Summary: Christ will redeem all created things. Judgment should not be seen as a final end but as a tool used to make the all things new.
Might Everything Come Out Okay in the End?
Most churches have some sort of written creed but this is not what they believe. If you want to know what a church believes, observe its behavior. What do they emphasize? What do they actually do? Viewed this way, very few churches believe that most people wind up in an eternal place of torment, no matter what their written documents say.
This hit me way back in college. I remember the exact place I was sitting when I read these words:
… The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)
The way I understood it back then, this meant that everyone who did not receive Jesus into their heart was bound for eternal torture in hell. If this was true then I was the most selfish person in the world. How could I not spend every waking moment warning people of this and begging them to ask Jesus into their hearts so they would go to heaven? Evidently, since I had my place in heaven I was content to sit back and watched the rest of the world go to Hell.
But I wondered if there was more to it than this. I went to funeral services for people who were clearly not followers of Jesus. Nothing was said about them being tortured in hell. Instead they were spoken of in glowing terms and every impression was given that they were smiling down at us from heaven. If we really believed in the doctrine of hell, most funerals would be weeping and gnashing of teeth as we contemplated our dear departed in eternal flames.
Christmas also puzzled me. It was the time of year when we celebrated Jesus, the Son of God, who came to our world to rescue it. A few people would be saved and the rest sent to hell. This was the “good news of great joy for all the people?”1 It seemed to me like very bad news. When the World Trade Center collapsed, most people died and a few were saved. No one called the collapse of the World Trade Center good news. Soon, God would blow up the world like terrorists blew up the World Trade Center. A tiny minority would escape to heaven. This was good news? But again, no one said this at Christmas. We ate cookies, drank punch and sang about peace, love and joy.
Why do we say one thing and do another? Because our hearts are better theologians than our heads. Truth speaks so clearly in our hearts that it is nearly impossible to live in contradiction to it. If our minds create some crazy belief system we simply ignore and follow the truth. If we want to be consistent, we must adjust either our behavior or our our creed. In this case it is our creed that needs the overhaul.
In this chapter, I will explain why I believe in universal reconciliation. I will start by giving three common ideas of the fate of the wicked. Next, I will give the evidence that in the end, God saves everyone and everything and show how this might look. Finally, I will share the drastic ways that belief in universal salvation has changed my attitudes toward other people.
Judgment: Endless Suffering, Annihilation, or Redemption?
As I pointed out in the chapter on hell, there is no way to erase the fact that the Bible not only contains thrilling inspiration; it is also filled with stern warnings of coming judgment. Here are a couple of well-known examples. Review the chapter on hell for more.
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)
The sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13-15)
Attempts have been made to make God out to be an indulgent grandfather who never stops smiling. This rings hollow. Our world is not a magical playground of love and happiness. There is evil. Dark, terrible evil. At this moment God is watching children being abused, women being raped, the poor being starved. Do we really want a God who never stops smiling?
If God is love, God must get angry. Evil must be destroyed. The question is, what is the nature of this destruction? How will God judge the world? Three main answers to this have been given.
- Judgment means endless torment in a fiery pit called Hell.
- Judgment is annihilation. Bad people will simply cease to exist.
- Judgment is redemptive, purging evil from the evildoer.
Let’s look at these one at a time.
1. Endless Torment
Although this is commonly assumed, it is the least likely possibility and has little biblical support. As I explained in the chapter on hell, the idea of eternal suffering is based on a poor translation of the word aiōnion (αιωνιον) which is better translated “of the coming age” rather than a description of endless time. That there will be punishment and destruction in the coming age is clear. That it will be conscious and eternal in a fiery pit called “Hell” is speculative
A more defensible position is that God simply annihilates evil along with the evildoer. Passages like these come to mind:
For behold, the Lord will come in fire
And His chariots like the whirlwind,
To render His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with flames of fire.
For the Lord will execute judgment by fire
And by His sword on all flesh,
And those slain by the Lord will be many.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
Notice, though, that in both passages, along with these images of annihilation come the promise of something new.
“For just as the new heavens and the new earth
Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord,
“So your offspring and your name will endure.”
But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)
The result of fiery judgment is a not a vast “nothingness,” as if the fire only destroyed. Instead, when the flames die out, a purified new creation emerges. This is one reason I believe the fires of judgment are redemptive.
Biblical images of the final redemption of all creation are more common than is commonly known. These sit side by side with warnings of judgment. The question is how to put these together. Which is ultimate? The redemptive view does not try to erase the fact that God hates evil or that judgment is coming. It simply says that God’s judgment has a purpose: to purify and restore. This is an attractive idea but is there any evidence for it?
Evidence That the Judgment of the Coming Age Is Redemptive
Biblical Evidence That the Judgment of the Coming Age Is Redemptive 2
What follows is a sample of passages that envision universal reconciliation. I provide a large number since this truth has been so badly overlooked.
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
It seems weird that God would choose to bless just one tiny nation from among all the people of the earth. “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” goes the saying. This is a misunderstanding of God’s purpose in choosing Israel. Just as Americans get caught up in their own “exceptionalism,” so Israel failed to remember that their blessedness was meant to be a blessing—to the entire world. God’s goal has always been to redeem the entire world, not just one nation.
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations.
All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord,
And they shall glorify Your name.
The writers of the Psalms spend plenty of time calling down fire from heaven to destroy their enemies. But this cry for justice must not eclipse a much more beautiful longing for all people everywhere to be reconciled to God.
The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations.
He will swallow up death for all time,
And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces,
And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;
For the Lord has spoken.
And it will be said in that day,
“Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”
This vision of last things is quoted in Revelation 21:4. It is a vision of the universal restoration of the entire created realm. It is not limited to Israel. It is not limited at all!
“Therefore wait for Me,” declares the Lord,
“For the day when I rise up as a witness.
Indeed, My decision is to gather nations,
To assemble kingdoms,
To pour out on them My indignation,
All My burning anger;
For all the earth will be devoured
By the fire of My zeal.
“For then I will give to the nations purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of the Lord,
To serve Him shoulder to shoulder.
This passage describes both judgment and purification. It is universal on both fronts. “All the earth” is devoured by God’s zeal. But the result is a world of “purified lips” that calls on the name of the Lord.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.
The angel’s good news of the Messiah’s birth is not limited to Israel. The great joy is for “all the people.”
When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went on to another village.
Like the Psalmists, James and John are ready to unleash fire from heaven on their enemies. Jesus points to a greater goal: Salvation for their enemies.
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
This prayer is for the Jews who set him up to be crucified and the Gentiles who crucified him. If it goes for them, it goes for us. The prayer is offered in the very act of crucifixion. They did not request forgiveness. It is given freely, when least deserved.
And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
“All” is not qualified.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.
Jesus’ came to save the world, not judge it. How can this be reconciled with the parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus clearly judges the world? Or with John 3:36?
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
We are face to face with a familiar tension: Universal salvation and judgment are placed side by side. What are we to make of it?
One solution to this is to say that Christ did not come to save the entire world but only a subset of it, sometimes called “the elect.” Appeal could be made to John 10.
You do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (John 10:26-27)
Evidently not all people are Jesus’ sheep. They do not know Shepherd’s voice. They do not follow Him. But it is not necessary to assume the those presently fail to follow must wander forever. Jesus also said that he was the Good Shepherd who pursues the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-4). Similarly, the fact that the Jewish officials are called children of the Devil (John 8:44) does not mean they are forever condemned to be children of the Devil. There are times when I could rightly be described as a “lost sheep” or “child of the Devil.” I do not consider this state to be final.
A better resolution to the tension between Jesus’ goal to save the world and the fact that he will also judge it is to recognize that judgment is a part of the salvation. Christ burns up sin and makes evil hurt. As every parent knows, punishment is an essential component of love. There are times when we must allow our children to experience being “lost sheep” so they will come back into the fold. But no parent could ever be content for a child to be eternally lost. Can God be less loving than we?
Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. ‘And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days. It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”
Jesus the Messiah fulfills the promise to Abraham to bless the whole world. “The restoration of all things” is universal. There remains an element of judgment, however. To reject Jesus is to be “utterly destroyed.” (“Utterly destroyed” is the harshest possible translation of the Greek word exolethreuō, ἐξολεθρεύω which could as easily be translated “rooted out.”) This could be used to argue for annihilation but it is better to see this as another example of how judgment is a tool of redemption. It is not necessary to assume that those who are “rooted out” are permanently destroyed, let alone eternally tortured in hell. Instead, the wrath of God is being used to purify. Salvation is the final end of all things.
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The logic of the verse is inescapable. The “all” who sinned and died in Adam are set in parallel with “all” who will receive justification of life. It is forced to say that the first “all” means everyone and the second “all” means only a few. The whole point of the passage is that Christ’s righteousness eclipses Adam’s transgression. How can it be argued that the sin of Adam had more far reaching consequences than the righteousness of Christ?
For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
All means all. To say that the “alls” in this passage refer only to “some” hides the glory of Christ under a bushel.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
Here it is again: Universal judgment side by side with universal salvation. “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God” and “Every tongue shall give praise to God.” It is not one or the other. We are judged in order to be saved.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
This passage is one of the clearest: We will stand before God. Fire will purge us. We will be saved.
1 Corinthians 15:22-28
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
Two of Paul’s favorite themes emerge. 1) The Adam-Christ parallel. “All” died in Adam. “All” will be made alive in Christ. 2) The enemies of God are judged and put in their place. It is possible to assume the God’s enemies are annihilated or cast into eternal torment but the verse does not say this. Indeed, if death is abolished, how can there be a place of eternal death? It is more likely that the enemies of Christ are “put under his feet” the same way I am—by being judged by the fires of destruction and punishment in order to be redeemed. However it happens, the end is clear. The universal triumph of Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
The object of reconciliation is the world. Again, it seems foreign to the passage to define the world as a subset of the world.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
Again, God’s saving presence is universal. He is over, through, and in all.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
This passage is breathtaking in its scope. Peace is made with all things, on earth and in heaven. I cannot explain the details of how universal reconciliation will take place but this passage certainly envisions it.
Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
Again, the promise to Abraham comes true. All the nations of the earth blessed. Christ is all in all.
1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
If Christ gave himself as a ransom for all, then all are ransomed.
And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen,
And everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
For all will know Me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
“For I will be merciful to their iniquities,
And I will remember their sins no more.”
Here is a quotation of the New Covenant passage found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The vision is of universal forgiveness.
1 John 2:1-2
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
This is pretty plain: Jesus’ gift of life covers the whole world, not just us, however you define “us.”
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and marvelous are Your works,
O Lord God, the Almighty;
Righteous and true are Your ways,
King of the nations!
“Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name?
For You alone are holy;
For all the nations will come and worship before You,
For Your righteous acts have been revealed.”
The book of Revelation contains some of the most hair raising descriptions of judgment anywhere in the Bible. Still, the final vision is one of universal salvation. The dark passages along the way could be read as condemnation to everlasting torment in hell. They could also be read as annihilation. But there is no reason they cannot be read as the fires of purification, burning to make all things new.
One final observation: If most people are headed for eternal torment in hell and there is a simple prayer that will prevent this, why would the Apostles and Jesus himself not put this front and center in their message? They don’t. The idea of escaping eternal torment in a fiery pit by saying a prayer is not found anywhere. Instead, the consistent message is the Kingdom of God. Clearly, the establishment of God’s Kingdom will be a bumpy road and involves the fire of judgment. But the end is also clear: total victory. The question for me is whether I will embrace God’s Kingdom with its blessings or fight it and live under its judgment. Eventually, the Kingdom of God will triumph in my life. The question is how long I will choose to live in misery. The good news is that I can come home today.
Evidence from Church History that Judgment in the Coming Age Is Redemptive
Does the idea that Christ reconciles all things in the end sound novel to you? It’s not. For the first five centuries of the church, the idea of universal reconciliation was accepted by a majority of Christ’s followers. In Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years,3 J.W. Hanson shows that the idea of eternal punishment did not come into prominence until the sixth century. There is no way to do justice to this massive work so I will simply summarize a few of Hanson’s observations.
- Neither the Didache nor The Apostle’s Creed (the earliest document of the church) say anything about eternal suffering for those who refuse Christ. If this was a central tenet of the early church, surely they would have warned of this terrible danger and used it as we do, as a tool of evangelism.
- The first comparatively complete systematic statement of Christian doctrine ever given to the world was by Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 180, and universal salvation was one of the tenets.” 4
- “The first complete presentation of Christianity as a system of belief was by Origen (A.D. 220) and universal salvation was explicitly contained in it.”5
- The Nicene Creed (c. 381 A.D.) says nothing about eternal damnation. Its only words about the afterlife are these: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age (aiōn, αιων)6 to come.”
- In the first few centuries A.D., the word aiōnion (αιωνιον) which we translate “eternal” usually described a limited time. Philo, who was contemporary with Christ, generally used aidion to denote endless, and aiōnion to describe temporary duration.7 Therefore to speak of aiōnion punishment was not to speak of endless punishment.
- The word kolosis (κoλασις), usually translated “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 (the parable of the Sheep and the Goats) mean punishment which was intended to improve the evildoer, not destroy him. So the “eternal punishment” received by the goats should not be understood as everlasting torment but as a punishment of limited duration, aimed at reformation.
- The idea of purgatory, which was created by Pope Gregory in the sixth century was an extension of the idea held by early believers that people underwent ongoing purification after death. This is the reason why prayers were offered for those who had died. As Hanson puts it, “The primitive Christians … could not have believed that the condition of the soul is fixed at death. That is comparatively a modern doctrine.”8
- The first to strongly assert the idea of endless punishment was Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD). This was a minority view. It was Augustine (354-430 AD) who made eternal punishment a central doctrine of the church.
- Fear of hell flowered the dark ages when it was used as a tool to keep the ignorant masses in line.
Hanson does not claim that the early Christians went around preaching universalism. His point is that it was an implicit belief and that the idea of eternal torment in hell was a later development. In his conclusion, he puts this very strongly:
“All ecclesiastical historians and the best Biblical critics and scholars agree to the prevalence of Universalism in the earlier centuries.”9
It is safe to say that many wonderful and dedicated followers of Christ believed in the idea of universal reconciliation, especially in the early centuries of the church. What I find curious is that universalism is such a taboo topic in evangelical circles these days. You would be safer promoting the torture of kittens than speaking openly of universalism. Say the word and people’s faces turn white. You’re beyond the pale. I wonder why we are so afraid? I wonder if many people’s belief in God is not inspired by love but fear. Take away the fear of hell and there is nothing left. Also, the idea of universal salvation undermines the assumptions of the Plato-Dante system of belief. Even to consider it requires a massive paradigm shift, one which frightens us.
Intuitive Reasons why Judgment in the Coming Age Is Redemptive
A final reason why I believe in universal salvation is my own intuition. I realize my intuition may lead me astray but I also believe that my sense of right and wrong is not completely broken. Generally speaking, right things seem right to me and wrong things seem wrong. The idea of God destroying the majority of creation or tormenting them eternally in hell just feels wrong. God is love. He tells me to forgive my enemy. Is God above his own commandments?
In discussions of total reconciliation, Hitler inevitably comes up. “What about Hitler? Are you saying God will just let Hitler off the hook?”
No. God will judge Hitler, just as God will judge me. I am in no place to judge anyone, including Hitler. I don’t know Hitler’s upbringing. I don’t know how his mind may have been misshapen. If I had received Hitler’s mind and circumstances, who knows what I might have done? I can identify horrific behavior when I see it but I will leave it with God to judge Hitler. I believe there will be fire involved, both for Hitler and for me. I also believe that this fire will be used as a tool of redemption, both for Hitler and for me.
Since we’re speaking of Hitler, think for a moment of the millions of Jewish people who suffered horribly and died in concentration camps. If the life raft idea of the gospel is correct, the suffering they endured in those camps is nothing compared with the torture they are experiencing at this moment and will continue to experience for all eternity. This is nearly impossible to believe. A God who would do that is a monster. If that’s how the story ends, I guess I have no choice to accept it. God is God. But how could I possibly worship a God like that?
I began by mentioning the World Trade Center. Imagine that a hero was sent to stop the horror and make a way for few people to escape. But the towers still fell and most of the people were crushed. Would we celebrate this as a victory and sing about this great salvation? This is exactly the kind of hero the life raft version of the gospel makes of Jesus. I, for one, cannot not sing as the world collapse on my friends and family, not to mention the vast majority of the world’s population. This is not “good news of great joy for all the people.”
A Likely Scenario
I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think I have what will happen when I die all figured out. I don’t. Death and judgment is a great mystery. However, I do feel confident that I won’t be permanently assigned to either heaven or hell based on whether or not I prayed a “sinners prayer.” This idea flies in the face of both logic and Scripture.
When I read passages on the judgment to come, the shape that emerges is this: When I die, my life will be seen for what it truly is.10 I will step into the light of the Kingdom of God. Then, the love of Christ will do what must be done. There will be rewards. There will be destruction. There will be punishment. I do not look forward to the painful part of this but I know it will be the love of God, making me fit for the Kingdom. I do not know if this will all happen in a flash or over time. I do know that the goal of Christ is the total redemption of all created things and that the love of God will not stop until this is complete.
What About Grace?
The scenario I just described raises an objection to my old way of thinking. It sounds like salvation by works. I thought that when I died, God would put on Jesus-glasses which would hide his eyes from what I really am or have done. He would see only the holiness of Jesus. These Jesus glasses would guarantee me a full and free pardon. That’s why it makes no difference how I behave in this life. No matter how foul a creature I may be, God sees me as perfect. No punishment for me! Jesus took that on the cross. That’s what I used to mean by “grace.” This badly misses the mark.
The idea that Jesus took my punishment on the cross and gave me an invisibility cloak to hide what I really am from God sounds like Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden again. The cross is not where Jesus bought me an invisibility cloak. The cross is where Jesus planted his Kingdom flag in this fallen world and began to make all things new. He will finish the job. Part of that job is me.
Not a single passage describing judgment gives me a reason to expect that how I behave in this life won’t matter. Instead, judgment is always described as truth revealing things for what they really are. Some things shine and endure. Others stink and are destroyed.
Take a fresh look at Ephesians 2:8-10
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
As we saw in the chapter on the cross, “works” in Paul’s writing does not mean the attempt to be morally perfect. Paul uses the word “works” to describe Jewish people who were trusting in being good Jews (circumcision, kosher eating, sabbath observance) to make things right with God. This is what Paul means by “works” and he is emphatic: being a good Jew won’t cut it. You must be part of the New Creation by putting your hope in Jesus the Messiah and this will transform your behavior (v. 10). The Kingdom of God is what matters. Christ invites everyone into this kingdom without regard to nationality or goodness or badness or anything. Just come!
“Salvation by grace” is not a Jesus-veneer, poured over me to hide what I really am. It is a work of love that changes what I really am. Grace is not an invisibility cloak. It is an invitation to come out of hiding and be made new. It will take fire. There will be pain. But Jesus will walk through it with me and use even my missteps for good. The result is as certain as God’s promise to make all things new. The grace of God will be seen in my life. My good deeds will shine like a city on a hill. I will not boast about this. I will shout with all my might, “Amazing grace!”
Some Wonderful Results of Believing in Universal Reconciliation
I now believe that the triumph of God in the death and resurrection of Christ was total and that God will eventually reconcile every created thing to himself, if not in this age, in the age(s) to come. This has had made big changes in how I view the world.
1. One thing about my evangelical upbringing that I find very hard to shake is the habit of dividing the world into “them” and “us,” the “saved” and the “damned.” I can’t walk into a room without separating the sheep from the goats. I don’t make the separation as Christ does, based on how they treat the poor and needy of this world. I divide them based on whether or not they have “asked Jesus into their heart.” Most people are headed to hell and need me to “evangelize” them. The underlying assumption that most people are headed for hell makes any hope for a normal relationship a challenge.
Trusting that Christ will establish universal salvation freed me from this. If the whole world is being made new in Christ then there is one human family on the way to one big celebration. Instead of being part of a tiny minority of saved people and viewing everyone else as an evangelistic project, I now count all people as brothers and sisters. God is working in their lives just as he is in mine. It is my privilege to call attention to the wonderful reality of the Kingdom of God and Jesus, the King.
But what about the fact that most of the world does not view Jesus as the world’s King? Aren’t these people in big trouble? I don’t think so. Kingdom people are not defined by their orthodox views but by kingdom behavior. Kingdom people will delight to meet their King. If they have misidentified him in this life, this will be sorted out quickly. There is a fictional example of this C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle. Emeth is a noble soldier who has spent his life in the service of Tash because he knew no better. Tash is a wicked god. But Emeth is a good soul. Here is Lewis’ account of Emeth’s meeting with Aslan.
But I [Emeth] said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. … I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Jesus’ way of saying the same thing is that you know a tree by its fruit. Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. I believe that the love of Christ will triumph in the lives of all people, without exception, no matter what God they worship. Do we think we have God perfectly identified? Is not our idea of God inadequate? A biblical example of this is found in Jesus’ harsh words for the Jewish villages of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.
I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matthew 11:22-24)
Tyre? Sidon? Sodom? These cities were legendary for evil. Jesus implies that there is hope for them and that the orthodox Jewish villages will fare worse. Judgment is not based on nationality or but on kingdom behavior. And, as I have been arguing, the purpose of this judgment is not destruction but redemption. Everyone will be purified by fire.
2. Universal reconciliation is a great comfort to those who have watched people they love slide down a death spiral of addiction or suicide. I have done a few funerals for such victims. It’s a tough assignment. It would seem these poor souls have sealed their fate. But if death means stepping into the light of God’s Kingdom, there may be some big surprises. Jesus had a tender heart toward sinners, losers, lost causes, and those who struggled with life. He said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” His sternest warnings were not aimed at those who suffer in this life but at those who do not. The people we consider to be furthest from the Kingdom may be the closest. It is reasonable to assume that the people who struggle most with life are in for a great relief in the coming age rather than eternal hellfire.
3. One of the most common objections to the idea of universal reconciliation is that it takes all the wind out of evangelism. Why bother spreading the good news if God’s gonna save everyone anyway? The assumption behind this is that that the good news is a way to escape hell and go to heaven. Take away hell and there is no good news.
The early Christians didn’t go around preaching a way out of hell. They preached the Kingdom of God and hailed its risen King. The good news was that God’s Messiah was on his throne and that his Kingdom had come. It spread like wildfire.
On September 2, 1945, an announcement was made: World War II was over. This rocked the world. Darkness was defeated. The war was over. There were better days ahead. If our good news were actually good news I suspect we would discover that God’s Kingdom would spread in the same way and transform the world, just as it did in the first few centuries.
A Final Word
Of course, I might be wrong about everything. Maybe God will torture most people in hell forever (though I strongly doubt it). Maybe God will simply annihilate bad people. (But who are the good people?) Maybe Jesus isn’t even who I think he is. Maybe I have misidentified God.
Even if I’m wrong, I have decided this is how I will live. I will follow my crucified, resurrected Savior who planted God’s Kingdom on earth. I will follow his teachings and example. I will live as a child of the Kingdom. Call me a dreamer, but I find this compelling. I want to live like Don Quixote, seeing the best in everyone and everything. I will live under the assumption that God’s victory will be total,
That everything will be all right in the end.
And if it’s not yet right,
it’s not yet the end.
The Impossible Dream
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or cause
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star
- Luke 2:10
I am indebted for this list to Julie Ferwerda, a woman who has given great thought to this issue. Ferwerda, Julie. Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire. Vagabond Group. Kindle Edition.
- Kindle Locations 4257-4263
- This is our old friend, the word translated “eternity” in most translations.
- Kindle Location 597
- Kindle Locations 976-977
- Kindle Locations 4294-4295
- For there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. (Matthew 10:26)