jesus and hell (part 3): matthew 13:42 in context
In the last two posts we have looked at the apparent teaching on Hell in a number of verses in Matthew, in particular 13:42:
“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)
Part 1 looked at the language of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I concluded that weeping and gnashing of teeth were not related to afterlife, but rather represented mourning and anger/violence in a very “earthly” sense. Such actions were in fact responses by people to God’s judgement of them.
Part 2 looked at the language of the blazing furnace, and also of the outer darkness. My conclusion was that the burning furnace also has nothing to do with afterlife, but rather with God’s judgement of the rich and mighty on earth for their injustice, namely death. Concordantly darkness refers to the grave, also death.
(…The reasoning for these conclusions can be found in the relevant posts.)
I wanted to spend this final post of this series looking at the context of Matthew 13:42, and how it fits into a wider narrative. By this I hope to show that my conclusions so far are faithful to the text, and also why exactly God is judging these people.
Following the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in which Jesus teaches about the way of the kingdom Matthew’s narrative moves into episodes of Jesus demonstrating the kingdom in action (Ch. 8-9).
Chapter 8-9 conclude with Jesus claiming that “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” In its context this statement clearly does not refer to evangelism since Jesus makes no mention of this activity. Rather Jesus is referring to people who will enact the kingdom mission of God in terms of actions that bring life to people in the midst of death.
You must understand, Jesus’ actions of healing and exorcism were not simply proofs of his divinity. Rather they were reversals of problems experienced when living under the Roman Empire. As has been attested by a number of scholars, life in the Roman Empire was excellent for the rich minority, but difficult for the vast majority of poor peasants. Both the urban and rural peasantry experienced physical sickness, disease and death due to squalor, overcrowded living conditions and malnutrition, and also mental trauma from excessive work and the ever-present threat of imperial violence.
Such conditions didn’t “just happen” – the Roman imperial system’s economic structure and practices made it so. The wealthy extracted a large portion of the production of the poor in taxes, tolls, tributes etc. They also sold these extractions (usually “product” like food) for higher prices, thus securing their own wealth, but making life more difficult for the poor. In short the rich maintained their wealth at the expense of the poor.
In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to embody his mission, to do as he had done in chapters 8-9. The message; “the kingdom of heaven (as opposed to Rome) is at hand!” (10:7). The actions that embody this kingdom; “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, cast out demons…* (10:8). The disciples are not to charge for these acts of mercy, ensuring the poor can afford it (10:8).
Quite simply Jesus sends his followers to follow him in enacting alternative community practices.
In Chapters 11-12 we see the narrative turn to describe the reactions of different people to Jesus and his mission. Some are confused based on previous expectation (John the Baptist), some are positive (those he heals), most are hostile (Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Pharisees, scribes).
In light of these reactions Jesus starts to teach in parables in Matthew 13. These parables describe the kingdom (“empire”) of heaven.
13:42 appears as part of an explanation of the Parable of the Weeds. In this parable weeds are sown by a man’s enemy together with his good seed. The man decides not to pull up the weeds in case the good seeds are also uprooted. Instead the weeds can be gathered and burned at the resulting harvest. After this the good wheat can be gathered.
It is worth noting that the weeds are not eternally tortured in fire, but are destroyed by it…
Jesus explains this parable saying that the man who sows is him, the field the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom, the weeds the children of the evil one, and the enemy the Devil. The harvest is said to be the close of the age.
Jesus teaches that at the end of the age the weeds will be gathered, the weeds referring in 13:41 to “all causes of sin and all law-breakers.”In the course of Matthew’s narrative such people are not general sinners, but a specific group. Matthew will reveal who this is later in chapter 23 where he accuses the scribes and Pharisees of shutting people out of the kingdom and making their converts even more children of Gehenna than themselves. He also accuses them of adhering to the minor matters of the law while neglecting the weightier matters – “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (See also Matthew 12:7)
That is to say that in Matthew 13:41-42 Jesus accuses those powerful members of society, the community leading scribes and Pharisees, of leading others into sin and breaking the law themselves. He has already predicted their judgement throughout Matthew up to this point, and it makes sense that he is talking about their judgement in 13:42, since they are the foremost examples of an “evil generation” (12:45).
The lack of justice, mercy and faithfulness exhibited by the community leaders is a complete breach of the law throughout Matthew. This is the reason for judgement (as was also the case in 1 Enoch’s vision of judgement, see Part 2 in this series); they do not embody the kingdom mission that Jesus and his disciples do, a mission which reverses the problems caused by empire rather than exacerbating them as the scribes and Pharisees do.
When is the “close of the age” at which this judgement will occur? There has been a robust debate in recent times as to whether this phrase refers to a final judgement (the traditional view), or to an historical event, usually said to be the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE (since this would be the close of the current age in which Jesus lived).
For what it’s worth I favour the second view, though for the purposes of this series it is mostly irrelevant – the point I want to make is that in Matthew 13:40-43 Jesus is not talking about casting sinners into everlasting torment after their death, but rather about the judgement of the rich and powerful for their law-breaking refusal to embody the justice, mercy and faithfulness. Such actions are those of people who follow Jesus in his alternative kingdom mission of bringing life to those struggling under empire. This judgement is predicted to be death.**
This understanding makes most sense of what we have discussed in the previous posts, including the intertextual evidence of The Old Testament and 1 Enoch.
This series of course does not prove there is no Hell-as-everlasting-torture; rather it shows that Jesus is not talking about this when he talks about being thrown into a blazing furnace or the outer darkness. While not disproving the idea of everlasting torture for sinners after death, this analysis should nonetheless force us to reconsider our assumptions about some of the apparent “Hell” language in the New Testament.
After 2000 years all is not always as it seems.
P.S. Now that I’ve finished this series I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. What do you think Jesus is talking about in the cited Matthew passages? What are your views on Hell more generally?