Considering context, chronology, and consistency when reading passages about “hell”

There’s an old saying: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”

When discussing the topic of the final fate of individual humans, many Christians will share various texts from the Bible that they assume — based on presuppositions they’ve been taught to believe by their religious leaders — are proof that non-Christians will be punished forever in a fiery place called “hell.” Something few people think to do, however, is consider the context of the passage to find out if it’s actually referring to what they assume it does, consider when the judgement or outcome in that particular passage is supposed to take place, and consider whether their interpretation of the passage is consistent with the rest of Scripture.

When read on their own without considering context, chronology, and consistency, passages about “everlasting fire,” outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and “worms that die not and fire that is not quenched” sound scary, and if you’ve been taught all your life that there’s a fiery place called “hell” that people go to exist forever in when they die if they don’t become Christians first, it can be easy to assume that each of these judgement passages are all talking about the same thing. But are they really?

Well, let’s take a look at one of the most commonly used passages to “prove” that non-Christians are going to be burned in “hell” forever, the prophecy of the sheep and the goats, and then compare it to the rest of Scripture to see if this one actually means what most Christians use it to prove:

Matthew 25:31-46 King James Version (KJV)

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

If you read that over without taking the time to break it down and think about those three important factors one needs to consider when interpreting Scripture systematically (context, chronology, and consistency), it’s sort of easy to see why people might assume it’s talking about true believers going to heaven and non-believers going to hell for eternity, and so when you read or hear a discussion where someone mentions the idea of Universal Reconciliation, meaning the idea that everybody will eventually be saved, you know exactly what to do: share that passage with the heretic who obviously hasn’t studied Scripture enough and somehow missed that this passage is in the Bible. But the truth is, before you do so, you should really be taking some time to ask yourself a few questions about it:

  1. Who are the sheep supposed to represent and who are the goats supposed to represent in that prophecy?

  2. When are the events in the prophecy supposed to take place in the future, and where?

  3. How is it the sheep gain eternal life according to that passage?

  4. Where is it the goats are apparently going to spend eternity according to that passage?

Now, most people will quickly say that the sheep represent true believers and the goats are everyone else. As for when and where this takes place, very few people have ever thought of that, but if everybody is being judged and going to heaven and hell for eternity then you realize it’s obviously talking about the Great White Throne Judgement. But wait… you think to yourself, “are there going to be any true believers at the Great White Throne Judgement?” You suddenly remember that there won’t be any believers being judged at that particular judgement (the body of Christ has already been judged over 1,000 years earlier, at the Dais of Christ — also commonly referred to as the Judgement Seat of Christ — and have been living in the heavens for all that time), which means the sheep can’t actually represent believers at all, can they? And you also notice the verse that says it takes place “when the Son of man shall come in his glory,” and looking at the context of the rest of the chapter, as well as the chapter before it, you realize it must actually be talking about the time immediately after Christ returns to the earth, so this must be talking about a judgement that takes place on earth among the living at the beginning of the Millennium, shortly after the Great Tribulation ends, rather than the Great White Throne Judgement which takes place 1,000 years later. But that just brings up other problems, you realize. If every single human living on earth is going to be judged and sent to heaven or hell for eternity immediately after the tribulation ends, who is going to live on earth for the next 1,000 years and reproduce, as the many passages throughout Scripture say they will (not to mention live on the New Earth — after the Millennium ends and this planet is destroyed — and stay alive and healthy as mortals by partaking of the fruit and leaves of the tree of life on that new planet until the consummation of the eons occurs)? The Bible teaches that believers are going to be made immortal so they’ll no longer reproduce when Christ returns, and if all the non-believers are now in hell, that doesn’t leave anybody else to fulfill the prophecies about the New Covenant, not to mention the New Earth, that are supposed to take place after the tribulation ends.

Not only that, but you now begin to wonder why there’s nothing in there about the sheep “accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour” in the prophecy, or even about them believing that Christ died for our sins, was entombed, and was roused the third day (which is the Gospel that Paul taught), and you’ll likely even stop to wonder why it seems like everlasting life appears to be dependent on good works rather than on grace through faith. However, you quickly brush those concerns aside because you know it has to be talking about what your preachers have always said it is and decide that, even though it doesn’t actually say so in the passage, the reason for salvation in this passage has to be figurative and be talking about works as the fruit of faith rather than good works being the actual cause of the sheep’s salvation as the passage says they are (and then push the thought that “many non-believers do the very things Jesus seemed to say would result in everlasting life while many believers don’t” to the back of your mind and try to forget that fact), because if you were to read it literally it would become obvious pretty quickly that this passage can’t be talking about what you’ve always assumed it is at all (although you’re then also forced to push the thought that, “if the cause of salvation and damnation is figurative, then there’s no reason to believe that the actual reward and punishment aren’t also figurative,” and that “the reward and punishment could then really mean anything at all,” to the back of your mind as well, but you successfully do so).

But then the question also pops into your head, are the goats going to hell or the lake of fire? You remember that, according to the book of Revelation, “hell” is not referring to the lake of fire since John told us there that “hell” would be cast into the lake of fire, and it would make no sense to say that “hell” is cast into itself, which it would have to mean if “hell” and the lake of fire were the same thing. But you also remember the verse in Revelation that immediately precedes that one, where we see John telling us that hell will be emptied of its inhabitants before it’s cast into the lake of fire, so its inhabitants can be judged at the Great White Throne Judgement, which would include the rich man in Luke 16 (presuming he actually existed and wasn’t just a fictional character in a parable), which means neither he nor anyone spends eternity in hell because they have to be set free from hell to be physically resurrected in a mortal human body again to be judged (the Great White Throne Judgement takes place at the end of the 1,000 year Kingdom of Heaven on earth among regular, mortal humans, not in the afterlife among the still dead). So if people aren’t cast into the lake of fire until the Great White Throne Judgement then it must be hell that the goats are being cast into.

But this only leads to more confusion. You think to yourself, if all of the verses in Scripture that have the word “hell” in them in our English Bibles are referring to the same place (as most Christians tend to believe they are), including the passages that seem to indicate that time spent in “hell” never ends, yet this verse in Revelation tells us that one’s time spent in “hell” does come to an end when everyone in it is set free from it and is physically resurrected for the Great White Throne Judgement, then are all the goats going to be resurrected to be judged a second time? And really, doesn’t this destroy the concepts of everlasting torment or destruction in “hell” altogether, since we know for a fact that nobody stays in there forever based on this verse? And doesn’t it also destroy the concept of everlasting torment or destruction in the lake of fire after the Great White Throne Judgement as well, since the Greek words that are used to imply that the time spent in the lake of fire is forever in the translations that say it is are the same Greek words used to say that time spent in “hell” is forever (and if the so-called “forever” spent in “hell” isn’t actually forever, what basis do we have for claiming the “forever” in the lake of fire is forever either)?

After going through this trail of thoughts, though, you almost certainly realize that you have to just ignore these points and continue holding to the doctrine you did previously since you need to believe that most people will be punished forever because otherwise all the sinners who don’t become Christians before they die might end up with the same reward you’re getting without first having to become Christians, and why should they get the same reward that you earned by being smart enough or wise enough or righteous enough or humble enough or obedient enough (whichever it is that you are and they aren’t) when they don’t deserve it like you do for making that good decision? However, there are a few of you (very few, probably) who might take the time to ponder these things and realize that studying Scripture consistently and in context (and considering the chronology of the passages) might mean the verses we’ve all been taught condemn all non-Christians to an eternity of suffering in hell might actually mean something else after all.

Now, I’m not going to say what the passage actually is talking about here (although Aaron Welch wrote an excellent seven-part series on the topic, which I highly recommend if you really want to know). I just wanted to leave you with the above thought exercise to consider for yourself. I could easily run you through a similar series of points for basically any of the judgement passages in Scripture that people have generally assumed are talking about everlasting torment in “hell,” but I’m not going to at this point. For now, I just want you to think about how you explain the contradictions I pointed out above that arise when interpreting the passages the “traditional” way.