36 Then having left the crowds he came to the house; and his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”
37 Answering he said, “The one sowing the good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world, and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are the sons of the evil one,
39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the close of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 Just as, then, the weeds are gathered and are burned in a fire, so it will be at the close of the age.
41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of offence and those doing lawlessness,
42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
43 Then righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let the one have ears hear.”
What bearing do the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43) have on the current debate about hell? Two questions present themselves. First, is Jesus speaking of an imminent judgment on Israel or a final judgment on humanity—or perhaps both? Secondly, if this is a final judgment, should we understand the burning of the weeds as a metaphor for eternal conscious suffering in what is popularly called “hell”? Of course, if the answer to the first question is that Jesus has in view only a historical judgment, the second question is redundant. What I will argue here is that both the context and the content of the parable and its interpretation point to a restricted narrative-historical setting—a crisis of the failure of the covenant analogous to that described in Daniel 7-12.
1. The parable of the sower is a story about the proclamation of the gospel or the “word of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:19) in the context of Jesus’ prophetic ministry to Israel. Jesus makes the point emphatically in Matthew’s gospel: he has been sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24); the disciples are not sent among the Gentiles but “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). We have the image of seed “sown among thorns” (eis tas akanthas spareis, 13:22) in Jeremiah 4:3 LXX as part of a call to Israel to repent of its abominations and return to the Lord: “Renew for yourselves what has been made new, and do not sow among thorns (mē speirēte ep’ akanthais).” The argument is different, but it highlights a natural resonance with prophetic narratives of judgment and restoration. Jeremiah continues: “Be circumcised to your God, and remove the foreskin of your heart, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my anger goes forth like fire and will blaze forth, and there will be no one to quench because of the evil of your doings” (4:4 LXX). Fire, note, is a natural image of judgment on a people that sows among thorns.
2. Jesus explains his habit of speaking in parables by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matt. 13:13-15), which very clearly restricts the scope of these parables to the narrative of an impending judgment on Israel. Isaiah asks how long the nation will remain complacent and uncomprehending. “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away…” (Is. 6:11). The quotation of Psalm 78:2 works to similar effect: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). The psalmist relates the story of Israel’s rebelliousness during the exodus period in order to account for the devastation of the northern kingdom and God’s choice of Judah and David.
3. The parable speaks of a judgment at the “close of the age” (Matt. 13:39; cf. 13:49). The Gospels give us no reason to think that this phrase refers to the end of history and good reason to think that it refers to the catastrophic transition that will accompany the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 24:1-3). This is also in keeping with the statement in Paul and Hebrews that “the end of the ages” has come upon the current generation (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26).
4. Jesus identifies the sower in the parable of the weeds as the “Son of Man”, who then at the “close of the age” will send his angels to eradicate from his kingdom “all causes of stumbling and those doing lawlessness” (13:37, 41). How we frame the judgment narratively, therefore, will depend on how we understand Jesus’ argument about the Son of Man. My view is that the image of the Son of Man coming with his angels either to execute judgment on his enemies or to gather his elect properly refers to an event or events that will constitute the vindication of the suffering church.
5. The Jewish frame of reference is probably indicated by the phrase “all causes of offence (skandala) and those doing lawlessness” (Matt. 13:41). The continuing presence of the aboriginal Canaanites in the land along with their gods will be a “stumbling block” (skandalon) to Israel (cf. Josh. 22:13; Judg. 2:3; Ps. 105:36 LXX = 106:36). Hosea accuses Ephraim, that is Israel, of being an “associate of idols”, corrupted by the Canaanites. Ephraim “placed stumbling blocks (skandala) against himself” (Hos. 3:17 LXX = 4:17). In Psalms of Solomon we find: “Happy are those who fear the Lord in their innocence; the Lord will save them from deceitful men and sinners, and he will save us from every stumbling block of the transgressor of the law (pantos skandalou paranomou)” (Pss. Sol. 4:23). Typically, therefore (Wis. 14:11 is an exception), it is Israel that is finds itself under judgment because it has been corrupted by “all causes of offence and those doing lawlessness”.
6. The only real objection to this reading is Jesus’ identification of the field as the “world” (kosmos) rather than as Israel (Matt. 13:38), but this is less of a stumbling block than it may appear. It is not the field that is “judged” at the close of the age. What happens is that the “sons of the kingdom” are separated from the “sons of the evil one”. “Kingdom” probably should not be directly equated with Israel here, but it is certainly to be understood as the exercise of divine sovereignty with respect to his people. In John’s Gospel Jesus says to the Jews who assert their descent from Abraham, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn. 8:44). In other words, they are not “sons of the kingdom” but “sons of the evil one”. The “world”, therefore, is merely the backdrop to a judgment that saw the destruction of a generation of Jews that asserted an illegitimate claim to descent from Abraham and the vindication of those who acknowledged the authority that had been given to the Son of Man.
7. The imagery of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” signifies the exclusion of Jews from the kingdom. It is not what the damned do in hell.
8. The concluding statement that the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” recalls Daniel 12:2-3—and arguably we should understand the parable of the weeds as being essentially a retelling of exactly the sort of crisis of Jewish religion and identity, under threat from a blasphemous and brutal paganism, that is described in Daniel 7-12. In the limited “resurrection” that follows the final defeat of the aggressor a distinction is made between the “wise”, who will “shine like the brightness of the sky above”, and the unrighteous, who will be raised to “shame and everlasting contempt”. The preceding narrative makes it clear that these are two categories of Jews, again equivalent to the “sons of the kingdom” and the “sons of the evil one”.
So, as I said, the second question is redundant. The parable is told about an obtuse and disobedient generation of Jews which would not escape the catastrophic judgment of the end of the age of second temple Judaism. It does not describe a final judgment, it has nothing to say about hell, and it certainly cannot be cited in support of a doctrine of eternal conscious torment. There will be a final accountability of humanity (cf. Rev. 20:11-15), but this is not it.
Is it possible that it refers both to a historical judgment and to a final judgment? Well, the question we would have to ask is this: What would lead us to draw that conclusion? Is there something in the text or elsewhere in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus typically and intentionally made prophetic statements that had a split fulfilment? Or are we being swept in this direction by the powerful currents of dogmatic tradition? Are we simply unable to accept that Jesus might have said something of crucial importance that was relevant for his people at his time and not for us? It seems to me that, while we may perhaps reasonably put forward the claim on theological—or canonical—grounds that this parable “refers” also to a final judgment, we have no exegetical grounds for attributing such an intention to Jesus.