Netherworld: Down to Death
The netherworld is a physical place, just not the one most people think. The "hell" that Jesus alluded to was the Hinnom Valley near Jerusalem. Its Hebrew name is Gehinnom (H2011), while the Greek one is Geenna (G1067)—which scholars anglicize to "Gehenna." Out of the countless number of Bible versions, only the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) and the Young's Literal Translation (YLT) interpret "Gehenna" accurately (see here and here). However, if biblical interpreters were to translate Geena instead of either paraphrasing or transliterating it, our scriptures would simply read "Hinnom" instead of "hell" or "Gehenna." The ge- prefix means "valley" (H1516). Look at the Bible with first-century eyes and imagine Jesus telling us, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in [Hinnom]" (Matt. 10:28). Not quite as scary, right? Well, just wait and see why Jesus alluded to the Hinnom Valley as a symbol of God's final judgment. Sometimes, even geographical locations have an evil reputation. In our time, consider the foreboding thoughts we have about places such as Auschwitz, the Bermuda Triangle, or even the local cemetery. In the minds of first-century Jews, the Hinnom Valley stood for all of these: cruelty, disappearances, holocausts, mass graves, and sadism.
Burning & Sacrifice
There are a total of eleven Old Testament references to the "valley of the son of Hinnom." This site was originally allocated to the tribe of Judah when the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land. They seized the territory from the Jebusites, with the intent of establishing the Hebrew faith in a region of pagan idolatry (Exod. 3, 23:23, 33:2, 34:11; Deut. 7:1, 20:17; Josh. 3:10). However, the author of Joshua explicitly wrote, "The people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day" (Josh. 15:63). In their failure, the Israelites not only lived among the pagans that God intended for them to conquer, but also started worshiping their idols and intermarried with them (Ezra 9:1-2). While many commentators read the Joshua text as a story of genocide, the actual history is not so simple. The main reason that God told the Israelites to occupy the Promised Land was to stop the abhorrent practices of nations such as the Jebusites. The main evil they committed was child sacrifice, which usually took place in the Hinnom Valley. During his sweeping reforms, King Josiah destroyed the altars on Topheth, where the priests would burn children alive in dedication to the idol Moloch (2 Kgs. 23:1-20). The prophet Jeremiah lamented this horrible atrocity (Jer. 7:31-32), and even recorded God's anger:
This place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter (Jer. 19:6). . . . They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Moloch, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination, causing Judah to sin (Jer. 32:35).
Beyond the Grave
If Jesus' warnings to the Pharisees were literally about the Hinnom Valley, they would have no meaning to us in the present day. When reading scripture, it is sometimes a difficult task to separate what still applies to us and what stays in its original context. In the narrative force of Jesus' lesson, he was accusing the Judean religious leaders of idolatry, both in a spiritual and political context. The Pharisees turned their backs on God by rejecting the Messiah, trusting in their self-righteousness and Roman privilege. The main image of the Hinnom Valley that Jesus applied was a graveyard, its use in the first century. In ancient times, Hinnom was a mass grave for child sacrifice. However, after the exile, the Jewish people designated the area as a cemetery because of its history with death. The Pharisees took special precautions in keeping themselves ritually clean, according to the Law of Moses (Matt. 23:25-26; Mark 7:1-5). Part of this law was to avoid touching a corpse and walking in graveyards (Num. 19:11-13; Luke 11:44). When Jesus accused them of being "whitewashed tombs" that looked pretty on the outside but contained death on the inside (Matt. 23:27), he was telling them that God views their sins as equally heinous as the valley's past. The symbolism behind the "worm [that] never dies, and the fire [that] is never quenched" (Mark 9:48) refers to both the worms that feed on naturally decaying bodies in the grave as well as the use of flame to accelerate the process of decay. Spiritual death implies an experience of decay and immolation without relief.
In the Hebrew scriptures, Sheol (H7585) was a term for the netherworld. However, contemporary interpreters often leave Sheol untranslated because this was an actual region in Hebrew cosmology, not just a metaphor. Older translations use "grave" to translate Sheol, but this word described a realm of the dead, not just a plot where one's body decays. The writers of the Septuagint (LXX) understood the Greek idea of Hades to be a fair equivalent of Sheol, so they applied it. The parallel between Sheol and Hades continued in the New Testament, with the concept of the underworld. However, this region was not "hell" in the sense of eternal punishment, but a place where each soul became a "shade," or a shadow of its former self. The Greeks also described a place called Tartarus, where the Titans were thrown into eternal dungeons for torment. This realm was reserved for the most evil of gods and human beings. Tartarus appears in the LXX translation of Job and the extra-biblical text, 1 Enoch. In the New Testament, it was only recorded once as the passive verb tartaroō (G5020, "send into Tartarus") but otherwise left out. When Peter wrote, "For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into the netherworld [Greek: tartarōsas] and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment," he may have had the condemnation of the watchers from 1 En. 20:2 in mind. This coincides with Jesus' harshest words on hellfire:
The king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me" (Matt. 25:40-43).
First-century Jews did not have a systematic view of heaven and hell as Christians do today. Instead of yearning for "heaven," they looked forward to living in "Abraham's bosom." In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus contrasted the destinations of the righteous and the evildoers. In his teaching, Jesus did not say much about "Abraham's bosom" other than it has a boundary that keeps the people from the netherworld out. What is interesting is how the rich man asks for mere water, meaning that not even the basic human needs are fulfilled in "this place of torment" (Luke 16:19-31).
In our Western culture, we have over-spiritualized the concepts of hellfire and final punishment. We typically overlook the physical geography of Gehenna in the here and now, too readily ignoring the grave that awaits us all. In many church circles, we hear people say, "Hell is eternal separation from God." The scriptures never say this, but the exact opposite. David, when he wrote the Psalms, lamented, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there . . . If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,' even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you" (Ps. 139:8, 11-12). Yes, you read that correctly—God is still present in the darkness of Sheol. Even older Bible versions (e.g., King James) mention "hell" at Ps. 139:8. In Revelation, John wrote, "They will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night . . ." (Rev. 14:10-11). In other words, God's presence is what torments the wicked and the unrighteous, not eternal separation from him. We should not view this "Gehenna of fire" as coming from an angry God who delights in sending people to the netherworld for eternity, but prideful evildoers who have always rejected him. If certain individuals hate God in the present, then why would they be happy with him in the future—for eternity? As Jesus himself warned us, "Truly I tell you, they have received their reward" (Matt. 6:2). Paul also testified, "[They] received in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (Rom. 1:27).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we give you thanks for this night when Jesus broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave. How wonderful and beyond our knowing, is your mercy and steadfast love for us. How wonderful and beyond our knowing is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son. Indeed, the whole providence of Adam's sin destroyed completely by the death of Christ. How holy is this night when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred and brings peace and concord. Amen.
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Papaioannou, Kim. The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.
Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
Van Scott, Miriam. The Encyclopedia of Hell: A Comprehensive Survey of the Underworld. New York: Thomas Dunne, 1998.