I am now editing my book on the afterlife, and there are a few controversial theses in it. One of them involves the views of Jesus. I’d like to know what you think of my argument, and to see if you find it convincing or not. If not, I’d like to know why. Here is a rough idea of what I’m planning to say (until you instruct me otherwise!)
First, Jesus did not think the coming kingdom of God (soon to arrive with the coming of the Son of Man in judgment on the earth) was for faithful Jews only. It was for all those who did God’s will. Many Jews, in fact, would not be allowed to enter. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “many will come from east and west” to enjoy the heavenly banquet with the Jewish patriarchs in “the kingdom of heaven” but many of those from Israel “will be cast into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12). It is important to note that he does not say that those excluded from the kingdom will be tormented, and he says nothing here about eternal fires. Instead it is a realm of darkness. This is surely a figurative statement: outside the kingdom lies the world of the unenlightened (who are “in the dark”). There is such grief there – weeping and teeth-grinding – because those on the outside have realized, too late, the eternal joys they have missed out on. What will happen to them? Jesus doesn’t say. Do they simply end up dying, and that is the end of their story?
One of my theses is that a close reading of Jesus’ words shows that in fact he had no idea of torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is …
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Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they are annihilated, never to be allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God’s glorious kingdom.
For example, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says there are two gates through which a person can pass. One is “narrow” and leads to a difficult path. That is the way of life and there are few people who take it. The other gate is “broad,” leading to an “easy path.” Most people take that route, but it is the road that leads “to destruction” (Matthew 7:13-14). Note: Jesus does not say it leads to eternal torture. Those who take it will be destroyed, annihilated. But even so: you don’t want to go that way.
Most of Jesus’ teachings about the coming judgment focus on this idea of ultimate and complete destruction. In this he was very much like his predecessor, John the Baptist, who urged people to live lives pleasing to God, bearing “good fruit” (see Matthew 3:10). Those who failed to do so, John declared, would be like bad trees that, when judgment comes, would be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” What happens to trees that are felled and burned? They are consumed out of existence. They don’t keep burning forever.
Jesus himself thought something similar– the end of sinners will be destruction. As he says in the “Parable of the Weeds” in Matthew 13:36-43, at the end of the age, God will send a mighty angelic power, whom Jesus calls “the Son of Man” (see Daniel 7:13-14 for this figure), to judge the earth; this one will send out his angels to gather up all who sin and do evil and “throw them into the furnace of fire.” There they will weep and gnash their teeth. But presumably not forever – those who are burned to death die. That stands in contrast to the righteous, who will “shine like the sun in the kingdom.” As in Daniel 12, at the end the faithful who side with God become like a shining heavenly bodies, whose light will never be extinguished.
In another image in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus compares the coming judgment to a fisherman who brings in his haul of fish and separates the good fish from the bad (Matthew 13:47-50). What does he do with the bad ones he doesn’t want? He throws them away. He obviously doesn’t torture them. They simply die. So too, Jesus says, at the final judgment angels will separate the righteous from the wicked and toss the latter into the furnace. They will go up in flames. For first-century hearers this “destruction by fire” would not conjure up images of eternal hellfire but rather house fire — or rather the execution of criminals by burning. Someone burned at the stake weeps and screams in anguish while dying. But they don’t weep and scream ten days or ten millennia or ten billion years later. They are dead.
In subsequent posts I will explain why I don’t think the passages that *could* be used to argue that Jesus believed in eternal torment – the famous parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 and the story of Lazarus and the rich man – do not in fact indicate that Jesus believed in conscious eternal torment for the wicked. This is a view that I came to while writing my book, and I’ll explain why anon. (I will also talk about what “Gehenna” really is).[/private]