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Alternate interpretations of Matthew 25:34-45

Text of the passage.
Description of the problem.

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The King James Version translates this from the original Greek as:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

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The problems with the passage:

A casual reading of this passage seems to suggest that everyone -- the population of "all nations," -- will be gathered before Jesus. He will separate out those who are saved (the sheep). They are destined to live for eternity in Heaven. These are people who followed the Golden Rule by being compassionate in their dealings with others. They fed the hungry and thirsty; supported strangers; gave needy people clothing; nursed them to health; and visited inmates in prison. The rest -- the goats -- are not saved. They were not compassionate towards the needy while they lived on earth. They will spend eternity in the torture pit of Hell.

The passage describes the fate of two very small groups of people: those who are wholly compassionate and and those who are wholly insensitive to other's needs. It does not indicate what will be the fate of the vast majority of humans: people who have done some good deeds during their lifetime, while missing many opportunities to do other good deeds.

Having one's eternal destiny based solely on good deeds is in conflict with the teachings of fundamentalist and other evangelical Christian denominations. They believe that salvation is obtained by being "born again." This is a combination of good works and faith. That is:
bulletOne item of work: The action of choosing to repent for one's past sins, and
bulletOne item of faith: Trusting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.

Evangelicals generally believe that trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior does lead naturally to many good works, but that happens after the individual is saved. Some evangelicals drop the need for repentance, arguing that salvation is purely a matter of belief, whereas repenting of one's sins is an item of work.

Since many evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, it is important that this conflict be harmonized.

There are many other passages in the Gospels that stress salvation based on good works, However, Matthew 25:34-45 is perhaps the most difficult to harmonize with a faith-based salvation belief system because it is so clear and explicit.

In order to harmonize this passage and their beliefs, some Evangelicals:

bulletInterpret the phrase "all nations" as not including the entire human race; rather, it represents a much smaller group.
bulletDeny that the selection is really based on good works, as a casual reading would indicate.
bulletInterpret the poor and needy as initially referring to the twelve disciples, and now to Christian evangelists.

Origin of the beliefs expressed in Matthew 25:34-45:

Many interpret Matthew 25:31-45 as a description of the Last Judgment (sometimes called the "Day of the Lord"). It involves Jesus judging every human who has ever lived in order to decide their eternal destiny. Christianity seems to have adopted this concept from earlier Jewish belief. Many religious liberals and historians believe that the Jews, in turn, obtained it from Zoroastrians at the time of their Babylonian captivity during the 6th century BCE.

Copyright © 2006 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-AUG-26
Latest update: 2008-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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