Encyclopedia of The Bible – Gehenna
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GEHENNA gĭ hĕn’ ə (γέεννα, G1147, lit., valley of Hinnom, Eng. VSS hell). In the NT the final place of punishment of the ungodly. The word derives from the Heb. גֵֽי־הִנֹּמ׃֙, the Valley of Hinnom, or more fully, the Valley of the son(s) of Hinnom, situated to the S or SW of Jerusalem, usually identified with the Wadi-er-Rababi. It is first referred to in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16 as marking the boundary between the inheritance of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. (In recent times, until the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967, it was divided in two by the border between Israel and Jordan.) During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, at Topheth (prob. lit. “fire-place”) in the Valley of Hinnom, human sacrifices were offered to the heathen god Molech (Moloch; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). Josiah in his reforms “defiled” Topheth and thus prevented any further use of the valley for that purpose (2 Kings 23:10). Jeremiah (7:30-33) announces that the name of the valley will be changed to the “Valley of Slaughter” because when the Lord judged Judah for her sins, the number of dead would be so great that they would be thrown into the valley to lie there without burial. In later times the valley seems to have been used for burning refuse, and also the bodies of criminals. From about the 2nd cent. b.c., the Valley of Hinnom came to be thought of as the place of final punishment for the enemies of God. This arose either from the earlier associations or from Jeremiah’s prophecy or from the later practice just referred to. The Book of Enoch is the earliest witness to this (but cf. even in the OT itself, Isaiah 30:33; 66:24). In later thought, Gehenna was thought of as the eschatological fire of hell, still prob. considered as a place (esp. in Rabbinic thou ght), but now no longer locally outside Jerusalem. The term is used in the NT in this sense. J. Jeremias stresses the sharp distinction in the NT (as in pre-NT Judaism) between Hades and Gehenna—Hades receiving the ungodly only for the intervening period between death and resurrection, Gehenna being their place of punishment after the last judgment. Apart from James 3:6, where the tongue, compared to a fire that sets on fire the whole cycle of nature, is said to be itself set on fire by Gehenna, the remaining eleven occurrences are all in the synoptic gospels.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that even mental or verbal infringements of the commandments render one liable to Gehenna (Matt 5:20), and He said: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29f.). He also held out the threat of Gehenna to any who “causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” and repeated the warning already quoted above (Mark 9:42-47; Matt 18:9). In Matthew 10:28, cf. Luke 12:5, He told His disciples to fear none but God, who alone is able to cast both body and soul into Gehenna.

The last two occurrences are in Matthew 23, in our Lord’s vigorous denunciation of the Pharisees. In v. 15, He accused them of so indoctrinating any proselyte that they cause him to become twice as much a child of Gehenna as themselves. The Hebraism “child (or ‘son’) of Gehenna” means one fit for and doomed for Gehenna. In v. 33, He concluded: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

The other NT writings, although not using the word “Gehenna,” use equivalent expressions—of judgment, wrath, fire, destruction, perdition, Tartarus, the lake of fire (q.v.)

There is evidence among the rabbis, both those of the strict school of Shammai and the more liberal school of Hillel, of beliefs that consignment to Gehenna will either result in annihilation or will be purgatorial, and therefore will be ultimately followed by blessedness. These beliefs are not explicit in the NT.

Bibliography A. Edersheim, LT, II (1886), 791-796; BDB (1906), 161; SBK, IV (1928), 1029-1118; R. A. Stewart, Rabbinic Theology (1961), 157-160; NBD (1962), 390, 518, 519, 527; J. Jeremias in TDNT, I (1964), 657, 658.