Let me start by telling a true story but with some particulars changed to honor privacy.
Gary’s comment caught my attention at the funeral of his father, Ricky: “I’m glad he’s finally at peace and together again with Linda.” Linda, his mother, died of cancer six years earlier.
As context, I knew Linda from church. She came to faith as an adult and had a strong faith for the final decade of her life. Her son, Gary, went to church with her after she met Jesus and he continues in church today. His father Ricky, on the other hand, never professed any sort of faith. Nor did he ever visit the church.
So, given Ricky’s apparent distance from faith, is Gary right? Are his parents now together in heaven?
It’s a sensitive concern—not one we’re inclined to address. Nor is his sentiment unusual. Most people adopt optimistic views of the afterlife when a loved one dies. But does the Bible endorse Gary’s optimism?
Some would say yes. Rob Bell, for instance, wrote about the inevitable success of Christ’s redeeming love—so that no one will endure eternal judgment. I’ve also read Baxter Kruger’s works and I know about his endorsement of Paul Young’s novel, The Shack. Both men embrace an implicit universalism that goes back to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (among others). Their points make some sense once they’re framed within broader theological commitments.
But other Christians dismiss such views. They point to the many Bible texts that speak of eternal judgment. As in Matthew 23 where Jesus warned the hypocrites of his day, “how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
So where do I land? In the Bible I find a literal hell and the reality of eternal judgment to be bedrock assumptions. The theologically derived views of my universalist-leaning friends just aren’t convincing.
So I was filled with grief at Ricky’s death. Saddened because, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, he faced “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…”
But it’s also clear in the Bible that this isn’t because God lacks mercy. It was Ricky’s choice to dismiss what God had offered him. In other words I accept the claim of 2 Peter 3:9 that God “is not willing that any should perish…”
We then return to an underlying question. Why, then, is heaven exclusive? If everyone is guilty—“for all have sinned” (Ro. 3:23)—why are some saved and not all? If God has mercy on some, but not all, why does he waste so many human lives as assumed in the standard account of hell? Any honest headcount tells us that God’s Foe has many more recruits than God has.
So Gary’s sentiment—with its implicit universalism—was an understandable effort to resolve this tension.
Yet the Bible doesn’t embrace the “all-will-be-well” narrative that emerges at so many funerals. Instead we read that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. And God’s declared jealousy in the Decalogue has substance. As does the great command to love God—with the alternative that many hate God instead. Or in the jealous exhortations of James 4. The problem of sin centers on God’s heart being broken by a world that rejects his love.
To chase this—and to revise some of the common narratives we hear—we need to recall that salvation starts with a Triune God. The relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit led to both creation and redemption. The relational reality of God “is love.”
So let’s return to 2 Thessalonians where Paul blamed sinners for their devotion to Satan’s deceptions “because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved.” So God gave them over to their desires. And they were not victims of a capricious selectivity.
This won’t make sense to those who hold to a human-centered theology. Instead we need to turn to a Son-centered theology. The world rages against God for not protecting and enhancing human ambitions—a fact cited in Psalm 2. But the biblical narrative centers on the Son and not on human dreams to be like God.
Let’s turn, instead, to a more biblical narrative: to the Father’s ambition to find a bride for his Son. The Father’s plan is to share his Son with the creation. Just as the Father has delighted in his Son from eternity past, the bride of Christ is invited to enjoy the Son’s glory for the rest of eternity.
A glimpse of this comes with a review of John’s gospel. It begins with God’s love for the world in John 3:16. But the world instead loves darkness rather than light … so much so that by the time we reach John 17 the Son’s portrayal of his love for the Father is a winnowing reality. Some are drawn to the love of God and others hate what he offers.
So the real problem of sin is its informed disaffection: a love of self in place of a love for the Son. And, on the other hand, those who respond to the invitation to know and love the Son are welcomed to the Triune family of God.
But what of the terrible inefficiency of this plan? Shouldn’t everyone be brought into heaven to be Christ’s holy and blameless bride?
Will people who don’t find the Son attractive really want to share eternity with him? And is God somehow obliged to allow for eternal human autonomy? Isn’t it true, instead, that the nature of a marriage is its exclusivity—that the defining quality of the marital bond is the love and mutual attraction of the husband and his spouse?
So Gary’s optimism is misplaced. Love is avid. When we know the Son it all makes sense. And Ricky saw that love in Linda’s devotion to Jesus. But he wasn’t interested. And that’s the tragedy.