“the sons of the Kingdom.” This is a designation for the Jews, who were called “the sons of the Kingdom” because so many of the Kingdom promises pertained directly to them. The Jews should have all been in the Kingdom, but many (perhaps most of them) rejected God and His Messiah, and they will be excluded from the Messianic Kingdom (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8; Hos. 1:9; Rom. 10:1-3, 21; 11:1-8).
“cast out into the darkness outside.” The “darkness outside” is the darkness that is outside the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven (Jesus spoke of the feast in the Kingdom in Matthew 8:11). The “darkness outside” the feast is the darkness of the Lake of Fire, where the unsaved will be destroyed.
The Bible has different ways of portraying that some people will be saved and the rest will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire, but what we must keep in mind is that there is only one fate for the saved, which is life in the Messianic Kingdom on earth followed by everlasting life in the New Heaven and New Earth. Also, there is only one fate for the unsaved, which is to be destroyed in the Lake of Fire. Once we understand that, we can see that Jesus was teaching that when people are not allowed into the brightly lit Kingdom and feast, the only alternative they have is to be “cast out into the darkness;” into the Lake of Fire.
God describes the fate of the unsaved in different ways to emphasize different aspects of their experience. For example, Jesus taught that the unsaved would be thrown into “Gehenna.” “Gehenna” was the garbage dump south of Jerusalem where much of the garbage of Jerusalem was dumped and then either burned or consumed by maggots (worms). By saying the unsaved would be thrown into Gehenna, Jesus was emphasizing that at the Judgment, the unsaved would be thrown out and destroyed. Historically, the word “Gehenna” came to be used of the Lake of Fire itself, but at the time of Christ it still retained the image of being the garbage dump south of Jerusalem (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33, etc.).
In one of his parables, Jesus compared the unsaved “children of the wicked one” to the “darnel” (“tares” in KJV), that are gathered up and thrown into the fire (Matt. 13:36-43). In that parable, Jesus was emphasizing that the darnel were poisonous and harmful, and were gathered and burned up. In another parable, Jesus compared the unsaved to foolish virgins who were denied entrance to the wedding banquet (Matt. 25:1-13). Besides the obvious lesson about making foolish decisions, in that parable Jesus emphasized that salvation would not always be available—there will be a time when the door will be shut and the Day of Judgment will begin. In another place, Jesus compared the unsaved to “bad fish” that are thrown away in contrast to good fish that are kept (Matt. 13:47-50). One of the things Jesus emphasized by that teaching was that not every person will be kept—some people are wicked (unsaved) and they will be thrown out.
When Jesus taught about the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven and compared it to the “darkness outside,” he was pulling together a number of scriptures and biblical images. Of course, there is the feast itself with “the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isa. 25:6 NIV). Then there is the fact that the feast, and the Kingdom itself, is brightly lit, more brightly lit than any feast on earth has ever been. Isaiah 30:26 says that in the Messianic Kingdom the light of the moon will be as bright as the sun is now, and the light of the sun will be 7 times brighter than it is now. Even if that is a hyperbole, exaggerating the situation somewhat, the fact is that that Kingdom and the feast will be very brightly lit, while those not in the feast, in the Lake of Fire, will be in the “darkness” outside the feast. So when Jesus speaks of the feast in the Kingdom, he is bringing to mind and emphasizing a sumptuous, brightly lit banquet with all the food, fun, and fellowship with all the biblical “greats” like Abraham and David, and at the same time contrasting that wonderful experience with the unsaved who are in the darkness—the darkness of burning sulfur, sadness, crying, pain, anger, and eventually death.
Matthew 8:12 can be difficult to understand because the Greek is an idiom, and idioms can be hard to translate. The Greek text reads ekblēthēsontai eis to skotos to exōteron (ἐκβληθήσονται εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον), which literally means “they will be cast out (or “thrown out” or “driven out”) into the outer darkness.” In their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, the authors Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida point out that this expression is “an idiom.” Translating idioms is very challenging, and the only way to do it correctly is to understand the meaning of the idiom and then bring that meaning into the receptor language with a comparable expression. Louw and Nida say this idiom is referring to “a place or region which is both dark and removed (presumably from the abode of the righteous)…‘outer darkness, darkness outside.’ …In a number of languages, this expression in Matt 8:12 must be rendered as ‘they will be thrown outside where it is dark.’”
Many English versions translate the Greek idiom literally and read that the unsaved will be cast out into “outer darkness,” but translating the idiom literally causes problems. For one thing, what the verse means becomes unclear, and that has led to some false teachings, such as there is an “inner darkness” that is not very dark, and an “outer darkness” that is very dark. Thankfully, many English versions have brought the Greek idiom into English in a way that makes the verse more clear:
Many commentators understand that Matthew 8:11-12 is a reference to the banquet in the Kingdom and the darkness is referring to being excluded from it. Robert Gundry writes about the “outermost darkness,” and says it “refers to the darkness outside the brightly lit hall where the festivities are taking place” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art). Newman and Stine write that “The outer darkness is also used elsewhere by Matthew as a description of the doom that awaits people who reject God” (A Translators Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew).
Matthew 8:11-12 is a graphic portrayal of the future. There will be a huge and wonderful feast in Christ’s future Messianic Kingdom on earth, and many people, both Jews and Gentiles, will be included. Sadly, while the righteous are enjoying the feast, the unsaved, including the Jews who rejected God and His Messiah, will be outside in the darkness; the darkness of the grim flames of the Lake of Fire.
The darkness outside the feast is not well understood by Jews or Christians, and this is usually due to misconceptions that obscure what the Bible is really saying. For example, people who believe that when a person dies they go immediately to heaven or hell think that a person’s judgment happens right when they die, and thus, the “Day of Judgment” is not a “day” at all, but a continuous event. So those people never understand the impact of the resurrection and what it will mean when millions of people all come to life from the dead at the same time, experience the Day of Judgment, and then enter the Messianic Kingdom en masse as a large group.
Similarly, those people who believe that “heaven” is where the saved live and will live forever can never really understand all the hundreds of verses about the restored earth (which is restored to an almost Eden-like state and called “Paradise”), the rebuilt Temple (Ezek. 40-47), Jesus reigning from Jerusalem, the new boundaries of Israel (Ezek. 47:13-48:29), the prophecies of the nations in the future and Christians administering the world to come (1 Cor. 6:2), and much more.
Once we understand that Jesus will come back from heaven and conquer the earth, we get a whole new understanding of the Bible. Jesus will come back from heaven and fight the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:11-21), and conquer the earth. Christians, who were Raptured into heaven will come back down from heaven with him and continue to be with him, as 1 Thess. 4:17 promises. Then, Jesus will set up his Kingdom on earth. There will be the Resurrection of the Righteous, when millions of righteous people from the Old Testament, Gospels, and Tribulation come to life and live in the Kingdom (Ezek. 37:12-14). Also, the people in the Kingdom include the “sheep” (believers) of Matthew 25:31-46. Once all the believers are gathered and the Kingdom is set up, there will be a great, brightly lit feast for everyone. Meanwhile, the unsaved who are alive, such as the “goats” of Matthew 25 and the Antichrist and False Prophet (Rev. 19:20), are not allowed in the feast but are thrown into the darkness of the Lake of Fire (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 19:20; 20:13-15).
[For more on the attributes of the Messianic Kingdom on earth and the names by which it is called, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more about the feast in the Kingdom, see commentary on Matt. 8:11, “recline at the feast.” For more about the unsaved being annihilated in the Lake of Fire and not being tortured forever, see Appendix 5: “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire.” For more about the different resurrections—the Resurrection of the Righteous and the Resurrection of the Unrighteous, see commentary on Acts 24:15. For more about the “sheep” and the Sheep and Goat Judgment, see commentary on Matt. 25:32].
“sobbing and gnashing of teeth.” This phrase expresses some of the horror and sadness that the unsaved will feel on Judgment Day and afterward as they face annihilation in the Lake of Fire. The Greek text reads, “the” sobbing and “the” gnashing of teeth, and one purpose the double article serves is to emphasize both things: sobbing and gnashing. The word “gnashing” can also be translated “grinding.” People will gnash or grind their teeth because Judgment Day and the time following it will be a terrible time for the unsaved.
There is no reference in the Old Testament associating sobbing and gnashing of teeth with the Day of Judgment, but it is certainly implied. Daniel 12:2 says some people will be resurrected and experience “shame” and “contempt.” Furthermore, a large number of verses speak of the wicked being destroyed, which they will obviously be unhappy about, especially when they see so many people who are going to live forever with God and the Lord Jesus (cp. Job. 20:7; Ps. 1:6; 37:10, 20; 73:17-19; 92:7; 145:20; Prov. 10:25; Isa. 41:11; Ezek. 18:4; 33:13-16).
The Bible says in many places in very straightforward language that the wicked will be destroyed by being burned up. They will be consumed like dry stubble (Nah. 1:10, cp. Isa. 29:20), and will vanish like smoke (Ps. 37:20). God’s fire will consume them (Ps. 21:9). Malachi 4:1 says there is a day coming that will burn like a furnace and all the evil people will be like stubble and will be set on fire. Then they will be ashes under the feet of the righteous (Mal. 4:3). John the Baptist and Jesus both spoke of the wicked being burned up, as do many verses in the New Testament (cp. Matt. 3:12; 10:28; 13:40; 18:8; 25:41; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:9; John 15:6; Heb. 10:27; Rev. 19:20; 20:14-15).
While it is possible, even likely, that some people will burn up immediately in the Lake of Fire, the Bible implies that many will suffer for a period of time before being consumed by the fire. The Bible says in many different places that people will be repaid for what they have done on earth (cp. Job 34:11; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Ezek. 33:20; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:5-6; 1 Cor. 3:8), and during that suffering there will be sobbing and gnashing of teeth.
Like many words and phrases in the Bible, the phrase, “sobbing and gnashing of teeth,” has a wide range of meanings. But it is used to describe the disgruntled and inflamed emotions of the unsaved at that time. Sobbing and gnashing of teeth implies a feeling of great loss as well as great pain, and those things will certainly be present. But the gnashing of teeth also implies anger and indignation (Job 16:9; Ps. 37:12; Lam. 2:16; Acts 7:54).
No doubt some of the unsaved will be very sad and sorry, but many others will be angry at God, thinking they are being treated unfairly, and will gnash their teeth at God. Also, it seems certain that some people will be angry and disappointed in themselves—people who “knew” to do better on earth but were too weak-willed to stand up for God against the peer-pressure around them. On earth they went along with the crowd even though God said not to do that: “You must not follow a crowd to do evil” (Exod. 23:2), and so after the Judgment they will again “go along with the crowd” and be part of those who suffer until death consumes them.
The mention of sobbing and gnashing of teeth occurs seven times in the Bible (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). All of these occurrences are in the Gospels, and they are set in three different contexts: two are in the context of the unsaved being thrown into the Fire, and these are more straightforward because of all the clear verses that say the unsaved will be destroyed by fire.
Three of the seven occurrences of sobbing and gnashing of teeth are in the context of the Kingdom being like a great, well-lit banquet where the saved enjoy the blessings of food, fun, and the favor of the Lord (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; Luke 13:28). Many Jews rightly believed that there would be a huge banquet in the Messianic Kingdom, and they would get to recline and eat with all the other saved people and the biblical greats like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David—and that banquet is certainly part of the biblical picture of the Messianic Kingdom. Isaiah 25:6 shows us that God will have a great feast for the saved in the future Messianic Kingdom on earth: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isa. 25:6 NIV). However, the unsaved are excluded from this great and wonderful banquet, and are left outside in the darkness—actually the darkness of the Lake of Fire—and they will sob and gnash their teeth.
The last two occurrences of sobbing and gnashing of teeth are in the general context of not being pleasing to the Lord and ready for him when he comes (Matt. 24:51; 25:30). In Matthew 24:51, the evil person is given a place with the hypocrites where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the scope of Scripture shows us that place is the Lake of Fire. In the parable of Matthew 25:14-30, the master of the house leaves on a trip and entrusts his household and money to his servants. When one of his servants turns out to be “worthless,” the master has him “cast” into the darkness outside, meaning the darkness outside the master’s household. Thus, in the cultural context of the Bible, we can understand that the master’s household is put for the Messiah and his kingdom, and the good servants are the faithful one’s who will be included in the Kingdom, while the worthless servants, the unsaved, are excluded and left in the darkness outside to be destroyed in the Lake of Fire, where there will be sobbing and gnashing of teeth.
[For more on the attributes of the Messianic Kingdom on earth and the names by which it is called, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more about the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven, see commentary on Matt. 8:11, “recline at the feast.” For more about the unsaved being annihilated in the Lake of Fire and not burning forever, see Appendix 5: “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire.” For more about the different resurrections—the Resurrection of the Righteous and the Resurrection of the Unrighteous, see commentary on Acts 24:15].