Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

The expression "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" is a puzzling one, and one which has engendered fear into generations of believers. It's an image associated with being "cast into outer darkness" and rejection. It's a favourite of "hell-fire and brimstone" preachers, and one which is often quoted in order to bring people into line.

So, what is “gnashing of teeth?” The Greek word that is translated as “gnashing” is from a word that means “to bite” and describes the snarling of a wild animal as it attacks. In all of the passages where the Greek terms for gnash or gnashing are used in the New Testament or in the Septuagint they are always used of anger, rage, pain or anguish. They are never used of sorrow, grief, remorse or regret.

The expression "weeping and gnashing of teeth" occurs only seven times in the Bible: six are found in the gospel of Matthew, one in Luke.

"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:11-12).

"The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:41-42).

"This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:49-50).

"'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'" (Matthew 22:12-13).

"The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 24:50-51).

"For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 25:29-30).

"But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out." (Luke 13:27-28).

A similar reference to gnashing of teeth occurs in Acts:

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth (Acts 7:54).

This is the only passage in the New Testament where the term "gnash" (verb) is used apart from the common formula, "weeping (noun) and gnashing of teeth." It is a significant passage because it sheds light on the meaning of the associated term "gnashing of teeth." This verse describes an incident where the religious leaders were furious with Stephen. They were full of anger and hatred which very soon led to their violent crime of stoning him. To "gnash the teeth" as it is used in this passage has nothing to do with sorrow or regret or grief or remorse. It describes their anger and hatred. They were like angry growling animals about to devour their prey.

Who is it that is being "cast into outer darkness" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" in Jesus' parables? On two occasions Jesus spoke about the "sons of the kingdom", or citizens of the Kingdom (the NIV has "subjects of the kingdom"). One of these was an occasion when He spoke of "weeping and gnashing of teeth".

The background to this saying was an encounter with a Roman centurion - someone outside of God's chosen people Israel - and Jesus said of him " I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." He then went on to say that while many would come from outside and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom, the "children/sons/subjects of the kingdom" would be cast into outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It's evident that He is saying outsiders (such as this Roman centurion) would be welcomed into the kingdom while those who thought the kingdom was their "right" would be rejected. But when we look at some of the other similar sayings we see that it was not all Israel who would be cast out, but a particular class within Israel.

It was not only "Gentiles" who were "outsiders". The Pharisees and religious leaders also excluded people with disabilities (the blind, the crippled, the deaf), those with infectious diseases such as leprosy, people who colluded with the Romans (such as tax-collectors), people who didn't measure up to their standards of holiness or who rejected some of their doctrines (the term "sinners" included people who disagreed with them as well as those who were guilty of breaking the Law) as well as Samaritans and Gentiles. In fact, they took the name "Pharisees" because it meant "the separated" - they were "pure in doctrine and conduct", or so they thought.

Consequently many of Jesus' sayings and stories were directed against this elite class within Israel: the religious leaders, the pure, the separated, those who felt that they alone were the "true Israel". For example, after Jesus told the parable of the talents Mark and Luke tell us that "the teachers of the law and the chief priests ... knew he had spoken this parable against them" (Mk 12:12; Lk 20:19).

In these sayings Jesus is saying that it was those who were regarded by the religious leaders as being "outsiders", those whom they rejected, that are to be made welcome in the Kingdom. On the other hand, the "insiders", the doctrinally pure, those who have separated themselves from the ones who don't measure up doctrinally or in their behaviour, are to be "cast out". As a result of being rejected there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth". This is not a weeping of remorse or sorrow, but of anger and resentment.

Something you've hopefully already noticed from reading earlier posts on this blog is that when Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom He wasn't always speaking of some future time in the Age to Come. Most of Jesus' kingdom-sayings were about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for the Age to Come. Of course, some of His stories were about the future, such as the one in the list below where He said "this is how it will be at the end of the age." The context will determine whether Jesus is speaking about the hear-and-now or the age to come.

So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected "at the end of the age" will go away angrily "gnashing their teeth" with rage because that is how they behave now. In Stephen's day they directed their anger and rage against this faithful follower of Jesus (and his Greek name suggests that he was a Gentile, an "outsider"). Throughout history we have seen "religious" people directing their anger against other believers who don't measure up to the standards imposed by the purists. The same is evident today.

Putting this together, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. Those who do not live by Jesus' teachings on love and grace bite and tear each other. Those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when they will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. We don't have to wait until "the end of the age" to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches which splinter and divide do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God's kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
I heard recently, that the incident of "gnashing of teeth" at Stephen, actually included them physically biting him; their rage and hatred being so intense.
Love Linda

Anonymous said...

An important point to note is that in every case where the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" occurs, it is in the context of ignoring the Spirit of Grace that is available.

"Weeping and Gnashing of teeth" is not "Oh shucks, I missed the Lotto..." - it is an incredibly emotional realisation (too late) that Grace is the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Like, "They told me about Grace, but I refused to embrace it...!!"

No wonder there will be "Weeping and gnashing of teeth" - the anger from the previous "religious" life will spill over and continue to manifest itself... but to no avail... for the subjects of their previous anger will then be immortal, and beyond being hurt by the bitterness of their former tormentors.


Hank said...

Wow, I am amazed by this article. I was wondering where the phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" was coined (like was it something of a slang in Jesus day or something like that) and come away knowing there is actually others out there that read the bible as a here and now action reference working "today" in our lives and not some far off day. A breath of fresh air! Praise God!!!

Bruce said...

Being that I see 'hell' as the fires of Gehenna, the weeping and gnashing of teeth was done by the mourners who stood on the edge of the trash dump where hundreds of thousands of dead Jews from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD were being tossed.

Unknown said...

The first thing I thought of after the description of a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass was all the commenting on facebook whenever the subject is religion, politics, or morals...