Can God Be Too Good? Part 6 by Monte Wolverton
William Barclay (1907-1978)
Professor, Theologian, Author, Greek Scholar
Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow,
William Barclay dedicated his life to “making the best biblical scholarship
available to the average reader.”
The result was the Daily Study Bible, a set of commentaries on the New
Testament, exploring verse by verse through Barclay’s own translation of
the New Testament, listing and examining every possible interpretation
known to Barclay and providing all the background information he considered possibly relevant. The 17 volumes of the set were all instant best-sellers and continue to be so to this day. Following is an excerpt from his Spiritual Autobiography.
I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be
gathered into the love of God. In the early days Origen was the great
name connected with universalism. I would believe with Origen that universalism is no easy thing. Origen believed that after death there were
many who would need prolonged instruction, the sternest discipline, even the severest punishment before they were fit for the presence of God. Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would have to go to heaven via hell. He believed that even at the end of the day there would be some on whom the scars remained. He did not believe in eternal punishment, but he did see the possibility of eternal penalty. And so the choice is whether we accept God’s offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.
Gregory of Nyssa offered three reasons why he believed in universalism.
First, he believed in it because of the character of God. “Being good, God
entertains pity for fallen man; being wise, he is not ignorant of the means
for his recovery.”
Second, he believed in it because of the nature of evil. Evil must in the end be moved out of existence, “so that the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all.” Evil is essentially negative and doomed to non-existence.
Third, he believed in it because of the purpose of punishment. The purpose of punishment is always remedial. Its aim is “to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness.” Punishment will hurt, but it is like the fire which separates the alloy from the gold; it is like the surgery which removes the diseased thing; it is like the cautery which burns out that which cannot be removed any other way.
But I want to set down not the arguments of others but the thoughts which have persuaded me personally of universal salvation.
First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which
more than justify this belief. Jesus said: “I, when I am lifted up from the
earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Paul writes to the Romans: “God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all“ (Romans 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (1 Corinthians 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and of Christ Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all“ (1 Timothy 2:4-6). The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.
Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an
ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them
grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature
kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. The word for
eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato — who may
have invented the word—plainly says that a thing may be everlasting
and still not be aionios. The simplest way to put it is that aionios cannot
be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw
it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.
Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.
Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God,
the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be
everything to everyone (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). For me this has certain
consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of
time, it means that that one man has defeated the love of God—and that
is impossible. Further, there is only one way in which we can think of the
triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would
be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or
were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father—he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family forever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family.
The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.
Quoted from William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pp. 65-67,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977.