jesus and hell (part 1): weeping and gnashing of teeth
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:40-43)
Throughout much of my discipleship journey I assumed that when Matthew’s Gospel had Jesus talking about a “blazing furnace” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” he was talking about the unimaginably intense punishment of post-mortem Hell.
In these posts I want to explore these phrases and ask the question – what is Jesus (and Matthew) talking about? This post will deal with the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” with the next being about the imagery of fire, furnaces and darkness.
Other passages in Matthew are similar to 13:40-43:
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (8:11-12)
Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (13:48-50)
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (22:13)
But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (24:48-51)
And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (25:30)
We see in Matthew that this idea of being thrown in “outer darkness” or a “blazing furnace” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is reasonably common. But does it refer to being thrown into Hell forever, post-mortem?
A question we must ask ourselves up front is whether we are willing to do justice to the literary and historical contexts of passages such as these, or whether we will uncritically defend assumed interpretations.
But anyway… Weeping is relatively straightforward, since Matthew uses the word klauthmos early in his Gospel when quoting from Jeremiah:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Weeping is a sign of mourning, in no way indicating a post-mortem state, and there is no reason to question this. For more evidence refer to… well, every mention of weeping in the Bible.
Moving on, the language of gnashing (brugmos) of teeth is interesting. It is not unique to Matthew, being found numerous times in the LXX:
God assails me and tears me in his anger
and gnashes his teeth at me;
my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes. (Job 16:9)
Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked;
they gnashed their teeth at me. (Psalm 35:16)
The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them; (Psalm 37:12)
Clearly gnashing of teeth has nothing to do with the afterlife in these passages (read them in context if you can). Neither does it seem, as is often suggested, to refer to regret. Rather it is a sign of anger, even violence. This is supported by a cognate word (bruchō) being used in the stoning of Stephen episode in Acts:
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54)
When Jesus uses this phrase in Matthew it is possible that he is alluding to a particular Old Testament passage that demonstrates a number of obvious similarities:
The wicked will see and be vexed,
they will gnash their teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing. (Psalm 112:10)
Psalm 112 as a whole speaks about those who fear the Lord and obey his commands finding blessing. Such people are said to be gracious, compassionate, generous, free lenders and people who conduct themselves with justice. Meanwhile the wicked look on vexed at the blessing of the righteous, assumedly because of their judgement, gnashing their teeth in hate and violence at the “righteous” as they themselves waste away.
Surely Jesus was aware of the context of this Psalm which in no way suggests eternal punishment, but rather eschatological destruction in historical, earthly terms* and the consequence of living life dislocated from God’s ways.
The point is that weeping and gnashing of teeth is not necessarily to be understood as one’s reaction to finding they are in Hell, nor to afterlife at all. In fact the intertextual evidence (particularly from Psalms) seems to suggest a very “earthly” understanding, implying the reaction of those who hate and do violence to God’s people to their judgement and destruction in space-time.
In terms of Matthew’s use of this phrase we have not yet arrived at a conclusion, since Jesus could conceivably have changed the Psalms’ earthly understanding of judgement. Our conclusion will rest on how we interpret the place of this weeping and gnashing, namely the furnace of fire/outer darkness
In the next post I will look more at the “apocalyptic” nature of Jesus’ words, and the language of blazing furnaces and outer darkness.