The Outer Darkness :: by Jack Kelley

I’ve received several questions lately asking for clarification of the term “Outer Darkness.”So here is an updated and expanded version of a study I did on the subject several years ago.The outer darkness is mentioned a total of four times in the New Testament; three by name and one by implication and always by Jesus.

The term is not used anywhere else in the Old Testament or New or by anyone else.Those who ask about the outer darkness want to know if it’s another name for the place of eternal punishment or if it’s some place different. And they want to know who’s going there.

The problem I’ve had in researching this is there is no general agreement among scholars as to what it is, where it is or even for whom it’s intended.While most experts say it’s for unbelievers some actually teach that it’s a place where believers who have not properly sanctified themselves will go after the Rapture.

According to these teachers some believers will be taken in the Rapture because they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again.But instead of beginning their eternal life of bliss in the presence of the Lord, they’ll spend the Millennium “outside, in the darkness”learning to live a holy life so they’ll be fit to dwell in the Lord’s presence during eternity.Thankfully, there’s not a shred of biblical evidence to support this view.

On the contrary, at the moment of the Rapture all believers will be made perfect, conformed to the likeness of the Son (Romans 8:29, 1 John 3:2), having become in fact that which we currently are by faith (2 Cor. 5:17).

There’s also no agreement as to whether the outer darkness is a physical location or simply a state of being. The phrase outer darkness literally means, “outside, where there is no light.” But the Greek word for darkness can be used metaphorically to mean spiritual ignorance or blindness.An accompanying phrase describes it as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, which denotes extreme anguish and utter despair.

So whether you think it’s a state of mind or a physical location the outer darkness is obviously not a nice place to be.

For many generations it was simply thought to be another name for Hell. But Hell, or more accurately Hades, is not a permanent destination. It’s a temporary one that will be thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the Millennium (Rev. 20:14). What I read about the outer darkness leads me to believe it’s a permanent state.

So let’s take another look at its four appearances to see if we can answer some of the lingering questions about the outer darkness.

The first time Jesus mentioned the outer darkness was in Matt. 8:12 at the end of His encounter with the Roman Centurion. When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.


Matt. 8:5-12

“Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.’Jesus said to him, ‘I will go and heal him.’ The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In this reference to the outer darkness, Jesus was clearly speaking to and about Israel. He was criticizing the Jews because a Gentile Roman soldier was demonstrating a stronger faith in Him than they had. He said that their lack of faith would result in people from all over the world (Gentiles) inheriting the Kingdom, while the Jews, who were the Kingdom’s intended subjects would be thrown into the outer darkness, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Israel was then (and will be again) God’s Kingdom on earth. The Lord repeated His warning to them in Matt. 21:43 when He said, “Therefore I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” It’s obvious that the Lord believed they were the subjects of the Kingdom or else why would He threaten to take it away from them?

So in His first mention of the outer darkness the Lord warned the Jewish people of His time that at the End of the Age, Gentile believers like the Centurion would join the Jewish patriarchs at the Feast inaugurating the Kingdom Age while they themselves would be thrown outside into the darkness for failing to recognize their Messiah.

The next time He mentioned it was in Matt. 22:13 as part of His parable of the Wedding Banquet:

Matt. 22:1-14

“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.

Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

There are three things to keep in mind here. First, the bride is never mentioned in this parable. Second, a bride is not considered a last minute guest and in any case could never be thrown out of her own wedding. And third, the banquet follows the wedding, so in the context of the parable the wedding has already taken place.

To accept the view that this parable is about the Church you have to ignore these facts. Then you have to assume that some in the Church are the Bride while others are not. But the Bible never even hints of that. It’s a manmade conclusion without any support. If we’re saved, we’re in the Church and if we’re in the Church we are the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2).

In parables everything is symbolic of something else, and the Bible always explains what they stand for. Isaiah 61:10 explains that the wedding clothes represent righteousness:

“I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

Here’s how I see it: In Rev. 16:15, just after the Sixth Bowl Judgment and long after the Church has departed, the Lord said, ‘Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.’”

He was alluding to the fact that the doctrine of eternal security will expire with the Rapture, a fact that Jesus also taught in the Parable of the 10 Virgins. Tribulation believers will be saved by faith, just like everyone else, but will be responsible for keeping themselves saved, or as John said, keeping their clothes with them. Rev. 14:12 says they will do this by obeying God’s commandments and remaining faithful to Jesus.

The man ejected from the banquet was a last minute guest. He represents Tribulation survivors, none of whom are part of the Church. He was trying to receive the blessing of those invited to the wedding banquet that occurs at the time of the Second Coming (Rev. 19:9).

The wedding banquet represents the Millennium.But He either hadn’t remained faithful and had lost his salvation or was never saved at all. Remember, the servants invited both the “good” and the “bad” and it isn’t clear whether this man had wedding clothes and lost them, or never had them in the first place.

Either way, the point is that He was there in His own righteousness and it was insufficient. When he tried to gain entrance into the banquet, he was discovered and ejected.

So the second reference applies to unbelieving survivors from the Great Tribulation who will be denied a place in the Kingdom for lack of the righteousness that comes by faith, and will be banished to the outer darkness instead.

Matt. 24:45-51
Next is the Parable of the Servants

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.

But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This parable has only an implied reference to the outer darkness, calling it a place for hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 24:51). Since the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” accompanies every other mention of the outer darkness, I think it’s safe to include it in our study.

The timing of this parable was established as early as Matt. 24:29-30 which makes everything that follows pertain to people on earth at the time of the Second Coming. As a matter of fact, all the Olivet Discourse parables describe the destinies of Tribulation survivors. You can easily confirm this by also looking at Matt. 24:36-37, Matt. 25:1 and Matt. 25:14.

The Parable of the Servants is about those who will have held positions of spiritual leadership during the Great Tribulation. In the Millennial Kingdom the Lord will elevate leaders who have kept the Word of God through the intense hardship and persecution of the times, and have taught sound doctrine to the flocks entrusted to them to a place of authority. (Remember, no Tribulation survivor will enter the New Jerusalem, but will dwell on earth during the Lord’s Millennial reign.)

But having forsaken the truth, the wicked servants will no longer be watching for the Lord’s return, ignoring the obvious fulfillment of prophecy all around them and ridiculing those whose child-like faith sustains them. They are the worst of all enemies because they’ll look and sound like friends. They’re like the one John describes as appearing to have the authority of the Lamb but who speaks the words of the Dragon (Rev. 13:11).

The Greek word translated hypocrite was often used to describe an actor or pretender, someone who appears to be something he’s not. So for the third time we see the outer darkness as a place for unbelievers. In this case it’s those who have betrayed the trust placed in them.

The Lord’s final reference to the outer darkness appears at the end of the Parable of the Talents:

Matt. 25:14-30

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. “Master,’ he said, ‘You entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘You entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Like the other Olivet Discourse parables, the timing of this one is after the Second Coming, the judgment is on earth, and the man who had his only talent confiscated demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge of and faith in his master. He thought of Him as a hard man who accepted credit He didn’t deserve and he was afraid the master would treat him unfairly.

This person can’t be a believer because no believer feels that way about Jesus. His punishment is to be consigned to the outer darkness.

So in all four cases, the ones being judged are unbelievers and their punishment is to live in a state of total obscurity where they will experience extreme anguish and utter despair. The fact that there’s no expanded teaching on the outer darkness elsewhere in the Bible leads me to believe the Lord was speaking of a place we’re already familiar with, but describing it in a way that helps us understand how it will feel to be there.

Remember, the words obscurity, extreme anguish and utter despair are associated with the outer darkness. To be there is to be cut off from the presence of the Lord and everyone else, existing in total obscurity. The dictionary defines anguish as excruciating or acute distress, suffering, or pain, and despair as a state of utter hopelessness.

That, my friends, is the consequence of unbelief. Whether you call it Hell, Hades, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, or the Outer Darkness, you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to spend even an hour there.