Origen (185?-254? CE) was a strong advocate of universal salvation, and thus it is known to some as Origenism. It is helpful to keep in mind that it was a concept born out of his difficulty in believing that God would torture his creatures in a burning hell for all eternity without something remedial coming from it. Thus he held that all hellish torment was remedial and would end as soon as it had accomplished its purpose. According to Origen:
All souls, all intelligent beings that have gone astray, shall, therefore, be restored sooner or later to God's friendship. The evolution will be long, incalculably long in some cases, but a time will come when God shall be all in all.
So, for Origen anyway, universal salvation was a concept that resulted from having certain false beliefs. Thus it was a concept born of a need to make it easier to accept beliefs that were very difficult to accept.
It is true that for almost nineteen centuries there have been Christians who have taught universal salvation. And since certain Oriental religions hold that all souls will eventually attain to the state of "nirvana," it might be said that universal salvation is believed by hundreds of millions today and that it goes back centuries before the time of Christ. Obviously, the question is whether or not this concept is a plain teaching based on clear statements of Scripture.
The apostle Peter applied the following to the Son of God:
"And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people." (Acts 3:23)
This is but one of the Biblical statements that points to how ultimately anyone who does not respond in faith and obedience to Christ will be "destroyed."
Had the Father, Jehovah, not provided his Son as a ransom sacrifice, then all of Adam's descendants upon dying would have remained forever dead. This, to me, is largely what is meant by,
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Here 'perishing' is placed in contrast with "eternal life." Had God not sent his Son this perishing would have been eternal for sinful humans. And as the Psalmist wrote centuries before God gave his Son:
Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit. (Ps. 49:7-9)
Again, 'continuing to live on for ever,' and "the price of his life" is the issue versus "the Pit" [sheol, hades, the grave]. And this is understandable when we consider what God indicated Adam was not to have due to his sin, stating before putting him out of the garden:
"...and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" -- therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden,... (Genesis 3:22,23)
What appears to be partly at issue is, as you put it, "If annihilation is the destiny of the unsaved, then Christ must necessarily have been annihilated in our place, in which case He could not now even exist." However, recall these words of Peter regarding Christ Jesus, how he was "put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." (1 Pet. 3:18b)
The Son of God ceased existing as a human. He is a spirit, and will exist no more as a human. He truly gave "his life [soul] as a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:28)
Many espouse the explanation of the ransom that links it with the law of talion of the Mosaic Law; that it was truly a 'soul for soul' a 'like for like' that Jesus gave. Thus a sacrifice of perfect sinless human life to buy back what Adam lost. And understandably,
"For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins." (Heb. 10:4)
Understanding matters this way, it is easy to see how Jesus will no longer live as a human, and thus he remains eternally dead with respects life as a human, he having been "made alive in the spirit."
However, even if a person did not grasp or accept the above explanation of the ransom sacrifice, still, it surely is an arrangement that God has decreed as valid -- that He accepts the value of Christ's shed blood, and that it achieves certain things for mankind. Looked at this way -- that it works simply because God so decreed it -- really invalidates reasoning that Christ could not now exist if annihilation is the destiny of the unsaved.
Regarding 1 Cor. 15:20-23, which reads:
"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ."
At this point of his writing it is likely that Paul is not asking questions concerning the destiny of those who do not believe. In any event, verse 22b should be understood in the light of verse 21b, which indicates that there is no resurrection of the dead apart from Christ. In this context the point being made is that the work of Christ overcomes the evils of the sin of Adam in one specific matter -- the matter under discussion -- on the point of the resurrection. Paul's argument thus requires him to show that only death due to Adam has been counteracted by what Christ has done. In understanding this passage, we do well to confine ourselves to this specific point.
Who will be resurrected? All whose death is attributable to Adamic sin (vs. 21) but who have not also personally committed the willful sins discussed in Hebrews 10:26-29:
"For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?"
Again, had God not provided the ransom sacrifice of his Son, the offspring of Adam would have remained eternally in "the Pit" -- the grave -- (sheol, hades). So, couched negatively: the Son died and was resurrected so that individuals need not die eternally for what Adam did, but have the opportunity to die eternally for what they do -- or live eternally for what they do. [Looked at this way, the meaning of eternal or everlasting becomes clear. For if it is conceded that if man upon dying would simply have remained dead into the endless future without the ransom, it becomes plain as to what prospect was obtained for him by means of it.] Again, with Paul's specific point in mind: All men are subjected to death by the sin of Adam, and this evil is counteracted fully for all men by the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection through him. The interpretation of this passage should be limited to this point.
As Jesus Christ was raised from Hades (Acts 2:31), so all others who are in Hades will be "made alive" by means of the resurrection. (Rev. 1:18; 20:13) The opportunity for eternal life has been secured and will be open to these, but Jesus' words indicate that not everyone will take hold of it:
"Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28,29)
Clearly, "life" is contrasted with "judgment." At that time what the individual chooses to do will determine whether the judgment is condemnatory or one of approval. This is indicated in the original language word rendered "judgment" in our tongue, which conveys the idea of a crisis or a turning point -- where one gets better or worse.
First Corinthians 15:26 speaks of "death" as the "last enemy" to be "destroyed." It is evident that with Hades or the Pit emptied, the effects of death due to Adam are done away with. Adamic death is what is being talked about in context. This is apparently what is later symbolized in Revelation where we read:
"And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:13-15)
Ultimately, as Paul states, "that God may be everything to every one." (1 Cor. 15:28) Or, as the Amplified Bible renders it:
"So that God may be all in all -- that is, be everything to everyone, supreme, the indwelling and controlling factor of life."
And so He will be, to all those then living.
First Timothy 2:5,6 says,
"For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time."
Again, the full counteraction of Adamic death is indicated by the word "all." If you use the words to build an argument for the idea that every single human will be saved, it not only conflicts with other texts, but poses a dilemma due to the following words of Jesus:
". . . even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [soul] as a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:28)
Such a strict construction on the meaning of Paul's use of "all" -- namely, that every single human ransomed will be saved -- leads to a dilemma, in that placing such a strict construction on Jesus' statement as recorded by Matthew is equally justified. Hence, the word "many" could be taken to mean that only some were to be ransomed. Jesus, as an authority [as recorded by the inspired Matthew] would thus be pitted against the inspired Paul, as an authority. However, there is no such dilemma, and therefore there is no such pitting.
When it is seen that the ransom sacrifice fully counteracts Adamic death for all, and yet ultimately not all individuals choose to benefit, then it is understood how it proves to be "a ransom for many."
And so the word "all" can be so understood in such texts as John 12:32, Romans 5:18, 1 Timothy 2:3,4, and Titus 2:11. Additionally, the Greek expressions rendered "all" and "everyone" in these verses are inflected forms of the word pas. As shown in Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pas can also mean "every kind or variety." So, in the above verses, instead of "all," the expression "every kind of" could be used; or "all sorts of," as some translators have done. [And, this is recognized by others in their renderings at Matt. 5:11 -- "all kinds of," RS, TEV; "every kind of," NEB; "all manner of," KJ.]
Many contend that Romans 5:18,19 declares that just as judgment and condemnation was brought to all by the disobedience of one, (Adam) so by the obedience of one (Christ) shall all be made righteous and justified; and that man has no control over his condemnation nor has he any control over his being made righteous. Is this a sound position?
With the above remarks about the Greek word pas in mind, one can readily see that Paul's words can just as easily take on a different meaning than the one some would give them; a meaning that actually harmonizes with other clear expressions of Scripture.
Thus, verse 18 has been translated, 'to men of all sorts.' However, even if the rendering is left simply 'all,' it is necessary to keep in mind that the apostle does not affirm that as many will be affected by the one as by the other. Rather, his point is that Christ's act of justification meets all the consequences resulting from Adam's disobedience. Christ's act of justification is fitted to save all. Paul's words do not prove that all will in fact be saved, but that the arrangement is fitted to meet all the evils resulting from the fall.
In concert with this it is good to keep in mind that Paul speaks of the life made possible through Christ as a "gift."
"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23)
And, whereas humans sin and thus earn death by reason of this fact,
"Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." (Rom. 5:12)
So Adam's descendants are hapless victims as far as the state they are born into. (Ps. 51:5) On the other hand life through Christ is a gift given to those having faith.
Essentially, the rendering --the idea being conveyed-- must be true to the thought being conveyed in context, and also be in harmony with the rest of the Scriptures. The ideas conveyed in such verses as Acts 10:34,35; Rev. 7:9,10; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 21:8; and Matt. 7:13,14, need to be reckoned with.
So, to briefly recap some of the foregoing: The Scriptures teach that the world of mankind was universally lost through Adam. To fully counteract this God sent forth his Son to provide what can be called universal redemption -- "so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one." (Heb. 2:9) However it is clear that the provision must be accepted on God's terms, -- "that whoever believes in him should not perish" (John 3:16).
Fortunately, we are not the judges. And though the Scriptures contain certain indications as to results and outcomes, it does not seem clearly detailed as to just how this works out to be a universal opportunity for Adam's offspring. Jesus said there were matters that "the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction" (Acts 1:7), and Paul wrote how we have but "partial knowledge" now. --1 Cor. 13:9-12.
However, that which is indicated should not be ignored. As Peter said, "And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people." (Acts 3:23) It would seem to be a strange working of the mind that would allow for certain plain statements regarding the spurning of God's favor can be made to signify opportunity for future blessings.
For example, at Hebrews 6:4-9 it plainly states:
"For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned. Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation."
Concern is obviously expressed to the original readers of Hebrews that they "go on to maturity" (Heb. 6:1), yet as we just noted their 'case' was a hopeful one, in contrast to any who would spurn God's provision once having been enlightened. The phrase "impossible to restore again to repentance" is plain and ominous. Yet these words would lose their seriousness and would be a gross exaggeration if they are made to convey still another opportunity for those so described.
There were some rather stiff sanctions for those living under the Mosaic Law and its typical means of approach to God through animal sacrifices. The worst punishment that could be meted out was death -- cutting off from the people. Still, it was a typical arrangement, and we have reason to believe that even those so dying will be resurrected to an opportunity. The letter of Hebrews was apparently written to Hebrew Christians living in Jerusalem, who were being attracted away from the realities in Christ back to the typical temple arrangements that they had grown up with. With this backdrop in mind, the following words give clear warning:
"For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb. 10:26-31)
Again, under the typical arrangement with its animal sacrifices, the worst that could be meted out was a death sentence -- yet not ruling out the prospect of a future resurrection for one so sentenced; for arguably, such a one was spurning the typical arrangements. However, the writer of Hebrews makes it plain that spurning the sacrifice of the Son of God brings "much worse punishment", as "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" the reality having come. Again, this addresses those who "sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth" and thus the situation described is in keeping with the principle Jesus enunciated:
But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." (Luke 12:48)
If the warning in Hebrews just considered, is to be construed in such a way so as to convey yet another opportunity and blessing for one who has spurned the Son of God, then how is it a warning at all? How then is the punishment any worse than that which was meted out under the law of Moses?
Similarly, the apostle Peter warned that there would be,
" ...false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of the truth will be reviled. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep." (2 Peter 2:1-3)
Peter goes on to speak of these ones as "Forsaking the right way they have gone astray" --vs. 15. Then he states matters very plainly regarding these forsakers:
"For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire." (2 Pet. 2:20-22)
To state that "the last state" of such ones "has become worse for them than the first" is strong language and plain. Again, he refers to those who "have escaped...through the knowledge of our...Savior" and yet become "again entangled" and "overpowered" by "the defilements of the world", and as he put it "forsaking the right way." It would be good to give Scriptural consideration to why the "last state" of such forsakers would be "worse for them than the first."
The apostle Paul wrote,
"And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world,...But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ..." (Eph. 2:1,2,4,5)
The apostle John wrote,
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life...He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him." (John 3:16,36)
John quotes the Son of God as saying,
"For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will....Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5:21,24)
Clearly, when Peter was writing his words to believers it was understood that they had passed from death to life. Such, by their faith in the Son of God and his sacrifice, had the effects of what Adam had done counteracted in their case. Thus, to spurn or forsake what had been done for them would indeed lead to their 'last state being worse than the first.' These had been saved or escaped their first state. To return would be worse, for as we noted in Hebrews, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" for such. (Heb. 10:26) Understandably, as Peter put it, "it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back." (2 Pet. 2:21)
However, if Peter's words are to be construed to suggest future opportunity and blessing for such forsakers, why would their last state be worse than the first if both states can ultmately be escaped and life gained? If later opportunity still awaits such deliberate spurners, why write that it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness to begin with? Believing that the apostle's words can be taken to mean ultimate blessings anyway, makes the warning they contain absurd and strange.
The apostle John wrote,
"We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death....And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life...." (1 John 3:14; 5:11-13)
In this same context at 1 John 5:15-17, the apostle John says that there is a sin that incurs death, and that he gives no direction to pray for such. How can these words be made to denote a future blessing and opportunity for those so sinning? To do so would take away from the manifest meaning of the apostle's words -- or neutralize their seriousness and import. For it is evident in the words quoted above that he is addressing those who "have passed out of death into life", those who "have eternal life."
There is the death that is brought on due to Adam's disobedience. This has been counteracted by Christ's act of righteousness. Thus, we need not remain eternally dead for what Adam did, but as stated earlier, we can have eternal life by responding in faith to what the Son of God has done. Spurning the Son's act of righteousness, however, leads to remaining eternally dead for what we do -- the sin that incurs death. Obviously God and Christ are the final judges, but if someone appears to be making a career of sin after once having been reconciled to God, the apostle gives no direction to pray for such.
The first death mentioned in Scripture is Adamic. The second death mentioned in Scripture is symbolized in Revelation by "the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:14) Though it is a universal redemption, the fact that not every individual responds is indicated by these words,
...and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:15)
Again the above verse would lose its meaning and import if ultimately all names were to be written in the book of life.
At this point some comments about the words everlasting and eternal would be appropriate. To restrict the word aion and the adjective aionios to the meaning 'age' and 'agelasting', (as some do in support of their arguments), would not convey the full or complete sense of these words. At John 17:3 Jesus prayed to his Father: "And this is eternal [aionios] life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." If one restricts the meaning of aionios, then it could successfully be argued that the sinner Adam passed 'aionios life' on to his offspring; as all of Adam's children have life for a 'space of time,' 'an undetermined length of time.' -- But, to be so restrictive would be to take away from what God and Christ offer as referred to at John 17:3. (See also, Rom. 6:23) Such restriction of meaning is not necessary, as the complete meaning of aion (and aionios) and the given context show. The aionian [everlasting] life that is offered and actually becomes the possession of the believer, is an abiding life of approval -- a life in God's favor. The emphasis is not so much on the unending aspect but rather on the quality of this life -- "the real life" (1 Tim. 6:19). Recall, Jesus said he came so that others might "have life and might have it in abundance." (John 10:10) Again, though the quality of life in God's favor is a chief emphasis, the context of different passages indicates that the aionian life offered is everlasting or unending in duration; which also harmonizes with how anyone tied in with God would be eternal as He is eternal.
Believers are told:
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his....For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." (Rom. 6:5,9)
Hence, the "eternal life" that believers ultimately possess constitutes never dying again.
As mentioned above, false teachings such as the immortal soul and torment in hellfire have made appealing to some the idea of ultimate universal reconciliation. Yet, it is evident that words, parables and symbols have been given meanings they did not originally have. Sadly, what Christ did teach versus what he did not teach has often been lost sight of.
I find it interesting that when the Son of God was asked on one occasion, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" he simply replied,
"Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." (Luke 13:23,24)
Rather than pander to curiosity, connected apparently with a favorite theological debate of the time, Jesus simply said the above. Had he answered yes, he would likely have reinforced the views and attitudes of certain self-righteous ones, and discouraged many lowly of heart. Had he said no, an element may have been emboldened to presume on what God offers, with little regard to the conditions.
And yet, as we know few genuinely responded to the Son of God, and he even indicated in his famous Sermon on the Mount that few would find the way to life, even as his words quoted from Luke above so say. --Matt. 7:13,14.
It is readily apparent that the Scriptures teach concerning an elect or chosen ones. Though all the details concerning such are not delineated for us, certain ideas are conveyed. The Gospel accounts contain portraits of individuals responding in faith to Christ, or not responding in a lack of faith. Jesus dealt with the various sects of Judaism during his ministry -- being opposed by the rulers who made their weight of authority felt on the people. The teachings of Christ penetrated very few hearts [i.e. a comparative "little flock"], although crowds of thousands came to him and were moved by him. These components that existed during Christ's ministry in the flesh appear to make up somewhat of a representative microcosm of what has followed in the centuries since with regard people's response to the good news about the Christ. For centuries religious systems, movements and sects have prevailed -- religious leaders and councils have made their weight of authority felt. The teachings of Christ have penetrated comparatively few hearts although masses of people ["crowds"] have had some type of exposure to and have been moved by the Christ of the Scriptures. And, just as a minority genuinely responded (in varying degrees) to Christ's ministry in the flesh, so through the centuries arguably the minority have genuinely responded (in varying degrees) to Christ's ministry in the spirit. (1 Pet. 3:18b; Matt. 28:20b; 2 Cor. 5:18-20.) Many religious systems and movements have come to be. Some have endured -- others have disappeared; yet true Christianity has transcended the sectarian spirit. True Christianity has been practiced by those who have genuinely responded in faith to Christ's teachings; and all such to my mind have constituted the elect. And through it all, it has proved to be as the inspired apostle Paul wrote, "The Lord knows those who are his." (2 Tim. 2:19) This remains true today as far as I can figure. The Christian Scriptures appear to focus attention on the calling, hope and judgment of the elect, or "children of God." --John 1:12.
Although some glimpses are provided, not a great amount of details are given concerning the masses of mankind that have for the most part lived and died in comparative ignorance. Surely, the vast majority of humans who have ever lived are the ones referred to as the "unjust" or "unrighteous" in line for a resurrection as commented on by Paul. (Acts 24:15) And certainly Paul had these in mind when he wrote to believers in Corinth, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?" (1 Cor. 5:2) And it would follow that such are meant by the apostle John when he wrote of how Christ "is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2) But again, matters have not been spelled out in great detail for us.
Romans 15:4 states:
"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope."
When we go back to the 1500 plus years that Jehovah dealt exclusively with Israel, it is helpful to remember that, according to the apostle's recounting, "he [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways." (Acts 14:16) And, though there were prophecies indicating that these nations would be blessed and come in, still the whole matter remained quite vague, as no point was actually made as to how the nations would be dealt with--this not being spelled out. However, later as we have come to know, details were revealed relative to the actual outworking of some of these indications about the non- Jewish peoples. -- See: Acts chapter 10; 11:1-18; 13:44-49; 15:6-21.
It appears that during this Christian era, when the dealings of God and Christ have been with "a new creation", "the Israel of God"; (Gal. 6:15,16) --the "elect" or "chosen ones" discussed above-- that things have been directed to those who respond. However, regarding the others, things are hinted at but not spelled out. The overall picture seems to be: this is what God is doing; this is the opportunity; how are you responding? Other than that, the Scriptures are virtually silent. Is it not possible that the unresponsive, comparatively ignorant 'unrighteous world' has been essentially allowed to walk in their own ways? And that glimpses are given to show that not all is lost for them? That there is to be a future judging of such and application of Christ's shed blood in their behalf?
And, though there is hope for the groaning creation (Rom. 8:18-21), as I mentioned above, there are many clear Biblical statements that lead me to believe that ultimately anyone who does not respond in faith and obedience to Christ will perish -- be destroyed.
Still, it is apparent that through the years many have speculated, and at times dogmatically advanced their theories as fact, relative to the who, what, when, where, why and how of things pertaining to God and Christ making good on the promise to Abraham, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." --Gal. 3:8.
It would seem that the reason for much of the theorizing that leads to dogmatism lies in a basic and even natural desire to know the future and figure out the details of various prophecies. In itself there is nothing wrong with this, for note:
"Concerning this very salvation a diligent inquiry and a careful search were made by the prophets who prophesied about the undeserved kindness meant for you. They kept on investigating what particular season or what sort of season the spirit in them was indicating concerning the Christ when it was bearing witness beforehand about the sufferings for Christ and about the glories to follow these. It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven. Into these very things angels are desiring to peer." (1 Pet. 1:10-12)
Thus, even inspired prophets of old sought to understand things to come concerning the Christ and the glories to follow. Yet, in spite of diligent inquiry and careful investigation, which doubtless fed their spirit, it had even been divinely revealed to some of these that what they prophesied about was not meant for them. Still, the investigative spirit into what the Scriptures contain is commended.
Understandably, Jesus told his disciples who were then witnessing activities of the Messiah [miracles, and divine instruction from one given authority -- Matt. 7:29; Heb. 1:1,2.]:
"For I truly say to you, Many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things you are beholding and did not see them, and to hear the things you are hearing and did not hear them." (Matt. 13:17)
As much as such pre-Christian prophets and righteous men desired to see the things foretold, they did not. And, whatever speculations, conclusions, preconceptions, they might have had resulting from their diligent inquiries and careful investigations, remained just what they were.
Even Jesus' disciples had their own pet notions of what Messiah's arrival would involve. (Luke 18:31-34; Matt. 16:21-23.) Such were the nature of the disciples' expectations, prejudices, and preconceptions, that they were unwilling to believe Jesus' plain statements at that time and thus they did not understand some of them. Consider: If this was the case with the disciples who heard Jesus speak, is it not possible --indeed, likely-- that a variation of the same could befall and has befallen disciples who have read Jesus' words right up to today?
Hindsight shows us that Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection was a case of divine intervention. It was with such a divine intervention that certain prophecies began to be understood in their detail; details that prophets and righteous men would like to have known, but did not get to.
Is it not safe to conclude that prophecies yet to be fulfilled, both in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures --and most particularly that highly symbolic book Revelation-- will best be understood in their detail after divine intervention, namely "the revelation of the Lord Jesus"? (2 Thess. 1:7) Until then, is it not safe to view such prophecies and prophetic symbols as fit for "diligent inquiry" "careful search" and 'investigation' on the part of Christians, not unlike the efforts of the pre-Christian prophets and righteous men? Are not these prophecies among the things that we have 'imperfect knowledge' about, and "see in a mirror dimly"? (1 Cor. 13:9,12) In view of obvious problems and inconsistencies that have inevitably developed, it seems wise to refrain from being dogmatic in interpretations, especially since details are not given; and that we be modest and tentative in the conclusions we draw.
It is easy to forget the guiding thought that is contained in what Jehovah communicated to the Israelites through Moses:
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." (Deut. 29:29)
And whereas it is true that more was later revealed by God through his Son and inspired apostles and prophets, yet, still there remain many secret things that belong to Jehovah.
Of interest is something observed about Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536). His most significant contribution to the realm of religion was his master Greek text of the New Testament. Erasmus saw errors and problems with the Catholic Church, yet he has been castigated for not taking the action of Luther and other reformers. Though it is possible to understand some of Erasmus' thinking and motives from his writings, it is probably impossible to be totally conclusive about him. However, it is noteworthy that he did not start a mass movement. The following comments about him are insightful:
This downgrading of the clerical role was linked to the belief, which again Erasmus shared with all the reformers, that there could be no intermediaries between the Christian soul and the scriptures. All wanted the Bible to be as widely available as possible, and in vernacular translations.... For Erasmus, as for all reformers, the Bible then was the centre of Christian understanding, when presented in its authentic form. And he was at one with them in rejecting mechanical Christianity virtually in toto: indulgences, pilgrimages, special privileges, masses for the dead, the whole business of winning salvation by 'merit' artificially acquired, usually by money....
Where, then, was the road to salvation? Erasmus agreed with the reformers that the Bible must be studied. He agreed with the practice of private devotion, especially prayer. Man saved himself through knowledge of God, obtained directly, not through the mediation of an institution. But it is at this point that his thought diverged from both the Lutherans and the later Calvinists. Erasmus, as a scholar and textual critic, had learnt to distrust theology, whose dogmatic conclusions were often based, as he had discovered, on faulty readings of the text....He went on to dismiss the importance of much theological speculation and definition, and to reassert, instead, the virtues which Jesus had outlined in the New Testament and which, to him, were the essence of Christianity: 'You will not be damned if you do not know whether the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son had one or two beginnings, but you will not escape damnation if you do not cultivate the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mercy, faith, modesty, continence and chastity.'
What the Church needed, Erasmus argued, was a theology reduced to the absolute minimum. Christianity must be based on peace and unanimity, 'but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible.' On many points 'everyone should be left to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in these matters.' Men searching for the truth should be encouraged to return to the scriptural and patristic sources. Perhaps there was a case for a commission of learned men to draw up a formula of faith. But it must be brief, just 'the philosophy of Christ', which was concerned chiefly with moral virtures. 'All that is of faith,' he wrote, 'should be condensed into a very few articles, and the same should be done for all that concerns the Christian way of life.' Then theologians, if they wished, should be left to develop their own theories, and the faithful to believe or ignore them. On most of the contentious points, he freely admitted: 'I would not dare deprive a man of his life, if I were the judge, nor would I risk my own.' (A History Of Christianity, by Paul Johnson; excerpts from pages, 273-275.)
What of the contention that man has no control over his being made righteous? This position is a negation of man's free moral agency, as well as a misunderstanding of the will of God, as the following will hopefully show.
In view of Romans 15:4, much can be learned from the Hebrew Scriptures as to illustrative lessons on the subject of selection or election of humans. In no instance has God coerced or violated the human will in any of these elections. In choosing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, for instance, as types and illustrations, Jehovah chose men whose minds and hearts were in general accord with his purposes and revelations -- yet no force was exercised to restrain them, had they willed otherwise. Likewise, to illustrate the opposite side and opposite principles, choosing men such as Ishmael, Esau, the Canaanites, Sodomites, Egyptians, etc., Jehovah again used men in accord with their natural tendencies. God merely dealt with particular peoples according to their own inclinations or dispositions.
M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopedia comments:
God himself is said to repent; but this can only be understood of his altering his conduct towards his creatures, either in the bestowing of good or infliction of evil--which change in the divine conduct is founded on a change in his creatures; and thus, speaking after the manner of men, God is said to repent. (Vol. VIII, p. 1042)
The attitude and reactions of God's intelligent creatures toward his perfect unchanging standards and toward his application of them can be good or bad. If good, God is pleased. If bad, it causes regret in the way described above. A person's attitude can change from good to bad or bad to good, and since God does not change his standards to accomodate them [Mal. 3:6; James 1:17], his pleasure (and accompanying blessings) can accordingly change to regret (and accompanying discipline or punishment) or vice versa.
A potter may begin to make one type of vessel and then change to another style if the vessel is "spoiled in the potter's hand." (Jer. 18:3,4) By such an example God thus illustrates, not that he is like a human potter in 'spoiling in his hand,'["The Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice."--Deut. 32:4] but rather that he has divine authority over mankind, authority to adjust his dealings with them according to their positive or negative response to his righteousness and mercy. (Compare Isa. 45:9; Rom. 9:19-21.) He can thus "repent of the evil that [he] intended to do" to a nation or "repent of the good which [he] had intended to do to it," all depending upon the reaction of the nation to his prior dealings with it. (Jer. 18:5-10) Thus, the Great Potter does not err, rather the human "clay" under goes a change as to its heart condition, producing regret, or a change of feeling, on God's part.
And this is true of individuals as well as of nations. The very fact that Jehovah speaks of his 'repenting' over certain of his servants, such as King Saul, who turned away from righteousness, demonstrates that God does not predestinate the future of such individuals. God's repentance or regret over Saul's deviation does not mean that God's choice of him as king had been erroneous and was to be regretted on that ground. Rather, Jehovah must have felt regret because Saul, as a free moral agent, had not made good use of the privileges and opportunities God had afforded him, and because Saul's change called for a change in God's dealings with him.--1 Sam. 15:10,11,26.
The apostle Paul's discussion of God's dealings with Pharoah is often wrongly understood to mean that God arbitrarily hardens the heart of individuals according to his foreordained purpose, without regard for the individual's prior inclination, or heart attitude. (Rom. 9:14-18) Likewise, according to many translations, God advised Moses that he would "harden [Pharoah's] heart." (Ex. 4:21; compare Ex. 9:12; 10:1,27.) However, some translations render the Hebrew account to read that Jehovah "let [Pharoah's] heart wax bold" (Rotherham); "let [Pharoah's] heart become obstinate." (New World) In support of such rendering, the appendix to Rotherham's translation shows that in Hebrew the occasion or permission of an event is often presented as if it were the cause of the event, and that "even positive commands are occasionally to be accepted as meaning no more than permission." Thus at Exodus 1:17 the original Hebrew text literally says that the midwives "caused the male children to live," whereas in reality they permitted them to live by refraining from putting them to death. After quoting Hebrew scholars M.M. Kalisch, H.F.W. Gesenius, and B. Davies in support, Rotherham states that the Hebrew sense of the texts involving Pharoah is that "God permitted Pharoah to harden his own heart--spared him--gave him the opportunity, the occasion, of working out the wickedness that was in him. That is all."---The Emphasised Bible, appendix, p. 919; compare Isa. 10:5-7.
Corroborating this understanding of the matter is the fact that the record definitely shows that Pharoah himself "hardened his heart." (Ex. 8:15,32, King James; "made his heart unresponsive," New World) He thus exercised his own will and followed his own stubborn inclination, the results of which inclination Jehovah accurately foresaw and predicted. The repeated opportunities given him by God obliged Pharoah to make decisions, and in doing so he became hardened in his attitude. (Compare Eccl. 8:11,12) As the apostle Paul shows by quoting Exodus 9:16, Jehovah allowed the matter to develop in this way to the full length of ten plagues in order to make manifest his own power and cause his name to be made known earth wide.--Rom. 9:17.
"So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me thus?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?" (Rom. 9:18-21)
All of this ties in with the matter of judgment. Again, the details regarding the judgment are not spelled out totally for us in Scripture, but there are passages that give us good intimation of what to expect.
In appealing to what took place with the typical people of God under the Mosaic Law, the writer of Hebrews notes,
"...every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution." (Heb. 2:2)
So, as to the future, whatever retribution is meted out we can be confident that it will be in harmony with justice.
In the first century, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the valley of Hinnom [Gehenna] was used as a garbage dump or rubbish heap. There fires were kept burning and intense heat maintained by the use of sulphur or brimstone, to consume all manner of refuse and filth thrown there. Since dumping was constant, fires and decomposition were a continual thing, so that sight of maggots and flames was a seeming nonstop feature of the place.
Fittingly, Gehenna came to represent or symbolize total destruction in the popular mind of the Jews then. Thus, it is understandable how the practice came to be of throwing the bodies of executed criminals into Gehenna, denoting that such ones were not considered worthy of being placed in a memorial tomb, or of being remembered and resurrected by God in the future. Such a judgment was obviously not theirs to make; but right or wrong, such was the judgment of Gehenna symbolizing an everlasting cutting off in death to the minds of Jews in Jesus' day. And so, in keeping with his use of illustrations, the Son of God made use of what was already a graphic symbol to his listeners in the first century. And he could rightly ask corrupt scribes and Pharisees of his day with all its ominous implications,
"Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?" (Matt. 23:33)
There was no question in the minds of Jesus' hearers as to what he was intimating. Jesus' words at Mark 9:43-48 are also noteworthy,
"And if ever your hand makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go off into Gehenna, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life lame than with two feet to be pitched into Gehenna. And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out."
Some feel that at death is when individuals are relegated to Gehenna, or eternal death. And whereas this is possible, and certainly in God's province, still it is interesting to give thought to what Jesus' words could indicate.
Consider that faithful disciples over the centuries have not 'entered into life' at their death, having to await the parousia of Christ. So, it could follow that the 'going off into' or 'being pitched into Gehenna' does not necessarily happen at death, but be future -- possibly indicating a resurrection and trial, resulting in adverse or favorable judgment depending on what the person did then. Thus, Jesus' question quoted above, "...how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?" could have been a solemn warning as to the attitude and course they were then taking, and what such could ultimately lead to; as opposed to a fixed judgment and pronouncement against them at that point in time.
Ecclesiastes 3:17-20 says:
"I myself have said in my heart: 'The true God will judge both the righteous one and the wicked one, for there is a time for every affair and concerning every work there.' I, even I, have said in my heart with regard to the sons of mankind that the true God is going to select them, that they may see that they themselves are beasts. For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit, so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast, for everything is vanity. All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.
Solomon's speaking of God's 'selecting', 'sifting' or 'proving' humans may mean that what he affords them in the way of opportunities, as well as the things he allows them to experience, including problems and uncertainties, will in time reveal whether they are righteous or wicked. The fact that life is filled with difficulties and uncertainties and finally terminates in death should bring home to men that, as far as their own power goes, in the end they are like beasts. The same spirit or life force, sustained by breathing, animates both man and beast. After dying both man and beast return to the lifeless dust. -- Eccl. 9:4-6.
The above thoughts tie in with the following words of the Son of God:
"No man can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him; and I will resurrect him in the last day."..."This is why I have said to you, No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." (John 6:44,65)
During the Christian era the 'calling', 'drawing', 'electing' or 'choosing' of genuine disciples of Christ has been connected with what the Father has afforded individuals in the way of opportunities and experiences, that have revealed what sort of person they are. Additionally allowing an indvidual exposure to the word of God -- especially that concerning his Son -- and this then being met with a genuine response, has constituted their being 'drawn' -- 'chosen.'
"Most truly I say to you, He that believes has everlasting life." (John 6:47)
Jesus makes it clear that he who believes in the Son has eternal life here and now; as noted earlier, an abiding life in God's favor, that anticipates the conditions of the coming resurrection age which will be ushered in by what he calls "the last day" -- possibly meaning the last day of the present age and thus leading into the next; or perhaps just a specific yet non-specific way of referring to the latter time when the wind up and the things connected with it occurs.
Having spoken to mankind by prophets, with the ministry of Christ, God has now spoken to us by means of his Son. (Heb.1:1,2) The Son, from his ascension onward, has exercised "all authority in heaven and in earth," (Matt. 28:18) The word or message spoken by Jesus was itself to serve (and has served) as a "judge" toward all mankind. Presented free from alteration or adulteration, that word has its own resultant judging effect. (Note Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 13:44-48; 28:23-28) Note Jesus' words:
"I have come as a light into the world, in order that everyone putting faith in me may not remain in darkness. But if anyone hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I came, not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that disregards me and does not receive my sayings has one to judge him. The word that I have spoken is what will judge him in the last day." (John 12:46-48)
Though not coming into the world to pass sentence as judge (John 3:17), neverthless Jesus' ministry in the world was the judgment of the world (cf. John 12:31) in the sense of his words in John 9:39: "For this judgement I came into the world: that those not seeing might see and those seeing might become blind." The adverse judgment men incur here and now through refusing him awaits its being made known at a later time when Jesus exercises the authority conferred on him:
"For the Father judges no one at all, but he has committed all the judging to the Son,...And he has given him authority to do judging, because Son of man he is." (John 5:22,27)
Just how this judgment is to be executed is indicated for us. At John 5:45 Moses is named by Jesus as the one who would accuse Jesus'opposers before the Father -- Moses, "in whom you have put your hope. In fact, if you believed Moses you would believe me, for that one wrote about me. But if you do not believe the writings of that one, how will you believe my sayings?" (John 5:45-47) The "sayings" (rhemata) of Jesus are summed up in his "word" (logos), and with his word, the sum and substance of eternal truth, the final word of adjudication would lie.
These thoughts are not peculiar to John's Gospel; the Sermon on the Mount concludes with the affirmation that those who hear Jesus' words and put them into practice have provided a secure foundation for life, in contrast with those who hear them without putting them into action and thus expose themselves to irremediable catastrophe. (Matt. 7:24 ff.; Luke 6:47 ff.)
Jesus had said,
"Most truly I say to you, If anyone observes my word, he will never see death at all." (John 8:51)
The corollary is that those who refuse to keep his word will never see life. (cf. John 3:36)
Reasonably then, the word of judgment on the last day is not different from the word of life already sounded forth. The message that proclaims life to the believer is the message which ultimately proclaims judgment to the disobedient. To bestow life, not to pass judgment, was the purpose of the Son's coming into the world. However, judgment is the inevitable effect of his coming for those who turn their backs on life. And thus we are given another glimpse into what is to take place regarding "the world."
It is clear, however, that the time will come,
"...when God through Christ Jesus judges the secret things of mankind," (Rom. 2:16)
"For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of the Christ, that each one may get his award for the things done through the body, according to the things he has practiced, whether it is good or vile." (2 Cor. 5:10)
"Hence do not judge anything before the due time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring the secret things of darkness to light and make the counsels of the hearts manifest, and then each one will have his praise come to him from God." (1 Cor. 4:5)
But, again, though the details are not all spelled out, still the Scriptures give us ample reason to be confident that whatever retribution is meted out will be in harmony with justice. --Heb. 2:2.
Selected from BSR Journal