Category: Book Reviews

Presumptions and Possibilities―Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 2

My last post began a series of posts on Brad Jersak’s book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (HGWNBS). Brad starts the first chapter looking at how globally, in both religion and culture, images of “fire and brimstone, dungeons and torture, demons and judgment”1 are deeply embedded. It’s no surprise that non-believers often think all religions are bound up with fear and violence.

Brad describes being fearful of the fate of his dear unchurched relatives as he was growing up in an evangelical church. But as he knew of no alternative to the eternal conscious torment doctrine, he did his best to try to accept it and teach it to others.

However, thankfully when he was 25 he read Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue by David Edwards and John Stott. He trusted Stott more than anyone else at the time, and so this meant Annihilationism became a valid, biblical alternative. This lead to the him to discover that, throughout Church history, there has been more than one legitimate eschatology (view of the end times/age to come). He broadly categorises the views as Infernalism2, Annihilationism3, or Universalism4. In HGWNBS he gives examples of passages typically cited to support each interpretation. He then rightly says,

All of these points reflect theological concerns for representing God’s character aright, pastoral concerns for guarding God’s flock in the truth, evangelistic concerns for presenting the Gospel with integrity, and biblical concerns for faithfulness to Christian Scripture. So how is it that we’ve come to such differing positions?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 5

In answer to this he suggests how we arrive at our view of hell often depends on:

  1. Our view of God
  2. Our view of Atonement
  3. Our approach to Scripture
  4. Our personal need (biases)

He unpacks each of these before proposing that, by design, Scripture is polyphonic (has multiple voices) so that none of us can be dogmatic. Instead there are “magnificent tensions”5. For example, the Bible affirms that God allows humans to make choices, even those with severe consequences. But that this seems to be in tension with the Bible’s teaching that God is free to relent, forgive and restore whomever He likes.

My argument for hope over presumption is just this: the Bible doesn’t allow us to settle easily on any of these as “isms”.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 7

So where does that leave us? Setting aside preconceptions as best we can, what does the Bible actually teach us about judgment and hell when we read it carefully and take it seriously? Not “what do I imagine about hell?” or “what do I wish about hell if it were up to me?” … Is there a way to approach the subject of hell that doesn’t presume or negate any of these positions, one that accepts the reality of judgment but hopes that somehow everyone might one day be reconciled to God?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

I agree, I think it’s important to keep the Bible central.

Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist [or annihilationist] corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever… that Jesus’ plan to save the whole world might actually work.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

Likewise, I think it’s important to consider what Christians before us have thought and taught, particularly those who were natively fluent in the Bible’s original languages, something that no one is any more.

In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic. That said, the data summarized herein did lead me to four conclusions, which you may or may not share after all is said and done:

1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.

2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.

3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.

4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10

  1. I agree we shouldn’t presume but I think we can actually be confident in this sense:

Many Christians think or feel that confident universalism is presumptuous, for we cannot claim to know the end. And while there is a lot that we do not know about the end, we do know this: “Christ is risen!”. And that’s enough, because God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here and for me that’s what it means more than anything to be an Evangelical Universalist. It means to find one’s universalism in the Evangel and to be confident in my universalism I would say is not presumptuous because I’m not claiming anything more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God.
Robin Parry at the Rethinking Hell Conference 2015

  1. I think the revelation of God includes warnings of damnation, just not everlasting damnation because I don’t think God will fail to redeem everyone.
  2. Amen!
  3. I look forward to sharing his excellent analysis of Revelation 21-22 later on in this series.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

To summarize our direction, I quote Hermann-Josef Lauter [Pastoralblatt, p123].

Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question, but love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from a Christian standpoint, not just permitted but commanded.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10


1. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 1.
2. The belief that some/many/most will be eternally consciously tormented, either by their own perpetual self-destruction or by God’s wrath.
3. The belief that some/many/most will cease to exist permanently, either as a result of their own self-destruction or of God’s wrath.
4. The belief that everyone who God has created will be forgiven, reconciled and restored by/to God.
5. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 7.

A Polyphony? Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 1

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 4.00.18 PM
“Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem” by Bradley Jersak

When I pick up a book, I almost immediately turn it over and read the back. In this case the blurb is a good summary and therefore seems like an appropriate place to begin this blog series.

Everlasting hell and divine judgment, a lake of fire and brimstone―these mainstays of evangelical tradition have come under fire once again in recent decades. Would the God of love revealed by Jesus really consign the vast majority of humankind to a destiny of eternal, conscious torment? Is divine mercy bound by the demands of justice? How can anyone presume to know who is saved from the flames and who is not?Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

I like Brad Jersak’s approach. These are honest questions, which I have certainly contemplated over the years growing up in the evangelical tradition.

Reacting to presumptions in like manner, others write off the fiery images of final judgment altogether. If there is a God who loves us, then surely all are welcome into the heavenly kingdom, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors in this life. Yet, given the sheer volume of threat rhetoric in the Scriptures and the wickedness manifest in human history, the pop-universalism of our day sounds more like denial than hope. Mercy triumphs over judgment; it does not skirt it.Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

Likewise, I’ve seen many people understandably swing to the opposite extreme of “anything goes”, or sadly even give up on God entirely. I think pluralism is a better way to describe it, although realise that frustratingly many people (thankfully not Brad) consider all universalism to be that.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut endeavors to reconsider what the Bible and the Church have actually said about hell and hope, noting a breadth of real possibilities that undermines every presumption. The polyphony of perspectives on hell and hope offered by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus humble our obsessive need to harmonize every text into a neat theological system. But they open the door to the eternal hope found in Revelation 21-22: the City whose gates will never be shut; where the Spirit and Bride perpetually invite the thirsty who are outside the city to “Come, drink of the waters of life.”Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

While Brad isn’t an Evangelical Universalist, I still found what he had to say very helpful. Indeed I find looking at things from different angles usually clarifies my own thoughts. I agree with him that we can easily fall into the trap being over confident and presumptuous, so I appreciated his encouragement to try to be humble. I think that when we look at the Bible, especially in our English translations, we do get the impression that there are multiple views being expressed, a polyphony as he puts it. This does make it harder to settle what we’re meant to believe about the age to come. However, as a potential way forward, he highlights some insightful connections within the Bible, some of which I’d never noticed before. Over the next few blog posts I’m going to try to summarise them for you, hopefully inspiring you to read his more detailed case and to reexamine the Bible for yourself.

Doubt & Desire: Peter Rollins vs John Dickson

  • The greater the importance of something to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it.
  • The greater the doubt, the more you desire to have certainty.

So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?

I recently got to go to a talk by John Dickson, and in the following week two events by Peter Rollins. Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections. As I’ve been mulling over what they said, I’ve realised there are both similarities and contrasts between the two that are worth sharing.

Peter Rollins and John Dickson
Peter Rollins and John Dickson

While they both had helpful insights on a range of things, topics they both focused on were doubt and desire. They both spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. We all have doubts, at least at times, about big questions―be that the existence or character of God, the interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. This was refreshing because sometimes there is pressure to “have it all worked out”, or that any doubt implies we don’t have enough faith1.

But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling anxious or depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can2. However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two different approaches.

My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards3, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery4. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to satisfy every desire.

… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.Peter Rollins

I think Rollins’ caution should be heeded. Often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―that things are often more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.

For those with intellectual doubts, Dickson recommended reading and researching more because most quandaries have been pondered and addressed extensively by someone before. I’m naturally attracted to Dickson’s approach. My Dad is a science teacher and my Mum is teacher librarian, so questioning and reading were ingrained in me from an early age. Dickson also suggests that God, largely through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now and promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all doubts and suffering. We can have hope now. In the book that his talk summarized, Dickson writes:

But Is It All Wishful Thinking?
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven. “Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice,” he says; “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 214

I do think it is easier to endure suffering and live with the questions and doubts it raises, if we believe we are promised a good outcome.

If I knew there was a resolution [to suffering], I could walk through life without precisely knowing why I’m experiencing ugliness [suffering].John Dickson, Doubting the Bible, Hobart talk 2015

I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now5 if we are desiring the future.

… [set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins

While I think the Bible does encourage peace and contentment with the current, non-ideal situation, I don’t think that it’s suggesting this at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised. For example, I can be at peace with the death of a loved one, while still looking forward to the day when we’ll be reunited in the New Creation.

The fact that humanity has longings [for God, the afterlife, and ethics] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water. … perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst. … in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are satisfied. … [in] the final lines of the Bible itself, we are all invited for a drink…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 215-217

“Come!” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink [receive] freely from the water of life.Revelation 22:17b (NLT)

I think this verse goes even further than Dickson realises, and suggests universal salvation. For the water of life flows out (Zechariah 14:8) the open gates (Rev 21:25) of the New Jerusalem to the not-yet-saved outside (Rev 22:15) and it is God and the quenched (John 4:14) who are calling the thirsty to drink. In a future post I’ll look at the objection that some people will refuse to drink. For now, I think it’s worth considering how parched one becomes near fire6, and how irrational it would be not to accept a free drink. Anyway, for Calvinists, like Dickson, I hope they wouldn’t have this objection as they believe all whom God calls will come7.

“Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! … My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:1,11 (NLT)

Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)
Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)

1. Which could be interpreted as meaning one’s salvation is at stake.
2. This may include encouraging them to seek professional help via a GP.
3. I’ve watched some of his YouTube videos too but unfortunately I haven’t read any of his books yet.
4. This reminds me of the Eastern approach to theology.
5. He made some excellent points about making sure we give priority to loving people over philosophising about things.
6. Also located outside the gates in Revelation imagery.
7. The “I” in TULIP is for Irresistable Grace.

Engaging Others For The Sake Of Truth And Unity – Chris Date’s Rethinking Hell Talk

Rethinking Hell Conference 2015 LogoThis year Fuller Theological Seminary hosted the second Rethinking Hell Conference. Its theme was Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation. Evangelicals holding conditionalism, traditionalism and universalism all gave talks and engaged with each other.

As I live on the other side of the world, unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend but I recently received the DVD! I’ve already watched the first talk and so would like to share some of the highlights 1. The talk was by an Evangelical Conditionalist, Chris Date, and was titled, A Seat at the Table: An Appeal for Dialogue and Fellowship.

I really appreciated that Chris’ gracious attitude extended even to those he strongly disagreed with. As he mentioned during the talk, sadly often Evangelicals aren’t interested in engaging or dialoguing with Conditionalists, and even less so with Universalists―instead:

… numerous other pastors, professors, apologists, authors, and radio show personalities feel comfortable writing, speaking, and teaching about the motives, errors, and dangerous teachings of conditionalists and universalists, all the while largely ignorant of what it is they actually think and argue.

Chris Date 2

Chris backed up this claim with quotes and explained that he wasn’t merely complaining but that:

… the reality is, whether we like it or not, universalism has been gaining ground, and we at Rethinking Hell think this may be because it is typically seen as the only alternative to the traditional view of hell, rather than as one of three competing views of final punishment including conditionalism.

Chris points out that traditionalists are actually increasing the rate at which people are switching to conditionalism and universalism because they are failing to engage them properly 3. He gives some reasons why this isn’t good:

1. We are all fallible and if Chris is holding a mistaken belief he actually wants to be shown that, because truth matters and mistaken beliefs can have negative consequences 4. I agree with him. Part of caring for our brothers and sisters is helping them to find truth.

2. It’s not building unity:

Jesus prayed to his Father that “those who will believe in me . . . may all be one” (John 17:21). He even said that by being one, the world might know that his Father truly sent him. Paul told the Ephesians:

to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:2–3)

F. F. Bruce understands Paul’s words as a call, not to agree perfectly on “a body of belief,” but to “live at peace with one another.” … Challies takes Bruce’s understanding of unity a step further …

It is God’s loss and your loss, and it is Satan’s gain, when you will not walk in love with other Christians, [and] when you will not work arm-in-arm together.

The call to Christian unity, then, is a call to both fellowshipping together, and ministering together.

Chris then gives a good definition of Christian essentials that unity can be built around. He also explains why the doctrine of Hell should be secondary, and gives examples of respected associations 5 and theologians who have classified it as such.

Sadly when unity breaks down:

Conditionalists and universalists have learned that rejecting the doctrine of eternal torment comes at a cost, both personal and professional… Those who do consider alternatives, and become convinced, often face the unenviable dilemma of either acknowledging their newfound conviction, or keeping silent and keeping their jobs…

I’ve seen that too, and have experienced being sidelined in church. Furthermore:

What breaks my heart still more than the refusal of many traditionalists to minister alongside conditionalists and universalists is their refusal to fellowship with them.

And he explains that this can result in conditionalists and universalists being forced to either join liberal churches or become churchless 6.

No longer allowed in their more conservative faith communities, they no longer have the opportunity to be involved in the discussions those communities are having about other issues. They lose accountability, and they miss out on the influence conservative evangelicals otherwise might have had on them. As a result, nothing remains to prevent them from abandoning other, often more important Christian and evangelical doctrines and positions.

Worse still:

If this lack of fellowship and unity in the Body of Christ were visible only to those within the Body of Christ, it would be bad enough. But recall Jesus’ prayer for unity so that the world would know his Father sent him, and now recall the publicly facing evangelical response to Rob Bell and Love Wins. Paul Coulter documents, for example, the accusations of heresy leveled at Bell by high profile Christian leaders in America before the book had even been published.

Chris thinks that although Bell deserved much of the criticism, the abusive manner in which is was done was an awful witness to the watching world—the opposite of:

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35)

He rightly didn’t let conditionalists and universalists off the hook but encouraged them to also love and engage with traditionalists. I liked his suggestion to try to respect church leaders and not to undermine them in public or behind their backs.

It was helpful to hear his serious criticisms of universalism 7 and I will try to keep them in mind. I appreciated that he still acknowledged that Evangelical Universalists are at least trying to take the Bible, sin, atonement, etc. seriously, even though, from his perspective, they’re arriving at some very mistaken conclusions.


1. It was a 55 minute talk so I can’t cover all his points.
2. All quotes in this post are from his talk.
3. He gives examples of traditionalists either dismissing us entirely or criticising things we don’t actually believe.
4. e.g. From his point of view, some people may postpone their repentance and faith until it’s too late, if they think God will save them anyway. I wrote a response to this concern last week.
5. e.g. World Evangelical Alliance.
6. Sadly I’ve seen some also give up on Christianity altogether.
7. e.g. That we don’t seem to consider that “Scripture promises enduring life and immortality only to the risen redeemed”.