The word Gehenna is a Greek transliteration from the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom” (or Ge-Hinnom) which was a deep gorge to the southwest of Jerusalem. It was also called the Valley of Tophet.
The valley has a sordid history. It was a place of idolatry, injustice, and infidelity. It was here that child sacrifices to Molech were performed in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 23:10).
Furthermore, when 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died during their siege in the days of King Hezekiah, the bodies were piled in the valley of Hinnom and set on fire (Isaiah 30:31-33; 37:36). Jeremiah built on this history and said that if the Israelites did not turn and follow God, something similar would happen to them (Jeremiah 7:30-34; 19:2-13). Indeed, after the slaughter of the Israelite people by the Roman military occurred in 69-70 AD many were dumped in the Valley of Hinnom.
But it was not just the history of prophecies of this valley which made it a place of horror. In the days of Jesus, the valley was used as the city dump and also dead bodies were dumped there due to crime, sickness, or poverty.
City officials occasionally would try and cover the stench by igniting the refuse on fire. But since there was so much garbage the fire never really died. It burned day and night, seemingly forever.
In these areas that the fire did not touch worms and maggots went to work on the refuse and corpses that were left behind.
Gehenna in the Days of Jesus
In the days of Jesus, this is what came to mind when someone used the word “Gehenna.” The term conveyed a sense of horror and disgust. Gehenna was a place of undying worm and fire, an abhorrent place where crawling maggots and smouldering heat consumed the rotting flesh and dumped rubbish.
Therefore, since Gehenna was a literal place outside the walls of Jerusalem, the word should NOT be translated in our Bibles.
We do not translate “Jerusalem” as “City of Peace,” “Bethel” as “City of God,” or “Gilgal” as “circle,” even though that is what those place names mean. So also, we should not translate Gehenna as “hell”.
The translators that generally have a bias towards the general heaven and hell belief system saw a picture of how they believed hell looked like. This is understandable but this should have been left to the reader to understand. Was it hell or was Jesus just teaching about how someone’s life could be impacted by sin. If the scriptures at the bottom of this post are read with the above understanding about what Gehenna was like, it can easily been seen as a warning about their lives then and if they had a sin problem they must address it.
Otherwise Gehenna would be their destination. This would make a great impression on anyone and this probably led many to be baptised. Then once Jesus had been killed and resurrected His message of the gospel could be fully understood and they would be ready to receive the Spirit of God if they had repented and been baptised.
Jesus explained that sin was more than what was in the Mosaic Law. Even telling someone “You fool” (Matthew 5:22) is sinful. He got to the heart of man’s sin problem, what he thinks in his heart and speaks.
Therefore Gehenna should have been left as it is, thereby alerting the reader to the fact that the text is referring to the valley called Gehenna outside the gates of Jerusalem. Translating it as “the Valley of Hinnom” would also be fine.
The other word that is translated to hell is “hades”.
Jesus and the writers of the Gospels made a distinction when they used either Gehenna or Hades. If they were the same place why then were they used if they refer to same place?
Therefore, a word that is commonly translated as “hell” in the New Testament, Gehenna does not in fact refer to a place of burning torture or torment in the afterlife.
Instead, the word Gehenna refers to a literal place outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The following scriptures have had the word hell replaced with the original correct actual place name of Gehenna.
Matthew 5:22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of Gehenna fire.
Matthew 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.
Matthew 5:30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.
Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to Gehenna, into the fire that shall never be quenched—
Mark 9:45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into Gehenna, into the fire that shall never be quenched—
Luke 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I say to you, fear Him!