Many religions have festivals which celebrate light overcoming darkness. Such occasions are often accompanied by the lighting of candles. They seem to speak to every culture, and appeal to people of all faiths, and of none. They are lit on birthday cakes and to mark family anniversaries when we gather happily around a source of light. It unites us.
As darkness falls on the Saturday before Easter day, many Christians would normally light candles together. In church, one light would pass to another, spreading slowly and then more rapidly as more candles are lit. It’s a way of showing how the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been passed on from the first Easter by every generation until now.
This year, Easter will be different for many of us, but by keeping apart we keep others safe. But Easter isn’t cancelled; indeed we need Easter as much as ever. The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this. We know that coronavirus will not overcome us. As dark as death can be— particularly for those suffering with grief—light and life are greater. May the living flame of the Easter hope be a steady guide as we face the future. I wish everyone of all faiths and denominations a blessed Easter.
TheQueen, transcribed from her video below
The Queen speaks of light overcoming darkness, and the hope that Easter symbolises, in a special message recorded to mark the Easter weekend. pic.twitter.com/fTFCOSVBtT
Here’s an 8-minute video clip and transcript of Rev Dr Robin Parry explaining the important differences between the Hebrew and Greek words “Sheol”, “Hades”, “Gehenna”, and “Tartarus”, which are translated “Hell” in many Bible translations. This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.
In the Old Testament, Sheol is the realm of the dead. It’s a very murkily defined place, it’s dark, there are people there but they’re not really living. They are sort of conscious but they’re not. Nobody wants to be there and they don’t worship God there. It’s a bit of a dreary view of death.
Then it gets complicated because in the Second Temple Jewish period, you get different views arising. And that’s part of the debate: What’s behind the New Testament texts?
Hades is from Greek mythology but got imported to become the translation of Sheol. So Hades is sometimes just the word for Sheol and it’s this world of the dead. But it also, sort of, evolves in this Second Temple period to become a place where bad things happen, like in Greek mythology, nasty stuff happens in Hades. The only text in the New Testament that really deals with Hades like this is Luke 16—the parable of the “Rich man and Lazarus”—it’s Hades that they go to. What is this Hades? The rich man is in torment, he just wants a drop of water on his tongue. So that’s not just like the Old Testament Sheol, that’s developed. In the book of Revelation, at the end:
Then the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; each one was judged according to their works. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:13-14, CSB
So Hades is where the dead people are. Given this passage, if the lake of fire is “hell”, and that’s the way we normally think, Hades isn’t “hell” in that text—Hades is like the “waiting place” until it’s thrown into the lake of fire and then it’s hell.
Gehenna is what Jesus talks about in most of the texts that are considered to be about hell. Gehenna (“Ben Hinnom Valley” in English) is the valley next to Jerusalem:
It’s a valley that had all sorts of associations in the Old Testament because it was associated with idolatrous sacrifice of children and so on. It was considered an unclean and despicable place in Jeremiah:
[The Judeans] have built the high places of Topheth in Ben Hinnom Valley in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, a thing I did not command; I never entertained the thought.
“Therefore, look, the days are coming”—the Lord’s declaration—“when this place will no longer be called Topheth and Ben Hinnom Valley, but the Valley of Slaughter. Topheth will become a cemetery, because there will be no other burial place.”
Jeremiah 7:31-32, CSB
Gehenna becomes a place of judgment. God will bring judgment and there will be slaughter in Gehenna—there are lots of corpses there. The bit at the end of Isaiah 66, with all the worms and the fire, the corpses, which then become used by Jesus as a “hell” text about the worms that don’t die and so on. That is almost certainly dealing with imagery about Gehenna, with lots of corpses. I mean, they are dead, in Isaiah they are not conscious but they are in Jesus’ texts. So this is Gehenna, it’s a literal valley, which is associated with judgment, punishment, and so on.
There are debates around this. Were there strong Jewish views about Gehenna being postmortem punishment? Did Jesus feed off those views or did Jesus actually innovate? It’s complicated by the fact all of the Second Temple Jewish texts we have about Gehenna weren’t written down until after the time of Jesus. Was Jesus the first person to really use Gehenna as postmortem punishment? Did later Jewish texts pick up on this and take it in different directions? It also becomes complicated because the Second Temple Jews had different views about Gehenna. Some thought about it in terms of eternal torment, some thought about it in terms of annihilation, some thought you could get out of Gehenna. It wasn’t a fixed idea, it was a fluid image. It was an image that was used in different kinds of ways by different groups of Jewish people—Jesus one of them. So the question is, in what sense is Jesus using it? That becomes the issue in terms of interpretation and it’s difficult to set down a fixed background against which to interpret Jesus because it was a fluid notion. Also the problems of dating, etc. Anyway, this is getting a bit technical.
There is debate among New Testament scholars, as to whether Jesus is talking about a postmortem punishment at all. Tom Wright argues that Jesus is not talking about hell but the literal destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He’s warning about the dangers of literally being thrown into the valley next to Jerusalem when the Romans come. It might not even be that Jesus is talking about eschatological punishment there. When Paul talks about eschatological punishment he doesn’t use the language of Gehenna, it’s really restricted to Jesus who does that.
What about Tartarus? Well, this only occurs once in the New Testament:
For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment;
2 Peter 2:4, HCSB
This is a place in Greek mythology. The background to this is the story in Genesis of the Nephilim. There are all sorts of interpretation complications but this story becomes really big in the Second Temple period. 1 Enoch—which is a fantastic text and was very influential in early Christianity—sees these “Watchers” as divine beings who are thrown into Tartarus. Peter is saying that they are kept in Tartarus in everlasting chains until the Day of Judgment. The word there is not “aionios”, it is “aidios”, which does mean everlasting—it’s the only time it occurs in regards to punishment in the New Testament. And there it’s only the chains that are “eternal” so that these angels can’t escape judgment.
So Gehenna is maybe hell—or not if you’re Tom Wright. Hades is the realm of the dead—Sheol, but it might be more than that, it might be something that crosses over into hell in some texts but not in others. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. You’re asking for clarity but the problem is, it’s not terribly clear, and that’s one of the challenges in interpreting some of the Gospel and New Testament texts. Trying to make sense of it when the thought world at the time wasn’t conceptually clear in the way we’d like it to have been.
If we are going to be thinking about universalism and what we think about it and whether it’s true or not, we at least—and first of all—need to have a nuanced and clear understanding of what it actually is we’re thinking about. Because if we don’t have a clear idea of the idea we’re thinking about, we’re never gonna be able to think about it, obviously.
The other thing that comes out of this is:
I find all sorts of versions of universalism problematic and having read masses of them for this history book [A Larger Hope?, Volume 2: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century], with a lot of these people I think, “You’re nuts,” but that’s what they thought. And I know a bunch of people will find my particular version of universalism problematic. But even if you find some version of universalism problematic—and all of us will—that shouldn’t shut down the question itself. Because it might well be that there are versions of universalism that don’t suffer from those particular things we find problematic. If you find something I say, “Oh, that’s nuts, that’s not going to work, that won’t fly,” you don’t leap to the conclusion that it can’t [ever] fly—there might be another way, there might be another way of reconfiguring universalism. So it’s worth sort of sticking with the question and pursuing it.
Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of the conclusion of the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.
Here is the 3-minute video clip and transcript of Robin Parry‘s response to the question of whether Christians should call themselves “Universalists”? This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.
As a case in point, James Relly—an eighteenth-century preacher in London—refused to call himself a “universalist”. He hated the word. So did John Murray—the pastor of the very first American Universalist Church and a follower of Relly. They hated the word “universalism” because it’s not in the Bible. Relly would always say, “I’m not a Universalist.” He thought everyone would be saved but he wouldn’t call himself a “Universalist” because it’s not a biblical word.
I don’t have that kind of aversion. I’m quite happy to use words that aren’t biblical words if it’s explaining a biblical concept. For example, “Trinity” is not a biblical word but I think it is a way of conceptualizing a biblical idea.
However, there are issues here. For example, TF Torrance—a very well-known 20th century Scottish Presbyterian Reformed theologian and a really fabulous theologian—was really opposed to “universalism”. He hated the term but it was the “ism” thing that he really didn’t like—and he’s not alone in this. I’m putting words in his mouth here but I think it felt to him like you’re trying to squeeze God into some preordained system—that God has to fit… It’s the connotations of “isms” that he didn’t like. I think that he didn’t think you could know or say whether God would save everyone or not. Maybe everyone would be saved but maybe they won’t—we can’t say. So he’s not a Universalist as such but I think his theology would be very sympathetic to universalism properly construed—definitely if you drop the term “universalism.”
Some eighteenth-century universalists didn’t talk about it like that. Some of them would talk about “universal restoration” and they’d use other phrases like, “we believe in the restoration”, “we believe in the restoration of all things.” I quite like that, in fact, the very first edition of these slides didn’t have “Universalism.” It just takes more space. Saying you’re a “universal restorationist” or something, just takes longer to say so I just think, “Oh, stuff it, I’ll call myself a universalist and just explain what I mean by that.” If you have a problem with the word, I’m very happy to drop it and just say, “I believe that God will save all people through Christ” or “I believe in the restoration of all things through Christ.” It just takes longer to say and it’s clumsy.
So my thought is: if you want to drop it, drop it. There are reasons it might disturb some people. It also has the problem of connotations because people think they know what it means. But on the other hand, that might be a helpful provocation to make them pay attention, “I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna freak you out—here’s something you think is scary—now let me tell you that it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.” It might, in some cases, get people’s attention and serve to focus thought.
Within contemporary theology and philosophy, there are lots of debates related to universalism. There are lots of issues that come up under discussion and are well worth thinking about. I don’t know the answers to all of them, by the way, but the following are the kinds of issues that would be talked about and raised.
The nature of divine justice?
Traditional views of hell are based on a particular view of what divine justice is. It’s the view that justice is understood in terms of retribution—the punishment must fit the crime, it should be appropriate to the crime and proportionate to the crime. Which in itself, raises a whole bunch of questions about traditional hell. Because if traditional hell is built on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime, how could a finite sin committed by a finite creature be so severe that the appropriate punishment is an infinite punishment? So in itself, the doctrine of retribution—which props up traditional views of hell—seems to undermine them at the same time, or at least make problems for them. There are attempts to defend traditional views of hell in the face of this kind of objection but there are also explorations among philosophers and theologians of alternative understandings of what divine justice might be. Oftentimes in Scripture, justice is seen as something that is about God’s saving justice. God saves people through justice. God restores people through his justice. It’s not simply about retribution. So there are all sorts of discussions about what divine justice might be in Biblical Studies and contemporary theology particularly.
Free will and divine sovereignty?
Particularly for universalism, the question becomes, “If humans have freedom—God can’t force people’s wills—how does God ensure that everybody chooses to be saved?” That’s a really good question and it’s a question that should be taken completely seriously. There are ongoing debates about this—particularly in philosophy of religion and philosophy. How is it that if people have free will—understood in terms of the ability to do something or not do it—how is it that God can ensure that you do the thing that God wants you to do, without forcing you? If he can’t force you, how does he ensure that the end of the cosmos will ever be what he wants? Does this mean we can thwart God’s purposes?
Some of the best people in this debate are:
Jerry Walls—Methodist philosopher—is very sympathetic to universalism but not a universalist. He does think you can be saved from Hell though… but he thinks that you can’t ever be guaranteed universalism because of free will.
Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.
Can hell be a loving thing? Some people argue that it’s loving for God to send people to hell—even if hell was eternal conscious torment. For example, Eleonore Stump—Catholic philosopher—argues, on a sort of Thomas Aquinas kind of approach, that even just existing is a good and thus if God deprived you of existence, he’s depriving you of a good… So allowing you to exist in eternal conscious torment is at least God allowing you some good (I’m sceptical about how kind it would actually be).
Some of the debates about penal substitution kind of link in with this. I mean, John Owen—great Puritan theologian—wrote what is perhaps the best defence of limited atonement (the view that Christ died for some people but not others). I remember reading it as a teenager and bits of it really drawing and attracting me, and bits of it really appalling me. Even though I was a Calvinist at the time, I still found parts of it appalling. But one of the things that was interesting, that struck me, is one of his reasons for arguing that Christ didn’t die for everyone was this: “Look, everyone for whom Christ dies will be saved. I mean, Christ’s death can’t be in vain. So if Christ died for everyone, they’d all be saved obviously. But they’re not all saved—we know that because some people go to hell—so he couldn’t have died for everybody.” The logic seems impeccable—at least on his understanding of atonement. But maybe he could have flipped it around and thought, “If Christ died for everyone….” Because the Bible does actually say that. Although to be fair, he has a good go at trying to show how the texts that look like the Bible actually says that, don’t actually say that. It doesn’t work but it’s a pretty intelligent attempt. If Christ did die for everyone, then yeah, maybe he should have contemplated the possibility of universalism.
In contemporary theology, particularly in contemporary Reformed theology, election is one of the really core things that has raised the issue again. Calvin thought that God elected some people to salvation but not everybody. As this developed within Calvinism, this sometimes became a sort of double predestination, whereby God elects some people to salvation and elects other people to damnation. But within the Reformed tradition, there was, and is, always rethinking of different doctrinal focuses—one of those was election. For example, Schleiermacher, in the 19th century, rethought it in a way where he’s trying to defend Calvin. He’s arguing that, actually, there is not a double decree—God doesn’t decide some for salvation and some for damnation. God makes a single decree, he doesn’t elect individuals, he elects the human race. God elects humanity the race for salvation but the race can’t experience that salvation unless all the individuals that composite it, experience that salvation. So he ends up arguing for universalism but a different account of election.
What’s been a lot more influential than that, is Karl Barth in the twentieth century, again with a radical revision of the reformed doctrine of election. He argued that in fact, Christ doesn’t elect some people to salvation and some people to damnation. God doesn’t elect any individual people, he elects Christ. So Christ is the subject of election and Christ is elect. Those who share in Christ are elect… well, everybody is elect in Christ. So there’s a sense in which, God doesn’t elect me to salvation, he elects Christ but in Christ, I share in that election of Christ. That rethinking of election has led a fair few people… I mean, Jurgen Moltmann was one of Barth’s students and he went on with universalism and Jacques Ellul—French Reformed thinker—developed these kinds of ideas in universalist directions. Barth always insisted he wasn’t Universalist and we could talk about that but anyway, these are some of the debates that are going on in philosophy and theology.
Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.
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.
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
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!