He Shall Save His People
THE GOOD NEWS of the nearness of the kingdom was qualified by limitations and sober warnings through much of our Lord’s ministry to Israel. The message spoke of glory to come, but it was directed to the nation of Israel alone (Matt.10:5,6; 15:24), with the prediction that only a few would follow the teachings set forth (Matt.7:14). And judgment leading to severe losses and lamentations lay ahead for those who opposed or simply failed to heed the word.
The narrow range of the heralding has seldom been given careful consideration. When it is recognized, it is usually quickly explained that it was only a temporary situation which ended with the commission of Matthew 28:19. But this does not change the fact that the teachings within Matthew appear in a confined context originally directed to a single people out of the whole of mankind.
The constricted scope of the context has been downplayed. On the other hand, the severity and extent of the condemnation have been greatly overstated and applied to the whole of unbelieving humanity in the most horrible of terms for all eternity. Where the biblical revelation of blessing is confined to a certain group, interpreters tend to diminish the importance of the limiting factors. And where the biblical revelation concerns the sobering judgment upon unbelievers and opposers of truth within that group of people, the details are exaggerated and amassed together in a terrifying jumble that is applied to evil people everywhere and at all times, other than ourselves.
THE DOCTRINE OF HELL
We are told that long after the experiences in Eden, and after long eras of wickedness and irreverence, Jesus revealed that sinners who reject Him (or even fail to put their trust in Him) and oppose the truth (or even fail to support it) will be cast into an everlasting hell, where also, it is generally assumed, countless former sinners were already confined. Using phrases and terms, especially from the Lord’s ministry to Israel, but also from the book of Revelation and other scattered portions of the Bible, and stringing them together without careful consideration of context and proper word meaning, Jesus, Whose name means Yahweh-Saviour, is put forth as a teacher of catastrophic pain and loss. This fate is for others of course, like the Pharisees (who saw something similar for tribute collectors and sinners of their day), and like the mockers and humanists and atheists of our day, and of course, those who avoid God and are useless, who are not doing kindness, who defraud with their tongues, with the venom of snakes under their tongues, whose mouth with imprecation and bitterness is crammed, whose feet are sharp to shed blood, and in whose ways are bruises and wretchedness, and who display no fear of God (cf Rom.3:12-18).
For now, we will look at only three chapters from the book of Matthew to see how this doctrine of final hopelessness is read into the sacred text. Misusing passages from Matthew 10,11, and 12, the everlasting misery of hell is found to include something parallel to, but more drastic than, the fire and brimstone that fell on the land of Sodom and the land of Gomorrah (Matt.10:15; 11:24), a fate which God Himself executes and which is fearfully worse than human beings could ever institute themselves (10:28), where sinners are disowned (10:33), and all their pleasures destroyed (10:28,39). This hell, it is announced, is full of unending woe greater than that suffered by Tyre and Sidon of old (Matt.11:22). “Hell,” so it is assumed, is located down below “in Hades” where wicked and stubborn people will subside along with those of Capernaum (11:23). We are told on the basis of Matthew 12:31,32 that hell will be bad for everyone who goes there, but especially bad for those who blaspheme against the holy spirit (which is variously explained). Furthermore, it is claimed, often with a touch of pride for having “accepted the Lord” and “continued steadfast,” those who reject the Lord will be condemned by those former sinners who repented of their sin before they died (12:41,42), and those who had repented but turned back to their wicked ways will end up worse off than they might have been had they never repented in the first place (12:43-45).1
NEITHER REASONABLE NOR TENABLE
The condemnation spoken of by our Lord in these chapters is a serious matter calling for careful and reverent consideration. But it is also a serious matter to make the condemnation more severe and widespread than the context suggests or would be harmonious with the revelation of God in the Scriptures. In no way could Jesus, as the One Who came to save, be speaking here of an everlasting hell for every stubborn and wicked person from Cain to Judas and beyond to our own day.
The traditional doctrine of hell is neither reasonable nor tenable in light of our Lord’s ministry and the entirety of God’s Word. We do not rest on the reasonableness of our case, for that is a subjective matter. What seems reasonable to one person may not to another. Nevertheless, we do contend that the idea of everlasting hell in Jesus’ ministry to Israel is unreasonable from every viewpoint, and this needs to be faced. We also contend that this doctrine darkens every revelation of God in Scripture and is not tenable in its light.
Judgment that effectively leads to repentance and understanding, which is not an end in itself or lasts forever, is fully reasonable and appropriate to the Lord’s ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But it is not reasonable that the excruciating horror of an everlasting state of misery, or even the haunting nightmare of final annihilation, should not have been spoken of until the first century A.D. It is not reasonable that the details of condemnation to eternal fire and absolute hopelessness should not have been given where it might have made some impression for reform, but instead were given to a narrow audience at the very time when their leadership was most entrenched in hypocrisy and the people themselves were extremely stubborn and contradictory (cf Rom.10:21).
It is not reasonable that the warnings concerning such a certain and unchangeable fate for unrepentant sinners should have been given only in bits and pieces and in terms that would not be immediately plain to common people, untrained in all the proper nuances of the expressions used. (Who, for instance, would have understood that the word “Gehenna” referred to a place of torment under the earth rather than a place outside the walls of Jerusalem to which it had always referred previously, or that “hades” all of a sudden referred to this same “hell” instead of the “unseen” abode of the dead, or that the impending eon of 12:32 was eternal in contrast to the present eon?)
But perhaps, as some have explained to us, it may be that such paradoxes only seem unreasonable to us who suffer corrupt abilities of reason. But no, this only makes the situation worse, for it would mean that the Scriptures do not reveal God to us, but only present Him in terms that have no correspondence with our usage of these very terms. Everything about hell, as defined above, contradicts the testimony of these three chapters about the Character and Heart of God. In fact, when the revelation of God given in these chapters is accepted in faith, the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell becomes not only unreasonable but untenable.
UNVEILING THE FATHER
In His ministry Jesus unveiled the Father to certain individuals as He intended (Matt.11:27). What He unveiled of the Father was that He takes those burdened under toil and turmoil and brings them into rest for their souls, under kindness and lightness of load (11:28-30). It is not tenable that the One Who is revealed this way would impose unspeakably heavy judgments without mercy or even a pretense of equity in matching sin with penalty.
In unveiling the Father, Jesus made Him known as the Source of healing powers granted to the disciples, who were to announce the nearness of God’s glorious kingdom (Matt.10:7,8). Jesus revealed that God gives gratuitously, not on the basis of human deservings or efforts (10:9). The Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is “Lord of heaven and earth” (11:25). There is only one conclusion possible. He Who is made known by the cleansing and healing and the granting of sight and hearing and strength recorded in these chapters, cannot by any frank and sane thinking be made out as one who condemns to everlasting hell.
God was not being revealed in these chapters as one whose judgments are unchangeable verdicts of penalties worse than man could ever impose. God’s power is revealed in His judging (though not exclusively there), but He is not revealed as one who is other than the God of power for cleansing and deliverance. His ability to destroy is greater than the ability of human opposers to kill the body, but it is not “worse” in any sense of hopelessness or finality as so many have inferred from Matthew 10:28. He is to be feared with awe that recognizes His true greatness, but not dreaded for terrifying judgments that have no end or purpose beyond themselves. And the work of judging certainly will not be a contradiction to the revelation of God as the powerful Saviour. The One Who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna is the Father of the One Who came to save sinners.
Hence it is untenable that God’s judgments should lead to a destiny of everlasting hell. This perverse teaching is untenable in light of all we learn about God in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who shall save His people from their sins (Matt.1:21), Who came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10) and Who gave Himself a correspondent Ransom for all (1 Tim.2:6). His people Israel remained sinners throughout Matthew 10,11 and 12, and the most diligent observers of the law continued to refuse even to recognize that they were sinners. But the Saviour will save, and no blindness, no stubbornness, no fortressed hypocrisy, and no judgment to lamentation and destruction can keep Him from being what His Name declares Him to be.
JUDGING AND VICTORY
We have noted above how quickly our brethren point out that the commission of Matthew 10:5,6 was a temporary step toward the broader commission of chapter 28. May it be that many more will come to appreciate the temporary nature of God’s judgments which also are steps toward a destination, that greatest of all goals, the glory of God. Divine judgments never represent the end of the line.
In these chapters of Matthew, Jesus referred often to “the day of judging” or “the judging” or simply to the operation of judging (e.g., Matt.10:15; 11:18,20,22,24; 12:36,41,42). He spoke of them in terms of woe and warning. These are sober and fearful events, even as the many adverse judgments upon Israel throughout their history. So also the judgment that was brought upon Adam and Eve and that passed through into all humanity is sober and fearful, bringing failure and woe, pain and sorrow into all our lives.
Yet it is wrong and harmful to spiritual growth and any clarity in our appreciation of God to suppose that God’s judgments are ends in themselves. To speak of divine judgments in terms of pain and destruction that never ends is to empty the words of Scripture concerning them of their power. Such a doctrine robs judgment of any sane balance and meaning.
Jesus Himself in this very section of Scripture testifies that judgment is a means to a good end. In Matthew 12:18-21, He cites a passage from Isaiah (42:1-4) concerning His ministry, in which He would report “judging to the nations” (v.18). Then at some later point He would “be casting out judging for victory.” The judging looks ahead to something else. In Isaiah 42:3, judging is seen as serving the end of “truth.” Truth and victory are two terms that describe God’s goal. Some might see these in a negative light, thinking of truth only as that which exposes irreverence and wickedness and of victory only as that which puts its enemies down. But we are learning that what is true is good, and what is victory is full of joy and peace because of what we are perceiving of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor.4:6).
The day of judging is something to fear, but not with despair. It may involve much sorrow and loss for many, not only of Israel, but of the nations as well, yet it is an operation of our God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In harmony with the assurance of Matthew 12:21, we move forward to the reliance on God as the Saviour of all mankind spoken of in 1 Timothy 4:10.
1. It is not intended to suggest that these are the interpretations that every defender of the doctrine of everlasting hell would give to these passages, much less that these are correct interpretations. But this is typical of the sort of hermeneutics used in building up the doctrine.
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