A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – John 3 and Titus 2

My series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is an attempt to show how when you look at the New Testament with different eyes, you see different things. Once I entertained the idea that God will save everyone, I noticed things I’d never noticed before. Now I’m reading along as my church reads through the New Testament together, with a daily reading from the gospels and one from the epistles, and I’m pointing out things I didn’t notice until I was willing to open my mind to the possibility that the Bible teaches that all will be saved.

[Please note that I would never have thought it does – but an author I highly respected who clearly loved the Lord with all his heart and had studied the original language was completely sure that the Bible does teach that God will save everyone. How could he think that? Yet he did. Maybe I should take another look….]

Last night I wrote about John 3 – but there’s one more verse at the end of the chapter that reads similarly to the verses I already discussed. Here it is in the Concordant Literal New Testament:

He who is believing in the Son has life eonian, yet he who is stubborn as to the Son shall not be seeing life, but the indignation of God is remaining on him.

Before I was a universalist, I thought the Bible said a whole lot more about hell than it does – because I read verses like this as talking about everlasting torment. I assumed that’s what they meant. I assumed if a verse mentions the wrath of God, it means God’s going to burn those people forever and ever with fiery torment. Better turn or burn!

But notice all this verse doesn’t say. Nothing about everlasting torment. Nothing about a deadline after which the person will be stuck in their stubbornness forever, when it will forever be too late to turn to the Son and get that life eonian.

As long as you’re stubborn as to the Son, you’re not seeing life. You’re in a completely different state. That’s what it says.

I said yesterday that the way the passage is in present tense points out that faith makes a big difference in this life now. Both passages in John 3 emphasize that people are stubbornly staying away from God, not the other way around. And don’t forget, we also read about how much God loves the world. Perhaps He loves them enough not to leave them in their sin.

We get an eon to choose our own way. Jesus did say the next eon brings judgment, but why do we assume that this judgment is the end? Especially since God’s way with people is correction, not retribution.

The Titus passage we read today fits in well with all this. Here is Titus 2:11-15 from the New International Version:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.

Okay, let’s pause there. I’ve always been taught that God offered salvation to all, but couldn’t manage to give salvation to all. Continuing on:

It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (eon), while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Again, there’s an emphasis that being saved in this life is a special blessing, a special calling. Notice we’re redeemed from all wickedness, not from being punished for wickedness. We get to be a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

One of those good things is to love the world as He does, with self-giving love.

If you think He’s going to petulantly torment His enemies forever, that’s a little different than the idea that He will one day win them over.

Anyway, again I’m straying from my main point, which is that neither of these passages talks about hell. The whole Bible does not talk about hell nearly as much as I was taught it does. Believing in judgment after death does not mean we have to believe in endless torment.

So may we focus instead on being God’s very own people, eager to do what is good.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – John 3

As my church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m using this opportunity to stop and point out some passages that look different when you read them from the perspective of a Universalist.

When I first realized that the great author George MacDonald, who loved the Bible and studied the original Greek, claimed the Bible teaches that all will be saved, I wondered how he could think that, since the Bible doesn’t teach it. Or does it? Once I actually looked at Scripture, I began to think differently.

Today’s passage was John 3:16-21. It’s a passage that both Universalists and non-Universalists can use, so I’m not going to try to argue for Universalism with this passage, but I do want to point out how it looks just a little different from this perspective. I found some new richness I didn’t expect. It also touches on several themes found elsewhere in the writings of John.

Beginning with verse 14, here’s how it goes in the New International Version:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Now, as a universalist, I wish the passage stopped there. See that? God loved the world and sent his Son to save the world! If the whole world is not saved, did God fail?

But the passage does continue.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Okay, there’s judgment in this passage.

But you know what? It mentions condemnation, which can be translated as judgment – but it does not say that those who are judged will be tormented in hell forever and ever.

And do notice that it’s not that God is angry with people. God loves the world. But so many hate the light and are afraid to come into the light. It’s not that God can’t look on sin. It’s that sinful people don’t want to be seen.

Two things I’m sure of from this passage:

1) God loves everyone in the world.

2) There will be judgment. My view is that after death we’ll be brought into the light, like it or not.

I’ve said all along that I’m a universalist who believes in hell. But I do not believe that hell lasts forever. And like all of God’s chastisement, it’s for correction, not retribution. This means it has to come to an end.

The word translated “eternal” here is that same word “eonian,” “of the eons,” “of the ages.” It doesn’t indicate a definite time period, and it may indicate an enduring, deep quality.

John himself seems to use it to talk about the type, the quality of life in John 17:3:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Mind you, I’m definitely not saying that Christians won’t live forever! I believe we will. But I’m not sure if that’s John’s focus here.

And what does he mean by “perish”? It certainly doesn’t say anything about everlasting torment.

It’s interesting to look at the Concordant Literal New Testament translation of this passage. The Concordant Literal New Testament is the closest you can get to the original Greek, peppered with symbols to indicate the verb tenses. They use one English word for each Greek word used, the better to be clear about what was actually written in the original language.

Here’s how they translate John 3:16:

For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian.

What’s interesting to me about that is that it’s present tense. The passage isn’t saying, “This will save you from going to hell when you die.” Instead it’s saying, “You’re perishing right now, and believing in the Son will give you life eonian right now.”

In fact, that fits with the illustration of Moses and the snake in the desert. The story goes that the Israelites had been struck with a plague and they were dying. But when they looked up and saw the bronze snake that Moses had put on a pole – they stopped dying.

Even so, Jesus stops the perishing that we’re doing right now.

To me, this fits with what Jesus told Martha at the tomb of her brother Lazarus in John 11:25-26. Here’s the Concordant Literal translation of that verse:

Jesus said to her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who is believing in Me, even if he should be dying, shall be living. And everyone who is living and believing in Me, should by no means be dying for the eon. Are you believing this?”

Again, it’s all present tense – and seems to be talking about something deeper than physical life and death, especially since Lazarus was physically dead at this time.

Now, the book of John is very clear that judgment is coming after death. We’ll talk about that when we get to John 5. But here there’s something going on in the present. Jesus can save you from the fact that you are perishing right now.

It also has to do, I think, with becoming a child of God. This is a huge theme in both the Gospel of John and the epistles of John. And in this chapter, Jesus just told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

This ties with what’s said in the passage we’ve already looked at. You’re perishing right now, in this life. You need a whole new life. Which means you need to be born again, “of water and the Spirit,” “born from above.”

This fits with the idea of becoming children of God.

John introduced this theme in his very first chapter, in verse 12:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Then we hear more about being born of God here in John 3.

In John 8, we get the negative side of that. The Pharisees say that God is their Father, and Jesus responds harshly:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.

John repeats this idea in I John 3 –

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

So becoming God’s child changes our very being! We become someone different and someone who acts differently. It changes the quality of our lives. And we are no longer perishing.

I’ve strayed very far afield! But back to John 3:16. Let’s remember that God loves the world. And the reason Jesus came was not to judge the world but to save it. And when we believe in Him, we become God’s child. We are no longer perishing, and we have life eonian, which is to know God. We become His child and His life permeates our being.

And as a universalist, my great hope is that God’s desire will not be thwarted, that even though many will not believe, will love darkness instead of light – God will triumph and by the end of the ages, all humanity will have turned to the light.

But meanwhile, how great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – I Timothy 4:10

Today’s verse — I Timothy 4:10 — Isn’t really a problem for either side. But I think the universalist interpretation fits better. Here’s the verse:

That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

It’s the “especially” clause that gives non-universalists their out. Because without that, it’s pretty clear: God is the Savior of all people.

So what does it mean, “especially of those who believe”? Notice that it does not say, “exclusively of those who believe.”

What I think it means is “God is the Savior of all people, and those who believe in this life get to experience that salvation more fully.”

What I do not think it means is “God offers salvation to all people, but only those who believe will actually receive it.”

Especially implies this is more fully and richly true for those who believe, but not that they are the only ones for whom it’s true.

Can you really say that God is the Savior of someone if they end up being subjected to never-ending torment after death? Even if they in effect chose it by not believing — in what sense is God their Savior?

Still, I don’t see this as a problem passage for non-universalists. I do think that the universalist interpretation makes more sense, though.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – I Timothy 2:1-6

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – I Timothy 2:1-6

During this series of Looking at the New Testament from a universalist’s perspective, I’ve found some verses that universalists do need to explain why they don’t mean what they at first glance seem to mean. (Usually that’s because of a poor translation.) But this is a verse that non-universalists have to explain away in order to hold their theory of eternal torment for nonbelievers.

The passage is I Timothy 2:1-6:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

There are two important “all”s in this passage.

First, it says that God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Could that possibly be clearer?

Now, the devotional that our church is using actually says that doesn’t mean that God wills all people to finally be saved. And the reason given is that if God wanted everyone to be saved then everyone would be saved! They cite Romans 9:19, which says that no one can resist God’s will.

So they’re basically saying God doesn’t want everyone to be saved (despite what this passage says) because if that were true, universalism would be true!

So they’re making my point for me, that if this verse means what it seems to mean – that God wants everyone to be saved – then universalism is true.

It seems like your choices one of these three:

1) Universalism is true.
2) God doesn’t really want all people to be saved.
3) God wants all people to be saved, but the power of those people to rebel is greater than God’s power to win them over. So regretfully, not all will be saved.

I think the interpretation that fits Scripture best is that God indeed wants all people to be saved and He indeed loves the world and everyone in it. And what God wills, God can bring about, even though it may take until the end of the ages for some to come to Him. But one day God will be all in all.

And that’s not the only “all” in this passage. Another is that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

If Jesus gave Himself to save all people, but all people are not saved – then was His sacrifice ineffective?

This is the main reason Thomas Allin gives for believing universalism, and the reason he titled his book Christ Triumphant. You can read my review to get a taste of that reasoning – but do we really think God set out to save the world and then failed?

Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people, so if all people are not ransomed, then surely Jesus was defeated in each case of a person who was not saved.

But back to the beginning. Do you believe in your heart that God truly wants all people everywhere to be saved? Isn’t that a bigger, a more powerful and more loving God than the one you hear about who (however regretfully) sends people to suffer eternally because they didn’t accept His offer and believe the right formula while they were still on earth?

God loves you and He loves me and He loves our loved ones more than we do ourselves. And He also loves those people I didn’t really want or expect to see in heaven. All of them, even, maybe especially, those who seem truly lost now.

And truly this brings glory to God our Savior.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – II Thessalonians 1:9

As our church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m pointing out passages that look a little different when you read them with the eyes of a universalist. Today we encountered another, II Thessalonians 1:3-10:

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Once again, there are concerns about the way this is translated. The Greek word translated “everlasting” is the same Greek word eonian which means “of the ages,” and “everlasting” is a misleading translation.

I looked over my books on universalism and a few address this passage. Thomas Talbott goes on at great length in his book The Inescapable Love of God, also looking at where the word “destruction” is used elsewhere by Paul and it is a redemptive kind of destruction. George Sarris says some of the same things in Heaven’s Doors, but he’s a lot more concise, so I’ll copy that out here:

In II Thessalonians 1:9, the apostle Paul tells his readers that those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus will be “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .”

Those are pretty strong words! If you were punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord, where else would you be but in hell? Here again, the translation into English is misleading.

As we have seen, the word translated as everlasting does not mean never-ending. It means the end is not known. The verse definitely talks of punishment, but it does not talk of punishment that never ends.

The actual Greek text of this verse also does not say that those punished will be shut out from the presence of the Lord. It simply says that the punishment is from the presence of the Lord. Depending on the context, that phrase could mean punishment away from or punishment coming from the Lord.

A few verses earlier, Paul says that God is just and will punish those who unjustly treated the Thessalonian Christians. He’s not talking about punishment that keeps people shut out from the presence of the Lord. He’s talking about just punishment that comes from the presence of the Lord on those who are mistreating His people.

The destruction Paul refers to literally means ruin or desolation. In this passage, Paul is simply saying that those who are unjustly persecuting the Thessalonian believers will experience ruin from the hand of God in the age to come. He’s not talking about endless torment. He’s talking about how the wicked will be humbled before God, and the plans of their hearts will be brought to nothing, as God justly pays them back for the trouble they have caused His people.

Again I’m reminded that the teaching that hell is never-ending torment was not part of the teaching of the church fathers as long as they were native Greek speakers. When Augustine, who did not speak Greek, came to be a leader of the church, he popularized the idea that hell is unending torment.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – The Rich Man and Lazarus

I’m following along with my church’s reading of the New Testament and making comments when there’s a passage that might look different when read from the perspective of a universalist. Today we read Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

I like the discussion of this story in George Sarris’s book, Heaven’s Doors, so I’m going to copy that out here.

Note first that the newest edition of the NIV Bible correctly translates the word “Hades” in the parable rather than using “hell.” “Hades” means “the grave” rather than a place of torment. But here’s more from George Sarris:

At first glance, it certainly looks like there’s no way around understanding this parable as promoting the idea of endless, conscious torment. After all, the rich man is in hell. He is “in torment and agony in this fire.” A great chasm has been fixed between the rich man and Lazarus. And those who want to cross over that chasm cannot.

However, if we take a closer look at the passage, a few things bring that interpretation into question.

First of all, the rich man was not in hell.

As mentioned earlier, the English word hell automatically brings to mind never-ending punishment. But as we have just seen, the Greek word Jesus actually used here does not communicate that idea at all.

Jesus said the rich man was in Hades, and Scripture specifically says that Hades, as a place of punishment, does not last forever. Hades will one day give up the dead who are in it and will itself be cast into the lake of fire.

The next thing we should note is that this is a parable. Jesus is telling a fictional story to teach certain truths to His listeners.

The audience for this parable was made up of two distinct groups of people. One group, the tax collectors and sinners, were spiritually poor and recognized their need for God. The other group, made up of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were materially rich and had deceived themselves into thinking they were favored by God. Like the rich man in the parable, many of those religious leaders were actually clothed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.

In this parable, Jesus alluded to an Egyptian folktale that both the religious leaders and the tax collectors were familiar with. But He told it with a very important twist.

The story known to His listeners was about a poor scholar and a rich tax collector. After the two men died, one of the poor scholar’s colleagues had a dream. In his dream, he saw the fate of the two men in the next world. The poor scholar was in “gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams.” But the rich tax collector was standing on the bank of a stream, trying to reach the water but unable to do so.

In the original folktale, the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have identified with the poor scholar since they were also scholars who prided themselves on their knowledge of Moses and the prophets. They looked with marked disdain on the tax collector who they considered a great sinner simply by virtue of his occupation. In an absolutely brilliant move, Jesus turned the tables on the listeners and identified the religious leaders not with the hero in the story, but with the villain. They were the ones who were rich in this world’s goods, but poor in the eyes of God.

Jesus wasn’t relating definitive facts about the afterlife. He was using the story to communicate specific truth about this life. The pride and hypocrisy of the religious leaders kept them from understanding what Moses and the prophets taught.

The last thing to note about this passage is that the parable was told before Jesus had risen from the dead.

A great chasm separated the rich man from Lazarus. But there is nothing in the account that says that the chasm will always be there. Neither Abraham, nor the rich man, nor Lazarus could do anything to make it possible to go from one side of the chasm to the other. That was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God bridged the chasm through Him.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 15 – The Lost Son

Yesterday we looked at the first two parables in Luke 15 – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Today we’re going to look at the beautiful parable of the lost son, otherwise known as the prodigal son. But as many have pointed out, the son is not the prodigal in this parable – extravagantly generous. That’s the father.

Let’s look at the story:

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“’My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Before I talk about this passage and universalism, let’s think about this father. This is how much God loves you!

Notice that the father did not force someone to pay back what the son had squandered before he forgave him. He didn’t require payment of any kind. He was watching the road for his son’s return. It was the son who needed to be reconciled to his father, not the other way around.

But this is also how much God loves other people!

Let’s think for a moment about the setting of this parable. Let’s review when Jesus told it. Here’s how the chapter starts:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

I mentioned yesterday that the next two parables Jesus told are universalist parables. But looking at the context, the point Jesus was really making was this:

Those sinners I’m eating with are going to be welcomed in heaven with great rejoicing!

Those tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around Jesus – he was saying that his Father values them and would search for them until they were found.

And then the parable of the Lost Son – this is how much the Father loves those sinners and tax collectors – He’s eagerly watching for them and will run toward them when He sees them approaching.

Obviously, Jesus was thinking of the Pharisees when he told about the older son who didn’t want the father to celebrate after all his brother had done.

But where’s the universalism in that?

Well, suppose I’m right about the first two parables. Suppose they are saying that ALL will be saved, that the Good Shepherd will keep searching for every single lost sheep until they are found.

Don’t argue with me for a second, just assume that universalism is true and examine how you would feel.

If universalism is true – will you feel aggrieved? Will you start asking God, “What did I follow you for if you’re going to save these people in the end, anyway? Why have I been slaving for you and trying to please you – when you get excited about these miserable sinners who only deserve hell? Why did I spend my life on earth trying to follow you?”

Today is Transgender Visibility Day. If you’re convinced that being transgender is a sin (It is not – the reasons why not are a post for another day.) – will you be upset with God for welcoming them lavishly into heaven?

Will you be upset if gays and lesbians and other queer people are in heaven? People who married someone of the same gender and people who were a different gender than the one on their birth announcement? Or how about cheating husbands? Murderers and *shudder* people of the opposite political party?

If universalism is true – if our Father’s love is that big – will you be angry with God?

Back to the older brother — Notice that he has no joy in the service he’s been doing for his father. He describes his work for his father as slaving for him.

Notice also, though, the father’s answer: “You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” The elder brother didn’t have to nearly starve in the pigsty. I do believe there will be judgment, but that the Lord will win in the end. We can do it the easy way or the hard way. Those who choose to follow Jesus in this life have Him always with us and everything He has is ours.

On the surface, the younger brother is the one doing things the hard way. And yet if the elder brother is finding no joy in being with the father, he’s got a drudgery of his own.

And I suspect his pride is hurt by his little brother getting so much attention. But life with the Father isn’t about comparison. It’s not about being better than the others in our human family.

May we never begrudge anyone the lavish love of the Father – He has more than enough for all of us.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 15 – Until They Are Found

I’ve been looking forward to chapter 15 of Luke. Three parables are listed, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Today we read the first two:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I’ve emphasized the until he finds it phrases above, because those are key words for universalists.

These parables don’t leave any room for failure. The Lord is not willing that any should perish, and He will keep searching until He finds His lost sheep. This is yet another reason I say that there is no deadline.

Yes, we saw in earlier passages that there will be judgment after death. But this judgment is spoken of as correction. Perhaps with some it is part of the process of finding that wandering sheep, of bringing it home. This Good Shepherd is not a shepherd who ever gives up.

In fact, every time we sing Cory Asbury’s song “Reckless Love” in church, I think of those I know who haven’t yet come to Jesus. Because God’s love is indeed overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless. He will indeed not be stymied by our resistance. He will keep after us until we are found, even if it takes eons.

Peter Gray wrote a booklet that he titled Until They Are Found, which I reviewed in 2010. It’s short, so I reread it before writing this post. He also asserts that this shows a shepherd who does not give up.

Here in Luke, we are presented with a vision of the Good Shepherd who searches without ceasing. Normal search and rescue operations only last a certain time; eventually they are called off, even if not everyone has been found. But there is nothing normal about the rescue mission of the Good Shepherd, for he does not know how to give up. He knows nothing of cutting his losses, for if He did, He would surely never have searched in the first instance. After all, ninety nine out of one hundred is a pretty good standard, don’t you think? Ninety nine percent might be good in our books, but it is not good enough for God. Nothing short of one hundred percent will satisfy the Good Shepherd.

Look at what Jesus says in verse 4, “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” Notice that word ‘until.’ It is there deliberately. It is not by accident that Jesus does not say, “in an attempt to find it.” Jesus says that the shepherd will search until it is found, hence the title of this book. This story says nothing about not finding the lost sheep; no hint of failure is given. That there may be a sheep belonging to Him that He will never find, is a conclusion that this story precludes us from believing. Praise God!

It is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, and the success of the search and rescue operation depends upon His skill. He sees so clearly, and intervenes so effectually, that He will most assuredly bring them in. Jesus Christ will not lose one of His sheep. True, some sheep may wander in the wilderness for a time, but to be forever lost? Never! A thought that He cannot bear. Could the Christ fail to save even one of those for whom He came and for whom He died? Impossible! Such a thought He could not endure. A defeated Christ is a Christ whom I cannot conceive of.

He makes another point from these first two parables: Neither the sheep nor the coin contributes anything to being found.

The coin was not found because the coin followed a law or a commandment. It was not found because it realized its own state of ‘lost-ness’ and began looking for its owner. It was not found because of some ‘good works’ it had managed to achieve. The coin was found only because the woman looked for it. What could a coin contribute to its being found? The answer, of course, is nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And is this not the point of using a coin as the imagery? There is absolutely no possibility of being misinterpreted. A coin cannot contribute to being found in any way. A sheep could possibly have made a sound or even walked toward the shepherd. Even though Jesus does not say any of this happened, it is possible to misinterpret Him and think the sheep did something. The point I am attempting to make is that the religious people in Jesus’ audience, who were so convinced that they contributed to their salvation, could find a way to distort the obvious meaning of the story and conclude that the sheep did do something. And so the lost sheep story is followed by the story of a lost coin, and now there is no way to be misinterpreted. A coin cannot do anything to contribute to its being found. The coin was found because the woman went looking for it — no other reason can possibly be asserted. And what’s more, the woman went looking until she found her coin. Again, Jesus chooses to use this word until. ‘Until it is found’ carries no possibility of failure. It can mean only one thing: that all who are lost shall be found.

The final story in Luke 15 is about the lost son — it shows how much the Father loves the one who is lost. We’ll read that one tomorrow.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 13

Here’s another difficult passage for universalists, Luke 13:22-30:

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

Now, I am a universalist — I believe that, eventually, all will be saved. But I also believe in hell. How is this possible? Well, I believe that hell is not unending. It is for correction, not outrageous, out-of-proportion punishment of unending torment for all time.

Notice that this passage never says the punishment is unending. In fact, saying “the first shall be last” implies their time will come, in the end. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “The first shall be never.”

Remember also that Jesus was speaking to religious people like the Pharisees who were very proud of their religion and believed they knew exactly what was necessary to please God. He was emphasizing to them that these Gentiles they despised would come from the east and west and north and south and enter into God’s presence before them.

Yes, this is a passage universalists need to explain — but taken together with so many other passages, I still think that universalism fits best with what the New Testament teaches.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 12 and George MacDonald on Forgiveness

Okay, this one’s a difficult passage. Luke 12:8-10:

I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

George MacDonald has an entire sermon about this verse in the book Unspoken Sermons, Series One, the chapter titled “It Shall Not Be Forgiven.” I can’t include the entire chapter here, but I want to include some long sections from it.

First, he talks at length about what forgiveness actually is. When we’re talking about God’s forgiveness, it includes the remission, the sending away, of sins.

First, he looks at human forgiveness to give us the idea:

A man will say: “I forgive, but I cannot forget. Let the fellow never come in my sight again.” To what does such a forgiveness reach? To the remission or sending away of the penalties which the wronged believes he can claim from the wrong-doer.

But there is no sending away of the wrong itself from between them.

Again, a man will say: “He has done a very mean action, but he has the worst of it himself in that he is capable of doing so. I despise him too much to desire revenge. I will take no notice of it. I forgive him. I don’t care.”

Here, again, there is no sending away of the wrong from between them — no remission of the sin.

A third will say: “I suppose I must forgive him; for if I do not forgive him, God will not forgive me.”

This man is a little nearer the truth, inasmuch as a ground of sympathy, though only that of common sin, is recognized as between the offender and himself.

One more will say: “He has wronged me grievously. It is a dreadful thing to me, and more dreadful still to him, that he should have done it. He has hurt me, but he has nearly killed himself. He shall have no more injury from it that I can save him. I cannot feel the same towards him yet; but I will try to make him acknowledge the wrong he has done me, and so put it away from him. Then, perhaps, I shall be able to feel towards him as I used to feel. For this end I will show him all the kindness I can, not forcing it upon him, but seizing every fit opportunity; not, I hope, from a wish to make myself great through bounty to him, but because I love him so much that I want to love him more in reconciling him to his true self. I would destroy this evil deed that has come between us. I send it away. And I would have him destroy it from between us too, by abjuring it utterly.”

Which comes nearest to the divine idea of forgiveness? Nearest, though with the gulf between, wherewith the heavens are higher than the earth?

For the Divine creates the Human, has the creative power in excess of the Human. It is the Divine forgiveness that, originating itself, creates our forgiveness, and therefore can do so much more. It can take up all our wrongs, small and great, with their righteous attendance of griefs and sorrows, and carry them away from between our God and us.

Christ is God’s Forgiveness.

Before we approach a little nearer to this great sight, let us consider the human forgiveness in a more definite embodiment — as between a father and a son. For although God is so much more to us, and comes so much nearer to us than a father can be or come, yet the fatherhood is the last height of the human stair whence our understandings can see him afar off, and where our hearts can first know that he is nigh, even in them.

There are various kinds and degrees of wrongdoing, which need varying kinds and degrees of forgiveness. An outburst of anger in a child, for instance, scarcely wants forgiveness. The wrong in it may be so small, that the parent has only to influence the child for self-restraint, and the rousing of the will against the wrong. The father will not feel that such a fault has built up any wall between him and his child. But suppose that he discovered in him a habit of sly cruelty towards his younger brothers, or the animals of the house, how differently would he feel! Could his forgiveness be the same as in the former case? Would not the different evil require a different form of forgiveness? I mean, would not the forgiveness have to take the form of that kind of punishment fittest for restraining, in the hope of finally rooting out, the wickedness? Could there be true love in any other kind of forgiveness than this? A passing-by of the offence might spring from a poor human kindness, but never from divine love. It would not be remission. Forgiveness can never be indifference. Forgiveness is love towards the unlovely.

Let us look a little closer at the way a father might feel, and express his feelings. One child, the moment the fault was committed, the father would clasp to his bosom, knowing that very love in its own natural manifestation would destroy the fault in him, and that, the next moment, he would be weeping. The father’s hatred of the sin would burst forth in his pitiful tenderness towards the child who was so wretched as to have done the sin, and so destroy it. The fault of such a child would then cause no interruption of the interchange of sweet affections. The child is forgiven at once. But the treatment of another upon the same principle would be altogether different. If he had been guilty of baseness, meanness, selfishness, deceit, self-gratulation in the evil brought upon others, the father might say to himself: “I cannot forgive him. This is beyond forgiveness.” He might say so, and keep saying so, while all the time he was striving to let forgiveness find its way that it might lift him from the gulf into which he had fallen. His love might grow yet greater because of the wandering and loss of his son. For love is divine, and then most divine when it loves according to needs and not according to merits. But the forgiveness would be but in the process of making, as it were, or of drawing nigh to the sinner. Not till his opening heart received the divine flood of destroying affection, and his own affection burst forth to meet it and sweep the evil away, could it be said to be finished, to have arrived, could the son be said to be forgiven.

He’s making a point that sometimes we can’t receive God’s forgiveness. And it’s because of us.

But, looking upon forgiveness, then, as the perfecting of a work ever going on, as the contact of God’s heart and ours, in spite and in destruction of the intervening wrong, we may say that God’s love is ever in front of his forgiveness. God’s love is the prime mover, ever seeking to perfect his forgiveness, which latter needs the human condition for its consummation. The love is perfect, working out the forgiveness. God loves where he cannot yet forgive — where forgiveness in the full sense is as yet simply impossible, because no contact of hearts is possible, because that which lies between has not even begun to yield to the besom of his holy destruction.

Then he talks about the two sins Jesus said will not be forgiven.

But there are two sins, not of individual deed, but of spiritual condition, which cannot be forgiven; that is, as it seems to me, which cannot be excused, passed by, made little of by the tenderness even of God, inasmuch as they will allow no forgiveness to come into the soul, they will permit no good influence to go on working alongside of them; they shut God out altogether. Therefore the man guilty of these can never receive into himself the holy renewing saving influences of God’s forgiveness. God is outside of him in every sense, save that which springs from his creating relation to him, by which, thanks be to God, he yet keeps a hold of him, although against the will of the man who will not be forgiven. The one of these sins is against man; the other against God.

The former is unforgivingness to our neighbor; the shutting of him out from our mercies, from our love — so from the universe, as far as we are a portion of it — the murdering therefore of our neighbor. It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that, in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated. We listen to the voice of our own hurt pride or hurt affection (only the latter without the suggestion of the former, thinketh no evil) to the injury of the evil-doer. In as far as we can, we quench the relations of life between us; we close up the passages of possible return This is to shut out God, the Life, the One. For how are we to receive the forgiving presence while we shut out our brother from our portion of the universal forgiveness, the final restoration, thus refusing to let God be All in all? If God appeared to us, how could he say, “I forgive you,” while we remained unforgiving to our neighbor? Suppose it possible that he should say so, his forgiveness would be no good to us while we were uncured of our unforgivingness. It would not touch us. It would not come near us…. With our forgiveness to our neighbor, in flows the consciousness of God’s forgiveness to us; or even with the effort, we become capable of believing that God can forgive us. No man who will not forgive his neighbor, can believe that God is willing, yea, wanting to forgive him, can believe that the dove of God’s peace is hovering over a chaotic heart, fain to alight, but finding no rest for the sole of its foot. For God to say to such a man, “I cannot forgive you,” is love as well as necessity. If God said, “I forgive you,” to a man who hated his brother, and if (as is impossible) that voice of forgiveness should reach the man, what would it mean to him? How would the man interpret it? Would it not mean to him, “You may go on hating. I do not mind it. You have had great provocation, and are justified in your hate”? No doubt God takes what wrong there is, and what provocation there is, into the account; but the more provocation, the more excuse that can be urged for the hate, the more reason, if possible, that the hater should be delivered from the hell of his hate, that God’s child should be made the loving child that he meant him to be.

But George MacDonald doesn’t think this is the final word.

No one, however, supposes for a moment that a man who has once refused to forgive his brother, shall therefore be condemned to endless unforgiveness and unforgivingness. What is meant is, that while a man continues in such a mood, God cannot be with him as his friend; not that he will not be his friend, but the friendship being all on one side — that of God — must take forms such as the man will not be able to recognize as friendship. Forgiveness, as I have said, is not love merely, but love conveyed as love to the erring, so establishing peace towards God, and forgiveness towards our neighbor.

To return to our immediate text: Is the refusal of forgiveness contained in it a condemnation to irrecoverable impenitence? Strange righteousness would be the decree, that because a man has done wrong — let us say has done wrong so often and so much that he is wrong — he shall for ever remain wrong! Do not tell me the condemnation is only negative — a leaving of the man to the consequences of his own will, or at most a withdrawing from him of the Spirit which he has despised. God will not take shelter behind such a jugglery of logic or metaphysics. He is neither schoolman nor theologian, but our Father in heaven. He knows that that in him would be the same unforgivingness for which he refuses to forgive man.

Here’s a little bit about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:

The man who denies truth, who consciously resists duty, who says there is no truth, or that the truth he sees is not true, who says that which is good is of Satan, or that which is bad is of God, supposing him to know that it is good or is bad, denies the Spirit, shuts out the Spirit, and therefore cannot be forgiven. For without the Spirit no forgiveness can enter the man to cast out the satan. Without the Spirit to witness with his spirit, no man could know himself forgiven, even if God appeared to him and said so. The full forgiveness is, as I have said, when a man feels that God is forgiving him; and this cannot be while he opposes himself to the very essence of God’s will.

But he does not believe this is a fixed, final condition.

The Spirit of God is the Spirit whose influence is known by its witnessing with our spirit. But may there not be other powers and means of the Spirit preparatory to this its highest office with man? God who has made us can never be far from any man who draws the breath of life — nay, must be in him; not necessarily in his heart, as we say, but still in him. May not then one day some terrible convulsion from the center of his being, some fearful earthquake from the hidden gulfs of his nature, shake such a man so that through all the deafness of his death, the voice of the Spirit may be faintly heard, the still small voice that comes after the tempest and the earthquake? May there not be a fire that even such can feel? Who shall set bounds to the consuming of the fire of our God, and the purifying that dwells therein?

It’s a difficult passage — even George MacDonald acknowledges that. And yet Jesus forgave his murderers while they were still in the act of crucifying him. It makes sense to me that if there are people God cannot forgive, the problem is with the people, not with the heart of God. They simply can’t experience God’s forgiveness.

I think of my child, when he had done something he knew was wrong and I confronted him. I was ready to forgive — he was only a small child, and it was a small fault. But he wanted nothing to do with me! Or my ex-husband. I was ready to forgive. But again, he wanted nothing to do with me — He could not experience my forgiveness, and any overtures I tried to make were interpreted as unkindness.

May we all open our hearts to the amazing forgiveness and love of our Father!