Q&R with Brad Jersak – Universal Salvation & Divine Vengeance
I want to believe in universal salvation but what about blaspheming the holy spirit, Hebrews 6 4-6 & Hebrews 10:26-31. The Lord says Vengeance is mine I shall repay. And in this passage, “vengeance” is from timoria (retribution) not kolasis (correction). What gives?
Thanks for your questions. To begin with, I’m certainly glad that you want to believe in universal salvation. That is almost certainly because you share God’s heart who “desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” concerning Christ (1 Tim. 2:4) and in that same context, we’re called to pray for everyone (1 Tim. 2:1-2) to that end. So we pray for God’s will to be done.
That said, we don’t teach universal salvation as a dogma of the faith. Rather, we dare to hope based on the testimony of the Scriptures. I compiled 32 such Scriptures for your review here:
But what about blaspheming the Holy Spirit or the dire warnings in passages such as Hebrews 6 or 10?
We need to read such passages with three important elements in mind: 1. the immediate context the author is addressing, 2. the rhetorical context in which the author is writing, 3. and the message of the gospel itself. These are all quite complex but I’ll try to address them in turn briefly.
1. Immediate context: It’s not just what Jesus or the epistle writers are saying that matters in interpretation. We also attend to who they are saying it to, when and why. In the case of ‘unforgivable sins’ (blasphemy of the Spirit and unforgiveness), Jesus is speaking to situations that require a shot of cold water to a sleepy face. Pharisees were actually saying that Christ was driving out demons by the power of Satan. That’s a serious charge and he needs them to know they’ve cross the line. But is it literally the case they can never retrace their steps in repentance? So too, standing in unforgiveness, Christ says we cannot be forgiven. Is it literally the case that my resentments lock me into inescapable wrath? Let’s not answer that yet. On to point two:
2. Rhetorical context: In passages such as Heb. 6 and Heb. 10 (or 2 Thess. 1 for that matter), we have paragraphs that, in isolation, seem very black and white, portraying the backslider as beyond redemption and not only ready for condemnation, but even seem to say there is no hope of repentance. But ‘taken in isolation’ is the problem. N.T. epistles cannot be read that way. We must ask ourselves what the author is trying to accomplish and how he is doing that. These are sermons designed to motivate faithfulness and give courage to those tempted to leave the faith. So the writer will use every method in his rhetorical book to avert that disaster. One of the methods of NT rhetoric is to place contrasting tones back-to-back in the text in order to appeal to the reader’s emotions. They pair up contrary messages in a way that arrests the readers’ attention and makes them rethink their choices. Here are some examples.
- Hebrews 4:14-16 – making them feel confident
- Hebrews 5:11-14 – making them feel shame
- Hebrews 10:26-31 – making them feel fear (and urgency)
- Hebrews 11:1-12:3 – making them feel praiseworthy
In chapter 10, here is how the argument works:
- 1. You guys found Christ and you’ve been so faithful until now, even to the point of enduring persecution.
- 2. Now you’re actually tempted to abandon it and go back to what you once were.
- 3. So let’s review your choices: those who shrink back are enemies of God. Those who proceed forward in faith are the saints of God (ch. 12). The enemies get destroyed. The friends are saved. For the enemies, God is a violent judge and consuming fire. For the saints, he is a generous rewarder.4. But we aren’t ‘those people’ are we? No, we are the saints, aren’t we? Yes, we are the saints! Yay, saints!!! And on to chapter 11!
So that’s a bit about how rhetoric works. You may now see how if you pluck one paragraph from his argument and then literalize and totalize it as if the isolated bit were straightforward theology, but that would miss the bigger picture. Now to that portrait.
3. Gospel context: Whenever we read about divine judgment in any context, we must also place that judgment within its broader biblical context of the drama of redemption or what we call the gospel. The Cross of Christ becomes the cipher, the central image, or the punchline for the whole of the Scriptures. The Cross teaches us that no one is irredeemable, no sin is unforgivable and no judgment is ultimate, for “mercy triumphs over judgment”. On the Cross, while enduring the greatest sin in history–the conspiracy to murder God’s own Son–we see the divine Judge on his judgment seat issuing his final verdict: “Father, forgive them.” Rather than responding with wrath, he extends mercy to Pilate, to Herod, to Judas and to the soldiers who crucified him.
And yes, those who reject that forgiveness experience the consequences of their own defiance–they do not experience the forgiveness that is already theirs. Until they do. And this is our hope. This is God’s desire. This is our prayer. That those who yet suffer the alienation of the lost sons would somehow remember that the banqueting table is for them too and that they can freely return there. Can everyone freely return? The Cross has opened the door of the Father’s House to ALL. Will everyone freely return? The NT gives me at least 32 reasons to hope so. So we leave the final outcome to our Savior who gracious and compassionate to all that he has made, and we hope, pray and preach that invitation to that end.