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Did Jesus Believe Sinners Would Be Annihilated? The Sheep and the Goats

The most difficult passage that I will need to deal with in my discussion of Jesus’ view of the afterlife is the famous teaching about the last judgment of the “Sheep and the Goats,” found only in the Gospel of Matthew, there are reasons for thinking it is something Jesus actually said.   Doesn’t it teach eternal torment for the wicked, instead of annihilation?  I’ve concluded that the answer is no.  See if you find my reasoning persuasive.

The passage comes at the tail end of Jesus “apocalyptic discourse” (Matthew 24-25), two chapters of Jesus’ discussion of what will happen at the end of time and of how people need to prepare for it.  To conclude the discourse, Jesus describes the coming Day of Judgment, when the great cosmic judge, the Son of Man, sits on his throne, judging all the nations of the world gathered before him (Matthew 25:31-46).   This is not merely the judgment of the righteous and wicked in Israel, but of all the pagans as well.  The Son of Man separates all the peoples into two groups, the sheep to his right and the goats to his left.  He then addresses the sheep, welcoming them into the amazing kingdom God has prepared for them as a reward for all the good they did during their lives, because:  “When I was hungry you gave me something to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was a stranger you welcomed me, when naked you clothed me, when sick you visited me, when in prison you came to me” (25:35-36).   The sheep are completely confused and ask what he can possibly mean.  They have never even seen him before.  How could they have done any of these things for him?  He replies, “Truly I say to you, as much as you did these things to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (25:40).

He then turns to the goats, and …

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The Afterlife in Revelation
Gehenna: Where You Do Not Want to Go

109

Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  September 12, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, while I disagree with you that the Parable of the Sheep and Goats represents something the historical Jesus actually said, I do think it does somewhat represent an eschatological concept that the historical Jesus conveyed in his preaching. Namely, I do think the historical Jesus said the righteous would be saved to live in the Kingdom of God, and that the wicked would be tossed into the fire with Satan and his demons.

    However, everything else in the parable — the “when I was hungry, you fed me…” parts (25:35-36, 45) — I think was created by a later Christian. One clue is 25:40 (“…to the least of these, my brothers…”) which does not sound like something the historical Jesus would have said, but rather sounds like something a later Christian would have put into Jesus’s mouth.

    The passage also falls within what I call the Three Cs criteria: commission, community and catastrophe. That is, if the pericope is meant to put forth Jesus’s teachings on how Christians should “spread the word” throughout the world, or how Christians should live together (particularly, that they should live communally), or how Jesus was predicting his own death (and resurrection), then I set it aside as something that did not come from the historical Jesus, but rather came from later Christians.

    In the case of the Sheep and Goats, it falls squarely in the “community” criterion, meaning that it was intended to encourage Christians to live communally and harmoniously, sharing all things with each other and caring for each other like a family. So I don’t think it goes back to the historical Jesus, but was instead created by later Christians, who sought to cohere and foster the inchoate Christian movement.

    Other than that, I think your interpretation of the afterlife in this passage is accurate.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 13, 2018

      I should clarify that I think it’s possible the part about the sheep and goats being separated could possibly go back to the real Jesus, but the interpretative parts around it, such the “when I was hungry…” parts, that I think came later.

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    jhague  September 12, 2018

    With these words likely being from Jesus, where did he hear these things originally?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      He either came up with them himself or heard them from someone else, but we have no record of whom he heard (hundreds of people, one should think), other than John the Baptist.

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    caesar  September 12, 2018

    Based on passages like this in the synoptics (and the rich young ruler, the good samaritan, and many others) I’m somewhat convinced that Jesus taught mostly a ‘works’ gospel–and he and his first followers thought eternal rewards are based more on good behavior, forgiving others, moral character, not on Jesus’ sacrifice…then Paul came along, ended up developing a ‘grace’ gospel, and Paul’s view eventually won out…possibly even influencing the gospels, so that they contain both ‘works’ and ‘grace’ messages. Is this view tenable? I’m guessing not…but what’s the biggest problem with this view?

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    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Yup, that’s tenable. I don’t think Paul himself is the one who invented the other view, but he is certainly the one we know about who promoted it most.

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        ksgm34  December 5, 2018

        Could it not be the case that Jesus was emphasising works and keeping the law because he was talking about the *current* path (at that time) to eternal life i.e. prior to his death and resurrection? I realise the gospel writers were writing many years after his death, but couldn’t they simply be reporting what Jesus taught at the time was the correct way to achieve eternal life?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 7, 2018

          Yes, the problem is that if Jesus were right the following the law could bring eternal life, there would be no reason for him to die.

    • Liam Foley
      Liam Foley  September 13, 2018

      That’s exactly what I believe. Jesus clearly preached a works Gospel and even told his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. Matthew 5:20. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Not any Pauline type Grace in there.

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    flshrP  September 12, 2018

    There’s punishment and then there’s torture. To believe in an eternal punishment means you believe in a god whose justice is so stern (infinitely stern) that it can only be satisfied by infinite torture. Not just any old kind of torture, but everlasting torture. So Jesus’ parable is one that condones everlasting torture, instead of merely a swift execution for the goats. Jesus’ mercy is missing in this parable. Just as Jesus condones slavery in other parables, here he approves of eternal torture. Jesus meek and mild is nowhere to be seen in this parable. How can a weak, finite and miserable creature like a human being be so guilty as to merit eternal torture?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      My argument is precisely that Jesus is not talking about everlasting torture.

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        flshrP  September 13, 2018

        Yes. Understood. My point is that you’ll need a very powerful argument to convince anyone that Jesus is NOT advocating eternal torture for the goats in this parable. If you can accomplish that, then you’re home free. But I think you still have a load of work ahead of you.

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    saavoss  September 12, 2018

    I find your argument compelling, and I agree with your conclusion that the “eternal punishment” meant to perish utterly and completely, eternally separated from “the Kingdom of God”.

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  6. Lev
    Lev  September 12, 2018

    “It’s possible, of course, that a later Christian invented the story – but we don’t know of any early Christian authors who thought that “being a good person” in itself was enough to earn God’s rewards at the resurrection.”

    I understand that Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels, and some argue (convincingly in my view) that it was written by the Jerusalem Church, possibly by the “men of James” that Paul contends with.

    In the epistle of James (1:27, 2:14-26), perhaps penned by the same authors of Matthew, it seems to argue that good works (i.e. being a good person) were necessary to earn God’s rewards at the resurrection.

    Could the author(s) of James also be responsible for this parable?

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    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Nothing suggests it was the exact same person, but possibly someone with a similar view.

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    RonaldTaska  September 12, 2018

    THE PIVOT: Actually, I have a big question which I cannot formulate as well as I would like. Here goes. I grew up in a world where every issue was addressed by quoting scripture and every sentence and, even every word. of the Bible was considered to be the Word of God. Then, with your considerable help, I have learned about contradictions and historical discrepancies in the Gospels. I also have learned that the Gospel authors were not eyewitnesses to the events they described and that the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus. This resulted in my viewing the Gospels as being a mixture of legend and history and my no longer taking every sentence and word of scripture quite so seriously. Now, with our discussion of the Afterlife, we seem to be pivoting back to placing a lot of emphasis on sentences and words written in the Gospels in order to prove things. I understand the criteria (multiple sources, etc.) that historians use to separate history from legend and how they then use the separated history to prove things. But even doing this, the pivot toward emphasizing scripture as evidence is difficult for me now that I think a lot of scripture is unreliable and legendary. Do you have any suggestions about how to make this pivot? In other words, how do you learn that the Bible can be unreliable as a historical source and then pivot and use the Bible as evidence to prove something? Thanks! .

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      The historical approach to the Bible is very different from the fundamentalist one. The historian realizes that there are materials in the Gospels that are not historically accurate. But most think that *some* of the materials *are* historical. The question then is which is which. If something *is* probably historical, then it’s perfectly legitimate to use it to decide what Jesus really said (and thought). Make sense? (If you have three sources that all say Trump said something, but you have reason for thinking two of them are wrong about that, and only one is right, it’s perfectly legitimate to take that one to figure out what he meant)

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        RonaldTaska  September 13, 2018

        I used to review papers for the American Journal of Psychiatry. My mentor for doing this was Dr. Keith Brodie who became president of Duke University. He was an usually kind, decent, and intelligent man. He taught me to review papers by spending 90% of my time looking at the little stuff in the papers, such as how did the authors make their diagnoses, etc. His contention was that if an author cannot get the little stuff correct (how to reliably diagnose schizophrenia), then how in the world can they get the big stuff (the effectiveness of a drug in treating schizophrenia) correct? So, to expand the analogy, if the authors of the Gospels cannot correctly identify which women came to the empty tomb, etc., then how in the world can we trust what they wrote about the bigger stuff?

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        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2018

          Great analogy. The big stuff is made out of lots of small stuff. But if *some* of the small stuff is right, then it might still create a big-stuff picture. But it would be one that is different from what the authors think. That’s how I envision the Gospels. Wrong about a lot of small stuff and about their big picture. But enough snmall stuff that is right that we can reconstruct a different picture.

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            turtlepc  September 14, 2018

            Agreed – on both points. However, I have to keep in mind an argument I read a while back… basically – if three of us were to give an account of the same eyewitness event… our details won’t necessarily match… etc. — However, if you start looking at how things were added/changed etc…(extremely obvious – esp. after Dr. Ehrman’s defense/examination) the whole thing blows apart… and I end up questioning the entire thing… Ultimately, my adventure led me to commentaries from Rocco A. Errico and George M. Lamsa… which paints an entirely different picture of the Bible as we know it.. in the West… and much more believable in my opinion… but then we get into the whole primacy thing… I’m leaning toward Greek Primacy as far as written.. but as far as spoken… totally Aramaic – still don’t know if I buy that Jesus spoke Greek.. but maybe?

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    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 13, 2018

      Scientists have an expression: signal-to-noise ratio. That is, how much of what you’re receiving is actual information, and how much of it is just noise. In a way, what scholars like Bart do is try to separate the “signal” of fact and reality from the “noise” of legend, inconsistency and fraud. Even something as wildly inaccurate and inconsistent as the Bible has a bit of signal in it, and Bart’s job is to find that signal, separate it from the noise, and give it back to us.

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    Adam0685  September 12, 2018

    It seems very difficult to determine (1) what Jesus actually said about the afterlife; (2) what he meant; and (3) how/if later Christian beliefs about the afterlife are connected to Jesus’s as opposed to other possible sources instead. Looking forward to getting some clarity from your book.

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    probablynot  September 12, 2018

    I like your reasoning, but the author of Matthew tends (throughout his gospel) to emphasize “works,” keeping the law, etc., more than the other guys, no? Something that goes against “what the other guys are saying” doesn’t, to me, make it less likely to be made up by the author to support his beliefs/agenda.

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    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Yup, it’s a good point. But Matthew also thought htat faith in Jesus is what mattered for salvation — and that view runs contrary to this parable. That would be the argument in its favor as historical to Jesus.

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    fishician  September 12, 2018

    I only wish that the teaching of this parable had persisted, rather than being replaced with the concept of salvation through right beliefs, which continues to divide rather than unite people to this day. One of the best known verses in the New Testament is John 3:16 and most believers can quote it from memory. If true believers will NOT perish but have ETERNAL LIFE, then what will happen to non-believers? They WILL perish and NOT have eternal life. It seems obvious but most believers I know insist on eternal torment.

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    Eric  September 12, 2018

    Convincing.

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    godspell  September 12, 2018

    I don’t think there’s much reason to doubt that the sheep and the goats comes from Jesus–as you say, the Christians living when Matthew was written would have no reason to say “Anybody can join the Kingdom if he or she treats other people decently.” Talk about a membership disincentive!

    But Matthew’s gospel is angry and vengeful, often disturbingly so. How do we know the vision of Gehenna and the utter destruction of all who fail to make the grade doesn’t come from Matthew, not Jesus? I’m not saying Jesus thought the fate of the goats would be pleasant. But how is there wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness if they’re just annihilated? I think a lot of this is less theological than emotional. Frustration at how long it’s taking for the change to come, and at all the people who are making their mission so difficult.

    I agree Jesus wasn’t talking about eternal punishment in an otherworldly realm. He’s talking about a place in the material world that will be separate from the Kingdom, where life will be much harder. But I’ll say again that if the Son of Man did his job right, and it’s only goats in the outer darkness, what kind of world would that be?

    As to eternal life, I’m not sure what I think Jesus meant by that. Frankly, the idea of perpetual consciousness doesn’t appeal to me. I might take my chances with the goats. As a (lapsed) Catholic, you understand, I have other options. Purgatory, Limbo. We’re not as pass/fail as your old cohorts. 😉

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    gavriel  September 12, 2018

    If the earliest followers of Jesus, after his death, were firmly convinced that it was faith in him that brought salvation, how could what you describe as Jesus’ original view on salvation survive into the eighties when Matthew put his sources together? How is the chain of transmission here ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Sometimes people *do* pass along the words of a teacher as he actually said them!

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    ddecker54  September 12, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman –

    However one interprets this parable, as you describe it, it surely represents a major tenet of belief. After all, it lays out the foundation for salvation, i.e according to Jesus, this is how one attains eternal life. I am wondering why something so fundamental as this appears only in Matthew. What are your thoughts on that? Is it analagous to Jesus’ claims to be divine only appearing in John? And, if so, and despite your argument for its authenticity, I would suggest that its authenticity is suspect. Thanks in advance.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      I”m not sure. There are lots of parables found in only one or two sources, instead of, say, all four. Lots of stories out there, I suppose, and authors have to choose what to include.

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    mkahn1977  September 12, 2018

    Okay- dumb questions – why the reference to fire or a funeral pyre? Wouldn’t the group Jesus belonged to and the groups he preached to have just been buried? If their bodies were cremated wouldn’t that prevent them from being resurrected? Or is that your point- to be consumed in the fire would rule out resurrection and the kingdom?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Being burned to death was a common form of hideous execution, and we have some record of Christians being subjected to it.

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        mkahn1977  September 13, 2018

        but was there any connection with the body being burned into ashes and not being able to be resurrected?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2018

          Early Christians who believed in teh resurrection discussed this and decided: absolutely not! (We all turn to dust and ashes anyway…)

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        JohnKesler  September 14, 2018

        Recall, too, that the Torah prescribes burning to death:
        1) If a man married a woman and her mother, all were to be burned (Leviticus 20:14). (What’s interesting about this passage is that the preceding verse is one of the prohibitions against homosexuality, yet gay men were to be killed–presumably by stoning–but not burned to death.)
        2) If the daughter of a priest became a harlot, she was to be burned (Leviticus 21:9; cf. Genesis 38:24, where Judah commands that his pregnant (by him!) daughter-in-law should be burned. So much for the rights of the unborn.)

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    toejam  September 12, 2018

    I totally agree that Matthew 25:31-46 teaches ‘salvation by works’, a view which stands in stark contrast to ‘salvation by faith in the resurrection / vindication of Jesus as Lord’ as stressed by Paul.

    I can’t help but notice the rather large unspoken-of elephant in the room throughout your post though: Matthew 25’s Jesus is quite explicit in saying the “eternal fire” for the unsaved is the same fire in which the Devil and his angels are cast. In Revelation 20, it is explicitly said that in this place the Devil and his angels experience “torment day and night forever”. At the very least, Revelation teaches ECT for the Devil and his angels. But if the unsaved are cast there as well, is it not the most natural reading to assume that the author of that passage assumes the same fate of eternal torment?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      I don’t think Matthew had any knowledge of Revelation 20, but maybe I’ll post on that passage as well. On the other hand, maybe the fire is “eternal” because these deathless beings are also there (unlike mortals, they don’t die in fire).

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        toejam  September 13, 2018

        Matthew 25:31-46 is contemporaneous with Revelation – i.e. post-Mark, “late 1st century”, and, like Matthew, with more of a Jewish edge than other NT texts. And recall the theme linking fire with eternal suffering already has precedence in Jewish literature such as Judith… I still think it’s not at all a closed case that Matthew 25 hasn’t an ETC view in mind.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2018

          My big argument is that he doesn’t mention “torment” as the punishment; the punishment is contrasted directly with “life” and so it appears that it is (rather than torture), “death.” (Just as today we could torture criminals or execute them; both are horrible punishments.)

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            Thespologian  September 14, 2018

            As I understand this discussion, there is nothing directly corroborating the existence of “hell” as we know it in common modern terms — at least via Jesus’ words. Conversely, we neither have a clear understanding of an afterlife from Jesus? Is resurrection or salvation referring to the constructs of an afterlife or a transmigration of the soul/spirit? The opposite of “eternal life” doesn’t seem to me to be eternal punishment. The inability to live again, i.e., eternal happiness, joy, seems to be fitting enough. Despite its miseries; human life itself is often regarded as the embodiment of eternal joy, happiness; at least it supposed to be. Is true death simply a termination of the soul/spirit? I’m asking this question not to introduce Eastern or New-Age thought here, only curious if this interpretation jibes well within this particular context.

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            toejam  September 16, 2018

            Bart said: “My big argument is that he doesn’t mention “torment” as the punishment; the punishment is contrasted directly with “life” and so it appears that it is (rather than torture), “death.” (Just as today we could torture criminals or execute them; both are horrible punishments.)”

            Sure. But Matthew 25 contrasts “eternal life” not explicitly with “and the others will cease to exist”, but with language of “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire”. As Bob Price once put it, “if the wicked are just incinerated like Jews in Auschwitz (bad enough!), why does the fire need to burn eternally?”. Similarly, Revelation 14 refers to a “smoke that rises forever”, and again it cannot be forgotten that Matthew 25 says this fire is the same reserved for the Devil and his angels, whom in Revelation 20 are said to “suffer day and night forever”. Even if Matthew 25 doesn’t explicitly state it, I see no way to guarantee that he hasn’t some sort of ECT thing in mind given that Revelation 20 is contemporary with it, and motifs of fire and worms already having precedence for ECT symbolism in Judith 16, etc.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 17, 2018

            There may be two reasons for the first to be said to be eternal. It may just be metaphorical, the way Isaiah says that the smoke from Edom’s destruction will go up forever and ever (Isaiah 34), even though no one thinks the place is still burning and has been nonstop since the 8th c BCE; OR, maybe more likely?, it’s because that fire has been prepared for the Devil and the demons, and they, unlike humans, are immortal. So the flames need to be.

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            Andrew  September 17, 2018

            Hi Bart, This is the firt time I have sent a message on here. I studied this subject in exhaustive depth many years ago and I came to the same conclusion as you on the Mathew passage. I noted that the same writer had jesus say in Mathew 10:28 was that the soul and body would be be destroyed in Gehenna and so my thinking was that Jesus was thinking they would be “Destroyed forever” not tormented forever. Jesus believed in destruction not the preservation of body and soul in Gehenah.

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    Pegill7  September 12, 2018

    If the Goats are annihilated never to be heard of again then they would have no knowledge of the blessedness they missed out on, thus they should have no regrets. So what’s so bad about that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      The realize ahead of time that they’ve serious blown it, and die in mental anguish. Just as capital punishment today is the “ultimate,” even if after dead, the person no longer realizes it.

  18. tompicard
    tompicard  September 12, 2018

    Why did Jesus say that the prodigal son’s father said “this son of mine was dead and is alive again!” ?

    Was this to prove the “resurrection of the dead”? 🤔

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      It’s just metaphorical. He had nothing to do with me and now he does.

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        godspell  September 13, 2018

        Yeah, but if this is Jesus’ story, that word means more than just a father saying his son is dead to him.

        To Jesus, living is more than just breathing. Many people are walking around breathing, and they’re still dead, because they lead empty shallow selfish lives.

        It’s not like “I have no son!” It’s like “He was destroying himself, losing his chance at eternal life, and now he has come to his senses.”

        Jesus didn’t care much about familial relations, in and of themselves. The inheritance is the Kingdom, of course. But the father isn’t God–“I have sinned against God and against you.” The father is someone else.

        “When I die, everything I have shall be yours.” The father is Jesus. Who will leave the Kingdom as an inheritance to all his spiritual sons and daughters. But he won’t be there himself. Just a thought.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  September 14, 2018

          > To Jesus, living is more than just breathing.

          good observation godspell

          more interesting is Matt 19:16
          did the Teacher (Jesus) and the one questioning the teacher mean
          “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may [continue breathing indefinitely]?”
          Rather than metaphorically as in the story of prodigal son

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            godspell  September 16, 2018

            I’m not sure anyone believed they’d just walk around in their own bodies forever in a world like the one they knew.

            But neither did they think they’d be sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp.

  19. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 12, 2018

    I must be overlooking something. If Matthew holds that Jesus holds that “Living a good life by helping those in need will earn a person salvation”, does that mean Matthew doesn’t hold with those who maintain that faith in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus is necessary for salvation? Wasn’t Matthew writing later than Paul?

    (I realize the words quoted above are yours and not Matthew’s but they are explication). Thank You.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Matthew himself thinks that Jesus is the one who brings salvation, and the ones who truly follow him will indeed lead highly moral lives.

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    Stephen  September 12, 2018

    Sorry this question is slightly off topic but close I guess.

    In the hard core fundamentalist church I was raised in the so-called “parable of the talents” in vs14-30 was given a straightforward “capitalist” reading; Be Industrious! Given that it is Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching about the coming kingdom and what it will be like, it becomes not at all obvious to me what the point of the parable actually is. In fact the closer I read it the odder it seems. What do you think Jesus’ actual point was?

    Thanks! Terrific thread.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2018

      Yup, that’s a common American view! On Jesus’ lips the parable was instead about using the gifts God had given to promote God’s purposes, to multiply the gifts by using them.

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