Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Final Word on Hell

https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrowing_of_Hell#/media/File:Bischheim_Temple38.JPG
When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)
Whatever happens in the meantime, in the end, God will be all in all. This is Christian universalism in a nutshell. This does not deny that there is some sort of hell or torment. It only means that in the end — whatever hell there may be in the meantime, whatever its intensity or duration — God will finally be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

God being “all in all” cannot be anything less than universal without it meaning that Christ’s atonement was less than successful and God’s victory less than complete. It would leave the condemnation that resulted from Adam’s transgression finally greater and actually more encompassing than redemption and reconciliation through Christ’s act of obedience. And the apostle Paul would have been mistaken, in Romans 5:15-21, in supposing that the result of Christ’s obedience, and the grace of God, was so much more extensive than was the result Adam’s transgression.

In Romans 5:20, Paul says, “but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more.” He did not say, “grace multiplied almost as much” or that it was almost as effective. But if God is not finally “all in all,” in its plainly universal sense, then the redemptive act of Christ and the grace of God will have been not quite as effective as was Adam’s transgression. Almost as much, perhaps, but not fully and completely, and certainly not “all the more.”

The devil has taken an awful toll on earth, my friend tells me; and, yes, that is true. Who has not experienced that in one way or another; and perhaps many people may experience it even beyond this present life. But all of that is only in the meantime. However, if in the end, God is not all in all, then the devil will have ultimately taken an awful toll on the victory of God.

To whatever extent that toll finally endures (if any), by just that much will God’s plan of reconciliation through Christ have failed. The result of Adam’s transgression will have proven to be more effective and pervasive than Christ’s faithful act of obedience. The lie of the deceiver will have been more persuasive than the love of God. And Paul would only be able to say, “Where sin increased, grace multiplied a little.” Or perhaps, “grace multiplied almost as much.” But not, “grace multiplied all the more.”

Imagine all you want, then, about what happens in the meantime — about hell and judgment and suffering, and people shaking their fists at God — but that is not the final word on anyone or anything. The final word belongs to God. It is a word of love, because God is love. The final word is that God, who is love, will be all in all.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

There is Only One Humanity

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
There is only one human nature, one humanity, of which we all partake. The Incarnation, God becoming man and dwelling among us (John 1:14), was not about creating a new and different humanity — that would have been a species alien to us — but it was Christ partaking of the one and only humanity there is. It means that Christ participates with us in our humanity, even as broken as it is, so to make us whole.

So, the cross saves us in a very ontological way. That is, Christ did not die as one whose humanity was similar to but quite other than our humanity, dying instead of us in a different humanity, and somehow creating a legal fiction to satisfy a legal debt. There is no real connection in that between Christ and humanity.

No, Christ died as one with whom we participate together in the same humanity, dying as us, so that his death was our death, too, because his being shares in our being, in our nature as human beings. His death was our death, so that his risen life is ours, as well. This cannot be reduced to some sentimental way of thinking; is the objective reality of our own being participating together in the resurrected human being of Christ.

In the same way, we are righteous before God, not because of some legal accounting (imputed righteousness), or by receiving it from a source outside of us (imparted righteousness), but through Christ’s very real participation in human being, our mutual participation with Christ in the only humanity there ever was or shall be. This one and only humanity, which was once headed up in Adam is now headed up in Christ, which is why the apostle Paul can make the Adam/Christ comparison so extensively, in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people. (Romans 5:18)
The Byzantine icon of the Resurrection, above, shows Christ, with the shattered gates of hell* beneath his feet, reaching his hands to Adam and Eve, and raising them from the grave. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

*Hades, the realm of the dead.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Gathering All Unto Himself


At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom, by whom and for whom all things were created, and in whom all things hold together, and who by the Incarnation joined himself with all humankind, disarmed the principalities and powers, and broke the power of sin and death and the devil. God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Looking to the cross and the manner of his death, Christ said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:32). The Greek word used for “draw” is one that is used of fishing nets being drawn or dragged, gathered in.

Christ has been lifted up, exalted, at the cross, where the glory of God has been revealed. And Christ is now drawing all, everyone and everything, gathering all unto himself.

This is the glory of the cross.

Friday, August 16, 2019

All-Encompassing, All-Redeeming Christ


(adapted from Colossians 1:15-20)

Christ is all-encompassing,
In every dimension and every degree.
The fullness of Christ in all things,
the fullness of all things in Christ,
with nothing left out at any point.

All things and everything.
Christ is the firstborn over all creation.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

All things have been created in Christ
and through Christ
and for Christ.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

Christ is before all things.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

And in Christ all things hold together.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

Christ is the head of the body,
the Church.

Christ the beginning,
and the new beginning,
the firstborn from
among the dead,
so that in all things
Christ might have
the supremacy.
Not some,
Not most,
but all.

For it was pleasing to God to have
all fullness dwell in Christ.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

And through Christ
to reconcile to himself all things.
Whether things on earth
or things in heaven,
by making peace
through his blood,
shed on the cross.

Not some,
not most,
but all.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Unwillingness of God


There are some things God is not willing to do, and this is marvelously portrayed in the three parables that comprise Luke 15. Jesus told them in response to the Pharisees and teachers of Jewish law who were offended that tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus, and were even more offended because Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. The parables are about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

The Parable the Lost Sheep
In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but one has strayed. He puts it to the Pharisees directly:
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Clearly, the answer is, Yes, the Pharisees, if they were shepherds, would go out and find that lost sheep. They would not be content with the ninety-nine while one was still out in the wild. The stray was just as valuable to them as the ones that did not stray.

Of course, we think immediately of Jesus in this story, not simply because he is the one telling it but because we recognize him as the Good Shepherd who lays down his lie for his sheep (John 10:11). He is the one the psalm writer cries out for: “Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever” (Psalm 28:9). He is the one the prophet foretold: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).

If the Pharisees would not be content with 99% of their flock, if they would not be willing to leave one sheep behind, why should we expect that Jesus would be. More to the point, because Jesus is the perfect image of God, why should we expect that God would be satisfied with only 99%? But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes out searching for the least one, the last one, lost one until he finds it. He simply does not give up. And when he finds it, he carries it home on his shoulders, and there is great rejoicing. (See also Until All Are Home)

The Parable of the Lost Coin
The second parable, in Luke 15:8-10, tells of the woman and the lost coin. Like the first parable, it is very brief, but just as powerful.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Imagine this woman with ten silver coins. They are likely her dowry and so would be very precious to her. But she has somehow lost one. Perhaps it fell into the cracks between the stones in the floor. She still has nine coins left, but she is not content to leave it at that. She is unwilling to let that tenth one go. So, she turns the house upside down searching diligently for it, shining a light into every dark corner, sweeping the floor in case she might hear it clinking in some crevice. She will not give up. She will not even think of giving up but will keep searching for it until she has found it. And then how great will be her rejoicing.

If the shepherd in the first parable points us to Christ the Son, and the father in the third parable, which we will come to next, is like God the Father, it seems only natural that the woman in this middle parable may perhaps be likened to the Holy Spirit. We would not be alone in thinking that. St. Ambrose, back in the 4th century understood it that way.

The Holy Spirit is always bearing witness to of us Christ, taking the things that are his and revealing them to us. How shall we suppose that the Spirit of God would ever stop before every dark corner has been made light, every crevice has been swept clean, and that which is lost has been found?

The Parable of the Lost Sons
Now we come to the longest of the three parables, too long to quote in full here but found in Luke 15:11-32. In this tale, there is a man, a father who has two sons. One day, the younger son comes to his father and asks that his share of the inheritance be given to him. This is terribly dishonoring to his father, tantamount to saying that all he wants from his father is his wealth and that his father might as well be dead. Nonetheless, the father loves his son. Indeed, he loves both of his sons greatly and he gives them both their inheritance.

The younger son takes it and goes off to a distant land, as distant as his heart is from his father. There he wastes away all he has received, squandering it in reprehensible ways. But then there is a catastrophe: a terrible famine comes upon the land, and the younger son, his wealth now gone, must hire himself out to a farmer who has him feed the pigs — quite a lowly job to begin with, but especially shameful work for a Jewish boy.

After a time, the younger son comes to his senses and realizes the terrible state he is in and how much better life had been for him at home. He decides to go to his father and beg to come back home, not as a son but as a servant.

Now, while he is still a good way off, his father sees him on the horizon, for he has never stopped watching for his son, being unwilling to give up on him. Then the father, in a culturally undignified act, girds up his robe and runs to embrace his son. The son is hardly able to get a word out of his mouth about how unworthy he is to be a son before the father cuts him off, commanding his servants that the best robe be put on his son, a ring placed on his hand and the bests sandals put on his feet — all of them signs that the father fully accepts him as his son.

“Bring the fattened calf and kill it,” the father says, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So, they all celebrate and are very merry.

End of story. Or not. Remember, there is also an older son — an older brother. He finally becomes aware of all the commotion and asks his servant about it. “Your brother has come home,” the servant says, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” The older brother becomes enraged and refuses to join in the celebration.

But the father loves both of his sons, so he goes out to find the older one, who has distanced himself not only from his younger brother but from his father as well. The older son pours out his fury, about how he has always obeyed and slaved for his father but was never given even a young goat to celebrate with his friends; about how the younger son, “this son of yours,” has whored everything away — and now here is the father welcoming him home with the greatest of feasts!

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

The father has two sons and loves them both very much, and he is unwilling to give up on either one of them; unwilling to have the older but lose the younger, and just as unwilling to have the younger but lose the older. He will not be satisfied until both are reconciled and safely home. (See also The Lifter of Our Shame)

God is Unwilling
This is how God is. God is like the shepherd who is unwilling for even one of his sheep to remain lost. God is like the woman who is unwilling to let even one precious coin remain missing. And God is like the father who is not willing to let either of his sons remain unreconciled.

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

See, it is not God’s will that anyone perish but that everyone come to repentance. There is never a point at which God gives up on anyone. Never. God’s love always perseveres, and not even death can finally keep God’s love or God’s will from prevailing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Random Thoughts


Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About love, forgiveness, divine grace, and finding our lives in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of prayer and quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • We are united with Christ not by reason of our faith but by reason of His Incarnation. What we do with that is a matter of faith. We can rebel against it, but we cannot undo it.
  • Funny thing. The more I consider Christ, the more my theology changes in conformity to Him ... and that seems to be confusing for some people.
  • The judgment of God does not come to condemn us but to restore us. Not to enslave us but to set us free.
  • Christ is God’s Yes to us. Faith echoes Amen.
  • The Resurrection of Christ shows that the love of God is truly unconditional, for not even death can stop it.
  • Eternal life. Eternal love. Same thing.
  • We live continually in the presence of Divine Love.
  • Whatever it is for which you would be rewarded, that you must beware.
  • The confession that Jesus is Lord is a form of anarchy, for it means that Caesar is not.
  • If you would see the kingdom of God, forgive one another.
  • God always gets the last word, and it is a good word: Love.
  • If ever there was a time when God hated anyone, even for a moment, it would be His undoing, for God is love.
  • If you are seeking Christ, you will find Him in the middle of your mess and at the bottom of your ditch.
  • Faith is not about certainty but about trust.
  • Lord, keep me from being part of the strife but make me a part of the peace. Amen.
  • Thank God, nothing depends on our certainty.
  • Christ is God’s elect who, by the Incarnation, has become one with all of humanity.
  • Believe the life of Christ in you.
  • Christ is our only true reality. In Him we live and move and have our being, and in Him all things hold together. Everything that moves away from Him moves towards nothing.
  • Christ inhabits every broken story until all the world is mended.
  • Christian theology does not begin with philosophy or theological abstraction but with the concrete revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ is not only God’s Yes to us, He is also our Yes to God.
  • Christ did not come to institute a new moralism but to give us New Life.
  • When the brokenness of sin meets the faithfulness of Christ? No contest. When the power of death meets the life of Christ? No contest. Sin and death were doomed by the Incarnation, when God became one with us.
  • The Incarnation means that whatever is true of Christ in his humanity is true of us in ours. But it also means that we partake of his divinity and become by grace what Christ is by nature.
  • Christ is God’s humanity and our divinity.
  • Christ is the image of the invisible God, in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, and in whom we are made complete and become partakers of the divine nature.
  • Christ is the True Light who gives light to everyone in the world. Faith is an awakening to the light of Christ within us.
  • Sometimes my failures all gang up and fool me about who I am. Sometimes my successes do, too.
  • Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ... for we are all in the same boat.
  • We are holy not by keeping a moral code but because God has chosen us in Christ through the Incarnation. It is by faith that we embrace this holiness.
  • If it comes down to a choice between prayer and politics, I’ve seen what both can do. I will choose prayer. Every time.
  • The gospel means there is nothing so broken that it cannot be mended, for Christ is making all things new.
  • Prayer is not a way of escaping the reality of the world but of becoming more deeply aligned with it.
More random thoughts …

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Possibility of Repentance After Death

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment ... (Hebrews 9:27)
Evangelical universalism entails the possibility of “post-mortem conversion,” that is, the proposition that, though many depart this life without faith in Christ, yet is it still possible for them to come to such faith after they have died.

A common objection to this view has been Hebrews 9:27, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …,” and it is supposed that this precludes any post-mortem opportunity for salvation. It is then further assumed that if one has not come to faith in Christ when they die, all that is left for them is an eternity of conscious torment.

What is the Context?
But there are a few problems with such a reading. First, it ignores the context. Verse 27 is not a stand-alone statement or a completed thought but is part of a larger discussion about Christ as our high priest, holding him in contrast with the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
The high priest of the Old Testament had to go into the Holy of Holies every year to make sacrifice for sins. But Christ did not come year after year to offer himself as a sacrifice over and over for our sins. He did not suffer many times but only once. Mark the word “once” in the verses immediately preceding and following verse 27; it is the key to the comparison the author makes.
  • Christ has appeared once for all to do away with sin (v. 26).
  • Just as people are destined to die once (v. 27).
  • So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of the many (v. 28).
Note also the use of “just as” by the NIV (or “and” in several other versions) at the beginning of verse 27. It indicates the continuation of a preceding thought. The use of “so” at the beginning of verse 28 shows a continuation of the thought carried along in verse 27 and completes this portion of the argument that author is making: Just as people are destined to die once, so Christ was offered once, in sacrificial death.

What is the Judgment?
Here, we come to my second point, though still considering the context. The second clause in verse 27 has to do with judgment. If we think of this in general terms, it is worth noting that the author does not specify how soon after death this judgment comes, only that people are destined once to die, and after this comes the judgment. We cannot simply assume that it comes immediately, leaving no room for coming to repentance and faith.

But the author of Hebrews has been focusing our attention on Christ, and that, it seems to me, is how we should think of judgment here. The first part of verse 27, “destined to die once” is answered by the second part, “Christ was sacrificed once.” So also, the second part of verse 27, about judgment, is answered in the second part of verse 28: “to take away the sins of the many.”

To see how the taking away of our sins in verse 28 corresponds to judgment in verse 27, we need to understand something important about the nature of God’s judgment: it is not retributive but restorative. Our own sense of judgment is often about retribution or pay-back, even to the point of the destruction of offenders — and we tend to imagine that God must be that way, too.

But God’s judgment is always about restoration, for God is love, and love does not seek retribution. God comes to set things right — to set us right. The judgment of God does not come to destroy the offender but to remove the offense. For God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us (John 3:18) but to bring about reconciliation (more on that in a moment).

The judgment of God, then, does not preclude any further possibility of repentance, for repentance and faith are exactly what it is intended to bring about. Think of the many times in the Old Testament when God judged wayward Israel. It was not to abandon Israel forever but to bring her to repentance, for there was always the promise of the day when God would finally gather her in from the nations.

The ultimate judgment of God took place at the cross, where the “once for all” death Christ died destroyed the works of the devil (1 John 4:8), disarmed the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15), broke the power of death, and the power of the devil, who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14), and so, broke the power of sin. The cross is where the forgiveness of God was revealed, and the judgment of God made manifest.

The author extends the thought at the end of verse 28, showing that the One who was offered once for our sins, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” The death of Christ brings salvation — and that is the judgment of God.

The author of Hebrews is not arguing that death is a “point of no return” that precludes any possibility of post-mortem conversion but showing us something very different, a Christ-centered focus. Nor can we conclude that the future appearing of Christ is the cut-off point for repentance and faith; the author simply does not make that argument.

What is God’s Purpose in Christ?
This brings me to my third point: there are numerous passages in Scripture that clearly indicate God’s purpose is the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth through Christ and by the blood of the cross. I have listed several of them in another article, “What If ‘All’ Means All?”, but I will mention three here:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

With all wisdom and understanding, [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
In the end, God will be, as Paul said, “All in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The reconciliation of all things will not happen apart from Christ, or the cross, or repentance and faith. But Paul does seem convinced that it will indeed happen.

If that is so, and all are finally to be reconciled, then it seems to me that post-mortem conversion is not only possible but is inevitable, seeing that so many people appear to depart this present life without having come to any repentance or faith in Christ. Hebrews 9:27 does not preclude this; it does not even address the question, much less answer it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What Does It Mean to be “In Christ”?


We hear it a lot — I say it a lot — but what does it mean? Simply put, to be “in Christ” is to be in union with Christ, one with Christ. To be in union with Christ is to be in union with God, one with God, because Christ is God become human. He did not become merely one like us — he became one with us. Christ is fully human, as well as fully divine, and participates fully with us in our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity, sharing by grace what Christ is by nature.

In the modern Western world, we are used to thinking of ourselves and others very individualistically: You are you and I am me, and apart from close biological relationships, we recognize no real connection to each other, only whatever social or psychological associations we decide to have with one another.

But the truth is that there is only one humanity, and we all partake of it. This means that we are all vitally and deeply connected to one another. Whatever happens with one of us ultimately affects all of us, and the loss of one of us diminishes all of us. There is no “us” and “them,” there is only us.

The apostle Paul recognized this profound connection when he compared Christ with Adam. We can see this, for example, in Romans 5:18, where he says, “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people.” And again in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

Just as Adam’s act of disobedience affected all humankind, bringing mortality upon all, so the faithful obedience of Christ resulted in justification and life for all. In both instances, this could only be because the humanity in which we all share is a deep and abiding connection, a union we all have with one another. So, when Christ became human, it was not a union with only some of us but with all of us.

The great mystery of the gospel is that the God who created this one humanity has joined with us in it by the Incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is our union with God. This is not something we must strive for — or even can strive for. But through the Incarnation, we now have this union with Christ, and so with God, purely by the love, will and desire of God. It is not even our faith that puts us “in Christ” or in union with God, but it is solely the grace of God, the faithfulness of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that has done this.

What this means for us is that we are “accepted in the Beloved,” as the old King James Version puts it in Ephesians 1:6. The Greek word behind that means that we are fully graced and highly favored by God, and this is though Christ’s union with us. Our faith did not bring this about; the faithfulness of Christ has done it. But it is by faith that we begin to understand and live out the truth of what Christ has already done for us.

So, when we read in Paul’s letters about being “in Christ,” it has nothing to do with what we have done or ever could do, not even our faith, but has everything to do with what Christ has done. It is about the union with God every human being has because of Christ, the Incarnation, and the victory of the cross and resurrection that inevitably resulted from that union.