Wishful Universalism

An obsession of mine ever since I read the sermon Justice by George MacDonald has been universalism, or universal salvation. (Anyone familiar with my blog will be aware of this.) Recently, I’ve come under the impression that universalism has been a major spiritual red herring for me.

I remember reading someone who said that debates about universalism–the idea that in the end, every single person and demon will be reconciled with God in a salvific manner–divert our attention from the kairos of today to the open and as of yet unknown future of God the “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28, Ephesians 1:23). It does not matter whether or not all are saved in the future if I am not willing to suffer for the good of others in the present.

Today, I still believe that universalism is a serious possibility for Christian eschatology. With folks like Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jürgen Moltmann, and David Bentley Hart, I wholeheartedly desire the salvation of every single creature; however, I will henceforth submit the outcome of the future to God and enter wholly into the task of loving the world with Christ now.

The Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9 Alternative for All Christians

Every Christian can be a wishful universalist. Unlike “hopeful universalism,” which does not assert universalism but regards it as a possibility (something similar to my position), wishful universalism agrees with the heart of God in Christ as revealed in Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9. God is “wishing that none should perish, but that all might reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It appears that God is a wishful universalist! And we should all be wishful universalists, even if we have not the assurance or epistemic certification to consider it a realized or otherwise serious possibility.

 

1 Corinthians 6:9 and Universalism

1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism

One of the verses that is often cited as a proof-text against universalism—the doctrine that all individuals will ultimately come to have a faith in Jesus that results in their salvific reconciliation with God—is 1 Corinthians 6:9. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9).

On its face, the verse might be taken to contradict universalism. If universalism asserts that all people shall be saved (i.e., inherit the kingdom of God), and 1 Cor. 6:9 states that some people shall not inherit the kingdom of God, then universalism clearly cannot be reconciled with Paul.

In this post, I am going to argue that 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually completely compatible with universalism. Universalism resoundingly affirms with Paul “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Universalism Compatible with 1 Cor. 6:9

In one sense, 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually quite easy to reconcile with universalism. The kingdom of God is by definition for the just—that is, those who are justified; therefore, unjust persons by definition won’t inherit the kingdom of God. It is in this sense little more than a tautology. Universalism doesn’t teach that unjust people inherit the kingdom of God; universalism teaches that God desires to wash all persons such that they are no longer unjust (1 Timothy 2:4) and is ultimately successful in achieving that desire. “Love never fails,” after all (1 Cor. 13:8).

However, in spite of this, I am in this post going to offer several biblical reflections on universalism, suggesting that it is more biblical than we might first think.

There is Hope After Death: 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6

I do not think it can be denied that in the Bible there is hope after death, even for the wicked. 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 seem to insist that when Christ died, he actually “preached the gospel to dead men” (1 Pet. 4:6). If it is true that the gospel can be preached to the dead at all, then it is difficult to avoid the apparently necessary conclusion that death does not mark the end of God’s ability to wash the unjust.

There is Hope After the Last Judgment: Revelation 21:5; 22:14

Biblically speaking, I believe that there is even hope after the last judgment. On the throne, the same person who says that the wicked will have their place in the second death says that he is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:8, 5). Would it make sense that God would make all things new, except for the damned?

Furthermore, Rev. 22:14 blesses those who “wash their robes.” Shall we imagine that God, who “devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14), whose mercy is said to endure forever, who promises a “restoration of all things” (apocastasis; Acts 3:22); shall we imagine that this God’s restoration not include even the most persistently wicked in his restorative kindness, particularly considering that it was said, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)? Would denying such a grace not render meaningless the beautiful Pauline statement, that “where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more?” (Rom. 5:20). Shall it be said of anyone, “Where grace reigned, sin abounded all the more?” No. Indeed, I do not think that such an outcome is possible. Rather, it was said by Paul, “But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20; emphasis mine)!

These are several brief meditations that to me warrant further investigation into Paul’s concept of the kingdom of God. We will explore them below.

The Kingdom of God in Paul

To give the quintessential exposition of Paul’s view of the kingdom of God as a future advent, “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…” (1 Cor. 15:24). For Paul, the kingdom of the Messiah has not yet been given to God; they are presently separate domains (Ephesians 5:5). The central Pauline eschatological hope is for the day when the kingdom of the Messiah is ready for delivery to the Father. On that day, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

One thing that comes to my mind that would prevent me from taking the logic of “the unjust can’t inherit the kingdom; there are people who are unjust, so they won’t inherit the kingdom” too far is 1 Cor. 15:50. 1 Cor. 15:50 says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” But of course, as 1 Cor. 15:51 explains, we are all flesh and blood.” Does this mean that none of us will inherit the kingdom of God? Of course not. Paul says that “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). Is it possible, that the very same people who in 1 Cor. 6:9-10 are unjust “will all be changed” between now and the arrival of the consummated kingdom of God?

More Biblical Thoughts on Universalism

I do not think that we can discredit such a possibility. And I would be very hesitant to insist on the basis of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 alone that there is no hope for those who die in sin as unjust people. This is especially true light of the revealed character of the Christians God. Of God, it is said, “all things are possible” (Mark 10:27); “his love endures forever” (Psalm 136, repeated many times elsewhere); “his anger is for a moment and his favor is for a lifetime” (Ps. 30:5); “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8); and the ever famous “God is love” (1 John 4:8). On the basis of these texts at least, I propose that there is reason to doubt that Paul’s comments are intended to eradicate hope for the dead unjust. It seems more likely to me that Paul is trying to deal pastorally with the rampant immorality in his Corinthian church. It would not be very pastoral to say, “Don’t worry about this guy sleeping with his mom, or about all the people messing around with the prostitutes. They are all going to be saved anyways!” It would not be pastoral of Paul to say that, even if it is true. Remember that in another of Paul’s letters, he criticizes those who ask, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Romans 3:8).

Baptizing the Unjust with Fire and the Holy Spirit

So what is Paul trying to say, if he is not trying to say that those who die as unjust people will not inherit the kingdom of God? I think he’s trying to say something like what he says in Rom. 14:17, where he says that “the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The application of the kingdom of God can never be, “Phew, I was worried that our actions would actually matter. I was worried that I would actually have to make a personal effort in this whole sanctification thing! Good thing God is going to save everyone anyways, that there’s “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”” The application of the kingdom of God is rather always, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

To the doctrine of universalism, that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God means that God in the Messiah will—must, on the grounds of his personal character—continue to cleanse and to wash those who are unjust until they become just, that as just folk who are “washed,” those who were once “unjust” may inherit the kingdom. It was Paul who quoted Hosea saying that the one who was called “not beloved” will later by God be called “beloved.” He even said that those who were once called “not my people” by God become called “children of the living God!” (Romans 9:25-26). Paul is in truth in the right: “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God.” God will not have it that anyone without a wedding garment shall enter into the wedding (Matthew 22:12-13). He will dress the prodigals in the best robes—fit indeed for the nuptials of a King! (Luke 15:22).

It is this severe teaching—of God’s eternal “no” to the wicked—that I believe forms the backdrop of John the Baptizer’s eschatological sayings. “The chaff [i.e., the unjust] he [Christ] will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). God cannot accept unjust people “as they are,” but will burn them—that is, will salt them with fire (Mk. 9:49) and baptize them with the Holy Spirit—until the evil that they once were is consumed and the good that is left—even if as insignificant as ashes!—is traded for beauty (Isaiah 61:3) and made with the equally inorganic stones to cry out in praise of the God for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk. 19:40, Mk. 10:27)!

Conclusion: 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism

In 1 Corinthians 6, I believe that what Paul proclaims is no less than the doctrine of universal hope. The saying that “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God” is not a terror for the unjust but a hope! It is hope that God’s eternal “yes” to the sinner is an eternal “no” to their sin. It is the hope that the love that never fails (1 Cor. 13:8) and believes and hopes “all things” (1 Cor. 13:7) believes for the unbeliever. The proclamation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is the promise of God’s eternal kingdom of goodness, justice, and joy, and not a terror. Its only true application can be one not of fear of punishment (1 Jn. 4:18), but of perfect love for the fire that does not consume, put purifies. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Rom. 6:1-2).

Paul once wrote elsewhere that God has kindness and severity (Rom. 11:22). I suppose that it is because that to be severe is kind, and that to be kind is severe.

Having explored one of Paul’s own most severe statements, I propose that it is a deeply pastoral reminder to us that the application of the universal hope of the kingdom of God is to live now as we shall be made to be then. The unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), but shall be “changed” (1 Cor. 15:51) and shall be “washed” (1 Cor. 6:11) “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The Son must reign until he has put all enemies in subjection under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). But after the enemies are put in subjection to the Son, the Son himself becomes subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). The enemies are subjected to the Son, and the Son is subjected to the Father, that God may be all in all. This is, to me, the doctrine of universalism.

“But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more… What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Romans 5:20, 6:1-2)

The Unpardonable Sins

A Word Against the Holy Spirit: The First Unpardonable Sin

The unpardonable sin–a synoptic tradition of Jesus Christ–has long puzzled Christian theologians. The statement in the gospel according to Matthew seems to reflect the most extreme reading of it.

Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32 NRSV)

For starters, the idea of an unpardonable sin seems to stand in direct contrast to a gospel predicated on the forgiveness of sins. Could there be a sin that God could not forgive? Does not that seem to destroy the basis of the gospel for anyone who commits such a sin?

Of course, it could be argued that a truly unpardonable sin does not destroy the thrust of the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that although there is one sin that God cannot forgive, almost no one will commit that sin anyway, and the ones who will are the sorts of people that we should not want to have forgiveness. The unpardonable sin is the sort of sin committed by the Hitlers of the world, and the Pharisees and the serial killers. We don’t want those people to be reconciled to God, anyhow; it does not undermine the gospel just because there is a sin that cannot be forgiven. In this post, I will challenge such a response.

Failing to Forgive: The Second Unpardonable Sin

One of the most challenging ideas that I learned from George MacDonald was that the New Testament does not teach only one unpardonable sin. Jesus Christ appears to have taught not one, but two unpardonable sins. In the gospel of Matthew, the same gospel that to me seems to most emphasize the seriousness of the unpardonable sin, Jesus twice alludes to another sin that apparently cannot be forgiven: the sin of failing to forgive (Matt. 6:15, 18:23-35).

“…but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15 NRSV)

Wait a minute. In Matt. 12:32, Jesus says that there is a sin that God cannot forgive: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But earlier in Matt. 6:15 and later in Matt. 18:23-35, Jesus talks about another sin that God cannot forgive: failing to forgive! God cannot forgive the failure to forgive. So then, there are two unpardonable sins.

There’s more. If God cannot forgive someone for not forgiving someone else, is God Himself committing the second unpardonable sin? By failing to forgive the first unpardonable sin, is God guilty of the second?

What is going on here?

At any rate, I would say that the issues of the two unpardonable sins are not immediately straightforward. There is a sin that God cannot forgive; but God says that refusing to forgive is also a sin that he cannot forgive. At first, it seems as though God is committing one of his own unpardonable sins. Forgive me if I point out that on its face, this seems at best inconsistent. However, if properly understood, I believe that we can make sense of these apparent difficulties.

The Real Point of the Unpardonable Sins

N. T. Wright, easily my favorite interpreter of the Bible, points out that it is exceedingly dangerous to base entire theological positions off of any one of the brief stories, statements, and parables of Jesus. Some of the parables end with their characters getting thrown into outer darkness, or cut into pieces. These parables are intended to tell brief stories and offer simple glimpses at God, but to say that God is a judge who cuts the wicked into pieces would be to offer too shallow a glimpse at God’s character.

In the same way, to latch on to one of Jesus arguably most archaic sayings ever and to develop a whole theology of forgiveness based on it would be in my opinion to commit a category mistake. And the alternative is not to submit to relativism, but to understand the point that Jesus was trying to make.

In this way, I think the unpardonable sin tradition is like the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). The point of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is probably not to offer a total theology of post-mortem damnation, but to make the more pertinent and immediate suggestion that a person who ignores the Prophets is the kind of person who will ignore just about everything that God says and does even if it includes someone rising from the dead, someone like Jesus.

Likewise, I submit that the point of the unpardonable sin tradition is not that if you say or do something against the Holy Spirit (or commit suicide, as the older churches teach), it’s over for you and you’re screwed for eternity. If that was what Jesus was teaching, I think we would have even bigger theological problems to deal with.

I suggest that the meaning of the first unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:32), like the second unpardonable sin (Matt. 6:15, 18:35), is not that if you commit these sins, you are screwed forever. It is to say that if you are committing these sins now, then stop it–stop committing these sins, because until you do stop, you will never experience the reality of God’s healing presence and forgiveness in the Holy Spirit, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32).

Applying the Unpardonable Sins

If you are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit in persistent unbelief, then stop it, because whoever is not for Christ is against him. If you are failing to forgive your sister or brother, then stop it, because if you fail to forgive your sisters and brothers, neither can God forgive you.

A person who stands against the Holy Spirit can never come to forgiveness, since the Holy Spirit is himself the means of forgiveness.

Back to N. T. Wright again. One of my favorite of his many illustrations is that of breathing. Wright thinks that forgiveness is like breathing. In order to continue inhaling God’s forgiveness, you’ve got to keep exhaling God’s forgiveness to others. I would like to apply this image to the other unpardonable sin, that of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. In order for the forgiveness and the oxygenating life of the Holy Spirit to indwell you, you’ve got to stop blaspheming him with your words and in your heart and start submitting to him with your words and in your heart. (Words and heart matter a lot in Christianity, as Romans 10:9 demonstrates.)

A Hypothetical Interpretative Story

Suppose that there was a rich man named Cliff. Cliff was a bitter man. He frequently held grudges, and rarely extended forgiveness to any of those who vexed him. Cliff also had the unique opportunity to meet C. S. Lewis. Lewis offered the most convincing arguments in favor of Christianity that Cliff had ever heard. But, despite the almost certain conviction that struck Cliff of Christianity’s truthfulness, Cliff rejected it. In his mid-forties, he even committed suicide, dwelling in his unwillingness to forgive and believe in Christ to the very end of his life.

In our short story here, Cliff has committed both unpardonable sins. He has failed to forgive others, and he has also blasphemed against the Holy Spirit in unbelief (as the Protestant churches teach) and committed suicide (as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches teach).

Now suppose that in hell, Cliff has an experience of faith. He remembers in his god-forsaken post-mortem existence the story that Lewis told him, of a God who is with us even should we make our bed in hell (Psalm 139:8).

Suddenly, Cliff begins to cry. He remembers all of the faces in his life that he loved in his own sort of egotistical way. He remembers the many opportunities he had had to forgive others. He remembers the gospel of Christ that he heard from C. S. Lewis.

In my short story, Cliff has repented of both unpardonable sins. In his misery, he has ceased to speak a word against the Holy Spirit. In his pain, he has remembered the pain that he caused others through his grudges, and offers forgiveness in his heart of hearts to those he had once never forgiven.

God now receives Cliff. God did not “forgive” Cliff for blaspheming the Holy Spirit or for failing to forgive others. As long as Cliff was blaspheming and holding grudges, God did not–could not–forgive him, but surrendered him to destruction in order that he might be saved (1 Corinthians 5:5). But now that Cliff has been made new, God receives him and welcomes him.

In this way, then, I would say that the unpardonable sins are not pardonable in that while one commits them, one cannot in an ontological fashion experience God’s forgiveness. But, suppose that a person who did not forgive his brother comes to forgive him. Suppose that someone who once spoke a word against the Holy Spirit now confesses with her mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in her heart that God raised him from the dead. These, I contend, though they have technically committed the unpardonable sins, will be saved.

Conclusion

We have visited one of the most intense sayings of Jesus ever: that of the “word against the Holy Spirit.” We have compared this to another challenge of Jesus’s, that of forgiving others from the heart. We have considered N. T. Wright’s analogy of breathing and applied it to both of these sins. Using a brief hypothetical narrative, I suggested how committing the unpardonable sins might play out in a person’s life, what it means that those sins cannot be forgiven (as long as the person is the sort of person that commits these sins, he or she cannot experience forgiveness), and how we may still proclaim hope to those who are now committing these sins. I hope that we also consider how even today we might be committing these sins, and how we might by the power of God be forever rid of them.

Is “Everlasting Punishment”Permanent?

I do not think that everlasting punishment is permanent.

Everlasting life, I believe, is not intended to be meaningful due to its permanence; every prisoner knows that a long life can itself be hell. Likewise, I do not believe that the sting of punishment is in its being “everlasting.” What a mean doctrine of life and punishment we should develop should their significance lie only in their permanence!

Suppose that a person’s sentence for serial murder was prison for life. Punishment that is everlasting (as far as they are concerned) may not be too bad. At least they did not receive the death penalty.

So if you asked me, I’d say that the significance of everlasting life and everlasting punishment is not their duration but their quality. For everlasting life is to know God the Father and God the Son in the power of God the Holy Spirit (John 17:3), and the sting of everlasting punishment is the everlasting fire that does not consume those whom God loves but purifies them. (Hebrews 12:4-11)

So I say. But is the perspective linguistically reasonable?

If it is true that the New Testament usage of the Greek aionios (here “everlasting”) corresponds roughly to the Old Testament usage of olam, then perhaps strict temporal eternity is not in mind when aionios is used. Furthermore, linguistics are far from the only problem. What are the implications of a permanent punishment?

I would argue that everlasting punishment threatens to undo the beauty of the everlasting good news. As Schleiermacher suggested, we would not be able to enjoy the bliss of eternity amid the cries of the damned. As Origen said, Christ remains on the cross so long as one sinner remains in hell. As Christ said, the Father is not wishing that any of “these little ones” should perish (Matt. 18:14).

A permanent and irreversible sentence threatens to reverse the very thrust of the good news, that as in Adam all died, so in Christ all shall be made alive, in order that God may be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:22, 28). The goodness of the gospel is predicated on the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21). In Luke’s gospel, after Christ said not to fear human tormentors but to fear the Divine tormentor, he immediately promised that as it is not in God’s heart to forget the sparrows, so it is not in God’s heart to destroy even a hair of a human’s head (Luke 12:4-7).

I do not pretend to have solved the mystery of the last judgment and the restoration of all things. There is the great mystery of the triumph of Romans 8:30-39 that is followed by the lament of Romans 9:1-3. That Revelation insists that God will wipe every tear from their eyes demonstrates that from here to eternity there will be tears.

As we who claim the name of King Jesus seek to be faithful to his everlasting gospel, let us overflow with the hope that Christ is making all things new and that in the age to come, God will be all in all.

Note: The references to Schleiermacher and Origen come from Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Coming of God.

Romans 9:1-3 and the God of Comfort

“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (Romans 9:1-3)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

Perhaps universalism is Christ’s answer for Paul’s mourning.

“For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Three Reasons to Reconsider Christian Universalism

“I do not preach universalism, but I do not not preach universalism.”

In an age in which the title ‘fire and brimstone preacher’ is used in some circles as a compliment and the enemies of ‘eternal punishment’ are the Rob Bells of the world, it has become in many Christian Theologies simply taken for granted that although God desires everyone to be saved, not everyone will be saved in the end. (This is different than saying that not everyone is saved now. I cannot conceive of how one can look at a world like ours and conclude that everyone is on the side of a good god.) Universalists are universally understood in many Christian communities to be abjectly wrong.

Is god essentially unable to save everyone, as the open theist claims? Or worse, is he unwilling to, as some forms of Christian determinism contend? Is Christianity just Calvinism, claiming that God is gracious and merciful provided one is of the predetermined elect? Are we saved by free will, or by the will of God?

Many wonderful theologians have provided great explanations for all of the above questions without resorting to universalism. I respect many of them; however, it seems to me that to many Christians (especially evangelicals), it is simply taken for granted that the fate of those who do not put faith in Christ in this life will not receive another chance in the hereafter. Anyone who questions particularism (non-universalism) is immediately understood to be rejecting Scripture and contradicted by it.

Being an inquisitive fellow, I decided to put the doctrine of hell under fire as it is traditionally understood by evangelicals. If the approach has gold and silver and precious stones, the fire will not burn it, but if it is of hay and straw, it itself will be saved, but only as through flames. My findings have more than surprised me.

Below, I present three reasons why I believe evangelicals should rethink the meaning of hell and consider the position that I will call for the purposes of this article ‘eventual universalism.’

  1. The Biblical passages often used in support of a permanent hell do not directly support it. In other words the doctrine of hell as it is traditionally taught does not come from Scripture per se, but from a specific manner of understanding collections of passages that refer descriptively to the judgment of God.
  2. The philosophical reasons to reject hell as permanent are not intrinsically compelling. That is, the philosophical reasons to accept the traditional view of hell do not necessarily outweigh the philosophical reasons to accept it. To the contrary, I believe that universalism has the more compelling philosophical support.
  3. If universalism is true, I believe it would in many respects make coherent Scripture’s description of the character of God and his purposes for creation.