“And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
Darkness is not what it used to be. For thousands of years, once the sun set, most light was gone. The moon might provide some light; perhaps one could use a few candles, oil lamps, a fire, or some such thing to provide some light and heat. Otherwise there would be all-encompassing darkness, the absence of light. These days it is hard to find places where such darkness can be experienced: we have light everywhere and seemingly at all times. This makes it more difficult to imagine just how truly “dark” darkness is.
There is a reason that “darkness,” throughout time and in different cultures, represents something painful, distressing, unknown, fearful, or something that causes apprehension. Light is almost never associated with evil or anything negative; darkness seems synonymous with such things. We have a built-in understanding that there is not much good in “dark,” and plenty of which to be afraid and which we do well to avoid.
Jesus understands these things; He knows how God is light, source of all that is good and holy (John 1:4-5). In God there is light and no darkness at all: nothing evil, carnal, leading to misery and despair (1 John 1:5). If God is light, then those who follow after God should be in the light (1 John 1:7); this means that darkness, as the absence of light, is an image for all of that which is apart from and hostile to God (John 1:5, 1 John 1:6). To be in darkness, therefore, is not good; how much worse, then, would it be to find oneself in the “outer” darkness?
Jesus speaks of this “outer darkness” three times in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. Each instance involves a person or a group of people who have incurred God’s displeasure; each time Jesus says that there “weeping and gnashing of teeth” takes place. What is this “outer darkness”?
Jesus never comes out and explicitly identifies what or where this “outer darkness” is. We gain a clue from the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth: in Matthew 13:42, 50, Jesus says that those who cause stumbling, those that do iniquity, and the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire after the Judgment, and “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”
On a literal level, this makes no sense: fire provides light, and we would expect no light in the “outer darkness.” Then again, the very idea of “outer darkness” seems strange on a literal level! All of this is for good reason; Jesus is not speaking literally. He is using different images to express the same terrible fate: the place we call hell!
When we think of “hell,” we normally associate it with a fiery furnace or some such thing where the disobedient and condemned suffer. These images in Matthew 13:42, 50 certainly suggest such a thing, but we must be careful about literalizing the idea. After all, Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as well as the “fiery furnace.” They are both illustrations!
Jesus does well to describe hell in terms of the “outer darkness” for the reasons we’ve already described: darkness is the absence of light, and if God is light, then darkness is the absence of God. We find far too many people presently living in darkness (cf. John 1:4-5, 9-10, 12:46), already in a sense separated from God. At death that separation becomes more acute: they will find themselves, by their own choice, in the “outer darkness,” a representation of full and complete separation from God the Creator, the Source of Light and Life.
It will not be pleasant there, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Such are the responses to suffering and pain! We must be careful to not allow our imaginations to get the better of us; what the condemned experience and why it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth is not specified, and much damage has been done by believers who seemingly gleefully describe the sorts of tortures and miseries they imagine await the condemned. No one should feel any joy on account of the existence of the outer darkness or that anyone will dwell there.
Perhaps the greatest surprise about the “outer darkness” are those whom Jesus says are going there. In Matthew 8:10-12, He says that it will be the “sons of the kingdom” who will be cast there, and by that He means those participants in the covenant between God and Israel who were not truly faithful to God. In Matthew 22:9-13, the one cast into the outer darkness was a man invited to the wedding feast without wearing the appropriate garment, understood as one supplied by the one providing the feast. Finally, in Matthew 25:24-30, it is the servant of the Master who was given the one talent and who buried it who is cast into the “outer darkness.”
In all of these examples, it is not pagan unbelievers or loose sinners who are cast into the “outer darkness”; they are people who believe in God, even many who will believe in Jesus as the Christ! Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as a way to warn believers against complacency and self-satisfaction. Whoever thinks that merely because they mentally accept the idea that Jesus is the Christ means they will automatically be saved will be sorely disappointed. Whoever feels that since they were raised in a Christian environment and by virtue of their lineage and cultural identity they will enter the resurrection of life will find themselves far from God. Whoever believes that others should work in the vineyard of the Lord but feel they are exempt will receive the censure of Jesus and eternity in the outer darkness!
Such does not mean that pagan unbelievers or loose sinners are off the hook; as we have seen in Matthew 13:42, 50, other passages address the condemnation awaiting others who are disobedient to God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ warning is appropriate. Yes, God is the light; God is the source of good things. We all want to identify with the light and to receive those blessings. But if we want to be in the light, we must walk in the light (1 John 1:7): we need to follow after Jesus, conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to His. If we are not conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions (all three; not just one or two) to those of Jesus, the truth is not in us; we’re deceiving ourselves, confident of our presence in the light even though we walk in darkness. If we are found in the darkness on the day of Judgment, we will find ourselves permanently in the outer darkness!
What a terrible fate to go into the outer darkness! It is not something we should wish on ourselves, our loved ones, or even our worst enemies. Thankfully, no one is forced to go to the outer darkness; we all have the opportunity to leave the darkness and share in the light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Let us heed the Savior’s warning and seek to walk in the light as He is the light!
Ethan R. Longhenry