“If God’s going to save us anyway….”

I can understand Christians thinking there isn’t much point in preaching the gospel if God’s going to save everybody in the end anyway. Why bother warning people about fiery judgment in hell forever when God has no intention of punishing people in the fires of hell forever? Why bother about the Lake of Fire, the second death and Gehenna being final too, if they’re not really final? And why preach a final Judgment Day in which all people will be divided into good and bad and given their eternal reward or punishment if in reality – since God’s going to save everybody eventually – there is no “final” deadline by which everybody had better make their decision?

Are all these supposed deadlines mentioned in the Bible not really deadlines at all, then? Is God just using them as threats, because in reality he doesn’t mean what he says about destruction of the wicked being “eternal”? Take the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, which “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire,” Jude 7. Both those cities and the surrounding area were burnt to a cinder by sulphurous fire. Nothing was left of them but smoking ruins. So is that the fate of the wicked too? That seems to be what Jude is saying, that the wicked are dead and gone forever, burnt to ashes, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.

But then we discover in Ezekiel 16 that God is going to restore Sodom and Gomorrah. He’s going to build them up again. So he didn’t really mean what he said, then, did he, that eternal fire means “eternal”? It only means eternal UNTIL. So does God just keep stretching out the deadlines further and further into the future UNTIL  everyone finally comes to his senses? But why, if that’s the case, does God talk in terms of eternal destruction and a “final” Lake of Fire, if he doesn’t actually mean eternal and final? And why make hell and Gehenna seem so real and eternally awful if they’re really only temporary steps along the way?

But why is that so difficult for us to understand when WE’RE like that too? Like God, we too can get extremely angry with stupid, stubborn, unreasonable people, and in the heat of the moment want them destroyed forever. But we relent after our emotions settle, and, amazingly, so does God. He tells us several times that his anger does not last forever. And isn’t THAT what we want people to see about God? – that, yes, he gets angry and he severely punishes, but NEVER FOREVER, because he’s into eternal salvation, not eternal destruction.

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Standing our ground and preaching good news only

I can see why there are Christians who resist universalism, the belief that God’s going to save everybody, because it could easily get people thinking they can do what they like and it won’t matter, or they won’t take God seriously if they don’t fear hell.

But hell and threats were never the tools God equipped us with to reach people in the first place. There was only one piece of equipment God gave us to work with, and that’s “setting forth the truth plainly,” 2 Corinthians 4:2. The truth being? Verse 4, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” because in Christ we see the glory of God (verse 6). What people plainly need is the right picture of God as seen in Jesus Christ, because that’s the best way of stirring “every man’s conscience,” verse 2. 

So what is the right picture of God as seen in Jesus Christ? It’s that Christ “died for all,” 2 Corinthians 5:15, and from that point on God is “not counting men’s sins against them,” verse 19. That’s the good news we hit people with, not vivid pictures of hell or threats of eternal torment. Paul makes that clear when he asks the question in Romans 10:14, “How , then, can people call on the one they have not believed in?” – or why would people even bother turning to God at all? – and Paul’s answer in verse 15 is,  “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

In other words, stand our ground and preach nothing but good news because that’s God’s way of getting through to people. It’s no guarantee they’ll get it, just as Israel didn’t, verses 18-19, but it’s still our most powerful weapon in commending ourselves to people’s consciences, 2 Corinthians 4:2. Just tell them the good news of God’s glory as seen in what he’s already accomplished for all humanity in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit takes it from there.

We see how it works in Galatians 3:1. First of all, the beautiful feet of someone bringing good news strode into Galatia, and “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” No talk of hell, but instead what Jesus did for all humanity by his death. Result? When the people believed what Jesus had done by his death, God then gave them “his Spirit,” verse 5, who then proceeded to “work miracles among you.” Preach the good news of God’s glory, as seen in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit takes it from there.

It’s tempting to say God’s not going to save everybody to wake people up and urge them to make a decision, but that’s not the method God chose.

“Oh, so you’re a universalist, are you?”

The first time I was asked that question, I had to look up what a universalist was. A universalist, I discovered, is a person who believes God isn’t going to lose anybody. He’s going to get everybody through in the end, or as some universalists say, “God’s going to save everybody,” or that “God’s already saved everybody, they just don’t know it yet.”

I wondered, therefore, why the question sounded so negative, as though being a universalist was some sort of Christian heresy, because what is so wrong about God saving everybody? Wouldn’t it be great if God got everybody through in the end and no one was left in hell?

But isn’t that exactly what God intends to do anyway? In 2 Peter 3:9, God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” and in 1 Timothy 2:4, “God our Saviour wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” and if that’s what God wants, why on earth wouldn’t we want it too? And why would we think God doesn’t get what he wants when Ephesians 1:11 says, “God works out everything according to his will”?

What’s to stop God fulfilling his will to save everybody and bring everyone to repentance? According to some Christians it’s our power to choose. We can choose not to be saved, and we can refuse to come to repentance. God gave us free will and the right to use it to resist him, reject him, sin willfully and commit an unpardonable sin, even when we know the consequences. God allows us to be that stupid. And if we’re stupid enough to let the devil deceive us into thinking hell is preferable over what God has in store for us, so be it.

But that means our free will overrules God’s sovereign will. Our power to resist God is greater than his power to bring us to repentance. And some Christians would nod their heads vigorously in agreement, as though our free will is something so sacred that even God can’t touch it. But that means God made human beings more powerful than himself. He deliberately created a potential monster that he could be stuck with forever, either in hell or as an endless sorrow in his memory, and why on earth would God do that?

Fortunately, God gave us the story of Israel, a “stiff-necked people” who “always resist the Holy Spirit,” Acts 7:51, but for all that they never “stumbled beyond recovery,” Romans 11:11. Even the most obstinate, rebellious people God can get through to. Clearly, God is is a universalist at heart, so why can’t we be?

Are there some people God can’t save?

For some odd reason there are Christians who seriously object to the idea that God might just save everybody. It’s a bit like Jonah who was seriously put out when God didn’t destroy Nineveh. Jonah wanted Nineveh to go to hell, because in his mind they deserved hell. No wonder he dug in his heels when he heard God was offering salvation to a hated and dangerous enemy. And humanly that’s understandable, just as it’s understandable hearing that God might save Hitler, or your drunken, abusive father, or the predator who kills young girls, or the pedophile priest, or the owner of a clothing company who uses children as slave labour.

But Nineveh is encouraging because it means God can get through to even the most obstinate, arrogant, vicious, power-hungry people on earth, which is what the Assyrian Empire was. Quoting from The Minor Prophets by Farrar, there was “no power more savage. The kings of Assyria exult to record how they flung away the bodies of soldiers like so much clay; how they made pyramids of human heads; how they impaled ‘heaps of men’ on stakes; how they cut off the hands of kings and nailed them on the walls, and left their bodies to rot on the entrance gates of cities, and covered pillars with the flayed skins of rival monarchs.”

The Assyrians are like those brutal corporations today that care nothing about human life or the planet in their pursuit of power and profit. They revel in manipulating governments. They laugh as they supply weapons to both sides in a war. They strut around in their arrogance, as though they’re invincible.

And God wants to save them too? Why? Because he can. If he can get through to Nineveh he can get through to anybody. He got through to Paul, who by his own admission was the “worst sinner of all.” When God goes to work on a person, there is no stopping him in his relentless pursuit. A person can resist him, as did Israel, who even killed their Saviour, but God will save all Israel one day (Romans 11:26-27).

A lot of people resist God, and for understandable reasons – they’ve been turned off God by fear religion, by natural disasters killing innocent people, or by God not stopping serial killers of women and children. But God has mercy on them all (verse 32) because of what he accomplished through Jesus. Jesus became Nineveh, he became the serial killer, he became the power-hungry corporation and conquered them all on the cross, so that every enemy of humanity will be under Jesus’ feet (1 Corinthian 15:25), and EVERY knee will gladly bow before him (Romans 14:11-12).

“Yes, it’s good news, BUT….”

Isn’t there that niggling thought when talking to someone about Christianity, that we’re preaching a mixed message? It sounds like great news in 2 Corinthians 5:19, hearing that “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,” but it also sounds awful in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, hearing that Jesus “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel” with “everlasting destruction.”

It makes things very awkward, because if we say “the Christian message is nothing but GOOD news,” how do we answer all those verses that are nothing but BAD news? We can’t ignore them. The Bible talks openly of Hades and Gehenna, of eternal punishment and fiery judgment, of the Lake of Fire and a second death, and it describes hell in vivid terms that are deeply disturbing. So how on earth do we stick to good news when we’ve got all these other horrific pictures of hell and eternal destruction to contend with as well?

It’s a challenge that Christians have met quite differently. Some don’t hide the bad stuff, and instead rather relish the chance to use threats of hell and eternal destruction to get people’s attention, but in so doing they bury much of the good news under a mound of fear and loathing. Other Christians stand their ground, meanwhile, believing the gospel should be nothing but good news, so they seek ways of explaining how all that bad stuff actually turns out to be good stuff after all.

Imagine the challenge for that second group, though, trying to explain what Jude said about Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 7, as to how those two cities “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Sodom and Gomorrah were burnt to a crisp as “an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly,” 2 Peter 2:6. You can’t get much clearer than that. The ungodly end up as smoking ruins. How do you explain that to someone as “good news”?

But you can, because in Ezekiel 16:53 God says, “I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters,” and in verse 55, “you will return to what you were before.”  God’s going to rebuild those two cities one day, which then begs the question as to what Jude meant by “the punishment of eternal fire.” Clearly it means eternally burnt until God raises them up again. In the meanwhile their destruction serves as a visible deterrent to anyone thinking “sexual immorality and perversion” are acceptable (Jude 7). There’s a GOOD news purpose, therefore, behind “eternal fire”. Would the same good news purpose apply to all those other “bad stuff” verses too, then?

Salvation past and salvation present

I don’t remember the day I was saved because I wasn’t there when it happened. I had to wait two thousand years AFTER I’d been saved to find out what salvation was. It was quite a shock discovering I’d been totally accepted by God before I was even born, and all due to Christ’s death on the cross.

Other Christians, on the other hand, DO remember the day they were saved, because they were there when it happened. They remember even the date, perhaps, when they believed and accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour. “And that’s the day I was saved,” they say.

So now we have two groups of Christians, one group that thinks they were saved before they even knew about salvation, and another group that thinks they were saved only after they knew about salvation. The first group believes they were saved without any acceptance or belief on their part, while the second group believes they were saved because of their acceptance and belief.

So who’s right? Well, depending on one’s definition of “salvation” both groups can be right. If we’re talking salvation as defined by the first half of Romans 5:10 – “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” – then the first group would be right. God totally accepted us – even as his enemies – when his Son died, not because of any conscious acceptance or belief on our part.

But if we’re talking salvation as defined by the second half of Romans 5:10 – “how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be be saved through his life” – then the second group would also be right. Yes, God accepted and forgave us because of Christ’s death, but there’s more to salvation than that. There’s also the salvation that comes with Christ’s life, and that only happens now, when we’re alive and conscious, not when Jesus died. And this salvation does require acceptance and belief, Romans 10:9, because it’s only “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Now we’re talking the salvation that comes with the resurrected Christ’s life, that only opens up to the person who accepts and believes that “Jesus is Lord,” meaning, verse 11, that from that point on we totally trust Jesus as Lord of everything in our lives.

The day we were saved, then, can be two days, the first day being the day Christ died, and the second day when it dawned on us, verse 12, that the living, resurrected Jesus is “Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.”

“A gift is only a gift if it’s received”

The above statement is used to support the claim that people are only saved if they believe in Jesus, or that only believers in Jesus are saved. The Christians who make that claim readily accept that salvation is a free gift BUT, they say, we must RECEIVE the gift to be saved. The gift of salvation only becomes a gift if it’s received.

Here’s how the argument goes: “God stretches out his hand to everyone, offering them his free gift of salvation, but WE have to stretch out our hand and accept it.” Salvation only becomes a gift to us personally, therefore, if we actually take it. At Christmas time, for instance, what would be the point of giving gifts if the people they were meant for didn’t accept them, or didn’t receive them, or didn’t stretch out their hand and take them? A gift only takes on value when the person takes it. It becomes useless if it just sits there on the table being ignored.

But that’s Christmas, where gifts are handed out on the day from one person to another. Hands go out with gifts and hands go out to take them. With salvation, however, the gift was handed out to all human beings long ago, before we were even born. It was given to us purely out of the grace of God’s heart before we even realized such a gift existed. It was planted on us before we even had hands to stretch out and take it with, or minds that could reach out and accept it. Every human was given the gift of salvation at the moment Jesus died.

So here we all are carrying around this gift that was given to us two thousand years ago. It’s like the Dad who slips his son’s Christmas gift into the back pocket of his son’s jeans on Christmas Eve, and next day the boy gets the surprise of his life when he discovers he’s been carrying his Dad’s gift around all morning without realizing it. But that’s the wonderful surprise of the gospel, that God slipped his gift of salvation into every human’s pocket the night Jesus died. So why on earth would God require us to accept his gift when we’ve already got it? Some Christians insist, though, that salvation isn’t a gift until we’ve received it, but how can you receive what you’ve already got? And what would be the point of stretching out your hand to accept a gift if the gift is already in your hand?

So it’s not our receiving his gift that God is waiting for but our belief that we’ve already got it.