The parable of the sheep and goats: problems, paradoxes and promises

The parable of the sheep and the goats is a very compelling vision set forth by Jesus. It evokes a different emphasis depending on who you talk to. Pro-Israel Christians focus on Jesus speaking of what we did for his “brethren” as absolutely identifying Israel. So the whole parable means we will all be judged by how we treated Israel. Well that falls apart pretty quick when you consider that most of the worlds population has never had the opportunity to do good or bad towards Israel. But I’m sure someone‘s twisted scriptures can hot wire that logic somehow.

  Then there are those who say this is an image of the judgement of the nations and everyone is getting punished or rewarded based on the charity they showed to their fellow man. The problem here is that we are supposed to be saved by grace in the Lutheran sense and thus our works count for nothing. There is no mention of faith in Jesus in the entire parable. The only criteria appears to be the charity works for the needy. So are people of other non-Christian religions going to be counted among the sheep because they did compassionate works? Furthermore does this mean faith alone will not save a person who has confessed Jesus if they turn away from the poor and needy? James did ask how can such faith can save anyone.

Then there are those who claim that the sheep and the goats are simply the totality of confessing Christians who are divided by the charitable vs. the non-charitable. However this appears to again run afoul of salvation by faith alone. For if someone can confess Christ and turn from sin and yet fall short on charity to the needy, then they are a Christian who goes to hell forever. Besides, if this is merely the judgement of the church, what happens to the rest of the world?

In any case then, how does anyone know if they have done enough charity to escape hell? Furthermore can any of us say we stopped to think about the parable of the sheep and the goats when we were actually moved with compassion for the needy? Does fear of eternal hell really produce authentic compassion? 

But what if we read all of this in a Universalist light? What if hell is not eternity in punishment but instead punishment in eternity? What if the fire of hell purifies and burns out evil from peoples hearts? If that were the case it would not be a problem to think that even those who had professed Christ by faith would go to hell for being uncharitable for it is necessary to burn the sin and selfishness out of them. That would explain how Jesus could tell his disciples they would not be forgiven if they did not forgive. That would explain how religious people can blaspheme the Holy Spirit and not be exempted from the judgement fire in the age to come. 

Some think we Universalists are making a huge leap in assuming hell is for purifying because they don’t see it plainly in scripture. However, often what people think they see plainly is because they are told it’s there and they see it by power of repeated suggestion. Remember when the three wise men went to visit the baby Jesus? You think you do but you really don’t. You were told there were three wise men by paintings and stories but it’s not in the bible. The word three never appears in the nativity. There were three gifts listed but that is no evidence of how many wise men showed up. None the less we are trained to imagine three wise men and so we assume it‘s in the bible. By the way, one is brown, one is white and one is jet black according to my Mom’s little mossy nativity scene circa 1974.

In the same way we can also be taught to ignore things that are in the bible that should help to define things we beleive. How in the world do you think the church ignored justification by faith for so long? 

  Over and again God referred to the crucible of fire to purify mens hearts. We have been taught not to connect that to any understanding of hell even though they both share the element of fire. We see in the bible Nebuchadnezzar threatens that if three men don’t bow to him he will roast them in fire. Do you realize how much that looks like a parable of our doctrine of hell? But we have never been taught to think that way so we don’t see it. Did you know that Gehenna was a place where Israelites committed idolatry by throwing their babies in the fire in dedication to a bull God Molech? God said such a thing had never entered his mind. Yet we have Gehenna being used to threaten us with being thrown in the fire like those babies. Gehenna went on to be referred to as a name for hell. 

Now keep in mind these are divinely inspired stories which are supposed to be infallible scripture, yet they are a conspicuously ironic argument against a belief in eternal torment. Is God like Nebuchadnezzar? Or was Nebuchadnezzar simply imitating God? 

But did you notice that when they were thrown in the fire they were not hurt? Instead Jesus was with them in the fire and only that which bound them and restrained them was burned away. The ropes were burned off yet they were saved. 

Universalism believes that in fact when souls go into hell that what burns is the sin and bondage that keeps them from bowing to Jesus…the very point of Nebuchadnezzars judgement! 

Yes the story is primarily about courage and fidelity under persecution. But like a beautiful two sided tapestry we see another salvation story on the flip side made of the same woven threads. It is a revelation of God‘s liberating judgement upon the souls of sinners and those whose hearts are unloving. 

Whereas on the front we see Nebuchadnezzar as the sinner converted to faith by seeing the righteous delivered. On the flip side the king is the righteous God and the people in the fire are the sinners being liberated from their sin. 

A tapestry always has a negative image on the back side. God in His masterful artistry has woven a second revelation of eschatological victory into this story. Who could make this up?

So take heart dear soul. God has a plan beyond the grave and it is far more beautiful than you could have dared to imagine.

May you be a sheep and may all the goats you love join you in heaven after the holy fire of judgement has set them free from what binds them. For as it is written, “every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and UNDER THE EARTH.”