How broad are God’s plans? Tony shares his life story: from his childhood in Fiji to becoming a teacher and then, to everyone’s surprise, a strategy consultant to some of Australia’s largest corporations. He began to see God working everywhere and this led him to ultimately discover Christ’s Cosmic Redemption—which is good news for the entire cosmos!
Now onto the third area of debate and this is one that does interest me. In the sixth century, there was a big ecumenical council where leaders from across the Church around the world got together and decided on various issues. If you are of the stream of Christianity that thinks that ecumenical councils are important—and I am, I think they really matter—one of the issues with this particular council is that there is an appendix. The document councils—which were all about who was Jesus—tacked onto the end an appendix with a list of curses against… Well, it didn’t say who it’s against but they are often called the curses against Origen, even though they didn’t name him. It anathematizes or curses those who believe in this hideous doctrine of Apocatastasis. The reason this is important—and it’s particularly important if you’re a Catholic or Orthodox Christian—is if an ecumenical council declared universalism to be a heresy, then it is a heresy and that’s that, that kind of kills it there. So it does matter and there is debate among patristic scholars about this.
The majority view—and we can’t know for sure as we weren’t there—is that the appendix was not part of the actual council itself. It was the Emperor Justinian—who really hated universalism—who called the council. There was lots of controversy about the council. For example, the Pope wouldn’t go but he had to be there for it to count so they went and got soldiers and dragged him along but he refused to open up the council, which is what the Pope was meant to do. Anyway, Justinian was really determined to get through his anti-universalist thing. Before the council started, lots of bishops are getting there early (they arrived like months early because they’re coming from all over the world and the planes were rubbish in those days!) so Justinian calls them together and they kind of ratify these anathemas, these curses. Because Justinian wants to give it the aura of a sort of consensus view of the ecumenical Church, he sort-of tacks it on to the end of the council’s document. Now, if that is the case, then it has a really peculiar status. It doesn’t have the status of an ecumenical council because it wasn’t part of the proceedings of the council—so strictly speaking it’s not heresy—and yet it does kind of carry some of the momentum of that council.
There’s another debate related to this and this is more within Orthodox Christianity. Even if it’s true that this isn’t part of the proceedings of the council and that universalism wasn’t declared heresy, then the debate is, “But mate, lots of people came to think that it was and so doesn’t that make it so?” There is actually a genuine debate among some scholars as to whether that would make it so. I don’t think it would, I don’t think that would be right at all but anyway that’s me.
The other question is this, “What exactly was condemned in the council?” Was it universalism per se that was condemned or was it a particular species of universalism? I argue and lots of folk are starting to argue now (not because of me by the way, it’s a coincidence, it’s not that all these patristic scholars have read me and went, “Flip, why didn’t we think of that!”) So they think—and I’m agreeing with them because they’re clever—that actually it’s not universalism as an abstract idea, it’s universalism as connected to a whole bunch of other ideas as part of a network or system of beliefs that was very problematic. Maybe you think I’m going on about this too much but it does really matter for a lot of Christians as to whether universalism is technically a heresy, which is why I’m saying a little bit more about it.
The background to this is that Origen’s ideas had been developed in the centuries after him. He was around in the third century and the council was in the sixth century. By that time—particularly in certain monasteries in Palestine—Origen’s ideas have been developed, sometimes in quite quirky ways, ways that were tied in with pre-existence of souls and reincarnation and a whole bunch of other stuff. What was condemned in those anathemas or those curses is that whole system, that network. The monstrous doctrine of Apocatastasis and the restoration of demons and all that, that is condemned is the doctrine as connected into that whole network. If you read them, you’ll see some of those connections. Which means that, in fact, universalism as such is not condemned, just that particular species of universalism. Which is why, for instance, Gregory of Nyssa is never condemned, in fact, he is called the “father of the fathers.” He is one of the architects of Christian orthodoxy and is highly esteemed by those who are within Catholicism and Orthodoxy. He’s a Saint, even though he was an overt universalist because he didn’t believe in the pre-existence of souls and all this kind of stuff that was condemned.
All of this is to say, there is an ongoing debate about that and it matters because it ties into the whole question of whether universalism is heresy. I’m of the view that it’s not, or I would be in trouble—maybe not with God, who knows, maybe with God, I wouldn’t want to be in trouble with God.
My transcript above is from the video below—edited slightly for readability. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts. An excellent article that goes into more depth is Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was.
Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, not in the very first century—strictly speaking, that’s the earliest church—but normally patristic scholars look from the second century (although they’re interested in the first) up to the ninth century. It’s particularly what the early church fathers taught, what the church was like, etc.
In particular, the debate has been looking at these leaders in the early church. “Gosh, some of them actually were Universalists!” Everyone knew that Origen was and so Origen tended to have a bad rap. He was generally looked down on—including by patristic scholars because they just inherited that way of looking at him—but as people began to study the text more, there’s been a real revival in Origen’s reputation. In the church too, I mean, the past few popes have really loved him—”He’s a dude!” There’s been a lot of work that has been sort of trying to revive his reputation.
There are lots of debates about Origen and you’d really want to ask Ilaria Ramelli about this because she is like a super expert on Origen—she’s a super expert on everything, it just blows your mind. There are lots and lots of things people say that Origen said that arguably he probably didn’t say. In fact, oftentimes he said the opposite of what people say he said. So there are ongoing debates about how you interpret specific church fathers and what they taught. This debate has been growing with Ilaria’s work. She’s arguing that lots more church fathers were universalists—or at least had inclinations that way—than people have often thought. I think there’s a growing consensus or trajectory within patristic studies that would go in that direction. There are still questions about, “Well, this guy, it’s not so clear—Ilaria thinks he was, so-and-so thinks he wasn’t.” You get these debates about those kinds of things.
Another debate—and this is one that has revived again very recently—is, “What are the origins of Apokatastasis?” Apokatastasis is just the Greek word that is usually used when we talk about patristic universalism—it’s just to do with the restoration of all things at the end—the final restoration. I just used the word now because that’s the word the patristic folks tend to use—I’m talking about universalism.
One of the issues is, granted that Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on, were universalists—or believed in the Apokatastasis—where did they get that idea from? One school of thought is, “Actually, it’s a pagan idea. Maybe it originates in Gnosticism and they kind of gullibly imported it into Christianity and baptized it?” In effect, infected the theology of the Church with this alien idea that didn’t really belong within the Christian theological world. Those on the other side, like Ilaria, argue, “No, that’s ridiculous! In fact, the very first universalists were Christians. Gnostic universalism was a very different kind of ‘universalism’, it wasn’t even universalism proper as not everybody got saved in Gnostic universalism.” Also, Origen was ferociously opposed to Gnostics, he thought they were really terrible and dodgy theological characters.
Origen got his ideas, Ilaria argues, from Scripture. Scripture was really important for Origen, he was a massive scriptural commentator, he wrote masses and masses of stuff on the Bible, he was perhaps the most erudite scholar of the early church—perhaps even more than Augustine, who was a super amazing scholar. So she says he gets it from the Bible. He also gets it from various strands of Christian tradition that precedes him. He draws on Irenaeus a lot. Origen systematizes key ideas in Irenaeus—very Christian ideas—and developed them in ways that go in Apokatastasis.
Also, a very interesting tradition (that you find in lots of 2nd and 3rd-century Christian texts within proto-Orthodox Christian circles—churches that later developed into what we now know as Orthodoxy) where the Saints are praying for those in the lake of fire. Jesus’s invitation in some cases is to pray for those in the lake of fire and Jesus draws them out of the lake of fire. So this idea that the lake of fire or death is the point of no return once you died—”You can’t change your destiny”—wasn’t at all clear to a lot of Christians in the early church. It wasn’t incomprehensible or nonsensical to them to imagine somebody going into the lake fire and coming out of it. Origen takes these kinds of traditions and synthesizes them into his more systematic account of universalism or Apokatastasis. This is then passed down in that tradition through many fathers, including she argues—and I’m persuaded—Athanasius, who was a really important guy in terms of who was Jesus, Christology, Jesus’s divinity, and so on.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below (for more transcripts see Robin’s Hope & Hell videos).
Let’s get a bit of a sense of where the current debate over universalism is at. I don’t think it’s a massive debate. I don’t think it is the hot issue at universities or in theology departments but it was not an issue at all until fairly recently. It is becoming more of an issue so it’s worth getting some sense of where some of the discussions are at, as we go forward.
The debate, as far as Scripture goes, I think has two foci: first of all, there are debates to do with the meanings of specific texts. Now, that might be specific texts about Hell—or “Hell”, depending on how you interpret the text—or it might be specific texts that are, on the face of it, universal salvation texts. You get scholars who kind of line up on both sides and sort of argue, “Well, this text is definitely teaching eternal torment….”
I’m sure you’re familiar with all the debates in evangelical circles about annihilationism—maybe not? Or are you…? Well, let’s just assume that some of you aren’t. So, the assumption was the Bible teaches eternal hell—but what kind of eternal hell does it teach? Does it teach an eternal hell where you’re conscious and in torment forever and ever? Or does it teach an eternal hell that’s like God annihilates you so that you cease to exist? You’re annihilated for eternity so both of them are eternal punishment but one as annihilationist later put it, “One’s an eternal punishing and the others an eternal punishment.” That was a debate that was particularly stirred up in evangelicalism in the late eighties. In some ways, that was a precursor to people then starting to ask, “Well, actually, might there be another view…?” This is one of the reasons why some of the traditionalists don’t like annihilationists—it is because once you open up the question, people then start asking other questions, and we would rather they didn’t ask questions because it’s a pain. They end up going in places you don’t want them to go because it’s dangerous—but with the best will in the world, they think it’s dangerous and I understand that. I’ve been carefully and kindly told I’m a heretic and that’s okay.
Scholars acknowledging universal salvation texts
So there is debate, and there has been debate for some time—particularly among evangelicals—about hell texts. But, of course, once you look at a hell text and go, “You know, maybe the bit about sheep and goats isn’t talking about eternal punishment as eternal conscious torment…,” that opens up other possibilities—particularly with regard to texts that appear on the surface to say something about universal salvation. There have been a growing number of New Testament scholars who’ve been going, “Well yeah, they really do say that.” Evangelical New Testament scholars kind of washed over them because “we knew they couldn’t mean what they said” but more often those who were not evangelical New Testament scholars—who didn’t really care whether the Bible was consistent or not—they go, “Oh well, those bits, yeah, they really are saying universal salvation, no question about it.” There has been a growing number of scholars who’ve been arguing that—which then opens up the universalist question. Those kinds of debates are ongoing, as are debates about how you hold together the diverse theologies of Scripture.
Diverse theologies of Scripture
Everybody agrees that Scripture has diverse theologies, the question is, how do you hold them together? I want to give a lot more attention to that in the next talk because there are various ways of doing that but that is where a lot of the interpretation debate is at, I think. Actually, this issue occurs even with a single author—Saint Paul is a prime example. Saint Paul seems to have texts which are universalist and seems to have texts which are sort of eschatological judgment and punishment—endtime punishment. How do you hold those together in Paul? Presumably, Paul had some kind of coherent thinking so what does he think these mean? How does he think these hold together? Did he even ask those questions? Those questions aren’t just as to how we hold Paul and Matthew together, or Paul and Job, or whatever, it’s how do we hold Paul and Paul together?
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos
Universalism is a pretty minimalist thesis and basically, at its core it’s just saying, “God will save everybody.” That allows for a lot more diversity and different versions of universalism than you might suspect. It’s consistent with a range of different views on a whole bunch of issues. The following are some examples:
There are lots of debates now… penal substitution? Not penal substitution? Well, universalists were having those same debates. You could be a universalist and hold different views on that.
For example, James Relly in the 18th century. James Relly was one of George Whitfield’s converts and preachers, so he was a Calvinist committed to penal substitution. He became a universalist because he thought that penal substitution required it. “Those for whom Christ died will be saved—how could Christ’s death be for nothing? If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved—how could it be otherwise?” The argument was somewhat different from that but that’s basically kind of where he’s going. So he thought penal substitution requires the salvation of all people.
On the other hand, we could say, “What about George MacDonald?” (very famous 19th-century author and Universalist). He hates penal substitution with a vengeance. He thinks it’s anathema, destroys the gospel, and so on. Both Universalists—one a universalist precisely because he thinks penal substitution requires it—the other one thinks penal substitution is a mess.
Free Will and Divine Sovereignty
A perennial issue of interest in theology and universalists have taken both sides. Historically, universalists would be on the side that humans have libertarian free will—that’s the majority view through history. For example, the early church fathers who were universalists (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on) were really strong on this, about the importance of human freedom.
On the other hand, there have been various Calvinist universalists. For example, Peter Sterry who was a Puritan. He was one of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains and a member of the Westminster Assembly, which wrote the Westminster Confession of faith—which is super-Calvinistic-expialidocious! He is a beautiful, beautiful writer and a beautiful man and he is a universalist. He writes this fantastic book that even Richard Baxter the Puritan—who didn’t really like Sterry most of the time—thought was a wonderful book on free will because he takes this view that free will is compatible with determinism, “God determines every choice you make but that’s compatible with free will.” So universalism could go either way on this issue.
Some universalists have been really strong on the sacramentality of sacraments—particularly if they’re Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (in my case). Some, at what was called the “spiritualist” end of things, thought that sacraments are just symbols and in fact, you don’t even need them, you don’t even have to do them. For example, some Quakers were universalists.
Any kind of view of the church you could come up with, you could find a universalist who had it.
Most universalists believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture but of course, in more recent times, there have been universalists who took more liberal views of Scripture, and that’s also compatible with universalism.
Inclusivism vs Exclusivism
Just to clarify that briefly. Granted that we can only be saved through Christ, do we need to know about Christ or have explicit faith in Christ to be saved through Christ? Is it possible to be saved through Christ, even if you don’t know about Christ but maybe God takes whatever faith response you have to whatever revelation you have and applies the merits of Christ to you? Inclusivists would say that. Exclusivists would say, no, you have to have explicit faith in Christ to be saved.
Well, you got universalists who are both kinds. There are those who’ve argued for inclusivism, George de Benneville was one—he thought you could be saved through Christ without having heard about Christ or without necessarily being explicitly Christian. Others were more, no, you have to have faith in the gospel, you have to have heard of Jesus and so on. Universalism can go either way.
So the point is that there are diverse ways of being a Christian Universalist and what that means is we should be wary of folk who go, “Ah, well, the problem with universalism is it leads down this route, to this view…” Well, it might do but it might not! We need to be a little bit more discerning with those kinds of arguments.
For example, I read a very good book recently that was critical of universalism but one of the problems was he too easily moved from the idea that “this particular version of universalism has problems” to the idea “Well then, universalism is wrong.” Whereas in fact, it might just be that particular version of universalism has problems and other versions are absolutely fine.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos
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:
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
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.