One of the most intriguing arguments in The Evangelical Universalist – one which, though it has been around for some time, I have never encountered before – is the argument that the final book of the Bible advances a vision of ultimate, universal salvation.
The author, who writes under a pseudonym, beings his analysis by pointing out that the Revelation consistently pairs visions of divine judgment with subsequent visions of salvation. This happens a total of five times within the book, and, in at least two of those pairings, a universalist reading seems quite plausible.
To understand the author’s reading, it is important to grasp the concept of “the nations” as it is developed throughout the book. “The nations” are consistently described as a collection of people which find themselves in rebellion to God and which consequently face the same fate as “the beast,” a symbol for a political power that oppresses believers. As a result, they become the object of God’s wrath (see, for example 19:15).
[I don’t want to get distracted into a full exegesis of The Revelation here, but – for the curious – I generally view the beast to be representative of Roman oppression of Christians at the time the book was written. This is in contrast to the typical Left Behind-type interpretation, in which The Beast represents a future political power.]
Chapter 14 details the defeat of the beast and its worshippers. Their ultimate fate is to be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and a “lamb,” which is representative of Jesus. A subsequent image depicts an angel harvesting grapes from the earth and throwing them into “the great winepress of God’s wrath.”
In contrast to “the nations” is another collection of people, often referred to as “the saints.” This collection is representative of believers who refuse to succumb to pressures to worship the beast, and who face persecution as a result. They are roughly the equivalent of the church – or, at least, the persecuted church during the period in which the beast exercises its power.
Following the description of judgment in Chapter 14 is a song that is sung by the saints. It begins in 15:3. The song describes God as “King of the nations” and asks the rhetorical question: “Who will not fear you?” It then states that “all nations will come and worship before you.”
Critically, the text does not say that people “from” all nations will come and worship God (an apt description for the Church, and one that is used in other parts of the book). Instead, it says that “all nations” will come and worship.
What could this possibly mean? The best answer, the author argues, is that, although “the nations” are subject to God’s wrath, they will ultimately come and worship before God.
Similarly, in Chapter 20 we find a fiery judgment for those who do not find themselves in God’s favor. Thereafter, a New Jerusalem appears on the scene. We are told that outside of the New Jerusalem are all unbelieving and immoral people. However…
– the city contains a tree, the leaves of which “are for the healing of the nations” (22:2)
– the gates of the city are never shut (21:25)
– “the nations” will walk by its light (21:24)
– the kings of the earth (those who, clearly, were co-conspirators with the beast in earlier chapters) will bring their splendor into it (21:24)
– the glory and honor of “the nations” is brought into it (21:26)
Not only, argues the author, do the open gates offer opportunity for an exit from the lake of fire, but in this vision of God’s new world the lost actually avail themselves of that opportunity.
This view of ultimate, universal salvation is also supported by 5:13, in which “every creature” is depicted as singing a song of worship to God and to the lamb. [The sequence of songs in this chapter is particularly important to me. Though it begins with a song of praise for God’ rescuing people FROM every nation, it climaxes with a song which is sung by EVERY creature. Seemingly, BOTH a form of “salvation” that is limited AND a form of salvation that is universal are in view.]
So, what about the language which describes the smoke of the torment of the beast and its followers as rising up “forever and ever”? The original language, argues the author, is consistent with a very long, but not eternal period. Further, it seems plausible that the duration of the smoke may not correspond to the time in which the “fuel” was present within the fire. In other words, the smoke could continue to exist as a memorial to the justness of God long after the torment that caused the smoke has ended.
So there you have it: a persuasive argument for an interpretation of the Revelation that is consistent with, and even supportive of, the evangelical universalist viewpoint.
Am I sufficiently convinced to be converted to a full-blown evangelical universalist? Not quite. However, as a result of this reading, I do find myself even more firmly encamped within the longstanding and widely-accepted tradition of the hopeful universalist. I continue to anticipate and pray for the seemingly real possibility that all people will ultimately find their way into God’s new creation.