Two more reasons people become universalists—Robin Parry

Tradition

Most Christian Universalists reflect on traditional Christian beliefs, as an important reason as to why they embrace universalism. I’m talking about things like this:

  • God made us in His image (I know that’s biblical but this is a thing in the Bible that the Church has made an important thing and the focus of attention).
  • God loves everyone.
  • God sent Christ to die for everyone.
  • God is sovereign and will bring about his purposes.

These kinds of basic Christian beliefs that aren’t about universalism but when some folk started to think about these things and reflect on them, they found that these kinds of ideas were drawing them towards universalism. I would count that as tradition and this is partly why I think universalism is what I call the “perennial heresy.”

It’s not really a heresy so I use it in scare quotes. It’s the “perennial heresy” because it keeps reinventing itself. It’s really interesting how it just keeps popping up almost spontaneously through church history, with folk who aren’t getting it from other folk, they’re getting it from ordinary Christian beliefs that they were taught at church. It’s like, “Ding! Doesn’t this mean… if that’s true, wouldn’t that mean…” and suddenly they find themselves becoming Universalists. This is why you’re not going to be able to squash universalism—because I think it’s implicit in the very core of ordinary Christian faith.

Another aspect of tradition that is important for some folk, is discovering past Universalists who are orthodox Christians. For example, Gregory of Nyssa. This is important particularly for folk who are Orthodox Christians—with a big “O”—or Catholic Christians or Anglican Christians. But also for a lot of folk who were… I mean, I was really drawn by this when I was non-denominational charismatic-y, what not, thingamabob Christian. Realizing that some of these great spiritual giants of the past—people I respected and admired—were universalists. For example, I think Athanasius was a universalist. And that’s like, “Oh, wow, so maybe it’s not so heretical after all…”

By the way, if you are interested in this subject, two new volumes might intrigue you:

“A Larger Hope?, Volume 1” is sort of history of universal salvation. This is patristic universalism, this is Ilaria Ramelli who is the world authority on the subject.
A Larger Hope?, Volume 2″ goes from the Reformation to the 19th century, that’s by me. They’re quite good books if you like stories about people and so on.

Experience

For some people, a particular experience is really a key reason why they embraced Universal salvation. For example, George de Benneville. He’s an interesting guy, he was a Huguenot refugee. He was born in London but his parents were Calvinists from France who—under persecution—escaped. He was living in the household of Queen Anne. Anyway, when he’s a teenager he felt just so crushed by his own sense of sin and guilt—then he has his revelation of God’s divine grace for him and love and mercy—and this is transforming. But from this experience—all on his own—he infers that this kind of applies to everyone. From the moment of that experience, he was a Universalist—so his church kicked him out.

He went over to France and he started preaching. He nearly was executed—he was at the gallows and the King stopped his execution. Later on, people thought he was dead—he was in a coma for a few days. He woke up in the coffin but he has this sort of out-of-body experience where he’s taken around hell, then he’s shown heaven, and then he’s shown the final restoration when the people in hell come out. He becomes a preacher and goes to North America and preaches on all that. But the point is, for him scripture was really important but the thing that flipped him was this experience, this charismatic or pneumatic experience.

Another person to mention in this regard might be Hannah Whittle Smith who was a Quaker (also as she was part of the Brethren for some time because she had an evangelical conversion). She was an American, a revivalist holiness preacher—really, really influential, one of the most influential women preachers of 19th century. She was a Universalist, although this was often suppressed—in fact, it was removed from the second edition of her autobiography.

She has this experience where she’s on a tram and she’s just struggling with the suffering of humanity and then she looks at this guy and she sees in his face the suffering he’s having and she just protests to God about his justice and desires his salvation. She has this sense that God says to her, from the verse from Isaiah, “He, Christ, will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.” She thinks, “He’ll be satisfied, he will be satisfied… How can he be satisfied unless he redeems this guy? How can he be satisfied unless that for which he suffered comes to pass?” So she has this profound experience that completely reorientates her and she goes back to the Bible then and she says, this is a little quote from her, “I turned greedily from page to page of my Bible, fairly laughing aloud for joy at the blaze of light that illuminated at all. It became a new book.” And that’s quite common. So she’s reading Scripture again but in a new way, in the light of this experience.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

Princess married man on death row and conceived a school!

Febyanti “Feby” married Andrew Chan hours before he was executed for drug trafficking as a member of the Bali Nine. While in prison, Andrew became a Christian and came to know God’s love, which transformed his life and outlook.

Feby met Andrew in 2012 when she visited his prison as part of her ministry. They realised that providing free Christian education is essential to transforming individuals and our society, and so they made plans to start a school together. After Andrew was tragically executed, Feby courageously went ahead alone and established the school.

Today, Pastor Feby—with only one other teacher—is still running the school that provides free Christian education for 130(!) children on the tiny Savu Islands.

I interviewed the delightful Feby about:

  • why she founded a school
  • what Andrew Chan was like
  • what prison ministry was like
  • her family’s religious background
  • her relationship with God
  • how she views other people
  • her upcoming book
  • (I did ask her about being a Javanese Princess but she just laughed—she prefers to talk about God’s Kingdom!)

How do people become universalists?—Robin Parry

Let’s just say a little bit about different routes that people take into universalism or, how is it that somebody might become a universalist? There are actually different ways—this is my version. I’m an Anglican and Anglicans have this thing: “The three legged stool, scripture, reason, and tradition.” This is how we do theology. But I became a Christian in a Methodist Church and as we’re in a Wesleyan building now, I should pay deference to that. There is a Wesleyan quadrilateral: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.” So I’m going to be an Anglodist and put these together:

So this is the way I think about scripture, reason, and tradition. So “Scripture” is obviously Scripture. What I mean by “Tradition” is—it’s quite a wide-ranging thing—all the patterns of prayer and worship that we inherit by becoming part of the community of faith. It is doctrine, like the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s the doctrine of Scripture too. Your belief about Scripture being inspired and authoritative, that’s part of tradition, that’s not Scripture, that’s what tradition tells you Scripture is (and rightly so, I think). By “Experience”, I am talking about your own experiences but more than that, also the way in which we might draw on empirical sciences, for example, as we reflect about God. Or the social sciences, physics, or whatever, I’m including that in experience. The little arrows are my bit of “Reason” because I don’t think reason has its own domain. You don’t study Scripture and then study reason. Reason is how we reflect about Scripture, how we reflect on our experience, how we reflect on doctrine, and how we go back and forth between them. We use reason as we think, “How does Scripture relate to tradition?” and “How does it relate to experience?”, etc.

A healthy Christian approach to thinking about faith is going to involve all of these and it’s going to be a constant moving around between the poles. Back and forth, as you reason them with Scripture and experience and tradition. Back and forth, and it never stops so, sorry, this is gonna be the rest of your life.

All those people who got into Christian universalism through history involved all of these things. But particular poles were important for different ones of them—especially important as, sort of, routes in. One of those routes in—one of those poles—that has always been very important for people becoming universalists is the Bible.

For most Christian universalists, the Bible played a key role in the journey towards belief in universal restoration. I mean, after all, these guys are Christians! (and by “guys” I’m including girls as well—this is a generic “guy”) These guys are Christians and if they thought that this was unbiblical, they’re not really going to be too sympathetic to it, are they?

Let me just give you an example of one guy. I love this chap Elhanan Winchester—18th century Baptist, revivalist preacher. He grew up a very strict Calvinist. This was in North America and during the Great Awakening. He’s very strict—like he’s a hyper-Calvinist—but a real heart for the gospel and a real anti-slavery campaigner.

One day somebody sort of gives him this book, which is a German Pietist book but it’s defending universal salvation. He kind of looks through it and thinks, “Well, that’s interesting, never thought about that,” but he puts it aside. Then a few months later he’s at a friend’s house and he sees the book again. He picks it up and flicks through it and thinks, “Well, I’m not sure that’s a good argument, not sure what I’d say to that.” But again he puts it aside. However, it kind of gets under his skin, he just can’t get these questions out of his head. So whenever he goes around to talk to his Baptist minister friends, he sort of plays devil’s advocate and starts saying, “What do you think about this argument?” and all this, and he pretends to defend the view. He gets to the point where he said he was half a convert but really resisting it, to the point, that he would preach with great ferocity against this view—trying to persuade himself more than anyone else.

Anyway, it all comes to a head when he becomes the minister of the biggest Baptist Church in Philadelphia and it sort of gets out that he’s been asking these questions. He thinks, “I need to know what I think about this,” so he basically locked himself away with the Bible and just reads the Bible. “I just want to know what the Bible says, and whatever it says, I’m going to go with that.” After a few days he comes out and says, “Right, now I know, Scripture says this. From now on I’m committing myself to this, even if all my friends reject me, and they probably will.” And a bunch of them did, sure enough, but for him the key thing is Scripture. It has to be scriptural. We might think that some of his readings of Scripture are quirky and all that but the point is, this is the thing that drives him, this is what motivates him. That’s the case for a lot of these guys.

Charles Chauncey, another guy who was the minister of the first Congregationalist Church in Boston—a very important church. He became a universalist just through studying Scripture, I mean nobody—no universalist—influenced him, he’s just studying texts. 1 Corinthians 15 is the one that gets him into it. He’s a very careful exegete and scholar. He kind of gets into this and then starts reading other bits and the whole thing comes together for him that way. So for some of these guys, Scripture is really key.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. The next post will look at “Tradition” and “Experience”. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

What Christian Universalism is and isn’t—Robin Parry

Universalism is more controversial than it needs to be. I found when I first started to say things like, “Oh, I believe in universal salvation,” there was a lot of anxiety. Because people thought that that meant a whole bunch of stuff that it didn’t actually mean. So the first thing I had to do was to help people see what it did and didn’t actually mean, just to clarify the concept itself—that took a lot of heat out of the debate.

Once people realised that the gospel wasn’t at stake, well then we can sit down and have a talk about this. It’s actually really very simple, this is it in a sentence:

Christian universalism is the belief that in the end all people will participate in the salvation achieved for them by Christ.

If you notice there, we’ve got:

  • “salvation”, which presupposes some understanding of needing to be saved from something. So implicitly there’s some idea of some problem, some issue, sin, whatever.
  • “By Christ” so it’s got something to do with Jesus saving us—otherwise it’s not Christian universalism.
  • of course what makes it universalism is the “all people” bit.
  • and the “in the end” bit, that’s quite important.

What we’ll do is try and unpack all of this but in a nutshell that’s what I’m talking about. Let’s first of all get some sense of what Christian universalism isn’t.

Do all roads lead to God?

This is one of the concerns that people have with universalism and you can see why somebody might think that because the reasoning would go something like this: “Well look, clearly not everyone is a Christian and so if everybody’s gonna be saved, clearly all the different roads/whatever they’re taking—whether they’re atheists or whatever—they all go in the same direction, they all lead to the same place.”

But that’s not actually what we’re saying. What Christian universalists say is that Jesus leads to God, and eventually everyone will take that route. Now, there are still a whole bunch of questions around that question, as to what it would mean for someone to take that route but let’s put that on hold for now. What it is definitely saying is the only way to God is through Jesus, not all roads lead to God.

Is there no post-mortem punishment?

Now again, you can see why people might think this. They’re thinking to themselves, “Hey look, if everybody goes to heaven then nobody goes to hell.”

Ok, it depends what you mean by “hell” but leaving that concept of what Hell might be a little bit vague, this is not necessarily the case either. In fact, through Christian history almost all Christian universalists have thought that there is post-mortem punishment—the punishment after death. That participating in the fullness of salvation is not something that happens “as you die” but it’s something that happens “in the end”. So again Universalism needn’t mean rejecting post-mortem punishment.

Is the Bible wrong?

The reasoning goes like this: “Well, clearly the Bible teaches that people go to hell and so universalism can’t be true. If you’re saying universalism is true, then obviously you don’t believe the Bible.” Again—and I hope to develop this point somewhat more later—that is also not the case, most Christian universalists in history have been very committed to the inspirational authority of Scripture. The issue is to do with the interpretation of the Bible, not whether they believe it or not. So if we can relocate the discussion, it’s not about whether you accept or reject the Bible, it’s about how we understand and interpret the Bible.

Is sin no big deal?

Another misconception is that, “Clearly you don’t think sin is much of a big deal.” Again I can see how people get to this view, they’re thinking: “Well hold on, if everyone gets saved, then God must be kind of going, “Yeah, maybe you’ve murdered a few people, whatever, just come on in. I don’t mind about that stuff, brush it under the carpet.””

But again that’s absolutely not what Christian universalists think or have ever thought. If any of these people took the time to actually read what these guys have said through history, they would see that this was never the case. Universalists take sin—and God’s transforming work by the Holy Spirit—very seriously.

Does it really matter how we live?

Yeah I get this, they’re thinking, “Hey, let’s sin. Do what you like. Have a fun life (cos sin is “fun”??) and then you’re gonna get to heaven anyway so it doesn’t really matter does it?” But again this is absolutely not what any Christian Universalist has ever taught or suggested. You will see—particularly if you looked at the church fathers and some of those Christian universalists through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—they’re really hot on holiness and the importance of becoming more like Christ. We’ll see why when we get to the last talk today.

Is God only loving but not just?

I would be a wealthy man if I got like 50 pence for every time someone said to me, “Oh, well Robin, what you need to remember is that God isn’t only loved but he’s also just.”

“Good gracious, I’m so glad you told me, I never would have thought of that! Phew, here I was made labouring under this illusion that God was just kind and cuddly, and not just.”

But this is again a complete misunderstanding, Christian universalists have always adamantly insisted that God is just. In fact, they build their case for universalism precisely on this and on the idea that God is holy. Yes, God is holy but God’s holiness and justice are loving holiness and justice. So we need to think, “What do we mean when we say that God is just?” and “What do we mean when we say that God is love?” But it’s never been a matter of picking love and rejecting justice and holiness—that’s never how it was thought about. It’s not how it’s thought about now—it’s just how people imagined universalists think about it.

So we don’t need to evangelise?

We will look at this a little bit more in talk 4. I understand why somebody might think that, “Hey, they’re gonna be saved anyway, why bother preaching the gospel to them.” Of course, what Christian universalists believe is through the gospel God saves all people. So if you believe that, it seems a bit odd to go, ” You don’t need to preach it to them. God’s gonna save everyone through the through the gospel so why tell people about the gospel.” That’s just weird, nobody would think like that and Christian universalists have not thought like that. In fact, many of them have been great evangelists and missionaries. In fact, some of the great mission movement people of the 18th century were universalists.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from:

For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

Is the Fate of others more important than your own?

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.

Romans 9:1-3 (NLT)

Wow! Would you be willing to be cut off forever for the sake of others? I’m not confident I’d even be brave enough to die for someone, let alone be cut off forever. However, I believe Paul genuinely meant what he wrote as he gave up his life to serve others—he was literally killed doing it.

Jesus also valued the fate of others more than His own. He was cursed and killed by us yet miraculously He was raised. This will lead to the end of Paul’s sorrow and grief as it inaugurated the salvation of all our brothers and sisters! Paul doesn’t need to be forever cursed, indeed Christ says that in the Age to Come, “There will no longer be any curse” (Rev 22:3, cf Rom 5:12-21). 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves

Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Romans 12:10 (NIV)

We are encouraged to value others above ourselves. This doesn’t mean despising ourselves as we are God’s precious children but hopefully it challenges us to be less self-indulgent. I know that’s hard as we are continually bombarded by a culture telling us we must focus on ourselves above all else and that we never have enough.

As Paul said in Romans 9, an even bigger aspect of valuing others is caring about their salvation. We definitely should do that now but what about when others don’t appear to be saved in this life? What does valuing others above ourselves look like in the Age to Come? I’d suggest we will continue inviting them:

Both the Spirit and the bride** say, “Come!”

Let anyone who hears, say, “Come!”

Let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who desires take the water of life freely.

Revelation 22:17 (CSB)

I love how the invitation grows exponentially as the non-believers hearing and receiving the water of life invite others, who in turn invite even more!

** “the bride” is Christ’s Church, who I believe already have the water of life because when Jesus gives people the “water” now they never thirst again (John 4:14, below).

John4-14 (1207x246)

Jesus reinforces the “never” with the phrase: eis ton aiōna. Thayer’s, NAS, HELPS, et al. describe eis as “denoting entrance into” or “motion into”, ton as “the”, and aiōna as “age”. Those who receive His “water” now won’t be thirsty now, nor going forward into the Age to Come. I say, “Age to Come” because:

  1. We can’t go “into” our current age because we’re already in it.
  2. As the “water” quenching the thirst is directly linked to the life aiōnion—the adjective of aiōna—almost always describes things pertaining to the “Age to Come”.

Paul describes even the idea of his “brothers and sisters” not being saved as “bitter sorrow and unending grief”. His concern about salvation also extended to his Gentile (non-Jewish) “brothers and sisters” as he spent decades seeking to see them saved too:

For so the Lord has commanded [Paul and Barnabas], saying,

“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Acts 13:47, cf Isa 49:6, Rom 11:13, Eph 3:1 (ESV)

Indeed, a strong argument can be made that if anyone wasn’t saved believers would experience “unending grief” because Humanity is so tightly interconnected:

  • Biologically we are all one species—indeed one race—who are all distantly related to one another.

  • Physically we all share this planet, this global village.

  • Temporally we all live in this age together. 

  • Psychologically by agape love—the self-sacrificial love that God shows us and asks us to display. Talbott insightfully points out that in order to fully love someone, we must love those whom they love. Given there are now only six degrees of separation, this love creates a redundantly linked network between everyone.

  • Spiritually Christians believe we all share in the image of God, which is one of the reasons we are all children of God, even those who don’t yet live in the light of that relationship.

Praise be to God that He promises our grief will end when each and every person is made new!

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne [Jesus] said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”

Revelation 21:4-5 (CSB)
Huge Crowd
A crowd of about half a million people (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard)

Is Scarcity a Dangerous Idea?

Dr Robert Zubrin concluded the above presentation at the 22nd Annual International Mars Society Convention with a passionate address on what he perceives to be the greatest threat to humanity:

How you conceive of the far future will control what happens in the near future. Now people talk about threats to humanity today: global warming, resource exhaustion, asteroid impact, overpopulation, whatever. I don’t think any of those things are the real threat to humanity today. Some of them are issues that need to be dealt with, some are overdrawn, but the real threat to humanity comes from bad ideas.

Humanity did not have catastrophes in the 20th century because of resource depletion, global warming, overpopulation, or asteroids. It had it because of bad ideas and in particular, one bad idea—with a number of variants to it. And that bad idea is that there isn’t enough to go around.

Dr Robert Zubrin, Mars Society, The Case for Space

He explains how World War I and World War II are examples of nations acting on this bad idea—the former being “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century that sets in motion most of the rest.” We pretty much created hell on earth.

It is simply not true that humanity is composed of nations or races in a struggle for existence over scarce resources—that is a false point of view but nevertheless, if it is embraced it has the capability of causing absolute catastrophe.

Zubrin

In recent years, he has heard scarcity again being given as a reason for an “inevitable” war—this time between China and America. To my relief and delight, he powerfully and succinctly refutes that logic:

Now, this is a false point of view. I mean the fundamental point of view is Malthusian, “There’s only so much resources… population increases, standards of living go down…” In fact, history shows the exact opposite—as the world’s population has gone up, the standard of living has gone up! Why? Because consumption depends upon production. Production is people times technology.

Zubrin

The more people there are, the more inventors there are, and inventions are accumulative—that is why people create resources. There’s no such thing as a “natural resource”, there’s only natural raw materials. They are turned into resources by resourceful people.

Zubrin

It’s not that we’re gonna get oil from Mars, it’s that we’re gonna disprove a fallacy. We’re gonna disprove this fallacy that there’s only so much to go around—that there’s a roof on the Earth. There’s not a roof on the Earth—Earth comes with an infinite sky and it’s wide open. And that’s The Case for Space.

Zubrin

Serendipitously, The Bible Project also discussed scarcity in their recent video on generosity.

Creation is an expression of God’s generous love. He is the host and humans are his guests in a world of opportunity and abundance.

Dr Tim Mackie, The Bible Project, Generosity

While this was God’s intention, they acknowledge it’s often not how people think and act.

The story of the Hebrew scriptures [claim] that our “scarcity” problem isn’t caused by a lack of resources. Rather, the problem is our mindset that God cannot be trusted.

Once we are deceived into that mindset of scarcity, we can justify the impulse to take care of me and mine before anyone else. That leads to envy, anger, violence and a world where it seems like there is not enough.

Mackie

Now, I’m excited that Zubrin encourages going to Space to “disprove this fallacy that there’s only so much to go around” but I’m even more excited that for thousands of years God has been working on proving that there is more than enough for everyone, as Mackie goes on to explain. Unfortunately, the the nation God initially engages doesn’t get it and become another example of war resulting from the idea of scarcity.

[The Israelites] act like [the land of abundance] is all theirs and like there is not enough. It leads to war and Israel’s self-destruction.

Mackie

Thankfully, God is more persistent than us and made his surprising next move—poetically, giving us the most generous gift of all, himself, in Jesus.

Jesus lives with the conviction that there is enough. And that our generous host can be trusted. His mindset of abundance allowed him to live sacrificially and generously even towards his enemies.

Mackie

Despite personally experiencing poverty, Jesus viewed the world differently:

[Jesus] would say things like this: Look at the birds. They do not store up food for themselves, yet they have enough. Or, consider the wildflowers. They are beautiful and abundant. And they do not stress about their existence. And you all should live that way, too.

Mackie

Jesus encouraged us to follow him in trusting in God’s abundance.

That is why he said things like, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Or, “Do not worry about your life.” He is inviting us to live by a different story. One that is built on trust in God’s goodness and love.

Mackie

However, change takes time.

Jesus knows we are all hopelessly deceived by this lie that there is not enough.

Mackie

We need to expose that lie, reforming our thinking to make this world less hellish and more harmonious for all.

So, that is what Jesus was doing when he gave us the gift of his life. Jesus’ death was the ultimate expression of God’s generous love.

Mackie

We are all called to live in the light of this, whether that be building rockets to Mars or simply through our hospitality to those around us.

Yeah, and when you believe there is enough, you start seeing opportunities for generosity everywhere. With our time, money, and our attention.

Jon Collins, The Bible Project, Generosity

Coleridge: transformation through participation

I spend days working on this video for Gospel Conversations as transformation through participation really resonates with me and the more times I watched Sarah unpack Coleridge’s, This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, the more I got out of it. Brothers and sisters, I hope you find it as edifying as I have.

When we make—whether that be a cup of tea, whether it be a meal, whether that be a sculpture, whether that be poetry—we are participating in that great act of making in the beginning of Genesis.

Not just participation but transformation!

God makes the world anew, even as we participate in it.

Dr Sarah Golsby-Smith