Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hell, Part 4

My last post looked at the role that Jewish Apocryphal writings, such as the Book of Enoch, played in shaping Jewish, Christian and even non-Christian views of the afterlife (even up to the present!). 1 Enoch, in particular, went into detail about a place within Sheol/Hades set aside for punishment. That place was called Gehenna.

The word Gehenna means "the Valley of the Son of Hinnom" or "the valley of Ben Hinnom" (Ben being Hebrew for son). Gehenna is a real place. It is a valley that in ancient times was just outside the walls of Jerusalem. There is a lovely park there nowadays, but for much of history it was considered an accursed place. Under the wicked King Ahaz, who ruled from 735–715 BC, apostate Isaelites sacrificed children in the Hinnom valley by burning them alive to the god Moloch (Moloch was also known as Baal). When good King Josiah came to power (649–609 BC), he put a stop to the practice, but after Josiah died the Israelites became apostate again. During Josiah's reign the prophet Jeremiah gave the following chilling prophecy (which is assumed to have come true in 586 BC when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Jewish Temple and carried the survivors away into captivity):

"This is what the LORD says: “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.'

Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth [Topheth means "roasting place"--another name for the Valley of Hinnom] until there is no more room. This is what I will do to this place and to those who live here, declares the LORD. I will make this city like Topheth. The houses in Jerusalem and those of the kings of Judah will be defiled like this place, Topheth—all the houses where they burned incense on the roofs to all the starry hosts and poured out drink offerings to other gods.’

Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the LORD’s temple and said to all the people, “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’” (Jeremiah 19)

Notice in this scripture something which God says about throwing children into the fire: He says it is something He did not command or mention, nor did it even enter His mind. Yet many Christians believe that when God spoke those words it actually had already entered His mind to throw His own children, by the billions, into the unquenchable fires of Hell.

Gehenna's stigma as an accursed place endured. It eventually became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was a place where fires burned continuously and where the carcasses of animals, beggars and criminals were dumped, to be consumed by maggots, flames and wild dogs.

For all these reasons, Gehenna epitomized uncleanness, death and ignominy. It came to symbolize rejection and punishment from God.

Jesus came to the Jewish people as Savior and King, but it is sometimes forgotten that He also came as a Prophet. The people had been anxiously awaiting a Messiah to come and free them from Roman oppression. The popular assumption was that when the Messiah came, he would be a military leader, as the Maccabees had been a few hundred years before (or like King David and Gideon of old). This Messiah would unite the people and lead them to victory in driving out the Romans. Additionally, many Jews (most notably the Essenes) felt that the Jerusalem Temple system had become corrupt and was in desperate need of cleansing and restoration. Another common view was that there would actually be two Messiahs: one a Warrior-King and the other a High-Priest. Either way, these Messiahs (or Messiah) would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel and restore pure worship, resulting in the manifest presence of God occupying the Temple once more. A Messiah was not thought of as a divine being but rather as a person anointed and empowered by God to lead Israel out of her present troubles. The Jews believed that once their Messiah (or Messiahs) came, they would have an independent theocratic nation: It would be the Kingdom of God on earth. The Day of the Lord would come. Then--it was assumed--the righteous would be resurrected and live (again) on earth.

Jesus's continual message during His earthly ministry was, essentially, "The Kingdom of God isn't like that. Instead it's like this." Jesus spoke of a Kingdom based on peace, love, forgiveness, mercy, fairness and concern for the poor; rather than a kingdom based on temporal geopolitical power. Jesus spoke of a God who resides in people's hearts, rather than in a stone Temple. Jesus spoke of a Kingdom that would begin small, like a mustard seed. And the Kingdom Jesus spoke of included both Jews and Gentiles, Pharisees and prostitutes, Priests and Centurions.

What we know from history is that, by and large, the leaders among the Jewish people didn't like Jesus's ideas about the Kingdom and didn't listen to His warnings about what would happen if they tried to establish their own vision of the Kingdom of God.

In about 66 AD, roughly 40 years after Jesus, a Jewish faction known as the Zealots began a revolt against the Romans. The Romans responded with force, which caused the majority of Jews, who had not been Zealots, to reluctantly join in the rebellion. The hope was that God would--at last--empower them to drive out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God. While they were fighting the Romans, the various Jewish factions also continued to fight among themselves. Various individuals claimed to have Messianic anointing to lead Israel into victory and glory. As the Roman armies advanced through Judea, employing a "scorched earth" policy, Jews packed into Jerusalem--the holy city of God. The Temple--the dwelling place of God--was the spiritual center of Israel and if God were going to intervene, it would be here. The Romans besieged Jerusalem, causing horrendous suffering for the inhabitants. In 70 AD the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, tearing it apart block by block. It is estimated that over a million inhabitants died. The Jewish historian Josephus was an eye-witness to these events and documented them in "The War of the Jews", which you can read online here.

What Jesus had warned about many years before had come to pass: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies... Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written." (Luke 21:20-22). A minority of Jews, belonging to the sect which came to be known as "Christians", remembered and heeded His advice. History tells us that prior to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Christians left the city and fled East to the region of Pella, where they were safe.

During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Valley of Hinnom--Gehenna--became literally filled with dead bodies. As Josephus recorded:

"Now the seditious [Jews warring against Rome] at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwords, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. However, when Titus [the Roman general besieging Jerusalem], in going his rounds along those valleys, saw them full of dead bodies, and the thick putrefaction running about them, he gave a groan; and, spreading out his hands to heaven, called God to witness that this was not his doing; and such was the sad case of the city itself." (War of the Jews V 12.3-4)

"Manneus, the son of Lazarus, came running to Titus at this very time, and told him that there had been carried out through that one gate, which was entrusted to his care, no fewer than a hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and eighty dead bodies, in the interval between the fourteenth day of the month Xanthieus, when the Romans pitched their camp by the city, and the first day of the month Panemus. This was itself a prodigious multitude; and though this man was not himself set as a governor at that gate, yet was he appointed to pay the public stipend for carrying these bodies out, and so was obliged of necessity to number them, while the rest were buried by their relations; though all their burial was but this, to bring them away, and cast them out of the city. After this man there ran away to Titus many of the eminent citizens, and told him the entire number of the poor that were dead, and that no fewer than six hundred thousand were thrown out at the gates, though still the number of the rest could not be discovered; and they told him further, that when they were no longer able to carry out the dead bodies of the poor, they laid their corpses on heaps in very large houses." (War of the Jews, V 13,7)

Jerusalem literally had become an extension of the accursed valley. Jerusalem had become Gehenna--the burning place (Topheth); the garbage dump; unclean; the place of death, ruin, ignominy and divine abandonment.

In about 135 AD a Messiah arose named Simon bar Kokhba, who again led the Jews in revolt against the Romans. Bar Kokhba promised that "the era of the redemption of Israel" had come. The Romans responded by sacking Jerusalem again, and destroying dozens of towns and villages throughout Judea. This time around, it is estimated that 600,000 people died and Jews were thereafter forbidden from entering Jerusalem. The Romans built a temple to Zeus where the Jewish Temple had once stood, gave the city a new name--Aelia Capitolina--and changed the name of the region from Judea to Syria Palaestina. Thousands of survivors were carried off to Rome as slaves and Jewish priests and civic leaders were tortured to death.

In the English language New Testament, Gehenna is translated as "Hell". Most of the New Testament references to Gehenna occur in Matthew's Gospel (7 times). This is not surprising, since Matthew's Gospel was written for a Jewish audience who would have been very aware of the historical and symbolic significance of Gehenna. Mark's Gospel, which is the most concise and probably the oldest Gospel--and also written for a primarily Jewish audience--contains 3 references to Gehenna. Luke's Gospel--which was geared more towards a Gentile readership who had some familiarity with Jewish teachings--only has one reference to Gehenna. The Gospel of John--the last of the four written and the most Gentile-oriented, contains zero references to Gehenna.

The only other place where the word Gehenna is used in the New Testament is in James 3:6 (...the tongue is set on fire by Gehenna...). James is another of the early New Testament documents, written for a primarily Jewish audience: the Christian church in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD.

To the Jewish hearers of Jesus's preaching (and the Jewish hearers of Matthew & Mark's Gospels), the meaning of Gehenna was clear: It was a place of ruin; of uncleanness; of national shame; of God's rejection. It was the place that Jeremiah had prophesied about. It was the place that 1 Enoch equated with punishment for the wicked. It was the place that Israel's rabbis, such as Hillel and Shammai, equated with purging and corrective punishment. By invoking Gehenna, Jesus was saying to the people of Judea, and particularly to the Jewish leaders, "If you persist in the way you are going, you and your dreams of an earthly kingdom will end up rejected by God; ruined; thrown in the garbage dump." To a devout Jew, such as a Pharisee, the idea of not being buried properly, but instead having one's body dumped in the accursed valley, was almost too horrible to contemplate. Warnings about Gehenna were understood to speak of defilement, judgment and destruction for both the nation and the Temple system. For the unfortunate souls who witnessed the horrors of 70 AD (and 135 AD), Jeremiah's words would have seemed to have come true all over again: Gehenna had again become the "Valley of Slaughter" where the "plans of Judah and Jerusalem" had come to ruin.

The warnings of Jesus the Prophet had come to pass.

To Part 5
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents


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