It is my belief, that since middle ages it has become prevalent for scripture to be used in a way that supports doctrine; rather than doctrine be shaped by scripture. It is not uncommon for people, theologians, pastors, and laypeople alike, to read into scripture what they already hold to be true. On a personal level I am constantly questioning my own interpretations of scripture in light of this universal habit. I have driven my wife nuts with the hours of my questioning whether what I say a scripture to mean is indeed true; or whether I am simply filtering scripture through my own spiritual bias.
What I have just stated is not intended to be a cop-out, it is, rather, a preemptive response to the charge of seeing what I want to see in scripture. It is no secret to those who know me that I do not accept the reformed, Platonist, Epicurean view of heaven and hell that so prevails within the Western Church today. I have written some of my thoughts on this very blog. However, yesterday as I begun a re-read of Mathew’s Gospel, I came across a familiar passage that many Biblical teacher and commentators use in support of the doctrine of an eternal hell.
The passage is found in Matthew 3:11-12. The passage reads as follows:
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (NIV)
Many have looked at this verse and said this a picture of final judgment. It is God separating the unbelievers and putting them in a eternal fire of torture. However, as I read this verse, I heard the Spirit say, this is not a picture of judgment but one of restoration. It is from this perspective I want to examine the passage by highlighting a few points.
1. John was speaking to the coming of Pharisees and Sadducees, not to the general public.
Certainly, the general public heard, but the message was in direct response to the actions of the religious leaders. Therefore, the passage must be seen in light of what John was trying to tell them specifically, rather than trying to make a universal, generalized message out of it.
2. John never said that he wouldn’t baptize them.
While it is always dangerous to argue from silence, in this case as we shall see from the points below it is significant. In fact, it may be argued that he did baptize them for verse says, “I baptize you with water.” Now whether that meant John performed the baptism or whether he was speaking generally of his actions is unclear. Nevertheless, the point remains, the passage does not explicitly deny that they were baptized.
3. John prophesizes that they will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire.
This point hinges on the understanding of the context. If John’s message was specifically for Pharisees and Sadducee, then John is telling them that Jesus will baptize them in the Holy Spirit. This does not lessen the reality of the truth to those who were bystanders overhearing. It just means the message was not pointed towards those who happened to be present, it was meant for the religious leaders. Let me illustrate, suppose a parent is dealing with a child who consistently lies. That parent may tell that child that lying only makes matters worse and when you need someone to believe you they won’t. The parent may, then, use the story of Peter and the wolf as an illustration of the lesson. Now suppose the lying child has sibling and that sibling wanders into the room as the parent begins telling the story. The lesson of the story applies to the sibling who happened to be present at it telling, but the story it’s self was intended for the lying child. Here we have the same situation. John’s story was the for his intended audience, the Pharisees and Sadducees. John seems to be telling them that God will reconcile with them.
4. Chaff is only a part of the grain, not the whole grain.
Chaff is the dry husk on the outside of cereal grains that is unfit for human consumption. It is not the entire grain itself. John uses this as a metaphor for the grandstanding, self-righteous, and shallow religion of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They had only come to John because it had become popular to be baptized by him among the people who held him to be a prophet. What John essentially tells them is that God is going to get rid of the worthless exterior so as to restore them to rightful purpose of spiritually feeding his people. This analogy is not about an entire entity or object being burned eternally.
No, it is a story of grace. Grace is deeper than just the forgiving of sins. It is the returning of humanity to its God-given vocation to be a royal priesthood upon the face of the Earth. It is about living the New Creation life in anticipation of the New Creation life. It is a story of restoration, not judgment.