Friday, 12 July 2019

Praying in Jesus’ Name (what it actually means)

Of late I have been invited to a few churches and when I can, I generally say yes and go along. Now some things can always feel a little strange when visiting another church because they each have their own unique little quirks and ways of doing things. One thing that seems to be almost universal though is to hear people signing off their prayers with the words “in Jesus name, amen” or the slightly more formal, “this we pray in the name of Jesus, amen”. This is probably normal for you too but I always notice it because it is a habit our own little assembly fell out of a few years ago and so I don’t hear it as much anymore.

I think that when most people pray this way, it’s simply an unconscious habit that has been formed over the years and I am not against having some sort of ‘sign off’ when praying publicly either. We have all sat through those moments during corporate prayer with our eyes closed wondering, are we done yet? Discreetly opened our eyes to see 4 people still deep in prayer, one scratching his nose and 2 others staring at their phones. Once when one of my kids were still small they ended a prayer by saying, “the end”. I found it quite amusing but that didn’t quite sound right either so a hearty “amen” is both good and helpful in moments like those and if you still prefer the “in Jesus’ name, amen” then by all means continue as you were (but know that it means more as we will get too).

Beyond sign offs and habit though, I suspect that many people use the, “in Jesus’ name” mantra almost like it’s a magic formula used to make our prayers extra powerful and force God to sit up, take notice and honor our requests. The proof text for this would be John 16:23 where Jesus said, “If you ask the Father for anything He will give it to you in my name”. To share a little bit of my background, I attended mostly charismatic churches growing up where “in Jesus’ name” was a phrase that was probably repeated after every second or third sentence that was prayed, mixed in with some ‘binding the devils’ and ‘pleading the bloods’ for good measure. This kind of prayer taught me to ‘pray hard’ and try to stir up enough faith within myself that my words would break through to God and come to fruition.

Another Perspective

I’d like to suggest that one can pray in Jesus name without actually muttering the words at all. Rather than repeating a phrase, I believe that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray a prayer that Jesus Himself would have prayed. Think for a moment about how people used to send messages to one another, maybe a king had a decree to share with his people or with another kingdom. To do so he would send out a man under his authority who would speak on his behalf. Ambassadors do the same thing today when, they do not speak for themselves but on behalf of the countries or organizations that they represent. Another example might be one who has been granted power of attorney to handle another person’s estate. In all of these examples the person represents someone else or something else speaking and acting on their behalf. The goal is never to use the authority given to them for selfish gain but to accurately represent another’s interests. If someone handling another’s affairs makes a decision, it is as if the person they represent themselves had made the decision and the outcome should honor and reflect that persons wishes. If a person speaks on behalf of a king, it is received as if the king himself had uttered the words in line with his will.

In other words, to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray a prayer that you could imagine Jesus Himself praying to the Father. It is more than just willy-nilly supplications made in prayer or a prayer you might have repeated before every meal for the past thirty years. It is to approach prayer thoughtfully, considering Jesus’ heart first. Does my prayer line up with how Jesus lived? Does it reflect His kingdom focused agenda? Does it bless others and exalt God? To pray fruitfully is similar to been a good ambassador or a good power of attorney. One needs to know the mind and heart of the one that they represent in order to do a good job of it. This is why John said in 1 John 5:14:

Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.

This then is the key to developing a meaningful prayer life. Let it be more than a one way line of communication. Spend time with God, think about what matters to Jesus, let the things that move His heart move yours and provoke you to actions beyond words, try this and your prayer life will be transformed.

Friday, 5 July 2019

What is Hell?

It has been rather quiet over here on my blog but that does not mean that I have not been busy, I have been hard at work on a new book and am making good progress. Hopefully I will have some news on that project for everyone around about the end of the year. But for now, I wanted to tell everyone about Jeremy Myers' latest book that I was fortunate enough to write the afterword for (Brad Jersak wrote the foreword). For anyone who is interested in the subject of hell, it really is unique in much of its content. He does a great job of documenting how the traditional notion of hell developed over time and shows how warped much of our thinking has become in contrast to what the Bible actually has to say about hell.

While the book does touch on the three main views of hell, it primarily argues that the bulk (not all) of the verses that people generally use in discussing hell have nothing to do with the afterlife at all but rather, in their context, are specifically concerned with how to avoid 'hell on earth' in this life. Some of the arguments are quite insightful and persuasive making this a challenging and thought provoking read. Without sharing too much though, I thought that I would just share what I wrote at the end of the book with everyone instead. Here it is:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven – Jesus of Nazareth

Have you ever heard the old Johnny Cash song entitled No earthly good? It is a song about people who become so focused on heaven as an afterlife destination that they essentially neglect the present hellish realities that are all around us. One becomes so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. The lesson that we can take from it is that we can be very spiritual, invest our time in prayer, in church meetings, in studying the Bible and more but end up leaving the world behind with little evidence that we were ever here or made a difference while we were on it.

This is not the kind of Christianity that we see lived out in the pages of Scripture though. Jesus and those who followed Him early on had a bit of a reputation for been troublemakers. Not because they got up to mischievous acts but because they tended not to toe the line very well. They saw brokenness in the world, in the systems around them and in the people who were victims of it all and they chose to stand up and fight against it.

When Christ taught His disciples to pray as quoted above, He did not encourage them with the future hope of heaven but rather challenged them to bring a little bit of heaven down to earth. “Your kingdom come” has nothing to do with church real estate; rather it is a declaration of war against the kingdom of darkness, it is heaven invading earth with the knowledge that the gates of hell will not be able to stand up against the churches attacking army. Yet this is no ordinary army, most armies bring with them calamity upon the lands and peoples affected by them resulting in hunger, poverty and destruction. The soldiers of Christ though lay down their own lives sacrificially for others, instead of capturing they release, rather than oppress they set free. And instead of bringing death they bring life. Jesus, reading from Isaiah, once said the following:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD. (Luke 4:18-19).

The more one thinks about it the more you realize that this was not just His mission on earth but the calling for all of those who belong to Him as well. It is our privilege to continue the work that Jesus started here on earth of serving the poor, participating in the healing process where we find brokenness, setting the captives free and proclaiming our LORD to those who are surrounded and entrapped by darkness.

Yes, the implications of trusting in Jesus for eternal life or refusing that gift extend far beyond the few short years that we are given before our bodies will one day be laid to rest. But the good news is that eternal life starts now in the present. The kingdom of God which began like a small mustard seed is growing day by day here on earth, light is overcoming the darkness and as it spreads the kingdom of hell is forced to relinquish ground and retreat. This is a battle that we are winning.

My hope for this book is that it will help to shed light on many of the myths that people have been led to believe surrounding hell and ultimately around God Himself. By properly contextualizing some key verses and understanding various words oftentimes associated with hell and punishment, we can learn to trust that God is indeed good. And it is because of His love for us that He warns us about the dangers of a life lived apart from His ways and guidance. When we fall off the rails, we don’t need to hide from God in the bushes like Adam and Eve tried to do, we know that the safest place in the world will be to run directly into His waiting arms where we will find love, mercy and help. This is what I take from Jeremy’s book and what I hope that you will find in its pages as well.

You can grab a copy of What is Hell? On Amazon by clicking over here.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

One Way Christians Can Vote

The general elections are once again just around the corner here in South Africa and as I do every four years, I go through a bit of an inner-struggle as to how or even if, I should make my voice heard on the big day. The Bible is pretty clear when it uses words like ‘gospel’, ‘lord’, ‘savior’ and ‘king’, words that were in there day, loaded with political meaning, that the Christ and the kingdom that He was ushering in would not just serve as a better version of previous kingdoms with improved ideologies; rather, it would provide a complete alternative that ran counter to all other kingdoms. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, His kingdom would not be concerned with material wealth or drunk with power, nor would it be associated with war, lying, greed or oppression.

Kingdom Conflict

Although we are told to live peaceably, pray for and obey our world’s leaders as far as possible, Scripture often portrays the worlds systems in a negative light, Paul said that our struggle is not against people but against rulers, the authorities, the dark powers in this world as well as spiritual entities opposed to the will of God (Ephesians 6:12). John said that the whole world lies under the control of Satan (1 John 5:19). Peter and the author of Hebrews speak of us as citizens of a heavenly kingdom who are ‘foreigners’ and ‘exiles’ among the nations (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 1:17, 2:11).

In the end Jesus was killed for treason (John 19:12), a charge laid against Paul as well (Act 17:5-8) and that was kind of the pattern that was set until the time of Constantine when the Roman Empire invited the church into its bed initiating a shift where the church stopped carrying its cross and exchanged it for a sword. To quote from Tobie’s blog over at Natural Church:

Secular governance is a type of temporal governance allowed and sanctioned by God for the sake of the nations during this dispensation while the spiritual aspect of God’s Kingdom is being established in the hearts of regenerate people. When you mix the two you give the church a type of power that it was never supposed to have, and you give the state a sense of spirituality that it was never supposed to have.

To put it another way, you cannot marry light and darkness, you cannot serve two masters. The church in Constantine’s time made the mistake and succumbed to the temptation that Jesus had declined in the wilderness. When the church assumes leadership of a kingdom recognizable by lines that have been drawn in the sand, it has forgotten its mission of establishing a kingdom that is neither here nor there (Luke 17:21) but everywhere and in everyone who is under the lordship of Christ regardless of their color, culture or location. Moreover, the kingdom of God cannot be established through the use of power, it cannot be voted in democratically and it cannot maintain peace and order through rules and regulations. This is the internal struggle that I mentioned going through personally at the start of this post, it is the undesirable obligation to vote for the least ungodly candidate or party in order to minimize damage and hope that some good may come of their unlikely victory.
Now I am well aware that there are many parties selling themselves as Christian parties and I mean no disrespect to them nor am I questioning their intentions or motives. But I seriously wonder what a ‘Christian Party’ would look like should one ever come into power. Will it look like Catholicism burning its enemies at the stake or will it look like the early Protestants executing those that they deemed to be heretics, both acting under the authority of the state? Maybe, and it is a very big maybe, they will pay more attention to the teachings of Jesus and resist the appeal to exercise authority and control over others (Matthew 20:25), perhaps they would dismantle the country’s military and start practically loving those who call themselves their enemies (Matthew 5:44), perhaps they would start sending food and water into countries who they have bad relations with (Romans 12:20). Maybe one of the major policy shifts they would make would be to close all prisons in the country and institute something more in line with the restorative justice seen under the Mosaic Law where offenders had to make right with those whom they had stolen from (see Exodus 21:28-36 for example)? Maybe they would make it illegal for banks to borrow money to a citizen and charge interest on it (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)?
Someone once wisely noted that if you mix church and politics who just end up with politics. Yet the Bible seems to make a case for the existence of governments, serving a function as God’s tool to protect people, punish evil doers, maintain order, collect taxes and more (Romans 13). Yet the church should have eyes with a bigger calling in view, we should be acting as ambassadors for a different kingdom and telling people of a better way of doing things, we should be communicating a better way of living, we should be telling them of a king that they can put their full trust in. This does not mean that the church need be silent to the corruption, violence and social injustices of governments. We are blessed to have had men like Martin Luther King who stood up against racial injustice, men like William Wilberforce who played such a crucial role in bringing slavery to an end in England and, more closer to home, Desmond Tutu speaking of forgiveness and unity at a time when South Africa was transitioning out of the apartheid era and everyone was fearing the worst. Let them inspire us to continue speaking out against wars, against abortion and against those who are destroying the planet and irresponsibly using up its resources. But let us use the tools given to us by Christ and throw down those methods employed by the world.
I will be heading out next week to cast my vote, but I will be voting with my head rather than my Bible. Because in government I expect a party to rule well in how they utilize the money they collect. I’m hoping that someone will come in who provides more jobs and can improve the economy. I am hoping that crime levels will decline and that corruption will finally be dealt with. I am hoping that Eskom can find a way to keep our lights on 24 hours a day without resorting to ridiculous price hikes for consumers. But I am not expecting the government to share my Christian convictions or carry them out on our behalf. How can they? They are responsible for building a nation unlike the global one that we are called to advance. I cannot end off any better than in the eloquent words of Stanley Hauerwas:
“The church does not exist to provide an ethos for any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”

Friday, 8 March 2019

Is Annihilation Compatible with a Loving God?

Some people, mostly universalists but others as well, point out that annihilation* is not consistent with Gods character. If God is love then moving from a God who chains up people and tortures them for all of eternity to a God who simply executes His enemies does not seem like a vast improvement ethically. Indeed both eternal conscious torment and annihilation can appear contradictory to other ideas presented in scripture like loving ones enemies (1) or the idea that God desires that none would perish (2) but that everyone would come to a place of repentance. Some conditionalists like Greg Boyd are uncomfortable with the term annihilation (as am I) and instead describe the destruction of the lost as a sort of divine euthanasia (3).

Another way of dealing with the problem reflecting my current thought process that I would like to propose though is to recognize that humans, in their fallen position, cannot exist in God’s presence when His glory and power is fully manifest:

But He said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!" - Exodus 33:20

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, "Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. - Exodus 19:21

Then the sons of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, "Behold, we perish, we are dying, we are all dying! "Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, must die. Are we to perish completely?" - Numbers 17:12-13

In the Old Testament we see that God made a lot of rules to protect His people from perishing by entering His presence. Only select people could touch certain objects or enter certain places and even that required specific rituals concerning washing, wearing special clothes, performing certain sacrifices, adhering to a specific timetable and more. In one particular portion of scripture (2 Samuel 6:1-7), a guy with the best of intentions, by the name of Uzzah touches the Ark of the Covenant and is immediately struck dead. Many other places offer similar warnings as well (Exodus 28:35, 43, 30:20 - 21, Leviticus 10:9, 16:2, 13, 22:9, Numbers 4:15, 18-22, Deuteronomy 5:25, 18:16 and Judges 13:22). To offer a somewhat weak analogy, imagine that going to space requires certain gear in order for an astronaut to survive the harsh conditions, without it his skin would quickly burn as would his lungs as he tried to draw in a breath of air. Yet the clothing that he wears allows him to survive in this climate. This I believe is similar to how it works with Gods presence and those who are ‘clothed’ in Christ.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. – Galatians 3:26-27

This is symbolically represented with the veil in the temple that was torn from the top down when Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:37-38). Like a fire that burns away grass and straw but purifies gold and precious stones, God is in a sense the destroying agent but He is also our hope, in Christ, of surviving an outer-space like environment. He is no more an executioner or 'God the Annihilator' (I can see the movie poster already) as space would be in the astronaut’s case. Rather, He protects us from entering in an unworthy manner and clothes us in a way that enables us to with boldness, enter into His presence. On the other hand though, those who reject Gods warnings and do not clothe themselves in Christ are consumed as light overwhelms darkness or as fire consumes the tares. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 puts it this way:

These shall be punished with everlasting destruction (they will be destroyed forever) from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.

Of course others may not feel a need to reconcile the love of God with the severity of eternal torments (traditionalism) or eternal destruction (annihilationism) at all and be content pointing to Gods justice to satisfy their own questions surrounding punishment. For myself and I suspect a few others as well though, justice and love are not opposite sides of a coin but complimentary and harmonious. It is not either or but both always and the question deserves reflection. The image attached to this post gripped me when I saw it, Is Jesus dropping people into hell or is He extending His hand in order to save people from destruction? I don't mean that in a post mortem repentance sense as it might sound but rather as it applies to the character of God and how it is revealed in Jesus. These are mostly just the thoughts expressed that are swirling around inside my head and I’d love to hear others opinions and understandings on the subject as well. What are the strengths and weaknesses that you see above? How would you answer the question posed in the title of this post? I am all ears and would love to hear from you as we seek out answers together.

*Annihilation is the belief that only the righteous inherit eternal life and the wicked will be raised for judgement but ultimately perish rather than live forever in fiery torments.

1 – Matthew 5:44
2 – 2 Peter 3:9
3 - 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Universalism – 4 More Reasons why I am not convinced, part 3

Welcome back to my little series on universalism. This is the third and final part and just to catch everyone up quickly, this is what we have covered thus far. In my first post (which you can read by clicking here) I made a case for universalism and hopefully it was helpful to those who have never looked into it properly because in my experience, universalists are usually misunderstood in what they do and do not believe. In my second post though I flipped the coin and gave 4 reasons why I personally do not believe it to be true, you can read that post by clicking over here. Today, I am going to continue where I left off last time and give 4 more reasons why I am not convinced that UR (universal reconciliation) is the most plausible of the three views on hell. Because this post is a little long I am going to jump right in and get started.

Universal immortality

Universalists and traditionalists both believe in the immortality of the soul. Advocating that the contrast between eternal life and destruction made in scripture is metaphorical language for the quality of life eternal beings will experience in the age to come. In more recent times though some people have noticed hermeneutical problems with this position and are now saying that the soul is not immortal in and of itself but rather that it is eternally sustained by God. Consider for example Martin Luther’s words on the topic in an address against the Pope and the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

"But I permit the Pope to make articles of faith for himself and his faithful, such as The Bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament. The essence of God neither generates, nor is generated. The soul is the substantial form of the human body. The Pope is the emperor of the world, and the king of heaven, and God upon earth. The soul is immortal, with all those monstrous opinions to be found in the Roman dunghill of decretals, that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such his disciples, and such his church, that the mouth may have meat suitable for it, and the dish, a cover worthy of it.(1)

So one can still believe that the soul is universally immortal without necessarily believing in the Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul. But this position is one that seems to be arrived at out of a necessity to explain preconceived conclusions imparted on to scripture through some of the early church fathers. In other words, universalists may reject that they follow Plato or the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (3rd century) and his disciple Porphyry who were and remain a major influence on Christian theology today even if most people have no idea who they were. But for universalism to work practically, one has to concede that the soul must be immortal or permanently sustained by God until such a time as one would turn to God. It is not just the soul, but the body too (Matthew 10:28) that must be preserved by God and able to theoretically withstand corruption in hell for however long a period it needs to endure until those who inhabit the flames repent and are granted are eternal life. It is also worth mentioning that the early church fathers who were universalists were all Neoplatonist’s even if today’s adherents may not be. This basically means that as the church became more and more influenced by Greek philosophy and less connected to its Jewish heritage, many of the leading thinkers of the day introduced new doctrines into the church. Many Gnostic, Platonic and pagan ideas and practices were ‘Christianized’ whether we accept it or not and are alive and well in the church today.

Philosophical arguments

One argument that I constantly come across is that because 2 Peter 3:9 says that God desires that none will perish, then one could argue that if in the end some are sentenced to eternal punishment (as in conscious torment or been dead forever) then Gods will is not completely accomplished in creations grand narrative. Thus, the universalist position is that ‘love wins’ is a declaration that in the end God gets His way. "All will see things His way and be won over in due time. Doesn’t Paul even tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that Love never fails?”

So how does one who is not a universalist affirm that love wins (even though it’s not in scripture, I like the phrase and I’m going to use it) and that love never fails? Perhaps the best place to start at would be by clarifying what we mean when we say that ‘love wins’ or what Paul meant when he said that ‘love never fails’. For me, love wins is a statement or a declaration that we believe in the way of love which is also the way of Jesus. Love your enemies, bless them, feed them and give them something to drink and soon you will no longer think of them as your enemy but rather as a person broken by the hardships of life (just like the rest of us), partially through their own decisions and partly through what their culture, family, social standing, friends and how life’s pains and heartaches have shaped them.

We do not kill our way to peace but rather risk harm by being the first to put down our stones and offer reconciliation. Practically, this does not always work in every situation. Judas offered to kiss Jesus’ check as Jesus offered to wash his feet. But eleven of Christs disciples learned in that moment how to one day, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, serve the church properly. Jesus died at the hands of His enemies in order that they could be reconciled to Him and the early church martyrs followed His example. The more that the church endured for Christ’s sake, the more it grew and flourished to the point where Tertullian said, "The blood [of martyrs] is the seed of Christians". This is what ‘love wins’ means, not every Judas, Pharisee and Roman Centurion will be won over but eventually hate, greed and evil will have run their course and vanish, consumed by their own destructive natures and then, only love will remain.

‘Love never fails’ is really another way of saying ‘love wins’. Interestingly though, two verses before Paul declares that love never fails he also states that ‘love does not seek its own. This is critically important and is worth repeating, love does not seek its own. We are not to confuse love with need, declaring that God is love does not equate to God is needy and has to have things His way. Let me illustrate the point that I am trying to make with an example. Suppose there was this guy who met a girl and he was just infatuated with her. But this was more than just lustful yearning or a deep affection for this particular lady. As he grew to know her better he loved her deeply with an agape kind of love. He only wanted the best for her, to see her grow, flourish and be happy. But suppose that his love was not reciprocated, suppose that he spent some time in the ‘friend zone’ but that she met someone else who won her heart and eventually she married this other guy. Her husband was not good to her, he was jealous and broke her down with his words but they had a kids and a family and she chose to stick with him through the good and the bad. Where is the first guy in the story gone? He still loves this lady, his desires and intentions for her are one hundred percent pure but she has totally cut him off because she does not trust his intentions and does not want to make trouble at home with her jealous husband. Does the loving man respect her wishes and stay away or does he remain in the shadows waiting for a chance to get involved? If he chooses the latter and the woman clearly states that she feels as though she is being stalked and does not appreciate his presence what is he to do then? Love is complicated. It was an act of love that let the father divide his son’s inheritance and permit the prodigal son to leave home. It was an act of love when God placed two trees in the Garden of Eden giving Adam and Eve a choice to be in union with Him or to do things their own way. It was an act of love when God came to earth to live among us knowing that wicked men would spit in his face and crucify Him. Love serves but it never coerces, love hopes but it never manipulates, love wins, but it is usually messy and comes with many scars.

The Meaning behind Words

Oftentimes the various outlooks on hell come down to our interpretation of certain words in the Bible. One word in particular that is sometimes discussed is aionios which is the Greek word often translated as ‘everlasting’ or 'eternal' in English. Universalists claim with a certain degree of validity that aionios does not necessarily mean forever and point to specific examples of this in scripture that we have already mentioned previously. The problem though is that taken in its context ‘everlasting’ is clearly the correct translation to use in certain instances. For example, in the New King James Bible Matthew 25:46 reads as below:

And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
- Matthew 25:46

In this verse we see a double use of the word aionios, once it is translated as everlasting and once as eternal. The double use of the word contrasts the punishment of those who were selfish and unloving in this life with those who were charitable and giving. The righteous do not receive life for a certain period of time as their reward but rather are rewarded with immortality. UR may argue that the verse means that the sheep receive life in the age to come while the goats receive an age proportionate punishing but that seems to take away from the point Jesus was making contrasting the two in the first place.
Other words like death, destruction and consume take on non-literal meanings as well for universalists just as they do within the traditionalist camp. To give an example, the wages of sin is not 'death', or the wages of sin is not ‘eternal conscious torment’ but rather something akin to the wages of sin is ‘purgatorial cleansing’.

The Unforgivable Sin

In my experience there are three things that Christians are deathly afraid of. The first would be hell, the second is when your pastor asks you to turn around and greet the people around you in church (or is that just us introverts?) and the third thing is that one may have unintentionally committed the unforgiveable sin and blasphemed the Holy Spirit sometime in the past. Let’s take a look at Mark 3:28-30 to determine exactly what the unpardonable sin is and what its repercussions are for universalism.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation”— because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Some have taken these words and taught that the unforgivable sin is suicide, others teach that it is to verbally curse the Holy Spirit while others have suggested that it is to attribute the work of the Spirit to the devil. Because there is so much debate about exactly what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit I think it is worth slowing down and dissecting these words a bit. So lets break down Mark 3:28-30 into four parts and really consider what Jesus is saying.

 “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and 
whatever blasphemies they may utter…”

The first thing you may notice is that the text says that ALL sins will be forgiven the sons of men. This lines up with verses like John 1:29 which says that Jesus bore and has taken away the sins of the world and 2 Corinthians 5:18 which says that God has, in Christ, reconciled all men to Himself. It is important to keep in mind though that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same things as salvation (see Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2 and Colossians 1:19-23).

…but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness,

I should point out here that the word for forgiveness Jesus uses is the word aphesis which does not mean to pardon someone but rather carries the meaning of ‘being released from bondage’. Had Jesus used the word charizomia which is also translated as forgiveness into English then the meaning of the text would have been that Jesus would never forgive people for blaspheming the Holy Spirit which is how most people would naturally read His words. But because Jesus uses the word aphesis, the idea being presented is that the Pharisees were so hard hearted and stubborn that they were in bondage to their own delusions. To attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan was as far off the edge as one could possibly be because the Spirit always points us to Christ. 1 John 5:16-17 speaks of a sin which leads to death and sin that does not lead to death and I suspect that John may have been touching on the same topic there. For if it is the Spirit which sets us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2), then it makes sense to conclude that the rejection of the Spirit will keep us in bondage to death. Another thing worth mentioning here too is that Jesus uses the word ‘never’ with the word everlasting’ which makes a case for what I said in the previous section that sometimes aionios can indeed mean ‘forever’.   

… but is subject to eternal condemnation…

The one who blasphemes the Spirit is subject to eternal condemnation but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap everlasting life (Galatians 6:8). The people who attribute the works of the Spirit to Satan are the same people who reject the Christ whom the Spirit validates.

“And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life…” - John 6:40

Jesus said to her, “I’m the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
– John 11:25-26

Will all of this in mind, Jesus adds the words:

Because they said, “He has an unclean spirit”.

Many have used this last phrase to conclude that the unpardonable sin is attributing the works of the Spirit to Satan. I tend to think that there is more to it than that. If I were to tell my kids that they are not allowed to eat chocolate before dinner it does not mean that candy and ice cream are permissible. The intended message beyond the statement would be that we don’t eat junk food that is going to spoil our appetites before we sit down to eat something healthy first. The Pharisees were clearly guilty of something different than what cessationists (people who believe that the miraculous gifts ceased when the Bible was finished been written) today would be. They were not just denying the working of the Holy Spirit behind a miraculous sign. Rather, they were denying the Spirits hand in the work because it would have forced them to conclude that Jesus was Israel’s anointed messiah. It is the Spirit that reveals Christ to us (Luke 3:22, 1 Corinthians 2:10-14) and who baptizes us into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). By the Spirit we are granted everlasting life (Galatians 6:8), given access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18) and sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).

Universalists may object and say that people never really reject God but only the false images of God that religion has given them. There is some truth in that statement, I am sure that we all know people who have rejected God because of the way that Christians have treated them. Others reject Christianity because of things like the Crusades which were done in Christs name but could not have been further removed from the message of Christ Himself. The universalist may argue, “when people see Him for who He really is, it will be different”. My counter objection here though is that when God walked among us as a person people not only rejected Him but they nailed Him to a cross because the way of Christ is contrary to the way of selfishness and power. “Ah but in heaven they will see Him in all of His glory” one might add. But didn’t Satan see Him in all His glory at one time and still rebel, even causing a multitude to follow him?   

Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin leads me to believe that there are people who will ultimately reject Him. Even if there were post mortem opportunities for repentance, some people who are stuck in unbelief would only dig their heels further into the ground. Defiantly blaspheming the Spirit they would find no release from the self-imposed bondage that stubbornly keeps their eyes shut. Like the rich man in Luke 16 who still thought of Lazarus as someone unworthy to sit at the table with him and only good for running errands to give him water and deliver messages to his brothers. I submit then that the unforgivable sin is the ultimate and final rejection of the Holy Spirits witness and work in the world which is to point us to Christ in whom alone we have salvation. Its mere mention by Jesus is a large obstacle for universalism to overcome.

He who has the Son has life and He who does not have the Son does not have life. – 1 John 5:12

I know that I went off on a few tangents in this post but I trust that they added value to the points that I was trying to make. But there you go, those are my 8 reasons for personally rejecting universalism. to recap, here they are again.

1 – I'm unconvinced by the universalist interpretations of their supporting texts.
2 – Forgiveness does not equate to salvation.
3 – All the scriptures that do not fit universalism.
4 – Doubts as to the possibility of post mortem repentance.
5 – The soul is not inherently immortal as some of the church fathers believed (3rd to 6th century AD.
6 – Philosophical arguments like ‘God gets His way’ don’t add up.
7 – The meaning of words like death and everlasting.
8 – The unforgivable sin.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Are there other reasons for objecting to universalism or is my thinking misplaced on some of these points? Let me know and thanks for reading along.

1 - Martin Luther, Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, June 15, 1521

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Universalism – 4 Reasons I am not convinced, part 2

In my previous post I attempted to look at the teaching of universal salvation from the perspective of a universalist. My hope in doing so was to correct some of the misconceptions and false charges laid against those who hold to the belief that one day every single person will be saved and to create a space for healthier dialogue on the topic. My personal studies have brought me a better respect and appreciation for those who have embraced it. UR seems to correct some of the areas where the teachings of eternal conscious torment fall short. It offers us an explanation for an eschatology where God will one day be all in all, where God can once again look on the whole of the cosmos and every creature in heaven and earth and say as He did in the beginning, indeed it is very good! Universalism also offers a picture of God that will likely create less atheists than the traditional view of hell does (not that our feelings should be a measuring stock for truth but still…). Paul mentioned in his letter to the Romans that it not the terror of God, but rather the goodness of God that leads people to repentance (1). While many people say if universalism is true, then there is no need to evangelize the world, I would suggest that an invitation to follow Jesus grounded in love rather than fear is not necessarily a bad thing. The inclusivist message is one where mercy triumphs over judgement (2), justice meets mercy and punishment has a purposeful intent behind it. But universalism is not without its theological problems and there are several of them that one needs get over before one could embrace it confidently. What follows are four legitimate areas of concern one might have against universalism. Then in my third and final post I will reveal four more reasons why I myself personally am not convinced that UR is the right interpretation to hold to.

Revisiting those scriptures

The vast majority of the verses that we looked at in the previous post which seemingly support universalism were noted for using words like ‘all men’ (Romans 5:18), ‘all the nations’ (Jeremiah 3:17) or ‘all the world’ (John 3:17), but we need to also consider that there are scriptures that also say things like, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:2) and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them” (John 3:36). So it is likely that the people who penned these words had in mind the Gentile nations rather than every single person who ever lived when they referred to all men, all nations, all flesh and all the world. Romans 11:32 for example says the following:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Romans 11:32 is clearly in the context of Israel’s rejection of Christ to the benefit of the Gentiles (verse 11-12) who were been grafted into Gods fold and is the obvious interpretation for the word 'all' in its context. A great deal of the universalist proof texts can be clarified by reading them with this radical idea of the grafting in of all peoples (not just Jews) in mind. So when Paul says things like “Christ is the savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). It means exactly what it says. Christ does not favor Americans over Africans or Jews over Palestinians. He is the one that all men must look to for deliverance. But more so than that, in particular it is those who believe who are the benefactors of His salvation because they are the ones who will receive eternal life. Indeed just 6 verses later Paul tells Timothy that if he heeds his words he will save both himself and his hearers, something that seems unnecessary if verse 10 means that eternal life is universally granted to all. This is probably the most important point that I am going to make because it wipes out the majority of the verses that universalism rests on and so I encourage you to revisit all of the supporting texts cited in my previous post and to systematically read through them one by one with the idea in mind that when the authors spoke of all flesh they were speaking about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God. Look at the context of those verses and the overall themes of the books and you will likely begin to connect the dots that the ‘all’ in those verses is related to the ‘mystery’ that Paul oftentimes spoke of; the mystery referring to Israel becoming a blessing to all nations through the birth of Christ and how their rejection of Him was beneficial to the Gentiles when he and his coworkers began sharing the gospel with them.

Some of the scriptures, like the ones in 1 Corinthians 15, also contain the words ‘in Christ’ which should be noted as the determining or qualifying factor in the statements. So while in Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive (verse 22) does not mean that all peoples are numbered in among both groups. Paul affirms this by the words that immediately follow the statement, “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (verse 23).

The second largest portion of UR scriptures deal with the restoration of all things. I find overwhelming support in universalisms assertion that creation will one day be 100% in harmony with Christ. Evil will not simply be contained or confined to the shadows of society but be eradicated entirely. This however does not mean that every person need be redeemed, it only requires that the redeemed inherit eternal life while those who are outside of Christ perish. This concept however is not limited to the teachings of universalism only and also fits well within the view known as conditional immortality. So the biblical hope in the restoration of all things is compatible with both views, it does however deliver a serious blow to the traditional view of hell, but it does not by itself prove the universalist model to be true or false in and of itself.

Apart then from two scriptures that deal with the possibility of post mortem repentance which we will deal with separately, the last remaining supportive texts for universalism come from Revelation 21. I do believe that Revelation 21:23-26 gives the strongest argument for universalism; the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into the new Jerusalem and the gates of the city are never shut. I do think however that we should contextualize Johns revelation by what precedes it, notably that the ‘former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:7). So it is possible that the kings of the earth are not the same as those mentioned elsewhere in the book. Also, the gates of the city perpetually remaining open is just as likely symbolic of an age of peace as it is an ongoing invitation for the unrepentant to come inside. So the scriptural support for universalism is perhaps not as strong as it seemed at first glance but is difficult to dismiss entirely which is perhaps why so many people have labelled themselves as hopeful universalists. Been non-dogmatic on the fate of the wicked but hopeful that the lost will eventually be saved.

A common false assumption

It is sometimes assumed that verses like 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 which points out that Christ died not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world and is no longer counting anyone’s sins against them equates to universal salvation. I would submit that it is a false assumption to make that the forgiveness of sins equates to eternal life. Certainly, forgiveness is an essential step in restoring a right relationship with God but let me illustrate my concern with this reasoning by using a practical example. Let’s say that someone has wronged me by stealing my possessions for drug money but I have dealt with the offense and forgiven the person entirely, I carry no animosity toward them at all and wish them well. This person now has grounds to work on in reconciling with me now but they are in no way exempt from the consequences of their actions. They may still end up in prison if they are caught with stolen property, they may even end up having a drug overdose or catch a deadly disease from using dirty needles. There is simply no guarantee that my forgiving them will have any positive effect on their destructive lifestyle choices.

Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation but it remains of no value to the offender if they do not receive it and repent. Consider the men who crucified Jesus, His words to them were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (3). Does this mean that His executioners were saved because they had been forgiven? What fruits were the evidence of their salvation? All we can conclude from this story is that Jesus was not holding this grave injustice against them. God is not a hypocrite who expects us not to harbor unforgiveness in our hearts toward others but then goes and does so Himself. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself but Paul’s words do not stop there, he continues in verse 20 by imploring us to likewise “be reconciled to God”. In other words, forgiveness only requires that one person comes to the table but full reconciliation and authentic relationships require that both parties come together and make peace.

Counter scriptures

The strongest among you will disappear like straw; their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire. They and their evil works will burn up together, and no one will be able to put out the fire. – Isaiah 1:31

Universalism tells us that the lost will be thrown into hell where the fires will burn away their wicked deeds but they themselves will be saved. Verses like Isaiah 1:31 cast serious doubt on this interpretation though. Indeed there are several scriptures that suggest that those who are outside of Christ themselves will be destroyed. Consider just a few of them mentioned below.

When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever. – Proverbs 10:25

Let your fire consume your enemies. But those who die in the Lord will live; their bodies will rise again! Those who sleep in the earth will rise up and sing for joy! – Isaiah 26:11

Isaiah 26:11 not only tell us that Gods enemies will be consumed but also contrasts it with those whose bodies will be resurrected in Christ and live. Obadiah 16 elaborates and tells us that they will ‘be as though they had never been’. Malachi 4:1-3 says that they, not just their works, will be ‘chaff’ and reduced to ‘ash’, Isaiah 66:24 refers to them as ‘corpses’ reduced to ‘worm food’. Peter mentions that they will ‘utterly perish in their own corruption (4)’. These are difficult scriptures to interpret within the universalist framework; but there is more to it than having to account for the nature of the Lake of Fire (does the fire torment, consume or refine?) that one must account for. Beyond explaining Gods judgement as a ‘refining fire’, universalists also need to clarify why scripture oftentimes specifically uses language contrary to the idea of universalism. To give some examples, Isaiah 25:10 says that Jerusalem will be blessed but Moab will be crushed like straw and left to rot. Jesus said that narrow is the road that leads to life and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14), in the same chapter He says that not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter into the kingdom of heaven. In Luke 20:34-36 He speaks of “those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead”. Romans 2:6-8 offers two endings to the reader, eternal life to those who in doing good seek for glory, honor and immortality and wrath and indignation for those who obey unrighteousness over truth.

Is it possible that eternal life will not be found by some who persistently are unwilling to go to Christ in order to have life (5)? As I have already pointed out the word ‘all’ when relating to salvation likely refers not to every person but rather the ‘whoever’ persons who qualify for eternal life from all nations (whether Jew or Gentile). Scripture contrasts 'whoever believes in Him' with 'whoever rejects Him' (John 3:36), it does not say all but whoever drinks the water (John 4:14), whoever hears His word and believes it (John 5:24), whoever eats the bread of life (John 6:51) and whoever sows to please the Spirit will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8). ‘Whoever’ implies, even assumes, that not everyone will inherit eternal life and accept Gods offer in His Son.

Something to be admired about universalism is the focus on the person of Christ and the commitment to the belief that God is fully revealed to us in the Son and is good, merciful, gracious and loving toward all. Scripture tells us that God desires that none will perish but that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus told us that if we had seen Him we had seen the Father, but His teachings through parables seem to reject the ideas of UR.

Many of the parables of Jesus provide us with insights into what the final state of the wicked will be and there is not really any indication (at least from Jesus) that there will be any second chances awaiting the lost in the afterlife. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-43 for example says that the Tares will be ‘burned up’ while the wheat is gathered into the barn. Similarly, the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22 speaks of those who rejected the king’s invitation to the wedding feast, they are then destroyed while their cities are burned (verse 7). In the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19 the master’s enemies are slain before him (verse 27). Perhaps most applicable is the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matthew 25 which goes even further in that the five virgins who were not ready when the Bridegroom arrived ask to be received but are still rejected.

Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us! But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly I say to you, I do not know you.’ – Matthew 25:11-12

Being late for the wedding feast and missing out on the marriage supper of the Lamb brings us to the next point that we need to address and the final one for this particular post.

Post Mortem Repentance

While not extremely popular, you will find people who hold to eternal conscious torment as well as conditional immortality who believe in the possibility of post mortem repentance. But in order for universalism to work, post mortem repentance is an absolute necessity. There are at least three verses that can be interpreted to include this as a possibility. Matthew 5:25-26 (no one gets out until their debt is paid), Philippians 2:9-11 (every knee will bow and tongue confess…) and then one other passage which we have not previously mentioned which is Isaiah 25:7-9.

And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

Post mortem repentance is a nice thought, it certainly seems fair to those who grew up in non-Christian cultures and never heard the gospel in this life. One has to again ask themselves though if second, third or an infinite amount of chances are available to unbelievers not only after death but after the final judgement? And if so how do we reconcile these verses with others like Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins? One has to acknowledge that the general perception is that the warnings of destruction in the Bible are final, eternal and irrevocable (see Isaiah 47:14-15, 51:6-8, 65:11-15, 66:22-24, Jeremiah 4:4, Matthew 3:8-12, 5:29-30, 13:47-50, John 15:6, Hebrews 6:4-8, 2 Peter 3:3-7, Revelation 19:19-21, 20:7-10). Personally, I am not dogmatic on this point, I am doubtful as to the likelihood of second chances but hopeful that some, when they see God without the false images they once rejected which were all that they knew, will receive an opportunity to repent. But with so many scriptures that seem to point away from such an idea it would be foolish to bank on it. But even if post mortem repentance is indeed a thing, it is not enough in and of itself to guarantee universal salvation, it only creates the opportunity for such a possibility to exist.

i'll end off with one more thought, universalists will sometimes say that people reject God because they have not seen Him as He truly is, I have heard it said that people only reject a false image of God and that when we see Him in His glory all resistance will fall. My immediate thought to that is 'but what about Satan"? What about Adam and Eve? And what about all of those people who saw Jesus, God in the flesh, and then crucified Him? Satan rebelled against God and managed to convince unknown multitudes to do the same despite his privileged position because he took his eyes off of God and wanted glory for himself. Adam and Eve likewise wanted to be like God, they took their eyes off of God and were seduced by their own desires. Those who crucified Jesus did so because He was a threat to their privilege and power and NOT because He was a poor reflection of the Father. There are simply no guarantees that people will not gnash their teeth in defiance or have a change of heart when they stand face to face with God or that their fate will not already be sealed at that point.

In the next post I will conclude this little series by looking at four more points including the unforgivable sin and the Platonic concept of the immortal soul. Until then, as always, I appreciate and value your feedback and would love to know your thoughts in the comments section.


1 – Romans 2:4
2 – James 2:13
3 – Luke 23:34
4 – 2 Peter 2:12
5 – John 5:39-40

Universal Reconciliation – The Good, the Bad and the guy who had himself Castrated

Maybe it is just among the people that I am friends with on Facebook, but there seems to be a massive shift happening in people’s theology on hell. Universalism in particular seems to be increasingly popular among many, especially those who can be considered as Progressives. As you may or may not know, I am currently researching and writing a book about heaven and hell and so I have spent quite a bit of time studying universalism as of late. And I must conclude that 90% of the arguments that I hear levelled against universalists are both unfair and born out of ignorance. With that in mind, I would like to write a few posts on the topic. First I will explore the case from the universalists perspective, are adherents looking for an excuse to sin? Do they claim that all roads lead to heaven and that Jesus died for nothing? Do they have a low view of the Bible and is a commitment to the goodness of God clouding their judgement as to the severity of sin? My hope is that once we have looked into this one might have a clearer understanding of exactly what universalists do and do not believe and be able to respond accordingly. Too often we are ready to talk and not listen and as a result we simply end up speaking past one another. After that, I will write a few more posts on why I personally reject universalism citing eight main reasons why I cannot accept it.

So what exactly is universalism? Universal Reconciliation, which is also sometimes called UR for short or inclusivism is the belief that all men will eventually come to a saving faith in Christ and be redeemed. To point out the obvious this means that universalists also believe that post mortem repentance is available to all and that God will sustain their lives as long as necessary in order for them to accept the gift of eternal life. Essentially then, universalists believe, as do adherents of the traditional view of hell, that all people will live forever. The imagery of hell and fire then is interpreted to be purgatorial, a place of punishment with the intent of restoring the individual to whom they were meant to be in Christ. God’s justice therefore is seen as restorative rather than as retributive and an emphasis is made that places no limit on the saving power and the mercies of God.  It is commonly and unfairly assumed that universalism equates to ‘many roads leading to heaven’ or an ‘escape from consequences of sin’. This is unfair criticism as universalism actually proclaims that Jesus death and life saves all, was completely necessary and that everyone will receive the measure of punishment due to them in the afterlife but with a restorative intent behind the punishing.

Some people have embraced the label of hopeful universalists meaning that they either are not 100% convinced of the doctrine but hold it to be a genuine possibility or they suppose that some may indeed reject Gods offer of salvation even into eternity.

Scriptural Support

As well as appealing to larger themes of redemption in the Bible such as a new heaven and earth where God is all in all, universalists appeal to a wide range of scriptures to support their view, these are the most common verses one might come across in UR literature.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. - Ecclesiastes 3:11
Say to God, “How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power your enemies shall submit themselves to You. All the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You; they shall sing praises to Your name.” Selah – Psalm 66:3-4
Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. – Matthew 5:25-26
“At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts. – Jeremiah 3:17
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. – Luke 3:6
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. – John 3:17
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” – John 12:31-32
And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. – John 12:47

…and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. – Acts:3:20-21

But Isaiah is very bold and says: “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” – Romans 3:20

Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. – Romans 5:18

For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. – Romans 11:32

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:22

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28

Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. – Ephesians 1:7-10

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. – Colossians 1:19-20

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. – Colossians 3:11

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. 1 Timothy 2:3-6

For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. – 1 Timothy 4:10

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. – Titus 2:11

You have put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. – Hebrews 2:8

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
– 1 John 2:2

Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”– Revelation 21:2-7

The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there). And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. (1)
– Revelation 21:23-26

Did this list surprise you as it did with me initially? It is certainly a longer list of ‘supportive texts’ than the eternal conscious torment view can claim. While the interpretation of some of these verses is debatable others put forward a decent case in favor of the salvation of all peoples. Ecclesiastes 3:11 for example is one of those verses where a lot of people are familiar with the phrase, “He has put eternity in their hearts”, but to add ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time” broadens the picture a little bit too. Matthew 5:26 says that no one will escape prison until they have paid the last penny that they owe. The context, and verse 22 in particular, make it clear that Jesus has gehenna in mind here. 1 Timothy 4:10 has been worded very interestingly as well, what does Paul mean by saying that God is the savior of all men, especially those that believe?

Perhaps though Revelation 21:23-26 puts forward the strongest case of all. The kings of the earth are consistently portrayed in a negative light until the culmination of the book when their glory is brought into the city of God. In Revelation the kings of the earth are deceived by demons (16:14), they commit fornication (17:2, 18:3,9) and are ruled by the counterfeit bride called the harlot (17:18). In chapter 19:19 they are said to side with the beast and gather their armies together to make war against Jesus and His army. But then right at the end in chapter 21 when we read about the new heavens and the new earth it says that the kings of the earth will bring their glory into the city where the gates are never shut. Many people have argued that the open gates represent a post mortem invitation where people may enter the city once they have repented and been purified. Whether one agrees with the universalist interpretation or not, it is probably unfair to claim that those who hold the view have a low view of scripture, a misinterpretation possibly, but one can see from the above list how one could arrive at UR conclusions based on scripture.

In the early church

As far as historical written evidence goes, universalism as a belief in the church can be traced back as far as Origen in the early 3rd century. While condemned for heretical beliefs at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553AD, Origen was highly regarded and influential both during and after his life. Origen taught that “we, however, know of no incorporeal substance that is destructible by fire, nor (do we believe) that the soul of man, or the substance of ‘angels,’ or of ‘thrones,’ or of ‘dominions,’ or ‘principalities,’ or ‘powers,’ can be dissolved by fire”(2). In his eyes, the ‘fire that consumes’ did not consume the wicked but consumed the wickedness that indwells those cast into the fire. Origen believed that “no being will remain outside the number of the saved”(3), it is worth noting that Origen was never condemned as a heretic for his belief in universal salvation but rather for his belief in the preexistence of the soul. Although his faith had clear Gnostic undertones to it(4), he was instrumental in helping developing the concept of the Trinity as well as giving the world the Ransom Theory of the Atonement. Origen was also a martyr for Christ and even allegedly had himself castrated (after reading Matthew 19:12) in order to ensure his reputation as a respectable tutor to young men and woman. One could hardly accuse this particular universalist of being a liberal who was secretly looking for a license to sin as many conclude of today's adherents.

Gregory of Nyssa, was the bishop of Nyssa and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, he participated in the First Council of Constantinople late in the 4th century and such was his reputation that he was affectionately called the ‘father of fathers’. Is his book Sermo Catecheticus Magnus he says the following:

…the annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final resurrection of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be all in all, embracing all things endowed with sense and reason…(5)

Similar quotes can be found in the writings of men like St. Jerome, Clement of Alexandria and more. Hardly outcasts in their day and age. It is no wonder then that Augustine could say that there were a great many people in that particular period of church history that, while not rejecting the Christian faith, rejected the teachings of eternal conscious torment.

Gehenna Redeemed

If God is one day to be all in all then hell needs to be emptied of its inhabitants either by them perishing or through post mortem repentance and salvation. In the book of Jeremiah 31:40 there is a remarkable prophecy that gehenna will one day be restored and be holy to the Lord which is the kind of verse one would expect to find if this were to be true. This is what it says:

And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the Lord. It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever.

The chapter (from verse 31) is referring to a future period when the new covenant has been instituted. While the term Ge-hinnom is not specifically mentioned in the above verse it is undoubtedly a reference to it in a similar vein as Isaiah 66:24.

How Long is Forever?

While we sometimes use the term forever in a non-literal way, like when we say, “this food is taking forever to be ready”, we generally interpret it as meaning something is ongoing or eternally fixed in its state. The Greek word aionios however simply mean ‘age-during’ and can simply refer to a specific period of time. To give an example where it cannot refer to and eternal period of time, Romans 16:25, which uses the word aionios, says…

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began (chronos aionios).

Obviously the mystery Paul is speaking of here has since been revealed and is no longer a secret. That is not to say though that aionios cannot refer to an unending time period, it just means that we need to interpret it in its context. So an argument can be made that when the Bible says that the wicked will be tormented forever one can draw from several examples in scripture where ‘forever’ is not the end of the story. The Moabites were forbidden from entering the LORD’s assembly forever (Deuteronomy 23:3) but later Ruth was redeemed through her marriage to Boaz. The Mosaic covenant was established forever (Leviticus 24:8) but only until it vanished (Hebrews 8:7-13). Jude 7 tells us that Sodom is undergoing a punishment of eternal fire but Ezekiel 16:53-55 promises a future return to its former state. The Priesthood was everlasting (Numbers 25:13) but prevented by death from continuing contrary to Christs priesthood (Hebrews 7:22-24.


In many circles when universalism is mentioned people tend to just assume that those who hold to it do not have any sort of reverence for scripture and that if it were true, then evangelism would be meaningless. I have heard far too many people say that throwing eternal conscious torment out of the window downplays the severity of sin and the justice of God. But an honest reflection (I have attempted to be as fair as possible here and accurately present the universalist perspective) affirms that universalism does not teach that anyone gets away with their sins or that God is not just. It could also be argued that universalism does not downplay the importance of Christ’s sacrifice but rather makes it all the more glorious. It is time that we lay thoughtless objections and accusations aside, like “universal redemption means that all roads lead to heaven”. Rebuttals like these serve no value at all and only demonstrate the ignorant mindsets of the persons who make them.

In writing this post I was not trying to convince anyone of a particular view inasmuch as I was trying to help people see that there are persons out there who love God, who take the Bible seriously and actively desire to see Gods Kingdom growing on earth but do not necessarily agree with us on every point of doctrine. And while we should be working toward correctly interpreting the word in this matter and others areas wherever they may arise, we need not demonize those who disagree with us. A little humility could just reveal that we were on the wrong side of the argument in the first place.

This post painted the ‘pro universalism’ position and the next will focus on a case against universalism. For now though I would love to hear your thoughts, is the universalist case stronger than you might have thought it to be previously? Do you think that what someone believes about hell is a salvation issue if they have faith in Christ? If you are a universalist, are there other points that you feel I should have included to further build your case? Do you feel that what I have written is a fair reflection of what universalists believe and do not believe? As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am writing a book on heaven and hell with some space allocated to universalism and this is your chance to help me refine my thoughts and make it better than it would be without your input.

You can check out the follow up article to this one by clicking here.

1 – The argument here is that if the gates remain open to the City of God and the prodigals are always welcome home. Furthermore, the ‘kings and nations’ who bring their glory into the city were elsewhere in the book found to be Gods enemies, warring against the Lamb, something has changed in the interim. 
2 - Book VI, 71:5, p. 606.
3 – The Sacred Writings of Origen, chapter LXXI
4 – McGuckin, John Anthony (2004), The Westminster handbook to Origen, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, ISBN 0-664-22472-5
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