Dart: Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues

Below is my transcript of Ron Dart’s helpful video above—I’ve edited it slightly for readability.

I’d like to call this presentation, Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues. A few decades ago when I was doing my undergraduate studies in the 1970s, I took a course with John Milton and (it was with the Jesuits, which was quite interesting because rarely do something like Milton and Jesuits come together) we did the standard texts: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson’s Agonistes, many of Milton’s fine poems. We also touched on one of his key prose works, the Areopagitica, and in one of the lines (amongst the many lines in the Areopagitica) Milton says:

I cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth.

John Milton, Areopagitica

In the culture we live in today, there are many people, whether religious, ideological, intellectual, they live with their cloistered virtues, and they don’t sally forth into other terrain where they encounter people who think different, see differently, and if they do, they usually marginalize, subordinate, demonize. Those are various ways of ignoring or not heeding different perspectives.

Jordan Peterson has very, very much come on the stage in the last two years, specifically, he’s been working on much of this thinking for decades. In the last two years, he has stepped on the stage and certainly speeches his speech insightfully, evocatively, challengingly. He’s received, as a result, an immense amount of public attention, probably more than any other Canadian in the last couple of years. He’s taken the role in a more popular way than someone like Charles Taylor had historically, or George Grant before him. He’s become a media darling for good or ill, but he’s nonetheless become a media darling in terms of someone to interrogate, someone to applaud, and there are different reactions to Jordan Peterson.

What I’d like to briefly touch on in the next few minutes is how he transcends the tribalism of different ideological outlooks and cloistered virtues of the progressive and trendy left or the reactionary conservative right, and he’s attempting articulate a third, nuanced, and more thoughtful way, which cannot be easily capitulated to any of the tribes as a were in the culture wars.

There tend to be three attitudes towards Jordan Peterson when his name comes up in discussion. I might add that certainly in the last few months, I’ve had more students who’ve come to me regularly wanting to discuss Jordan Peterson or wanting to write papers on Jordan Peterson or get class presentations on Jordan Peterson, than probably any other public figure in a consistent way. So there’s obviously an interest, even from a sociological perspective, in what he’s saying, what he’s articulating, and how people, for good or ill, are responding and reacting to Jordan Peterson. To ignore him on the public stage of thought and issues is to live with cloistered virtues, to live with one’s head buried in the sand. He’s a person that cannot be missed in that sense. As I said, there’s probably three reactions to him at the present time.

Within Canada largely, we’re seen as a liberal culture on the cutting edge of progressive liberalism and there’s a whole range of content issues, which I’ll touch on briefly, which define progressive were cause de jour liberalism. Jordan Peterson has dared to question that tribe or that clan, with its own definition of what is right and what is good, and one reaction from that clan to Jordan Peterson has been to demonize him, to caricature him, to dismiss him, to see him as a scapegoat, to see him as the alt-right or the light right, to see him as a man of white privilege. I mean there are various ways that one castigates or shuns the person, those who don’t fit in the tribe. He’s been compared to Martin Luther, by some, who dared to question the Catholic Church. Well, Jordan Peterson has dared to question, as it were, the modern “Catholic Church” of liberalism because, in that sense, an ideology is just a secular form of the Church. It’s had its own way of defining itself, what are the important issues, who’s in, who’s out, depending on whether you salute or genuflect to the trendy issues of the particular denomination or a tribal outlook you belong to.

To help understand a lot of Jordan Peterson’s thinking, he did a degree in political science in Alberta. His background is Alberta, then went on to do finally a degree in clinical psychology. In the last 20 years, he’s taught at the University of Toronto.

But some of his early work was very, very much on the way totalitarianism works and particularly forms of totalitarianism—we saw a former USSR under Stalin or Mao in China. We in the West and we’ll often talk about the various forms—we’ll see Germany and Hitler, Mussolini in Italy, Japanese nationalism. But underneath it is a concern he has with groupthink—that you’ll get people in groups who don’t know how to think outside of that group or if they do, they fear doing it for fear of ostracization and the implications of that.

Now obviously in the larger political authoritarian or totalitarian tendencies of the right or left, the consequences are rather tragic in the lives lost are horrendous. But the underlying way of seeing, in terms of a certain idea or mapping one’s worldview (this is his first big, book—came out in the late ’90s—on forms of mapping reality), is an attempt to explore how ideological outlooks define who’s in and who’s out and the implications of that (even though in the larger political ones the consequences are much more tragic and certainly in a liberal democracy they’re more benign, those worldviews still exist). A way of saying, “My group is right, my tribe, my clan, my cloistered virtues”, and if one doesn’t accept or genuflect or sign the password or the Shibboleth to get in, then a person is excluded from that particular tribe.

Now the dominant ideology in the liberal West (large elements certainly in Canada, our own Liberal Party, which is in power and Justin Trudeau, which would be a part of that), in that sense, embodies a form of progressive liberalism, which means on a whole variety of issues, you know where you stand and no one dares to differ with them. Let me just touch a few to just highlight this particular tribe or family and then what happens if one dares to differ with them.

At one crude level where Jordan Peterson has challenged the new atheist. There’s a whole understanding of secular liberalism, predicates crudest level of what we would call the right wing of the Enlightenment—that a certain view of science is the only way to know and that’s an empirical way of knowing, and that view of science defines what is reality and if something cannot be demonstrated through an empirical research, objective way of knowing, then it’s not real. That particular approach plays a dominant role, say in the universities in the public square, then tends to demean religion and so then you get these clashes, these clashes between science (as understood in a certain way, of which people like Sam Harris and Dawkins and many others are apart) and religion, which can’t seem to compete at that level. If you’re part of that sort of secular liberalism tribe, then people from religious backgrounds can feel inferior, they can feel marginalized, they don’t know how to quite compete at that level, and that’s one way in which that secular liberalism dominates.

But if you move to a more moderate form of liberalism (what we would call pluralist liberalism and which you can really see this played out once again), “okay, we’re open to spirituality” and when we have public events, we’ll bring First Nations people and you can beat their drums and do their prayers or if it’s some form of oriental origin, you can do the bowing at a public event. But to have a priest or a minister come in to do a prayer…? No, no, no! So very open to alternate spiritualities other than Christianity. So this sort of religious pluralism is open to some forms of spirituality but tends to marginalize others. Needless to say, those forms of sort of political correctness and culture wars have very much been a part of treating Christianity and religion in a secondary manner.

In the larger culture wars, Jordan Peterson will be having a big debate this spring in Vancouver with Sam Harris on, “You want to talk scientifically, well whose definition of science, okay? So you want to exclude religion, but can you explain consciousness in terms of a pure material investigation of the world that we live in?”. So then these particular new atheists want to talk as if their definition of science is the only way to understand science. But Jordan Peterson obviously is well-trained in science as well, the science of consciousness and the subconscious and the unconscious, so then it gets into a discussion of whose definition of science, which methodology are we going to use and things like that.

There are other elements in what Jordan Peterson is going to go after, in what’s called the politically correct world of the progressive left. Whether it’s identity politics or whether it’s gender politics or whether it’s white privilege, whether it’s Empire and colony, whether its power and powerlessness. There’s a whole world of discussion at the public university in which certain things are legitimate to talk about and other things that if you do think, then you must be a troglodyte or live in the Catskills. I mean even things like, say abortion, which is often seen as something on the right, it’s all right to talk about pro-choice but not pro-life. When it comes to euthanasia, “yep, pro-choice” but not questioning who are we to define the family in terms of a man/woman. These become ideological constructs in terms of social conservatism. Jordan Peterson has come along and essentially said, “Why do the liberal and progressive left only define what is good in those terms?”, and in one sense, it’s not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism.

A lot of his work, in terms of looking at things like Neo-Marxism, post-modernism, and progressive liberalism has upset the ruling elite or the family compact or the Mandarin class in terms of the issues he’s written. What they tend to do then is to caricature, they dismiss, they demonize, they turn him into a scapegoat. In the recent interview with Cathy Newman in Channel Four, which has caused a huge reaction amongst many, you can see her constantly trying to stump him from within that trendy progressive left and him quite astutely and acutely knowing how to respond to her caricatures of them. She thought she knew what he stood for, but he’s much more subtle and nimble than that particular way of thinking.

One of the things, probably the first thing, as I mentioned earlier, just as he saw certain forms of authoritarian or totalitarian thought politically, so he sees the whole culture wars of political correctness is just a more benign form of groupthink. If you dare to break from the ranks, there’s going to be consequences. He certainly feels the ire and the consequences of that liberal elite or, as I mentioned, the family compact. He understands that world well because he’s lived within it for much of his adult academic and intellectual life, and so he speaks of what he knows. He’s not someone who stands outside the public educational institutions. He lives within them and he knows their agendas.

He’s dared to deconstruct progressive liberalism and many progressive liberals or ideological liberals or postmoderns, they love to deconstruct everything—except their own agenda, so it’s very dishonest. Or you might want to ask why don’t deconstructionists deconstruct deconstructionism? He’s dared to do that and carried it a step further. He points out very clearly, even though they talk the language of liberty and individuality, there is a groupthink, there is a clan, there is a tribe here. And those who dare to question it will feel the same ire as anyone would in a larger political system when you dare to differ with the party line.

Now the dilemma that often he has faced is that for people who think just dualistically black/white, right/wrong, my-tribe/your-clan—that very Manichean dualism—”Well then, if he’s critiquing the progressive left, then he must be a Herald and a pioneer and the Messiah of the alt-right or the light right!” Of course, many on the right have tried to co-opt Jordan Peterson for their agenda and see him as one of the family, and in that sense, they’re just as dualistic as the progress progressive left in that sense, the alt-right. Again and again, they’ve tried to co-opt him, whether it’s Rebel Media or whether it’s even the Canadian Christian College in Toronto (and there are a variety of other organizations), which have really cheered him on in his critique of that progressive liberalism and its seeming inability to critique itself. Even though it uses the language of critical thinking, it only swings the sword one way—to the right. It doesn’t allow the blade of that sword to come and also critique the left. It’s what Jesus would talk about, mote-beam syndrome, as we could always see the beam and the other’s eye and we either don’t see the mote in our own eye or we just see a mote but not a beam.

What he’s really highlighted is that tendency of mote-beam thinking, and the other always has the beam and we have the mote—if we have that at all. But those, as I mentioned before, who only see ideological perspectives (certainly within liberal democracy) as liberal progressive or reactionary conservatives, think, “Well, if he’s deconstructing liberal progressivism with all of its agenda and its laundry list of issues, therefore he must really be a prophet of the right or a Herald or a pioneer of the right.” He’s made it very clear again and again when they attempt to co-opt him or bring him into their household as a part of the family, that he’s quite as willing to deconstruct the alt-right and the light right as he is the left because at the heart of a lot of his thinking is the commitment to critical thinking—and the sword of critical thinking swings both ways. It will swing in terms of the alt-right, the light right, and any forms of reactionary right or conservatism.

So the left and the right don’t quite know what to do with him because even though the content of their perspectives is different, the way they see reality is often similar in terms of right/wrong, black/white—almost a comic book way of approaching reality. Someone who slips through that net becomes a little too elusive and they don’t know how to deal with him in that sense.

In attempting to understand Jordan Peterson, it’s important to see that underneath his concern is, on the one hand, a fear of groupthink and the importance of responsibility of the individual to think for themselves if they’re going through situations in life that are difficult and try not to blame mom and dad, not to blame circumstances. Not to blame but each person is very responsible for making choices that bring them a more meaningful life.

But he’s more than just sort of a “power of positive thinking” sort of a person. There’s much more to him than that. He believes there are structures of reality and to the degree we ignore those myths or structures, we, in fact, do our soul, our society, our families, great hurt and harm. And this is why he has done a great work on examining the great religious texts of the pasts.

In one sense, it’s probably important to understand he’s very much a Renaissance thinker. He can’t be reduced to a discipline in the academic world or a silo, in saying, “Oh, you’re a clinical psychologist, that’s all you can talk about, that’s all you know, so who are you to talk about philosophy, theology, social issue, political correctness?” Well, in fact, much of his work transcends the tribalism of disciplines, to begin with, as well as transcends the tribalism of the culture wars or the cloistered virtues of these different tribes that will not sally forth into the bigger world and actually engage different perspectives in a thoughtful, listening, and mediating way. Remembering, he spent years as a clinical psychologist and counseling and he has the ability know how to listen and listen very well in that sense, and be sensitive—to call forth people to live their lives in a meaningful manner, that they don’t blame others for their state and station in life, and that each and all are responsible for their decisions, and, yes, there are influences that can impact them, but they can’t use those influences as a justification for their continuing problems in the present, in the future. They have to work through those to move forward. He uses different analogies, but one is the analogy of the chess game.

He points out that life, like a chess game, has rules and if you violate those rules, there’s no game—just like violating rules of anything. Freedom is only found to move the pawns, the rooks, the Kings, the Queen within a framework. And the problem with certain types of liberalism is it highlights the role of freedom but there are no rules by which you can decide how to use your freedom or there’s no content to freedoms. It’s like Janis Joplin once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.” He’s acutely aware of the ideology of liberalism with its highlighting of individuality, liberty, open-ended notion of human identity, but absolutely no markings or care in terms of how to use liberty and freedom and an open-ended notion of human nature.

It’s as a result of that—over really the last 20-30 years of his life—he has tried to look at what are the great stories of civilizations that in fact give us the rules by which we play the game of life, which doesn’t mean there’s not great freedom but there’s freedom to move within, as it were, these rules. At the present time, and certainly in 2017 (which has come as a shock to a great many people who assumed we live in a secular age and nobody who thinks beyond a Sunday school that would want to go to public forums where teachings in the Bible were being done outside of the church), he’s literally packed out lecture theaters in Toronto (which is seen as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Canada) with lectures on the Bible! This has sort of stunned those who take the temperature of culture and postmodernity—”Certainly no one cares about the Bible anymore and who would sit in lectures on the Bible other than maybe people in Bible school or seminaries or churches or synagogues or things like that.” He’s obviously speaking to a generation of people in which the markings are gone, in which the quest for meaning has become so diluted and thinned out, they don’t even know where to look anymore.

They are looking for those hints, those clues (without slipping into a dogmatic conservatism or, on the other hand, a form of relative liberalism in which nothing goes),  and say there are these broad rules that, as it were, can point the way into the future. He looks at the Bible in these lectures in terms of not a simple either literal way in which you’ll get sort of creationists (remember, a lot of his work is from evolution of biology, so he’s not going to certainly read Genesis, which he’s done a lot of lectures on thus far, in simple young earth notion of creation versus evolution. He takes seriously the role of evolution—what it has to offer), but he also doesn’t look at the Bible in terms of the way some biblical scholars will, in terms of the historical, as it were, “Was there a flood?”, “Can we find Noah’s Ark or Jericho?”, “Do we have the archeological digs?”, “Do these things…?”—that doesn’t interest him. He’s very interested in a psychological reading. He’s been influenced by Carl Jung and, some would argue, Kierkegaard, and a whole variety—again, it’s his Renaissance nature. There’s a quite a wide range of sources he draws from—he draws from them thoughtfully. He wants to look at how do you map the Bible in terms of the meaning it offers to the soul, the community, to society, and what are the great themes.

I’d like to look at two briefly. Let me take one in terms of just how to read the Bible, say elements of Genesis or Exodus, which gets beyond either a simplistic literalism or an unhealthy just doing historic digs to find sites or places or archeological, places like that, manuscripts and this is supposed to verify these places existed or stuff like that. I mean “genesis” in the Greek is “the beginning”—it’s the beginning of all myths (remember, “myth” is not an untruth, it’s “myth” in this classical sense, it’s the perennial truth wrapped in the garment of a story). The great myth of Western civilization, which you’ll find in other civilizations, is the Eden myth.

Underneath the Eden myth is the notion of the tree. Of course, you don’t read the tree as a mere literal tree. One of the great symbols of the human soul is the tree and the tree, by its very nature, the question is, “What is it rooted in?”, “What sort of soil is rooted in?”, and any tree produces fruit. The story of the Eden tree is that humans have many desires and we’re told in that passage those desires are good, enjoy them, pick from there to be enjoyed, they’re nutritious for the soul. They’re nutritious for the soul, but don’t pick from the fruit of certain desires because there’s going to be consequences, and one is going to lose one sense of who one is.

The story of Eden is, in fact, people use their freedom in a way that they lose their freedom and hence, the “East of Eden” that John Steinbeck will talk about, and then the rest of the human journey is being banished from who they really are, the real image and likeness of God, living east to Eden, but always longing for the homeland again. You can see this mythic structure played out in this Edenic myth in that sense, which is the foundation myth of the West—it’s liberty and order. And what is the order? Just as in a chess game that allows a game to be played. But what’s the order of the human soul in society that gives life meaning.

The other would be the Exodus myth, it could be again read in the Jewish story of slavery/bondage, being freed from a Pharaonic empire, across the desert into the promised land. That can be read at one level. The other level is that when we are east to Eden, we are in slavery to false desires, to fantasies, to imaginations. We were very, very much victims of turning to mirages for meaning and they can give us a sense of order, direction, but they don’t fulfil, they leave us restless. We’re enslaved but there’s a certain security and predictability. Exodus, the “ex” (“out”), “odus” (“the way”), is about the story that people have to go through to leave that which is secure but in bondage, so that they can be free but insecure in the journey. The whole story of Exodus being read from a mythic perspective, it’s psychologically and spiritually extremely insightful, the price that has to be paid and then the journey to the desert. Of course, most never in time reach the promised land, but it’s the journey of letting go and the desert is the place of all those distractions and diversions are taken away and then “Oh, who am I when all that’s taken away?”

Jordan Peterson in his lectures in Genesis, he’s really trying to get at, in many ways, and he’ll take key biblical figures, the Cain, the Abel, the Adam, the Eve and he’ll read them metaphorically or mythically—that, of course, is what appeals to people beyond the simple literalism or “Can we find these sites in the Middle East or the Near East that the Bible talks about to prove for us that the Bible somehow was valid?” In drawing from people like Carl Jung, archetypes and myths, he’s sort of a more popular version of Joseph Campbell—doing the same sort of thing. He looks at the mythic hero who’s trying to find their way beyond that which enslaves, that which is ideology, that which prevents people from being free and finding their true and unique individuality on the journey.

Perhaps a criticism that could be levelled at him is he’ll critique the right and the left in terms of its ideology as if he himself is not coming out of an ideological perspective. Very important to understand a lot of his underlying principles are very much classic forms of liberalism, the individual versus the community or the state, and the state can oppress the individual has to fight for their own freedom. Now he’s not daft enough to see the state or community as always negative and the individual as always good, but often when they’re pitted against one another, he’ll often see the individual hero as having to find their way against these oppressive structures.

In his conversation, interestingly enough about the Church, he finds that he’s often asked if he’s a Christian, if so what kind of Christian, if he’s doing these lectures on the Bible “well, he must somehow have some interest in religion?” and he talks about the danger, as it were, of groupthink in the Church as if people in the Church all think the same way, no more. He has enough experience obviously in a public university, and to know they don’t all think that. Actually, he’s been marginalized within that context, and no community is homogeneous unless it’s extremely ideological.

Whether you’re in education, church, politics, sports, policing, culture, any of these communities are highly layered, so there’s always the danger of saying well, the church or the political party or the education is collective, but anyone who lives in them knows they’re layered. He tends to in his own thinking prioritise as what we call first-generation liberalism with the individual against the community, liberty against order, even though you can see him again, again grappling with that tension, which is, I think, to his credit and he’s aware of it.

I think the more he explores obviously biblical themes you get beyond the stories, you get under the myths into the principles that the myths are all about, that inevitably you’re into these huge, huge tensions in world philosophical thought in terms of liberty and order, individuals, community, unity, diversity without divisive. These are all significant and the role of thinking which of course is very important for him. Critical thinking in this. Property rights are very important to him and again, in some ways, he reflects a more sophisticated version a bit of his Alberton upbringing in that sense when you start getting underneath that, some of the liberalism which defines that.

And in that sense, I started off with Milton because Milton was the quintessential sophisticated liberal of his time, as Bunyan was the cruder liberal of his time in Pilgrim’s Progress and the hyper-individualism of Milton and of the populist one of Bunyan. It shares that sort of first-generation liberalism.

To sum then, I think it would be important in reflecting and evaluating the Jordan Peterson to recognize very clearly he is attempting to transcend the tribalism of the ideologies of his time, the dominant ideology in Canada, and large elements of the liberal West, whether the democratic tradition in the states or the liberal party or the NDP in Canada is very much a family or it’s a tribe which has a laundry list of issues that come from certain principles, whether it’s as I mentioned earlier post-modernism, postmodern feminism, whether it’s gender issues, whether it’s identity politics, whether it’s a certain uncritical support to a Neo-Marxism, whether certain views of abortion, euthanasia, family, certain views of the environment, certain views of war and peace, and crime and punished.

You can list 20 to 25 issues in terms of that progressive trendiness or cause de jour liberalism, and there’s obviously good in that. When it becomes a frozen ideological perspective, then you’re intellectual totalitarianism. Does that mean Jordan Peterson then uncritically genuflects to the right? No, they’re exactly the same. The dualism of the right is not much different than the dualism of the left. You know but the hero is, you know who the enemy is. It’s sort of the Captain America mentality. He then turns beyond the dominant ideologies, and this is why he’s interested in the Bible in a much more nuanced read of it (it’ll be interesting to see where he goes as those lectures unfold). And the fourth part would be interesting in terms of getting Jordan Peterson as he goes along to actually begin to critically reflect on his own ideological principles and both the strength of those principles, and perhaps the Achilles heels and blind spots of those principles. As I mentioned earlier, I started with John Milton’s Areopagitica, cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth, the right and left tend to be tribal. They have their cloistered virtues and those who disagree with them are in the world of vices usually.

The particular reads of the Bible and can open us up to a much more vibrant and more in-depth understanding of the contributions of myth and its role in terms of freeing individuals to see actually the landmarks that have been laid down in history through stories, through narratives, when these sacred texts are read in a certain way. Then the fourth point would be is Jordan Peterson depending on how he goes along his journey would be to reflect on perhaps the ideological framework within which he lives, but he does not substantively criticize because it’s one thing criticize various positions. The task of a healthy thinker is to know how to be self-critical as they go along on their journey.

To end, absolutely important … Well first of all, absolutely important that people don’t put their heads in the sand and ignore these bigger public issues of which Jordan Peterson is very much on the stage articulating. That would be the first thing, either religiously or politically or culturally, and not sort of slip into a religious ghettoism in that sense, but enter into the larger public fray. Secondly in Peterson, to know how to see the immense good he’s contributing in terms of deconstructing both forms of liberalism, the sort of trendy liberalism and reactionary conservatism, to look at his unique … I won’t say it’s unique because the historic Church has read the text this way and he’s just making it more popular from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.

Then the fourth point would be to reflect on, for those who are interested in critical thinking, to be posing before Peterson himself, what does he see as the ideological construct and the house he inhabits by which then he reads the Bible and which he critiques the progressive left and the reactionary or conservative right.

Above & below

God above
Earth below
Filled with love
Yet sorrow knows

From above
To below
Seeks the lost
Mercy bestows

Father above
Child below
Moment of clarity
Home I go

Order above
Chaos below
Meaningful moments
Thus we grow

Aim above
Strive below
Seek the truth
Shalom will flow

Judge above
Nations below
Justice restored
Evil brought low

Fire above
Fire below
Refined by love
Through we go

Mystery above
Revealed below
Creation renewed
All in tow


Silhouette of tree above & below ground

Give Jordan Peterson a fair go mate

Australia’s largest Christian newspaper, Eternity News, published an article titled, The never-ending search for masculinity (excerpts below). Journalist Tess Delbridge introduced Jordan Peterson and shared an assessment of him by prominent Sydney Anglican minister, Michael Jensen.

I like Delbridge and Jensen, and I appreciated them doing an article on Peterson but their evaluation often seemed unfair. It appeared they were assessing Peterson against an Evangelical preacher or theologian but Peterson is neither. I think it would’ve been far more helpful to compare him to others who have secular, scientific backgrounds, like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.

Peterson deserves a fair go, so below I’ve pushed back against the criticisms.

Peterson himself is not a Christian. … Peterson said he was not ready to declare whether or not he believes in the historical resurrection of Jesus. “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given,” Peterson said.

It’s not as simple as that. Only a few months ago, Peterson considered himself to be a Christian:

Timothy Lott: Are you a Christian?

Jordan Peterson: I suppose the most straightforward answer to that is yes.

Am I Christian?

However, it appears Peterson was told he wasn’t a Christian because he didn’t affirm the Ecumenical Creeds, and to his credit, he took that feedback onboard and has now stepped back from that label while he carefully looks into the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. (From what I’ve observed, over the past few years he been slowly moving towards orthodox Christianity—possibly even Eastern Orthodoxy—rather than away from it.)


Jensen says Peterson “is both massively appealing and interesting and also potentially dangerous for Christians because he doesn’t really understand grace.”

I think it’s a shame Peterson doesn’t talk explicitly about grace very much and I’d love to see an interviewer press him about it, but I’d be hesitant to conclude that he doesn’t understand it. For example:

The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. … This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works.”141

141. Ephesians 2:8—2:9 reads, for example (in the King James Version): “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” A similar sentiment is echoed in Romans 9:15—9:16: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” The New International Version restates 9:16 this way: “It does not, therefore depend on human desire or effort but on God’s mercy.”

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p186

I’m really puzzled as to why Peterson is described as “potentially dangerous for Christians”. Most Christians I know, already understand grace, and so wouldn’t be trying to learn about it from a non-Christian… Christians should be able to discern whether Peterson’s suggestions about everyday living are compatible with Christianity—most clearly are (e.g. speak the truth).

He’s after self improvement, and so his book (12 Rules for Life), appealing and inspiring thought [sic] it is, asks you to pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps. It says, ‘Wake up, get over it, be disciplined.’ And that is Pelagianism …

Michael Jensen

Peterson is encouraging so much more than mere self-improvement:

You should aim at the highest good that you can imagine and that would be a good that includes everyone. So if I wanted what was good for you, say, if I genuinely wanted it, I’d want it in a way that was good for you now and good in the long run—and good for you and your family and your community and may be good for me too. … I think that’s a good definition of love is—that you actually want the best. You want the best possible outcome and in the Gospels, of course, that’s extended even to your enemies.

Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power,  48m 56s

If someone hasn’t read much of the Bible, they may think Jesus is promoting self-improvement, as he often does teach about being disciplined—changing our attitudes and actions (e.g. Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandments, take up your cross). Sure, further reading reveals Jesus also said that we can never be good enough to earn salvation (God’s pardon is free). But my point is, simply teaching people to, “Wake up, get over it, be disciplined”, doesn’t imply Pelagianism (particularly when Peterson isn’t even discussing a way to be made right with God).

Was the Prodigal Son being a Pelagian by waking up and walking towards what he knew was good (his father)? Of course, walking would be futile if there wasn’t the father running towards him with open arms—graciously forgiving and restoring. However, Peterson already sees that as we try to crawl towards the transcendent Good (our Father), he starts to transform us (e.g. Pinocchio being transformed from a puppet into a real boy). I’d love to see Peterson more fully articulate God’s role but I think the concepts are already there, at least in embryonic form (a great start for someone who says he’s still learning about Christianity).

The trouble is, what we know as Christians is that in order to improve yourself, you can’t start with determining to improve yourself, you must start with grace. You must start with your own helplessness and your own sins.

Michael Jensen

Sure, Peterson’s approach starts with human suffering, which is a result of us becoming self-conscious of our significant limitations (see his lecture on the Fall), but his very next move is to acknowledge that each and every person sins—misses the mark—unnecessarily increasing suffering, which is evil:

As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p47

Peterson acknowledges that each of us needs help:

Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand. … note the reality of the limitations of individual being… accept and be thankful for the support of others—family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. … we don’t have to strive alone

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p365

It’s possible to see glimpses of Christianity in Peterson’s work because he is reading the Bible as part of his research

Not only does Peterson read the Bible, he spends heaps of time reading Christian commentaries before reading the Bible out loud to millions of people. For Christians who believe one of the primary ways God works is through the public reading of Scripture, what he is doing is way more than offering “possible” “glimpses”! Additionally, he openly says that many of his core propositions are Christian truths. He frequently quotes, and actually puts into practice, what Jesus taught (e.g. the truth will set you free, love everyone, be humble, courageous, and self-sacrificial).

his references to Christianity are removed from their historical contexts.

He regularly states that he’s not qualified, nor trying, to teach the historical context of the Bible. Instead, he is showing how the Bible and psychology are mutually reinforcing in so many ways—which is mind-blowing (some would say miraculous) given how ancient the text is.

“So [in Peterson’s teachings] you’re never going to get the true Jesus,” says Jensen. “You’ll get Jesus as a good teacher…”

But Jesus is more than just a good teacher, and that will never come through in Peterson’s work.

“The thing I think Peterson misses out on is that actually Jesus Christ is the better story. He’s a better story for all human beings,” says Jensen.

I’m baffled by these statements—numerous times Peterson has said Christ is way “more than just a good teacher”! For example, Peterson sees Christ as the Logos who brings good order out of chaos by speaking truth. He sees Christ as the divine individual and the ideal person/story—the archetypal hero—to be imitated by all humans. He sees Christ as overcoming the temptations we face (see “Evil, Confronted”, 12 Rules for Life, p178-185).

Jesus is the model for modern men. The truly masculine is actually the one who loves through sacrifice to glorify the other.

Michael Jensen

I reckon Peterson would heartily agree, although he’d probably say “encourage, embolden, edify”, rather than “glorify” (which requires explanation).

Peterson can take feedback but let’s give him a fair go and show him some of the grace that’s so central to Christianity.

Jordan B Peterson

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

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.


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


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.


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