Ben Witherington III on Gehenna, and the clash of paradigms

The premise of this site is that evangelical theology is in transition and that this transition is driven by some really quite deep tectonic shifts in the way that the evangelical community understands its biblical origins. In simple terms, it amounts to a clash between two paradigms—one that prioritizes the theological interests and commitments of the interpreting community, the other that prioritizes the historical situatedness of the texts. Ben Witherington’s discussion of Jesus’ teaching about “Gehenna” in his little book Revelation and the End Times provides a good illustration of how these two paradigms may quietly bump into each other without any one noticing—including, it would seem, the author. In my view these collisions are not innocuous: they are symptomatic of the deeper shift that is taking place, they are evidence of methodological confusion, they should be exposed, and they should be resolved in favour of the historical reading.

Witherington writes that when “Jesus wants to talk about the negative place in the afterlife, he calls it Gehenna” (35), and then proceeds to explain why Jesus uses this peculiar Aramaic word. There are two basic problems with the line of argument that he develops.

1. The first problem is that Witherington merely assumes that when Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he is saying something about the afterlife or about the “fate of humans”. The assumption derives from theological tradition—from the dominant view that Christian faith is directed towards the contrasting ultimate destinies of heaven and hell.

Earlier in the book, however, Witherington noted that generally the subject matter of prophecy “dealt with something thought to be on the near horizon, not something decades, much less centuries in the future” (6). He then partly contradicts himself by saying that much of what is described in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse “already happened in the debacles leading up to an including the Jewish war with Rome in A.D. 70 when the temple and all Jerusalem were destroyed” (8). Decades is exactly the reach of prophetic foresight. But the point is this: the basis is here for an essentially historical understanding of the language of wrath, judgment and punishment. So why not be consistent?

Witherington would argue, of course, that “hell” does not come into this category of realistic historical prophecy, that it is a matter of ultimate personal destiny. But that again is only a theological assumption. Nothing that Jesus says about the punishment of Gehenna compels us to think that he is speaking of the afterlife, that he is describing a post mortem punishment rather than an ante mortem punishment. Jesus does not say that those who sin will be thrown into Gehenna after they have died.

So why not carry the thought through and at least consider the possibility that he uses the language of Gehenna prophetically and historically, within the framework of Israel’s story—particularly given the fact that the strongest Old Testament precedent points precisely in this direction? This brings us to the second problem.

2. Witherington notes that the word geenna refers to the Hinnom Valley, south of the city of Jerusalem, that this place was associated in the Old Testament with the idolatrous practice of child sacrifice, that it was, therefore, a “place of uncleanness and horror in the Jewish imagination”, and that it was a wet and dry rubbish dump where maggots abounded and the fires never went out (35). So he concludes: “It’s a graphic image, and Jesus uses it to describe the eternally stinking, hot place that no one in their right mind would want to visit, much less dwell in.”

This account, however, overlooks a critical part of the interpretive background. Witherington cites the two places in the Old Testament where human sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom is mentioned: the original account of the offence (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6), and Jeremiah’s reference to the abhorrent practice (Jer. 7:31; 19:2-6). But he does not stop to consider what Jeremiah is actually saying here.

The two texts are part of a proclamation of judgment on Jerusalem—not least because Ahaz and Manasseh burned their sons in the Valley of Hinnom. So the days are coming when “it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere” (Jer. 7:32).

And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them. (Jer. 19:7-9)

What Jeremiah describes is the impending Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem, attended by dreadful suffering and loss of life. The Valley of Hinnom is a metonymy for this catastrophic judgment on Judah and Jerusalem; it becomes a symbol for God’s wrath against his people.

So if Jesus warns the Jews—not all humankind—that they risk being thrown into Gehenna, and if we allow that elsewhere he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple within a few decades, why not make the historical assumption that in his mind Gehenna was no less a symbol of concrete judgment on Israel than it was for Jeremiah? Why should we allow theology to overrule the historical reading at this point?

Witherington clearly wants to acknowledge the force of new interpretive perspectives that insist on reading the New Testament as part of Israel’s story. But he is also, with respect to this issue at least, uncritically committed to a theological tradition that understands “hell” as a place of conscious punishment after death. The two paradigms collide unconvincingly in his discussion of Jesus’ teaching about Gehenna.

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Takashi Kojima | Tue, 09/20/2011 - 13:24 | Permalink

Thank you for a thoughtful analysis and critique of Witherington's treatment of hell/judgment.
You take his book as an example of the two major pardigms showing up in a conflicting way without the author quite noticing it. And you showed that well.
Perhaps, the issue of hell is such a biblical interpretative problem that involves two inter-related frameworks, one more historical (prophetic this-world oriented warning) and the other more theological (individualistic-dualistic post mortem view of personal destiny). It seems the NT has some passages that don't quite fit with the historical interpretation alone. The Rich Man and Lazarus, for example, hints that in the people's imagination there is a post mortem place of judgment. Jesus' using the parable does not necessarily teach that such a place exhists but it al least indicates such a view as the historical cultural setting of the Second Temple Judaism we need to take into consideration.
BTW, how do you view the Michael Licona's treatment of Matt.27:52-3? Should it be interpreted historically (as inerrantists insist) or in a more poetic-apocalyptic way (Licona)?

Hope my comment is suffciently clear. Sorry for my English.

I’m not sure the interrelated frameworks argument would work. Either the “individualistic-dualistic post mortem view” would be part of—and presumably consistent with—the historical framework, which would have to be demonstrated exegetically. Or it would constitute a set of ideas that have emerged at a later stage and have been superimposed on the text.

It’s possible that there was a folk belief in hell as a place of torment, evidenced by the Lazarus story, but if Jesus didn’t teach it as such, it’s difficult to argue that it should be normative for Christian thought. I outlined my view of this passage here.

I haven’t read Licona. In my view, on the face of it, Matthew 27:52-53 has to be recognized as historically implausible and theologically problematic. But I do think it casts an interesting light on how Matthew intended Jesus’ resurrection to be understood.

Thank you for taking the time to reply to my a bit unfocused and not-thought-through comment.
The specific point aside, I'm fascinated by your analysis that at the base two paradigmatic views are going on in interpreting biblical texts. I guess since I started reading N. T. Wright, I know what you are trying to get at though I can't quite articulate precisely the difference as you do.
I'll continue to read your blog and learn how to approach biblical texts with the historically-situated biblical narrative in view.

Ben Witherington | Thu, 09/22/2011 - 17:52 | Permalink


You seem to have reviewed this little Bible study book in isolation from watching the DVD which goes with it.  On top of that, you seem to have reviewed this without bothering to read the commentaries that stand behind it on Matthew etc. nor do I detect any engagement with Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.  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.


Try again, only this time, with a wider purview,


Ben W.

Ben, if you find your way back here, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. I wasn’t expecting that—in fact, I probably wasn’t expecting you even to read it! I really should be more careful, and if I’ve misunderstood you, apologies. I was sent the book to review for a journal and I will keep your comments in mind when I get round to writing the piece.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I would have thought it quite normal to read a book on its own terms, on the assumption that it is not necessary to have read the author’s other works in order to reach at least some limited critical conclusions about the content of the book.

The two points I highlighted may well represent the outcome of exegesis that is not on the surface of this book, but I don’t see how that invalidates my critique—i) that it does not consider the possibility that Jesus’ language about Gehenna belongs to the same sort of prophetic discourse as other statements that you accept refer to the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem; ii) that the discussion of the background to the word geenna does not take into account the narrative point of Jeremiah’s description of Jerusalem’s dead being thrown into the Valley of Hinnom.

You may well have examined these propositions elsewhere and rejected them. In the post I simply assert my own view that Jesus’ reference to Gehenna reworks the argument of Jeremiah 7 and 19 for much the same purpose: he foresees a coming judgment on Jerusalem equal in horror to the Babylonian invasion—and remarkably Josephus will describe how the bodies of the dead were thrown over the walls of the city because there was no place left to bury them.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to consider the broader argument that you have developed elsewhere in support of your interpretation. But I will try to set out my reasons separately for thinking that “everlasting” does not make Gehenna a place of conscious post mortem punishment.

To be honest, I’m not sure that taking a “wider purview” is what’s needed here. That can easily mean: keep widening your purview until you are able to accommodate some preferred dogmatic position. A historical reading of the New Testament, it seems to me, often requires us to take a narrower purview.

Ben Witherington | Sun, 09/25/2011 - 00:41 | Permalink

Andrew at a minimum you should have viewed the DVD with the little guide book.   But on your substantive points, arguing for a purely preterist interpretation there are numerous problems:  1) the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  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 (Luke's term for it); 2) the Markan apocalypse (see my Mark commentary) 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.  3) 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.    You are certainly right that the Hinom valley had a lot of different associations, such as being a place where Molech was sacrificed to, but this is not an either or matter.  It has only negative associations, including everlasting ones. 


Ben W.