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.
One of the fascinating things about the history of universalism in the post-Reformation period is that the doctrine seems to be “rediscovered” over and over again. While we can trace universalist genealogies in the post-Reformation period, the more interesting feature is just how many folk seem to stumble into it for themselves without having had it passed on to them. Some folk have unexpected religious experiences that lead them to become universalists; others, simply reflecting on the Bible come to believe that it teaches universalism; yet others find that wresting with the tensions in Christian doctrine draws them to the larger hope. But from the seventeenth century onwards we find universalism in Protestant countries breaking out again and again, here and there and everywhere. And when one genealogical line dies off, as many do, new ones spring up, often unconnected to earlier movements.
Why? My conviction is that a part of the answer to this question lies in the following claim: universalism feels like a better “fit” within Christian theology than the alternatives, at least at face value. As such there is an internal pressure generated by various Christian doctrines that pushes in universalist directions. The doctrine of hell puts a blocker on that push, but in so doing it generates a build-up of unresolved theological pressure that sometimes needs to be released. One of the ways that it can be released is by pushing out eternalist interpretations of hell (like a cork from champagne) and embracing universalism. So I think that if every Christian universalist and all their universalist materials vanished into thin air today, we would not have to wait long before some Christian was led to “rediscover” universalism again.
Think of Christian theology like an incomplete jigsaw: how do we know which pieces do and do not fit into the gaps? The clues are provided by the shape of the gaps left by the pieces that are already in place and by the image contained on them. My suggestion is that there is no obvious hell-shaped hole in this puzzle. Hell, understood as one’s eternal fate, has been squashed and squeezed into a space in the jigsaw, but the shape and the picture on the piece are not quite right. The space clearly has to do with judgment and punishment, so the hell piece is not completely out of place, yet something is wrong with it and this creates a niggling sense of dissatisfaction. That this is the case is indicated not merely by the fact that some people throw the piece away and seek out a piece that they think fits better, but also by the lengths those who support the inclusion of the piece go to to defend its appropriateness. Hell, they acknowledge, does appear not to fit, but they insist that upon closer inspection we can see that things are otherwise.
Now the salvation story that the church tells seems to me to generate, by its own internal narrative logic, certain expectations about the appropriate end to the plot. While we may well expect that the journey towards the end will involve judgment and punishment, the narrative logic does not lead us to expect it to end in eternal damnation for some/many/most people. Eternal damnation sounds more like the unexpected twist at the end of a Hammer Horror film. Or, to use a musical analogy, it is like a discordant note sounded at the end of a Mozart symphony. Instinctively we feel that it doesn’t fit, and indeed that it is rather ugly.
The universalist proposal is that in fact it does not fit; that the Bible does not actually teach such a doctrine; that many in the early church never accepted such a doctrine; and that we’d be better off throwing the rogue jigsaw piece away and replacing it with a piece that fits the gap better in terms of its shape and its picture.
Universalists also worry that insisting on retaining the eternal hell piece does damage to the rest of the jigsaw. By forcing the piece into a gap it does not fit, the surrounding pieces are squashed out of shape. Perhaps they are even repainted somewhat to make them blend in better with hell. When we let the hell piece call the shots and we reshape the jigsaw around it, the end result is a distorted picture.
To drop the barrage of analogies (jigsaws, movies, stories, symphonies), what I am saying is that the doctrine of hell may lead to our reconfiguring the other parts of orthodox theology to relieve the pressure—perhaps God did not create everyone for beatific union with God, perhaps some were created and eternally destined for damnation. Perhaps Jesus does not represent humanity, but a subsection of it. Perhaps he died for a few people, rather than all. These ideas do serve to relieve some of the pressure on hell, but they do so at a cost. It is a cost in all sorts of areas—at face value such notions are unbiblical; they are theologically problematic; they are arguably not true to the pre-Augustinian Christian tradition.
What we need to remember is that when we speak about hell, we are never simply speaking about hell. We are also implicitly speaking about creation, about humanity, about sin, about justice and punishment, about atonement, and about God. Every hellology implies a theology, every doctrine of eschatological punishment implies a doctrine of God.
When considering which account of divine judgment to embrace we are always doing more than simply exegeting this passage or that passage of the Bible. We are also, always, looking at the big picture. We need to remember that for Christians biblical texts are only authoritative when understood within their context in the canon of Scripture and in light of the rule of faith. So an atomistic approach to the topic that builds everything on the interpretation of a handful of passages will never do. Those passages will factor into Christian reflection, but only as located in a wider context. So today I want to briefly sketch out the narrative logic of the biblical plotline as I see it so as to make clearer the jigsaw pattern that I think a doctrine of final punishment has to fit comfortably within. A caveat: for reasons of time limit I am going to skip over a critical part of the story—that of God’s way with Israel. So I must simply register here that I do not think this part of the story optional, but to open it up would lead us into areas we have no time to handle. Also, I must stress that I will not be looking at the exegesis of any of the hell texts—this is an important task, but there is no time. My purpose is a tad more modest. I am hoping to offer something like the initial stages of a prolegomena to the theological interpretation and appropriation of such texts.
Before raising his concerns, Parry commends Burk for the clear, biblical case for judgment, followed by division.
Parry is concerned that Burk ignores the “canonical framework”, in particular the texts about God’s desire and ability to save everyone, and simply sees the debate settled by his ten passages.
The critical hermeneutical aspect to the hell debate is how one deals with the fact that some biblical texts seem to speak of annihilation, some of everlasting conscious torment, and some of universalism. The issues for evangelicals is how to affirm all of these texts as sacred Scripture, how to interpret them in relation to each other, and how to hold their teachings together.
Robin Parry, page 48
Parry suggests Burk―despite criticising opponents of prejudice―gives the impression that all texts must be compatible with ECT.
With regard to the ten texts, we might even agree that, other things being equal, some of the texts appear at face value to teach ECT. But other things are not equal—I have argued in my paper that there are important biblical factors that weigh against such a view of hell. I cannot ignore these when considering the ten texts and their relevance.
Robin Parry, page 49
Parry explains how divorce and remarriage is an example of affirming what an author (Mark) wrote while being aware of the qualifications from other authors (in this case, Matthew and Paul). He applies this logic to Burk’s passages:
Burk is correct that most of the two-destinies passages do not suggest any salvation after the division of people into two groups. … [However, in other passages we find] grounds for universalism. So how can we affirm the truth of both of the two-destinies texts and the global salvation texts (both of which can be found side-by-side in Paul, John, and Revelation—who presumably thought they belonged together)? The typical universalist proposal, embraced by many in the early church, is that we can do so by understanding the condemnation as qualified by the ultimate salvation texts and thus as a penultimate fate. The failure of the two-destinies passages to mention post-condemnation salvation … does not in itself rule out such salvation any more than Mark’s failure to mention an exception to the ban on divorce and remarriage rules one out.
Robin Parry, page 50
Parry also points out that:
the lack of qualification of the two destinies may play an important rhetorical function. Think of a policeman warning a criminal: “If you do that, you’ll go to prison!” He doesn’t add, “But don’t worry, you’ll get out eventually.” Such mitigation would serve to undermine the impact of the warning, even if it is true. In the same way, there may be good reasons in certain speech contexts why God would not want to undercut the seriousness of two destinies by qualifying them.
I was pleased that Burk notes that aionios “is an adjective that means ‘pertaining to an age,’” and, as Stackhouse observes, “often means ‘of the age to come.’” This is correct, and it is part of the reason that I don’t think we can “be confident that kolasis is a punishment… that is unending.”
In the case of kolasinaionion (Matt. 25:46), we cannot settle the question of the duration of the punishment from this word, even if the age to come (in which the punishment occurs) is everlasting. The need for caution is illustrated by the “eternal fire” (purosaioniou) of Sodom’s punishment (Jude 7), which—contra Burk—did not burn forever.
We also do well to note the numerous examples in which universalists among the early church fathers would happily speak of eschatological punishment as aionios and consider such biblical terminology as fully compatible with their universalism.
Robin Parry, page 50-51
Burk was concerned that some objections to ECT are “based on human estimations of the way God ought to behave” instead of “specific passages of Scripture”. Parry responds:
[T]hinking theologically is not simply about explaining “specific passages of Scripture,” but of indwelling the Bible and allowing the Bible to indwell us, such that our mind and emotions are reshaped in biblical ways. … [The objections] arise when Christians are trying to think biblically. … If the lack of a specific proof text was considered enough to exclude such concerns, then along with them would go other matters for which specific proof texts are lacking—doctrines such as the Trinity. There be dragons!
We will look upon the damned, which will include people we love deeply, and see them in desolate turmoil of soul, with absolutely no hope, and our hearts will overflow with happiness. No thanks. God does not delight in the death of sinners, even if it is just (Ezek. 33:11)
Robin Parry, page 52
The Happiness of the Redeemed
Parry explains how ECT would cause another problem:
Can the saints ever be fully happy in the new creation if those they love are suffering ECT (or are annihilated)? In the resurrection, how could a mother ever find perfect joy if her beloved daughter is burning in hell? The God-given love she has makes her yearn for her daughter’s entry into divine life. But this can never be. So it is not only the daughter who has no hope—the mother has none either. And how can this do anything but diminish her heavenly joy?
Robin Parry, page 52
Burk’s parable was meant to show that God’s infinity makes any sin against God “worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment” (see Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1 for details).
Burk is telling us about the principle underpinning his essay. … However, this kind of argument did not make an appearance before St. Anselm (1033-1109), and it is certainly not found in Scripture. … in the Bible sins are differentiated in degrees of seriousness [“determined not only by the status of the one sinned against, but also by the nature of the sin itself (the motivation, the intentions, the effects, etc.).”] … [and] not all deserve the same punishment. There is certainly no suggestion that they all deserve “an infinitely heinous punishment.”
Robin Parry, page 52-53
Parry suggests it’s also logically problematic because:
All sins are sins against God, and on this argument, as God is infinitely glorious, they all incur infinite demerit. You cannot get worse than infinite demerit, so it seems that all sins are as bad as each other—infinitely bad. If you steal a sheet of paper from the office, you have committed a sin that is worthy of infinite punishment in just the same way that you have if you torture and kill children.
Robin Parry, page 53
Parry concludes by explaining why this suggests ECT would be unjust, or that it implies:
God ends up perpetuating sin and an evil world without end. It is true that he is forever balancing them out with the appropriate amount of punishment, but it remains the case that instead of removing sin from creation, God actively keeps unreconciled, sinful wills around forever in hell. I find that theologically problematic.
Burk says that the question of ECT comes down to the question of who God is and that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God.” I agree. But this is precisely the problem for ECT! The very reason Christians struggle with it is that it seems incompatible with divine goodness, love, and—yes—justice.
Robin Parry, page 54
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!