“And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.” — Matthew 25:46, NJB
The picture with this post is Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell. Oh, yes, people! It is time for a talk on hell, everyone’s favorite. No, I am not telling you whether or not you are going there, as that is not my call. I am also not guessing as to the fates of others in the afterlife, because, again, that is not my place. I am also not taking the preferred liberal approach of finding the metaphorical meaning in Matthew’s discussion of hell. I’m actually not debating the existence of hell at all, as I have no intention of finding out whether it is real or not.
No, tonight, I want to encourage you to look at this teaching in a new way that quite possibly ignores the afterlife implications altogether, in favor of an interpretation that gets all of us up and moving to serve others. Interested? Let’s take a look.
The full text for tonight’s post can be found here, in my preferred translation, the New Jerusalem Bible. I am not Catholic, but the website where the translation is found happens to be a Catholic site, so don’t feel like I am trying to convert you or anything. We are looking at verses 31-46 tonight, so scroll down, and get ready to take a look!… Done? Okay, here we go!
From the outset, we get the idea that Jesus is talking about the final judgment of the world, telling us “When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory… and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (verses 31-32). This is a prophetic text, then, one concerned with the judgment and implemented justice of God. As we see in the text, verses 33-36, it is far better to be considered a sheep! These are the ones who are on Jesus’ right side (the favored side in antiquity), praised for their kindness to others.
On the left side (not the good side in antiquity), we have those considered “goats,” and they are not in for nearly as good a time. As we look at verses 41-46, we their negligence regarding those who suffer among them result in their condemnation by Jesus, which would seem to land them in a very unpleasant place known as “hell” in the Christian universe. Obviously, “goat status” would be undesirable for us, yes?
Now, the easiest teaching to take from this could be rendered thus:
Jesus is eventually going to return to judge us all. If we do what we are supposed to, we will go to heaven. If we don’t do what we are supposed to, we will go to hell. So do what you’re supposed to do.
Familiar? Utterly unfamiliar? My guess is that there is a big split in my readership, dividing the group into two subsections. One grew up with hell teachings all the time and heard this text at least once. The other group was raised with no mention of hell (probably in the mainline churches) and finds the idea repulsive. There could also be a subset of people who are indifferent to this concept in general, and that is also fine.
The point is, this is not how I believe this text (or any judgment text) should be read. Keep in mind, I still insist the judgment texts be read. They are part of Scripture, and this is not a faith of squishy comfort. However, brow-beating people with the threat of a severe afterlife is also not a productive way to honor these texts and the teachings therein. So what’s my take?
This Scripture is not concerned with the afterlife nearly as much as it is with how you and I go about our lives from the moment we turn away from the computer screen or Bible and enter into our normal doings. Hell? Maybe. Heaven? Sure. Earth, here and now? Absolutely, without a doubt.
We have this unhealthy view of faith and prophecy that keeps us concerned with either looking back or looking forward to a problematic degree. When we look to the past as if these are just ancient words describing a nonexistent reality, it has the same effect as looking forward constantly to the time when some people get heaven, others get hell. That effect is negative and unhelpful, because you and I are living in the present, and I can’t help but think that Jesus and the prophets of the Scriptures were more concerned about how people live their lives as opposed to whether or not they know about the impending judgment.
Am I denying the judgment? No! I am, however, interested in recovering this text from its “end times” pigeon-hole in order to (hopefully) remove some of the fear, worry, or resentment that often gets attached to hell teachings. So if the point isn’t knowing how the judgment will go, what is it?
The point, dear reader, is that when you finish reading this text (or any other judgment text, like Revelation), you should be looking around for an opportunity to care for the people you encounter throughout the rest of your life. Will you feed the hungry? Will you give water to the thirsty? Will you visit and comfort those who are sick, in prison, grieving, and impoverished? Matthew’s (and Jesus’) hope is that you will respond with a hearty, “YES!” Will you do these things because you are secretly doing these things to Jesus and can thereby expect eternal blessedness? NO.
“But Jordan, what do you mean? Jesus promises us a reward!”
Yes, of course, because Jesus knows how you and I think. That doesn’t make it right, and the examples of rightness (and wrongness) are found in tonight’s text. Look at verses 37-40. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” The same questioning continues for every act the righteous committed, which earned them the blessing of God. You see, part of their righteousness is that they didn’t do what they did because of a reward or punishment. They didn’t even do these things because they thought they were secretly serving God. They did these righteous things because it was right to do so.
Let’s look at verses 44-45. The unrighteous as the same questions, but from a different perspective. “Woah, we neglected YOU? WHEN?” Their minds go to the fact that they are cursed by God because they missed a couple of key opportunities to serve him. Even with their judgment settled, they don’t get it. These are the ones concerned only with the reward (or punishment). These are the ones who require incentive to do what is right for others.
You see, Jesus doesn’t want us looking forward, worrying about the coming of judgment. In fact, he says as much in Acts 1:7. Instead, Jesus’ teachings are geared toward changing the way we do things and the reasons we do things here and now, in our everyday lives. Hell is a part of the teachings of Jesus, but it is hardly the focus. The focus is what you and I decide to do each day, and whether or not we will choose to act faithfully regarding God and others.
Jesus wants our hearts. Jesus wants us to love him, to love God, particularly through how we love others. These “others,” (our fellow humans and other parts of creation) are not to be viewed as means to the end of salvation, but instead, they are parts of God’s creation that are loved and wanted by God, just as we are. As such, we should treat them with the requisite amount of kindness, not based on whether they deserve it or we want to, but simply because it is the right way to live. Will it bring benefits? Yes. Will doing the opposite cause problems? Of course. We, however, are called not to love based on what is gained, but based on the love we already receive in Christ Jesus.
As you go out into your life of faith, I encourage you to pay heed to these Scriptures regarding the really uncomfortable topic of hell and damnation. Not, however, because I want you to be afraid or worried about the judgment, but because in these teachings we find the urgency with which Jesus hopes we will attack the world with radical and unrestrained kindness for each other.
Don’t stress about the reward or punishment. Don’t stress about the “signs of the times” and the impending return of Christ to set everything right. Instead, look forward to these things with joy, and with moderation, spending the rest of your time looking around you here and now for an opportunity for Jesus’ love to be made manifest in your life.
Peace be with you!