PENULTIMATE: Exclusion Rhetoric in the Gospels

by Brad Jersak, Ph.D.

READER’S QUESTION

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?

JERSAK’S RESPONSE

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.

* * *

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/.

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19 Responses to PENULTIMATE: Exclusion Rhetoric in the Gospels

  1. Tony T says:

    Always great content here. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. michael plekon says:

    Since when is Bendict XVI a canonized saints, as described toward the end of Jersak’s piece?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha! Thanks for catching that typo. Now corrected!

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Not even universalists are entitled to jump the eschatological gun and name someone a canonical saint. 😜

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    • TJF says:

      Perhaps Brad venerates him as a saint? Great article Brad, by the way! Completely agree!

      Liked by 1 person

    • josef says:

      Vladika Lazar Puhalo:

      We often hear speakers calling on us to maintain the “mind of the fathers.” This is often said almost as a platitude or slogan. How are we to understand the “mind of the fathers?” Doe it mean to become frozen in time and think only as teachers and philosophers thought in the fourth, fifth or sixth centuries? Does it have a vital living significance? This would depend on how one understands the “mind of the fathers.”
      We should not think of the holy fathers as being mentally ossified and completely unchanging. What does not change dies. We should not think that the holy fathers were incapable of encountering new knowledge and understanding. Some of the holy fathers thought that life could not exist south of the equator, that the sun rotated around the earth and some even thought that the Earth was flat. While we hold fast to the basic anthropology of the fathers, we do not disdain the advances in biology and medicine which add a more complete picture and understanding to this anthropology.

      What is immutable in our theology in the revelation given through the holy fathers is encompassed in the Symbol of Faith. The only fathers were concerned with the sanctification of the world and of mankind. They did not encounter the ecological problems with which we are faced nor the conditions of our contemporary social structures, many of which contribute to the degradation of the world around us.

      When some people speak of the “mind of the fathers”, they see a need for mankind to repress all critical thinking and move with intellectual blindness, constantly trying to re-create the ancient world at least mentally. While I am asking for comments and discussions on the subject of the mind of the fathers, I want to assert that the holy fathers were concerned with the sanctification of the world and mankind, but not with coercion, oppression and compulsion.

      I wish to invite your comments and ideas about this question. How would the fathers of approached the chaos of modern Christianity, Christian nationalism, modern political structures and the cultures which undeniably must be approached, not merely with words but with living examples? I want to express the thought that the examples we need to set are not those of rarefied mysticism but the living example of how we ourselves, as Orthodox Christians, interact with the Earth itself and with the humanity around us.

      Your comments and observations are sincerely invited

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  3. John burnett says:

    It strikes me that much of the problem arises from our need for ANSWERS. Now, the ANSWER for me might be different from the ANSWER for you, because you’re a sinner, so to sort it all out (and to get a sense of how well we’re doing), what we need here is to know the RULES. So we go to the BIBLE and read all of Jesus’ TEACHINGS— and if we find those are inadequate or uncertain on some point or other, we can even reach back to the LAW— and we abstract from those and develop a SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY about the criteria for SALVATION. Now we have our ANSWERS— the RULES for being SAVED, that is, for GOING TO HEAVEN WHEN YOU DIE. Of course, in your case, you’re going to go to HELL; sorry buddy, them’s the RULES. If we’re neurotic, we worry about ourselves going to HELL, but most of us aren’t that severely neurotic. Although we do worry some . . . .

    Because Jesus is this guy who administers these OBJECTIVE RULES and decides (LAST JUDGMENT) who gets into HEAVEN and who GOES TO HELL (where there’s ETERNAL CONSCIOUS TORMENT FOREVER!!) and who are we to question his AUTHORITY?

    [ Detour through Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory— Got a tract the other day: ‘Will you go to Heaven when you die? Here’s a quick test: Have you ever lied, stolen, or used God’s name in vain? Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If you have done these things, God sees you as a lying, thieving, blasphemous, adulterer at heart, and the Bible warns that one day God will punish you in a terrible place called Hell. But God is not willing that any should perish. Sinners broke God’s Law and Jesus paid their fine. This means that God can legally dismiss their case. . . .’

    God can legally dismiss your case. He couldn’t dismiss it before, but now he can. Because even God has to follow the RULES, right? ]

    Such are the stories with which we have replaced the one in the Bible. Such are the stories of which we’re terrified, because we’ve been deliberately terrified with them by our parents and our teachers and our churches (who, to be sure, didn’t know any better because they’d been terrified by them too, for centuries and centuries). Such are the stories with which we read the Bible, because we read it only with such glasses on.

    But the Bible is none of that.

    The Bible is Israel’s own story of wandering in exile with her Creator-God through the desert of Empire. The Gospels are the climax of that story, which is fundamentally one of God’s undying faithfulness to a people he has chosen for his own, and ultimately, through them, of his faithfulness toward his whole creation. This God *pleads* with us— “C’mon! I know the way!”— but his Israel keeps walking on stray paths. And he dogs us at every step! “C’mon! C’mon!— *this* way!”

    Now because God is God and beyond all comprehension, and the human heart is “desperately evil” and likewise beyond comprehension, “abyss speaks to abyss” in prayer and mysticism, but the story, which necessarily can take place only between these extremes, occasionally points beyond itself to those extremes, as a way of orienting and situating itself, but it is not about those extremes, and in seeking to dogmatize about the extremes is to trade the Story and to abandon it in favor of some kind of gnostic Certainty. “We know the score, because we understand the RULES.” And it is precisely that illusory “knowledge of good and evil”, which is the principle of our distance from God. The Story tells us over and over that such “knowledge” is always wrong, and always leads to trouble. God is the Living God, not the author of dead RULES. Our salvation lies in trust, not in a self-reliant possession of eternal principles.

    Despite the problem of relying on the “knowledge of good and evil”, which according to the Story is primordial, the main message of the Scriptures is that God doesn’t give up on his people. Within that context, the only question is then, How much do we want? And of course we all say, I want as much as God will give!— but we’re all aware of how we actually fail to get with the program, and constantly choose momentary and paltry things over the effort we feel we could make. So we feel guilty and we worry about falling out of his grace. Oddly, instead of turning to him, this can make us double down all the more on the RULES. And this puts us farther away from God.

    The Church would be terrified to teach such “good news”. How often have we heard, “Well, if there’s no hell, what’s even the point of trying to be good?” —especially when “being good” is defined as “keeping the RULES”! Why, people could even go ahead & be gay & stuff!

    For those like myself who are just starting to realize this, let me just add that there are no RULES, but of course there are consequences. Not “CONSEQUENCES”, as in “ETERNAL CONSCIOUS TORMENT IF YOU BREAK THE RULES”, but “consequences”, like when you get a bad hangover after drinking a fifth of whiskey. If we want to avoid hangovers, we have to cut down on the whiskey. More importantly, if we want to know grace and peace, we can take this present opportunity (which never quite leaves us) to draw even just one brief aspiration closer to God— the one who sent us his Messiah. And we can practice in doing that; we can try to develop that.

    What will it take for us to learn that God doesn’t give up on his people? What will it take for us to start reading the Bible not to find out the RULES but to assimilate the STORY, to find ourselves in the Story, to try to participate in the story?

    What’s it going to take for us to realize that God is a living PERSON (well, ok three) and that we can TRUST him and seek him, and that it actually works out pretty good when we do so?

    It’d be a whole new way of practicing our religion. But we can’t teach this, because it would interfere with our need to control.

    The interesting thing isn’t Hell. It’s the NEED that a lot of people seem to have, for there to be a Hell.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks John,

      Your response stimulated some fresh thoughts for me:

      When Paul thinks of consequences, he moves from the consequences of Adam’s sin to the consequences of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And the relationship between them is “how much more!” (Romans 5). By framing it as consequences, his argument comes into even clearer focus.

      If the consequences of the trespass is temporal death (he doesn’t say hell), then how much more the consequences of Christ’s obedience is eternal life!

      Liked by 4 people

    • I really like most of that, but I have one hangup: you deride “gnostic Certainty”, but how far do you think one should abandon the quest for such a thing? It strikes me as absurd to say we can’t absolutely know anything at all—that calls to mind the mewithoutYou lyric (apparently based on a Descartes quote) “some with certainty insist no certainty exists.” I mean, the fact that you wrote your comment suggests that you believe what you wrote; even if you’re not certain that you’re correct, at some level there must be some ground reality (that we call “God”), and I think our beliefs can correspond to that reality and progress beyond pistis to gnosis, even if that doesn’t happen in this age.

      I’m beginning to ramble, but I hope you can clear up my misconceptions. This is an issue I’ve kept encountering recently.

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      • John burnett says:

        @GreenWeasel11, Plato talks about how we are neither gods nor animals, and therefore neither is our knowledge god-like nor do our instincts entirely define us. We dwell in the “metaxý”, the realm “between” those extremes, and our language is provisional. That’s a structure of human existence we can never escape. None the less, people have tried to escape it in a number of ways. One of them is by claiming possession of some kind of absolute knowledge; another is by attempting to bring about an absolute kingdom, the “kingdom of God”, politically, as if we had the formula. A third is by mistaking symbols for finally definable entities, as when one of my high school teachers asserted that “transsubstantiation” replaces the atoms of the bread with atoms of Jesus’ flesh. Eric Voegelin calls the claim to absolute knowledge “Gnosticism”, and characterizes the political effort embodied in Nazism or Stalinism or MAGA as attempts to “immanentize the eschaton”. We don’t live in the eschaton; the eschaton is a symbol for a reality which, by definition, “we’re not there yet”. And we can never fully grasp symbols like those of our origin or of our end; the origin and the end can be conveyed only through symbols, and it’s the purpose of symbol to mediate our participation in them. And statements like my teachers’ betray an astonishing confusion.

        So of course, symbols can be true, in the sense that they can point in the right direction, but they don’t possess or exhaust the reality that they communicate, and they can be misused, or misleading, or sometimes even wrong. But think of the Eucharist; think of Pascha, when in the Orthodox Church we sing, “O Christ, great and most holy Pascha. O Wisdom, Word, and Power of God, grant that we may more perfectly partake of you in the never-ending day of your kingdom.” If we may yet more perfectly partake, then at the present time, “we see in part and we know in part”, as St Paul says. The eucharist really is the fullness of the resurrection experienced in the present, and yet we celebrate it “until he comes” because he hasn’t come yet, and we celebrate it in the conditions of the metaxý.

        What i was trying to say above, then, was that this metaxý in which we dwell is necessarily and always the place of Story. And the story can *speak* of the extremes— of “heaven” and “hell” if you will, and of things like origin and end— but only in symbols that belong to the story— and the symbols don’t give us any certainty, for example, about where those places are, or who’s in them, or not, or even whether we will be, or not. We’ll never be in a position where we’re not “working out our salvation in fear and trembling”. The Story is reliable— but only if we understand it AS a story. The instant we take it to be self-sufficient and start mining it for data, we turn it into an idol. The instant we start asking which specific camel and which specific needle Jesus was talking about, we’ve lost the point. Or— more relevant here— the minute we try to tabulate data about torment of the rich man and the bosom of Abraham, where Lazarus rested, we’ve lost the thread. The meaning of the parable is in the parable, not in data about the “Afterlife” we imagine we can draw from it.

        Recognizing “The Story” as a story— seeing that its symbols point to, but do not possess what is essential— seems to be an important step on the path of spiritual maturity. We all start out as literalists, somehow, but if our education was successful, we eventually come to realize that there’s a lot more space around the Bible than we initially thought, that other cultures have other stories, and that some do get things pretty much as they are. Paul Ricoeur gives reasons why he thinks the Bible’s story of the fall is deeper than all others, but that is a judgment based on the ability to see stories as such and to ask what each is trying to accomplish. Wise men, who came to an understanding of the ways of God and man, wrote them; and if we learn to inhabit the Stories they wrote, we will assimilate and be assimilated to the Wisdom they gained. But even with the Bible, Wisdom is always more than the story written, even if the only reason it was written was to disclose it, and even though the meanings of its parables lie within the parables themselves and are not exterior to them. To stop at the story is to miss the Wisdom— or at least not yet to find it. Yet to ignore the story and just to tabulate the data (or to focus only on historicity, or sources, or whatnot) is to forego the Wisdom by substituting another framework— that of our own banausic concerns— for the framework of the Story.

        When we ask how Noah got all those animals into a box of those dimensions, we not only to miss the point of Noah’s story; we miss the fact that the story contradicts itself three times precisely on that point, just to make sure we don’t take that misstep. See Genesis 6.19-22; 7.2-5; and 7.8-9. The point is not in the numbers, but in the Story— for the numbers are there only to tell a story. But in so many ways we have shown ourselves to be interested in the numbers apart from the story— or, elsewhere, in the RULES and data we can derive from the story and write down in a list. If we just know the RULES, then we can apply them in the service of our own story. Pay attention to my discussion of Alcuin of York’s catechetical program, below. We know how “salvation” works— especially if we have the numbers of the Apocalypse!

        It’s interesting that the 613 (i.e., 153 x 4, +1) commandments of the Old Testament are numerous enough to seem comprehensive, but upon inspection they turn out to be rather woefully incomplete. Famously, there is a procedure for divorce, but not one for getting married. Or again, OT narratives often illustrate the law, and OT law often portrays the narrative. As Jacob Milgrom says, the narratives both generate and justify the laws, and vice versa. Which means that the laws themselves belong to the Story— which is always the Story of Israel— and they make sense only within it. The Story conveys the experience of (being) Israel. The laws are meant to mediate that, in practice. They are not absolute laws, but practices that help Israel to be Israel. Not so much abstract absolutes, as ways to make Israel remember the narratives— or rather the Narrative, which tells who she is.

        Jacob Milgrom teaches that a mixture of linen and wool is a sacred garment. Thus, the lower cover and the curtain closing off the Holy of Holies are a mixture of linen and wool (Ex 26.1, 31). The high priest’s ephod, breastplate, and belt contain the same mixture (Ex 28.6, 15; 39.29); but this mixture is limited for the ordinary priest to his belt (Ex 39.29), and the ordinary Israelite is conceded this mixture only by the insertion of a single violet thread of wool in his linen tassels (Nm 15.39), as the rabbis recognized— “since linen is flax, violet must be wool” (B. Yeb. 4b). Numbers 15.37-41, undisputably the work of the Holiness writer (H), echoes H’s primary goal to set Israel on the path of holiness (Nm 15.40b). This departs from the Priestly writer (P)’s consistently rigid separation between the priesthood, whose garments symbolize authorization to enter the sacred sphere, and the laity, barred from such entry— H prescribes that all Israelites insert into the linen tassels of their outer garments a thread of violet wool as a perpetual reminder that they are consecrated to God, and that they are a kingdom of priests. For P, they are a kingdom *with* priests.

        The rules are part of a story, but the story is that of Israel in *Exile* with her Creator-Covenant-God, in the desert of Empire— as I put it before, borrowing from Ezekiel 20.35. The problem is, we forget we’re in Exile, and that we have in this age no lasting habitation, and even the Tabernacle has to be portable. Our understanding is always provisional, is always related to where we’re at in the story, and we must again and again, in every generation, lay out the sacred ground and unfold anew the Tabernacle of Wisdom that was folded into the sequence of letters which our ancestors bequeathed to us. There’s no getting around this, nor ever any shortcut.

        But we do try. Alcuin of York once tried to define a body of doctrines suitable for persuading the Avars to become Christian. He wrote,

        “First a man ought to be instructed concerning the immortality of the soul and concerning future life and concerning the retribution of good and evil men and the eternal reward for each kind. After that each ought to be taught for what sins and crimes he will suffer eternal punishment with the devil and for what good deeds and works he will enjoy eternal glory with Christ. Then a belief in the Holy Trinity ought to be diligently taught and the coming into the world of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the salvation of the human race ought to be expounded. The newly-won mind ought to be made firm concerning the mystery of His passion, the truth of the resurrection, the glory of the ascension into heaven, His future coming to judge all people, and the eternity of the punishment upon evil doers and the prize for the good. And then the man, strengthened and prepared in the faith, ought to be baptized.” (Ep. IV)

        In general, Alcuin thought it was important to emphasize three things— the idea of eternal retribution for good or evil conduct, the way a man earns his punishment or reward, and the story of Christ and his relation to sinful mankind. What’s interesting is that “a belief in the Holy Trinity ought to be diligently taught”— and how exactly do we explain to pagans the tri-unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit apart from the characters in the movie that rolls from Genesis through Revelation? But these “doctrines” have become rather abstract, and despite his own and others’ insistence on the value of Scripture for catechizing the rude, what has rather disappeared from the religion Alcuin promoted is— the Story. There are instead— “doctrines”.

        To be sure, the Old Testament remained for all teachers in the Middle Ages a useful goldmine of moral and spiritual allegory and doctrinal expression, but Carolingian missionaries were no more inviting the Avars and others to participate, along with themselves, in the program of creation-renewal which God had launched through Abraham and his seed, than we do that with our children today. The Avars— and our children— need to know a number of “things” about sin and salvation— we can call them gnostic Certainties, insofar as they are self-contained ideas whose possession and profession is thought to ensure salvation. The Avars were to substitute these things for their existing Avar “beliefs” and practices— and this replacement would both “save” them and unite them to Charlemagne’s expanding empire. And if persuasion didn’t work, Charlemagne’s “tongue of iron” (the sword) would do the trick. But our own kids have no beliefs that these could replace, and there’s no longer any tongue of iron to persuade. We like to blame “secularism” for this.

        But we can maybe begin to see that the symbols of “heaven” and “hell”, of “salvation” and “destruction” (now renamed “damnation”), which once belonged to the Story of what God is doing with his whole creation, beginning with Abraham and his seed— have become detached and now operate rather autonomously, and in fact with all kinds of assumptions that aren’t even part of the Bible that we still refer to, like a dictionary of sorts, where terms are merely listed but not overtly related. In this context we find ourselves asking and debating whether, for instance, a “just God” can condemn people to “hell”— altogether forgetting that “God” is a symbol we’ve taken out of the story of Israel and turned into an abstraction— and that “hell”, defined as “eternal conscious torment” is a hybrid idea comprised of fragments of a number of symbols taken out of the Story and turned to another purpose, a purpose we actually ought to look at more deeply than we do, when we use it.

        The more I read the Bible, the more i realize it really isn’t talking about any of that. Our biggest challenge today is to start thinking again like Israelites.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom says:

    Brad, as always, appreciate what you share.

    I’m struggling with your division of ages, particular with finding the 3rd of your three ages in the NT in the sense you mean. It would’ve helped had you provided a couple of NT references for each of your three uses/categories.

    I’m familiar with the standard Jewish division of creation’s time as ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’ (the Day of the Lord being the event that marks the end of one and the beginning of the other). I wouldn’t be surprised if the NT expanded on that; I just don’t see it laying out in the terms you’ve described.

    We find “end of the age” (in the singular) in Matthew which, as it turns out, is the end of ‘this present age’; i.e., not your 3rd “end of the ages.” We also have the ‘age to come’ (the 2nd of your ages), in MT mostly I think. However, this age (‘the age to come’) gets described in terms of your 3rd use. In MK 10.30, for example, those who give up all to follow Christ will be granted “in the age to come, eternal life.” Eternal life (in the 3rd of your ages I would think) is described as characterizing here ‘the age to come’ (which is your 2nd age of judgment).

    But it’s your 3rd category that I’m struggling with. I’m finding “end/fulfillment of the ages” (plural) only in 1Cor 10.11 (“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come”) and Heb 9.26 (“But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself”). Neither of these fits your 3rd description particularly well, especially Heb 9.26 which has Christ appearing to do away with sin (in context, his death/resurrection) at the ‘end of the ages’ (which wouldn’t at all fit your 3rd category). That’s it in the NT for “end of the ages” unless I’ve just overlooked some occurrences.

    Always processing. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      *particularly* and other typos ad infinitum.

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      • Thanks Tom,

        You are correct that the ‘end of the ages’ is a bit more complicated in Scripture than I expressed in this article, but I was already chopping a few thousand words while on a bus (hence also the typos) and wanted to keep it relatively simple. An excursis on the topic needed to wait until comments.

        Here is how I would respond, again, all too briefly:

        First, the Scriptures do speak of the age to come and seem to attach the processes of restorative judgement to that finite αἰώνιος (which in the Fathers, can be ‘unto the age’ or even ‘ages of ages’ as the purgative cleansing seems to be of indeterminate length.

        Second, does that period of judgment processes come to an end, is it perpetual? Is there, in fact, “the end of the ages” described in Scripture? Yes. In 1 Cor. 10, Paul says there is an “end of the ages” and we are those upon whom the eternal life of the end of the ages has already dawned. Or in Fr. John Behr’s metaphor, even while the snow still cover the ground, the Sun has dawned, spring has come, and the snow drops and crocuses are poking through the snow, as signs of the eschatalogical End, the telos.

        Further, this END is described in some detail in 1 Cor. 15, where “the End” is short for but definitely refers to the “End of the Ages.” And what Paul wants to make clear, again, is that there is an End, THE Telos, when the processes of judgement and all enmity, including death, are done. God is all in all. That’s the telos toward with the age to come is playing out:

        24 Then THE END will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put EVERYTHING under his feet. Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be ALL IN ALL.

        This is none other than the summing up of ALL THINGS in Christ (Eph. 1), who is both arche and telos, alpha and omega. Anything prior to that is penultimate.

        3. The complicated part: Hebrews 9 is either simply using the phrase differently (similarly to ‘the fulness of time’ – Galatians 4:4) or he is making a statement that ‘the end of the ages’ (the TELOS yet to come) is a ‘done deal’ in the tetelstai of the Cross. That is, in the Incarnation is the visible, living guarantor of the End of the Ages showed up so that by showing up, the End is accomplished “in trust.”

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  5. I agree that’s important to have a competent hermaneutic for interpreting the “judgment” and “mercy” passages in tandem in a tenable eschatology that doesn’t pretend there is only infernalism or only pop-univeralism to be found in Scripture. And while I’ve sometimes taken this article’s “option 1” (throwing up my hands), I can do better.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Renée says:

    This is quite clear and useful. Thank you.

    A friend recently told me that what caused her conversion was her very real fear of damnation (alien to me, who am rather drawn to God as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, or as Sole Reality). And it struck me that we might need the doctrine of damnation as an upaya, a skillful means. As Al-Hallaj said, “Some men have to be whipped into paradise,” (and I think all of us need a little whipping at some point in our lives). Someone might argue that the God to whom we turn out of fear cannot be the true God, but that seems both arrogant–only my idea of God is correct–and narrow. There must be as many paths to salvation as there are people to be saved. Also, I think it was Ibn Arabi who says somewhere that God consents to be the image his servant has of Him. We can only start from wherever we find ourselves. So it seems to me that the doctrine of hell may well be not an abomination but a mercy.

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    • TJF says:

      We’ll the scriptures do say that the BEGINNING of wisdom is fear of the Lord (Psalms), but later it says perfect love casts out fear (1 John i believe)

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  7. Another question came in via FB:

    READER: I incline to the posture/outlook of Brad’s option 1: “I can’t harmonize these. I’ll leave it in Jesus’ care because he’s both just and merciful, and I can trust him.” Option 2 is intriguing for sure, but feels a little too dispensationalist in its linear storying instincts. All that to say, I continue to find myself resonating with Barth and Von Balthasar in their hopeful universalism …

    BRADLEY: I believe that “…the rejection of obedience … overcomes mercy” requires a negation of the truth of John 12:32, Romans, 1 Cor. 15 and roughly 30 other texts. If ultimate condemnation is true, the bold claims of those texts cannot be true in any sense. Judgement then triumphs over mercy, contra James. Some knees won’t bow. Not all will be made alive. And Christ will not draw all people to himself. What I am proposing is that all texts must and do fit into this present age, the age to come or end of the ages consecutively.

    And a little more detail on the book of Revelation 20-22 (which the reader rightly identified as open-ended). Here’s some important biblical data:

    (1) In the Lake of Fire text, we see a list of those cast there.
    (2) We see the same list outside the City.
    (3) We see the gates are never shut, those outside are welcomed to enter, the nations continue to enter as they are washed in the Lamb’s blood, drink from the River of Life, are healed by the leaves of the Tree(s) of Life, and to the Spirit and the Bride never stop saying, “Come!”

    In other words, chapter 21-22 are describing the “age to come” processes of judgement and salvation (actually, both in this age and the age to come).

    (4) Meanwhile, 1 Cor. 15, Ephesians 1, John 12, Acts 3, Phil 2, etc. are visions of the End (or End of the Ages), when there when every process is complete, where the NT foresees the ultimate realization of the Father’s promise that ALL authority over ALL things have been given to Christ, who then delivers it back to his Father.

    Love Never Fails. His Mercy Endures Forever.
    Where there is eternal punishment:
    * love has failed
    * mercy is trumped
    * the rejection of obedience becomes ultimate
    These outcomes, the Bible denies.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. father11 says:

    Amen.

    Wonderful article, Brad.

    You, and other universalists, offer a credible solution to the potential stumbling block of ‘mixed messages’ in scripture, where texts which refer to punishment for sin or God’s anger have been given equal weighting with, and sometimes used to negate, the good news of God’s eternal, all-encompassing, and all-conquering love for every part of His created order.

    How we interpret Scripture is key. Like Father Al, the only hermeneutical principle that makes sense to me, the basic lens through which I can fruitfully read and interpret Scripture, and avoid twisting this good news into something else, is to read it through the conviction that God is love, and accept wholeheartedly that He loves each and every one of us, no matter how far we have fallen away from Him, and that He is doing (and will continue to do) everything necessary to bring us to that end for which He created us.

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  9. Bede says:

    Just a note: “three biblically-named epics” should surely read epochs.

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