Don: Many people believe that the way we live today affects our future. Most religions link a life well lived to a future of contented opportunity, if not bliss. The concept goes by many names: Heaven, paradise, moksha, nirvana, Valhalla, the heavenly garden of Eden, and so on. For the most part, these places are a desirable destination reachable by those who do the “right” thing in this life. Most of all, in most cases, they are the dwelling place of God.
The alternative place also goes by many names: Hell, the lake of fire, the underworld, the nether word, Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, the second dead, and for most part is a destination reserved for those who have led a wretched life. It is a place of eternal punishment and loss. It is the dwelling place of the Devil.
Throughout the ages, Mankind has been alternatively offered Heaven as a place to desire and Hell as a place to shun. Men and women and (especially) children have long lived in mortal fear of an ever-burning lake of fire. On the other hand, Heaven is a place full of pleasure and contentment. In the Islamic paradise, wine (prohibited on Earth) may be drunk and men may consort with nubile virgins (which makes one wonder what reason a woman might have to want to go to heaven.)
Of course, the “facts” about the afterlife are assumed by faith. In essence, paradise is a place where whatever we think of as pleasant or “good” is plentiful, while whatever we think of as unpleasant or “bad” is absent.
Ideas about the afterlife have been heavily leveraged by religion as a way of controlling people’s behavior. For centuries, to be in good standing with one’s church meant one was eligible for salvation. Excommunication from the Church meant extended death and eternal damnation. These were real fears, deeply held and defining the way to live, especially in the Middle Ages. Dante’s Divine Comedy (especially Book One, the Inferno) stoked people’s imagination of eternal torture following judgment at death. Today, few have such fear. Some may fear hell, but few fear the Church. They do not accept that an institution holds the keys to hell for them.
Do we fear judgment today? Might it change our behavior? In the Parable of the Marriage Feast, a man appears to be judged unworthy of heaven (a place at the wedding feast) and is therefore cast into hell (“outer darkness”):
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)
This is the third in a series of parables about the relationship of the Jewish authorities with God. Like the Parable of the Landowner before it, some are deprived of the kingdom of heaven and some are admitted to it. The people judged ostensibly most worthy to be guests are singled out to be invited first but reject the invitation, some violently. So God sends out invitations indiscriminately, to just anybody, worthy (good) or not. What does this tell us about judgment? One would think that there would be at least a modicum of discretion about who to invite. Why not allow some bad people in but exclude the thoroughly evil people? But God wants as many as can be found. No-one is to be left behind. The number is very large:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;… (Revelation 7:9)
Counting is not complex. It is ordinary, routine, and predictable. So a number “which no one could count” is truly a staggering notion, showing the breathtaking breadth of the invitation.
The parable implies that those who enter the kingdom (the wedding hall) are transformed into good subjects (wedding guests), no matter their status upon entry. That a single individual in this uncountable throng stood out as being unworthy, as not belonging, is astonishing. He must have been exceptionally distinctive in his dress. Perhaps he wore black while everyone else wore white, or vice versa, or whatever was in starkest contrast to whatever color the king had chosen for the wedding guests’ uniform dress.
In the garden of Evil, Adam and Eve were clothed in robes of light, which represented the righteousness of God. The first manifestation of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was the loss of their robes and instinctive need therefore to cover their nakedness, using fig leaves. But our efforts to clothe ourselves are ultimately hopeless:
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
The alternative is:
I will rejoice greatly in the Lord,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
And as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up,
So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
To spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:10-11)
It would seem that to enter the wedding hall (the kingdom of heaven) then, guests must take off their own clothing—they must become naked—and don the robe (of light) provided by the host. The idea of changing clothes was mentioned elsewhere in Scripture:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. [This is very much a judgment scene.] The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the Lord was standing by.
And the angel of the Lord admonished Joshua, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here. (Zechariah 3:1-7)
This is a restoration of what was lost in the garden of Eden—bad garments replaced by good garments, nakedness covered by a cloak of light. In a sea of light, a point of darkness would be very noticeable. It would stick out like a sore thumb. What does this darkness mean? Why did its possessor not respond to the polite request for an explanation—“Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?”? (As an interesting aside, be it noted that Jesus often addressed people as “Friend”, including Judas when Judas was about to betray Him.) The outcome of the judgment is that this man without the robe is consigned to “outer darkness”—he goes from temporal (therefore temporary) darkness to eternal darkness for failing to have donned the robe of light.
Darkness and light are often mentioned in Scripture; for example:
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)
Is judgment something to be feared? Or is it just another bogeyman designed to scare us into swallowing and following religious precepts?
David: Why did the Man in Dark accept the invitation—why did he want to join in at all? Evidently, most people in the kingdom didn’t really care to go, and some even hated the idea of going! Why? After all, it was no ordinary free meal—it was a free banquet, fit for a king! Second, the Man in Dark was clearly judged to be evil, yet evil people from the street were welcome. Was there something different about his evil?
Jay: There seem to be two judgment scenes. The first is the judgment of the original invitees, some of whom were violent in their rejection of the invitation. This group was “destroyed.” Second is the judgment of the Man in Dark, who was consigned to outer darkness. Are the two judgments different?—the two punishments appear to be. As for differences in the guests: The only condition set for participation was to wear the wedding garment.
Kiran: Could the Man in Dark have forgotten to don the garment? If not, he was bold and presumptuous in thinking his own garments were somehow preferable to the wedding garments. Given that this was a royal wedding, a dress protocol was to be expected. To ignore the protocol was tantamount to lèse-majesté.
Jay: His failure to explain himself might be simply that there can be no good reason not to don the wedding garment. He could not claim he didn’t have the money or the time to get a wedding garment, since it was free. Since there was just no excuse, he didn’t even try to produce one.
Kiran: Why were the original invitees so mean to their king in rejecting his invitation to the wedding? Was he a bad king?
David: Clearly, people were not afraid of this king, so presumably he had never been in any way harsh with them—until now. Clearly, also, in this kingdom, evil was neither here nor there. It just didn’t matter. Don asked whether we should be good during life, so as to avoid judgment, and the answer according to this parable is not at all! Hedonism is fine, as long as you don the garment—you acknowledge God—before you die.
Don: One of the great criticisms of Christianity is that grace supplants behavior. It is very difficult for people of other faiths, particularly Jews and Muslims, to comprehend and accept. Yet the alternative, that goodness in life is necessary for a “passing grade” judgment, immediately introduces the problem of weighing and measuring the amount of goodness in a person and deciding how much is enough or not enough for entry to paradise.
Donald: In light of the New Testament, are we to suppose that the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments can be taken as mere suggestions? If “goodness” is the right way to live, as Jesus seemed unequivocally to say, is it then enough to define and measure “goodness” by our adherence to the Commandments?
Aishwarya: My Hindu grandparents used tell me to be good because God was watching and weighing, and would judge me when I die. As an adult I have come to believe that I am responsible for judging myself, and that how “good” I am is up to me.
David: It is asking a great deal to expect people to buy the notion that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are good in this life. We have often noted (what I would describe as) the absolute primacy of God’s desire (according to Scripture) to be reunited with us, and this would explain why our behavior in this life is immaterial, since all that matters to God is that we reunite with Him when we die. I too have a problem with that! The concept of grace and a gracious God willing to forgive sin is wonderful; but the Prodigal Son was a monster compared to his elder brother, yet received better treatment from their father. It was as though the elder brother’s good behavior had no value, it didn’t matter. That parable and the one we are discussing seem to suggest that human life doesn’t matter—it’s only death that matters.
Don: That’s the opposite of what Aishwarya said.
David: Yes. And it’s the opposite of humanism, as well as of other religions. Yet the Bible also teaches us we should be good in this life. That’s what the Commandments are all about. It surely can’t be acceptable that we are forgiven for breaking the commandments and hurting other people. Forgiveness and grace are good, but surely not at the expense of those hurt by our sin.
Mikiko: Judgment came as a result of the wicked conduct of people in their daily lives. For example, Jehovah God brought the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ruin because of the heavy sins of their inhabitants. But God is love, God is merciful, so when a particular group of nations of mankind are called to account by God it may be the time when those already judged to be deserving of death are executed. Or, the judgment may offer some the opportunity to be delivered even to everlasting life. Jesus Christ and His apostles pointed to a future Judgment Day involving not only the living but also the dead.
Kiran: Hinduism has several somewhat contradictory concepts concerning judgment. The first is that when Brahma creates people, he holds their skulls behind him so that he is not biased when He writes their life stories on their foreheads. So what people do in life is predestined. And yet, the second concept holds that after death souls enter purgatory, where another god, Yama, judges them and assigns them to heaven or hell depending on how good or bad they were in life. But hell is for a fixed term, not for eternity, and after doing time in hell the soul is transferred to heaven. But according to the third concept, the soul will eventually be reincarnated, and confusingly here too there is judgment, because depending on how good or bad the soul’s “karma” accrued when it lived as a human, it could be reincarnated as a lower form of life. Viewed from outside the religion, the concepts seem contradictory, but from inside they seem to make sense.
Donald: We talk about “a greater power” because we marvel at the creation we see all around us, and seek its source, and because we seek to understand our own creation and the purpose of our existence. As we grow older, we then start to ask “What’s next?” but that is a fundamentally different question from “Who is my maker?” because it brings our own behavior in life into question. To complicate things further, our assessment of the answers to these questions may change as we age.
Don: When I was about 6 or 7 I was consumed with concern about dying suddenly in a state of sin, before I had a chance to confess my sins and be absolved of them by God. I even worried that I might have sinned and not known it, or have forgotten to confess one sin or another. This fear doesn’t bother me today, but it really did then and maybe it should today—maybe it serves as a deterrent against sin.
Kiran: I felt that same concern for a while after I converted to Christianity. And when others expressed the opinion that I worried too much about sinning, I judged them to be bad people. It took a great deal of struggle with my own ego, but now I accept that “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” as Isaiah said. If I am that bad, I am in no position to judge anybody else. The effect of this realization was equalizing. I went from being unique (in my ego-driven self-assessment) to being the same as everyone else.
Donald: We do tend to think that proactive good behavior earns salvation, whereas it is the passive presence of love that really matters.
Jay: That’s why the presence of the wedding garment is so critical. It distinguishes good from bad. We tend to define good as obeying the Ten Commandments, as going out to do good works, as praying for forgiveness, as keeping the Sabbath, and so on. These have become ingrained in our religions as constituting the way to salvation. But the wedding garment seems to dispute that. Any and everybody gets the garment and is saved if they put it on.
Kiran: The guest who did not put it on was not killed, only bound and cast into outer darkness. Perhaps he could find his way back or be brought back into the light later?
Robin: Jesus said of the Roman centurion who had faith in the power of Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant from afar:
“Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:10-12)
This was a criticism of the Jewish religious hierarchy.
David: For me, the parable serves to bring contradictory Scriptural passages about judgment and grace into stark relief. Some passages say or imply there is either judgment, where it matters how good/bad you are, or grace, where it does not matter how good/bad you are. Yet other passages say or imply that there is both judgment and grace, and they can work both ways: First, you are judged but then granted God’s grace anyway; or (and this would be an almost humanistic viewpoint) you start with God’s grace and are later judged on what you did with it. The wedding garment seems to me to reflect both the concept of grace followed by judgment (the Man in Dark) and judgment followed by grace (the other guests).
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