The best-known biblical image for hell, especially in the teachings of Jesus[i], comes from a deep, narrow gorge to the southeast of Jerusalem call the Valley of Hinnom, or gehenna in Greek. Jesus’ use of this valley as the perfect image to describe the place of eternal punishment was rooted in Old Testament history, prophecy and the use of the valley in Jesus’ day.
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In the days of King Ahaz and his grandson Manasseh, Topheth within the Valley of Hinnom was used as the center of Baal worship, and the especially heinous act of child sacrifice (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; cf. Jeremiah 7:31, 19:1-5, 32:35). Later, Josiah defiled the valley (Topheth) in order to make it an unacceptable place as a holy site (2 Kings 23:10).
In the prophetic work of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Valley of Hinnom would be a burial ground where people received God’s curse. Isaiah ends his book by mentioning an unnamed place outside of Jerusalem where God’s enemies laid under His continuing curse saying, “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched…” (Isaiah 66:24). One would be hard-pressed to miss the similarity between Isaiah’s words here and Jesus’ own description of “hell” (Gehenna) in Mark 9:42-50. Moreover, Jeremiah also prophesied that the valley would be used as a mass grave for the corpses of the people of Judah who had rebelled against God and thus were killed by the invading army (Jeremiah 7:30-34).
The prior association of the valley with the abominable acts of idolatry and as the dumping ground of the bodies of those under God’s curse, the city of Jerusalem used the valley as the city’s dump heap. By Jesus’ day, the valley, or as it was known by then, Gehenna, would have been a place where one could have seen mutilated bodies, human bones, maggots, flies, worms, and animals ripping flesh off of dead bodies and carcasses. The smell of decomposing and burning flesh along with rotting refuse and garbage conveyed a sense of horror and revulsion.
Jesus’ use of this place as an image of hell was, and still is, a rather poignant example of what awaits those whom disobey God. Such as those who are angry with their brother (Matthew 5:22) and the self-righteous Pharisees along with those who followed their teachings (Matthew 23:15, 33). Since God is the only one who can commit someone to this horrible place, He alone is to be feared (Matthew 10:28).
While the image of Gehenna paints a gruesome and horrific picture of eternal punishment, it is still just that, an image pointing to a reality that is far worse than anything we can imagine. May we heed to the words of Jesus who taught that it was better to take drastic measures now, such as destroying a body part, than to have the whole body destroyed in the fires of Gehenna (Matthew 5:29-30, 18:9; cf. Mark 9:42-50).
[i] In the KJV, hades is translated hell when speaking of the judgment to come upon unbelieving Chorazin (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15), in response to Peter’s confession of He, Jesus, was the Christ (Matthew 16:18) and in naming the place of torment in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:23).