The question of salvation and judgement
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his series on eternal destiny with a look at what it means for every knee to bow before Christ.
Continuing the theme of our eternal destiny, I want to start this week with a well known Bible story. One of the most profound models in which one can place oneself is the model of facing up to truths in the self that are much easier to identify in others or in parables and analogies. We see a perfect example of this in the Old Testament account of David and Nathan when David comes to a pretty shocking realisation about himself. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then murdered her husband to cover up his infidelity. David believed he had gotten away with murder, but Nathan conveys a truth to him in a profound way by proceeding to tell him a story. The story was about two men; one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, whereas the poor man only had one lamb, which he raised with his family. The lamb meant a lot to the poor shepherd - he raised it, and it grew up with him and his children, sharing his food, drinking from his cup. The Bible says it was like a daughter to him – the poor man had strong feelings for his lamb, rather like the love we have for our own domestic pets. But when a traveller visited the rich man; instead of taking one of his own sheep, he seized the lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for his guest.
After Nathan relayed this story, David was consumed with anger and said declaring “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!". But Nathan responded by saying "You are the man!". The story Nathan told was told to convey how David had let down God and abused his position – but when David realised that the feelings of dissonance stirred in him over the rich man’s actions were equally applicable to his own behaviour he was tearful and remorseful.
How often does it take our detached judgment of a situation in which we are not involved, or to which we feel impartial, in order for us to display an honest and lucid analysis of a situation that we scarcely confer to the self? This, I suspect, is why the power of the Bible is often dismissed in favour of a blithe and stoical trivialisation, and why Christ’s words lock into something that we do not always want to confront. The gospels demand that the reader recognise that he is an existing subject in these parables, and that contemplation of them communicates to him personally in much the same way that Nathan’s story told some home truths to David.
The Bible says that every knee will bow before Christ, thus if we are to ask ourselves how Christ would judge a person after they had recognised Him as Divine, we only need look at His reaction to those who became aware of His power of grace to be pretty sure that His plan cannot come to pass unless the very last person refusing the free gift of salvation for as long as they can hold comes out of the hellish separation from God and the ultimate expression of death itself is overthrown (1 Corinthians 15:26). Thus the old maxim about hell being locked shut only from the inside seems pretty apt - in refusing the gift those separated are locking themselves in from the inside while they stubbornly refuse to accept the free gift of salvation. If every knee will bow, I cannot seriously imagine the perfect grace of Christ turning away any who have bowed and called Him Lord. To me the genius of Christ necessitates that any exile or separation will be temporary and self-willed, because only then can the power of the collaboration between God and man continue to make creation worthwhile. Our own proclivity for holding out seems to bear the image of a self-imposed set of emotional keys with which we lock ourselves in 'hell' from the inside. In actual fact, even in earthly terms the first instances of a torment of separation or heartbreak or loss ought to give us a big hint of that. It is Christ who will be our ultimate judge, and look how He judged us last time He was here, He loved us enough to show that we are all worth suffering and dying for.
Perhaps in our haste for justice and merit we too often forget that the grace of Christ is outrageous. With such outrageous grace being refused, I don't doubt that our wilful rejection, while it lasts, will be a kind of personal 'hell' for any who resist this outrageous grace. After all, given such outrageous grace, what is anyone to do but say "Thank you Lord, I accept this gift because it is the best thing the world could ever have"? One of the most powerful verses in St Paul’s epistles is found in Romans:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39
The New Testament passages do not stand up properly unless read within the framework of grace theology. St Paul reminds us that nothing in the future, nor any depth, nor any powers will be able to separate us from the love of God – and I take that to be a pretty indicative statement regarding the ultimate salvation for all of mankind. No doubt most of those Biblical passages that have been used as an iron fist can be transposed to mean something more extreme, or in some cases entirely different, but in most cases outside of mathematics and axiomatic logic the written word cannot protect itself against a mind that wishes to alter its meaning, so unless that mind is willing to see the New Testament as it was intended through the lens of grace theology there will be problems. It certainly appears on first inspection that Jesus referred to some kind of hell that wouldn’t be temporal but ‘eternal’, so given that these words are coming directly from our Lord’s mouth – some opt for the more expedient solution that it must be the final nail in the coffin for a God who is supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful. But yet the moment this thought comes across in our emotional purview, we become fully aware that if we are to be judged by God and find out for once what His fullness is really like, we should like it to be Christ who does the judging. And we also find that those who preach hellfire often seem to the most unbalanced and graceless Christians around. If my eternal destiny is be decided upon and I could choose a judge to ensure the fairest trial, I would surely choose the One who thought I was worth creating the universe for, and who loved us enough to go through the suffering, separation and death at Calvary, and would have done so even if you or I had been the only person created. Similarly if I were to proffer a suggestion about the best way to act in the intervening time between now and God’s judgment I should like to suggest that erring on the side of grace seems to produce the nicest Christians.
What does the Bible say about this issue?
Once we examine the Greek context used in the New Testament, we see that ‘eternal punishment’ is in fact exactly consistent with Christ’s love and proper judgment; it is not a judgment in the manner that a harsh and uncaring teacher might send his bad pupils out of the school, the closer analogy would be that of a parent who, because of his greater love and greater wisdom, cannot help but want the transformation to be complete, and cannot be content until that person has salvation and blessedness. The Greek word ‘kolasis’ which reads as our punishment is in fact more accurately related to curtailing our resistance – and given that we are the branches to Christ’s vine, this metaphor makes much more sense in relation to our continual pruning until we are right with God.
When St Paul in Romans describes some as being ‘cut off’ he seems to mean ‘cut off’ with respect to us doing the cutting, not God. The Christ who came for victory hardly seems to be the God who sends us into an eternal damnation, but by the necessity of delegated human volition He may be willing to give us time to cut ourselves off if that is what it takes for us to see grace; after all, some teachers are known to suggest an angry boy goes out for a while to clear his head. Isaiah.26:9 makes it clear that this plan of Christ’s is about a yearning that all will learn righteousness, and the victory of which is that this will come to pass. Thus everlasting punishment would not just be cruel and inconsistent with the God we see in Christ, it would, in the context of the grace theology that St Paul lays out, be a contradiction in terms because everlasting punishment by its very definition works towards no goal other than continual sadism or a vicarious capitulation where the victim seemingly has nothing to hope for.
Moreover, Christ’s time on earth hardly seems indicative of a God who knows that unless everyone understands Him there and then they are without hope, for Christ’s instruction for His disciples to shake off the dust and move on from those who are unwelcoming is not the sort of reaction one would expect from an all-loving God who would so easily leave people to their own destruction. The Greek word "aeonios" which describes the latter state is certainly not describing something ‘everlasting’, it is talking of a situation with a beginning and an end, where the Divine purpose can reach fruition, but only with the consent and eventual acquiescence of oneself. The original Greek "aeonios” is quite a complex word because it is denoting the qualitative essence of God as distinct from creation. Thus given that the word is used interchangeably when describing blessings and curses we find that its qualitative usage is denoting that blessings and curses can only ultimately be given by God. It is a promise that there will be a sharing in personality of God Himself, and that the final outcome will be commensurate and consistent with Divine love and Divine grace. It has nothing really to do with how much time one will spend but rather the quality of the One with whom such time will be spent.
In Isaiah 42 the prophet talks about our being called in righteousness, and the cross of Christ is the fulfillment of that righteousness. In other words, since the cross our salvation has been taken care of, and our debt has been paid. This means that in Christ we have access to the ultimate righteousness that will eventually be ours – and although some will recognise it sooner than others, to deny Christ is to hold out from an inevitable righteousness that will be yours. When God says “I will take hold of your hand and I will keep you and will make you” He means that in Christ you have seen only the beginning of what will eventually be made manifest in your relationship with God. Whoever you are and however much you resist, you are only resisting something that will inevitably bless you more than you can imagine – and that which you are resisting is the very thing that one recognises in Christ – the model for righteousness on which one can base one’s outlook and know that even if the supernatural elements are beyond the sphere of your reason, the model that is likely to get you there is not, so as the Bible says man is without excuse. Here we see those same parallels with David and Nathan – for St Paul’s grace theology in the book of Romans shows our position:
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Romans 2:1
What this means is that when Christ ‘opens eyes that are blind’ and ‘frees captives from prison’ and ‘releases from the dungeon those who sit in darkness’ we are only seeing the beginning of a much wider grace that cannot be stopped by our faults and our refusal to acknowledge Christ’s righteousness. Thus in this context Romans 2:1 is about the very same thing that David found out when he heard Nathan’s story of the rich man and the poor shepherd and related the immorality to himself (2 Samuel 12) – our passing judgement is condemning ourselves, not because we are unjustified in recognising wrongs, but because Divine grace is so powerful that we cannot help but be implicated in the wrongdoing – we are as culpable as the worst human beings we can think of, not because their crimes are not greater than most of ours, but because Divine grace is so awesome that compared with Christ’s righteousness our position in relation to everyone else is comparatively slight, because we are all unfit to enter court, and because God’s grace is so awesome that we’ve been saved through a redemptive judgment not a hard punitive judgment.
* A further reason to believe that our judgment will not be everlasting because if the adjectival form "aeonios” were referring to an everlasting period of time it would be inconsistent and irreconcilable in the context of the other places in which it is used, or alluded to, in the New Testament (such as Matthew 13:39, Romans 16:25, Galatians 1:4, 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2, and Hebrews.6:5).
Christ is our God who wants to be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians.15:28), and thus the eternal suffering that is used in relation to our separation is about the qualitative nature of our relationship with Christ – a quality of ‘meeting’ and ‘being’ that envelops the true fullness of the self. We know that if Christ wept over Lazarus even with full knowledge that he would soon be raised from the dead, He weeps too for every one of us that holds back, and He will continue to weep until every last one of us has given up the resistance and returned home to the Heavenly Father, just as the prodigal son did. The Bible says that God is the same throughout – He does not change, therefore when we bow our knee before Him we can expect the same judgment that Christ afforded us the last time He came to judge the world. And as I said, the last time He came to judge by living among us, His judgment was that we are blameless by virtue of our inability to stand trial before Him on our own merits.
The very sin into which we were born was the very sin that Christ became for us in order that we wouldn’t have to stand trial, but simply accept the free gift of salvation on offer. The grace theology that St Paul offers us in his epistles is the duality of realisation that we will never be good enough by ourselves, but that we never had to be good enough because the blood of Christ was good enough to pay the price for us. Given that none of us knows anyone who is righteous enough to qualify by themselves, we find we are in the same position as per Romans 1:2, where to judge someone else involves a self-judgment that (with clarity and sincerity present) inevitably leads us only one of two ways, into despair or into the arms of Christ. When Jesus claims to have perfected the law, He means that the most important commandments are not related to the law, they are related to grace; for He tells us the only way a man can be saved is not through our own goodness or righteousness or purity, but through His grace, and this is laid out in his twofold plan to love the Lord God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus conveys a form of obsolescence of the law when He says that by keeping the two principal commandments you have kept them all. (Matthew 22:36-40).
The very point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the priest and the Levite were unwilling to assent to the words in Hosea 6:6 which show that God prefers mercy over law – and that the man who did assent to the mercy-calling was a man outside of the orbit of Jewish law; in fact, he was seen as unclean and unworthy. So given that it is only possible to know God through Jesus, this does not mean that the Old Testament verses are unhelpful in our feelings about God, it means that each verse must be viewed through the same lens of grace theology that St Paul was using in his epistles. When we see judgements and instructions and injunctions that assail our sensibilities we are only really viewing them as young child views a seemingly harsh warning to not climb out of the window onto the shed roof or to not go near a busy road – at the moment of impact, perhaps even in the context of childhood, those warnings seemed harsh and unfair and prohibitive, but once the boy matures, perhaps up to the point when he too is a father giving the same warning to his own children, he knows full well that those warnings all that time ago were for his own good. In fact when warning your own children of the dangers you may well look back with a simile at your own vain attempts to subvert your parents’ influence on your freedom, and realise with your love for your own children that their extreme measures were given because they love you more than anything else in the world.
With this in mind it becomes much clearer that our differing views about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are rather like the difference between our looking back on our own childhood chastisements and looking in the present at why the love for our own children will lead us to all measures necessary to protect the ones we love. Those who claim that the writers’ supposed improvements in how they perceived God changes as mankind’s morality changed do not know what they say, for all the best precepts that Christ lays out are in fact distillations from the Father’s words in the Pentateuch – including of course the carrying out of His own death which was already present in Genesis 3:15. Thus it is not God who has matured over time, but us, rather like the boy in Mark Twain’s humorous maxim:
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."
That is why Martin Luther’s advice to look for Christ in each particular part of scripture is the best route to maturity because one is seeing God through the lens of grace theology, rather like if as a boy being told off you were suddenly transported to adulthood your own fatherly role would show you clearly how much you were really loved as a child because that same love would be apparent in you towards your own children. Yes some in the Old Testament had a harsh and premature death – but one must remember that after a long and often brutal evolutionary history, this was the infancy of a species that would begin to grow to know God. And given that God’s ultimate plan in Christ had little to do with one’s physical death, what we see in the Old is not the end but the route to a beginning, of which all will be a part, and in which all are included.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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