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Matthew 25:31-46

by Ted Schroder
November 25, 2007

With the exception of the Sermon on the Mount, no passage in Matthew's gospel has attracted more attention from scholars, theologians, and preachers, than, what is commonly known as, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. I am calling it the King's Assize because it relates the actions of Christ, the Son of Man, portrayed as the King who returns in his glory (cf. Daniel 7:13,14). When he comes in his glory with all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory and judge (assess) the nations.

First off, what do his actions tell us that we need to take note of for ourselves.

"It tells me that I am accountable. I am free to live my life just as I please, but at the end I shall have to give account to the one who gave me my life.

It tells me that judgment awaits everyone. There will be no exceptions. There will be no favoritism. There will be no excuses. It will be totally fair.

It tells me that we are not all going in the same direction though by different roads, as we would dearly love to think in this tolerant and pluralist age. We will not all end up in the same place. It is possible to be utterly lost, and Jesus warns us of that possibility here.

It tells me that there will be great surprises on that day. Lots of people who were very confident of their condition will be undone. Lots of people who rated themselves very lowly will be astonished by their reception.

It tells me that the heart of Christianity is relationship with Jesus himself, which shows itself in loving, sacrificial care for others, in particular the poor and needy.

It tells me that people who have never heard the good news (and it is they, the nations who are primarily in view here) will be judged by their response to the brothers and sisters of Jesus." (Michael Green, The Message of Matthew, p.263)

Jesus has already made it clear that he is to be identified with his disciples, and that how they are received is to be taken into account on the Day of Judgment. "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me... And if anyone gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:40,42)

The criteria for judgment that Jesus lays out, is how people treat him as he appears to them in the disguise of his followers. Whether we know it or not, we are being judged on how we respond to the needs of one another. The sheep: those who unconsciously respond generously, without any expectation of reward, but out of the love of Christ for their neighbor, are given their inheritance of the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world - the gift of eternal life.

On the other hand the goats are those who did not respond lovingly to the needs of others, and have turned their back on Christ, the King, who came to them in the disguise of his followers. They might protest as their defense, that if they knew that it was Christ, the King, who came to them in need they would have responded generously, but their actions showed the state of their unbelieving and hardened hearts. They are lovers of themselves rather than lovers of God and their neighbor.

Their sentence is to be excluded from the presence of the King, for they have chosen by their actions, to join the devil and his angels in the destructive fire of eternal punishment. They are so addicted to their self-worship that they do not desire to change, to repent. The moral of this story, of the importance of how you treat others who appear to you to be ugly or poor, is woven into the fairy stories and legends of the world. The kindness shown to the ugly witch or troll is rewarded, and their rejection is punished.

Now the objection is raised that a God of love could not condemn people to hell in such a way. Surely God wants everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of his truth (1 Timothy 2:4)? There is certainly reason to reject the view that portrays God as a cosmic torturer, and the saints as rejoicing in the punishment of those who do not love God and their neighbor, and who have persecuted God's people. God may wish to save everyone.

Christ died for all, so that all would be saved and not perish, but what if someone does not want to be saved? What then? Will God predetermine such a person to love him? How can God predestine the free response of love? This is something that even God cannot do. God does not cease to work for the salvation of the world, but he has created enough free will, and respects human autonomy, so that he has to accept the outcome. Hell is the proof of how seriously God takes human freedom.

"Eternal punishment" (the words used here by Jesus to designate the sentence passed on the impenitent), I believe, refers to divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than endless torment. Jesus is teaching the finality of the judgment. The impression Jesus gives us is that the wicked, who will not repent, can expect to be destroyed by the wrath of God at the Day of Judgment. God gives us life, and God can take it away.

God created humans mortal with a capacity for life everlasting, but it is not their inherent possession. Immortality is a gift God offers us in the gospel, but it is not an inalienable possession. The soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. If a person does reject God finally, Jesus plainly taught that God would destroy the wicked, body and soul, in hell. God is morally justified in destroying the wicked because he respects their human choices. He will not save them if they do not want to be saved. God wills the salvation of all people (2 Peter 3:9) but will fail to save some of them on account of their human freedom.

To affirm hell means accepting human significance. Sinners do not have to be saved and will not be forced to go to heaven. They have a moral 'right' to hell. The God who seeks our well-being in fellowship with himself will not force his friendship upon anyone. In the end he will allow us to become what we have chosen.

To be rejected by the God the King of love and justice, to miss the purpose for which one was created, to pass into oblivion while others enter into bliss, to enter nonbeing - this will mean weeping and gnashing of teeth. Hell is a terrifying possibility, the possibility of using our freedom to lose God and destroy ourselves. We do not know who or how many will be lost, because we do not know who will finally say No to God. What we do know is that sinners may finally reject salvation, that absolute loss is something to be reckoned with. I do not think that one needs to know more about hell than that.

In the end hell is something we do to ourselves! We need not think of God as imposing terrible punishment on sinners from the outside. The question of hell, then, is not: How can a God of love do such a thing to creatures? Rather, the question is: How seriously do we take our own God-given freedom? God is involved in hell in the following sense: He has created us with the purpose of eternally sharing in the richness of the divine life of love. The condition for sharing in love is freedom. But since love cannot be coerced and be truly love, the condition for realizing God's aim is freedom. But if we are dealing truly with genuine freedom, this must include the possibility of us rejecting love. Thus the condition for the reality of heaven is simultaneously the condition for the possibility of hell. God does not override the reality of human freedom.

The bottom line of the teaching of Jesus, and of all religions, is that the choices we make in this life determine our eternal destiny.

(Some material in this sermon is drawn from Four Views of Hell: John F. Walvoord, Zachary J. Hayes, Clark H. Pinnock, William Crockett.)

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