A valley in Jerusalem where refuse was burned, later becoming a symbol for the place of punishment in the nether world. The NT term γέεννα is a Greek-influenced form of Aramaic gêhinnām, corresponding to Hebrew gê’hinnōm (the Valley of Hinnom: Neh 11.30, a shortened form of gê ' b enê-hinnōm, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom: Jos 15.8; 18.16; etc.); the ravine (modern Wâdī er-Rabâbeh) is situated at the southern end of Jerusalem. During the monarchy the place called Thopheth in this valley was the scene of an idolatrous cult involving the burning of children as sacrificial victims to Moloch (Jer7.31; 2 Kgs 16.3; 21.6). Later, perhaps because of its reputation as a place of idolatrous worship, it became the dumping ground where the refuse of the city was burned. In Jeremiah's time it was known simply as "the valley" (Jer 2.23).
By the time of Christ, however, the word Gehenna had evolved from a topographical designation to an eschatological one; it became the place of chastisement for the wicked immediately after death or in the eternity that was to follow the resurrection and the Judgment. The eschatological imagery of Gehenna came from Jer7.30–8.3; 19.2–13; and Is 66.24. Jeremiah foretold that this place would one day be called the Valley of Slaughter, for in the destruction of Jerusalem so many of its inhabitants would be killed that their corpses would be cast, unburied, into the valley to rot or be burned. In short, Gehenna would be a symbol of divine chastisement, although this would not be definitive, for Jeremiah predicted also that the valley of dead bodies and ashes would eventually be holy to Yahweh (Jer 31.40).
In Is 66.24, the last verse of an eschatological oracle coming from the period of reconstruction after the Exile, yahweh proclaimed that He would vindicate Himself by restoring zion and by having all the nations come there to pay Him honor. Outside its gates the nations would see the cadavers of all who had rebelled against Him. Although Gehenna was not mentioned in the oracle, there was an obvious allusion to Jer 7.30–8.3, but now the chastisement is described as definitive ("Their worm shall not die, nor their fire be extinguished"). As a rubbish dump, Gehenna was a place where fire burned constantly and where worms feasted on the garbage, and these images were transferred to the never-ending punishment of the rebellious. The references to fire in Is 31.9 and Is 33.14 envisioned Yahweh's power as bringing vengeance on Israel's oppressors (Is 33.10–12) rather than a fire punishing the damned.
The apocryphal literature used the image of Gehenna as a symbol of everlasting punishment but not in a uniform way. The Book of Enoch (ch. 6–36, c. 150 b.c.) still envisaged a terrestial eschatology: the resurrected just would rejoice on the earth (ch. 25) and evildoers would rise and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna (ch. 22). In ch. 83 to 90 of Enoch, Gehenna was not named, but it was alluded to in an apparently transcendental eschatology. The fallen angels after the Judgment would be cast into a fiery abyss (90.24–27). This concept was not so developed an eschatology as that of Matthew in which Gehenna was conceived in cosmic terms as belonging exclusively to the world beyond and as having always been in existence (Mt 25.41).
In ch. 37 to 71 of Enoch (beginning of the Christian Era) sheol and Gehenna were used interchangeably (54.1–2). The darkness of Sheol was thus added to the fire of Gehenna, which was thought of as a fire that burns without giving light. Such confusion between Sheol and Gehenna is found also in the NT, e.g., "the darkness outside" (Mt 8.12; 22.13; 25.30). Gehenna had thus become disengaged from its ancient topography and transferred to the NT eschatology of the world beyond. In Enoch 90.26–27; 54.1–2; and 56.3–4 Gehenna was destined only for apostate Jews; elsewhere it was the destiny for all the wicked, including pagans. Later Judaism, however, regarded Gehenna as a sort of purgatory for faithless Jews and a place of eternal perdition for the Gentiles.
Other NT texts that mentioned Gehenna are Mt 5.22, 29; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; Mk 9.43–47; Lk 12.5; and Jas3.6. Synonyms such as "furnace of fire" (Mt 13.42, 50), "everlasting fire" (Mt 18.8; Jude 7), and "pool of fire" (Rv 19.20; 20.9, 14–15; 21.8) were employed as well to signify eternal punishment.
See Also: hades; hell (in the bible); hellfire; judgment, divine (in the bible).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 847–850. j. jeremiah, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, ed. g. kittel (Stuttgart 1935) 1:655–656. a. wikenhauser, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 4:598. t. h. gaster, The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Tenn. 1962) 2:361–362. j. bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ, tr. w. wolf (New York 1964) 226–251.
[i. h. gorski]
"Gehenna." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gehenna
"Gehenna." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gehenna