The Good Fruit of Universal Reconciliation

Recently I spent some time talking about “The Fruit of Hell,” and how the doctrine of eternal conscious torment combines with Christian church power structures and teaching to control people and organizations in unhealthy ways. Given the topic, it was a fairly negative discussion, so I think it’s worth considering the alternative: the good fruit of believing the opposite.

Let’s start by noting that it’s likely that you can find something to criticize about anything, and when you get imperfect humans involved even with a perfect doctrine, there will certainly be times when bad fruit appears. So I don’t think it’s appropriate to make a decision about the fruit of something based solely on its bad fruit. One has to consider if there’s any good fruit, and then look at the balance between them. As I said last time, “One does not assess a harvest based on one or two or any number of individual fruits – but on the overall outcome. If most of the fruit in the pile is rotten, it was a bad harvest, even if some good specimens can be found and exalted as proof that it CAN be okay.” Conversely, if most of the fruit in the pile is good, even if some bad specimens can be found, it is a good harvest and I think it’s appropriate to look positively on the thing that’s being evaluated. So it’s the balance of good versus bad, the overall results, which bear inspection.

In my post “The Fruit of Hell” I was only talking about eternal conscious torment, most people’s understanding of the concept of hell. There are still two other usual alternatives to be found in scripture, of annihilation of the unbelievers (sometimes called “conditional immortality”), and of universal reconciliation of all humans. I don’t want to dig deeply in to annihilationism here, partly because I believe that it suffers the same general bad fruit and lack of good fruit as does ECT. So I’m going to set that doctrine aside here, and only consider universal reconciliation.

There are a handful of areas of effect – of types of fruit, if you will – which I’d like to consider here.

  • The effect on our view of God
  • The effect on our hearts
  • The effect on the Church
  • The effect on the world
  • The effect on the Kingdom
  • The effect on other doctrines

I’ll go through each of these in turn. Given that this is about good fruit, as much as possible I want to focus on the good things, but it’s going to be necessary to talk about the downsides of the alternatives. For that, I apologize in advance.

The effect on our view of God

The idea of approaching someone of much greater power and authority than ourselves is necessarily fraught with trepidation and great concern. Even with someone generally like ourselves but with more power, we still tend to be fairly careful to avoid any offense, lest we lose something of value. If it’s a work supervisor, we could lose our job. With a policeman we could lose our freedom. With a strongman, we could lose our life. Interacting with infinite power ramps this caution up infinitely high: if we do it wrong, we can lose literally everything. The Bible – like many other writings for other religions – is full of such concern. There are rule after rule for avoiding offending deity. Even a well-intentioned but imperfect action, like Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark in 2 Samuel 6:1-7, is capable of resulting in instant death, so we see in the Bible that layer after layer of protection is erected between us and the deity.

But this same Bible also tells us, over and over again, of God’s deep love and care for us, of God’s desire to break down the wall of separation between us. God is repeatedly portrayed as a father, even with the endearing term “Abba” in Rom 8:15. The parable of the prodigal son could even better be described as the parable of the prodigal son’s father, with the picture of a deeply loving and concerned father that threw all social grace and all dignity to the wind to run to his returning long-lost son. In Matt 23:37 Jesus mourned for God’s lost relationship with Jerusalem “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.

So in the Bible with these conflicting layers of human self-defense and God-initiated love, I picture a fraught wrestling match between infinite love and nearly-infinite human fear.

Again, note that the fear comes from the threat of implacable and infinite consequences. This is reinforced by the threat of eternal torment, or even mere annihilation. But if instead we conceive of God as being so utterly devoted to restoring every single human soul into complete unhindered relationship with what the Bible describes as a perfect loving Father, so much so that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God,” (Rom 8:38-39) then fear can be finally conquered.

In short, rather than seeing God as waiting to strike us down for the smallest infraction, rather than fearing that an imperfect doctrine might result in God’s condemnation to eternal death or torture, even rather than fearing that imperfect works might result in God burning up some part of our reward in eternity, instead we can truly begin to understand God as the perfect Father who truly desires for us to grow and thrive and mature, who won’t give up on us for any reason at all, who won’t punish us capriciously but will bring about every good thing in due time.

It’s a God that we can completely love without fear.

It’s a God that we can completely trust.

It’s a God that we can worship not because we /have/ to lest we be smitten, but simply because we truly recognize and deeply believe the truth of all the good things that the Bible says about God – without reservation or residual fear.

The effect on our hearts

Given such an understanding and acceptance of God’s utter and intentional goodness towards us, there are unsurprising effects on our heart. We swing from a position of uncertainty and stress to a position of complete rest in our future. No matter what happens to us here on earth, we begin to recognize God’s determination to complete a good work in us, and the specifics of our faith become far less important than the simple faith itself. A peace takes over; we can truly and completely enter into the perfect rest of eternal security right now, here on earth, in the midst of principalities and powers and all kinds of challenges, because we recognize not just some words on a page, but the deep reality behind those words – that the very power and authority of the God who loves us is utterly FOR us, and that was proven by the resurrection which showed God’s determination to vanquish even death itself on behalf of those God loves.

At some level, anyone who grew up in the doctrine of eternal torment would even say “yes, I believe that too.” But deep down, in my experience, everyone still has that doubt of “maybe I’m not good enough for that. Maybe my faith isn’t perfect enough. Maybe I didn’t say the right words. Maybe I don’t believe the right doctrine.” We were taught that these amazing promises only apply to those who are truly saved – which in our teaching is largely about what we think and believe – and so we might, just maybe, not be among that group. That uncertainty saturates and poisons us daily.

So when we begin to believe that it’s literally every single soul, every person, every one who bears the imago Dei, and not just “the elect,” all that doubt finally disappears. And our hearts can finally be at perfect rest. It may take a period of detoxification, of recovery from decades of stress, but the eventual result is a deep and unshakable rest and relaxation for our heart.

The effect on our relationships

With the passing of the fear and the doubt, and with the certainty in God that results, that “all shall be saved” includes not just ourselves, but also every single human with whom we interact, we cannot help but be changed in how we treat one another.

No longer is it acceptable to treat any fellow humans as “other.”

When we believe, or even suspect, that the other is ultimately destined for hell, it’s far too easy to dehumanize them, to reject the imago Dei in them as satanic or counterfeit. “Oh, they’re not saved.” Or, “oh, they never WERE really saved.”

But when we see them as truly already part of God’s Kingdom now, equally God’s children and redeemed by the cross right now whether or not they’re walking by our preferred code of conduct and belief, we suddenly must come to terms with the idea that they, too, are absolutely going to be part of the Kingdom with us forever – we cannot treat them as “other.”

So xenophobia becomes sinful – tribal boundaries are no longer acceptable. We cannot treat any class or group as inferior, because we must recognize their equality with us before God.

Now, the question might well be asked: If we see them as ultimately bound for the same destiny as us, what keeps us from abandoning any attempt to witness, as pointless? If they’ll get there someday anyway, why not just stand by and let God handle it? It’s a fair question. But quite ironically, the same question can be asked (in reverse) of any Calvinist who believes in predestination. If they’re already condemned to hell because they were not predestined for glory, what’s the point of witnessing to them? Isn’t it wasted effort?

I’ve found that my concern for their eternal destiny, instead of being something I can ignore, now becomes a strong driver for how I treat them today. Suddenly, HOW I witness is perhaps more important than WHAT I witness.

I’ve found that many evangelicals – and I’m speaking from shameful experience here – assume that since the goal is saving a sinner from eternal hell, they can use any tactic no matter how dehumanizing to “win them” to heaven. Essentially, the ends justify the means. People can be berated, lied to, irritated, scared, stripped of their rights, even made literal chattel slaves as they were early in our nation’s history, as long as they “give their heart to Jesus” so they end up in heaven. After all, goes the logic, their heavenly destination makes any earthly torment worth it, since all the earthly pain will be forgotten in heaven’s bliss.

But I find this to be a poverty. If I’m convinced God will win their heart someday no matter what happens, I cease looking at the short window of time I have to interact with them as demanding “by any means necessary” witnessing. Instead, I can focus on truly showing them a perfect representation of this utterly loving God in how I treat them, so that I can introduce them to the true God and the true character of God, instead of trying to literally manhandle them into the Kingdom by brute force.

As a side effect of how I treat them, building genuine loving relationship becomes much easier. Instead of an antagonistic adversarial relationship, marked by a lack of trust because of how they perceive I see them just as a target for retrieval from hell, or as another statistic in how many souls I lead to Jesus, now they can tell that I see them as a fellow human made in God’s image, with love and concern in my eyes for our relationship. The door is opened to discipleship and even mutual growth as we walk together towards God.

The effect on the Church

With the surrender of the fear and the doubt, and with the resulting certainty and confidence in God, and as we begin to see and actually treat each other as equals truly loved and redeemed by God, the effect on the global Church should be easy to imagine.

Instead of a patriarchal or colonial relationship, as is far too common when believers go into a situation with people of different social status or another nation, when I rather perceive the other as an equal deserving of exactly the same treatment as myself, in receipt of exactly the same love of God as myself, the chance for actually becoming one with people different than ourselves becomes much more feasible. Suddenly the words of Jesus in John 17, about the Father making us one, actually become conceivable. How could we be one with someone we imagine as being underneath or inferior to us, needing us and our doctrine or our missions work to be saved? When we see them as already saved by Jesus’ sacrifice, already equal to us, already fully accepted, we can no longer justify any patriarchy or colonialism. We’re no longer dragging them into the Kingdom: we’re walking side by side towards the example Jesus set – and willing to learn from them just as much as we hope they learn from us.

When we stop competing for souls in our community, and stop being concerned that some church in our neighborhood is teaching the wrong doctrine, or somehow leading people to hell by its erroneous gospel, everything about “church” changes. We can begin to accept that while we may not agree with the doctrine or the methods, ultimately we all will be refined by the cleansing and purifying fire of God, and it’s not our responsibility to fix those other churches, or prevent people from being misled. It gives us breathing room for humility: our doctrine isn’t the only thing getting us to a “safe” eternity, so we can relax about joining together with others who disagree with our theology.

The effect on the world

As the church finally begins to come together free of its competition for “counting coup” on salvations, its competition against the supposedly erroneous doctrine of other churches, and its overinflated view of its own superiority over “those sinners,” the world will see something it’s never seen before: a true representation of God, which isn’t anything in doctrine or orthopraxy (right practices). Instead, the world will see love. As said the song from the 1980s “Jesus Movement,” “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” It’s a true representation of a God who self-identifies AS love personified, incarnated, which we then incarnate in an undeniable way.

Let’s be honest: here in the mid 2020s, there’s really not much love and mutuality and oneness exuding from the church at the moment. So the world is understandably uninterested in becoming part of what they see in the church: the division, the infighting, the competition, the arguments, the rampant spiritual abuse and the all-too-common sexual abuse by its leaders. The only “love” that is shown is closely guarded inside the walls, shown only to members of each small tribe. The church SAYS it loves everyone, but it only really SHOWS its love to its own faithful and committed tribe members. The outsiders hear the church say “join us so that then we can love you because you’ll be just like us.” No; that will never win people to the church. If that’s “the love of God,” why would they want it?

What the world truly yearns for is “we love you already, just as you are. God loves you too, period. No questions. God isn’t angry at you, and never has been. Come home with us, and we’ll love you exactly like God, with no conditions.”

The effect on the Kingdom

Jesus taught his followers to pray “Let your Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.

Let me flip that around for a moment: as the Church on earth matures and grows, so will the Kingdom advance.

From a very real perspective, I don’t believe the Kingdom will be complete without ALL humanity. So many statements in the Bible address God completing the good work, unwilling for any to perish, determined to make all things complete and perfect and fully restored in due time.

For years I saw this kingdom as only composed of those humans who turned to God before death, and more than that only of those who turned to God in the right way. Looking at verses that described the great Judgement Day, standing before the Throne when the books will be opened, it was pretty clear that it would be a disappointing experience for most humans – even passages like Matt 25:31-46 made it clear that many who THOUGHT they were saved would find they had been doing the wrong thing all along. The idea in Revelation (which I took literally) that only 144,000 Jews would be saved, out of the roughly 16 million alive today, and maybe several hundred million throughout history, made it clear that heaven was going to be a pretty exclusive club. Words like “remnant” emphasized that this was the case among Christians, too.

But that doesn’t seem much like “that all shall be saved.” It seems like a massive fail on God’s part. For a tiny fraction of humanity to “make it” to heaven? Yeah, it would be a fun eternal party for them, but I can’t imagine God would be happy with that result, when so many verses imply otherwise.

So as I think about God’s intent for the Kingdom, and I observe what the fruit would truly be if we stop assuming so many of them were headed to hell, and instead starting acting, truly acting, as if they would all in fact be with us in heaven, and all the things described above could actually begin to manifest “On earth,” perhaps “As in Heaven” could actually take place the way it’s actually described in the Bible!

Which brings me to the apocalyptic vision of John who wrote in Rev 5:13 “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” And a few chapters later, in Rev 7:9-10 “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.

EVERY creature. Uncountable numbers. From EVERY people group. Not a small remnant. And not grudging, but full-throated praise!

This isn’t possible if most of those souls are either annihilated or cast into eternal torment. The only way this is possible, in any imagination, in any accounting, is if Christ does in fact restore and reconcile each and every soul to its originally-designed relationship with God – and with each other in one accord, truly one even as Jesus and the Father are one.

And thus are heaven’s books completely and finally filled, and the “Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

The effect on other doctrines

I’m very well aware of many arguments against this thinking. I’ve briefly touched on some of the counterpoints here. I don’t have time in this short format to address every counterpoint, every opposing doctrine. I have readily acknowledged that the different doctrines each have scriptural support. I’ve done a set of four commentaries on the three main doctrines, if you want a deeper dive than this.

Despite the hope and joy I find in considering this rich bounty of good fruit from universal reconciliation, I cannot hope to dispel the alternate ideas. They will surely persist, as long as humans debate the meaning of scripture. Frankly, as I discussed in “The Fruit of Hell,” there are a lot of reasons that people will find value in the doctrine of hell. It’s too useful as a tool to scare and control people and hold an institution together. So rather than trying to chase away other doctrines, I think the best thing to do is to share THIS gospel instead. Present an alternative. Invite people to a new way of thinking about salvation and the Kingdom. Live as if I believe it, watch for the fruit, and celebrate it with those who partake of it with me.

And in the end, it’s not up to me – it’s not up to any of us, no matter our passion about our beliefs – what to do about those other doctrines. I think they actually do serve the needs of some people who have not yet found any other way of wrestling with their view of God, or of recovering from broken teaching and abusive spiritual leaders. So I’ll speak against those doctrines, but fairly gently. Very much as if I cannot beat a human into a relationship with Love personified, I cannot beat people into a relationship with a doctrine; I can only offer something better, a relationship with a living and loving God, and let the Holy Spirit nudge them to a deeper and more fruitful relationship.

And I suppose that very statement is yet another fruit of my position of universal reconciliation: the inner peace and acceptance that I cannot force someone into seeing the Kingdom as I do. But at the same time I’m quite confident that I don’t need to, either, that I really can relax and trust God to reach them in due time. In the meantime I will do my part to invite them into a new relationship with God. Unlike the hours I spent passing out “The Four Spiritual Laws” tracts to people who wanted nothing to do with Jesus, this feels like a kind of witnessing that actually will work, and will actually build the Kingdom. It’s just doing it on God’s timetable, not my own, and with God’s methods, not my own.

I could go on with many more thoughts about the good fruit I’ve discovered in universal reconciliation, but this feels like a decent place to wrap it up.

I hope I’ve inspired at least a few of you to begin to rest in this new way of trusting God. If I can help you further, I invite you to drop a comment or reach out thru the contact here.

Be blessed, and we’ll talk again soon.

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