Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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In part one of this occasional series, I looked at what Jesus and Paul and other New Testament people say, and don’t say, about Gehenna, a word that has been traditionally translated as “hell” in English Bibles.

In part two, I looked at the imagery of an eternal consuming fire and of flesh-eating worms which are often used in texts about punishment and destruction.

Several people who have read these two articles have asked me about other concepts and Bible verses associated with the idea of “hell.” I’ve expanded on four responses to these people and posted them in this article.

Here I look at:

1. the concept of weeping and gnashing of teeth,
2. the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31),
3. the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21–35), and
4. Tartarus which is mentioned once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:4).

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is mentioned seven times in the New Testament, six times in the Gospel of Matthew and once in the Gospel of Luke (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). These passages do not plainly refer to an eternal process of continuous duration. Rather, in each of these seven verses, it says (word for word, with no variation) “there will be [the] weeping and [the] gnashing of teeth” (ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων). (See these 7 verses here.)

Peter Grice’s observations on “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are similar to mine. Peter posted the following on Facebook here and I’ve shared it with his permission. (I’ve edited his words slightly.)

Far from expressing the idea of writhing in pain, teeth-gnashing plainly refers to scowling in anger, hatred, or bitterness (see Psa. 35:16; 37:12; 112:10; Job 16:9; Lam. 2:16; Acts 7:54). Pairing this emotion with the disappointment and regret of weeping only enriches it with the connotation of the wicked receiving their unwanted, just desserts.

When the phrase is used in a context with fire, we find that the ‘weeds’ are gathered first to be bound together ‘in bundles to be burned’ (Matt. 13:40–42 cf. 30). Hence, weeping and teeth-gnashing may occur where the gathering happens, rather than inside the fiery furnace as is normally just assumed.

When the phrase is used in parables referring to ‘outer darkness,’ which overall convey the idea of a Master returning to a great feast with his faithful servants, and shutting the door on others, the unfaithful are simultaneously ‘cast out’ of the kingdom as much as they are ‘cast into’ the darkness outside (Matt. 8:11–12; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:27–30).

Since fire and darkness each occur within unique parables, there is no warrant for associating fire with darkness: fire is for weeds at harvest time; darkness is outside the doors of a royal feast which presumably happens at night. Furthermore, fire is a metaphor for destruction while outer darkness is a metaphor for exclusion.[1]

In the discussion of gathering and separating, which follows on from the mention of weeping and teeth-gnashing (Matt. 25:30), perhaps as its elaboration, it is clear that there will be a visceral, emotional reaction (Matt. 25:31–44 cf. Matt. 7:21–23).

Rather than weeping and teeth-gnashing describing what it feels like to inhabit eternal fire, all the evidence points to it being a response to learning of one’s own exclusion from the community of salvation, before being cast into the destructive eternal fire. We are told plainly that it happens precisely ‘when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out’ (Luke 13:28).

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31)

The Point of the Parable

Jesus often used stories and parables in his teaching to make certain points. Generally speaking, we aren’t meant to take these stories as conveying actual events, historical facts, or real people. We’re meant to look for the point of the story.

The purpose of the Rich Man and Lazarus story isn’t to teach about hell or Hades, the final punishment, or the nature of the afterlife. Jesus’s point is, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

Difference and Similarity with other Parables in Luke

Some people regard the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as retelling actual events and dialogue from real people in a real setting. They do not think it is a parable because it includes the names Lazarus and Abraham. (The rich man is not given a name.) They point out that Jesus’s other parables don’t include names.

Nevertheless, the Rich Man and Lazarus story has similarities with some of Jesus’s other parables. For example, as well as the Rich Man and Lazarus story, there is another story in Luke 16, and both begin in an almost identical way: “There was a certain rich man …” (Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος … in Luke 16:1; and Ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος … in Luke 16:19). And the first story is clearly a parable: the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Another story in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan, begins with “A certain man …” (Ἄνθρωπός τις … in Luke 10:30).

Jesus may not have created the Rich Man and Lazarus story or its characters. The story may already have been in existence and circulating among first-century Jews. It’s likely Jesus used the characters and their setting to tell his parable to make his own point.

Hades is the Grave

Jesus says that the rich man is in Hades (Luke 16:23). Hades refers to the grave and is neither Gehenna, mentioned several times in the Gospels, nor the Lake of Fire, mentioned in Revelation.[2] In fact, Revelation 20:14 says that Hades, as well as Death, are thrown into the Lake of Fire.

I like this sensible comment from Chris Date about the Rich Man and Lazarus story.

No matter how we take Jesus’ story—whether as familiar folklore, unique parable, or historical narrative—it is talking about the intermediate state. The grave. The first death. Awaiting resurrection. While others [the rich man’s brothers] are still living. No matter how you slice it, it’s not about final punishment. (Source: Rethinking Hell)

This parable is not about eternal conscious torment.

The Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21–35)

The Context of the Parable

Jesus told this parable to Peter in response to Peter’s question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” The point of the parable is that we must keep forgiving our brothers and sisters who wrong us.

This parable was not told to unbelievers. Rather, it was told primarily to Peter, one of Jesus’s closest disciples. This is important to keep in mind.

The Effect of the Parable

After Jesus says that the master in the parable handed the unmerciful servant over to jailers to be tortured until he had repaid everything, he deliberately shocks Peter and says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:23 NIV).

What Jesus’s words mean in the parable—the story or scenario—is clear. But as with other parables and teachings, Jesus makes provocative and hyperbolic statements and uses metaphor. These would have elicited strong reactions. Peter would have been shocked by the lack of compassion from the unmerciful servant and especially shocked at the severity of the punishment from Jesus’s heavenly Father.

The Point of the Parable: “Unless”

The point is that Jesus feels strongly that we should sincerely forgive our brothers and sisters, not that we will be punished. He wants us to escape punishment. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:35 CSB). Jesus wants us to focus on “unless …”

The Possibility of an End: “Until”

In the parable, there is a possibility of an end to the torture: “… his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed” (Matt. 18:34 CSB).

If people want to take the details of the parable fairly literally, “until” gives a glimmer of hope. A sympathetic friend could pay his debt. I don’t recommend taking the details or even the big picture literally, but in real life, a sympathetic saviour has paid our debt.

Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4

Tartarus is another topic sometimes brought up in discussions on hell. In Greek mythology, Tartarus is the subterranean abode of the damned. The noun Tartarus doesn’t occur in the New Testament. However, Peter uses a participle of the Greek verb tartaroō in 2 Peter 2:4, which means “throw into Tartarus.” It’s the one and only time this Greek word occurs in the New Testament. (See here.)

Peter indicates that Tartarus is where fallen angels are being kept. He appears to be alluding to the angelic watchers who are mentioned in the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish writing. (See Enoch 10:6–9, 15-17, ch. 19ch. 21, etc.) Nevertheless, Peter also indicates that Tartarus is not their final destination.

According to Peter, Tartarus is like a gloomy holding cell for prisoners until the trial of the final judgement.

“For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but ‘threw them into Tartarus’ (tartaroō) and delivered them in chains of utter darkness to be kept for judgment … then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment …” 2 Peter 2:4 & 9.

Peter does not say that humans are thrown into Tartarus. In the previous three verses, Peter says that destruction is the final punishment of people who are false prophets and teachers  (2 Pet. 2:1–3). And in verse 12 he says these people will “utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Pet. 2:12 KJV). All of the second chapter of 2 Peter is about the condemnation and destruction of false prophets and teachers.

The repeated and consistent message of the New Testament is that everlasting life and everlasting death and destruction are the two destinies of humanity. We can listen to Jesus and choose life.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” Matthew 7:13–14 NIV.


[1] Outer Darkness: Being thrown out “into outer darkness” (εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον) is mentioned three times in the Gospel of Matthew where it is directly connected with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Outer darkness appears to be a metaphor that signifies exclusion and missing out. Exclusion is also the theme in Luke 13:28–29.

“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves are thrown out. They will come from east and west, from north and south, to share the banquet in the kingdom of God.”

[2] Hades: The word Hades occurs 10 times in the New Testament and refers to the grave, the place of the dead. Hades is a Greek word, equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol, and is distinct from Gehenna. Jesus mentions Hades four times in the Gospels (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23).
It is also mentioned four times in Revelation where it is always paired with the word “Death”; Death and Hades are depicted as twin forces or twin entities (Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14). According to Revelation 20:14, Death and Hades will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire, the “second death.” The word hades also occurs in Acts 2:27 and 2:31.

Sheol: John Walton has written on the ancient understanding of Sheol. He writes, “Sheol is the Hebrew term for the place that dead go.” And, “the term is often used metaphorically to refer to death or the grave (e.g., Isa.28:15).” Further, Walton has made these 6 observations from the Hebrew Bible “that contribute to our understanding of the theology related to Sheol”:

1. Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God (Pss. 6:5; 88:10–12; Isa. 38:18), though as previously mentioned, God has access to Sheol.
2. Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone.
3. While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative.
4. Sheol is a place of negation: no possessions, memory, knowledge, or joy.
5. It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment take place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate sheol as “hell” if the latter is by definition a place of punishment.
6. There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. “Deepest Sheol” (e.g., Deut. 32:22; NIV “the realm of the dead below”) refers only to its location (“beneath”) rather than to a lower compartment.

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd Edition (Baker, 2018), 302-303.
In 2016, Phil Vischer spoke with John Walton on the topic of “hell.” The video is on YouTube, here, and the interview begins at the 19.38 minute-mark.

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Explore more

Hell (Part 1): Paul, James, and Jesus on Gehenna
Hell (Part 2): Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death?
Are the branches lifted up or taken away in John 15:2a?
The Kingdom of Heaven in the Here and Now and Future
Hyperbole and Divorce in The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31–32)

4 thoughts on “Hell (3): Lazarus, Tartarus, and Teeth-Gnashing

  1. To be clear, Jesus saves us from sin, condemnation, and death, and offers us life. This is the repeated message of the New Testament. John 3:16 is one verse, among many, that tells us that our two options are (1) perish or (2) have eternal life.

    Paul never mentions “hell,” Gehenna, or Hades at all in his letters. These ideas are also completely absent in the letter to the Hebrews, John’s Gospel and John’s three letters.

    Furthermore, Acts, James, Jude, and Peter say nothing about people suffering in “hell.”

    I suggest Christian teachers, especially in the past, have misunderstood Jesus’s use of Gehenna and the metaphor of “fire” in his messages, and they have misunderstood and misapplied imagery used in Revelation.

    1. Hi Marg
      Pray all is well and blessed.
      I have an inlaw who is obessed with Heaven and Hell.
      He firmly believes that even the smallest of sin and God will condem us to hell.
      Please may I have more insight into the teaching of the Word of God ,
      with specific scriptures abouts Our Gods Agape love for us.
      To show my inlaw that we as Christians are not mandated by God to live in fear of sin but in the freedom of his light

      1. Hello Kuben, I’m really sorry to hear about your inlaw’s obsession. I don’t know of any book that might help. Even a beautiful letter like 1 John can be misunderstood of it’s read through the lens of condemnation.

        Jesus saved us from sin and death. That’s what salvation is all about! I think your inlaw needs love and prayer, and maybe some counselling.

        But here are three Bible passages about God’s love that I hope your inlaw will think deeply about.

        Romans 8:

        1 John 4:16-1 John 5:5

        Romans 5:

        And here is verse about forgiveness.

        1 John 1:9:
        “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

        There are more verses on forgiveness here:

        I pray your inlaw will find freedom, love, and acceptance in Christ.

  2. […] [3] The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man: I have not discussed this story in these posts so far because it is not about hell or the final judgment. The story mentions Hades which is regarded as an intermediate state. Hades, a Greek word, is equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol and refers to the grave, or possibly the “first death.” I have written about the story of Lazarus and the Rich man in part 3, here. […]

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