The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Salvation Mysteries

Eph 3:3-11
that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,

This passage echoes the theme of the mystery of the gospel which Paul refers to numerous times though this and other letters. Here is the most explicit declaration of what exactly that mystery is. It is that, unbeknownst to past generations, the gentiles were to be included in the the fellowship of Gods people.

That really doesn’t seem like much a mystery to you and I in that we are privileged to the Book of Acts and the unveiling of God’s grace to the Gentiles. But to the people across the ancient world it was a big surprise.

Yet we also in hindsight see Gods intent to bring the gospel to the Gentiles through numerous implicit hints or clues by which the mystery was understood from the Old Testament.

Rahab the harlot and Ruth the Moabite were non-Jewish women inserted not only into the nation of Israel but into the very Messianic bloodline. Naman the leper was granted the blessing of healing even though he was a pagan and the blinded Arimeans experienced feeding and freedom rather than the destruction they sought to bring to the prophet.

Could one have looked at all these clues as a Jew who lived before Christ and recognized the mystery of the Universal offer of salvation to the Gentiles? Not without the help of the Holy Spirit. Yet the clues were all there and many Jews, in fact most just did not see what they were pointing to.

But the Jews were not the only ones taken by surprise.

Eph 3:9-10
“to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.”

I Cor 2:7-8
“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, eventhe hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

It would seem that some kind of celestial beings are being surprised as well. Who might that be and why would the mystery be hidden from them as well?

While the second reference is obviously about evil beings, the first reference might very well include angels both fallen as well as not.

Consider this passage which seems to indicate the curiosity of the holy angels regarding this mystery.

I Peter 1:12
It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

There are things that men know, then there are things angels know that men do not, and then there are things God only knows.

In fact according to Jesus the time of His own return was a mystery to Him at least at that time He spoke it. A strong argument could be made that when He ascended the mystery was revealed to Him.

The important point in all of this is that there was a plan in place that God kept all to Himself in past ages. How can we not marvel at this? That in the garden, in the patriarchs, in Egyptian slavery, in the wilderness journey, in the Kings of the Jews, in the judgements they suffered as a nation, this mystery was at work behind the scenes unbeknownst to anyone but God- the mystery of inclusion of the Gentiles.

We saw how the Apostles received the revelation of the mystery. Peter at first struggled and even stumbled. He had to have a divine vision of a safari buffet to uproot his lifelong conditioning to eschew Gentiles as people who God loved. Later he was rebuked by Paul for being two faced when he treated the gentiles like the uncool kids while the Jews were around.

Some of the larger church met the inclusion of the gentiles with passive resistance in that many converted Pharisees insisted that all gentile believers had to pass through the rites of Judaism such as circumcision before being accepted as Christians. They were deemed incorrect at the Council of Jerusalem. Yet the Apostles imposed some legalism upon them that would later be dismantled by Paul, such as eating meat offered to idols.

But we see that the acceptance of the mystery of the gentiles was not without its struggles and growing pains. So much so that the Judaizers never quite gave up and became a ongoing schism with which Paul contended in his letters.

So with all this let’s establish a single set of truths supported by what has been shown.

In past ages God had a mystery that was kept hidden until it was finally revealed through the church. It was a mystery regarding more people being loved and saved than previously imagined. It was a mystery whose clues were hidden in plain site in the scriptures but unseen due to lack of revelation.

Now, having seen how God operated a salvation mystery in ages past, let us consider whether there may be another salvation mystery for ages yet to come.

Eph 2:4-7
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Eph 3:17-21
that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what isthe width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

or

Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

God seems to be planning on revealing more grace in the ages to come. He seems to indicate that love has more to do and say than what we have already seen it do and say. For it is of Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think.

What do we ask or think? We ask for people to get saved before they die because we think there is no hope for them beyond this life. Much like Jews thought there was no place for Gentiles in the family of God by virtue of their uncleanness.

But Gods spirit revealed to the church that Gods love actually surpassed their knowledge. Think about that. When Gods love surpasses knowledge that can only mean that His love is going to do something we may not yet know about. The whole point of calling something a mystery is that it is hidden.

What we see is that in times past the mystery was obscure to some but clear to others. The main reason some did not see it when it was revealed was because of the condition of their hearts. Jesus spoke of spiritual blindness as a condition whereby a person is unable to see. The Pharisees were declared blind guides because they were claimed to know the way yet they did not see the Way standing in front of them.

There are passages of scriptures which have seldom ever been used in sermons for thousands of years. The passages have found no place in the discipleship or equipping of the modern church despite their profound implications. Universalists however for thousands of years have looked at these passages and seen a love being revealed for ages yet to come. There are many whose heart rejects the idea that God would save all even out of hell. But this goes to the matter of being rooted and grounded in love.

Universalism is so rooted. And being rooted in love is what gives us the ability to comprehend the full dimensions of these passages worth and revelation.

I Tim. 4:9-11
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.Command and teach these things.

When we allow the full dimensions of Gods love to define this passage the implications are impossible to ignore. Perhaps this is why the scripture has been largely ignored. Ask yourself this: How long had you been a Christian before you noticed this passage? If the answer is a long time, one would have to ask why.

I taught the word for 30 years and when a Universalist showed me that scripture I had to check and see if every version of the bible actually had that verse. How did I miss that? Where had it been all those years? It had been there the whole time, walking with me on the road to Emmaus.

Now perhaps I was just a less than thorough expositor. I have no problem accepting that. But I also listened to a lot of sermons as well as preaching many myself. Somehow it would seem many of other preachers and teachers in my corner of the world were missing this passage as well.

There are numerous other passages I have coined “orphan” passages by virtue of their precious value yet widespread neglect. Rather than to belabor them all here I would simply recommend the reader seek out well written studies such as Keith DeRose’s work as found here. http://campuspress.yale.edu/keithderose/1129-2/#2

Those who object to seeing a Universalist interpretation to these passages might ask this.
“Do you really think the New Testament writers were hinting at Universal salvation? It would seem that something that big would have been spelled out much more clearly. Hopeless judgement appears far more clear than universal salvation.”

Well I would simply appeal to how Gods mysteries as worked in the past ages. Did not the exclusion of the gentiles appear far more clearly to the Jews than the eventual inclusion as they read the Old Testament scriptures? Yet we see how that turned out.

Furthermore as to whether the Apostles understood as they wrote that they were pointing to Universalism, I would say they did. But even if they did not, is it necessary that they did?

We have a very firm assertion by the Apostles that those who wrote scripture before them did not completely understand the fullest implications of what they wrote. How else would a message be delivered verbally through messengers and yet remain a mystery to the messengers themselves?

2Pe 1:20-21
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake [as they were] moved by the Holy Ghost.

I Peter 1:10-12
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of [Christ] within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.

These passages undergird our understanding of what is known as “sensus plenior” or the idea that prophets wrote things that were not fully understood to them but only to God and which would be more fully understood later when God so chose to reveal it and to whom.

In addition to the Old Testament prophets, there are seemingly also New Testament prophets who may not fully understand what the fullest meanings of their prophecies are.

1Co 13:9-13
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Spiritual maturity is love. Universalism is an appeal to the most mature form of Christianity we can conceive of and whose possibility is supplied by the scriptures. Whether the prophets fully understood or not, we see a message from the heart of God in what they said and it cannot be unseen anymore.

According to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, the most immature morality (most commonly found in children) is that which is based in the fear of punishment and the question of whats in it for me. The highest moral motivation is that which is the most good for others even to the ultimate expense of ones own good.

Through the words of Paul, might the Spirit be growing us up into a love based morality instead of a fear of eternal conscious torment morality? Furthermore, could such a love as revealed by the God who called himself Love settle for burning souls for eternity future who from eternity past were the object of Christs love?

The greatest of these is love. Love never fails. Everything else will fail. The law of Moses failed. Prophecies will fail. Gods love will not fail.

I would propose there is a salvation mystery being revealed for ages yet to come. Many have seen it in the past. Not everyone sees it now. But it will finally be seen by everyone.

Questions for discussion:

How likely is it that another salvation mystery is being revealed in the same way it was regarding the Gentiles?

How much weight can we give sensus plenior to support Universalism whether or not the Apostles saw it?

How might this argument be helpful for nonUniversalists in overcoming their own aversion to the Universalist position?

I guess SOME universalists are saying that. But the main emphasis among most EU’s is that universalism has ALWAYS been part of the revelation in the scriptures, it’s nothing new, and not a mystery. Just overlooked or clouded by mistaken theologies of hell, etc.

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As was the mystery of the gentiles.

Right - a mystery up until the time the NT was written. Mystery no more.

How might this argument be helpful for nonUniversalists in overcoming their own aversion to the Universalist position?

Generally speaking, from what I’ve observed, there is no quick way to ‘here’ - universalism - from ‘there’ - ECT or annihilationism.
But not always - I’ve shared my experience and others have said the same thing - that before we even heard of universalism, we were prepared by experience and study for the truth of it to just fit right into place in our thinking. It was ‘Aha! I knew it!’.
But it is a tough sell to those who are convinced otherwise, because at bottom it is not a question of correct exegesis, but a question of what God is like. That’s a fundamental bedrock issue with people concerned about such things, and to tamper with that will almost always get a negative reaction.

I was one convinced otherwise. I am surrounded by those convinced otherwise.

I don’t approach this as a search for a silver bullet but a sound answer to a particular objection. The objection being: Why isn’t Universalism as explicit as judgement?

Im not asserting the question, Im identifying it. Its coming from non universalists.

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What was your aha moment? Or was it more of a long road to enlightenment?

My first crack of light was when I started feeling internally disturbed by eternal punishment over a year ago. I did a google search for “is hell forever” and stumbled on “Gods Plan for All”.

I told my wife, “Ive never read anything like this. They are very sound biblically…they just don’t believe hell is forever.”

I set it aside with respect but also tentativeness. But the seed was planted. I came back to it months later and then found Robin Parry and Thomas Talbott and DeRose and of course Tentmaker.

I was ruined. Many days since then wrestling like Jacob with God.
But God prevailed and I came out blessed.

Thanks, that’s good to hear.
I’m convinced that the path from there to here has to begin with that internal disturbance.

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In fact before I ever read anything universalist, I wrote this long melodramatic apocryphal dialogue of a person in heaven begging God to let people out of hell. It was sort of in the vein of
Abraham interceding for Sodom or Moses for Israel.

But it was God trying to get me to let people out of hell in my own mind maybe.

I can see that.

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After consideration i realized I was reaching too far in representing the Universalist community and revised my closing statement. Thanks for pointing that out.

Mark, I hope you didn’t sense that I was ‘pushing back’ - far from it. Your experiences and thoughts are as valid as anyone’s. I’m always trying to clarify things and sometimes it comes off as ‘pushing’. I’m not. :slight_smile:

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No not at all. But your comment helped me realize (whether you meant to or not) that i was assuming too much representation and Im much happier with the closing statement now.

I appreciate your input.

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Appreciation of the nature and character of God is definitely an important factor in why believers entertain a belief in universalism. However, I suggest that the majority of evangelical Christians instinctively shy away from serious consideration of all beliefs that run contrary to what they have been taught, in most cases from childhood. Pastors face different kinds of pressures which don’t need elaboration.

I have told ad nauseam how I started to doubt what I had been taught and believed about hell, as gospel truth, for over 65 years. I won’t repeat it, except to say that the very nature of God, as that of love, dawned upon my inner being as being a God who would never condemn a human being, young or old, to an eternity of unbelievable physical and mental pain with no hope of escape. I knew I could never torture anybody, nor even an animal. (I deliberately walk around an ant on the sidewalk if I see it struggling across with a burden on its back three times its weight). Why not? I asked myself. The answer immediately came to mind - because God made me in His image! Was it the Holy Spirit directing my thoughts that day? Others might disagree and suggest it was the Devil.

I think very few Christians contemplate what the hellfire taught from the pulpit and contained in church Confessions of Faith would be like - awful, endless, pain and suffering, with no relief. They must be able to free their minds from such thoughts. I could not.

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Until my grandmother’s death after a long battle with dementia, I never thought about hell. I was raised Catholic, and the RCC affirms ET, but it was never preached in the church I attended. But when my grandmother died, I started asking, “What happens to all those non-Christians when they die?!”

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Perhaps this interesting article…from today’s Patheos Evangelical newsletter, might fit here:

It’s been toned down quite a bit. See, for example: