by Brad Jersak, Ph.D.
For many, one of the biggest obstacles to apocatastasis (the reconciliation of all) is Jesus’ own teachings. He seems not to have come right out and said that all will be saved, and his various warnings, especially the parable of the last judgement (Matthew 25), seem to confirm the infernalist belief that he did not believe that.
But I’ve been thinking about your claim that Jesus’ threats of Gehenna and outer darkness are penultimate, and that he employed these threats as a means toward ultimate redemption, rather than refutations of universal hope.
I love the perspective that this perspective brings, I still find some passages troubling and difficult. While my heart rejoices in the possibility of ultimate redemption, my mind needs some more help! One example is the narrow door passage of Luke 13:22-30 (NTE). I struggle with how to read this parable through redemptive lens:
23 “Master,” somebody said to him, “will there be only a few that are saved?”
24 “Struggle hard,” Jesus replied, “to get in by the narrow gate. Let me tell you: many will try to get in and won’t be able to. 25 When the householder gets up and shuts the door – at that moment you will begin to stand outside and knock at the door and say, ‘Master, open the door for us.’ Then he will say in response, ‘I don’t know where you’ve come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate with you and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!’ 27 And he will say to you, ‘I don’t know where you people are from. Be off with you, you wicked lot.’”
These verses don’t seem to allow me hope that the owner of the house (I presume God the Father) will ever open the door.
Neither do they fit with an A.D. 70 fulfilment, due to the Kingdom references and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in verses 29-31.
And my biggest challenge with this passage is that it makes the owner of the house sound cruel. His children or subjects are pleading with him and he remains cold and aloof: “I don’t know you. Away from me!”
So even if we say the door to repentance may not be irrevocably barred (e.g., Nineveh’s response in Jonah), the parable’s description of the Father is one whose mercy runs out some point, and who will coldly exclude those begging at his gates. This doesn’t resonate with my heart’s revelation of our loving Father who tells us mercy his endures forever.
How do you understand what’s happening here?
The Gospels include many such passages that describe exclusionary judgments, where Christ says things like, “It’s too late, the door is locked, you’re outside, depart from me, now off you go into outer darkness.”
There are also many NT passages that speak of inclusive salvation, where the gates are never shut, all are welcome, all are included, everyone is restored, and “God will be all and in all.”
And among the red letters of Christ, we have his resounding intent: “If I am lifted up (crucified), I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). More and more, I have come to see that statement as Christ’s definitive statement on the END.
Either these two sets of passages—final judgment and ultimate redemption (1) simply contradict each other or (2) they must find their right place and role in the grand narrative of redemption.
If we go with the option (1), we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t harmonize these. I’ll leave it in Jesus’ care because he’s both just and merciful, and I can trust him. If we go with option (2), we can work out a storyline where every passage belongs. What is off the table, I believe, is negating either set of texts by whitewashing the judgments (pop-universalism) or evading the universalist texts (as infernalism does).
I am personally convinced of option 2, where every text has its specific place and role in the grand scheme. Here’s how I would do it—and I see David Bentley Hart has taken the same tack in his instant classic, That All Shall Be Saved:
The New Testament mentions three ages:
- “this present evil age” – In this “present evil age,” we already experience the reality of our self-inflicted judgments, and we pray, “How long, O Lord. Even so, come Lord Jesus.”
- “the age to come” (frequently mistranslated ‘eternal’) – The “age to come” is the day or period of the final judgment.
- “the end of the ages” – The “end of the ages” is eternity after the processes of the final judgment are complete.
If we bear these three biblically-named epics in mind, then we can ask of any text, teaching, parable, or vision, where do you belong? And we can discern the answer, in part, by which model allows all of the passages a place. For example, we cannot really say, “All shall be saved,” then after that consign most to hell. That latter negates the former. And it’s why infernalists end up doing violence to certain universalist texts to reduce “all people” to “all of the elect” in passages where their system demands it. But you can say, “all shall be judged, some cast out, then after that, ‘mercy triumphs over judgment.’” It only requires that we see these judgments as finite, restorative, and therefore penultimate.
HOWEVER, for the judgment texts to not only have their place but also play their role as dire warnings, they don’t and shouldn’t include any word of hope outside of repentance, because that is their rhetorical function. They are part of the means of our blessed hope. Thus,
- The judgment passages are fulfilled now and in “the age to come” (aionios)—the final, purgative judgment (i.e., the Refiner’s fire and Launderer’s soap).
- The inclusion passages are fulfilled at the end of the ages, after the final judgment, when no enemy is unvanquished and Christ delivers the restored cosmos to his Father.
Thus, the judgment passages are penultimate (next to last).
The inclusion passages are ultimate (as laid out in 1 Corinthians 15).
In James’ simple terms, there is a coming judgment, but “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
That way, all the Scriptures are taken seriously, both exclusive and inclusive, judgment and mercy, each in their own order.
The Cruel Master
That said, you also raised the issue of the callous cruelty of the master in these parables. That Jesus would describe himself or his loving, heavenly Father like this is indeed disconcerting. I believe it’s important to remember:
- Parables are rhetorical. Jesus was purposely evoking emotions that grip the listener in order to motivate them to urgent action. We don’t literalize or totalize the rhetoric into straightforward propositional truths. Nor do we dismiss it as ‘empty.’ Judgment is coming. We will face the consequences of our actions. But these parables’ function is not to reveal the exact nature of the End but to wake us up and reorient our lives (repent) toward Christ and his Jesus Way right now. They deliberately use harsh language to impress on us the urgency of embracing the Way of Life rather than continuing toward destruction.
- Remember who the parables were first addressed to—especially those groups (collectively) in Jesus’ immediate context. He often used parables to call out those who were plotting against him . . . and they knew it. The indictments in those parables were first of all aimed at exclusive religious in-groups and the oppressive temple establishment he came to abolish, not merely individuals who haven’t ‘made a decision for Christ yet.’ For the shoe to fit today, we could start by asking how these parables address the corrupt systems embedded in our Christian systems. Then if the shoe fits…
- Who is the Master? Most surprising, perhaps, is that principal character in these parables—the master, the bridegroom or the king—seem to represent God (or Jesus), but when we see brazen cruelty or violence—when he sends someone to be tortured or killed without mercy—remember: those images are NOT straight-across depictions of God. How do we know this? Because JESUS tells us he is the face of his Father, he is image of God and the punchline of every parable is unveiled at the Cross. Even the conspirators who kill Christ are included in his mercy. “Father, forgive them,” applies even and especially to them.
- The Abba who Jesus reveals: Similarly, when Jesus directly describes his Father (outside the parables), his Abba is never so vindictive, violent, or exclusionary. “Be merciful to all,” he says, “just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). “That way, you’ll be children of your Father in heaven! After all, he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
- The key characters in Jesus’ stories are, therefore, not precise images of God—only Jesus fulfills that role. He is the image of God and exact representation of his likeness. And yes, the parables describe approximations. “It will be like this . . .” The master-character projects or personifies of our experience of inescapable judgment. That all shall finally be well is not an exemption from facing the fiery trial on our way there.
In an article titled, “The More I Follow Jesus, the Less I Like His Teaching” (don’t worry—he explains), Derek Flood summarizes this contrast perfectly:
In the parable [of the unforgiving servant – Matthew 18:21-35], Jesus compares God to a king who—in the way dictators do—flies into a rage and orders torture for an ungrateful servant. Yet if we keep reading in Matthew, we see that a couple chapters later, Jesus questions the premises behind comparing God to a king:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20-25-28).
In other words, Jesus models the way of God, not as one who “lords it over others” but as the servant of all. Following Jesus means rejecting the way of domination and vengeance, the way of tyrants and kings, and letting go of that vision of his own kingship. Flood continues:
Does God suffer from some form of borderline personality disorder where he is at first loving and forgiving, and then suddenly becomes brutal and mercilesss? Are we more merciful than God? No and no! Parables are analogies, and as everyone knows if any analogy is pressed too far it becomes absurd (as demonstrated here). The broad point Jesus is making here is that it would be really horrible if we were forgiven a great debt, but then turned around and were merciless to others. We should treat others with the same grace that we need, and which God has richly shown us.
None of this makes reading the parables easy or any less awkward. They’re not all meant to be experienced as sunshine and roses. They pierce the heart on purpose. But we’re being pierced by love in order to walk out of the parable into a new and more beautiful way of being, where the Crucified God becomes our anchor and revelation of God’s all-merciful nature.
- Finally, while the master/king/bridegroom characters in Jesus’ parables communicate something about God the Father or Jesus Christ and they give us ample warning that a day of accounting is surely coming, we might also ask how the story character IS both like Christ and how he is NOT like Christ. Always do this with every parable.
For example, we know that Christ will, in truth, sit as the final Judge of the both the living and the dead. At the same time, the icy vindication we see in his parables more accurately represents the human conscience in its role as accuser, rendering its stern (maybe even just) but unmerciful verdict. He’s not making that up—we already feel the fevers and tears of that existential crisis in this life.
But that is not the last word of judgment or the punchline of these parables. I believe it was Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth (2007), who suggested that the unspoken “punchline” of every last parable, especially the judgment warnings, is the Cross of Jesus Christ. That’s because, at the Cross, Jesus ascends to the judgment seat, which IS the mercy seat, which IS the throne of grace. And as they—as we—gaze on the One whom we have pierced, he pours out the Spirit of supplication, and we will mourn as one mourns the death of the Firstborn Son (cf. Zechariah 12).
And from that mercy seat (hilasterion LXX), the all-merciful Judge has already rendered his final verdict: “Father, forgive them.” As in Adam, we all died, so in Christ, we shall all be made alive (cf. Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15). That is the punchline of every parable—where weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth becomes “and he shall wipe every tear from their eyes.”
This becomes all the more remarkable if we’re willing to undergo the judgment parables in all their penultimate severity—and not for some other poor fool but for ourselves. They are meant for just this purpose: so that I will cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” and receive exactly that.
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A communicant and reader in the Orthodox Church, Brad Jersak is a well known author and popular speaker. Information on his ministry can be found at his website: https://bradjersak.com/.