Our English word hell, as we find it in the New Testament, is used to translate three different Greek words. We are concerned here with only one of these, the word gehenna, which is almost universally acknowledged to be a term synonymous with the lake of fire described in the Revelation. Gehenna is the transliteration of the Hebrew ge-Hinnom, or valley of Hinnom. It is also called, in the Old Testament, ge-ben-Hinnom, or valley of the son of Hinnom. This valley was used in Old Testament times as a place for the idolatrous worship of Baal and Molech. Here children were burned as sacrifices to these idols:
"Moreover he (Ahaz) burnt incense in the valley of the son
of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the
abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out
before the children of Israel."
II Chron. 28:3.
See also II Chronicles 33:6 and Jeremiah 32:35. Later,
according to Kimchi, the valley of Hinnom was used as a place
for burning the bodies of executed criminals and the refuse of
the city. Thus, fire was perpetually burning there, so that the
valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, became a symbol of the place
of final judgment upon the wicked and is so used by our Lord
more than ten times.
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Where is the valley of Hinnom actually located? This question would seem to be easy to answer, since a glance at any map of Jerusalem will show the name to be attached to the valley which bends around the southwest corner of Jerusalem and meets the valley of the Kidron at a point approximately halfway along the southern boundary of the city; whence the two valleys, now merged into one, run in a southeasterly direction down to the Dead Sea. However, this identification of the valley of Hinnom rests upon rather flimsy evidence, which is traditional in nature, and Christian in origin. Both Arabic and Jewish tradition identify the valley of Hinnom with the valley of the Kidron. This tradition is strongly supported by the Old Testament, which makes several references to the valley of the Kidron. These references are of such a nature that we would expect them to be made of the valley of Hinnom, rather than of the valley of the Kidron, if they were, indeed, two different places. Consider the following passages:
"And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from
being queen, because she had made an idol in a grove, and
Asa destroyed her idol and burnt it by the brook Kidron."
I Kings 15:13.
"And the altars that were on the top of the upper chambers of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, did the king (Josiah) beat down, and brake them down from thence, and cast the dust of them into the brook Kidron."
II Kings 23:12.
"And the priests went into the inner part of the house of the LORD to cleanse it, and they brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the LORD into the court of the house of the LORD. And the Levites took it, to carry it out abroad into the brook Kidron."
II Chron. 29:16.
"And they arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense took they away and cast them into the brook Kidron."
II Chron. 30:14.
"And the whole valley of the dead bodies, and of the ashes, and all fields unto the brook of the Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the LORD, it shall not be plucked up, nor thrown down any more forever."
From these and other passages (see II Kings 23:4-6), we learn that the Kidron was the place where idolatrous images and altars were burned, where the dust and ashes of destroyed idols were cast, and where the uncleanness found in the house of the Lord was cast. Now these are activities which we would have expected to have been carried out in connection with the valley of Hinnom, rather than the valley of the Kidron. However, if as Arabic and Jewish tradition says, these valleys are one and the same, then, of course, no problem exists. We note that the last passage cited predicts that the entire valley of the Kidron is to be holy unto the Lord at a yet future date. But can a valley which pictures the place of everlasting punishment ever be considered holy? The answer must be in the affirmative. Let us remember that hell, or the lake of fire itself, will be the concrete expression of God's justice, and therefore will be most holy. The fact that its subjects will be the most unholy and depraved of men, and will include Satan and his unholy angels, does not make the place itself unholy. "Our God is a consuming fire." But if God, as a consuming fire, destroys unrighteous and ungodly people, he certainly does not become unholy in the process. In addition to the foregoing facts, the entire valley, which includes the Kidron, beginning north of Jerusalem and ending in the Dead Sea, is called by the Arabs the Wady-en-Nar, or valley of fire. This is, of course, a most appropriate name if the Kidron is, indeed, identified with the valley of Hinnom. Finally, the identification of Hinnom with Kidron is supported by an eminent scholar who carried out explorations and excavations on the site. The following quotation is an excerpt from the article on the valley of Hinnom in Hastings' Bible Dictionary:
"Under this disposition, the valley of Kidron becomes the valley of Hinnom; but it is suggested that while the Kidron is only the name for the small, narrow portion of the valley east of the temple, the valley of Hinnom is the name of the whole valley reaching from near the Russian Hospice to the Dead Sea, which is now called Wady-en-Nar, or the valley of fire. The head of this valley of Hinnom, or Kidron, commences near the Jaffa road, a mile and a half north-west of Jerusalem, and runs along the northern side of the Tombs of the Kings."
The article from which this excerpt is taken was written by
Colonel Sir Charles Warren of the British Royal Engineers.
If, in fact, the valley of Hinnom is identical with the valley of the Kidron, so that the Kidron valley was actually the Gehenna referred to by Jesus, what is the theological import of the fact? First of all, we note that Jesus, in going from Jerusalem to Gethsemane with his disciples, must have gone through the Kidron valley, or in other words, through Gehenna, the geographical symbol of hell. In fact, it seems quite reasonable to believe that in making this journey, Jesus and the disciples did not merely go across the Kidron, but first traversed most of its length. This supposition is based on the fact that the traditional site of the eating of the Last Supper was in the south-western part of the city. In order to go from there to the Mount of Olives, they could have proceeded through the city and the temple area until they reached a gate in the eastern wall of the city; or they could have left the city as soon as possible through one of the south gates, and have proceeded through the Kidron valley until they reached the bridge leading over to the Mount of Olives. Since they were undoubtedly, at this time, desirous of escaping attention, it seems reasonable to believe that they would have avoided the city route, and would have chosen the route which would have led them through the Kidron valley. In this connection, when we remember that the Hebrew word Kidron means dark, black, dusky, we are reminded of the Psalmist's words:
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
Going through Gehenna with his disciples was a visible
dramatization of the fact that during those hours Jesus was
literally going through the sufferings and death of hell in their
(and our) behalf.
The fact that the disciples were with him testifies that as he went through the real Gehenna, those who believe on him are reckoned to have gone with him. They have therefore judicially, or legally, suffered all of the torments of hell through identification with him. No wonder the believer can say, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."
John H Mattox