I earlier stated a conviction that God will finally destroy the unrepentant both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28) in the “second death” (Rev. 21:8). Jesus warns of this “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), which Paul explains to be “eternal destruction” (2 Thes. 1:9). A kind gracEmail reader asks how this explanation fits those passages which refer to “gnashing of teeth.”
* * *
For about 18 centuries, a majority of Christians have understood the phrase “gnashing (or grinding) of teeth” to refer to the unending pain which they presume the lost will endure throughout all eternity. An old story has an evangelist waxing eloquent on the theme when a questioner interrupts. “What,” he asks, “will happen when the damned wear out their teeth?” Without hesitation the evangelist replied, “No problem, brother — God will give them a new set of teeth and they will keep right on grinding!” Anyone with an English Bible and a good concordance can do better than that.
The expression “grinding (gnashing) of teeth” occurs throughout the Bible, where it always describes someone who is so angry at another that he could devour that person like a wild animal. The most familiar example probably appears at the martyrdom of Stephen. The evangelist denounces his attackers as murderers of the prophets, to which they respond by “gnashing their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54). Ancient Job used this expression of God, whom he perceived to be infuriated at him. “His anger has torn me and hunted me down,” Job says, “He has gnashed at me with His teeth” (Job 16:9). David selects this picturesque phrase to make a similar point. “Like godless jesters at a feast,” he says of his enemies, “they gnashed at me with their teeth” (Psalm 35:16). Indeed “the wicked” person in general “plots against the righteous, and gnashes at him with his teeth” (Psalm 37:12). Jeremiah describes Jerusalem’s enemies, who “have opened their mouths wide against” the holy city. “They hiss and gnash their teeth” (Lam. 2:16).
So it will be with the wicked at the end of the world. Seven times in the Gospels — six times in Matthew and once in Luke — Jesus speaks of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in connection with the final banishment of the lost from God’s presence. Three of these scenes portray “outer darkness,” in contrast to the festivity of the Kingdom (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Two texts picture exclusion, without further detail (Matt. 24:51; Lk. 13:28). Two passages have the lost in a “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42, 50). The important point is that wherever they are — and I have no problem using “hell” as a kind of shorthand for the Bible’s numerous symbols for that terrible fate — they are grinding their teeth in ANGER, not in PAIN.
Psalm 112 puts the frosting on the cake in our study of this term. The author pictures the blessedness of the faithful for the first nine verses, concluding with the promise that “His righteousness endures forever; his horn will be exalted in honor” (Psalm 112:9). Then comes the punch-line.
“The wicked will see it and be angry;
he will gnash his teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked will perish”