What is the Everlasting Fire of Matthew 25:41?
Let us begin by looking at the text.
Then he will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:’
This text is one of the more difficult passages to understand about the image of fire in the Bible. However, when studied in connection with what the Bible teaches about hell, this verse is not as difficult as it first appears.
Hell is a Kingdom
As discussed in a previous study, the Bible teaches that hell is a kingdom which is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of heaven. Everything that is true of the kingdom of heaven is also true of the kingdom of hell, but in opposite form.
This will help us understand the parallels in this passage between “the fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matthew 25:34).
The Context of Matthew 24-45
A proper understanding of this passage is further aided by taking careful note of the context in which it occurs.
The entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25) must be understood as Jesus’ answer to two questions from the disciples. They had just come from the temple where Jesus had said that the entire structure would be destroyed. By this, He wasn’t just referring to the building, but to everything it represented.
Jesus was not impressed with religious buildings or the religious establishment they represented. He wanted both to disappear so that people could personally connect with God in freedom and grace.
So Jesus told His disciples that it would all be destroyed, not just the temple, but what it represented as well (Matthew 24:1-2).
In response, the disciples ask two questions.
They want to know (1) when these events will take place, and (2) what will be the signs of His coming and the end of the age (Matthew 24:3).
At this point, the disciples do not realize that Jesus will die on the cross, rise again, and then ascend into heaven. So when they ask about the signs of His coming, they are not referring to His “second coming” the way we think of it today, but to their expectation of how He will be coming into His throne.
They expected the Messiah to overthrow Roman rule and come into His rightful place as the ruler of the entire world. These events would indicate the end of the age and the start of the new, Messianic age. They wanted to know when the war with Rome would begin, and what signs would show its beginnings.
All of the teachings and parables of Matthew 24–25 must be read in light of these two questions. Jesus not only seeks to answer their questions, but also to correct their thinking about His coming.
Jesus wants to show them that His coming from heaven to earth has already occurred in His incarnation, and that the works they have already seen Him perform are the only type of works that His kingdom produces. His kingdom will spread over the face of the earth as promised, but not with military might, political power, or religious regulations (cf. Luke 4:1-13). It will spread through peace and grace.
He first provides the signs of His coming at the end of the age (Matthew 24:4-51). As indicated everywhere else in Matthew, the “age” in which Jesus and His disciples lived ended with His death and resurrection.
The new age began with the birth of the church in Acts 2, but there was a transitionary period with the dying throes of the old age and the birth pains of the new. Some of these dying throes of the old age were evident in the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the religion it represented.
Many seek to consign the events of Matthew 24–25 into some future time period, but Jesus states in Matthew 24:34 that all these things will take place within one generation. One must engage in several hermeneutical contortions to get this statement to refer to more than forty years.
But if we take it at face value, then we see that the words of Jesus did come true within one generation. Less than forty years after Jesus spoke these words, the Roman military laid siege to Jerusalem, and eventually razed it to the ground, burned the temple, and killed over one million Jewish people.
Some of those who heard Jesus say these words saw them come to pass, just as He promised.
Two Options for How to Live
At the end of this teaching section, Jesus presents the two possible options for living in this world as one of His followers (Matthew 24:45-51).
They can either (1) look for His coming which leads them to love and serve others, or (2) they can think that He is not coming and so live selfishly and violently toward others.
Again, when Jesus talks about His coming, He is not referring to His future “second coming” but to the coming of His kingdom in power and glory, which will spread over the face of the earth.
Jesus wants His followers to choose whether they will join Him and participate in spreading His kingdom over the earth, or if they will think that His coming is delayed (cf. 2 Peter 3:4), and so will live according to the values and principles (the kingdom) of this world.
Three Parables as Illustrations of the Two Options
Based on these two options, Jesus then presents three parables as illustrations.
These three parables of Matthew 25 compare and contrast the two kingdoms and how the followers of Jesus will affect and be affected by both.
And since Matthew 24:45-51 contrasted “believing and wise” servants with “unbelieving and foolish” servants, the three parables of Matthew 25 make a similar contrast.
The followers of Jesus are to live in a constant state of readiness for His return and also work to advance the kingdom while they wait. They live in a state of readiness by believing He will return soon, and they advance the kingdom by loving and serving others in His absence.