Monday, July 25, 2011

The Glory of Judgment

Matthew 13:47-50

Pastor and writer Rob Bell stoked a heretical fire recently when his book, "Love Wins", was released. I've not read the book, but I understand the premise of the book challenges our historically orthodox understanding of hell and eternal condemnation, at least as we have come to understand it, but I do not think this is exactly what the book proposes. In fact, what he seems to be defending is "universalism", a belief that everyone - without exception - will be saved eventually. Mr. Bell's premise is not new, however, because "universalism" has been around since about the 3rd century and has been deemed heretical by the Church since the 5th century.

A Christian heart filled with genuine, divine love (1 John 4:7) should ideally not have a problem with such a concept because if we truly love even our enemies, as Jesus insists we must, we should embrace such a notion of "universal salvation" with a certain gratitude and sense of spiritual relief that the will of our Lord - that all should be saved - eventually does come to fruition. Yet the idea that those have rejected the Lord and His church, have done evil, have done particular harm can hope to achieve the kind of salvation you and I hope for just goes against the grain. Yet we must always be mindful of Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:2: "for with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" Harsh, right?

To be honest I am not sure how to receive this. I've heard of "universalism" before, but I've not given it much thought because the afterlife is just not something we can be sure enough about to spend a lot of time studying. It is an interesting idea, however, and does speak of the benevolence and enduring love of the Almighty who would go to what we would consider extreme lengths to redeem His beloved even after the Crucifixion, especially those who do not believe - and even for those who seem to us - by our human standards - to be beyond redemption.

Certain biblical texts seem not so ambiguous and paint a portrait of eternal torment, whether physical or spiritual, primarily because this is what we have historically been taught to believe. Matthew's gospel alone seems pretty clear that on the Day of Judgment, the angels will separate the good from the bad (the wheat and the weeds, and the fishes in the net), and the bad will be thrown into the "fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (read, "torment"). This text, however, does not say "eternally". In fact in Matthew 5 Jesus warns that we must make peace before we are taken before the judge and handed over to the jailer in whose custody we will remain "until the last penny is paid" (5:26), a statement which seems to suggest a day of release, a finite period of time.

The prophet Malachi speaks of a "refiner's fire" by which purification for Israel will become necessary not for Israel's sake but for the sake of the Lord's Covenant with David, for He promises through the prophet that the "children of Jacob shall not be consumed", presumably by that same fire. Now if it is true that the Lord "does not change", as stated in Malachi 3:6, then we might reasonably assume this "refiner's fire" could be the same "fiery furnace" spoken of by Jesus in Matthew; that is, if we are still talking about the same God who "does not change".

It could easily be argued, and in fact it has, that Malachi and the other prophets are speaking to Israel in Exile and not to future Christians and that by the judgment that is the Exile, Israel will be purified and made worthy to stand before the Lord and "bring offerings before the Lord" (3:2-6). It is not to the Lord's credit that New Testament theology might suggest that this sense of restoration is exclusive only to the Old Testament and/or only to Israel, for such a contention would suggest that Jesus' entire life, including His Crucifixion, will all have been in vain.

Another point to consider is what is written in 1 Peter 3:18-20: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey when God's patience waited in the days of Noah while the ark was bring prepared, to which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water."

This passage suggests these "eight persons" were spared the judgment, the "fiery furnace" that the "spirits in prison" were - or are - currently subjected to. Paying "the last penny" and to stay until it is "paid in full". We only assume these imprisoned spirits had outright rejected the Word of the Lord even though clearly they were involved in evil acts, but it is unfair to judge them based on a standard they were unaware of.

There is nevertheless a price to pay for our sins because it is fundamentally unjust that sin would go unanswered, but it is quite a stretch to suggest that the atonement of the Christ can only account for sins yet to be committed. Instead the "Righteous died for the unrighteous" - only those who are currently alive and can still repent "in the name of Christ"? Something much bigger is happening, and something much bigger did happen at Calvary that day so long ago. If Jesus died to take away the sins of the "entire world", this would necessarily include ALL SINS of the past. It is not consistent with the character and nature of the Lord that Jesus would have preached "nana-nana boo-boo" to the "spirits in prison", those whose end came well before the time of Christ - and even before the time of the Law. These could not have been judged by the Law, and they cannot have been held responsible for rejecting a Christ they never knew. Things that make us go, "hmmmmmmm".

If all this is even partially true, why then do we worry about leading a pious life, attending worship, offering gifts, fasting, or praying? Why not just live like we choose to live and let the chips fall where they may? An easy answer to this would be to ask what keeps us from robbing banks or convenience stores. We could all use a little extra cash, so what stops us? That it is just "not right" has a root in the "natural law" that simply says we are not entitled to what is not ours to claim. We also know, however, that the odds are we will be caught and sent to prison. No one wants to go to prison.

The one thing Scripture is very clear about is that this time of "refining", this time of "penitence", this time of - dare I say? - "purgatory" in which our sins are "purged" from our souls is not a pleasant time. It is, by all accounts, a time of "torment", of "weeping and gnashing of teeth", a "fire that will burn but will not consume" - unspeakable torment of the soul. The inference in "universalism" is that we could conceivably spend "indefinable" time in such a state which will still be a complete and total separation from the Lord. Because we entered into our "sleep" in a state of ungodliness, we must be "purified" before we may expect to enter into the presence of the Holy One.

How long? The Lord alone knows. And the Lord alone judges. The Lord alone makes right all things that were previously wrong. By the atonement of the Christ, all things are "made new". Who of us is to say this does not include _EVERYONE??

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