In the previous blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Fumbled Fables, I wrote that in Francis Chan’s interpretation of Luke 13:22-30 (<– click the link to read the passage), he has misunderstood and misrepresented the glorious truth that Jesus communicates. And I also said I would demonstrate exactly how Chan has butchered this text and offer an explanation about the likely meaning.
When Jesus uses metaphors, allegories, and parables, He never intends for people to interpret every detail literally but to recognize the message exemplified by way of the imagery. Jesus mentions food (to do His Father’s will), the temple (body), being born again, the living water, and the bread of heaven, and He isn’t talking about a burger, a building, a grotesque maternal experiment, H2O that is alive, or croissants falling from the sky. Why is it that when Jesus talks about a gate, a master, a door, gnashing teeth, etc., some people take what He says so literally? We know that there is spiritual meaning in His words, but we must ask ourselves whether the teachers of our day, like the teachers of Jesus day, actually comprehend. Perhaps Jesus would ask today’s religious leaders what He asked one of the religious leaders during His time, “You are [teachers in the church], and do you not understand these things?”
According to Chan (and fundamental, orthodox theology) the meaning of Luke 13:22-30 is as follows:
Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem, and His disciples ask how many people will end up being saved. Jesus answers that few will be saved, but even worse, many who think they are saved will end up on the “outside” of the kingdom, so to speak. […] This passage “gives no hint whatever that the door will remain permanently open.” If Jesus believed in second chances for those who reject Him in this life, then this parable is dangerously misleading.
It is important to note that Chan says the disciples asked “how many people will end up being saved,” but what is actually recorded in the book of Luke differs. It is not the disciples (plural) who ask the question, but a single, unnamed individual. Furthermore, the question is not about how many people will “end up” being saved. The question is literally, “Are those saved few?” It is present tense, a strong indication that the individual’s question is about the people who were living at that time, not about all people for all time; otherwise the question would have been, “Will few be saved?”
In order to understand the motives behind the individual’s question, we need to note that Jesus had just finished orating two parables. Given the content of these two parables, it is likely that the question was prompted by the subject matter of the parables – about how the reign of God appears as a small and seemingly insignificant change that gradually grows. The extent of that growth, as Jesus described it, went further than the Jews had imagined it ever would.
Readers must understand that the Jews in Jesus’s day believed in their own exclusive right to enter into the reign of God – that was part of the reason why Jews did not associate with Gentiles (non-Jews). They also imagined that the reign, or kingdom, of God meant that the Messiah would make the Jewish nation the most powerful nation in the world. The highest concern of a spiritually-minded Jew during Jesus’s day was to be a part of the new world order that the Messiah would bring. When it became clear that Jesus would not be the Messiah they had imagined, that He was not “of this world,” they crucified him. This demonstrates the immediacy of the mindset of Jesus’s Jewish audience. The person’s question was probably a selfish one, based on the assumption that Jesus would confirm the person’s religious, narrow-minded world view.
Chan says that Jesus answers the question by saying that “few will be saved,” but once again, what is actually recorded in the book of Luke differs from what Chan writes. Jesus doesn’t even answer the person’s question, directly. Here’s Jesus’s response:
“Be striving to go in through the straight gate, because many, I say to you, will seek to go in, and shall not be able; from the time the master of the house may have risen up, and may have shut the door, and ye may begin without to stand, and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us,’ and he answering shall say to you, ‘I have not known you whence ye are,’ then ye may begin to say, ‘We did eat before thee, and did drink, and in our broad places thou didst teach;’ and he shall say, ‘I say to you, I have not known you whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of the unrighteousness.’ There shall be there the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth, when ye may see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the reign of God, and yourselves being cast out without; and they shall come from east and west, and from north and south, and shall recline in the reign of God, and lo, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.”
This is quite an elaborate answer when a simple, “Yes, few will ever saved” could have sufficed. Let’s break down what Jesus says about “how many” and “when” into its most basic elements. (He does address numbers, but only within the context of time.):
1. “…many will seek to go in, and shall not be able…”
2. “…ye may see [them] in the reign of God, and yourselves being cast out without…”
3. “…they shall come [from all directions], and shall recline in the reign of God…”
4. “…there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.”
What do we understand from this? The first one is easy. A lot of people are not able to enter into the reign of God. The second point piggy-backs on the first, a positive in contrast to the negative, that some people do enter into the reign of God. It also emphasizes that at least some of the “cast out” ones were present among Jesus’ audience. Number three implies that those who are entering into God’s reign are not exclusively Jewish, as the question-asker had assumed. This means that the exclusive-minded thinkers must now broaden their horizons, must set aside their traditional beliefs, and must come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t cater to erroneous doctrinal positions, no matter how orthodox they are. The fourth point, Jesus’s conclusion, is the summary and conclusion of points one through three. Jesus’s answer is about what manner or in what order people enter into the reign of God, not about how many. The people who are “first” in Jesus’s audience are God’s chosen, law-covenant people, the natural descendants of Abraham. The people in Jesus’s audience who are “last” are those who were not included in the law-covenant. Jesus speaks about things turning out completely opposite of what one might expect. Why do the first become last and last first? Because those who cling to a works-based salvation (the law covenant) or a salvation that in any way depends upon their own will or effort, are not able to enter in, while those who, by the grace of God, know that Jesus accomplishes salvation, pass by these others and enter into His reign first.
But what about the weeping and gnashing of teeth? What about the gate? What about the master of the house? Jesus speaks plainly enough about entering into the reign of God, something clearly understood to be a spiritual realm or condition. People enter into the reign of God through the faith of Christ, becoming spiritual “sons” of Abraham, hence Jesus’s name-dropping throughout His reply to the individual’s question. In this sense, Abraham is the spiritual “father” of all.
Many people have been led to believe that Jesus is talking about eternal torment in Hell in this passage, but Jesus is talking about the currently bad and soon-to-be dire circumstances of the Jewish people, should they continue to reject their long-awaited Messiah and insist on establishing the kingdom of God by force or human effort.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*The next blog will expound upon Jesus’s message, audience, the political situation, and the dire warning He gave to His listeners. It will also explain the ways in which His message applies to people today.
Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus, Lord of Distance