Musings about Universalism, Part 6: Why Universalism is More Biblical

When you say you're a universalist the biggest stereotype you have to deal with is that people think you don't read the bible. Or that you are twisting the bible to fit some notion you have. That you are jamming the square peg of the bible through some round hole of your own imagining, making the bible say something you want it to say.

So let me address that issue.

Let me start by making two claims:

1. I read the bible just like traditionalists (as in "traditional views of hell") read the bible. There is no twisting. The bible speaks of eternal judgment and hell. And I believe that. Straight up.

2. I believe the universalist reading of the bible is, in fact, the most biblical perspective you can adopt. I think it's the traditionalist who is being unbiblical in their picking, choosing and twisting of the bible to fit their preconceived notions.

To illustrate this let's look at the most famous judgment passage in all of the bible:

Matthew 25.31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Okay, so how do I, as a universalist, read a passage like this? Well, I read it just like a traditionalist reads it. If you don't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, or visit the prisoner you'll go to hell. You will depart for "eternal punishment."

So what's the difference between me and a traditionalist? Well, the issue really boils down to if there is anything after "eternal punishment." After punishment is over, what's next? Or is punishment never over? These are the points of contrast between the universalist and the traditionalist. Both read Matthew 25 exactly the same. That's the important point. The universalist isn't twisting anything. The reading here is exactly the same. The only difference is about something that happens outside of the story. What happens next? If anything? That is, is this story the end of the story? Or is it just a story about judgment? The traditionalist sees this as a story that is the end of the story. The universalist reads it as a story about God's judgment. So who is right? The story actually doesn't say. So you'll have to go elsewhere in the bible to find an answer to that question.

Well hold on a second! Matthew 25 says that the wicked go off to "eternal" punishment. That seems to indicate that this punishment is the end of the story. The punishment is eternal, as in never-ending.

It's at this point where you wish everyone knew a little Greek. But if you don't know Greek let me recommend Edward Fudge's word study in his book The Fire that Consumes. If you don't have access to the book let me point you to Keith DeRose's summary on his webpage. But the crux of the matter is this. We've tended to think that the word "eternal" was a quantitative term when, in fact, it is a qualitative term. Less a difference of degree than a difference of kind.

"Eternal" is an eschatological term. Eternal punishment isn't about a punishment that goes on and on and on. Rather, eternal punishment is a commentary about where the punishment is coming from. Jesus is saying in Matthew 25 that the punishment of the wicked isn't going to come from this world. All too often The Powers actually reward wickedness on this earth. So the punishment is not coming from earth, it's coming from heaven. The word eternal here is more about the location of judgment than about the duration of judgment.

And this fits our understanding about how prophetic speech works. Again, as I argued in an earlier post, we need to master the language of the prophets to handle well the language of heaven and hell. In Matthew 25 Jesus is engaged in prophetic speech, similar to what we see with minor prophets like Amos. The message is that God's judgment will be poured out upon those who do not care for the poor, naked, sick, imprisoned and hungry.

And what we see in this is how the eternal judgment (judgment not of this world or age) is cracking into our time and place. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25, as was the teaching of Amos, was not about a coming Judgment Day. It was, rather, a commentary about today, about goings on right now and right here. The language of heaven and hell, as used by Jesus and the prophets, was profoundly this-worldly. So in that sense, yes, Matthew 25 is about Judgment Day. It's just that Judgment Day happens to be today.

So what is happening in Matthew 25 is that Jesus is allowing us to see today through the lens of eternity. Through Jesus' parable we are allowed to see how God sees the world. And, as Abraham Heschel writes, "God is raging in the prophet's words."

In short, the language of the prophets, the language of Matthew 25, and the language of heaven and hell is communicating the pathos of God--the Divine involvement and investment--at this time and at this place. Prophecy helps us to see, experience, and respond to God's passion for justice in this moment. As Heschel notes: "the main task of prophetic thinking is to bring the world into divine focus."

(BTW, thanks to my good friend and colleague David for getting me to read Heschel's The Prophets.)

This is why the leading edge of gospel proclamation is always going to be a prophetic utterance, a communication of God's pathos for the here and now, about the Kingdom coming and its collision with the world. Consequently, a universalist can and should scream hellfire and brimstone with the best of them. By doing so you allow the view of eternity to break into this moment.

(And while this may be a bit off topic I'd like to note how a lot of "turn and burn" preaching has drifted away from the Divine pathos as Jesus preaches it in Matthew 25. Few conservative hellfire and brimstone sermons actually sound like Jesus: "If you don't start feeding the poor you are going to hell!")

In light of all this, this is why I don't think universalism is the leading edge of the gospel proclamation in this world. To move past judgment to The End, to the story after the story, misses the Divine pathos. Proclaiming universalism as the Word of God suggests that God is indifferent to injustice. That what we do just doesn't matter. But sin matters to God. Very much so.

And so this is why 99% of the New Testament reads the way it does. The language of God's pathos, the language of judgment, heaven and hell, dominates. As it should. What we need, right now, is the Divine perspective, the view of heaven. And that is what the New Testament is preoccupied with communicating.

But in the remaining 1% of the New Testament we do get a glimpse of The End of the story. The story after the story in Matthew 25. And again, Matthew 25 is the story we need to hear right here and right now. We need to see the world as God sees the world. We need to know what pleases God. We need to know what will be punished by God. We need a road map and a compass. And prophetic speech gives us this.

But after all the punishment has been handed out, after everyone gets what they deserve, what then? Do people keep getting punished long after they have paid for their sins? Do people keep getting tormented long after they have gotten what they deserved? What happens next?

It's only at this point, way, way, way, way down the line, where the traditionalist and the universalist start to have different opinions. And the bible has little to say on this score. We get a whole lot in the bible about what God feels about today and very little about what happens way, way, way, way down the line. We don't get to see much beyond the Divine pathos. And again, that makes sense. Right now, in a world of moral chaos, we don't need to see The End. We need to see as God sees. We need to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.

But there are places in the New Testament where The End is glimpsed, if only fleetingly. And when The End is glimpsed you see the universalist vision, that in The End "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28). That the fullness of Creation--all things seen and unseen--will be reconciled to God in Christ (Col. 1.19-20). That God "will have mercy on all," on everyone He bound over to a prior disobedience (Rom. 11.32). That through Adam all have died, but through Christ all shall live (1 Cor. 15.22). That in the end everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2.11).

Truth be told, this vision of The End doesn't have a lot of relevance for us today. This vision of The End doesn't tell us how to live. So it is no surprise that the gospel proclamation is relatively disinterested in this vision. But that's not to say the vision isn't there. From the earliest days of the church Christians understood what The End looked like. And while it's not the most important teaching of Scripture for daily living the vision is there in the bible for all to see.

But if it's not important why talk about it so much? Well, there are theological problems and issues that require us to look toward The End. No doubt the first and primary conversation is the conversation about the Divine pathos. We need to read Matthew 25 every day. We need to know what God is going to punish and what God is going to bless. We need a road map.

But once we've had that conversation and put in a hard day's work feeding the hungry and visiting the sick we might settle down and relax with a pint or a cup of coffee. And in that moment, at the end of the day, we might ask questions, largely speculative, about The End. Beyond the Divine pathos what does the bible have to say about The End of it All? What happens after punishment, if anything? Well, the hints you get suggest that God will be all in all. That everything in The End will be reconciled to God.

Now that realization doesn't change anything about God's judgment. The next day when we wake up we get right back to work feeding the hungry and telling everyone who isn't that they are going to hell. That's what Jesus would do. That's just the way we Christians roll.

But right now, with the sun setting, we grow reflective and philosophical rocking in the porch-swing. We start to ask questions that require us to glimpse The End as the bible shows it to us. That vision, while not the most important thing, is vital in answering a host of questions on the periphery. For example, when I'm wondering about those Jews killed in the Holocaust I'm out on the edge, theologically speaking. I'm not wondering about how to treat my neighbor. I'm wondering about The End. And while the question is abstract it's very important to me and my faith walk. It's not a big topic in Scripture, but the bible's vision of The End helps me see that all will be okay. And that reassurance is largely theological. Morally speaking, I live with the Divine pathos, knowing that God won't judge my theology but will judge how well I clothed the naked and cared for the poor. Matthew 25 regulates my behavior, my life. "God will be all in all" regulates my ruminations.

What I'm suggesting is that the bible is presenting two pictures. But their relative importance is different. The first picture is the vision of Matthew 25, the communication of the Divine pathos. This is the language of prophetic judgment, the language of heaven and hell. This is 99% of the New Testament message as it is the most important for daily life. The other picture is a picture past the judgment, a picture of The End. This is only a small part of the biblical witness, the other 1%. This picture of The End doesn't negate the vision of the Divine pathos. For we only approach The End through the judgment of God. So in a very real sense there no use talking about The End when our most pressing concern is the judgment of God in the work set before us in this moment.

So again, I don't think we should "preach" universalism. What we need to preach is Matthew 25. Universalism is more about theology than proclamation. It's the heavier food we eat after moving past the milk of infancy, when the basic questions (like how to live) have been settled and we're now wrestling with speculative questions on the periphery of faith. And this isn't to suggest that these loose ends aren't important to some people. As I've repeatedly said, some of these "loose ends" (mainly about theodicy issues) are life and death issues for me. But I realize I'm in the minority on this and that, after my theodicy questions are answered, I still have to live out the vision of Matthew 25. In short, I realize that my needs here are largely abstract and philosophical. Vital for me, yes, but not really the main plot of the biblical narrative. Still, given how important these questions are to me I'm grateful that the bible shows The End.

And this is why, perhaps surprisingly, I think universalism is the most biblical view you can have. As a universalist you read every text about God's judgment and hell just like everyone else does. And you also read different passages about The End. And you don't cram those passages into the preconceived notion about a never-ending hell. You read the passages about eternal punishment as passages about eternal punishment. No more and no less. And you read about "God being all in all" in The End as a passage about "God being all in all" in The End. No more and no less. And these passages don't contradict each other because they are talking about two different things. And by reading both passages as they are you read the whole bible. And not just a part of it.

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35 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 6: Why Universalism is More Biblical”

  1. I owe at least two more posts. One on justice and the other on Christology. Past that we'll see.

  2. Dr. Beck,

    Generally I agree with you in your universalism post, but today, perhaps as a rhetorical move intended to persuade people who disagree with you I think you missed the mark. Universalism is not a largely indifferent matter of theology unrelated to the practice of our faith. It is not a small percentage of scripture either.

    The roots of a Universalist reading of scripture are present all over the place, in every book of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It is there when God creates the universe and calls all of it good. It is there when God tells Abraham that he will be a blessing to all the nations. It is there when God preaches through the prophets that Israel is like Ethiopia or Egypt in God's eyes. When God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah. In the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah of the New Jerusalem, the restored temple, and the Peaceable Kingdom. It is the story of the Gospel that Jesus died for the most despised and forgave even those who persecuted him. In the message of from John that "God so loved the world". In the proclamation of Paul that every knee shall bow and, all shall be reconciled. And in the vision of Revelation of every tear wiped away. It is WAY more than 1% of scripture. It is everywhere.

    Universalism, furthermore, is not historically something people think about on their porch swings. The Peaceable Kingdom and the New Jerusalem are most often appropriated and used by embattled minority groups. There is a reason it appears so often in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's rhetoric - the universalist hope is precisely the one that can best galvanize large scale nonviolent resistance - because it is the one that provides the best ending to a story which for the oppressed is currently very dark. It is those who are most persecuted who usually remind us that Jesus forgave his persecutors.

    Universal salvation is a matter of life and death, not merely for your personal existential crisis, but practically speaking here and now. If I believe that I am going to have to reconcile myself with every person living and dead then it is most important that I get started on that monumental task now, and not create more enemies. Eternal (in duration) Hell permits hatred of enemies. If I am certain that I will not have to find a way to get along with you because you and I are destined to different places I do not have to try to find common ground. I can write you off. You are a lost cause. It is only if I know that somehow I have to find the capacity to love you because I cannot escape you, that enemy love becomes both possible and imperative.

  3. Hi Aric,
    I feel sufficiently chastised. You know I agree with you. And you're right, this post is less an argument for a robust universalism than it is a way to show a committed traditionalist that the universalist is committed to the whole of Scripture and how that might look from the traditional perspective. So the whole 99% vs. 1% deal is trying to see the bible from their view and working from that starting point.

    That might give too much away, but I'm mainly trying to get my foot in the door.

  4. Richard,

    So on your view, there is such a thing as ultimate *retributive* justice? Or is hell merely corrective in nature?

    --guy

  5. WOW! A wonderful post! I sooo agree and have long thought that we have projected much of the Bible into the future, when it is primarily about how to live NOW. Judgment is now, and we reap the consequences of what we sow *in this very body!* (2 Corin. 5:10).

    Thank you for having the courage to write about controversial issues in such fresh ways!

  6. It is not my intent to chastise. You consistently put out some of the best theological content on the web. I hope I can do half as well most of the time.

    There is a need for good arguments for Universal Salvation from a traditional perspective. I hope you open some hearts and minds.

    I am looking forward to reading your book, Unlean, btw. We might review it at www.twofriarsandafool.com

  7. Bravo, Dr. Beck. And our shared mentor, George MacDonald would agree. God's justice being more merciful and loving than is often conceived here in the Western traditions of Christianity shouldn't imply that He doesn't care about sin - "He must have him clean," after all - but it does redefine sin as something He wants to deliver us from, not condemn us for. To quote MacDonald once more, "Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins."

    All that to say, I understand the rhetorical importance of this post. I hope your foot, and more, makes it into many doors.

  8. I know I've been critical (especially for a new reader), but whoa... this one's good. My level of dissatisfaction with part 5 has been balanced out by this post. I definitely need to think more through this, primarily because of my affinity for Lewis' and Wright's ideas, to come to a more complete picture in my own mind about the meta-narrative of scripture. Nonetheless, nice work!

  9. No worries about the chastisement. Your comment is important because you're right, if a person could step back and take in the whole vista of God's love they would see how very, very biblical this perspective truly is.

    I'd be excited about your review. I'm curious about how people with more theological training than myself approach the book.

  10. My take, and I'm again just following George MacDonald here, is that the fire of God purifies us. For pain/punishment to be good and loving it is always a means, never an end in itself. The basic human metaphor here is how a parent uses punishment with a child. The parent uses punishment for the sake of the child.

  11. "When you say you're a universalist the biggest stereotype you have to deal with is that people think you don't read the bible."

    Thank you very much for addressing this perception from
    traditionalists. Actually, many universalists honor/revere scripture very highly by pursuing thorough, painstaking research of the original Greek and Hebrew. You touched on that concisely here.
    Universalism seems to thread quite harmoniously throughout the entire text, relative to the traditionalist view.

    As you revealed below to Rich Constant, I'm really excited about your addressing justice, then Christology? These are 2 other respective sources of stereotypical allegations from traditionalists as well.

    Gary Y.

  12. There are distinct apocalyptic overtones to Matthew, and it comes over in passages like this; he likes a bit of hellfire and damnation at the end of the sermon. I'm not sure it's meaningful to speculate about what comes after eternal punishment, any more than it's meaningful to speculate about about what comes after the eternal life in the next phrase. It's a metaphor; the problems arise when we take it too far, and I think this is what the church has tended to do.

  13. Excellent. You truly got my theological synapses to fire in ways they never have.

    Question though (coming from your token annihilationist): Would it not be more hermeneutically sound to reconcile the "judgment" end texts with those other 1% texts without invoking an entirely new, almost secret (as far as texts go) ultimate End (an Occam's razor approach)?

    I say this in all honesty, I have never once considered (or heard of) a tension between the 99% judgment texts and the 1% other texts you mention. [I can see using your argument for the one who holds the hell-as-an-eternal-place-of-punishing-view. It is hard, if not impossible, for me (and I assume you) to view the universe restored to an Eden paradise while the majority of humanity is burning in an eternal torture chamber.] But for me, there is no tension with texts like "God will be all in all" in a universe that is restored to perfection, even though some are not there.

    It just seems to me so compellingly possible that Jesus did speak of ultimate ends, and I'd have to be showed a boat load of exegesis that he was instead talking of some penultimate end. The "second death" spoken of in Revelation seems so...final. I have to ask myself how could the Bible in general speak in stronger terms of the finality of the lost? In other words, assuming the lost were ultimately lost, how differently would the Bible read?

    Thanks for the post. I really wish I could have heard this kind of presentation years ago so that I could have been reflecting on a real universalist position and not a caricature of it. You took the defensibility of universalism for me from about a 2 (mainly because of no first hand experience with universalists) to about a 7...maybe 6.5:-)

  14. So pleased to have read this thread - I was thinking just the same as I read this. I think, Richard, you make an excellent argument here precisely for why our theology of the end is so important - because it has a direct bearing on the lives we live hear and now, on our understanding of the good news, on whether (in my experience) we lean towards law or love.

    P.S. Many congrats on the book - hope you've kept the film rights? My copy is winging it's way across the ocean as we speak, though for the shipping costs, I'm expecting an EXTREMELY big book! @-;¦

  15. Also makes it much easier to read 1 Tim 4:10. All people are saved, but believers have an opportunity to enjoy it in a way that others can't.

  16. It's a context problem regarding Matthew 25. Surely, it is about two groups of living people (actually three, for his brothers and sisters are also there and they are neither 'goats' nor 'sheep.'). So, some rhetorical questions:
    1) Has Jesus returned in His glory with all the angels yet? Don't think so.
    2) Who are 'His brothers and sisters' who are NOT a part of all the nations? Hint: it isn't the church. Also, it ought to be clear that 'all' (as in 'all the nations') means 'all' except for His brothers and sisters and thus not 'all.'
    3) Are the Matthew 25 people living today? Possibly, since He could return at any time now; but, surely they were not living 100 years ago. So, let's go back 100 years.
    4) Did any of the people living 100 years ago have a chance to feed or visit the Matthew 25 brothers and sisters? Don't think so.

    So, without taking this passage completely out of its context, how can one support the idea that this judgment for 'not feeding and visiting' has anything to do with those who were alive 100 years ago? Not to mention 200 or 300 or . . . today.

    This is not about the judgment of humanity; just a small segment that happens to be alive when He returns. But, taken out of its context allows one to make it about how people should be living today or 100 years ago.

    Likewise, by taking it out of its rightful context, one can make 'all in all' support universalism. Alas, reading the Bible, while necessary, is most definitely not sufficient for one to grasp God's message.

  17. Richard,
    I'm trying to follow your line of reasoning because I think there's some real value in what you're saying. But I'm stuck on a few points. You say, "Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25, as was the teaching of Amos, was not about a coming Judgment Day." This seems to run contrary to the view of other contemporary apocalyptic thinkers, who most definitely conceived of a day when God would break into the world, bring the current evil age to an end and judge the wicked. Did Jesus not share this view? I find it hard to think he didn't, especially when he prefaces the Matt. 25 passage with "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne." This is pretty straightforward apocalyptic stuff. What am I missing?

  18. My second hang up is this. I found very helpful Keith DeRose's summary of the meaning of the Greek word for "eternal". I agree with you that it is eschatological language. But if it means "age-enduring" or "pertaining to an age", then surely what it refers to is the new age to come that God will soon be ushering in. I agree that the eschatological significance of "eternal" does tell us that the punishment is "coming from heaven", but heaven was coming to earth in real time and space.

    The problem I have is that, in the apocalyptic mindset, the coming age was the last age. There wasn't going to be another. Previous ages may not have been eternal, but this one was going to be. God would set things right and never again would evil get a foothold. So I'm not sure that the "age-enduring" meaning avoids the eternal implication if the age we're speaking of has no end. Hope this is making sense.

  19. I've read Keith DeRose's page, as well as your pieces on Universalism. And, I really wish there was something like an executive summary, because I'm sure I failed to remember it all. But, since you have a couple more entries to complete, I have some questions that I do not feel are satisfactorily addressed:
    - Given that Paul's letters were addressed to specific churches, why isn't it just as reasonable the "all" was intended include all the readers of the letters (vs. all of humanity)...rather like 'all of you'.
    - How are these details (translations of 'eternity', 'all') different from say, Jehovah's Witnesses rejecting much of the traditional reading of the bible because a Greek word does not necessarily translate to "cross"?
    - Where does belief/trust in Christ and Baptism fit into Universalism?
    - How much feeding, clothing, sheltering, visiting is required? It seems to me that all one can do is hope to do enough "good" in life to lessen the punishment to come.
    - If punishment is inevitable (only the degree seems to be in question), why would we expect anyone to listen to the Christian message, let alone walk away from a life of fun and sin.

  20. It makes sense. This post isn't a careful argument. More of a sketch.

    I don't want to suggest that Jesus (or Amos) didn't believe in a coming judgment. They did. The point I'm trying to make is that their overriding interest was calling people to repentance today. And a part of how you make that happen is by connecting current events with the eschatological judgment. It's this bringing Judgment Day forward, so to speak, that I was trying to highlight.

    And I agree that the eternal age, being the last age, is, in that sense, never-ending. But that age involves, in my opinion, many different things. Punishment will be involved. As well the reconciliation of all things in Christ. That was the gist of my post. So how to hold those two things together? You can, of course, read the the one through the other. Or you can read them as about two different aspects of the age to come. Which is what I'm suggesting we do. Read both sorts of passages and take both at face value. Don't allow one vision to trump the other.

    Of course, people can disagree with me. My point is that the choice of how the passages are to be read through or in light of each other is, in the end, going to be a meta-biblical decision. The argument I'm making here is that the meta-biblical decision I'm making does the least amount of violence to the text.

  21. Ok, thanks. That helps. I agree that the judgment and the reconciliation of all things have to held together somehow. And how you attempt to do that will definitely be informed by those "meta-biblical decisions". Thanks for a great article.

  22. Enjoying the postings, Dr. Beck. Would like to suggest that the End actually has huge significance for today in the sense that the holy city of the New Jerusalem, the blessed future is presently invading our world. If sin, evil and death have actually been defeated by Jesus Christ, should we not live as if those things don't have any power any more? This seems to be the point of the whole book of Revelation--pull back the veil and see the heavenly future in your present existence as God's people.

  23. Very well said. I like the term damnationists as theologically descriptive. It certainly fits that culture of fear and isolation.

    MacDonald wrote that good men and true will one day be appalled at the things they now believe of God, and that the worst of their punishment is their ability to believe it.

    For myself, it's been like coming out of toxic fumes into clean air. But the family I hail from and am now estranged from will continue to be exactly as you describe.

  24. Universalism illustrated
    http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/03/orthodox-view-of-salvation.html

  25. My issue is with the use of the word eternal (the original greek word) in the rest of the New Testament. If it means what you claim here, then it means the same in all the other uses of it.

  26. YES! Thanks Richard. Spot on. I am so pleased to see a universalist that really appreciates that the church needs to hear Jesus' word of judgment. So many assume that universalism requires that we by-pass judgment. Excellent.

  27. Richard, I am wondering if you have read David Brooks' new book The Social Animal? Reading it I better understand your view that "free will" is not absolute.

  28. Richard how would you talk about Revelation 14:9-12 and Revelation 20:13-15 - those seem to be pretty tough for a universalist to get around without doing some serious hermeneutical jumping jacks eh?

    And couldn't the case be made that the restoration of people after the old testament prophets declared their destruction is only the case because they were the people of God? That those examples in places like Hosea do not work for the rest of humanity?

    Love to hear your thoughts - thanks

  29. Hermeneutical jumping jacks seen in the book of Revelation!? Name me a text in Revelation that hasn't been a location of hermeneutical dispute? 666 anyone?

    Regarding Hosea. I think a lot of that would depend upon how you see Israel's relationship to the nations. And then how the Old Testament relates to the new. That is, in multiple places in the bible it is claimed that, eventually, all the nations will become like Israel to God. Thus, God's relating to Israel informs us about how God will be generally to all people. And more provocatively, while we tend to think of God as having just one Exodus people--Israel--you read stuff like Amos 9.7 and the whole world tilts...

  30. Well thats true about all the hermeneutical jumping jacks in Revelation - I guess I was just interested in how you tackle those verses? Thanks

  31. That's fair. I just wanted to be clear that, if I looked like I was doing jumping jacks in replying, that this isn't an issue about universalism. It's an issue with any doctrine that relies heavily on Revelation.

    Here's how I see it. I think sinners go into the Lake of Fire where their sin is consumed. This is why, when you look at the lists of those bound for the Lake, their sin is highlighted. It's not a list about Anne and Joe going into the Fire. It's about idolaters, murderers, adulterers going in. And those people, the sin, are consumed by the Fire. And insofar as they remain those people--in that sin--they remain in fire. The issue, for me, is about the location of sin the Pathos of God. It's not about biography.

    Again, the key here, for me, is to note the function of Revelation to the audience it was intended for. The book is a prophetic (and highly symbolic) utterance about the Judgment of God. As such, like I talked about in this post, I read those passages just as a traditionalist would. It there is any nuance, I read these passages as more about sin than souls.

    So where do I see the hope in Revelation? In the final chapters where we see the nations, and the kings of the nations--objects of wrath throughout Revelation (and the bible)--come into the City were the gates are never closed.

  32. Aside from the good point you raised about ancient ideas of "eternal" it is important to realise that finite creatures cannot comprehend infinity and that it is intellectually dishonest and deceptive to employ it. Even if you think God (who get's infinity) wrote the Bible you still have the problem that we don't. Nobody does. The fact is, when humans play with infinity they come up with absurdities. Mathematicians, employing infinity simply as "some big number" can show how 1 = 0. But that's absurd so they stop doing it, and caution against employing infinity as a number. But theology hasn't (wanted to) pick up on that yet because then all our scheming fails. If we don't have an infinite God, demanding infinite righteousness, the whole soteriology crashes. The day we realise God is not infinite, or, if He is we cannot utter sense about Him, is the day theology approaches a rational philosophy about which reasoned discourse can occur. Until then we are uttering nonsense and will continually run into absurdities.

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