What is Gehenna? It is the English transliteration of the Greek word for the Hinnom Valley; the Hebrew transliteration is Gehinnom; both specify the Hinnom Valley. The valley itself runs from the south to the southwest of the ancient city of Jerusalem. It is the valley where the Israelites sacrificed their sons and daughters to the god Molech by burning them to death in the arms of the statue of Molech. The place where the sacrifices took place is called Tophet. The exact location of Tophet in the Hinnom Valley was to the south of the old city. Below is a public domain map of the old city of Jerusalem; the city sections are shown in four different colors. The valleys are tan in color. (Click on the map to view larger image).
Many commentaries state that Gehenna was a place where trash, garbage, refuse, carcasses of criminals and animals were cast and the stench was so great that fires were kept perpetually burning in the place and maggots were ever present. Since so many commentaries make that claim, many preachers have made the same claim based on the commentaries. There is only one problem with this idea; it is a myth.
The idea, or myth, if you will, that the Hinnom Valley (Hebrew: גיא בן הינום, Gei Ben-Hinnom; Mishnaic Hebrew: גהנום/גהנם, Gehinnam/Gehinnom) became a trash dump where even the bodies of executed criminals were discarded and that was burning continually has only one source. That is a commentary on Psalm 27, written in the Thirteenth Century AD by Rabbi David Kimchi (or Kimhi based on the use of the Hebrew letter het (ח), pronounced a soft ‘kh’ or soft ‘ch’ and can also be pronounced as a simple ‘h’ sound). He wrote, “Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgement of the wicked is called ‘Gehenna.’” This is the only provenance for the narrative that the Hinnom Valley ever contained a perpetually burning garbage dump containing the human cadavers of criminals.
There is no archaeological or Biblical support or evidence for this statement. There are, however both Biblical and archeological support for a trash dump or dumps in the Kidron Valley. Nehemiah mentions the Dung Gate or Refuse Gate in Neh 2:13; 3:13-14; 12:31. The name of the gate suggests that the city’s refuse was carried out through that gate, which opens onto the Kidron Valley. Josiah had the vessels made for Baal brought out of the Temple and he burned them to ashes in the Kidron valley (2 Kin 23:4) and took those ashes to Bethel to defile the pagan altar there. He also took the Asherah idol out of the Temple and burned it in the Kidron valley and spread its ashes over the graves of the worshippers of idols there (2 Kin 33:6 & 2 Chr 34:4). But this does nothing to prove any such dump in the Hinnom Valley.
What we do know about the Hinnom Valley is that in it were “high places” or places where pagan gods were worshipped. They were not high because of altitude, but high in the sense of being exalted or set apart for worship. In other words, the high places were altars where false gods were worshipped. Molech (AKA Moloch, or Milcom) was worshipped there. Molech worship required the sacrifice of children by burning them alive. See Passing Through the Fire.
A large brass (some say iron) statue of the god Molech that was open inside had a large fire in its belly that was heated very hot by stoking. The hollow statue would act as a chimney and draw plenty of air through the fire to get it extremely hot. The child would be placed in the open arms of the super heated statue and the fires would consume the child. When the child was placed in the arms, the drummers beat their drums loudly to drown out the screams of the child1. An altar to Molech was in the Hinnom Valley. In Second Kings 23:10 and 13, King Josiah desecrated and rendered the altar unclean, which stopped the practice of child sacrifice there.
In rabbinic texts Gehenna, or the Hebrew Gehinnom is a place where unrighteous souls are punished. This line of thought is found in rabbinic texts beginning in the Sixth Century BC, the same century in which Josiah reigned. Edward Robinson, considered the father of Biblical Archeology, did extensive research of scriptural works from ancient languages and explored Palestine for his magnum opus, Biblical Researches in Palestine. About Gehenna, he wrote,
“In these gardens, lying partly within the mouth of Hinnom and partly in the Valley of Jehoshaphat [or the Kidron Valley], and irrigated by the waters of Siloam, Jerome assigns the place of Tophet; where the Jews practised the horrid rites of Baal and Moloch, and ‘burned their sons and their daughters in the fire.’ It was probably in allusion to this detested and abominable fire, that the later Jews applied the name of this valley (Gehenna), to denote the place of future punishment or the fires of hell. At least there is no evidence of any other fires having been kept up in the valley; as has sometimes been supposed” 2.
Gehenna was the place of human sacrifices that were offered and burned in the fires of Molech to appease him. The fires were an abomination to Yahweh and resulted in divine judgement against Israel. Consequently, Gehenna came to be associated with a place of the perpetual burning of human flesh and divine judgment.
Isaiah wrote about a similar scenario, “And they [the saved] shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh“(Isa 66:24 KJV).
Jesus knew from the writings of the Rabbins about the divine judgment attributed to Gehenna, and applied the passage in Isaiah to Gehenna, which the KJV translators and others translated hell: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire [original – gehenna] that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mar 9:43-44).
So, what was the rabbinic doctrine of Gehenna? Here is a brief statement from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
The place where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch was originally in the “valley of the son of Hinnom,” to the south of Jerusalem (Josh. xv. 8, passim; II Kings xxiii. 10; Jer. ii. 23; vii. 31-32; xix. 6, 13-14). For this reason the valley was deemed to be accursed, and “Gehenna” therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for “hell.”3
Tophet is the place in the Hinnom Valley where the altar of Molech stood and where human children were sacrificed to the god. It was called Tophet because of the beating of drums to drown out the cries of children being burned alive.
The Hebrew word has two possible meanings, one is the beating of drums, and the other is contempt. Tophet was both a place of contempt and a place where drums were beaten. It was located outside of the Pottery Gate (or potsherd gate) on the south side of the Old City and Mount Zion as well as the City of David. It is in the northern portion of the Hinnom Valley just north of the potter’s field and Halcedama (the Field of Blood, where Iscariot died). The Dung Gate is northeast of there, opening on the Kidron Valley.
Archeological excavations have discovered that household trash was dumped beneath the Pottery Gate: “Loose rubble, small stones and a large amount of artifacts (mainly pottery shards with fragments of stone and glass vessels, coins, etc.), as well as broken animal bones” were found there just under the surface4. But this nothing like the story of the perpetually burning dump where dead bodies of criminals were discarded described by Rabbi Kimchi.
Again, Tophet became the place of contempt after Josiah defiled the altar there. In Hebrew lore and in rabinnic writings, Tophet, in Gehenna came to represent the place where unrighteous souls were punished. Here are some descriptions of Gehenna/Gehinnom.
Some considered the Hinnom Valley to be the location of the entrance to the underworld. Jeremiah ben Eleazar, a rabbi quoted in the Babylonia Talmud, stated, “Gehenna has three gates; one in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem.” Others claimed that there were two palm trees in the Hinnom Valley and between them smoke arose from the ground suggesting this may be the entrance to Gehenna.
There is some possible discrepancy in the idea that there was no trash or garbage burned in the Hinnom Valley. There was refuse carried out of the old Dung Gate that may have been burned in an enclosed area like a firepit, though I can neither confirm or deny it. There is archeological evidence that trash was carried into the Hinnom Valley near Tophet (see above), but no evidence of any continual burning or dead bodies dumped in the valley. Thus we must again state that Gehenna got its reputation as the place of the ungodly dead from the burning of the children as sacrifice to the god Molech.
In Rabinnic lore from the time of Josiah until at least the time of Christ, Gehenna was the place where the souls of ungodly people go after death. Remember that we are discussing the beliefs of the teachers of the law before the advent of Christ. Thus obedience to the law is the determining factor in whether one’s soul ends up in Gehenna or Paradise. The Bosom of Abraham and Paradise, in opposition to Gehenna, represent a places of peace and safety that the righteous soul goes to after death. In Eastern Orthodoxy the Bosom of Abraham is located in Paradise.
Here are some of the actions that can land one in Gehenna: studying the law but not obeying it; apostasy; heresy; disobeying the law; violating the commandments. Generally, sin covers all of the preceding. Keeping the commandments and the law, thus refraining from sin, are what kept one out of Gehenna.
Recall that we are studying the era before the New Covenant that began at the crucifixion of Christ. There are some rabbinic writings that limit the time one spends in Gehenna to 12 months, which is a time of paying for and cleansing from the sins committed in this life. That is probably where Roman Catholicism got its doctrine of purgatory. Others wrote that most people only remained there 12 months but some that could not be cleansed stayed there eternally. Then there are those that wrote that Gehenna is eternal punishment for all the ungodly.
The point in this treatise is to show that the idea of Gehinnom (Hebrew) or Gehenna (Greek) was the place where the wicked go for punishment after death predated the advent of Christ by at least 600 years. Consequently when Jesus spoke of Genenna, there was no doubt in the minds of His listeners that He meant the place where the wicked go after death. Since that was in Jewish thought, there is no need to incorporate an explanation like the burning garbage dump story to make sense of what Jesus referred to. They knew it was the equivalent of our Hell.
The most information we have in the Scriptures of Gehenna is that it is a place were fire is never quenched; it is eternal (Mark 9:43, 45, 47); it is a place were “their worm dieth not,” that is, where the fire does not kill the person there (Mark 9:46, 48; Luke 16:23).
Jesus did not use the term Gehenna to show a garbage dump that was smelly, smoky, and had fires burning perpetually; He meant that it was a very real place where the ungodly, the wicked, evil, etc., that is, those that are not saved by the Blood of Christ, end up after death of the body. It is not a pleasant place nor is it a place where anyone wants to end up after death. If you do not believe Jesus Christ as your Savior, then that is where you are headed. See How to Be Saved.
- From Cleitarchus’ paraphrase of a marginal note in Plato’s Republic
- Biblical Researches, vol. 1, John Murray Publishers, Albemarle Street, London, 1841, 437-8
- Jewish Encyclopedia article on Gehenna, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1906, Public Domain
- The Jerusalem City-Dump in the Late Second Temple Period, by archeologists Ronnie Reich and Eli Shukron, Zeitschrift Des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 119, 2003