Response to Ben Witherington on Gehenna

Sun, 25/09/2011 - 17:05

Ben Witherington has taken the trouble to post a couple of comments (here and here) in response to my critique of his argument about Gehenna in his book Revelation and the End Times. He makes four points in defence of his more or less traditional understanding of geenna in the Gospels as a reference to a place of everlasting punishment after death. I am delighted that he has taken the trouble to address the “substantive points” that I raised—basically a restatement of my view that, like Jeremiah before him, Jesus invoked the Valley of Hinnom as a metonymy for judgment on Jerusalem. But I remain unconvinced.

Everlasting punishment?

BW: In any earthly judgment like the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D. the punishment is hardly everlasting. But that is exactly what Gehenna describes.

Gehenna is not directly qualified as “everlasting” in the Gospels, but in Matthew 18:8-9 the danger of being “thrown into the geenna of fire” is set in synonymous parallelism with the danger of being “thrown into the everlasting fire (to pur to aiōnion)”.

The question here is whether an “everlasting fire” necessarily entails the thought of everlasting suffering. After all, the fact that a fire lasts forever does not mean that whatever is thrown into it—such as the dead bodies of those killed during the course of a siege—lasts forever.

There were certainly strands in Second Temple Judaism that could happily contemplate the punishment of the enemies of Israel by means of an everlasting fire. To give one non-apocalyptic example, the Maccabean martyrs vainly threaten Antiochus Epiphanes with “ample and everlasting (aiōnion) torture by fire imposed by divine justice” and “a fire fierce and everlasting (aiōniōi) and tortures, which for all time will not release you” (4 Macc. 9:9; 12:12).

However, apart from the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which we will come to in a moment, Jesus does not speak in this way of the conscious torment of the wicked, and I think that the Old Testament background rather suggests that the punishment for unrighteousness is death. I argued in this post that the thought of an everlasting fire derives from the vision of the dead bodies of those who rebelled against YHWH in Isaiah 66:24. The fire is not quenched and the worm does not die, but these are not tortured souls in hell; they are the unburied dead, lying outside the city, victims of war. The everlasting element in the vision simply reinforces the enduring “abhorrence” of the event.

Matthew 10:28 also suggests that what is thrown into the Gehenna of fire is simply burned up. Men—the Jewish or Gentile powers that might condemn the disciples to death—are able to kill the body but not the “soul”, but God is able to destroy both body and soul in geenna. The destruction of the soul here corresponds to killing the soul. There is no thought of torment after death. “Everlasting” qualifies the effects of divine judgment, not the experience of the dead, and in this context, I would suggest, merely underlines the finality of the judgment on Jerusalem.

The rich man and Lazarus

BW: It’s perfectly clear Jesus is talking about the other world there, not some future judgment on earth, and notice the reference to the need for water in Hades….

To my mind it’s not so obvious that in this parable Jesus is not talking about some future judgment on earth. I am inclined to think, as I have argued here, that Jesus is using a traditional story motif to describe “a day of judgment for Israel when the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away (cf. Lk. 1:53)”.

Incidentally, if Hades is to be understood as a reference to hell rather than simply to the grave or the place of the dead, we have a problem not only with the widespread use of the word as virtually synonymous with “death” in the LXX but also with Revelation 20:13, where “Death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire. This is surely an image of the final destruction of death by fire.

The Markan apocalypse and the Jeremiah material

BW: …the Markan apocalypse… in Mk. 13 is divided into two major sections– ‘these things’ which lead up to the destruction of the Temple and these are all events upon the earth, and what will happen ‘after those days’ (i.e. after the destruction of the temple) which includes A) cosmic signs, and B) the return of Christ at an unknown date to judge the world. The Jeremiah material is of no relevance to the latter subject.

Unfortunately I’m not in a position to check Ben’s commentary on Mark, but I question the division of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse into two parts. It strikes me as an artificial face-saving device. Again the arguments have been presented elsewhere: Mk. 13:24-27 - In those days, after that tribulation…; Matt. 24:34-36 - Concerning that day and hour no one knows; The symbolism of the Son of man coming on the clouds and the meaning of kingdom.

My view is that the account of the “Son of man coming in clouds” to gather his suffering “elect” from across the world in Mark 13:24-27 (and parallels) affirms—in terms primarily of the symbolic narrative of Daniel 7—the vindication and deliverance of the disciples at a time of earthly judgment.

Mark does not, in fact, have “after those days”, as Ben states, but “in those days, after that tribulation”; Matthew has “immediately after the tribulation of those days”. The “elect” who are gathered (Mk. 13:27) are the “elect” for whose sake the period leading up to the destruction of the temple is cut short (13:20). “All these things”, including the appearance of the Son of Man, will occur within a generation (13:30). The cosmic signs are familiar from Old Testament prophecies of judgment either on Israel or on the enemies of Israel. I think the Jeremiah material, therefore, remains entirely relevant.

Judgment on Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum

BW: In Jesus’ discussion of judgment on cities like Chorazin he quite specifically uses language of going up to heaven or going down to Gehenna or Hell. The same when he talks about causing a little one to stumble and speaks of the millstone etc.

In Matthew 11:20-24 and more briefly in Luke 10:13-15 Jesus warns unrepentant Chorazin and Bethsaida that “it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than for you”, and Capernaum, which had sought to be “exalted to heaven”, that it would be “brought down to Hades”, that “it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom than for you”.

The language echoes the condemnation of the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:13-15 and of the prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:2-10: the one who wishes to ascend into heaven, to make himself equal with God, will be brought down to Sheol, to the pit—that is to death. This is not about going to heaven or hell: it is about divine judgment, in the form of destruction and death, on kings or cities that exalt themselves against the true God. Jesus has in view the impact of the Jewish War on the cities of Galilee.

According to Jude 7 Sodom and Gomorrah “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal (aiōniou) fire” (ESV). But there is no suggestion that this means anything more than that the cities were destroyed in the manner described in Genesis 19:23-29. It is common in the Old Testament for wicked cities to be compared to Sodom and Gomorrah and to be threatened with a comparable punishment (eg. Is. 3:9; 13:19; Jer. 50:40; Lam. 4:6). Jesus condemns Chorazon, Bethsaida and Capernaum in exactly this fashion (Matt. 11:21; Lk. 10:13).


Hi Andrew,
This is my first response on your post. As a result of much theological deconstruction over that last few years I have been left in a state of perplexity (thanks Brian Mclaren for his diagnosis). However, the historical hermeneutic that you are explaining on this site resonates with my musings over those same few years. I have just purchased The Abomination of Desolation in Matthew 24.15 by Michael Theophilos and are looking forward to reading it, as it seems to be research that supports the arguments you put forward ( particularly the Son of Man motif). My question is, is there other books that you can suggest ( I have read 3 of yours and much of N.T. Wright) that would also help 'us' to understand and support (even defend) this post-modern approach to scripture?
Thanks for your great site!

Daniel, thanks. I often get asked this question. I will try to put together some sort of reading list when I get the chance. I’m sure others would find it helpful.

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