Gr., γέεννα (geʹen·na); Lat., ge·henʹna; Heb., גי הנם (geh hin·nomʹ, “valley of Hinnom”)
“Gehenna” means “Valley of Hinnom,” for it is the Greek form of the Hebrew geh hin·nomʹ. In Joshua 18:16, where “valley of Hinnom” occurs, LXX reads “Gehenna.” It occurs 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, first appearing in Matthew 5:22. The New World Translation renders it “Gehenna” in all its occurrences, namely, in Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.
The valley of Hinnom lay to the west and south of ancient Jerusalem. (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Jeremiah 19:2, 6) Under the later kings of Judah it was used for the idolatrous worship of the pagan god Molech, to which god human sacrifices were offered by fire. (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31, 32; 32:35) To prevent its use again for such religious purposes, faithful King Josiah had the valley polluted, particularly the part called Topheth.—2 Kings 23:10.
The Jewish commentator David Kimhi (1160?-1235?), in his comment on Psalm 27:13, gives the following historical information concerning “Gehinnom”: “And it is a place in the land adjoining Jerusalem, and it is a loathsome place, and they throw there unclean things and carcasses. Also there was a continual fire there to burn the unclean things and the bones of the carcasses. Hence, the judgment of the wicked ones is called parabolically Gehinnom.”
The valley of Hinnom became the dumping place and incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem. Bodies of dead animals were thrown in to be consumed in the fires to which sulphur, or brimstone, was added to assist the burning. Also bodies of executed criminals, who were considered undeserving of a decent burial in a memorial tomb, were thrown in. If such dead bodies landed in the fire they were consumed, but if their carcasses landed upon a ledge of the deep ravine their putrefying flesh became infested with worms, or maggots, which did not die until they had consumed the fleshy parts, leaving only the skeletons. Therefore, to have one’s dead body cast into Gehenna was considered the worst kind of punishment. From the literal Gehenna and its significance, the symbol of ‘the lake burning with fire and sulphur’ was drawn.—Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8.
No living animals or human creatures were pitched into Gehenna to be burned alive or tormented. Hence, the place could never symbolize an invisible region where human souls are tormented eternally in literal fire or attacked forever by undying worms. Because the dead criminals cast there were denied a decent burial in a memorial tomb, the symbol of the hope of a resurrection, Gehenna was used by Jesus and his disciples to symbolize everlasting destruction, annihilation from God’s universe, or “second death,” an eternal punishment.