Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: A Reading of Romans 9-11

As another interlude, I’d like to try, in my own amateurish way, a little textual study of Romans 9-11 to illustrate, if you cared to see it, a universalist reading of the bible. Clearly, the influential early church fathers Origen (ca. 185-254) and Gregory of Nysaa (ca. 335-395) were not biblical illiterates. How did they read the bible and come up with universalism?

The Setup of Romans 9-11: Is God Just?
The theological problem Paul is attempting to address is this. If God has turned his back on the Jewish nation (because of their rejection of Jesus) isn’t he breaking his promises? Has he not spent two millennia of biblical history setting the Jews up to take the fall (i.e., crucify Jesus) so that everyone else (i.e., Gentiles) but the Jews can get the gift of salvation?

So, Paul has to answer why the Jews were “hardened” for a time so that God’s plans could be fulfilled. But the “hardening” is only for a season. God’s plan is for ALL to be saved. Thus, in these chapters I want to illustrate two things:

1. Being an object of wrath aimed for destruction is compatible with eventually being saved.
2. God’s ultimate aim is to save everyone, even the objects of wrath.

As we go, I’ll add my comments in [brackets]. The text is NIV with the headings from the NIV.

Romans 9
God's Sovereign Choice
1I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

6It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. 9For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son."

10Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

[The argument above, it seems to me, is that God is allowed to do whatever he wants to fulfill his purposes. And, as Paul notes, God’s purposes have always been bigger than Israel. That is all well and good, but has God behaved justly as he has acted to fulfill his purposes?]

19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

[Again, “objects of wrath” may object to being used in this manner by God. Who wants to be an “object of wrath”? I’m sure Pharaoh and Israel would object. But, as Paul says, God can do what he wants. Still the objection comes: Fine, but is God righteous in this use? Is he good?]

22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25As he says in Hosea:
"I will call them 'my people' who are not my people;
and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one," 26and,
"It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them,
'You are not my people,'
they will be called 'sons of the living God.' "
27Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:
"Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.
28For the Lord will carry out
his sentence on earth with speed and finality."
29It is just as Isaiah said previously:
"Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us descendants,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah."

[Paul argues that, from one perspective, God is good and just by creating “objects of wrath” in that they are necessary, at times, to show his glory and fulfill his plan. But we are still postponing the big question: Is God just and good in creating and exploiting these “objects of wrath”?]

Israel's Unbelief
30What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." 33As it is written:
"See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."

[Here then is the issue of fairness. Shall all the Jews be now “objects of wrath” so that the Gentiles are saved? Seems very unfair. How will Paul respond?]

Romans 10
1Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. 4Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

5Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them." 6But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) 7"or 'Who will descend into the deep?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame."[ 12For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

16But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" 17Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. 18But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:
"Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world." 19Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says,
"I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding."[ 20And Isaiah boldly says,
"I was found by those who did not seek me;
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me."[ 21But concerning Israel he says,
"All day long I have held out my hands
to a disobedient and obstinate people."

[Paul, being the good evangelist he his, in not willing to say being a Jew or being a Christian doesn’t matter. Accepting Jesus is not optional or irrelevant. He wants to be clear here: Only through Jesus can you be saved. And the Jews are still rejecting Jesus. Thus, they remain “objects of wrath.”]

Romans 11
The Remnant of Israel
1a I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!

[Again, the issue of justice keeps coming up. At this point in the argument Paul has not dealt with the issue directly. To this point he has made the following arguments about why God can make “objects of wrath”:

1. An argument from God’s Sovereignty: God is God, he can do what he wants.
2. An argument from God’s Purposes: God has good reasons, namely to fulfill his salvific purposes.

Paul has one more argument to make...]

1b I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: 3"Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"[? 4And what was God's answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
7What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, 8as it is written:
"God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes so that they could not see
and ears so that they could not hear,
to this very day." 9And David says:
"May their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them.
10May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever."

[So we see a third argument to add:

1. An argument from God’s Sovereignty: God is God, he can do what he wants.
2. An argument from God’s Purposes: God has good reasons, namely to fulfill his salvific purposes.
3. And, finally, he offers here an argument from the Elect/Remnant: God did not reject ALL of Israel, some have believed in Jesus.

All these are good arguments, but the ultimate issue of God’s goodness is still not answered. Paul has demonstrated that God may have had his REASONS, but are those the reasons of a loving and just God? The BIG ISSUE is still hanging.]

Ingrafted Branches
11Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!

[Here now is the first hint of Paul’s universalism. Did the nation of Israel fall beyond recovery? Not at all. Paul hints here that, in fact, these “objects of wrath” prepared for “destruction” are going to be blessed, and blessed in a “much greater” fashion. Stop and ponder this claim of Paul: Objects of wrath prepared for destruction are going to be greatly blessed.]

13I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry 14in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

17If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." 20Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

22Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

All Israel Will Be Saved
25I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
"The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins."

[Paul now reaches the conclusion of his argument. And he cannot answer directly. He has to appeal to "mystery." So, let’s quickly recap. Is God good? Yes. Can he be trusted? Yes. But how CAN he be trusted if he hardened Israel to reject Jesus? Paul will not say that rejecting Jesus does not matter. He is clear that only through belief in Jesus will salvation come. Fine, but is God fair and just for “changing the rules” on Israel and causing them to stumble over Jesus? Paul now takes up this question directly, but he is only glimpsing a hint of something. He speaks of a “mystery.” And the mystery is this: All Israel will be saved. What could this possibly mean? ALL of Israel? How could that happen? Didn’t Paul just say they are persisting in unbelief and, thus, will NOT be grafted in? What could Paul mean “All Israel will be saved”? I believe Paul has run right up onto the mystery we call “universalism,” the belief that--we know not how (Paul didn't and neither do I)--God will not, because of his love, be forever separated from his creation. Even the "objects of wrath" sent to "destruction" will be saved. The bible, here at least, seems clear on this point.]

28As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. 32For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

[And there it is: "That he may have mercy on them all." Let me summarize this last. Paul says, ALL people have been objects of wrath. And that ALL people will receive God’s mercy. How? Paul calls it a mystery. But at the end of this extended argument Paul glimpses this: God will do right by everyone. He will show mercy to all. True, the mercy MUST come through Jesus. Of that Paul has no doubt. But he is convinced that this mercy will come, for, as he claims elsewhere, "every knee will bow and confess Jesus as Lord."

I don't know about you, but I eagerly await that day.]

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6 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: A Reading of Romans 9-11”

  1. I think this is helpful, because in my opinion, the most important test for universalism is showing that it is at least as viable as Calvinism or Arminianism. (Or, I guess, the odd blend of the two that many Christians ascribe to.)

    It would be interesting, though, if you had someone with a coherent* soteriology to argue against. Even if it was a mongrelized Calvinist/Arminianist soteriology.

    *By "coherent", I think I really mean "able to be summarized in one paragraph." A string of scripture references wouldn't cut it.

  2. Wow, this is a really interesting analysis. Food for thought. That unequivocal word "all" is something the Exclusivist needs to deal with somehow, isn't it?

  3. Great thoughts Dr. Beck. Have you had a chance to interact with the proposals of NT Wright and Andrew Perriman concerning their partially realized eschatology? I think they might argue that Paul's argument has more to do with the continuation of the people of God through the crisis of the end of second temple judaism (cf. Jerusalem's destruction in 70AD). You've mentionned in previous posts that you may be making certain eschatological assumptions (namely, that all or at least most of the talk of 'gehenna' and destruction--or being 'objects of wrath'--in the NT has to do with our post-mortem 'destinations')... could it be that the New Testament is a lot less concerned with 'life after death' than we think it is?
    I certainly think such a proposal could be consistent with universalism, and so I was wondering if you'd had a chance to read up on it or not.
    Either way, I just wanted to say thanks for all of your very insightful posts.
    Rich blessings,

  4. Micah,
    I think the word "all" is the source of much scholarly debate. Does it really mean ALL? Some say yes, others say no. Most tend to agree that an all-inclusive reading of all is at least plausible. The harder question is how an inclusive "all" is to be reconciled with other texts.

  5. Daniel,
    You have pushed me to the limit of my theological training! I know of Wright but have not studied him. I don’t know Perriman. Any recommendations on which books to start with?

    But based on what you say I, too, would agree wholeheartedly that the NT (or the OT for that matter) is not very concerned with the "after-life." Its concerns are very here-and-now. These blog posts are about the "after-life" which makes it seem like I am particularly keen to emphasize it. I am not. In fact, as you hint at, universalism is a way to set aside the concerns of the "after-life," trusting that God will make it all work out, somehow, in the end. I like to think that universalism synthesizes soteriology and eschatology very parsimoniously. In short, I like universalism because it pushes me into the present moment.

    Here’s an example. Some years ago an ACU bible professor taught a Highland class on Western versus Eastern visions of salvation. Summarizing, the Western tradition, Roman in tone, has emphasized status. The Eastern tradition, which we are less connected to, emphasized, I forget what he called it, something like “divinization” (becoming more godlike). Basically, it’s the distinction between justification (a binary category) and sanctification (a continuous dimension). The distinction between the static “I am saved” and the more dynamic “I am being saved.”

    So the ACU prof says that we need to recover in the church the more dynamic, sanctification, process vision of salvation. Further, other ACU bible professor friends ask me to keep my soteriology and my eschatology separate. Specifically, they want me to keep my soteriology focused on the here and now.

    Well, here’s the problem I have with these very intelligent friends of mine. You can’t tout the virtues of a continuous soteriology (“I am being saved through my participation in God’s life right here and right now”) with a binary eschatology (there will be an eternal separation between Lost and Saved). Otherwise, the ultimate concerns of eschatology keep intruding into the here-and-now vision of soteriology. Nor is it likely you could persuade people to “just don’t think about it,” eschatology that is. People are going to think about it! If hell exists, people are going to think about it! So, you better have some answers. Hedging on the issue isn’t going to work, ministerially speaking.

    I think the soteriological/eschatological vision has to be unified throughout. Universalism does this by positing that the continuous dynamic at play today (more and more fuller participation in the life of God) is how it will be eschatologically as well (after death this growing participation picks up where it left off and keeps going). I think many ACU bible profs are working with (or at least refusing to reconcile) a continuum/binary disjoint in their soteriology/eschatology models (its all about partipating in the life of God until, bam!, at death, let the sorting begin!). In universalism, it’s continuum/continuum all the way through. Thus, ultimate concerns (e.g., eternal destination, a binary category) are not superimposed on a dynamic continuum at work today (e.g., participating in the life of God today, sanctification, becoming like God).

    Does that make sense? This seems obvious to me, but no one around here listens. So, I wonder if I'm missing something.

  6. Let me begin by saying that my knowledge on the subject of Christian Universalism is limited to this blog. The comments I make and questions I ask are truly an attempt to flesh out my own thinking, and not a sort of "gotcha".

    I simply wonder if there is as much of a disconnect between continuous soteriology and binary eschatology. Isn't it possible to be both on a journey and to have a point in which that journey reaches a final destination? If I am actively following Jesus now, then I ultimately wind up where Jesus is. If the "where Jesus is" has a specific destination aspect to it, then I end up there only by following him. But if I'm not following him, I don't suddenly end up there anyway.

    I may be missing a key point here, and I absolutely agree that following Christ is as much about the now as the not yet, but I don't quite see how we can choose not to follow Christ in the now, but still be with him in the not yet.

    I should also say that I do recognize the mystery in this and believe that this eternity will be determined however God determines it. I would be ecstatic to discover that all have been saved. But I'm not sure what I read (including in these texts) reveals that, and while I don't want to be the guy shouting fire in a crowded movie theatre, I don't want to keep quiet if there is a fire.

    Another thought and I'm done. I would further agree that we need to follow the example of Jesus and be more about declaring the Kingdom of God then the punishment of hell. "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand" carries with it that Godly mix of warning and hope, while hellfire and brimstone can be all retribution and no chance for mercy. Declaring the Kingdom of God also brings with it a greater emphasis on the here and now of following Jesus and not just the not yet. Were I to discover that there is no life after death, I would still be a Christian, because of the hope of the Kingdom now.

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