A big theme in my recent posts about universalism was that to understand the language of heaven and hell--God's punishment and God's grace--you need to understand the prophetic imagination. And the key insight is this: God's punishment is not opposed to God's grace. Too many Christians have a bifurcated view of God's punishment and God's grace, that it's an either/or. For many Christians you either get grace/heaven or you get punishment/hell. But you don't see this bifurcated view in the prophets.
For example, last night at the prison bible study I was reading this passage from the start of Isaiah 40:
Comfort, comfort my people,Now I ask you, where in Christian theology (as expressed from American pulpits) do we find anything that can make sense of these verses? Here we see God's grace ("Comfort, comfort my people...speak tenderly to Jerusalem") coming after Israel paying for her sins ("her hard service has been completed...her sin has been paid for"), twice over ("she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins"). The bifurcated theology of many Christian churches just can't compute the connection here between grace and punishment. True, you occasionally hear Christians say that God "chastises those He loves" but that is a far shadow from anyone claiming that a Christian could "pay for their sins" by undergoing a term of "hard service." And yet, this is routine language for the prophets. God's grace and punishment are not mutually exclusive. Punishment produces salvation.
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
And this impulse isn't exclusive to the Old Testament. In Romans 9-11 Paul is trying to wrestle with God's promises to Israel in the wake of her rejection of Jesus. Are the Gentiles, now, going to be the sole beneficiaries of God's grace in Christ? If so, that's perverse. Israel produced the Christ and then was promptly damned. Thanks God, really nice way to treat the "Chosen Ones." But in Chapter 9 Paul initially says that Israel can't complain much. God is Sovereign, so if God prepared Israel to be an "object of wrath prepared for destruction" then so be it. That's just the way that cookie crumbled. And yet, in Chapter 11 Paul eventually concludes that this time of hardening for Israel is necessary for the "fullness of the Gentiles" to come into the Kingdom. Israel is hardened for our benefit. So shouldn't Israel be rewarded rather than damned for this service? Paul, in an odd reversal, says, yes, Israel will be blessed. After the fullness (all?) of the Gentiles comes in, in some mysterious way, "all Israel will be saved." Again, this seems like an odd reversal as it seems, given the bifurcated thinking of most Christians, that being an "object of wrath prepared for destruction" and "all Israel will be saved" are mutually exclusive. It's got to be one or the other. But not if you've been steeped in the prophetic imagination. If you read the prophets and texts like Isaiah 40 you see this reversal all the time. A time of "hard service" to "pay for sin" is always followed by the words "Comfort, comfort my people..."