What does "branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire" mean?
John 15:6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire,
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From CLNT vs 6a we have 'If anyone should not be remaining in Me, he was cast out as a branch, and it withered...' This implies 1. a choice to not remain 2. God responds to this final position by anathematising the individual [the concept of restoration may be introduced here by some but the point is to take the listener all the way to where this path leads - to set forth its end] and 3 without the holy spirit the person simply goes back to a worldly condition never to return because he has chosen to reject God's precious offer of life eternal. Continuing vs 6b we have 'And they are gathering them, and into the fire are they casting them, and he is being burned.' Several points here as well 1. they - the angels - are gathering at one point in time as a sort of final reaping of a ripe field 2. casting into the fire is Gehenna *[Universal Reconciliation (UR) is a hair's breadth away from works of differing quality in the mind of such as Ernest L. Martin: anyone hearing this passage as a warning would be hearing a 'trumpet blowing an uncertain signal' were it anything other than Gehenna]*or complete obliteration/oblivion as God will not have those who refuse his offer, based on His Son's life sacrifice being effectively spat upon, to go on bringing endless suffering on themselves - sufferings consequent to an unfulfilled life in the worldly context 3. the person is shown as receiving condign punishment.
The meaning of the verse is that those who no longer abide in Christ and therefore bear no fruit will perish; perhaps brought to destruction by the angels (as implied by other Scriptures), though exactly who actually does the gathering and casting into the fire is not explicitly stated in John.
I provide my reasoning behind all this below.
... thrown out like a branch ...
You are quoting from the NET Bible, which is translating the Greek text:
ἐὰν μή τις μένῃ ἐν ἐμοί, ἐβλήθη ἔξω ὡς τὸ κλῆμα καὶ ἐξηράνθη καὶ συνάγουσιν αὐτὰ καὶ εἰς τὸ πῦρ βάλλουσιν καὶ καίεται.
The NET translation is a slight paraphrase. The literal Greek reads closer to the KJV:
(a) ἐὰν μή τις μένῃ ἐν ἐμοί
If not one [should] abide in me
(b) ἐβλήθη ἔξω ὡς τὸ κλῆμα
[he] is thrown out as the branch*
(c) καὶ ἐξηράνθη
and is withered
(d) καὶ συνάγουσιν αὐτὰ
and [they] gather them
(e) καὶ εἰς τὸ πῦρ βάλλουσιν
and into the fire cast [them]
(f) καὶ καίεται
and [they] are burned
In this version of the Greek text there is a disagreement between the pronoun αὐτὰ (auta - "them") - and the noun κλῆμα (klēma - "branch"). κλῆμα is in the 2nd person singular in (b), but αὐτὰ is in the 3rd person plural in (d). Other manuscripts (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century) use the singular pronoun αὐτό (auto) here.
The presence of the definite article τὸ (to) in (b) is perhaps significant. The text does not say a branch, but rather the branch. The expression ἐβλήθη ἔξω ὡς τὸ κλῆμα, translated by the NET as he is thrown out like a branch really should be translated, I think, as he is thrown out as the branch. There is a connection here to v.5:
I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me - and I in him — bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.
The meaning here is something like, "Even though you are one of my branches, you will [still] be cast out if you do not bear fruit." Theophylact's explanation here is:
"A branch bears fruit only if it is joined to the vine and receives from it synergetic power to produce new life. So it is with you. If you abide in Me by keeping the commandments, you will bear more fruit. If not, you will wither." This means that even though the fruitless man receives some nourishment from the root, he is cast forth [thrown out] nevertheless. he is stripped of whatever spiritual grace he had; he is deprived of divine help and life; and as a the final result, He is cast into the fire and burned.1
Admittedly, virtually no English language versions translate τὸ κλῆμα literally ("the branch"). One odd exception is the Weymouth New Testament, which reads:
If any one does not continue in me, he is like the unfruitful branch which is at once thrown away and then withers up
Another exception is the hyper-literal Orthodox New Testament, which reads:
Unless one abide in Me, he is cast out as the branch and is withered
More mainstream versions choose to ignore the definite article in v. 6, but for some reason choose to retain it in v.4; e.g. NET:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I'm not sure why most versions choose to ignore the definite article unless for stylistic reasons. The distinction is perhaps not essential, but it does lend v.6 to seeming more a continuation of v.4-5.
... gathered up and thrown into the fire ...
In your comments to another answer, you expand on your question by asking:
(i) How do we know God [isn't] "anathematising" the person as opposed to merely disciplining the person with an intent towards restoration?
(ii) How do we know that angels are doing the gathering since they aren't mentioned?
(iii) How do we know that the fire is the fire of Gehenna and not a refining fire that burns wood, hay, stubble of bad works?
Taking your final question here first, I presume that you are alluding to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, which reads in the NET:
If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Many understand v.15 to mean that someone whose work has been burned up will himself not perish (i.e. the fire is a "refinining" fire). Some less literal translations state this explicitly; e.g. NIV:
If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved--even though only as one escaping through the flames
But the notion of escaping through the flames is absent here. Some are tempted here to read a theological meaning into But He himself will be saved (αὐτὸς δὲ σωθήσεται), but the Greek word σῴζω (sōzō) is used in the physical sense of being "preserved" (e.g. Genesis 32:31 LXX). The understanding here is that one's works shall indeed be burned up, but the one to whom they belonged will remain burning in the fire. An idiomatic translation here might be, "You will be preserved alright - preserved in the fire." John Chrysostom (c.349-407) comments here:
“He calls it, however, “Salvation,” you will say; why, that is the cause of his adding, “so as by fire:” since we also used to say, “It is preserved in the fire,” when we speak of those substances which do not immediately burn up and become ashes. For do not at sound of the word fire imagine that those who are burning pass into annihilation. And though he call such punishment Salvation, be not astonished. For his custom is in things which have an ill sound to use fair expressions, and in good things the contrary. For example, the word “Captivity” seems to be the name of an evil thing, but Paul has applied it in a good sense, when he says, “Bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. x. 5.) And again, to an evil thing he hath applied a good word, saying, “Sin reigned,” (Rom. v. 21.) here surely the term “reigning” is rather of auspicious sound. And so here in saying, “he shall be saved,” he hath but darkly hinted at the intensity of the penalty: as if he had said, “But himself shall remain forever in punishment.”2
Regarding your first point, "How do we know God [isn't] "anathematising" the person as opposed to merely disciplining the person with an intent towards restoration?", I would say that the answer lies in the finality of He is thrown out as the branch. The expression "throw (away or out)" or "cast (away or out)" - βάλλω or βάλλω ἔξω - is used elsewhere to indicate something that is thrown away with no expectation of return. For example:
Matthew 5:13 (NET)
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.
Matthew 5:30 (NET)
If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away!
Matthew 7:19 (NET
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
βάλλω occurs 125 times in the New Testament and over 50 times in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament. When it is used to mean "cast" as in "to throw out" (as opposed to casting a net or casting lots), I find no indication that that which is thrown is ever intended to return. One exception might be Daniel 3:21 LXX where the "holy children" were cast into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. But even there, Nebuchadnezzar never intended them to return from the fire.
Regarding your second point, "How do we know that angels are doing the gathering since they aren't mentioned?", we have such Scriptures as:
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everything that causes sin as well as all lawbreakers.
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
But it is true that there is nothing in this particular text itself nor elsewhere in John (I think) that indicates who "they" who are doing the gathering are.
1. Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John (tr. from the Greek; Chrysostom Press, 2007), p.239
2. Homily IX on First Corinthians (tr. from the Greek)