Last time we considered Jesus’ use of the word “hell” from Matthew chapter five, and concluded His use of the Greek word “gehenna” could reasonably be interpreted as a metaphor for punishment and not as a reference to an other-worldly place of fiery torment. Today, let’s continue our walk through Matthew and see what else we can find.
Before we begin, it may be helpful to attempt again to remove the interpretive lenses we’re wearing, or at least to acknowledge them. If we begin with a certain view of hell in mind, or if we read certain passages the way we’ve always read them and are unwilling to see them in a new way, then it will be tough to look at things differently.
For some of us, this is true when we get to Matthew 7:13-14:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
We read these verses and instinctively our minds go to what we have been taught about heaven and hell. We assume people on the wide road heading for “destruction,” will end up in a place of conscious torment. But Jesus doesn’t say that. We cannot conclude from this passage that Jesus is talking about an other-worldly place from which there is no redemption. In Jesus words we could simply hear an admonishment to make every effort to pursue the path of life, to follow Him, because it’s too easy to head down the path of sin. We don’t necessarily need to make interpretations about final eternal states from this passage, and even if we did, we could not do so conclusively.
The same is true a few verses later when Jesus says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Again, we read these verses and maybe our lenses tell us that Jesus is sending these people away to a place of torment from which they are unredeemable. But is He? He doesn’t say that. We can’t conclude that definitively from this passage, can we? We are seven chapters into Matthew and Jesus has only used the word we translate as “hell” three times, all of which would have been understood by His listeners as a metaphor for punishment. It is only our lenses telling us to read hell as eternal conscious torment into this passage.
Chapter seven also includes encouragement from Jesus that our Father in heaven will take care of us, will give good gifts to us in a manner similar to the way in which we care for our kids, only much more so! “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” said Jesus in verse twelve, something we can reasonably assume both God the Father and Jesus practice as well. Certainly the application of that verse would not lead any of us to torment people forever, especially not those of us who have been taught by Jesus to love our enemies.
It seems to me that in this passage from Matthew chapter seven, rather than finding statements about eternity, we find encouragement and admonishment, assurance and warning, consolation and instruction, all of which we would do well to heed. It’s easy to walk down the path of sin; the path of following Jesus is tough, but it leads to life. Examine yourself because you will be recognized by your “fruit” (another metaphor). Put Jesus’ words into practice because living by them will enable you to withstand the storms of life. Ask God for help, for “everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds.” Consider your own failings first before you try to correct the failings of others. Don’t think you are hot stuff; Jesus is the ultimate judge.
If you’re in a spot where you need some encouragement, I think you’ll find it here in Matthew chapter seven. Or maybe you’re walking down a dangerous path and need a stern warning. You’ll find that here too. Most of all, what I think you find, is Jesus walking in our shoes, encouraging us to do for others what we would have them do for us, because that’s what God the Father is doing for us.
And I think that is really good news, really.
But let’s put back on our traditional lenses for a minute and consider this passage again, and then see where we end up.