Jesus Said the Wicked Would be Thrown into a Furnace of Fire!
Question: The other day I came across Matt 13:42 and 13:49-50 which do seem to talk unambiguously about the wicked being thrown into fire. Now, of course, there is nothing to suggest that this is either eternal torment or permanent destruction (ie annihilation) but I'm just as unhappy about the idea of God throwing 'the wicked' (which could well include me cos I still live in relative luxury while the poor die and do very little for them!) into a fiery furnace for any amount of time as about him doing that forever. The god I (think I) know and love would not do that.
First, here are Scriptures that are referred to in the question:
Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! Matthew 13:40-43
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth." Matthew 13: 47
These statements by Jesus, particularly the first one allude to Daniel 12:1.
"At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine Like the brightness of the firmament, And those who turn many to righteousness Like the stars forever and ever." Daniel 12:1-3
The key to understanding the passages you were interested in, is to understand the Old Testament typeology. The Lord consistently used phrases like furnace and fire in the OT, often giving the definition of what that furnace was— Jerusalem, Egypt, etc. (See scriptures below). The furnace refers to a time of testing and affliction. Ezekiel even prophesies of a time to come, when Jerusalem itself would be the very furnace into which Israel was gathered.
Jesus picks up on this theme, and basically tells Jerusalem that NOW IS THE TIME for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Notice in Matthew 13:40 that He says, "so shall it be at the end of THIS age." He wasn't referring to some future age to come, but to the end of the Old Covenant age, which was drawing to a close in that very generation.
By alluding to the verse in Daniel and other Old Testament apocalyptic prophecy, Jesus was telling that generation (who thought they were so righteous) that they were actually the evil generation spoken of by the prophets—and that the judgments that they had read about coming upon the wicked—were in fact going to come upon them—or at least some of them. That is why Jesus warned His own about the end of the age so often…it was the end of the Old Covenant age and it would be cataclysmic and painful beyond measure for the Jewish people. Most would “perish” in the furnace, and only a few would escape....Those who held Jesus to be a true prophet remembered His words and fled Jerusalem when they saw all these signs coming to pass.
God always communicated with His people in signs and symbols and riddles and parables and analogies. The only way to understand the New Testament, especially the judgement passages and the book of Revelation is to realize that it is ALL based on previously established Old Testament symbolism that the original readers and hearers would have been familiar with. Some of the ideas seem so scary to us—like furnaces and fires—but when we see how the terms have been used in the past, we understand that they are figurative terms.
That fact, combined with the fact that “age” was so often translated as “world” in the KJV, has steeped into our modern Christian mindset that the end of the world is yet to come, and it will be full of real fires and falling stars, etc. I am not saying that such things may not come to pass in the ending of another age (perhaps the church age?) but we need to base our first and primary interpretation of these verses in the correct historical context, which was the ending of the age of the Old Covenant.
A few examples from the Old Testament, showing the common usage of the word "Furnace."
Exodus 19:18 Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain [ Septuagint reads all the people.] quaked greatly.
Deut. 4:20: But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be His people, an inheritance, as you are this day.
Psalm 12:6 The words of the LORD are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times.
Proverbs 17:3 The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, But the LORD tests the hearts.
Isaiah 31:9 He shall cross over to his stronghold for fear, And his princes shall be afraid of the banner," Says the LORD, Whose fire is in Zion And whose furnace is in Jerusalem.
Isaiah 48:10 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
Ezekiel 22:17 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 18"Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to Me; they are all bronze, tin, iron, and lead, in the midst of a furnace; they have become dross from silver. 19Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "Because you have all become dross, therefore behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. 20As men gather silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin into the midst of a furnace, to blow fire on it, to melt it; so I will gather you in My anger and in My fury, and I will leave you there and melt you. 21Yes, I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and you shall be melted in its midst. 22As silver is melted in the midst of a furnace, so shall you be melted in its midst; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have poured out My fury on you."'