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.