[This post is a continuation of my previous one, on the subject of universal reconciliation within the framework of Christianity. I invite you to read the earlier post for context HERE.]
ON A DIVERGENT PATH
These are my reflections on the gospel message, the “good news” that God is reconciling the world to himself through his son, Jesus Christ. By “reconciling”, I mean God’s plan and purpose to return everything that is out of balance into harmony and to repair and restore every relationship that has been broken.
Why is God doing this? The short answer is because we can’t. The record of human civilization is measured by the wars we fight, the people we conquer, the misery we spread. We kill, lie and steal. We’ve had thousands of years to learn to live peaceably with one another, but we’ve squandered the time by erecting walls built of religions and cultures designed to ostracize, alienate and obliterate our fellow man. Our monstrous leaders have murdered tens of millions of their own countrymen, our industrialists have perfected greed and our religions have replaced the sacred with fear and oppression. Today we live in the richest, most technologically-advanced world since the beginning of mankind, yet every single day 22,000 children die from poverty. We are slaves to our narcissism and hubris. This is our corporate sin.
If there is to be any hope for harmony and restoration, for a world of peace where love and compassion are the norm, it needs to originate somewhere outside the human race. And so it does.
The good news of the New Testament resounds with a message of love, restoration and hope. It is a powerful and glorious vision of divine love, of an almighty God that has both the will and the power to bring reconciliation to all of those whom he has loved into existence in the first place.
THE BOOGY MAN IS GONNA GET YOU
Unfortunately, this gospel of hope, the “good news” as Jesus described it, has too often been twisted into a message of fear and condemnation, a death-centered tome that envisions God as a schizophrenic monster who loves each of us with infinite benevolence one moment and yet is willing to abandon us to a fiery pit of eternal conscious torment the next. This aberrant doctrine leaves adherents anxiously scrambling to avoid an endless existence of horrible torture for themselves and their loved ones. Jonathan Edwards, prominent Calvinist minister and intellectual during The First Awakening that swept the United States in the 18th century, describes our fate in “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” (arguably the most famous sermon ever preached in America) as follows:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why do you not this very moment drop down into hell.
Hardly the gospel of hope, the “good news” that Jesus commanded his disciples to preach, is it? And this, believe it or not, represents a more subdued approach than that utilized in the imperial church of Justinian, through St. Augustine and John Calvin and into the Anglican and Puritan ethos. Why such a horrid deity should be worthy of worship at all is the greater question. I refer to my previous post and the passage by C. S. Lewis, “If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend….and thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”
How the message of love and reconciliation presented in the New Testament morphed into contemporary Christianity’s doctrine of an angry God who tosses his creation, one by one, into a fiery hell to endure never-ending conscious torment is a tale all its own that begins in the fifth century of the church’s history and winds its way through Christendom into today’s seminaries and pulpits. But for now, let’s leave the legacy of fear and see what the Christian scriptures actually say about Jesus’ mission, God’s plan and purpose and his goals for the fate of humanity.
Let’s temporarily suspend what we’ve been told by preachers and teachers and leaders who may have been blindly regurgitating the same doctrines their elders taught them or perhaps lacked the imagination, skill or intuition to exegete scriptures about hell and judgment and condemnation without casting God into the role of a sadistic monster. For these reflections, let’s look at the scriptures with a fresh perspective, with an open heart and with a keen awareness of what sort of plans and purposes one should expect of a God whose nature is infinitely wise, infinitely just and –most important of all – infinitely good.
JOY TO THE WORLD, ALL THE BOYS AND GIRLS
1. We begin with the announcement of Jesus’ arrival on earth by an angel to a group of shepherds saying, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10, 11) The curtain opens on the gospel story with a celestial visitor proclaiming the event as one of “great joy to all people.” A savior is born, for all people, not just some. The great joy that will be experienced because of this savior is intended for everyone. What a wondrous way to usher in God’s plan of reconciliation. A joyful promise for all mankind. “Therefore with joy will you draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3) These wells of salvation must be meant for all mankind, for only if all people are saved will all people know the great joy of which the angel speaks.
2. We next visit the last great prophet in the scripture narrative, John the Baptist. “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29) As the messenger whose purpose was to announce Jesus’ mission, to “prepare the way of the Lord”, John’s message regarding Jesus was very clear and very simple. Jesus’ purpose was to take away the sin of the world. “Sin” is singular, not because Jesus was to take away one sin or perhaps “a sin here and a sin there” but rather the totality of sin, the set of all sin, everywhere. “World” is the Greek “kosmos”, meaning the created order. Jesus’ mission, then, is to remove the totality of sin from the created order. To eradicate sin everywhere. If sin is taken away from the cosmos, how can any sinner remain? For as long as sinners remain eternally and forever in hell, to that extent sin is not taken away, but remains. Indeed, an endless hell would ensure eternal sin for imagine the hatred against God from those tormented forever. The logical alternative that coheres with the idea that the totality of sin is to be removed from the created order is that ultimately all will be reconciled to God through Christ. There can be no eternal sinners without sin.
3. Jesus himself confirms this purpose at various times. In his conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who sought his counsel, he says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) Jesus’ words reflect those of the angel and John the Baptist, that he had come not to save a few or many, but the entire world, again the Greek “kosmos”, the created order. And later to a group in Jerusalem, he says, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me". (John 12:32) These words are direct and plain and offered without qualification. The statement is definitively unconditional. Everyone will be drawn to Jesus. Everyone will be gathered into him. There is nothing in the context of the angel’s announcement, John’s proclamation or Jesus’ own words that would lead one to believe that his purpose was limited or restricted to a few or a select group. Instead, the opposite sense is given by all of these passages, that this is to be an all-encompassing, transformative work, a cleansing of all sin, joy for all people, a rescue of mankind from itself.
4. Jesus’ disciple, John (not to be confused with John the Baptist), who penned Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in his gospel letter, later reiterated to the church at large this same message in the first of his three epistles. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:1-2 and 2:2). Nothing could be clearer than the words of this disciple that Jesus’ work is intended to atone for “the sins of the whole world,” not just a select number. John goes to great length emphasizing his own credentials as evidence of the trustworthiness of this assertion by affirming that he had personally seen and heard Jesus. We are to understand that his testimony of this truth is direct and not hearsay. From these and many other passages, it is clear that Jesus came to save sinners, all sinners, to take away the sin of the created order, the sins of the whole world.
IT’S ABOUT THE WHOLE THING, NOT THE HOLE THING
1. Paul picks up where the gospel narratives leave off. His letters to the various churches of Asia Minor paint a rich and glorious tapestry of God’s plan and purpose through Jesus’ life and death. This vast canvas stretches as far and as wide as creation itself. God is reconciling everyone and everything – all that is – into a restorative unity to himself through his Son. Jesus becomes the catalyst and channel through which harmony and restoration will be achieved throughout the universe at large. In his letter to the Roman and Corinthian churches, Paul lays the foundation for understanding God’s work of reconciliation as he details the philosophical and conceptual dynamics upon which this divine work is based. He writes, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive". (1 Cor. 15:22) and “Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (Rom 5:18, 19). Here we find that pesky word “all” again, and this time it forms a very important bridge between two experiential realities: the world of estrangement and death following Adam and the world of reconciliation and life following Christ. Paul informs us of something quite profound. From God’s perspective, there is an organic unity to the human race. As all are in Adam, so all are in Christ. As all are fallen in Adam, so all are reconciled in Christ. This organic unity is the idea that the whole functions as an expression of the interdependent components of which it is made. The “whole” does not cohere without each and every part of which it is comprised, and cannot properly be considered the thing it is if one or more of those component parts is excluded. Paul uses this exact same analogy when he discusses the concept of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12, he writes, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Just as a body is an organic unity, a “whole thing”, only in the sense that it is an expression of its interdependent parts (the head, the limbs, the internal organs) and without each of those parts it no longer functions as a body, so too the body of Christ as a spiritual entity, and the human race as a holistic creation of God, is an organic unity, “a whole thing” in the sense that it is an expression of each and every member that comprises its organic set, and only if each and every member that belongs to that set is included.
2. Because the human race functions as an organic unity, each and every one of us is an interdependent part of the whole represented in Adam. No one is excluded from the corporate body of death and estrangement evidenced through him. We are, each of us, individually and collectively, irreversibly tied to Adam in every way that it is possible to be connected. There are no exceptions. In exactly that same way, Paul tells us, each and every one of us is an interdependent part of the whole represented in Christ. No one is excluded from the corporate body of life and reconciliation we are given through him. We are, each of us, individually and collectively, irreversibly bonded to Christ. There are no exceptions. “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive". (1 Cor. 15:22) The “all” in Adam is identical to the “all” in Christ. All equals All. And the “all” is the whole of the human race.
THE BEST NEWS YOU’VE NEVER HEARD
1. Thus Paul shares with us the philosophical and conceptual dynamics behind God’s plan of reconciliation, the organic unity of the human race. But how pervasive is God’s plan? Is it truly inescapable? Paul thinks so. He writes to the church at Colossae, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:19, 20). This pivotal verse encapsulates the theme of the New Testament as regards God’s plan of reconciliation. Jesus Christ is the conduit through which “all that is”, whether things on earth or things in heaven, will be restored into a harmonious balance and brought into a restorative relationship with God. The phrase “things on earth and things in heaven” is archetypical for all creation, all-inclusive. Similarly, Paul expresses the same sentiment to the church at Ephesus. “And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ – everything in heaven and on earth. (Eph 1:10). There could hardly be a clearer statement of God’s plan and Christ’s position it. The words are so obvious that it’s hard to twist them into anything other than what they are: a definitive statement of God’s intention to reconcile absolutely everything to himself through Jesus Christ. How, then, does eternal damnation fit into this scenario? If, as Paul declares with vigor and clarity, God intends to restore everything (which would obviously include every person) to himself, how can there be souls in hell forever? For as long as there are enemies of God (and by enemies, I mean those as Paul notes in Colossians 1:21 who remain alienated from God in their minds) then God has not brought everything together under the authority of Christ. As long as evil exists, as long as humans rebel, as long as death and hell remain, to that extent God has triumphed in merely a partial way, which is to say, in no way at all.
2. The only possibility is that evil, rebellion, death and hell are not eternal but temporary, and indeed the scriptures bear this out. God will triumph completely. Universal reconciliation, the restoration of each and every human being to a loving relationship with God and with each other, is the ultimate reality in a universe where everything is brought together under the authority of Christ. Paul is clear about this idea in his letter to the Philippians, “ For this reason also, God highly exalted Him (Jesus), and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11) John the disciple echoes this exact same sentiment, a parallel thought to that of Paul, "And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever". (Rev. 5:13) Here is another instance of the "common periphrasis" of the New Testament writers for “the universe”. Every creature shall at last pay divine honors to God and the Lamb. Contrary to some suggestions, the phrase “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess” does not imply forced compliance, as if God is breaking the will of every creature to his own and forcing worship against their will before casting them into hellfire. Such an idea hearkens back to the legacy of fear, of a power-hungry, self-absorbed deity void of genuine love and mercy and seeking only his own devices. Indeed, the scriptures teach that confessing Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of the Father is predicated on the following idea: “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3) and "If we confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in the heart that God hath raised him from the dead, we shall be saved." (Rom. 10:9) The clear and obvious sense of these passages is not a forced compliance but a genuine outpouring of love for one another and honor to the God who has reconciled all, wiped away every tear, destroyed death, defeated hate and despair, and imbued humanity with a sense of their true value. It is a sea of voices shouting honor and glory to the One who has opened every eye and changed every heart so that all of us, every single person who has ever lived, can finally understand who we are, and why we are, with each of us beginning to realize the truth that will take the rest of eternity to fully understand, the truth of the fathomless, infinitive love of our God. As one theologian has said of this scene, "If this be not spiritual worship, I am unable to produce a case, where worship can be called spiritual and divine".
This scene of all humanity loving one another and loving the God who has always loved us and patiently waited for the time when each and every one of us embraces that truth and shares the unspeakable joy of such knowledge is a good place to end these reflections.
[The scriptures speak not only of God’s love and mercy but of his judgment and wrath as well. I’m not so naïve as to disregard these themes or consider them unimportant or unworthy of consideration. Perhaps in another post, shorter than this one(!) I can share what I believe the scriptures tell us about hell and judgment, sowing and reaping. ]