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The “Outer Darkness”: Heaven’s Suburb or Hell?

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Introduction

In the parable of the marriage feast in Matthew 22:13, Jesus tells the story of one who came to a marriage feast but was not dressed properly, so the King had him thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. The question is: where is the outer darkness? Most teach that the “outer darkness” is hell. But some teach that this is just the darkness outside the banquet hall in heaven, or as I have named it—heaven’s suburb.

For example, Zane Hodges in his book, Grace in Eclipse, says that those who show up at the banquet are all Christians who made it into heaven (p. 87), but participating in the banquet is only the privilege of those who have faithfully carried out their obligations as Christians while on earth. He says the wedding clothes are something believers bring with them to the banquet.(p. 88) He equates the King’s observation of the guests at the banquet to the Bema seat where Christ judges the believers for their good works. (p. 88) In short, the guy made it to heaven but can’t partake of the banquet because he wasn’t a faithful Christian. For Hodges, the passage refers to loss of eternal rewards and not one’s eternal destiny.

The purpose of this paper is to examine this view and the theological presuppositions that drive it. It is this author’s contention that those who hold to this view have a certain agenda that distorts their exegesis.

Understanding What is at Stake

Lordship Salvation versus Free Grace

Before we can even study the passage, we must first understand some of the theological presuppositions that people bring to the passage. Central to this is the Lordship Salvation / Free Grace debate. I’m not going to attempt to solve this debate in this paper, but you must recognize that when one lays either one of those theological grids over our passage, different interpretations result.

Lordship Salvation proponents will automatically assume that the man at the wedding feast thought he was saved because he thought he believed, but since he didn’t have any good works, he didn’t really believe, and so was kicked out of heaven and into hell. Some people use this passage to teach that you can lose your salvation.

Free Grace proponents see this as a rewards passage and redefine the meaning of outer darkness because they mistakenly accept the assumption of their opponents that this is the millennial banquet and consequently accept the wrong conclusion that the man who shows up without the proper wedding garments is saved.

Sapaugh says “the prevailing interpretation of the passage is that it concerns the loss of salvation.”1 Whether that is true or not is unimportant. What is important is what he and those who hold to his view of the “outer darkness” believe.

What I believe has happened is that Hodges and his followers are engaged in “arguegesis” (I made that up) and not “exegesis.” They have come to the passage with a goal of proving the others wrong and have not been able to see the forest for the trees. They are trying to argue against those who would use this verse to support Lordship Salvation, or that one can lose his salvation. I think that arguing against those groups is definitely worthwhile. But I’m convinced that the proper argument against those views is that the man was not saved in the first place. And he wasn’t saved because he didn’t believe, not because he didn’t have good works.

Eschatological Issues

Part of the problem is that most come to this passage with a very well-developed eschatology. They have the tribulation, bema seat, millennium, etc. all in their minds as they try to understand the parable. They lay the details of the parable on their theological / eschatalogical grid and try to make all the pieces fit.

Most commentators see this marriage feast in the context of the millenium and equate the marriage feast in the parable to the marriage feast of Christ and the church which would also require that all attendees be saved.

The first thing to understand about parables is that you can’t make them ‘walk on all fours.’ Every detail doesn’t necessarily correspond to some eschatalogical event. Parables typically have one main idea that answers some question or problem given in the preceding context. So, little details like the one where the guy is at the banquet don’t necessarily mean that he made it into heaven and then was removed. This is just rejection imagery.

The second thing to understand is that Matthew’s eschatology was not as well developed as ours or even as well developed as Paul’s or John’s. Matthew is writing about the events of a Jewish audience who is looking for the Messiah who will set up the kingdom told about in the Old Testament. They have no concept of a millenium or church age. So as we study the passages in question, remember who was hearing these parables and witnessing the miracles and what they would have understood Jesus to be saying.

Rejection Imagery

Related to this under-developed eschatology is a third thing that we have to keep in mind. Matthew often mixes the giving of rewards with rejection imagery to describe the judgment to be carried out at the end of the age. “The giving of rewards is usually employed as a dramatic foil to highlight what is missed by those who are rejected.”2 The idea is not only did they not get into heaven, they didn’t get rewards either. Not understanding this, causes people to jump to the conclusion that the bema seat and millenial kingdom are in view, when in fact it is just his style.

The Argument

There are several things we must consider:

  • The use of the terms elsewhere in scripture and especially Matthew’s use
  • The meaning of banquet imagery elsewhere in Scripture
  • The context of the parable

Only then can we come to the correct conclusions as to the meaning of the parable.

The Use of the Terms:
How “outer darkness” and “gnashing of teeth” are used elsewhere

It is important to examine how these figures of speech are used elsewhere to see if they have a consistent meaning that will help us understand their use in the passage in question. If they mean the same thing in all other passages, but we interpret the meaning of the imagery differently in our passage, then our interpretation is suspect.

Hodges says,

Most Christian readers identify the “outer darkness” as a description of hell. They would be surprised to learn that the Greek phrase employed here is used only three times, all in Matthew (8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and nowhere else in the New Testament.3

Hodges never explains this statement, but this is no argument against “outer darkness” being a reference to hell in our passage. The question is how does Matthew use the phrase “outer darkness” in these three passages.

When studying these three passages, we notice that the phrase “gnashing of teeth” is linked to the “outer darkness” in all three passages. Therefore, we should also consider Matthew’s usage and meaning of the phrase “gnashing of teeth” which is also used in Matthew 13:42 and 50, where it is linked to being cast into the “furnace of fire,” and in Matthew 24:51, where the individual is cut up and assigned a place with the hypocrites. And although it is less relevant to Matthew’s use of the term, we should consider other authors’ use of the terms. Luke uses the term “gnashing of teeth” in Luke 13:28.

The Outer Darkness Passages

    Matthew 8:12

The context of this passage is the healing of the centurion’s servant. The humble centurion recognized that Jesus was from God, or at the very least that He could heal. Hoping not to impose too much on Jesus, he asked Him to heal his slave from long distance. Jesus marveled at the centurion’s faith and contrasted it with Israel’s unbelief. Because Israel did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, they were not going to be at the banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were not going to be in the kingdom as they thought.

10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 “And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here we see that being at the banquet equals being in the kingdom / heaven. Not being at the banquet means one is not in the kingdom / heaven. This is undoubtedly a reference to hell. The phrase “sons of the kingdom” is a reference to ethnic Israel who considered themselves sons of God destined for the kingdom because of their physical relationship to Abraham. They were going to be surprised when they didn’t make it into the kingdom because they didn’t accept Jesus as their Messiah.

Some argue that the phrase “sons of the kingdom” is a technical term for believers.4 But that is incorrect.

A technical term is one the author uses a number of times, and so consistently that it always means the same thing in all passages. If something is a technical term, we don’t really need to pay much attention to the context because the meaning of the word or phrase is certain. The danger is in jumping to conclusions about a word or phrase and labeling it as a technical term. The problem is, when a phrase is only used twice (as is the case with “sons of the kingdom”), there is not sufficient justification to label it a technical term. Therefore we have to look at the context. In Matthew 13:38, the sons of the kingdom are defined for us as the good seed, and contrasted with the tares which are the sons of the evil one. There it does refer to believers.

But in the context of Matthew 8:12, there is a Gentile with faith that is contrasted with Israel who is without faith (they don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah). Then in the next verse we see that many will come from the east and the west and make it into the kingdom. In keeping with the contrast that is just made, those from the east and the west must be Gentiles, but the “sons of the kingdom” won’t be at the table (in the kingdom). Again, in keeping with the contrast in the context, this has to refer to ethnic Israel. They considered themselves to be sons of the kingdom because of their physical relationship to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The contrasts can perhaps be seen easier in the following table:

Gentile with faith

Israel without faith

Those from the east and the west (Gentiles)

son’s of the kingdom (Israel)

In the kingdom

out of the kingdom—“outer darkness”

reason for being in the kingdom—faith

reason for being excluded—lack of faith

So, to try to say that “sons of the kingdom” are believers makes no sense. These “sons” have no faith. This reference to “outer darkness” must be hell.

    Matthew 22:13

11 “But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw there a man not dressed in wedding clothes, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And he was speechless. 13 “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This is the passage in question and we will discuss its meaning later.

    Matthew 25:30

29 “For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30 “And cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This passage is the conclusion of the parable about the talents. The master gives three slaves money and goes on a trip. Two slaves use the money wisely. The third slave buries his money and is thrown into the outer darkness.

The first thing to recognize is that being a “slave” does not necessarily equal being “saved.” Some try to argue that since the word doulos (slave) is used of all three individuals, they must all be saved.5 If we use this logic, we must also conclude that the prodigal son and the older son were both saved because they were both sons. And we must conclude that the son who said he wouldn’t go to work but changed his mind, and the one who said he would work but didn’t were both saved since they were both sons.

To argue that way shows a misunderstanding of parables. It wouldn’t be much of a parable if Jesus said there once was a son and a donkey … the son ran off and squandered the father’s money but the donkey stayed home and worked hard. Where’s the tension? How else is he going to tell the story? He’s talking about human beings who all have an equal opportunity to receive Him as their Messiah. The contrast has to be between two equal characters. So, in the parable of the two sons: The son who said he would obey but didn’t represents the Pharisees who thought they obeyed but rejected Jesus. And the other son who said he wasn’t going to obey but did represents the sinners and tax gatherers who believed in Jesus and changed their lifestyle. The same is true in the parable of the prodigal son. Both were sons, but the older one, representing the Pharisees, was self-righteous and claimed to have always obeyed but wouldn’t “come in” to the party. The younger son, representing the sinners, repented of his evil ways and returned to the father and enjoyed the father’s blessing.

In Matthew 25:30, even though all three were slaves, the first two slaves knew the Master, took what He had given them and used it to the best of their ability, and they were rewarded for their efforts. Therefore, the parable does teach us something about eternal rewards. (But remember Matthew’s rejection imagery) However, the third slave did not know the Master. He thought the Master was a hard man. He was afraid of him. The Master holds him accountable for what he believes, and he is punished for doing nothing with what he was given. This is more than “loss of rewards.”

If you ask most people if they think they are going to heaven, they will say they think so because they think God will judge them on whether they were mostly bad or mostly good. Most have tried to live a good life and they think their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds. Passages like this lead me to believe that God is going to judge them by their own standards. I’m sure that even what they considered good deeds are going to be exposed as being the result of evil motives.

Because of the context, it makes more sense to understand this last slave as representing Israel who was given the revelation of God but turned it into a legalistic code (believing God to be “hard”) and missed the Messiah because of her legalism and tradition. They thought they would get into the kingdom because of their relationship to Abraham and because of their observance of the law, which Jesus exposed as non-existent in the Sermon on the Mount.

The parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents in Matthew 25 are both about the judgment of Israelites who were not ready for the Messiah. The following context (Matt 25:31-46) is about the judgment of the Gentiles. The salvation context of this use of the terms “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” make it clear that this is not merely about loss of rewards.

Gnashing of Teeth Passages

These next two passages come from Matthew 13 where Jesus is telling several salvation parables. I haven’t done an exhaustive study on this, but I notice that Jesus introduces at least eleven of his parables with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” or “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to.” The number may be higher, because Matthew 25:14 follows a similar parable and just starts off with “it is like,” so I may have missed others. In all of the other ten parables the subject is how one enters the kingdom. Therefore, we have another clue that our passage (Matt 22:1-14) is also about entering the kingdom.

    Matthew 13:42

41 “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

    Matthew 13:50

49 “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Concerning our passage in Matthew 22, Hodges says, “We do not need to embellish the parable with the lurid colors of eternal damnation. There is no fire and brimstone on the King’s handsome estate…”6

First we have to ask if Hodges’ assumption that they are still on the “King’s handsome estate” is a correct assumption. If they are cast out, are they not “off the estate” or out of the kingdom?

Second, we notice from these two passages that it is not out of character with Matthew’s use of the term “gnashing of teeth” to include fire and brimstone as the setting. In fact, it seems that if Matthew uses “outer darkness” with “gnashing of teeth” in three passages and fire and brimstone with “gnashing of teeth” in two passages, perhaps the “outer darkness” is the same place that is characterized by fire and brimstone.

    Matthew 24:51

48 “But if that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is not coming for a long time,’ 49 and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, 51 and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth.

This parable is included in a string of parables which refer to being ready for the Messiah and His kingdom when it arrives. It will be unexpected and those who are not ready will be left out. In this passage wisdom and faithfulness are the demonstration of one’s faith. The return of Christ will involve a judgment in which those who have demonstrated such faith will enter and assume greater responsibilities in the kingdom, while those who do not have faith will be excluded from the kingdom to experience the wrath of God along with the hypocrites. There is salvation and rewards for some and lack of salvation for others. (Note that I do not say loss of salvation. I will come back to this point later.)

Also, although there is no “outer darkness” nor “fire and brimstone” in this passage, the context argues for eternal damnation.

Because of the numerous places “gnashing of teeth” is used, perhaps it would be accurate to say that “gnashing of teeth” is the central phrase because of its emphasis on the effect of separation from God, and the other phrases, “outer darkness,” “fire and brimestone” and the “place with the hypocrites” are descriptive of the location.

    Luke 13:28

28 “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being cast out. 29 “And they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.

This passage is obviously about salvation because it is part of the answer to the question asked in Luke 13:23, “Lord are there just a few who are being saved?” Those who enter by the narrow gate are saved and are pictured eating at the banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who are not saved will be weeping and gnashing their teeth at being “cast out.”

Here we have a direct parallel with the imagery of Matthew 8:12 and the Matthew 22 passage. Although the term “outer darkness” is not used, the phrase “cast out” carries the same connotation.

Conclusion

In all of the passages in Matthew and Luke where “outer darkness” and “gnashing of teeth” are used, the meaning from the context is clearly a reference to hell. To take the “outer darkness” phrase in the marriage feast passage of Matthew 22 as being a reference to something other than hell requires a strong argument from the context of Matthew 22 that rewards are the topic, and the meaning of the parable must be clearly about rewards. If the meaning of the phrase is debated, we should not take a meaning for “outer darkness” that has no support elsewhere.

The Meaning of the Parable of the Marriage Feast

    The Context

The context of our passage is a salvation context. The parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32 is about the sinners who repented and got into the kingdom while the self-righteous religious leaders are left out. The parable of the landowner in Matthew 21:33-44 is about Israel killing the landowner’s son (Jesus) and being replaced by the Gentiles. The issue in the context is being in or out of the kingdom, not about receiving special privileges in the kingdom.

    The Culture

Hodges says, providing wedding garments for guests “seems not to have been the custom in those days,” But, unless Gower, who has no axe to grind, is just plain wrong, wedding clothes were often provided by wealthy hosts.7 If this is true, then it may be that the man who showed up at the marriage feast without the proper attire refused to wear those provided. He thought his own clothes (i.e. deeds) were good enough. This fits the preceding context of the parable of the two sons. The son who said he would work and didn’t was symbolic of the Pharisees who thought they were doing enough already. Therefore, the wedding clothes provided by host symbolize the righteousness of Christ provided by God for entrance to heaven—as opposed to our garments / merit which are not good enough to get us into heaven / banquet.

Another question is the meaning of the banquet imagery. Banquet imagery almost always refers to the kingdom / heaven (cf. Isa 62:4-5, Jer 2:2, 31:2, Eze 16:32 and Hos 2:2, Isa 25:6; 65:8-16 and Ps 22:26-29). Especially compare Isaiah 25:6-9 where it talks about God preparing a lavish banquet for all peoples and “wiping tears away from all faces.”

Therefore, partaking of the banquet is equal to being in the kingdom, and being kicked out of the banquet means being kicked out of the kingdom. In Luke 14:15 a man says, “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Then Jesus tells a parable about a great banquet which explains who would be in the kingdom eating at that banquet. To be consistent with the banquet imagery in the rest of Scripture, our parable must be about getting into the kingdom / heaven— not about attending special events in the kingdom.

I must also point out that the fact that this is a marriage feast does not mean that it is The Marriage Feast of Christ and His bride the Church. This is a passage dealing with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah and God’s consequent rejection of Israel. The generic banquet imagery of the kingdom / heaven is what is in view here. We can’t force our eschatology on Matthew.

    Other Points to Consider

The King called the man “friend.” This is never a good term in Matthew. It is a term of distancing. Therefore the man is not a friend (cf. Matt 20:13, and 26:50).

If the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:23-25 is any indication of the lighting conditions in the kingdom, then we can probably conclude that there is no darkness in heaven. In fact the whole concept of heaven precludes there being any darkness anywhere. Therefore, the outer darkness is not the suburbs of the kingdom.

Concerning the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” Hodges says, the words are “Solemn, yes! But not so grim as they are made out to be.”8 And Michael Huber, in an article called, “The Outer Darkness in Matthew and its Relationship to Grace” says, that commentators “… simply can’t envision this happening to a true believer. It is simply too emotionally disturbing and doesn’t fit our own stereotypical view of heaven.”9 He is saying we are just being selfish and emotional if we don’t want to accept the idea that some will be weeping and gnashing their teeth in heaven.

These are not just solemn words. Moreover, they contradict the very nature of the joy we are to experience in heaven. In fact, how do we reconcile the fact that God will “wipe away every tear” (Rev 21:4; Isa 25:6) with the idea that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in heaven. In fact, if Hodges and Huber are correct, then we need to change all our sermons which hold out hope for the chronically depressed person that their condition is not going to last forever. I seriously doubt that either of them would teach that a person better get with it, stop being depressed and start trusting God and walking by the power of the Holy Spirit or they are going to be stuck in that depression for eternity.

No other Scripture teaches that any member of the Church won’t take part in the marriage feast. Perhaps this evaluation by the King in the parable is more like the great white throne judgment which purpose is to determine eternal destiny—not eternal privilege. If the timetable doesn’t quite fit with our systematic theology / eschatology, perhaps it is because Matthew’s eschatology was not as developed as Paul’s or John’s. For Matthew, the issue was that God would judge, and everyone who passed, ate, and everyone who failed, went to hell. Also, we have to remember that this is a parable and parables do not ‘walk on all fours.’ A parable is a story that tells a general point. The point being who gets in and who doesn’t.

Also, in the parable the host is the King, and he is the one doing the judging. If we want to make this a bema seat judgment evaluating Christian works, then it is the Bridegroom (Christ) who should be doing the judging. The imagery of the marriage feast does not fit.

    The Meaning

This is a banquet (representing heaven or the kingdom) to which everyone was invited. Some were not interested. These are the Pharisees, who like in the previous parable, were more interested in preserving their position as leaders in their society than in accepting the Messiah. Others were interested. From the latter group both “evil” and “good” people showed up.10 Some refused to wear the provided wedding garments (righteousness of Christ) thinking that their own garments (merit) were enough. But they were wrong and were excluded from the feast (heaven). The point of the parable is to shock the hearers of the parable. They think they are destined to be in the kingdom, but they are not. Verse 14 shows that the parable is about getting into the kingdom. This is a salvation parable, and the guy who is kicked out, is not saved.

Conclusion

For this man to be saved and simply losing out on rewards, this has to be the only non-salvation parable among eleven parables which Jesus introduces with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like.”

We have to force our advanced eschatological scheme to fit the details (and they don’t fit because the evaluation of Christians is being done by the king—not the son as Scripture teaches).

The banquet has to represent something it doesn’t normally represent and which the audience would never have understood.

Outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth have to represent something they don’t represent anywhere else in scripture.

And the wedding clothes must be our own which is against the cultural norm where the host provides them.

Therefore, we can conclude that this man is not saved. And, if this man is not saved, then this parable is correctly identified as a salvation parable—about getting into the kingdom—not about the works one does as a Christian. This parable cannot be used to teach perseverance of the saints or loss of salvation.

Because this is such a hot topic with those from the Grace Evangelical Society, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying this man thought he was saved because he thought he believed, but was rejected because his works proved he had not. I’m saying that the man never made any pretense of believing. He just showed up depending on his own merit (wearing his own clothes) and was rejected from heaven for not believing (accepting the wedding garments / righteousness of Christ).

Understanding the parable this way is much more consistent with the context and the rest of Scripture.


1 Gregory P. Sapaugh, “A Call to the Wedding Celebration,” JGES. Vol 5:1, p. 11. He also wrote his masters thesis on this.

2 Karl Pagenkemper, BibSac. Vol. 153, Apr-Jun 1996, p. 180.

3 Zane Hodges, Grace in Eclipse, p. 89.

4 Huber criticizes scholars for claiming that “outer darkness” is a stock phrase or technical term for hell (p. 12). But then he goes on to say that a problem with this view (that the outer darkness is hell) arises when one looks at the use of “outer darkness” in Matthew 8:12. He says that scholars must abandon their stock phrase hermeneutic because “the sons of the kingdom” are clearly believers in Matthew 13:38, but they say that the “sons of the kingdom” in Matthew 8:12 are Israelites. It is not clear exactly what Huber is trying to say, but it seems that Huber considers “sons of the kingdom” to be a stock phrase for believers. If so, then he has double standards and I find it ironic that he would consider a phrase used only twice to be a stock phrase, but attempt special pleading in the case of “outer darkness.” Michael G. Huber, “The Outer Darkness in Matthew and its Relationship to Grace,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society. 1992, Vol. 5:2.

5 Huber, p. 13-14.

6 Hodges, p. 90.

7 Gower, New Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 69.

8 Hodges, p. 89.

9 Huber, p. 14.

10 I suggest that the evil get in and the good don’t, because in many of Jesus’ parables, those that think they are good are not and those that are thought to be evil (by the “good” people) actually repent of their evil and turn to God.

Related Topics: Hell, Rewards