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Is Gehenna a Place of Fiery Torment?
▪ In the Gospel accounts, Jesus warns his disciples against suffering the judgment of Gehenna. Obviously, Jesus intended that the warning be taken seriously. However, was he referring to a burning hell of everlasting torment?
First, let us look at the word itself. The Greek word Geʹen·na corresponds to the Hebrew geh Hin·nomʹ, meaning “valley of Hinnom,” or more fully geh veneh-Hin·nomʹ, “valley of the sons of Hinnom.” (Joshua 15:8; 2 Kings 23:10) This geographic site, known today as Wadi er-Rababi, is a deep and narrow valley located to the south and southwest of Jerusalem.
In the times of the kings of Judah, from the eighth century B.C.E., this location was used for pagan rites, including the sacrificial burning of children in fire. (2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:1-6) The prophet Jeremiah foretold that the same valley would become the place of slaughter for Judeans at the hands of the Babylonians in judgment from God for their wickedness.*
According to the Jewish scholar David Kimhi (c. 1160-c. 1235 C.E.), the valley was later transformed into a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. The place served as an incinerator where fires were kept burning to dispose of rubbish. Anything thrown into this dump would be completely destroyed, turned into ashes.
Many Bible translators have taken the liberty of rendering Geʹen·na “hell.” (Matthew 5:22, King James Version) Why? Because they associated the pagan-inspired notion of an afterlife of fiery judgment for the wicked with the physical fire in the valley outside Jerusalem. Jesus, however, never associated Gehenna with torment.
Jesus knew that the very thought of burning people alive is repugnant to his heavenly Father, Jehovah. Referring to the use made of Gehenna in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, God said: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart.” (Jeremiah 7:31) Moreover, the idea of torment for the dead conflicts with God’s loving personality as well as with the Bible’s clear teaching that the dead are “conscious of nothing at all.”
Jesus used the term “Gehenna” to symbolize the utter destruction resulting from God’s adverse judgment. Hence, “Gehenna” has a meaning similar to that of “the lake of fire,” mentioned in the book of Revelation. Both symbolize eternal destruction from which no resurrection is possible.
Commenting on this prophecy, the New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “In the destruction of Jerusalem so many of its inhabitants would be killed that their corpses would be cast, unburied, into the valley to rot or be burned.”