Musings about Universalism, Part 3: God Damn It

Perhaps the biggest objection you hear about universalism is how it handles (or refuses to handle) the biblical passages about hell. As is often noted when these discussions come up, Jesus talked about hell/Gehenna more than anyone in the bible. So how does a universalist deal with those texts and the words of Jesus?

Of course I can't speak for all Christian universalists, so I'll just tell you how I approach this issue.

My main premise is this: To handle well the language of heaven and hell you need to master the language of the Old Testament prophets.

The language of heaven and hell in the New Testament is an example of biblical apocalyptic language. And one of the features of this language is its cosmic, binary, conflict-driven and eschatological frame. That is, apocalyptic language sees in world events a cosmic clash between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, a clash that will lead, ultimately, to the defeat of Darkness. The New Testament is full of this sort of language, with heaven and hell featuring prominently.

The importance of the prophets is that New Testament apocalyptic grew out of the prophetic tradition. While the Old Testament has no heaven or hell the Old Testament prophets increasingly began to frame the world situation as a battle between Good and Evil. However, particularly during Israel's periods of exile, it often looked like Evil was winning. So, particularly in Isaiah, you see the prophets looking down the road, in anticipation of the New Testament's eschatological vision, and seeing the New Jerusalem, the ultimate victory of Good and a final punishment of evil. This view intensifies in the New Testament, eventually coalescing into the visions of heaven and hell.

The point I'm making isn't that the doctrines of heaven and hell are ad hoc (although something smells fishy here). I'm simply noting a genealogical relationship. And this is important for our purposes at it suggests that a mastery of the language of heaven and hell requires a mastery of the prophetic imagination.

As this makes sense. The most horrific descriptions of God's wrath and judgment aren't actually found in the New Testament. Those accounts are pretty sketchy. So if you want over-the-top depictions of God's wrath and judgment you go to the prophets. Again, what we see in this is how the imagination of the prophets regulates our understandings of hell.

Now, if you do read the language of judgment in the prophets it will make your hair stand on end. It will make you wince and squirm. Consider the judgment of God on the Whore Israel in Hosea:

“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
because they are the children of adultery...

Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens,
and my new wine when it is ready.
I will take back my wool and my linen,
intended to cover her naked body.
So now I will expose her lewdness
before the eyes of her lovers;
no one will take her out of my hands.
I will stop all her celebrations:
her yearly festivals, her New Moons,
her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.
I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
and wild animals will devour them.
I will punish her for the days
she burned incense to the Baals;
she decked herself with rings and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
but me she forgot,”
declares the LORD.
This is strong stuff. And a lot of sensitive people trip up on this language. They don't like the crazy, insanely wrathful Old Testament God. Just like they don't like the God of the New Testament hell.

But these reactions are unnecessary. They are failures to understand the language of the prophets. To help with this, here's a simple rule:
The more you love, the angrier you get.
The more you love the more upsetting this world will be. The more outraged you'll be with injustice, senseless violence, exploitation, meanness, and cruelty. The more love, the more wrath.

I hope this is confirmed in your own experience. For my own part, I find myself, pretty routinely, saying about life "God damn it!" Not flippantly. I mean it. I mean it eschatologically. So I think if you love a great deal you'll find yourself saying God-damn-it, God-damn-it, God-damn-it, over and over again.

Now that sentiment might puzzle some readers. How could a universalist go around saying "God damn it!" all the time? Sounds paradoxical.

It's only paradoxical if you've not learned the lessons of the prophets. Think about it. Why is God's wrath so crazily insane? Well, because God loves the most. As his love is infinite so is his wrath. And, given that universalists center their theology on the infinite love of God, we happily embrace the wrath God. To say "God damn it!" is to say "God is love."

Hold on a second, you might be saying. How can I make such a claim?

Well, let's go back to the prophets. When you master the prophetic imagination you know that the final word between God and Israel is love. God's final word to Israel isn't "God damn it." The final word is love. Consider, again, those terrible words from Hosea. After some of the most horrific and violent imagery in all of Scripture the tone, inexplicably (what the New Testament calls grace), changes into, in my opinion, the most beautiful love song in the whole of Scripture:
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.

“In that day I will respond,”
declares the LORD—
“I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”
From domestic violence and rape-like imagery we move, without any transitional material (read: unmerited), into this amazing love song between two lovers, whispering each other's names, in the act of lovemaking. The emotional whiplash here is almost impossible to wrap your head around (that's why we call it grace). It's too extreme. But it's like I said, the love is proportional to the wrath.

But the vital issue here is the sequence. What is the final word? And if you know the prophets you know the answer. We see it here in Hosea. The final word is not "God damn it." The final word is lovesong. The ending is the key.

And we see this in Jesus as well. Of course Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else. He's his Father's son after all. Chip off the ol' block. So of course, Jesus, by loving the most, talked about hell the most. This is fully expected.

So the real issue is what is his final word? Does Jesus follow the movement of the prophets?

I think he does. Jesus' final words to humanity on the cross were not "God damn you!" No, his final worlds were "Father forgive them." After ripping into the Jewish authorities for the entire Passover week Jesus' final words to them were "Father forgive them." Does that request, in any way, recall, say, the Woes to the Pharisees from earlier in the Passion week? Of course not. But you only get that if you get the prophetic imagination.

In short, Christian universalists aren't skirting or avoiding the hell, wrath, and judgment passages in the bible. We don't cringe when you mention that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else. No, we revel, rejoice and luxuriate in these texts. Why?

It's simple really. Second verse same as the first.

God is love.

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32 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 3: God Damn It”

  1. Richard,

    I see your point, but I'm not certain your rule, "The more you love, the angrier you get" is absolute or something I would revel in. The sense of afterlife is very limited among the prophets. "Prophetic" anger is earthbound and recompense to this world's injustice is projected post-New Testament upon a questionable and cobbled together theological Hell. God's loving response to the world's injustice also includes sadness, patience, resignation, truth-telling, and co-creation with us mortals to bring about justice and reconcilliation.


  2. The psalms have a hell theme also - but eventually you learn to pray for rather than against the enemy - you realize that the enemy is in your heart. The psalms are for the formation of God's people as dispensers of Xesed - loving-kindness. The apocalypse is in the death of Jesus - tat's where all things have their end - so they also have their new creation in him by his resurrection. As Christopher smart notes concerning the devils themselves being at peace. (Rejoice in the Lamb). The kings of psalm 2 and 149 are also us - so we learn to bind our own murmurings in the chains of the everlasting covenant.

  3. The prophets really are the key to understanding the Bible in my opinion. Understand Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Torah and Writings are suddenly illuminated. Grasp Amos and Hosea and Zechariah and the gospels will take on a new depth. Ezekiel will open revelations like a flower.

    To me universalism is the most serious and hardest of eschatological positions. It demands the hottest hell because it imagines it is possible to purify the blackest soul, to redeem the most corrupt system, to heal the most broken heart. Hitler is in heaven not because God has overlooked his evil, but because Hitler, eventually, will desire to be there, knowing it requires an unimaginably difficult road of reconciliation.

  4. So the Reformed idea that God is wrathful because his honor has been offended or he has to uphold justice misses the point of wrath? The reason God is wrathful is because seeing the damage we do to each other and the world angers him because he cares? That sounds much more how a loving human parent would act.

    Also, it seems your view has implications for the weight we give to particular passages, or at least whether we interpret them as pertaining to the ultimate fate of certain people. It's no good taking one of Jesus' mentions of hell out of context without assessing whether it is the last word, or a word of judgement on the way to a final word of forgiveness and love...

  5. Don't have anything to add, but just want to say I've been finding these posts on universalism very helpful, particularly in the light of some of the posts from other sources in which the writers seem very keen to condemn pretty much everyone to Hell...

  6. "Damn it" is an emotional term about what "should" be, but isn't. But, what "should be"? That is the question. There are certainly different answers and approaches to "what should be".

    You have used scripture as a defining tradition about "what should be". But, scientists, humanists, sociologist, psychologist, economists, businessmen would all think about things 'in a different light". Would they be wrong to do so?

  7. Anger is sometimes described as a 'secondary emotion' in the psychology literature because it is said to superimpose itself over a stronger primary emotion which both fuels the anger whilst also diguising itself behind the anger. In human experience, this primary emotion is often fear.

    Could it be that divine anger is fuelled rather by love?

    Perhaps this distinction can help us avoid the pitfall of humanising God's anger; extrapolating negative primary emotions from what is in reality an expression of His pain and compassion.

  8. You must have tenure. How else would ACU have an universalist on staff. I assumed the CofC sent everyone to hell that wasn't in their camp.

  9. well i thought it read real well but then i thought. and oops...
    you have sailed into the mystic a little. to me bro.
    god created for the purpose of relationship " a sharing " here ya go enjoy...
    god is wise as a serpent with evil...
    and as Innocent as a dove in doing good.
    and so knowing possibilities of his created.a fractal of evil could consume and pervert good,so becoming self replicating(fractal image) perversion almost a truth but with out the true image(god on earth) a lost good. if not mediated.
    god dammit NAH
    "i am so mad i would like to" although i did say and do and i am good might be the simple conditional phrase...
    but god is accountable and responsible for his actions.
    or why would be be told to facilitate and reciprocate.those actions to others.
    the old cov.people were held together by a stern law of sin and death,
    and cursing...till the seed should come because (The expected Blessing) of a promise and an oath along with that promise!
    eternal life is something we lost in the fall.and that is restored in the blessings of GODS HERO.

    enjoined a rescue plan before the foundation...eph

  10. There's a song that Eminem came out with late last year called, "Love the Way You Lie" and a lot of people (including myself) loved and hated the song at the same time. They hated it because it described in detail a brutal abusive relationship while showing how attracted to one another they were. People simultaneously loved the song though because they related to the passion. Passion goes both ways. Hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is.

    Really enjoying your posts about universalism. Thank you for writing!

  11. There's a song that Eminem came out with late last year called, "Love the Way You Lie" and a lot of people (including myself) loved and hated the song at the same time. They hated it because it described in detail a brutal abusive relationship while showing how attracted to one another they were. People simultaneously loved the song though because they related to the passion. Passion goes both ways. Hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is.

    Really enjoying your posts about universalism. Thank you for writing!

  12. You know, I hate to admit this as a CoC person, but I've never read Barton Stone. I need to fix that.

  13. You touch on some interesting points. Actually, several of the pseudapigraphal & apocryphal writings are much more helpful in developing an idea of hell as described by Jesus. We don't know them well generally, but Jesus' audience certainly did - and they would have "got" his references.

    One really interesting thing about referring back to the prophets as you do, however, is that if you examine carefully WHO the prophet is prophecying to, you'll generally find it's the children of Israel. Anyway, the meanest harshest stuff is reserved not for the Assyrians or the Philistines (ancient equivalents of Muslims & Catholics?) ... but for the Hebrews themselves.

    It fits nicely with your love/anger formula. What hurts worse than when your lover betrays you? The person to whom you've given parts of yourself - is the person you despise the most when that is the one who is unfaithful. If you don't care about your spouse much, then who cares if he/she cheats? It's a good time to get rid of something you didn't want, anyway.

    So with Jesus ... He was speaking about hell to Jews. He wasn't warning the Romans about hell, it was God's chosen people who needed to fear hell - those who had been received as children and loved and cared for, but then rejected the pure truth of love.

    Not sure what any of that has to do with universalism one way or the other, but it's surely a warning to those of us who have "once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and been made partakers of the Holy Spirit and the good word of God...."

  14. Richard,

    Wonderfully provocative! I'm sure you and many others can rattle off several protests against your approach, so I won't waste anyone's time on that. But I will note that the scholastic dispute about whether grace destroys or perfects nature seems to lurk in the background of questions about universalism. (I couldn't find Thomas' statement that "...grace perfects nature..." in the few minutes I just gave to looking.) Here's the opposing points of view, in essence, and as I see them: Pt. A, if there is an eternal hell, people must be abysmally and irremediably bad, or God is not loving. There is an eternal hell. The doctrine of total depravity follows. Pt. B, if God is all loving, no one is beyond God's loving intent. The doctrine of total depravity cannot follow, on pains of making human evil stronger than divine goodness.

    It just seems that if our faith is in GOD, universalism is the better fit.

  15. This series is definitely interesting and deserving of closer inspection. However, I have yet to hear an argument address the problem of Justice. I refer here especially to Volf's "Exclusion and Embrace" where, though not referring to eschatological arguments, the issue is raised about the problem of Grace and Justice. Love is both, and while I resonate with the universalist centering on a theology of God's love, I'm too much of an Arminian to also assume that this Love does not also allow for a recourse of Justice. In this way I agree with both Lewis and Wright. What do Universalists make of the Love that is also just?

    I think I understand your argument that time is the enemy of moral education. Thus, on a long enough timeline, everyone could be inevitably wooed by God's love. I like the argument, but of course a major flaw in it is the fallenness of man. Perhaps a related argument is culpability, and I flatly disagree with you when you say that, psychologically speaking, there is no such thing as free will. I am by no means an expert, but I have a degree in psychology and am working towards a masters in depth psychology, and while free will is a very tricky notion, that does not mean it is by all accounts completely impossible.

    Now, I really like your formulation of love/anger, and your use of "prophetic imagination" reminds me of Brueggemann's book. Within the prophetic imagination, though, there is culpability, recompense, and justice. Death has been defeated at the cross (whatever that really means), so obviously we must adjust our understanding of prophetic writings because, to them, death was the final word. I think what it all comes down to are two main issues: culpability and the idea of justice within God's love. Until I hear a convincing argument for Universalism that deals with these issues and their interplay, I'm not sure I can ascribe.

    All this said, I try to approach with humility, and it's in process...

  16. You might want to take a look at George McDonald's sermon "Justice" from the book Unspoken Sermons.

  17. This approach seems really contorted to me. It seems simpler to suppose that the folks who wrote the Bible occasionally got something wrong.

  18. Ok, thanks, JR.

    Also, to Richard, I'm definitely interested in it. Thanks!

  19. YA KNOW
    those people even to day are pretty exacting.
    in their sense of belief.
    they are trained from youth to memorize.
    and i on the other hand well why go into a extremely poor example,
    of slective memory of a 20th cent. Newport beach ca.kid

    now then what is my name?

  20. What if I split the difference with you?

    The OT shows a development in the location of the wrath of God. Early on, God's wrath is focused on Otherness. But in the prophets we see a change, the wrath of God focusing more on injustice.

    So, splitting the difference, God is wrathful but there is a development in Israel about the object of God's wrath.

  21. His contribution to the RM is the United CofC, Christian Connection, and any NON-creedal aspects of your movement. He was not a universalist, but his Biblical approach to Christianity promoted that concept without meaning too. I'm Reformed Christian and a former member of the Pelegian CofC. I think you should scoot on over to the Unitarian Universalist church. Great blog even though I disagree with 99% of what you write. That's a compliment to you.

  22. I've actually calculated this and I disagree with myself 87.4% of the time. My wife as the number at 96.9%

    But seriously, I appreciate the feedback.

    And if I was going to leave the CoC (which I'm not since I love my tradition) I think I'd become Jewish. I like a bookish faith.

  23. like being responsible to the evidence given and and the faithfulness to that good.
    teachers stricter judgment...James
    4:1 Therefore we must be wary1 that, while the promise of entering his rest remains open, none of you may seem to have come short of it. 4:2 For we had good news proclaimed to us just as they did. But the message they heard did them no good, since they did not join in2 with those who heard it in faith.3 4:3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’”

  24. Richard does an excellent job of summarizing, and here's the whole enchilada:

  25. Thanks for this Richard, very thought-provoking. I spent yesterday immersed in Albert Nolan's "Jesus Before Christianity" and he says

    "We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.... To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity.... We accept the God of the Old Testament as one who has now changed and relented of his former purposes in order to be totally compassionate towards mankind - all mankind..."

    "The more you love, the angrier you get" made me think of Bruce Cockburn's "If I had a rocket launcher"

    I don't believe in guarded borders
    And I don't believe in hate
    I don't believer in generals
    And their stinking torture states.
    But when I talk to the survivors
    Of things to sickening to relate
    If I had a rocket launcher
    I would not hesitate."

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