Dart: Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues

Below is my transcript of Ron Dart’s helpful video above—I’ve edited it slightly for readability.

I’d like to call this presentation, Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues. A few decades ago when I was doing my undergraduate studies in the 1970s, I took a course with John Milton and (it was with the Jesuits, which was quite interesting because rarely do something like Milton and Jesuits come together) we did the standard texts: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson’s Agonistes, many of Milton’s fine poems. We also touched on one of his key prose works, the Areopagitica, and in one of the lines (amongst the many lines in the Areopagitica) Milton says:

I cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth.

John Milton, Areopagitica

In the culture we live in today, there are many people, whether religious, ideological, intellectual, they live with their cloistered virtues, and they don’t sally forth into other terrain where they encounter people who think different, see differently, and if they do, they usually marginalize, subordinate, demonize. Those are various ways of ignoring or not heeding different perspectives.

Jordan Peterson has very, very much come on the stage in the last two years, specifically, he’s been working on much of this thinking for decades. In the last two years, he has stepped on the stage and certainly speeches his speech insightfully, evocatively, challengingly. He’s received, as a result, an immense amount of public attention, probably more than any other Canadian in the last couple of years. He’s taken the role in a more popular way than someone like Charles Taylor had historically, or George Grant before him. He’s become a media darling for good or ill, but he’s nonetheless become a media darling in terms of someone to interrogate, someone to applaud, and there are different reactions to Jordan Peterson.

What I’d like to briefly touch on in the next few minutes is how he transcends the tribalism of different ideological outlooks and cloistered virtues of the progressive and trendy left or the reactionary conservative right, and he’s attempting articulate a third, nuanced, and more thoughtful way, which cannot be easily capitulated to any of the tribes as a were in the culture wars.

There tend to be three attitudes towards Jordan Peterson when his name comes up in discussion. I might add that certainly in the last few months, I’ve had more students who’ve come to me regularly wanting to discuss Jordan Peterson or wanting to write papers on Jordan Peterson or get class presentations on Jordan Peterson, than probably any other public figure in a consistent way. So there’s obviously an interest, even from a sociological perspective, in what he’s saying, what he’s articulating, and how people, for good or ill, are responding and reacting to Jordan Peterson. To ignore him on the public stage of thought and issues is to live with cloistered virtues, to live with one’s head buried in the sand. He’s a person that cannot be missed in that sense. As I said, there’s probably three reactions to him at the present time.

Within Canada largely, we’re seen as a liberal culture on the cutting edge of progressive liberalism and there’s a whole range of content issues, which I’ll touch on briefly, which define progressive were cause de jour liberalism. Jordan Peterson has dared to question that tribe or that clan, with its own definition of what is right and what is good, and one reaction from that clan to Jordan Peterson has been to demonize him, to caricature him, to dismiss him, to see him as a scapegoat, to see him as the alt-right or the light right, to see him as a man of white privilege. I mean there are various ways that one castigates or shuns the person, those who don’t fit in the tribe. He’s been compared to Martin Luther, by some, who dared to question the Catholic Church. Well, Jordan Peterson has dared to question, as it were, the modern “Catholic Church” of liberalism because, in that sense, an ideology is just a secular form of the Church. It’s had its own way of defining itself, what are the important issues, who’s in, who’s out, depending on whether you salute or genuflect to the trendy issues of the particular denomination or a tribal outlook you belong to.

To help understand a lot of Jordan Peterson’s thinking, he did a degree in political science in Alberta. His background is Alberta, then went on to do finally a degree in clinical psychology. In the last 20 years, he’s taught at the University of Toronto.

But some of his early work was very, very much on the way totalitarianism works and particularly forms of totalitarianism—we saw a former USSR under Stalin or Mao in China. We in the West and we’ll often talk about the various forms—we’ll see Germany and Hitler, Mussolini in Italy, Japanese nationalism. But underneath it is a concern he has with groupthink—that you’ll get people in groups who don’t know how to think outside of that group or if they do, they fear doing it for fear of ostracization and the implications of that.

Now obviously in the larger political authoritarian or totalitarian tendencies of the right or left, the consequences are rather tragic in the lives lost are horrendous. But the underlying way of seeing, in terms of a certain idea or mapping one’s worldview (this is his first big, book—came out in the late ’90s—on forms of mapping reality), is an attempt to explore how ideological outlooks define who’s in and who’s out and the implications of that (even though in the larger political ones the consequences are much more tragic and certainly in a liberal democracy they’re more benign, those worldviews still exist). A way of saying, “My group is right, my tribe, my clan, my cloistered virtues”, and if one doesn’t accept or genuflect or sign the password or the Shibboleth to get in, then a person is excluded from that particular tribe.

Now the dominant ideology in the liberal West (large elements certainly in Canada, our own Liberal Party, which is in power and Justin Trudeau, which would be a part of that), in that sense, embodies a form of progressive liberalism, which means on a whole variety of issues, you know where you stand and no one dares to differ with them. Let me just touch a few to just highlight this particular tribe or family and then what happens if one dares to differ with them.

At one crude level where Jordan Peterson has challenged the new atheist. There’s a whole understanding of secular liberalism, predicates crudest level of what we would call the right wing of the Enlightenment—that a certain view of science is the only way to know and that’s an empirical way of knowing, and that view of science defines what is reality and if something cannot be demonstrated through an empirical research, objective way of knowing, then it’s not real. That particular approach plays a dominant role, say in the universities in the public square, then tends to demean religion and so then you get these clashes, these clashes between science (as understood in a certain way, of which people like Sam Harris and Dawkins and many others are apart) and religion, which can’t seem to compete at that level. If you’re part of that sort of secular liberalism tribe, then people from religious backgrounds can feel inferior, they can feel marginalized, they don’t know how to quite compete at that level, and that’s one way in which that secular liberalism dominates.

But if you move to a more moderate form of liberalism (what we would call pluralist liberalism and which you can really see this played out once again), “okay, we’re open to spirituality” and when we have public events, we’ll bring First Nations people and you can beat their drums and do their prayers or if it’s some form of oriental origin, you can do the bowing at a public event. But to have a priest or a minister come in to do a prayer…? No, no, no! So very open to alternate spiritualities other than Christianity. So this sort of religious pluralism is open to some forms of spirituality but tends to marginalize others. Needless to say, those forms of sort of political correctness and culture wars have very much been a part of treating Christianity and religion in a secondary manner.

In the larger culture wars, Jordan Peterson will be having a big debate this spring in Vancouver with Sam Harris on, “You want to talk scientifically, well whose definition of science, okay? So you want to exclude religion, but can you explain consciousness in terms of a pure material investigation of the world that we live in?”. So then these particular new atheists want to talk as if their definition of science is the only way to understand science. But Jordan Peterson obviously is well-trained in science as well, the science of consciousness and the subconscious and the unconscious, so then it gets into a discussion of whose definition of science, which methodology are we going to use and things like that.

There are other elements in what Jordan Peterson is going to go after, in what’s called the politically correct world of the progressive left. Whether it’s identity politics or whether it’s gender politics or whether it’s white privilege, whether it’s Empire and colony, whether its power and powerlessness. There’s a whole world of discussion at the public university in which certain things are legitimate to talk about and other things that if you do think, then you must be a troglodyte or live in the Catskills. I mean even things like, say abortion, which is often seen as something on the right, it’s all right to talk about pro-choice but not pro-life. When it comes to euthanasia, “yep, pro-choice” but not questioning who are we to define the family in terms of a man/woman. These become ideological constructs in terms of social conservatism. Jordan Peterson has come along and essentially said, “Why do the liberal and progressive left only define what is good in those terms?”, and in one sense, it’s not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism.

A lot of his work, in terms of looking at things like Neo-Marxism, post-modernism, and progressive liberalism has upset the ruling elite or the family compact or the Mandarin class in terms of the issues he’s written. What they tend to do then is to caricature, they dismiss, they demonize, they turn him into a scapegoat. In the recent interview with Cathy Newman in Channel Four, which has caused a huge reaction amongst many, you can see her constantly trying to stump him from within that trendy progressive left and him quite astutely and acutely knowing how to respond to her caricatures of them. She thought she knew what he stood for, but he’s much more subtle and nimble than that particular way of thinking.

One of the things, probably the first thing, as I mentioned earlier, just as he saw certain forms of authoritarian or totalitarian thought politically, so he sees the whole culture wars of political correctness is just a more benign form of groupthink. If you dare to break from the ranks, there’s going to be consequences. He certainly feels the ire and the consequences of that liberal elite or, as I mentioned, the family compact. He understands that world well because he’s lived within it for much of his adult academic and intellectual life, and so he speaks of what he knows. He’s not someone who stands outside the public educational institutions. He lives within them and he knows their agendas.

He’s dared to deconstruct progressive liberalism and many progressive liberals or ideological liberals or postmoderns, they love to deconstruct everything—except their own agenda, so it’s very dishonest. Or you might want to ask why don’t deconstructionists deconstruct deconstructionism? He’s dared to do that and carried it a step further. He points out very clearly, even though they talk the language of liberty and individuality, there is a groupthink, there is a clan, there is a tribe here. And those who dare to question it will feel the same ire as anyone would in a larger political system when you dare to differ with the party line.

Now the dilemma that often he has faced is that for people who think just dualistically black/white, right/wrong, my-tribe/your-clan—that very Manichean dualism—”Well then, if he’s critiquing the progressive left, then he must be a Herald and a pioneer and the Messiah of the alt-right or the light right!” Of course, many on the right have tried to co-opt Jordan Peterson for their agenda and see him as one of the family, and in that sense, they’re just as dualistic as the progress progressive left in that sense, the alt-right. Again and again, they’ve tried to co-opt him, whether it’s Rebel Media or whether it’s even the Canadian Christian College in Toronto (and there are a variety of other organizations), which have really cheered him on in his critique of that progressive liberalism and its seeming inability to critique itself. Even though it uses the language of critical thinking, it only swings the sword one way—to the right. It doesn’t allow the blade of that sword to come and also critique the left. It’s what Jesus would talk about, mote-beam syndrome, as we could always see the beam and the other’s eye and we either don’t see the mote in our own eye or we just see a mote but not a beam.

What he’s really highlighted is that tendency of mote-beam thinking, and the other always has the beam and we have the mote—if we have that at all. But those, as I mentioned before, who only see ideological perspectives (certainly within liberal democracy) as liberal progressive or reactionary conservatives, think, “Well, if he’s deconstructing liberal progressivism with all of its agenda and its laundry list of issues, therefore he must really be a prophet of the right or a Herald or a pioneer of the right.” He’s made it very clear again and again when they attempt to co-opt him or bring him into their household as a part of the family, that he’s quite as willing to deconstruct the alt-right and the light right as he is the left because at the heart of a lot of his thinking is the commitment to critical thinking—and the sword of critical thinking swings both ways. It will swing in terms of the alt-right, the light right, and any forms of reactionary right or conservatism.

So the left and the right don’t quite know what to do with him because even though the content of their perspectives is different, the way they see reality is often similar in terms of right/wrong, black/white—almost a comic book way of approaching reality. Someone who slips through that net becomes a little too elusive and they don’t know how to deal with him in that sense.

In attempting to understand Jordan Peterson, it’s important to see that underneath his concern is, on the one hand, a fear of groupthink and the importance of responsibility of the individual to think for themselves if they’re going through situations in life that are difficult and try not to blame mom and dad, not to blame circumstances. Not to blame but each person is very responsible for making choices that bring them a more meaningful life.

But he’s more than just sort of a “power of positive thinking” sort of a person. There’s much more to him than that. He believes there are structures of reality and to the degree we ignore those myths or structures, we, in fact, do our soul, our society, our families, great hurt and harm. And this is why he has done a great work on examining the great religious texts of the pasts.

In one sense, it’s probably important to understand he’s very much a Renaissance thinker. He can’t be reduced to a discipline in the academic world or a silo, in saying, “Oh, you’re a clinical psychologist, that’s all you can talk about, that’s all you know, so who are you to talk about philosophy, theology, social issue, political correctness?” Well, in fact, much of his work transcends the tribalism of disciplines, to begin with, as well as transcends the tribalism of the culture wars or the cloistered virtues of these different tribes that will not sally forth into the bigger world and actually engage different perspectives in a thoughtful, listening, and mediating way. Remembering, he spent years as a clinical psychologist and counseling and he has the ability know how to listen and listen very well in that sense, and be sensitive—to call forth people to live their lives in a meaningful manner, that they don’t blame others for their state and station in life, and that each and all are responsible for their decisions, and, yes, there are influences that can impact them, but they can’t use those influences as a justification for their continuing problems in the present, in the future. They have to work through those to move forward. He uses different analogies, but one is the analogy of the chess game.

He points out that life, like a chess game, has rules and if you violate those rules, there’s no game—just like violating rules of anything. Freedom is only found to move the pawns, the rooks, the Kings, the Queen within a framework. And the problem with certain types of liberalism is it highlights the role of freedom but there are no rules by which you can decide how to use your freedom or there’s no content to freedoms. It’s like Janis Joplin once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.” He’s acutely aware of the ideology of liberalism with its highlighting of individuality, liberty, open-ended notion of human identity, but absolutely no markings or care in terms of how to use liberty and freedom and an open-ended notion of human nature.

It’s as a result of that—over really the last 20-30 years of his life—he has tried to look at what are the great stories of civilizations that in fact give us the rules by which we play the game of life, which doesn’t mean there’s not great freedom but there’s freedom to move within, as it were, these rules. At the present time, and certainly in 2017 (which has come as a shock to a great many people who assumed we live in a secular age and nobody who thinks beyond a Sunday school that would want to go to public forums where teachings in the Bible were being done outside of the church), he’s literally packed out lecture theaters in Toronto (which is seen as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Canada) with lectures on the Bible! This has sort of stunned those who take the temperature of culture and postmodernity—”Certainly no one cares about the Bible anymore and who would sit in lectures on the Bible other than maybe people in Bible school or seminaries or churches or synagogues or things like that.” He’s obviously speaking to a generation of people in which the markings are gone, in which the quest for meaning has become so diluted and thinned out, they don’t even know where to look anymore.

They are looking for those hints, those clues (without slipping into a dogmatic conservatism or, on the other hand, a form of relative liberalism in which nothing goes),  and say there are these broad rules that, as it were, can point the way into the future. He looks at the Bible in these lectures in terms of not a simple either literal way in which you’ll get sort of creationists (remember, a lot of his work is from evolution of biology, so he’s not going to certainly read Genesis, which he’s done a lot of lectures on thus far, in simple young earth notion of creation versus evolution. He takes seriously the role of evolution—what it has to offer), but he also doesn’t look at the Bible in terms of the way some biblical scholars will, in terms of the historical, as it were, “Was there a flood?”, “Can we find Noah’s Ark or Jericho?”, “Do we have the archeological digs?”, “Do these things…?”—that doesn’t interest him. He’s very interested in a psychological reading. He’s been influenced by Carl Jung and, some would argue, Kierkegaard, and a whole variety—again, it’s his Renaissance nature. There’s a quite a wide range of sources he draws from—he draws from them thoughtfully. He wants to look at how do you map the Bible in terms of the meaning it offers to the soul, the community, to society, and what are the great themes.

I’d like to look at two briefly. Let me take one in terms of just how to read the Bible, say elements of Genesis or Exodus, which gets beyond either a simplistic literalism or an unhealthy just doing historic digs to find sites or places or archeological, places like that, manuscripts and this is supposed to verify these places existed or stuff like that. I mean “genesis” in the Greek is “the beginning”—it’s the beginning of all myths (remember, “myth” is not an untruth, it’s “myth” in this classical sense, it’s the perennial truth wrapped in the garment of a story). The great myth of Western civilization, which you’ll find in other civilizations, is the Eden myth.

Underneath the Eden myth is the notion of the tree. Of course, you don’t read the tree as a mere literal tree. One of the great symbols of the human soul is the tree and the tree, by its very nature, the question is, “What is it rooted in?”, “What sort of soil is rooted in?”, and any tree produces fruit. The story of the Eden tree is that humans have many desires and we’re told in that passage those desires are good, enjoy them, pick from there to be enjoyed, they’re nutritious for the soul. They’re nutritious for the soul, but don’t pick from the fruit of certain desires because there’s going to be consequences, and one is going to lose one sense of who one is.

The story of Eden is, in fact, people use their freedom in a way that they lose their freedom and hence, the “East of Eden” that John Steinbeck will talk about, and then the rest of the human journey is being banished from who they really are, the real image and likeness of God, living east to Eden, but always longing for the homeland again. You can see this mythic structure played out in this Edenic myth in that sense, which is the foundation myth of the West—it’s liberty and order. And what is the order? Just as in a chess game that allows a game to be played. But what’s the order of the human soul in society that gives life meaning.

The other would be the Exodus myth, it could be again read in the Jewish story of slavery/bondage, being freed from a Pharaonic empire, across the desert into the promised land. That can be read at one level. The other level is that when we are east to Eden, we are in slavery to false desires, to fantasies, to imaginations. We were very, very much victims of turning to mirages for meaning and they can give us a sense of order, direction, but they don’t fulfil, they leave us restless. We’re enslaved but there’s a certain security and predictability. Exodus, the “ex” (“out”), “odus” (“the way”), is about the story that people have to go through to leave that which is secure but in bondage, so that they can be free but insecure in the journey. The whole story of Exodus being read from a mythic perspective, it’s psychologically and spiritually extremely insightful, the price that has to be paid and then the journey to the desert. Of course, most never in time reach the promised land, but it’s the journey of letting go and the desert is the place of all those distractions and diversions are taken away and then “Oh, who am I when all that’s taken away?”

Jordan Peterson in his lectures in Genesis, he’s really trying to get at, in many ways, and he’ll take key biblical figures, the Cain, the Abel, the Adam, the Eve and he’ll read them metaphorically or mythically—that, of course, is what appeals to people beyond the simple literalism or “Can we find these sites in the Middle East or the Near East that the Bible talks about to prove for us that the Bible somehow was valid?” In drawing from people like Carl Jung, archetypes and myths, he’s sort of a more popular version of Joseph Campbell—doing the same sort of thing. He looks at the mythic hero who’s trying to find their way beyond that which enslaves, that which is ideology, that which prevents people from being free and finding their true and unique individuality on the journey.

Perhaps a criticism that could be levelled at him is he’ll critique the right and the left in terms of its ideology as if he himself is not coming out of an ideological perspective. Very important to understand a lot of his underlying principles are very much classic forms of liberalism, the individual versus the community or the state, and the state can oppress the individual has to fight for their own freedom. Now he’s not daft enough to see the state or community as always negative and the individual as always good, but often when they’re pitted against one another, he’ll often see the individual hero as having to find their way against these oppressive structures.

In his conversation, interestingly enough about the Church, he finds that he’s often asked if he’s a Christian, if so what kind of Christian, if he’s doing these lectures on the Bible “well, he must somehow have some interest in religion?” and he talks about the danger, as it were, of groupthink in the Church as if people in the Church all think the same way, no more. He has enough experience obviously in a public university, and to know they don’t all think that. Actually, he’s been marginalized within that context, and no community is homogeneous unless it’s extremely ideological.

Whether you’re in education, church, politics, sports, policing, culture, any of these communities are highly layered, so there’s always the danger of saying well, the church or the political party or the education is collective, but anyone who lives in them knows they’re layered. He tends to in his own thinking prioritise as what we call first-generation liberalism with the individual against the community, liberty against order, even though you can see him again, again grappling with that tension, which is, I think, to his credit and he’s aware of it.

I think the more he explores obviously biblical themes you get beyond the stories, you get under the myths into the principles that the myths are all about, that inevitably you’re into these huge, huge tensions in world philosophical thought in terms of liberty and order, individuals, community, unity, diversity without divisive. These are all significant and the role of thinking which of course is very important for him. Critical thinking in this. Property rights are very important to him and again, in some ways, he reflects a more sophisticated version a bit of his Alberton upbringing in that sense when you start getting underneath that, some of the liberalism which defines that.

And in that sense, I started off with Milton because Milton was the quintessential sophisticated liberal of his time, as Bunyan was the cruder liberal of his time in Pilgrim’s Progress and the hyper-individualism of Milton and of the populist one of Bunyan. It shares that sort of first-generation liberalism.

To sum then, I think it would be important in reflecting and evaluating the Jordan Peterson to recognize very clearly he is attempting to transcend the tribalism of the ideologies of his time, the dominant ideology in Canada, and large elements of the liberal West, whether the democratic tradition in the states or the liberal party or the NDP in Canada is very much a family or it’s a tribe which has a laundry list of issues that come from certain principles, whether it’s as I mentioned earlier post-modernism, postmodern feminism, whether it’s gender issues, whether it’s identity politics, whether it’s a certain uncritical support to a Neo-Marxism, whether certain views of abortion, euthanasia, family, certain views of the environment, certain views of war and peace, and crime and punished.

You can list 20 to 25 issues in terms of that progressive trendiness or cause de jour liberalism, and there’s obviously good in that. When it becomes a frozen ideological perspective, then you’re intellectual totalitarianism. Does that mean Jordan Peterson then uncritically genuflects to the right? No, they’re exactly the same. The dualism of the right is not much different than the dualism of the left. You know but the hero is, you know who the enemy is. It’s sort of the Captain America mentality. He then turns beyond the dominant ideologies, and this is why he’s interested in the Bible in a much more nuanced read of it (it’ll be interesting to see where he goes as those lectures unfold). And the fourth part would be interesting in terms of getting Jordan Peterson as he goes along to actually begin to critically reflect on his own ideological principles and both the strength of those principles, and perhaps the Achilles heels and blind spots of those principles. As I mentioned earlier, I started with John Milton’s Areopagitica, cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth, the right and left tend to be tribal. They have their cloistered virtues and those who disagree with them are in the world of vices usually.

The particular reads of the Bible and can open us up to a much more vibrant and more in-depth understanding of the contributions of myth and its role in terms of freeing individuals to see actually the landmarks that have been laid down in history through stories, through narratives, when these sacred texts are read in a certain way. Then the fourth point would be is Jordan Peterson depending on how he goes along his journey would be to reflect on perhaps the ideological framework within which he lives, but he does not substantively criticize because it’s one thing criticize various positions. The task of a healthy thinker is to know how to be self-critical as they go along on their journey.

To end, absolutely important … Well first of all, absolutely important that people don’t put their heads in the sand and ignore these bigger public issues of which Jordan Peterson is very much on the stage articulating. That would be the first thing, either religiously or politically or culturally, and not sort of slip into a religious ghettoism in that sense, but enter into the larger public fray. Secondly in Peterson, to know how to see the immense good he’s contributing in terms of deconstructing both forms of liberalism, the sort of trendy liberalism and reactionary conservatism, to look at his unique … I won’t say it’s unique because the historic Church has read the text this way and he’s just making it more popular from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.

Then the fourth point would be to reflect on, for those who are interested in critical thinking, to be posing before Peterson himself, what does he see as the ideological construct and the house he inhabits by which then he reads the Bible and which he critiques the progressive left and the reactionary or conservative right.

Parry—Christmas for everyone!

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.

Above is the third part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are: Is Christmas really for everyone? and Israel’s Christmas brings ours.

Jesus, Light of the World—Wycliffe Bible Translators

Parry—Israel’s Christmas brings ours

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.

But there is more to come…

Above is the second part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are: Is Christmas really for everyone? and Christmas for everyone!

Crowds visit Christmas tree & nativity in Bethlehem
Christmas in Bethlehem

Parry—Is Christmas really for everyone?

A Universalist Christmas?

I had never thought about it.

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

. . . or perhaps there is.

Above is the first part of the Nomad Podcast interview of Robin Parry. The other parts are Israel’s Christmas brings ours and Christmas for everyone!

"Jesus Showed Us!" by Bradley Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis, p6
“Jesus Showed Us!” by Bradley Jersak & Shari-Anne Vis, p6


Parry—The Hospital

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


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

Gregory of Nyssa, De an. 101, 104

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

Sun shining over a hospital

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

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

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

St Isaac of Nineveh, Second Part, 39.22

Or, as someone else put it, LOVE WINS.

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

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

Parry—Free Will & Annihilationism

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

"Savaoph, God the Father" by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Savaoph, God the Father” by Viktor Vasnetsov

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/

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

Parry—Augustine’s Prison

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.

St Augustine of Hippo, early 14th century. Artist: Lippo Memmi
“St Augustine of Hippo” by Lippo Memmi

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.

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

Parry—The Victory of Divine Love over Evil

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.

Hell Triangle created by Rethinking Hell

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.

  1. The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
  2. The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
  3. 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.)

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

Parry—Consummation: all things are to him

“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.

Creation, to Fall, Redemption, and Consummation

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).4 That 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.


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

Parry—Church: a foretaste of the age to come

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.

church made of people

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).

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