Another text dealing with hell is found in Matthew 25 and is another parable told by Jesus. The parable is often used as a picture of the final judgment where the unsaved are separated from the saved by being thrown into hell.
A few things to point out…
Just like the parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” we take part of the text as metaphoric and part as literal, and of course, the separation into eternal fire is the part we take to be literal.
Here again we should ask, “Is this a text about going to Heaven or Hell after you die?
If we look at a few of the details I think we can come to the conclusion that its not.
First the analogy begins with a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Again, we usually think of the sheep as believers and the goats as non-believers, but if we take the metaphor serious we have to think the goats also belong to the shepherd. Why would a shepherd be separating his sheep from someone else’s goats?
Also, just like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the reasons the Sheep are considered “righteous” and the goats are “condemned” is not because of their beliefs and theology, but rather it’s because one group took care of “the least of these” and the others didn’t. In other words, this judgment is based on works, not a belief system.
So rather than interpreting this story that Jesus tells as a definite separation of believers and non-believers after death, maybe it would be better interpreted as a story describing the importance of caring for the poor here and now. When viewed in this way, is it possible we are sometimes the goats instead of the sheep (we always assume we are the sheep)?
Another detail I find fascinating is not only the fact the “judgment” is based on taking care of the needy, but also that the sheep had no idea what they were doing? When the sheep are declared righteous what is their response? “Lord, when did we see you…” to which the king replies, “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.” It seems that those declared righteous took care of the least of these not because they were commanded to or mandated or because it was part of their religious beliefs, but rather for no other reason than love.