An extract from A Biblical Anthropology by Michael Bieleski.}
In Matthew Chapter 23, Jesus passed judgment on the Pharisees with a number of woes, in which he rebuked them for their hypocrisy and lawlessness. He clearly stated that they were also guilty by association for past acts of persecution and unrighteousness, and therefore responsible for all the blood shed by the prophets from Able to Zechariah. In addition, they would persecute the future prophets to come, which would only serve to further justify and fulfil Jesus’ warning of impending doom. Consequently, their actions would “bring upon them all the righteous blood shed on the Earth,” and that they would not escape the condemnation (krisis) of hell (gehenna).1
Because the word condemnation mentioned in verse 33 is krisis, which denotes a passing of judgment upon a person or thing, Jesus was clearly condemning the current generation to a coming judgment. He also clearly specifies that generation’s contribution to the events for which they would be judged.
The condemnation of gehenna then becomes symbolic of a future judgment. It becomes a prophetic statement of the future fate of a people who had rejected God and followed lawlessness. There was no sense in Jesus’ teaching that those subject to the condemnation of gehenna would suffer eternal torment. Because Jeremiah described gehenna as a place of destruction, this suggests that Jesus had in mind the same form of Judgment. Therefore, the religious and political leadership of the day were indignant, because Jesus claimed that they were the subjects of specific prophecy on whom judgment would fall.
The links between the place gehenna, the symbolism, and the possibility of a real future event, was suggested by a prophetic statement by Jesus made against Jerusalem. “The days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”2 The combination of the warning of the condemnation of gehenna, and this prophetic statement, suggests a specific event in history. In addition, this particular teaching could not be for some future generation or some after life event, because these warnings were specific to those to whom the warnings were made. As he pointed out in Matthew 23:33; the religious leaders were a bunch of serpents, a brood of vipers; they would not escape the condemnation of gehenna.
To summarise Jesus’ teaching,3 he often taught about the unprofitable, lazy and ill prepared servants who would be cast into the outer darkness, and where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The parables described the impending doom of a people who had failed to use what they had been given, and that what they had was about to be taken away from them – or that they were to lose certain privileges. The outcome would be that the sons of the Kingdom would be cast into outer darkness, and others would receive their inheritance.4
These ideas were persistent themes in Jesus’ teaching. In the parables of the talents, misuse of opportunity led to total ruin and loss. The lazy servant lost everything he had and what he had was given to others.5 Jesus talked about the foolish virgins who were not ready for the Bride Groom, and were shut out of the wedding festivities.6 Likewise, the man who was not dressed for the wedding was cast out into the outer darkness.7
The language of outer darkness does not fit the common view of a fiery hell. However, this phrase does support the prophetic condemnation of a sinful generation. It signals the loss of nationhood, religious identity, and covenant relationship with God, an idea that was brought out in Jesus’ use of the Wedding parables.8 It is the implications of what he said that ultimately led to the crucifixion of Christ. The rejection of the King and the Kingdom of God leading to ruin and loss for the religious leaders of the day, can be no more clearly stated than in the parable of the landowner.9 In this parable, a certain landowner planted a vineyard, leased it to vinedressers, and then went off into a far country. At harvest time, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that he might receive its fruit, but the vinedressers beat and killed the servants. Eventually the landowner sent his son who was also killed. Jesus then asked the religious leaders what they thought would happen to the vinedressers.
- Matthew 23:33
- Luke 19:43-44 (NRSV)
- For example Matthew 24-25
- Matthew 8:12 (NKJV)
- Matthew 25:21-29
- Matthew 25.2
- Matthew 22:11-14
- Mark 2:19
- Matthew 21:33