The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” shows up in Matthew six times, but no where else in the New Testament. Two of those times are found in Matthew chapter thirteen where Jesus introduced six of seven parables with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Here’s a part of one of those parables:
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Through a traditional lens most people will take the end of this parable as a description of hell, this place of eternal conscious torment, a place into which people are thrown and from which there is no escape.
I have a couple comments.
First, Jesus doesn’t say that the place into which the wicked are thrown is a place from which they are unredeemable. He really doesn’t say anything about the purpose of their being thrown into this “fiery furnace,” although you could conclude from them being wicked that this is some sort of punishment. Still, from this passage we can’t say definitively that the punishment is merely retributive and not somehow restorative.
Secondly, in my NIV Study Bible, the commentary note related to this parable says this: “The parable of the net teaches the same general lesson as the parable of the weeds. There will be a final separation of the righteous and the wicked. The parable of the weeds also emphasizes that we are not to try to make such a separation now and that this is entirely the Lord’s business.”
Except we do try to make such a separation now. We define the righteous as those who have place their faith in Jesus and we define the wicked as those who have not. In the conservative evangelical tradition (at least the ones I’ve been a part of), the lone factor in determining your eternal destiny, whether you go to heaven or hell, whether you are righteous or wicked, is how you responded to Jesus. And we look at all these parables through those lenses.
Those lenses are not a bad thing necessarily, but it seems to me it doesn’t always work and what they seem to create is certainty rather than humility – certainty that Jesus seems to turn on its head. For example, in this passage Jesus talks about separating the righteous and the wicked, but in Matthew chapter eight He says the “subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Here it is the Jews who thought their ancestry was their ticket into the kingdom of heaven who will be thrown out. It’s a classic example of the tables being turned on those who think they’re in, and they end up being out.
Furthermore, a couple other parables in Matthew thirteen say nothing about anyone being thrown out. The one in verse 31-32 says this:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.
Here are two related commentary notes: “Although the kingdom will seem to have an insignificant beginning, it will eventually spread throughout the world.” “Likely an allusion to Daniel 4:21, suggesting that the kingdom of heaven will expand to world dominion and people from all nations will find rest in it.”
I believe that Jesus is the only way. I believe that faith in Him is the mechanism through which we identify ourselves with Him. I believe God will judge each person and do what is right. I believe that in Jesus God has made provision for each person. I believe God desires for the kingdom of heaven to spread to the whole world, to each and every person, and because of Jesus, I believe that, in the end, maybe not only will people from all nations find rest in it, but all peoples from all nations.
And that is really good news, really.