A fresh look at the language of hell.
The topic of hell has held a strange fascination for Christians through the centuries. And while one hears less about it today, all ecclesial bodies attempt to give some answer to the tantalizing question of what will happen to the wicked in the Day of Judgment. The majority view has been that hell consists of everlasting, excruciating torment.
Against this, a small but vocal minority has held that such a teaching is incompatible with the loving and just character of God. Instead, they maintain that judgment will result in the destruction of sin and sinners and prepare the way for the new heavens and new earth, where there will be no more pain, death, or suffering of any kind.
There are various judgment motifs, and each is important in its own respect. One that has played a key role has been the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This motif appears three times (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and is assumed twice more (24:51; Luke 13:28). “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears in the above five “outer darkness” texts and twice on its own (Matthew 13:42, 50). These phrases have often been understood as reflecting the horrors of hell — the outer darkness being its dark and gloomy nature, while the weeping and gnashing of teeth are the sorrow and pain of its torments.1 But are such views correct?
This short study will explore these terms in their context. Properly understood, they point away from the supposed torments of hell into other more reasonable but equally sobering realities.
We first look at the outer darkness. In Matthew 22:13 the term concludes the parable of the wedding garment, and in Matthew 25:30 it concludes the parable of the talents. The phrase appears in Matthew 8:12 in the context of the healing of a centurion’s servant. In Matthew 24:51 the outer darkness is implied through the use of the Greek locative adverb ekei (“there”)2 and concludes the parable of the evil servant.
Lastly, Luke 13:28 is part of the parable of the narrow gate. All true disciples should seek to enter this gate in order to enter the kingdom and feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those who choose not to enter will be left outside, where (ekei) there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So what is this mysterious outer darkness? A place of torment? A description of hell?
Note that all five texts discussed above appear in the context of a banquet. In Matthew 8:12 and Luke 13:28 the banquet is the heavenly feast where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are present. That a feast is in view is evidenced by the word anaklithesontai, or “recline” (banqueting meals in the ancient world were eaten while reclining)3, in Matthew 8:11 and Luke 13:29, and by the mention of the oikodespotes in Luke 13:25. The master of the house closes the door so that no more guests may enter.4
In Matthew 22:13 a banquet is clearly stated, since the whole parable of the wedding garment takes place in the context of a wedding feast. In Matthew 25:30 (parable of the talents) a banquet is not mentioned specifically but is assumed. The rich man returns from his lengthy travel, calls his servants to account, and invites the faithful two to enter the “joy” of the master — clearly a celebration for his return.5 And in Matthew 24:46-51, the parable of the evil servant, again we have a master returning from a long trip, whereby a joyous celebration for his return would be the norm.
Banquets in ancient times, just like today, usually took place in the evening. In a time when there were few lights to lighten a dark night, an obvious contrast existed between a lighted banqueting hall and the darkness outside. The phrase outer darkness, therefore, is descriptive: “the darkness which is outside [the banqueting hall].” It is not language of torment but language of exclusion.
Sorrow and anger
Those who find themselves outside the banqueting hall will experience weeping and gnashing of teeth. Is this a description of torment, or is something else in view?
The Greek for weeping (klauthmos) can refer to a range of emotions, like joy (LXX Genesis 45:2; 46:29) and eager anticipation (LXX Jeremiah 31:9). But the word refers mostly to sorrow (LXX Judges 21:2; 2 Samuel 13:36; Ezra 3:13; Isaiah 65:19). Nowhere is it used in relation to torments of any kind. The Greek for gnashing of teeth (brugmos tōn odontōn) consistently denotes anger (Acts 7:54; LXX Job 16:9; Psalm 35:16; 37:12; 112:10; Proverbs 19:12), never the pain of torment.
That the people excluded from a banquet could experience both these emotions is understandable. Sorrow is a natural reaction when a person realizes that something good has been lost. The same is true of anger. The context of the five passages discussed above evidences a pattern: namely, disaffection with the master. In the parable of the talents, the servant who refused to make use of his talent was already negatively predisposed toward his master. When questioned why he did not use his talent, he replied, “I knew you to be a hard man . . .” (Matthew 25:24). Not surprisingly, such negative feelings turned to anger when he saw the two worthy servants welcomed into the banquet, while he was thrown out.
In Matthew 8:12 and Luke 13:28 and the heavenly banquet, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those who are welcomed are gentiles from the far corners of the earth. Those excluded are Jews who have failed to believe in Jesus. They were the natural heirs of the kingdom, the “sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 8:12). But much to their chagrin, they find themselves excluded. Indeed, in Luke 13:24 they “strive to enter” the banquet consciously, maybe forcefully.6 Clearly they are not happy with the master’s decision to exclude them.
In Matthew 22:13 (parable of the wedding garment) the anger of the man excluded is again easy to understand. Some scholars suggest it was customary for a wedding host to oversee that guests had adequate attire.7 The man chooses not to avail himself of such service, indicating that he considers his own clothes of better quality. When the king confronts him and orders him to be thrown outside, the man naturally feels angry that the king has failed to appreciate the quality and beauty of his garments.
And in Matthew 24:45-51 (parable of the evil servant) the servant is clearly unhappy because the master has arrived unannounced and caught him mistreating his fellow servants and wasting possessions. Indeed the rationale behind the servant’s prodigal lifestyle was that the “master is delaying his coming” (v. 48). The sudden arrival of the master therefore causes intense anxiety and anger to the evil serv-ant.
In all the above instances the anger is directed at the master, a symbol of God. Those who are left outside feel they should be inside and therefore are not happy with the verdict.
The above picture appears coherent enough: a heavenly banquet, unworthy individuals left outside experiencing weeping (sorrow) and gnashing of teeth (anger) because of their exclusion. Nothing is said about hell or torments.
Two final texts mention weeping and gnashing of teeth with no suggestion of a banquet or an outer darkness. The first concludes the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:42). Jesus explains that this parable is about the kingdom of God, whereby the good seed represents the saints to be gathered into the kingdom and the tares represent the wicked. They and everything that offends (v. 41) will be cast into the furnace of fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The other text is Matthew 13:50, concluding the parable of the net. Just as fishermen separate the good fish from the bad, in the day of judgment the angels will remove the wicked from the midst of the saints and cast them into the furnace of fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Could these two references be descriptions of the torments of hell? Four facts suggest no.
First, the phrase “cast them into the furnace of fire” is from Daniel 3:6 and the story of the three Hebrew boys. The purpose of the furnace there was not to torment but to destroy. Second, in the parables of the net and the wheat and tares, the wicked are compared to bad fish and tares, which are burned not out of vengeance or for torment but because they are no good.
Third, in the parable of wheat and tares “all things that offend” (Matthew 13:41), animate and inanimate, are thrown into the fire.8 Will the fire torment these forever? No, it will destroy them. Fourth, as a general rule of exegesis, words and motifs should be understood in line with their primary meaning unless strong evidence suggests otherwise. As such, since “weeping and gnashing of teeth” nowhere else refers to torment, the phrase should not be understood as referring to torment here.
Exegetical interrelation suggests that the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew 13:42, 50 should be understood the same way as in Matthew 8:11, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; Luke 13:28, referring respectively to the feelings of sadness and anger that the wicked experience when they discover they are excluded from the kingdom.
Loss and tragedy
The Day of Judgment will not be pleasant. For God, it will be a day when He will do a “strange” work (Isaiah 28:21, NIV) in the destruction of sin and sinners; for sinners, it will be fearsome (Hebrews 10:31). But whatever temporary physical suffering that day may bring, in using the language of “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus focused on other realities — not the physical pain but the immensity and sadness of the loss. The different banquets in question are all symbolic of the kingdom of God. To be left in the darkness outside means to be left outside the kingdom.
A sense of tragedy is in all these stories. All who find themselves excluded could and should have been in the kingdom. Nobody needed to be left outside. Everybody could have been in had they bothered to enter.
Jesus died for all and wants all to be in His kingdom. He has sent multiple summonses and continues to do so. But in a sad repetition of the story, people often cannot be bothered. When the door closes, those who find themselves outside may weep and gnash their teeth, but it will be too late.
So is the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth a description of the supposed torments of hell? No. The emphasis is rather on the sadness of unnecessary loss. The greatest tragedy in the history of this world is that people who should be in the kingdom will find themselves outside. As such, the phrase is above all a summons to heed the call of salvation. Today.BA
- Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, 11.
- See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary 33b, 725.
- Luz, 11; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, 1020, 1026.
- Fitzmyer, 1021.
- See David L. Turner, Matthew, 601.
- See Fitzmyer, 1025; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, 747-8; BDAG, s.v. ισχυω.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, 328-9.
- Luz, 269.