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Atonement and Universal Harmony

Last Sabbath, I sang in my church’s choir. We don’t usually have a choir—just at Christmas to sing the favorites from Handel’s Messiah. The occasional church choir is always a fascinating affair. Pew warmers turn prima donnas, while former collegiate choristers discover that “atrophy” applies to vocal cords, too. But the desperate director never turns down a volunteer.

Three crash-course rehearsals later (‘cause everyone knows the notes), the choir is assembled on the platform, praying that the result will be much more than the sum of its ragtag parts. And then the miracle happens. Whether it’s help from the heavenly hosts or just the spirit of the season, something about that fledgling choir works. Although it may not do Handel himself proud, for those present it is the grandest of worship experiences. Hallelujah, indeed!

Harmony is an extraordinary thing—especially, it seems to me, when it emerges from the most unexpected places. The music from a choir of professional vocalists is exquisite, to be sure, but not surprising. Not miraculous. So also with the harmony promised in Scripture as the creation’s future.

Finally, after a journey through all the (yes, at times, puzzling) particulars of atonement, we arrive at our goal: Universal Harmony. For me, two well-know biblical pictures exemplify this promised end. The first is the prophet Isaiah’s vision of his hoped-for future. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6).

The second is the apocalyptic hope of the author of Revelation. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3–4).

Wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, lion and child, all joined in a creation free of enmity, tears, suffering, or death. The creation made new moving together in harmony as the very dwelling place of God. We know these texts well because they connect with a deep longing within us for a future in which things are made right in the end. Finally, all will be at peace in the world. Amos’s river of justice and righteousness will flow for eternity.

Lovely as these imagines are, and deeply as I long for them, there is a note that rings discordant to this listener. The ends described by these biblical visionaries come at a price that seems out of place. Isaiah: “But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.…” So far, so good. But then: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isa. 11:4). This is the shoot that comes from the root of Jesse. The promised one who will bring peace to the Earth. Must he bring it with a rod and a breath that kills?

John’s apocalypse follows suit. There will be no more death and no more suffering, but such an end comes at a cost. “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15). Must the rider who is called Faithful and True really make war (v. 11)? What about the wonderful Prince of Peace whose incarnational advent we sing about this season?

Frankly, I struggle with these precursors to “universal harmony.” Reconciliation and the triumph of God’s love, I like. Cleansing, vindication, and judgment—those are harder to swallow, especially because they so often seem connected to some sort of destruction and violence. Is annihilation of the bad guys the only route to “harmony”? Is that really harmony at all?

I appreciate the story we tell of the Great Controversy. When evil enters the world, God shows amazing restraint by taking the long, painful path of atonement instead of stamping out sin right at the beginning. The universe must be allowed to see the full consequences of sin play out. God must prove the divine character to be just and merciful, not vengeful and vindictive. And so God waits. God works from the bottom up, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:7–8).

That is profound and deeply moving, worthy of our most energetic worship. But I can’t shake the question about whether we tell the story in such a way that in the end God does what God could have done at the beginning. An iron rod. A rider who wages war. Why the path of suffering if the final solution is the heavy hand?

To be honest, I’m not sure I have a good answer. I know many answers that I’ve been given, but none that settles completely. And maybe that’s okay. I hesitated to accept the invitation to write this week for lack of clarity in my own wrestling with the topic. Shouldn’t the last week of the year include a glorious rhetorical finale to the story of atonement and redemption? Probably. But I’m writing nevertheless in hopes of continuing conversation, of growing in community. (Let the comments commence!)

I believe wholeheartedly that universal harmony emerging from this world is extraordinary and miraculous, for sure. I long for it. Look around. If ever there were a hopeless case, we’re it. Yet, redemption, reconciliation, and recreation are our future hope. And the price God has paid to ensure it is unimaginable. Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigns! But as we tell the story, as we sing the song of redemption, may we be both passionate and prudent that we get it right, that the beauty of harmony is indeed miraculous and universal.

Vaughn Nelson is lead pastor at Grace, a church plant in Eastlake (San Diego, California), and a graduate theology student at La Sierra University.

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