible says that God’s enemies are judged by fire (Isa. 31:9; Zech. 12:6; Rev. 20:9-10). The image of everlasting punishment of God’s enemies in Isaiah 66:24 is also associated with Gehenna. It describes people looking at the valley of Hinnom, which was a picture of hell.
Jesus used the Greek word Gehenna 11 times in the New Testament. In four of these instances it is associated with fire (Mt. 5:22; 18:9; Mk. 9:43, 45). A person goes there after death; they are sent there by God: “Fear Him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell” (Lk. 12:5). Both body and soul are destroyed there: “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). And it is eternal: “the fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:43). It is clear that this is a figure of speech and that Jesus wasn’t referring to going to the valley of Hinnom.
In this context, Gehenna is used to describe the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41); “the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:12); “the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:42, 50); and “this place of torment” (Lk. 16:28). It’s a place of eternal punishment for unbelievers in contrast to the eternal life of believers (Mt. 25:46). Elsewhere it is called “everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Th. 1:9); “blackest darkness” (2 Pt. 2:17; Jude 13); “the second death” (Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 21:8); “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” and “the lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14). It’s the final destiny of sinners who refuse God’s revelation and Christ’s offer of forgiveness.
According to the English dictionary, the word “hell” means “a place or state of existence where the wicked are punished after death”. So in the New Testament the Greek word Gehenna is used as a metaphor for hell. This isn’t evident to most readers because it is translated “hell” in modern English Bibles.
So in the fourth instance Gehenna was a symbol of God’s judgment of unbelievers in hell.
Symbol of Satan
James also uses the word Gehenna in his letter to Jewish Christians. In the context of a series of metaphors for uncontrolled speech, he writes “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:6). Uncontrolled speech destroys our life like a wildfire destroys everything in its pathway. Then it says that hell (Gehenna) is the source of this evil. Because hell matches the characteristics and destiny of Satan, this is a figurative way of saying that Satan is the source of this evil.
So in the fourth instance Gehenna was a symbol of Satan.
The Bible doesn’t say where hell is. But the valley near Jerusalem called “Gehenna”, was a symbol of hell. People living in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD would have associated this valley with the wickedness of child sacrifice, the desolation of a garbage dump, the invasion of Judah by the Babylonians, the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell and Satan the source of all evil.
The only way to avoid hell is to listen to the message of Scripture (Lk. 16:27-31). Let’s believe that Jesus died so that we don’t have to endure its eternal suffering (Jn. 3:16).
Written, February 2016
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice