Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Hell" is Valley of Hinnom, so Jesus is back already?

Benjamin Corey's post on Jesus' reference of hell as the Valley of Hinnom is being circulated widely on social media. He rightly points out that the word "Gehenna" which is usually translated as "hell" is a reference to the valley. 

What's wrong with Corey's post is his conclusion that Jesus' warning to his hearers in Matthew 24 is a reference to the impending destruction of the temple in 70 A.D (with emphasis added):
At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment).
Corey argues that Jesus was referring to an event that will soon take place, and so the reference of Gehenna points to the cremation of those who didn't heed his warning. I find this an inconsistent reading of Matthew 24.

When we read the whole of Matthew 24, we would see how Corey has wrongly concluded that Jesus was referring to the imminent destruction of the temple.
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you...

29 Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:3, 29-30. Emphasis added.)
The whole point of Jesus' reply is to answer his disciples' inquiry about his glorious return. If Jesus' warning refers to the temple destruction in 70 A.D., then he would have return at that time, as per his own foresight.

The only way for Corey to go around this is to insert a "gap" between verse 29 and 30. Yet this hermeneutical move is perhaps too convenient. When the verses agree with one's proposal, there is no gap. When the verses disagree, suddenly we should find a gap there.

Well, historically, there is no record of Jesus appearing after the temple's destruction in 70 A.D. So on historical basis, we can deduce that Jesus had something else in mind in his warning. Gehenna as the Valley of Hinnom doesn't lead to the conclusion that Jesus was referring to the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24.

Of course, there is a way to go around this. Corey could say that Jesus has returned, but it wasn't recorded anywhere in the ancient world. But I don't think he and those who agree with him want to take this route.

To sum up, we can agree that Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom. However, we have to recognize that Jesus uses it as a vivid imagery of his days as illustration of a horror. And Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 may or may not link to his reference of Gehenna in the previous chapter. Jesus could be envisioning the hypocrites' upcoming cremation at Hinnom Valley in chapter 23, while talking about the afterlife condition of weeping and gnashing of teeth for hypocrites (24:50, 25:30), which may be his reference of eternal punishment (25:46).

Or, Jesus was using Gehenna as a symbol for the afterlife condition. Whichever it may be, the reading of Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 as reference to the 70 A.D. temple destruction can hardly be sustained.