In the last post (Universalism and the Character of God), we mentioned that we would be looking in more depth at the pattern of redemption from judgment we mentioned there in passing. In short, it is overwhelming, and a powerful inductive argument in opposition to the idea of a hell of irredeemable, pure harm, culminating in an unqualified declaration that redemption from judgment is precisely God’s method. Here, we will examine this pattern of “mercy’s triumph over judgment,” as the brother of Jesus has it, as well as that aforementioned unequivocal principle.
Never Read a Bible Verse Again
I can’t remember now who offered the provocative advice never to read a Bible verse again, but behind the seemingly intentional provocation is a really good lesson about Biblical exegesis (and really any sort of careful reading anyone might do in any context): nothing happens in a vacuum. So vacuuming up one text at a time in an attempt to cull dogma winds up a subpar strategy, divorcing, as it does, text from subtext and context—and thus from the very keys to the meaning it wants to deliver.
So when folks say to us universalists, “What about Revelation 20:10?” or “What about 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10?” or the like, although we universalists can’t just ignore them (and this blog series certainly won’t ignore them), it would be unwise to think that such a verse-by-verse strategy can ever hope to settle any important doctrinal questions—on any side. What do these texts indicate within their immediate contexts, and ultimately, if we are to assume that the Bible is in any way harmonious regarding our current question, what do these texts mean in the context of that harmony? What Big-Bible patterns emerge surrounding judgment, and how can they inform us about what to expect regarding judgment in the eschaton?
Wheels Within Wheels
One prominent, indeed overwhelming pattern that emerges when we zoom out from the trees and survey the forest of Old Testament canon is a cycle that repeats itself in concentric rings. The pattern is this:
We see this pattern in small ways in, for example, the five cycles of judgment and redemption in the sermons of Hosea. We see it in larger ways in the lives of individuals like David. We see it in the life of Israel in small ways over and over again in the first several chapters of Judges. And we see it in the largest story the Old Testament tells—that of Israel’s exodus from slavery and instantiation in the Promised Land, through Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry, through her judgment and exile from the Promised Land, all the way through to repatriation back into that same Promised Land once again. So we can see the Old Testament as a whole as concentric rings of this cycle, thus:
In what follows, we will pull those cycles apart and examine them all in more detail.
[A NOTE BEFORE WE PROCEED: The following threatens to feel tediously redundant, especially to those who’ve read their Bibles enough to know that none of this is new information. I know that redundancy, needless repetition, saying the same thing over and over again, is most often a thing writers want to avoid. Here, the redundancy is almost the point. That said, feel free to spend as little time as you like skimming through all the blue circles below. The point will be made almost as well if you don’t read those bits at all as if you read every single word. (Not just any author can make a claim such as that!) END OF NOTE.]
The book of Hosea is itself five independent (and somewhat overlapping) iterations of the above pattern. Hosea prophesies primarily to the faithless Northern Kingdom, comprising the ten tribes that were first to abandon YWHW. Hosea lets them know that judgment is coming for their abnegation of God, but that their impending judgment isn’t the end.
Hosea’s first cycle, Hos. 1:2-11
The first cycle introduces the parable Hosea’s life will be. He will marry the prostitute Gomer and have children with her who will represent the judgment God intends to enact.
Hosea’s Second Cycle, Hos. 2:2-23
In chapter 2, God lays out the meaning of Hosea’s prophetic life: Israel’s faithlessness demands retribution, but retribution is not the endgame.
Hosea’s third cycle, Hos. 4:1-6:3
This is the first of Hosea’s three sermons, all of which follow the same pattern:
Hosea’s fourth cycle, Hos. 6:4-11:11
Hosea’s second sermon:
Hosea’s fifth cycle, Hos. 11:12-14:9
The third sermon:
And, as noted, Hosea’s life itself is a sermon, his marriage to the predictably unfaithful Gomer resulting in an adultery which mirrors Israel’s adultery with Baal. But Hosea, the God-analog in his parabolic life, takes her back. John Piper, for all the disagreements I share with him, writes a beautiful poem envisioning Hosea and Gomer at the end of their lives, looking back on their story of faithfulness and its conquest over faithlessness.
Many individuals in the Old Testament see gifts, rebellion, judgment, and redemption, but one prominent example is Israel’s second king, a so-called “man after God’s own heart,” who mirrors the cycles of the nation he rules. (God seems to love the faithless. Amen.) Consider the following two spotlighted events from the life and rule of King David:
David Takes a Census
David has been victorious in battle, but those victories don’t yield in him confidence (i.e. faith) in the God who brings those victories as gifts. So faithless David, forgetting the source of his victories, turns to look at the might of his nation instead of his God and demands a census. It goes ill. But God does not abandon God’s end of the bargain.
David and Bathsheba
When folks express, as I often do, wonder at how a man such as David could possibly be called a man after God’s own heart, the story of his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah is the background soundtrack of that wonderment. Nevertheless, God persists.
Maybe to be considered a person after God’s own heart means to be woefully inadequate and undeserving of such a distinction. Thank God that God, unwaveringly faithful, is pleased to bestow it.
Israel Writ Small: Judges 1-12
Perhaps nowhere is this cycle of judgment’s subsequent restoration more prevalent (or more cyclical) than in the first several chapters of Judges. The sextupled pattern moves over and over again from peace to thankless disobedience to deliverance back into the hands of enemies to deliverance from those hands once again.
Cycle 1: Jdg. 3:1-11--Mesopotamia
Cycle 2: Jdg. 3:11-30--Moabites and Philistines
Cycle 3: Jdg 3:30-5:31--Jabin, King of Canaan
[An aside: This section of scripture contains one of my favorite bits of meiosis--rhetorical understatement—of all time. After relaying Jael’s—ahem—method of dispensing with King Jabin:
4:21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to [Jabin] and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground.
It sums up thusly:
So he died.
That gets me every time.] Anyway, here it is:
Cycle 4: Jdg. 5:31-8:28--Gideon v Midian
Cycle 5: Jdg. 8:28-9:57--Civil War
Cycle 6: Jdg 10:1-12:15--Philistines and Ammonites
This sixth cycle even includes a specific declaration from God that this time there will be no restoration (10:13)--yet the restoration comes anyway. We would need exceedingly powerful language (though more direct language would be hard to imagine) that no restoration was coming in the eschaton in order to suspect with any confidence that it might not. Does stronger language exist in regard to eschatological judgment? We shall see in future posts. (Spoiler alert: no.)
Israel Writ Large: Exodus – Ezra/Nehemiah
The largest story the Old Testament tells is just another, albeit the largest, Old Testament example of this selfsame cycle. It is broadly as follows:
Cosmos: Genesis – 1 Corinthians 15
What I would like to suggest in passing here, but will explore in more detail in a future post, is that bracketing this Israel-Writ-Large story, indeed encompassing it as it encompasses the smaller story of the book of Judges, is just the story universalism tells:
It is just this cycle I will argue Paul epitomizes when he declares, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Again, we will look at this text more fully in a post to come, but consider: doesn’t it just make sense? Doesn’t it just seem to fit the story the Old Testament has been telling us over and over and over again?
Some will only too happily insist that no, it does not fit. They may insist this because all of the above refers explicitly to Israel—God’s chosen people. There is no reason to suspect the same will be true of God’s enemies, these people will say. These people are wrong. I will spare you more circular charts, but I will not spare you at least some details of judgment and redemption therefrom that the Old Testament unambiguously details regarding Israel’s enemies:
We have already seen severally Assyria’s enmity with Israel. She has bedeviled Israel in the latter’s early years in the Promised Land and has represented, in her conquest, the end of Samaria. She is an enemy, and will be judged as such:
In Isaiah 10, the prophet details the thoroughgoing destruction of Assyria. God is “furious,” (v5), and in his fury, he will “tread them down” (v6). The glory of God will be kindled against them (v16), and they will be “burned and devoured” (v17), culminating in their “destruction” (v25).
Despite this woeful judgment, the same prophet says that in the end, Assyria will be joined with Israel, not in destruction, but in harmony and peace, and together (along with Egypt!), they will be a “blessing upon the earth” (Is. 19:5).
Egypt’s relationship with Israel begins as one of master and slave (Exodus 12), and ends in battle against the pre-exilic Judah, killing her good King Josiah (2 Chron. 35).
In Isaiah 19, the prophet speaks at length of a wasting judgment on Egypt, trailing death, despair, and decay in its wake (vv1-17).
Nevertheless, in the last few verses of the chapter, Egypt’s curse (along with Assyria’s) turns to blessing:
23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24 In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. 25 The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”
Moab is one of Israel’s most persistent enemies. I quote here at length from an article by Bruce Routledge, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Liverpool:
Moabite history begins with an ethnic joke that goes back to Lot’s incestuous relations with his daughters, implying that the similarity in Hebrew between Mo’abi (“Moabite”) and me’abi (“from my father”) was no coincidence (Gen 19:37). Moabite women lead the men of Israel into sin during the exodus (Num 25:1-2) and Solomon into sin as king (1Kgs 11:1, 1Kgs 11:7). The offspring of such unions are barred from entering the assembly of Yahweh even after ten generations, according to Deut 23:3. The Moabite king Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites but is foiled by a talking donkey (Num 22-24), and a later Moabite monarch, Eglon, oppresses Israel until he is assassinated by the clever Ehud from the tribe of Benjamin (Judg 3:12-30).
Moab’s judgment is pronounced severally—Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all prophesy her destruction. Perhaps the most vivid depiction of her demise, however, comes from the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 48 of the prophet’s eponymous book, we see repeatedly that Moab is to be “destroyed” (vv. 3, 4, 5, 15, 18, 32, 42). This destruction will be fiery (v45), thoroughgoing (vv 21-24), and unavoidable (v43).
But the punchline of Jer. 48 comes at the end (where all good punchlines should), in v. 47. There we see God through the prophet declare:
47 Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, declares the LORD." Thus far is the judgment on Moab.
Sodom is replete in her wickedness, epitomized by its citizens’ demand to rape the angels God has sent to visit Lot. If Egypt’s, Moab’s, and Assyria’s relationships to God and to Israel have been nuanced, Sodom’s has not: it is all and only evil (Gen. 18-19).
Due to its abject wickedness, Sodom meets fiery and complete obliteration (Gen. 19:23-25). Of particular interest to our current discussion is that Sodom’s judgment is the very model given by Peter and Jude and Jesus himself (in Luke) of eschatological judgment. As a universalist, this seems telling to me, because according to Ezekiel:
53 [God] will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, 54 so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. 55 And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before. = Ezekiel 16:53-55 (NIV)
Exceptions and Objections
Some who are not universalists may be tempted to point out that many of the judgment-redemption cycles detailed here are corporate rather than individual. Why, though, should that matter? The point is that in each instance, the object of judgment, whether corporate or individual, is the object of redemption—that’s just what redemption means.
Other non-universalists may see this overwhelming pattern and be tempted to bring up what they see as exceptions to the rule. Ordinarily, these exceptions prove unexceptional to my eye. Commonly, for example, folks may look to the people who died in the time of Noah. Or they may point to enemies such as Goliath, whose death marks the end of their Biblical narrative.
To these, I would first question whether such examples really represent an exception at all. It seems relatively clear to me, for instance, that the redemption of disobedient dead from the time of Noah is specifically indicated by Christ’s preaching of the gospel to them in Hades (1 Peter 3–4). I understand others have other interpretations of this text, but I find those interpretations less plausible than mine. (We may discuss this at more length in a future post.)
But suppose I am wrong about my interpretation of 1 Pt. 3. And let us not forget Goliath and his ilk. What then? Christianity preaches a general resurrection. It is true that some who experience that resurrection will go on to face further judgment in the eschaton, but it is also true that resurrection is precisely repudiation of (i.e. redemption from) present-age death. So the pattern holds.
It is true that inductive arguments, such as the one advanced here, have premises whose conclusions follow with relative degrees of probability. Therefore, even if there are no counter-examples, there will always be a possibility that eschatological judgment operates completely differently from how judgment overwhelmingly has in the past. But is that bare possibility a good reason to expect such a thing? Surely not, for two reasons:
1. What induction by enumeration gives is data which provide one with a means to make a prediction. We have before us now data to make the savviest gambler salivate. The universalist’s odds are very, very good. Much better than those of the opposition.
2. If these data were by themselves somehow inadequate, the pattern we see here resolves into a principle the Bible also stipulates—without qualification:
2 Sam. 14:14 Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.
Lamentations 3:31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
It is worth noting that these texts aren’t precisely redundant. The latter is in the context of the corporate Israel; the former is in the context specifically of individuals. (Objections and exceptions overruled.) And lest anyone question whether the wise woman of Tekoa or the lamenting prophet has the right idea, I suggest he look again at the overwhelming pattern which demonstrates precisely the principles these espouse. This is who God is.
In light of this overwhelming pattern, we would want, I insist, a truly excellent reason to suspect God behaves differently in the eschaton than God has everywhere else. Still, some will insist that there is just such excellent reason, and these fall generally into one (or both) of two camps:
1. Philosophically, some appear convinced that free will is a good reason to suspect that some will be locked irretrievably away from God forever in the end.
2. Scripturally, some are convinced that there are texts which, whatever our reason or theology might lead us to believe, are nevertheless decisive against the ultimate reconciliation of all things.
It will come as no surprise to anyone when in future posts we see that in my opinion:
1. Any conception of human freedom, no matter how robust, leads always directly to and in no instance away from universal reconciliation, and
2. The overwhelming pattern of redemption from judgment in the Old Testament continues, as should be unsurprising, in the New.