Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
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
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 ofall . . . in order to bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption.”7Exitus 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?
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.
You are going to die. It makes no difference if you are rich or poor, wise or foolish, educated or uneducated, successful or unsuccessful. You are mortal, and you are going to die!
Most of us don’t want to hear those words. But whether we like it or not, you and I, and everyone else, will someday end up just like those buried here—dust to dust, ashes to ashes. For that reason, death has always occupied the minds of the living. And, more particularly, what happens after we die? That is a question that everyone thinks about at one time or another. That is the question everyone wants to know the answer to.
Coupled with the reality that we will all die is the fact that life just isn’t fair. Some people inherit great wealth and live in luxury every day. Others are born into extreme poverty. Some, through treachery and deception rise to positions of tremendous power and authority. Others through no fault of their own, experience cruelty and severe suffering as a result. Some people grow up in families where the message of God’s saving grace through Christ is heard every day of their lives. Others never hear that message—not even once before they die.
Because of these inequities in life, almost everyone agrees that, somehow, something has to be done in the world to come to even things out. And, most have concluded that there is some kind of balance scale on the other side on which humans are weighed. Those who are good will go to an eternity of bliss in Heaven. Those who are found wanting will be punished forever in a place of anguish and misery—a place called Hell.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, the idea that Hell will last forever has not always been the teaching of the Christian Church. In fact, during the first five hundred years of its existence, a prominent view in the Church—and, according to some scholars, the majority view—was that Hell is temporary in its duration, and that it actually has a positive purpose. It is one more tool that God will use to defeat sin and death completely, and ultimately restore all of His creation to the perfection He intended.
These early Christians believed that God doesn’t defeat evil by simply shutting it up in a corner of His creation and leaving it there forever—like some kind of cosmic graveyard keeping those who are there imprisoned throughout eternity. Rather, He will destroy evil by transforming the hearts of evil-doers—ultimately making them into those who love goodness. At the very end of time, God will actually get everyone He created into heaven.
Wow! Can God really be that great? Is God’s grace really that powerful? Does God’s work in the hearts of men and women actually extend into the age to come?
Most people today don’t think so! But, some very important and influential early Christian Church leaders did.
One was a man known as Clement of Alexandria. Clement was born in Athens about AD 150—within a couple of generations of Jesus and His disciples. He believed that God is absolutely good, and absolutely sovereign. For him, to believe that God is unable to save all was unthinkable because that would be a proof of His weakness. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that is not the attribute of a good Being. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe, and He has arranged all things with a view to the salvation of the universe.
Clement saw God as a devoted Father. Earthly fathers don’t punish their children to hurt them. They chasten their children with a view to correcting them. And, that’s what God, our Heavenly Father, does. Punishing for the sake of punishing would simply be returning evil for evil. God doesn’t do that. He chastises for the good of those who are chastised.
Those are pretty bold statements. But, Clement believed in a very bold God—a God whose sovereign power coupled with His unfailing love for all enables Him to ultimately bring about the complete restoration of all.
Another one of the early Church Fathers who believed in ultimate restoration was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory died around AD 395 and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church Fathers. In fact, the Seventh General Council of the Church held in the year 787 honored Gregory by naming him “Father of the Fathers.”
Does God punish forever with terrifying pain? Gregory didn’t think so. He explained that the thoughtless or immature think this, and fear it—with a good result—it motivates them to flee from wickedness. However, those with more maturity understand the true purpose of after-death punishment—it is a remedial process instituted by a good God to, in Gregory’s words, bring back man, His peculiar creature, to the grace of his primal condition.
Gregory was convinced that evil, in the end, will be completely defeated. God isn’t going to just pack it up, stick it in a corner of His creation and let it go on forever. Evil will become non-existent. Divine goodness will prevail. God is not a loser, and in the end, no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.
Wow! That is a powerful God! With ideas like that, no wonder the early Christians ended up taking over the Roman Empire!
John Stackhouse wrote the biblical and theological case for Terminal Punishment (also know as Conditionalism or Annihilationism) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. As I did with the previous chapter, my aim is to engage with him as I read through his chapter, and not read the responses from the other authors until after I’ve finished my own.
I like Stackhouse’s opening paragraph:
Any proper doctrine of hell must take thoroughly into account the goodness of God, an attribute that can be viewed as having two poles, both of which are essential …
… God’s holiness: God’s moral rectitude and cleanness, God’s detestation of all that is wrong and his relentless action to make everything right. God is, in a word, a perfectionist … “God is light” (1 John 1:5)
… God’s benevolence: God’s kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. God is, in a word, a lover … “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16)
John Stackhouse, page 61
The first example of “everything right” was in Eden before the Fall, and so I think that scene should define the minimum of any future right-ness. In it all humanity were created in God’s image and enjoyed holy relationships of selfless love―there was no death, destruction, or annihilation.
Stackhouse contends that his view, summarised below, satisfies both poles of God’s goodness better than the alternative views, and furthermore, is the most warranted by Scripture.
hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.
John Stackhouse, page 61-62
It will be interesting to see Stackhouse unpack this but my first reaction is that I don’t see why death has to be seen as complete separation from God. According to the 2016 Annual Moore College Lectures, most Christians believe in at least a semi-conscious intermediate state, where those who have died go until the general resurrection. That seems to imply “death” cannot simply be equated to complete separation and cessation.
What Is Hell?
In this section, Stackhouse highlights the three biblical depictions of hell he sees as central:
Hell is the logical and metaphysical, and thus inevitable, outcome of the decision to reject God―and thus to reject the good.
John Stackhouse, page 63
As with the previous quote, I’m concerned too much weight is placed on someone’s “decision“―whether they reject or “avail themselves”. As far as I can tell, everyone is ignorant of the complete reality of their choices, that we are corrupted/damaged and lacking in discernment. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to work in us, to heal us, give us wisdom, and the ability to choose what is best for us―namely the Good. I think Talbott’s reflection on C. S. Lewis’ conversion is very helpful when considering the role of our decisions.
A fire. He says that fire performs two functions in the Bible:
The first is that of testing, or judging, the essential nature of a thing by destroying anything that lacks value, as fire burns away husks to reveal seeds, if there are any … . The second … [is] purifying the situation of that thing itself if there is nothing to it of lasting value.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39, ESV
A dump. He says it fits because:
… hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed (Matt. 22:13; 25:30)
John Stackhouse, page 63
The first passage cited is the parable where one of the king’s wedding guests was so arrogant and ungrateful that he didn’t even bother to dress respectfully. Similarly, the second passage is the parable where a servant was so apathetic about his master’s business, that he did nothing with the talent entrusted to him. In both cases, the consequence was being thrown into the “outer darkness”. However, there’s no mention of them being “destroyed”, on the contrary, we are told there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a conscious activity), which might be a sign of remorse (a step towards repentance). Given another chance, I suspect they would have a better attitude. Regardless of whether I’ve interpreted that detail correctly, I think Jesus’ point was that self-righteousness and laziness towards God are character flaws that will be addressed―and I believe―corrected, even if that requires hiding from us (outer darkness) so our delusions shatter.
Regarding Stackhouse’s comments about evil, I believe God’s holiness and love means He will not tolerate evil continuing anywhere, not even in hell 1. But how He achieves that seems to depend on what evil is, or isn’t… Some theologians suggest it is the privation of good, similar to darkness occurring when light is removed. If that is the case, adding enough divine light/goodness should result in the cessation of evil.
Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.
Romans 12:21, CEV
Alternatively, I think evil could be described as “any will discordant to God’s”. If that is correct, evil will cease if God can freely bring our wills into harmony with His―which seems to be His plan.
… [God] is patient with you; for it is not his purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn2 from his sins.
2 Peter 3:9, CJB
Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?