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"Hell" - Part 1- The Trashdump
This the first in a series of articles that looks at the various Greek words that are translated into references about "hell" in Jesus’s words. As we saw with “satan,” the concept of “hell” is largely manufactured in translation based on dogma by conflating a number of words and concepts somewhat out of context. Readers may be surprised to learn that many of these references were clearly meant to be humorous. Or, perhaps not, if you read my previous series of articles on Jesus’s humor.
The most common word translated as “hell” is geenna, γέεννα, which appears in only eleven verses of Jesus’s words, out of the approximate total of 1,900 verses. It wasn’t a central concept, but a humorous one use largely in repeated catchphrases.
The Hebrew Geenna
The word is geenna is not a Greek word, but the Greek version of the Hebrew place name. In English, it is more often referred to as Gehenna. This was the name of a place, the perpetually burning trash dump in a small valley, the valley of Hinnom, outside and below the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus always uses the term as a clear analogy for getting rid of useless waste, which, unlike geena, was an important part of his teaching.
It is difficult to make the case that he uses it to refer to an aspect of the afterlife for several reasons.
Jesus first uses geena in the "Sermon on the Mount," which is the best example of Jesus as an entertainer. We discussed these verses in an earlier article about Jesus’s use of exaggeration for humor. The majority of that “sermon” was designed to generate laughter following the traditional pattern of setup and punchline. In that section of Matthew, Jesus refers to the burning trash heap in Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29, and Matthew 5:30, (where there is a parallel verse in Mark). The first of these, Matthew 5:22, is the punchline as the last escalation of a series of three escalations of punishment for merely being angry at your brother. How do we know these were meant humorously? Consider the context: the first and least of these punishments was the same as the punishment for murder.
The next two verses, Matthew 5:29, and Matthew 5:30, are particularly interesting because they are so clearly meant to be a humorous exaggeration, almost outrageously so. These are the verses that refer to “plucking our an eye” and “chopping off a hand” as an alternative to the whole body being “tossed into the Gehenna.” As we saw previous verse, they belong to a repetitive series. Both verses are full of words Jesus commonly used in his humor, including one that means “to get tripped up” and the word meaning “toss.”
These phrases are again also repeated much later in Matthew 18:8 and Matthew 18:9, again, in a very exaggerated, comical vein discussed in this article on how Jesus evolved his humor. In all these verses, Gehenna is clearly identified with perpetual "fire," but it was not the perpetual fire of eternal punishment. It was the fire of a perpetually burning trash dump.
Notice that it is the body that is thrown into the trash dump. Animal bodies, such as those of camels, were frequently burned in the trash dump because these animals could not be slaughtered or left to rot. Human bodies, however, were actually burnt by the Judeans in the valley: diseased bodies. Since the context is a subtle reference to illicit sex, we can understand the connection to sexually transmitted diseases. However, Gehenna in pre-Judean times for the fires that burnt human sacrifices to Baal and Molech.
The Threat of Hell
Jesus explains what happens in gehenna a little more in his next sermon in Matthew, the Sending of the Apostles, where he says in Matthew 10:28, (KJV) "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Fear yourselves, however, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna." Notice that the soul is destroyed, not perpetually tortured. It is the fire that is perpetual, not the suffering.
Jesus does not say who “him,” is in these verses, but my interpretation is that it is ourselves. The Greek word translated as "soul" is psyche, which has a meaning closer to "self," that is, the part of you that experiences your life and has your memories. Notice this "self" is destroyed, just like your body is destroyed with death not tortured.
Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Christ only describes two paths: one to life (Matthew 7:14 ) and one to destruction (Matthew 7:13). This is consistent with the Biblical view of the OT, "The "soul that sins, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18). Nowhere does the OT suggest eternal torture any more than Jesus' does.
Does this mean you are entirely destroyed? No, because Christ describes people as existing of not just "body and soul" but also "mind," "heart," and "spirit." You can read this article about all of these concepts, but the point is that, just like your body isn't you, neither is your psyche, that is, your memories, all of you either. The most important thing that is left is your anima ("spirit"). The spirit and perhaps the "mind" (the reasoning faculty, though this may be part of the body) and the "heart(the core of personal desires) survives the burning trash heap, but Christ doesn't say how. Perhaps in the "outer darkness" discussed below.
We don’t hear many preachers refer to these verses mentioning Gehenna very often today but in the era of “hellfire and brimstone” preachers, like Jonathan Edwards, these verses were commonly used to firmly establish the concept of a “hell” of eternal torture. In that era, they were not characterized as humorous but rather as evidence of “an angry God,” a New Testament God that was, in many ways, more dangerous than the Old Testament God.
However, we must see this very real place of Gehenna in the same terms that the people in Jesus’s time did. He was making a threat, but the threat of our lives ending up in a trash heap. This is an easy analogy to follow. However, for Jesus’s time, it was a physical place in the real world, not existing on the mystical plane, like hades, a concept we will cover in next week’s article. When I think about how people of the time thought about Gehenna, I mostly think about how stinky it was. If the word was used in everyday life in Galilee and Judea of Jesus’s time, it was most likely one used in derision, describing smelly fires.