The Prophetic Imagination and Universal Hope

I'd like to follow up on yesterday's post. 

In discussions about the possibility of universal reconciliation one of the things I've noticed is how little the prophetic imagination is utilized in making the case. Of course I may have missed this in other thinkers and treatments, but I haven't seen many defenders of universal reconciliation make much use of the Hebrew prophets.

Most of the defenders of universal reconciliation use either reason or New Testament work to make the case. By reason I mean arguing for universal reconciliation based upon argument or philosophical appeals. For example, arguments about human freedom or a proper definition of justice. By New Testament work I mean things like Greek language work on the word translated as "eternal," unpacking what Jesus was referring to by "Gehenna," or appeals to universalistic texts like 1 Corinthians 15.28.

But what you don't see a lot of are appeals to the Old Testament prophets. Yet in my estimation this is, perhaps, the very best location to see how God's judgment, punishment, and wrath are temporary rather than permanent. 

This is vitally important because, at the heart of the debate, sits our image of God. We can debate free will, definitions of justice, the meaning of the word "eternal," what Jesus meant by Gehenna, or what God being "all in all" might imply. And while helpful, none of these debates get to the crux of the issue: What is God like?

Our best answer to that question is the story of the Old Testament which culminates in Jesus. Specifically, God does punish Israel for her sins, a terrible wrath is poured out. And at that point, with Israel's exile, it really does seem like the story reaches its sad, final conclusion. There's nothing in the story to suggest a different ending. But then, out of nowhere, a song of hope breaks out. This inexplicable narrative turn, this rupture in the story, is ground zero for what will eventually come to be known as "grace." On the far side of God's wrath we hear the words, "Comfort, comfort, my people." We get an answer to the question posed to Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones: "Can these bones live?" The crazy, unexpected answer is, "Yes!"

My point is that when you deeply internalize this vision of God you come to realize a profound truth: With God there is always hope. Even, as Ezekiel learns, after death. Skeletons pose no problem for God. That is the prophetic imagination. Yes, wrath and punishment. But after that, hope. In reading the prophets what you start to appreciate is that what you assume to be the final act in our drama--getting exactly what we deserve--isn't really the end. Not with God. And if you carry that imagination forward into the New Testament you look at things differently. It's a huge paradigm shift, knowing hope exists on the far side of hell. Knowing that dead bones still have a future with God. 

And you know this not because of any argument or philosophical debate about Greek words or definitions of justice. You know this because you've seen this story before. You're now reading the New Testament knowing what God is like. So, yes, you do see language in the New Testament about punishment and wrath. But as a student of the prophets bumping into hell is wholly expected. And yet, you look at that language differently. You've seen the tide of wrath turn before. You know the end of the story isn't really the end. So you expect it shall happen again. For God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. With God there is always hope. 

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