Sometimes where we end up can be the product of where we begin.

If you read  Matthew 25:31-46 starting at the end and then jump back to the beginning, you will get a particular picture of what Jesus was teaching when he told the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Matthew 25:46, appears to put a slant on this story that has an impact on how we read all the other details:

46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

This seems to turn the parable into a cautionary tale about our destiny after physical death. It seems that the story is a description of what will happen to us after we die physically. The apparent moral tagline at the end of the story in verse 46 seems to suggest the strategy Jesus believed would save us from ending up suffering “eternal punishment” and instead find our way ultimately to “eternal life.” Actually, this understanding of verse 46 turns the story of the sheep and the goats into a ridiculous self-contradiction which runs like this:

Jesus wants us to be like God. God is kind and compassionate. We should be kind and compassionate.  In order to scare us into being kind and compassionate, God threatens us with an eternity of suffering.  If we fail to be kind and compassionate, God will condemn us to conscious eternal suffering from which there is no escape.

Somehow, this does not seem to be very kind and compassionate. And I am not convinced that any action motivated by a desire to escape from an eternity of conscious suffering, really qualifies as actually being kind and compassionate at all. I am pretty sure that any action performed under such a self-serving motivation will be unlikely to be experienced by the recipient as an act of true kindness and compassion.

But, if this passage, is a story about “eternal life” and how Jesus believed people might ensure that they would die and have “eternal life” rather than “eternal punishment”, apart from creating a self-contradictory circle, it is hard to comprehend how Christianity ended up with the understanding of salvation which has become common place in Christian theology.

The Letter to the Ephesians, states categorically,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

There is no mention here of acts of compassion towards the poor as having anything whatsoever to do with shaping anyone’s eternal destiny. In fact, it is quite clearly stated that such “works” do not contribute in any way to a person being “saved”.  At the same time, if being “saved” from an eternity of conscious torment depends on “faith”, is a “gift of God” and “not the result of works”, why in the parable of the sheep and goats, is there no mention of faith? Where in Matthew 25 is the word grace? And why does Jesus put so much emphasis on the importance of good works and appear to connect them in verse 46 with avoiding eternal suffering?

Perhaps, in light of Christian tradition and out of respect for the story Jesus actually tells in the parable of the sheep and the goats, it might be worth revisiting verse 46 and particularly the phrase “eternal punishment” to see if a slightly different understanding may emerge.


While we wait to revisit verse 46, ponder for a day the phrase “eternal punishment.” Think about that: “eternal” – no escape, no respite, no hope of redemption… forever, never-ending suffering.

If we take this phrase at face value, we are going to want to work awfully hard at figuring out how to avoid it for ourselves and how to warn those we love, maybe even people we don’t like all that much, how to avoid such a dire outcome for themselves. The only possible adequate response to a belief in literal “eternal punishment” is to leave everything else behind and rush out into the streets committing our entire lives to convincing every person we meet what they must do to avoid “eternal punishment.”

In the face of the possibility of “eternal punishment” any response less than an absolute burning zeal to save every person we can would be a heinous failure of love and compassion. It is not even clear to me why, in the face of the possibility of “eternal punishment”, anyone would feel called to waste their time feeding the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty  welcoming a stranger, giving close to the naked or visiting the sick and imprisoned. Material comfort in this life would seem small consolation for “eternal punishment” after physical death.