Hell in the Teachings of Jesus (Part 2)

This is the tenth in a 13-part series wherein I give you Hell, a little booklet by the inimitable Dr. Jeff Obadiah Simmonds.

Another text used to prove the existence of hell as a place of suffering is where Jesus referred to a place of misery where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 25.30). Jesus was contrasting those who are in “the Kingdom of God” with those who are excluded from the Kingdom and mourn their unfortunate situation. We tend to project the Kingdom of God into the after-life—”the Kingdom of God” means “heaven,” and therefore those who are weeping and gnashing are therefore also in the after-life, but deprived of entry into heaven, and are therefore in hell.

I would see things somewhat differently. The Kingdom of God exists where-ever God’s rule is manifested. Obviously God’s rule is manifested in heaven, but the purpose of Christ’s coming was to bring this rule—the Kingdom—to earth. The Kingdom of God is therefore not something we enter when we die, but when we submit to God’s dominion by becoming the disciples of Jesus. Those who are outside this dominion are deprived of life and meaning and will suffer. The picture which Jesus presents in His parables are not necessarily of judgement in the after-life.

Jesus taught the coming of this Kingdom—an invasion of God’s rule into this world—in which the rich and powerful would be deprived of wealth and power. In that day, says Jesus, they “will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8.12) while those who are currently marginalised will sit down to feast in God’s great banquet. But this is not a picture of what will happen when we die, but when this world is transformed by the Gospel and the Kingdom.

As such, the image of weeping and gnashing does not provide evidence of eternal torment of the wicked in hell.

However, some of these “weeping and gnashing of teeth” texts do seem to refer to the Judgement. But here the image of burning fire is used. In the parable of the weeds, for example, Jesus speaks of the wheat being brought into God’s barn, while the weeds are “tied in bundles to be burned” (Mt 13.30). Again, while judgement by fire may be read as an eternal torture in hell, it may more reasonably be read as a metaphor of judgement and destruction—weeds are not subjected to eternal burning, but are thrown into a fire so that they may be consumed and be no more. However, Jesus explains this parable and says that those who cause sin will be weeded out of His kingdom and the angels will “will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13.41-42). The question is whether the weeping and gnashing constitutes conclusive evidence that those thrown into the fire will be consciously tortured for all eternity.

Will the wicked weep and gnash their teeth while they are being consumed by fire—a short-lived pain which ends in their destruction, or shall we assume that Jesus is speaking an eternity of torture? The Scripture is ambiguous in that the case can be argued either way. I would suggest, however, that the image of fire as destruction tips the scales in favour of an annihilationist interpretation.

A similar parable occurs in Mt 13.47-50. The judgement is compared to the separation of fish caught in a net. The unrighteous, who are “thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” are compared to unkosher fish which are “thrown away”. The point that inedible fish are destroyed, like the weeds, and not subjected to enduring torment again may point in the direction of destruction, and not torment, of the unsaved.

Annihilationists say that the annihilation of the wicked is eternal—this sentence will never be reversed. As such, this extinction of being is eternal punishment.

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