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?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?"
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."
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)The word here, what the New Jerusalem Bible translates as "overwhelmed," is a very strong word. And it shows up in places like this:
"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)
Genesis 19.24-25This 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?
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.
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.