Degrees of Punishment: Interpreting the Parable of Faithful and Unfaithful Slaves (Luke 12:41-48), Part 1

hell2Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned Luke 12:41-48 as demonstrating that Jesus promises that there will be degrees of punishment for the damned. However, I’ve never attempted to work through the passage in its entirety or literary context. Recently, some readers have questioned my reading, and so it seems timely to sort through the text in more detail.

Background

Conditionalism

As long-time readers know, I take a conditionalist interpretation of the hell passages in the scriptures. That is, I believe that the saved are given immortality by God as a reward for their faith in Jesus (including their trust and faithfulness). This is grace and hence unmerited. No one actually deserves to live forever with God. It’s a gift.

On the other hand, the damned are not given immortality. Rather, they are judged, punished with perfect justice (by separation from God and whatever other suffering is just), and then extinguished. They cease to exist, which is the “second death” of Revelation or eternal death, in contrast to the eternal life received by the saved.

Hence, I reject the traditional teaching of perpetual conscious torment as simply not taught in scripture and plainly unjust as, under the tradition interpretation, even very good people, with very few sins, suffer the same fate as the greatest sinners in history. The NT routinely describes the fate of the damned as “death” or “destruction,” which words are the very opposite of “don’t die” and “aren’t destroyed” — which is the traditional teaching.

I’ve written extensively on this subject. See here and here. The seminal and definitive text is Edward Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes. There are now several other books out on the topic.

Matthew’s version

Matt 24:45–51 is a second version of the same parable. Matthew’s version is much shorter than Luke’s and does not contain the portion of the saying dealing with degrees of punishment. However, very significant is the fact that Matthew’s version of the parable is placed immediately after Jesus’ prophecy of the Second Coming, which takes up the middle portion of the same chapter.

I covered the interpretation of Matt 24 in a recent series:

1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 1

1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 2

1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 3

(PS — These posts are based on a lesson I taught in 1975, the first adult Bible class I ever taught. You know, “Fools rush in …” Still, the interpretation (not original with me) has stood up well over the decades, and the necessity of reading Jesus in light of the OT has stuck with me all these years.)

Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright

In his monumental Jesus and the Victory of God, N .T. Wright argues that many of Jesus’ warnings and parables speak to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, rather than the Second Coming. He doesn’t deny the Second Coming (he’s not a full preterist) and doesn’t deny that many of Jesus’ sayings in fact relate to the Second Coming. He just wants us not to assume that every prophecy is about the Second Coming.

Therefore, when we take up a saying of Jesus, we need to ask which event is he speaking of — the destruction of Jerusalem, the Second Coming, or even some other event?

Wright takes the position that this passage is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, but gives only a conclusory argument. I disagree because —

  1. In Matthew’s parallel account, it immediately follows a prophecy of the Second Coming.
  2. In Luke’s account, as explained below, I believe the parable immediately follows a series of parables speaking to the Second Coming.
  3. I can’t see any way that the teaching on degrees of punishment fits the historical reality of the destruction of Jerusalem. Innocents — mothers and infants, for example — were starved to death. Jews trying to escape rather than rebel against Rome were crucified. The suffering of Jewish people during their rebellion was not tied to their awareness of God’s demands.
  4. I find that, while I agree with Wright’s general claim that some of Jesus’ teachings relate to the destruction of Jerusalem, he includes more of Jesus’ teachings in this category than I think the text justifies. So I’m not surprised that he might include this text in his list, as I believe that he overreaches in a number of cases.

Context in Luke

In Luke, the parable is part of a series of parables. Luk 12:13-31 is the parable of the rich fool, tied closely to Jesus’ teaching — “consider the lilies” — on worry about possessions.

(Lk. 12:20 ESV)  20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

Luke 12:20 does not sound like the destruction of Jerusalem to me.

In Luke 12:22, Jesus urges his listeners to accumulate treasures in heaven, concluding —

(Lk. 12:39-40 ESV)  39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into.  40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

This is language that, in Matthew 24 and 1 Thess refers to the Second Coming. In fact, Jesus, in Matt 24, gave his disciples guidance to know when to flee Jerusalem as the Roman army approached — so this seems clearly to refer to the Second Coming. (It really helps to have first sorted through Matt 24 before working through these other passages.)

So I read the parables and sayings that precede our parable to be Second Coming teachings.

Verse by verse

Luke 12:41-43

Immediately following the close of the preceding parable (Luke 12:39-40 quoted above), Peter asks a question:

(Lk. 12:41 ESV)  41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”

Peter, who is always the most outspoken of the apostles, seems worried about the teaching. He knows it applies to the apostles. My guess is that he was concerned with —

(Lk. 12:37-38 ESV)  37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.  38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!

Jesus promises a sumptuous reward for those who are prepared for his coming. Peter is thus asking whether this reward is for all disciples or just the apostles.

Jesus replies with another parable and offers no direct answer — but his point will be clear enough.

(Lk. 12:42-43 ESV)  42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?  43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.

Jesus now speaks directly to the obligations and opportunities for a faithful and wise manager (“steward” in the KJV). The Greek is oikonomos, which refers to the manager of a household or personal estate. This person was usually a slave or freed-man (former slave).

In Jesus’ parable, the manager was charged to distribute food presumably raised on the master’s farm to the manager’s household. He is charged with feeding the master’s family.

“Servant” in v. 43 translates doulos, which means bond-servant. “Slave” is usually not used by translators, as the word brings up images of American slavery in the 19th Century — and Greco-Roman slavery was different in some key ways. “Servant” is the alternative, but it doesn’t capture the idea either.

The closest analogy to the American experience would be indentured servants prior to the American Revolution — free people who sold their labor for up to seven years, often in exchange for payment for passage to the New World.  In fact, the English seven-year limit on indentured servitude was based on the Torah (Deu 15:1-3). They were effectively slaves for seven years, but they were also countrymen, had significant legal protections, entered into the arrangement voluntarily, and were assured of freedom in seven years. The arrangement was economic rather than racial.

Thus, indentured servants were generally treated with far greater dignity than the African slaves in America — who were thought of as property and had no legal rights and little expectation of freedom.

The manager of a master’s estate in this case was a doulos, meaning an indentured servant. The Jews were not allowed to have fellow Jews as slaves, only as indentured servants or free employees. Therefore, we have a man, surely a Jew in this context, who held the lowest social estate possible among their fellow Jews but who was given a very high responsibility.

Clearly, Jesus seems to be answering Peter’s question by addressing the responsibility of the apostles. The early church took this to also include church leaders charged to feed Jesus’ family with the Word. I think the early church got it right.

Jesus’ first conclusion is that the manager would not know when the master would return  — and so he should be ready for the return at any time. Jesus is no fan of procrastination when it comes to Kingdom work.

[to be continued]

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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17 Responses to Degrees of Punishment: Interpreting the Parable of Faithful and Unfaithful Slaves (Luke 12:41-48), Part 1

  1. the fire is never quenched? they have no rest day or night forever? darkness is reserved forever?

    Jay, you DO believe in conscious temporary suffering for the unrighteous after death.

  2. dwight says:

    There are places where we have degrees of glory, the first will be last, thus degrees, so why is it hard to believe the same doesn’t exist in punishment as well. John was caught up into the third heaven, which shows degrees of heaven, maybe. There is so much we don’t know and can only speculate on and won’t know until the day.

  3. Rick Griffis says:

    Jay,
    What other titles address the conditionalist position since the release of Fudge’s book?

  4. Larry Cheek says:

    Dwight,
    In the phrase, “the first shall be last” is not suggesting degrees of glory in any fashion in my understanding.
    If there is a variation in these it is time [first and last] represents a period of time. First and last is not compensation it is [time]. Even with that in mind, we have no way of determining exactly how these are going to be administered. Notice, in Luke 30 it appears that there will not be a specific order, it looks to me like these are total opposites. So what would that really represent, (no specific order). No one will be given precedence over another. The exact opposite of degrees of glory. What other way is there to explain equality? In Mat 20:13-16 the reward is exactly the same amount, the difference that the workers are concerned about is time and effort (work), and this is a very heavy concern for mankind today, we are hearing it even on this blog.
    Mat 19:29-30 ESV And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (30) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
    Mat 20:13-16 ESV But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? (14) Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. (15) Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ (16) So the last will be first, and the first last.”
    Mar 9:35 ESV And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
    Mar 10:29-31 ESV Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, (30) who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (31) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
    Luk 13:29-30 ESV And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. (30) And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    In the past clicking on a link to one of your previous lessons we went directly to the post on your site. Now I am being redirected to Wineskins and will be required to register and login to read your previous post. I had have avoided many sites that would overload my email with their activity. My email is monitored with my cell phone and it is also used for business purposes, I do not need more email. What is the advantage for me to create an account with Wineskins?

  6. dwight says:

    Larry, I wasn’t necessarily arguing that the first and last directly applied to heaven, but that there are orders and placements in line with what we do and how we are accepted and it is not usually in direct proportions to how we think about ourselves, but where God places us. Although from what I understand that one can come to Christ at anytime and be accepted, so first and last is probably relative in that those who perceive themselves to be first will be last (probably not accepted) and those who perceive themselves to be last will preferably be. If they are truly last in line, then this is like someone being asked to understand while going to heaven that they are not worthy of it, because they are prideful, but still going. This might be true, but then again those that thought they were worthy were often the Pharisees and were condemned for it, so I’m not sure I buy this line of reasoning.
    But like I said we can speculate about it, but in reality we don’t really know and in reality it will just be enough to be there.

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    Dwight,
    Yes. Just being there is equality. Therefore, first or last is being fruitless, of no special value.

  8. Monty says:

    Store up for yourself treasures in heaven. We will all have treasure in heaven but to think that each person is sending on ahead or storing up the same amount makes no sense.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    Monty,
    The amount being stored is exactly covered in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those who worked the most and the longest under the stress of the day, saw an imbalance of pay verses production and efforts. You are seeing the same. I understand that the pay in this parable is the same and that is what I see is comparable to The Kingdom of Heaven. I have not been able to see those variations of rewards in this parable. Notice carefully, Jesus compares the actions in this parable to The Kingdom of Heaven. I might be very important to me if you could show another view into Jesus’s presentation here which would clear the air in my understanding.

    Mat 20:1-16 ESV “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (2) After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. (3) And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, (4) and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ (5) So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. (6) And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ (7) They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ (8) And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ (9) And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. (10) Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. (11) And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, (12) saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (13) But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? (14) Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. (15) Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ (16) So the last will be first, and the first last.”

  10. Monty says:

    Larry,

    I believe the parable has more to do with being saved by grace and not by how long you worked. IMO it doesn’t have anything to do with “storing up” treasure. Storing up is based on what we do, salvation is based in Jesus’ death on the cross. Naturally it follows(or should) that if we believe in Jesus we will do good works. If there are degrees of punishment(I believe there will be). Then it follows that there will be degrees of reward(whatever that may entail). In heaven there will not be jealousy of others who were rewarded more than some. That’s a fleshly thing. We give honor to whom honor is due. It’s up to the Father who gets the best seats and He doesn’t play the favorite game. All will be “rewarded’ according to what they have done.

  11. Dwight says:

    Monty, I also believe that this is true, but on the other hand it will also probably mean that I will not receive much in heaven if I am there, but that is fine because heaven with God will be worth it.
    In Matthew 10 the mother of the sons of Zebedee ask Jesus that her sons be placed, one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus when in the Kingdom (heaven), but Jesus defers any and all placements to God the Father.
    “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”
    And then argues that the placement of greatness is dependent upon who serves in the greatest way. This is motivation for those to not just sit around and expect great rewards, but argues that the level of reward is a result of level of service. This is something we should probably teach more. Many think that doing just enough for others will be rewarded the same as those who do much for others.

  12. Alabama John says:

    And many don’t do much at all, but are great at quoting scriptures.
    Hope for their sake there is a written test for those like them so they can obtain heaven.

  13. So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’

  14. Larry says:

    Jay, if it is true that all souls do not exist eternally and are snuffed out of existence after a period of time in torment, then there is really no incentive for the wicked to become righteous.

    Whether an unrepentant petty thief or one who commits torturous genocide on a multitude of people, all of them are going to meet the same eventual fate. All of the wicked will eventually reach a point in time where they will have no knowledge or pain of anything they ever did. That doesn’t sound like such a bad “punishment” to me.

    A basic tenet of atheism is the non existence of perpetual, conscious punishment after death. So they basically believe the same thing you do, except for them all are extinguished immediately after physical death. Hence, I believe this doctrine is shortsighted and implicitly charges God with not being as wise as Scripture says He is.

    Thoughts?

  15. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry,

    You equate “no punishment” with “finite punishment.” Are you serious? Jail is temporary, but it serves as a deterrent to many. 39 stripes are temporary. But few would sign up for 39 stripes! To suggest that punishment must last forever to matter goes against all human experience.

    When your parents punished you as a child, it was always temporary — and yet you were effectively disciplined. If they punished you forever, or even the rest of their lives, for your mistakes, they’d be horrible parents and you’d be one messed up person.

    So let’s take an example. A child attains the age of accountability. Let’s pretend it’s 12. So the child has a totally clean slate. The child then sins by disobeying her parents. She sasses her mother, just once. And then she dies in a tragic accident with one sin against her. And she’s to be tortured forever so that God will be just and her friends will not yield to the temptation to disobey their parents? I don’t buy it.

    I drive a car that will go very fast. But I fear speeding tickets, jail, and higher insurance premiums. And so I don’t drive as fast as I want to. Even though the penalties are quite temporary. By what logic must God punish me forever to keep me from speeding when the state of Alabama gets the same result with a temporary punishment?

    Speaking as a chronic pain sufferer, I think a lot of people forget what pain feels like, and so we imagine that we’re tough enough to handle whatever God might dish out — since it will finite. And I’m telling you that you’re not. You can prove me wrong by voluntarily spending 1 month in a maximum security prison as an inmate. Or take 39 stripes with a Roman whip across your back. Or have your dentist pull a tooth without anesthetic. I mean, if you can’t manage that, then you sure can’t handle one second of the wrath of God.

    One fundamental principle of Torah is called Lex Talionis, meaning that the punishment should fit the crime. “An eye for an eye” was interpreted by the rabbis as meaning the punishment should fit the crime, but they never literally took an eye. They imposed a fine that represented the value of an eye — which is pretty much how we do it today in the USA. This is God’s justice. The rules don’t change just because a new age begins. The punishment should still fit the crime.

    The notion of eternal punishment has scared many a person into a baptism, but not many have been scared into love. The fundamental principle of Torah is “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength.” And true love cannot come from fear — much less horror. Obedience may well come from horror, but it only comes from self-love and self-preservation. True love of God requires that God be understood to be truly just (or gracious). And everlasting torture does not meet anyone’s definition of justice.

    PS — Most unbelievers don’t want to die. The prospect of ceasing to exist is seen by most as dreadful. In my estate planning work, people with a strong faith always are glad to sign a living will allowing life support to be withdrawn. They all say, “I’m going to a better place. Pull the plug.” Those without faith routinely insist on extreme life-extending measures. I don’t know what people say over coffee, but when it gets down to signing papers, I can always tell who has faith and who doesn’t.

    So the atheists may believe in extinguishment of life with no afterlife, but that doesn’t mean they are, deep down inside, good with that outcome. It’s a nice debating point, but it’s not how people really feel and live. Mankind yearns for an afterlife because we have a deeply rooted desire to live forever built into us — by God. It’s part of being in his image. Some people cleverly rationalize around it, but most atheists I’ve talked to believe in some vague, undefined existence post-death. They don’t believe in God, but they believe they’ll be around in some vague sense — rather as the Greeks did. And when it’s time to sign the living will, they don’t do so happily. Christians of genuine faith are happy to sign.

  16. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay.
    I do believe that we humans have any authority to question God about his judgement’s. Man wants to force God to meet his concepts of judgement. While reading the Bible about judgement’s that were administered to whole nations outside of Israel, who believes that God was just as he exterminated all life, men, women, children and even unborn in the womb. If mankind can believe that God was justified in those actions than nothing else should even be questioned. Using the same criteria against those death sentences, what did the women and children do that was deserving of the punishment? How is there any difference in application today? Would we believe that God only killed the body they lived in then but those of the nations which He punished will be be resurrected into a life with him because they were not participants of the sins that the nation had committed? Point being when we get involved in God’s judgement’s we are out of bounds.

  17. Larry Cheek says:

    Correction; I do not believe

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