When Jesus spoke of hell, the few times that he actually did, he was speaking of a specific place that was well known to those that were listening. In the gospels Jesus is speaking primarily to a specific people, the lost house, or sheep, of Israel. There are many places we can go to understand this.
In Matthew 15:24 Jesus said that, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:6 to "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
The gospels are more properly associated with the Old Testament as Israel is still the key that God is using for the salvation of the world. We see the need to become a Jewish proselyte well into the book of Acts to be able to enter the kingdom. This does not really change until the final rejections of the Messiah by the Jews through the Acts period and finally in Acts 28 where the apostle Paul states with final authority that he will go to the gentiles. Why is this so important to understand? We need to know who is being spoken to if we want to understand a particular passage. This is very important regarding "hell" as Jesus used the word.
Using the KJV, we find Jesus mentions hell 17 times and, incidentally, he used the word heaven 168 times. So, Jesus did speak of heaven far more frequently. Of the 17 mentions of hell Jesus used two specific words; Gehenna and Hades. Two words for hell and both are completely different places. If both are two separate places then why translate them as one word? Earlier we saw that Sheol, a Hebrew word for the grave or unseen place, is also translated as hell frequently but not always. There is even a fourth word that has been translated as hell in the Bible but it will not be discussed today.
Let's focus on Gehenna as it is the word used with slightly more frequency by Jesus, 11 times out of 17 in the KJV. It is also notable that I mention the KJV specifically; in its various forms of the 1611, the KJV3, and the modern KJV, hell appears in differing numbers. Really? Yes! Do some research on this one. If you continue to search you will find some translations actually use the word Gehenna and do not even have the word hell in their entirety. Two notable and popular translations are the "literal" Young's and Rotherham Bibles- no hell to be found.
Matthew 5:22 is the first occurrence of Jesus using the word hell. If you have a concordance look up the word hell and find its index number which is g1067. Look to the index of Greek words and you will find the word Gehenna is associated with g1067. What exactly is Gehenna?
According to Jeremiah 7:31 Gehenna is called the valley of the son of Hinnom. God says, "And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind." The children of Israel were following a sacrificial custom of the gentiles which burned their children alive in the hands of the god Molech (Jeremiah 32:35), or Topeth. Also see 2 Kings 23:10.
Where was Gehenna, or this valley of the son of Hinnom? In Jeremiah 19:2 God commands the prophet to go somewhere and speak; "and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you." The Potsherd gate is one of the gates of Jerusalem. The valley is south of the city. Later in verse 16 God changes the name of this horrid valley to "the valley of Slaughter".
We now have a word, Gehenna, which is an actual place that has historical meaning for the Jews. It was a place that God was disgusted with due to its use and God was also disgusted with His people for doing such an abomination. It was a place of burning children. The god was represented by a very large statue of metal that was also a furnace. This furnace was kept continually burning. The fire went up the interior heating outstretched hands where the children were laid bound.
Some claim that the valley eventually became the city dump where trash was burned continually and that the bodies of the unlawful who were not fit for burial were burned there as well. Others claim that there is no evidence of this. Either way, the valley was known by the Jews as a place where people were bound and laid on hands of fire for sacrificial reason to a god of pagans, a ritual the Jews copied and performed outside of there own city. This knowledge becomes very important to us as we read the passages where Jesus makes reference to Gehenna. It will become apparent that Jesus is not making reference to an place of eternal torment!
Disciples in danger!
Matthew 5:21-22 KJV
(21) Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
(22) But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Matthew 5:1 tells who Jesus was talking to, it was not the masses but his disciples. The masses followed Jesus and he escaped them by going up the mountain where hos disciples found him. The following verses are spoken to the disciples. It appears at first glance Jesus is giving them a stern warning about some of the reasons one might end up in hell. I often wonder why Adam was not given such a talking to. Interesting as well that Cain, the first murderer, was banished from his homeland but never threatened with hell.
What actually happened then to these tragically murdered innocents? They died. They perished. When one perishes they are no more. What a sad situation Israel found themselves in.
So, Jesus tells his disciples, not the masses, that if their eye or hand offends, pluck it out or cut it off and throw it away. The implication is made that by doing so they can avoid being tossed into an eternal burning hell. If they call their brother a moron or idiot, they may suffer hell as well. What does Jesus say happens to one who is thrown into hell fire? They perish, they die. And what kind of death is one suffered in hell fire? A worthless death. Consider the word that Jesus used when he spoke "hell"; he actually was saying Gehenna. The "Gehenna of fire" or "Gehenna fire" would have been the phrase. It is now interesting to note that some translations actually use the word Gehenna. How much does this make sense! It really does because sometimes Jesus used the word Hades instead which gives an entirely different meaning.
Matthew 5:22 EWB-Companion Bible
(22) But I say unto you, That every one that is angry with his brother without a cause shall be liable to the council of three in the local synagogue:and every one that shall say to his brother, You ! , shall be liable to the Sanhedrin: but every one that shall say, Thou wicked reprobate, shall be liable unto the Gehenna of fire.
What happened to those thrown onto the hands of Gehenna fire? They died a worthless death. Bullinger's Companion Bible is the KJV with some revisions. The point is that the use of the proper name gives all of the meaning we need to understand, and it is NOT about burning forever in hell.
Gehenna as a place used from the result of Judgement
Jeremiah chapter 7 is a warning of what might come upon Israel should they not repent. The warning is tied to Gehenna, the Valley of the son of Hinnom, or the valley of Topeth. The nation of the north will come through and utterly devastate Jerusalem. The death toll will be such that the bodies will be buried in this valley, so many that they will run out of room. The bodies will be so many that they will not be buried and will be food for birds and wild animals. As others pass by Jerusalem and see this they will be appalled! Read Jeremiah 7:31 and 32.
Jeremiah 19:8 NRSV
And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.
Isaiah 66:24 similarly mentioned a fire that is unquenchable, a fire that is burning dead bodies. These are the bodies that are dead and tossed in the valleys surrounding Jerusalem due to the judgement of God. This actually happened! The disciples would know of this. Mark 9:43-48 draws from Isaiah regarding the unquenchable fire. The danger in Matthew 5 is not of eternal burning in a mythical hell which was invented by Jewish sages during the time between the Testaments, but of the results of judgement. Jesus is simply stating, get right, walk right, it is better to do so then to face judgement.
Josephus in his Wars of the Jews book 5, chapter 12, verse 3, states that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem the Jews were no longer able to bury the dead in the city. These unfortunate dead were thrown over the walls into the valleys surrounding the city where they rotted.
So, we can connect Gehenna fire with human sacrifice and a valley in which the bodies of Jerusalem will be thrown due to the lack of burial space after God removes His hand, or hides His face from them, so they will face judgement. One action they will face judgement for is burning their sons and daughters alive. These are the visions that fill the disciples minds when Jesus speaks of Gehenna fire, not an eternally burning fire. We can also say that this example involves Jews only, not gentiles. Finally, we can see that not only was this a historic fact that the Jews could relate to, it was something that happened again to which Jesus himself prophesied (think the narrow and wide gates).
There is much more to this topic that can be looked at another time!