Hell 19: The eternal fire prepared for the devil

Posted: April 29, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

In Matthew 25 Jesus employs the prophetic image of ‘unquenchable fire’, here rendered as ‘eternal fire’. This comes in an extended set of parables in ch.24-25, which portray God’s judgement using a variety of images:

A wicked steward who abuses the servants is cut in pieces.   (24:51)

Nine virgins who get locked out of the wedding feast find the door shut, and the groom says, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ (25:12)

A slave who did nothing with his master’s wealth is thrown into outer darkness.   (25:30)

And finally the ‘goats’ who never welcomed Messiah’s brothers:

Then the Son of Man will say to those at his left hand,‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’   And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”     25:41,46

These are parallel parables. (Jewish literature loves saying things in parallel!) Only the last of them mentions fire. The eternal fire is parallel with:

the cutting in pieces 
the shut door and disowning
the outer darkness
eternal punishment

These parallel images all speak of rejection and punishment. They are confronting, designed to provoke a strong reaction. But what reality are they pointing to?

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It is important to notice that this set of parables forms the conclusion and climax of Jesus’ teaching ministry in Jerusalem. Here he is summing up his message, in symbolic, story form. This context strongly suggests that the parables are about the same thing his previous teaching was about, especially his teaching in ch.23-24.

Chapter 23 was about the approaching judgement and desolation of Jerusalem. Chapter 24 is on the same theme:

“You see all these temple buildings, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”     24:1

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  24:34

This has really been Jesus’ theme since he arrived in the temple back in ch.21. And this is the teaching which these parables in ch.25 are here to illustrate. If we pay attention to what Jesus is interested in talking about here in Jerusalem, we will be skeptical of readings of these concluding parables which have them drifting off and losing focus on his central message.

If this context-directed way of reading is correct, then we expect then that each of these concluding parables will describe the coming judgement on Jerusalem from a different angle, using a variety of imagery. And this includes the ‘sheep and the goats’ story – the one with the ‘eternal fire’ in it. Let’s take a closer look at that parable:

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In this particular parable, the focus is on welcome or neglect toward Messiah’s brothers. In Matthew, the ‘brothers’ are Jesus’ disciples, who are sent out and who will suffer on mission. How the brothers are received is the definitive measure for where people stand in the judgement (cf. Matthew 10). Now we get to see that judgement enacted.

Who are those who are implicated in this warning? Who, in Matthew’s gospel, have neglected and abused Messiah and his brothers – and are therefore likely to miss out on the kingdom of God? Jesus has already made this painfully clear:

“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way…Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The chief priests and the Pharisees…knew he was talking about them.  21:35-45

“The rest of the invitees seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”    22:6

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.”    23:37

The violent and negligent behaviour of the house of Israel and especially of Jerusalem has been Jesus’ constant theme over the past five chapters. The can be no doubt who is in the cross hairs in this final ‘sheep and goats’ parable: Jerusalem is deeply implicated. 

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 What will happen to Jerusalem? In punishment the goats are sent into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. In contrast, the sheep ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for them’ (Mat 25:34).

This contrast between the sheep and goats seems quite close to the story in Daniel 7 in which the beast  is judged before the fiery throne of the Ancient of Days:

…the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. Dan. 7:11

But this is also “the time when holy people of the Most High gain possession of the kingdom.” (Dan. 7:22). The fiery judgement of the beast is contrasted with God’s people ‘inheriting the kingdom’.

It’s worth noticing that Daniel 7 is telling a salvation historical story. These scary images represent large-scale realities about God’s people, his enemies, and their ultimate futures.

Jesus’ sheep and goats parable has pretty strong echoes of that scene. But interestingly, in Daniel 7 it seemed that the saints who inherit stood for Israel while the beasts who abused them and were judged for it represented the other nations. Now Jesus turns things on their head: in his parable the abusers of God’s people are found within Israel, and have their headquarters in Jerusalem.

By sending Jerusalem into Daniel’s fire, Jesus is saying that they do not inherit God’s kingdom. When the hour comes for the saints to possess it, that city will be found on the wrong side of the conflict. As Jesus said earlier, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (21:43). Being the elect will not excuse them: they have proved themselves enemies of Messiah and will be treated as such. They are not standing with God’s people: they are in the fire with the beast.

Like Daniel, Jesus also is telling a salvation-historical story. Everything here points to the fact that we are in the realm of redemptive history and God’s purposes for the nation. This is big picture stuff, presented using a powerful OT symbol of fiery destruction: “the fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. What will it actually look like in history when Jerusalem is judged and punished? The parable does not break into realist description. Each of these parables maintains the integrity of its symbolic world, as a good parable should! Slaves cut in pieces, and banished into outer darkness, virgins disowned and shut outside. Each in its own way points to the same reality: the end of Jerusalem.

The story no doubt has implications for the other nations. But is about Jerusalem, told in Jerusalem and for Jerusalem, as an warning regarding the many indictments Jesus has just brought against that city.

Those in the habit of reading this parable as a literal description of an individualised afterlife cosmology – I’m afraid they are ignoring both genre and context, and need to pay more attention!

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In conclusion: in Matthew Jesus uses the fire imagery of the prophets in much the same way as the prophets did – flexibly, to speak of different aspects of the judgement of Israel. His main innovation is to centre the imagery around himself as Messiah.

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Comments
  1. kristanslack says:

    Must this interpretation necessarily exhaust any possible future meanings as well?
    (that is, beyond Jesus’ earthly ministry)

    To conclude that Jesus is *only* speaking about his generation and the events of rejecting or accepting the Messiah seems to limit the possible directions similar passages in Mark take this – as well as Jude and 2 Peter.

    • J says:

      Great comment, thanks Kristan.

      You are quite right. To say this is what Jesus was talking about, is not to say that is all the meaning in the passage. We might well use such passages in developing a broader theology of judgement.

      However, it helps to know what the teaching first meant! I’m just doing that job at present. Too often I hear people reading their traditional doctrine of ‘Hell’ straight off the page of Matthew 25 – apparently quite unaware of what Jesus was actually talking about.

      So, not to ignore the original context. Not to be limited to it either.

      I’m hopeful that by casting the net widely as we have been (20 posts so far!) we might be in a position to build a biblical theology of judgement that draws on all the material and applies it to us.

      Re. Mark, I’ve just posted on him.

  2. kristanslack says:

    Thanks for clarifying Jono. I’m just wary of both approaches (the one that rushes to the larger picture and the one that looks only at the immediate meaning). Having been exposed to a partial and later (possibly recurring) fulfilment typology in my youth, and quite confident that Scripture takes this approach sometimes, I’m just sounding a caution as I read, that’s all 🙂

    • J says:

      Kristan, after thinking over your comments and some emailed to me, I’ve modified the post. Hope it’s more satisfactory now.
      Thanks for your input brother.

  3. Sam Anderson says:

    Thanks very much for your posts – I’ve very much enjoyed reading them, especially because they confirm a lot of what I’ve been thinking of late!

    Your understanding of the parables in chapter 25 being linked to Jesus’ teaching on the destruction to come in AD70 has a lot of buying power, but I’d love it if you would comment on the introduction to the parable of the sheep and the goats:

    Matt. 25:31   “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…”

    It just seems so eschatological, rather than temporal. Similarly, in chapter 24:

    Matt. 24:30   “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”

    I know that the Signs at the End of the Age passages are difficult, especially with respect to the transition point (if indeed there is one) from temporal events to eschatological ones, but I’d love it if you would give it a crack!

    • J says:

      Good points, Sam. Thanks for contributing. I’ll have to get back to you on this when I get time.

      One thought straight off though: I’m not sure if the distinction between ‘temporal’ and ‘eschatological’ is one the NT really makes.

    • J says:

      I can also say, the Mat 25 passage definitely needs to be read in the context of Mat 10, which hits on all the same themes: welcome of Jesus’ hungry and homeless brethren, who are strangers, the reward for this, judgement for those who neglect them, imprisonment and persecution, division between people, the invitation to receive the kingdom.

    • J says:

      Also I suspect your translation of the Mat 24 passage is muddying things a bit for you. Can you look at the greek?

      It’s more like: “then will appear the sign of the son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land will grieve, and they will see…etc ”

      It’s referencing Zechariah 12:12-14. Among other places.

  4. Sam Anderson says:

    Thanks for your replies.

    When I used ‘temporal’ I was using it to represent things that occur within human history prior the return of Christ. When I used ‘eschatological’ I mean it as pertaining to the last things, that is, all that occurs when and after Christ returns. The return of Christ draws ‘this age’ to a close, and brings in ‘the age(s) to come’. And it seems like both of the passages I drew attention to are speaking of the age to come, rather than events of AD70.

    With regards to Matthew 24-5 and it’s relationship to Matthew 10, I can see what you mean: the overlap of content and ideas in the passages suggests that, just as Jesus was speaking of events of his time in Matthew 10, so in 24-25 he is also speaking of events to occur around his time. However, the point I was raising is not whether some of what Jesus speaks about in 24-25 is refers to AD70, but whether all of it those verses do. I would like to think that they do, but it is hard to escape the sense of ‘these are the last things’ from the two passages.

    I can read the greek, and your interpretation is more literal – thanks for pointing out the link to Zech 12. However, it still seems to suggest a future time, especially the allusion to Dan 7:10 where ‘the books were opened’. This is hard to fit with AD70.

    Thanks again for your time.
    Sam

    • J says:

      Sam, I’m having a go at doing a reading of those parables you asked about. It involves doing the whole discourse of Matthew 24-25. I’ve started posting it. Let me know what you think.

  5. Sam Anderson says:

    Thanks very much, I look forward to reading them.

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