Jordan Peterson—Hero or Heretic?

Jordan B Peterson is the most thought-provoking person I’ve come across in a long time so it’s apt that my 100th blog post is about him. There are already more than a million videos of him. People on both the Left and the Right regularly get offended by him. To some, he is a bigoted extremist; propagating harmful lies—to others he’s a profane heretic; undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet to others, he is a brave hero; a prophetic genius daring to speak the truth. One thing is clear, he’s gaining followers and enemies at an exponential rate!

I keep discovering that people I respect are following him e.g. the editor of Four Views on Hell:

Preston Sprinkle tweet about Jordan Peterson https://twitter.com/PrestonSprinkle/status/888132334855180288
And:

I’ve been listening to this guy… his name’s Jordan B Peterson and he’s not like an orthodox Christian guy but … he has these lectures where he’s talking about Genesis one through four. And he loves the story of Cain and Abel, and one of the things that he said that’s really stuck with me is … he goes, “I don’t get it, this story of Cain and Abel is so densely packed with wisdom … it’s only like two paragraphs long and this story does so much and explains so much about reality!”

Jon CollinsThe Bible Project podcast, Why isn’t there more detail in Bible stories?,  10:55

One of the reasons he’s generating so much interest is that it’s remarkably hard to put him into a box. I’ll admit that the first time I came across him I thought, “Who is this crazy man?”! While he definitely is unconventional and controversial (not your classic conservative or liberal), it’s obvious that he is highly intelligent, well-read, and educated. So who is he and what exactly is he saying?

Dr Peterson is a Canadian psychology professor at the University of Toronto (previously at Harvard), a clinical psychologist, and the author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

His areas of study and research are in the fields of psychopharmacology, abnormal, neuro, clinical, personality, social, industrial and organizational, religious, ideological, political, and creativity psychology. Peterson has authored or co-authored more than a hundred academic papers.

Wikipedia

The list above gives an indication of the topics he formally covers—although, given he does many informal Q&As and interviews, he actually discusses an even greater range! So it’s difficult to know where to start… He has fascinating and practical insights into personality traits, emotions, goal-setting, education, addiction, mental illnesses, relationships, racism, politics, why people behave the way they do, etc. (e.g. Jordan B Peterson Clips20 Minutes on UnderstandMyself.com, and Self Authoring), but today I’m only going to briefly introduce a few of his philosophical and theological ideas.

  1. He honestly values all sorts of people, no matter where they are on the Left/Right spectrum. He explains the essential contributions of different views in our ever-changing social, political, and physical environment (e.g. Why It’s Useful to Talk to People You Don’t Agree With).
  2. He emphatically promotes the need for articulate, truthful, and free speech—Logos. To survive we need ongoing conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and open communication, especially between people who see the world so very differently from each other. Truth is also the antidote to suffering, it’s the means by which we can overcome chaos, create good, and discover meaning (e.g. The Articulated Truth).
  3. He has an interesting argument about how we can know what is real. Logically, given we are finite beings, we have limitations that cause suffering. The resulting pain is self-evidently real. But we can go further, we know that we can do things that make the pain worse. Therefore, we have some idea of what we can do to reduce or mitigate the pain, and indeed it’s then conceivable that there is an opposite to the pain—namely, something that is good (e.g. Is Your Pain Real?).
  4. We should try to aim for the highest and greatest good—good for you, your family, your community, and the world, not just for today but for tomorrow, and the foreseeable future. If we don’t, we risk going around in circles, or worse, descending into chaos and hell (e.g. Dare To Aim For The Highest Good).
  5. In order to have any chance of making the world a better place, we must first sort out our lives rather than assuming we can go around “fixing” others (e.g. How to Change the World—Properly).
  6. We need to voluntarily face and defeat our “dragons” before they get too big and eat us. All sorts of problems can become “dragons”—from small things, like not cleaning your room or paying a bill, to large things, like abuse that you’ve suffered (e.g. Slaying the Dragon Within us).
  7. We want to try to walk with one foot in chaos and the other in order. If we go too far into chaos we will drown, if we go too far into order we will become frozen (e.g. Living a Proper Life between Chaos & Order).
  8. He soberingly articulates the many ways we can make life hell for ourselves and those around us, frequently citing frightening examples from the past 100 years. But he doesn’t leave it there, he encourages us forward.
  9. He appreciates a wide range of art, music, culture, beauty, and wisdom—which, combined with his authentic, conversational style and everyday topics, make him accessible to a broad audience I think, although some people might think he’s too coarse or intellectual at times.
  10. He is great at showing how religions, mythology, archetypes, and psychology are interrelated—which actually gives me a greater appreciation for all of them. Out of this, he explains why Postmodernism is self-defeating and an inadequate philosophy for life. While there are numerous ways to interpret things, many interpretations can be demonstrated as false.
  11. Religion shouldn’t be written off as mere superstition as it’s the distillation of countless generations of profound wisdom and the acting out of deep psychological truths. He sees Christianity as the most thoroughly developed example.
  12. Peterson is doing a lecture series called, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories”. It has given me an even greater appreciation of how truly insightful, inexhaustible, and multilayered the Bible is.

Jordan B. Peterson

 

I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of Universal redemption and the defeat of evil. Now I know perfectly well that all those things can be well conceptualized metaphorically… but I’m not willing to make the claim that those ideas exhaust themselves in the metaphor.

Jordan Peterson talking to Timothy Lott in, “Am I Christian?”

So what do you think—is he a hero or a heretic?

Is your life hell? WWJD?

Below is the second post in a mini-series unpacking my talk above.


Before I get to how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, I’ll share a few more possible parallels to the account in 1 Peter. First, Jesus pointed back to Jonah:

From the belly of the underworld [literally Hades in the Greek] I cried out for help… You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me… I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.
But you brought me out of the pit.

Jonah 2:2b,3,6b, CEB

Here we have a descent to Hades intertwined with the image of a flood, similar to 1 Peter. There’s also the parallel of the “bars” and being imprisoned, and that both Jonah and Jesus were in Hades for 3 days before being raised (Von Balthasar and Parry suggest Lamentations is another OT parallel 1).

But there’s more, while Jesus was going through Hades he preached the good news so that the dead prisoners could be saved (v6b “live with God”):
Diagram showing continuity between Jesus preaching the good news on earth & in Hades for the salvation of sinnersI think that’s reinforced by Ephesians 4:8 (above), John 12:32, and Philippians 2:8-11 (see table below for all the similarities).

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”

John 12:32, CEB

1 Peter 3:18-4:11 Philippians 2:8-11
Christ died (v18) Christ died (v8)
Jesus proclaimed the Good News (v6) At the name of Jesus [Good News of Jesus proclaimed?] (v10)
prison (19); the dead (v6) under the earth [common way to describe Hades] (v10)
their spirits will live with God (v6) every tongue shall confess 2 (v11)
Jesus at the right hand of God in heaven (v22) God highly exalted Jesus & gave him the name that is above every name (v9)
angels, authorities, & powers subject to Jesus (v22) every knee will bow to Jesus—in heaven & on earth & under the earth (v10)
that God may be glorified (v11) to the glory of God (v11)

And maybe these two verses are also alluding to the idea:

And they [the kings of the earth] shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited [episkopḗ: “oversight that naturally goes on to provide the care and attention appropriate to the “personal visitation.””].
Isaiah 24:22, KJV

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Zechariah 9:11, ESV

Implications

First, most people see death as a very significant problem that humans face. Therefore, believing God has defeated death should inspire hope. I think this was particularly the case for Peter’s audience in their non-Christian society. Think about it, whenever someone became a Christian, surely one of the questions would be:

What about most of my friends and relatives who don’t believe—especially all those who have died without even hearing the Good News?

Well, I think Peter’s answer is, “Jesus has told them the Good News so they could turn to Him for salvation.”

Second, “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too.” (v1) Jesus proclaimed the Good News so we proclaim the Good News. Jesus did good so we try to do good. Some people will think we’re strange and will slander us—or worse. Depending on how severely they do that, it can certainly feel like hell, especially if it involves being betrayed by someone you love.

Diagram showing how we should imitate Christ's approach when we descend to

How do we respond to the suffering? We, “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of our life.” (v15a) That involves continuing to do what Jesus did: Even in the depths of hell, He proclaimed the Good News so we should try to proclaim the Good News wherever we are. Jesus did good even when He physically suffered for it, so we try to continue to do good—particularly to those who are trapped in the hellish existence with us.

I think it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t just pretend He wasn’t suffering, He acknowledged it and chose to persevere through it (the night before He was betrayed comes to mind). Likewise, we should acknowledge the suffering and try to imitate Jesus’ brave attitude. And God may even use this to rescue and draw others to Him. Regardless, we are guaranteed to be lifted up again—if not in this life, in the next.

So, “can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds?” (v13) The answer is no, they can’t permanently harm you. “Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you.” (v14a) He promises to heal everything in the long run. “So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.” (v14b) No matter what hell someone drags you into, Jesus will rescue you from it in due course.


1. “[M]y work on Lamentations started me thinking more about “the descent into hell.” I argued that Lamentations was Israel’s Holy Saturday literature, located midway between the death and resurrection of Jerusalem. It was Israel’s theological equivalent of Christ in the tomb. Thus I was led to connect Lamentations to the issue of hell and universalism and, via Von Balthasar, to the descent to the dead (Parry, Lamentations, 197–201).” Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 219
2. A common objection is that some people will only confess under duress, however, there are lots of reasons for thinking that’s not the case:

Talbott—Does God allow irreparable harm?

Paul’s grand vision of a total victory over sin and death … stands in luminous contrast to the Arminian picture of a defeated God. For though the Arminians insist, even as the universalists do, that God at least wills or desires the salvation of all sinners, they also hold that some sinners will defeat God’s will in this matter and defeat it forever. As C.S. Lewis once put it: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”1 So even though God himself never rejects anyone, at least not forever, he will nonetheless permit some of his loved ones to reject him forever, if that is what they should irrationally choose to do. In the case of the damned, at least, God grants ultimate sovereignty not to his own loving will, but to an utterly irrational human decision.

A distinction that I have drawn repeatedly … is between irreparable harm, on the one hand, and harm that can be repaired or canceled out at some future time, on the other. When we humans confront the possibility of serious and irreparable harm—that is, harm that no mere human can repair or cancel out at some future time—we feel quite justified in interfering with someone’s freedom to inflict such harm. We feel justified, first of all, in preventing one person from harming another irreparably; a loving father may thus report his own son to the police in an effort to prevent the son from committing murder. And we may feel justified, secondly, in preventing our loved ones from harming themselves irreparably as well; a loving father may thus physically overpower his teenage daughter in an effort to prevent her from committing suicide.

This does not mean, of course, that a loving God, whose goal is the reconciliation of the world, would prevent every suicide, every murder, or every atrocity in human history, however horrendous such evils may seem to us; it follows only that he would prevent every harm that not even omnipotence could repair at some future time, and neither suicide nor murder is necessarily an instance of that kind of harm. For God can resurrect the victims of murder and suicide just as easily as he can the victims of old age. So even if a loving God could sometimes permit murder, he could never permit one person to annihilate the soul of another or to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in another; and even if he could sometimes permit suicide, he could never permit his loved ones to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in themselves either. Just as loving parents are prepared to restrict the freedom of the children they love, so a loving God would restrict the freedom of the children he loves, at least in cases of truly irreparable harm. The only difference is that God deals with a much larger picture and a much longer time frame than that with which human parents are immediately concerned.

So the idea of irreparable harm—that is, of harm that not even omnipotence can repair—is critical, and Paul’s doctrine of unconditional election (along with the closely associated doctrine of predestination) is his doctrine that, despite the many atrocities in human history, God never permits truly irreparable harm to befall any of his loved ones.2 From the very beginning—that is, even “before the foundation of the world”—God built into his creation, so Paul insisted, a guarantee that his salvific will would triumph in the end. Accordingly, all of those whom God “foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30). Arminians typically argue that the predestination (or foreordination) of which Paul here spoke rests upon foreknowledge, where foreknowledge, as they interpret it, is a mere precognition or prevision of someone’s faith, or of someone’s decision to accept Christ, or of someone’s free choice of one kind or another.

But a two-fold objection to any such interpretation seems to me utterly decisive: First, the object of God’s foreknowledge in 8:29 is simply people, not their faith or their free choices, and second, Paul used the same word “foreknow” (“proegno”) when he wrote: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). And here Paul had in view not the faithful remnant whose proper choices, one might claim, God had already foreknown; instead, he had in view those unbelieving Israelites of his own day who had rejected Christ and whose hearts were still hard and impenitent. They were foreknown, in other words, despite their disobedience, and they remained objects of God’s electing love (“as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors”), not because they had made the right choices, but because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29).

To be foreknown in the relevant Pauline sense, then, is simply to be loved beforehand. All of those whom God has loved from the beginning—that is, all the descendants of Adam—are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. So not only did Paul hold that Jesus Christ achieved a complete victory over sin and death; he also held that there was never the slightest possibility that God would lose any of those loved ones whose salvation he had already foreordained even before the foundation of the world.3


1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1944), p. 115.
2. If God draws the line at irreparable harm and therefore never permits such harm to befall his loved ones, then neither the unpardonable sin of which Jesus spoke, nor the sin of apostasy, as described in Hebrews 10, nor punishment in the age to come is an instance irreparable harm. I set forth my reasons for believing that the unpardonable sin and the sin of apostasy are both correctable, however unforgivable they may be, in The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 1999), pp. 98-101. And I set forth my reasons for denying that the punishment associated with the age to come is unending in Parry and Partridge, op. cit., pp. 43-47, 51n.20-n.30, 269-270n.33.
3. Quoted from “Universal Reconciliation and the Inclusive Nature of Election,” Chad Owen Brand (ed.), Perspectives on Election: Five Views, pp. 254-257.


The above was originally posted by Tom Talbott here.

Tom Talbott hiking

God went through hell so we can too

I did a sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-4:11—a passage that containing these puzzling verses:

Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison.

The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.

1 Peter 3:19, 4:6, CEV

I think we need to keep 2 key themes of the letter in mind:

  1. Peter is trying to encourage Christians. He does this by showing them how they fit into God’s big story—from Creation, Abraham, Israel, and ultimately in Jesus. He reminds them that they have a new hope, a new identity, and a new family.
  2. Peter is giving his readers some guidance on how to respond to the inevitable suffering they’ll face because of their faith.
Excerpt from The Bible Project's summary of 1 Peter showing Jesus telling the non-Jewish Christians that they have a new hope, identity, and family.
Excerpt from The Bible Project’s 1 Peter summary

How does Jesus preaching to the spirits and the dead encourage and inspire hope? What guidance does it give when you’re suffering?

Between the cross and the ascension

To attempt to answer these questions, I’m going to walk through Peter’s account, starting at verse 20, where he talks about the days of Noah.

Disobedient people in the days of Noah being spiritually imprisoned in Hades, while Noah is rescued

Most people had disobeyed God while Noah built the ark and they spiraled out of control and received the colossal, chaotic consequences. In Genesis, their story ended in them drowning but in 1 Peter we discover the story continued… they were spiritually imprisoned. Often that’s referred to as hell, although Hades, Sheol, or the underworld are probably better ways to describe it.

So far, in this story countless people have died, worse, they’ve been imprisoned below, which I don’t find encouraging or hope inspiring! However, even in Genesis, God gives us a glimmer of hope because “eight people went into [Noah’s] boat and were brought safely through the flood.” That would’ve been a relief for Noah but it still leaves us wondering about everyone else… and I think this is what Jesus revealed to Peter.

Slide05

So zooming forward from Noah to Jesus. Again, the world was evil but this time God had a different approach. God entered our world as a human. Jesus preached the good news and did good deeds. A few people listened and followed Him but most objected and so He was crucified. He descended to the dead in Hades, including, we are told, those who had died in the days of Noah.

Again, so far, this is tragic—particularly as Jesus was meant to be the Messiah saving the whole world! However, Jesus was God and remained God, even in Hades—He is the eternal Life. Like someone turning on a light in a darkroom, death didn’t stand a chance! This was the turning point of history! He defeated death and, on the third day, he rose again.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

1 Peter 3:22, ESV

Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority.

1 Peter 3:18, ESV

It’s reassuring to know that ultimately Jesus always has the last word.

Some Christians see the descent as metaphorical but it’s worth remembering that the lines “He descended to the dead (or hell)”; “On the third day he rose again“; and “He ascended into heaven“, were all included in the Apostles’ Creed, which is the oldest and most widely accepted Church creed. The descent to Hades is also mentioned in other passages, for example:

But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?

Ephesians 4:9, CSB

[Christians don’t need to ask] “Who will go down into the abyss?” that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.

Romans 10:7, CSB

Throughout Church history, Christ’s actions in Hades have been seen as very significant:

[B]elief in Christ’s descent into Hades and his preaching to the dead is not a theologoumenon [personal opinion], but belongs to the realm of general church doctrine. … It was shared by all members of the ancient church as reflected in the New Testament, the works of the early Christian apologists, fathers, and teachers of the church, ancient and later writers of both East and West, as well as in the baptismal creeds, eucharistic services, and liturgical texts.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 208, 203

Here are two examples, of many, of how it was interpreted:

[Christ says,] I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

St Melito of Sardis (AD 170), Homily on the Passion

[I shall] remove [them] from punishment and I shall grant them a beautiful baptism of salvation.

Apocalypse of Peter (Ramelli’s translation of the 3rd century Rainer fragment)

Scholar Brad Jersak explains that before Calvin:
Brad Jersak, explains that one of the big questions is “Why did Jesus need to die?”. Before Calvin the answer had always been: “to enter, defeat and destroy death.” This was Christian dogma and no mere atonement theory—we know by its inclusion in the Apostles’ Creed that it was regarded as essential to the gospel, part of the Western baptismal confession (and celebrated all the more so in every aspect of the Eastern liturgy).
Rowan Williams also reflected on the defeat of Hades (source: Experimental Theology):

Jesus is standing on the broken gates of Hades and rescuing the first sinners, Adam and Eve. Image from Brad Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis' book
Jesus is standing on the broken gates of Hades and rescuing the first sinners, Adam and Eve. Image from Brad Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis’ book “Jesus Showed Us!”

Because Jesus went “fully into the depths of human agony”, no matter when we rebelled or how far we’ve fallen, “Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future…” I find that encouraging.


The above is the first post in a mini-series unpacking my talk below. In addition to looking at how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, it will look at how should we respond to slander, defend our hope, and treat each other. The second post is Is your life hell? WWJD?

Parry—Christmas for everyone!

There is more to come—there is the fullness. There is coming a day when, as Paul says in Romans 11, the deliverer will come from Zion and “all Israel will be saved.” Not just the current remnant of Messiah-believers, but also those who at the moment reject Jesus. There is a day coming when, as the book of Revelation says, the kings of the earth and all the nations will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem through its ever-open gates to worship God and the Lamb.

Now we see salvation in part, then we shall see it in full.

So currently we see a division within Israel and the nations between the redeemed and the lost, between the elect according to grace and those who are not, but one day there will be no such division. And then the promises associated with the birth of the Messiah will be filled full, or full-filled.

My second theme can be explained much more simply. Remember that Christmas is also about the incarnation—the Word made flesh, “eternity contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” For the Church, the real and complete humanity of Jesus is really important. The Church Fathers said: “that which has not been assumed has not been healed.” What they meant was that Jesus had to be human to heal our humanity. If he had not taken on our human nature then he could not transform it in himself.

Now Jesus is, of course, a particular human being. He is a real, solid, flesh and blood and bone and spit human individual. But more than that, he is a representative person. As the Messiah of Israel, he represents the whole nation of Israel before God. He is Israel-in-miniature. He embodies its story of exile and restoration in his death and resurrection. In the same way, he is the second Adam—the fountainhead of a renewed human race. In his humanity, he represents all humans before God. The story of humanity in its expulsion from Eden and its subjection to death is played out in his crucifixion. But then his resurrection is not simply about himself—it is on our behalf, the behalf of all of us, Jews and Gentiles. The resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of humanity in him. It is the future of the world inscribed into the risen flesh of the Son of God. And it is here, in this risen and ascended human being that my hope for universal salvation is grounded. How can we know that God will one day deliver all? Because God has already declared his hand in the resurrection. It has been done—so it will come to pass.

And all this promise was wrapped up in the life of a little human baby in a manger in Bethlehem.

That, at least, is something of what may be a little distinctive about a universalist’s understanding of Christmas.


Above is the third part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are: Is Christmas really for everyone? and Israel’s Christmas brings ours.

Jesus, Light of the World—Wycliffe Bible Translators

Parry—Israel’s Christmas brings ours

The fact that the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus focus on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (who has been sent to redeem and rule Israel), needs to be seen in the light of the bigger biblical picture.

Super-briefly—Israel was chosen from amongst the nations for the sake of the nations. God’s plan to redeem the whole human world was focused through his work for the nation of Israel. However, Israel herself was sinful and in need of redemption before God could bring to pass his saving purposes for the world. In the visions of the prophets, the new age was one in which God would first rescue his covenant people and then the nations would abandon their false gods and come and worship the God of Israel alongside Israel. And that’s the story we see in Luke’s gospel-story. Jesus is all about the salvation of Israel, and, precisely because of that, he is all about the salvation of the nations. That’s why the song of Simeon links the two. Once Israel is saved the nations can be saved. And that is why Luke’s bigger narrative in the story that runs across Luke-Acts moves from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. First Israel, then the nations.

Now, while the good news announced by the angels is not for “all people,” it is for “all the people”. We should note that it is for “all the people” (i.e., all Israel). The focus of the redemption in the speeches of Luke’s birth narrative is Israel as a whole, rather than simply some within Israel—read them and check it out. The intended beneficiaries of the Messiah’s activity are all Israel. The focus is Israel-as-a-whole.

Similarly, the hints at blessings for the Gentiles simply pick out “all nations” as the target (i.e., everyone who is not a Jew).

So what at first seems to be pretty parochial turns out to be surprisingly all-encompassing.

Now, of course, one cannot simply read full-blown universalism off these texts. It would be perfectly possible to speak hyperbolically of the salvation of all the people Israel and all the nations in a situation in which some individuals are not saved for one reason or another. The focus of the text is the two groups, not every individual that composes them. (Although, even then, it presumably speaks of the salvation of at very least the of the individuals that compose the two groups. If only a tiny remnant of Israel benefits from the Messiah, it would be more than odd to refer to them as “all the people.”)

So while this theme is compatible with universalism and could even be taken to suggest it, it does not demonstrate it. However, if one is already a universalist for other reasons—as I am—then these birth stories do indeed bring encouragement for an eventual global restoration.

But we must not see the journey in any simple and direct way. All the Gospel writers are well aware that Jesus actually causes division in both groups. Though many in Israel accept him, even more reject him; though many Gentiles embrace the good news, many more resist it. So any universalism that we see in the Christmas story would have to be able to incorporate this important element of the story.

Now the model of universalism that I developed in my book (The Evangelical Universalist), recognizes that the journey to the destination of the salvation of all Israel and all the nations takes a complicated route. I argued that the NT holds in tension the idea of the kingdom of God here now and its future fullness. The new creation has begun, but it is yet to come. It is now, but it is not yet.

This tension, this overlap of the old age and the new age, helps us to understand the story of the salvation of Israel and the nations, which was promised in the Christmas story.

The Jewish Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of saved Israel; and the gentile Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of the saved nations. So in the ekklesia, i.e., the community of Christ, we can already see the promised redemption of Israel and the nations. When Jews and Gentiles, redeemed by Jesus, gather together as one in Christ to worship God, then we see the promises of the prophets fulfilled. Israel is saved. The new age has dawned. The Spirit has been poured out. The nations are coming to acknowledge the God of Israel. This is what the Messiah has achieved.

But there is more to come…


Above is the second part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are: Is Christmas really for everyone? and Christmas for everyone!

Crowds visit Christmas tree & nativity in Bethlehem
Christmas in Bethlehem

Parry—Is Christmas really for everyone?

A Universalist Christmas?

I had never thought about it.

Really, for Christian universalists, Christmas is about the same stuff as it is for every other Christian: the birth of Jesus—the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in human flesh. It is about “God with us” as one of us; it is about God’s faithfulness to promises he made to his covenant people Israel; it is about the promise of redemption; it is about the turning point in history. And the Christmas stories contain loads of other themes: the humility of Mary, submitting her reputation, and perhaps even her life, to obey God; the gentle pride-swallowing grace of Joseph; the revelation of the gospel to mere shepherds; the political power-hungry paranoia and ruthlessness of an insecure king Herod; and so on. But none of this is obviously universalist.

But when Tim Nash calls, one responds, so I want to pursue two lines of thought about how a universalist may have a slightly different spin on Christmas.

The first of these begins with an observation that would, perhaps, even appear to be a problem for universalism—I am referring to the fact that the Christmas story as narrated in Scripture seems to be primarily concerned with the implications of Jesus for the Jews.

The stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are almost exclusively concerned with Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is the nation that God has chosen from all the other nations to be his own special possession. They are his covenant people. However, they had repeatedly fallen short of their covenant calling and were struggling under the oppression of their enemies. They needed salvation; they need transformation; they need the covenant renewing; they need forgiveness; they need the Spirit of God to be poured out on them as the prophets had said.

Many Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting a new king or a new priest to come from God to deliver them from their enemies and renew the covenant. They were looking forward with aching hope, waiting for the anointed one—the priestly or kingly Messiah—to come. God had promised it through the prophets of old. This is, of course, what Advent is about.

Now the birth stories, the Christmas stories, in Matthew and Luke very clearly announce that this long-awaited salvation is at last dawning for Israel because her Messiah has been born. God’s king is at last here!

This is indeed good news for Israel, but in the birth-stories in the Gospels, the relation of Gentiles to Jesus gets hardly a look-in. This is especially evident if you read the speeches of the characters in Luke’s Gospel: the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. For all of them, as for Luke himself, this story is about the redemption of Israel, God’s covenant people.

But, I hear you cry, what about the words of the angel to the shepherds? You know the ones.

Fear not, said he,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and . . . all mankind.

While Shepherds Watched, Nahum Tate

That’s nice but the problem is that this is not what the angel said. What he actually said was: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Not “for all people” but “for all the people.” And there can be absolutely no doubt in the context of Luke Israel-centric birth stories that “the people” means “the people of Israel.”

The only hint of something more comes in the song of Simeon on seeing baby Jesus:

“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke 2:30–32, NIV

It is not clear whether Simeon was thinking of salvation coming to the Gentiles or merely of salvation coming to Israel, with all the nations witnessing it. However, there can be no doubt at all that Luke himself does see Jesus as one who brings saving revelation to the Gentiles, as well as to Israel. And Luke intends his audience to perceive this in Simeon’s words.

The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel similarly function as representatives of the gentile nations, coming to worship the Messiah, the true king of Israel.

Nevertheless, there is not a whole lot for the universalist here

. . . or perhaps there is.


Above is the first part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are Israel’s Christmas brings ours and Christmas for everyone!

"Jesus Showed Us!" by Bradley Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis, p6
“Jesus Showed Us!” by Bradley Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis, p6

 

Parry—The Hospital

The alternative tradition, which predates Augustine, is that God annihilates evil by restoring the universe to himself, thereby healing it. The restoration of creation is the destruction of evil, for evil has no substantial reality.

 

Evil must necessarily be eliminated, absolutely and in every respect, once and for all, from all that is, and since in fact it is not […], neither will it have to exist at all. For, as evil does not exist in its nature outside will, once each will has come to be in God, evil will be reduced to complete disappearance, because no receptacle will be left for it. . . . [I]t seems to me that Scripture teaches the complete disappearance of evil. For, if in all beings there will be God, clearly in them there will be no evil.1

Gregory of Nyssa, De an. 101, 104

And God will not obliterate the good substantial beings he has made. As Al Wolters one said: “God does not create trash, and he does not trash what he creates.” Commenting on Psalm 59:6, 14, Gregory writes, “There will be no destruction of humans, that the work of God may not be emptied by annihilation. Instead of human creatures, what will be destroyed and reduced to non-being will be sin.” In a similar vein, Athanasius writes: “Christ, because he is good and loves humanity, came to bring fire onto earth. . . . He wanted the repentance and conversion of the human being rather than its death. In this way, evilness, all of it, will be burnt away from all human beings” (Ep. 3.4.8). Exitus et reditus.

Sun shining over a hospital

I ought to flag up at this point that all analogies have limitations, and the problem in this context with the hospital analogy is that it fails to do justice to the critical notions of human responsibility for evil and divine judgment on human evil. So I am not trying to be comprehensive here, to say everything that needs to be said about God’s response to human evil, but merely to indicate the manner in which evil is finally annihilated: namely, by eradicating it from humans, rather than by eradicating the humans themselves. The idea of healing communicates that well.

This was the theological framework within which eschatological punishment was interpreted by more than a few of the Fathers. Consequently, hell was understood to be a means to a salvific end, not the everlasting fate of anyone. Such Fathers had no qualms about affirming the biblical teachings on final punishment, and did not shrink from the biblical imagery and language, but such were understood in this wider theological framework. The flames of hell were understood as flames of justice, of course, but simultaneously as flames of divine love. Hell was God’s burning love. St Isaac of Nineveh puts this rather well:

If we said or thought that what concerns Gehenna is not in fact full of love and mixed with compassion, this would be an opinion full of blasphemy and abuse against God our Lord. . . . Among all his deeds, there is none that is not entirely dictated by mercy, love, and compassion. This is the beginning and the end of God’s attitude toward us.2.

St Isaac of Nineveh, Second Part, 39.22

Or, as someone else put it, LOVE WINS.


1. “For it is clear that it will be the case that God is ‘in all’ only when in the beings it will be impossible to detect any evil” (Gregory of Nyssa, In Illud, 17 Downing).
2. “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability.” (Isaac, I.28, p. 266)


Above is the tenth (and last) section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Free Will & Annihilationism

Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.

Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.

If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1

"Savaoph, God the Father" by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Savaoph, God the Father” by Viktor Vasnetsov

Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”

In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:

It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2

It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.

 


1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . .  Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk
2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/


Above is the ninth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Augustine’s Prison

Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.

So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.

Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.

One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!

We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?

Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.

So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.

And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.

For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.

Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.

Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.

In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.

St Augustine of Hippo, early 14th century. Artist: Lippo Memmi
“St Augustine of Hippo” by Lippo Memmi

1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be?
—First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95).
—Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority.
2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179.
3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld.
4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.


Above is the eighth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.