Tag: Atonement

Why the diversity of universalisms matters—Robin Parry

Universalism is a pretty minimalist thesis and basically, at its core it’s just saying, “God will save everybody.” That allows for a lot more diversity and different versions of universalism than you might suspect. It’s consistent with a range of different views on a whole bunch of issues. The following are some examples:

Atonement

There are lots of debates now… penal substitution? Not penal substitution? Well, universalists were having those same debates. You could be a universalist and hold different views on that.

For example, James Relly in the 18th century. James Relly was one of George Whitfield’s converts and preachers, so he was a Calvinist committed to penal substitution. He became a universalist because he thought that penal substitution required it. “Those for whom Christ died will be saved—how could Christ’s death be for nothing? If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved—how could it be otherwise?” The argument was somewhat different from that but that’s basically kind of where he’s going. So he thought penal substitution requires the salvation of all people.

On the other hand, we could say, “What about George MacDonald?” (very famous 19th-century author and Universalist). He hates penal substitution with a vengeance. He thinks it’s anathema, destroys the gospel, and so on. Both Universalists—one a universalist precisely because he thinks penal substitution requires it—the other one thinks penal substitution is a mess.

Free Will and Divine Sovereignty

A perennial issue of interest in theology and universalists have taken both sides. Historically, universalists would be on the side that humans have libertarian free will—that’s the majority view through history. For example, the early church fathers who were universalists (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on) were really strong on this, about the importance of human freedom.

On the other hand, there have been various Calvinist universalists. For example, Peter Sterry who was a Puritan. He was one of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains and a member of the Westminster Assembly, which wrote the Westminster Confession of faith—which is super-Calvinistic-expialidocious! He is a beautiful, beautiful writer and a beautiful man and he is a universalist. He writes this fantastic book that even Richard Baxter the Puritan—who didn’t really like Sterry most of the time—thought was a wonderful book on free will because he takes this view that free will is compatible with determinism, “God determines every choice you make but that’s compatible with free will.” So universalism could go either way on this issue.

Sacraments

Some universalists have been really strong on the sacramentality of sacraments—particularly if they’re Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (in my case). Some, at what was called the “spiritualist” end of things, thought that sacraments are just symbols and in fact, you don’t even need them, you don’t even have to do them. For example, some Quakers were universalists.

Church

Any kind of view of the church you could come up with, you could find a universalist who had it.

Scripture

Most universalists believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture but of course, in more recent times, there have been universalists who took more liberal views of Scripture, and that’s also compatible with universalism.

Inclusivism vs Exclusivism

Just to clarify that briefly. Granted that we can only be saved through Christ, do we need to know about Christ or have explicit faith in Christ to be saved through Christ? Is it possible to be saved through Christ, even if you don’t know about Christ but maybe God takes whatever faith response you have to whatever revelation you have and applies the merits of Christ to you? Inclusivists would say that. Exclusivists would say, no, you have to have explicit faith in Christ to be saved.

Well, you got universalists who are both kinds. There are those who’ve argued for inclusivism, George de Benneville was one—he thought you could be saved through Christ without having heard about Christ or without necessarily being explicitly Christian. Others were more, no, you have to have faith in the gospel, you have to have heard of Jesus and so on. Universalism can go either way.

Important Implications

So the point is that there are diverse ways of being a Christian Universalist and what that means is we should be wary of folk who go, “Ah, well, the problem with universalism is it leads down this route, to this view…” Well, it might do but it might not! We need to be a little bit more discerning with those kinds of arguments.

For example, I read a very good book recently that was critical of universalism but one of the problems was he too easily moved from the idea that “this particular version of universalism has problems” to the idea “Well then, universalism is wrong.” Whereas in fact, it might just be that particular version of universalism has problems and other versions are absolutely fine.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

Parry—Redemption: all things are through him

Incarnation1

The divine Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity, became flesh (John 1:14). As the Second Adam, Jesus represented the whole race—he is the sinless and obedient one in whom God’s covenant relationship with humanity finds fulfillment. Most Christians have been universalists about Christ’s humanity—he represents all humans in his humanity. Here, for instance, is Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367): “Christ has become the body of the whole of humanity, that, through the body that he was kind enough to assume, the whole of humanity might be hidden in him . . . .”2

Christ’s being fully human is fundamental to our salvation. As Gregory of Nazianzus observed: “that which He has not assumed, He has not healed.”3 He became human so that he could heal our humanity in himself, through his death and resurrection. This is suggestive. Listen to Athanasius: “Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin.”4

"Adoration of the Shepherds" (1622) painting by Gerard van Honthorst
“Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) painting by Gerard van Honthorst

Death

Most Christians, past and present, are universalists about Christ’s crucifixion—Jesus died for all people in order to save all people. This belief is well grounded in Scripture and tradition. Consider the following well-known verse: “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).5 Recall that “the world” in 1 John, as in John’s Gospel, is the sinful, God-rejecting world. So we know whom God so loved and sent his Son to die for—for the whole wicked world. Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For remember, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). (Of course, I am well aware of a post-Reformation minority report in favor of a limited atonement, but I don’t have time to get into that here.6 The mainstream historic Christian tradition is clear and well summed up by Athanasius: Christ “delivered his own body to death on behalf of all . . . in order to bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption.”7 Exitus et reditus.)

This teaching emphasizes the mainstream Christian view that God desires to redeem all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) and has acted in Christ in order to do so.

Now while I am have not shown much sympathy with limited atonement, I do see that behind it lies what I consider to be a sound theological worry. The worry is this: will the cross save all those for whom Christ died, or will his death have been in vain for some people?8 The five-point Calvinist finds the idea that Christ died for many (or any) people in vain to be terribly problematic. So do I. But because they think that some folk will go forever to hell, they deduce that Christ could not have died for those people. But might we work things the other way? Might we say that because Christ died for all people that none will find themselves forever lost? Which does most justice to the overall narrative logic of the salvation story?

Resurrection/Ascension

The resurrection of Jesus is new creation, the age to come breaking into the present evil age. And Jesus’ resurrection is not simply Jesus’ resurrection—it is ours; it is the destiny of all humanity played out in the person of our representative.

All Christian eschatology must be Christ-centered and it must be grounded here, in this event. Here we see the future of the world, the future of humanity, manifest in his risen flesh. The story of humanity does not terminate on a cross, but passes through an empty tomb, and ascends to God. Christ, says Paul, was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); indeed, his resurrection is our justification. That is why I think that Paul can be so confident that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18–19).

Many Christians think that a confident universalism is presumptuous—for we cannot claim know the end. While there is a lot that we cannot know about the end, we do know this: Christ is risen! And that is enough. God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here. For me, this is what it means to be an evangelical universalist—it means to found one’s universalism in the evangel itself. And to be confident in my universalism is not presumptuous, as I am claiming nothing more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God. What does the missing jigsaw piece look like? Looks to me like an empty tomb.


1. Of course, to tell the story fully would require speaking of God’s way with Israel, but space prohibits. On Israel and universalism, see TEU, 54–73, 90–96, 229–33.
2. In Psalmos, 51.16–17.
3. Epistle 101.
4. Letter to Adelphius.
5. Consider also, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people ….” (1 Tim. 2:3–6). “But we do see Jesus, who … suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9)
6. For a defense of a universal atonement in the texts cited in n.13, see I. Howard Marshall, “For All, For All My Saviour Died.” In Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honor of Clark H. Pinnock, edited by S. E. Porter and A. R. Cross (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003), 322–46.
7. De Incarnatione, 9.
8. There is no agreed Christian understanding of how the atonement works. I contend that however we understand the mechanism, it coheres best with universalism.

 


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