One of the biggest issues that was raised when Rob Bell released his text, “Love Wins” was the existence of a literal hell, an actual destination for those who refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and refuse to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.
Now, this is not a new issue. For centuries, Christians and non-Christians alike have argued about the existence of hell and places like it are represented in Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology.
The issue, however, is whether or not hell is an actual place where unrepentant sinners and apostate Christians are sentenced at the end of their lives and in the life to come because of their sin and their refusal to acknowledge God.
I want to briefly explore this issue, largely focusing around one particular word that is currently translated as “hell” in many current translations of the Bible.
This word is “gehenna”.
Gehenna, properly translated, is the “Valley of Hinnom”, also known as the “Valley of the Son of Hinnom”.
This was an actual, geographical place during the time of Jesus, and even existed before the coming of the Messiah.
Why is this important?
Because when we read the word “hell” in our Bibles, we are reading the word “gehenna”.
Let me give you a brief background on Gehenna.
In the Old Testament, we learn of King Ahaz, king over Judah, who did not follow what the LORD taught and did not follow the law. Instead, Ahaz followed in the footsteps of his forefathers, burning incense and sacrificing his children and other detestable acts of those who were in the land before Israel. And all this was done in the Valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna. This story can be found in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4.
Not only that, but later in the same book, we read about Manasseh, king over Judah, who practiced the same things. He also sacrificed his children and other people in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). This is found in 2 Chronicles 30:1-6.
The LORD, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, cursed the Valley of Hinnom, causing it to become a place of desolation and place where the Israelites will bury their dead because all the spots for graves are full (Jeremiah 19).
Many speculate that the valley eventually became a place where the Israelites would through their garbage, and sometimes the bodies of executed criminals, and they would burn the bodies and garbage with sulfur and fire. It is commonly reported that animals would spend time in and around the valley, fighting over the scraps that were being burned and the gnashing of their teeth could be heard. The flames would continually burn so that all the garbage and bodies would be destroyed.
This is the place that Jesus speaks of when we read the word “hell” in the gospels.
As a result, many people, including well-renowned theologians, have stated that there is no actual hell but Jesus was simply saying that sinners will be thrown into the local garbage dump.
This doesn’t make any sense. Why would Jesus, the Son of God, talk about condemnation and judgement and punishment, only to say that all of it would take place in somewhere that is familiar to them that they are completely aware of?
Jesus’ modus operandi when teaching and trying to get a point across to His hearers was to use terms, places, people groups, and situations that His hearers were familiar with.
They knew Gehenna. They knew the Valley of Hinnom. Not only did they know it from the synagogues and their studies growing up, but they also saw it regularly. They smelled it every day. Many of them probably traveled there and saw the animals fighting. Others may have been responsible for making sure the fire continues to burn.
It was familiar to them. It was an every day occurrence and encounter. And it was a disgusting and detestable place for them.
So, Jesus did what Jesus always does: He used the familiar, disgusting, and detestable to communicate eternal truths. That was what Jesus did.
As the Son of God, Jesus would’ve been perfectly aware of a place of condemnation and punishment for those who do not follow God. He used the Valley of Hinnom to communicate to His hearers the truth of this place of punishment in the best way He knew how: use the familiar to explain the divine.