The Eternal Purpose Of God: Part 1
An Interpretive Lens For Viewing Truth!
The Bible tells the story of God’s grand purpose for creating the world, focusing on His reason for designing humans as free moral agents in His image. This purpose of God is a valuable lens, through which we view many theological realities, especially the nature of eternal destinations.
God made the world as the perfect environment to foster real relationships with people who can freely choose to love or reject Him. He wants as many of us as possible to become His children, sharing His values, character, and especially His generous, sacrificial love demonstrated in
Scripture clearly teaches that only those who love God and His ways will live forever. There is no purpose for any others to be kept alive for eternity. Neither traditionalism nor universalism facilitate the achievement of God’s ultimate goal.
This series of posts will articulate the purpose of God revealed in scripture and validated by experience. With that purpose in view, we will see how the gift of immortality granted only to God’s children fits in His eternal purpose, while competing views fail the purpose test. This unique perspective provides a framework that strengthens our kinship with God as we come to embrace His purpose.
“To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12, emphasis added)
Thank you for joining me on this important quest to discern and apply God’s eternal purpose. It is my hope that in seeking for God’s purpose together, His purpose will become our own. Though the lens of God’s purpose, we will grow to interpret everything from His perspective.
God made the world with a very specific purpose in mind. Everything He has done or will do is motivated by His grand purpose.
Sometimes, as Paul revealed to the Ephesians, the purpose of God appears mysterious, or hidden. Amazingly, the fact that God’s purpose isn’t always obvious or might even seem unknowable fulfills His purpose. God wants to reveal Himself and His purpose to those who really want to
know it, as He declares through the prophet: “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
Some people are confused when they compare what they see in the “real world” to the teachings they hear from some Bible teachers. Seekers and believers alike want to know: Why am I here? What happens after death? If there is a God and He is love (1 John 4:8), why is there so much
pain, suffering, and difficulty in the world? How can I make sense of the world through study of the Bible, when it can be so confusing and seemingly contradictory?
Once we understand God’s purpose, the world and our place in it makes sense. We receive an eternal perspective that moves us to live as we were made to live. We discover a peace and freedom that transcends world news or strife in our own lives. Ultimately, we find ourselves joining with God in His purpose, fulfilling the very reason that we were created. When searching for ultimate answers, it is critical to choose the most reliable source of truth available. In my decades of study, I have found the Bible to be far more trustworthy than any other source. If you’d like to understand why I find the Bible reliable, consider reading my article, “Why Care About the Bible and What It Says?”1 .
What kind of world did God create?
“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19:1)
“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
While the list of the problems in today’s world would fill many volumes, the Bible says it didn’t start out that way. The creation account in Genesis paints a picture of paradise, where mankind was made to live in a close relationship with God in a perfect environment. God walked closely with Adam and Eve, speaking with them personally, directly, and openly.
The defining characteristic of people is that we are made “in His image” (Genesis 1:26). The nature of the imago Dei, of being God’s image-bearers, is a deep discussion that has been debated for millennia. For this discussion, the Genesis story provides enough clues to define
what God had in mind when He made us in His image.
First, we were given an authority over the earth that emulates God’s authority over the universe. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
Sometimes the term “rule” has negative, authoritarian connotations, and as we look at the world the abuse of power is clear. However, had we managed, or governed in God’s image as He intended, the world would still be a garden-like paradise.
Regardless of how things are now, the first task of God’s image-bearers is to manage the earth for Him, just as He rules the universe. How does God rule? Deuteronomy 32:3-4 says, “Ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of
faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” Everything God does is good, right, and just. As the Maker of everything, He could do anything He wanted, act any way He desired. He could be horribly evil and do sadistic things for fun. However, the Bible says, “The
steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV). God’s rule is defined by love, faithfulness, and goodness. It was clearly His intent for us to rule in the same way.
Our role as God’s image-bearers is shown in another job God gives to Adam: “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). The job of naming the animals may not seem significant, until we compare earlier verses: “God called the light day, and the darkness He called night” (v. 1:4), and “God called the expanse heaven” (v. 1:8). Do you see the identical tasks here
between God and mankind? God named many things, and then He delegated the naming of the animals—whom we were assigned to manage wisely as God manages the universe. I imagine it as almost a father-son apprenticeship, where God says, “Ok, Adam, you know I named the big
things, now I want you to name these little things so you can be like me.”
God also created mankind to listen to Him, to follow His instructions. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (v. 2:16-17). We know from Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve decided not to follow this instruction, and as a consequence, the world was cursed and death struck mankind.
Let’s consider what we can learn from God’s first recorded instruction to mankind. First, God made us with the freedom to choose whether to follow His commands. We were, and in fact, still are, able to freely choose to show our love to God by doing what He asks us to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Our real freedom of will is crucial to understanding God’s eternal purpose.
Notice that the knowledge of good and evil itself was not forbidden, but eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While we can’t know now what that tree actually was, we can deduce that it was a forbidden way of learning about good and evil. God actually preferred that
we learn good and evil through obedience, as the command itself defines good and evil to us. Obey my good instructions for you, and you will live, God was telling them; otherwise, your foolish choices will kill you.
In large part, the question of why the world is filled with so much evil is answered in the first three chapters of Genesis. We see that God made a real world, where He interacted in an authentic relationship with people He had made from the “dust of the earth” (Genesis 3:19). He gave us a role that was in His image and likeness: to work, create, name things, and manage the earth. He made us with the potential to learn good and evil by following His instructions from the beginning, but we chose the harder way of learning through the consequences of our sin. We
could have chosen to adopt His character, His goodness, justice, and mercy, and managed the world in that way. Instead, we chose our own way, and the world reflects the consequences of our evil choices.
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth
creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
― C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity2
The Bible shows that death came to mankind because of our disobedience. In Genesis 3:19, the ending of God’s explanation of the consequences of going our own way (sin) is “until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death is simply the ending of life. If you’d like to explore the meaning of this verse in detail, consider Dr. Glenn Peoples’ series that starts with “Dust ‘n Breath: The Bible and the Mind-Body Question.”3
God’s purpose was not thwarted by man’s disobedience. Starting right at the Fall, Genesis 3:15 records the first peek into God’s plan to stay with mankind and achieve His ultimate purpose, a plan that the tempting serpent would eventually be crushed by the heel of the woman’s seed. The
Bible shows God working through the ages to accomplish His purpose, through the Flood, the promise to Abraham, the establishment and rescue of Israel from Egypt, the kings and prophets, all culminating in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen that God made a real world, and made mankind to be like Him, with the ability to freely choose to manage the world as God manages the universe. We decided not to obey God, and the consequences remain with us to this day. However, God didn’t give up, but stayed with His purpose. These things are set the stage for us to understand God’s eternal purpose and our place in that purpose.
The Eternal Purpose Of God: Part 2
Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’
(Isaiah 46:9-10, emphasis added)
God’s eternal purpose for creating this world and mankind in it is to live forever with those who freely choose to love Him and to become like Him. The world and our constraints in it create a perfect environment where we can actually develop God’s character. His goal is to have as many people as possible join Him for an eternal future in a new heaven and earth, enjoying what can be when everyone has God’s loving, just, and holy character.
Jesus’ central message in the gospels was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). Jesus came to reveal God’s kingdom and bring it near to everyone. Religious leaders who had the responsibility of teaching about the kingdom had become so bogged down in legalism they completely missed God’s kingdom and its purpose. False teaching in our day keeps people from knowing God’s kingdom purpose in the same way. For this reason, we need the clarity of God’s eternal purpose described by Jesus as He revealed God’s kingdom.
In Matthew 13:3-23, Jesus reveals God’s eternal purpose through the parable of the sower. In the story, a farmer plants seeds in four kinds of ground: the side of the road, rocky soil, weedy soil, and good soil. The first three plantings were eaten, withered, or choked out. Only the fourth soil yielded a crop of fruit desirable to the farmer. When Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, He tells the disciples “to you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). He says the four soils are four different kinds of people, the seed is the word of God, and that the eternal outcome of people’s lives is dependent on how they receive the word and bear fruit. Thus, Jesus says that people fulfill the eternal purpose of God’s kingdom, when they freely respond to His word in this world by bearing fruit desirable to God.
Many other parables declare the same message. In the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), Jesus portrays two groups of people. The former crop is harvested, while the latter is gathered and burned. When Jesus interprets this story to His followers in verses 36-43, He again makes the connection between our lives on earth and an eternal life in God’s kingdom. He promises that at the end of this age, “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 41-43).
In each of these stories, Jesus is revealing God’s eternal purpose—the reason He made the world as it is with His future plan for mankind. The reason is clear: to raise up a group of people who will become His children by freely choosing to listen to God’s gracious invitation and give their lives to Him. The world and everything in it serves this one purpose, this ultimate outcome God desires.
Jesus’ parables of the kingdom describe God’s eternal purpose as it has always been, not just from when Jesus began His earthly ministry. From Creation to Christ to Consummation, Scripture records God’s constant work to sow His word into the world and reap those who would accept it. From our rejection of God’s command in the garden, God has been patiently, graciously, and relentlessly reaching out to everyone, asking us to seek Him with all of our hearts. His end goal has always been to invite His children to share eternity with Him. He has always been preparing for an eternal era where everything is reconciled and those who follow Him in this life are raised to follow Him in the next.
Besides the parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus communicates the eternal purpose through his teachings about “the children of God.” In the Bible, the children of God are actually siblings, the brothers and sisters of Christ (Romans 8:16-17). They are those who are being raised for God’s eternal purpose.
How does Jesus describe the children of God? What are their characteristics? How does this inform our understanding of God’s eternal purpose?
Jesus defines the children of God by how their hearts motivate their actions. It is never by genealogy, cultural status, race, gender, or other non-behavioral factor. In fact, being a child of God is never said to be anything outside of people’s control. People are children of God because they want to be, because they purposefully respond to God’s gracious invitation to be His child.
Jesus teaches what it means to be a child of God through His dialog with the Pharisees in John 8:37-44. In this debate, the Pharisees claim Abraham as their father, while Jesus tells them they have a different father, and that their plan to kill Jesus is the evidence of their true lineage. In v. 39, Jesus says, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” Jesus is saying that if they had been Abraham’s children, they would have behaved like Abraham.
Rather than listening to Jesus’ teaching, the blind Pharisees escalate their claim in v. 41, saying, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” Jesus’ response is the authoritative definition of a child of God: “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” God’s children would have recognized and loved Jesus, embracing who He claimed to be and what He came to do. Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees completes the definition of a child: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him” (v. 44). Because the Pharisees were planning murder, they self-identified who their parent was: the devil, who is the father of all murderers and liars.
John the Baptist’s message to the Pharisees follows Jesus’ definition of the children of God: “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. … every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8-9). Some who were convicted by John’s rebuke asked him what they should do, and John’s response supports Jesus’ assertion that God’s children are identified by their behavior: he tells them to share with those in need, and to be fair, just, and truthful (v. 10-14).
Friend of God
“And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:23, emphasis added)
Abraham, the father of faith (Romans 4:16), was given a very distinct honor: a proclamation across the ages that he was a friend of Almighty God. Like the honor of being called a child of the Creator, being called His friend suggests another level of relationship. Sometimes in earthly parent-child relationships there is a deep love between the generations, but not always a friendship. God desires His children to also be His friends.
Jesus articulated His desire to become friends with his followers in John 15. When Jesus calls us to friendship, He describes the conditions of that friendship in very similar terms to that which He used in describing a child of God. “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” (v. 14) What does Jesus command His followers? “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (v. 12-13). We are called to live sacrificial lives of love, just as Jesus demonstrated in His sacrifice for the world.
Nineteenth century pastor Charles H. Spurgeon referenced this verse in a May 8, 1887 sermon
called “The Friend of God.”4 Comparing Abraham’s friendship with God to Jesus’ command in John 15, Spurgeon says, “I think I hear you say, ‘Yes, it was indeed a high degree to which Abraham reached—so high that we cannot attain unto it. It would be idle for us to dream of being accounted friends of God.’ My Brothers and Sisters, I entreat you, think not so! We, also, may be called friends of God” (p. 1). Later, Spurgeon describes the necessary conditions of becoming God’s friend:
If we are to be the friends of God, there must be a conformity of heart, will, design and character to God. Can two walk together except they are agreed? … Will God accept as His friend one who despises holiness, who is careless in obedience, who has no interest in the purposes of Divine Love, no delight in the Gospel of Christ? Beloved, the Holy Spirit must make us like God or else we cannot be friends of God! … Unless we love what God loves and hate what God hates, we cannot be His friends (p. 6).
My friend and mentor, Dr. Timothy Barnett, describes the “saving faith” spoken of Abraham in James 2:23 and offered to everyone in Ephesians 2:8 as “good conscience friendship.” This phrase excludes weak definitions of faith that amount to some kind of mental ascension to an abstract idea that doesn’t actually change a heart or external behavior, the kind of pseudo-faith the apostle warns against in James 2:17 when he says “faith without works is dead.” Instead, “good conscience friendship” describes a faith that wholeheartedly loves God and His ways, thoughts, teachings, ideas, and plans. The friend of God lives out his wholehearted love for God and His ways.
It is certainly in God’s eternal purpose that those with whom He desires to spend eternity will be his friends. Through our lives on this earth we have the opportunity to grow to love God and His ways just as we grow to love our closest friends. God grants us the opportunity to be called His
friends by teaching us about His love, goodness, holiness, justice, grace, mercy, and truth. He invites us to join Him in His eternal purpose by embracing Him and His ways and then living lives that reflect these things. In this way, we grow to be more like Him, more in His image, and
thereby fulfill His eternal purpose for us.
Biblical Support For The Interpretive Lens
Now that we have an understanding of God’s eternal purpose, let’s consider whether it is Biblical to use God’s eternal purpose as an interpretive lens. What justification is there for the idea that we should look at other teachings using the eternal purpose of God as a measuring rod or
Romans 12:2 answers this question directly: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV). As we grow in our relationship with God, we are to change our thinking, transform our way of viewing things into that which approves of God’s plans, purposes, and choices. This is what friends do: they share common values, see the world in similar ways. As God’s children and friends, we are called to learn, understand, embrace, and promote God’s pleasing and perfect will.
The beginning of The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-10 is a prayer that we should share God’s eternal purpose: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” While this familiar and foundational prayer is recited around the world constantly, it’s easy to miss the cry to embrace God’s eternal purpose. When we pray this prayer, Jesus wants us to really mean it, to desire it from deep within our hearts. We want God’s kingdom to come, the one where God is really in charge and His people are living as God wants them to be. We long for His will to be done down here like it is in Heaven.
Many such verses call believers to think in terms of God’s kingdom purposes. Given these teachings, we are on firm ground to move forward and apply God’s eternal purpose as an interpretive lens through which we can understand every other teaching in the scriptures.
How To Use The Lens
When faced with a doctrine or a Biblical passage that can be understood in different ways, it is necessary to have a frame of reference, a foundation from which to decide the more likely interpretation. Without a solid Biblical framework, it’s easy to fall prey to unbiblical tradition, modern cultural norms, or our own selfish desires. Many inaccurate and harmful ideas that some people claim the Bible teaches could be avoided by applying God’s eternal purpose.
Interpreting through God’s eternal purpose is not intended to replace sound hermeneutical and exegetical principles. We approach the scriptures with a high view, respecting the cultural contexts, not reading into passages but mining the text for our best understanding of what the author was conveying to their audience in their original language. Given that we respect the scriptures as the word of God, holding it to be the foundation of understanding all eternal truth, we carefully seek to let it interpret itself, define its own terms, and tell us what it is saying instead of the other way around. Our understanding of God’s eternal purpose stands alongside these other principles to make it much more likely that we’ll have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to understand as God desires.
As we seek to apply God’s eternal purpose, we also should consider that since God has an eternal purpose, everything He does has that purpose in view. From Creation to today, we can be certain that God has been planning and acting in the world to accomplish His purpose, and that His “purpose will be established, and [He] will accomplish all [His] good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10).
Before we consider eschatological (end of the age) doctrines, let us first apply God’s eternal purpose to a verse that is unlikely to be controversial. Ecclesiastes 1:14 says, “I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.” What could this mean? Do we take it literally in an absolute sense, given that it was written by the wisest man in the world? Doesn’t all mean all, even in the original language? Is he correctly evaluating literally every single action that has ever been done on earth as meaningless and worthless, like the pursuit of air?
Of course not. It doesn’t take long to remember that Abraham’s faith was considered by God to be of tremendous value. From there we can think of the faith and actions of many in the Old Testament who are described by God as righteous and of tremendous worth. In addition, we can apply our understanding that the eternal purpose of God is to cultivate a group of people who freely choose to spend eternity with Him. Given that purpose, is it likely that literally everything under the sun is vanity and striving after wind? Not at all. In fact, we know that much of what happens on this world has priceless, eternal value to God. He sees our hearts, character, values, and actions and knows whether we are His children and will share in His incredible future plans.
This knowledge can lead us to interpret Ecclesiastes in its correct context, as the writings of someone who was looking at the world through only an earthly perspective, without eternity in view. Certainly, apart from an eternal purpose, this world is ultimately meaningless. Paul confirms this in his discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:32. “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Thankfully, we know that God plans to grant a whole host of people the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ in accordance with His eternal purpose.
The Eternal Purpose Of God: Part 3
Looking To The Future Through The Lens
Having experienced one example of using the purpose of God as an interpretive lens, we look at the important teachings related to the ultimate end of unrepentant wicked people. We will not take an exhaustive view of scripture like Edward Fudge in The Fire That Consumes. Instead, we’ll consider the ideas of the three major teachings through a few verses that encapsulate each view, and then apply the “purpose test” to see the likely interpretation.
Before we begin, I recognize that among sincere Bible-believing Christians there is room for disagreement on the interpretation of these matters. We are called to constructively dialog in love, and not to tear one another down personally or otherwise behave unproductively. I want to
invoke the gracious spirit of Edward Fudge, who began The Fire That Consumes with:
“We begin with the reminder that we are all part of a great family of faith, and that our study is part of a larger ongoing family conversation. Because we are talking to family members, it is important for us to forbear making personal accusations or judging the motives of others in the conversation.”5
If you’re a fellow follower of God through Christ, we’re in the same family regardless of how we see these issues. That’s not to say they aren’t important; on the contrary, misunderstanding them impacts whether many people receive the gospel message. It just means it’s important to be gracious, kind, and respectful when we disagree.
The three major views regarding the ultimate end of the wicked are typically called Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and Universalism. The rethinkinghell.com website has a great triangular diagram that describes the relationship between the three views; I recommend that everyone visit the site and see the diagram and all of the other top-notch resources. My brief description of each view follows:
- Traditionalism: Endless Conscious Torment is the current, popular view. Historically it has been the majority view. It teaches that the wicked will be punished in hell consciously for an endless eternity without possibility of either cessation of existence or redemption. Fudge’s label of the traditional view is “a fire that torments.”
- Universalism: Universal Reconciliation is the view that ultimately, through some process of redemption after death, every person who has ever lived will ultimately receive the gift of eternal life in heaven with God. Advocates of this teaching offer various mechanisms for
purification. Fudge calls this view of hell “a fire the purifies.”
- Annihilationism: Conditional Immortality states that only God possesses immortality, and that eternal life is a gift given only to the redeemed. Therefore, at the time of final judgment, everyone will be raised, and the unrepentant wicked will be punished ultimately with death, meaning complete loss of all conscience existence. In Fudge’s words, hell is “a fire that consumes.” This is the view advocated in The Fire That Consumes and what I believe to be Biblical.
Focus on Traditionalism
As we consider the traditional view of endless conscious torment for the lost, let’s choose one of the primary verses often cited by traditionalists in support of their position:
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; … These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)
As Chris Date so clearly articulates in an October, 2012 article, the nature of eternal punishment here does not6 necessarily specify the nature of the punishment, or the length of time that the accursed ones will be conscious while punished. Taken on its own, it could either support the idea that the punishment is everlasting torture, or that it is an actual death that results in cessation of existence that lasts forever.
Fudge comprehensively makes the case in The Fire That Consumes that the Bible teaches the ultimate death of the wicked, so I won’t do that here. My goal is to present the application of God’s eternal purpose to the idea of eternal conscious torment in general, starting with this verse as one example.
Since “eternal punishment,” when considered in this isolated verse could go either the way of traditionalism or annihilationism, how can our understanding of the eternal purpose of God shine a helpful light? First, recall that God’s eternal purpose is to spend eternity with those who have freely chosen to love Him and accept His gracious gift of eternal life on His terms. Implied in this purpose is that he doesn’t want to spend eternity with the wicked. Instead, the Bible says He wants to completely eradicate evil (Psalm 37:10, 2 Peter 3:7). When God remakes the world as described in II Peter 3 and Revelation 22, it will be after destroying evil from the universe.
If the wicked are conscious, then God would be present with them in some sense. No actual separation from God is possible, because life comes from Him alone. Psalm 139:7-8 says, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there,” and Acts 17:28 adds “in Him we live and move and exist.” God is the sustainer of life, so any conscious activity is due to God’s sustaining power. It is at God’s pleasure that anything lives in any state, and once God is no longer pleased to sustain a life, it is no more.
It does not serve God’s eternal purpose to keep the wicked alive forever for the purpose of tormenting them. Therefore, in Matthew 25:46, the eternal punishment must be a literal ceasing of existence, a real death that ends consciousness with no possibility of another resurrection—a capital punishment. Since the result of this penalty lasts forever, it is correctly spoken of as “eternal punishment.”
Focus on Universalism
The doctrine of universalism is, in my mind, much more difficult to find in the Bible. One of the verses listed in a November 2012 article by Joseph Dear on rethinkinghell.com7 refuting universalism listed this verse as one that is used by universalists in support of their view: “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). A universalist interpretation of this verse is that “every knee” and “every tongue” refers to all people who have ever lived, and that they ultimately submit to the Lordship of Christ in eternity, possibly after some period of purification.
Exegetically, it seems to me that you’d first have to completely erase the language of justice, judgment, perishing, destruction, and the second death from the scriptures to support this view. Edward Fudge’s 1984 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, entitled “The
Final End of the Wicked,”8 includes this summary:
The wicked will become like a vessel broken to pieces (Ps 2:9), ashes trodden underfoot (Mai 4:3), smoke that vanishes (Ps 37:20), chaff carried away by the wind (1:4), a slug that melts (58:8), straw that is burned (Isa 1:31), thorns and stubble in the fire (33:12), wax that melts (Ps 68:2) or a dream that vanishes (73:20).
Fudge’s article shows that the Bible teaches the wicked are no more. But even if we just take Philippians 2:10-11 on its own, can we use our understanding of the eternal purpose of God to evaluate its meaning and the overall plausibility of universalism?
We certainly can. Let’s start with the Philippians 2:10. Who is intended by “every knee shall bow”? Is it every person who has ever lived, or just every person left after the judgment and destruction of the wicked? If God’s eternal purpose in creating the world was to spend eternity with those who freely choose to love Him and His ways, it could actually go either way. The wicked may bow to Jesus at the judgment, not in reverence, but in humiliation and grudging surrender. This would not lead to salvation, but the simple recognition that they were wrong, and their punishment is just. If only the righteous literally bow their knees, the wicked could be considered to have submitted by having no choice but to surrender to the justice of the King of Kings. God’s purpose is served by either way.
In the larger sense, universalism fails the purpose test by completely invalidating the whole earth episode. God has specifically constructed the world to give people true freedom to either choose to accept or reject him. In this world, some people can look at the information in DNA code and see the hand of God clearly, while others see the same data and remain atheistic. This is by God’s design; people are free in this environment to choose to love their Maker, or reject Him.
Every intervention of God to reveal Himself to people and call us back to Him has been through real-world events. The Flood, the plagues of Egypt, the establishment of Israel, the subsequent judgment of Israel, the prophesies of Christ, and His ultimate birth, death, burial, and resurrection, each of these events occurred in our real world. With God’s grace continually calling people through His earthly interventions, we see how much He values this environment and the fruit it will produce.
If there is a post-death period of cleansing, purification, and surrender to God, why would God go to all of the trouble to make the world as it is, with the potential for horrible evil? If people can repent after seeing Him as He is, why not skip the pain, sickness, loss, and death and go straight to the creation of the end goal? There would be no purpose for the earth episode if God intends to save everyone after living here, regardless of how they lived.
In addition, universalism removes actual freedom to choose from the purpose of God. In the eternal realm after the resurrection, everyone will see God as He is (Isaiah 6). In that environment, all freedom to choose is removed. The overwhelming awesomeness of God will be so compelling that it would override any true intentions of a person’s heart. It would be like holding a gun to someone’s head and asking them to do to something—real freedom cannot be exercised under these conditions.
God saves us through our lives on earth because there is so much value in the fruit of the character crafted through our earthly existence. We seek because we have to; God is not personally and directly visible. However, He constantly works to call and reconcile as many as will receive Him. Parables like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 speak to God’s tireless work to do all He can to reconcile everyone to Himself, everything except overwhelming our freedom to choose.
Universalism does not achieve the eternal purpose of God because a post-death repentance would be tainted by seeing God in His glory, having overridden real freedom. It likewise invalidates the purpose God has stated for creating the world in the first place. Now, if I’m wrong and there is a way to save everyone in God’s eternal plan, I certainly will not be disappointed. If God ends up saving everyone who has ever lived, or even just a few post-death repenters, I’ll be grateful and celebrate eternally with them. I simply cannot teach Universalism now, because I am constrained by the Bible as the authoritative source of truth about these matters. We are warned of the dangers of speculations (Romans 1:21, 1 Timothy 1:14, 2 Timothy 2:23). The only firm ground we have for interpreting eternal things is by carefully and consistently studying the Bible.
As I said earlier, I am in agreement with Edward Fudge’s interpretation of scripture and see that the end of the wicked is their ultimate and total destruction. One of the clearest verses on the subject is also one of the most familiar to most believers: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The simplest description of the eternal fate of both the saved and the lost is contained here. The saved are given the gift of eternal life, and the lost perish, meaning they are no longer alive in any conscious sense.
John 3:16 summarizes the eternal purpose of God as well. Because of God’s great love for the world, meaning the people He has created on this planet, He gave His Son, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus was to accomplish His eternal purpose: to provide a way for everyone, Jew or Gentile (Romans 2:9-11), to freely choose to believe in Christ, meaning to listen to His teachings and as a result, trust and follow Him to God. This accomplishes God’s eternal purpose.
The Bible says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), and I certainly do not relish the idea that there will be many people who will ultimately perish. My heart’s desire is that all should be saved (Romans 10:1), and that is why I am compelled to teach these things with clarity. God’s goal, to have a people who really love Him in response to His love includes the potential for evil, along with all of its consequences. Like God, we hate evil and its consequences because it ultimately ends up killing people. But the goal, God’s eternal purpose, has such immense value that it’s worth it all.
And in the scope of eternity, graciously ending the short life of a person who is ultimately unwilling to accept God’s gracious offer of eternal life following a just punishment is the most loving and wise course of action for God to take. God’s children, those who will share eternity with Him, will enjoy unending time in loving relationship with their Creator. Everything associated with the consequences of evil in our world will be gone (Revelation 21:4), including sickness, sadness, and death. In that time, all of God’s children will agree and approve of what He has done, and see that it was the best plan imaginable, accomplishing the greatest good.
We live in a real world, made by the almighty God, who has declared His loving purpose to us through the Bible. Everything God has done, is doing, and will do in the world has this purpose in view.
The opening passage in the introduction, Ephesians 3:8-12, contains this incredible clause: “so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places…” Do you see? God’s eternal purpose is revealed through the church (not a building, but the group of people who are God’s children) to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This means that through the era of the earth, and specifically through those who love God and His ways, God is teaching something to the entire universe, to angelic beings, to other beings in the unseen realm. Paul is slightly pulling back a curtain here to reveal that God’s eternal purpose may have more to it than just a benefit to people in this world.
It could be that through the earth episode, God’s wisdom is demonstrating lessons that we cannot fully comprehend on this side of the revelation of all things.
I’ve found the eternal purpose of God to be an insightful, Biblical model for understanding many things, including the eternal destiny of those who reject God in this life. Even beyond understanding doctrine, I’ve found my heart challenged to ask the question: do I love God’s purpose? Am I the kind of person who loves what God loves and approves of it? Do I want His kingdom to come? Do people find themselves drawn to fulfill God’s eternal purpose after interacting with me?
I hope that in considering the eternal purpose of God, you also will have a new context from which to evaluate the truths of scripture and the world in general. Many important questions have more clarity when considered under the light of God’s purpose. May God grant you a greater
understanding of His purpose and great fruitfulness in leading others to understand and embrace.
- The Fire That Consumes, Edward w. Fudge, p. 15