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.