Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart. (Matthew 18:34-35 NLT)
Most all RCA (Regular Church Attender) Christians know this story: A man owes his king a debt too big to repay, so the king forgives the debt. Then that ungrateful man has a fellow who owes him a small debt thrown in prison because he can’t pay up. The king hears about his hardheartedness and sentences him to being tortured in prison until he repays the debt—in effect, a life sentence.
The way most preachers or teachers talk about this passage, you would think it is only an encouragement to be forgiving. Forgiveness truly is a serious matter. Jesus said in Mark 11:26 that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. That’s serious enough, but Jesus seems to be saying something even more radical here.
Jesus seems to be saying God will send a disciple to hell for harboring unforgiveness—or even for incompletely forgiving. “If you refuse to genuinely forgive your brothers and sisters, your heavenly Father will send you to prison to be tortured until you have repaid the (unpayable) debt.” How is that not hell? What else would it mean?
Is it hyperbole? Jesus was known to say things for effect that sounded not just outrageous but kind of crazy. “If your eye offends you, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better to enter heaven with one eye, than to be cast into hell with two” (Mt. 18:9). "If you come to me and do not hate your own family and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But while the idea God would punish a Christian severely for unforgiveness is hard to accept, it doesn’t sound crazy. It just doesn’t fit our common understanding of God and salvation.
It’s important to notice that Jesus isn't talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He isn't even talking to the generic crowd. He is talking to his disciples, answering a question Peter had asked. Peter, the bold one, probably thought he was being way generous in suggesting a God-follower forgive an offender seven times. He had to be astonished when Jesus went exponential and multiplied Peter's estimate by 70.