Hell 13: Gehenna

Posted: April 7, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Where did Hell come from? Weird idea. Not there in Jewish Scripture. It’d be nice to know its origin.



Let’s take a look. We need introduce the ideas of Sheol, Hades and Gehenna.

In Jewish Scripture, there is only one place where the dead go: the place of the dead, Sheol, also called ‘the earth’. It is a place in which agency, consciousness, relationship – everything that makes up the person – is lost. It’s like a permanent sleep. Though people might be consigned there as a punishment, Sheol is not generally seen as an experience of punishment, but of oblivion. In Jewish Scripture, there is little interest in the details of Sheol, for it seems to be a place without much in the way of divisions or distinctions. The interesting place is this world and this life. By contrast, Sheol is lacking is any activity or event which might create narrative interest: much of what is said about it is negative. Sheol is the place where things do not happen. There are no experiences there. The same fate is shared by all.

The one interesting narrative regarding Sheol involves a man – Samuel – being raised out of the earth (1 Samuel 28). For even a conversation to occur, Samuel has to be lifted back into the realm where things happen. And he does not appreciate his sleep being disturbed in this way!

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, they translated Sheol using a well-known Greek term:  Hades. This usage carried over from the Greek Septuagint Bible into the NT, where Hades is often used as a synonym for ‘death’ or ‘the grave’.  

However, the Greek Hades was actually a much more complex and highly developed idea than the simple Hebrew Sheol. The Greeks had a highly developed cosmology, including realms of spirit beings, and an underworld. Hades had various sections, into which the dead were divided depending on which judgement they received. Some went to the pleasures of Elysium, others to the torments of Tartarus. In Hades, events could and did occur. There are plenty of Greek stories about these places, and adventures people have there in the ‘afterlife’. There is even the idea that being dead might be better and more pleasant than being alive – if you end up in the right place. This view of Hades of course involved attributing much more personhood to the dead than Hebrew thought allowed: the dead continued in consciousness as some sort of disembodied shade.

During the intertestamental period, the Jewish people was scattered through many nations, and subject to many foreign influences. Many of these ‘Gentile’ cultures had well-developed ideas about an afterlife. Chief among these influences was Hellenism, which was the dominant cultural force in the Levant during the centuries before Christ. The Greek worldview had a strong interest in non-material realms and the soul. During this period, Jewish interest in cosmology and the ‘afterlife’ also flowered. Concepts start to appear in Jewish writing, analogous to the Greek ones described above. There is an explosion of interest in angels, in their activities and their fate. Sheol/Hades is differentiated, and becomes a place of division between the righteous and the wicked, a place where experiences and events can happen. Visionaries recount their adventures there. The dead become ‘souls’ who have conscious experiences. In short, the afterlife becomes a locus of intense interest. Just like in Greek culture.

The extra-canonical book 1 Enoch bears testimony to these developments. This first or second century BC Jewish apocalyptic writing takes readers on an extended tour of the underworld, describing its geography in detail. Notable for our purposes are several zones of punishment, where the condemned of various sorts are tormented in valleys of eternal fire.

Sheol was coming to look more and more like the Greek idea of Hades. It is not surprising then to find that in Jewish thought there arose the idea of one section of Sheol specially divided off as a place of horror and pain. By the time of the NT, a new word, much more threatening than Sheol, was on the scene: Gehenna. Gehenna was a place of fire and torment, where the wicked would suffer. This idea is not found in the Jewish Scriptures. But it is closely analogous with the Greek Tartarus, the section of Hades which was the abode of the damned. If the Hebrew concept Sheol had borrowed a Greek word Hades, now the translation seems to be going the opposite direction: a Greek concept is borrowing a Hebrew word, Tartarus becomes Gehenna.

Gehenna was originally a real place, just outside Jerusalem. It was the valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Hebrew: Gai ben Hinnom). The valley had become infamous in earlier centuries as a place where human sacrifice had occurred to the god Molech (see e.g. Jeremiah 7:31). It was also known as Tophet. In the Jewish mind, ben Hinnom was forever associated with burning, death and abomination (but not with an ‘afterlife’). It was used as a place for tombs. (The tradition that it was a rubbish dump is doubtful.) The prophet Jeremiah foresees a time when the valley of ben Hinnom will be healed and restored in the return from exile (Jeremiah 31:40). In its Greek version, the name of the valley was Gehenna.

Much later in the centuries just before Christ, in Rabbinic literature such as the Targums, the name Gehenna is used with reference to the fate of the wicked. For example, where Isaiah 66 has the bodies of the dead suffering an undying fire and worm, the Targum paraphrase adds to that text the words Gehenna and second death. By this time the valley has become a metaphor for an afterlife experience of shame and fire. It is connected with ‘the second death’, perhaps death of the soul.

The intertestamental book Judith also picks up on the same Isaiah 66 imagery, adding the idea of ongoing torment:

“The Lord, the Almighty, will  punish them on the Day of Judgment by putting fire and worms into their flesh, so that they cry out with pain unto all eternity.”           Judith 16:17

The Rabbinic literature of the Talmud and Mishnah bears testimony that an interest in the afterlife had become prevalent in significant sections of the Jewish community: discussion of the fate of souls is a major theme there. The rabbinic view is that Gehenna is a kind of purgatory, to be endured for no more than a year after death. Beyond that some rabbis believed of the wicked: “their souls are burned, and the wind strews the ashes under the feet of the pious.” (R.H. 17a) Jews were often considered to be in some way exempt from the fires of Gehenna. It was especially a place for the heathen who had persecuted Israel: Romans, Persians etc. It is often said that Gehenna will itself be destroyed in future times. It is not generally seen as the everlasting Hell of later Christian tradition.

First century AD Jewish writer Josephus described three sects within the Judaism of his day: the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Of these three, the first and third had well-developed views of an afterlife. Josephus saw the Essenes‘ beliefs as parallel to those of the Greeks:

[they believe] that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever…and are united to their bodies as to prisons, … but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is such as is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, …while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments. And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion, when they allot…to the souls of the wicked, the region of the ungodly, in Hades, where their fables relate that certain persons, …are punished. And this is built on this first supposition, that souls are immortal. And thence are those exhortations to virtue and warnings against wickedness drawn; whereby good men are bettered in the conduct of their life by the hope they have of reward after their death; and whereby the vehement inclinations of bad men to vice are restrained, by the fear and expectation they are in, that although they should lie concealed in this life, they should suffer immortal punishment after their death. Josephus, Wars of the Jews,  2.8.11

And according to Josephus, the Pharisees’ (his own sect) held similar views:

They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.   Wars of the Jews 2.8.14

Josephus’s description of the Pharisees grates a little with the Rabbinic version. Possibly he was exaggerating the similarity between Jewish and Greek beliefs in order to commend Judaism to his Greek audience. But it does seem clear that by the time of Christ, interest in an afterlife and belief in the immortality of the soul were commonplace in Judaism.

The details of Gehenna vary in different sources.  The picture is not crystal clear, probably reflecting the diversity of views within Judaism. But the outlines are firm enough: Gehenna is a place of post-mortem punishment for the wicked: some kind of ‘second death’ after death. One strand has this as a temporary experience. But another strand, at least at strong, holds to everlasting torment. Primarily for foreigners! By the time of Jesus, the threat of never-ending anguish in the fire of hell was a mainstream idea in Judaism – though not accepted by all.

You can see how, psychologically, this doctrine worked for the Jews. If your people has been crushed for hundreds of years, you’re going to build up an anger of cosmic proportions. A couple of times the Jews tried unleashing that fire on earth – under the Maccabees for example. But for most of the time, they had no way to express it. The traditional hope of political salvation never materialised. The idea of an after-death spiritualised reckoning, in which God’s people could enjoy the screams of their enemies at last – such an idea might just be potent enough to bear the weight of holding Israel’s pent-up hatred. And what other outlet was available?

These were all developments in Judaism after the time of the OT canon, during the era of massive foreign influence.

The concept of Gehenna, then, came as part of a larger shift in world-view and focus, that took place in the faith of Israel in the intertestamental period. The Israelite prophets of old, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, knew of no post-mortem Gehenna. But more importantly they were not interested in these questions of an ‘afterlife’ which later became so important in the Jewish mindset. Rather, the prophets’ interests were firmly focussed in the land of the living, and in particular in the land of Israel. Gehenna is not at all a natural outworking of the teachings of Jewish Scripture: rather it is what happened when Judaism was flooded with foreign cultural ideas, in particular those of the Greek world.

When Messiah came, he would have to operate within this altered, Hellenised Judaism. What would he do with these new ideas when he came?

  1. jeltzz says:

    I feel like you are operating with a paradigm of “Corruption by Hellenism”, which is a meta-narrative that is worth questioning. It’s the same meta-narrative that runs through the first half of your series about Hell being derived from the idea of the immortality of the soul derived from Plato. I’m not sure I find that convincing either.

    Secondly, the mere fact that Hellenic thought has a developed cosmology doesn’t mean that that cosmology is always imported into the usage of ‘Hades’. Hades is, for Koine writers, the best possible word to use to describe the place of the dead. That’s why the LXX writers used it for Sheol. Questions about its associations have to be answered text by text. It’s interesting to note that Tartarus only appears once in the NT, in 2 Peter where it’s used to describe a place of confinement for fallen angelic beings. Its use there is perfectly fitting given that Tartarus in the Greek mythos is a place of confinement and punishment for threats to the Olympian gods. However there is no hint that 2 Peter is importing that mythos, rather he’s just using the most appropriate Greek word to express the concept.

    Keep writing though.

    • J says:

      Thanks Jeltzz, we’ll try to keep writing!
      If there’s one thing we like here at The Grit, it’s a skeptic. ‘Not sure I find that convincing’ – music to my ears!

      On your second point about Hades, I agree with what I think you’re saying. It’s confusing when you have one word (Hades) being used by two different cultures for two different concepts. We tend to equate word and idea when we think about things. Here I’m finding I almost want to say ‘greek-hades’ and ‘hebrew-hades’, just to clarify.

      In the LXX and the NT generally, the word Hades is used much like the Hebrew Sheol. Which I think is what you’re saying. However, in the wider Jewish culture such as Rabbinic stuff and Josephus, it’s coming to look a lot like the Greek version.

      Which brings us to your first comment. Corruption by Hellenism. I’ve tried to avoid words like derived and caused. Cause and effect are notoriously difficult to establish. What we have is two things happening at the same time: colonisation by Greek culture (a fact of history) and a set of new ideas arising in Judaism that parallel in many ways the thought structures of the colonising culture.

      Interpreting these phenomena might seem a bit like an invitation to join the dots. However, there could be more than one way to join them.

      My feeling is that unless someone comes up with an alternative explanation for the facts, most of us are going to settle for the ‘Greek influence’ explanation. At least as a working and workable hypothesis.

      And I reckon the main thing that would make me doubt that view would be if a better explanation came along.

      So Jeltzz, do you have any suggestions? – for where these novel ideas in intertestamental Judaism came from? If there’s another good theory out there, we’d love to hear about it.

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