Let me tell you! If you want to see in crystal-clarity the character and the heart of God, this is it. Right here, right now, in real time, in this PODCAST.
This in a breathtaking public display for all the world to see, at which the whole world will marvel. The broken heart of our God whom Peter described as “not wanting anyone to be destroyed (a word that means to destroy fully, to bring to nothing) but (who) wants everyone to repent.”
This portrait of our God — Who persistently pursues everyone in every way, making every effort to bring every sinner to repentance — comes at very end of Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25.
Here we will see, in this parable of the end of the age, the eternal separation of committed Christ-followers from those who defiantly and unrepentantly want nothing to do with Jesus. Plus, we will see their ultimate eternal destiny in what Jesus called “the eternal fire prepared for devil and his demons.”
An unpleasant topic, to be sure. But a most important one, because we are talking about the eternal destinies of multiplied millions of people.
Specifically, what did Jesus mean by eternal fire? For whom is it intended? What happens to those goats (in contrast to His sheep) who are sadly, tragically, yet-justly cast into the eternal fire?
And of course, at the heart of this entire discussion sits this all-important and all too-common question: Does the loving God of the Bible — who defines Himself as not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent — really send people to Hell?
Allow me to set up this discussion in this way: I find it most-intriguing, and most-ironic in a most-purposeful sort of way that Jesus’ Hebrew name Yeshua, means “God Saves.” That’s right out of first chapter of the New Testament (Matthew 1:21): “Mary will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Yeshua, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Now watch this. Only God could create this wonder of the words. This, as you are about to hear, is not coincidental.
If you take the letter “a” off of Yeshua, then you are left with Yeshu. Now, the Hebrews letters of Yeshu make up an acronym consisting of the first letters of each of the Hebrew words that make up this Biblical curse:
May his name, his memory be blotted out. (Psalm 109:13)
To our Jewish friends – including the original writers and readers of the New Testament – this would be the ultimate expression of divine punishment. That someone would be absolutely destroyed to the point where his name and even memory are blotted out of humankind’s history forever… it doesn’t get any worse than that!
Yet, this curse is embedded in Jesus’ own name! Meaning, His name “God Saves” is the very thing that God is saving us from.
Which brings us to this week’s portion of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse:
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in His presence, and He will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed Me. I was thirsty, and you gave Me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave Me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for Me. I was in prison, and you visited Me.’
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see You hungry and feed You? Or thirsty and give You something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show You hospitality? Or naked and give You clothing? 39 When did we ever see You sick or in prison and visit You?’
40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to Me!’
41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.” (Matthew 25:31-41)
Now, in light of the Biblical curse described in Psalm 109, know this – a bad memory of a wicked person is eternally to be preferred to no memory at all. Because the worst punishment possible is that when the memory of someone’s name ceases to exist, it is as if that individual never existed at all.
Now, in the heart of the city of Jerusalem stands Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Memorial. It is not a Holocaust Museum, as we are familiar with in the United States. It’s ongoing mission is to scour the world for European Jewry in search of Nazi records, archives, notes, lists, photographs, diaries… anything they can find in order to document and to preserve the memory of every name of every man, woman and child who fell victim to Nazi genocide. This makes total sense in that Yad Vashem can be translated to “a memory and a name”. Group photos of Jewish prisoners will not suffice. They do not want the world to ever forget any individual.
You see, if the memory and the name of an individual is preserved, then it’s as if the individual is preserved. But, if a person’s name is forgotten, it’s as if their very existence will have been obliterated from human history.
For someone’s memory to be blotted out forever is simply unthinkable – the absolute sign of divine judgment.
I bring all this up in light of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:41,
“Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.”
Cursed ones… what is that curse? The absolute curse or sign of divine judgment – that the name of the “goats” be erased forever, as if they never existed.
Now, keep in mind where and when Jesus was sharing this parable with His disciples – on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, just days before His arrest and crucifixion. Here, at the end of what we now call Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, He is telling His friends that there will be a day when evildoers will face judgment. There is a day of reckoning coming when good will win out over evil.
That’s the point of the Olivet Discourse: ultimately evildoers will be punished, justice will reign supreme, and all the wrongs will be righted in this world of ours. This has been God’s plan all along, as we read in Isaiah 13:11,
I will punish the world for its evil,
the wicked for their sins.
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty
and will humble the pride of the ruthless.
But, here’s the problem…
Scores of people with whom I have personally crossed paths with have told me that this is the singular mental obstacle that stands in their way of becoming a committed Christ follower. In their perspective, they cannot commit themselves to following a God who is so maniacal that he skewers anyone He has not chosen over a slowly burning rotisserie over hell’s coals to suffer for all eternity (their words, not mine). Additionally, they cannot stomach the “cavalier attitude” with which pastors, teachers and evangelicals so flippantly talk about hell. Too these scores of people, this is offensive beyond words.
However, in all sincerity and with all due sensitivity to these scores of people…
Is that the Biblical picture of God that Scripture has painted?
To answer both my and their questions, let me lay out a few foundational truths:
- Yes, I do believe in hell, or as Peter wrote, “the eternal destruction of everyone who rejects Jesus”. Also, I am not a Universalist, believing that in the end, all of mankind will be saved from hell.
- I do believe that Jesus’ characterization of the “fire” He alluded to in Matthew 25:41 is actually eternal fire.
- The thing about God that scares me the most is that given enough time, He will give us exactly what we want. And clearly, in this parable, what the “goats” want is absolutely nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Not now. Not ever. Not forever. And so, in His love, God will give them what they want.
- My only agenda, as always, is to allow the Bible to speak for itself.
How did the disciples understand Jesus’ words up on the Mount of Olives at the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse when He said,
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all His angels with Him, then He will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in His presence, and He will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left…
…Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.” (Matthew 25:31-41)
The disciples knew the Old Testament. They had been taught by Jesus for the past three years. For instance, He taught them Malachi’s prophesy:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.” (Malachi 4:1, NIV)
The New Living Translation puts it this way:
On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all.
Now if you simply couple Malachi’s words with the Biblical curse of Psalm 109:13, then they will be so consumed, even the memory of them will not remain.
Now, Malachi 4 is how the Old Testament ends. So, let’s look at how our New Testament begins, with the words of John the Baptist as he spoke about God’s judgment:
His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)
The wicked… the goats… the chaff… unquenchable, all consuming fire is their ultimate destiny.
But, hell and its eternal fire was not originally intended for mankind. It was prepared for the devil and his demons. So, how is it that people could end up there? Among other Biblical references, we gain understanding from Hebrews 10:26-27,
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
We are talking about someone who has heard the truth and then willfully and high-handedly rejected the truth in a final absolute act of defiance. For them, the all consuming fire awaits.
Now, of the devil and his demons, we read this:
Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)
But, of the wicked people (not the devil or his demons), the fire is not described as something that will torment them forever and ever, but one that will consume them completely.
Therefore, fallen angels: Tormented; wicked people: Consumed.
All this makes one wonder, how does the Bible consistently describe the eternal fire that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 25? What is it?
Fortunately, the Bible is quite clear what it is. For example, 2 Thessalonians 1:7 says,
“the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”
What this (and so many other passages) reveal to us is that we are asking the wrong question. In regards to the eternal, unquenchable, blazing fire, we shouldn’t be asking “What is it?” but instead “Who is it?”
The prophet Isaiah put it this way:
The sinners in Zion are terrified;
trembling grips the godless:
“Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” (Isaiah 33:14)
The author of Hebrews wrote these clear, absolutely plain words for us:
For our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)
Exodus and Deuteronomy also describe moments of God being described or speaking from the heart of the all-consuming fire. Consider when Moses asked to see God’s glory and God agreed to only reveal a bit of himself from behind because the glory of God’s face would consume him. No one can look into His face and live.
Yet, a day is coming when those who have chosen to reject Jesus will look upon Him fully. Those “goats” who have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with Jesus, so much so that they will gnash their teeth in vile hatred at the very mention of His name
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:15-17)
Did you catch that? These are people who would rather pray to a rock than to God and would rather the rock fall and crush them than to face their God.
So, what is God supposed to do? Should He force Himself on them? Drag them kicking and screaming into heaven to live with Him forever?
The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. (2 Peter 3:9)
Yet, in Revelation 6 and Revelation 16, we read the prophetic refrain over and over again, “…they would not repent… instead they cursed God.”
And so the day is coming when they will stand before His holy, unveiled glory and face Him as the consuming fire whom He is. And with a broken heart, His eyes will become a fountain of tears (Jeremiah 9:1) and in His unconditional love for each of us, He will give them exactly what they want.
And they will be completely devoured by His eternal fire. Even the memory of their names will be erased forever as if they had never existed. This is the divine punishment from which we who love Jesus have so graciously been saved.