When Jesus began to teach, he was speaking into a Judaism that had developed during the centuries of prophetic ‘silence’. In particular, ideas about an afterlife and Gehenna had entered the Jewish worldview, ideas which were not drawn from the Scriptures.
How would Jesus respond to this situation? His main options are:
1. to affirm the new ideas
2. to modify them
3. to reject them, or
4. to ignore them
So it’s time for some exegesis, at last. The moment our evangelical readers have been waiting for! Strap in. Let’s see what Jesus does with the tradition he inherited regarding Hades and Gehenna.
Most of the material is found in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus is teaching the new values of the kingdom, interacting with the law of Moses:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the court; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. Matthew 5:21-22
Here Gehenna sits in parallel with two other words: ‘judgement’ and ‘the court’. These three function as different versions of the same idea. The phrase ‘the Gehenna of fire’ features as the final and most intensified judgement-term. All three terms are traditional. Jesus speaks of God’s judgement using a term his listeners would all have understood.
Jesus’ contribution here is not in anything he says about Gehenna, but in exposing the relational heart of Moses’ command: enmity against your brother is an offence to God. He goes on to unpack that theme – the idea of Gehenna is left behind, and turns out to be incidental. It is not what Jesus is teaching about. His theme is enmity.
The next reference comes soon after in a discussion of the Mosaic laws about adultery:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust… Matthew 5:28
The eye can commit adultery! There follows an exhortation using graphical bodily imagery for repentance from this sin:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to depart into Gehenna. Matthew 5:29-30
The confronting idea here is that the eye, and not merely the penis can commit sexual sin. Thus we must even repent of our way of looking. Jesus pictures this repentance as a tearing out of the immoral eye. The alternative is for the whole body to be cut off and ‘thrown away’, into the fire of Gehenna. The punchline is that unless we turn away our bodies from sin, they will be lost. The body here stands, of course, for the whole person.
The discourse goes on to speak further of adultery. Once again the idea of Gehenna is left behind, and proves to be incidental to the main focus, occurring only in dependent clauses. Jesus is not teaching about Gehenna here. How is he employing the term?
In a passage as laden with imagery as this one, it is likely that Jesus is also using this traditional category ‘Gehenna‘ somewhat metaphorically. Gehenna is pictured as a kind of incinerator into which rubbish is thrown away: an image of destruction. There is not much sense of place evoked in the way Jesus employs the word. The point is about being cut off and thrown away.
However, it is interesting that Jesus describes Gehenna as a place for the body (not just the soul!). And not for the last time:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Matthew 10:28
Jesus is warning his disciples that they will be persecuted for their ministry. But they must not be silenced by fear.
…whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Matthew 10:32
In other words they should fear God rather than man, and continue their ministry. In this contrast, ‘body’ is outweighed by ‘body and soul’, while ‘kill’ is outweighed by ‘destroy’ (Gr. apoluo)- here meaning a kind of super-killing that implies the total loss of the object.
Yet again, Jesus is not teaching about Gehenna. He is teaching about whom to fear. Gehenna is mentioned in a dependent clause, and the sentence would make perfect sense if this clause were lopped off: ‘fear him who can destroy body and soul’.
What does the phrase ‘in Gehenna’ add, then? Emotional weight, colour, symbolic force, perhaps narrative context. By saying ‘in Gehenna’, Jesus brings a vivid image of judgement into the mind’s eye of the hearers, an image that carried a weight of terror with it. His hearers knew this word well, it would get a reaction. It’s easy to feel fear of men: Jesus wants to make sure they adequately feel the fear on the other side. Also, with this one word, Jesus taps into a whole narrative: the story of the final judgement. The disciples may (and will) be judged guilty before human courts, as will Jesus himself. But they should remember that this judgement is not final: all must stand before a higher court, ‘before my Father in heaven’ – and there the stakes will be higher. Gehenna here stands for final and irreversible condemnation and death, the loss of everything, of the whole person. Fear that!
There are a couple of references to Hades in Matthew.And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. Matthew 11:23-24
Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 14:13-15) denouncing Babylon. Like that ancient city, Capernaum’s sin is pride. But rather than ascending into neverending glory, it will be brought down to the grave in shame. Hades here is a part of the Isaianic quote, and is used in its OT sense, meaning death. It is interesting to note that here it is not an individual person but a city which is envisaged sinking down to Hades. We are talking the fate of cities, not of souls.
In Matthew 16 Jesus seems to be commissioning Peter in some way:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
Here Hades is envisaged as a stronghold armed in conscious opposition to God, guarding its prisoners, the dead. In the face of the new community Jesus is forming, this fortress will prove to be vulnerable and powerless to retain its inhabitants. In this metaphorical usage, Hades stands for the power of death, in which humanity has been trapped for so long. It would be a mistake to hear this as a description of an actual sentient kingdom, as has sometimes been done in Christian tradition. That would be to misunderstand the metaphor. Satan is probably not in view here.
In Matthew 23, Jesus is indicting the rabbis for leading the nation into ruin:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a son of Gehenna as yourselves. Matthew 23:13
Here Gehenna functions as an opposite to the kingdom of heaven. People belong to one or the other. To stop people entering the kingdom, is to make them into a child of Gehenna. There are no details about Gehenna here, but plenty of details about the sons of Gehenna: they are hypocrites who exalt themselves, etc. The sons of the kingdom, in contrast, humble themselves. Gehenna here is not viewed as a rival empire to God’s kingdom. Rather, it stands for judgement: those who turn aside from the kingdom of heaven show that they are sons of destruction.
This meaning is seen clearly later in the same discourse when Jesus says:
You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape the judgement of Gehenna?
Here Gehenna functions as an adjective, qualifying the word ‘judgement’. The qualifier lends a weight of threat to the idea of judgement.
This passage (Matt. 23) is particularly revealing about what Jesus has in mind when he says Gehenna. He is making a historical argument about the long-term guilt of Israel:
Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 23:31
He rehearses the whole long, painful story:
Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 23:34
The result is that the judgement for all that guilt will now fall:
so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah… Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. 23:35-36
This judgement will be felt in the place most responsible: the capital Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets… See, your house is left to you, desolate.” 23:37-38
The desolation of Jerusalem: this is what Jesus has in mind here when he threatens them with Gehenna. Can there be any doubt that we are hearing a prediction of 70AD? We couldn’t be further from the dualist, after-life cosmology that interested many of Jesus contemporaries (and many of us!).
As before, Jesus’ teaching here is not actually about Gehenna. He could easily have left the word out, both times in Matthew 23. His teaching is rather about the judgement that will fall on the enemies of the kingdom. He uses the term Gehenna to add vividness and punch to his warnings.
What does Jesus do with the ideas of an afterlife and Gehenna, which he inherited from his culture?
I think we can pretty confidently rule out option 3. Jesus does not reject the Gehenna tradition. We find him confronting the Sadducees for denying the resurrection of the dead – but not the Rabbis for teaching Gehenna. It seems that, although it was not found in Jewish Scripture, Jesus does not treat this tradition as a problem.
However, we have seen in these occurrences how little interest Jesus has in talking about Gehenna itself, or about what it is like to be there. We do not get a clear feeling of place. The sense of an afterlife is hardly present in Jesus’ usage. So there are aspects of the Gehenna tradition which Jesus steers clear of.
Rather, time and again Jesus exploits the powerful potential of this concept as an image of judgement. This certainly fits within the scope of traditional usage. He adopts the symbolic language current in Judaism, but adapts it to his own ends. His own interests are quite different from those among his contemporaries who wish to dwell on the details of the underworld. His concerns are much more ‘this-worldly’. Jesus uses the language of Gehenna to serve his distinctive theological and social agenda. In Jesus’ hands this term focusses attention on the reality that God’s judgement is close at hand: final and irrevocable, coming to a city near you. We’re talking Option 2: modify the tradition. Jesus’ approach to Gehenna brings it much closer to the thought structures of Israel’s prophets of old. Jesus is calling Israel to God’s kingdom, and everything is at stake in the response they make.