The following diagram summarises some thoughts I was having on what a possible framework might be for understanding the various texts relating to judgment and the final destiny of humanity (click for a larger version in a new window):
This sets out three “paths” for human existence: the path taken by Christ, and two paths of human existence (“A” and “B”). Each path includes a “rupture” of death and resurrection, judgment and vindication. (Note that these paths should be seen as conceptual rather than simply chronological.)
To the two sides of the first “rupture” – the death and resurrection of Jesus – belong texts such as John 12:31 (where Jesus tells us that his death brings into the present the final judgment of God), 2 Corinthians 5:21 and (on the other side of the rupture) Philippians 2:9.
The second “rupture” is that experienced by the believer in Christ. As Romans 6 teaches, our baptism unites us with Jesus’ death and resurrection. To be justified by faith is to know now the final pronouncement of forgiveness and vindication on account of Christ’s death and resurrection. In other words, our baptism unites us to the first “rupture” (Christ’s death and resurrection) and prefigures/pre-empts the third “rupture” (of final judgment).
My suggestion is that this then provides us with a framework for reconciling texts warning of the stark distinction between believers and non-believers with those which appear to promise a wider salvation.
Take a text such as John 3:18:
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
I suggest that this should be seen as a statement of the present condition of those two groups, as shown towards the middle of the diagram. For the believer, there is the assurance of knowing that our condemnation and judgment lie in the past, in our baptism that unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection. However, for those who do not believe, there is only the present judgment of God and a path leading to the depths of condemnation and judgment.
However, beyond that we see other texts, texts which perhaps tell us that the word of condemnation is not the last word for those who die without faith in Christ. Texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:23-24a (using the NRSV’s marginal reading):
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then come the rest…
The three paths on my diagram can be seen as corresponding to what is described in this text: Christ the first fruits; those who belong to Christ; “the rest”. Or Romans 11:32:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And the point is that in each case you can only get to the right-hand side of the rupture by going through the left-hand side: Christ’s resurrection followed his humiliation and death; the resurrection of our justification follows the death of our baptism; and the route to the promise of universal salvation – if that’s what it is – passes through the warnings and experience of divine judgment, so that we cannot preach the latter without the former.
Anyway, those are just a few sketchy thoughts – but they do seem to suggest a way in which the death and resurrection of Jesus, the present justification of Christians and the future judgment – and salvation? – of all can be tied together. I’d be interested to know what people think.