Perhaps one of the most-beloved children’s stories in the Old Testament is that of Jonah, who famously was swallowed by a great fish and spit out again three days later. Of course, much of the story is decidedly deeper and darker: God did not let Jonah rest until he relented to do the will of the Lord, to warn the wicked city of Nineveh of their coming doom, but Jonah reacted very badly to the situation. As the story unfolds over four chapters, Jonah didn’t want to proclaim the word he had been given, so he hopped onto a ship and tried to flee. God sent a great storm and caused the crew to sacrifice Jonah to save themselves, and God sent a great fish to swallow him. After three days he repented, and God told him again to go warn Nineveh. He obeyed this time, and Nineveh promptly repented and was spared. Jonah was angry at God for His mercy, and spent a lot of time pouting in the desert, but God corrected Jonah’s understanding.
Jonah’s reticence to warn Nineveh was understandable – in his cultural and timely context, Nineveh represented the worst of the Assyrians, who had long tormented his people. In his mind, they deserved to die, and apparently, they also even deserved destruction in the eyes of the Lord, who proclaimed judgement on them before the story even begins.
Here are the main parts of the story in the New American Standard translation:
1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry out against it, because their wickedness has come up before Me.” 3 But Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship that was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and boarded it to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord.
1:15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 Then the men became extremely afraid of the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 And the Lord designated a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish for three days and three nights.
2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish.
2:10 Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
3:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” 3 So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
3:5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, removed his robe from himself, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the dust.
3:10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil way, then God relented of the disaster which He had declared He would bring on them. So He did not do it.
4:1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 Then he prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was this not what I said when I was still in my own country? Therefore in anticipation of this I fled to Tarshish, since I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and One who relents of disaster.
And God replied,
4:11 Should I not also have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people, who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left, as well as many animals?”
Jonah appears a few more times in the Bible, outside the book that bears his name.
23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned for forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not abandon all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, into which he misled Israel. 25 He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. 26 For the Lord saw the misery of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free spared, nor was there any helper for Israel. 27 Yet the Lord did not say that He would wipe out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.
(That’s particularly interesting: even by the hand of an exceedingly evil king of the Hebrew people, the Lord saved His people according to the word of Jonah. This passage also establishes Jonah as a legitimate prophet, before he appears in his own story.)
Jesus also spoke about Jonah at least twice, appearing in three different places in the gospels according to both Luke and Matthew.
Matt 12:38 says Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves a sign; and so no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as Jonah was in the stomach of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 16:1 says The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and putting Jesus to the test, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But He replied to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but are you unable to discern the signs of the times? 4 An evil and adulterous generation wants a sign; and so a sign will not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them and went away.
Luke 11:29 says Now as the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it demands a sign, and so no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
For the last few months, I’ve been rethinking my views of the ultimate fate of human souls, and I’ve read quite a few books about the concept of “universalism.” That word has a few possible definitions, but in general the idea is that all men will “be saved” (which also has a few possible definitions). Some consider universalism to mean that all religions will lead to salvation; others are more focused on a universal fulfillment of the specific Christian definition of salvation, that all humans will ultimately accept Christ as their Savior.
Whichever definition of “universalism” you might choose to discuss, it’s a long way from the traditional evangelical understanding that most humans will reject Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and God will permanently condemn them to hell for their denial of His Lordship. That’s certainly the viewpoint I grew up with: because I named Jesus as my own personal Savior, I would be one of the blessed ones who went to heaven instead of hell at the end of my life, and that I would be one of the sheep and not the goats when Jesus proclaimed my fate on that great Judgement Day.
But what I’ve been reading, and my sense of what the Bible teaches when I start afresh instead of trying to fit what I read into my existing hell-and-damnation doctrine, fits a lot closer to universalism than the evangelical understanding of salvation and hell. I sense that what one author calls “evangelical universalism” is the most in line with the entirety of scripture, in the sense that it still abides by the idea that only those who put their trust and faith specifically in Jesus and make Him their Lord will be saved – but that ultimately all mankind will choose to do so. And it goes beyond those currently alive: God will save even those who have died without believing in Jesus’ sacrifice.
I won’t go deeper into the specifics of universalism, or spend any time here defending it. There are plenty of good books on my Suggested Reading List page you can consider. But I don’t think defending universalism is necessary to make the points which follow.
Not surprisingly, any universalist doctrine is anathema to evangelicals. It violates the idea, which is very deeply entrenched and taught on a very regular basis, that we only have this lifetime to decide to follow Jesus. If you die without professing faith in Jesus, you spend eternity in hell, no questions asked, no chance of reprieve.
A reasonable question can be asked of a universalist: if one might be saved after death, then why bother witnessing to the lost while they are alive? To me the answer is simple: because I still do believe in God’s judgement leading to very painful time of punishment after death. In keeping with God’s justice, the punishment will “fit the crime.” I no longer believe that the punishment is everlasting, without end. Specifically because it will “fit the crime,” I don’t see how a short-time crime (after all, a human life is a mere blink of an eye on the scale of eternity) would be answered by a just God with an infinite, unending, eternal punishment. But the point is this: there WILL be punishment after we die, and I would wish others to avoid that fate.
Furthermore, I know from experience and the Bible that following God and being part of His Kingdom during this lifetime has amazing richness and blessings, and that leads me to desire the same for the lost around me.
So not believing in unending damnation, and believing that God will ultimately win over those who die in their sin, does not in any way lessen my sense of urgency for the lost. It simply releases me from what I now see is a mistaken belief that I can in any way be responsible for them being lost to the Kingdom for eternity.
By now, you’re probably wondering where Jonah comes into this discussion. Ultimate salvation and a guy surviving being swallowed by a great fish don’t seem related, after all.
But I see a connection, and it has to do with Jonah’s attitude about the guilty.
God called Jonah to witness to a sinful and damned city. God had already clearly and definitively proclaimed judgement on them. Jonah refused, because he felt like the inhabitants of that city deserved their fate, and he knew God was “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and One who relents of disaster.” But God made it clear, by how He insisted on Jonah’s witness to Nineveh, that those humans were just as deserving of His salvation as Jonah’s people – God’s own people. God was determined to save even the enemies of His people, and to use one of His own people to call these foreigners to repentance.
Notice that despite His very clear statements to Jonah that He was going to destroy Nineveh, God “relented” – He changed His mind – when the people turned from their evil. And this is hardly the only story where God changed His mind; consider Moses’ appeal in Exodus 32 for the people when after they shied away from entering the Promised Land, God declared that He would kill them all and start over with Moses. Or the story of Lot, when He appealed to God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if even a few righteous men could be found. Similar verses of God relenting of judgement can be found in the prophecies of Jeremiah, and in other Biblical accounts. We see a strong picture across the entire Bible of a God who declares judgement on sin, but goes out of His way to bring salvation and restoration.
This makes me rethink Jesus’ references to Jonah in a new light: that the “sign of Jonah” was not just about His own death for three days being predicted by Jonah’s three days in the fish, but also that Jesus’ ministry would not only be to God’s own people, but that it would extend EVEN to those who had already been judged and found deserving of destruction.
I also cannot help but notice that Jonah was an example – a foreshadowing or “type” if you will – of God’s people being the witness that brings the outsiders to salvation – just as Jesus would bring God’s salvation to the entire world, not just to the Jews.
In some sense, I also see echoes in today’s evangelical church of Jonah’s thinking, and of his “insider’s” mindset: they insist that those who reject Jesus deserve judgement and utter destruction. And they don’t want to consider any possibility that God might repent of their annihilation and restore them instead.
It feels to me as if evangelical Christianity considers itself a sort of insider’s club, wanting to keep the membership limited and to continue to exclude anyone who didn’t buy in early enough. It’s much like Jonah wanting to keep God’s salvation only for his own people.
But over and over in the Bible, I read story after story of God determinedly expanding the boundaries of His kingdom. And there is scripture after scripture that says “all mankind” and “all people” and “all creatures” and “everything” when speaking of God’s determination to save His entire creation, to make it whole again. It’s not just “His people” but “all people.” God sent His son to His people – but as the New Testament unfolded, it became increasingly clear that every tribe, tongue, and nation (people group) would be saved too. And if God was serious about saving every tribe, tongue, and nation, I must consider why that would not include peoples that have been born, lived, and died before Jesus, and those today who have yet to hear about Him and will die before they do?
So I feel I must reject the spirit of Jonah, that human desire to see God execute vengeance on my enemies, on those who don’t meet my understanding of God’s standards for “going to heaven.” I don’t see any choice but to believe that God may very well be able to save even those who have already been judged and condemned. And like Jonah, my new understanding of God’s eternal, everlasting grace doesn’t diminish God’s assignment to me to call others to turn from their sin and to trust in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, and to reach any who haven’t heard the good news yet. Rather, I see that it’s the very way in which God will see them ultimately saved – if not during this lifetime, then somehow, in the eternal future ahead of us all. In fact, I imagine that my witness for Christ and for God’s saving grace won’t end on the day I die – it will simply migrate into the new world, where we all will continue to model His love for the lost.
Notice that in Revelation of John in the final two chapters, even when the new heavens and the new earth are in place, and the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, has come down out of heaven from God, that there will STILL be those outside the gates, doing evil and not being welcome. But “on no day will its gates ever be shut” – which to me implies strongly that God will still be calling to the lost, and welcoming in those who “wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city” (Rev 22:14). And I can easily imagine that it’s God’s own people who will continue to bring witness to His goodness and grace and mercy, even in that new era of eternal life.
And if my heart is modeled after my Heavenly Father’s heart, then I know that one day I’ll rejoice when my “enemies” and those outsiders are ultimately saved – because after all, He calls me to love them, not hate them, and to rejoice in their redemption, not in their punishment.
So I invite you, reject the spirit of Jonah with me, and consider anew God’s heart for the lost.