Archive for July, 2019

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: James

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

In my blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, I’m going through the New Testament and attempting to show that the Bible actually does support the idea that through Jesus, God will eventually save everyone.  (In fact, this is what the early church taught for its first 500 years.)

I was going to skip the book of James, because I don’t think its verses make a case either for or against universalism.  But there are places in James that do discuss judgment, so I want to talk about them.

Let me state right from the beginning that Christian Universalists like me do believe there will be judgment.  The part we challenge is the idea that this judgment will consist of unending fiery torment for ever and ever after death.  A lot of that interpretation rests on a few places in the Bible where the Greek word “eonian” is translated “eternal,” when in Greek, it didn’t mean that at all.  “Eonian” is “of the eons” or “of the ages.”  It can be a very long, an indefinite period of time, but there are many examples where it’s used to describe something that does, in fact, end.

But in James, that word isn’t even used.  We’ve only got judgment.  Some of the instances, it’s not even clear whether the judgment discussed will come before or after physical death.

Here’s a passage from James 1:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”  For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Sin leads to death.  I’ll agree with that.  It may be figurative, it may be literal, but it does not necessarily mean unending fiery torment after physical death.

Here’s a passage about judgment in James 2:

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.

It talks about judgment without mercy will come – and yet so many, many other passages in the Bible tell us that our God is rich in mercy.  I still do not think that “judgment without mercy” could possibly mean unending fiery torment.

And here it seems appropriate to quote George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermon on “Justice,” where he argues that mercy and justice are not opposed to one another:

‘Mercy may be against justice.’  Never – if you mean by justice what I mean by justice.  If anything be against justice, it cannot be called mercy, for it is cruelty. To thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy, for thou renderest to every man according to his work.’  There is no opposition, no strife whatever, between mercy and justice.  Those who say justice means the punishment of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God….

Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by his love to punish sin in order to deliver his creature; he is bound by his justice to destroy sin in his creation. Love is justice–is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for his children. This is the reason of punishment; this is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished–that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just. Such punishment concerns justice in the deepest degree. For Justice, that is God, is bound in himself to see justice done by his children–not in the mere outward act, but in their very being. He is bound in himself to make up for wrong done by his children, and he can do nothing to make up for wrong done but by bringing about the repentance of the wrong-doer. When the man says, ‘I did wrong; I hate myself and my deed; I cannot endure to think that I did it!’ then, I say, is atonement begun. Without that, all that the Lord did would be lost. He would have made no atonement. Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter, is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. For nothing less than this did Christ die. When a man acknowledges the right he denied before; when he says to the wrong, ‘I abjure, I loathe you; I see now what you are; I could not see it before because I would not; God forgive me; make me clean, or let me die!’ then justice, that is God, has conquered–and not till then….

Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death.  If suffering cannot serve this end, we need look for no more hell, but for the destruction of sin by the destruction of the sinner. That, however, would, it appears to me, be for God to suffer defeat, blameless indeed, but defeat….

I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice; that such is is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren–rush inside the center of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn. I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children.

So what he’s saying is that judgment comes to bring our heart to the right place.  This doesn’t change after death.

But I haven’t finished going through the book of James.  There’s more about judgment in James 5.  As you read this, it does talk about judgment happening at the Lord’s coming.  But there’s still absolutely nothing said about how long the judgment will last.  And there’s absolutely nothing said about this judgment being simply to blast people and not to correct and teach them.  There’s nothing to contradict what George MacDonald has said about judgment above.  This passage is still a case of, “Stop sinning of your own accord, so that you don’t need God’s judgment to stop you!”

Here’s James 5:1-7 –

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded.  Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.  You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  Look!  The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.  You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.  You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.  Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.  The Judge is standing at the door!

James is all about the practical living out of the Christian life.  And part of that is to live with mercy, for God himself is merciful.  But if judgment is what it takes to turn us to God, judgment will come.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Hebrews 8 and 10

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is a blog series showing that you can make a strong case from Scripture that all will be saved. I’m going through the New Testament and pointing out verses you might not have noticed if you simply assume that the Bible teaches that sinners will be tormented through all eternity.

I’m going to finish up the book of Hebrews by looking at verses in chapters 8 and 10. Chapter 8 is a relatively straightforward passage. It’s quoting Jeremiah 31 and talking about Israel. But if everyone in Israel will be saved, why not everyone on earth? It seems like an equal miracle to me. Here’s the passage:

This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.

All of them will know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest. It’s hard to imagine that happening here on earth.

Hebrews 12 is more difficult for a universalist. But before I type it out, notice that nothing is said about how long the punishment will last. Nothing about everlasting torment. It also seems to be talking to some extent about the judgment of believers. (“The Lord will judge his people.” They’re sanctified by his blood.) Here’s the passage, Hebrews 12:26-31 —

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Let me also note that instead of “raging fire,” the Concordant Literal New Testament translates that “fiery jealousy.”

As I’ve said many times, I believe in judgment — what I don’t believe is that the result of that judgment will be punishment without end. There will be punishment — or more accurately translated, correction. This passage suggests that some believers may also encounter judgment.

George MacDonald, the writer who first convinced me of universalism, likes to quote Hebrews 12:29 — “for our ‘God is a consuming fire.'” He suggests that all of us will encounter the purifying fire of God’s love. And that fire will burn away the impurities of sin in us, a refiner’s fire.

To the extent that sin has become entwined in our characters, become a part of who we are — to that extent is how much suffering we will experience when we encounter that fire.

Again, there’s nothing here that suggests that experience will never end.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Hebrews 6

Friday, July 26th, 2019

In this series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, I’m going through the New Testament and pointing out how things look from a universalist’s perspective. So far, we’ve found that yes, there will be judgment — but nowhere does it say that judgment will be unending torment. And the Bible does say, in many places, that all will be saved and that at the end of the ages will come the restoration of all things.

At first glance, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to be a problem for this perspective:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

I really like George Sarris’s explanation of this passage in his book Heaven’s Doors, so I’m going to quote him here.

If it’s impossible for someone who’s fallen away to be brought back to repentance, isn’t it clear that they will never enter the presence of God? If it’s impossible for them to enter heaven, where else could they be but in hell?

The writer of Hebrews is talking to people who were slow to learn.

By this time, they should have been teachers themselves, but instead they needed others to teach them. As with many people today, these teachers were stuck going over and over the same things with people who were really only interested in arguing, not in learning the truth.

The word impossible here has a force similar to what Jesus said to His disciples after He told them it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Again, notice the use of exaggeration to make a point.

The disciples were “greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”

The writer of Hebrews is not saying that it’s impossible for God to bring someone who’s fallen away from the faith back to repentance. Rather, it’s impossible, and a waste of time, for Christian leaders to try to reconvert someone who’s been acquainted with all the proofs and elements of Christianity and chosen to abandon them.

Again, even though this passage implies bad consequences — there is nothing whatsoever about unending torment as punishment.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Hebrews 2

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

I’m a universalist. I became a universalist after reading the writings of George MacDonald. George MacDonald clearly loved the Lord and loved the Bible and had studied the Bible in the original languages. He also proclaimed that the Bible teaches that all will be saved at the end of the ages.

I didn’t understand how he could make this claim. I was surprised when I looked into it to discover the Bible really does seem to teach this — If you can open your mind to a different perspective than the one you’ve grown up with.

This series is an attempt to show another perspective, the perspective of a universalist. If you are interested in this, I’ve reviewed many books that take up a straightforward case for universalism, and I highly recommend any of them. This series goes through the New Testament and points out how the plain reading of various passages looks different if you start with the possibility that universal salvation is true.

I began this series going along as my church was reading through the New Testament, but I’ve gotten a bit behind. Today let’s look at Hebrews 2.

The beginning section says,

For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?

I want to point out from this section the words “just punishment.” I know that we’ve been taught that it is a just punishment for sin, but take a different perspective for a minute. Does anyone really think that unending, infinite torment is truly just punishment for any sin that’s been done during a finite human lifetime here on earth? I believe the very idea of God being perfectly just rules out unending torment for anyone. And there are places in the Bible where it would seem to indicate that some will get worse punishment than others. That doesn’t make sense if all people receive unending torment.

But then a more explicitly universalist statement comes in verse 9:

But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

If Jesus tasted death for everyone, shouldn’t everyone receive the benefit of that? Was his death ineffective?

The writer goes on about all that Jesus has done in verses 14-18:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Did Jesus really break the power of him who holds the power of death – if many people are still destined to be dying eternally?

Did Jesus make atonement for the sins of the people – if many people are left out of that?

How effective was Jesus’ offering? Is Christ triumphant, or not?

I’m going to leave that question there.

Jesus tasted death for everyone. And he broke the power of him who holds the power of death.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Acts 3

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

My series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is about going through the New Testament and showing how it reads differently when you don’t rule out the possibility that God really might be saying that one day He is going to save everyone. Acts 3:21 has another passage like that.

Peter was preaching, and talking about Jesus when he said this:

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Universalists believe that yes, there will be judgment. There will even be suffering as people receive punishment and correction for their sins. But one day, at the end of the ages, “God will restore everything.”

Is everything really restored if some are still suffering in hell?

Peter finishes his sermon in verses 25 and 26 —

And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.

They were the first to be blessed. But they will not be the last!

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: The Gospel of John

Friday, July 19th, 2019

I’ve been writing my series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, parallel with my church’s plan to read through the New Testament, but in the last few months got behind. Tonight I’d like to catch up the rest of the gospel of John.

I already covered some big themes in John that continue throughout the book. In John 3, we saw that God loves everyone and there will be judgment. But nothing anywhere in the book says that the judgment is torment that will be endless. We also saw that becoming God’s child changes our very being. It means we are no longer perishing. We also saw it brings a different quality of life. In John 5, we saw more about that Life that comes from the Son.

In John, we see that some do not believe. From John 6:64-65 —

“Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

There is more talk of the consequences of that and of judgment, but still nothing that says judgment will last forever.

In John, we see that Jesus is supremely important. From John 14:6-7 —

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

John has been teaching all along that Jesus came to reveal God to us. (John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”) And although in the book of John we see that some rejected Jesus even during his lifetime, we know from Philippians 2:10-11 that at the end of the ages “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is why I am a Christian Universalist. I believe that all who come to God are doing so through Jesus. The Father enables them to come to Jesus, and Jesus shows them the truth, the way to God, the way to life.

But many verses in John also give us an idea of the scope of Jesus’ mission. He gives life to the world. John 6:33 —

For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

John 6:51 —

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

John 8:12 —

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Here’s an all verse, John 8:32 —

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

More about the scope in John 8:47 —

For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

Another all verse in John 17:2, which I’m going to quote in the context of verses 1 through 4.

Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.

This reminds us that Jesus said his work is finished. Surely Jesus did not fail as he came to seek and to save what was lost?

I would like to repeat John 17:1-2 from the Concordant Literal New Testament:

Father, come has the hour. Glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son should be glorifying Thee, according as Thou givest Him authority over all flesh, that everything which Thou hast given to Him, He should be giving it to them, even life eonian.

A different translation — and a translation that tries hard to exactly match the original language — does carry a more explicit meaning that Jesus is giving everything to all flesh — life eonian.

This is only a summary of what we find in the rest of John. But you can see from these verses that not only did God so love the world, Jesus came to give life to the world.

Transcending: Gracious Argument

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

I have a lot more to say in this Transcending blog series about what both Science and the Bible have to say about transgender people. But today I want to step back and talk about some things I’ve learned about arguing with grace while I’ve been going through this process of trying to convince my former church not to adopt a new “Christian Living Statement” as part of their constitution.

Let me say right up front that I am not good at arguing graciously. A lot of this was learned from doing it poorly.

However, I do think this process highlighted some principles I want to take away and apply the next time I disagree with someone on a matter of principle.

Like so much else, it goes back to Patricia Evans and her books on Verbal Abuse. I’ve read five of them: The Verbally Abusive Relationship, The Verbally Abusive Man, Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out, Victory Over Verbal Abuse, and Controlling People.

The big idea behind those books is that it is verbally abusive to define other people or to tell them they have bad motives or to tell them what they themselves are thinking or feeling or what they should be thinking or feeling.

The bottom-line reason that verbal abuse is so hurtful is that it is nonsense. We have no ability to read minds, and we cannot tell what another person is thinking or feeling or what their motives are.

One thing I like about using it as a standard for argument is that it is about the statements made.  You don’t have to attribute bad motives to the person making the statement.  But if someone says, “You hate America,” that is a verbally abusive statement, saying something they can’t possibly know, since they can’t read your mind.

If someone makes verbally abusive statements even when you explain they have misjudged you or continues in a persistent pattern, you don’t have to even speculate about their motives, but it is a good idea to protect yourself.  Unfriend them on Facebook, stop communication.

Now, using “verbal abuse” about this, although I believe it can be warranted if done persistently, has strong negative connotations that are almost abusive themselves by this definition. So I am going to try to focus on the flip side of it and look at how we can avoid defining and attributing bad motives to other people when we argue with them. When we manage to do this, we come across as arguing with grace.

In the post I called Self-Definition, I looked at how this applies to trusting transgender people to know who they are.  People do it over and over again every time they say transgender people are “confused” or even refuse to use the word “transgender” but instead talk about “gender confusion.”  But now I’m talking about how it applies to arguments about principles.

As I was arguing about my former church’s proposed policy, I found that people responded defensively when they thought I was accusing them of being unloving, but people responded surprisingly well when I assured them that I didn’t think they were trying to hurt anyone.

But there were several times in the interactions when I was told how my thought-processes were wrong or how my motives were bad.

When I look back at the interactions, I think it goes back to the definition of verbal abuse. Or said more positively, it seemed to depend on whether grace was inserted in the conversation — whether good motives were assumed and mentioned or not.

Let’s look at some actual things that were said to me.

This one came from someone outside the church when I posted on Facebook about finding a Bible-believing church that welcomes and affirms LGBTQ people:  “You care more about feeling happy than you do about truth.”

Some verses were cited along with this statement.  But I (and the church I attend now) interpret those verses differently.  And the speaker actually cannot see inside me and know what I care about.  In fact, part of what upset me so much about my former church’s new policy is that I firmly believe it is contrary to Scripture and therefore contrary to Truth.

Others urged me to read the Bible more, as if that would change my views.  I’m not even sure how I could fit more time reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible into my life.  No, my views on this are coming directly out of my study of the Bible.

I do realize, though, that those who disagree with me are also getting their opinion from the Bible.  It is possible to interpret Scripture in different ways.  That doesn’t mean they don’t care about Truth.

There were some hurtful exchanges with the leadership of my former church.  I was told I was making too big a deal of the change.  I was told I didn’t understand the situation.  I was told what I was trying to do.  (It was not what I was actually trying to do:  Show that the policy was unbiblical and would hurt people.)

I was also told that I was using “many, many words” and wanted to use “many, many more” — which came across as telling me I was talking too much and being shrill.  In the same email I was told the writer could hear me “practically screaming” a response.  Putting words in someone else’s mouth in argument is creating a straw man.  Creating a straw man of the person you are actually speaking with is not respectful.

So those were some negative things that happened.  I very much doubt that my own words in that exchange were well chosen either.

However, an interaction that really surprised me happened after the first member meeting where the policy was discussed.

I sent the pastor an email where I said this:

I’m bringing up a very small point, because I suspect you will encounter transgender people in your life, and you would like to be able to minister to them.  The point is this:
Every time you use the word “transgenderism” I cringe inside and draw back.
Because transgender people never use that word about themselves.
So that gives transgender people and those who affirm them a heads’ up that the person who said that has not been listening to transgender people.
Do you want transgender people to cringe when you speak about them?
If not, you should try to avoid using that word.
Thought I should let you know!

What surprised me about it was that even though I wrote it when I was angry, the pastor thanked me for sending it. He said that I would have to have assumed the best about him.

All I said was, “you would like to be able to minister to them.”  But I do believe that about him.

In the next membership meeting I attended, he did not once use the word “transgenderism,” nor did he even once call transgender people “confused” (though an elder did).

And that’s what I’m getting at here.  Assume the best about people.  Try to tell them so.  It injects some grace.

I do believe my former pastor that he does not at all want to be offensive.  I do believe him that he wants LGBTQ people to feel loved and respected when he talks with them.

Yes, I believe that my former church is trying to be loving and caring toward LGBTQ people.  The elders have assured me of this repeatedly.  It’s in the policy statement itself.

I also believe that making up burdensome rules not found in Scripture is the sin of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4.  However, I don’t think the church is willfully sinning.  I believe them that they honestly think LGBTQ people are sinning — so the loving thing to do, in their eyes, is to respect and love them, but when asked, help them avoid this “sin.”

I disagree with their initial assumption.  I do not think that same-sex marriage is sinful.  And I don’t think that transgender people changing their bodies to match their gender identity is sinful.

But the motives of my former church are good.  They are not being hateful.  They are trying to help people they love avoid sin.  They’re trying to build a relationship close enough that they will be asked for help.

But let’s mention that my motives, too, were good.  I honestly was trying to keep the church body I loved from falling into the sin of the Pharisees.  I thought I had some extra insight into the situation because of having transgender people in my life whom I also love deeply.  I have also studied the Bible in depth on this topic and hoped that would give my words some weight.

And after it was all over, I did get some acknowledgement of that, which does help ease the hurt.  But please, when you’re arguing with me, don’t dismiss my argument because you don’t think I understand or you think I don’t care about the truth.

And I will try hard to do the same about people I disagree with.

Most of my friends have good motives.  Most of them want to be loving and caring in their interactions with others.  We may disagree about how that can be accomplished, but their hearts are in the right place.

When we can admit that about people on the other side of an argument, we’ll cause less pain.  We can insert some grace into the conversation.

And that’s what I’m trying to say in this installment of my many, many words.