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
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." NIVIf 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.' NIVHere, 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." NIVThat 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.