There is more to come—there is the fullness. There is coming a day when, as Paul says in Romans 11, the deliverer will come from Zion and “all Israel will be saved.” Not just the current remnant of Messiah-believers, but also those who at the moment reject Jesus. There is a day coming when, as the book of Revelation says, the kings of the earth and all the nations will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem through its ever-open gates to worship God and the Lamb.
Now we see salvation in part, then we shall see it in full.
So currently we see a division within Israel and the nations between the redeemed and the lost, between the elect according to grace and those who are not, but one day there will be no such division. And then the promises associated with the birth of the Messiah will be filled full, or full-filled.
My second theme can be explained much more simply. Remember that Christmas is also about the incarnation—the Word made flesh, “eternity contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” For the Church, the real and complete humanity of Jesus is really important. The Church Fathers said: “that which has not been assumed has not been healed.” What they meant was that Jesus had to be human to heal our humanity. If he had not taken on our human nature then he could not transform it in himself.
Now Jesus is, of course, a particular human being. He is a real, solid, flesh and blood and bone and spit human individual. But more than that, he is a representative person. As the Messiah of Israel, he represents the whole nation of Israel before God. He is Israel-in-miniature. He embodies its story of exile and restoration in his death and resurrection. In the same way, he is the second Adam—the fountainhead of a renewed human race. In his humanity, he represents all humans before God. The story of humanity in its expulsion from Eden and its subjection to death is played out in his crucifixion. But then his resurrection is not simply about himself—it is on our behalf, the behalf of all of us, Jews and Gentiles. The resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of humanity in him. It is the future of the world inscribed into the risen flesh of the Son of God. And it is here, in this risen and ascended human being that my hope for universal salvation is grounded. How can we know that God will one day deliver all? Because God has already declared his hand in the resurrection. It has been done—so it will come to pass.
And all this promise was wrapped up in the life of a little human baby in a manger in Bethlehem.
That, at least, is something of what may be a little distinctive about a universalist’s understanding of Christmas.
The fact that the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus focus on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (who has been sent to redeem and rule Israel), needs to be seen in the light of the bigger biblical picture.
Super-briefly—Israel was chosen from amongst the nations for the sake of the nations. God’s plan to redeem the whole human world was focused through his work for the nation of Israel. However, Israel herself was sinful and in need of redemption before God could bring to pass his saving purposes for the world. In the visions of the prophets, the new age was one in which God would first rescue his covenant people and then the nations would abandon their false gods and come and worship the God of Israel alongside Israel. And that’s the story we see in Luke’s gospel-story. Jesus is all about the salvation of Israel, and, precisely because of that, he is all about the salvation of the nations. That’s why the song of Simeon links the two. Once Israel is saved the nations can be saved. And that is why Luke’s bigger narrative in the story that runs across Luke-Acts moves from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. First Israel, then the nations.
Now, while the good news announced by the angels is not for “all people,” it is for “all the people”. We should note that it is for “all the people” (i.e., all Israel). The focus of the redemption in the speeches of Luke’s birth narrative is Israel as a whole, rather than simply some within Israel—read them and check it out. The intended beneficiaries of the Messiah’s activity are all Israel. The focus is Israel-as-a-whole.
Similarly, the hints at blessings for the Gentiles simply pick out “all nations” as the target (i.e., everyone who is not a Jew).
So what at first seems to be pretty parochial turns out to be surprisingly all-encompassing.
Now, of course, one cannot simply read full-blown universalism off these texts. It would be perfectly possible to speak hyperbolically of the salvation of all the people Israel and all the nations in a situation in which some individuals are not saved for one reason or another. The focus of the text is the two groups, not every individual that composes them. (Although, even then, it presumably speaks of the salvation of at very least the of the individuals that compose the two groups. If only a tiny remnant of Israel benefits from the Messiah, it would be more than odd to refer to them as “all the people.”)
So while this theme is compatible with universalism and could even be taken to suggest it, it does not demonstrate it. However, if one is already a universalist for other reasons—as I am—then these birth stories do indeed bring encouragement for an eventual global restoration.
But we must not see the journey in any simple and direct way. All the Gospel writers are well aware that Jesus actually causes division in both groups. Though many in Israel accept him, even more reject him; though many Gentiles embrace the good news, many more resist it. So any universalism that we see in the Christmas story would have to be able to incorporate this important element of the story.
Now the model of universalism that I developed in my book (The Evangelical Universalist), recognizes that the journey to the destination of the salvation of all Israel and all the nations takes a complicated route. I argued that the NT holds in tension the idea of the kingdom of God here now and its future fullness. The new creation has begun, but it is yet to come. It is now, but it is not yet.
This tension, this overlap of the old age and the new age, helps us to understand the story of the salvation of Israel and the nations, which was promised in the Christmas story.
The Jewish Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of saved Israel; and the gentile Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of the saved nations. So in the ekklesia, i.e., the community of Christ, we can already see the promised redemption of Israel and the nations. When Jews and Gentiles, redeemed by Jesus, gather together as one in Christ to worship God, then we see the promises of the prophets fulfilled. Israel is saved. The new age has dawned. The Spirit has been poured out. The nations are coming to acknowledge the God of Israel. This is what the Messiah has achieved.
Really, for Christian universalists, Christmas is about the same stuff as it is for every other Christian: the birth of Jesus—the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in human flesh. It is about “God with us” as one of us; it is about God’s faithfulness to promises he made to his covenant people Israel; it is about the promise of redemption; it is about the turning point in history. And the Christmas stories contain loads of other themes: the humility of Mary, submitting her reputation, and perhaps even her life, to obey God; the gentle pride-swallowing grace of Joseph; the revelation of the gospel to mere shepherds; the political power-hungry paranoia and ruthlessness of an insecure king Herod; and so on. But none of this is obviously universalist.
But when Tim Nash calls, one responds, so I want to pursue two lines of thought about how a universalist may have a slightly different spin on Christmas.
The first of these begins with an observation that would, perhaps, even appear to be a problem for universalism—I am referring to the fact that the Christmas story as narrated in Scripture seems to be primarily concerned with the implications of Jesus for the Jews.
The stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are almost exclusively concerned with Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is the nation that God has chosen from all the other nations to be his own special possession. They are his covenant people. However, they had repeatedly fallen short of their covenant calling and were struggling under the oppression of their enemies. They needed salvation; they need transformation; they need the covenant renewing; they need forgiveness; they need the Spirit of God to be poured out on them as the prophets had said.
Many Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting a new king or a new priest to come from God to deliver them from their enemies and renew the covenant. They were looking forward with aching hope, waiting for the anointed one—the priestly or kingly Messiah—to come. God had promised it through the prophets of old. This is, of course, what Advent is about.
Now the birth stories, the Christmas stories, in Matthew and Luke very clearly announce that this long-awaited salvation is at last dawning for Israel because her Messiah has been born. God’s king is at last here!
This is indeed good news for Israel, but in the birth-stories in the Gospels, the relation of Gentiles to Jesus gets hardly a look-in. This is especially evident if you read the speeches of the characters in Luke’s Gospel: the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. For all of them, as for Luke himself, this story is about the redemption of Israel, God’s covenant people.
But, I hear you cry, what about the words of the angel to the shepherds? You know the ones.
Fear not, said he,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and . . . all mankind.
While Shepherds Watched, Nahum Tate
That’s nice but the problem is that this is not what the angel said. What he actually said was: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Not “for all people” but “for all the people.” And there can be absolutely no doubt in the context of Luke Israel-centric birth stories that “the people” means “the people of Israel.”
The only hint of something more comes in the song of Simeon on seeing baby Jesus:
“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Luke 2:30–32, NIV
It is not clear whether Simeon was thinking of salvation coming to the Gentiles or merely of salvation coming to Israel, with all the nations witnessing it. However, there can be no doubt at all that Luke himself does see Jesus as one who brings saving revelation to the Gentiles, as well as to Israel. And Luke intends his audience to perceive this in Simeon’s words.
The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel similarly function as representatives of the gentile nations, coming to worship the Messiah, the true king of Israel.
Nevertheless, there is not a whole lot for the universalist here
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.
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)
Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.
Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.
If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1
Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”
In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.
The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:
It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2
It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.
1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . . Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk 2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/
Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.
So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.
Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.
One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!
We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?
Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.
So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.
And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.
For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.
Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.
Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.
In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.
1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be? —First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95). —Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority. 2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179. 3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld. 4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.
Doctrines of hell—in both Augustinian and freewill versions, and both eternal torment and annihilationist editions—have more problems than a hedgehog has spikes. It is hard to know how best to handle the issue in so short a time. So I thought I’d use the “Rethinking Hell” triangle as my guide on the journey and use the issue of God’s victory over evil as a way in.
First, a word on the ontology of evil. Here one of my part-time heroes, Augustine, offers some helpful insight. He argued that all created things come from the goodness of the Creator and are good (Ench. ad Laur. 9–10). Evil itself is not a substance, not a thing, but an absence of good.
In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the disease and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in a healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
Augustine, Ench. ad Laur. 11.
The ontology of evil that Augustine articulated here was in fact a widely shared Christian view by his day. The Christian Platonist tradition prior to Augustine held firmly to the notion that evil was not ontologically essential to creation and that God would defeat it. But defeat it how? Two options have been considered by Christians: you can either (a) imprison it or (b) annihilate it. And there are two very different ways one can annihilate evil: one can either annihilate the substance that has been corrupted by evil or one can heal the substance that has been corrupted by evil, thereby eradicating the evil. This yields the three basic options of the hell triangle.
The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
The Hospital: annihilate evil by healing those afflicted with it.
Or, as we better know them: everlasting torment, annihilationism, and universalism. (I ought to add that Jerry Walls has his own hybrid version and the following analysis does not do justice to it.)
“Eschatology,” said John A. T. Robinson, “is an explication of what must be true of the end, both of history and of the individual, if God is to be the God of biblical faith. All eschatological statements can finally be reduced to, and their validity tested by, sentences beginning: ‘In the end, God . . . .’”1 I think that this insight is profoundly important. For God to be the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God of the gospel, our eschatology must be gospel-shaped. And what does that look like? The answer, I suggest, is that it looks like the risen Lord. The gospel calls the shots. The gospel determines the shape of the end.
This sounds very much like a story for which universal salvation is a fitting ending. Thus, Paul speaks of “the mystery of [God’s] will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10).2 All creation is made “for” and oriented “to” God—and it is summed up and brought to its fitting conclusion and destiny in Jesus. Then at Jesus’ name every knee will bow—in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth (which is to say, the dead)—and every tongue confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:9–11).3 All will be subject to Christ, and then Christ will subject himself to the Father on behalf of creation, so that God will “be all” and will be “in all” (1 Cor 15:28).4That is the kind of end I would expect for the biblical story.
Now, we are so used to the traditional story of hell as the final fate of some/many/most people that we usually fail to notice how out of place it feels as a conclusion to this story. But surely we need a very good explanation for this tale ending in tragedy for some/many/most people. What possible reasons could there be for such an unexpected climax?
1. John A. T. Robinson, In the End, God . . . : A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. Special Edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 23. 2. For a universalist reading of Ephesians, see TEU, 184–91. 3. For a defense of a universalist interpretation of this text (against the often-made claim that some are forced to bow the knee against their will) see TEU, 97–100. 4. For a defense of a universalist reading of 1 Corinthians 15, see TEU, 84–90.
We live in a time between the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead, between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and our full participation in it. The new age is here now—for Christ has been exalted and the Spirit has been poured out—but we still await its complete arrival.
This tension between now and not-yet permeates NT teaching on universal salvation. On the one hand, in the person of the risen Christ everyone is already redeemed. God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:19–20).
On the other hand, only those who have been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit now participate in that salvation (and even then, only in an anticipatory way, until the general resurrection). So the actual existential participation of all people in salvation is not a present reality, it lies in the future: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).1
So is everyone currently justified? Yes and no. In that Christ has been raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25), we are all already justified in his resurrection. However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel, and are united to Christ by the Spirit, that we participate subjectively in this justification.
This now/not-yet tension is seen throughout Paul’s letters. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, Paul addresses the issue of the universal significance of Christ’s work. We read that “one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14) and that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). From this perspective there are no insiders and outsiders—everyone is an insider. And yet Paul still issues the imperative, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). A Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required if people are to share in the salvation already achieved in Christ. And right now many live outside the gospel community. So Paul makes a very clear distinction in all his writings between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not, the church and the world, believers and unbelievers, the elect and those who are not elect. The former are “being saved” while the latter are “perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3).
It is critical to note, however, that for Paul the dead in sin can become those alive in Christ, children destined for wrath can become children of mercy (Eph. 2:1–11).2 This is relevant because we cannot assume that just because Paul sees a current divide between those being saved and those perishing, that this divide will remain in place eternally. Romans 9–11 makes this point well.3
1. For a defense of a universalist reading of this passage, against its critics, see TEU, 84–90. 2. I do not have time to explore the important notion of election. For my understanding of it, see TEU, 222–42. 3. It seems to me that underpinning much NT ecclesiology is the vision of Israel’s prophets that in the last days Israel would be restored, the Spirit poured out, and the nations would come in pilgrimage and worship the God of Abraham alongside Israel (e.g., Isa. 2:1–4; 11:10–12; 18:7; 60:1–16; 61:5–6; 66:12, 18, 23). To NT authors, this vision is coming to pass in the ekklesia—the Spirit is poured out, and Jews and people from among the nations are united as equals, worshipping the God of Israel together. However, we make a mistake if we lose sight of the now/not-yet tension. The church in the present is only a prophetic foretaste of the fuller reality to come—an anticipation of the grander fulfillment in the new creation, when “all Israel” is saved (Rom. 11:26) and all the nations and the kings of the earth bring their tribute into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24–27).
The divine Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity, became flesh (John 1:14). As the Second Adam, Jesus represented the whole race—he is the sinless and obedient one in whom God’s covenant relationship with humanity finds fulfillment. Most Christians have been universalists about Christ’s humanity—he represents all humans in his humanity. Here, for instance, is Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367): “Christ has become the body of the whole of humanity, that, through the body that he was kind enough to assume, the whole of humanity might be hidden in him . . . .”2
Christ’s being fully human is fundamental to our salvation. As Gregory of Nazianzus observed: “that which He has not assumed, He has not healed.”3 He became human so that he could heal our humanity in himself, through his death and resurrection. This is suggestive. Listen to Athanasius: “Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin.”4
Most Christians, past and present, are universalists about Christ’s crucifixion—Jesus died for all people in order to save all people. This belief is well grounded in Scripture and tradition. Consider the following well-known verse: “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).5 Recall that “the world” in 1 John, as in John’s Gospel, is the sinful, God-rejecting world. So we know whom God so loved and sent his Son to die for—for the whole wicked world. Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For remember, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). (Of course, I am well aware of a post-Reformation minority report in favor of a limited atonement, but I don’t have time to get into that here.6 The mainstream historic Christian tradition is clear and well summed up by Athanasius: Christ “delivered his own body to death on behalf ofall . . . in order to bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption.”7Exitus et reditus.)
This teaching emphasizes the mainstream Christian view that God desires to redeem all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) and has acted in Christ in order to do so.
Now while I am have not shown much sympathy with limited atonement, I do see that behind it lies what I consider to be a sound theological worry. The worry is this: will the cross save all those for whom Christ died, or will his death have been in vain for some people?8 The five-point Calvinist finds the idea that Christ died for many (or any) people in vain to be terribly problematic. So do I. But because they think that some folk will go forever to hell, they deduce that Christ could not have died for those people. But might we work things the other way? Might we say that because Christ died for all people that none will find themselves forever lost? Which does most justice to the overall narrative logic of the salvation story?
The resurrection of Jesus is new creation, the age to come breaking into the present evil age. And Jesus’ resurrection is not simply Jesus’ resurrection—it is ours; it is the destiny of all humanity played out in the person of our representative.
All Christian eschatology must be Christ-centered and it must be grounded here, in this event. Here we see the future of the world, the future of humanity, manifest in his risen flesh. The story of humanity does not terminate on a cross, but passes through an empty tomb, and ascends to God. Christ, says Paul, was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); indeed, his resurrection is our justification. That is why I think that Paul can be so confident that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18–19).
Many Christians think that a confident universalism is presumptuous—for we cannot claim know the end. While there is a lot that we cannot know about the end, we do know this: Christ is risen! And that is enough. God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here. For me, this is what it means to be an evangelical universalist—it means to found one’s universalism in the evangel itself. And to be confident in my universalism is not presumptuous, as I am claiming nothing more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God. What does the missing jigsaw piece look like? Looks to me like an empty tomb.
1. Of course, to tell the story fully would require speaking of God’s way with Israel, but space prohibits. On Israel and universalism, see TEU, 54–73, 90–96, 229–33. 2. In Psalmos, 51.16–17. 3.Epistle 101. 4.Letter to Adelphius. 5. Consider also, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people ….” (1 Tim. 2:3–6). “But we do see Jesus, who … suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9) 6. For a defense of a universal atonement in the texts cited in n.13, see I. Howard Marshall, “For All, For All My Saviour Died.” In Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honor of Clark H. Pinnock, edited by S. E. Porter and A. R. Cross (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003), 322–46. 7.De Incarnatione, 9. 8. There is no agreed Christian understanding of how the atonement works. I contend that however we understand the mechanism, it coheres best with universalism.