Depending on which English translation one uses, the word “hell” appears up to 15 times in the Gospels, and in 11 of those places it translates the Greek word γέεννα gehenna (the only other place in the New Testament where this word occurs is James 3:6): 7 times in Matthew, 3 times in Mark, once in Luke, never in John, and always from the lips of Jesus. There are a further 3 sayings of Jesus where he uses the Greek word ᾅδης hades. In this post I will look only at the gehenna sayings.
Gehenna is a Hellenisation of a Hebrew phrase גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom which means “valley of Hinnom”. It appears in this form in Nehemiah 11:30 and in a slightly different form in a few places in the Hebrew Bible where it is also known as גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. In Joshua 15:8; 18:16 it is referred to as both גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom = the valley of Hinnom, and גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. These texts locate it in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Several commentators have pointed out the historical connections to the valley of Hinnom as a place where, first, child sacrifices were offered to the pagan god Molech, and, later, it became a place for burning rubbish and the dead bodies of executed criminals. The historical uses for the location almost certainly are the basis for its connection in the New Testament as a place of fire.
The single saying of Jesus about Gehenna in Luke (12:5) also appears in a slightly different form in Matthew 10:28.
And 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. (Matt.)
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke)
In Matthew’s version Gehenna is a place of destruction while the Luke version suggests a judicial use (one “has authority to cast into Gehenna“). Read together it suggests that Jesus was referring to those who have the judicial authority to dispose of one’s body after execution. The context refers to those who “have called the master of the house Beelzebul” and “malign those of his household” and ends with an assurance that “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven”. The emphasis of this saying is about being being maligned or being acknowledged. At the crux of the saying is an illustration from life which would be familiar to his audience, and which I suggest means in its context that as we would fear the one who has the authority to destroy one’s reputation as an ignominous criminal more than one who can kill but cannot take away one’s reputation, so the followers of Jesus need not fear those who malign them for now but cannot change their standing with God.
The three occurences in Mark are part of the one saying, which appears in a slightly altered form in Matthew 5:29-30, and, I suggest, has a similar judicial application.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47. Matthew leaves out the “foot” part of the saying, which is odd because this gospel seems to like triadic formulas and if Markan primacy is assumed then Matthew has intentionally left out this part of the saying).
The context of this saying in the Sermon on the Mount is about simple actions which have serious consequences. So, looking lustfully at a woman can lead to an offence which carries a death penalty; uncontrolled anger can lead to murder, which also carries a death sentence. A death penalty – a judicial execution – would result in the body of the criminal being burned in the valley of Hinnom rather than receiving a dignified burial. In a comment on a previous post Thomas Farrar referred me to a very helpful comment by Alan Bernstein: “throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, improper burial signified great disgrace …The wicked suffer ignominy in the deepest recesses of the underworld. Shame in death is the beginning of hell”.  Seen in that context this saying of Jesus is a further warning to avoid the ‘minor’ misdemeanors which could lead serious breaches of the law with the most dire consequences.
In the same context Matthew has another saying by Jesus which refers to Gehenna.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of Gehenna (Matt 5:22).
Similar to the previous saying, this verse contains several terms which indicate that it is referring to minor actions with serious consequences:
- Simply being angry with someone can result in an action which lands you in Court;
- A simple insult can snowball into an action which can end in the Council, the Supreme Court;
- Calling someone a fool could be just the beginning which leads to an action demanding a death sentence, and consequent disposal of the guilty person’s body in the valley of Hinnom.
All of these references to Gehenna refer to actions which result in a legal execution, and have no connection to an afterlife. There are a few sayings which refer to fire or burning in the context of judgment and often understood to refer to punishment after death. I will look at these in a subsequent post.
 Bernstein, Alan E. 1996. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell University Press. (pp. 166-167)