If you already had in mind the idea that hell is a place of everlasting conscious punishment, then it is understandable that when you hear someone say hell involves “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” you would imagine that phrase referring to the terrible torments in this place of everlasting conscious punishment. 1
But if we want to look at what the Bible actually teaches about hell, we must not simply assume that that it teaches what we already believe. And when we look at it more closely, it becomes clear that the refrain that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” does not so clearly mean what many initially think it means. 2 3
Many Christian teachers claim that hell, i.e. the final fate of unredeemed in the Bible, cannot be annihilation because the Bible describes hell as an unspeakable state of unimaginable suffering that causes weeping and gnashing of teeth. 4 5 6
But as is so often the case, this belief imposes onto the biblical text more than is there. The reason that references to weeping and gnashing are incorrectly believed to indicate eternal torment, which will be addressed and disproved below, are as follows:
- Weeping and gnashing of teeth indicate great physical pain or turmoil caused externally.
- More importantly, it is believed that the Bible teaches that the weeping and gnashing of teeth go on for eternity.
What Does “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth” Even Mean?
Although the question of eternality (addressed below) really is more significant, it is worthwhile to nail down what is meant by “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – at least to the extent possible. At the very least, it is worthwhile to see that, while weeping and gnashing of teeth do indicate very negative feelings and experiences, they do not necessarily paint the picture that traditionalists often see with this refrain.
Of the two components, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, the weeping is less significant. We all know that weeping can convey all sorts of feelings and experiences. It can be a response to great physical pain. It can also convey negative emotions such as grief or stress. Crying can even be a sign of happiness, although I don’t know if the Greek term klauthmos is as ambiguous as the English, and in context, tears of joy are clearly not in view anyway.
The point is, no one would say that weeping must indicate physical suffering, and I am sure a traditionalist would generally agree that weeping out of grief or stress or negative emotions can work with their view of hell anyway.
Gnashing of Teeth in the Bible
More substantial is the reference to gnashing of teeth. This is seen by many to indicate physical pain or, at the very least, a reaction that is like it. One gnashes one’s teeth out of agony, like the pain of being burned alive or something like it. It is likened to Revelation 16:10, when those who will not repent and thus suffer on earth gnaw their tongues in agony. Thus, it seems absurd to say that hell is anything but eternal pain and agony in some form or fashion.
However, this is not so clear when we look at how gnashing of teeth is used in the Bible (most importantly), and also outside of it.
It seems apparent that the more common usage of the idiom of gnashing one’s teeth is anger. Weeping and gnashing of teeth would therefore seem to be indicative of sadness and anger. Perhaps there may even be weeping because one is besides themselves with anger.
Job 16:9 – Job talking about God’s apparent anger and hatred towards him:
His anger has torn me and hunted me down. He has gnashed at me with His teeth; My adversary glares at me.
Psalm 35:16 – King David referring to his enemies:
Like godless jesters at a feast. They gnashed at me with their teeth.
The wicked will see it and be vexed. He will gnash his teeth and melt away. The desire of the wicked will perish.
Acts 7:54 – Describing the unbelieving Jews and their angry reaction to Stephen:
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him (NIV).
In each of these instances, gnashing of teeth represented anger, not pain or suffering. In once passage, it was God himself who was said to gnash his teeth! Obviously God isn’t suffering eternally in hell.
I also would like to draw attention to Psalm 112:10 above, as the one wicked person who gnashes his teeth, in the same breath, is said to “melt away.” It may not be justified to say that this passage outright teaches annihilationism, but at the very least, one cannot see a reference to a person gnashing their teeth and assume it is necessarily talking about eternal torment. That clearly is not in view in this passage.
Gnashing of Teeth Outside of the Bible
I am not simply claiming that because of the Old Testament’s use we should therefore ignore the face value meaning of gnashing one’s teeth. Face value meanings are influenced by what the reader expects to see. One person’s face value reading is not necessarily the same as someone else’s. If one is a traditionalist, they expect to see hell being eternal torment, so anything that sounds like pain (i.e. gnashing of teeth) is more likely to sound that way when taken at “face value.” But even today, to those not thinking of hell and eternal torment, the idiom of gnashing one’s teeth frequently mimics the Old Testament model of anger.
For example, we see this in pop culture. I remember years ago, with the topic of hell in the back of my mind, I noticed an episode of The Simpsons where Marge, the matriarch of the family, was loudly grinding (i.e. gnashing) her teeth in anger as her husband Homer recorded a song in a recording studio. 7 Similarly, a simple internet search of articles and written works that speak of gnashing one’s teeth will yield numerous results that entail gnashing of teeth being a sign of anger, not pain:
Today, if those who rob people taking their loved ones on their final journey call themselves Indians, we should be angry with ourselves rather than take umbrage over their actions. Similarly, a video that recently went viral made me gnash my teeth (emphasis added). 8
Even the secular website freedictionary.com notices this. When defining “gnash (one’s) teeth,” it notes that it is dominantly an idiom for anger with entries such as the following:
Feel very angry and upset about something, especially because you cannot get what you want:
[example] He’ll be gnashing his teeth when he hears that we lost the contract.
The picture and meaning of gnashing one’s teeth takes on a pretty different connotation when you remove it from the context of a horrible torture chamber (which, in the west, is how we have all been culturally conditioned to see hell, even if you don’t actually believe that hell is such a place). 9 For this reason, even some traditionalists correctly identify the nature of it. For example, R.C. Sproul recognizes that “the gnashing of teeth, as we see in the New Testament, is often associated with hatred” 10 11
But why would hell entail anger (or hatred)? Well, if those who remain apart from Christ to the end are God’s enemies and rebels against him, then it is only reasonable that their anger would be directed at him. It wouldn’t be justified anger, but neither was the anger of the Jews against Stephen or the anger of the wicked against King David.
Even taken together, people who understand the proper connotation of the biblical idiom of weeping and gnashing of teeth appeal to it to describe the emotional reactions of others. Consider this comment regarding controversial political comments made earlier this year by rapper and producer Kanye West:
West’s tweet—“I love the way Candace Owens thinks”—was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the left and much celebration on the right (partly out of sheer gloating at the left’s dismay).” 12
Weeping and gnashing of teeth need not indicate anything other than people’s emotional reactions to a situation.
Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth Does Not Continue For Eternity
Of course, you might be thinking that even if weeping and gnashing of teeth can convey negative feelings, like sadness and anger, rather than agony and pain, doesn’t a person still need to be alive to do those things in hell? Doesn’t this still prove that hell is eternal conscious punishment?
The answer to this is simple and straightforward: The references to weeping and gnashing of teeth do not prove eternal torment because none of the references indicate that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will continue for eternity.
It simply is not there, and is merely assumed by those who come to the text already believing that people are alive forever in hell (so of course whatever is said to happen there happens forever). But if our goal is to actually show that the Bible teaches eternal torment, one cannot simply read eternal torment into the passage and then present the passage as evidence for eternal torment. That would be circular reasoning.
In no passage that makes reference to weeping and gnashing of teeth does the text even suggest eternal duration on its face, let alone after deeper examination. For example:
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out (Luke 13:28).
What is “that place”? That place is the scene of judgment. The weeping and gnashing of teeth is said to occur when the unsaved see the lot of the saved (in this case, it is just a particular group of unsaved people). The weeping and gnashing of teeth occur at the time when they are thrown out. It never says that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will continue on for eternity afterwards. That is just an assumption.
An annihilationist can easily agree that at the judgment, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Judgment day will be a terrible experience for those who face God as their enemy and not as their savior. Although I do not believe the unrepentant would ever want God for God himself, they certainly will not want to die with no hope of ever coming back. 13 They would still want the accoutrements of life like they have now on earth, even if they don’t want the giver of life. This fear of death is in addition to any conscious suffering imposed upon the wicked prior to their final death, as well as the emotional trauma of guilt and shame and resentment that would surely arise when someone is judged for all of his sins.
Heck, even a universalist could agree that judgment day would entail weeping and gnashing of teeth, since the passage never says what happens after and therefore never precludes post-mortem repentance and salvation.
Eternal duration simply is not in a single use of this phrase. That is not to say that it cannot be eternal in duration, or that anything I am saying here disproves the eternal torment doctrine (although the particulars of the verses surrounding Matthew 13:42, apart from “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” are strong evidence for conditionalism in their own right). But because eternal duration is not said to be the case, these passages cannot prove the doctrine of eternal torment. After all, assuming for our purposes that there is a raging fire that the unredeemed are cast into, even if those cast into it are consumed and burned up, there still will be weeping and gnashing of teeth until that final moment when they pass away for good.
With this in mind, we can see why Matthew 13:42, which is of special significance, does not indicate eternal torment. Jesus, when explaining the parable of the wheat and the tares from earlier in the chapter, explains that the angels will gather up the wicked and cast them into “the fiery furnace.” Some take verse 42’s reference to weeping and gnashing of teeth as evidence that people will go into the raging fire of hell and instead of burning up, they will remain their alive and in great agony forever. 14
But is it necessarily the case that this passage indicates that the wicked will be alive in the fire, weeping and gnashing their teeth for eternity?
Seeing as how Jesus is not only describing the fiery furnace of hell but also the judgment scene entirely, it is not clear that the “place” where the weeping and gnashing of teeth takes place is specifically hellfire. As noted above, annihilationism would generally entail that the there is weeping and gnashing of teeth throughout the whole process, and even upon entry into the raging fire, until death occurs. It simply is not clear from this passage if the wicked are to spend an extended period of time alive in the fire, weeping and gnashing their teeth, or if Jesus is describing the place of judgment in general.
After all, weeping and gnashing of teeth, under any view would occur well before the wicked are in the raging fire. So why would it be unreasonable to think that a place – i.e. the place where judgment occurs prior to the fire – would be part of “that place” where Jesus says weeping and gnashing of teeth occurs?
In fact, that seems apparent in Luke 13:28. There, the same phrasing is used. Jesus says “in that place” (Greek ekei) “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But there is no place like a flaming furnace described. There is no “place” like hell described at all. The only location mentioned is really the good place, the table with the patriarchs. The only spatial location is “heaven,” for lack of a better description. The wicked are just said to be cast out. There is no “place” in the sense of a final abode for the wicked that is even shown. It seems apparent in that context that “in that place” is the judgment scene, not the place the wicked go to after.
From Luke, we know that in the place of judgment, where the wicked are prior to entering hell, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Therefore, weeping and gnashing of teeth is not reserved solely for the final state, i.e. hell or “the fiery furnace.” And Jesus uses the same phrasing in Matthew 13 that he used to describe this scene of judgment in Luke 13:28. Therefore, it is at least a reasonable possibility (even apart from the affirmative case for annihilationism) that “that place” of weeping and gnashing of teeth is not the fiery furnace (or at least not only the fiery furnace), but the whole judgment scene.
Another point to consider is that, aside from the controversy over “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and tares is strong evidence for annihilationism.
Jesus, in explaining the meaning of the parable (not just in the parable itself), describes how angels will cast the wicked into the fire. And how does he describe that process?
So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. (Matthew 13:40).
The wicked are compared to tares that are thrown into a fire. And tares are weeds. They quickly burn up and disintegrate. And for good measure, the Greek word translated as “burned” in that passage is the Greek katakaió. This term describes things that burn up completely, such as books thrown into a fire (Acts 19:19) or chaff which quickly burns up (Luke 3:17). In the Septuagint, in Exodus 3:2 when Moses sees the burning bush and we are told that the bush was on fire but was not consumed, the term to describe how it did not burn up was katakaió. The plant was burning – Greek καίεται (Strong’s 2545, kaio) – but it was not burning up – Greek κατεκαίετο (Strong’s 2618, katakaio). 15 16 The passage that described a bush that burned but did not burn up specifically says that the bush was not burned in the sense of katakaió, which is the way that tares are burned up and that, in like manner, “so it will be at the end of the age.”
Use In Parables
In addition to Luke 13:28 and Matthew 13:42, there is also reference to weeping and gnashing of teeth in Matthew 8:12 and Matthew 13:50. Those two passages essentially say the same thing as Luke 13:28 and Matthew 13:42, respectively. The other three references to weeping and gnashing of teeth are within parables.
Because the other three references are part of parables, as opposed to didactic teaching or explanations of parables, there is some ambiguity involved. While traditionalists do frequently appeal to these uses, if we are going to look at the parables for guidance, then an annihilationist can counter traditionalist claims based on these same parables.
We see this, for example, in Matthew 22:13. The parable has the wedding guest cast out of the wedding after being bound hand and foot. That is where we are told there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But if we are going to use an unexplained parable to look at details about what hell is like (I’m happy to not do so, for the record), then it must be asked, what would happen to someone who is thrown outside after being tied up? They would not be tied up for long. Either they would eventually be rescued (which certainly doesn’t fit the traditionalist paradigm), or they would die due to lack of water or the elements or street crime. Either way, that doesn’t sound like eternal torment.
Honestly, I don’t think we’re supposed to think about it that far. I think the point is just that they don’t get to be part of the good thing, which fits annihilationism just as well as eternal torment. But if we are going to make a big thing of it and insist the details tell of the parable tell us about hell, how well does leaving someone for dead fit traditionalism over annihilationism?
We see something similar in Matthew 24:51. Of interest in that passage is that the wicked servant is said to be “cut into pieces.” It is not entirely clear what is in view. Is the servant literally cut in pieces, which would mean he is killed? If so, then the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth would not be the place he is cast – since he already dead. It would describe the scene in general, or perhaps what it represents. If so, it doesn’t tell us about the specifics about what will play out in eternity.
Alternatively, if it just means the servant is badly injured, then the place he is cast, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, is somewhere a badly injured man is thrown into. It still doesn’t convey the idea of a long-term bad place. Such a person could quite possibly even die in that context. And if death is in view in the parable, then it certainly doesn’t sound like eternal torment.
In the NASB notes, it does indicate that the phrasing could just indicate that the servant is simply severely scourged before being kicked out. In that case, does eternal torment consist of temporary pain and then just being sent to some place after being tormented? That is the kind of thing that happens if you say these parables are describing specifics about hell.
Last of the three is Matthew 25:30, in which a wicked servant is simply kicked out of the master’s estate and into the darkness (i.e. outside of the master’s house at night), “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I understand that a traditionalist could try to argue that since the servant is alive and in darkness, that represents the everlasting conscious experience of the sadness of (a modern, softened, fireless version of) hell. But that really requires you to read far more into the text than is there.
In a parable, not a literal teaching, a servant is kicked out of his servant’s house. That’s all we really know. Maybe he starves to death. Maybe he gets murdered (night time wasn’t a particularly safe time to be outside in the ancient world). Or maybe he is eventually let back in when he learns his lesson, which would correspond to Christian universalism. The specific implications to final judgment have to be read into the passage. They are not taught by the passage.
Again, I don’t think the point is to dig that much into details. We’re just supposed to see that the wicked will be cut off from God’s kingdom and will be distraught as a result. And this fits traditionalism or annihilationism. I’m just saying that if we do dig in deeper, it isn’t necessarily the big help traditionalists might expect.
Additional Points to Consider
I should note that even if these passages did teach that people in hell are still alive and weeping and gnashing their teeth, that still does not prove eternal torment. It would only show that people suffer in hell for some period of time. Many conditionalists believe there will be a time of conscious punishment for a while before the final death sentence is carried out.
Now, I myself think it makes more sense within the broader conditionalist framework for there not to be any extended time of suffering and weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell after the judgment. Whatever conscious suffering and anguish and degrees of suffering between worse and less serious sinners happens at judgment will happen at judgment, not for an extended time after. I think it fits better that the fire (or whatever it represents) burns everyone and everything up quickly, as fire normally does.
But it is not a deal breaker. Conditionalism allows for a time of conscious suffering in hell prior to the final wages of sin, which is death, being paid in full.
What we ultimately have is a collection of passages where Jesus, speaking of the judgment day, says there will be anger and great sadness and distress. That is a somber reminder of why we need Christ, but it doesn’t tell us nearly as much about hell as you may have been told it does.
- Some translations say “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” but the difference is immaterial.
- See Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, Luke 13:28.
- Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
- John Piper, “The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell,” [presentation] Resolved Conference, Palm Springs, CA, June 16, 2008, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-echo-and-the-insufficiency-of-hell (accessed September 3, 2018).
- Robert Peterson, “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 no. 4 (December 1994), 556-557, https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/37/37-4/JETS_37-4_553-568_Peterson.pdf (accessed September 3, 2018).
- Andy Neselli, “Hellfire and Brimstone: Interpreting the New Testament’s Descriptions of Hell,” 9Marks, August 20, 2010, https://www.9marks.org/article/hellfire-and-brimstone-interpreting-new-testaments-descriptions-hell/ (accessed September 3, 2018).
- “Colonel Homer,” The Simpsons, Fox, March 26, 1992, television.
- Shashi Shekhar, “We Can No Longer Be Bystanders to Crime,” livemint, June 5, 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/5yh4gBHruD765WOR8vCIuJ/We-can-no-longer-be-bystanders-to-crime.html (accessed August 27, 2018).
- For more on the problems of thinking hell is eternal conscious suffering but at the same time not at all like a torture chamber, see “The Many And Varied Problems With The Modern Metaphorical View Of Eternal Conscious Hell.”
- R.C. Sproul “The Place of God’s Disfavor,” Ligonier Ministries, April 3, 2011, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/place-gods-disfavor/ (accessed September 3, 2018).
- Of course hatred and anger are not literally the same thing, but for our purposes here they are close enough.
- Cathy Young, “The Problem With Candace Owens,” Quillete, May 8, 2018, https://quillette.com/2018/05/08/problem-candace-owens/ (accessed August 27, 2018).
- For more on how much people really do fear death, see Rethinking Hell podcast Episode 50: “Necrophobia! with Glenn Peoples and Chris Date.”
- e.g. Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial (P&R, 1995), 51.
- “Burn (2618) katakaio,” sermonindex.net, n.d., http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/articles/index.php?view=article&aid=33662 (accessed September 3, 2018).
- “Exodus 3” (Exodus 3:2), Kata Biblion, http://en.katabiblon.com/us/index.php?text=LXX&book=Ex&ch=3 (accessed November 18, 2018).