"My Heart is Overwhelmed": Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination

In my recent exchange of essays with Daniel Kirk about universalism and the biblical narrative I argued that to rightly understand the apocalyptic imagery of the New Testament we need to master the prophetic imagination. The way the prophets told the story of covenant, unfaithfulness, judgment and eventual reconciliation.

To give one example of this, consider Hosea 11.8-9:

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities."
After speaking words of extreme judgment in the chapters preceding, on par with and at times exceeding the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" imagery in the New Testament, God sings out a lovesong to Israel. "How can I give you up?"

This is the theological idea, a claim about God, at the root of universalism. It is the logical outworking of the claim that "God is love" (1 John 4.8). After judgment God cries out "How can I give you up?"

That, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter. You either think God feels this way about humanity or you don't. You either think God will give up on us eternally or that deep within the heart of God there is an eternal commitment to never give up.

I think, based upon my reading of the prophets, that God doesn't give up. This is, of course, my opinion. And I could be wrong. And I need to jibe that assessment with other biblical texts. And so on and so forth. But at the end of the day it's pretty simple: I trust in the God who sings after judgment How can I give you up?

Let me also key in on the phrase "my heart is changed within me" (NIV) from Hosea 11.8. This is variously translated:
"my heart churns within me" (NKJV)
"my heart is torn within me" (NLT)
"my heart recoils within me" (ESV, NRSV)
"my heart is turned within me" (ASV)
"my heart within me is overwhelmed" (NJB)
The word here, what the New Jerusalem Bible translates as "overwhelmed," is a very strong word. And it shows up in places like this:
Genesis 19.24-25
Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.
This parallel highlights, of course, something about the Divine Nature. That the compassion of God is the great counterbalance to the wrath of God. More, as Hosea 11 points out, the Divine compassion is greater than God's wrath. God's compassion will "overthrow," "turn," or "change" God's wrath and judgment. This produces the last stanza of the lovesong: How can I give you up?

We could read this language of "changing" and "turning" too anthropomorphically. Given my theological sensibilities I'm very willing to do that. But for the sake of a broader consensus I don't think we need to. (God bless my more conservative readers. I admire your willingness to read this blog.) I don't think Hosea 11.8-9 is talking about God changing God's mind. I think, rather, what we have is a picture of the Divine Nature. The notion that God's compassion is integrally tied up with God's wrath. More, the two--wrath and mercy--are counterweighted. God's wrath "overwhelms" us in judgment. But God's compassion "overwhelms" God's wrath. And I don't think this is best understood as a "changing" or "turning" of mind or will. This "turning" or "changing" is simply the way God is. In short, there is a "turn" and "change" inherent in the nature of God, a movement from judgment to compassion.

And really, could we describe love in any other way? Love isn't solely comprised of mercy. Nor is love solely comprised of punishment. Love involves both seasons. Just ask any parent raising a child. There is a time, when punishment has done it's redemptive work, that the parent "turns" or "changes" toward grace and mercy. As God does in Hosea 11. But the parent isn't "changing her mind" about the child. Reneging, caving or reversing course. No, the season of punishment and the season of mercy are a part of a single unified stance toward the child. Love.

And the problem, as I see it, with many Christians today is that they have no language, no way to describing, how it is a part of God's nature to have the Divine compassion "overthrow," "turn," and "change" the Divine wrath. An expression of gracious freedom welling up from the Divine pathos. This is what I mean when I say many Christians have failed to grasp the prophetic imagination, and, having failed to grasp it, have a distorted and unbiblical view of God.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

24 thoughts on “"My Heart is Overwhelmed": Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination”

  1. This reminds me of Jeremiah 18:7-10
    "The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.  And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it."This along with Moses' dialogue with God in Exodus 32 as well as some other passages showing the Fathers continued dealing with us in terms of relationship and willingness to actually treat us as children he is wanting to grow into sons and daughters rather than pawns in some self righteous proving of his own apparent characteristics.  Words cannot express how grateful I am that he hasn't given up on me.  

  2. As one of the more conservative representatives, I agree that Christians do a disservice to God when we only describe Him as "unchanging". He becomes stoic, unapproachable, even ominous.

    Similar to your description above, I believe that God is by nature relationship (Father, Son, Spirit), He is dynamic within Himself and yet unchanging. He reaches out to us in the Spirit of Christ. For more detail, I believe Donald Bloesch does a beautiful job describing this.

    Of course, I still question whether you are holding all of the pieces in tension correctly concerning mercy and wrath. I am closer to you than you may think, but still believe that there are ways we as people reject God to our own eternal harm.

  3. Conservative or no, Michael, you are very hospitable and open to talking through alternative views, willing to listen to others but still rejecting what you think goes too far. That's a rare quality. Wish more "conservative readers" were like you! (And, to be fair, that more "liberal readers" were willing to listen to conservative voices.)

  4. I think the analogy to parenting is spot on.  From the child's standpoint, the parent may appear to be waffling back and forth between love and wrath, but from the parents' standpoint it is always love with occasional expressions of wrath as necessary.  This analogy, if carried to its logical conclusion, would indeed suggest that God, like any good parent, would never give up on His children.

    I suppose what divides us, then, is the question: "who are God's children?"

  5. But in that very same passage, where God says "How can I give you up?", doesn't he also imply that he has given or will give up Admah and Zeboyim?

  6. I'm not sure if I can adequately articulate my thoughts in the time I have to do so ... but, to me the passages you use in this post address a community, or an "I" with a communal sense of self. I think that our Jewish friends would interpret these passages in light of "this world" rather than "the next", and in terms of "community" rather than "individuals." Not that we have to wholesale accept the Jewish interpretation even if I'm correct. 

  7. That's true. Three observations. 1) It's clear that what keeps God "connected" to Israel is his covenant commitments. To "universalize" the text, then, we'd need to have a theology of covenant where God chooses all of humanity (through Israel and through Christ). 2) Regardless, the larger point I'm interested in making, for now at least, is less about who God is choosing than about the nature of God. Specifically, how God's compassion will, in a spontaneous act of grace and freedom, overthrow God's wrath/judgment. As best I can tell, most Christians have no understanding of this aspect of God. This possibility just doesn't compute. Which means that the prophetic imagination regarding the Divine pathos is making almost zero impact upon the minds of most Christians. Which is why, I'm arguing, they can't get their head around a God who will eventually "turn" from punishment to mercy. 3) Returning to the narrowness of the covenant in #1, just when you think God has just chosen Israel you read passages like Amos 9.7 which blow ups the entire picture about who God is or is not "choosing." Suddenly you realize that the saving graces of God are so much bigger and more inclusive than you'd ever imagined.

  8. The question to me there is who is Israel?  I think the NT answer is that Jesus is Israel reduced to one.  An Israel who is crucified (wrath), yet resurrected (mercy) and afflicted no more.  In Christ we are joined to that  mercy.  Humanity is Israel only by ingrafting into Christ.   I'd really like to be able to say that within his humanity Jesus embraces all at the end, but that pessimism of "the one who has ears, let him hear" or just Roman 9 seems to prevent that.  It is out there, I wouldn't be surprised by it, but proclaiming it seems tough.

  9. I think that's where some theological reflection needs to be done, how the Divine pathos maps onto being "in Christ." What I think happens in Christian thought is that God's grace and wrath get decoupled and placed in a binary opposition. You get grace if you are "in Christ" and wrath if you are not "in Christ." Suddenly, grace and wrath have been pulled apart and we lose much of our ability to understand the pathos, freedom, and spontaneity of God. This is a feature of apocalyptic thought, its black and white, children of light and children of darkness, binaries. But in using those binaries to speak about evil in the world I feel strongly that NT apocalyptic wasn't intending to jettison the Divine pathos and the prophetic witness about God's grace turning God's wrath.

  10. Dr. Beck,

    I hear it too often that we cannot anthropomorphize (sic) God, usually meaning that we cannot "make God in our image". But I have to push back in asking why not? Jesus did:  "if you have seen me, you've seen the Father."

    It seems to me that unless we can do that--try to describe and understand God in human terms--we really have no hope of any substantive faith or belief in a g-d or creator of any sort (much less a relationship), and that line about being created in His image is bunk. So too the descriptions of "Father", "Husband", "Friend", etc. The bible itself anthropomorphizes God, as far as I can tell.

    Now, the "chickenopomorphization" of God is another story completely.


  11. That is the nicest, "you don't get it" I've ever seen. (Written with a laugh). 

    There is one verb in the NT - splagnizomai - which always gets translated as have compassion, but its a body word - moved in one's bowels/have your guts churned.  Compassion is just so bloodless compared to that.  Matt 14:14 is one place, but the gospel's use it of Jesus almost every time he sees a big crowd.  And he usually commences healing.  I could see on that last day Jesus sees one more large crowd and being splagnizomai'ed.  The grace overwhelming everything.

    But the picture I have of that last day from Jesus is some on the right and some on the left.  If everyone was expecting the messiah of glory the first time (the axe is at the root of the tree), and we got the messiah of mercy (Father, forgive them).  Now we expect the messiah of mercy, but this time he comes in glory.  (Or if you want to be prophetic, think expecting Elijah and getting Elisha, and now expecting Elisha and getting fiery Elijah.)

    No where near a finished thought, but I think the binaries are combined or resolved in that all were consigned to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.  Think the rich young man in Mark 10 whom Jesus loves and yet he goes away and does not follow.  The problem is very Rob Bell'ish in that the apocalyptic seems to say that many will not accept the mercy.  The alien work of God is to apply the judgment which He does not want which churns the guts.

    Too long.  Thanks for the blog.  I can't really tell you the impact some of your pieces have had on me and some of the congregation I've shared them with.  Thanks.

  12. "I trust in the God who sings after judgment How can I give you up? "

    So do I. Thanks for the beautiful reminder.

  13. One of my favorite OT prophetic passages is Ezekiel 16. In the end, after all of Israel's whoring, God says "Nevertheless, I will remember my covenant with you... in order that you may remember and be ashamed, and NEVER OPEN YOUR MOUTH AGAIN BECAUSE OF YOUR HUMILIATION, when I have forgiven you for all you have done."  The power of God's mercy and forgiveness is, as you say, the most underestimated aspect of God.  In the end "every knee will bow" in the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1). Either "all things" are "all things" or they are not, including our sin (which the pen sub view ironically says was ALL laid on Christ on the cross... if that is true, what "wrath" is left against sin if Christ has borne it all?). 

  14. Not too long. I appreciate you fleshing it out. We are all thinking out loud here. Lord knows I don't have all the answers.

  15. Disagree.  And so does the tradition.  Arius was an anthropomophizer (or as the ancients said, a mythologizer) in that he understood the sonship of Jesus Christ in phenomonological categories and thus denied Jesus as the eternal Son.  Athanasius pushed back, arguing that the Church is not the community that resulted from projection, but from revelation.  Thus the church has always understood the Fatherhood of God and the Sonship of Jesus Christ as forever unique and unrepeatable.

  16. LOL --- I suppose you are referring to Psalm 91 ... that says He will cover you with His feathers!

  17. Hello Delinquent Miner,
    "if you have seen me, you've seen the Father."  really hits the spot for me.   When I experienced a severe crisis of faith, I barely grasped on by reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John over and over, trying to see what Jesus' LAST WORD, ACTION, or DECISION was in each situation.  For example, the wedding at Cana, it technically/officially wasn't His time, but a combination of his mother asking AND His desire to ... "fulfill" seemed to prompt His last action - create the best wine.  In other words, He didn't dismiss the law or expected protocol, however, His compassion and love drove His decisions and hence "final" actions.  I'm still grasping and perhaps this is wishful thinking, but this is what I believe I'm seeing at this time, hence what Dr. Beck proposes above.

    Thanks Delinquent Miner!Gary Y.

  18. Gary, thank you. I guess I'm still in the midst of a crisis of faith. If God isn't like Jesus in the final act... well... then I'm not too interested anymore.  --Justin

  19. Thanks Justin,

    I'm just barely regaining my sanity but continue to struggle with "faith".  I get exactly what you're saying though. Take care!
    Gary Y. 

  20. Have you ever read "A Remonstrance" by Lady Wilde/Speranza?

     "A Word to the Calvinists" by Anne Bronte is also excellent.

  21. And if we are indeed made in Gods image, means we certainly share some attributes with God.  So anthropomorphising God and/or theomorphising man may not be too far off the mark.

  22. I don't know any books that make this link between the prophetic imagination and universalist eschatology. It's definitely a connection I make and work with, but I don't know if it's new to me. I can't imagine that it is. Others better read in theology and biblical studies might know.

Leave a Reply