Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Holiness of God and the End of Evil

What does the holiness of God finally require? Is it the everlasting punishment of sinners, as some have imagined, a view that has been known as the Eternal Conscious Torment position? That has several serious problems — biblical, linguistic, theological, moral, and philosophical — but the one I want to  focus on today, and the point of comparison in this little article, is the final disposition of evil.

At the cross, God did not condemn sinners, nor Christ in the place of sinners. But God condemned sin itself. “For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

Should we suppose that God condemned sin through the death of Christ only to let it forever remain in some corner of creation? That would make no sense. Yet that is what the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment logically leads to. If it were true, then sin would never be finally dealt with; it would always exist in the world, in the hearts of rebellious sinners, and would forever be a blight on God’s good creation.

The Annihilationist view, that the wicked are destroyed after a period of punishment, at least sees the final elimination of sin and evil, and so it is at least a more coherent view. But it also sees the elimination of part of God’s creation, of beings created in the image of God. What a terrible cost that would be. And to the extent that God allows his own creation to be destroyed at the hands of evil, would that not be a defeat for God, for Christ, and for the cross?

Either view would mean that where sin abounded, grace did not abound and was not even equal to the task. Yet, Paul declares the opposite, that where sin abounded, grace much more abounded: “Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21). Paul uses a Hebrew rhetorical device here, expressed in Hebrew as qal va-homer, “how much more,” arguing from the lesser to the greater. In this case, it means that where sin increased, how much more did grace abound! 

But what does the holiness of God require? Nothing short of the condemnation and removal of sin and evil, so that there are finally no more rebellious sinners, but all will have become saints through our Lord Jesus Christ, holy before the Lord. It means that God will be “All in All.”

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 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 15:24-28)

The only view that sees sin and evil finally and thoroughly rid from the created cosmos, without the final destruction of any of God’s creation, is Christian universalism; also known as universal reconciliation, or universal restoration, or in Greek, Apocatastasis.

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