Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
The Bible reveals that God’s holiness is so seriously awesome that it eradicates all evil, which brings forth the wholehearted praise of each and every being/creature that ever exists—the only type of praise befitting God. This glorious telos is progressively revealed throughout the Bible—culminating in Christ’s ministry, atonement, Temple/Church, and return. The Bible Project does a brilliant and succinct job explaining this in their 6 minute summary:
God wasn’t content to leave the cosmos in an unholy mess and revealed in Isaiah that He spreads His holiness by removing iniquity and atoning for sin:
He touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Jesus’ atonement—removing iniquity and sin—fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy. Holiness in the form of life and healing flowed out of Jesus during his earthly ministry, beginning to fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy. He continues bringing life, healing, and hope through his people—the Church, the ultimate Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Tim 3:15, John 7:38).
Finally, Revelation 22—drawing heavily on Ezekiel 47:12—reveals that Jesus (“the Lamb”) completes the fulfilment by imparting life (v2), healing (v3), and flourishing (v2) to all sinners. I say all sinners because up until this last scene, the “nations” in Revelation were those opposed to God, who ended up in the Lake of Fire but God’s holiness will overflow and transform even that “dead sea” as Ezekiel 47:8 foretold. In this way, God eliminates Adam’s curse and everyone comes to delight in following and worshipping him (v3).
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him.
The last pages of the Bible end with a final vision about God’s holiness… And in his vision we see the whole world made completely new. The entire earth has become God’s temple. And Ezekiel’s river is there flowing out of God’s presence, immersing all of creation, removing all impurity and bringing everything back to life.
In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?
This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God.
Universal Salvation raises the critically important question of how we read the Bible—or ‘hermeneutics’. That is what Robin covers in this talk. He sweeps us through a big landscape in three succinct waves—each bigger than the one before.
First, he confronts the foreground question of biblical texts—and he makes the point that everybody has problems here. How do we reconcile God’s love with his omnipotence?
He then moves onto slightly broader terrain—we need to read texts in their context BUT the meaning of the texts will often be bigger than even the author intended or realised.
Finally, he finishes with a new horizon of interpretation—the future. He talks about the ‘trajectories’ of the biblical canon, which stretch beyond themselves for future generations—like ours—to articulate. He uses the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as an example.
Tony introduces Rev Dr Robin Parry by explaining what Gospel Conversations is all about—expanding our view of God and that means inquiring into mystery. The best way to inquire is to firstly map out the landscape of a debate and see where it takes us—and that is exactly what Robin does in this marvellous talk. He gives us a birds-eye view of the long debate over universalism.
But he goes further—and he gives us a map to navigate the territory. He defines what universalism is and is not. He explains the different pathways that have led many orthodox Christians to consider it seriously—Bible, patristics, experience, and ‘gospel logic’. This takes a lot of confusion and heat out of the debate and gives us a clear view of the topic. But it also hints at a bigger view of God, and a broader view of Christian thinking. Robin gives us the gift of years of learning and thought in one hour.
Universalism is the belief that ultimately everybody will be saved. There are several different stripes of Universalists.
Some Universalists believe everybody has been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. So you are reconciled to God—the gospel simply tells you something that’s already true—that you’re reconciled to God. And so the point of Christianity then is to tell people—who are already saved—that they are saved. But ultimately everybody’s going to be saved—that’s one kind of universalism.
It’s refreshing that Moore acknowledges that there are different types of universalism and that Christian Universalists believe that the reconciliation to God is “through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus“, rather than trying to dismiss them as pluralists—the “all roads lead to Heaven” cliché.
One of the challenges that anyone reading the Bible faces is that it frequently describes things as both “now/already” and “not yet”. For example, is the Kingdom already here or has it not yet come? Are we already seated with Christ or not yet? Is evil already defeated or not yet? (For more examples see inaugurated eschatology). Many non-universalist Christians have taught the “now/already and not yet” also applies to salvation, in which case, universalist Christians may agree, albeit extending the scope of that the salvation to all of Creation (e.g. Parry—Church: a foretaste of the age to come).
Another kind of universalism says, “No, there is a hell but God is going to ultimately redeem everyone out of hell”—and some versions of this even the devil and his angels—that the love of God is so persistent that God will not rest until he has wooed back to himself even the most hardened sinner.
Again, I like that Moore presents a fair description. At the same time, I wouldn’t just say that “universalism says this” but that throughout the Bible God is constantly redeeming people out of hellish situations. Whether those situations are seen as “natural consequences” of evil or God’s punishment, the point remains that the pattern and precedent is of God not resting until he has wooed sinful people back to himself.
Universalism is appealing and it’s appealing to people for very good reasons. I mean the Satan never tempts us with something that is in and of itself evil—he has to find something that we want to be true or we’re drawn towards for good reasons and to simply to twist it out into something evil.
I agree with Moore that Satan does try to tempt us by twisting good things—I just don’t think that’s the case for universalism. It’s also an unhelpful argument because it could be used about almost anything. For example, one could claim any grace, or indeed Christianity itself, is simply “appealing to our compassion.” Or one could even assert that “Non-universalism is appealing because we instinctively like to see enemies destroyed—that it’s taking advantage of our desire for revenge.” Whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t try to dismiss non-universalism on those grounds.
And with universalism, that is the fact that we’re supposed to be broken about the reality of hell. We’re supposed to be heartbroken for our neighbors and our friends and for those that we’ve never seen or heard about—who are dying apart from Christ. No one should take the reality of Hell with a lightness or with a disregard. Jesus doesn’t—he weeps over Jerusalem. So I think there’s often a good impulse behind someone who’s drawn toward universalism.
I think many universalists would agree, that our hearts should ache when we see lives spiralling downwards, that we be concerned about their future. At the same time, we don’t think anyone’s future is ultimately hopeless, as Christ works through Christians and the Spirit—in this age and the next, as I believe the following verse alludes to:
Problem is, it’s not true. The New Testament explicitly denies universalism.
Where?? What about the explicitaffirmations of universalism? For example, Colossians 1, Philippians 2, Romans 5:18, and 1 Corinthians 15:22.
Our Lord Jesus speaks repeatedly about the reality of Hell, about the gravity of judgment and about the eternality of Hell—that the fire doesn’t go out, that this darkness never ends. And that goes all the way through all the Apostolic writings, right up until the final book in our ordering of the Canon—the revelation that Jesus gives to John—in which those who are cast into the lake of fire… again it is—Revelation 20—an eternal suffering, an eternal punishment—the smoke doesn’t end.
As Moore said himself, many Christian universalists don’t deny the reality of Hell or the gravity of judgment. However, they believe that the Bible teaches that Hell is not everlasting—that many translations have mistranslated key words based on their theology (e.g. Is Aionios Eternal?).
Fire in the Bible is primarily a positive image. For example:
Regarding Revelation 20, universalists point to Revelation 21 where the same people appear to have been redeemed (see Book of Life).
So I think we have to have broken hearts about those who are lost but our broken hearts ought to motivate us not to denial but to action. That means we need to be taking the gospel with urgency to our neighbors and to those around the world. So that there’s a feeling behind our mission—that’s kind of summed up in what the Apostle Paul talks about in 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, “I am pleading with you, begging you—literally—as though Christ were begging through me be reconciled to God.” That’s the answer to the heart brokenness that we feel and the weight that we feel about the reality of hell. I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
I admire Moore’s passion for the lost and the call for action now, rather than ignoring the plight of others. I think he is reflecting God’s passion and action (both on the Cross and through the Spirit) for each and every person. Encouragingly, in the same chapter Moore cites, the Apostle Paul says:
I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
If we fallen humans wish that ultimately everybody will be saved, just imagine how much more our merciful Father wishes it—and as God never fails, He achieves it too. I sincerely wish that all Christians would hope and pray that this comes about soon. I’m excited that Jesus doesn’t just tell us he will achieve this amazing feat but actually demonstrates and guarantees this glorious future in his resurrection.
We in Gospel Conversations (and I in particular) got interested in hell rather intensely—or decided to be interested in hell—about 18 months ago. For a period of time before that, I personally was worried about the doctrine of Hell. Worried because it just simply doesn’t fit in with the broader Creation Gospel that we’d spent a long time developing and exploring in Gospel Conversations.
In Gospel Conversations we’re really trying to take God out of the religious box and put him in the big wide world. That meant starting to read the Bible in Genesis 1—not in Genesis 3—and seeing the resurrection as the recreation of all humanity. This is very, very good news. It’s a declaration—a hugely humanistic declaration—on what it is to be made an image of God—that’s all very optimistic… and then you put hell into it and it’s all very pessimistic. It isn’t just pessimism, it isn’t just an emotional conflict; it’s a logical conflict between a message of goodness and optimism and a message of exclusion.
So I decided last year to give a series of talks, which were exploratory because I didn’t really know what I thought. I think it’s a matter that’s genuinely ambiguous. As we did that and we stumbled across what’s commonly called the doctrine of Apocatastasis, which is the Greek word that Peter uses in his sermon in Acts 3 to describe the world reformation Christ has inaugurated.
We discovered that Robin Parry was one of the people who had been through a similar journey and then articulated—fairly thoroughly—from a biblical point of view this question he had explored himself—gone on the same journey. I thought (and not just me but many people) he—in a very reasonable way—put forward a balanced consideration of the question and a balanced support for universal salvation from an evangelical position.
So we decided to invite Robin out to our conference in July [20th and 27th, Sydney]. We’re very excited about that. Robin’s a good speaker but a gentle, open-minded, intelligent man. On the first Saturday we will listen to him talk and on the second Saturday it will be more interactive, with him and others, talking about the consequences of this re-paradigming or reshaping of the Gospel towards hope rather than hell.
It’s certainly something that we want to put on the agenda. It’s been on the agenda of the church for centuries and only recently got off the agenda of the church. We hope that a lot of people will come and listen because a lot of people worry about this but have no place to explore and discuss it. This is our our gift to all such people.
God's justice is reforming all things—even hell—to the way He intended—wholeheartedly delighting in Him together forever—Shalom!