(Ge·henʹna) [Gr. form of the Heb. Geh Hin·nomʹ, “Valley of Hinnom”].
This name appears 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and whereas many translators take the liberty to render it by the word “hell,” a number of modern translations transliterate the word from the Greek geʹen·na.
The deep, narrow Valley of Hinnom, later known by this Greek name, lay to the S and SW of ancient Jerusalem and is the modern-day Wadi er-Rababi (Ge Ben Hinnom). (Jos 15:8; 18:16; Jer 19:2, 6; see HINNOM, VALLEY OF.) Judean Kings Ahaz and Manasseh engaged in idolatrous worship there, which included the making of human sacrifices by fire to Baal. (2Ch 28:1, 3; 33:1, 6; Jer 7:31, 32; 32:35) Later, to prevent such activities there in the future, faithful King Josiah had the place of idolatrous worship polluted, particularly the section called Topheth.
No Symbol of Everlasting Torment. Jesus Christ associated fire with Gehenna (Mt 5:22; 18:9; Mr 9:47, 48), as did the disciple James, the only Biblical writer besides Matthew, Mark, and Luke to use the word. (Jas 3:6) Some commentators endeavor to link such fiery characteristic of Gehenna with the burning of human sacrifices that was carried on prior to Josiah’s reign and, on this basis, hold that Gehenna was used by Jesus as a symbol of everlasting torment. However, since Jehovah God expressed repugnance for such practice, saying that it was “a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart” (Jer 7:31; 32:35), it seems most unlikely that God’s Son, in discussing divine judgment, would make such idolatrous practice the basis for the symbolic meaning of Gehenna. It may be noted that God prophetically decreed that the Valley of Hinnom would serve as a place for mass disposal of dead bodies rather than for the torture of live victims. (Jer 7:32, 33; 19:2, 6, 7, 10, 11) Thus, at Jeremiah 31:40 the reference to “the low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes” is generally accepted as designating the Valley of Hinnom, and a gate known as “the Gate of the Ash-heaps” evidently opened out onto the eastern extremity of the valley at its juncture with the ravine of the Kidron.
Therefore, the Biblical evidence concerning Gehenna generally parallels the traditional view presented by rabbinic and other sources. That view is that the Valley of Hinnom was used as a place for the disposal of waste matter from the city of Jerusalem. (At Mt 5:30 Ph renders geʹen·na as “rubbish heap.”) Concerning “Gehinnom,” the Jewish commentator David Kimhi (1160?-1235?), in his comment on Psalm 27:13, gives the following historical information: “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.”
Symbolic of Complete Destruction. It is evident that Jesus used Gehenna as representative of utter destruction resulting from adverse judgment by God, hence with no resurrection to life as a soul being possible. (Mt 10:28; Lu 12:4, 5) The scribes and Pharisees as a wicked class were denounced as ‘subjects for Gehenna.’ (Mt 23:13-15, 33) To avoid such destruction, Jesus’ followers were to get rid of anything causing spiritual stumbling, the ‘cutting off of a hand or foot’ and the ‘tearing out of an eye’ figuratively representing their deadening of these body members with reference to sin.
Jesus also apparently alluded to Isaiah 66:24 in describing Gehenna as a place “where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” (Mr 9:47, 48) That the symbolic picture here is not one of torture but, rather, of complete destruction is evident from the fact that the Isaiah text dealt, not with persons who were alive, but with “the carcasses of the men that were transgressing” against God. If, as the available evidence indicates, the Valley of Hinnom was a place for the disposal of garbage and carcasses, fire, perhaps increased in intensity by the addition of sulfur (compare Isa 30:33), would be the only suitable means to eliminate such refuse. Where the fire did not reach, worms, or maggots, would breed, consuming anything not destroyed by the fire. On this basis, Jesus’ words would mean that the destructive effect of God’s adverse judgment would not cease until complete destruction was attained.
Figurative Use. The disciple James’ use of the word “Gehenna” shows that an unruly tongue is itself a world of unrighteousness and that one’s whole round of living can be affected by fiery words that defile the speaker’s body. The tongue of such a one, “full of death-dealing poison” and so giving evidence of a bad heart condition, can cause the user to be sentenced by God to go to the symbolic Gehenna.