A Biblical Case For Universalism: Beyond The Concordance

“Hell, so limitless to the man who has chosen it, is still bounded by the ‘nevertheless’ of divine love.” - John A. T. Robinson

Introduction

A section of the 1852 painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

A section of the 1852 painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

As we saw in the last post, the Old Testament has very little to say about the fate of individuals after death. In fact, most of the OT assumes that death is the end, not just for the wicked but for everyone, and the few texts which seem to anticipate something more beyond death still do not offer anything close to the systematic clarity of the three main Christian views.

Many have concluded from this that the OT has little relevance to the questions of hell and final judgment. But this is a huge mistake. While the writers of the OT say little about judgment in the hereafter, they say quite a lot about judgment in the here and now; and when the NT writers talk about hell and final judgement, they often use the same language that the OT writers used to speak of God’s judgment against nations within continuing history.

If we want to have a truly biblical understanding of hell and final judgment, therefore, we need to move beyond the concordance to the larger themes of divine judgment in Scripture. From this vantage point we can see that the OT contains some of the most important material on the questions of hell and final judgment, because it establishes the primary paradigms and vocabulary by which the NT writers speak to those realities.

A Paradigm of Restoration

One of the great virtues of Edward Fudge’s case for annihilationism is the detailed attention he gives to the OT background of judgment language in the NT. In chapter 7 of his book The Fire That Consumes, Fudge observes that although the OT has little to say about hell and final judgment directly, it nonetheless provides a “lexicon of judgment” from which later biblical writers draw in their descriptions of postmortem judgment. “When later biblical writers wish to describe some future judgment against sinners, they often go to this lexicon of judgment for an appropriate descriptive symbol” (The Fire That Consumes, 59). Thus,

“As we become familiar with the symbolism used by Old Testament prophets, we will learn to look to those earlier Scriptures for the meaning of those symbols when used in the New Testament, always realizing that New Testament authors are free to change that meaning as needed” (The Fire That Consumes, 71).

While I fully agree with Fudge on this point, I believe his characterization of the OT as a “lexicon of judgment” falls short. More than a lexicon, the OT is first and foremost a story — an engrossing, tumultuous, many-sided story about God’s dealings with Israel and her neighbors. This is an important distinction, because Fudge and other annihilationists often reduce the value of the OT to abstract images and isolated technical terms, forgetting that those descriptions of judgment appear in context to a larger narrative full of all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. By paying attention to the twists and turns of that narrative, I believe we can see that the OT establishes not only a lexicon of judgment, but also a larger paradigm of restoration after judgment.

Permanent Desolation?

When it comes to unexpected twists, there is one event in the OT era that stands far above the rest. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BC, and the deportations of thousands of Jews that followed, constituted a tragedy of unparalleled significance for the Jewish consciousness. As Craig C. Hill observes, “It is the watershed event that divides Old Testament history, much as the holocaust divides modern Jewish history and September 11, 2001, divides recent American history. Afterwards, life could never be the same” (In God’s Time, 50-51).

In the years leading up to that event, the message of the biblical prophets was largely negative, warning the people of Judah that a terrible cataclysm was coming as the result of their unfaithfulness. Prophets like Zephaniah and Amos turned the popular eschatology on its head, saying that the coming of the “day of the Lord” would mean, not deliverance and prosperity, but fiery destruction and complete desolation (Zeph. 1:7, 14-18; Amos 5:18). After the great cataclysm arrived, however, the message of the prophets changed dramatically. No longer the harbingers of doom and gloom, they became the bearers of hope against hope.

The words of Jeremiah provide a particularly important case study of this phenomenon, since he prophesied both before and after Jerusalem’s destruction. Prior to that event, Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgment in the most extreme terms imaginable:

“You have rejected me, says the Lord, you are going backward; so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you — I am weary of relenting… I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever” (15:6, 14).

“But my people have forgotten me, they burn offerings to a delusion; they have stumbled in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever. All who pass by it are horrified and shake their heads” (18:15-16).

“I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten” (23:39-40).

“I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, even for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these nations around; I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace” (25:9).

Note especially phrases like “burn forever”, “utterly destroy”, “everlasting disgrace” and “perpetual shame”, as well as the imagery of people walking by a smouldering wasteland like Sodom and Gomorrah. Jeremiah applies this same imagery to the valley of Gehenna in 19:6-13, saying that the whole city of Jerusalem will become an extension of its own garbage dump. We will return to some of these passages later when we see them echoed by NT writers in eschatological contexts.

For now it is enough to note that, if we were to read passages like these on their own, we would naturally think that Jeremiah expected the land of Israel to be completely destroyed with no hope of ever being restored. And yet Jeremiah goes on to offer words of profound hope for restoration:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (29:11-14).

Other prophetic books follow this same paradoxical pattern of destruction followed by restoration. In Isaiah 34:1-4, for example, God speaks against “all the nations” and says that he has “devoted them to destruction”. To be “devoted to destruction” means to be left entirely without survivor (cf. Deut. 2:33-34; 7:1-5). There is no stronger term in Hebrew to describe the complete annihilation of Yahweh’s enemies. And yet after this judgment, Isaiah 45:22-25 says that “all the ends of the earth” will turn to God and swear allegiance to him alone.

Consider also the fate of Sodom, which becomes the standard template for understanding the fate of the wicked throughout the OT (e.g., Deut. 29:23; Isa. 13:19-20; Jer. 49:18; Zeph. 2:9). Summarizing this tradition, Fudge notes that Sodom’s destruction supplies the images of fire and brimstone, rising smoke, and eternal fire which later biblical writers apply to the final judgment (e.g., 2 Peter 2:7-9; Jude 7). Fudge concludes from this that “Sodom will never be rebuilt” (The Fire That Consumes, 71). According to Ezekiel 16:53-55, however, God will restore the fortunes of Sodom, so that even the archetype of everlasting destruction will become a testimony to his great mercy. This is most remarkable, since Ezekiel was not ignorant of the traditional status of Sodom as a byword for everlasting destruction (16:56).   

How do we explain the paradox of these passages? How can there be any hope for Israel if they are completely destroyed? How can the nations turn and be saved if there are no nations left to be saved? How can the fortunes of Sodom, the archetype of everlasting destruction, be restored?  

Prophecy and Parataxis  

As strange as it might seem to us, the Semitic peoples were quite used to making extreme and apparently contradictory declarations without explaining the logical relationship between them. This is called parataxis, and it is a hallmark of Hebrew style which often gets lost in English translations, since English prefers sentences with plenty of conjunctions and prepositions to make the logical connections between ideas clear. Thus, for example, when the Psalmist says of the heavens that “their voice is not heard” and then adds “their line goes out through all the earth”, most English translations place the conjunction “yet” before the second line so that it doesn’t seem like such a bald inconsistency.

G. B. Caird helps explain the crucial role that parataxis plays in Hebrew thought:

“Anyone who habitually employs parataxis in expression will be sure to think paratactically as well. He will set two ideas side by side and allow the one to qualify the other without bothering to spell out in detail the relation between them… Paratactical thinking enabled the ancient Hebrew to set in close proximity two different, and even apparently contradictory, senses of a word, without the discomfort felt by the modern reader” (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 118-19).      

A classic example of this can be seen in 1 Samuel 15, where the prophet Samuel explains that God is not a man that he should repent (v. 29) right between two statements saying that God “repented” for having made Saul king over Israel (vv. 10, 35). To a modern reader this may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction, but the tension between the two statements is resolved by the context: God’s regret over having made Saul king is not due to some unpredictability or capriciousness on his part, but to Saul’s abdication of his responsibility: “for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (v. 26).

This explains how Jeremiah could say that Judah will become an everlasting desolation, a thing to be hissed at forever, an object of God’s eternally burning anger, and that it will be restored after only seventy years. “Prophecy deals more often than not in absolutes. The prophets do not make carefully qualified predictions that the Israelites will be destroyed unless they repent. They make unqualified warnings of doom, accompanied by unqualified calls to repentance” (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 112). Prophetic language is purposefully paradoxical, because the prophets are more concerned with influencing the present than they are with revealing the future. The whole point of the warning is to produce a response, a change; and if all men responded no prophecy of judgment would ever come to pass.

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:7-8).

For Jeremiah, all of God’s judgments aim towards a positive end. God does not judge in order to destroy the sinner, but to destroy sin and draw the sinner to repentance. Like any good father who disciplines his children, God’s ultimate purpose is not retribution, but restoration. Indeed, it is this larger paradigm of restoration, rooted in the character and purposes of God, which gives Jeremiah hope after the tragedy of 587 BC:   

“My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:20-23, 31-33).

God’s Relentless Commitment

Jeremiah was not alone in his view of God. The conviction that God’s anger is eclipsed by his eternal love is fundamental to OT theology (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7; 2 Chr. 5:13; Ps. 30:5; 100:5; 103:9; 106:1; 107:1; 118;1-4, 29; 136:10-26). In Ezekiel 33:11 God swears under oath that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live. Indeed, according to Ezekiel God is opposed to any form of retribution that is executed with malice of soul to destroy in never-ending enmity (Ezek. 25:15). Jonah says that God abounds in steadfast love and relents from doing harm (Jonah 4:2). Micah says that he does not retain his anger forever but that he delights in showing mercy (Mic. 7:18-19). Hosea compares God to a committed husband, jealous for his wayward bride (Hos. 3:1). Writing in the late 19th century, Thomas Allin elegantly summarized this biblical tradition:

“God is not anger, though he can be angry; God is not vengeance, though he does avenge. These are attributes; love is essence. Therefore, God is unchangeably love. Therefore, in judgment he is love, in wrath he is love, in vengeance he is love — ‘love first, and last, and midst, and without end’” (Christ Triumphant, 76).

Most treatments of hell say little about how that subject relates to the larger biblical themes of God’s character and purposes. Perhaps this is because they find it difficult to harmonize the traditional concept of hell as a place of irreversible punishment with the pervasive testimony of Scripture concerning God’s steadfast love and mercy. Whatever the reason, there has been a long history of holding the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of God at arm’s length from one another, an unspoken policy of theological quarantine by which judgment is made to triumph over mercy. In their atomistic focus on the language of judgment throughout the Bible, such treatments miss the prophetic imagination and confidence in Gods love that compelled many of the biblical authors to look beyond the imposing shadow of destruction and see Gods long-range plan of restoration. The result is an impoverished theology based on a truncated reading of the biblical narrative.

But the biblical prophets do not talk about God’s judgment in abstraction. Rather, they reflect deeply on the divine character and purposes behind those judgments, and for them God’s judgments are not a counterpoint to his steadfast love but an expression of it. “The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart” (Jer. 30:24). It is because God is so committed to seeking and saving the lost that he burns against everything that corrupts and destroys the divine image in us. “For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). When God brings destruction upon wayward nations, he does so in order that he might bring them back to life again. “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” (Hos. 6:1). What reason do we have for thinking the judgment of hell will be any different?

Conclusion

While the strength of the case for annihilationism rests largely on the language of everlasting destruction throughout the Old Testament, we can see that such language does not exist in a vacuum. For the Old Testament prophets, the threat of everlasting destruction is always bounded by the “nevertheless” of divine love. More than a lexicon of judgment, the Old Testament’s most significant contribution to a biblical view of hell is its outrageous insistence that, no matter how far gone a group of people might be, and no matter how irreversible their destruction might seem, God’s arm is never too short that it cannot save. The end of the story can still be rewritten.