jesus and hell (part 2): fire, furnaces and darkness

(Note: This post looks awfully long, though much of the text is simply quoted references which are typed in full for the benefit of the reader. These can be mostly skipped if desired.)

In my last post I began to look at the issue of Hell as often seen within Matthew 13:

“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. My conclusion was that weeping and gnashing of teeth were not actions inherently related to afterlife in any way, 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.*

Why exactly is God judging these people? That will have to wait until the third and final instalment…

In the meantime I want to look at the place of this weeping and gnashing, namely the blazing furnace (13:42 etc.) and the outer darkness (8:12 etc.)

What does this language refer to? Are many conservative Christians correct in asserting that the blazing furnace and the outer darkness refer to Hell, a place of everlasting punishment?

To answer such questions we must look at other examples of this kind of language, and also discuss exactly what type of language we are talking about.

References to being thrown into a furnace are not necessarily related to everlasting punishment in texts outside of Matthew:

Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace (kaminos [LXX]).” (Daniel 3:6)

Kaminos is the same word used for furnace in Matthew 13. Throughout the whole Old Testament it is only used in Daniel 3:6 which makes it hard to get a feel for its meaning over a number of contexts. In this case however it certainly refers to death by execution, not to punishment in the afterlife.

“Blazing furnace” language is also used in non-canonical books such as in the pseudepigraphal book 1 Enoch, a highly influential book amongst the New Testament authors (it is even quoted in Jude!). 1 Enoch constantly proclaims judgement against the rich and mighty, predicting their doom:

Woe to you, rich, for you have trusted in your riches,
And from your riches shall you depart,
Because you have not remembered the Most High in the days of your riches. (94:8)

Woe unto you, sinners, for your riches make you appear like the righteous,
But your hearts convict you of being sinners,
And this fact shall be a testimony against you for a memorial of (your) evil deeds…

Woe to you, mighty,
Who with might oppress the righteous;
For the day of your destruction is coming. (96:4,8)

The same goes for the Parables found earlier in 1 Enoch:

Then shall the kings and the mighty perish
And be given into the hands of the righteous and holy.
And thenceforward none shall seek for themselves mercy from the Lord of Spirits
For their life is at an end. (38:5-6)

And this Son of Man whom thou hast seen
Shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats,
And the strong from their thrones
And shall loosen the reins of the strong,
And break the teeth of the sinners.
And he shall put down the kings from their thrones and kingdoms
Because they do not extol and praise Him
Nor humbly acknowledge whence the kingdom was bestowed upon them. (46:4-5)

In these days downcast in countenance shall the kings of the earth have become,
And the strong who possess the land because of the works of their hands,
For on the day of their anguish and affliction they shall not (be able to) save themselves.
And I will give them over into the hands of Mine elect… (48:8)

1 Enoch clearly equates the “sinners” with the rich and mighty who oppress the less powerful. For this they will be judged; 1 Enoch spells out the nature of this judgement against the rich:

And I looked and turned to another part of the earth, and saw there a deep valley with burning fire. And they brought the kings and the mighty, and began to cast them into this deep valley. And there mine eyes saw how they made these their instruments, iron chains of immeasurable weight. And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying: ‘For whom are these chains being prepared’ And he said unto me: ‘These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation, and they shall cover their jaws with rough stones as the Lord of Spirits commanded. And Michael, and Gabriel, and Raphael, and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day, and cast them on that day into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness in becoming subject to Satan and leading astray those who dwell on the earth.’ (1 Enoch 54:1-6)

It is the rich and powerful (“the kings and the mighty”) who will be thrown into the burning furnace for their unrighteousness (that is, injustice). This language is powerful, though not particularly unique. Indeed it sounds similar in many ways to that of the book of Revelation.** This similarity is for good reason; both books share apocalyptic traits.

Apocalyptic writing was very common in the period of these books (both around the first century CE, same as Matthew). While I cannot comprehensively define apocalyptic literature in this context, I can at least say it was a genre of narrative literature which utilised powerful symbols to create a transcendent story world to which people could look for hope in the midst of a situation of trauma or crisis.

Apocalyptic literature was not intended to be taken in a strict literal fashion.^ Moreover it did not predict the end of space-time history as is often assumed when people read Revelation. Rather it looked forward to a new age in history when God would judge and defeat his enemies and bring about a new age for his people. It is just not true that the Jews believed God would end space-time history to take people away somewhere else (Heaven or Hell).

What’s the point? Time to make some connections…

Firstly, Jesus in Matthew 13:42 (and other places) is using apocalyptic language similar to 1 Enoch which is not intended to be taken strictly literally.

Secondly the burning furnace in Daniel 3 is not a place of everlasting torment, but a place of execution intended to lead to death.

Thirdly, and in support of the two points above, 1 Enoch’s punishment for the powerful is death itself, not everlasting punishment. The references to 1 Enoch above (such as 38:5-6 “Then shall the kings and the mighty perish”) make clear they do not refer to a post-mortem reality, but to something happening here, in this earthly realm. If we treat 1 Enoch consistently then the burning furnace is another way of talking about this judgement, and is not to be equated with everlasting punishment after death, but to death itself.

To impose a doctrine of eternal torture in Hell onto these texts, including Matthew 13:42, is to make the mistake of anachronism. In any case the view that there is a place of everlasting punishment separate from earth is derived from Greek Neoplatonic philosophy and not from Jewish traditions such as Daniel and 1 Enoch which influenced Matthew.

Conclusion? The burning furnace has nothing to do with afterlife, but rather with God’s judgement of the rich and mighty on earth for their injustice. Jesus in Matthew 13, when referring to angels throwing the “sinners” into the blazing furnace, would appear to be using apocalyptic language referring to their deaths, which is their judgement.

Outer darkness, which I have neglected until now, is simply another way of referring to the blazing furnace as judgement or death. This is fairly obvious when you look closely at the Old Testament, which depicts darkness either literally, as a “darkening” of a person’s understanding, and also (most pertinently for us) as the realm of the dead, which is the grave, not Hell. See for example Psalm 88; Job 10:20-22, 17:11-16; Ezekiel 32:1-10; Amos 5:18-27,^^ etc. etc.

In the next instalment we look at the immediate context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 13:42 and ask what it tells us about the meaning of being thrown into a blazing furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. How is one meant to weep (mourn) and gnash their teeth (in anger) in the “place” that is death? You will have to wait until next time.


* Read Part 1 of this series for the reasons behind these conclusions.
** Compare Revelation’s “lake of fire” imagery to the “burning furnace” imagery in 1 Enoch. The books contain other very similar imagery; Revelation 14:20b (“…and the blood flowed from the winepress, up to the bridles of the horses, for 1600 stadia.”) with 1 Enoch 100:3 (“And the horse will walk up to its chest in the blood of sinners, and the chariots will sink up to its height.”), and Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, And Death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them.”) with 1 Enoch 51:1 (“And in those days the earth will return that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will return that which has been entrusted to it, that which it has received, and destruction (Abaddon) will return what it owes.”)
^ Certainly with the book of Revelation people do not generally believe the seals, trumpets, bowls, beasts, dragon, prostitute and Babylon are to be taken literally.
^^ Amos here is talking about the darkness of the Day of the Lord which, contrary to popular belief, is not the End of the World, but rather the Day of his coming in judgement. Such judgements are not simply reserved for the end of time. Amos interprets the Day of the Lord as God’s coming in judgement where he will send Israel into exile (5:27). The early Christians took this as the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ and the related judgement of all other kingdoms/empires, with particular emphasis on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 where he quotes Joel). In this sense darkness refers to judgement.

Posted on October 14, 2011, in Biblical Studies, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I can’t help think of the parable of Lazarus and the King. You know the one, where the king is an arrogant jerk, flaunting his riches, and when he dies and goes to hell, he begs Lazarus to give him water? Man, it’s such an explicit account of an eternal hell! How could you not think that hell was real?

    Well, for one thing, the internal logic of that story, if it’s literally true, contains what is basically Pelagian heresy. The ultimate destinations of the two men in the story, whether heaven or hell, has nothing to do with the grace of God. It has nothing to do with what they believe, but everything to do with their actions. And Jesus was telling this story! So he couldn’t have been a filthy Pelagian, could he? Surely if hell was real, he’d be making it explicit that Lazarus had total faith that he was the son of God, and that’s why he was in heaven? And that the king wasn’t in hell because he was a wealthy jerk? Because that there would seem to get in the way of becoming fantastically wealthy, and that’s a problem…

    Since my return to faith, I’ve found the idea of Hell to be the least compelling, least internally consistent part of socio-cultural Christianity, so I’m glad you’re shooting at this particular prince — I’m not convinced he’s fit to rule. When most of your ideology about something is appropriated from Greek mythology and Dante’s Inferno, you start to question just how convincing an idea it is…

  2. I believe that the Bible teaches about hell and that it is everlasting torment, I think we need to take the word as it says and not fool around with it. Of course we all hate the thoughts of it and would like to do away with it but that isn’t possible. There have been many people who have had death experiences and experienced hell ……..usually when people err in their belief in this it opens the door for more false beliefs.

  3. Hey Brad, part one reminds me of preacher Ian Paisley speaking passionately to a congregation that there will weeping and nashing of teeth and someone shouted out- what if someone has no teeth?- Paisley in his broad Northern Accent declared- “Teath Will be Provided!”

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

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