What the hell is Gehenna?

This is a sermon I wrote for Sunday, but won’t give. We’re baptising a wonderful little girl, so how could I miss the chance to speak about Queen Esther? So here are some thoughts about Gehenna. I’m speculating, but that’s so for anyone who ventures an opinion in this area.

Readings
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50

 

A mother mouse and a baby mouse were scurrying along by the skirting board, when suddenly!—the cat leaps into their path. The mother mouse says, ‘Woof! Woof!’ and the cat runs away.

‘See?’ says the mother mouse to her baby. ‘Now do you see why it’s important to learn a foreign language?’

I don’t want you to learn a whole foreign language today. Just one Hebrew name: Gehenna. What is Gehenna? Gehenna is a place. It’s a Hebrew name that means ‘Hinnom Valley’. Hinnom Valley—Gehenna—was south west of ancient Jerusalem.

Gehenna was the valley where in former days Israelites used do something we can’t really even imagine—it is the place where they engaged in human sacrifice. But even more than that, Gehenna was where they sacrificed their own children to the god Molech by burning them to death with fire. It was a horrific place.

So when Jesus talks about Gehenna, it brings dreadful pictures to the minds of his hearers, pictures they’d rather not be reminded of.

It was about 600 years before Christ that the practice of human sacrifice in Gehenna was ended by the reforming King Josiah. There’s some controversy about this next bit, but it seems that after King Josiah removed pagan altars and stopped the worship of Molech, Gehenna became the Jerusalem town dump. Josiah lived 600 years before Jesus was born, but apparently Gehenna was still a garbage dump where the fires burned night and day and never went out, and where worms ate through rotting flesh without stopping.

Gehenna was a notorious place. It was so horrific that it became a symbol of what we call ‘hell’.

We all have an idea of what hell may be like. Is it a place of eternal separation from God? Is there fire and brimstone? Is it possible to be rescued from hell? Does hell even exist?

The truth is that the pictures we have of hell owe more to Greek mythology and to medieval Christian imaginations than they owe to the Bible. The fire and brimstone, the pitchforked demons, and hell’s everlasting nature are all hard to get from the Bible alone.

I’d like to see what this strange passage we’ve read today has to say about hell. Let’s read part of it again, but use our new word, Gehenna, instead of hell.

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Jesus is talking about the rubbish dump, which in Israel’s past was a place of horrific sin and terrible judgement. What does it mean?

Firstly, it’s not a place you’d want to go to. It’s not like our rubbish dumps, where it almost seems some people have a day out and bring home more than they took there. Gehenna was foul in every way. It stank, it was full of maggots and the air was thick with choking smoke.

Secondly, if you were tossed into Gehenna then you were trash. It was a place they threw the bodies of executed criminals and those who weren’t worthy of a proper burial. In fact, Gehenna is where they threw those who were judged unworthy of resurrection at the end of time.

Thirdly, you’d do anything to avoid going there. We might say, I’d cut my right arm off to stay out of hell! Of course, for Jesus sin is something that comes from the heart. We can’t fix it by cutting bits of ourselves off. Jesus is overexaggerating here; he doesn’t mean we should literally cut off our hand or pluck out an eye. But Jesus is saying that the consequences of sin are so serious that you’d do it if you had to.

And fourthly: how long does something burn for in Gehenna? Until it’s burnt up. In Matthew 10.28 Jesus says,

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

The fires of Gehenna burned day and night, the maggots were always well fed, but nothing thrown there lasted for ever.

But this passage has more for us to find. Let’s look at the rest of it.

It starts with a successful exorcist, who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. There were two things about this that put the disciples’ noses out of joint. First of all, they were failed exorcists. (Read Mark 9.14-29.) They didn’t compare well to this bloke, and remember—they were very preoccupied with who was the greatest. And secondly, this successful exorcist wasn’t even one of them! How dare he muscle in on their territory and do better?

Jesus tells them to take a chill pill, and says one of the most remarkable things ever:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Surely that doesn’t include Catholics? Jesus says it does. But not Baptists? Jesus says yes. But definitely not Pentecostals? Jesus says yes, even them.

Well, we can rule out Moslems and Buddhists can’t we? I wouldn’t be too sure. Jesus says,

For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

I think of Mahatma Gandhi. He was a Hindu. The missionary Stanley Jones once asked,

Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?

Gandhi replied:

Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.

I think it’s fair to say that the love of Christ directed much of what Gandhi did. But he never became a Christian. Jesus suggests those who give a cup of cold water because of Christ’s name have a reward. I’ve heard other Christians who have suggested Gandhi is now in hell because he was a Hindu. I know who I believe.

And this is the context that Jesus warns his disciples about Gehenna. Keeping people out of the Kingdom by insisting they do things our way or not at all. Guarding the doors of the Church so that unsuitable people can’t get in. This is the particular sin that Jesus warns the disciple (and us!) to avoid.

And finally, Jesus talks some more about fire. Fair enough, Gehenna was a pretty smoky place. But what Jesus says is very interesting (verse 49):

For everyone will be salted with fire.

Who is ‘everyone’? Everyone, that’s who!

Salt was very important in the ancient world. Food was kept fresh in those days by being salted. This fire that Jesus now talks about is not a consuming fire, but a purifying fire.

What’s Jesus saying? Everyone needs to be made pure, even good people need to be made pure. The difference between the best person you’ll ever meet and the most disgusting person you’ll ever meet is not that great from God’s viewpoint.

But if ‘everyone will be salted with fire’, can the fire of Gehenna then be a purifying fire? Can Gehenna be a temporary place? Is God’s justice aimed at ultimately reconciling every one of God’s creatures?

Some of you will say this is a lot of speculation, and raises more questions than it answers. I freely admit that; but I’d also suggest that anyone at all who speaks about heaven and hell is speculating.

If someone claims to have the definitive answer on the basis of Scripture or anything else, I’d want to test what they are saying. Most of our ideas about hell are taken from medieval folklore and Greek philosophy, not from the Bible.

Jesus used the town rubbish dump, a place with a horrific history, to illustrate the seriousness of sin and its consequences. We need to hear his warning.

It’s a warning we may not have expected though. In this passage, Jesus warns against acting as though we are the only ones who have the truth. And he reminds us that following him is serious stuff. If we are to be disciples, we need to have a discipline. Do we pray each day? Do we read the Scriptures? But also: do we give a cup of cold water because of his name? Do we accept those whom we disagree with theologically?

What’s the last word here? Is it judgement, fire, fear, loss? No, it’s this:

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

That’s what God wants. God wants us to strive for that purifying salt within our hearts, and not to argue about who is the greatest. God’s last word for us is abundant life.

And God has given us a Saviour who was counted as absolute rubbish by the rulers of this world, who was cruelly treated and maimed so that we might be healed.

This Saviour has poured out upon us his Spirit, who is the salt we have in ourselves and among us. The Spirit shows us the way, the Spirit keeps us from throwing our lives away on the rubbish heap.

Sin is serious. Its consequences are literally grave. But the Saviour is stronger, and grace-filled, and he has saved us, and we are his. Amen.

 

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