“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24; see Matthew 19:16-30 for entire passage; also see Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30).
Does Jesus teach that all rich people go to Hell? This is one of those verses in Scripture that is constantly misunderstood (and in more than one way). It appears in a section of the gospels where Jesus is confronted by a rich man who asks how he can get eternal life. Jesus answers the man by telling him to obey the commandments of God (19:18). The rich man then says that he has followed all of the commandments, and Jesus replies with a statement that has been misunderstood for centuries – the rich man must sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Instead of obeying Christ, the rich man went away weeping (19:21-22). This is when Jesus says the infamous camel through the needle’s eye remark.
There are a couple different misunderstandings with this passage. First, the “eye of the needle” was a gate in Jerusalem that was so narrow that camels could barely squeeze through. Many have accepted this explanation since it does not seem to condemn all rich people to hell. Second, all rich people are to sell their possessions to get into Heaven. Essentially all poor people will go to Heaven and everyone who is wealthy will go to Hell. So is either of these beliefs true?
Both of these interpretations are false. There was no gate in Jerusalem that was so small a camel could barely get through it. Jesus was not referring to a literal gate. This is a story that most have simply accepted because it sounds good and doesn’t seem so harsh. There is reason to believe that Jesus was referring to a literal camel going through the eye of a literal needle.
But doesn’t this indicate that all rich people will automatically go to hell because they are rich? This conclusion makes no sense. Jesus also taught Christians to hate their families, but anyone who has studied that verse in its cultural context would understand that Jesus was not being literal. He was using an idiom about how God should be more important than someone’s own family. Jesus was using two things (a camel and a needle) to make a strong image showing how difficult it is for the wealthy to get into Heaven.
We must also realize that if Jesus meant for the imagery to be literal then Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Joseph of Arimathea would all be in hell. This is, of course, completely absurd. This episode also appears in Mark and Luke. In Luke, it appears just before two stories that prove that Jesus does not require all wealthy people to give up everything (Luke 19:1-10; 11-27). It should also be noted that Paul never told well-to-do Christians to become poor, but simply to share and not put their trust in money (1 Timothy 6:17). Scholar Craig Blomberg makes a good point concerning those people who are relieved that Jesus would not tell everyone to give away all their wealth: “That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”
Why did Jesus use such strong language? One of the most important things to understand about this passage is the response of the disciples after Jesus gave his eye of the needle saying. Verse 25 says, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” In Jewish culture, as in others, wealth is considered a sign of God’s blessing. However, Jesus turned that belief upside down. Jesus responds to their amazement by saying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Just because Jesus only speaks about the rich in this passage does not mean that the poor automatically are saved. Scripture is clear that people, rich and poor, are sinners and do not deserve Heaven. Proverbs 30:7-9 records that it is good to avoid both riches and poverty because each one of them can cause you to sin against God. A person should want only what is needed in life (be content with what you have).
A reality in our current sin filled world is that God gives some people wealth while others he does not. Christians who have riches are to use them for the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t give us riches to throw away and spoil ourselves with multiple vacation homes, car collections, and the like while others have nothing and the world wastes away in sin. They are to use their money to spread the gospel and transform lives – which in turn will transform nations and cultures. We are to share and use the gifts that God gives us.
At the renewal of the world, Matthew 19:28-30 tells us that everyone who left everything for Christ will receive a great inheritance/reward and will inherit eternal life. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Those who lose everything for Christ will have great riches in Heaven, while those who were wealthy in this life and who reject Christ will have everything taken away for all eternity. I’ll let Scholar D.A. Carson sum up the passage:
“It seems preferable, therefore, to take the proverb [Matthew 19:16-30] as a way of setting forth God’s grace over against all notions that the rich, powerful, great, and prominent will continue so in the kingdom. Those who approach God in childlike trust (vv. 13-15) will be received and advanced in the kingdom beyond those who, from the world’s perspective, enjoy prominence now.”
Jesus does not say that all rich people go to Hell. However, it is very difficult for them to receive eternal life because very few of them believe that they need Christ. Instead, they put their trust in money, possessions, and power rather than the One who created those possessions.
 Craig Bloomberg. Matthew. In “The New American Commentary” Volume 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.) 299.
 D.A. Carson. Matthew. In “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary” Volume 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). 425.
 Blomberg, 298-299.
 Carson, 426.