Category: Talk

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

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

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

Living in the Light of the Future: Universal Restoration and Practical Theology—Robin Parry

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.

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations

This podcast episode was originally published on PodBean.

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.