Jesus warns, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matt 10:28). The Greek word for “destroy” (ἀπόλλυμι) denotes loss of life (i.e., death; Matt 2:13; 10:39; 26:52; 27:20), which indicates that Gehenna (commonly translated “hell”) consumes those who enter it. The imagery in Matthew 25 of a fire that brings the “punishment” of death underscores the destruction in 10:28 (cf. 25:41; Isa 66:24; click here for more on this imagery). Yet, while Yeshua describes a place of obliterative judgment where people cease to exist, he also alludes to the lawless being “thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 50). This description seems to suggest that those in the fire remain conscious and emotive. Careful textual analysis can resolve this apparent contradiction: the fire destroys both the body and soul, but there is weeping and gnashing of teeth prior to destruction.
According to Matthew, Jesus says that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” in a “furnace of fire” (κάμινον τοῦ πυρός; káminon tou puros; 13:42, 50). More often, the forum for this eschatological emotionality is “outer darkness” (σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον; skótos tò exóteron; 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Both images describe the same reality, and the “outer darkness” can clarify the “fiery furnace.” In Matthew, “darkness” (σκότος; skótos) is a metaphor for impending death or destruction. First, the Gospel cites Isaiah: “The people dwelling in darkness (σκότος) have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death (σκιᾷ θανάτου), on them a light has dawned” (Matt 4:16; cf. Isa 9:1 LXX). Jesus’ ministry saves those who sit under looming death. Second, the Sermon on the Mount uses “darkness” to illustrate miserliness with earthly treasures that “moth and rust destroy” (6:19-23). Finally, before Jesus’ death “there was darkness over all the land” (27:45) and, shortly thereafter, Yeshua “yielded up his spirit” (27:50). Where there is darkness, death is not far behind. Thus, when Matthew mentions “weeping and gnashing” in outer “darkness,” readers should envision the despair that occurs just before destruction in Gehenna. By extension, the same scenario should be true of the “weeping and gnashing” at the fiery furnace: just before death, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In Luke, Jesus confirms that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” happen before the unrighteous enter Gehenna. Anticipating his end-time words to the rebellious, Yeshua declares, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you [are] being cast out” (13:27-28; cf. Matt 8:11-12). The Greek word for “being cast out” (ἐκβαλλομένους; ekballoménous) describes presently occurring action: as these people are in the process of departing from divine presence, they cry and grind their teeth when they see the righteous in God’s increasingly distant kingdom. The outcasts weep and gnash on their way to hell, not inside of it. According to Matthew, after this expression of emotion the expelled are extinguished (10:28); no one continues to kvetch once they get to Gehenna. Insofar as Luke illuminates Matthew, the Gospels present a coherent picture of an eschatological exit in which sorrow and anger—“weeping and gnashing of teeth”—precede decisive death on the outskirts of eternal life.