The most horrific of all Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the eternal judgement, the declaration that vast numbers of humankind will experience eternal punishment at the hands of their Creator. In its most extreme form it imagines a house of horrors in which people experience excruciating torments that never end and for which there is no hope of an end. In its milder forms it imagines those who don’t embrace Christ as simply passing out of existence. While the extreme form turns God into a monster, the milder form leave him a failure, an omnipotent God who cannot bring about the redemption of the bulk of those he wishes to save.
For those who ascribe authority to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture it seems that only one of these two options is viable. Or is it? One of the great challenges in reading the New Testament is how to make sense of the relationship between what I call “one group” and “two group” texts. Both sets of texts imagine what the future will look like. The two group texts see humankind divided into two groups, one which goes off into eternal life and the other into eternal punishment. This two group approach can be found in Jesus’s parables of judgement and talk of the eternal destruction of the wicked in the New Testament letters and the book of Revelation.
The one group texts, on the other hand, speak as though all humankind is to be saved. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul contrasts the act of Adam, which was to bring death to all humanity with the act of Christ which was to bring life to all humanity. In Colossians 1:15-20 Christ is described as reconciling all things to himself. In 1 John 2:2 it is stated that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also for the sins of the whole world. In Romans 10 we’re told that salvation comes via the confession that Jesus is Lord, then in Philippians 2 that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
If all we had were the two group texts it would seem clear that some humans will experience eternal life and some will experience eternal judgement. If all we had were the one group texts it would seem clear that eventually every human being that has ever lived will be reconciled to Christ and experience salvation. Clearly both can’t be true.
The standard evangelical approach is to take the two group texts as iron clad descriptions of the future and to read the one group texts in a way that fits with that. The all who are saved in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are not all human beings but all who place their faith in Jesus; the reconciliation of all things in Christ spoken of in Colossians 1 does not refer to making peace but to the subjugating of all; the confession of Christ as Lord in Philippians 2 is not a willing confession, but forced through gritted teeth; the atoning sacrifice spoken of in 1 John 2 is for the whole world that it’s effective only when it is received by faith.
I find these interpretations unconvincing. They only work by altering the natural meaning of the words. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the suggestion that the all who are saved refers only to those who place faith in Christ completely evacuates the texts of their force. The argument is that Christ has more than counteracted the consequences of Adam’s actions. That only makes sense if the all who benefit from the work of Christ are the same as those subject to death as result of Adam’s actions, which is what the text actually says. Otherwise Christ has failed and has not counteracted the consequences of Adam sin.
Likewise, the suggestion that the “reconciliation” of all things to Christ in Colossians 1 actually means the “subjugation” of all things plays fast and loose with what is a rich theological concept in the writings of Paul. To reconcile in the Pauline corpus is always to bring about a state of peace, which any first theology student will tell you means not the absence of conflict but the presence of harmony, well-being and right relationship. The subjugation model suggests that in this one instance alone and without any signals that he’s doing so, Paul abandons this rich notion of peace shaped by the Old Testament and instead imports into its place the notion of peace as subjugation employed by the Roman Empire, a notion he has rejected his entire ministry.
Is there a better way of making sense of the two group and one group texts? I suspect there is.
Judgement serves three purposes in the Bible. First it rescues people from those who exploit and oppress them, such as the Israelites being rescued from slavery in Egypt. Second, it calls us to account for how we have behaved. And third, it prevents evil from occurring in the future.
These ends can be served either by retributive justice or restorative justice. Retribution achieves the three goals by imposing penalties and, if necessary, removing the offender from the community. As such it is always incomplete, for it leaves people and communities broken. It may be the best we can do, particularly when there is no repentance on the part of the offender or an unwillingness to forgive on the part of the victim, but it falls short of healing both offender and offended. That end is only achieved through restorative justice, a process that sees the offender confronted by his victim, forced to acknowledge the pain and suffering he has caused, and then offered forgiveness and the chance to heal. To those who can think only in retributionary terms this seems a weak justice, but the experiences of communities in South Africa and Rwanda where people were victims of almost unimaginable violence suggest otherwise. It could not always be achieved, but when it was, the open, public acknowledgement of wrongdoing was healing for the victims of violence, the shame felt by the offender was a catalyst in their transformation, and the forgiveness offered by the victim somehow rebalanced the equation so that things were rightly ordered once more.
Could it not be that this is the model for judgement that we are presented with in the death and resurrection of Christ? In the cross of Christ we’re confronted with our evil, forced to acknowledge that we’re no better than those who cried “crucify him”, nor those who engineered his death. We’re forced to recognise the ways we behave towards God, others and creation that is self-serving, destructive, exploitative, oppressive. And at that very moment of realisation we are confronted with the extraordinary graceful and humbling response of Christ, which is not to exact vengeance, but to absorb the pain we have inflicted and instead offer forgiveness and resurrection. Forgiveness opens up the possibility of a fresh start and reconciliation, while resurrection offers the promise of transformation, the capacity to be the people were created to be.
It’s against this background that the judgement texts can be read. They operate with the logic of retribution, the only justice that can be achieved without repentance on the part of the offender and forgiveness on the part of the offended. But the very intention of judgement texts is that they not be fulfilled. They are in fact designed to drive the offender to repentance and so open up the possibility of restorative justice. This principle is played out in the story of Jonah. Sent to Nineveh to declare the judgement of God upon the city, Jonah flees because he knows that God’s intention was not to punish Nineveh but to save it. Yet Jonah’s message was given in absolute terms:”40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” There was no conditionality, no declaration that should the Ninevites repent God will withhold judgement. Just the bald assertion that Ninevah’s time was up. The goal however of driving the Ninevites to repentance was successful and God repented of the destruction he was going to inflict. What began as the declaration of retribution served to achieve an outcome of restoration.
Prophecies of judgement then, even when stated in categorical unconditional terms, are never meant to be read as ironclad predictions. Rather they are declarations of the consequences that should rightly fall based upon the current behaviour of human beings according to the logic of retribution. They declare the only justice that is possible when there is no repentance on the part of the offender, yet as such they are designed to bring people to a place of repentance.
For years I was taught that it was inevitable that the scenarios depicted in the texts of judgement would be played out, for there was a cut-off point after which there was no further opportunity for repentance and the cut-off point was death. Retributory justice would be the final word in the universe.
The problem is that the Bible actually doesn’t say this anywhere. People keep quoting the verse in Hebrews that it is appointed to humans to die once and after that the judgement. But that doesn’t say anything other than we all face judgement sometime after our death. Not only does the Bible nowhere teach a cut-off point for repentance, but those who argue for it face a terrible dilemma. Either they suggest, like Jonathon Edwards in his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”, that a time is reached where God ceases to be forgiving, ceases to be graceful, ceases to be merciful, where he will shut off his heart to those seeking reconciliation, an argument that turns on its head everything Jesus taught us about God, or they follow the path of great thinkers such as CS Lewis who argued that the door to hell is closed from the inside, that is, that after death human beings who are already turned against the Creator become increasingly more opposed, that they remain defiant and will never repent.
But what if the opposite holds true? Assuming there is some kind of afterlife in which we retain consciousness, what if people are actually more inclined towards God? What if they now see more clearly than ever before the reality of God and fall on their knees seeking mercy? And what of those alive at the time Christ returns? What if their bewildered “Lord, Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?” is followed with a recognition that Christ is right and a desire to turn and be the very people were created to be? If there is no cut-off point for repentance can we imagine God doing anything other than embracing them? Could it not be that declaration of retribution brings about the restoration of all?
Of course this is speculative, but no more so than the assertion that the opposite holds true, that people will become more intensified in their opposition to love, grace, generosity, justice. Could it not be that God will keep seeking people for as long as it takes for them to be transformed, that nothing will exhaust the determination of God to win back that which is lost and heal that which is broken? If so, restorative justice not retribution will win the day. And if that is the case there is no contradiction between prophecies of judgement and those texts that speak of all creation being redeemed, for the former speak of what should be on the basis of the current unrepentant behaviour, while the latter speak of what will be on the basis of the rich grace and generosity of God.