We have now looked at all 4 words generally associated with Hell; namely – Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. There remains only one more picture used in the Bible that we mistakenly interpret as referring to “Hell.” That picture is the “outer darkness” also referred to as “the furnace of fire” and it is declared that in that place there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Let us take a look.
The Outer Darkness
The first instance occurs in Matthew 8:5-13 (it is interesting to note that Matthew contains 6 out of the 7 instances where we find one or another variation of this phrase). The context surrounding this particular instance happens to be the story of the Centurion’s slave being healed. If you recall, the Centurion understood authority and told Jesus that He did not need to actually come to his home in order to heal him; Jesus only needed to speak the word and it would happen. Jesus was impressed to say the least and the rest of the story is as follows,
“He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
The first thing to notice is that the thrust of the warning concerns being rejected for participation in the banquet of the heavenly kingdom. It certainly includes the dire consequences of that rejection, but the focus is on what they are missing, which is why there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is a picture of mourning and regret. They are weeping for what they missed out on, not for what they are enduring.
The second thing to notice is that it concerns (at that time) God’s People! It was not a warning to the godless populous. Rather, it is a warning to His followers, who had utterly neglected something very important that God requires from His children. I need not highlight how the Jews were rejected by God for their stubborn refusal to share their revelation of God with outsiders. In fact they ended up crucifying their own Messiah out of their jealousy over Him welcoming outsiders. Christ came to show that God’s heart is for all people, the Jews however wanted to keep God and His promises all for themselves and see the rest of the world shut out.
John Lightfoot in his Commentary on the New Testament From the Talmud and Hebraica, Volume 2, pg. 163 says the following concerning this verse and specifically the phrase “outer darkness,”
“For whatsoever ‘outer darkness’ signifies, whether the ‘darkness of the heathen’ (for to the Jews the heathen were ‘those that are without’) or the darkness beyond that…our Savior clearly intimates the Jews were thither to be banished.”
This is important b/c the sense in Scripture does not convey the idea of Hell, but rather the idea of being rejected and cut off from God, the true light (some might argue that being cut off from God implies hell, which I can certainly grant, but it’s far too speculative to be an actual proof text of hell). Revelation was considered ‘light’ and the Jews prided themselves as being in the light, having received up to that point the greatest revelation of God. They considered all others to be blind in comparison. Blind b/c all that the heathen saw was darkness, they did not have the light of God’s revelation. Which I might add was Israel’s very calling, to bring the light to the rest of the darkened world.
So to be cast into the outer darkness signified that the Jewish nation at that time was going to lose what little light they had. They were going to be in the same boat as the rest of the lost and darkened world. The Jews were very shortly going to reject their own Messiah and miss out on the next stage of the Kingdom of heaven (the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the subsequent fellowship of God in the Church Age). And ultimately they will miss out on the fullness of the Kingdom when Christ Returns.
I believe that the outer darkness is not speaking about Hell, but being “outside” of the privilege of God’s illumination, or revelation. And it is this warning that we ought to apply to ourselves as Christians. We cannot treat these warnings as if they only apply to the lost and unsaved, for they are already in the outer darkness. No, this warning, once given to the Jewish body, now applies to the Christian body at large.
Even children of God, His people, His body – the Church, believers, Christians, etc… will be held to a certain level of accountability. What that entails exactly will not be addressed here, but it should be the concern of every serious follower of Christ.
It is not my intention to scare anyone, nor to cause those who might be weak in faith to become anxious with fear. The issue that I really want the reader to come away with, in understanding what is really being addressed in these phrases – is that this warning is directed towards followers of God, not the unbelieving world, and as such holds a very real application for His people. Because of this fact it therefore does not fit with our modern concept of Hell. And as you will see, every single instance where Christ refers to “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “the outer darkness” or “the furnace of fire” – concerns what we would call “God’s” people – not heathens.
The King’s Wedding Feast
Lets look at the next instance of this phrase, which is found in Matthew 22:1-14. It arrives in the midst of a particular parable that Jesus was giving to point out the fact that those who think they are part of God’s Kingdom will soon find that they were left out due to their inability to honor God by putting Him first. It is the parable of the wedding feast, where those invited made excuses not to come, so the king, being offended and dishonored, decided to open the banquet to those who would do anything to come – the poor and homeless. Since they were not people of privilege, they would see it as a great honor to be invited and would certainly not refuse. The rest of the text is as follows,
“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
This again is not addressing heathens, but those who are called of God. Jesus was saying that being called isn’t enough, b/c of those who are called, only a few will actually be chosen. Not only were those originally invited excluded (which I believe refers to the “calling” on the Jewish nation, for they were certainly “called”), but even this unworthy fellow who was given such a privilege and even called a “friend” showed no respect to the King by his refusal to dress appropriately. This is a highly effective example of dishonor. Anyone in that culture upon hearing this parable would instantly recognize the offense. For them, dishonoring your host, especially if he was royalty, was incomprehensible. In that day you wore your best when invited for a feast, the fact that this man did not, especially for the King, showed his complete disrespect for all that the King stood for.
The parable is meant to show what disqualifies one from participation in the Kingdom and their sorrow over what they will lose, not what they will suffer. And those of us who have been blessed to be part of the ingathering of the Gentiles must be aware that we too can lose our calling through dishonorable actions and attitudes.
The Talents and the King’s Servants
The next reference is found in Matthew 25:14-30 where Jesus is again giving a parable. This parable concerns 3 servants of a certain man who gave each servant a certain amount of “talents.” Luke records this same parable with different details in 19:11-27. In Luke’s account the man is a nobleman, or royalty. In other words he was a potential king. He then goes on a long trip to a far away place to receive a kingdom (read Jesus and His going to heaven until His Return). On His Return He examines His servants’ use of the talents. 2 were wise, 1 was foolish. In the parable, the King then judges His foolish servant. Here is the end of it as Matthew records it.
“Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It is not difficult to notice that this parable concerns servants of a King, not enemies. God’s children are the servants, not unbelievers, not the secular population, but Christians! It once again is not a threat of judgment on the unsaved populace, but upon God’s own people who have been given certain talents to invest in a hostile environment until His Return.
In Luke’s account the conflict of the parable concerns the servants who, in dealing business in their King’s name, will invite trouble upon themselves. Their environment is hostile b/c the parable makes it clear that the townsfolk did not want Him to reign over them. The townspeople were hoping that the king would not win the petition to inherit the kingdom. So during His absence there was a lot of tension between those who supported the possible future King and those who did not. The potential King would have most assuredly taken His army with Him, which would have left the servants in a somewhat defenseless position. The foolish servant was being selfishly wise by refraining from making his allegiance public. He was trying to remain neutral in order to survive. But this proved to be to his detriment. That is why the king praises His servants for their faithfulness, not their success. He was testing their allegiance to Him in the face of great hostility.
The application is obvious. We are the servants who have been left on earth to occupy and invest with His down payment (the Spirit; see Ephesians 1:14; 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5). The townspeople symbolize the unbelieving world; which do not want Christ to reign over them. If we, His servants, choose to remain inconspicuous to the world, refusing to take a stand for our King and His agenda, then we will lose out on inheriting the world when He returns.
This interpretation is confirmed by the fact that the “King” (Jesus) puts the wise servants in charge of cities, for we will inherit the earth and rule with Him over it (see Matthew 5:5; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10, 20:6 and 1 Corinthians 6:2). Furthermore there is a definite difference between the judgment upon the foolish servant and the judgment on the townspeople who didn’t want Him to reign over them. The foolish servant gets the outer darkness, while the townsfolk get gathered together and slain in the King’s presence!
For those interested in a superb exposition on this parable, see Kenneth Bailey’s remarkable book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pgs 397-409.
While Matthew excludes the detail about the man being a king as well as the details about the townsfolk who don’t want Him to rule over them, Matthew’s record immediately follows this parable with statements from Jesus concerning His Return and His enthronement, which is a very clear picture of Kingship (vs. 31-46). Christ then proceeds to declare that from His throne He will judge the sheep and the goats. This is probably the most popular portion of the Bible mistakenly thought to prove an endless judgment (we will look at that in greater detail in the next series, which concerns judgment).
The only problem is that sheep and goats are both clean animals! They are both types and shadows of Christ, and by extension His Body. Nothing can be considered clean unless it has been cleansed by the blood of Christ. The goats are also a part of God’s body, cleansed like the sheep, albeit more rough. They did not understand His heart and mind towards the lost.
So we see that the “outer darkness” rather than being a reference to Hell, is referring to losing the light of God’s special revelation (which is progressive). It is not a reference to some dark aspect of Hell, for Hell is a place of fire not darkness (as we will see in the Lake of Fire in the next series). And speaking of fire, we will turn our attention in the next blog to “the furnace of fire” statements. We will see that they are identical in nature to the warnings of outer darkness.