I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Christians believe we are saved by belief in Jesus, and rejecting that belief in Jesus inevitably leads to separation from God, "outside in the darkness, with gnashing of teeth," as Jesus often put it.
But there is something really significant about every time Jesus talked about this kind of graphic picture of separation, this darkness and gnashing of teeth, or the separating of goats and sheep: it was always about a lack of works, not a lack of faith. When Jesus talked about separation, he was talking in regards to the works of man, and it was those who failed this test of works in his stories that were not included into the Kingdom of Heaven. In these examples, time after time, Jesus did not talk about one's lack of faith, but a lack of one's own good works.
Now, we know this is not the gospel, right? We know the gospel is about belief. We know our works are not what get us in or out of heaven, right?
Well, perhaps someone should explain that to Jesus? Or, perhaps, we are the ones who misunderstand Jesus' reasons for giving those examples? What do you think: is Jesus mistaken, or are we? I'd put my money on Jesus being right.
So, then, why does Jesus give so many examples with these graphic examples about a torturous kind of endless separation?
Firstly, to see things in context we should ask who he is giving these examples to? Take a look, and we find it is always to the Pharisees, and never to the Sadducees. This is really significant. Why? Because the Sadducees didn't believe in an afterlife of heaven or hell, but the Pharisees did.
Now, you would think if Jesus was trying to teach the reality about the afterlife, he would be preaching it to those who rejected the idea, wouldn't he? But he doesn't do that. Instead, he preaches a scary afterlife to the group who devoutly believed in it. That is, they believed it was for everyone else, not them; because they were believers they were confident that they were safe, while eternal separation was the fate for all those pesky unbelievers.
So what did Jesus do? He preached a message they themselves preached, a painful, dark separation, but instead of putting unbelievers in there, in his message, the Pharisees were the ones who ended up in there. Oh, they didn't like that! And I imagine modern day Pharisees wouldn't like it much, either.
Perhaps that was the point Jesus was aiming for? Perhaps his intention was not to preach a correct theology, but to get the Pharisees to question their own wrong theology? Because it is easy to hold a brutal end times theology that relates to other people, but when it suddenly includes you in the receiving end, it just might be a wake up call to rethink that theology?
When Jesus shared his parable of the prodigal son there was no bad ending, no separation, no gnashing of the teeth; rather, there was an abundance of grace, forgiveness and redemption. It is here we see Jesus presenting a graphic picture within his parable that aligns with our true belief regarding the gospel of grace.
What gospel do we believe in? A gospel of works, or a gospel of grace? Do we get into heaven because of what we do, or because of what Christ did on our behalf?
What we believe about the gospel should align with how we interpret the parables, stories, and the rebukes to the Pharisees that Jesus spoke. If we believe we are saved by grace, none of us can squeeze those words of separation and gnashing of teeth Jesus spoke of into a theology that relates to unbelievers. That's not being honest to scripture or Jesus' original intentions for sharing those examples.
So what was Jesus' original intention of all those eternal separation and gnashing of teeth examples?
I think it was to give the Pharisees a taste of their own bad theology. To offend them so much that they might actually take the time to think about just how opposite to God's loving nature such a theology is. Perhaps he wanted them to come to realize their God was far more graceful and embracing towards all mankind than any of them believed? Maybe, just maybe, the graceful ending of the prodigal son parable is the real end times theology he wanted them to come to believe in?