Friday, June 8, 2012

Cut Off Your Reason

One of the times after arriving in Capernaum, Jesus told Peter to get money to pay Jesus' share of Temple tax from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). Then, Jesus discussed with the Disciples which of them would be the greatest.

Then, Mark 9:38-41 and Luke 9:49-50 had the Disciples point out to Jesus a man, who was not a fellow follower of Jesus but who was exorcising demons in Jesus' name. Jesus told the Disciples to let the man continue, because he was on their side. Matthew skipped that, but he did make an earlier reference within the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus claimed that some people who cast out demons in His name would ultimately face damnation (Matthew 7:21-23). (I think this suggests that Matthew was less tolerant of non-followers, as was also shown in Matthew 12:30.)

From there, Matthew and Mark continue on together, while Luke takes a different path, as we will see below.

Cut Off Your Reason
If you have read the Gospels, you may know that Jesus said some rather controversial things. Some of those were scandalous for their time, while others rub our modern sensitivities a little raw. Well, as it turns out, some things recorded by Mark may have even been too controversial for Matthew and Luke to use in their Gospels. We will see this evidence, and a glimpse of the birth of Hell, as we dig into this study.

Our study begins as a continuation of the previous conversation, where Jesus had used a child to illustrate how His followers were to humble themselves if they truly wanted to be great. In the continuation, Matthew 18:6-7 and Mark 9:42 have Jesus explain that the fate of someone who caused "one of these little ones" (meaning either literally children or figuratively meek and humble people) to sin would be much worse than a forced drowning.

Curiously, this is a case where we can see Luke's editing in action, because he makes a glaring mistake in doing so. You see, Luke also has that same content, but he moved it eight chapters later than the earlier conversation. So while Luke 9:46-48 has the discussion where Jesus used the child, Luke 17:1-2 is where the conversation continued. In its later position, the two verses are completely removed from their supporting context, so you have no idea what Luke's Jesus means when He says "one of these little ones." Why would Luke do such a thing? We may have our answer as we continue.

The topic of the fate of those who encourage sin is a convenient segue for Jesus to speak about the seriousness of sin. How serious is it? Well, in Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-49, sin is so serious that Jesus recommended self-mutilation of any particular body part that caused you to sin.

Wait. What? Yes, cut off your hand or gouge out your eye if either causes you to sin.

Surely that would be too pernicious for Jesus to say and mean literally, right? Surely we all know that Jesus is just metaphorically saying that you should take extremely aggressive measures to avoid the temptations of sin, right? Possibly, but that does not stop the occasional Christian lunatic from trying to chop of his own, um, sinful parts. Plus, something about that message was apparently too controversial to Luke, because he chose to edit it out from his Gospel, and completely relocate its preceding context, as mentioned above!

On the other still-attached hand, Matthew was far from embarrassed by the message. Instead, he liked it so much that he also aggregated it into the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:29-30). Perhaps Matthew better understood this metaphorical message and the type of extreme behavior it warranted than did Luke, as is suggested later in his unique content in Matthew 19:12, where Jesus says:
"For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” NIV

Matthew's Jesus said to live like a eunuch for the sake of Heaven if you can, not to become an actual eunuch.

Yet Matthew was not keen on everything Mark recorded in this episode. Per both Matthew and Mark, the reason for the (metaphorical) self-mutilation was that it was better to enter into God's Kingdom as a cripple than to have your whole body thrown into "Hell," but what the Hell did that mean exactly?

Gehenna to Hell in a Hand-basket
The concept of Hell evolved within Christianity, and that evolution can be traced within the Gospels to some extent. The Gospel of Mark has obvious primacy to the other Gospels, so it should point us to the earliest concept of Hell; or whatever fate awaited the unsaved.

Indeed, "Hell" appears three times in Mark, and all within this section: Mark 9:43, Mark 9:45, and Mark 9:47. But the word "Hell" is a translation of the Greek word "Gehenna," which is itself thought to be a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase for "Valley of Hinnom."

The common theory is that Gehenna references a valley to the south of Jerusalem where trash, and some corpses, were burned continually, and thus would have provided Jesus' audience with a very visible concept of their fate if they rejected God. The strange thing is that neither archeology nor other written records have not been able to verify the smoldering trash heap within the Valley of Hinnom contemporaneous with Jesus. That Gehenna is a fable.

The reality is that the Valley of Hinnom had already been tainted by past events and not-quite-fulfilled prophesies. 2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31, and Jeremiah 32:35 all record how the valley was used for child sacrifice to pagan gods, particularly Molech. As you may imagine, God was pretty angry about that, and so in Jeremiah 7:32-33 He swore:
"So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom (a.k.a. Valley of Hinnom), but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away." NIV
If that is not repulsive enough for you, go to Jeremiah 19 to read a slightly longer, slightly more-gory version of the same prophesy. These prophesies were made to the Israelites allegedly before their Babylonian exile. While God failed to turn that valley into the necropolis which He described, the Israelites were indeed conquered after a bloody war and a siege of Jerusalem. Regardless of the actual outcome, the Scriptural connection had been made between the Valley of Hinnom, a.k.a. Gehenna, and the concept of the Valley of Slaughter.

Mark was using that connection of Gehenna to a place of great slaughter, but with a different prophesy. Depending on which Bible translation you read, in Mark 9:44, Mark 9:46, and Mark 9:48 you will find the phrase after the mention of Gehenna:
where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' NIV
Here, Jesus is making a partial quote of Isaiah 66:24, which is part of a yet unfulfilled prophesy. Bingo! We have meaning! Isaiah 66:24 is the last line of a prophesy which begins in Isaiah 65. While I encourage you to read the whole delightful prophesy yourself, you can get a sense of the Hell Mark had in mind by reading the last three verses, Isaiah 66:22-24:
"As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before Me," declares the Lord, "so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before Me," says the Lord. "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against Me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." NIV
That certainly is a charming picture of the "afterlife," right? The "new heavens and the new earth" is nothing more than God saying that He will establish a new kind of order on earth. That order will last forever, and if you are worthy, your name (not you personally) will last forever as well through your descendants in a world where everyone worships God. The bodies of those who rebel against God will be on display in a worm-eaten, fire-burnt state.

That is Mark's Hell. That is his fate worse than drowning. Your dilapidated corpse will be a shameful spectacle to subsequent, God-worshiping generations. It exists side-by-side with his version of Salvation.

Perhaps that concept of the land of Salvation and Hell being in close proximity was too disturbing for Matthew, because he severed the link to Isaiah's prophesy by editing it out Jesus' quote. But Matthew did really like Mark's Hell, ultimately using Gehenna seven times; more than any other Gospel.

Yet by the time Matthew and Luke got around to writing their Gospels, the concept had been altered; Hellenize and relocated to some underworld using the Greek word "Hades," as we find in Matthew 11:20-24 and Luke 10:13-15 where Jesus said that on Judgement Day, Capernaum would "go down to Hades." Luke would push that theme even further, providing an explicit conceptualization of Hades as a place of eternal torment in the parable of the rich man and beggar Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

There is a Hell of a lot more to discuss about this evolution, but we will save that for another time.


  1. This was an intriguing discussion of the evolution of Hell, and I think most Christians would be surprised to learn where the idea evolved from.

    "That order will last forever, and if you are worthy, your name (not you personally) will last forever as well through your descendants in a world where everyone worships God. The bodies of those who rebel against God will be on display in a worm-eaten, fire-burnt state."

    Sounds more like a theocratic dystopia than a new heaven and earth.

  2. I would say that you nailed it as a "theocratic dystopia," Ahab!

  3. I know the association of Gehenna with a burning pile of trash in the Valley of Hinnom is commonly made in churches today, but Gehenna has little to do with the historical Valley of Hinnom. That association was made by a rabbi named David Kimhi many centuries ago, and has been popular ever since.

    You write that "God failed to turn that valley into [a] necropolis." I believe he did. Or rather, *they* did. The Babylonians slaughtered the people of Judah, as predicted, in the 6th century BCE, easily to the extent that there would have been no room to bury the dead in the burial grounds.

    You make an interesting connection between Mark 9:48 and Isaiah 66:22-24, but it must be emphasized that this is *your* connection. There's no reason to believe that Mark intended his readers to infer anything more from the phrase, "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched," than just that (some would say this is a reference to the eternality of Hell). You also say that Matthew "severed the link to Isaiah's prophesy by editing it out [of] Jesus' quote." Unless I'm missing something, this is merely your assumption, and again, that should be emphasized.

    I look forward to future posts regarding Hell. It's a very interesting, controversial, and, in my opinion, misunderstood concept.

  4. Hi Ollie, and thanks for the comment.

    Regarding the conquering of Judah, I may be splitting hairs, but I am trying to take God at His word here. From the quote, it does not say that so many people would be slaughtered that it could fill up the valley. Rather, it specifically says that the bodies will be buried in the valley until the valley itself is full. Archeology has not revealed this valley to have ever been that full of dead, buried bodies, or even half full, or any sign of mass burial for that matter. As such, I am right to say that that prophesy was never fulfilled the way that God had described it, but I know you generally tend to let go of the details and cling just to the core meaning; that meaning being that, yes, a lot of people were killed in that war.

    Regarding the Isaiah prophesy, my friend, I do not think it is right to emphasize that this is my connection. This is a quote that Mark made. It is a quote Jesus made. It is a quote from Isaiah. It is a quote from unfulfilled prophesy. It is used in conjunction with Gehenna. Those connections are inherent in the text. I do not see a way around it. However, if you can cite any other time when Jesus quoted a yet-unfulfilled prophesy merely for illustrative purposes, but with no inference that such a prophesy would come to pass... let me know, and I will gladly reconsider. ;-)

    The only thing I have done is explain the prophesy. The explanation is mine, but other than the new-heavens-and-earth thing, it's a pretty self-explanatory prophesy.

    However, you are right to mention that Matthew severing the link is my conclusion (not assumption). That conclusion is based on the following facts...
    - Matthew used Mark as a source for his Gospel
    - Matthew does not appear to suggest a "Hell" where people who are not in it can walk by and observe the dead bodies of those who are in it.
    - Matthew used references to Hades as well as Gehenna, but Mark only used Gehenna.

    ...and assumptions...
    - The version of Mark that Matthew used did have this quote from Isaiah
    - The lack of Matthew quoting Jesus quoting this verse from Isaiah is significant.

  5. "but that does not stop the occasional Christian lunatic from trying to chop of his own, um, sinful parts. "


  6. "While I encourage you to read the whole delightful prophesy yourself,"

    'That certainly is a charming picture of the "afterlife," right?'

    I must be in a hilarious mood--what did I smoke?
    Or you're really funny on this post.


  7. :-) I am happy to have given you a chuckle, Lorena! I did try to lighten up an otherwise-disturbing topic. ;-)

  8. You wrote: "Archeology has not revealed this valley to have ever been that full of dead, buried bodies, or even half full, or any sign of mass burial for that matter."

    I'm not sure what would qualify as a necropolis to you, but let's at least agree that the Valley of Hinnom is absolutely FULL of bodies. It served as Jerusalem's primary burial ground for thousands of years (and, in some cases, is still used today for this purpose). In addition to the residents of Jerusalem, foreigners also buried their dead there. The Crusaders buried large numbers of their dead there. The area is replete with burial caves, burial complexes, and charnel houses. Layer upon layer of burial grounds would be found if one were to excavate beneath the burial structures that now lie at the top. While some excavations have been done in that area (most notably one that led to the discovery of KH1 and KH2 at Ketef Hinnom--silver scrolls, dated to the 6th century BCE, which contain the blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26 and phrases from other OT books), large-scale excavations have not been done in the valley, presumably because it's difficult to get permission to dig in a place where people of various nationalities and religions are buried. There are a few, small ongoing digs--one of which, interestingly, resulted in the discovery of a burial cloth that might finally put to the rest the "Shroud of Turin" fraud.

    Here is some interesting reading for those interested (sorry, but I'm not able to use HTML here, so no hyperlinks):


  9. And for those not in the mood to read, here are a few excerpts from each that I found most pertinent to the discussion, and/or most interesting:

    1) "Much of the Hinnom Valley is part of the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Tur. Several neighborhood homes are adjacent to graves, and other graves lie within the properties." "The entire area served for burials over thousands of years."

    2) "In the caves were hewn stone benches, upon which generations of Jerusalemites, beginning in the late First Temple Period, placed their dead, along with jewels and other offerings." "The findings also indicate that, contrary to accepted wisdom, Jewish life may have continued in Jerusalem after the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C., and they prove concretely that parts of what came to be known as the Old Testament were familiar to the residents of the Judean monarchy 2,600 years ago."

    3) "The Old City of Jerusalem has been surrounded by cemeteries ever since the era of the 1st Temple. That chain of cemeteries is called the Jerusalem Necropolis." "...remaining members of the community are still being buried in the Hinnom Valley..."

    4) "Hinnom is translated into Greek as Gehenna. In the Mishnah this dark place is known as the pit of destruction (Avoth 5:19). The idea that it was hell also comes from the contrast with the Temple Mount: it is the highest point in Jerusalem, while the Hinnom valley is the lowest."

    5) "The Hinnom Valley where the Jerusalem shroud was discovered has long been associated with death." "The ancient Israelites called the valley Gehinnom - the Hebrew for 'Hell' - and it was the site where the scapegoat was driven over a cliff on the Day of Atonement in Solomon's Temple." "Archaeologists have discovered the first known burial shroud in Jerusalem from the time of Christ's crucifixion - and say it casts serious doubt on the claimed authenticity of the Turin Shroud."

    6) "[The text contained in the scrolls KH1 and KH2] is now the earliest occurrence of a Biblical text in an extra-Biblical document, significantly predating the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is also the oldest extra-Biblical reference to YHWH, the God of Israel."

    7) "Jerusalem has been known for centuries as a Necropolis which means ‘City of Dead’ in Latin" "According to Jewish tradition, Jews are prohibited from burying their dead inside the city so all the deceased are buried around the city."

    8) "The archaeological excavations around the underground parking lot revealed some seventy burials, with a wealth of finds from the late First Temple and Persian periods, when the area served as one of Jerusalem's main burial grounds."

    9) "The Akeldama excavations revealed some of the finest known examples of tomb architecture and ornamentation."

    10) "[Akeldama] lies on a narrow level terrace on the south face of the valley of Hinnom" ""In the twelfth century, the crusaders erected beyond the field, on the south side of the valley of Hinnom, a large building...." "It is estimated that the bones and rubbish accumulated there form a bed from ten to fifteen feet thick."

  10. Great research. Sorry I was not quite clear. Let me be explicit:

    Archeology has not revealed (1) mass grave burials (2) which were contemporaneous with the capture of Jerusalem (3) such that they filled the valley completely (4) such that bodies were left out to rot/get eaten by scavengers (5) because there was no one left to scare beasts away.

    If there was no one left to scare beasts away, obviously it would have been the victorious Babylonians doing most of the burying, which would have amounted to mass, hasty burials, if even that amount of respect to the dead was paid to the captured.

    What you have got here is a bunch of evidence which says that the valley was used for burials. I have no objection to that. However, you have got to match the evidence to the described tragedy. That is key to determining the veracity of the prophesy, and that was the point I was driving at. I just made a really large mistake by not being clear. Doh!