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.
I’m blogging through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. Denny Burk wrote the theological and biblical case for the first view, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). This post will look at the next passage he examines, Matthew 24:31-46.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Matthew 24:31-32, NIV
Burk helpfully notes how this fulfills one of Daniel’s visions:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlastingaiónios dominion that will not pass away 1, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14, NIV
Burk points out that everyone receives justice:
This Son of Man rules over the nations as the world’s true king, and he will render justice to every individual who has ever lived.
Denny Burk, page 28
But Daniel’s vision goes further, stating that everyoneworshiped God (v14). Burk might respond that the reprobates’ worship is because of their subjugation. However, I think that’s very unlikely for two reasons:
First, in the vision’s interpretation we are told:
The kingdom, dominion, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be given to the people, the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey Him.
Daniel 7:27, NIV
The only way for these rulers and kingdom folk to serve and obey God is to receive a new heart from God―to repent and willingly join His kingdom.
Second, God isn’t interested in mere forced lip service 2, He rightly requires and deserves wholehearted worship, which can only come from a renewed, Spirit-filled person.
Burk moves on to Jesus dividing “the sheep from the goats”:
The Son of Man separates them from one another because he intends to treat them differently based on what they are.
Denny Burk, page 29
Last year I gave reasons why I think Jesus wasn’t comparing adult sheep with adult goats but rather mature and immature animals within the Good Shepherd’s flock. If this is correct, this changes “what they are” and therefore the interpretation of how “he intends to treat them”. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for the immature but it seems to imply His aim is maturity―particularly Christlike empathy in this parable.
Yes, Burk is right that aiónios fire is mentioned but I think this evocative language highlights the severity not the unlovingness of the process. For example:
“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger. Then I will purify the speech of all people, so that everyone can worship the Lord together.”
Zephaniah 3:8 (NIV), 3:9 (NLT)
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
Malachi 3:2-3, ESV
their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of Jesus’ Judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
1 Corinthians 3:13, NIV
Burk discusses how some people translate kolasisaiónios (Matt 25:45)as “correction in-the-next-age” rather than “eternal punishment” as he does. He goes as far as saying:
kolasis never means “correction” or “pruning” anywhere in the New Testament or related literature.
Denny Burk, page 30
I’m puzzled by his certainty because I’ve found evidence to the contrary. For example, according to Perseus 3kolasis appears in a few hundred ancient Greek texts, and they’ve summed it up as:
Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:
The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]
Another word that comes from kolazó, is kólon, which means:
a limb of the body (as if lopped)
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
However, given correction can be severe (like chopping off a gangrenous leg) it’s understandable that it also became associated with punishment.
kolasis: maiming, cutting off.
J. Schneider, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume III
All this reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for a time (which has been unpleasant for them), before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles have come in.
Burk comments that:
The term is used one other time in the New Testament, in 1 John 4:18 where it clearly means punishment.
Denny Burk, page 30
I think “clearly” is a bit strong as some translations don’t translate it that way (e.g. Douay-Rheims Bible, Weymouth New Testament, 1599 Geneva Bible, and Wycliffe Bible translate it as pain, and Aramaic Bible in Plain English translates it as suspicion). Also if the word is translated “correction” it seems to link better with teleioó in the last sentence:
God’s love doesn’t contain fear, rather His perfect love removes fear―the fear of correctionkolasis. That we still fear means we haven’t yet been fully correctedteleioó (indeed filled) by His love 4.
In any case, universalism doesn’t hinge on the definition of kolasis as there are plenty of examples of God even restoring people who appear to have experienced retributive punishment 5.
Lastly, Burk says that the fate of demonic creatures is ECT, and that therefore ECT is the fate of the people sent into the fire “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). However, Universalists, such as Gregory of Nyssa, the father of orthodoxy, maintained that even “the originator of evil himself will be healed” 6 ―that he will be reconciled because he is part of all things that God has created (see Col 1:15-20).