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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 3: Gehenna

A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I correct their hasty assertions about how “Gehenna” is mistranslated, by examining its use in Second Temple sources.

Continued from part 2, on the nature of hell

One of J&J’s frequent assertions is that the traditional view of hell is a result of translation errors. They claim that some key words in the Bible are routinely translated incorrectly.

Now, I’m interested in Bible translation. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this argument in principle. Indeed, there are some translation traditions which are as questionable as they are entrenched.

However, J&J’s claim is ambitious to the point of being prima facie nonsense. Their argument isn’t like saying that translation teams ought not to theologize ha’satan into a proper noun—to pick one example I myself have weighed in against. They are saying that every single reputable Bible translation team, populated by dozens and dozens of the best language scholars in the world, has managed to systematically screw up something as fundamental as the rendering of many words that give us the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. This is a far more ambitious claim that requires serious linguistic chops. J&J are taking on not just translation teams, but lexicons, historical theologians, secular language scholars, and more.

Needless to say, if you’re making a claim this ambitious, you ought to stop and consider whether you have the intellectual shoulders to bear the burden of proof.

This unfortunately is a classic Dunning-Kruger situation. J&J are so underqualified for the task they are attempting that they don’t even have the requisite knowledge to realize it. And so their case seems about as credible as a conspiracy theory.

Gehenna

One of the central pillars in J&J’s argument is with regard to the translation of γέεννα, gehenna. So I’ll deal with this first. Gehenna is the word most Bibles will consistently render as “hell”. J&J claim that “hell” literally isn’t in the Bible at all, because Gehenna is…

…a valley. A literal valley. A physical, geographic location. The Valley of Hinnom… So the real question is, what did Gehenna mean to the Jews of Jesus’ day?

To their credit, J&J recognize that just because Gehenna refers to a valley doesn’t mean it can’t refer to something else. Saying “it’s a literal valley” might be as inept as saying that Wall Street is a literal street when interpreting a financial article. So the issue is, what did Gehenna mean to the Jews of Jesus’ day?

Unfortunately, on this point they simply haven’t done their homework. There is a reason that Bible translators routinely render Gehenna as “hell”—even new, whacky translations like the NET and LEB, which (often rightly) mix things up and aren’t beholden to older translation traditions. This reason is that to the Jews of Jesus’ day, Gehenna was a metonym—it was used as a reference to the place of eschatological punishment, just as Wall Street is used to refer to the stock market.

J&J rightly go back to the Old Testament to establish a historical context for the Valley of Hinnom. But the Old Testament wasn’t the only source of religious information the Jews held in high regard. This simply misunderstands the religious milieu of the first century. There were many other popular writings which became widely known, and out of which the religious motifs of Second Temple (“intertestamental”) Judaism developed. There were also highly influential mishnah, rabbinical oral teachings, which were regarded as authoritative interpretations of the Torah in much the way that Tradition-with-a-capital-T is viewed by Roman Catholics today (cf Matthew 15:3).

Even briefly canvassing the relevant portions of the most accessible versions of these Second Temple documents shows plainly the kinds of things that Jews in Jesus’ time were thinking when they talked about (A) Gehenna specifically and (B) eschatological punishment more generally.

Note that I am not endorsing any of this Second Temple literature as necessarily true or inspired. Rather, I am holding J&J’s argument up against the first principle of exegesis: What would these words have meant to their original audience?

A. Gehenna/gehinnom in Second Temple thought

To draw the connection between eschatological punishment and Gehenna or gehinnom (remember the former is just the Greek version of the latter Hebrew), let’s start with how these two terms are explicitly used in Second Temple thought:

An example from 4 Ezra

4 Ezra is also known as 2 Esdras 3-14; part of a larger composite apocalyptic work. 4 Ezra was Jewish, written in the first century, in Hebrew—but it was translated into Greek and then Latin, and we have only the Latin translation remaining to us.

And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn; but only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong. And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight. Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, “Look now, and understand whom you have denied, whom you have not served, whose commandments you have despised! Look on this side and on that; here are delight and rest, and there are fire and torments!” Thus he will speak to them on the day of judgment4 Ezra 7:32-38, RSV

The Latin version, translated from the Greek, renders the “furnace of hell” in verse 36 as clibanus gehennae. I trust you will find gehennae familiar, since it is the Latin transliteration of Gehenna, which in turn is the Greek transliteration of gehinnom. That may have literally referred to the Valley of Hinnom, but quite obviously that is not what is in view here. Notice also the parallelism in the passage—Hebrew poetry rhymed ideas rather than sounds. So the furnace of Gehenna is identified through “rhyming ideas” as one and the same with the pit of torment.

An example from rabbinical teaching

Now let me quote part of the Babylonian Talmud, on Rosh Hashanah. This is a mishnah—an oral tradition of the Second Temple Pharisees up until 70 AD. In other words, what it records is what Jews of Jesus’ day, or shortly before or shortly after, would probably have been taught by their rabbis. Here’s what it says about the resurrection and final judgment:

There will be three groups at the Day of Judgment—one of thoroughly righteous, one of thoroughly wicked, and one of intermediate. The thoroughly righteous will forthwith be inscribed definitively as entitled to everlasting life; the thoroughly wicked will forthwith be inscribed definitively as doomed to Gehinnom, as it says, And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. The intermediate will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name and I will answer them. Of them, too, Hannah said, The Lord killeth and maketh alive, he bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up… Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body and wrongdoers of the Gentiles who sin with their body go down to Gehinnom and are punished there for twelve months. After twelve months their body is consumed and their soul is burnt and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous as it says, And ye shall tread down the wicked, and they shall be as ashes under the soles of your feet. But as for the minim and the informers and the scoffers, who rejected the Torah and denied the resurrection of the dead, and those who abandoned the ways of the community, and those who ‘spread their terror in the land of the living’, and who sinned and made the masses sin, like Jeroboam the son of Nebat and his fellows—these will go down to Gehinnom and be punished there for all generations, as it says, And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have rebelled against me etc. Gehinnom will be consumed but they will not be consumed, as it says, and their form shall wear away the nether world.Rosh Hashanah 16b:17a

I don’t want to labor the point, so I won’t quote other parts of the Mishnah; suffice to say Gehenna receives similar treatment in Kiddushin 4.14, Pirkei Avot 1.5; 5.19, 20 and Tosefta t. Bereshith 6.15—it is a place of eschatological punishment: a pit that the wicked go down to, echoing the biblical language of going down to sheol (more on this later).

The Targumim also use the term gehinnom often in verses about resurrection, judgment, and the fate of the wicked, even adding the phrase “second death”. For example, in Isaiah 66:24, both gehinnom and the second death are added to the text in Aramaic, which means that Jesus’ reference in Mark 9:47-48 is actually a direct parallel to the Aramaic version of Isaiah 66:24.

Thus, J&J’s argument that, “When Jesus refers to Gehenna as ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ in Mark 9, he is making a clear connection to the valley’s historic past, using the language of Isaiah 66,” they simply fail to realize that Jesus’ audience would have understood:

The same goes for Jeremiah 7:31-34. So this line of argument actually proves the opposite of what J&J claim: when Jesus’ language is properly contextualized, we can see very clearly that he is referring not to a temporal, this-life consequence of sin, but to an eternal, next-life consequence.

B. Eschatological punishment in Second Temple Jewish thought

Now that I’ve shown that Gehenna was, in fact, an existing metonym for eschatological punishment in Second Temple literature, it will also be helpful to flesh out more fully the nature of that eschatological punishment, and also how Jews of Jesus’ day drew literary and typological connections to Gehenna in ways that didn’t explicitly use the name:

Examples from 1 Enoch

The Book of Enoch was one of the most widely-circulated and popular apocryphal works of the Second Temple period. It was composed between 300 and 100 BC, and became very influential in the “pop culture” of the time, with its ideas and language permeating social discourse in much the way that Shakespeare or Tolkien’s language permeates ours. It was taken seriously enough by the biblical authors that both Jude and 2 Peter reference it. Here are some relevant passages:

And the Lord said unto Michael: ‘Go, bind Semjaza and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgement and of their consummation, till the judgement that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever. And whosoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations.1 Enoch 10:12-15 (H.R. Charles Oxford: The Clarendon Press)

Then said I: “For what object is this blessed land, which is entirely filled with trees, and this accursed valley between?” Then Uriel, one of the holy angels who was with me, answered and said: “This accursed valley is for those who are accursed for ever: Here shall all the accursed be gathered together who utter with their lips against the Lord unseemly words and of His glory speak hard things. Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their place of judgement. In the last days there shall be upon them the spectacle of righteous judgement in the presence of the righteous for ever: here shall the merciful bless the Lord of glory, the Eternal King. In the days of judgement over the former, they shall bless Him for the mercy in accordance with which He has assigned them (their lot).”1 Enoch 27:2-4

And I looked and turned to another part of the earth, and saw there a deep valley with burning fire. And they brought the kings and the mighty, and began to cast them into this deep valley. And there mine eyes saw how they made these their instruments, iron chains of immeasurable weight. And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying: ‘ For whom are these chains being prepared ? ‘ And he said unto me: ‘ These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation, and they shall cover their jaws with rough stones as the Lord of Spirits commanded. And Michael, and Gabriel, and Raphael, and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day, and cast them on that day into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness in becoming subject to Satan and leading astray those who dwell on the earth.’1 Enoch 54:1-6

Here we see references to an accursed valley, a valley of fire, which is also identified as an abyss and a blazing furnace. Both humans and spiritual beings are cast into this place as punishment forever; to the end of all generations. Given the quotes from the previous section, it isn’t exactly a stretch to see that Jewish readers of the day would readily have identified this valley as gehinnom; Gehenna. The same idea is in view in 1 Enoch 90:

And the judgement was held first over the stars [ie, the sons of God; cf Job 38:7], and they were judged and found guilty, and went to the place of condemnation, and they were cast into an abyss, full of fire and flaming, and full of pillars of fire. And those seventy shepherds were judged and found guilty, and they were cast into that fiery abyss. And I saw at that time how a like abyss was opened in the midst of the earth, full of fire, and they brought those blinded sheep, and they were all judged and found guilty and cast into this fiery abyss, and they burned; now this abyss was to the right of that house. And I saw those sheep burning and their bones burning. And I stood up to see till they folded up that old house; and carried off all the pillars, and all the beams and ornaments of the house were at the same time folded up with it, and they carried it off and laid it in a place in the south of the land. And I saw till the Lord of the sheep brought a new house greater and loftier than that first, and set it up in the place of the first which had beer folded up: all its pillars were new, and its ornaments were new and larger than those of the first, the old one which He had taken away, and all the sheep were within it.1 Enoch 90:24-29

If this doesn’t remind you of Revelation 21, I don’t know what will. The same concepts are clearly in play; the same fundamental ideas about the final judgment, the punishment of the wicked, and the reward of the righteous are being articulated. Similarly:

In those days shall the mighty and the kings who possess the earth implore (Him) to grant them a little respite from His angels of punishment to whom they were delivered, that they might fall down and worship before the Lord of Spirits, and confess their sins before Him. And they shall bless and glorify the Lord of Spirits, and say:

“Blessed is the Lord of Spirits and the Lord of kings…
Would that we had rest to glorify and give thanks
And confess our faith before His glory!
And now we long for a little rest but find it not:
We follow hard upon and obtain (it) not:
And light has vanished from before us,
And darkness is our dwelling-place for ever and ever:
For we have not believed before Him
Nor glorified the name of the Lord of Spirits, [nor glorified our Lord]
But our hope was in the sceptre of our kingdom,
And in our glory.
And in the day of our suffering and tribulation He saves us not,
And we find no respite for confession
That our Lord is true in all His works, and in His judgements and His justice,
And His judgements have no respect of persons.
And we pass away from before His face on account of our works,
And all our sins are reckoned up in righteousness.”
10 Now they shall say unto themselves: ‘ Our souls are full of unrighteous gain, but it does not prevent us from descending from the midst thereof into the burden of Sheol.’
And after that their faces shall be filled with darkness
And shame before that Son of Man,
And they shall be driven from his presence,
And the sword shall abide before his face in their midst.1 Enoch 63

Interestingly, another translation renders verse 10 as, “Now they will say to them: ‘Our souls are satisfied with unjust goods, but it does not prevent our going to the flames of the pain of hell.’” It’s difficult to draw any solid conclusions about the specific word hell or sheol here in relation to Gehenna because a complete version of 1 Enoch only exists in Ge’ez (Ethiopic). But it is obvious from the two different translations that the concept being translated is the concept which in English typically refers to a place of eschatological judgment. Not a literal valley, and certainly not this-life negative consequences of bad choices.

There are also interesting parallels in chapters 98 and 103, which obviously refer to what we would today call hell, but also indicate that it is a spiritual location. I wouldn’t jump on this as a contradiction, since in charity to the theology of the day, we could easily acknowledge that the intermediate, spiritual state could be described in exactly the same way as the final, physical state, given that the language is a picture of the suffering endured rather than the nature or state of hell itself. Very possibly, unbelievers do indeed experience torment immediately upon death in much the same way they will in the final state of hell (cf Luke 16:19ff, which I’ll discuss later in this series).

The reason I mention this point is not to highlight an arcane detail of Second Temple theology, but rather because the spiritual language is a telling blow against any hope for J&J that Gehenna in the eschatalogical discourse of Jesus’ day must be referring to the physical Valley of Hinnom; or to the ruining of our present physical life through sin:

Therefore they shall be wanting in doctrine and wisdom,
And they shall perish thereby together with their possessions;
And with all their glory and their splendour,
And in shame and in slaughter and in great destitution,
Their spirits shall be cast into the furnace of fire.1 Enoch 98:3

And into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgement shall your spirits enter;
And the great judgement shall be for all the generations of the world.
Woe to you, for ye shall have no peace.1 Enoch 103:8

An example from Judith

Judith is another Second Temple work which was held in such high regard that it was included with other non-scriptural texts in the Septuagint—the second century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It is still accepted as Scripture by Roman Catholics and some other dodgy sects today. Here’s an interesting passage:

Woe to the nations that rise against my people! The Lord Almighty will requite them; in the day of judgment he will punish them: he will send fire and worms into their flesh, and they will weep and suffer forever.Judith 16:17, NABRE

You can see in these sources that the Jews had varying opinions about the duration of hell for various people. For the question of whether “forever” is translated correctly in translations like the one above—and, more importantly, in the Bible—see part 4 of this series.

Yet again we see that there’s no need to use the word Gehenna in order to clearly articulate the concept of hell. But by the same token, because the concept of hell is so clear—the idea of eternal eschatological suffering in fire—it simply beggars belief that Jesus did not intend to refer to this when he spoke of Gehenna and referred to it as eternal and fiery. (And of course, we know that’s how the term was used from the examples in section A above.)

The Jewish Encyclopedia also agrees, saying that because of the child sacrifices that took place in the valley, it “was deemed to be accursed, and ‘Gehenna’ therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for ‘hell.’” Note that the Jewish Encyclopedia has zero interest in perpetuating any Christian doctrine—it is purely concerned with the historical facts of Judaism. It continues:

The statement that Gehenna is situated in the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem, in the “accursed valley” (1 Enoch 27:1ff), means simply that it has a gate there. It was in Zion, and had a gate in Jerusalem (Isaiah 31:9). It had three gates, one in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem (Tract ‘Erubin 19a).

Now, of course this is the kind of legendary embellishment typical of rabbinical thinking, and no Christian should take these ideas seriously; but what it shows is that J&J’s appeal to “Jewish thought” is not only highly anachronistic, but also highly selective. Indeed, it is precisely because this rabbinical approach to the text of Scripture was typical in Jesus’ day that J&J’s exegesis of the Bible’s Gehenna passages is so outrageously implausible—openly defying their sociolinguistic context.

Tartarus, Sheol & Hades

Although Gehenna is the main point of contention, J&J do note that other words are sometimes translated in some Bibles as “hell”. Some brief observations on this:

Tartarus

J&J correctly observe that Tartarus is used only of the angels who sinned; 2 Peter 2:4 is describing a place of temporary incarceration where they are “kept until the judgment.” So there’s no need to spend time on that, and I don’t imagine any serious case for the traditional view of hell would.

Sheol and Hades

J&J claim that these should only ever be translated as “death” or “the grave”—as per the NASB. This claim, however, is truly remarkable considering that they cite Strong’s, which clearly states how both words may refer to the place of departed souls; ie, the netherworld. Indeed, even Wikipedia—hardly a bastion of traditional Christian scholarship—agrees that Sheol is:

…a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from the Hebrew God.

The inhabitants of Sheol are the “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).

While the Old Testament writings describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC–70 AD) a more diverse set of ideas developed. In some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, and this is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.Wikipedia, “Sheol”

None of this is especially important to the doctrine of hell in the strictest sense, since hell is the physical place of eschatological judgment—not a disembodied place of temporary judgment; although parallels certainly could be drawn to weaken J&J’s case. But the issue is not so much that their inept treatment of these words weakens their case, but rather their credibility. This kind of bungle is prima facie evidence that we shouldn’t take any of their arguments on this issue seriously, and further corroboration that they are motivated not by a clear understanding of the facts, nor by careful assessment of the evidence, but by animus against the very notion of hell.

TL;DR: it is patently obvious even from these limited examples that when the Bible speaks of Gehenna or refers to the concept of judgment in a place of fire or darkness, it is drawing on existing eschatological motifs that were well-established in the religious milieu of first century Judaism. This scuttles J&J’s central thesis that the original authors and audience of the Bible would have understood hell as a present-life consequence of sin.

Continued in part 4, on whether punishment is eternal or age-long

8 comments

  1. Christopher Wood

    I wouldn’t use the words “conspiracy theory” in that way, as something that’s automatically incredible. Every critique of secret actions of the powerful has been dismissed using that phrase. It’s pure rhetoric. Whereas in the last decade, thanks to Snowden and other whistleblowers, we’ve seen many things previously considered by most to be firmly in the realm of conspiracy theories, are actually true.

  2. David White

    Sorry to veer off topic for a moment, but… the NET Bible is a whacky translation? I don’t think their version of Isaiah 9:6 will make it into Christmas carols anytime soon, but what else is wrong?

  3. Ben

    David: Which part in particular do you find whacky? You can see their translation notes at https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Isaiah+9. I wish all Bibles had these! :-)

  4. David White

    Ben, it was Bnonn who gave the “whacky” designation to the NET Bible. I was just acknowledging that we probably won’t be singing about Jesus the Extraordinary Strategist (Is. 9:6) anytime soon.

    But, yes, I think the best thing about the NET Bible is the translation notes. (For example, John 7:53). So I was curious about why Bnonn deemed the translation “whacky”. Maybe that wasn’t a pejorative – maybe he just means that they aren’t afraid to mess with well-known verses.

  5. Ben

    Ahh, I missed that! I’m keen to know why Bnonn finds the NET Bible whacky too. I’ve been using it a lot lately.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Heh, I wasn’t intending the comment pejoratively. I only meant it isn’t beholden to old translation traditions.

    That said, its rendering of Genesis 15:6…wut.

  7. Jayro Boy

    Hey, Bnonn, I heard a theory about souls being not bound to time, so when you die, from your perspective, it’s instantly That Day, and you get to live on the New Earth as soon as you die(if you’ve been redeemed by Christ.) Any thoughts?

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m not aware of any biblical evidence for such an idea. By rights, if souls are not bound by time, then when you die, from your perspective it is instantly every day. Moreover, even if souls are not bound by time, bodies are; and the new earth is an embodied state.

    It’s pretty hard to see how any created being could be atemporal, whether physical or not. Time is probably the hardest of all the philosophical nuts to crack, but it seems to me that it is integral to the created state, period. It must exist so that not everything happens at once—which non-omniscient, non-omnipotent beings couldn’t handle.

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