Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sin Will Put You Down in the Dumps

(Sorry this is so long, but I didn't see a good place to break it into two parts.)

Two words that Jesus used, Hades and Gehenna, are commonly translated into "Hell." Let's examine the word Gehenna.

Gehenna was the site outside of Jerusalem used for the incineration of refuse. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Gehenna was the Valley of Hinnom, “(originally Ge bene Hinnom; i.e., “the valley of the sons of Hinnom”), a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem, where the idolatrous Jews offered their children in sacrifice to Molech (2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:2–6). This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning.”

Now let's take a look at the contexts in which Jesus used this word. In Matthew 5 Jesus is speaking about the law of Moses, making the point that his followers should adhere to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. His aim is to bring about repentance—a renewed way of thinking about the Kingdom of God.

In the first use of "Gehenna, "he says, “You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Do not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the high council. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell (Matt. 5.21-22).

So what was Jesus saying here? Jesus compares feelings of anger toward someone with murder and actually equates the two. Being angry and holding resentment toward someone is just as wrong as killing that person, according to Jesus. In the very next passage, Jesus says that if we do hold ill feelings toward someone, we need to go and reconcile with that person before we try to offer worship to God. Why is this so important? James tells us that our evil thoughts lead to evil actions, and our evil actions lead to death (1.15). If we come before God not having reconciled with those with whom we are angry, we have sin in our hearts and cannot worship God with purity, or “in spirit.” When we hold anger toward others, we are no better than murderers—we are criminals—according to Jesus.

Jesus’ listeners would have understood his reference to Gehenna as the place where the bodies of executed criminals were disposed of, and they knew that the law of Moses called for the execution of murderers. Jesus was telling his listeners that harboring resentment and anger toward another person is just the same as murder in God’s economy, and that just as persons would expect to be condemned for committing murder, so God’s people should not allow themselves to even harbor a murderous, or even an angry, thought against anyone else. Both offenses, according to Jesus, are sinful enough to render a person worthy of being executed and thrown into the dump for disposal in the fire.

Jesus’ next reference to hell is in the next passage when he is speaking about adultery. He says, “You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 So if your eye—even if it is your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even if it is your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5.27-30 also Mark 9.42-48).

The law of Moses expressly forbade adultery and prescribed the death penalty for those guilty of the crime (Deut. 22.22). In the same way that he equated anger with murder, Jesus equates lustful thoughts with adultery. Jesus is not necessarily advocating physically gouging out one’s eyes or cutting off one’s hands, but he is using hyperbole to illustrate the extreme importance of avoiding lust. Those who get caught up in lust are likely in far more danger of progressing on to adultery than those who are angry are likely to go on to commit murder, so Jesus is expressing the need to avoid lustful thoughts at all costs. Like murderers, those who had been convicted of adultery were executed, and Jesus again uses the reference to Gehenna to illustrate that God’s people should avoid thoughts that lead to sin.

In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending his disciples out on a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, to heal the sick, raise the dead, and to cast out demons. Throughout chapter 10, Jesus has been giving them instructions on how to live by faith in God for their provisions and their protection. He warns them of persecutions to come, telling them that they will be cursed and called names, but they should not be afraid of those who threaten them with bodily harm. He says, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10.28 & Luke 12.5). In this case again, Gehenna—the fiery refuse dump—is the translation for hell. The implication, again, is that of the disposal of executed criminals, since what is being talked about here is the destruction of a person.

So how is a soul and body set for destruction, and who is able to destroy them? Since Jesus came to save the world and not to condemn it—and Jesus is doing the will of his father, and since Satan is the one bent on destroying humans, it’s safe to say that Satan is the one who is being talked about here. Satan is certainly able to corrupt—or destroy—one’s mind and entice a person to act out in sin, causing him or her to break the law of Moses, and consequently causing that person to be sentenced to execution and disposal in Gehenna, destroying the body.

(Another clue that Jesus is talking about Satan here is his use of the word “fear,” the Greek phobeo (# 5399) which in 90 uses is rendered in the sense of being afraid or terrified and is used only once in the sense of reverential fear.)

So in this passage, Jesus is telling his disciples to have faith in God and not to be afraid of people. He seems to be telling them not to let Satan use their fear of bodily harm to tempt them into acting out against the officials who would harm them, and by the disciples’ defiance, make them into criminals, both in the real sense of attacking and harming their attackers, and in the spiritual sense of succumbing to anger and fear. Peter fell prey to this very temptation on the night that Jesus was arrested.

In Matthew 18 (and Mark 9), the disciples ask Jesus which of them will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; obviously some jealousy and arrogance is manifesting itself in the group. Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be great in the kingdom must become humble now, and he brings a small child into the group to illustrate the concept of humility and innocence. He then uses the child to begin a discussion of the problem of tempting innocent people into sin, telling them that it will be terrible for anyone who leads others into sin. Jesus here is referring again to the law of Moses, in this case the law which condemns to death any false prophet who tempts people to worship false gods (Deut. 13). Jesus is again stressing that not only the letter of the law should be followed, but the spirit of the law should be followed as well. In this case, Jesus wants his disciples to first put aside arrogance (worship of self) and put on humility, and second to realize that any turning aside from God in order to pursue sin is the same as worshiping false gods, or idolatry. Jesus repeats what he said earlier about cutting off parts of the body that cause one to sin (it’s better to be maimed than to be thrown into hell)—again using hyperbole—to reinforce the idea that the sin of arrogance is just as despicable as the sin of causing idol worship (which was punished by execution, followed by the throwing of the criminal’s body into Gehenna for disposal).

In Matthew 23, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, condemning their hypocrisy. He speaks about their arrogance in their religious practices and says that they are “like whitewashed tombs” (v. 27), meaning that while they put on a good front, they are actually corrupt in their hearts. (One source I read said that the outside of tombs were whitewashed so that people would know to avoid them--if that's the case, then there's another jab at the Pharisees!) He further condemns them for placing excessive burdens on those they convert, saying that they make their converts “twice the sons of hell [Gehenna]” that they themselves are. Jesus in this case is using a metaphor that would have really gotten underneath the Pharisees’ skin, equating them with Gehenna, a garbage dump so full of filth and corruption that the Pharisees would never go near it for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean. Jesus goes even further to imply that they are the worst of sinners who, if they had lived during the time of the prophets, would have participated in the murders of those innocent men of God, essentially blaspheming God, another capital offense (Lev. 24.15-16). Jesus wonders how these Pharisees will escape the “judgment of hell” (v. 33)—saying essentially that they need to be brought to justice for their crimes and executed, as the law of Moses called for, and their bodies disposed of in Gehenna.

In all of these cases, Jesus is making the point to his listeners that whenever their hearts and minds aren’t pure, they aren’t right with God and are guilty of capital crimes even if they did not physically commit one of the crimes listed in the law of Moses. According to Jesus, violating the spirit of the law of Moses is just as bad as violating the letter of the law. By continually mentioning Gehenna, Jesus is pointing out that those who violate even the spirit of the law are dishonoring God and deserve to be executed.


Tony Arnold said...
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Tony Arnold said...

I wonder what this area near Jerusalem looks like now? What is it used for now?

Do you know?


JMG said...

Yes, I learned recently that it is now a park. You can see a photo here. Pretty ironic, huh?

Tony Arnold said...

Well, if hell becomes a park, heaven is going to be beyond any comprehension.


jettybetty said...

This is very good--is there more? I get the idea you still have some points to make??

JMG said...

I haven't looked at the use of "hell" in the epistles yet except for Tartarus, which I already mentioned.

I'm not sure if I want to make a point beyond the fact that we need to suspend our popular notion of hell and look at the words that Jesus actually used, keeping in mind what those words meant to his listeners at the time.

I find it extrememly interesting that we tend to subscribe to the ancient Greeks' notion of hell (Hades) as reality when we don't believe in any of the other Greek mythology as true.

Mike Kear said...

Tony: "Well, if hell becomes a park, heaven is going to be beyond any comprehension."

Dude, that is perhaps the coolest thing I've ever heard on the subject of hell.

JMG: "I haven't looked at the use of 'hell' in the epistles yet..."

You will look in vain for any reference to hell in the epistles of Paul. He never once mentions hell. Never. He does, however, mention destruction.



Tony Arnold said...

Thanks Dr. Mike. I have read through several of your posts on your blog and find them entertaining as well as insightful.

I hope you have a chance to visit my post of hell (for lack of a better term). I would like to hear any completely honest opinion you might have on my thoughts in that particular post.


Ayatollah Mugsy said...

I've been impressed with your research on hell and have found these posts informative. I am looking forward to hearing your views on the Wal-Mart Theory of Hell.

JMG said...

Mugsy, perhaps Wal-Mart is the beast spoken of in the Revelation.