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.


* It is important to note that most forms of Jewish eschatology (the major exception being that influenced by Hellenistic traditions) did not see eschatology as referring to the end of space-time history, nor to judgement in an eternal Hell. Rather it looked forward to a new age in which God and his people would rule, and the unrighteous, particularly unjust empires and kings, would be destroyed.

Posted on October 12, 2011, in New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. For the first time it has struck me, that it may be the throwers, and not the throwees that are weeping and gnashing. Or perhaps, the throwers are weeping and the throwees are gnashing.

    Is it clearer in the original tongue?

    Excited by this series of blogs… watchin’ Matt go all “fire and brimstone”! 😉

  2. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series, should be interesting 🙂
    (I think) we can presume that those who are “thrown out” are weeping and gnashing because they know that what they’ve done was futile. When do people usually find that out in current space/time? When they get old? I see people like Steve Jobs and think he probably didn’t weep and gnash his teeth after his life’s work. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m thinking of exceptional circumstances/people rather than the general population.

  3. I’m excited for the next post; this is great.

  4. Naomi – there are, as far as I can tell, two possible readings for the Greek. Either:

    1. “They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where (or ‘in that place’; ekei) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
    2. “They will throw them into the blazing furnace; there (ekei) will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    In the first case there seems to be no possibility that the throwers (who are angels) are the ones weeping and gnashing, though in the second option it is less clear. Certainly it is a possibility, though I would say it is remote.

    I am indeed going all fire and brimstone, but I’ll probably come at it with a fire hose.

    Jonny – My sense is that the whole passage does not deal with afterlife, but with judgement on earth, specifically in the case of falling empires and powers, such as the religious leaders being addressed by Jesus. That is to say, I don’t think it necessarily applies to all people who die and who have not followed Jesus. Of course I have the benefit of knowing what I am going to be saying in the next post… 🙂 Thanks for your encouragement.

    Thanks Tom for the encouragement. Next one should come out in the next couple of mornings.

  5. I think that it’s distinctly possible the weeping and gnashing are referring to here and now, and in the afterlife. There are clearly ages of harvest, some who know Christ now, and the rest to follow in the ages to come. I just don’t believe the weeping and gnashing are eternal in nature. I don’t believe God loses one…not one sheep.

  6. Anthony bardsley

    Very good clarification on weeping and gnashing of teeth . A preacher called jacob prach tried to use the weeping and gnashing of teeth argument to support the eternal torment doctrine . It’s good that these are said in clear context .

  1. Pingback: jesus and hell (part 2): fire, furnaces and darkness « life.remixed

  2. Pingback: jesus and hell (part 3): matthew 13:42 in context « life.remixed

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