Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

It’s hard to read the gospels ‘fresh’ without bringing a load of preconceptions to them.

For example, while reading the Old Testament recently, I generally assumed the word “Israel” to mean that part of God’s people. However upon reading the gospels, I was surprised to find myself assuming the same word to mean that place in Europe that’s always on the news.

I was also a bit surprised to suddenly be reading of demon-posession, and Satan (sometimes “the accuser”) as something of a villainous arch-enemy. In his fleeting appearances in the Old Testament, he came across more as fulfilling a job for God – that of testing people.

I’ve certainly never been aware of much difference between the four gospels, until now.

Reading each of them straight through this weekend however, the following generalisations have emerged for me:

Mark: Jesus went to these places, and did these things.
John: Sounded like he had a personal agenda about Jesus to sell.
Luke: Thorough. Really, thorough. Apart from that last chapter.
Matthew: Quotes the Old Testament alot and tells the version of the gospel that I was told at school and at church – the one that made less sense to me, and I therefore increasingly don’t like as much.

It’s the extremism that I find hard to accept. In my review of Luke, I wrote of how Jesus seemed to speak of judgment in a far more measured way, implying a level of punishment appropriate to the individual’s choices.

But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

- Luke 12:48 (NIV)

Initially, Matthew also reflects this expectation of appropriate levels of punishment, and of a sentence that can actually be served:

I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.[Greek kodrantes]

- Matthew 5:26 (NIV)

Also, Jesus’ level-headedness is here too, as he invites people to stop just blindly obeying rules and to think about what’s best.

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

- Matthew 9:14-17 (NIV)

He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

- Matthew 12:11-12 (NIV)

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

- Matthew 23:23 (NIV)

However along the way, we also get thrown back into simple Old Testament thinking:

"Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

- Matthew 10:32-33 (NIV)

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

- Matthew 12:36-37 (NIV)

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

- Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)

WHICH criteria is it?!

That last extract, while famous, just doesn’t sound fair. All people have both good and bad in them. And all people have the capacity to change their badness into goodness again.

On the judgement day described above, it's hard to accept that judgement can be that clear-cut. I realize that that is precisely why a completely fair judge is needed, but a God of infinite power, infinite love and infinite time can hardly claim to have run out of ways of turning the 'bad' people into good ones.

The only way that I can reconcile this with Jesus’ earlier teaching that we must practice justice, mercy and faithfulness is to suppose the following:

The ‘eternal’ fire is ‘eternal’ in that it will refine those people forever if that is how long they hold out against God for.


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