Essentially universalism looks at salvation as a hope outside the realm of proclamation. The Bible considers the proclamation of salvation to the ends of the earth, in the power of the risen Christ, the best news in the history of creation. It is, at the same time, a witness of profound seriousness. It would be a terrible mistake to underestimate that seriousness, for it’s also a warning against unbelief which can lead to outermost darkness, i.e. ‘the severance of all relationships!’ (G.C. Berkouwer, my favourite Dutch theologian, 1903-1996).
- Via a variety of images and concepts, the Gospels warn against a judgment brought on ourselves – hence the constant admonition to listen to the word of Christ (Heb. 3). The momentousness of the decision to turn toward Jesus, or away from him, is set in the midst of life. It has do with everyday things like insulting one’s brother/sister (Mt. 5:21-22), succumbing to temptation (Mt. 5:29-30) and failing to show compassion to the poor (Mt. 25:41-46). This has nothing to do with human legalism or moralism (the death of the Church) but is rooted in the reality of the gospel, which sets us anew on the right way to the future.
- Perhaps no single Bible word has stimulated the imagination more or evoked more controversy as the term ‘Gehenna.’ This word referred to the horrific, idolatrous cultic rites practiced in the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, during the time of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 32:26-35). These included the brutal sacrifice of new-born babies to the insatiable Molech! The outrage of Yahweh rightfully rested on those who practiced such horrors.‘This primeval note reflecting the decayed Israelite life in its misrepresentation of God’s love, serves in the New Testament to call back humanity back from the terror of this darkness to the salvation and light of God.’ Sadly, the triplets ‘Gehenna’ (‘hell’) and ‘sin’ and ‘judgment’ have over the centuries been divorced from the context of relationships – they have come to be treated as a ruthless threat, extreme harshness, with a total lack of compassion on God’s part.“It is the unmistakable duty of the church always to place these concepts in their proper biblical context… Has its message not been plagued again and again by moralism, making it well nigh impossible to free the word ‘hell’ from totally false associations?” (Berkouwer) How much harm has been done by moralistic preaching on ‘hell,’ even to young children, without the overwhelming biblical testimony to the light and joy of the gospel? History is replete with the almost limitless capability of human beings to commit unspeakable atrocities against their fellow-humans. My wife and I felt a tiny bit of this burden during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Israel: think Auschwitz, Dachau, etc. What was the reason for such behaviour? Jesus, in the context of his followers’ persecution, gave the answer long before:‘This is because they have never known the Father or me.’ (Jn. 16:3)
- The fact is that hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching (I plead guilty to it in my youth) has often produced a generation impervious (‘gospel-hardened’) to Jesus’ Good News. [By the way, before the bad news of Gen. 3 there is the incredibly good news of Gen. 1-2, so why do we still resort to ‘gospel presentations’ starting with the bad news of Gen. 3?]. The overall result is that postmodern people hear in the word ‘hell’ only the sounds of cruelty and hatred, and see it as a weapon maintained by ‘the Church’ to keep their members and the world at large ‘in line.’
- How ridiculous such an approach when the Apostle Peter declared that such ‘judgment’ would begin with the household of God! (1 Pet. 4:17-18; cf. Zeph. 1:12)
- No, the only ‘threat’ of the gospel lies in its intent to call people back from the dark ways of this life to gaze again on the beauty and loveliness of him who has shone unmatched as ‘the light of the world!’ (Jn. 8:12)
Returning to absolute universalism, it’s always dangerous to think and talk about ‘the love of God’ and what follows (as panentheists like to do) outside of the gospel, i.e. Christ’s incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and return. I notice panentheists’ comments repeatedly commencing with the words ‘I believe that… ‘ – so it ends up with ‘your truth’ vs ‘my truth.’ It’s precisely at this point that ‘apocastatasis’ (ultimate reconciliation) becomes the crowning keystone of the structure of human thought. It appeals to our sense of charity. Thus it’s relatively easy to see why so many are captivated by ‘apocastastasis’ especially in times of great human distress (think collapsing economies, civil strife, imploding ecology, Covid-19, etc). The history of the doctrine of absolute universalism reveals a persistent and almost irresistable inclination to go outside the proclamation of the gospel to find a deeper ‘gnosis,’ whether in the form of a certain esoteric knowledge or surmise. Remember the question often addressed to Jesus: ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ Jesus’ aSavednswer seems so non-committal, so evasive: ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be able’ (Lk. 13:23-24/NRSV). But this evasiveness is only apparent, for this is the answer to this question! Certainly, as long as we see only in a cloudy mirror or parabolic riddles, many questions will remain unanswered. But this question has been answered – by the Lord of life himself.
How much we need a healing of our image of God at this time. The Apostle Paul prayed thus for the Ephesian church: ‘may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God’ (3:18-19). Thank God, our individual and corporate experience of that love is something a world turned-in-on-itself can never rob us of. Over the years I’ve been enriched by American author, laicized priest and struggling alcoholic (for much of his life), Brennan Manning. His focus constantly returned to God’s ‘white-hot love’ for him and all humans recognized in the face of Jesus. He tells of how as a young priest he was ‘ambushed by Jesus’ love’ in a little chapel in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. He testified how, repeatedly, ‘the relentless tenderness of Jesus’ pursued him and healed his image of God, to become his beloved Abba.
Manning lived by the dictum,’God loves us just as we are, not as we should be, because we’ll never be what we should be!’ His dying words were,‘Steer clear of any god you can comprehend. Abba’s love cannot be comprehended. I’ll say it again: Abba’s love cannot be comprehended!’ This love is a love simply to be received.
Each one naming the name of Jesus has a holy call to faithfully proclaim the Good News of Jesus to one and all, a ‘light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace’ (Lk. 1:79). ‘So don’t be embarrassed to speak up for the Master… Take your share of suffering for the Message…We can only keep going, after all, by the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work. We had nothing to do with it. It was all his idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus… nothing could be plainer: death defeated, life vindicated in a steady blaze of light, all through the work of Jesus. This is the Message I’ve been set apart to proclaim as preacher, emissary and teacher. It’s also the cause of all this trouble I’m in! But I have no regrets. I couldn’t be more sure of my ground – the One I’ve trusted in can take care of what he’s trusted me to do right to the end’ (2 Tim. 1:8-12/MSG). The Bible is clear: for the Church the resurrection ‘doesn’t mean escape from the world but mission to the world, based on Christ’s lordship over the world’ (N.T. Wright). In the power of the Spirit, let’s be and let’s go! In the family circle, market place, among the poor, even to the ends of the earth, which these days is often on our doorstep.