“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).
I do not believe in the dogma of hell, but I have many relatives who do. This is one of the verses they cite to prove their point to me. Help! What does it really mean? Thank you. I listen to your program, The Bible Alive! It’s great!
I’m including more than the one verse you requested, since it really requires the context of the full passage. This entire passage is unique to Matthew; there are no parallels in any of the other Gospels. The Jesus Seminar by common consent agreed that it is much more likely to be the work of the Gospel writer himself than an accurate account of a teaching of Jesus. Matthew, writing at a time when many early followers of Jesus were becoming disillusioned and dropping away, is very fond of describing judgment and painful consequences, as he does here. Frequently, when he clearly is drawing on Mark’s earlier Gospel as a source, he adds embellishments like “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to insert the idea of punishment and divine anger into otherwise loving parables.
Jesus was a master at communicating to his followers in terms they would clearly understand. He did not expect them to be trained theologians or metaphysicians. And at a literal level, the imagery makes no sense. All goats are evil? What farmer would believe that for a minute? From the time of Abraham onward, goats and sheep alike are referenced as sources of abundance and life. And, of course, the idea that anyone would be eternally punished by an infinitely loving God is contrary to the very essence of Jesus’ message and ministry.
And so we come back to the basic question to be asked in approaching the Bible. Is there spiritual value to be found, even in passages that are historically dubious—or that flat out never happened? And, of course, there is. There is power, for example, in the story of Jonah whether or not an actual prophet was ever swallowed by an actual great fish on a specific day of human history. And there is metaphysical power and truth in this passage, whether or not Jesus ever used its imagery. We are, indeed, held accountable for the negative consequences of our fear-based error thoughts. The infinite love that is God will not free us from those consequences; but that infinite love will ensure we are always able to put them behind us and move on to make new, more loving choices. The fire of eternal damnation is not a part of Jesus’ teaching; but a painful, purifying fire that burns away negativity and leaves us clearer in our spiritual truth may well be a part of the spiritual journey Jesus describes.