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Jesus on Gehenna

I will give three more posts on what I take to be Jesus’ understanding of the afterlife.  The first two have to do with his understanding of Gehenna.    What I have to say about it is too much for a single post.  So here’s the first of the two.

Again, feedback is welcome.

Often Jesus expresses the image of “destruction” in highly repugnant terms, indicating that sinners who are excluded from God’s kingdom will not only killed but will be refused decent burial – which, as you will recall, is the worst fate one could have in the ancient world.  Even worse than that, Jesus indicates that sinners will be cast, unburied, into the most unholy, repulsive, God-forsaken place that anyone in Israel could imagine, the valley of known as “Gehenna.”  Thus,  for example, Jesus says that anyone who calls someone “a fool” will be liable to be cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:22); later he says that it is better to gouge out your eye that sins or amputate your hand and thereby enter the kingdom than to be tossed into Gehenna with eye and hand intact (Matthew 5:29, 30); elsewhere he says that it would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and be drowned than to make a “little one” stumble and, for your foul deed, be cast into Gehenna.  There, we are told “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42, 47-48).

Gehenna is obviously serious business.  But what is it?

It is highly unfortunate that …

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Gehenna: Where You Do Not Want to Go
Looking for Feedback on My Views about Jesus and the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    dankoh  September 9, 2018

    The KJV also translates “Sheol” as “hell,” another misuse with consequences.

  2. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 9, 2018

    Interesting. Doesn’t this (e.g. Jewish preachers of Jesis’s time) show some selective memory with respect to Jewish theology? That monotheism eventually won out with a central Judean authority?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2018

      Sorry — I’m having trouble understanding your question!

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  September 10, 2018

        Re-reading that I see it didn’t make sense-
        if Judaism didn’t become monotheistic would being buried in this valley be as frowned upon -socio-culturally?

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  September 9, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, everything you’ve written here appears to agree with what I understand of Gehenna. Of course, I’m coming from the Jewish perspective, where Gehenna is interpreted in any number of ways, depending on which Jewish tradition one follows. For instance, conservative Jews and some reform Jews (who may concern themselves with such ideas) interpret Gehenna metaphorically, as the place — not so much temporal as historical — where the enemies of God and the enemies of the Jews (whom Jews see as the very same people) will finally be destroyed for good.

    Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to envision Gehenna as more like the representation of the war between God and the righteous Jews against Satan and the wicked Jews and their gentile allies — very similar to how it’s portrayed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is not unlike how fundamentalist Christians today envision the end times. Hence why Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews have become such strange bedfellows, both championing a monster in the White House and a potentially disastrous Middle East policy, just so they can get their end times war.

    All in all, I agree that that’s probably how Jesus saw Gehenna as well. A place where the bodies of the wicked will be dumped, many of them having been killed in the great eschatological battle. So many bodies will be left decomposing that even the maggots will not die from starvation (“the worm never dies”). That was how Jesus envisioned “hell”. In fact, I’m sure that’s how the Jewish rebels of 70 CE envisioned Gehenna, as well.

  4. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 9, 2018

    It also sounds like the Jews of Jesus’s time (and probably other cultures) were concerned with appropriate funerary rites.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2018

      Yes indeed!

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  September 10, 2018

        I wonder if there is any connection to the modern custom of placing stones on a grave- not being forgotten, but being buried in that valley one would be forgotten

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 10, 2018

      Having a proper burial was of extreme importance to the Jews of Jesus’s day, which is why the gospel writers were so keen on explaining how Jesus had a proper burial by bringing in the Joseph of Arimathea side narrative.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  September 9, 2018

    Leaving aside the fact that Jesus is often misquoted, his meanings misconstrued (and who would know better?), there is a certain logic to what he’s saying. The Son of Man is going to separate the goats from the sheep. The sheep are the people who are kind, giving, constructive. The goats are those who are the opposite. By definition, a place that is only sheep will be heaven (even if it’s on this earth) and a place that is only goats will be hell (ditto). As the saying goes, it’s good people who make good places. And that’s true.

    So I would suggest Jesus is seeing it more in terms of separation. Gehenna is just a place on earth that will only be hellish because of the people confined to it. Who, without the sheep to ameliorate and minimize their destructive ways, will turn it into a desert themselves. We make our own hells. That is also true.

    Reminds me of a story by the science fiction author Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) Aliens who want the earth for themselves seek out the handful of people in each community who are genuinely civic minded, and offer them free instantaneous travel to a pristine unpeopled world (that the aliens themselves find unsuitable). They can come back to their earth anytime, but more and more, they find themselves inclined to stay on the new planet. Eventually, they stop going back altogether. After a short time, the aliens can move in. The goats have all killed each other off. Everybody’s happy. Bah, humbug. 😉

  6. Avatar
    wje  September 9, 2018

    Good evening, Bart. Since English translations of the bible came late (do you know about what years?), what was Gehenna in other languages?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2018

      I”m not sure about the range of ancient languages, but in the Latin Vulgate it is translated as … “gehenna”! (I.e., no translation is given, just a Latin version of the word)

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 9, 2018

    When one starts talking about Gehenna and the afterlife this is where Christianity’s double message rears it’s head. Jesus, as an apocalyptic preacher teaches about God’s Kingdom coming to earth and those who lived holy lives according to the law would inherit the Kingdom and eternal life. It seems very clear that Jesus set the standard, the bar, pretty high for moral conduct to inherit the Kingdom and Eternal Life.

    Then Paul comes along and changes all of that to where he says living a moral life, while still somewhat of a requirement, it won’t earn you Salvation, only correct beliefs about who Jesus was and that he died and rose from the dead will grant you access to heaven.

    In the short time from the death of Jesus and the development of Paul’s theology we see how Salvation and notions of Eternal Life has changed. Did the concept of Gehenna, as a metaphor of destruction for the sinner, evolve into Hell, a place of eternal torment, under any influence of Paul and his theology or did the transformation of Gehenna into the common understanding of Hell come after Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2018

      I don’t think Paul believed in eternal torment either — another topic I’ll be covering in my book! Eternal torment came only later.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  September 9, 2018

    OMG this subject brings back so many memories of growing up in a hard core rural southern fundamentalist church where the “hellfire & brimstone” sermon was a standard part of the repertoire. I’m the same age as you, Prof Ehrman, so based on what you’ve written about your own experience I suspect you sat through a few of those yourself. I remember waking up one Saturday morning at the age of six knowing nothing of church doctrine but utterly terrified of hell. Fear works where persuasion does not.

    I’ve given up trying to explain what it was ;like to my friends who did not grow up that way. I just give them a copy of James Joyce’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. He nailed it. I appreciate your role in writing this book is first to educate but any help you provide in undermining the pernicious doctrine that all persons are condemned to eternal torture simply for the crime of being born will be well given. My parents meant well, which is what makes what was done to me a tragedy rather than a crime. But I escaped. Many do not

    Oh wearisome condition of humanity!
    Born under one law, to another bound:
    Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity;
    Created sick, commanded to be sound.
    -Fulke Greville

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 10, 2018

      Yeah, but I wouldn’t go as far as Richard Dawkins. I would say there are actually worse forms of abuse than telling children about hell. I guess it’s an individual thing.


      Most people raised religious don’t go around in constant terror of hell. Certain personalities are more sensitive to that, and certain parents are more inclined to drum it in constantly. Abuse, whether theological or sexual, tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation, but lots of religious people have been wonderful parents, who gave their children a great start in life, and the moral background to stand up to evil when they come across it. And many unreligious people have sucked beyond compare as parents.

      And James Joyce wasn’t such a world class parent himself, you know. But that’s a good book. I’m more of a Frank O’Connor man. though. Ever read Flann O’Brien? 😉

    • Avatar
      Sabina  September 14, 2018

      Lying to children is the greatest (religious)sin, don’t you think?

      • Bart
        Bart  September 16, 2018

        It certainly can be debated. I can think of some cases where lying to a child would make sense, and I can think of other things that are far worst!

  9. Avatar
    moose  September 10, 2018

    Mr. Ehrman. Gehenna reminds me of Job who, according to ‘The Testament of Job’, was sitting on a dunghill outside the city, eaten by worms and abandoned by God.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 10, 2018

      Interesting point. Obviously Job was not condemned for anything he’d done (that’s the point of the story, that suffering is not necessarily a punishment for sin. But the basic scenario is similar–not a supernatural hell, but a realistic one. The fact is, people could really end up like that then, and often still do.

      Job isn’t really abandoned by God, he’s being tested. But Gehenna is for those who failed the test. They’re not really being punished for their sins, but for failing to repent of them in time, failing to mend their ways, failing to understand what God wanted of them.

      Jesus probably knew Job’s story. Part of his conception of the Kingdom is that there real suffering will be reserved for those who have merited it by their behavior. Yeah, that’d be nice.

  10. Avatar
    Fanex  September 10, 2018

    In modern romanian bible gehenna is translate gheena,it sounds the same.
    It is interesting that in our language-(romanian) that word it means among other trash dump.
    In a picture below is depicted different kind of sinners torment in gheena=hell. A theme prefered in ortodox church pictures in contradiction with heaven.

  11. Avatar
    jhague  September 10, 2018

    Were crucified victims remains thrown into Gehenna?

  12. Avatar
    petersilie  September 10, 2018

    If this is a “real” place, who lives there now?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      My argument is that no one lives there. Their corpses are tossed into there.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 12, 2018

      I assume you mean the literal place on earth right now. If you go to Google Earth and type in “Akeldama Monastery, Jerusalem” you’ll see the literal valley of Gehenna as it is today.

  13. Avatar
    peterstone  September 11, 2018

    “As it turns out, there is no evidence for this claim; it can be traced to a commentary on the book of Psalms written by Rabbi David Kimhi in the early thirteenth century CE.” Can you say something as to why a 13th century rabbi would have invented an idea (Gehenna as a place of eternal fire) that 1) doesn’t seem theologically useful to Jews but 2) seems VERY theologically useful to Christians? What sort of reason would there be for introducing a new understanding of Gehenna so late?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      He didn’t invent the idea of eternal fire, but the notion that Gehenna was used as a garbage heap.

  14. Avatar
    CharlesRutsch  September 12, 2018

    Gehenna represents Israel’s greatest sin (child sacrifice) as well as the full force of the curses of the law–the cutting off of their nation by an invading power, their dead cast into the same valley without burial, and the rest taken into captivity. Moses said that Israel should cut-off any of their brethren who tried to SNARE Israel into sin and idolatry so that the whole nation would not suffer the curses of the law. Jesus said something similar when He said to pluck out your eye or cut off your foot if they SNARE you lest your whole body be cast into Gehenna. What He meant was that Israel should cut off those who did not believe in Him so that the whole body of the Jewish people would not be cut off by an invading power such as what happened in 70AD. The SNARE is a human being. Notice how the SNARE is a person, “Yet whoever should be SNARING one of these little ones who is believing in Me, it is expedient for him that a millstone requiring an ass to turn it may be hanged about his neck, and he should be sunk in the open ocean. Woe to the world because of SNARES! For it is a necessity for SNARES to be coming. Moreover, woe to THAT MAN through whom the SNARE is coming! Now if your hand or your foot is SNARING you…” Jesus isn’t saying to cut off your own hand if you have a problem with stealing. He’s saying that those who are SNARING even a little child from believing in Him should be cut off from Israel lest the whole body of the Jewish people experience a judgment of Gehenna event such as 70AD.

    • Avatar
      CharlesRutsch  September 12, 2018

      (part 2) James uses the word in the same way. He says that just as a bit can determine the direction of a horse, or a rudder can steer a large ship, the tongue can SNARE the whole body and set the lineage of the Jewish people on fire. “And the tongue is a fire, a world of injustice. The tongue is constituted among our members that which is spotting the whole body, and setting the wheel of our lineage aflame, and it is set aflame by Gehenna.” (James 3:1-6) Jesus said the Pharisees were SNARES who locked the kingdom of the heavens in front of men(Matt 23:13) and who were SNARING men into becoming “double a son of Gehenna than you are”(Matt 23:15) The Pharisees were the sons of those who opposed God in the past and filled up full the measure of their fathers.(Matt 23:29-32) How would they then avoid the judgment of Gehenna that would arrive on their generation? (Matt 23:33+36) To sum up, Gehenna is about the curses of the law, and there was nothing said in the curses about tormenting people in “hell” forever. It’s about the cutting off of law breakers and SNARES. It might involve the cutting off of the whole nation and the defeat of the whole nation(body) suffering the fires of destruction, and exile among the nations, or Gehenna might represent in the kingdom to come when a specific individual who is a law breaker or a snare is cut off from the nation, killed, cast into the valley outside Jerusalem and is made to be an example.(Isaiah 66:24) The Isaiah passage speaks of “corpses” and not living people, BTW.

  15. Robert
    Robert  September 13, 2018

    “See Lloyd R. Baily …”

    But if you do see him, he may ask you to correct the spelling of his name: Bailey

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2018

      This is why God created blog readers! Thanks, corrected in the draft.

  16. Avatar
    JohnKesler  January 5, 2019

    “There, we are told ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:42, 47-48).”

    I note that according to http://www.ovc.edu:80/terry/tc/lay05mrk.htm these verses from Mark may not even be original to the text:

    Mark 9:44 & 46:
    TEXT: omit verses 44 and 46
    EVIDENCE: S B C L W Delta Psi f1 28 565 892 one lat syr(s) cop
    RANK: A
    NOTES: include verses 44 and 46 (both identical to verse 48): “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
    EVIDENCE: A D K X Theta Pi f13 700 1010 1241 Byz Lect most lat vg syr(p,h)

    COMMENTS: Verses 44 and 46 seem to have been added by copyists from verse 48.

    Are these verses original to Mark, or were they added by a later hand inspired by Isaiah 66:24?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2019

      They were almost certainly added, but more because of direct influence from v. 48 than Isaiah 66:24.

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