Today, let’s start looking at the New Testament (NT).
The first time we get the word hell in the NT is in Matthew chapter five. Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and in verse twenty-two He says this:
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Then, in verse twenty-seven He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
We read these verses, see the word “hell,” and immediately our minds think of a place of conscious fiery torment where some people go for all eternity. This is what we have been taught. It’s our default assumption when we hear the word “hell.” Maybe some other passages are more clear, but in this first time use of the word, is Jesus referring to an other-worldly place of eternal conscious torment from which there is no escape? Is that what the word “hell” means, as Jesus uses it here? Let’s see.
The Greek word Jesus uses is “gehenna,” which the Jewish people would have understood to refer to a specific valley (the Valley of Hinnom) outside the city of Jerusalem, which was used, among other things, as a garbage dump of sorts. The valley had been a place of child sacrifice, where people of Judah had sacrificed their children in the fire to the god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:30-34), such that it was a despised place, a “place of burning,” and just about anything was dumped there.
(I’m not a Greek scholar, so check out a Bible commentary, or do a Google search for “gehenna” and see what you find. The results on the nature of “gehenna” seem fairly consistent.)
This is what the people listening to Jesus’ in Matthew would have understood from Jesus’ use of the word we translate “hell.” They certainly would not have pictured the same place we envision. They didn’t even have the same concept we have been taught of “going to heaven” or “going to hell”. When the people listening to Jesus heard the word “gehenna,” their tradition and experience would have brought to mind this valley, and they would have received Jesus words simply as a metaphor for punishment.
This metaphor for punishment is consistent with the rest of the passage, and even with our interpretation of it. We read Jesus’ instruction to gouge out our eye or cut off our hand and we don’t think He actually means for us to mutilate our bodies. Instead, we interpret Jesus’s words as metaphors, illustrations used to communicate a point. In this case the point is that we should deal with sin drastically. Take drastic measures before sin leads you down a path that will be even more destructive. The metaphor of gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand helps to make that point. Therefore, it makes senses that Jesus’ use of “hell” is also metaphoric and is not intended to convey the idea of literal eternal punishment in a place of fiery torment.
At the very least, from this passage we cannot conclude that hell is an other-worldly place of eternal conscious torment from which there is no escape.
But this is not the only time Jesus refers to hell or gehenna.
So let’s keep going.
For the moment, I’m still content to believe that the gospel is really good news, really.
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