I want to jump over a few chapters in Matthew and get to chapter 24.
The parables in chapters 21 and 22 deserve discussion and maybe we’ll get to them sometime, but we have talked about other passages that might give us similar conclusions. So, let me just summarize a few points we’ve made before and then we’ll talk about chapter 24.
First, in many parables there is the discussion and suggestion of judgment or punishment and I think we need to take those seriously. There is a place and a purpose for punishment and we need to consider carefully the warnings of Jesus. However, we don’t need to conclude from these discussions or suggestions that such punishment is merely punitive or retributive and not ultimately redemptive.
Secondly, most of Jesus’s warnings seem directed at either His own people, or at the religious elite in the persons of the Pharisees or teachers of the law. The people we typically assume are on their way to hell seem to be those who find the kingdom of God first. “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)
Finally, if we are justified in finding the suggestion of eternal conscious torment in the text, we are equally justified in seeing ultimate redemption in it as well. For a number of reasons ultimate redemption has not been the majority view in Christian tradition, and whether or not it is a perspective any person or church will embrace, it should be part of the discussion, and I think it should be within the bounds of what is acceptable within the evangelical church.
Onto chapter 24.
At the beginning of chapter 24, as they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask Jesus about the destruction of the Jewish temple, the end of the age and the signs of His coming. In response Jesus gives what is known as the Olivet Discourse, a summation of, and instructions regarding, things to come. Any discussion of the Olivet Discourse can quickly lead to an attempt at the details of the end times, if not a timeline of it, but that’s a road down which it won’t be helpful for us to go. Jesus even repeatedly warns against timeline speculation saying, “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
So, whether the bulk of chapter 24 refers to things related to the millennium, the tribulation, to the destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70 (or, depending on your interpretation of things, a combination thereof) is not our concern at the moment. Rather, I just want to make a couple comments on Jesus’s words, specifically these:
10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
What do we make of these verses? Are we to believe that, in the end, many people will be deceived, and due to an increase of wickedness the love of most will grow cold, and THE RESULTING CONSEQUENCE for all those people will be eternal conscious torment? Only those who stand firm to the end will be saved? Only those who stand firm to the end will go to heaven? Is Jesus talking about people’s eternal destiny?
Maybe. At least that’s how some have interpreted these verses, even though I think they may say these verses only relate to the people experiencing the tribulation . . . but we’re not going to go there today.
Are we to believe that the vast majority of people are going to be lost forever? Wide is the road that leads to destruction (to eternal conscious torment?) and many enter through it? Or, is it possible that these verse contribute to the overall Scriptural theme of humanity’s failure and God’s redemption? Could we look at these verses without eternity in mind and instead believe that the God whose love the Bible says is everlasting, whose mercy is new every morning, whose Son died for the whole world, will continue to love even those whose love has gone cold and will ultimately make all things new?
I think we could.
Most people who hold to a traditional perspective will interpret these verses in such a way that it is not possible for them to be among the “most.” Whoever the “most” is, they are certain, based on other verses and their own faith, it does not include them. Whether they are raptured out of this time or are given the strengthen to endure it, somehow they’re certain their love will not grow cold, they will not turn away from the faith.
I wonder what the disciples thought? They were the ones who asked Jesus about this. Did they think Jesus was talking about them? Did they imagine they could have been among the “most?” It wasn’t that long after this that ALL OF THEM ABANDONED JESUS to save their own skins. (Peter gets a bad rap for denying Jesus three times, but he only did so because he hung around longer than any of the other disciples. The rest fled much earlier.)
I guess we don’t really know. But somehow I think their confidence was not in themselves, not in their capability of being strong right to the end, but in the love of Jesus for them. If their confidence was in themselves, it would have been quickly shattered as they fled the soldiers who arrested Jesus.
And in the end, what was left for them is what is left for us: confidence not in our own strengthen or goodness but in the goodness and love of God. We have failed. We have come up short. Everyone has.
But in Jesus, God has not. In Jesus, He has made the way to redeem us all.
And that is really good news, really.