For some, the idea that the destruction of the wicked is God’s plan will be difficult to accept. The common assumption has been that man will burn forever in agony, or in a more moderate form, suffer in eternal separation. Either way, the doctrine of Hell requires an unpleasant form of torment. These ideas about Hell arise for a number of reasons even though there are reasonable explanations for the passages of scripture from which they were derived.
An example of these passages is in the parables of the tares or weeds. The weeds grew up with the plants until harvest time when they were separated and the weeds were cast into the furnace of fire.1 While Jesus says that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, there is no indication that this means some form of eternal torment. The wailing and gnashing of teeth simply refers to the reaction of those being judged. Jesus does not say “cast them into the fire where there will be everlasting wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He means there will be a judgment; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It is important to note the difference between what Jesus said and what we might want the text to say. In the Greek there was no conjunction between the casting into the fire and the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Therefore, we cannot connect the wailing and gnashing of teeth with the idea of a continuous form of punishment. The wicked simply respond to the judgment by wailing and gnashing their teeth.
In addition to this, the parable was also likely to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 because it referred to the end of the age and not the end of the world. Because aion could be translated as either age or ever, depending on context, age is the preferred usage. When used as age it generally referred to the present era marked by certain spiritual and moral characteristics.
The disciples, who were listening to Jesus, would have understood it this way; at the end of the present era, there will be a judgment in which the wicked will be destroyed. It was certain that the disciples expected something to happen with their lifetime because they had asked Jesus what would be the signs of the end of the age and of his return. Jesus had then given them a very detailed prophetic description of events, which they themselves would personally experience and for which they must be prepared.
However, the obvious difficulty with this is that Jesus also seemed to time his return with the end of this age. Theologians propose a number of solutions to this problem including the possibility that the writer included two sets of material to answer the disciples’ two different questions. We can discern between those things that have already happened-the destruction of the temple-and those things that are yet to be fulfilled. A preterist view would argue that all or most of these things were fulfilled by AD 70, including the appearance of Jesus as a ‘parousia’ of judgment for Israel and not as an end of the world event.
Regardless of our views on these issues, one cannot read Matthew 24 and ignore the sense of urgency in Jesus’ response and the relevant nature of these events for his disciples. For example, Jesus warned them that when the abomination of desolation stood in the Holy Place, then those in Judea were to flee to the Mountains. They were not to take anything with them or to go back into the fields to get their clothes. It is significant that Jesus says to them that they were to pray that these things would not happen on the Sabbath.
Jesus very carefully answered their questions by pointing out that they would experience these things. His answers placed the events of these warnings into a contemporary Jewish context familiar to his disciples. There was no attempt by Jesus to say; ‘you don’t need to worry these things’. Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted, betrayed and put to death.2 He also exhorted them to be alert at all times, and that they would have the strength to escape all these things.3
The imagery of these parables is about a transitional period followed by a sifting period for the Church and Israel. The transition phase was necessary, because God could not judge one until the other was firmly established. John the Baptist supported this idea when he said that wheat would be gathered and the chaff burnt in unquenchable fire.4 It was evident to John that this sifting would occur within the current generation, because he tells the Religious Leaders that they were the tree to which the axe was already laid.5
The language of destruction by fire is synonymous with Gehenna fire, clearly fulfilled in the judgment of Israel by the Romans. The message was foremost for those who heard it. It was the current generation that would be subject to this sifting. There would be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some would be destroyed in the fires.
There was no specific teaching from Jesus about eternal torment. When Jesus says that the wicked will go into everlasting punishment,6 he does not mean that the punishment is an everlasting torment. It simply means that there is a punishment with everlasting effects; a punishment that cannot be undone. It is a synonym for the death or destruction of the wicked.
Within the same passage of teaching, Jesus also states that the destination of the wicked is the eternal fire.7 Eternal fire does not mean that those cast into the fire continue to exist in some form. The fire may be eternal but the wicked are destroyed. This idea is synonymous with the lake of fire in Revelation, which is called the second death.8
Death was a common theme of Paul and Jesus’ teaching. Avoiding death through the resurrection was the hope that Jesus offered. At no stage does Jesus suggest that we should believe in him to avoid the fires of hell. On the contrary, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”9