The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up.
The man’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?’ ‘It was some enemy who did this,’ he answered. ‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’ they asked him.
‘No,’ he answered, ‘because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.’ (Matthew 13:24-30)
(The explanation of this parable follows):
The man who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed is the people who belong to the Kingdom; the weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One; and the enemy who sowed the weeds is the Devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvest workers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered up and burned in the fire, so the same thing will happen at the end of the age: the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things, and they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and gnash their teeth.
Then God’s people will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Listen, then, if you have ears! (Matthew 13:37-43)
In the tradition of the church (reinforced by scriptures in the New Testament, like the Book of Revelation, that were written long after Jesus was gone), this parable says that there are good people and evil people. Both are allowed to grow and flourish. When the end of the world comes, Jesus will send all of the evil people to hell for all eternity, and the good people will be whisked away to heaven where they will live happily ever after.
Once again a little research points out that there are a lot of problems with this interpretation.
What is “the End of the Age?”
In the Jewish understanding (and therefore in Jesus’ understanding, because he was a Jew), the “end of the age” is NOT the same as the “end of the world”. The end of the age refers to a time, after the Messiah comes, when a new and better era begins – right here on earth. I think it’s an important distinction.
There are a lot of references to this new age throughout the books of the prophets. The most detailed are the visions of the prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus often quotes. Details about God’s judgment and the new age are particularly detailed at the end of the book in Chapters 65 and 66. In Isaiah 65:17-25 we see a description what the new age looks like:
The Lord says, “I am making a new earth and new heavens. The events of the past will be completely forgotten. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create. The new Jerusalem I make will be full of joy, and her people will be happy. I myself will be filled with joy because of Jerusalem and her people. There will be no weeping there, no calling for help. Babies will no longer die in infancy, and all people will live out their life span. Those who live to be a hundred will be considered young. To die before that would be a sign that I had punished them. People will build houses and get to live in them—they will not be used by someone else. They will plant vineyards and enjoy the wine—it will not be drunk by others. Like trees, my people will live long lives. They will fully enjoy the things that they have worked for. The work they do will be successful, and their children will not meet with disaster. I will bless them and their descendants for all time to come. Even before they finish praying to me, I will answer their prayers. Wolves and lambs will eat together; lions will eat straw, as cattle do, and snakes will no longer be dangerous. On Zion, my sacred hill, there will be nothing harmful or evil.”
In this description we see a vision of what the earth could be if we all loved God and loved one another. What we see here is a portrait of the Kingdom of God on earth – the thing we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. It describes a better world.
Is the “fiery furnace” the same as hell?
The Greek word for “furnace” is kaminos, which means a furnace used either for smelting, firing pottery, or baking bread. This word is used throughout the Bible:
But you are the people he rescued from Egypt, that blazing furnace. He brought you out to make you his own people, as you are today. (Deuteronomy 4:20)
The promises of the Lord can be trusted; they are as genuine as silver refined seven times in the furnace. (Psalm 12:6)
Gold is tested by fire, and human character is tested in the furnace of humiliation. (Sirach 2:5)
So it seems to me that the references to furnaces aren’t euphemisms for hell. They represent the place of suffering where we find ourselves when we ignore God’s will for our lives. The refining fire of the furnace brings us back to God by burning off everything that is separating us from loving God and loving others. And if you go along with my idea that the Law of Moses represents “truth”, like the law of gravity (See Day 21), then of course everyone who does not obey the law suffers. Disobedience of the Law will eventually catch up with you and there will be suffering. Just like you can defy the Law of Gravity by throwing an apple up into the air, it will eventually fall back to earth and get bruised. If we disobey God we may feel like we are soaring, but we are really setting ourselves up for a painful fall.
The furnace also represents grace. It is the means by which we are brought back to our senses. It is the vehicle of our redemption. The self-imposed suffering and trial of the furnace, causes us to reevaluate our lives and bring us back to God. The bad stuff is burned off and we become pure like refined metal. Shiny, like gold.
So does this scripture say that everyone who sins will find themselves in the furnace?
If you read it carefully it is not the people who sin who are sent into the furnace. It’s the people who cause other people to sin. Jesus doesn’t seem to be referring to ordinary people and their minor violations of the Law. I think he is referring to the religious leaders who are leading people away from God by promoting a false, legalistic, paganistic religion that is not based on loving God and loving one another (See Day 123). He’s referring to the Pharisees, teachers of the Law, Sadducees, chief priests, elders, and all the rest.
So where does it say that we have to stay in the furnace forever?
Nowhere. Does metal stay in the furnace forever, or is it extracted and put to some useful purpose? Does pottery stay in the furnace forever, or is it taken out and put to use? Does bread stay in the furnace forever, or is it taken out and used to provide life and nourishment?
There are two scriptures in the Gospel that imply that there might be “unforgivable sin.” One is Matthew 12:31, the other is Matthew 25:46. However, throughout the rest of the Bible there is always the possibility of redemption. You can always step out of the fire by changing your ways (repenting) and walking the path of love (believing in the Gospel). We can always walk out of the fire. The door to God is always open if we choose to live in his Kingdom. It was the promise of God since the time of Noah. It was always the teaching of the prophets. If we change our ways God will always take us back.
So who are God’s people?
I guess that’s everyone. Either we are already shiny (like the wheat) or else we end up in the furnace, where we stay until become shiny like refined gold (like the wildflowers). The way I read it, at the end of the age, everyone gets to shine. We all end up shiny.
So what’s the point?
Jesus is reassuring everyone that better days are coming. They don’t need to take matters into their own hands. They don’t need to judge each other or punish each other or kill each other. When the end of the age comes, everyone will obey the Law, which means they will all love God and love one another. They will all be refined and there won’t be any more predators. It will be safe. God’s got it all under control.
It makes sense. If you are going to have a new age, you can’t have disruptive, mean people running around. At the end of the age, the people who are still using “old age” thinking must somehow change. Jesus explains in this parable that there is a remedy for the evil that they see in the world. The people who are rebellious, destructive, and uncooperative will be refined in the fire, like precious metal or beautiful pottery. Then they will shine like those who are already ready to live in the new age.
So this is how I choose to look at it. I think it’s kinder than what the church came up with, and I know that God likes kindness. I think that mean-spirited scriptural interpretations lead people away from God because they induce either fear or pride. I’ve already been in that furnace a few times and I’ve had enough self-induced crying and teeth gnashing to last a lifetime. From now on I choose to err on the side of kindness. I think it’s the best strategy for staying out of the refiner’s fire. It is altogether too hot in there.
What does this scripture say to you?