Column: Concept of hell originated in Jewish tradition

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

The town dump does not look, nor does it smell, like an attractive place. But whoever would think that it would provide a model for hell?

In Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, the town dump lay on the south side of the city. It was a valley called Gehinnom, or Gehenna for short. During a dark period in Israelite history, it had been a place to worship pagan gods, where human sacrifice had been offered: “In the valley of Ben-hinnom they have built the high place of Topheth to immolate in fire their sons and daughters” (Jer 7:31). In the eyes of believers, that repulsive practice had tainted the ground, reducing it to a spot suitable only for the disposing of trash.

As the trash dump, Gehenna became a place where fire continually burned. It also became a place infested with vermin, where maggots crawled in the rotting garbage. As such, Gehenna offered a perfect metaphor for the place where God would eventually punish the wicked: “Their worm shall not die, nor their fire be extinguished” (Is 66:24). A specific geographical location became a spiritual location in eternity, a place where the wicked would go after death. It was the predecessor of hell.

That provides the background of Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48. The word “Gehenna” appears three times in the text, the only place where it occurs at all in Mark’s Gospel. Being thrown into Gehenna is presented as the exact opposite of entering into the kingdom of God: “Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes be thrown into Gehenna.”

Jesus inherited both the term and the concept of Gehenna from his Jewish tradition. While it led to the Christian concept of hell, it is not exactly synonymous with it. The rabbis held different opinions concerning Gehenna. Although the fires would burn forever, the punishment of the wicked individual would not last forever. Extinction would eventually end their torments. On the other hand, some rabbis believed that after a certain length of punishment, the wicked would be released from Gehenna through God’s mercy.

In any case, Gehenna lays the groundwork for the Christian concept of hell, which is envisioned as the state of separation from God. The writer C.S. Lewis provides a good description of it in his novel, “The Great Divorce.” Hell is not so much a punishment inflicted by a wrathful God as it is an unfortunate choice freely made by the sinner. As such, the concept of hell is tied to the doctrine of free will.

God invites us to heaven, but God will not force us to go there. If we turn down the invitation, that is hell.

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