Thursday, January 28, 2010

You can't always believe what you want

In light of my last two posts here and here, I thought it was a good time to discuss God's judgment. This is a difficult topic for many people. In many ways, the belief and hope of a loving and forgiving God has undercut the Biblical message of judgment. This brings up a few questions. Can there be mercy without judgment? Does judgment stem from anger? Are love and judgment mutually exclusive? Is God still planning to judge the world or did God's judgment occur in the sending of the Son and then in the cross and resurrection?

In order to talk about God's judgment, I'd like to broach a different, but related topic: universal salvation. Universal salvation is the idea or belief that God will ultimately save everyone. With this understanding, whatever happens at the end of time will ultimately result in all people being in the presence of God. The belief in universal salvation, then, eliminates the need for Hell, as a place opposite of Heaven.

Some verses that people believe point to universal salvation are:

John 12:30-33

Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Romans 5:18-21

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 John 2:1-2

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

John 15:12-17

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."

Luke 19:9-10

Then Jesus said to [Zaccheus], ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Now in most cases, proof-texters (on all sides of an issue) use just one verse to prove their point. I don't like that kind of argumentation because I don't believe God intends for the Bible to be used that way- in its original context (as parts) or in its present context (as a whole). Therefore, I try to include surrounding verses, regardless of my viewpoint on the subject.

Many people look at these verses and says, "Jesus intends to bring everyone together. God is ultimately gracious and will forgive everyone. Jesus' death saves the world. Because God acts first and we can't earn grace, then it comes to everyone."

1) Jesus intends to bring everyone together. That's great. And I firmly believe Jesus can do it. However, there are some passages that indicate that some people are going to resist that to the end. (or End)

2) God is ultimately gracious and will forgive everyone. Also great. Also true. BUT forgiveness does not necessarily preclude punishment. Some would say that a life apart from God and the trials of this world are hell enough. Sounds good. But the Bible also points to eternal consequences. Since we know that this life ends and believe that there is a life afterwards- then the eternal situation must be as important to us as the temporal. (Even so, it is very important to remember that physical needs are NOT less important than spiritual ones.)

3) Jesus' death saves the world. Jesus' death is the result upsetting the political and religious apple cart. Jesus' resurrection is purely God's work that shows that death is not the end. It also shows that death is not the judgment, but the latter is something that will follow the former.

4) Because God acts first, and we can't earn grace, then it comes to everyone. It is most certainly true that God acts first. This is the first marker against "decision theology" (as in, "I have decided to follow Christ.). The implication is that God is waiting on you and that God's hands are tied until you make the right decision, say the right words, pray the right prayer, perform the right rite. God has already been acting since the beginning of time. Carl Sagan said, "If you want to make a cake from scratch, you have to start by creating the universe." No one can do that. No matter how you come to know Jesus, it's only possible because of all the work God has done before. Your questions were answered before you could think to ask. However, though grace is pre-existent, it does not eliminate our need for it. As Paul says, "We do not sin so that grace may abound." (Romans 6:1) Through Christ, we have all received "grace upon grace". (John 1:16) God's grace is for everyone, but that doesn't mean that everyone responds to it.

Luke 10:16-20

[ Jesus says to the seventy:] ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’ The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Matthew 25:31-46

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Revelation 9:3-6

Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of the scorpions of the earth. They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five month, but not to kill them... And in those days, people will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.

Luke 16:22-31

[Jesus spoke to them about the beggar, Lazarus, and the rich man:] The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

Now, arguably, the gospel according to Luke is heavily concerned with equality and the radical nature of Jesus and the latter story is a parable within that context, however, I think you can see the point that judgment is not limited to Revelation and is spoken of by Jesus- not just John the Baptist. Is Jesus being intentionally inflammatory to provoke those who will not respond to the call of love to bring them into a relationship with God? Possibly. No matter what we think about judgment, we cannot ignore the words of Jesus to Thomas, according to John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me."

Inevitably, the Bible brings us to the conclusion that there will be some kind of judgment at some point- marking the beginning of eternal life. When we look at the Bible as a whole, we cannot definitely come to the conclusion that all will be saved. We also can yield (slightly) on the possibility that all will.

Here's the thing, though. Within the Apostles Creed, we affirm that we believe Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. We cannot ignore the fact that there will be (and has been) judgment. Through the Spirit and the Bible, we come to believe that those who do not come to God through Jesus will not come out favorably.

We do stand firmly on judgment as the privilege of God. And that judgment stems from God's love for the whole creation and God's desire for us, as created beings, to come into right relationship with our Creator.

("Bring it on home, Pastor!")

For those of us who are Christian, Christ is the solid rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. This means that we have to wrestle with, pray about, engage in and believe what is said in the Bible. We have to come to a place of tension with Scripture and accept that the tension will not be resolved in this life.

The most dangerous part of the idea of universal salvation is that it lets Christians off the hook. Jesus clearly calls us to ministry in the world- from sharing water in a cup to baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Jesus says this work matters. In fact, it has eternal implications.

If we believe God will save everyone, then we can be content to allow our lives to devolve into faithful social ministry. If we believe that we are called to somehow, someway bring Jesus to the world, then we have a mission (yea verily, a great Commission) that we cannot ignore, that we ignore to our peril, that we ignore to the peril of the world.

When we ask for God to "return to us the joy of our salvation" (Psalm 51), we also ask for a "right and willing spirit". The joy of salvation isn't just the joyous knowledge of being right with God, it's also a wellspring that can't help but overflow in all you do.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I'm found.

Was blind, but now I see.

When we've been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We've no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we first begun.


But between here and there, there's a judgment. And we can't get around it. We can't get over it. We can't pass through it (on our own).

I want to believe that God will save everyone. And God certainly can. But from where I stand, I can't see that God will.

So I better get to work. Because the Holy Spirit is already sowing seeds and is at work. There are people who need Jesus. And where will He meet them?

In us.


1 comment:

Martin Eldred said...

Well done, well written and well argued. I think you present some compelling points that remind us that too often we can presume to think for God based on our bias and conveniently ignore anything that disagrees with us.

Even if we lean toward Universal Salvation, we have to seriously deal with the texts--especially from Jesus--that contradict that thought.

Thank you.