Meaning of Gehenna
It is a Greek translation of the Jewish word Ge-hinnom, meaning “Valley of Hinnom”. During Jesus’ time, Ge-hinnom was a rubbish dump, which had continual fires burning inside it to keep the city clean from filth. Dead animals and the bodies of criminals were thrown there and they would be incinerated. It also became a metaphor for Coming Judgment.This is why its origin is in the OT, and is found 11x.
Hinnom was a person, and the word came to mean ‘Lamentation’, for a reason. Jos 15 and 18, Neh 11, and Jer 19 show the location of the Valley of Hinnom, which was outside Jerusalem. 2 Chr 28 and 33, Jer 7 and 32 show how King Ahaz started sacrificing his children to the god Molech/Moloch. King Mannaseh did the same, and so did many of the people of Israel.
Child sacrifice and burning one’s own children was considered detestable by God, and it became a place of Lamentation. In 2 Kings 23:10, King Josiah stops this awful practice and desecrates the place. The Valley then becomes a rubbish and refuse dump, where fires are kept burning continually, and the never-ending fire is used to burn the bodies of criminals and dead animals.
Valley of Slaughter
The place within Ge-hinnom where the sacrifices were done was a place called Tophet. In Jer 19, the nature of Gehinnom becomes one of Coming Judgment upon Jerusalem, and says that the name will be changed from Valley of Hinnom to the Valley of Slaughter. Jeremiah warns that the WHOLE of Jerusalem will become like Tophet, unless they repent.
Jerusalem will be judged and will become Gehenna if they do not repent.By the 1st century, Jewish people used Gehenna , the Valley of Hinnom, the Valley of Lamentation, as a metaphor for Coming Judgment. The best way to understand what the word Gehenna means is by thinking “Judgment”, since this is what the word represented to 1st century Israel. This way, we can understand Jesus’ words.
All Jesus says is that it is better to have your arm, leg or eye cut out than for you to be thrown in to the fires of Gehenna (Judgment). Jesus uses Gehenna in a similar way to Jeremiah – unless they repent, they will come under the Coming Judgment, and Jerusalem will become Gehenna. Jesus even quotes Isaiah in Mark 9:48, who preached coming judgment upon Assyria, and how their DEAD bodies will be thrown into the unquenchable fire.
Isaiah 66:24. “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.” Unless Jerusalem repents, it will be destroyed, everyone will die, Jerusalem will become Gehenna, and they will all experience the Coming Judgment, like the Assyrians in Isaiah (whose worm will not die).
Jesus says the Coming Judgment (Parousia) would happen within a generation. Although he does not know the day or hour, he says that his followers will know the season. Mat 24:34, Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 all say his warnings will happen within a generation, including the destruction of the Temple.
Everything He prophesied came to pass between 70AD to 135AD, and within a generation Jerusalem started to become Gehenna until nothing was left and a new city was built on top of it. However the community that followed Jesus teachings knew the season, escaped Jerusalem and survived. (Matt.5:22, Matt. 23:33; Matt. 5:29; Matt. 10:28; Matt. 18:9; Mar. 9:43& 47)
Jesus therefore addressed the Jewish legalistic order of that time, the thief that came to kill, steal and destroy. The context was the legalistic Pharisees, the rulers of that age, representing the law, opposing the Person of grace. They would have suffered the terrible consequences within their generation should they not repent. Gehenna has absolutely NO reference to us today. That's Good News! Honor the context of Scripture; the audience of Jesus, namely the stubborn legalistic rulers of the synagogue and lastly, very important, the time-line. Gehenna therefore has absolutely no futuristic significance whatsoever. It would be irresponsible to apply these quoted Scriptures in an attempt to support the theory of an upcoming judgment.
Written by Jath van der Westhuizen