The parable of the sheep and the goats is about salvation but let’s backtrack a little and start at the beginning.
First of all God wants us to be sure of one thing as Christians. There is life after death. Ours is a resurrection faith, based on the fact that God raised Jesus to a new transformed mode of existence. Jesus, when debating life after death with people who did not believe in it said “You are quite wrong, you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”
Secondly We also know that we are all sinful to some degree and need to repent of our sins and if we do then we are absolutely assured of forgiveness. Of this fact a Christian should be secure. We believe in a merciful and forgiving God.
Thirdly, regarding the wider purposes of God We also know (Ezekiel 18:23 & 27) that God desireth not the death of any wicked but that he should turn from his ways and live”
The eternal message of God as enshrined for us most potently in the parable of the prodigal son is “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” no matter how estranged and distant from God and his righteousness we have strayed. Jesus himself said “I come not to judge the world but to save it so the disposition of God is absolutely clear. He doesn’t want to condemn anyone so it stands to reason that people condemn themselves.
That much is clear. We are secure. We are saved and like the penitent thief on the cross we can be sure that when we die Jesus will say “This day you shall be with me in paradise”
But that still leaves a vast ocean of people. What about people who never knew anything about Jesus, or whose exposure to Christianity was so poor that the message never had a chance to settle in their souls?
Here too, our default position is that we have to believe that God is a perfect judge – a God of Justice willing to forgive, not wanting anyone at all to perish.
This is where the parable of the sheep and the goats comes in. By what criteria are people like that conceivably judged? The answer is by by their acts of goodness and mercy
There is also of course evil people committing evil acts with the question hanging over them “So what happens to them?” What about people and systems whose unrepentant crimes are worn as a badge of honour – what happens to them? Well by the same token, by their fruits.
Simply because he is currently in the news I will ask us to consider the fate of “Jihadi John”. In our Christian worldview, what happens to him if he does not repent?
From all the Biblical evidence we can muster, I can say with confidence that he will pay for his crimes and he will suffer for the evil he has done.
And this is what I interpret the parable of the sheep and the goats to actually say to us.
We have already heard in our first reading that God’s redemptive scope is cosmic and that his presence is all in all. So in this way, our actions towards others can legitimately also be seen as actions towards Jesus himself because Christ is in all things.
“Just as you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me”(25: 40)
When Jihadi John decapitated Peter Kassig, a man completely under his power he was in a real Christian sense doing that to Jesus himself.
Yet the impulse of God is still to forgive John. Remember on the cross Jesus said “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”
As an act of faith I believe that in the end as Peter Kassig’s parents said, eventually there will be a healing of the whole world and our merciful God the perfect judge will transform all things and set things right and we have to believe that it is at least possible that a repentant and transformed John will have a part to play in that new heaven and new earth.
But until then I think that without wanting to second guess God the Biblical record is pretty clear that unrepentant sinners of that magnitude will experience much torment, punishment and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This punishment will not be physical of course because the physical body will have died but their soul, the essential part of them that makes them “them” and not someone else, will be separated from God, not by God himself, who desires not the death of a sinner, but condemned by their own hand – their own actions.
The final comment on this for ourselves is this; Life after death means that what we do now has eternal consequences so what we build in our life, in the shape of good deeds matters. St. Paul as ever says it much better
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.(2 Corinthians 3:12-15)