Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
The Bible reveals that God’s holiness is so seriously awesome that it eradicates all evil, which brings forth the wholehearted praise of each and every being/creature that ever exists—the only type of praise befitting God. This glorious telos is progressively revealed throughout the Bible—culminating in Christ’s ministry, atonement, Temple/Church, and return. The Bible Project does a brilliant and succinct job explaining this in their 6 minute summary:
God wasn’t content to leave the cosmos in an unholy mess and revealed in Isaiah that He spreads His holiness by removing iniquity and atoning for sin:
He touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Jesus’ atonement—removing iniquity and sin—fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy. Holiness in the form of life and healing flowed out of Jesus during his earthly ministry, beginning to fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy. He continues bringing life, healing, and hope through his people—the Church, the ultimate Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Tim 3:15, John 7:38).
Finally, Revelation 22—drawing heavily on Ezekiel 47:12—reveals that Jesus (“the Lamb”) completes the fulfilment by imparting life (v2), healing (v3), and flourishing (v2) to all sinners. I say all sinners because up until this last scene, the “nations” in Revelation were those opposed to God, who ended up in the Lake of Fire but God’s holiness will overflow and transform even that “dead sea” as Ezekiel 47:8 foretold. In this way, God eliminates Adam’s curse and everyone comes to delight in following and worshipping him (v3).
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him.
The last pages of the Bible end with a final vision about God’s holiness… And in his vision we see the whole world made completely new. The entire earth has become God’s temple. And Ezekiel’s river is there flowing out of God’s presence, immersing all of creation, removing all impurity and bringing everything back to life.
My first post contains most of the biblical reasons for believing everyone is a child of God, and to show that this can’t be dismissed as liberalism, I also cited some conservative theologians who seem to hold this view. My second post unpacks some of the significant implications of this view. In this post and the following, I’ll look at common objections.
What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
Indeed, I think this could be stated even stronger—everyone has turned away from God at times:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…
Isaiah 53:6a, NIV
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
Romans 3:23, NLT
Thankfully our Father is patient and not fickle. We see this throughout the Bible.
When Israel Disobeyed
Even when the Israelites disobeyed, they continued to be God’s children. For example:
Is this how you repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Isn’t He your Father and Creator? Didn’t He make you and sustain you?
Deuteronomy 32:6, HCSB
And again, despite Israel’s disobedience, and the severe consequences thereof, Isaiah says:
But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.
Isaiah 63:16, NIV
Yet no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins. And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand.
Isaiah 64:7-8, NLT
Any parent is faced with a difficult decision when a son/daughter disowns them and runs away: do they give them space or do they pursue them? The problem is even greater if the son/daughter gets involved in something nasty, say drug dealing or terrorism. A parent can’t support or fund these things, nor can they simply pretend they aren’t happening as it risks the well being of both the son/daughter, their siblings, and others. The child is still their beloved child but it puts great pressure on the relationship and complicates interactions. We see this conundrum for our Father in Jeremiah:
How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me.
Jeremiah 3:19, NIV
They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
Jeremiah 31:9, NIV
We see God’s parental care again in Hosea:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them…. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities.
Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8-9, NIV
Boersma astutely notes that in Hosea we also see that even God’s holiness doesn’t stop Him from being a father among His sinful children.
Here in Hosea, the tender mercy of God is the true display of his holiness… God is holy because God is merciful in ways completely separate from our notions of divinity.
This seems a good segue to the NT, where Jesus embraced His sick and sinful siblings. Not only that, but we find parables directly engaging our topic!
Jesus’ “Lost & Found” Parables
In the first two parables (Luke 15:4-7 & 15:8-10), the person (representing God) actively seeks and finds that which is lost (the sheep and the coin), whereas in the third parable (Luke 15:11-32), that which is lost, realises they are lost, and finds their way home. Further linking all three parables is that there is forgiveness and great celebration when the lost repents.
I think Jesus is showing that when we walk away from God, God will give us the space for our delusions to be shattered—which is inevitable as all idols are unsatisfactory. Additionally, He helps us come to our senses and seeks us until we are found. Either way, the lost doesn’t cease to have significance because it is lost—the sheep stays a sheep, the coin stays a coin, and the son stays a son. Indeed according to these parables the lost becomes the focus.
For the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:10, NIV
God's justice is reforming all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!