Gehenna: The garden-turned-garbage dump
In my previous post (Is Hell a Key Tenet of the Christian Faith?), I focused on showing that references to “Hell/Gehenna” in the New Testament are almost all from words credited to Jesus and are almost all warnings to church/religious leaders not to abuse their influence. Never once does Jesus threaten the tax gatherers, the prostitutes, or the wounded and oppressed with “Hell.”
Although, both the Old Testament and the New Testament writers tended to see “judgment” and “justice” as primarily positive and hopeful promises, both recognized that there are people who do not want, and will not accept, God’s righteous re-ordering of human society and human relationships with one another. This rejection of God’s “rightly ordered” society and relationships leads to separation from God and from one another.
To hear many preachers and Christians talk, one would think that “Hell” was the primary image of such separation in the Bible. There are several others, as I will note in my next post, but the image of Gehenna is present and has a powerful and enlightening Biblical history worth looking at more closely.
“Gehenna” was a very concrete location in Jesus’ time. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that a wealthy family named “Hinnom” owned a garden near Jerusalem which first King Ahaz, and then even more audaciously, King Manasseh turned into a place for burning children as a sacrifice to the god Molech. When he came to the throne, King Josiah was so distraught by this practice of his forefathers that he destroyed the altars and turned the garden into a garbage dump—the beautiful garden did, in reality, become a place where the flames never went out and the worms never died out.
Jesus would have passed by this place when he visited Jerusalem. And, everyone who heard Jesus use the word “Gehenna” would have pictured the main city garbage dump and known its history.
If we put this image that every hearer would have pictured immediately, together with Jesus’ use of this image as a warning to church/religious leaders, we have Jesus warning current synagogue leaders and future church leaders not to let their arrogance cause them to turn God’s garden into a garbage dump. It is church leaders, not the lost and outcast of Jesus’ day, who are consistently warned of the danger of harming others in a manner that turns there own lives into the garbage of history.
I wonder what would happen if Church leaders started teaching “Hell” the way Jesus did? What if current church leaders did what the writers of the gospels did and made it clear that the warnings were for them and leaders like them? Wouldn’t all the words take on a different inflection if we who teach, preach, and do Biblical scholarship saw the fingers pointing first of all at ourselves and never at those who seem to be “outcasts” from our “inner circle?”
Grace and peace,