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Gehenna, Hell, and Hades

The word “Gehenna” (G1067) is translated as hell many times in the Gospels. Gehenna is the English transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word “Hinnom.” Hinnom/Gehenna was the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem’s walls. In Jesus’s time, the Hinnom Valley, or Gehenna, was utilized as the city garbage dump and sewer. Its name stemmed from a family name, being originally called the Valley (“Gay” in Hebrew) of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35).

The Hinnom Valley or Gehenna was also called “Topeth” and “Valley of Slaughter” (II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:32). Each of these alternate names are connected to a time when the Kingdom of Judah fell into idolatry, where this valley was used as a location for child sacrifice to the pagan god Moloch (II Kings 23:10). During the Babylonian invasion, mounds of dead human bodies were piled in Gehenna (Jeremiah 7:32). The valley’s name carries forward to current times; it is currently called the “Hinnom Valley” and still sits just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem (although it is no longer a dump).

However, in the context of Jesus’s sermon, He is referencing a place where trash and the carcasses of dead animals were burned, and where dung was disposed. Consequently, Jesus describes Gehenna as a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 48). Gehenna appears eleven times in the gospel accounts (Matthew 5:22, Matt. 5:29, Matt. 5:30, Matt. 10:28, Matt. 18:9, Matt. 23:15, Matt. 23:33; Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5), and one time in the epistles (James 3:5). In each instance it is translated hell. In each instance, a better approach would be to translate it as “Valley of Hinnom” and allow the reader the opportunity to interpret what Jesus meant by referring to this image of the smoldering combination landfill and sewage dump.

In the NASB, the English word hell only appears one other time where it is not a translation of Gehenna, and that is in 2 Peter 2:4, when hell is a translation of “tartaroo” (G5020). Tartaroo, or Tartarus was a region of Hades, the Greek concept of the underworld of the dead; Tartarus was the compartment for the evil or damned. In 2 Peter 2:4, Tartarus is stated to be a holding tank for fallen angels awaiting judgement. In the NASB, the named place of the dead is translated as “Hades” (G86). Hades occurs ten times (Matthew 11:23, Matt. 16:18; Luke 10:15, Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31; Revelation 1:18, Rev. 6:8, Rev. 20:13, Rev. 20:14).

Gehenna refers to a geographic location, and is figurative for foulness, death, corruption, evil, and rot. It is a geographical place with figurative meaning, such as saying “Wall Street” to refer to the world of high finance, or “Hollywood” to refer to the movie industry. It depends on the context what sort of foulness and death is being referred to by Gehenna. It seems if Jesus had meant Hades here, He would have said “Hades,” as He does at other times.

Hades is a Greek word that stems directly from Greek mythology. But apparently it was a sufficiently accurate picture for the Jews to use the term to express biblical thoughts. Acts 2:27 quotes Psalm 16:10 and “Hades” is substituted directly for the Hebrew word “Sheol” which is used throughout the Old Testament to mean grave, or place of the dead. Jesus validated this usage of “Hades,” most particularly in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In that parable, Jesus depicts two compartments, separated by an impassable gulf. On one side of the gulf is Abraham’s bosom (paradise, from the description) and on the other side of the gulf is a second compartment containing the rich man, who lives in torment (Luke 16:19-31).

Therefore, other than the passage in 2 Peter (tartaroo), the reader can gain clarity by substituting “Hinnom Valley” or Gehenna each time they encounter “hell.” Hades is a real place, as Jesus makes clear. Jesus told the thief on the cross “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). However, Hades is not the ultimate destination for the eternally damned. They go to the lake of fire. Both Hades and Death are destined to be thrown into the “lake of fire” along with the devil and his angels (Revelation 20:10; 14-15).

Jesus will consistently use descriptions such as “Gehenna, “fiery furnace,” and “outer darkness” as a contrast to entering His Kingdom. The pictorial contrast is between living in the dump/sewer outside the city walls in squalor and stench—vs. living inside the city in a comfortable house. These references generally apply to consequences for our deeds, so they do not fit the biblical context to be descriptive accounts for spending eternity separated from God. The Bible teaches that spending eternity as a child of God is unconditionally and graciously given on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, and is not connected to deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Eternal separation from God in the lake of fire is reserved for those whose names are not written in the book of life because they did not believe in Jesus (Revelation 20:15). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts His kingdom with Gehenna many times (Matthew 5-7). In context, He is speaking to His disciples and wants them to fully participate in His kingdom. Full participation in the Kingdom is gained by righteous living from the heart. Believers who are unfaithful and live unrighteous lives still go to Heaven when they die, but to their deep regret, they will miss out on the present reward of enjoying Christ in this life and participating fully in Christ’s future reign in the next life (Matthew 25:14-30; Romans 8:16-17; I Corinthians 3:11-15; II Timothy 2:11-13; II Peter 1:10-11; Revelation 21:6-7).