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Alternate interpretations of Matthew 25:34-45

Interpretations from religious texts

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Matthew 25:34-45 contains the sheep and goats passage that discusses Jesus' judgment of "all nations."

Some alternative interpretations found in religious books:

We scanned many Evangelical Christian dictionaries of theology, Bible handbooks, Bible commentaries, etc. and found that many did not refer to this passage in Matthew. Those that did mention this passage came up with various alternate interpretations that allow them to retain their belief in salvation by faith, not works:

bulletThe "New Commentary on the Whole Bible" suggested that the gathering of "all nations" before Jesus actually refers only to the world's non-Christians who survived the catastrophic events of the battle of Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it. Also, the "least of these my brethren" consist only of the Jewish population. Thus, this final judgment involves only non-Christians, and is made on the basis of their previous treatment of Jews.

These commentators note that Heaven is restricted to only those persons who were saved while on earth -- i.e. born-again Christians. Thus, "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" in which these non-Christians will spend eternity cannot be the regular Heaven. It must be some sort of inferior version. 1 Or perhaps Heaven has a two tier citizenry something like the American South during the days of segregation. Those who were saved will receive full benefits; those who were not saved but who did a sufficient number of good works while on earth will receive an inferior set of benefits.
bulletHarold Willmington's "Bible Handbook" disagrees. It states that this passage describes the Last Judgment when all humans will be evaluated. However, "...good works are not the basis but the proof of salvation." 2 That is, the separation of all humans into sheep and goats is not directly related to their works, as the text seems to say. Rather it is fundamentally based on whether the individual was saved or not. The implication appears to be that:
bulletChristians who are saved during their life on earth are righteous; they would have performed good works by being kind to those in need.
bulletThose who are unsaved nominal Christians or followers of other religions or followers of no religions are all callous individuals who treated the needy without care or compassion.

That is, only born-again Christians follow the Golden Rule by being considerate of others -- a somewhat chauvinistic belief.

Separating the sheep from the goats on the basis of good works would then produce the same results as separating them on the basis their salvation status status. This interpretation takes a very dim view of the behavior of hundreds of millions of unsaved Christians, the millions of members of non-Christian religions, and the many tens of millions of persons unaffiliated with any religion in North America.

This interpretation does not appear to correspond with public opinion polls. All of the major religions teach a version of the Golden Rule. Our experience as a multi-faith group is that those who do not identify themselves as members of an organized religion or who are non-Christians or are non-saved Christians are as caring as born-again Christians. Thus, separating humans according to their behavior towards others would result in many born-again Christians going to Hell and many of the others going to Heaven.

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bulletThe New Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees that the crowd gathered before Jesus "refers to all nations, Israel included, not just the Gentiles." They further state that this passage has been:

"...overinterpreted to say that neither faith in Christ nor membership in the church is necessary for salvation, but in fact, it is addressed to Christian disciples and discipleship is understood in a very bold way as identical with care of the needy. This is not a denial of faith; it is the essence of faith." 3

bulletA mainline Christian resource, Harper's Bible Commentary, states that "all nations" actually refers only to the Christian church i.e.  "...those who have been made his disciples as a result of the church's mission." Although the writers do not say so, this implies that some who have become disciples of Christ and are in the Church will actually be sent to Hell for eternal torture because of their lack of good works. 4

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Philip Comfort, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1990), Page 89-90.
  2. Harold Willmington, "Bible Handbook," Tyndale House, (1997), Page 544.
  3. Raymond Brown, et al., "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary," Geoffrey Chapman, (1990), Page 669.
  4. "Harper's Bible Commentary," Harper and Row, (1988), Page 977.

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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