Furnaces of Fire and Outer Darkness

Another common argument made by annihilationists is from the imagery of the “furnace”, particularly in Matthew 13:42 and 50. As this is one of the parables Christ gives the most explanation of, we should be able to make a significant amount of headway in exegeting it properly. Date’s exegesis of this passage is significantly lacking – and as with the passages we’ve already looked at, I sincerely hope that what he has offered us thus far is not all that we’ll see, despite his statement that I am in possession of the entirety of his positive case. If this is so, then we can clearly see that he already has to make some serious modifications to it, as much of what he has argued has been shown to be inaccurate and/or irrelevant. Date says the following:

(32:25) You see, that God is a consuming fire, which will consume His enemies, this means (chuckle) He will burn them up. He will destroy them, leaving only rotting, smoldering corpses behind. Now this phrase “unquenchable fire” is one that John the Baptist also uses in Matthew 3:12. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor. He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” This image of separating wheat from chaff, and burning of the chaff is one the Lord uses again in Matt 13:42 and 50 when he explains the parable of the tares. Saying of the tares that he will throw them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(33:00) The important thing to keep in mind here is that John and the Lord didn’t come up with this on their own. Malachi 4:1 and 3 reads, Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, burning like a furnace, and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff. and the day that is coming will set them ablaze. He will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day which I am preparing. So what does it mean to be burned up in a furnace of fire? (chuckle) It means that the wicked will be burned up and reduced to ashes. Now, as a side note, some might be inclined to interpret one or more of these passages as referring to the (could not make this out) upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, and that’s an interpretation to which I’m sympathetic in at least some of these passages. But they each serve as a demonstration of what the punishment of God’s unquenchable fire does. It burns up, it consumes, it reduces to ashes, it destroys.

Like Sodom and Gomorrah, and the imagery of Gehenna as a place of slaughter, smoldering corpses. The burning up of chaff fits well with Hell as a place of final destruction, but it doesn’t fit very well with being tormented forever and ever.

Note, as with the prior statements we examined, the focus on “unquenchable fire” as if it depicts some empirical process. Unquenchable fire is not symbolic of the nature of the wrath of God in this view, but seems to be an empirical, scientific method for describing the mechanism of the punishment. It is, so to speak “how an atheist thinks of fire”. In the view which takes what “unquenchable fire” means from the text, however, there is a purpose to describing the fire as unquenchable. It is describing God – the proper and highest function of revelation – theology proper. When Christ, who as John 1:18 says, is acting as the exegete of the Godhead, He is showing us what is to be known about God. That which should be seen here is the nature of God’s wrath – the unquenchable and irresistable nature of it – not the empirical process of the effects or results of that wrath in the space-time universe.

The “furnace of fire” depicts something, as well. Similarly, it is not to be understood as some sort of brick oven wherein bodies are burned. Such wooden literalism is to be avoided – like the plague. So what does it depict? Well, what does the passage say? As Date notes, this is not a one-off description – it has a Biblical history to it. We see it in Exodus 15:7, where the drowning of the Egyptians is likened to their being burned up as chaff; similarly in Malachi 4:1. What is interesting is that in these cases, they are said to be like chaff because the wrath of the Lord is irresistible. For example; Exodus 15:6-7 says:

Your right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power, Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. And in the greatness of Your excellence You overthrow those who rise up against You; You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff.

This is a superlative; it is His sovereign might being spoken of – and the exercise of it – the fury of it – is likened to fire devouring chaff. There is no resistance, and no possible resistance. He is supreme, and none can gainsay Him, or resist the fury of His wrath. More about Malachi in a bit. Elsewhere, the imagery associated with chaff is that chaff is blown by the wind – it is at the mercy of the wind, and blows where the wind does. This can be seen in Job 21:18, Psa 1:4, 35:5, 83:13, Isa 17:13, 29:5, 41:2, Hosea 13:3 and Dan 2:35. In all these cases, sinful men and nations are likened to chaff, that blows before the wind. Chaff is refuse – it is that which is inedible, and fit only to be discarded. It is translated, typically, as stubble, or as chaff.

Now, keep in mind that we’re dealing with several different words here. תֶּבֶן – straw, or stubble – and קַשׁ – stubble, or chaff, and מֹץ – chaff. The meanings are quite close, although the words are not the same. The word used in both Exodus and Malachi, and Psalm 83:13 is קַשׁ – qash. The second word, תֶּבֶן, is used in Job 21:18, while the third is used in the other Psalms citations, in Isa 17:13 and 29:5, and in Hosea. In any case, the sense being conveyed is the inability of the wicked to stand against the Lord, and the completeness of their rout. Moses uses it in that sense in the Exodus citation, and it can be seen again and again when it speaks of the enemies of God as chaff before the wind. Chaff in a furnace is another such image – chaff is kindling – it burns quickly, and barely any resistance to fire whatsoever. Burning chaff in a furnace is a serious case of overkill! It burns very quickly – it cannot resist the furnace. Is the point that the chaff burned up? We hardly need to Bible to tell us that chaff burns well, do we? Or that fire burns things up? What is being conveyed by this image, then? That there is no resistance possible.

The prototype for sin is the insistence that we can usurp the place of God on His throne. The response being given is that when God’s patient endurance of sin is finally removed, the expression of His wrath will be inexorable, irresistible, and implacable. That is the sense of these expressions; they are not to be understood as an empirical description of what happens to chaff in a fire. We know what happens to chaff in a fire. What is this telling us about God, is the proper question? It’s telling us that none can stand against the wrath of God – their pitiful attempts will last about as long as chaff in a furnace, and be as resistant as chaff is before the wind. Which is to say that there is no resistance at all.

Look at the context in Malachi. Start in Chapter 3 – because Chapter 4 starts with “For behold” – and just as a point of interest, in the Hebrew manuscripts verse 4:1 is included in the previous chapter as 3:19. Chapter 3 begins with telling of the messenger who clears the way ahead of the Messiah, and which is cited in Matt 3:3, Mark 1:2, Luke 3:4, John 1:23 – along with Isa 40:3, with “prophets”. It is he who “clears the way”, and is his voice which cries in the wilderness. This is, of course, John the Baptist – the forerunner. “Even” the messenger of the covenant, as many translations will note for you – he “in whom you delight.” He is coming. Who? Why, who else? The Christ. We see why, next, if not from “His temple” just prior. It is not John that the next words apply to.

None can endure the day of His coming, and none can stand when he appears – and recall, He will appear “suddenly” in His temple. He comes to cleanse – to purify – the picture given by “refiner’s fire” and “laundryman’s (or fuller’s) soap.” Plus, note the next – He will sit as a smelter and purifier – and will purify the sons of Levi, the royal priesthood – so that they might present righteous offerings (and note – they are grain offerings). Then they will be acceptable, as they were before. But notice something that seems odd, at first. When the messenger of the covenant appears, and purifies His priests – then He will draw near for judgment. Against a whole laundry lists of offenses, he will draw near for judgment. He does not change, therefore they are not consumed. The next verse tells us – from the days of their fathers they have turned aside and not kept his statutes. Yet, He has not changed – He is the covenant-keeper – therefore, they are not consumed. Now, by consumed, are we to understand that this means “rendered lifeless corpses”? I think not. They remain a people, and have not been scattered to the winds – they are yet a cohesive whole, if a remnant, kept for the coming of the messenger of the covenant, and to be shown the fulfillment of that which they’ve awaited. But even more – recall what they asked in 2:17 – “Where is the God of judgment?” Well, He’s coming.

Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the Lord – but they say “How shall we return?” The sense there is “What do we have to repent of?” Well, He answers. Will a man rob God? The answer, on it’s face, is “of course not!” Yet, this is immediately followed with “Yet you are robbing Me!” The immediate reply by these self-righteous spiritual fathers to the Pharisees is, of course, “How have we robbed You?” Well, God tells them – in tithes and offerings. The curse that is already upon them shows them this clearly, as is referenced in Mal 2:2 – the whole nation! The curse is present because they are robbing Him – and He challenges them – bring in all that they are due to bring, and see if He does not bless them, rather than curse them, and indeed, revoke the curse. He continues.

Their words have been arrogant against God – but they say “What have we spoken against You?” He tells them. He quotes them – at length. “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the LORD of hosts? So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up but they also test God and escape.” That’s what. Quite a series of accusations and complaints, aren’t they? The point of Malachi is to bring to light the accusations and grumblings of the Jews – and to answer them. But, note something else that’s odd at first blush. What happens next? God starts talking about those who feared the Lord.

Those who feared the Lord spoke to each other – this is set against those who do not fear the Lord and their ungodly conversation, which God just related. God gave attention to it, and heard it – and a book of remembrance – note again, the book, as in our last post. They will be His, on the day where He prepares His own possession, and He will have compassion on them as one who has compassion on His son who serves Him. This, you see, is why the complainers will learn to distinguish between the righteous and wicked; between those who serve, and do not serve Him. What follows? The passage Date cites. How does it begin? Where He just left off. It’s just a continuation. How will they know? Oh, they’ll know.

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace” – this is the furnace parallel that Date wants us to pay attention to. Very well, let’s do so. Remember back to 3:2. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” It’s the day. So, who can stand? Who can endure? “[A]ll the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff.” They’ll be burned up, as in an empirical description of the nature of their burning – down to nothing – reduced to ashes? Not at all. It’s talking about how well they stand, or endure. Can anyone withstand the day like a furnace of fire if they are chaff? No. Can anyone endure a furnace of fire if they are like chaff? No. Thus, the arrogant – and who are the arrogant? We just read this. The complaining, self-righteous Jews. Their “righteousness” and self-justification is as chaff before the judgment of God, and is utterly consumed. Are you seeing a pattern yet? They are chaff – not grain. Their offerings are refuse, and so is their righteousness.

Note the next phrase – “it will leave them neither root nor branch.” It’s quite a fascinating one. As Gill notes, the Targum cites it as a proverbial expression – they will have neither son, nor nephew – so devastating will be their destruction that they will have no temple, no magistrates, no subjects, no priests, people, government, family records destroyed – in short, they will be scattered utterly as the peculiar people of God for their arrogance and self-righteousness. They will be cut off from the root of Israel, and are not even left as a branch – they will be entirely removed from the tree. It is no accident that this is in the context of the coming of Messiah – that they sound like the Pharisees of Christ’s day – or that it depicts the destruction of Jerusalem, and the unbelieving Jews. Nor is it an accident that Christ refers to it. It is also no accident that this entire system is what Hebrews warns that we cannot return to. Yes, it has to do with the destruction of the Jews – but it doesn’t have anything to do with annihilationism – or with furnaces as crematoriums. Does it have a reference to the future judgment? Yes, by extension – remember the reference to the book of life and the day of the Lord – but remember – the destruction of Jerusalem is often used as a picture of the final judgment – and it’s not especially in the forefront in this instance. It’s almost an afterthought, and veiled fairly thoroughly. Not until Christ refers to it in the Gospels does it become especially eschatological.

What does not have a parallel in these passages in Date’s explanation(s) is the pairing of weeping, and of gnashing of teeth with the furnace of fire. Given that it’s fairly pertinent to the discussion, his lack of comment on this topic is fascinating. Fudge has a bit of discussion, but it seems to lack breadth and depth, due to the volume’s tendency to treat passages topically, not exegetically. His style, as a whole, seems to be suited to the topical approach to preaching – where the uses of a word are highlighted, various commentators are cited, but there is a significant lack of original exegetical work and or detailed treatment of the passage(s) in specificity and depth. This does not even cover the tendency he has to read particular meanings into words from the outset, and to interpret the passage in light of those assumptions. In any case, as Date does not cite Fudge, I reference this by way of noting that Fudge’s treatment is also singularly unsatisfying.

So, how are we to deal with it? The Greek term in question for “weeping” is κλαυθμός – and is used mostly in Matthew. It is the term he uses for Ramah “weeping” for her children, and also the term Luke uses for the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in his parallel, as well as for the weeping of the Ephesian elders when Paul departs Miletus to head to Jerusalem, having told them that they will not see his face again. The root of κλαυθμός is κλαίω – used much more often, and seen to have quite a few synonyms in NT. Note the usage of that term in Christ’s answer to the women weeping over Him on the way to Golgotha in Luke 23:28, and what He says to them there. Note also that it is Christ who weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19 – and recall who the true object of that sorrow is.

There is yet another interesting note we might add concerning “weeping”. The other usage of “weeping” in Matthew, as we have already noted, is in Matthew 2:18 – the citation of Ramah “weeping for her children,” in the context of the Herodian massacre,. When you look at the verse from Jeremiah 31, from which this citation is pulled, you will see the word בכי – this word is used in Malachi, in the context of the discussion which we’ve already been having about that passage. Remember – the Jews are complaining and grumbling about God, aren’t they? God’s interest in Malachi is to distinguish for them between His justice and theirs – between their self-righteousness and His righteousness. So, let’s cite a few verses, and look at it.

“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping (בכי) and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal 2:13-17)

As we see – their “weeping” is useless – because it is self-centered and without cause. They have brought it upon themselves. While complaining about God’s supposed “injustice”, they have committed injustices against their wives, and have covered their garments with wrong. They have broken their covenant with their wives – and then wonder why God does not honor them as covenant keepers! In fact, they blame God for being “unjust” while in the midst of their own injustices. God does not regard their offerings – because they do not regard Him! It is in this context that they weary the Lord with their words, that they say “Where is the God of justice?” Well, when they meet the God of justice they will not stand, as the follow verses show, and we have already discussed.

What of “gnashing of teeth”? While there are indeed many who want to make this an expression of pain, or anguish, it seems that this expression speaks of rage, or fury – the “ground teeth” of one who is furious, or enraged. This seems to depict the wrath of man when confronted with the truth about himself. It is the Jewish leaders who “gnash their teeth” at Stephen when he tells them the truth – and they cannot bear to hear the truth. They were “cut to the quick” one other time previously – the Apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin then – but it was Gamaliel who preserved their lives then, in Acts 5:33. There was no such defender for Stephen. Their rage at his words was too great, and they “rushed at him, with one impulse.”

As with other descriptions of future punishment, the descriptions of this “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is directed, chiefly, at the self-righteous Jews – the same group Malachi deals with in his prophetic text. It is the “sons of the kingdom” who will be “cast out into the outer darkness”, in Matthew 8. In Luke 13:28, it is “yourselves” who will be cast out – and it is Jerusalem whom He weeps over for the first time, shortly thereafter. This, however, is also said to be true about those throughout the coming history of the church who will be “visibly” servants, or part of the visible church – in Matthew 13, it is speaking of the church, and the end of days – where all those who were false converts, and grew up among the wheat will be separated out – much as the bad fish are in the next instance of the term’s usage. In the harvest of wheat, just as in the dragnet of fish, the useless, the refuse, will be thrown out, and into the furnace of God’s fiery wrath. In the parable of the wedding feast, seen in Matthew 22, it is the man who shows up uninvited to the feast, without wedding clothes, who is cast out – he was invited, but he did not come dressed appropriately. Now, the initial guests invited to the wedding are being likened to the Jews, who were unwilling to attend the wedding feast – but they are not the object of the latter part of this parable, precisely. They were the chosen ones – but as Christ says elsewhere, “they were not willing”, being steeped in their self-righteousness. It was they who seized his slaves, and murdered some. They received justice – the king destroyed them, and set their city ablaze. We see the first part of this parable’s application – the wickedly self-righteous Jews, who killed the slaves of the king, were themselves killed, and their city leveled.

Yet, the parable does not end here; it continues. He sends out his slaves yet again. They are to pick up whoever they encounter, both “good and bad”. This is a bit of a difficult phrase. Some interpret it to mean “outwardly good or bad, but all elect”, others to mean “both elect and reprobate.” But let’s see which of these it is. When we’re looking at this parable, we must note that it is the first of three parables in a series. In the first parable, only one man is seen to be selected out of the group, and cast out – the one whom the king notes is not wearing the wedding clothes. I believe the answer in this case is that this man was either not invited, but chose to come of his own volition, and did not come under the auspices of the king’s invitation or that he was invited, but repudiated the king’s gift, and his instructions concerning how the feast was to be conducted. As the JFB commentary notes, the apparel for royal events of this sort was provided by the royal house – and in any case, what were those who came in from the hedges and highways to be wearing otherwise? This man, however, came wearing his own clothes, and not those provided. In either case, he is doing something contrary to the explicit desire of the king – he is coming uninvited or he is coming without the proper clothes, which the king provided. Given the context – where the self-righteous Jews are being told that the kingdom is being given over to another people, I believe it refers to the man coming invited, but in his own righteousness, instead of clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and as an example of the perils of that self-righteousness, which emulates that of the Jews, cast into outer darkness.

In Matthew 24, we see the next instance of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – the evil slave is said to be cut in pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites. As Gill notes, the “cut to pieces” should not be taken to mean that this is the literal punishment – it is emblematic of the severity of the punishment – and perhaps signifies the sundering of soul from body in addition to the “cutting in pieces” being considered an unusually severe punishment. His portion is with the hypocrites – and Luke adds “with the unbelievers” – because both have the same eternal fate.

The last instance is in Matthew 25, of which we will speak more in a later post.

It is often noted that both the language of fire and darkness is used of punishment – and this is entirely correct. However, this does not have much bearing on whether these are both descriptive of intermediate and/or final punishment. They are descriptive of the wrath of God and the isolation of the unbeliever from all that he could have recourse to. He is alone, and he is set against the God against whom he is powerless. As many have likewise pointed out, darkness is emblematic of God’s curse – it is the plague set upon Egypt, the curse of God upon Israel – and it is this curse to which they are perpetually consigned. The wrath of God is quite often described as a fire – that which no created thing can withstand. Thus, we see the curse of God being that to which the wicked are consigned; their response as self-centered lamentation, impotent rage against God; and God’s active punishment – the outpouring of His wrath – as that which they cannot resist.

So, let us note these things, in summary. The “furnace of fire” is not a crematorium – it is emblematic of God’s wrath, and the outpouring of it. It is not descriptive empirically, and focused on the subjects of that wrath, but describes the nature of God, and specifically His wrath, as unstoppable, and irresistible. The weeping and gnashing of teeth is spoken of in terms of the impotence and self-centeredness of the unjust wicked, who will still weep and rage against God’s supposed “injustice” (much as they did while still in their earthly life) even while under His judgment, which they have invited upon themselves. Outer darkness is speaking of the imprisonment of these wicked men under the curse of God, confirmed perpetually, and keeping them constrained under that same judgment and curse.


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