Category: Promoting Greater Hope

Does Christian Universalism take God’s holiness seriously enough?

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole world* is full of his glory.

* His glory doth not only appear in the heavens, but through all the world, and therefore all creatures are bound, to praise him.

Isaiah 6:3, 1599 Geneva Bible with their footnote

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.

Isaiah 6:7, CSB
God’s holiness purifying Isaiah. Image from The Bible Project’s Holiness video.

Ezekiel unpacks this further, with the image of God’s holiness flowing out of the sanctuary—the “Holy Place”—of the temple, bringing life and healing to the desert and eventually, even the Dead Sea (the Lake of Fire cf https://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/lake-of-fire.html).

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.”

Ezekiel 47:12, ESV

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).

Life and healing flow out of Christ’s Church. Image from The Bible Project’s Holiness video.

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.

Revelation 22:1-3, CSB
God’s holiness overflowing into all the cosmos. Image from The Bible Project’s Holiness video.

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.

Rev Dr Tim Mackie, co-founder of The Bible Project

The Story of Salvation: A Narrative Theology of Hell—Robin Parry

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. 

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations

This podcast episode was originally published on PodBean.

Hermeneutics and Hell: Biblical Interpretation and Universal Salvation—Robin Parry

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 Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations

This podcast episode is also on PodBean and is the second talk from the Hope and Hell Conference.

Universal Salvation: A Whistle-Stop Introduction—Robin Parry

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.

Listen to the podcast episode:

The slides for the talk are available here. This is the first talk from the Hope and Hell Conference.

Robin Parry is coming to Australia to speak on Hope & Hell!

I’ve transcribed a short video by Tony Golsby-Smith. He introduces Robin Parry and explains why hell is such an important topic to explore.


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.

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.

Robin Parry 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.

Gospel Conversations—an exciting discovery

For months, I haven’t had the headspace to write as it’s been one of the toughest years of my life. However, I recently made such an exciting discovery, that I just had to tell you about it. To put it in context, I know hundreds of Christian Universalists in the US but only a handful in Australia (primarily due to the much smaller population). Therefore, I was delighted when Robin Parry told me about a reputable Australian group, Gospel Conversations, which discovered orthodox Christian Universalism this year!

© Gospel Conversations — Explorations in Christian thought

They describe themselves as:

A monthly event and podcast exploring the richness of the gospel in a conversational forum. … Essentially we want to take God out of the religious box we put Him in, and position Him as Lord of Creation. That means recovering a much bigger picture of God and his project than a merely ‘religious’ program whereby the Christians are rescued from the earth and escape to heaven.

Gospel Conversations / About

They’ve done over 8 hours of talks and a panel discussion exploring the issues (I’ve made a playlist) :

Hell is the question we all avoid but it is the corollary of hope. How do we fit the two together? Is the traditional model of hell right? Or scriptural? Could everyone get saved in the end? Tony begins to address these vexed questions by first examining the landscape of the debate – the language and assumptions, the possibilities, the history and the problems of all the usual positions. He ends by suggesting a better question to frame our thinking.

Hope & Hell (1): Is ‘hell’ the answer to the wrong question?

Our second talk builds a richer view of ‘judgment’. “What house is God building?” is a better question – and it immediately opens up a new view of judgment. Architects judge as part of their creative process. This positions ‘judgment’ out of the penal system and inside a creation system. Tony explores this new perspective in this talk.

Hope & Hell (2): Judgment—punishment or reform?

Tony advances Gregory’s picture of the Restitution of all things. The question of ‘universal salvation’ needs to fall onto a big eschatological landscape not onto a narrow one. Only then does it make sense. That is what Gregory does. Tony gives us a detailed summary of his epic eschatological vision of creation in ‘On the Making of Man’ which explores the profound implications of being made in the image of God.

Hope & Hell (3): Summarising Gregory of Nyssa’s vision

St Augustine laid the foundations for the doctrine of Hell in his epic tome the City of God. But did he get it right? Tony gives a penetrating diagnosis of where Augustine’s thinking had ‘code errors’ that distorted the gospel and predisposed him to the idea of hell as never-ending torment. Unfortunately, the church of Rome validated his thinking and excluded the broader eschatology that we are now beginning to realise was the orthodoxy of the Patristic Fathers.

Hope & Hell (4): St Augustine’s Code Errors

Tony finally confronts the scary verses in this talk – the passages that at face value talk about hell, judgment and wrath. Traditionally they have so gripped the dark imaginations of the church that they have totally overshadowed the even clearer verses that declare universal hope. But we need to answer the question – What do the ‘Bad News’ verses really say about eternal hell? What do they really tell us?

Hope & Hell (5): The Good / Bad News

As we continue to ponder the hope of ‘apokatastasis’, we confront some of the ‘so whats’, beginning with evangelism. At face value, it looks like a doctrine of ‘universal salvation’ makes evangelism unnecessary – why preach if everybody gets saved eventually anyway? Tony addresses this question by first changing the question – and then building a far bigger picture of ‘salvation’ into which we can place ‘evangelism’.

Hope & Hell (6): Apokatastasis—So What for Gospel and Evangelism?

Our Hope and Hell series has raised a lot of interest; people like the ideas a lot but everyone has questions. We created a panel of three to address eight of these questions that our listeners sent in. In this talk, Ron, Andrew and Tony give their responses in a free-flowing, exploratory and honest dialogue. Mark Ridgway facilitates the dialogue.

Hope & Hell (7): Panel Q&A

I haven’t finished listening to them all yet but so far one of the highlights has been Tony’s summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s amazing vision of what God began in Creation and will complete in the New Creation. It’s a stark contrast to Augustine’s vision. Anyway, God willing, I’ll get to fly up to Sydney and meet them in 2019!

For more information about Gospel Conversations:

Parry—The Hospital

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

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

Gregory of Nyssa, De an. 101, 104

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

Sun shining over a hospital

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

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

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

St Isaac of Nineveh, Second Part, 39.22

Or, as someone else put it, LOVE WINS.

 


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


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