Review of The Forgotten Gospel Conference

This conference on God’s boundless love and ability to save, brought together these amazing speakers:

Talk videos (free)!

Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to travel there from Tasmania but one of my friends who attended gave a report, which I’ve condensed/edited slightly:

My overwhelming sense is that the conference was a success—a magnificent one even—though not as much for the reasons I’d expected…

I came with legal notepads ready to record more information, clever twists of favorite Universalism defenses, new ways of looking at old texts. I came with a readiness to engage my mind; less aware of my needs to bring heart into alignment with head. Almost instantly though, I realized I would likely take no notes (and I didn’t…) but just listen. Mind very much filled and engaged and alert yes, but Universal Reconciliation, and Restoration, and Recreation, as a reality for the heart just as much as for the mind. Real world in other words…

Strangely, I already knew this at some level… Six, perhaps seven years ago, when I tried to win my wife to Universalism, I met with failure. My arguments—solid as they seemed for me—simply fell on deaf ears. My son, then 17 or 18, listened to my arguments, challenged them intelligently and appropriately and in fairly short order embraced the truth of God’s Universal Victory through Jesus. And in something of a blow to my ego, it was he who convinced my wife of the reality of Universalism! Where I had employed what worked for me—reason and logic and irrefutably clever argument—he shared it in the realms of the heart and of relationships. The relentless pursuit of a loving Father going about reconciling His creation to Himself. Relationships…

Pastoral Concerns

What dawned on me then, in those first few moments of the Conference on Friday night, with the warm and genuine welcome by our host, Pastor Peter Hiett, and the first two messages of the evening—one by Brad Jersak and one by Peter—was that this was to be an affair for the heart. A moving beyond the wonderful facts and logic and intelligence of Universalism, to that place of pastoral concerns; where passionate and smart leaders, shepherds of real life drama flocks, bring the grace and compassion of Universalism into the world of heart and spirit and relationship. Yes—there was ample and generous portions of reason and logic and academic rigor. But it was in the service of nurturing and ministering to a church full of real people with all the drama and pain and dysfunction that uncamouflaged life brings.

And the greatest truth—logical, relational, head, and heart—repeatedly driven home with a joyous intensity by each and every speaker was a rediscovery, a reawakening, a rehabilitation, indeed a resurrection of the Truth about God’s very essence and character and being. A God whose wrath and justice are not counter to His love, but rather a redemptive reflection of it.

Christ/Cross-centred Worship

Further, and infinitely supporting and revealing of this great truth, stands the person of Jesus and the realities of the Cross. In fact, the entire Conference stands as a shattering rebuke to the craven and baseless assertion (one I’ve been subjected to countless times…) that we Christian Universalists minimize and marginalize Christ and His Cross and don’t take it seriously enough. For the essence of the Conference was worship. The triumph of God’s Love—demonstrated at such cost through the life and death and resurrection and person of His Son Jesus.

All I could think, and say, both as it was happening, and now, is WOW! The beautiful, but perhaps distant and intangible truth of Universal Restoration if left in the realm of reason, given richness and intensity and realness in the realm of Pastoral concerns and grateful worship. I went planning to be blessed, and encouraged, and my mind stimulated. And all those things happened. I didn’t expect to experience such profound worship though. What a gift that was for me!!

I’ve already noted how Christ and cross centered and worshipful the entire conference was. But other notable themes were woven throughout all the presentations as well.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

First off was the general agreement on the enormous difficulties that penal substitution theology poses to people trying to grasp the love of God and it’s consequent Universal Reconciliation. Huge and perhaps complicated topic I know, but every speaker left little doubt that penal substitution explanations of the Cross are far more hurtful than helpful to understanding the True Love of God… Nuff said about that, except to say I rejoiced to hear that!!! (Yes, it’s a present image, but must be closely limited in how it is interpreted lest God quickly acquire the image of a monster—sated only by violence and innocent blood…)

Love That Judges

There was this relentless urge in all speakers it seemed, to spare no words in emphasizing the fullness and completeness of God’s eternal Love. Not a love that judges or saves, but a love that judges and saves. It was just wonderful to watch and listen as each speaker took—tirelessly—upon himself the mission of restoring and rehabilitating the reputation of God! Truly the forgotten goodness of the news!

True Free Will

I was also very much pleased to note that each speaker took gentle but unmistakable jabs at the common Arminian misperceptions of free will. In fact it’s not free, really, until it is good—as Peter Hiett perhaps drove home best. The notion that instead what is happening is that God is slowly bringing us, teaching us, maturing us into a more and better and fuller freedom. It is only then that we really are free. This is of course utterly crucial in our responses to those believers whose main quarrel with God’s Universal Victory over sin is the “free will” clause.

The Relationship Between God and Creation

Another idea emphasized by many of the speakers was that the creation exists as wholly from and dependent on God. It’s not as if God is here (all holy and separate and protected from His dirty creation—as if it can exist all by itself…) and we are huddled over there, in complete isolation from God. Baxter Kruger was perhaps most gloriously and intensely insistent on this point. There simply is no creation apart from the community of the Trinity. Which of course plays centrally in the idea that a failure on God’s part to restore/reconcile/redeem all His beloved creation is unthinkable in the context of the completeness and fullness of the Trinity.

The Biggest Joy

All of which brings me to a sobering, and to varying degrees painful reality. And this hit home as I chatted with random folks during the conference. But for many (most?) of us—and [from] everything I could tell, all there were convinced Universalists—our home church worship environment and experience really can be marked by a festering and grating loneliness. We have this great conviction of God’s Universal victory through Jesus, and yet cannot share it meaningfully with others we worship with—lest we be ostracized and branded heretical. In fact several I spoke with said they have no home church—and instead have online fellowship experience where they feel more like they belong. This resonated deeply with me. And the sheer joy of just being together with so many who saw the same truths that I do, was a blessing unparalleled…

The biggest joy—and blessed relief—of this conference for me was the feeling that I was home. Yes, I go to church here, in my own little community, but I can’t just blurt out any time I want my convictions of these great Universal Reconciliation truths. I very much appreciated the speakers open recognition that, among themselves, they do have differences and don’t all agree on everything. That’s refreshing, because that’s real and honest. So Peter, if you’re reading this, I feel like I am a part of your church—even though I live in Florida!!!

Constructive Criticism

For the sense that I’m looking at this whole conference with open eyes and constructive criticism—and not just giving it a rubber stamped thumbs up just because it’s right on my favorite topic—let me make a couple observations…

Annihilation. There was nary a mention of this possibility, which is unfortunate given that a growing number are finding their solution to the horrors and inconsistencies of an ECT hell in the answer of annihilationism. This is particularly important to me since I was raised in an annihilation tradition. Not a big complaint at all, but noted…

Speakers Q & A session. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me. It was tacked on at the very end, after a very hasty lunch on Sunday, and felt disorganized (a great contrast from the order of the overall conference) and rushed. Prime goal was to be out of the building by 2pm—which lent this abbreviated session a feeling of haste instead of reflection. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but could have been much better. There is an obvious camaraderie and even fondness for each other among the speakers; this needs time to flourish and be on greater display. Further, why not let this be the time and place to let us in on some of their theological differences—and in the process, model for us out here that all important skill.

My suggestion would be to put it in the afternoon Saturday and make it a bit more “formal” and organized. Have more time and emphasis spent on writing these questions as well on having the moderator more familiar with them before he reads them to us in the actual session.

Final Thoughts

Was just plain cool to meet these writers. Biggest highlight for me was meeting Tom Talbott! Dude kind of started it all for me—and it turns out quite a few others as well! He seemed genuinely happy to meet “TotalVictory”! Either that or he faked happy pretty well!! And of course meeting Paul Young and Brad Jersak and Peter and Robin Parry himself!! That was just great.

In closing, the idea of the church body, with her many different parts, gathered under One Head; Jesus Christ. I’d always heard that meant the different gifts within our church—as in our particular denomination!!! Well, actually no! I was so pleased to see all the streams of theological thought seen here, with Catholics and Orthodox and Calvinists and charismatics and multiple varieties of Arminians all gathered together celebrating the Lordship of the Christ—as a reflection of the true God. A God who is completely successful in Restoring and redeeming His entire Creation… Wow!!

So a truly blessed and wonderful conference. Would be a thrill to anticipate the next one!!!

All the best,

Bob x3
TotalVictory

The Deeper Story of God's Relentless Love

 

Presumptions and Possibilities―Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 2

My last post began a series of posts on Brad Jersak’s book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (HGWNBS). Brad starts the first chapter looking at how globally, in both religion and culture, images of “fire and brimstone, dungeons and torture, demons and judgment”1 are deeply embedded. It’s no surprise that non-believers often think all religions are bound up with fear and violence.

Brad describes being fearful of the fate of his dear unchurched relatives as he was growing up in an evangelical church. But as he knew of no alternative to the eternal conscious torment doctrine, he did his best to try to accept it and teach it to others.

However, thankfully when he was 25 he read Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue by David Edwards and John Stott. He trusted Stott more than anyone else at the time, and so this meant Annihilationism became a valid, biblical alternative. This lead to the him to discover that, throughout Church history, there has been more than one legitimate eschatology (view of the end times/age to come). He broadly categorises the views as Infernalism2, Annihilationism3, or Universalism4. In HGWNBS he gives examples of passages typically cited to support each interpretation. He then rightly says,

All of these points reflect theological concerns for representing God’s character aright, pastoral concerns for guarding God’s flock in the truth, evangelistic concerns for presenting the Gospel with integrity, and biblical concerns for faithfulness to Christian Scripture. So how is it that we’ve come to such differing positions?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 5

In answer to this he suggests how we arrive at our view of hell often depends on:

  1. Our view of God
  2. Our view of Atonement
  3. Our approach to Scripture
  4. Our personal need (biases)

He unpacks each of these before proposing that, by design, Scripture is polyphonic (has multiple voices) so that none of us can be dogmatic. Instead there are “magnificent tensions”5. For example, the Bible affirms that God allows humans to make choices, even those with severe consequences. But that this seems to be in tension with the Bible’s teaching that God is free to relent, forgive and restore whomever He likes.

My argument for hope over presumption is just this: the Bible doesn’t allow us to settle easily on any of these as “isms”.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 7

So where does that leave us? Setting aside preconceptions as best we can, what does the Bible actually teach us about judgment and hell when we read it carefully and take it seriously? Not “what do I imagine about hell?” or “what do I wish about hell if it were up to me?” … Is there a way to approach the subject of hell that doesn’t presume or negate any of these positions, one that accepts the reality of judgment but hopes that somehow everyone might one day be reconciled to God?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

I agree, I think it’s important to keep the Bible central.

Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist [or annihilationist] corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever… that Jesus’ plan to save the whole world might actually work.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

Likewise, I think it’s important to consider what Christians before us have thought and taught, particularly those who were natively fluent in the Bible’s original languages, something that no one is any more.

In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic. That said, the data summarized herein did lead me to four conclusions, which you may or may not share after all is said and done:

1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.

2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.

3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.

4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10

  1. I agree we shouldn’t presume but I think we can actually be confident in this sense:

Many Christians think or feel that confident universalism is presumptuous, for we cannot claim to know the end. And while there is a lot that we do not know about the end, we do know this: “Christ is risen!”. And that’s enough, because God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here and for me that’s what it means more than anything to be an Evangelical Universalist. It means to find one’s universalism in the Evangel and to be confident in my universalism I would say is not presumptuous because I’m not claiming anything more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God.
Robin Parry at the Rethinking Hell Conference 2015

  1. I think the revelation of God includes warnings of damnation, just not everlasting damnation because I don’t think God will fail to redeem everyone.
  2. Amen!
  3. I look forward to sharing his excellent analysis of Revelation 21-22 later on in this series.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

To summarize our direction, I quote Hermann-Josef Lauter [Pastoralblatt, p123].

Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question, but love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from a Christian standpoint, not just permitted but commanded.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10


1. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 1.
2. The belief that some/many/most will be eternally consciously tormented, either by their own perpetual self-destruction or by God’s wrath.
3. The belief that some/many/most will cease to exist permanently, either as a result of their own self-destruction or of God’s wrath.
4. The belief that everyone who God has created will be forgiven, reconciled and restored by/to God.
5. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 7.

A Polyphony? Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 1

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 4.00.18 PM
“Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem” by Bradley Jersak

When I pick up a book, I almost immediately turn it over and read the back. In this case the blurb is a good summary and therefore seems like an appropriate place to begin this blog series.

Everlasting hell and divine judgment, a lake of fire and brimstone―these mainstays of evangelical tradition have come under fire once again in recent decades. Would the God of love revealed by Jesus really consign the vast majority of humankind to a destiny of eternal, conscious torment? Is divine mercy bound by the demands of justice? How can anyone presume to know who is saved from the flames and who is not?Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

I like Brad Jersak’s approach. These are honest questions, which I have certainly contemplated over the years growing up in the evangelical tradition.

Reacting to presumptions in like manner, others write off the fiery images of final judgment altogether. If there is a God who loves us, then surely all are welcome into the heavenly kingdom, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors in this life. Yet, given the sheer volume of threat rhetoric in the Scriptures and the wickedness manifest in human history, the pop-universalism of our day sounds more like denial than hope. Mercy triumphs over judgment; it does not skirt it.Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

Likewise, I’ve seen many people understandably swing to the opposite extreme of “anything goes”, or sadly even give up on God entirely. I think pluralism is a better way to describe it, although realise that frustratingly many people (thankfully not Brad) consider all universalism to be that.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut endeavors to reconsider what the Bible and the Church have actually said about hell and hope, noting a breadth of real possibilities that undermines every presumption. The polyphony of perspectives on hell and hope offered by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus humble our obsessive need to harmonize every text into a neat theological system. But they open the door to the eternal hope found in Revelation 21-22: the City whose gates will never be shut; where the Spirit and Bride perpetually invite the thirsty who are outside the city to “Come, drink of the waters of life.”Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

While Brad isn’t an Evangelical Universalist, I still found what he had to say very helpful. Indeed I find looking at things from different angles usually clarifies my own thoughts. I agree with him that we can easily fall into the trap being over confident and presumptuous, so I appreciated his encouragement to try to be humble. I think that when we look at the Bible, especially in our English translations, we do get the impression that there are multiple views being expressed, a polyphony as he puts it. This does make it harder to settle what we’re meant to believe about the age to come. However, as a potential way forward, he highlights some insightful connections within the Bible, some of which I’d never noticed before. Over the next few blog posts I’m going to try to summarise them for you, hopefully inspiring you to read his more detailed case and to reexamine the Bible for yourself.