In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?
This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God.
Universal Salvation raises the critically important question of how we read the Bible—or ‘hermeneutics’. That is what Robin covers in this talk. He sweeps us through a big landscape in three succinct waves—each bigger than the one before.
First, he confronts the foreground question of biblical texts—and he makes the point that everybody has problems here. How do we reconcile God’s love with his omnipotence?
He then moves onto slightly broader terrain—we need to read texts in their context BUT the meaning of the texts will often be bigger than even the author intended or realised.
Finally, he finishes with a new horizon of interpretation—the future. He talks about the ‘trajectories’ of the biblical canon, which stretch beyond themselves for future generations—like ours—to articulate. He uses the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as an example.
Tony introduces Rev Dr Robin Parry by explaining what Gospel Conversations is all about—expanding our view of God and that means inquiring into mystery. The best way to inquire is to firstly map out the landscape of a debate and see where it takes us—and that is exactly what Robin does in this marvellous talk. He gives us a birds-eye view of the long debate over universalism.
But he goes further—and he gives us a map to navigate the territory. He defines what universalism is and is not. He explains the different pathways that have led many orthodox Christians to consider it seriously—Bible, patristics, experience, and ‘gospel logic’. This takes a lot of confusion and heat out of the debate and gives us a clear view of the topic. But it also hints at a bigger view of God, and a broader view of Christian thinking. Robin gives us the gift of years of learning and thought in one hour.
Universalism is the belief that ultimately everybody will be saved. There are several different stripes of Universalists.
Some Universalists believe everybody has been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. So you are reconciled to God—the gospel simply tells you something that’s already true—that you’re reconciled to God. And so the point of Christianity then is to tell people—who are already saved—that they are saved. But ultimately everybody’s going to be saved—that’s one kind of universalism.
It’s refreshing that Moore acknowledges that there are different types of universalism and that Christian Universalists believe that the reconciliation to God is “through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus“, rather than trying to dismiss them as pluralists—the “all roads lead to Heaven” cliché.
One of the challenges that anyone reading the Bible faces is that it frequently describes things as both “now/already” and “not yet”. For example, is the Kingdom already here or has it not yet come? Are we already seated with Christ or not yet? Is evil already defeated or not yet? (For more examples see inaugurated eschatology). Many non-universalist Christians have taught the “now/already and not yet” also applies to salvation, in which case, universalist Christians may agree, albeit extending the scope of that the salvation to all of Creation (e.g. Parry—Church: a foretaste of the age to come).
Another kind of universalism says, “No, there is a hell but God is going to ultimately redeem everyone out of hell”—and some versions of this even the devil and his angels—that the love of God is so persistent that God will not rest until he has wooed back to himself even the most hardened sinner.
Again, I like that Moore presents a fair description. At the same time, I wouldn’t just say that “universalism says this” but that throughout the Bible God is constantly redeeming people out of hellish situations. Whether those situations are seen as “natural consequences” of evil or God’s punishment, the point remains that the pattern and precedent is of God not resting until he has wooed sinful people back to himself.
Universalism is appealing and it’s appealing to people for very good reasons. I mean the Satan never tempts us with something that is in and of itself evil—he has to find something that we want to be true or we’re drawn towards for good reasons and to simply to twist it out into something evil.
I agree with Moore that Satan does try to tempt us by twisting good things—I just don’t think that’s the case for universalism. It’s also an unhelpful argument because it could be used about almost anything. For example, one could claim any grace, or indeed Christianity itself, is simply “appealing to our compassion.” Or one could even assert that “Non-universalism is appealing because we instinctively like to see enemies destroyed—that it’s taking advantage of our desire for revenge.” Whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t try to dismiss non-universalism on those grounds.
And with universalism, that is the fact that we’re supposed to be broken about the reality of hell. We’re supposed to be heartbroken for our neighbors and our friends and for those that we’ve never seen or heard about—who are dying apart from Christ. No one should take the reality of Hell with a lightness or with a disregard. Jesus doesn’t—he weeps over Jerusalem. So I think there’s often a good impulse behind someone who’s drawn toward universalism.
I think many universalists would agree, that our hearts should ache when we see lives spiralling downwards, that we be concerned about their future. At the same time, we don’t think anyone’s future is ultimately hopeless, as Christ works through Christians and the Spirit—in this age and the next, as I believe the following verse alludes to:
Problem is, it’s not true. The New Testament explicitly denies universalism.
Where?? What about the explicitaffirmations of universalism? For example, Colossians 1, Philippians 2, Romans 5:18, and 1 Corinthians 15:22.
Our Lord Jesus speaks repeatedly about the reality of Hell, about the gravity of judgment and about the eternality of Hell—that the fire doesn’t go out, that this darkness never ends. And that goes all the way through all the Apostolic writings, right up until the final book in our ordering of the Canon—the revelation that Jesus gives to John—in which those who are cast into the lake of fire… again it is—Revelation 20—an eternal suffering, an eternal punishment—the smoke doesn’t end.
As Moore said himself, many Christian universalists don’t deny the reality of Hell or the gravity of judgment. However, they believe that the Bible teaches that Hell is not everlasting—that many translations have mistranslated key words based on their theology (e.g. Is Aionios Eternal?).
Fire in the Bible is primarily a positive image. For example:
Regarding Revelation 20, universalists point to Revelation 21 where the same people appear to have been redeemed (see Book of Life).
So I think we have to have broken hearts about those who are lost but our broken hearts ought to motivate us not to denial but to action. That means we need to be taking the gospel with urgency to our neighbors and to those around the world. So that there’s a feeling behind our mission—that’s kind of summed up in what the Apostle Paul talks about in 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, “I am pleading with you, begging you—literally—as though Christ were begging through me be reconciled to God.” That’s the answer to the heart brokenness that we feel and the weight that we feel about the reality of hell. I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
I admire Moore’s passion for the lost and the call for action now, rather than ignoring the plight of others. I think he is reflecting God’s passion and action (both on the Cross and through the Spirit) for each and every person. Encouragingly, in the same chapter Moore cites, the Apostle Paul says:
I wish universalism were true but Jesus tells me it’s not and he knows.
If we fallen humans wish that ultimately everybody will be saved, just imagine how much more our merciful Father wishes it—and as God never fails, He achieves it too. I sincerely wish that all Christians would hope and pray that this comes about soon. I’m excited that Jesus doesn’t just tell us he will achieve this amazing feat but actually demonstrates and guarantees this glorious future in his resurrection.
Below I’ve transcribed a video clip introducing Robin Parry and explaining why hell is such an important topic to explore.
We in Gospel Conversations got interested in hell rather intensely—or decided to be interested in hell—about 18 months ago. For a period of time before that, I personally was worried about the doctrine of Hell. Worried because it just simply doesn’t fit in with the broader Creation Gospel that we’d spent a long time developing and exploring in Gospel Conversations.
In Gospel Conversations we’re really trying to take God out of the religious box and put him in the big wide world. That meant starting to read the Bible in Genesis 1—not in Genesis 3—and seeing the resurrection as the recreation of all humanity. This is very, very good news. It’s a declaration—a hugely humanistic declaration—on what it is to be made an image of God—that’s all very optimistic… and then you put hell into it and it’s all very pessimistic. It isn’t just pessimism, it isn’t just an emotional conflict; it’s a logical conflict between a message of goodness and optimism and a message of exclusion.
So I decided last year to give a series of talks, which were exploratory because I didn’t really know what I thought. I think it’s a matter that’s genuinely ambiguous. As we did that and we stumbled across what’s commonly called the doctrine of Apocatastasis, which is the Greek word that Peter uses in his sermon in Acts 3 to describe the world reformation Christ has inaugurated.
We discovered that Robin Parry was one of the people who had been through a similar journey and then articulated—fairly thoroughly—from a biblical point of view this question he had explored himself—gone on the same journey. I thought (and not just me but many people) he—in a very reasonable way—put forward a balanced consideration of the question and a balanced support for universal salvation from an evangelical position.
So we decided to invite Robin out to our conference in July [20th and 27th, 2019, Sydney]. We’re very excited about that. Robin’s a good speaker but a gentle, open-minded, intelligent man. On the first Saturday we will listen to him talk and on the second Saturday it will be more interactive, with him and others, talking about the consequences of this re-paradigming or reshaping of the Gospel towards hope rather than hell.
It’s certainly something that we want to put on the agenda. It’s been on the agenda of the church for centuries and only recently got off the agenda of the church. We hope that a lot of people will come and listen because a lot of people worry about this but have no place to explore and discuss it. This is our our gift to all such people.
Before we get started … [T]here are other people—in this room right now—who if they die, will be sent by the judgment of God straight into hell—where the grace of God is totally removed and they will be revealed as the monsters that they truly are.…
I’m concerned about one thing. One day each and every one of you will stand naked before a holy God and you will be judged. … [S]ome of you … will hear warning after warning after warning and you will not listen and you will die under the wrath of God and spend eternity in hell.
Certainly, an intense prelude to a sermon but is it biblical? Well, the Bible does warn us about God’s judgment and people do often ignore him… At the same time, the Bible reveals that each and every person is made in God’s image—indeed a child of God. Our Father isn’t a monster and therefore, neither are you!
Washer would probably acknowledge that at least currently, God is showing everyone grace. There are lots of examples but here are just two:
The Lord is good to everyone. He shows his mercy to everything he made.
Psalm 145:9, ERV
But I tell you, love your enemies. Pray for those who treat you badly. If you do this, you will be children who are truly like your Father in heaven. He lets the sun rise for all people, whether they are good or bad. He sends rain to those who do right and to those who do wrong.
Matthew 5:44-45, ERV
The question then becomes, is Washer right that God changes his attitude towards people and removes his grace? No, the Bible says God doesn’t change:
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
Numbers 23:19, NIV
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews 13:8, NIV
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
James 1:17, NIV
Washer appears to be saying he is only concerned about “one thing”, namely God’s judgment. However, the Bible calls us to be concerned about many things, such as:
What about Washer’s claim that some people will “spend eternity in hell”? He doesn’t unpack that but it’s likely he is basing it on a common misinterpretation of the Greek word aionios. While many English translations often render aionios as “eternal”, when pressed scholars admit it literally means “pertaining to the next aion/aeon/eon/age”. It’s important to note that just because two things pertain to a particular age, doesn’t mean they have the same duration (e.g. tweeting and programming both pertain to the Information Age, but the former has only been around for about a decade, whereas the latter has been around for over a century). This is the case in Matthew 25:46, where the life and punishment both pertain to the next age but won’t have the same duration.
Aionios life is:
in the sustaining/renewing presence of God (Rev 21:23, 22:5)
immortal (2Tim 1:10)
without death (1Cor 15:26; 2Tim 1:10; Rev 20:14)
without rust and decay (Matt 6:20)
tied to our relationship with God (John 17:3)
Conversely, the duration of aionios punishment isn’t described in those terms and the Greek word translated “punishment” suggests it is corrective (see the second half of Pruning the Flock? and Punishment – Gr. Kolasis). It’s pertinent to ponder what the Bible reveals about the purpose of punishment. For example, we believe God “corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). Surely, this at least opens up the possibility that punishment in the next age could be corrective, educative, and restorative. Even severely unpleasant experiences can (if carefully managed) result in the good of the one receiving it (e.g. detox, chemotherapy, pruning, or refining).
I would suggest that a passage Washer quotes shows God transforming people for their good:
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Ezekiel 36:26-27, NASB
Later Washer says, “when the holy God looks at sinful men, the only thing their sin motivates God to do is [to] judge them—to condemn them.” However, when Jesus looked at sinful men he was motivated to forgive:
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided his clothes and cast lots.
Luke 23:34, CSB
Likewise, the Apostle Paul says that God responded to our hostility with reconciliation:
Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds expressed in your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him
Colossians 1:21-22, CSB
For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
Romans 5:10, CSB
Washer rightly recognises that “God saves us because he is a savior” but concerningly, says “first of all, God saves men in order to get glory out of that work.” While I agree that saving people is indeed a very glorious act (far more glorious than tormenting someone for eternity), my impression of God’s primary motivation is different. For example:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.
John 3:16, CSB
As Washer’s sermon over an hour long, there’s a lot more I could engage with if I had time. However, I pray that my brief response at least encourages you to pause and test what he teaches against Scripture—may God bless you as you do so.
“That is all I ask of Orthodoxy—to permit me to hope.” — Fr. Aiden Kimel
After a decade of catechesis and struggle under the guidance of my spiritual father, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, and godfather, David Goa, I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church in 2013. To some, the tutelage of these sages already disqualifies me, the rhetoric of unity of the Church notwithstanding. But I knew this. I proceeded with eyes wide open into the Orthodox Church despite her conflicts and dysfunctions. I proceeded because I felt drawn from my Evangelical foxhole into the harbor of Christian Orthodoxy, where I was exposed to a more Christlike God.
A key factor in the move was the assurance of some key Scriptures, catechisms and liturgies, along with a number of significant Orthodox saints, hierarchs and theologians, that Orthodoxypermits me to hope—that I could believe…
No, “coerced love” is an oxymoron… but most people who ask the question already know that, so why do they ask? In my experience, as soon as I say, “God will save everyone”, people assume I’m saying God will have to use coercion to make that happen. However, if the person is a Christian, I’d want to ask them, “Did God coerce you into loving Him?” I suspect the answer will be “No”, so why do they think God has to do something different when it comes to other people?
They might object, “It must be different, as most people reject the Gospel that I’ve accepted.”
Only God really knows someone’s mind but I think that the reason that most people don’t want to be saved is that they are currently not fully experiencing their “choice”** of “independence from God”. God is blessing the rebellious in this age with “sunshine and rain” (Mt 5:45, cf Psalm 145:9, Luke 6:35, Acts 14:17, aka “common grace” ), patiently giving them an opportunity to turn to Christ (2Pet 3:9)—ideally today (2Cor 6:2).
However, for those who insist on being Prodigals (Luke 15:11-32), they will use up their inheritance (common grace) in the foreign land (this life) and end up with nothing in a pigpen (hell), where they’ll become hungrier and hungrier (perishing), until they realise even being a servant for the father (God) would be far better than the pigpen. Amazingly, not only will God accept their return, He forgives, washes, and restores them so that they come-of-age and begin to act as sons and daughters ought (I explore this in greater depth in Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??).
Withdrawing undeserved common grace isn’t coercion, it’s simply allowing someone to fully comprehend the reality of what “independence from God—Truth, Beauty, Love, Goodness, Joy, Light, Life, Mercy, and Justice” is actually like. The Bible repeatedly says that it won’t be a nice experience, and sometimes we get a taste of that now in our own lives. History is full of examples of what starts to unfold when people discard God.
I think one of the reasons God gives us our lives now is that He wants to spare us hell—learning the hard way that cutting off the branch that holds us up is catastrophic! There is a real opportunity for people to heed what God has already kindly revealed.
** I said “choice” but I think desiring “independence from God” only occurs when someone mistakenly thinks that there’s something worthwhile outside of God. When someone discovers there actually isn’t anything worthwhile apart from God, to continue on that path would then be irrational, especially as the further they went from the Light, the darker it became. A will that is enslaved to sin always rejects God, conversely a will that is freed always chooses God as it truly knows that is the only worthwhile path. Therefore, whenever God frees someone’s will, they start being in harmony with Him—the eternally and infinitely Free Will.
You could argue that I was not a free agent [when I converted], but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…
To figure that out, first we must ask, did he exclude anyone from the “all”? For example, did the “us” before it reduce the scope? Probably not, as he said:
God is the source of us all
And based on passages like Colossians 1:16, most Christians believe God is the source/Creator of everyone who will ever exist. It was also unlikely he was just thinking of the 2 billion people who were listening, as in the next sentence he said that God’s love embodied will result in:
a new world, a new human family
In fact, he mentioned human/humanity ten times in a 13-minute talk:
Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history … fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire, to a great extent, made human civilization possible … made human migration around the world a possibility … the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good … one of the greatest discoveries of all of human history … if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
So assuming he thinks God wants “to save” everyone (1Tim 2:4), does that mean he thinks God will actually succeed? That’s harder to figure out but I think there are clues. Will our enslavement to sin stop God? Well, Curry sounded very optimistic when he said:
There’s power in Love to … liberate when nothing else will.
Will our spiritual and psychological delusions stop God? Again, Curry doesn’t seem to think so:
There is a balm in Gilead [Love] to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul… There is power in Love to help and heal when nothing else can.
Remembering that when Jesus healed during His ministry, He was primarily interested in people’s spiritual health—their “sin-sickness”—although He healed people physically too to demonstrate that He could do the former.
Are death and hell a hurdle for God? Probably not, as Curry said:
There’s power in Love to lift up [John 12:32] … when nothing else will.
Maybe Curry forgot about God’s justice? Well, five times he said love can be redemptive and four times he mentioned its sacrificial nature (1John 3:16)—explicitly in regards to Jesus’ death, which traditionally Christians see as fulfilling justice. He also proclaimed:
let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
Additionally, he talked about hospitality and addressing poverty—both commonly associated with justice in the Bible.
What about those who don’t want to be saved? Curry talked about Love transforming everything (you, your neighbours, the entire world) and even quoted Jesus who said: “you shall love God … with all your mind” (Mt 22:36-40, noting that “shall” implies something will happen in the future).
He also sees Love bringing Shalom.
we will lay down our swords and shields—”down by the riverside to study war no more”
However, that Shalom can only fully arrive when the last person in hell stops hating God.
There was one other statement that Curry made that I thought was at least suggestive of Universalism:
We were made by a power of Love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that love—that’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.
If a luthier creates a guitar to play music, then the assumption is that it will fulfil its purpose. Likewise, as God created humans to love, it is perfectly reasonable to think that will happen eventually.
Rather than Universalism, was Curry actually preaching Pluralism—the belief that sin doesn’t matter for “every road leads to heaven”? I don’t think so. He made statements such as Jesus “died to save us”, “Love is the only way”, our “sin-sick soul” needs healing, and we need to be liberated by God (the Bible says we are enslaved to sin). Similarly, he discussed the need for transformation, which implies that all “roads/states-of-being” aren’t equally good.
So was Curry preaching Christian Universalism at the royal wedding? For the reasons I’ve given, I think he was, although it may not have been intentional. Often enthusiastic preachers who promote both God’s love for everyone and God’s infinite ability, end up preaching what is essentially Universalism.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He explained that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that love because its source is God and its why we are here:
There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense, in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of Love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that love—that’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.
He backed this up with a quote from John:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, forGod is love.
1 John 4:7-8, NRSV
Sometimes the way forward seems impossible but because love is from God:
There is power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.
As someone who believes that God’s love will succeed “when nothing else can”, I take the “died to save us all” (which Curry repeated) to literally mean that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, each and every person will be saved—healed, liberated, and lifted up.
[Jesus] sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the well-being of the world, for us. That’s what love is.
The highest good and well-being of others is to be in a mutually loving union with God. As Jesus demonstrated, this is a voluntarily self-sacrificial relationship.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
Setting things right (justice) and right relationships (righteousness) will flow out of this love.
When love is the way, there is plenty of good room for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.
I agree that one of the implications of each and every person being a child of God is that we should try to treat people as family (see Everyone is a child of God).
The Christian vocation means being a brother or sister to everyone, especially if they are poor, and even if they are an enemy.
Curry concluded by going back to the initial passage and reflecting on the why love is like fire.
There was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire. The advances of science and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good. … Fire makes all that possible. And de Chardin said that fire was one of the greatest discoveries of all of human history. He then went on to say that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
God—the ultimate Royal—is often associated with fire in the Bible. Like God, fire is immensely powerful, it is essential to human civilization, it invigorates, it transforms, and it purifies (Surprising Fire). Praise God that the royal wedding proclaimed to the world that the Royal’s redemptive Love is unquenchable!
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!