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:
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:
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.
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