It’s All About Love
As a Universalist, I read scriptures and myths to learn about being human. In the case of the Bible, I also learn something about our relationship with the holy, the mysterious, the I Am. Though a good story raises more questions than it answers, in scripture, I can discover insights that encourage my transformation into a better self.
For me, the Bible is about love. God is love. Eternal love made life possible, and everything that exists reflects that love. We can pervert love into indifference and animosity, but God—or whatever we choose to call the essence of life—cannot. Thus, God’s wrath, vengeance, and chastisement must be about love, not anger or hate.
That may seem strange. Isn’t that like the parent who, while spanking her child, says, “This hurts me more than it hurts you”? In other words, isn’t it a lie?
That depends on what we mean when we speak of God’s wrath. Scriptures, folk tales, and myths can be interpreted in many ways. Thus, if we believe in the power of love, the Bible will support that. If instead, we believe in retribution and retaliation, in using power to control and oppress the other, we will find vindication for our view in the same words.
I’m reminded of the hospital patient who told me I had no right to be a chaplain, not to mention an ordained minister, because I am a woman. Apparently, Paul was explicit about this: women should not preach nor have authority over men.
Watching for False Prophets
As you might imagine, debate exists over Paul’s meaning, and most denominations ordain women.  Still, because many people consider the Bible to be authoritative, it can buttress our prejudices. I, for instance, read into it not only that God is love, but also that God would never allow a single soul to be damned.
Many people disagree with me, and not without reason. Consider, for instance, Chapter 24 in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s a tough one for Universalists.
In it, Jesus tells us the end times are coming. We don’t know the day, nor the hour, of its arrival, but we can watch for signs. False prophets will arise, proclaiming themselves to be the Messiah. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famine and earthquakes in various places. All of these are the beginning of birth pangs” (Matthew 24:5-8 NIV).
Ever since Jesus died, his followers have watched for signs. Since wars are common, and famine and earthquakes happen with regularity, people often believed the end was in sight. Now, natural disasters are more intense than ever, yet we know the cause. We need not look to an angry divinity.
Nor have we ever agreed on which prophets were false. Today, many people rally behind authoritarian and bombastic leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro, and Netanyahu, seeing them as saviors who will restore some idyllic past. Others decry them as dangerous and power-hungry narcissists. But these are just the latest in a long history of men and women who claimed to speak in God’s name or acted as if they themselves were God. History has affirmed some, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, and Desmond Tutu. Others, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Augusto Pinochet, it has not.
The End Times
If these signs do not point to the world’s end, what else might we look for?
“At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,” Jesus continues. “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10-11).
We can probably relate to that. As democracies around the world falter, as rising sea levels threaten to destroy island nations, as natural disasters increase in intensity and ferocity, and as desperate people demand relief, we grow afraid. In our fear, we lose our compassion. Our survival becomes more important than our spiritual life, and we sacrifice the poor and vulnerable to save ourselves.
The rift in our society, and in societies around the world, has become so bad we cannot talk to one another about difficult topics without fighting. Political and religious divides have led to threats, murder, and genocide.
We’ve been through this before. The taste of power often makes us hunger for more. If we are not vigilant, if we do not keep watch over our own hearts, our pursuit of privilege and control can become an addiction, destroying everything we hold dear, including our very selves. Is this not wickedness?
Of course, how we define wickedness depends on our worldview. Who is most wicked, the ruthless ruler or the person who defies him? What about the thief or the person who cuts off the thief’s hand; the witch or the one who burns her; the man who rapes a woman or the woman who has an abortion? If we live in a society that allows ruthlessness, maiming, burning, and rape, are we not also culpable?
Perhaps none of us are innocent. We need not torture or enslave others to be wicked. Are we not all thoughtless, greedy, and complacent at times?
For instance, most of us have trouble sharing. Jesus told the rich man that, “to be perfect,” he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Then he would “have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:18-19).
So must we sell everything we have to prove ourselves worthy of God’s salvation? If we all did this, who would buy our goods? And does this mean that, if we have nothing, we are perfect?
I doubt it. Even the poor can be selfish, thoughtless, and indifferent to the pain of others. We all cling to what we have, even when we see others suffering. I would be hard-pressed to give away all my food, to relinquish my home, to yield the clothes that keep me warm and dry. Some bread, socks, a blanket, perhaps, yes, I can give that much. But everything?
If I let everything go, could I trust I would be provided for? That’s hard. Besides, to walk away from what I own would also mean walking away from my family, my pets, my career. I don’t relish that, especially not on this night that is, at least where I sit, rainy and windy and cold. So is heaven beyond me?
I can’t answer that. I don’t know what heaven is, or even if it exists. How could I know who ends up there? As a Universalist, I believe that whatever happens after we die, it’s the same for everyone. So rewards and punishments in some eternal future don’t motivate me to do good. What motivates me is love.
Endings Over and Over
In the above passage, Jesus pairs an increase in wickedness with love grown cold. A cold heart is an evil one, capable of any atrocity. On the other hand, if our hearts are full of love, if we see the stranger as sacred, if we understand that we are one with everything, can we still be dismissive and cruel?
I like to think not. And in that truth—that a joyful heart is also a compassionate one, and that a loving heart is generous—we may have the answer to those who think eternal torment is a fitting end to a human life, for the wicked person has no joy, and a heart devoid of love is empty and miserable. Is a lifetime of such suffering not enough punishment for any crime?
Not that there should be no consequences for our thoughtless and selfish deeds, but we don’t need a heaven or a hell for that. For instance, some people say that as we die, we relive our life, but from the point of view of those whom we have interacted with. Everything we said and did, we feel its effects. That might be a kind of hell, at least for some.
Even so, wickedness has always been with us, as have hate and a refusal to love. When the end is near, Jesus tells us, the sun will darken, and so will the moon, and the stars will fall from the sky, yet eclipses and comets are nothing new.
So how can it be that, at a time like this, “the end will come” (Matthew 42:14)? Have there been ends, over and over again?
Love Versus Indifference
Certainly, nations have faded away. Many who still survive are nothing like they once were. Nothing lasts. Perhaps those are the ends Jesus is talking about: the fall of Rome, the massacre of the Incas, the ruins of Mesopotamia, the death of the Neanderthal.
Did Jesus return to preside over each ending? Will he be there when the United States implodes? (Assuming it will.) Do Matthew’s words give us a clue?
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and a great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.Matthew 24: 30-31
I’m not sure why we will mourn when Jesus returns on his heavenly clouds. Will we fear to be discovered in our wickedness, our thoughtlessness, our indifference? The writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, said, “the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” 
We like to think that if we don’t actively hurt someone, we are good, but it’s not as simple as that.
Transformation and the Flames
Nor, if we sell all our possessions and become perfect, is salvation guaranteed. The Bible makes no such promises. We do not know who will be go to heaven and who will not.
Yet if we read Matthew from a Universalist point of view, we will see it’s not salvation that is in question, but transformation.
According to Trig Bundgaard, the images we think represent the suffering of the sinner are not about punishment any more than they are about heaven. For instance, he references the tares that Matthew talks about in Chapter 13 (“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with the fire, so will it be at the end of the age” verse 40). The fire there isn’t about eternal punishment, he explains. Indeed, it’s not about punishment at all. The fire is purifying. Through it, our wickedness will be scoured out of us. 
We see this in our everyday life. For instance, when we lose what we most desire, when illness and misfortune humble us or teach us what we otherwise would not understand, we cannot help but be changed. Some people fall into resentment in the face of tragedy. They hold onto their bitterness.
Yet if we let it, the challenges of our life will transform us into someone kinder and wiser. Suffering will teach us what we need to know to become more whole. We will discover meaning in our lives we might never have imagined before. Sometimes, we even manage to touch others because we have gone through the purifying fire of hell and, in that way, found the essence of our soul.
The end comes over and over in our individual lives and in our societies. Nothing lasts. We are burnt into ash, and then reborn.
Images of God
But what about Jesus’s warning about not being watchful?
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and then he begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.Matthew 24:45 -1
Today, we may find the metaphor of the master and servant distasteful, for it brings up unpleasant reminders of slavery and oppression. I prefer images of lover, sister, baker, rock, bird, teacher, and guide, which probably says more about who I am than about who God is, but the main point of the passage has nothing to do with masters. Rather, it tells us that some will play while the master is away, while others will fulfill their responsibilities without oversight.
Doing Right Because It Is Right
But why does each man do as he does? Is it because God will punish him? The servant who did right did so not because someone watched over him, but because it was the right thing to do.
One argument made against Universalism is that, without the threat of sin, we would never be good. The Universalist preacher, Hosea Ballou, disagreed. He believed that the real reason a person does good is that we feel good when we do so. Loving feels better than hating. We create our own hell on earth, and our own heaven. Ballou insisted that nothing could make God reject us, the creatures he created with his own breath. As Earnest Cassara wrote, because of this, Ballou believed, “It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God.” 
In other words, we need to accept God’s grace, open our hearts to God’s love, recognize that we are forgiven for everything, right now. It is not for God that we must be good. Indeed, “Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works.” 
Being Cut Off
But doesn’t this passage tell us that Jesus uses reward and punishment to encourage obedience? That would surprise me since surely God is wise enough to realize the carrot and the stick do little to promote true goodness. In the short term, the fear of retribution can force obedience, but it will almost never make us want to be kind. It will not teach us the joy of generosity and friendship. We might behave according to the master’s rules, but we will not learn how to love.
So, if love is the most important thing in Scripture, why would Jesus warn us that if we aren’t careful, aren’t watchful and obedient all our days, we will be “cut into pieces”?
As a number of theologians have pointed out, if the servant were literally “cut into pieces,” he would die. Thus he could not be cast out anywhere. Some suggest the phrase means he was beaten, but it could also mean he was “cut off” from his community.
This cutting off, or karet, was a common punishment among the Hebrews. Although a rabbi could banish a person for doing wrong, being “cut off” was more often thought of as spiritual, occurring after one died.  The Jewish scholar, Maimonides, explained that karet was a kind of spiritual death. 
Hell for Such as These
If being cut to pieces, or cut off, is a spiritual punishment, it makes sense to liken it to being cut off from the divine. The Presbyterian theologian, Karl Barth, defined hell as being separated from God.  That would indeed be punishing. Imagine having to live among hypocrites who taunt and complain, betray their loved ones, and pretend to be loving, only to fall back on hate. Who would not weep then?
But is this a punishment or simply the consequence of treating others with contempt? At a certain point, no matter how much money we amass, no matter how much power or prestige we gain in a world of flattery and triviality, we will have to come to terms with the hollowness of our heart, with the loneliness of our spirit, and the emptiness of our soul. Is this not a kind of hell, this living that is no living? Does such meanness bring anyone joy?
Apparently, some people do take pleasure in hurting others. They rejoice in making people cry and cringe. It seems they feel no remorse, lack, or loneliness. They need no human hand to touch them, only crowds to adore them.
Is there not a hell for such as these?
I am not convinced that a heaven exists outside of what we make on earth, nor a hell, but if there is a life after this one, would punishment be a part of it? Would a loving divinity want its children, no matter how twisted and feral they became, to scream in agony for the rest of days? Does anyone deserve such a thing? Eternity is a very long time.
Who Can Cast the First Stone?
If it’s possible there is darkness or fire after we die, I suspect it has more to do with transformation than with pain. The God of Scripture desires us. She seeks us endlessly. Would such a God send us away forever? Why should repentance be possible before we die, but not after?
Without consequences, we would learn nothing. Yet consequences alone do not teach us what we must learn. Right now, many nations in this world are doing despicable things, not least of them the United States. If we are a person of color, we need not feel culpable for the atrocities white Europeans have wrought on Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, Jews, children and women and immigrants, but few of us, if any, can claim to live a blameless life.
As Jesus said, who among us can cast the first stone? Besides, if we have no sin, if we embody love, we would not choose to hit someone with a stone in the first place.
But if we are not Christian, why bother looking at the Bible? Why worry about whether Matthew supports a Universalist view or doesn’t?
As with any story, the Christian parables can teach us something. In this tale of the master and his servants, we see how easy it is for us to fall into laziness and insouciance, even greed and brutality. Given a chance, most of us will take advantage of situations. We will strive to maximize our own gain at the expense of others. That seems to be human nature.
Be Watchful Over Our Own Hearts
Thus I see in the Christian message the call to be prepared lest we be found wanting in patience, generosity, and love. We should be watchful and observe our own hearts. Instead of blaming the world for our sorrow, we can be gentle with our pain and that of others.
This isn’t easy. We tend to deny our feelings, to hide our grief and anxiety, even from ourselves. Anger is often easier to express, for it makes us feel strong. So we rush through life, numb ourselves with substances and social media, have temper tantrums, drink and gamble, and seek satisfaction by spreading judgment and scorn. In that way, we try to feel better, but it doesn’t work.
Instead, we could choose the path of cleansing fire. Embrace life, whatever form it takes. Be watchful. Know that the divine is coming at any moment. Indeed, it has never left, for it is part of us, if only we let it in.
Jesus was not concerned only with the individual, however. He understood that we exist within the context of a culture, that powers and principalities oppress and mislead the people. These oppressors are false prophets. Just as we must be vigilant to uncover the fear and resentment in our own hearts, to recognize our lust for more, we must be vigilant in recognizing those who call us, not to love, but to disrespect, indifference, and violence. Do not follow the one who preaches that message. She is false.
I’m not talking about the Buddhist teacher or Muslim prophet, nor even the Atheist or Pagan, but the one who thinks we can solve our problems by cutting people into pieces and tossing them into the fire.
The Symbolism of Jesus’s Return
So be prepared for the second coming of Jesus, not because we will be thrown into hell if we are found wanting, but because Jesus will show us who we truly are.
Think of the Son of Man as a symbol. The moment that Jesus comes will be the moment we wake up and see the truth of what we have done. Maybe the coming of Jesus will be a burgeoning of conscience within that makes us feel guilty. Perhaps our community will call us to account. We cannot hurt others forever without someone stepping in to stop us. If we have enough power and wealth, we can avoid prison or rejection or other human consequences for a very long time. We might even die before we suffer rebuke.
If we are fortunate, though, something will wake us up. We will lose all we own, or get cancer, or a loved one will die, and suddenly, we will feel the humility of being just another person. We might even stop blaming everyone else for our problems. Our pain can give us the impetus to look into our own hearts. That is Jesus returning.
Life Will Continue
How, then, do we explain the joy of the obedient servant against the weeping and gnashing of teeth the brutal servant experiences?
It’s not that the obedient one will never lose what she has, nor get sick, nor bury a family member. These things happen to all of us. But not all of us suffer the same in the face of loss.
The servant who was watchful, who recognized his lustful urges and his tendency toward pettiness, the one who, because he knew who he was, could resist the lure of gold and fame. He prepared himself, perhaps through meditation or prayer. However it happened, he came to accept and honor his true nature. He will find himself supported by friends and family, by people who appreciate his kindness and thoughtfulness, who honor his goodness, who love him because they know he loves them, too. Being loved is not the only reason to love, but it helps.
In the world today, there is much suffering. We are on the brink of one disaster after another. If this is not the end of days, what will be?
Much will pass away. But until the sun dies out or we decimate every creature on our planet, life will continue. Humans might not, but if the Neanderthal could die out, why not Homo Sapiens? Are we really that important?
Live in Love
So be prepared for hatred and indifference. Meet them not with violence or damnation, but with love. Be watchful of your own instincts and desires, but also gentle, for they arise out of your own pain. Gentleness does not mean letting them rule you, but rather seeing them and letting them go. Do what you know is right. You don’t need someone watching over you to make you behave. You can watch over yourself.
And when you experience the fire of transformation or separation from the community, understand that is but part of the journey, something meant to purify and transform. Perhaps it will break us, but the breaking is meant to make us whole.
Jesus could come back at any time. We can wake up at any moment. Be watchful; be prepared. But don’t let your vigilance make you cruel.
Soothe your wickedness with love. That is how we prepare for the coming of the spirit, the restoration of the nation. Kindness breeds kindness, and love encourages love. At times, the rough and brutal take advantage of the gentle, but for us to lash out, to cast stones, only breaks our spirit and taints our hearts.
Love mends all things. Perhaps not at once. It takes time and repetition, and sometimes only the eternal love of a god can do the job, but that doesn’t mean love fails. So embrace it. When wickedness strikes, whether in you or others, try to respond with compassion. Allow the love of the universe, of your god, of your inner spirit, to touch you. A gentle heart is a happy one, and when we are joyful, we live in love.
In faith and fondness,
- For instance, in his article about some passages often used to support this doctrine, Michael Morrison explains that Paul was speaking about very specific situations when he told women to “be silent,” and that he was also telling the men to be silent. Apparently, there was a lot of interrupting going on at the church to whom he was writing, and he encouraged everyone to be submissive to God and listen to the message. This is but one example of how we can look at scriptural passages differently, depending on our wont. See Morrison, Michael, “Women in Ministry: Does the Bible Allow Women to Be Pastors?,” Grace Communion International, https://www.gci.org/articles/women-pastors/, accessed November 5, 2022.
- From an interview with Elie Wiesel, U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 27, 1986. According to Quote Investigator, many others used this same phrase, or one similar to it, before he did, such as Rosalie Gabler, Rollo May, and George Bernard Shaw. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/05/21/indifference/.
- Bundgaard, Trig, “Sunday Devotion: How Jesus’ ‘Furnace of Fire’ Confirms Universal Salvation,” Epochalypsis, July 17, 2011, http://www.epochalypsis.org/how-jesus-furnace-of-fire-confirms-universal-salvation/, accessed November 4, 2022.
- Cassara, Ernest, “Hosea Ballou,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography,” September 14, 2000, https://uudb.org/articles/hoseaballou.html, accessed November 4, 2022.
- See “Kareth,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kareth#:~:text=The%20Hebrew%20term%20kareth%20(%22cutting,from%20the%20Nation%20of%20Israel., accessed November 5, 2022.
- “Karet: A Biblical Punishment,” My Jewish Learing, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/karet/, accessed November 5, 2022.
- Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline, New York: Harper Perennial, 1959.
Photo by Nathan Watson
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