Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler
Emeritus Professor of Theology, Concordia University, Portland
The whole topic of eschatology, or the last things, has seen a renaissance within theology at least since the mid twentieth century, and continues to arise in recent theological reflections. The related issue of the extent of salvation and the possibility of universal salvation has also surfaced in our time, although various forms of Christian universalism have existed within Christianity since the early church. Inasmuch as the end times and the Final Judgment are beyond the scope of our human history and of necessity bring us into the realm of God’s ultimate working in fulfilment of his plan and purpose for creation, all our theological reasonings and projections are inherently very limited and provisional. St Paul’s adage certainly applies that we “see through a glass darkly.”
The question of how we shall be judged at the Final Judgment, and how inclusive salvation will be, has occupied Christian theology from the writings of the earliest church fathers such as Origen, to David Bentley Hart’s recent book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale University Press, 2019). Because this theological issue of the extent of salvation has significant missiological as well as pastoral implications, it is appropriately being raised up once again for serious reexamination, despite the traditional Christian consensus that eternal torment in hell will be a reality for the vast majority of humanity. The missiological and pastoral implications provide the motivation for our efforts to penetrate this realm of the divine plan and purpose at the limits of our theological comprehension.
Various terms are used in the Bible for describing “salvation” as the gift of eternal life with God in his heavenly kingdom. For example, salvation as “reconciliation” reflects the sphere of human relationships; “redemption” derives from the realm of economics; and “atonement” or “satisfaction” relate to situations of indebtedness or making amends on behalf of another. Lutherans at the time of the Reformation preferred the term “justification,” which comes from the judicial sphere, and which is frequently used by St. Paul. Many Christian bodies have accepted justification as the preferred term in discussing salvation. In fact, the ecumenical dialogues of recent decades produced a statement entitled the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” This document was first adopted by Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but since then has been subscribed to by various other Protestant bodies.
Lutheran teaching regarding justification further distinguishes between “objective justification” and “subjective justification.” The former refers to the fact that in Christ God objectively accomplished salvation for all humanity; the latter refers to those individual subjects who have faith in that saving work of Christ. It is particularly appropriate in a Lutheran context to discuss the Final Judgment relative to the concepts of objective and subjective justification. (See e.g., Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics [St. Louis: Concordia, 1950], 2.347-351 [“Objective and Subjective Reconciliation”].)
The unique message of the Christian faith is that salvation — our eternally good relationship with God — is purely a gift of God, not conditioned by our works. The general perception in medieval Western Christianity that there were indeed certain requirements or conditions for receiving the gift of salvation led to the Protestant Reformation. Luther and the Protestant Reformers sought to reaffirm, based on Scripture alone and apart from the authority of the Roman Catholic clerical hierarchy, that salvation is by grace alone, received by faith alone, through the saving work of Christ alone. Luther did affirm that good works are necessary – grace does make one gracious – but not necessary for salvation.
Yet even if at its best the Christian faith is clear in its affirmation of this unique Gospel, there are theological emphases among Christians that tend to compromise the essential Gospel thrust of the faith. One such emphasis developed by John Calvin was the notion of “double predestination” under the sovereign rule of God, which Calvin stressed in direct opposition to the sovereign claims of pope and emperor. Christianity according to Calvin claims that God alone is the absolute sovereign Lord of life. He agreed with Luther on the authority of Scripture over that of popes and traditions, because Scripture witnessed to this absolute sovereignty of God. This led Calvin logically to an understanding of limited atonement; Christ is only the Savior of those who were predestined by the sovereign God for salvation, not those predestined for eternal damnation. In this view God the Father is generally pictured as the sovereign Judge; since he is the holy and just sovereign authority, it is not for us to question his decision to predestine some for salvation and some for perdition. Any seemingly universal-sounding passages of Scripture must be interpreted to mean that he died for all those who were predestined for salvation, and only those. Most of Christianity, even within the Reformed tradition, has not embraced this teaching of double predestination, but the mentality that God as the just and sovereign Judge has the right to condemn most of humanity to eternal damnation certainly persists within much of Christianity.
Martin Luther did not follow the logic of Calvin in imposing the limiting condition of double predestination upon the Gospel; he emphasized the positive side of the equation, namely God’s predestination of the elect for salvation as a doctrine of comfort and hope for Christians. Lutherans affirm the concept of “objective justification;” Christ did in fact die and rise for the salvation of all people. His saving work was not contingent upon one’s being predestined for salvation. This concept of objective justification is based upon numerous biblical passages that expressly extend the redeeming work of Christ to all people. Paul for example writes in Rom 5:18, “Therefore just as one person’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one person’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Paul also writes in Rom 11:32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” And again in 1 Cor 15:22 Paul writes, “…for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
The very image of a Final Judgment or eschatological Day of Reckoning would appear necessarily to include the Judge weighing evidence as part of issuing a Final Judgment. The locus classicus for such an image is Mt. 25:31-46, Jesus’ parable of his return in glory, sitting on his throne in heaven, separating out the people of all the nations like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep, the people on his right, will inherit the kingdom of heaven, seemingly based upon their good works. The goats on his left will be banished to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” based on their failure to do such good works.
This apocalyptic warning by Jesus for people to back up their faith with works of love is reiterated in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:21), where he warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” St Paul in Romans 2 reflects such an apocalyptic view when he warns his readers that at the Final Judgment all people will be judged by their works, with God’s wrath and anger apparent to those who do evil.
This expectation of some quid pro quo for salvation is reflected in the Lutheran doctrine of “subjective justification,” the corollary to “objective justification” noted above. While Christ objectively died for all, only those who subjectively, personally profess faith in Christ will actually receive the gift and live with God eternally in his kingdom. While the parable of Judgment Day does not include the necessity of an explicit confession of faith in Christ, there are other passages indicating that salvation does indeed depend upon the one being judged having professed their faith in Christ, along with having performed those good works that give evidence of a living faith. The Lutheran teaching of subjective justification is generally understood to assert that an individual’s salvation is contingent upon their profession of faith.
Both Reformed and Lutheran branches of Protestant Christianity, therefore, in their own ways effectively appear to make salvation in some way conditional – thereby compromising the nature of the Good News of salvation as an unconditional gift of God. In truth, it is a broadly accepted understanding among Christians beyond Lutherans and Reformed that one must have heard and accepted the Gospel in order to be saved. Since most of humanity has not been blessed to hear and accept the Gospel, they are condemned to spend eternity in conscious torment. This view of salvation as very limited in scope would seem to be supported by Jesus’ comment in the Sermon on the Mount, “…for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Mark 16:16 states the boundaries of that narrow gate succinctly: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” We will argue below that such passages are used by Jesus, Paul, and the whole New Testament rhetorically and hyperbolically to confront and warn those who are rejecting the Gospel and not living out their faith, urging them to repentance and a living faith, rather than projecting an actual future state of affairs.
As for who will actually be the Judge on Judgment Day, the preponderance of biblical evidence — from Jesus’ own Judgment Day parable to the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation — is that God the Son, the saving persona of the triune God, will be the actual Judge on that “Day of the Lord.” Now might this view of Christ as the Judge rather than the sovereign, just Father performing the Final Judgment possibly change the picture of Judgment Day and the extent of salvation? After all, if the One judging each person is the same One who died for them, would that not prioritize the gracious love of God over his sovereign justice at Judgment Day?
Not according to Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod theologian Daniel Gard. In the anthology Show Them No Mercy (ed. Stanley Gundry [Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2003], Gard does portray Christ rather than the just and righteous heavenly Father as the end-time Judge (see pp. 55-56). However, Gard’s picture of Jesus as the Judge is every bit as sovereign and severe in his righteous justice as the Father Judge could ever be imagined. Gard states that “human reason must bow to the divine and recognize that his ways are truly not ours and his thoughts are truly above our own.” (Is. 55:8-9) In his role as Final Judge, Jesus takes on a very different demeanor than his gracious and saving nature in the incarnation. Gard does acknowledge that in his first coming, “Jesus’ earthly ministry did not involve any implementation of destruction on anyone who threatened him. Even on the cross he prayed for those who crucified him. In his face, one sees the face of God turned toward this fallen world with hope and life and forgiveness. Still, other pages of the New Testament present the same Jesus as One who returns not in poverty and humility but in glory and power. He does not return as One who brings the way of salvation. Rather, he returns as the righteous Judge who speaks the final word of judgment on the living and the dead – and a fierce judgment it is for those who face it apart from him…. And this comes from the same Jesus who then and now speaks words of peace and invitation during this time of salvation. On the Judgment Day, however, that invitation ends, and destruction unlike anything the universe has ever seen will occur.” Gard appears to envision a schizophrenic or two-faced Jesus: on the one hand, there is the incarnate Jesus who came as the humble suffering servant, revealing God’s gracious and saving heart. This Jesus will presumably welcome the redeemed into his heavenly kingdom on Judgment Day. On the other hand, there is the stern judge Jesus, who will speak harsh words of rejection to those who are condemned.
But what if Jesus the Final Judge is not schizophrenic and does not wear two different masks in his work of Judgment? What if he is the same redeeming persona of God who died on the cross at Golgotha, and who will stand in Judgment on every sinner who ever lived? What if the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world according to the Book of Revelation is also the victorious Christ of that same Book, who will destroy all the forces of evil when he returns in glory at the Final Judgment, precisely in service of his Good News for all people? We contend that the force of the New Testament evidence strongly favors a non-two-faced Jesus, contra Daniel Gard. Scripture favors a Jesus who will face every person that he judges with total transparency to his true nature, full of grace and truth. He may well even judge them with the nail marks clearly evident in his hands and feet, as he appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, so that there is no doubt that he, their Judge, is also their Savior who died for their sins.
In fact, St Peter’s comments in 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, taken together, may well be interpreted as explaining that the post-resurrection Jesus went to the place of the dead, Sheol or Hades, to proclaim to all those souls who had died before his Incarnation the Good News of the gift of salvation for them. That was prior to his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, who represent all those who will be held to account at the Final Judgment since his Incarnation. Peter, in 1 Peter 4:6, affirms that all will be held to account for what they did in the flesh; according to human standards they would be deserving of condemnation, but according to divine standards they will be alive in the spirit through the power of that Gospel which covers all their sins and frees them for eternal life with Christ.
A FINAL ACCOUNTING
If the Christ who died as the Savior of all will be the gracious and loving Judge of all, what is the purpose and function of a final reckoning or accounting on Judgment Day? There are of course numerous biblical references to such an accounting at the Final Judgment. Peter, in
1 Peter 4:5, for example, says, “But they [the pagans] will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.” Hebrews states that we are all destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Heb 9:27), and the weight of the biblical narrative appears to include such an accounting. Indeed, according to St Paul (Rom 2:1-11), a sober life review and accounting will include an honest recognition of God’s perfect wrath toward all sin and evil, as well as a proper recognition of one’s good deeds.”
It may well be important in the spiritual journey of every person to experience such a final accounting, not as a basis for the Judge’s determination of our eternal destiny – if we can trust the Gospel that Christ already decided our destiny on the cross — but as part of a final cleansing or refining of our souls as we make the transition from this present evil age to the heavenly kingdom. Such a “purgation” at the Final Judgment may be understood to include removing all our sin and evil associated with the old, physical creation, and preparing us for eternal life in our new spiritual bodies in the new creation. This aspect of the Final Judgment would account for those passages of Scripture, such as those noted above, that speak of a final reckoning, a confrontation with God’s perfect hatred of all sin and evil, and the truth of those apocalyptic images that refer to a refining fire of judgment. Such a final life review and accounting might provide a point of contact with the Roman Catholic teaching of “purgatory.”
While such a final accounting may well be a necessary part of our transition from this life to the next, the parable of the Prodigal Son strongly suggests that in God’s priorities such an accounting is much less significant than the heavenly Father’s unconditional acceptance of sinners and is overshadowed by his welcoming home of all his wayward children. Surely the waiting father heard reports of the son’s disgusting descent into the depths of evil. Once the son came to his senses, he realized how badly he had offended his father, who loved him enough to give him his inheritance before its time, and who then saw how tragically he had wasted it. The son had a deep sense of his guilt and unworthiness of being received back by the father. It was that very human expectation of the father’s justified wrath that led him to prepare his confession and plead only for a servant’s place in the father’s home.
But according to Jesus’ parable, the son totally misjudged his father’s heart and underestimated the extent of his grace. The father’s welcome preempted what the son had thought was a necessary confession and plea for mercy, by rushing to embrace him and by ordering an extravagant celebration of his son’s homecoming. Now if this most extensive and theologically rich parable of the kingdom is to be believed, then our gracious heavenly Father’s own priority will be on his forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than on any need we might think that God would have for such an accounting. We may well need the life review and purgation of our souls to fulfil our spiritual journey, but the Father simply wants all his alienated sinners to come home to him. That is why he sent his Son – to show how ready he is to welcome us all home, regardless of our earthly track record.
FAITH AND THE GOSPEL CONTEXT
If the Father accepts all sinners unconditionally, then how are we to understand those passages that assert the necessity of faith in Jesus as a condition of salvation? Paul for example does make such statements as, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom 10:9-10). Context is always critical for biblical interpretation; it is especially critical for dealing with this issue. The biblical calls to repent and accept the Gospel, as well as the threats of condemnation for those who refuse the Gospel, always take place where people are being confronted with the Gospel and therefore are in a position to repent and respond positively to its message. They are not spoken in situations where there is no connection with the Gospel. Likewise, the biblical warnings to Christians not to fall away from the faith and to demonstrate their faith through their works obviously are spoken to those who have already received the Gospel and are within the household of faith.
The hard reality is that the vast majority of the world’s population never had or will have the opportunity to hear and accept the Gospel. In fact, St Paul at Athens (Acts 17) asserts that God excuses the ignorance of those who have never heard the Gospel, so that they can stand justified by Jesus himself when they appear before him on Judgment Day. We’ve already noted that according to St Peter the risen Christ went to all those who had died before his time on earth, in order expressly to proclaim the Good News of his saving work for all humanity, including them. Christians cannot agree with religions (such as Unitarian Universalism) which hold that all people will be saved on the basis of their own religious traditions. Christians believe that no one can come to God the Father except through the Son; there is salvation in no other than Christ. At the same time, this particularity of the Incarnation is Good News for the universality of humanity. Christians are privileged to know that it is only because God is the kind of God revealed to us through Christ that anyone can have hope for salvation. But because we know this to be true, we know that Christ’s saving work accomplished salvation for everyone, and we are called to share that Good News as widely as we can. We know from Scripture that what we are proclaiming is a truth that applies to that vast majority of humanity who never heard or will hear the Gospel. The Judge they will meet on Judgment Day will be their Savior, even though they never were blessed to know and accept him during their lifetime.
APOCALYPTIC WARNINGS AND REPENTANCE
Another question which arises in conjunction with salvation and the Final Judgment is how we are to understand those passages in Scripture that threaten God’s wrath and eternal destruction in the coming Final Judgment. We can take a cue from the role of these passages in Jesus’ own ministry. He severely castigated the Jewish religious leaders rather than the sinner types that these leaders so roundly condemned. Why was Jesus so hard on the religious leaders, and why did he threaten them with God’s wrath? In order to lead them to repentance! Jesus wants all people to repent, turn their lives toward God, and live for that coming kingdom as God’s gift to all. The masses of sinners who heard Jesus were more than ready to receive this gift, and therefore did not need to hear any warnings or threats. They needed only compassionate guidance, as in Jesus advising the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) The self-righteous, self-justifying Pharisees, on the other hand, had to be confronted forcefully with the dangers inherent in their rejection of God’s gift of salvation, because he wanted them also to repent. St Paul likewise uses the apocalyptic imagery of the wrath of God in urging people to repentance (Rom 2:4-5). Apocalyptic images of horrific torment, reminiscent of the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where the garbage piles burned incessantly and worms worked continually, were intended to arouse the recalcitrant religious leaders to pay serious attention to the Gospel, so that they might repent and live lives transformed by Christ.
The apocalyptic genre popular at Jesus’ time did serve to highlight the very real spiritual battle between God and Satan, good and evil, as dramatically portrayed in the Book of Revelation. It apparently served its purpose for Jesus and the early Christians. However, apocalyptic imagery necessarily breaks down at a certain point, in the face of the inner logic of the biblical tradition. Christianity, like Judaism, is fundamentally monotheistic, unlike the apocalyptic religions of biblical times, such as Zoroastrianism. These religions featured a dualistic vision of the good and evil gods battling between themselves for ultimate control. Christianity does not have room for the devil or Satan functioning anything like an equal and opposite force alongside God, ruling over a realm of evil that is co-eternal with God’s heavenly kingdom. God alone is the eternal and loving power of the universe; as expressed in Colossians 1:19, “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Revelation 20 and 21 portray dramatically how Satan and all evil ultimately will be destroyed in the lake of fire, which is the second, spiritual death. The old order or old creation will pass away; the new creation or new Jerusalem will no longer include a sea as the dwelling place for the forces of evil. There is no place for evil in God’s eternity.
Therefore, if there are those who hypothetically might be excluded from salvation, they cannot in any case experience eternal conscious torment at the hands of an eternal devil – despite the preponderance within Christianity of this traditionalist view of hell. Such a view on closer examination simply does not cohere with the foundational Gospel affirmations. Such condemned souls would be more properly understood as experiencing the “second death,” that is, eternal spiritual death or destruction, after the “first death,” the physical death.
How then are we to understand Christ and the early Christians using the threats of apocalyptic judgments, divine wrath, and seemingly eternal torment? These are best viewed in biblical context as dynamic, hyperbolic tools used to challenge those who were resisting the Gospel, or to prod Christians who were failing to live out their faith in their works.
Despite the claims of traditionalists, these apocalyptic images simply do not fit as literal predictions of what some people will actually experience for eternity. The biblical faith cannot reasonably allow for, and in reality does not make the case for, an eternal life of torment in hell, parallel to an eternal life of bliss in heaven — even though such images were vividly developed in the history of Christian art and literature. In biblical context, the opposite of eternal life with God is eternal death or destruction, not an eternal life of conscious torment under an eternal Satan.
A BASIS FOR EXCLUSION FROM SALVATION?
The majority of Christian theology maintains the traditionalist position that most of humanity is excluded from salvation. They argue that while God reveals his loving and gracious heart through Christ, God remains a just and holy God who must defend his justice and honor by condemning to eternal damnation all those who do not profess faith in Christ as their Savior, and therefore fail to receive salvation as a gift. All humanity has sinned and alienated themselves from God, and therefore all are justly deserving of temporal and eternal punishment, which is exclusion from God’s heavenly kingdom and everlasting torment with Satan in hell. God is not unfair in executing his sovereign justice toward rebellious humanity. Traditionalists view modern arguments for universal salvation as projecting onto God a sappy, romantic form of love, rather than maintaining what they consider a proper biblical balance of justice and grace in God. Salvation is too easy; the universalist God is simply too gracious.
But if Christ who wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth is also the end-time Judge who died to cover the sins of all those who are appearing before him at the Final Judgment, then one may rightly ask: on what specific basis might he exclude most of humanity from salvation and condemn them to everlasting torment in hell? Let us consider a number of hypothetical rationales for exclusion from salvation:
(1). On the basis of our works. The basic Gospel message is that salvation is purely a gift from God. Paul in Rom 3:20, for example, says that no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, that is, by their works. All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), and therefore according to their works deserve only punishment. Therefore, exclusion from salvation cannot be on the basis of our works.
(2) On the basis of our faith. Likely the vast majority of Christians believes that our salvation is dependent upon our faith in Christ and his Gospel. However, what actually saves us is the object of our faith, the grace of God in Christ, and not our faith itself. If our salvation were to depend on our having the gift of faith, this would make our faith a condition of salvation, which in turn would negate the purely unconditional nature of salvation. Faith in the Gospel depends upon hearing the Gospel; therefore, if faith is a gift of God, it can only be a gift to those who have the good fortune to live in a time and place where they are exposed to the Gospel. As we have explained already, this would exclude most of humanity. St Paul says that prior to faith, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). We who are Christians are blessed to know the Gospel, but we are not thereby any more worthy of the gift of salvation than all those for whom Christ died but who never got to know that Good News in their lifetime.
(3) On the basis our choice. Traditionalists argue that because God has given us freedom of choice, Jesus as Judge must allow those who expressly choose to reject the Gospel to get their wish and thus be excluded from God’s kingdom. God will honor their choice, tragic as it might be. Jesus’ failure to consign them to the consequences of their choices would deny our human freedom to make truly meaningful choices. However, St Paul argues in Rom 9-11 that although it would certainly be God’s sovereign prerogative to save some and condemn others, such as Paul’s fellow Jews who were rejecting the Gospel, God in reality has allowed them to harden their hearts so that the Gospel would go out to the Gentiles. Those Jews rejecting the Gospel were in a “stupor,” stumbling around in the darkness of ignorance; but Paul believed that they will still ultimately be saved because God will honor his covenant with the Jews. More broadly, one can fairly ask if anyone really knows what they are choosing when they reject their Savior and his gift of salvation. Could the all-knowing and all-loving Savior exclude souls who for whatever reasons during their brief time on earth rejected him, when we know that every single person is supremely valuable to him? (Consider the parable of the lost sheep Mt 18:12-14.) This appears inconsistent with the compassionate nature of God as revealed in Christ, and with St Paul’s example of the fate of the Jews who were rejecting Christ.
(4) On the basis of ignorance. It might be claimed that those who are ignorant of Christ and the Gospel will be excluded from salvation because of their ignorance, their lack of saving knowledge. However, Jesus himself approached ignorance from the opposite point of view. He made it clear that he would not reject people on the basis of their ignorance. He forgave those who were crucifying him because they were ignorant, not really knowing what they were doing in crucifying their Savior. Likewise, Peter at the temple following Pentecost excused the Jewish leaders for their ignorance in crucifying Jesus. Furthermore, St Paul speaking at the Areopagus in Athens basically excused all the Gentiles for their idol worship because they were worshiping them out of ignorance. If people such as these can be forgiven and their sins overlooked due to ignorance, who according to this biblical standard would not be considered ignorant in not knowing or even rejecting the Gospel? Therefore, ignorance of Christ and his work of salvation would not appear to be a basis for exclusion from salvation.
(5) On the basis of the Christian mission. Traditionalists argue that if there were no actual eternal torment in hell awaiting unbelievers, if all were saved regardless of whether they have faith in Christ or not, then there would be no reason for evangelizing. However, the Gospel is meant to be Good News that transforms people’s lives here and now. It is meant to give them faith, hope and love in this present life, not just some cognitive assurance regarding the life to come. Christian mission at its best has always been driven by faith in God’s grace rather than by fear of eternal torment in hell. There is therefore every reason for Christians to continue their very best efforts to share with all people the Gospel that can be life-changing for them in the present, because it assures them of eternal life with God in the future.
We conclude that none of the reasons given by traditionalists for the Judge to exclude some from salvation hold up under close scrutiny on the basis of Scripture and plain reason.
The Father we know through Christ could never be portrayed as “too gracious” or too loving; indeed, the force of Jesus’ teaching is that the Father’s grace totally overrules his justice. That is, he fulfils his own justice through the work of his Son, who reveals the full breadth of his grace toward us. The parables of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15;11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), are examples of how according to the teaching of Jesus, God is not “fair” or “just” by our human standards as he incarnates his gracious love, grace that breaks the boundaries of our human expectations. The parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18: 23,24) also portrays the divine wrath toward those who fail to internalize the grace which God is so ready to show them and all sinners. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
THE LOGIC OF UNIVERSAL SALVATION
Let us explore further the logic of universal salvation and the concepts of objective and subjective justification. Scripture from the beginning asserts that God created humans for a unique relationship with himself and a unique role in all of creation. He created us in his own image, capable of relating to him in love and working with him to creatively care for his garden. We are uniquely responsible to God and accountable for our actions. However, we cannot have the capacity to choose to follow God’s loving will and make good choices unless we have the ability to choose against his loving will and make bad choices. This was clearly part of God’s plan and purpose. Please take note: we humans did not choose to have this image of God with its fateful ability to choose good and evil; it was given to us by God.
In his infinite wisdom God knew that we humans would inevitably make bad choices, and therefore in love provided a way to salvation despite our sinful rebellion. In the face of potential eternal consequences of our bad choices, God chose to cover our sins through his Son. It was not our choice to be predestined by God for salvation through Christ, just as it was not our choice to have choice in the first place. Paul writes in Romans 9:18 concerning the sovereignty of God, that it is within the sovereign prerogative of God to have mercy on whom he wants to have mercy. In and of itself, this could sound like God might be capricious in his choice of mercy for some but not others. But after Paul works through a hypothetical choice of God to exclude some, namely the Jews who were rejecting Christ, for the sake of getting the Gospel out to the Gentiles (Rom 9:22 ff.), he explains that God actually did not create some for destruction but will ultimately include those rejecting Jews within his plan of salvation. They have stumbled but not fallen beyond recovery; “And so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:11, 26). He then concludes with the global observation, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). God’s ways are indeed not our ways – and thank God for that! The outcome of Paul’s argument in Rom 9-11 is that while God hypothetically has the sovereign authority to save some and condemn others if he wished to do so, he has in fact rather chosen to save all people through Christ –even those who in this life are confronted with the Gospel and reject it.
In this life we are capable of good and bad choices, and God does not spare us the consequences of our choices. As the story of Job explains, this life is a time of trials and testing. Those of us exposed to the Gospel have the blessed gift of accepting the gift of salvation and living in God’s grace here and now. But if our present temporal choices, specifically choosing to accept the Gospel, could determine our eternal destiny, then our salvation could depend on something as capricious as whether we were born at the right time and place in history to hear the Gospel, or whether a missionary had a flat tire and never reached our village.
God’s sovereign choice is to save all humanity by his grace alone. This is the universal scope of objective justification. God also gives the gift of faith in this life to those who are blessed to hear and accept the Gospel. This gift of faith is best understood as the more limited scope of subjective justification within the universal reach of objective justification for all. Those who are exposed to the Gospel are given the gift of accepting it and living in this present life with the peace and joy of knowing that Christ’s saving work gives them the gift of eternal life. This “second gift” enumerated by Paul in Eph 2:8-9 is necessarily only a gift for those exposed to the Gospel. As previously noted, the vast majority of humanity does not have this blessing of exposure to the Gospel and therefore the possibility of receiving this second gift of faith.
Fortunately, we would assert, the “first gift” enumerated by Paul, namely the gift of salvation by grace alone, is not dependent on our having the “second gift,” the gift of faith; the Gospel insists unequivocally that salvation is unconditional, not contingent upon something in us, namely our faith – even if that faith is a gift. Our proposal is that objective justification declares God’s gift of salvation for all humanity, while subjective justification affirms that some humans are blessed in their lifetime with the gift of knowing that they are saved by that prior gift of salvation for all. In contrast to the typical Lutheran interpretation, we propose that subjective justification need not be understood as limiting objective justification. Rather, subjective justification is best viewed as identifying the full number of those who in this present life have the second gift, that is, the gift of faith in the first gift, the gift of salvation by grace alone, identified as objective justification.
TIMING OF THE FINAL JUDGMENT
One challenging aspect of eschatology and the Final Judgment is the relationship of historical time in creation to the eternity of God and his transcendent kingdom. Modern scientists like Einstein have demonstrated what we all know practically in our lives, namely that time is relative rather than mechanistically constant. For instance, when we awaken from sleep we are unaware of whether we have slept for 20 minutes or 2 hours. Nonetheless, there is an inescapable and unrepeatable passage of time within the created order, over against the reality of God which encompasses time but is beyond time. We propose the following way to envision the relationship of time and eternity and the locus of Judgment Day.
Time and history within creation may be pictured as a horizontal line moving from left to right, with the end of time at the right end of the line. We all live within that historical time frame; when we die, St Paul describes us as being “asleep” in the Lord, awaiting the return of Christ in Judgment at the end of time. While the living are aware of the dead as “sleeping,” the dead are unaware of time; the next thing they “know” is being raised at the resurrection with Christ.
Eternity in this schematic is pictured as a parabola enfolding the timeline, with the closed end of the parabola to the right, coinciding with the end of the timeline of history. The realm of time and space is therefore enfolded within the parabola, while eternity is outside the parabola. History is moving toward its end and the closed end of the parabola. The parabola represents the line of demarcation between time and eternity and the point of transition from physical death to the resurrection and Final Judgment. From the perspective of God and eternity, when one dies, they move 90 degrees away from the timeline of history outward to the parabola. When they meet the parabola they move from time into eternity, beyond time. This could best explain Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise.” From our position within history, we may speak with St Paul of the dead as asleep in the Lord while history goes on; but we in faith are confident that from the divine vantage point the next thing the dead “know” is that they are with the Lord immediately upon death, within his kingly rule and realm of eternity. This is our best explanation for the seeming biblical paradox of the dead being both asleep in the Lord and alive with Christ in his kingdom immediately upon death.
This approach to interpreting the interrelated issues of the Final Judgment, objective and subjective justification, and the scope of salvation, on the basis of “Scripture and plain reason,” (to use Luther’s apt expression), gives us good reason to hope that on the Last Day Jesus the Judge will welcome all sinners into his kingdom. This approach encourages Christian mission work and evangelistic outreach to focus on the Gospel itself, without the “carrot and stick” method of trying to “scare the hell” out of people in order to bring them to Christ. This perspective on salvation allows pastors to encourage their people to share their faith in a positive, hopeful fashion consistent with the Gospel, with the freedom of trusting the eternal destiny of non-Christians around them to their gracious Lord. Certainly the Law still applies as well as the Gospel; people have to face their need for grace in order to receive the Gospel and live in its light. Christians may need to confront self-justifying, self-righteous persons honestly and firmly – using tough love – to help them see the life-changing possibilities of the Gospel for them…and let the Spirit work. But we need to remember that Jesus’ ministry was far more about bringing hope and life to hurting sinners than it was confronting the Pharisees.
We must also acknowledge that the final determination of the destiny of each person is not ours to presume to know but is rather in the hands of that One who died and rose for all those he will judge in mercy and grace. We join St Paul in his concluding doxology in Romans 11: “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, how unsearchable his judgments!”