A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Colossians 1

As my church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m pointing out how you really can read it from the perspective of the belief that God is going to triumph and save everyone. It’s promised right in Colossians 1!

Now, I learned from my Concordant Literal New Testament that the original Greek version of Colossians 1 does not have the word “things.” That was inserted to make the English easier to read. I think it helps English readers, though, read it as if the “all” here isn’t talking about people. So I’m going to type out this passage without using “things.” Notice, though, that even if you use the word “things,” the ALL that is created is the same ALL that is reconciled. Here’s Colossians 1:15-20:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over ALL creation. For in him ALL were created: in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; ALL have been created through him and for him. He is before ALL, and in him ALL hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself ALL, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Again I ask, does “all” mean ALL? Imagine for a moment that it does!

Some try to say that Philippians with “every knee shall bow” is talking about forced submission. Well, how do you explain away all being reconciled? How can reconciliation be forced? This isn’t talking about subjugation.

I’m not saying there won’t be judgment. But the judgment is for correction — for the ultimate goal of reconciling ALL to Jesus.

In fact, the very next verse emphasizes a point that George MacDonald makes many times in his writings. There’s not one word in Scripture of God needing to be reconciled to us. We need to be reconciled to God. He is always ready to forgive. Here’s how Paul puts it in Colossians:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

We were enemies in our minds. We were alienated from God, not God from us.

But back to “through him to reconcile to himself ALL, whether on earth or in heaven.” I’m going to quote a section from Thomas Talbott’s book, The Inescapable Love of God, talking about Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:15-20:

When Paul suggests that every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, he chooses a verb that throughout the Septuagint is used to imply not only confession, but the offer of praise and thanksgiving as well; and as J. B. Lightfoot points out, the verb has such implications of praise “in the very passage of Isaiah [45:23] which St. Paul adapts . . .” Now a ruling monarch may indeed force a subject to bow against that subject’s will, may even force the subject to utter certain words; but praise and thanksgiving can come only from the heart, as the Apostle was no doubt clear-headed enough to discern. Quite apart from the matter of praise, moreover, either those who bow before Jesus Christ and declare openly that he is Lord do so sincerely and by their own choice or they do not. If they do this sincerely and by their own choice, then there can be but one reason: They too have been reconciled to God. If they do not do this sincerely and by their own choice, if they are forced to make obeisance against their will, then their actions are merely fraudulent and bring no glory to God; a Hitler may take pleasure in forcing his defeated enemies to make obeisance against their will, but a God who honors the truth could not possibly participate in such a fraud.

There remains an even more important exegetical consideration. In Colossians 1:20, Paul himself identifies the kind of reconciliation he has in mind; he does so with the expression “making peace through the blood of his cross.” Similarly, in Philippians 2:6-11, Paul himself explains the nature of Christ’s exaltation; he does so by pointing to Christ’s humble obedience “to the point of death — even death on a cross.” Now just what is the power of the cross, according to Paul? Is it the power of a conquering hero to compel his enemies to obey him against their will? If that had been Paul’s doctrine, it would have been strange indeed. For God had no need of a crucifixion to compel obedience; he was quite capable of doing that all along. According to the New Testament as a whole, therefore, God sent his Son into the world, not as a conquering hero, but as a suffering servant; and the power that Jesus unleashed as he bled on the cross was precisely the power of self-giving love, the power to overcome evil by transforming the wills and renewing the minds of the evil ones themselves. And Paul not only endorses this idea; he also tells us exactly what he means by “reconciliation” in the two verses following Colossians 1:20, citing as an example his own readers: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (1:21-22 — emphasis mine). So the blood of the cross does bring peace, but not the artificial kind that some tyrannical power might impose; it brings true peace, the kind that springs from within and requires reconciliation in the full redemptive sense. It seems to me without question, therefore, that Paul did envision a time when all persons will be reconciled to God in the full redemptive sense.

Amen. And what glory to God if He actually is able to save everyone! Hallelujah!

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament — Every Knee Shall Bow

As my church reads through the New Testament, I thought I’d take the time to point out how some things sound different when you read them with Universalist eyes. I began this blog series after we’d already been reading for a quarter, so it doesn’t begin at the beginning.

My motivation was that when I realized that George MacDonald believed everyone will eventually be saved — but also knew that George MacDonald loved and revered the Bible and knew the original languages — I didn’t understand how those things could both be true. So one of the first things I did was read the New Testament asking if it is even possible to interpret it as saying what George MacDonald said it did.

It turns out, it’s not only possible, but as years went by, I’ve come to think it makes more sense and is a more natural reading of Scripture. But for this series, I’m just looking at what the New Testament says.

Today’s passage, Philippians 2:9-11 is one of the most obviously universalist passages. Mind you, I’m not saying that people with the Everlasting Hell View can’t explain this passage away. But they do have to explain it away — because the natural way to read it is that everyone will be saved. Here’s what it says:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Combine this passage with Romans 10:9 —

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

— And it makes sense to conclude that this is talking about a future end of the ages when God triumphs and all are saved.

I was sitting in a Sunday school class in Germany when a man read this passage in Philippians. Without missing a beat, after he read it, he immediately said, “But then it’s too late!”

Ummmm, No, it doesn’t say that. There’s nothing that says there’s a deadline after which if you confess Jesus is Lord, you won’t be saved.

The Bible does say there will be judgment after death. But it does not, actually, say that judgment will last forever (at least not in the original Greek). And with God, punishment is always corrective.

And I have and will say more about that in other sections of this series. For now, think about how glorious it will be if this verse says what it seems like it says — that the time will come when all, ALL — those in heaven and on earth and under the earth — will proclaim that Jesus is Lord and bow before Him. That our loving Father has brought everyone to Himself through Jesus. That would indeed be to the great glory of God the Father.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Ephesians 4

I almost skipped a verse! This isn’t a verse I’d base all my theology on, but we do have an ALL verse in Ephesians 4, and taken together with other passages, it fits with Universalism.

Here’s what it says in Ephesians 4:4-6 —

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Now, I will even admit that Paul is talking about the church here, so he may just be saying that God is over all things about the church and through all things about the church and in all things about the church.

After all, if God is the Father of ALL, He wouldn’t be tormenting His children for ever and ever in hell, would he?

In fact, though there might be judgment after death, it would certainly be to correct and restore, wouldn’t it?

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Addendum on II Corinthians 5:21

My first post in the series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament covered II Corinthians 5. I didn’t necessarily give the greatest explanation for verse 21 — “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

I’m currently reading a book called Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers. It’s about the theology of the cross. I have just begun the book. I don’t know if the author is a universalist, but I do find myself agreeing with the theology. One thing I’m sure he’s teaching is that God is not mad at us, that Jesus did not die to save us from God.

Anyway, today I read a section talking specifically about II Corinthians 5:21, on pages 62-63. I’m going to copy out that section here. It’s out of context — but if you find it intriguing, I recommend reading the whole book.

This is an important text in the discussion of sin because Paul writes that Jesus became sin for us. When we think of sin as some sort of ethereal force which causes people to do bad things or as disobedience to God’s commands, this verse makes very little sense. If sin is a spiritual presence or polluting force brought about by disobedience to God, how can it be said in any way that Jesus “became sin”? But when we understand sin as rivalrous, scapegoating violence done in God’s name, we see that this is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross. Every aspect of the passion narratives in the Gospels is designed to reveal that since Jesus was viewed as a rival to both religious Judaism and political Rome, He was chosen as a scapegoat to create peace among the people. Then, as often happens with scapegoats, Jesus was murdered in the name of God. So although Jesus never practiced sin and was completely innocent of all rivalry, scapegoating, and violence, He became sin for us (not for God!) so that we would see sin for what it really was. In Jesus, the sin of humanity — the rivalrous, scapegoating, and violence we commit in God’s name — was clearly revealed for all to see. He became sin! When we look at Him on the cross, we finally see our sin for what it really is. Through the crucifixion, sin was unveiled before our eyes so that we would see that all scapegoats were wrongly killed, that God was never behind our religious violence, and that God was calling all people to follow Him in loving forgiveness toward one another.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Gehenna

It’s time for another installment of A Universalist Looks at the New Testament because today’s Scripture passage was Mark 9:30-50.

Before I talk about the passage, I’m going to post a pretty picture from a Sonderquote I just posted from a book on universalism.

But Mark 9:42-48 is a passage that people use to say that Jesus taught that sinners will go to hell.

Again, I do believe in hell and judgment, actually — but not that it will last forever. But I don’t think Jesus is even talking about that here.

This is what the passage says, using the New International Version:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die and the fire is not quenched.'”

The word that’s been translated “hell” is the Greek word Gehenna.

Rather than try to explain it myself, for this one I’m going to quote from two other universalist authors.

First from Randy Klassen’s book, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?, pages 46-47:

“A great millstone hung around the neck,” “unquenchable fire,” “hell, where their worm never dies,” — such are the colorful terms for God’s judgment on those sins. The language is typical rabbinical hyperbole. The image of fire is a perfect metaphor for the fire of God’s judgment. Jesus no more intended a literal description of hell than for his hearers to cut off their hands or legs or pluck out their eyes. Moreover, it is hardly consistent with all resurrection passages to imagine the saints rising with limbs or eyes missing!

Since we do not take literally the drowning with a great millstone around the neck, nor the mutilation of the body parts that offend, is it not inconsistent to take these references to hell as literal? Yet time after time does one read reference to this passage as proof that Jesus taught a literal hell!

It is probably appropriate here to examine the word translated as “hell.” It is Gehenna, the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the ever-burning garbage dump southwest of Jerusalem. It had an evil history. Under the depraved leadership of King Ahaz, Israel was encouraged to worship the god Molech and burn little children there as an offering to this pagan god. King Josiah put a stop to that practice and labeled the area accursed. Thereafter Gehenna became a sort of public incinerator. Always the fire smoldered in it, a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and it bred a loathsome kind of worm that was hard to kill. Often the bodies of the worst criminals would be deposited here.

George W. Sarris brings up the same things in his book Heaven’s Doors, and has some things to add, beginning on page 118:

What comes to your mind when you hear the word Auschwitz?

In the future, it’s possible that the word will take on a more metaphorical meaning. But right now, while the actual place still exists as a museum and in the memories of some who knew it firsthand, it reminds us of the repulsion, shame and horrible deaths experienced by those who suffered in Nazi concentration camps in World War II.

During the time of Jesus, Gehenna was well-known as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with gross idolatry in the past and was then used as the common sewer of the city.

The corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied, and fires were lit to purify the contaminated air. For the Jews of that day, it also implied the severest judgment that a Jewish court could pass on a criminal — throwing his unburied body into the fires and worms of that polluted valley.

Like Auschwitz, Gehenna was a place the people of Jesus’ day could actually visit. It spoke to them of repulsion, shame and horrible death. Instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been disposed of in a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses….

Gehenna was definitely a reference to God’s judgment. But it was a judgment on earth. It was considered a temporary place of punishment. It never meant endless punishment beyond the grave.

The authors of the Apocrypha written between 500-150 BC, Philo who wrote around AD 40, and Josephus who wrote from AD 70-100, all refer to the future punishment of the wicked, but none of them ever use the word Gehenna to describe it.

He does have more to say about when Gehenna started being used differently — much later than Jesus. And even when it was seen as a place of future punishment, it was not eternal.

He’s got a whole chapter on Gehenna if that’s not enough, and I highly recommend the book!

I found another author who mentions Gehenna. Thomas Allin in Every Knee Shall Bow points out that bodies were already dead when they were thrown into Gehenna — so this wasn’t even talking about torment.

While I believe our Lord did not threaten everlasting torment if His words are correctly understood, yet they do convey a solemn warning to sinners. This warning should hold more weight than threats of eternal torment because the conscience can see the justice in it.

So that’s why I don’t think this passage contradicts universalism.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament — Mark 8

I’ve begun a new series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament. I’m paralleling the reading of the New Testament that my church is doing (though I began this three months after the church did), and taking a look at verses that relate to universalism — the belief that God will, eventually, save everyone.

I’ll be honest — today’s passage, Mark 8:34-38, is a little tougher to read from a universalist perspective. Part of my point in doing this series is to show that there are tough passages from both perspectives, passages that both sides need to read a little bit into. Once I saw that you can interpret the Bible either way, I chose the view that I thought fit better with God’s character, as shown throughout the Bible. But we aren’t at the point of drawing conclusions yet in this series.

Mark 8:34-38 says, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.'”

I’m going to start with that last verse, “The Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Let me make it clear that even though I believe that all will — eventually — be saved, I still believe there will be a great judgment after death. I believe in hell — but not that it will be “eternal.” We’ll see this in other passages, but the Greek word that is translated “eternal” doesn’t have a good equivalent in English. It’s “eonian,” “of the eons,” or “of the ages.” It means an indefinite time period, or may even mean an eternal quality.

How I think it will go is this: There will be a judgment. Some will spend time — maybe eons — in hell, until the day when they will turn back to God the Father. At the “end of the ages,” God will be all in all and every knee will bow before Jesus.

So when the Son of Man comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels will be the day of judgment and is not inconsistent with this view.

That’s also the approach I take to “will lose” their life. You might say, well, losing your life sounds permanent. However, the same word is used in the second part of the sentence, “whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” That second lose is talking about life on earth. The first lose may be talking about the time (maybe even eons) of judgment.

I’ll be honest — this isn’t the greatest explanation in the world. If there weren’t multiple verses in many different places saying that God loves the whole world and in Christ all will be made alive — then I don’t think I could accept universalism. But given all those other verses, I do think it fits. One thing it does point out — no matter how much I believe in universalism, I still hope that people will come to Jesus before they die. That can actually save their lives.

But please bear with me as we continue through the New Testament….

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – II Corinthians 5

Somewhere around 20 years ago, I became a universalist after reading writings of George MacDonald.

George MacDonald’s writings clearly show that he loved the Lord with all his heart and that he believed the Bible and knew it well, referring to the original Greek often. When I realized that he was teaching that all will (eventually) be saved, I was puzzled.

The Bible doesn’t teach that, does it? And yet George MacDonald clearly thought it did.

So — I read the New Testament through, asking if it could be interpreted this way. Much to my surprise, it can!

Since then, I’ve read many more books about universalism. I discovered that for the first 500 years of the church, universalism was the prevailing teaching! I am now convinced it’s true — and how my heart rejoices in that belief!

[Please note: George MacDonald still believed in hell and judgment, but not that it will last forever and ever to infinity. Some day, at the end of the ages, all will be saved and the last penny will be paid.]

That brings me to my new blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament.

Last October, my church began reading through the New Testament together, using a booklet that assigns readings from the gospels and from the epistles for each day.

While reading through the New Testament, I’m making note of the passages that relate to universalism. I was pointing them out to a friend in emails, but decided I wanted to make them blog posts. And today’s passage — II Corinthians 5:11-21 is a wonderful, epic place to start. (I will catch up on what we read last October through December — probably this coming October through December.)

The most obvious places to start, in fact, are the ALL verses.

Look at II Corinthians 5:14-15 — “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Does all mean ALL there? Or only some? If Jesus died for all, and therefore all died in Him — won’t all receive life?

Please just sit with the idea that all means all.

But there’s more I want to talk about in this passage.

This part is not universalism. But George MacDonald also took great exception with any theology that taught that Jesus had to save us from God. He says many times in his writings, “There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.”

I’ve read other writers about the cross, and have come to think that evangelicals tend to overemphasize the “payment metaphor.” If we’re teaching that God could not forgive us without Christ dying a horrible death, I think we’ve got it wrong.

If we’re teaching that God can’t look on us because we’re so sinful, I think we’ve got it wrong.

But especially: God is not mad at us! God forgives. And Paul says here, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Notice: God is doing all the work. He wants to bring us to Himself. He loves us.

One more note: According to the Concordant version of the New Testament (which translates each Greek word of the original into only one word of English) and according to a note in the New International Version, verse 21 might better be translated: “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The sin offerings of the Old Testament weren’t ever thought of as payment for sins. When you sinned, you brought a sin offering to restore your relationship with God. But you were the one out of sync.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about this beautiful passage. I’ll leave it with these two things:

Does ALL mean ALL?

And notice that it’s people who need to be reconciled.