What is Hell?

A friend recently posted the following verse on Facebook, pointing to the reference to hell:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matthew 10:28 KJV)

This got me to ask the question, What is Hell?

I typically don’t rely on definitions of the English words translated to understand the meanings of the author, when they wrote in a different language. While definitions of the English words can be helpful, I think getting to the definition/meaning of the word used in the source language of the text is more beneficial.

Let me demonstrate… 

According to dictionary.com, Hell is defined as, to name the first 7 definitions:

  1. the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death; the abode of evil and condemned spirits; Gehenna or Tartarus.
  2. any place or state of torment or misery: They made their father’s life a hell on earth.
  3. something that causes torment or misery: Having that cut stitched without anesthesia was hell.
  4. the powers of evil.
  5. the abode of the dead; Sheol or Hades.
  6. extreme disorder or confusion; chaos: The children let both dogs into the house, and all hell broke loose.
  7. Informal. something remarkable of its kind (usually used in the phrase a hell of a or one hell of a): That was one hell of a great game.

But the Greek word translated as “hell” in this verse is “geena” (1067):

Thayer defines it as this:

“Hell is the place of the future punishment call “Gehenna” or “Gehenna of fire”. This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.” (emphasis mine)

Thayer also tells us that it is of Hebrew origin, see H1516 and H2011.

Gehenna (or Hell) in the New Testament

This Greek word appears 12 times in the New Testament, mostly in Matthew (seven times), three times in Mark, and once each in Luke and James.

The KJV translates it as “hell“, but the Young’s Literal Translation uses the Greek word “gehenna“.

From the Gospel According to Matthew

We see Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, referencing gehenna in the YLT (it says hell in the KJV):

‘Ye heard that it was said to the ancients: Thou shalt not kill, and whoever may kill shall be in danger of the judgment; but I—I say to you, that every one who is angry at his brother without cause, shall be in danger of the judgment, and whoever may say to his brother, Empty fellow! shall be in danger of the sanhedrim, and whoever may say, Rebel! shall be in danger of the gehenna of the fire.
(Matthew 5:21-22 YLT)

‘But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.

‘And, if thy right hand doth cause thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.
(Matthew 5:29-30 YLT)

Then again, Jesus refers to gehenna (aka hell in the KJV) when he sends out his twelve apostles, listed in the preceding verses of this chapter (10:2-3):

‘And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna.
(Matthew 10:28 YLT)

Then later, again Jesus is speaking to his disciples, he makes mention of gehenna of the fire.

‘And if thine eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee; it is good for thee one-eyed to enter into the life, rather than having two eyes to be cast to the gehenna of the fire.
(Matthew 18:9 YLT)

A few chapters later we read Jesus is speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees:

‘Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye go round the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and whenever it may happen—ye make him a son of gehenna twofold more than yourselves.
(Matthew 23:15 YLT)

‘Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?
(Matthew 23:33 YLT)

From the Gospel According to Mark

We see a parallel account to Matthew’s recorded in chapter 18, of Jesus speaking specifically to his disciples:

‘And if thy hand may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee maimed to enter into the life, than having the two hands, to go away to the gehenna, to the fire—the unquenchable— where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched.

‘And if thy foot may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into the life lame, than having the two feet to be cast to the gehenna, to the fire—the unquenchable— where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched. And if thine eye may cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is better for thee one-eyed to enter into the reign of God, than having two eyes, to be cast to the gehenna of the fire— where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched; for every one with fire shall be salted, and every sacrifice with salt shall be salted.
(Mark 9:43-49 YLT)

From the Gospel According to Luke

This gives a parallel account to Matthew’s recorded in chapter 10, with Jesus speaking to his disciples:

‘And I say to you, my friends, be not afraid of those killing the body, and after these things are not having anything over to do; but I will show to you, whom ye may fear; Fear him who, after the killing, is having authority to cast to the gehenna; yes, I say to you, Fear ye Him. 
(Luke 12:4-5 YLT)

From the Letter by James, the Brother of Jesus

James writes to the twelve tribes in dispersion, making reference to gehenna, as it relates to fire:

Many teachers become not, my brethren, having known that greater judgment we shall receive, for we all make many stumbles; if any one in word doth not stumble, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle also the whole body; lo, the bits we put into the mouths of the horses for their obeying us, and their whole body we turn about; lo, also the ships, being so great, and by fierce winds being driven, are led about by a very small helm, whithersoever the impulse of the helmsman doth counsel, so also the tongue is a little member, and doth boast greatly; lo, a little fire how much wood it doth kindle! and the tongue is a fire, the world of the unrighteousness, so the tongue is set in our members, which is spotting our whole body, and is setting on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by the gehenna.
(James 3:1-6 YLT)

Both Jesus and James talked about this place as if their hearers would have understood its reference.

This is where I think it’s so important to let the Bible define itself, especially when it provides more information than what we initially might think.

Gehenna in the Old Testament

The Hebrew words from which “geena” originates, translated as “valley” and “hinnom” in both the KJV and YLT, appears 11 times in the Old Testament.

I believe these mentions are worth noting to better understand to what the New Testament writers were referring.

Concerning the Allotment of the Promised Land Given to the Sons of Judah

And the lot for the tribe of the sons of Judah, for their families, is unto the border of Edom; the wilderness of Zin southward, at the extremity of the south; and to them the south border is at the extremity of the salt sea, from the bay which is looking southward; and it hath gone out unto the south to Maaleh-Akrabbim, and passed over to Zin, and gone up on the south to Kadesh-Barnea, and passed over to Hezron, and gone up to Adar, and turned round to Karkaa, and passed over to Azmon, and gone out at the brook of Egypt, and the outgoings of the border have been at the sea; this is to you the south border.

And the east border is the salt sea, unto the extremity of the Jordan, and the border at the north quarter is from the bay of the sea, at the extremity of the Jordan; and the border hath gone up to Beth-Hoglah, and passed over on the north of Beth-Arabah, and the border hath gone up to the stone of Bohan son of Reuben: and the border hath gone up towards Debir from the valley of Achor, and northward looking unto Gilgal, which is over-against the ascent of Adummim, which is on the south of the brook, and the border hath passed over unto the waters of En-Shemesh, and its outgoings have been unto En-Rogel; and the border hath gone up the valley of the son of Hinnom, unto the side of the Jebusite on the south (it is Jerusalem), and the border hath gone up unto the top of the hill-country which is on the front of the valley of Hinnom westward, which is in the extremity of the valley of the Rephaim northward;
(Joshua 15:1-8 YLT)

Concerning the Allotment of the Promised Land Given to the Sons of Benjamin

And the south quarter is from the end of Kirjath-Jearim, and the border hath gone out westward, and gone out unto the fountain of the waters of Nephtoah; and the border hath come down unto the extremity of the hill which is on the front of the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is in the valley of the Rephaim northward, and hath gone down the valley of Hinnom unto the side of Jebusi southward, and gone down to En-Rogel, and hath been marked out on the north, and gone out to En-Shemesh, and gone out unto Geliloth, which is over-against the ascent of Adummim, and gone down to the stone of Bohan son of Reuben, and passed over unto the side over-against Arabah northward, and gone down to Arabah; and the border hath passed over unto the side of Beth-Hoglah northward, and the outgoings of the border have been unto the north bay of the salt sea, unto the south extremity of the Jordan; this is the south border; and the Jordan doth border it at the east quarter; this is the inheritance of the sons of Benjamin, by its borders round about, for their families.
(Joshua 18:15-20 YLT)

Concerning King Ahaz, Son of Jotham, King of Judah

A son of twenty years is Ahaz in his reigning, and sixteen years he hath reigned in Jerusalem, and he hath not done that which is right in the eyes of Jehovah, as David his father, and walketh in the ways of the kings of Israel, and also, molten images hath made for Baalim, and himself hath made perfume in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burneth his sons with fire according to the abominations of the nations that Jehovah dispossessed from the presence of the sons of Israel, and sacrificeth and maketh perfume in high places, and on the heights, and under every green tree.
(2 Chronicles 28:1-4 YLT)

Concerning King Manasseh, Son of Hezekiah, King of Judah

A son of twelve years is Manasseh in his reigning, and fifty and five years he hath reigned in Jerusalem; and he doth the evil thing in the eyes of Jehovah, like the abominations of the nations that Jehovah dispossessed from the presence of the sons of Israel, and he turneth and buildeth the high places that Hezekiah his father hath broken down, and raiseth altars for Baalim, and maketh shrines, and boweth himself to all the host of the heavens, and serveth them.

And he hath built altars in the house of Jehovah of which Jehovah had said, ‘In Jerusalem is My name to the age.’ And he buildeth altars to all the host of the heavens in the two courts of the house of Jehovah. And he hath caused his sons to pass over through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and observed clouds and used enchantments and witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and a wizard; he hath multiplied to do the evil thing in the eyes of Jehovah, to provoke him to anger.
(2 Chronicles 33:1-6 YLT)

Concerning the Reforms Done by King Josiah, Son of Amon, King of Judah

And the king sendeth, and they gather unto him all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem, and the king goeth up to the house of Jehovah, and every man of Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, from small unto great, and he readeth in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant that is found in the house of Jehovah.

And the king standeth by the pillar, and maketh the covenant before Jehovah, to walk after Jehovah, and to keep His commands, and His testimonies, and His statutes, with all the heart, and with all the soul, to establish the words of this covenant that are written on this book, and all the people stand in the covenant.

And the king commandeth Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the threshold, to bring out from the temple of Jehovah all the vessels that are made for Baal, and for the shrine, and for all the host of the heavens, and he burneth them at the outside of Jerusalem, in the fields of Kidron, and hath borne their ashes to Beth-El.

And he hath caused to cease the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah have appointed, (and they make perfume in high places, in cities of Judah and suburbs of Jerusalem,) and those making perfume to Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of the heavens.

And he bringeth out the shrine from the house of Jehovah to the outside of Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burneth it at the brook Kidron, and beateth it small to dust, and casteth its dust on the grave of the sons of the people.

And he breaketh down the houses of the whoremongers that are in the house of Jehovah, where the women are weaving houses for the shrine.

And he bringeth in all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defileth the high places where the priests have made perfume, from Geba unto Beer-Sheba, and hath broken down the high places of the gates that are at the opening of the gate of Joshua, head of the city, that is on a man’s left hand at the gate of the city; only, the priests of the high places come not up unto the altar of Jehovah in Jerusalem, but they have eaten unleavened things in the midst of their brethren.

And he hath defiled Topheth, that is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, so that no man doth cause his son and his daughter to pass over through fire to Molech.
(2 Kings 23:1-10 YLT)

Concerning the Words of YHVH Spoken in the Days Leading up to the Babylonian Removal

For the sons of Judah Have done the evil thing in Mine eyes, An affirmation of Jehovah, They have set their abominations in the house On which My name is called—to defile it, And have built the high places of Tophet, That are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, To burn their sons and their daughters with fire, Which I did not command, Nor did it come up on My heart.

Therefore, lo, days are coming, An affirmation of Jehovah, And it is not said any more, ‘The Tophet,’ And ‘Valley of the son of Hinnom,’ But ‘Valley of the slaughter,’ And they have buried in Tophet—without place. And the carcase of this people hath been for food To a fowl of the heavens, and to a beast of the earth, And there is none troubling.

And I have caused to cease from cities of Judah, And from streets of Jerusalem, The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, Voice of bridegroom, and voice of bride, For the land doth become a desolation!
(Jeremiah 7:30-34 YLT)

Thus said Jehovah, ‘Go, and thou hast got a potter’s earthen vessel, and of the elders of the people, and of the elders of the priests, and thou hast gone forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, that is at the opening of the gate of the pottery, and hast proclaimed there the words that I speak unto thee, and hast said, Hear a word of Jehovah, ye kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Thus said Jehovah of Hosts, God of Israel:

‘Lo, I am bringing in evil on this place, at which the ears of every one who is hearing it do tingle, because that they have forsaken Me, and make known this place, and make perfume in it to other gods, that they knew not, they and their fathers, and the kings of Judah, and they have filled this place with innocent blood, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons with fire, burnt-offerings to Baal, that I commanded not, nor spake of, nor did it come up on My heart.

‘Therefore, lo, days are coming—an affirmation of Jehovah—and this place is not called any more, Tophet, and Valley of the son of Hinnom, but, Valley of slaughter.

And I have made void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and have caused them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those seeking their life, and I have given their carcase for food to the fowl of the heavens, and to the beast of the earth, and I have made this city for a desolation, and for a hissing, every passer by it is astonished, and doth hiss for all its plagues.

And I have caused them to eat the flesh of their sons, and the flesh of their daughters, and each the flesh of his friend they do eat, in the siege and in the straitness with which straiten them do their enemies, and those seeking their life.

‘And thou hast broken the bottle before the eyes of the men who are going with thee, and hast said unto them: Thus said Jehovah of Hosts, Thus do I break this people and this city, as one breaketh the potter’s vessel, that is not able to be repaired again, and in Tophet they bury—without place to bury; so I do to this place—an affirmation of Jehovah—and to its inhabitants, so as to make this city as Tophet; and the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah, have been—as the place of Tophet—defiled, even all the houses on whose roofs they have made perfume to all the host of the heavens, so as to pour out oblations to other gods.’
(Jeremiah 19:1-13 YLT)

And the word of Jehovah is unto Jeremiah, saying: ‘Lo, I am Jehovah, God of all flesh: For Me is anything too wonderful?

‘Therefore, thus said Jehovah, Lo, I am giving this city into the hand of the Chaldeans, and into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and he hath captured it; And come in have the Chaldeans who are fighting against this city, and they have set this city on fire, and have burned it, and the houses on whose roofs they made perfume to Baal, and poured out libations to other gods, so as to provoke Me to anger. For the sons of Israel and the sons of Judah have been only doing evil in Mine eyes, from their youth; for the sons of Israel are only provoking Me with the work of their hands—an affirmation of Jehovah.

‘For a cause of Mine anger, and a cause of My fury, hath this city been to Me, even from the day that they built it, and unto this day—to turn it aside from before My face, Because of all the evil of the sons of Israel, and of the sons of Judah that they have done, so as to provoke Me—they, their kings, their heads, their priests, and their prophets, and the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And they turn unto Me the neck, and not the face, and teaching them, rising early and teaching, and they are not hearkening to accept instruction.

‘And they set their abominations in the house over which My name is called, so as to defile it; And they build the high places of Baal, that are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come up on my heart to do this abomination, so as to cause Judah to sin.
(Jeremiah 32:26-35 YLT)

Concerning Nehemiah’s Records of the Villages Where People Dwelt upon the Return to the Land after the Babylonian Removal

And at the villages with their fields, of the sons of Judah there have dwelt, in Kirjath-Arba and its small towns, and in Dibon and its small towns, and in Jekabzeel and its villages, and in Jeshua, and in Moladah, and in Beth-Phelet, and in Hazar-Shaul, and in Beer-Sheba and its small towns, and in Ziklag, and in Mekonah and in its small towns, and En-Rimmon, and in Zareah, and in Jarmuth, Zanoah, Adullam, and their villages, Lachish and its fields, Azekah and its small towns; and they encamp from Beer-Sheba unto the valley of Hinnom.
(Nehemiah 11:25-30 YLT)

My Personal Take Away

It seems to me, that this valley of Hinnom was a real place in Israel’s history, located in the land of Judah.

This is where abominations in the sight of YHVH took place leading up to the overthrow of Jerusalem and the upset of the Davidic dynasty — the Babylonian removal.

And this is where it was decreed to be called a Valley of Slaughter.

The event of the Babylonian removal is highlighted in Matthew’s opening chapter when speaking of the physical lineage of Jesus Christ.

All the generations, therefore, from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations, and from David unto the Babylonian removal fourteen generations, and from the Babylonian removal unto the Christ, fourteen generations.
(Matthew 1:17 YLT)

I imagine many who were living in the land in Jesus’ day were very familiar with the words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, as well as with the history of what took place in that land thereafter, considering the fact that many of their fathers returned to this place in the days of Nehemiah.

So, when we read in the New Testament references to this place, gehenna (translated in the KJV as hell), I think its important to understand that it is first and foremost likely referring to the valley of Hinnom, and what physically took place there in the past.

After having done this study myself, I feel I have gained a better understanding of these NT references, and I’m thrilled about it. I love it when things like this happen–seeing something new in what I’ve read countless times before.

What’s Your Take?

I recommend going back and re-reading the NT passages at the beginning of this article, after having this insight to the historical references of the OT, and pray for understanding.

See if you get a better idea of what Yeshua and James were seeking to convey. Then, I’d love for you to share your thoughts on the subject with me below:

What do you think Yeshua and James were seeking to convey when referring to this place?

About Carrie Wigal

Homesteading Wife, Homeschooling Mom and perpetual Bible student, continually taking the road less traveled. (@messyanic)
This entry was posted in Precept Upon Precept, Walking in the Ways of the Creator, What About? verses and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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