In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?
This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God.
There is more to come—there is the fullness. There is coming a day when, as Paul says in Romans 11, the deliverer will come from Zion and “all Israel will be saved.” Not just the current remnant of Messiah-believers, but also those who at the moment reject Jesus. There is a day coming when, as the book of Revelation says, the kings of the earth and all the nations will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem through its ever-open gates to worship God and the Lamb.
Now we see salvation in part, then we shall see it in full.
So currently we see a division within Israel and the nations between the redeemed and the lost, between the elect according to grace and those who are not, but one day there will be no such division. And then the promises associated with the birth of the Messiah will be filled full, or full-filled.
My second theme can be explained much more simply. Remember that Christmas is also about the incarnation—the Word made flesh, “eternity contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” For the Church, the real and complete humanity of Jesus is really important. The Church Fathers said: “that which has not been assumed has not been healed.” What they meant was that Jesus had to be human to heal our humanity. If he had not taken on our human nature then he could not transform it in himself.
Now Jesus is, of course, a particular human being. He is a real, solid, flesh and blood and bone and spit human individual. But more than that, he is a representative person. As the Messiah of Israel, he represents the whole nation of Israel before God. He is Israel-in-miniature. He embodies its story of exile and restoration in his death and resurrection. In the same way, he is the second Adam—the fountainhead of a renewed human race. In his humanity, he represents all humans before God. The story of humanity in its expulsion from Eden and its subjection to death is played out in his crucifixion. But then his resurrection is not simply about himself—it is on our behalf, the behalf of all of us, Jews and Gentiles. The resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of humanity in him. It is the future of the world inscribed into the risen flesh of the Son of God. And it is here, in this risen and ascended human being that my hope for universal salvation is grounded. How can we know that God will one day deliver all? Because God has already declared his hand in the resurrection. It has been done—so it will come to pass.
And all this promise was wrapped up in the life of a little human baby in a manger in Bethlehem.
That, at least, is something of what may be a little distinctive about a universalist’s understanding of Christmas.
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.