As a Christian, I am convinced that the God has spoken in the Bible through human authors. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.
The Bible is a pill to be taken whole. It is certainly chewable; there are things upon which we need to ruminate. But it is not to be taken piece-meal. It is not a buffet, where those who come to it survey its breadth and pick out the appealing portions, leaving much of it untouched. At least, that was never how God intended it. “All of Scripture is God-breathed and useful…” Paul encourages his young disciple Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16.
So this leaves the Christ follower in an awkward spot if he wishes to both adheres to the whole of Scripture’s teaching and keep in step with the values and attitudes of his culture. One such area concerns the afterlife, judgment and hell. Today in Matthew 13 we get the explanation of the parable of weeds in verses 36-42. But it probably verses 40-42 that stick in the craw:
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Here and a few other places in the Gospels, taking Jesus’ words at face value teaches that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment for those whose sin has not been already paid for (by Jesus). Now, before we explode, let’s throw in a couple important caveats:
- This passage must be read in the context of all Scripture. The serious student of the Bible will compare what is said here to what is said elsewhere in Scripture on the topic of hell to form a more accurate synthesis of the teaching. While this will inform the words written here, it should not be seen as watering them down either.
- This is a parable. As such, it is lite on details. Language naturally introduces ambiguity and so we should be careful to arrive at conclusions slowly and deliberately. There is much here about hell that is not said. We cannot assume that our preconceptions accurately align with the teaching.
Now, that being said, the picture of the angels throwing all who do evil “into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a difficult one. It is a dreadfully and painfully exclusive one, made the more apparent in an North American culture where inclusivity is the cardinal virtue.
I do not believe this because I secretly hate some people or think myself their better. I do not believe this because I am intellectually backward and have not considered the wider ramifications.
I believe this because I have encountered the living Jesus. He has turned me off of a path pointed to hell, paid for my sins and redeemed my evil way of life, of thinking, of feeling. And He has not led me wrong yet. So I believe His words here.
Does that make the message less offensive? Probably not. Dance around it, dress it up; it is exclusive. I cannot deny it anymore than I can deny the living giving power of the One who speaks it. But perhaps it is an offense worth looking past, if only temporarily, to first investigate whether or not it is true.
Because there are plenty of truths in our world that are offensive. Our reaction to them does not change their veracity. There is a variety of parasitic wasp that finds a caterpillar, stings it at the precise point on it’s back where it will paralyze but not kill the caterpillar and lay its eggs on the caterpillar. As the eggs hatch and the pupa mature, they feed on the flesh of the living but crippled caterpillar. Instinctively, the young do not consume the vital organs of the caterpillar until last, keeping the meal fresh and alive for their sustenance. Grotesque as that may be, the wasp has developed no other way of raising its young. And it is not alone. Annie Dillard estimates that fully one third of all categories of life on earth thrive on such parasitic relationships. My mind recoils at the thought that I live in such a world; yet, there it is. I can tilt at windmills all I like; it does not change things one wit.
The mystery, the paradox that people of faith must struggle with in all of this is here: this God who does justly command his angels to throw some into the furnace is also a gracious and compassionate God. Scripture holds His justice and grace in tension somehow.
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
It is easy to imagine a malevolent deity, filled with freakish glee, casting His own creation into the fire, to watch them squirm for eternity like so many slugs in a salt bath. But that is not the case either.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
2 Peter 3:9
We should not in our hubris imagine that we are somehow more compassionate or possessed of greater wisdom than the Almighty.
But let us wrestle with His words.
Lord, I confess there is much I do not yet understand.