Mat.25:31-46 is the well known passage of judgment where all of humanity, all peoples are gathered before God and He separates the sheep from the goats. And Mathew 25:46 which states, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” is often used, or more correctly, “misused” as a proof-text affirming the concept of Hell.
Advocates of the traditional concept of Hell (traditionalists) interpret this passage to be God separating those who are part of His flock from those who are not, separating His children from those who are not His children, separating believers from unbelievers. Traditionalists point to this passage with tremendous passion and unrelenting resolve as “proof” that Hell awaits those who are not saved. However there are several significant problems with this traditional interpretation of this passage.
The first point the traditional interpretation ignores is the fact that both sheep and goats were valuable parts of the shepherd’s flock. Both sheep and goats were clean animals, not unclean. Goats provided the shepherd with milk, meat, and skins. And a billy-goat could be especially helpful in protecting the flock from a wolf. Sheep provided the shepherd with wool and meat. Both were valuable to the shepherd, and they were separated so that the sheep could be sheared, not so that the goats could be destroyed.
Next notice that the traditional doctrine disregards what this passage actually says is the foundation for judgment. Traditionalists misinterpret this passage to say that judgment is based on whether one is saved or not. However, the judgment actually spoken of in this passage is about how we live our lives, whether or not we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or even visit those in jail. This judgment is based on works, not on faith.
And let me ask, who among us has not failed in this regard? Based on the stated criteria in this passage, who among us would not find himself on the “goat side”! Who among us can claim that we have devoted our lives to the service of those less fortunate than we? In reality, there are but a few, very few, Mother Teresa’s or Albert Schweitzer’s, even among us Christians. I for one often fail in this regard, often consuming upon myself what I could use to bless others. I have walked by the homeless, sometimes without a thought to their care; and I have never been to visit anyone in prison, even a couple of friends that spent some time there. And if we are honest with ourselves, it is likely that we all fail in this regard regularly. Does this mean that all are going to Hell except those who give their lives completely in the service of the poor? This would make salvation completely based on works and not on grace – “IF” one accepts the traditional interpretation.
In order to understand Mathew 25:46 we should also take into consideration that it is in the context of other statements of judgment. In the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant, the unfaithful servant was consigned to a place with the hypocrites, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mat. 24:45-51) In the parable of the ten virgins (Mat. 25:1-13), the five foolish virgins were refused entrance to the wedding feast. And in the parable of the talents (Mat. 25:14-30), the unfaithful servant was consigned to “outer darkness”, a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
The parable of the absentee master is a special warning for those in leadership, those who have responsibility over others. The unfaithful servant who used his position of authority as a means of gratifying his selfish desires was condemned to a place with the hypocrites, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, which was a common phrase used to allude to Gehenna, warned of specifically and repeatedly elsewhere in Matthew.
The parable of the ten virgins speaks of the necessity of always being ready for the coming of the bride-groom. Five of the virgins were not ready and thus were not admitted to the wedding feast. May I ask you who of us is always ready? Who of us never has a bad day? Who of us never runs low on oil? Not me; in fact, I don’t know of anyone who is constantly ready, constantly filled with the Holy Spirit! Is this passage saying that any of us who have a bad day, a day when we are not walking in the grace and power of the Lord, that we might miss out on heaven if the Lord comes when we are having a bad day? If one “assumes” that this passage is speaking of getting into heaven, then such would be a natural conclusion. But is this the message of the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins?
And what about the parable of the talents! It speaks of faithfully using whatever we have been given. Who among us has been absolutely faithful to use all of the talents, all of the money, all of the spiritual gifts, all of one’s time faithfully in the service of God our master? Not me; in fact, the Lord has already shown me just how much of my life I have wasted due to selfishness (laziness) and fear, especially the fear of rejection and fear of failure. Reality is none of us are faithful servants; all of us have wasted much of what we have been given by God! And those who have not been faithful will be cast into “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 25:30)! Does this parable mean that salvation is based on our faithfulness and those of us who have been unfaithful (all of us) will go to Hell?
When we look at these warnings in context, who of us shall escape outer darkness? Who of us will not weep and gnash our teeth? Who of us shall not face eternal judgment and be on the negative side of things? None of us! Of course, traditionalists argue that these passages do not apply to us because Jesus died for us and we have been forgiven of all of our sins. And yet, these passages do not make judgment based on one’s faith or even upon the atonement of Christ. Rather, in these passages judgment is based solely upon how we actually live, our faithfulness and our good works. At least, that is what these passages actually say! And it is hypocritical to interpret these passages to apply to others, but not to ourselves.
So how are they to be correctly interpreted and applied to our lives? As they stand, at face value, they only promise “outer darkness”, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and “eternal punishment” for us all, for all have sinned; none of us are completely faithful; we have all miss countless opportunities to do good for those who are less fortunate!
To interpret these passages correctly there are several things we should note. First note that these warnings were spoken to the disciples, followers of Christ, those who already considered themselves to be children of God. These passages are not warnings to unbelievers, but to believers! Their purpose is not to call unbelievers to faith in God, but they were meant to call those with faith in God to repentance, to be careful to live wisely and compassionately.
We also should recognize that they warn of the universality of judgment! We shall ALL face judgment, all nations, all peoples, not just unbelievers! We shall hall face judgment and give an account for our lives – whether we have faith in Christ or not, whether we have been born of the Spirit or not! In fact, if any thing, these passages are targeted at believers. They are a warning to us disciples of Christ. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
It is also important to note that the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30) was a reference to the Jewish concept of Gehenna. Gehenna, a transliteration of Ga ben Hinnom, the valley of the sons of Hinnom, a valley just outside Israel’s dung gate that was used as a trash dump with a continuous fire and seemingly endless supply of maggots (worm dies not). The city refuse and the corpses of the poor and criminals were consumed there either by fire or by decay (maggots).
The most significant thing to note about Gehenna is that it was used by Jewish Rabbis as a theological metaphor of Remedial Judgment and Punishment in the afterlife. Rabbis during the time of Christ taught that those who were not righteous enough to go straight to Ga Eden (Paradise) were consigned to Gehenna as a means of purification and after some time (up to 11 months) most people ascended to Ga Eden, though it was argued that the most wicked of people might either be annihilated there or continue indefinitely there. Thus Gehenna for the average person, for most all consigned there was understood at an assumption level to be a place of remedial punishment, a season of encountering the fire of truth that would burn the dross from one’s soul. A person’s suffering in Gehenna, though terrible, was understood to be neither endless nor meaningless, but fully accomplished the purification and healing of those consigned there.
Another very important piece of information that helps us in understanding the promise and warning of Mt.25.46 is the meaning of the word “kolasis”. Kolasis, in Classical Greek specifically meant Remedial Punishment, punishment with a purpose of bringing about a positive change in the one being punished. Another word, timoria, spoke of Vindictive Punishment, punishment meant as an outlet for vengeance. In Mt.25.46 Jesus warns of kolasis not timoria, remedial punishment not vengeful punishment!
And of course, an informed interpretation of Mt.25.46 would not be complete without at least a brief review of the meaning of aionios which is often translated as “eternal”, an adjective that describes both kolasis (remedial punishment) and zoe (life). In brief, aionios in scripture is used to speak of that which is spiritual as opposed to that which is physical, that which transcends time (eternal) as opposed to that which is bound by time (temporal). It was used to reference the power and authority of Caesar, the Roman Empire. It was used in the LXX to translate the Hebraic concept of Olam Haba, the realm beyond, that which is beyond the horizon, out of sight and beyond understanding, the age of the Messiah! It is the adjectival form of aion which means age, season, or eon. In short, it simply refers to that which is beyond, of the eternal realm of God that transcends time. It is a word that references source and quality. Eternal Life is life that is from God and of the realm of God, life that transcends time, is both now and not yet. Eternal Remedial Punishment is punishment that is from God, of the realm of God, punishment that transcends time, is both now and not yet. Aionios is not meant to convey something as being endless or not endless; rather, it is meant to convey a quality of life or punishment that transcends time, that effects its purpose in this life as well as in the life to come.
Let us review what I have pointed out concerning the literary context and actual wording of Mt.25.46.
- The intended audience was the disciples, not unbelievers.
- The judgment mentioned was universal, all peoples, not just unbelievers.
- Sheep and goats are both valuable parts of the shepherd’s flock.
- The basis of the judgment is works, how we actually live our lives, not whether or not we believe or have been “saved” or “born again.
- Kolasis means Remedial Punishment, punishment meant to bring about positive change in the one being punished.
- Aionian is a word used to reference that which is from God, that which belongs to time-transcending the realm of God.
- In the immediate literary context, Jesus uses phrases that refer to Gehenna, which also spoke of Remedial Punishment.
When I take into consideration these points about the context and actual wording of Mat.25:31-46, it is evident to me that the traditional interpretation is severely lacking. This passage is a warning of judgment for all humanity, not just unbelievers. It is a judgment based on how we actually live, not on just whether or not we have faith in Christ. And of course, the punishment warned is Remedial in nature, not vindictive; it is punishment meant to bring about a positive change in the ones being punished! It is God’s perfect remedial punishment that will bring about God’s intended purposes in all who are subjected to it.
The traditional interpretation that the separation of the sheep and goats is speaking of the separation of believers and unbelievers with believers going to Heaven and unbelievers going to Hell completely disregards the context and actual wording of the passage. Mat.25:31-46 is not warning of a separation of believer and unbeliever, but of those who live in service to others verses those who do not. It is not a warning of unending torture for anyone, but one of God’s fatherly perfect punishment that leads a person to a change of heart and life. By mistranslating this passage, the traditional interpretation completely nullifies the power of this passage to call believers to righteous living and unbelievers to faith in Christ.
By misinterpreting this passage to speak of the separation of believers and unbelievers and speaking of Heaven and Hell, believers can say “this passage does not apply to me because I’m a believer and thus I need not fear ‘eternal punishment’, thus nullifying the power of this passage to call us to be careful of how we treat others. Whereas the correct interpretation of this passage calls us as believers to be careful to do good to others, especially those less fortunate than we. The truth is, one day we all (believer and unbeliever alike) shall face the judgment and give an account for how we have lived, how we have treated others, and what we have done with what God has given us. If we have done good, we will be rewarded; and if we have done bad, there will be plenty of weeping (repentance) and gnashing of teeth (remorse)! Scripture does not say in vain that God shall dry every tear, for we all have plenty of repenting to do.
Mistranslating this passage to speak of Hell also confuses the issue of salvation. In this passage the reward of life blessed by God is based on how we live our lives, and it says nothing of grace or faith. Many believers point to this passage as “proof” that one getting into heaven is based to a greater or lesser degree on how we live, whether or not we do good. For them salvation is not based solely upon grace, but is based to a greater or lesser degree upon how we live, whether or not we believe and do right. And yet scripture affirms that salvation is by grace, not by our works. Of course, through faith we receive the benefits of this grace; but faith does not generate the grace. Grace precedes and is the foundation of faith. Grace is not predicated upon faith.
Mistranslating this passage to warn of Hell for the non-believer also hinders the work of evangelism. If a believer points out this passage to an unbeliever as a warning of them going to Hell, the unbeliever simply need point out that the believer is no better than he is. In fact, many unbelievers give their lives in support of social causes, serving humanity. Does this mean that they have more hope of life with God than the believer does who is caught up in materialism? Of course not, but the unbeliever can point to the hypocrisy of the traditional interpretation and thus fail to grasp the Good News that salvation is based on grace, not on works.
Whether one believes in Hell or not, whether one believes that Jesus ultimately saves everyone and reconciles all creation to Himself or fails to save most of humanity, this passage warns of Remedial Punishment (kolasis) for believer and unbeliever alike (pas ethnos, all peoples); it does not warn of vindictive “torture” for anyone. It does not warn of or affirm the concept of “Hell”! Instead, it simply and yet powerfully affirms that we shall all face the judgment of God and give an account for how we have lived, especially how we treat others less fortunate than we. Those who have served others shall be rewarded and those who have not served others face aionion punishment – remedial punishment from God in this life and the life to come! “Do not be fooled, what a man sows, so shall he reap!”