No Eternal Conscious Torment

Matthew 25:31-46

Friends, it’s the fifth week of Lent. Which means that next week is Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that is Easter. In this season we have been exploring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s six principles of nonviolence and several of parables of the Kingdom of God from the Gospel of Matthew. We recognize that fighting fire with fire doesn’t really work; violence always eventually begets more violence. Our intention for this season is to change how we think about what is possible for us and for the world, so that we can change the system. Despite the progress that we see in some areas, we see regression in other areas. That’s because the system itself is broken. And if we are going to change that, if we are going to live differently, we have to have totally new ideas about what is possible. Lent is a great season for deep thinking, so that’s what we’ve been doing together. 

The first of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” Pacifism, not passive-ism. It’s not that we do nothing. We do something different. We explored Jesus’ parable of the absurdly generous boss who pays all the workers the same daily wage regardless of how long they worked. To act nonviolently, we have to start thinking about the world in a different way.

The second principle is “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.” For two weeks we explored the parable of the servant who was released from an unrepayable debt he owed to his employer but refused to release a fellow servant from a modest debt. This is part of Jesus’ teaching on how to sustain relationships in community. Forgiveness opens the door for friendship and understanding with our enemy.

The third principle is “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.” Once we realize that we are all shaped by the system we live in, we can shift our animosity from our enemies themselves to the wider system of injustice that has shaped us both. The New Testament book of Ephesians says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. Things must change so that everyone can be free.

The fourth principle is “Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences to its acts.” Nonviolent resistance reveals the evil inherent in the system. When we allow ourselves to be the place where the evil is carried out, we will suffer. Now we trust that God transforms and redeems suffering. But we will suffer.

This week’s principle is, “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence to the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is active, not passive. Nonviolent love does not sink to the level of the hater. Love restores community and resists injustice. Nonviolence recognizes the fact that all life is interrelated.” I can just about hear Dr King winding up into some good preaching in this long principle, can’t you? The part I want to highlight today is that “nonviolence resists violence to the spirit as well as to the body. Nonviolence recognizes that all life is interrelated.”

As we get close to the end of Lent these principles are also building to a crescendo. (Next week’s is SO GOOD.) This week’s principle affirms that a commitment not to hit people is not enough. A commitment to following Jesus in the way of nonviolence goes deeper than that. 

We have to resist all violence – we have to find an alternative to violence. Not just physical violence but verbal violence and spiritual violence. We have to invite and allow God to transform our violent impulses. Beloved, we need to be saved from our instinct for violence. It’s that serious. It runs that deep in us. Even in those of us who would never think of hitting people. Remember what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount? Our anger and insults, calling someone moron, will be judged by God just like murder. (That’s Matthew 6:21.) Regardless of what we think we might ever do with our hands, it starts in our heads and our hearts.

But this raises some questions for me, because as much as I’ve tried to present the parables of the nonviolent Kingdom of God, I bet that if you have any ideas about God bringing about “the end of the world” those are probably violent ideas, aren’t they? Eventually God blows the whole thing up, right? 

One of my favorite Christian authors is a man named Brian McLaren. He has a book called Everything Must Change, which I totally recommend. In this book, McLaren said something that was so helpful for me. 

He says “Eschatology always wins.” Eschatology always wins. Eschatology is a big word that means “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.” It’s what happens at the end, not just the end of your life, but the end of the world as we know it. And McLaren’s point is that whatever you think is going to happen at the end is going to shape what you are willing to do now. What you think God is willing to do at the end will shape you you are willing to do now. For example, if you think that God is going to eventually burn up the whole planet then why would you care about environmental destruction now? And if you think that people who don’t believe what you believe about Jesus are going to experience eternal conscious torment, then you’re much more likely to be violent towards them now. If it is ethically acceptable for God to do a God-sized version of it, then it’s probably OK for me to a Beth-sized version of it. Does that make sense?

So, perhaps we should wrestle for a minute with one of Matthew’s depictions of what will happen to people at “the end.” This is our final look at Matthew’s descriptions of the Kingdom, and this one isn’t a parable so much as it is a prediction. Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 25, starting in verse 31. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God …

Matthew 25:31-46

“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 who 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 brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who 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.”

These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Friends, if we really believe that nonviolence resists violence to the spirit as well as the body, if we are going to change a system that is built on retribution and revenge, I suggest to you that our belief system cannot include the possibility of eternal conscious torment. I’ll give you any two in combination but not all three. If it is eternal and conscious, it cannot be torment. If it is conscious torment, it can’t be eternal. (And for those of you who are keeping track, if it’s eternal and torment it can’t be conscious but if beings aren’t conscious then I don’t think it matters anyway.) 

So I have a real problem with this phrase “eternal punishment.” But the Bible is a source of moral authority for me so I try not to just ignore things I don’t like. I think we have to wrestle with this. Which is what you have called me to do in our communal life. We are in this together, and this is my job. So here we go.

First, this is the only place in the whole Bible that the phrase “eternal punishment” shows up. The only one. There are some other similar phrases like “eternal judgment” and “eternal destruction,” which are not exactly the same and that matters. All together, phrases like that show up maybe 10 times total in the whole Bible. “Eternal punishment” is only here.

Also, “eternal” may not mean forever and always without end amen the way we think of it. This is hard, I know because it’s RIGHT THERE! In English. I know this is a little nerdy, but I want you to stick with me. “Eternal” is not the only way to translate that word, which was originally written in Greek.

This is the same verse, Matthew 25:46 from Young’s Literal Translation, which is a translation of the Bible done in 1898 that attempts to preserve the tense and word usage as found in the original Greek and Hebrew writings. It is an extremely literal translation and it only uses the word “eternal” twice and it’s not in this section. An incredibly literal translation of this verse is “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.”

(Well, thank you Pastor Beth, that is so helpful. That just clears it right up for me!)

I know. Sorry. 

My point is, there were two words in ancient Greek that both often get translated to English as “eternal.” One really does mean “forever and ever world without end amen,” and the other one, used here, means “age-during,” or “eonic” as in lasting for an eon, or “lasting for a very long, unspecified but deliberate amount of time.” That’s the word. Now, nobody says age-during. And my computer didn’t even know the word eonic. But it matters. “Eternal” is not the most helpful English word there because it conveys a meaning that I am absolutely convinced Jesus did not mean to convey. He did not mean to convey the idea of eternal conscious torment. If he did, there was a different word he could have used that is used other places to describe the nature of God and the power of God. THAT is eternal. This is not.

And yet, there is a judgment here. Right now the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are overlapping, but they will not always overlap. One day God will disentangle them and the Kingdom of God will stand on its own in all its glory and some folks will move very naturally and easily into that Kingdom and some folks won’t. 

Here’s what I think the difference is: At “the end” God will give us what we want. And if we don’t want to be part of a Kingdom full of hungry, poor, thirsty, sick, imprisoned strangers, then we won’t have to be part of it. But Jesus is taking those folks in; he’s clear about that all the way through the gospels. Or alternatively I could say that if we don’t want to be part of a Kingdom where everyone is housed and fed and clothed and has clean water and is healed and is free, whether we think they “deserve” it or not, then we won’t be part of that Kingdom. Jesus will not force us in. We goats can go somewhere else. But the somewhere else is not the Kingdom of God which means that it will not be pleasant. If the Lord our Shepherd is not there, we goats will not have everything we need. It will not be green pastures and quiet waters. It won’t be eternal conscious torment, but it also won’t be a place that restores our souls.

And apparently, the way that we demonstrate which Kingdom we want to live in at “the end” is by trusting that the Kingdom of God is already a reality and by living in that Kingdom’s way right now. The folks who will step easily in the Kingdom are the ones who pay attention right now to the needs of others: leading spiritual support group at Delaware County Jail, taking meals to Family Promise, bringing boxers or briefs for the underwear tree. Not because they are trying to earn points with Jesus, but just because that’s how they respond to God’s love: by loving others. They don’t even know they are meeting Jesus while they do it!

The final thing I want to say about this story during Lent is that the things Jesus mentions here are not justice. And all the progressive folks said, “Dang it.” This is charity. Nobody is teaching anybody to fish or figuring out why the stream is polluted; they’re just feeding people without knowing who that hungry person voted for in the last presidential election. The prisoners aren’t being released; someone is just going to be with them without knowing what they did to get themselves in jail. Beloved ones, we cannot neglect the small things because they aren’t dramatic enough or because they aren’t convenient for us. That’s what goats do. Mother Theresa had it right when she said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one. If you can’t do great things, then do small things with great love. Because in the ‘least of these’ there goes Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” 

Friends, it matters how we live. Our beliefs matter only because they drive our actions. There is no eternal conscious torment, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no urgency for the gospel. The world is broken. People IN DELAWARE AND MARYSVILLE are hungry and thirsty and lonely and cold and sick and imprisoned. When “this age” is completed Jesus isn’t going to ask whether we called him “Lord” with our words, but whether we paid attention to the people he was paying attention to. Did we actively choose love instead of hate? Did we actively treat our enemies better than they treated us? Did we actively work to restore community, to win over our enemies, to resist injustice without violently resisting people? Beloved, all of life is interrelated. Ultimately God will not be violent with any of us and there is no room for us to be violent with each other. May we extend the same grace to others that God continually extends to us.


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