The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Q&A with Derek Flood- author of "Healing the Gospel"

Given Derek’s new book Healing the Gospel (see RevDrew’s excellent review) looks at Penal Substitutionary Atonement (often comes up on this forum), I’ve invited him to do a Q&A for us here! Derek’s username is [tag]sharktacos[/tag].

I’ll kick us off with a question that I’ve been asked:

Is all Biblical justice ultimately restorative rather than retribution? Does God do any retribution?

Thanks Alex! Wow that is one doozie of a question!

Where I see the sticking point here is that

  1. it is clear from the teaching of Jesus that we humans are not to act in retribution
  2. Jesus presents God the Father as the model of enemy love
    So if God is retributive but we can’t be, how can God be a model for us?

Michael Gorman suggest that the answer is found in Philippians 2 where we see that Jesus although God, humbles himself in kenotic love. Taking that as Paul’s “master narrative” he then suggests that the pattern we see is that while God alone may be understood as having the right to retribution, God instead chooses the cross. God chooses to forgive. God models enemy love for us in Christ.

What I see in the NT is a text in transition. I see a people who have assumed that the way of retribution is God’s way, and I see Jesus speaking into that context, and trying to show them a better way–the way of enemy love, the way of restorative justice. I see Jesus continually pushing at their assumptions.

Take for example the parable of the Sheep and Goats: It begins with the traditional religious assumptions of retributive judgement, and then Jesus completely turns the tables, basically saying “You believe in judgement? Well, if anyone is gonna go to hell, it’s you religious folks who are ignoring these people in need by trying to keep yourselves pure!”

He begins with their assumptions (of hell, of retribution, etc) and then pushes at them, always in the direction our acting in mercy and compassion. So while there certainly is language of God’s retribution in the NT, I think if we look at the big picture, what we see is a trajectory moving away from retribution and towards restoration. Or if you will, the broad narrative of the NT is that retribution is the problem that is solved by the superior way of God’s restorative justice.


Hi Derek,

I have read your blog (and the articles) for a while now and, having come from a Conservative, Penal Substitution, Eternal Torment background (Plymouth Brethren in the UK - I’m currently agnostic), have enjoyed reading a different take on the meaning of Christ’s atoning death.

In contemplating getting the Kindle version of your book I had a look at the sample chapter on your site and found a paragraph that seemed to contain something of a typo…

All the best,


Thanks for pointing that out Jeff. The sample chapter is from an earlier version I had (due to technical issues). That typo does not appear in the Kindle or print version of the book. I’ll update the sample chapter. It should read:

“Love is not in conflict with justice, love is how justice comes about because the New Testament understanding of justice is ultimately not about punishment, but about making things right again.”

Derek, I love how you stated that. Of course it’s what I’ve been convinced of for awhile now, but haven’t been able to express as concisely as you just did. I usually avoid sharing stuff like this on fb, but I’m going to have to make an exception for this one.

I’ve ordered a paperback copy from Amazon Uk. :smiley: Sounds just what I need.

Derek I am so glad you are here on this forum. I recently discovered your* The Rebel God* blog and have been devouring your insightful and illuminating posts there. I intend to order* The Healing of the Gospel* today. It is contibutions like yours that makes me believe that something new (the ruach) is stirring in the world. May these first refreshing breezes grow into a tempest of truth that will free the world.


Thanks Dave, that’s really encouraging :slight_smile:


How would you respond to Peter Gurry’s accusation (in his review of your book for the Gospel Coalition) that your view of sin as sickness rather than crime lacks a vertical dimension and does not take idolatry seriously?

Hi Derek

Just a quick note to welcome you to the forum (although I see you have actually been a member for quite a while :smiley: ), and to say a massive ‘thank you’ for your Rebel God blog. I stumbled across an earlier version of it in, I think 2005 or 2006, and your article ‘Penal Substitution vs Christus Victor’ had a huge, and hugely positive, impact on my life. At that time I had read little of my now favourite theologian (not that he’d refer to himself that way :smiley: ) George MacDonald’s writings on the atonement, so your article really opened my eyes.

For years I had been deeply uncomfortable with many tenets and doctrines of ‘orthodox’ Christianity - so much so that I very nearly abandoned the faith altogether. I just couldn’t believe in a God who required a blood sacrifice to forgive sins, or who consigned His children to everlasting punishment for not believing in Him. Thanks to you, and GMac, and all the Universalist writers and theologians ‘out there’ (nobody in my church ever mentioned any of this stuff, other than to dismiss Universalism out-of-hand) I now no longer have to live with that impossible tension. So thank you, Derek, you are an inspiration and an apostle of the true gospel.

I shall be downloading Healing the Gospel onto my Kindle forthwith! Can’t wait to read it! :smiley:

Peace and love to you



Thanks for taking the time to do a Q&A with us here at the, we appreciate it.
You and I have been dialoguing on this very topic and while we may have our differences regarding the nature or definition of the word “retribution”, I agree that God’s intent is for restoration.

Without rehashing that issue again, I’m interested in one of your points you make here –
“God chooses to forgive…”

When Jesus states that there are false prophets and that we are to beware of them, and seems to paint for us the image of what’s going to happen to them – they will be cut down and thrown into the fire, and that many will be cast away from God “depart from me” – would you say Jesus too is in a transition? (Matt 7)

Jesus and Paul, as far as I can see, are in sync. Paul too describes that those who reject the truth are given over to destruction, that those who practice evil will not escape God’s judgment. What are your thoughts on Jesus’ warnings for those who act like the devil?

I tend to think God forgives and can still punish without violating the “forgiveness”. Do you think that’s incorherent?

Blessings to you.


Johnny, thanks so much for sharing this. I’m so happy that I could be a part of God’s grace working in your life like that. That’s honestly the whole reason I do this. So hearing stories like yours makes it all worthwhile :slight_smile:

Hi Andrew,

Well there are two separate questions here. One is whether sin is best understood as crime or sickness. Peter says it should be both.

I make the case in the book that viewing sin strictly from a legal lens has led to a profoundly deficient understanding of sin that in fact trivializes the problem and offers no real cure, and in fact adds to the hurt. It is a view of sin that is out of step with everything we have learned over the last century about mental health, and out of step with the NT.

Peter completely ignores all that, and simply makes the unsubstantiated claim that there is no problem with viewing sin as crime. But there is in fact a huge problem. If I get a speeding ticket, that works pretty well at deterring me from speeding. So in cases like this, it seems to work fine. But our prison system has an enormously high rate of repeat offenders, and an alarming amount of people in prison are mentally ill or addicts. What we are increasingly finding is that punitive measure do not lead to their reform, they make them worse. In contrast, restorative programs have had great success and reducing violence in prison and to bringing about actual rehabilitation (no repeat offenses). In addition to that, restorative programs also help the victims of crime to heal. Punitive programs do nothing to restore victims.

We also need to be clear that Peter does not think that retributive justice should have have the function of restoring (or deterring for that matter). He thinks that the purpose should be to inflict hurt for hurt. When he says retribution, he really means it. We need to keep that in mind when he speaks about the “vertical aspect” that is allegedly missing in my book. What is missing is the idea that God must punish sin, and that God cannot simply heal it. In other words, in his view, even if God could heal us and make us loving, good, and holy in Christ that, Peter thinks that would not be enough. Even if God could mend the hurt done by our sin to ourselves and others, that would not be enough. God (according to Peter) demands blood, demands hurt. I think that is a view of God that is completely out of step with the New Testament, and deeply troubling.

In contrast, I would argue that God is not the one with the problem, we are. That’s why God comes to us, while we were yet sinners, while we were God’s enemies, and first loved us. There is a vertical focus, but that focus is not us-up-to-God, it is God-down-to-us. Jesus continually draws our attention to how we treat others as a reflection of how we love God. “As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me” Jesus tells us. When David says in Psalm 51 “Against you only, Lord, have I sinned” he is saying the same thing as Jesus. As the king he had thought that he could do whatever he wanted, and so he raped Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed. But now David has realized that in sinning against these powerless subjects of his, he had in fact sinned against the king of kings. The point here is not to say that God doesn’t care about what David has done to that poor couple, and instead wanted to have all the attention. The whole point is that God wants us to care about the least, to care about each other. Vertical sin is inseparably connected to horizontal sin.

So if by a vertical focus we mean the notion that God is somehow “offended,” and needs to be mollified by us—that God can’t love us until “satisfied” by violent punishment, then yes I do reject that idea. God is not some insecure monarch demanding his pound of flesh. God is the one who comes to us in Jesus, seeking reconciliation. God is not the one with the problem, we are. God does not need to be changed, we do. God does not need to be turned around (repenting), we do.

If however a vertical focus means that we need to center our lives around God revealed in Christ, then this is in fact something I discuss at great length in the book. I see it as absolutely essential because it is through living with Jesus as our bottom line, as our Lord, and indeed as our friend in an intimate and growing relationship that we learn to love others just as Christ did. This is the “antidote to idolatry” Peter is looking for, found in a loving and transformative relationship with God. That vertical relationship with God naturally flows into our horizontal relationships with others because when we have truly experienced what it is like to be unconditionally loved by God, not based on our goodness, but based on God’s goodness, how can we help but want to treat others with that same grace and mercy we have known? This is not a heaven-ward focus, because a focus on God in Christ calls us not to look up, but to look down to the least. That’s where we find Christ.

So I do have a clear “vertical focus” in the book, but it is one focused on a loving and good God showing us enemy love and grace, rather than on an angry God demanding punishment in order to be mollified. That sounds more like a primitive volcano god to me, and not like God revealed in Christ.

Hi Gene,

I would note a couple things:

First, this is Matthew’s version of Jesus. Matthews gospel is much harsher with more of a violent apocalyptic than all the other Gospel writers. So what we have is not so much Jesus in transition as Matthew in transition. To put it differently, he is writing for a Second Temple Jewish audience who have assumed the legitimacy of violence. Yet even here we see that the intent is to begin there and move away from that and towards a message of radical forgiveness.

Second, is the fact that Jesus is not a “teacher” in the sense of someone who clearly explains concepts to people in a didactic fashion. That is why we see his audiences constantly being baffled by what he says. Jesus provokes, challenges, pulls the rug out from under people. That is his style of “teaching.” So we see that Jesus begins where his audience is at–which is often with the assumption that we should kill bad people in the name of God, that we should condemn and cast out the sick and disabled because they are under God’s curse. Jesus begins there, and then moves people away from that view with both his parables and his actions. Both of which are often intended to provoke and to shock.

So I do not think it is correct to see Jesus as advocating violent divine retribution. I think that is where his audience begins, but not where Jesus wants them to end up.

I would say that Paul understood this as a natural consequence of their behavior: Have an affair and it will destroy your marriage. Not as an externally inflicted punishment, but as the natural consequence. I do not think at all that Paul saw that as good (i.e. that it had a positive restorative function). Perhaps it can, but Paul’s focus is on how it is a negative consequence that we want to avoid. Further he distinguishes from what is the natural consequence of our actions (the “wage”) and what is God’s action of justice, which is clearly restorative.

I guess I would need you to be more specific with what you mean exactly by that, but initially I find it problematic to say that because it would imply to me that we should then inflict harm and suffering on people in order to “restore” them. This is something Augustine did. He had people beaten, he took away their property, and so on. This eventually lead to people being regularly tortured and killed in the name of “curing them.” There is a long and bloody history of what is called “the myth of redemptive violence.” I am very aware of that painful history, and so all sorts of red flags go off for me when I hear the idea of redemptive punishment. I’m sure this is not what you intended to propose, but I am simply stating that this is historically where this has lead in the past. So I am holding up a big sign that reads “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” I think we need to look at the history of redemptive punishment, recognize how profoundly hurtful it has been, and look for a better way.


Awesome answer.

So to start the ball rolling after our downtime, let me throw out something:

One of the major themes of the book is looking at how our doctrines translate into actions. How they impact our ability to trust in a loving God, and how they impact how we treat each other. A big theme here is the inherent violence in our popular understanding of “justice,” and the proposal to replace this violent understanding of justice with restorative justice.

Along those lines, I wanted to bring up the issue of how these ideas might intersect with folks from a universalist perspective. Specifically I’d like to make an argument against pairing together universalism with a belief in redemptive violence.

Many universalists have adopted the view that Hell is restorative. So instead of having the view that it is eternal punishment, or that is is annihilation, the view is that it is redemptive suffering… more or less the same as the Catholic idea of purgatory.

Of the 3 above choices, I can see why universalists would be drawn to this last one. The concern I have is the notion of “redemptive suffering” which Walter Wink has called the “myth of redemptive violence” and the consequences that embracing this can have on how we treat others. Specifically, looking at history, and especially church history, we can see that this idea of redemptive punishment has been behind a lot of violence. It was the logic of why prisoners were tortured in the inquisition, it was the reason children were severely beaten for centuries, it was the reason for inhumane treatment of prisoners, and on and on.

I hope we can all agree that this practice is abusive, and should not be something we should do. Perhaps God can, but we cannot. So for example a sovereign God might allow some tragedy to happen in my life, and from that I may have a major turn around. That is very different from me causing that tragedy in your life “for your own good.”

That is an extremely important point that we humans should not try and harm someone else, should not terrorize or violate them “for their own good.” Maybe that seems like a no-brainer, but this was precisely how people have thought for centuries, and many still do.

But let’s push this a bit further: Do we really think that God causes hurricanes to wipe out cities or gives people cancer? Do we even think that God purposely “allows” someone to get cancer. I think it would be pretty hard to trust a Father who would “allow” their child to be hurt.

So what I would like to propose is that Hell is not “redemptive” and neither is any other kind of pain or suffering. Pain is bad. Suffering sucks. Cancer is evil. God does not do evil. God does not inflict suffering. What God does is God works in the middle of that pain, turning “what was evil into good.”

Hell is the sucky rotten reality of our own hurt and hurtfulness, and Jesus is in there with us working to overcome all that in love.

So now we have an understanding where we do not need to affirm that God would do something that would be evil for us to do. In other words, the character and way of God is a model for our behavior.


Just got home and my copy has arrived. :smiley: Will tuck in later tonight.

Speaking as one of the big-gun purgatorial universalists on the site:

1.) I agree that we ought to be restrictive when it comes to major punishments, and even if due to social circumstances we believe we have to inflict them we should do so as mercifully as possible. I may be in favor of the death sentence in various cases, but I’m not in favor of death by torture. Relatedly, though, it would be better to institute a system of restitutionary justice where the criminal is expected to do good for those whom he (or she) has wronged. As a practical matter this becomes very difficult to implement, moreso than merely punitive systems (do your time, pay your debt to “society” in the abstract, then go your way or be buried). But there are scriptural precedents for it. Even the OT laws, harsh by our standards, were very progressive for their times and circumstances; not least because there were numerous safety factors built in (and built upon them later) to help prevent maximum penalties from being adjured. Yet the maximum penalties were still there, and still really viable (not merely theoretically so): for fallen human nature, at least, the stick has to be real or there will be a lack of respect.

2.) On the other hand–and this is something I find myself having to stress with some frequency to both non-purgatorial universalists and non-universalists whose systems divorce God from being actively involved in the fate of sinners (this is one of my main criticisms of JP Holding’s soteriology which I’ve been commenting extensively on recently)–***[size=150]any[/size]*** infliction of an unwanted condition by God, amounts to God inflicting suffering!

The suffering may be light or may be severe to any degree, but it’s still suffering. We may agree that God does not do what would be evil for us to do, but insofar as He opposes evil at all in any practically effective way, those who do evil will suffer as a result. Someone may love their sins because of corrupted psycho-physical wiring (so to speak), but healing that problem still involves inflicting an inconvenience directly opposed (to some real degree) to the person’s current preferences. That’s an infliction of suffering just as real as keeping sinners hopelessly alive in some inconvenient condition (no matter how relatively light that inconvenience may seem), or just as real as intentionally withdrawing active upkeep of a sinner’s existence so that the person is hopelessly annihilated. If God sits someone down for a stern talking-to (which is what I hope and expect most post-mortem retribution will amount to, aside from healing corrupted natures), that’s an infliction of suffering by God. If someone in their sin does something with an inconvenient result of its own, and God chooses to let that result occur to inconvenience the person, then that’s still an infliction of suffering by God. God may not have wrath in Him, but if He goes out to war against those who go out to war against Him, He is still inflicting suffering by burning up their thorns and thistles with which they try to wage war–even if they themselves (metaphorically and/or literally speaking in whatever degree) aren’t burned in passing, or by trying to hold onto the thorns and thistles, they wanted and intended to use those thorns and thistles which God has now forcibly denied them!

There wouldn’t be much point to God being reckoned with transgressors, either, if those transgressors had not transgressed against God and were suffering as a result. Different rabbis even outside Christianity picked up and applied both concepts from OT scripture, that the Messiah (or even YHWH!) shares suffering inflicted by YHWH on Israel for her sins, and that the Messiah (or even YHWH!) suffers Himself due to sin by Israel against YHWH: God (and/or His highest appointed representative) voluntarily suffers with victims and with the guilty.

I sympathize with the problems in trusting a Father who would “allow” their child to be hurt, but your own proposal still involves God allowing His children to not only hurt themselves in their sins but to hurt each other in their sins (completely aside from the question of God allowing them to hurt Himself in their sins!) Otherwise sinners would never be inconvenienced at all, ever; and if I am not supposed to trust a Father who would “allow” his child to be hurt, then I only have to recall EVERY SINGLE UNFAIR SUFFERING I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED OR KNOWN ABOUT (whether really or only apparently unfair) to be just as fatally solvent in trusting the Father.

Maybe this comes from spending many years as a Christian apologist, but that’s a big factor in lack of trust in God already for unbelievers. If we cannot offer anything better than that principle lack of trust due to any kind of allowance of suffering, then frankly I recommend becoming at least agnostics, maybe atheists, and even maybe anti-theists.

Personally I prefer knowing that God Most High, the One authoritatively responsible for setting up and maintaining conditions where people suffer, doesn’t inflict those conditions from on high but shares them with us as a promise and evidence of His ultimately benevolent intentions toward us. The judge Who inflicts our inconveniences (whatever those are) for our sins, is also our Paraclete who stands with us and even suffers our penalties with us. The judge who arbitrates between us and those we have sinned against, also stands with our victims sharing their victimization, just as He shares our unjust victimizations with us. We have no appeal and we have every possible hope.

But our sin doesn’t have any hope at all. God is going to inflict against our sin, sooner or later (or sooner and later), one way or another (or in a bunch of ways). Insofar as we insist on holding to our sins we’re going to be that much more inconvenienced by the infliction but we’re going to be, and already are, inconvenienced anyway by God in action regarding our sins!

If I, who fondles my sin, am going to be inconvenienced on God’s authority and (in various ways) by God’s active choices against my sin in any case (which must be true if God opposes sin in any practical way), I had better damned well hope that salvation from my sin, and the achievement of justice for all, is God’s goal for the inconvenience!

Otherwise it’s ECT or anni. Which are at least as inconvenient to my currently fondling of sin, and so to my current personal preferences (to some degree), as salvation from sin. :wink:

But my point, in summary, is that even salvation from sin, in whatever fashions, must be an inconvenience, and thus an infliction of suffering, by God. We may hope it will not be more than a minor inconvenience, but it will still be an inconvenience, and logically moreso insofar as we insist in holding to our sins.

To which I could add more comments regarding violent imagery claimed of God (and by God, at least by report) in the scriptures, in opposition against sin: even accounting for Ancient Near Middle Eastern hyperbole and possible (even likely) misunderstanding by messengers, those are still warnings and outright predictions (and reports) of God’s opposition to sin and to sinners. Inconvenience, at least authoritatively allowed by God, due to our sins, is a past, present and future reality (even if not the ultimate end of our reality). And most of those statements, by far, are not merely about God allowing inconvenience, but about God inflicting inconvenience.

And, from a purely self-critical perspective, I do not have much trouble expecting that for at least some people, that infliction has been, is, and will be, inconveniently extreme for various reasons–primarily having to do with people insisting on holding to their sins. Being baptized in God’s consuming fire sounds great to a Christian charismatic. Not so much to someone holding onto adultery and murder and pride in his heart.

Being salted by the unquenchable fire, to such a person, sounds frightfully hellish and affrontive to their personal self-worth.

And for very good reason.

Good thoughts, Derek and Jason. Just one comment in passing;

I may be off base here, but I think that there is a stick that’s real without necessarily forcing post-mortem punishment; and that is simply, “do not be deceived, for God is not mocked, a man reaps what he sows”. My question is, why would God put that in there if there wasn’t a question about the reality/ necessity of post mortem “zorching”? It would seem to be a strong indicator that our punishment for sin is contained within the consequences of the sin itself, and not inflicted by God directly.

As to Derek’s question about God causing evil (Great book, by the way; I’m about 3/4 through); “causing” appears to be a tricky word, even in passages such as Isaiah 45 (which I’m learning myself). I do think that it carries more of the sense that God uses evil to accomplish his good purposes, though he may not actually be causing or doing the evil directly. He does at the very least seem to claim responsibility for it in the sense that He is using it to effect a greater good. This sovereignty stuff is tricky business!

Thanks Derek for throwing this out. I was going to do so myself if someone else didn’t.

If Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive revelation of the true character of God then God is a healer and not an afflictor. “For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” Lam. 3:33 Your book “The Healing of the Gospel” is a much needed antidote for the affliction of retributive justice that has overshadowed the healing and liberating truth of the Gospel of Jesus the Healer. The healing Gospel has been suppressed and diluted with retributive notions to such an extent that it bears little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus the Healer.

In the first century B.C.E. the expectation of the coming of the messiah of YHWH was at fever pitch. One of the common expectations of the liberating messiah was that he would be a military leader who would overthrow, through the violence of battle, the oppressive gentile powers, namely Rome, and subject all the nations to the Torah and rule of God. Jesus never presented himself as a military messiah using violence and bringing down retributive justice on those who opposed (rebel sinners) the Kingdom of God; to the contrary, he was the polar opposite of that.

So why did many Jews, mainly the poor, sick, outcasts (sinners) and oppressed, begin to see him as a type of messiah figure. Because he healed them, he fed them, he brought them life and a new vision of the truth of God by demonstrating to them that God was not against them but forever for them and with them.

The way he died was not just a demonstration of that in the most graphic and visible way. It is the revelation of the true nature and character of God that nothing before in the biblical narrative could demonstrates with such stark clarity and radical newness. It is more than just another event, as often portrayed in Christian theology. in the so-called plan of salvation–albeit a significant one. It is a singularity event on par with the creation of the universe in the first moment of the Big Bang. It is not at all an act of retribution or a justification for violence, it is the resounding No, against violence and retribution. It is an act of creation, new creation that brings the Life of God to all the godless and godforsaken. God in Jesus subjected himself to the almighty power of death at the hands of the violent death-dealing minons (the political and religous authorties) who serve that power. The death of Jesus brought Emmanuel to the place of all the countless victims of the power of death–even to the long lost dead and extinct.

The resurrection of Jesus is much more than the rising of one man from the grave. It is the precursor for the universal resurrection (new birth/creation) of all things across all the time and space of the universe. It is no mere spiritual “resurrection” of enlightenment. It is the new birth, of all things directly from the Life of Abba, Father.

Resurrection is another aspect of the Gospel that needs to be healed. Philosophical dualism has imprinted the meme of an “after life” of going to heaven or hell deeply into Christian thought. Resurrection is not just another theory of the “after life.” It is the supreme healing event of the universe. It is the negation of death. It is healing taken to the nth degree undoing all the injustices, violence and death of the past and freeing the creation to be filled with the full living presence of YHWH and the Lamb bringing the creation to its fulfillment–and then life really and truly begins.

If YHWH does not remember our sins (for they are erased, blotted out, the slate wiped clean) then that perception of the cosmic observer of all space and time will transform all of reality in the cosmic Jubilee and all sin past, present and future becomes an impossibility. The former things have passed, “Behold, I make all things new.” All have been healed/resurrected, all have been made free and are no longer under the bondage of sin and the coercive power of death.
The tsadeq and dikaiosune (equitableness) of God will fill the ever expanding creation to overflowing. It is audacious; it unbelievable; it is beyond our wildest hopes; it is impossible; it is the madness of the God who freely gives all that He is to all that there is and makes the impossible possible by making all things new. Not by an act of coercive power or retribution but by emptying Himself completely into the creation.