As I’ve discussed previously, most people who read the threatening messages Jesus gave while He walked the earth completely misunderstand what He was talking about, thinking He was referring to never-ending punishment in a place called “hell” if they don’t become Christians before they die. Of course, as you already know if you’ve read much of this website, none of those passages are actually talking about anything even close to the idea that most people think of when they hear the word “hell,” but most people aren’t aware of the fact that none of Jesus’ teachings about judgement and the kingdom of heaven are talking about an afterlife.
I’ve discussed other parables that people mistakenly think are about hell here before, such as the Judgement of the Sheep and the Goats and why it isn’t talking about what they assume it is, but another parable that confuses so many is the parable of the tares of the field. At the end of His explanation of this parable, Jesus says the angels “shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Most people assume that is referring to non-Christians getting cast into “hell” (or maybe the lake of fire) for eternity, but just like with the parable of the sheep and the goats, they haven’t considered the context of this parable.
First of all, it’s important to remember that, while Jesus walked the Earth, He was talking about the Kingdom of Heaven coming to Earth (specifically to Israel — His ministry and messages were to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and not to Gentiles, as He told His disciples), not about “going to heaven” as ghosts after one dies. Similarly, the punishments He spoke about were about not getting to live in Israel when the kingdom begins there in the future, either because they’ve been forced to live in the “outer darkness” of the rest of the world, or because they’ll be dead (in some cases because they won’t be resurrected when Jesus returns to the earth since they aren’t a part of the Israel of God, and in some cases because they died during the Tribulation or during the Millennium and their corpses were then cast into a valley outside Jerusalem to be burned up and devoured by worms in rather than being buried as all Jews would prefer happen to their bodies after they die).
Second of all, one needs to think carefully about what Jesus actually said when He explained the parable. If the kingdom in the parable is referring to an afterlife called “heaven” that people go to when they die, and only Christians can go to heaven, then how can the angels “gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity” if they’re not already in the kingdom? To be in the kingdom (which is heaven, according to the traditional view), they’d have to already be saved (and dead), so is this parable saying that some people will become sinners in heaven some time after they die and then cast out of heaven into hell? Obviously nobody believes that, but this just tells us that, similar to when they bring up the other passages that are supposedly about “hell,” they aren’t thinking things through very deeply.
So what was Jesus talking about when He threatened the possibility of ending up in a “furnace” of fire, then? Well, the first key to this parable is found in a number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.
But the Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day. — Deuteronomy 4:20
Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you: so shall ye be my people, and I will be your God. — Jeremiah 11:4
Those are only two of the many references in the Hebrew Scriptures to being judged in a figurative furnace, as well as to being “refined in a furnace,” none of which refer to spending time burning in literal fire in an actual furnace, but are basically talking about time spent exiled in parts of the world that aren’t Israel. And so, what this parable is actually saying is that there will be righteous Israelites and unrighteous Israelites when Jesus returns, and similar to the “goats” of Matthew 25 (which represent certain people who didn’t help persecuted Jews out during the Tribulation), they will wail and gnash their teeth because they’ve been forced to live in parts of the world that aren’t Israel during the Millennium (these parts of the world are “the furnace of fire,” and is the same “fire” as the eonian fire in the parable of the sheep and the goats, which is the second key to understanding this parable, since that eonian fire was no more literal than the fire in the figurative ”furnace”), unlike the righteous Jews who, similar to the “sheep” in Matthew 25 (which represent certain people who did help persecuted Jews during the Tribulation) will get to live in Israel during the Millennium (which is where everyone who heard Jesus when He spoke wanted to live when the kingdom arrives on earth in the future). It’s actually very simple to understand once you come to understand who Jesus’ audience was and what His message was all about, but when you assume He was talking about an afterlife rather than life on this planet, and think He was directing His message to everyone rather than specifically to Israelites, it’s easy to get extremely confused about all of His sayings.