Over the years I have been increasingly troubled by the doctrine of Hell. As my love for God and my neighbor increased, the horror at the thought of many of those I love suffering eternal punishment increased with it. In other words, this was not a crisis of faith, it was the result of my faith. The more I experienced God's grace in my life and grew to share Jesus' heart for the lost, the more I was troubled by Hell.
Now what makes this even more complicated is the fact that most of the statements about Hell found in the Bible are said by Jesus. The one who is leading me to question Hell, seems to be the very one who teaches it. Similarly, Jesus is known for preaching love of enemies and nonviolence, yet many of his teachings use very violent imagery. Again, how can we understand these apparent contradictions? How can we think of Jesus as compassionate and loving when he says such harsh things?
Consider the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35). Jesus tells the story of a king who forgives his servant a huge debt, but then when he hears that this same servant has refused to forgive a very small debt, the king becomes enraged. Jesus tells us that the king "handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed" and he concludes, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Are we to conclude from this that if we don't forgive others that God will torture us in hell forever? It is crucial here to look at the context: Jesus tells this parable in response to a question from Peter where he asked Jesus "how many times must I forgive, seven times?" Jesus answers "no, seventy-seven times" (v. 21-22). So if we read this like an accountant we would need to conclude that we should forgive 77 times, but God does not do this. Reading like an accountant, we would conclude that God does not even forgive seven times like Peter suggests, or two times for that matter -- you just get one chance and that's it. God here appears at first infinitely merciful, forgiving a huge debt, and then suddenly flips and wants to torture us forever.
Does God suffer from some form of borderline personality disorder where he is at first loving and forgiving, and then suddenly becomes brutal and merciless? Are we more merciful than God? No and no! Parable are analogies, and as everyone knows if any analogy is pressed too far it becomes absurd (as demonstrated here). The broad point Jesus is making here is that it would be really horrible if we were forgiven a great debt, but then turned around and were merciless to others. We should treat others with the same grace that we need, and which God has richly shown us.
This is an interpretation that fits with the overall point of this pericope. To read it literally would mean that the point Jesus was making to Peter was completely undermined by the parable he told to illustrate it -- be merciful as your Heavenly Father is... who is not merciful at all. Clearly, that cannot be what Jesus was trying to convey! To understand Jesus we need to listen tin the context of his larger point, which here is about radical unconditional grace.
Now, let's take this a step further: In the above parable Jesus compares God to a king who -- in the way dictators do -- flies into a rage and orders torture for an ungrateful servant. Yet if we keep reading in Matthew, we see that a couple chapters later, Jesus questions the entire idea of comparing God to a king:
In other words, Jesus models the way of God, not as one who "lords it over others" but as the servant Lord. Following Jesus means rejecting the way of domination, the way of kings.
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them... Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:25-28).
To the extent that you have embraced that idea, you will have a problem with the above parable of the king. You'll read "God is like an angry king" and think "No, Jesus teaches us that God is not at all like a king, God is like a suffering servant," and you would be absolutely right. In each of these parables, Jesus is turning our thinking upside down. In the first parable, Jesus replaces escalation of violence with the escalation of mercy. In the second he is similarly dismantling our understanding of greatness, and redefining how we see God. God is the servant. Power is about lifting people up, not pushing them down.
In doing this, Jesus not only dismantles our traditional concepts of what justice and power are about, at the same time, he also dismantles his own parables. Once we have embraced Jesus' understanding of servant lordship, we cannot accept the crude comparison of God to a volatile dictator. So when reading these parables as disciples of Jesus, we need to keep in mind that each one is beginning with the assumptions of the crowds. He begins there, with their familiar ideas of kings and slaves and torture and then introduces a radical new idea into the mix which flips one of those ideas on its head. The more we embrace these ideas of Jesus' "upside-down kingdom," the more we will have trouble with the worldly assumptions that these very parables are situated in. That's not because we are disagreeing with Jesus here, but because we have fully embraced his new way of thinking. So the more we follow Jesus, the more we'll question the worldly values the parables are set in.