Is there a biblical case for universal salvation?: The Old Testament pattern

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

This is the sixth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last two posts, we looked at the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. We found that the case for this view rests almost wholly on the traditional (for us) understanding of the Greek word aionios as “eternal,” an understanding we found to be in conflict with what most evangelical scholars actually tell us about this word and how the early Greek-speaking teachers and leaders used this word. Once we acknowledge that aionios does not mean “eternal,” this leaves us with essentially no explicit biblical case for the eternal conscious torment view. (We still need to examine the broader theological case.) But what about the universal reconciliation and restoration view? Is there a case to be made from the explicit wording of Scripture for this view? In this post, we’ll look at the pattern we find in the Old Testament, and in the next post we’ll consider some New Testament passages.

Not surprisingly, the Old Testament is not as clear about these things as the New Testament. This is to be expected. Remember, as I mentioned in the last post, we have only one explicit, unambiguous reference to bodily resurrection in the whole Old Testament. So we shouldn’t expect any belief such as this to be as fully understood and discussed in the Old Testament. God revealed much more of the clarity of his plan to the apostles in the New Testament. Still, there are some very compelling passages in the Old Testament that we need to consider, beginning with those that speak to the nature of God’s judgment.

Jonah

Some time after I became aware of evangelical Christians who believe in universal salvation (although I still remained unconvinced exegetically), I began to teach through the book of Jonah. I found this Old Testament prophetic book compelling in ways that surprised me. Many of us are mostly familiar with the first part of Jonah’s story, when he runs away from God’s call, is eventually swallowed by a great fish and then put back on the right course. What happens in Nineveh is often thought of as almost a postscript to this well-known story. But I think we’re in danger of missing an incredibly meaningful part of this account.

As you’ll recall, God sent Jonah to the pagan, enemy city of Nineveh to deliver a very simple message of impending judgment (Jonah 3:4):

“Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”

That was it. No conditions, no clauses, no ifs, ands or buts. In forty days Nineveh would be destroyed—period. If someone were to suggest that maybe there was a chance God would relent and not actually destroy Nineveh, others could point to the unambiguous wording of God’s message. God had been very clear that in forty days he would destroy Nineveh, and he didn’t say anything about a possible relenting.

Of course, we know what happened. We know that everyone in Nineveh, from the king down, repented, humbling themselves before God. And God did relent from destroying Nineveh. And then Jonah responded to God in words that are amusing, troubling and insightful (Jonah 4:2):

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jonah is telling God: “I knew you would do this! You’re so merciful, compassionate, eager to turn back from destroying people—I knew you would relent and not actually destroy Nineveh as you said you would!” And he makes clear that this is the very reason he ran away from God’s calling—because he knew that God would relent and show mercy! There’s a lot we could say about Jonah’s attitude (and we’ll return to this in a later post), but his strong certainty about the character of God and what God would do is something we must note. Jonah’s compelling example didn’t make me embrace universalism, but it did challenge my thinking in a few ways:

  • It showed me that I need to be careful to never think I know completely what God is going to do, especially if I’m assuming any limit to his grace or love. We need to always accept that we don’t know the whole story, that even God’s Word to us doesn’t tell us everything he’s going to do.
  • Jonah’s certainty that God would relent and show mercy was very compelling to me. Did my perception of God include less of his grace and love than this angry Old Testament prophet? Did Jonah have a more clear understanding that God is “eager to turn back from destroying people”? Why was I so sure that there’s a point beyond which God will no longer show mercy and forgive?
  • This actually fits a consistent pattern in the Old Testament. It’s almost as if a warning of judgment automatically includes an option (whether spoken or unspoken) that if people will respond with repentance, God will relent. It seems that this is such a strong pattern, that God has to make it very clear when he will not relent, as we see in passages such as Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; and chapters 15-18.

But even in the places where we see that God doesn’t relent in bringing judgment, this is always part of a larger pattern we see in the Old Testament:

The pattern of judgment and restoration

There are some fascinating passages in the Old Testament that show a compelling pattern. We know that God severely judged the nation of Judah for their idolatry and sin, but then later restored them. What’s fascinating is there’s a much broader pattern of God’s judgment followed by restoration. Look at some of these examples:

“Moab will no longer be a nation [NIV: “will be destroyed as a nation”],
for it has boasted against the LORD.”

Jeremiah 48:42

“But I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in days to come.
I, the LORD, have spoken!”

Jeremiah 48:47

“I myself will go with Elam’s enemies to shatter it.
In my fierce anger, I will bring great disaster
upon the people of Elam,” says the LORD.
“Their enemies will chase them with the sword
until I have destroyed them completely.”

Jeremiah 49:37

“But I will restore the fortunes of Elam
in days to come.
I, the LORD, have spoken!”

Jeremiah 49:39

Consider what the prophet Isaiah had to say, from the Lord, about Egypt and Assyria:

The LORD will make himself know to the Egyptians. Yes, they will know the LORD and will give their sacrifices and offerings to him. They will make a vow to the LORD and will keep it. The LORD will strike Egypt, and then he will bring healing. For the Egyptians will turn to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas and will heal them.

In that day Egypt and Assyria will be connected by a highway. The Egyptians and Assyrians will move freely between their lands, and they will both worship God. In that day, Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth. For the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will say, “Blessed be Egypt, my people. Blessed be Assyria, the land I have made. Blessed be Israel, my special possession!”

Isaiah 19:21-25

This might prompt some in-depth discussion as to exactly how this prophecy will be fulfilled, but it certainly shows nations who were previously enemies of God’s people, and thus of God—and who were judged by God—but who will both become people of God themselves!

In Ezekiel 16:46-63, God compares the nation of Judah unfavorably with the sin of Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel) and of Sodom, both of which had been severely judged by God. Then God says this:

But someday I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, and I will restore you, too. Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison. Yes, your sisters, Sodom and Samaria, and all their people will be restored, and at that time you also will be restored.

Ezekiel 16:53-55

Yes, even wicked Sodom will be restored! Judah will be restored just as God restores Sodom! This compelling pattern seems to show that whatever God judges, he also restores. This doesn’t say anything directly about hell because the Old Testament doesn’t say anything about hell per se. But it does tell us quite a bit about God’s judgment, and hell is the ultimate example of God’s judgment. This pattern in the Old Testament would cause us to expect, by default, that God’s judgment will always be followed by restoration. We’ve already seen there are no passages in Scripture that explicitly describe hell as eternal with no chance of restoration. But are there passages that show restoration after God’s final judgment? We’ll look closely at the New Testament in the next post, but there are some other passages in the Old Testament we need to consider.

Other Old Testament passages

For no one is abandoned
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion
because of the greatness of his unfailing love.
For he does not enjoy hurting people
or causing them sorrow.

Lamentations 3:31-33

It’s hard to imagine a more clear statement. No one is abandoned by the Lord forever (or indefinitely). Why not? We’re told the reason why not: “because of the greatness of his unfailing love.” God doesn’t enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow. Jonah tells us God is eager to turn back from destroying people because he is filled with unfailing love. And here Jeremiah tells us that no one will remain abandoned by God. And they both ground this in the character of God. So God has a necessary purpose in bringing judgment, a purpose that is in harmony with his love, and this necessary judgment does not mean irrevocable abandonment with no ultimate restoration. In light of this, consider what Jeremiah writes in other places:

The anger of the LORD will not diminish
until it has finished all he has planned.

Jeremiah 23:20

The fierce anger of the LORD will not diminish
until it has finished all he has planned.

Jeremiah 30:24

It’s not about God’s anger, and God’s anger is not unending; this is about God’s anger fulfilling its purpose, accomplishing what God intends. And underlying all of this is the love of God. We get this from these Old Testament prophets. And then we compare this to passages such as this one:

For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5

Now let’s think about what we see described in the following passages:

The whole earth will acknowledge the LORD and return to him.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.

Psalm 22:27

It’s hard to deny that this at least sounds like God ultimately reconciling everyone to himself.

Everything on earth will worship you;
they will sing your praises,
shouting your name in glorious songs.

Psalm 66:4

All the nations you made
will come and bow before you, Lord;
they will praise your holy name.

Psalm 86:9

“Let all the world look to me for salvation!
For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
I have spoken the truth,
and I will never go back on my word:
every knee will bend to me,
and every tongue will declare allegiance to me.”
The people will declare,
“The LORD is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”
And all who were angry with him
will come to him and be ashamed.

Isaiah 45:22-24

As you consider these passages, ask yourself: Is there anyplace in Scripture where God demands—or even accepts—worship that is not sincere, from the heart? Isn’t that specifically what God rejects in passages such as Isaiah 29:13 and 1:11-18? Do verses such as Psalm 66:4 (above) sound like the forcibly imposed “worship” of God through clenched teeth by those who remain defiant and rebellious? Or does it sound like the exuberant praise and adoration of those who have been freed from their bondage to sin and enmity against God and now pour out heartfelt worship and praise to God “because of the greatness of his unfailing love,” a God who—through his love—turns his enemies into his friends and even adopts them as his children?!

I am, admittedly, now drawing from the New Testament, and it’s to the New Testament we must now go. The pattern and passages we’ve seen in the Old Testament are surprisingly clear and compelling on their own. We’ve seen in the Old Testament a pattern of God’s judgment always being followed by his restoration. And we’ve seen in these Old Testament passages that no one will remain abandoned by God, but that everyone he has created will eventually come to worship him, giving him their allegiance. But we expect the New Testament to be even more clear and explicit, so we turn there next with great interest in what it has to say about these things.

For a deeper exploration of the Old Testament in regards to universal salvation, I recommend The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All (second edition) by Gregory MacDonald (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012).

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

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