Monday, May 21, 2012

Matthew 13:36-43 and Universal Salvation

After Jesus had delivered the parable of the tares and the wheat,[1] (Matt 13:24-30), his disciples came to him and asked him what it meant:

37 He answered and said to them: "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.
39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.
40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.
41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness,
42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

The Christian Universalist (CU) believes, as all orthodox evangelical Christians do, that all men are saved only through Christ [2] because of Christ’s atonement for their sin. They also believe that (a) all men will be saved, and (b) some men will die unrepentant and faithless and therefore suffer the punishment of hell. The two views are made compatible by their view of hell, that the punishment is not retributive or eternal, but rather corrective and temporary. Therefore, all men who die in their sins will eventually come to their senses in hell and repent and believe. At that time, the penitent sinner in hell will be rescued and brought into the kingdom and share its glory and blessing with those who died in faith and received that kingdom on the Day of Judgment.

How might a CU respond to the parable of the wheat and the tares? As Christ explains it, the kingdom has two kinds of members, those who are the sons of the kingdom (the wheat), and presumably, those who claim to be sons of the kingdom, but in fact are sons of the wicked one (the tares), having been sown by the devil himself. As such, there are at work two opposing agents, God and the devil. Both are sowing seed in the world. The one sows wheat while the other sows tares respectively identified as the children of God and children of Satan. The one who presides over the kingdom has ordered that the sons of the wicked one will be allowed to grow up side by side with his own true children until the end of the age at which time they will be separated. The destiny at the time of separation for the sons of the kingdom will be glory as they will shine as the sun in their Father’s kingdom. The destiny of the wicked is to be cast into the furnace of fire accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I suspect the CU will stand unflinchingly before this text and deny that it has any power to persuade him away from his universalism.

One response of the CU might be to accept everything as explained by Christ but ask the question, What bearing does that interpretation of the parable have to do with whether or not the wicked will remain in the furnace forever? How does it prove that there is no redemption from hell for the resident of hell? It explains how they get there but it does not prove that they will stay there forever.

Another response might be that of Thomas Talbott who, in his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, insists that parables are not to be taken in their detail.

“. . . Jesus never intended for anyone to take the details of a parable literally; the details merely provided a colorful background for the main point, which itself is not always easy to discern. So as a first step towards understanding the parable of the sheep and the goats, we must try to discover its main point.”[3]

Within the context of Christ’s own explanation of the parable, there are observations that would indicate the aforementioned CU responses are not adequate to oppose a non-universalist interpretation of the parable.

The first observation is that Christ’s explanation of the parable takes on great detail. Talbott’s point that a parable should not be taken too seriously in its detail does have validity to it. Nevertheless, when we see Christ’s own explanation of the parable, we find that there is much weight given to the particulars. Christ commences to interpret the parable by identifying precisely what the elements of the parable represent: the field, wheat, tares, harvest, reapers, and furnace. None of these details are insignificant. They all must be given their full force in order to understand the meaning of the parable.

Such details reveal that there are two agents in opposition to each other and whose purposes are contrary. The agents are the Father and the devil. The Father’s purpose is to produce sons who are righteous in this age. The purpose of the devil, who is explicitly identified as the enemy, is to produce his own sons who are wicked and as such, oppose the kingdom and the sons of the kingdom. The former’s purpose is to produce a kingdom of holy ones, the latter’s intent is to infiltrate that kingdom with unholy ones, thereby undermining its work in this world. The ultimate goal would be to destroy the heavenly kingdom.

The emphasis on the distinction between the wheat and the tares at every point of the parable is given greater relief by the fact that there is no attempt to work out an arrangement of co-existence. At first, it may seem that that is the very idea of the Father since he commands to let both grow up together until the harvest. However, the Father’s purpose in doing so is not to bring the two in a harmony or peaceful agreement with one another. Rather, it is that the wicked will manifest themselves as the wicked and thereby become readily identifiable at the harvest where they are finally separated from the righteous. The contemporaneous existence of the two is temporary and has always in view the harvest, the time in which the Father’s purpose toward the true sons of the kingdom are fulfilled, namely, their confirmation in glory. It is also a time in which the Father is going to confirm his kingdom collectively in holiness and in doing so it will require the removal of the sons of the wicked one.

Another aspect of this distinction is the obvious. The tares are biologically different from wheat and cannot be transformed into wheat. So it is with the sons of the wicked one. They cannot be transformed into wheat. One may argue, Are we not all tares and some of us have been transformed into wheat? I would say that in terms of the identity of the tares in this parable, the answer is no. It is true that Paul says that Christians were all children of wrath by nature when God, because of his great love with which he loved them while dead in trespasses and sins, made them alive together with Christ (Eph 2:1-5). But that is not the lesson of the parable. The parable does not contradict Paul. But its purpose is to show that from the beginning, there are certain ones whom the Father has planted in his kingdom, and that they are there because of his doing. If they are not planted by the Father, they are not his. And it is certain that there are those in the kingdom who are not there by the Father’s planting. They are not true sons of the kingdom and never will be because it is impossible for them to be transformed from sons of the wicked one to sons of the Father. The impossibility for transformation resides in the fact that the Father’s intent is to produce no miracle of transformation for the tares. The tares are to remain tares during this age until they can be purged out of the kingdom. That is their destiny, not by chance, but by the good pleasure of the owner of the field, the Father.

The purpose of the separation at the end of the age is to facilitate the removal of the tares from the kingdom in such a way that the wheat will not share the same destiny of the furnace of fire. The wicked will be readily distinguishable at the time of the harvest. As such, the tares only will be rooted out and banished from the kingdom. This complies with other NT teaching, particularly Paul who warns that evildoers who practice all manner of sinful deeds shall not inherit the kingdom of God, Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 4:3-6. The destiny of the tares is not an inheritance in God’s kingdom. They are rejected because they are wicked. Their destiny is the furnace of fire.

This distinction stresses another point. There is absolutely no mention in the parable of its reversal, not in this age, nor in the age to come. There is not the slightest hint of delivery of the tares from the furnace. The silence is so potent that it suggests strongly that the furnace is the final, irrevocable destination of the tares. As a parable about the kingdom, if deliverance from the furnace were ultimately true, its exclusion here is baffling. Granted, a parable about the kingdom is not expected to say everything there is to say about the kingdom. But the inclusion of such a dimension of the kingdom, that is, ultimate universal delivery from the furnace, if it were true, would fit appropriately, even expectantly.

An argument from silence, it is said, is not a valid argument. But when there is complete silence, it stands as a weighty argument. And there is nowhere, in this parable, or the New Testament that explicitly identifies the children of Satan as ever being transformed in such a way that they are removed from their condition as residents of the furnace. If there were such an essential element in the redemptive historical purpose of God, one would expect at least one overt reference to it in the body of revealed truth deposited in the scriptures. But there is none. Instead, the book is closed on them, so to speak, Revelation 20:15.

The universalist would counter that there is no explicit statement of the Trinity in the Bible. Should we therefore cast doubt on its veracity? If the CU is referring to the absence of a formulaic expression of the Trinity or even simply one that covers the traditional elements of the expression as it occurs in the Church’s creeds, the answer is obviously not. However, the creedal formulas of the Trinity are derived from mountains of New Testament evidence that refer to the persons of the Trinity and their relationship to one another such that the only conclusion one may come to is that God exists as a Trinity of Persons.

But the CU cannot offer any explicit scriptural evidence that those in hell will repent and be saved. When the damned in hell come under the scrutiny of the New Testament, nowhere is there any suggestion that they will ever be delivered from their condition. There is always a foreboding sense of finality when speaking of those who are condemned at the final judgment.

Christ’s emphasis on the details of the parable informs us that (a) there is a distinction between the wheat and the tares that persists not only in this age, but also in the next, (b) there is no intent to transform the tares so that they may become wheat, (c) these is no suggestion that the tares will ever be rescued from the furnace. Because of this, the teaching of this parable argues against a universal notion of salvation.

ILG        The Inescapable Love Of God, by Thomas Talbott. Universal Publishers/, 1999, 235 pages.

CUCD  Christian Universalism? The Current Debate, Edited by Robin A Parry & Christopher H. Partridge. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003.

EU         The Evangelical Universalist, by Gregory MacDonald. Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2006, 204 pages.

[1] The disciples refer to it as the parable of the field and the tares, Matt 13:35.
[2] “. . . there is what we would call ‘Christian Universalism’. Although this is a wide family of views, they share in common (a) the commitment to working within a Christian theological framework and (b) the claim that all individuals will be saved through the work of Christ.”  CUCD, p xvii.  Gregory MacDonald, a Christian univesalist, writes, "The universalist will happily concur that reconciliation is only for those who are in Christ through faith. There is no salvation outside of Christ, and one is included in Christ through faith. However, the universalist will also maintain that, in the end, everyone will be in Christ through faith." EU, p 47.
[3] ILG, p. 85.  


  1. God, in His mercy, desires all to be saved, but that doesn't mean He wants to force His presence on those who hate Him. Perhaps hell is there as a kindness to those God-haters who can accept no other kindness from God but His absence.

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