There’s an old saying which goes something along the lines of: “A text read out of context is just a pretext for a proof text.”
When discussing the topic of the final fate of individual humans, many Christians will share various texts from the Bible which they assume — based on presuppositions they’ve been taught to believe by their religious leaders — are proof that non-Christians will be punished forever in a fiery place called hell. Something few people think to do, however, is consider the context of the passage to find out if it’s actually referring to what they assume it does, consider when the judgement or outcome in that particular passage is supposed to take place, and consider whether their interpretation of the passage is consistent with the rest of Scripture.
When read on their own without considering context, chronology, and consistency, passages about “everlasting fire,” outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and “worms that die not and fire that is not quenched” sound scary, and if you’ve been taught all your life that there’s a fiery place called “hell” that people go to exist forever in when they die if they don’t become Christians first, it can be easy to assume that each of these judgement passages are all talking about the same thing. But are they really?
Well, let’s take a look at one of the most commonly used passages to “prove” that non-Christians are going to be burned in hell without end — the prophecy of the sheep and the goats — and then compare it to the rest of Scripture to see if this one actually means what most Christians use it to prove:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. — Matthew 25:31-46
If you read that over without taking the time to break it down and think about those three important factors one needs to consider when interpreting Scripture systematically (context, chronology, and consistency), it’s sort of easy to see why people might assume it’s talking about true believers going to heaven and non-believers going to hell for eternity, and so when you read or hear a discussion where someone mentions the idea of Universal Reconciliation, meaning the idea that everybody will eventually be saved, you know exactly what to do: share that passage with the heretic who obviously hasn’t studied Scripture enough and somehow missed that this passage is in the Bible. But the truth is, before you do so, you should really be taking some time to ask yourself a few questions about it:
- Who are the sheep supposed to represent and who are the goats supposed to represent in that prophecy?
- When are the events in the prophecy supposed to take place in the future, and where?
- How is it the sheep gain eternal life according to that passage?
- Where is it the goats are apparently going to spend eternity according to that passage?
Now, most people will quickly say that the sheep represent true believers and the goats are everyone else. As for when and where this takes place, very few people have ever thought of that, but if everybody is being judged and going to heaven and hell for eternity then you realize it’s obviously talking about the Great White Throne Judgement. But wait… you think to yourself, “are there going to be any true believers at the Great White Throne Judgement?” As most Christians are aware (at least those who haven’t fallen for the deception known as Amillennialism), but somehow seem to forget whenever they read this passage, there won’t be any true believers being judged at that particular judgement (the body of Christ has already been judged over 1,000 years earlier, at the Judgement Seat of Christ, and have been living in the heavens for all that time), which means the sheep can’t actually represent members of the body of Christ at all, can they? In fact, it seems likely that believers within the body of Christ are going to participate in judging those who end up at the Great White Throne Judgement, so the sheep couldn’t possibly be believers if that’s the case (Christ is the judge at that judgement, and it would take a very long time for one person to judge every single human being who ever lived, even if one excludes all those who have joined the body of Christ and the Israel of God, so it makes sense that the rest of His body will assist Him here — and no, this judgement doesn’t take place outside of time; it takes place in our physical universe after the dead have been physically resurrected). Not to mention, there’s no reference to a resurrection in this passage, which would be necessary to occur if this is a judgement of everyone who has ever lived.
You then notice that the verse says this judgement takes place “when the Son of man shall come in his glory,” and looking at the context of the rest of the chapter, as well as the chapter before it, you realize it must actually be talking about the time immediately after Christ returns to the earth, so this must be talking about a judgement that takes place on earth among the living at the beginning of the Millennium, shortly after the Great Tribulation ends, rather than the Great White Throne Judgement which takes place 1,000 years later.
But that just brings up other problems. If every single human living on earth is going to be judged and sent to heaven or hell for eternity immediately after the Tribulation ends (which would seem to be implied by the references to “life eternal” and “everlasting punishment” if we’re interpreting the passage the way most Christians do), who is going to live on earth for the next 1,000 years and reproduce, as Scripture says will happen during the Millennium (as well as on the New Earth, after the Millennium ends and our current planet is destroyed)? The Bible teaches that those who have been made immortal will be like the angels and will no longer marry or reproduce at that time, and if all the non-believers are going to be sent to the lake of fire to die a second time at that point, with everyone else being given their immortality at that time (presuming that’s what “life eternal” means), that doesn’t leave anybody else to fulfill the prophecies about the New Covenant, or even the New Earth, that are supposed to take place after the Tribulation ends, not to mention the fact that nobody will be left to rise up against Israel at the end of the Millennium one last time if all the non-believers are cast into the lake of fire at this point.
Not only that, but you now begin to wonder why there’s nothing in there about the sheep “asking Jesus into their hearts” or “accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour” in the prophecy (not that either of those are scriptural ways to be saved, you quickly remember), or even about them believing that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day (which is the Gospel that Paul taught), and you’ll likely even stop to wonder why it seems like eternal life appears to be dependent on good works rather than on grace through faith. However, you quickly brush those concerns aside because you know it has to be talking about what your preachers have always said it is and decide that, even though it doesn’t actually say so in the passage, the reason for salvation in this passage has to be figurative and be talking about works as the fruit of faith rather than good works being the actual cause of the sheep’s salvation as the passage says they are (and then push the thought that “many non-believers do the very things Jesus seemed to say would result in everlasting life while many believers don’t” to the back of your mind and try to forget that fact), because if you were to read it literally it would become obvious pretty quickly that this passage can’t be talking about what you’ve always assumed it is at all (although you’re then also forced to push the thought that, “if the cause of salvation and damnation is figurative, then there’s no reason to believe that the actual reward and punishment aren’t also figurative,” and that “the reward and punishment could then really mean anything at all,” to the back of your mind as well, but you successfully do so).
After going through this trail of thoughts, you almost certainly realize that you have to just ignore these points and continue holding to the doctrine you did previously since you need to believe that most people will be punished without end because otherwise all the sinners who don’t become Christians before they die might end up with the same reward you’re getting without first having to become Christians, and why should they get the same reward that you earned by being smart enough or wise enough or righteous enough or humble enough or obedient enough (whichever it is that you are and they aren’t) when they don’t deserve it like you do for making that good decision.
However, there are a few of you (very few, probably) who might take the time to ponder these things and realize that studying Scripture consistently and in context (and considering the chronology of the passages) might mean the verses we’ve all been taught condemn all non-Christians to an eternity of suffering in hell might actually mean something else after all.
I don’t have room to get into all the details here, but simply put, the “everlasting fire” is a figurative term which refers to where certain people (possibly Gentiles of the nations, or perhaps non-believing Israelites living among the nations — likely not even being aware that they’re from an Israelite tribe — based on the fact that Jesus’ messages tended to only be to and about Israelites, and also that sheep and goats in Scripture were generally connected with Israel) will be punished for not doing good unto the least of Jesus’ brethren (Jesus’ “brethren” obviously being a reference to believing Jews, not simply to random people who are suffering) during the Tribulation period, which this judgement takes place immediately after, by being forced to reside in figurative “darkness.” Since Israel is where the kingdom of heaven will be centred when it arrives on Earth, those parts of the world far from the light of the King and His kingdom will be in “outer darkness,” which is a grave punishment indeed for any Israelite who hoped to finally live in that kingdom when it comes to Earth (and it should also be noted that it isn’t literal fire in this parable that is prepared for the devil and his angels, as most Christians have traditionally thought, but rather it’s the parts of the planet these people are sent to live in which are figuratively being referred to as “everlasting fire,” since people living in those parts of the world — or at least their descendants, one thousand years later — will give in to temptation by Satan to rise up against Israel one last time at the end of the Millennium), and to others getting to live in Israel during the Millennium as a reward for doing good things to persecuted Jews during the Tribulation. And don’t worry, this doesn’t teach salvation by works, because this passage isn’t actually talking about salvation to begin with, at least not the sort of salvation Paul taught about (the “sheep” aren’t going to be made immortal when they go live in the kingdom, at least not right away, so this isn’t the sort of salvation which Paul taught isn’t by works, because that salvation is all about being made immortal).
Now, I could easily run you through a similar series of points for basically any of the judgement passages in Scripture that people have generally assumed are talking about never-ending torment in “hell,” but I’m not going to at this point. For now, I just want you to think about how you explain the contradictions I pointed out above that arise when interpreting the passages the “traditional” way, and consider whether the consistent interpretation I summarized for you might make more sense.