I am no more accustomed to taking Jesus’ criteria of judgment between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 literally than anyone else socialized into my religion. My first doubt appeared in the form of a “rational” conclusion: “Then it would make more sense to pursue the lesser path—to give food, drink and clothing to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, to show them hospitality, visit them when sick or in prison—rather than the greater path—to hear Jesus’ message and believe the One who sent Him.” The unstated assumption of that conclusion is that my goal is to escape an eternity in hell rather than to know God and glorify Him.
Of course, who is to say that the person who believed Jesus’ teaching enough today to start giving food, drink and clothing to his brothers and sisters, to show them hospitality, or visit them when sick or in prison, wouldn’t begin to hear his message and believe the One who sent Him tomorrow? A question followed: If I take the criteria of judgment between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 literally, what is all the hell talk in the Bible about? I don’t know the answer to that but it’s something I can study along with the other instances of κρίσεως.
“Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town,” Jesus told Simon (called Peter), and Andrew his brother; James son of Zebedee and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. “Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.”
And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, Jesus continued, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or that town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment (ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κρίσεως) than for that town!
When I thought of justice as essentially the equitable distribution of punishment for sin I assumed that more bearable meant less condemned, a more bearable place in hell, less heat, less torture or something. Romans 11 and Ezekiel 16 have given me cause to consider that God’s sense of justice goes well beyond the equitable distribution of punishment for sin (Matthew 10:40-42 NET).
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward (μισθὸν, a form of μισθός). Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward (μισθὸν, a form of μισθός). And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward (μισθὸν, a form of μισθός).
I’m not sure what a prophet’s or a righteous person’s reward is. The same word is used in Revelation, the time has come to give to your servants, the prophets, their reward (μισθὸν, a form of μισθός), as well as to the saints and to those who revere your name, both small and great… Can this μισθὸν (a form of μισθός) be received by those who receive a prophet in the name of a prophet, or those who receive a righteous person in the name of a righteous person, or those who give a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, in hell? I don’t know.
The first mention of hell in the New Testament came not from the mouth of Jesus but from his cousin John the Baptist, when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? I imagine this manner of address shocked men who liked walking around in long robes and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
I didn’t understand this anger at Jewish religious leaders as a special circumstance. I thought Jesus changed the rules on them, tightened up adultery and divorce, and loosened restrictions on ham and shellfish. Yes, they were slow to adopt the new rules. But I related to his anger in the sense that Peter expressed: For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners?
I assumed that if God had been angry like this with, and abusive to, Jewish religious leaders He was only that much more angry with me, though the abusive part didn’t always work out in practice, which was confusing. But I knew even from English classes in public school that we were all “Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God,” (if one were to believe in that sort of thing). It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, the writer of Hebrews agreed.
Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, John the Baptist continued, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!
I saw the relationship between Israel descended from Abraham and believers “born again” of Jesus Christ. I made the connection between producing fruit and the fruit of the Spirit. I had no intention of saying to myself, I have Jesus Christ for my father. I knew God could raise up children for Jesus from stones. I was ready to prove what I could do for God, first by keeping the law and later by producing the fruit of the Spirit.
I didn’t understand for many years that the fruit of the Spirit belonged to the Spirit, part of the glory of God. I thought the “fruits” of the Spirit were things I did that the Spirit of God would approve of, or be pleased with. For all practical purposes I became one of the Pharisees, not that I was ever any good at it. I was never blameless according to the righteousness stipulated in the law. 
Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, John warned, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 
For years I prayed in Sunday worship services, For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, while I worked to rob God of his glory, striving (and failing) to achieve the fruit of his Spirit as if it were my own religious works. And for years He worked to dissuade me of this error, while I persistently refused to believe Him. Or I simply walked away in frustration, persuaded that “this whole religious thing was” futile (though I used a more scatological adjective than futile). The primary reason I know that Love is patient and that love is kind,  is not Paul’s written words, but the way they resonated with the Lord’s patient labor to get through to me, and his kind persistence calling me back from my frustration.
I baptize you with water, for repentance, John the Baptist continued, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Everything about my religion says to me that He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit or fire. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or burn in hell for all eternity.” Yet I’ve heard no one with the courage to change or retranslate this particular conjunction καὶ. John the Baptist continued (Matthew 3:12 NET):
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.
Part of the original question read: “I don’t really like these verses because it’s like the verses about the sheep and the goats and the wheat and the tares. It makes it seem like some people are going to be saved and others aren’t. HOWEVER, couple it with Romans 7:14-20 and it seems to mean something else. In Romans 7:20 ‘Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.’ Now that verse seems like a real cop out! I’ve never understood it very well. But it seems to be saying that that part of the person doing ‘evil’ is separate from the person himself or herself (maybe as far as east is from the west??). So maybe John 5:28 and 29 can be talking about all us dead being raised and our ‘old selves’ get condemned and our ‘new selves’ live eternally with the Lord.”
I don’t know that I see that in John 5:28 and 29, but here in Matthew 3:11 and 12 it sounds more plausible. What is the chaff after all but the body that housed the kernel of grain until it matured? I’m not sure that it proves that Jesus will baptize [us] with the Holy Spirit and fire but I will certainly remember it as an interesting interpretive theory.
“‘Tis everlasting wrath,” Jonathan Edwards wrote in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery: When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.
Is this knowledge of God? Or is it human conjecture?
“If it were only the wrath of man, tho’ it were of the most potent prince, it would be comparatively little to be regarded,” reads one of Edward’s arguments. “The wrath of kings is very much dreaded, especially of absolute monarchs, that have the possessions and lives of their subjects wholly in their power, to be disposed of at their meer will….The subject that very much enrages an arbitrary prince, is liable to suffer the most extreme torments, that human art can invent or human power can inflict. But the greatest earthly potentates, in their greatest majesty and strength, and when clothed in their greatest terrors, are but feeble despicable worms of the dust, in comparison of the great and almighty creator and king of heaven and earth…”
In other words, if an absolute monarch or arbitrary prince became a great torturer of the subjects who angered him, imagine how much greater God must be at devising and inflicting torture. He quoted Jesus to bolster this argument: “And I say unto you my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do: But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear; fear him, which after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell; yea I say unto you, fear him.”
It seems fairly obvious to me, however, that Jesus’ point was not that God (or Jesus Himself) is the superlative torturer, but that those friends who believed Him and lived and spoke in his name should not be afraid of the beatings, imprisonments and deaths they would face at the hands of earthly potentates, absolute monarchs or arbitrary princes (Luke 12:4-7 NET):
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid (φοβηθῆτε, a form of φοβέω) of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear (φοβηθῆτε, a form of φοβέω): Fear (φοβήθητε, another form of φοβέω) the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear (φοβήθητε, another form of φοβέω) him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid (φοβεῖσθε, another form of φοβέω); you are more valuable than many sparrows.
It is as if He said, take all your fear of man, compare it to your fear of God’s wrath and see that it is nothing, then do not be afraid because God cares for you: you are more valuable than many sparrows. To Jonathan Edwards argument I contrast the knowledge of God revealed in Jesus’ command (Matthew 5:43-48 NET):
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward (μισθὸν, a form of μισθός) do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect [loving his enemies].
“God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this congregation…than he is with many of those that are now in the flames of hell,” Jonathan Edward’s told religious-minded folk trusting in their own religion and good works. But Jesus’ attitude was a bit different toward the same sort of people (Matthew 11:27-30 NET):
All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.
As a matter of thoroughness I want to include a comparison of Peter’s quotation from Proverbs 11:31 with the Septuagint. The translation from contemporary Hebrew reads: If the righteous are recompensed on earth, how much more the wicked sinner!
|Peter||Blue Letter Bible (Septuagint)||NET Bible (Greek parallel text)|
|if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners?
1 Peter 4:18 (NET)
|εἰ ὁ μὲν δίκαιος μόλις σῴζεται ὁ ἀσεβὴς καὶ ἁμαρτωλὸς ποῦ φανεῖται
|εἰ ὁ δίκαιος μόλις σῴζεται, ὁ ἀσεβὴς καὶ ἁμαρτωλὸς ποῦ φανεῖται
1 Peter 4:18
Addendum (7/19/2015): Jim Searcy has published that the Septuagint is a hoax written by Origen and Eusebius 200 hundred years after Christ. “In fact, the Septuagint ‘quotes’ from the New Testament and not vice versa…” His contention is that the “King James Version is the infallible Word of God.” So, I’ll re-examine the quotations above with the KJV.
|Peter||KJV||NET Bible (Greek parallel text)|
|And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
1 Peter 4:18 (KJV)
|Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner.
|εἰ ὁ δίκαιος μόλις σῴζεται, ὁ ἀσεβὴς καὶ ἁμαρτωλὸς ποῦ φανεῖται
1 Peter 4:18
If the “King James Version is the infallible Word of God,” Peter interjected the idea of salvation (σῴζεται, a form of σώζω) into the Old Testament idea of earthly recompense.
 John 5:24 (NET)
 Jonathan Edwards, July 8, 1741 http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/edwards-sinners-in-the-hands-speech-text/
 Matthew 6:13b (NKJV) This has been removed from the NET: “Most mss (L W Θ 0233 Ë13 33 Ï sy sa Didache) read (though some with slight variation) ὅτι σοῦ ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία καὶ ἡ δύναμις καὶ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν (‘for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen’) here. The reading without this sentence, though, is attested by generally better witnesses (א B D Z 0170 Ë1 pc lat mae Or). The phrase was probably composed for the liturgy of the early church and most likely was based on 1 Chr 29:11-13; a scribe probably added the phrase at this point in the text for use in public scripture reading (see TCGNT 13-14). Both external and internal evidence argue for the shorter reading.”
 NET note: “With the Holy Spirit and fire. There are differing interpretations for this phrase regarding the number of baptisms and their nature. (1) Some see one baptism here, and this can be divided further into two options. (a) The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire could refer to the cleansing, purifying work of the Spirit in the individual believer through salvation and sanctification, or (b) it could refer to two different results of Christ’s ministry: Some accept Christ and are baptized with the Holy Spirit, but some reject him and receive judgment. (2) Other interpreters see two baptisms here: The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the salvation Jesus brings at his first advent, in which believers receive the Holy Spirit, and the baptism of fire refers to the judgment Jesus will bring upon the world at his second coming. One must take into account both the image of fire and whether individual or corporate baptism is in view. A decision is not easy on either issue. The image of fire is used to refer to both eternal judgment (e.g., Matt 25:41) and the power of the Lord’s presence to purge and cleanse his people (e.g., Isa 4:4-5). The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, a fulfillment of this prophecy no matter which interpretation is taken, had both individual and corporate dimensions. It is possible that since Holy Spirit and fire are governed by a single preposition in Greek, the one-baptism view may be more likely, but this is not certain. Simply put, there is no consensus view in scholarship at this time on the best interpretation of this passage.”
 Furthermore, the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him (John 5:22, 23 NET).