In several parables, Jesus talked about people being lost to “outer darkness”. Here are three:
And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “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.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)
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)
“For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
“For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30)
How does that square with the gift of the grace of God, and with the judgment of which Jesus spoke immediately after telling the Parable of the Talents?…
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
What is this “eternal punishment,” the “outer darkness”? And how does it relate to the gift of grace?
David: These passages link “lost” with sin. But grace (as I understand the concept) is linked with neither, at least not in the Beatitudes, where it is linked primarily with suffering. (I read “Blessed are…” as meaning that those blessed—those “made holy”—are relieved of all suffering; i.e., they receive grace.) In the Judgment scene, Jesus seems to want us to visit people in prison regardless of whether they deserve to be there or not. The point is to relieve the prisoner’s suffering, to pass on God’s grace; it has nothing to do with their sin. Grace does not absolve sin; it takes away hurt.
Don: What is our default setting when we are born? Are we lost? Are we conditionally saved, based on our behavior? Or are we neutral, able to go either way?
Donald: I would say that we are born sinners and therefore born lost. We are thus driven to find salvation, and in doing so we recognize the value of faith in our lives. But we can be lost and not know it, or be lost and be worried about it. We can be lost but have the possibility of finding the way home. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” among those cast into outer darkness suggests they know they are lost and are in great fear. But most people don’t think much about it, I suspect.
There seems to be a finality in these stories, though. Outer darkness is pitch black, with no hope of finding a way back. It is a place of eternal, not temporary, punishment. It is a place where one is lost forever. But our default state of being lost is not this final state of being lost.
Don: The Parables of the Coin, the Sheep, and the Prodigal Son also deal with this issue of being lost. The coin that is lost cannot know that it is lost, and it cannot be blamed for getting lost; the sheep is at least somewhat responsible for getting itself lost; and the Prodigal Son is willfully lost by an act of premeditation. But in each case, they are found, and the finding is a cause for celebration. So it seems that “lost” is a default position.
But maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Maybe there’s a different default for different individuals. Maybe there’s a different understanding by individuals of what it means to be lost.
Nick: For me, being lost would mean failing to witness, failing to proclaim the Good News as Jesus said we should, when the opportunity arises.
Jay: Are the lost in the parables I read—those consigned to outer darkness—as lost as the coin, the sheep, and the Prodigal Son in the parables Don mentioned? Does lost imply a possibility of being found? Is there a level of lost so deep that the possibility of being found no longer exists?
Donald: Believers have maps—their Scriptures. So in order to know that one is lost, one must read one’s Scripture. Someone who does not accept any Scripture cannot feel lost.
David: Lost is more than straying from the Way mapped out in Scripture, by doing bad things. It is a recognition that one has reached a dead-end with no apparent way back. What I find confusing about the Scriptural map is that when you reach that very point, the Beatitudes ought to kick in and you no longer suffer from being lost. It seems to me the last thing a merciful and gracious God will countenance is the weeping and gnashing of teeth of His children who have reached the end of the line and know it. Surely this is the (or at least a) point of the Beatitudes?
Kiran: That there is outer darkness implies that there is also inner darkness. In the inner darkness, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth may be communicated to others—as well as to one’s self. In the outer darkness, there is no-one else to hear—only one’s self. Introspection helps people realize who they really are. It enlightens, thus lighting the way out of the inner darkness.
But the only way out of the outer darkness, where no light can shine, is through God, in the same way that there was no way back for the lost sheep other than on the shoulder of the shepherd. Once we realize we are lost, there is help. If we don’t realize that we are lost, there is no help, so we remain in the outer darkness until we do.
Jay: So the outer darkness may be part of redemption.
Michael: We start out lost, and we end up lost. It’s a universal condition, regardless of what Scripture we follow.
Don: To what extent is being lost conditional upon behavior? If we are lost, how much good behavior will put us on the road to salvation? If we are neither lost nor saved but in some neutral condition, how much good behavior will put us on the road to salvation and how much bad behavior will put us on the road to perdition? There is something about mercy and grace that seems to ameliorate the impact of our bad behavior. One of the factors apparent in the parables is that the harshest judgment is reserved for those who hoard grace, who are unwilling to share it with others, while proclaiming their own righteousness. If we knew our default position (lost, saved, neutral) would it help us change our behavior?
Donald: In order to know we are in the proper lane we need signposts: Turn left for perdition, right for salvation, straight ahead for neither. There is a general reluctance to invite non-Adventists to participate in our worship. Is that like inviting them into my lane, to follow my signposts, my map? We are generally much more comfortable worshiping with other Adventists.
Nick: We hoard grace by not sharing the Good News. We should not let fear or discomfort prevent us from doing so. But I don’t think hoarding grace jeopardizes the believer’s entry to heaven. Only rejecting Christ can do that.
Jay: Those who hoard their master’s talent are consigned to the outer darkness. People who don’t behave with the faith of the centurion are consigned to outer darkness. Guests at the king’s wedding feast who refuse to wear the guest robe are consigned to outer darkness. But in the parables of the coin, the sheep, and the Prodigal Son, the issue is the behavior of the seeker, not the behavior of the sought. (I would argue that the Parable of the Prodigal Son may be more to do with the behavior of the father than of the son.) In the end, we want to know if there is finality. Can we switch lanes as often as we like in life but be destined to settle in one lane once and for all when we die? We don’t like to talk about being lost for all eternity, yet it seems to me we must, if we are to understand grace.
David: Are we are getting lost in an ocean of words? The concepts of lost and saved float around in a sea of nearly 800,000 words in the Christian Bible, but they don’t make a single appearance in the 5,000 words of the Dao De Jing. To me, the Dao is that very same Way that Jesus proclaimed Himself to be—a way to follow in this life, but the Dao does not specify an end result other than sagacity and enlightenment.
We are trying to define spiritual concepts which, it seems to me, are not amenable to definition.
Nick: I felt guilty about failing to give something to a beggar on the street. I was in the “lost” lane.
Shakir: The question of finality is critical. If we don’t agree on it, then the rest of the discussion is both confusing and won’t lead to any agreement; and we can’t prove to one another the truth of our faith-based answers to the question. If somehow we could all agree on the finality, it would be a different story. Groups tend to gather around agreement on certain finalities because that makes the rest of the discussion easier.
Don: Is there a “lost” condition in Daoism?
David: Only in the sense of straying from the Way. When you step off it, you are in a sense stepping into outer darkness. But again, the focus is on following or fighting the Way, not on straying from it.
Don: How do you know you have stepped off the Way?
David: Not through the intellect, not through behavioral analysis, not through an algorithm. You can know only through an heuristic inner sense. In Christian terms, that would be the inner light, the spirit.
Donald: I don’t want to find myself in outer darkness. I am afraid of hell. This concept is a lot scarier than just stepping off the Way.
David: A mix of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and a pantheon of earth gods passes for religion among the vast majority of Chinese. This mix and its parts do not promote fear of damnation or hope of salvation. Yet in my observation as one who has lived and worked with them, at the interpersonal if not the political level the Chinese treat one another just as well and as badly as the people of Christian nations treat one another. Their “Way” is no different from ours. Their way, like ours, is human.
Michael: My understanding is that going with the Way is much easier than going against it. It’s just living life as it comes, without all the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Don: If a Moslem strays from the five pillars of Islam, if we stray from our own Adventist rules and strictures, what are the consequences of straying from our lanes? Is good behavior enough to keep us on the right lane and keep us from weeping and gnashing our teeth in this life but inconsequential in the next?
Shakir: If I don’t pray five times a day, don’t fast at Ramadan, don’t pay zakat, don’t perform the Hajj, does that put me in the wrong lane? If I ask this question of myself, in private, the answer would be Yes. But if an Adventist were to ask me whether I think he is in the wrong lane for not praying five times a day, not fasting at Ramadan, not paying zakat, and not perform the Hajj, I would be quite unable to answer. He is in a different lane from me. If you ask me whether both lanes are right, or whether one is right and one is wrong, I also cannot answer. Should I try to get the Adventist to join me in my lane? In one sense, the answer must be Yes, but I don’t know how. Because it must be acknowledged that the Adventist and I were born and raised in different lanes, and neither of us can answer these questions for the other.
Jay: Next week, we’ll discuss the Unpardonable Sin in the context of finality.