The Symmetry of Salvation

Written by
Steven HAuse
Nov 9, 2022
Steven HAuse

esus' story of the separation of the sheep and the goats is often purported to be a clear example of why universal salvation must be antithetical to an accurate understanding of Scripture. The words of Jesus are translated as "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matthew 25:46, NIV). The point often brought up is that if "eternal life" means a blissful life with no end, then eternal punishment must mean a painful life with no end. It is said that one cannot hold the Greek word aionion (translated here as eternal) to mean "everlasting" in one case and yet deny that it means "everlasting" in the other case [1]. If you throw out the idea of everlasting suffering for some, you are also throwing out the Lord's promise to others of everlasting life with Him! At least that is how the argument goes...

It is certainly clear that Jesus is telling the story to provide an obvious contrast between the sheep and the goats and their two different destinations. In fact, Jesus loved to tell stories like that. He talked of good fish and bad fish, wheat and tares, five foolish virgins and five wise virgins. There is no denying the contrast between the pairs that Jesus presents in his stories. The disagreement is simply over whether the distinction is an everlasting one. There have been numerous essays describing how the controversial passage in Matthew could be quite plausibly translated along the lines of "And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age" [2], and how the "chastening of that Age" will lead to repentance while "the life of that Age" will continue forever, rooted in the eternality of God and his goodness. However, that is not the focus here.

The question here is, why does the symmetry of Matthew 25:46 take precedence over other descriptions of parallels that make an important theological point? There is also the symmetry of Adam and Christ mentioned by Paul: "Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people" (Romans 5:18); "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22).

To hold to everlasting torment, one has to deny the comprehensive nature of the second half of the assertion in both of Paul's statements. In other words, any person who wants to hold fast to the purported unending symmetry of the contrast presented in Matthew 25:46 will have to break the perfect symmetry of Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. But if the Adam/Christ verses are allowed to remain intact, and the Matthew 25:46 passage is interpreted as describing an impermanent punishment for the goats (as the Greek, at the very least, seems to allow for), then we can claim that—although there is an important difference between sheep and goats—a goat can actually be transformed into a sheep. In fact, in the plans of God, all goats will become sheep.

There is another important biblical parallel to consider. It shows how a betrayer of Christ can repent and be restored to a right relationship. In John 18, Peter denies Christ three times while standing around a fire to keep warm. In John 21, after Jesus has resurrected and reunited with the disciples, the group eats fish and bread around a fire on the shore. In John 18:18 and John 21:9 the same word for the fire is used, "anthrakian," which means a fire of coals. Perhaps the author is trying to demonstrate a connection between the two scenes. The Lord asks Peter three times to confirm Peter's love for him. The third time Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" the Bible says that Peter was saddened. It could be that he simply felt that Jesus didn't believe his answers, but it could also be that he understood (on hearing the question asked for a third time) that Jesus was referring back to the three times that Peter had denied his Lord before the crucifixion, and so Peter felt ashamed of his sin. But here Jesus gave his disciple an opportunity to replace each of his negative lies of the past with three positive responses. The parallel is clear: Peter denied Jesus three times while around a fire of coals and, after the resurrection, Peter meets his Savior around a fire of coals and responds three times to Jesus' inquiries, confirming his love for Christ.

"That is a fine example of how one may repent during this life time," some might say, "but that doesn't mean anyone can be forgiven after they have passed on. As in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the gulf is fixed at death. When we speak of biblical dichotomies, we can't forget that pair of characters."

Sure enough, the valid dichotomy between Lazarus and Dives is important and can't be overlooked, but that parable cannot be used to disqualify the larger picture, which is of a symmetry between the Good Beginning and the Good End. The gulf between the two souls is fixed for a determined time and purpose, but it is not meant to represent a doctrine of everlasting separation between the blissful and the miserable.

A position often advocated for—as one of the softer conceptions of the relationship between those suffering forever in hell and those delighting forever in heaven—is that God will provide certain conditions for the elect that will allow for them to be ignorant or blind to the suffering of the damned. But isn’t there an eerie resemblance here to the way the Rich Man lived as Lazarus suffered outside of his gates? He gorged himself on fine wine and food while the wounded beggar was in agony right outside of his mansion. Out of sight, out of mind. How could God, if he were indeed all-loving and all-merciful (as he surely is), prepare an eternal home for so many that mirrors the self-absorbed lifestyle of the Rich Man who was so heavily criticized by Jesus in the very parable that is so often used to advocate for everlasting conscious torment?

That problematic position of the ignorance of the blessed in heaven is preferable, though, to the one sometimes advocated by the defenders of the "traditional" hell—that is, the concept that those in heaven will look across the abyss between glory and horror and will revel in the display of divine justice being presented by the ever-weeping sinners suffering without intermission. In this gloomy account of things, the sins of the reprobate are kindling for the eternal fires of hell—a furnace that warms the souls of those in heaven. The renewable resource of sins continually sinned and everlastingly punished provide a constant source of joy for those who live in the New Jerusalem. It is only by continually looking out on the misery of the damned that the redeemed can appreciate their own comfortable and happy state.

This is not the symmetry embedded in the biblical story. There is indeed divine judgement and a distinction between followers of Christ and enemies of his Kingdom. But the distinction is not everlasting, and the two will become one. The deepest symmetry in God's story is this: in the beginning, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31) and in the end all things will be very good again, as "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4). The picture is of a universe created good and a universe restored to the good. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is this: In the beginning, God was good. In the end, God will be good. And in the meantime? You can be sure that, despite any suffering and sin we see or experience now, God is working things toward the good.

[1] As in Barnes' Notes on the Bible (commenting on Matthew 25:46):

“The word used here is the same in the original as that used to express the eternal life of the righteous; if one can be proved to be limited in duration, the other can by the same arguments. The proof that the righteous will be happy forever is precisely the same, and no other, than that the wicked will, be miserable forever."

Or, as Augustine wrote in The City of God (Chapter 24):

"It were excessively presumptuous to say that the punishment of any of those whom God has said shall go away into eternal punishment shall not be eternal, and so bring either despair or doubt upon the corresponding promise of life eternal."

[2] As David Bentley Hart rendered the verse in his 2017 publication "The New Testament: A Translation"

Steven HAuse is an English language teacher who has lived and taught in Bolivia, Spain, and Japan. He loves learning more about different cultures, exploring theological topics, and watching all kinds of great movies.