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.
We in Gospel Conversations (and I in particular) 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, 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.
For months, I haven’t had the headspace to write as it’s been one of the toughest years of my life. However, I recently made such an exciting discovery, that I just had to tell you about it. To put it in context, I know hundreds of Christian Universalists in the US but only a handful in Australia (primarily due to the much smaller population). Therefore, I was delighted when Robin Parry told me about a reputable Australian group, Gospel Conversations, which discovered orthodox Christian Universalism this year!
They describe themselves as:
A monthly event and podcast exploring the richness of the gospel in a conversational forum. … Essentially we want to take God out of the religious box we put Him in, and position Him as Lord of Creation. That means recovering a much bigger picture of God and his project than a merely ‘religious’ program whereby the Christians are rescued from the earth and escape to heaven.
They’ve done over 8 hours of talks and a panel discussion exploring the issues (I’ve made a playlist) :
Hell is the question we all avoid but it is the corollary of hope. How do we fit the two together? Is the traditional model of hell right? Or scriptural? Could everyone get saved in the end? Tony begins to address these vexed questions by first examining the landscape of the debate – the language and assumptions, the possibilities, the history and the problems of all the usual positions. He ends by suggesting a better question to frame our thinking.
Our second talk builds a richer view of ‘judgment’. “What house is God building?” is a better question – and it immediately opens up a new view of judgment. Architects judge as part of their creative process. This positions ‘judgment’ out of the penal system and inside a creation system. Tony explores this new perspective in this talk.
Tony advances Gregory’s picture of the Restitution of all things. The question of ‘universal salvation’ needs to fall onto a big eschatological landscape not onto a narrow one. Only then does it make sense. That is what Gregory does. Tony gives us a detailed summary of his epic eschatological vision of creation in ‘On the Making of Man’ which explores the profound implications of being made in the image of God.
St Augustine laid the foundations for the doctrine of Hell in his epic tome the City of God. But did he get it right? Tony gives a penetrating diagnosis of where Augustine’s thinking had ‘code errors’ that distorted the gospel and predisposed him to the idea of hell as never-ending torment. Unfortunately, the church of Rome validated his thinking and excluded the broader eschatology that we are now beginning to realise was the orthodoxy of the Patristic Fathers.
Tony finally confronts the scary verses in this talk – the passages that at face value talk about hell, judgment and wrath. Traditionally they have so gripped the dark imaginations of the church that they have totally overshadowed the even clearer verses that declare universal hope. But we need to answer the question – What do the ‘Bad News’ verses really say about eternal hell? What do they really tell us?
As we continue to ponder the hope of ‘apokatastasis’, we confront some of the ‘so whats’, beginning with evangelism. At face value, it looks like a doctrine of ‘universal salvation’ makes evangelism unnecessary – why preach if everybody gets saved eventually anyway? Tony addresses this question by first changing the question – and then building a far bigger picture of ‘salvation’ into which we can place ‘evangelism’.
Our Hope and Hell series has raised a lot of interest; people like the ideas a lot but everyone has questions. We created a panel of three to address eight of these questions that our listeners sent in. In this talk, Ron, Andrew and Tony give their responses in a free-flowing, exploratory and honest dialogue. Mark Ridgway facilitates the dialogue.
I haven’t finished listening to them all yet but so far one of the highlights has been Tony’s summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s amazing vision of what God began in Creation and will complete in the New Creation. It’s a stark contrast to Augustine’s vision. Anyway, God willing, I’ll get to fly up to Sydney and meet them in 2019!