This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder the third parable Jesus used to answer the question religious leaders put to him: “By what authority do you do these things?” The passage is Matthew 22:1-14. The ESV supplies it the heading “The parable of the Wedding Feast.”
As I said before, Jesus gave his response in the Jerusalem Temple, the centre of Jewish faith. He gave his response one week before he was crucified. I’ll recap what he said.
A king sent out advance invitations to the elite, the leaders of the day. The invitations said the king would host a banquet to celebrate the wedding of his son, and they were invited.
The king’s cooks began preparing the feast. He sent his servants to the leaders to get them to confirm that they would attend. The leaders ignored the servants, beat them, even killed them.
The king got mad. He sent his army to kill the leaders and destroy their city, because “they were not worthy.”
His army carried out his orders. All that remained of the city was charred buildings and bodies.
The king still wanted to celebrate. Why waste food? He sent his servants to go and invite street folk, both those who were “bad and good.” They came. The wedding hall was full. The feasting began.
The king came among them. He saw one man who wasn’t well dressed. He addressed the man with the word “friend”. But he told him off. The man was speechless. The king then told his servants to
Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (verses 13-14).
Our reaction to Jesus’ story is “not nice!” How could he tell such a story? How could the king be so cruel? What happened to grace? What happened to “being merciful?” Did Jesus just say some people will go to hell?
You’ve heard it before. In the Bible, if something is said three times in succession, it’s to stress importance. I’ll give you some examples.
My first example is singing “Holy, holy, holy!” in the Book of Revelation. My second example is Jesus’ using three passersby: the Priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, in his story of the Good Samaritan. My third example is, Jesus saying the woman who lost a coin lit a lamp, swept thoroughly, searched carefully. I’ve given three examples. Get it?
By saying the same thing three times, Matthew tells us Jesus stressed that the leaders who didn’t honour God and his Son, Jesus, would be severely punished.
But he needed to make sure people didn’t think the punishment is only for leaders. It’s for everyone. Everyone who doesn’t hear and obey God will be severely punished. Jesus uses the fate of the “ill dressed” guest to show that even the poor are expected to do what pleases God.
I have a conception of hell. It’s a place of punishment. I hope someone took Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot to hell, though I wish they had never done anything which made them deserve hell. The vast majority of people would agree with me. But who else deserves to be sent to hell?
What about those who cheated on their spouses? Those who stole from charities? Those who didn’t become disciples of Christ – for example, Edward Jenner who created the smallpox vaccine? Or Jonas Salk, who created the polio vaccine? Is hell their final destination?
What about our parents, siblings, cousins, friends, who were never baptized, never took communion, never valued the Lord’s Prayer? What about atheists who work to end human trafficking? Is hell their final destination?
People are often shocked when I tell them I had no conception of heaven or hell when I decided to follow Christ. What I know about heaven and hell I gathered from my reading of the Bible. In fact, Jesus seems to have spoken more often about hell than about heaven.
In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus speaks of hell as a place of darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. So, “darkness” must be spiritual, for Matthew tells us of five occasions when Jesus spoke of hell as a fiery place. Whatever hell is, it’s not pleasant.
Which is why I don’t say “hell” loosely. Which is why I was shocked when Jessie, a wonderful lady, said these five words: “I’d be bored as hell.”
Jessie’s a counsellor in the Never Use Alone service in the USA. The service’s goal is to prevent deaths by overdose. If you’re going to “take a dose,” and there’s no one with you, you dial Never Use Alone.
A counsellor comes on. You give your address and phone number. You lay out Narcan, a drug which can reverse an overdose. You unlock the front door. You put your phone on speaker mode. The counsellor stays on the line with you. If anything goes wrong, the counsellor calls 911.
Once, a caller apologized to Jessie for calling her so often. In her response, Jessie said those five words. Here it is in context:
If it wasn’t for people like you calling, … I’d be bored as hell. I am so glad you called me.
If you listen to the episode, or read the transcript, you’ll agree Jessie is a person who should be celebrated. She’s a much better person than me. She’s saved more lives than I ever will. She’s modest, self-effacing. But she misrepresents hell when she says, “I’d be bored as hell.”
We must object whenever “hell” is used for any purpose other than evoking punishment and terror. Do you agree?
Note: I believe Hitler, Amin and Pol Pot are tumours which show us the cancer which afflicts all of us. The Zimbardo experiment and the raising of Lazarus are part of the reasons for this belief. Fleming Rutledge explains it very well in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Andrew Wilson has a good introduction to it here: 10 Reasons You Should Read Fleming Rutledge’s ‘The Crucifixion’.
 The landowner in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard used ‘friend’ to address the complainant (Matthew 20:13; I wrote about it in Is your eye bad because I’m good? Jesus also used ‘friend’ to address Judas as he betrayed him (Matthew 26:50).
 I will address this question in a future article.
 Matthew 5:22; 13:50; 18:8; 18:9; 25:41. More here: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Fire-Of-Hell.