Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:
In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
I go on to look at:
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Imitating God in all our actions?
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. His last lecture responds to that challenge. So far I’ve engaged with over half of his lecture:
I’ll continue with the next section of the lecture:
The third, and arguably the most encompassing, concept of heaven in the New Testament is that of New Creation.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 15s)
Regeneration, or New Creation, encompasses much more than individual Christians or even the people of God collectively. Jesus is alluding to something much more extensive when He anticipates renewal of all things when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne—Matthew 19:28.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 48s)
We both agree the regeneration encompasses much more than Christians but on what grounds does Williamson then exclude non-Christians? Surely they are part of “all things”? Indeed I find it encouraging that Matthew 19:28 follows Jesus saying that it’s at least possible for God to save everyone—that “Humanly speaking, [salvation of anyone v25, even hard cases, like the rich v24] is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (v26 NLT).
[Peter] describes it [palingenesis] as the restorationof all things—Acts 3:21. And what Paul undoubtedly has in mind when he speaks of creation being liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God—Romans 8:21. In other words, it’s a vision of cosmic redemption and salvation…
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 1m 17s)
The original Creation was universalwithout exception (John 1:3), so why would the re-Creation (palingenesis) be anything less? Likewise, the Apostle Paul parallels this restoration/reconciliation of “all things” with the “all things” God created, that is, everythingwithout exception (Col 1:16-20).
Regarding the type of restoration (apokatastasis) in Acts 3:21:
This term had a variety of applications in antiquity [e.g. “restoration to health” p.5], but as a Christian and a late-antique philosophical doctrine, it came to indicate the theory of universal restoration, that is, of the return of all beings, or at least all rational beings or all humans, to the Good, i.e. God, in the end. Although Origen is credited with being the founder of this doctrine in Christianity, I shall argue that he had several antecedents … that this doctrine was abundantly received throughout the Patristics era …
So yes, I agree that Romans 8:21 is a fitting description, especially as v22 speaks of “all creation”.
The fullest description of the [restored creation] is, of course, presented in the final two chapters of Revelation. There, drawing on a lot of Old Testament motifs, John describes a new cosmos, a new Jerusalem, and a new Eden. These however are not really three different places but rather figurative descriptions of the one reality, which we’re referring to as “New Creation”.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 1m 55s)
In Eden, God created harmonious/sinless relationships between everyone and everything. How can the new Eden ever exceed the original if there are billions of severed/inharmonious relationships, or worse, the ongoing evil of sinners? Conversely, Universalism envisages the healing of each and every relationship so that once again everything can enjoy the harmony of Eden and the end of evil.
While Peter speaks of destruction using the image of cosmic conflagration, he’s primarily describing the destruction of sin and corruption. Creation itself is not being eradicated, it’s simply being radically cleansed or purified.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 3m 19s)
That is precisely what Evangelical Universalists argue, just with a definition of cosmos that includes everything, otherwise sin isn’t eradicated, but simply quarantined somewhere in Creation (Reprobates are part of Creation, and wherever they are put must still be a place created by God, that is, part of Creation too. Although, as I argue below, there are many reasons to believe the Reprobates will actually be nearby the Elect in the New Creation).
Williamson notes a similar theme in Revelation:
Just as with the individual’s new creation, so with the cosmic. The old has passed away and the new has come. Not in the sense of obliteration and replacement but in the sense of purging and renewal. What John is describing here in Revelation 21 is creation renovated or renewed, a radical transformation … As someone has put it:
God is not making all new things, rather He is making all things new.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 3m 52s)
Again I heartily agree, it’s just we don’t see a strong case for excluding billions of God’s children 2 from the cosmos. Instead we see what appears to be the transformation/washing of the rebellious Kings and Nations—coming into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24,26; 22:14). Furthermore, Talbott et. al. also point out that the exclusion of the Reprobates would prevent the full transformation of even the Elect (e.g. they would have eternally have “holes in their hearts” where loved ones were, as well as many unresolved grievances).
And in this new creation or renewed creation, forever gone will be the chaos of evil, here symbolically represented by the absence of any sea.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 4m 30s)
While I believe evil will eventually cease, I don’t believe that’s possible until all sinners are converted/quenched/washed/healed. In the imagery it appears the sinners are nearby, which means that they can, and must, be converted, etc. for evil to be “forever gone”:
“Outside [the city gates v14] are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (Rev 22:15, ESV)
Currently Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, is just outsideJerusalem, so it’s logical that the eschatological Gehenna (aka Hell) is likewise just outside the New Jerusalem.
The sinners would need to be nearby so that they could hear the Spirit and the bride’s offer to come and drink (Rev 22:17) and be washed (Rev 22:14).
Brad Jersak says there is “convincing evidence for identifying the lake of fire with the Dead Sea.” 3 Currently the Dead Sea is visible from Jerusalem (about 13 miles away), which suggests the eschatological lake of fire will be visible from the New Jerusalem too. This concurs with Revelation 14:10, “fire and brimstone [is] in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb”.
Some people think the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus informs us about the reality of the afterlife. If it does, then it shows sinners are near enough to be able to talk to and pass drinks to.
In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. His last lecture 2 responds to that challenge. So far I’ve engaged with over half of the lecture:
Rather than understanding such punishments [in Hell] as lasting forever, Parry and Talbott emphasise that the Greek adjective aionios simply denotes “pertaining to the age to come”. They thus reject the idea that either the life or the punishment “pertaining to the age to come” must necessarily endure forever 3. In doing so, Parry and Talbott interpret the parallelism between eternal punishment and eternal life in Matthew 25:46 consistently.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (57m 21s)
Talbott starts discussing aionios with the above approach 4 but also offers three alternatives. First:
For however we translate aiōnios, it is clearly an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective; and adjectives often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things.
Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, p. 80
For example, an old planet and an old person are extremely unlikely to have existed for the same duration, even though both are described as “old”. This is because the noun “planet” changes the scope of “old”, and conversely the noun “person” changes the scope of “old” to something much narrower.
Second, Talbott notes that even a non-universalist points out that:
… when an adjective … modifies a noun—in this case a result-noun … the adjective describes the result of the action … , not the action itself … We have seen this in regard to eternal salvation (not an eternal act of saving), eternal redemption (not an eternal process of redeeming), … and eternal punishment (not an eternal act of punishing).
Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 3rd ed., p. 41
In Pruning the Flock?, I gave reasons why the noun paired with aionios, kolasis, probably should be translated “correction”, rather than “punishment”. Because of that, it could be argued, and Talbott does 5 , that the result of the correction is eternal/permanent.
Third, as Williamson notes:
Talbott possibly alludes to the immortal character of life associated with the age to come, when he describes it as, “A special quality of life, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself” 6.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (58m 29s)
Williamson then responds to Parry and Talbott’s approaches:
… we could point out that the scholarly consensus is that aionios can—and often does—denote neverending. Granted this observation may cut little ice with those who are climbing out on a theological limb in the first place.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 13s)
The Hebrew word olam, translated aionios in the Septuagint, also seems to be about something being “beyond the horizon” (a fitting description of the coming age), rather than its duration (see Punishment’s Duration). We also see examples of aionios not being translated “eternal”:
in the hope of eternalaiónios life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginningaiónios of time
Titus 1:2, NIV
the mystery hidden for longaiónios ages past
Romans 16:25, NIV
Do not move ancientaiónios boundary stone set up by your ancestors.
Proverbs 22:28, NIV
its bars held me with no-end-in-sightaiónios [actually three days]
Jonah 2:6, CEB
Second, while Universalism is novel for Evangelicals, it seems that the dominant view in Christianity (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants) is:
We hope and pray that everyone will be saved but God hasn’t revealed the outcome.
That they see Universalism as even a possible outcome, suggests it’s not a “theological limb”. Furthermore, from what I’ve read, Universalism was common in the Early Church.
But perhaps more significant is the fact that in Matthew 25:46, and in numerous other New Testament texts, there’s really no obvious reason to assume that aionios means anything less than everlasting.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 29s)
First, I’m not assuming, I’m simply saying given even most non-Universalists admit that aionios means “pertaining to the age to come”, please let’s translate it as such and then let people come to their own conclusions about what that means.
Second, I think there are numerous Bible texts, the biblical metanarrative, and core/orthodox doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, Imago Dei), strongly support Universalism, which puts lots of pressure on not assuming that something that occurs in the coming age is everlasting (particularly if that thing is correction, which by definition is working towards an outcome).
Since the age in question undeniably does endure forever, it’s only logical to infer that the same applies to both the life and punishment so closely associated with it. Accordingly it seems fair to conclude that eternal life and its negative corollary, eternal death, does not really support a universalist understanding of heaven.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 44s)
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about the future—I’ve also read biblical arguments for it being:
an endless succession of ages .
one finite age, followed by timelessness.
a series of ages, which are followed by timelessness.
If any of these are the case, the punishment need not be interpreted as everlasting, it may only be a feature of a age, or some ages, or all ages but not timelessness, or even if it is a feature of timelessness, then by definition talking about it’s duration is meaningless.
However, even if there will be only one endless age to come, that something occurred in it, wouldn’t necessarily mean it lasted for the duration of it. If I said:
In the morrow there will be breakfast and in the morrow there will be work.
It’s very unlikely that I meant breakfast will take all tomorrow, nor that work would, nor that breakfast will have the same duration as work, even though both are “closely associated” with tomorrow.
Finally, some Universalists (e.g. Conditional Futurism or In the End, God…) do interpret the Matthew 25:46 as “everlasting punishment” because they argue that the Bible is describing a conditional trajectory—that God is still free to help you move onto a different trajectory. Their cases are far more nuanced but just flagging that things don’t hinge on aionios.
In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. In his last lecture 2 he responded to that challenge. My previous post covered the first half of that lecture and I’ll now continue where I left off.
But this [God’s kingdom] is clearly not portrayed as an all inclusive prospect—Matthew 8:12.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 17s)
The context of that verse is that Jesus is amazed at the faith of a Roman centurion, and reveals that the Gentiles are going to come into the Kingdom while many of the Jews are cut off:
And I [Jesus] tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 8:11-12, NLT
The Apostle Paul seems to have had this in mind in Romans 11 as “eyes that cannot see” (Rom 11:9) and “Let their eyes be darkened so they cannot see” (Rom 11:10) are reminiscent of “outer darkness”. However, thankfully he reveals the next chapter for those Jews:
I ask, then, has God rejected His people? Absolutely not! … I ask, then, have they stumbled in order to fall [irreversibly]? Absolutely not! On the contrary, by their stumbling, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full number bring! … A partial [temporary] hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved …
Romans 11:1a,11-12,25b-26a, HCSB
Romans 11 suggests to me that the “outer darkness” is a severe method God uses to shatter arrogant delusions (see earlier in Romans) and to provoke “jealousy”—the desire to return home and join the Kingdom’s feast.
Indeed, not even all of Christ’s professed disciples will enter this coming kingdom—Matthew 7:21-23.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 25s)
I think we should heed the serious warning in the passage:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’
Matthew 7:21-23, HCSB
However, surely, “I never knew you” is an impossibility for the all-knowing God? Likewise, according to Jonah et al., it is impossible to leave God behind—to truly “Depart from Me”. Therefore, I think the passage is hyperbole. So while, it teaches that God will severely discipline lawbreakers 3 by hiding Himself from them, I don’t think the consequence has to be interpreted absolutely—as forever. Furthermore, the disciples would’ve been mostly (all?) Jews and so again Romans 11 applies—that those cut off will be grafted back after their hearts are changed.
Paul himself lists various examples of impenitent sinners who are expressly excluded—who will not, who will not, inherit the Kingdom of God.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 44s)
There are many passages that describe our rebellion, including the Paul’s lists of impenitent sinners. While rebels are rebelling, they can’t come into God’s Kingdom. It’s only when they cease to be rebels, that is, turn to Jesus with the Spirit’s help.
While a prodigal son/daughter is wallowing in the pigpen (outside the Kingdom) they aren’t at home (in the Kingdom) with the Father and their siblings experiencing all the benefits, instead they are:
Some Christians believe God only goes as far as allowing these natural consequences of rebellion to occur but I think that because He is our Father, He is also proactive. Metaphorically speaking, God:
prunes rotten branches off us.
irradiates the cancer in our bodies.
purifies us like metal—purging the dross.
pulls out the weeds within us.
burns up the rubbish within us.
One of the difficulties in the discussion of hell is that people point to the state that people are in now (e.g. impenitent sin) and project it into the future. It’s understandable because we are a mess but I think it really underestimates God. I believe God’s ability:
to reveal truth is greater than our capacity to continue deluding ourselves.
to satisfy is greater than evil’s fleeting highs.
to woo is greater than evil’s allure.
as a gardener is greater than the infestation of any weed.
as a doctor is greater than the destruction of any disease.
Darkness cannot withstand Light.
I hope that Williamson, as a Calvinist, would agree that God is at least capable of achieving the best outcome (union with Him) for each and every person.
I agreed with his case that heaven is only a temporary destination until the New Creation—the eternal destination—so I’ll mainly engage with his critique of Evangelical Universalism. Before he got into the lecture, he addressed some questions, notably:
Can Christians rejoice in the prospect of hell for those who oppose God—for God’s enemies?
Certainly not! God is grieved over the death of the sinner, and how much more is He concerned over their eternal death. However, you understand that. Such a prospect should give us very heavy hearts and prompt us to pray, and prompt us to evangelise. And I think all these viewpoints would agree with what I’ve just said.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (19m 40s)
I agree that nobody should rejoice at the prospect of hell. However, I think this creates a dilemma for non-universalists, in that it would surely mean God and the Elect would eternally grieve the loss of their loved ones, whereas the New Creation is meant to be a place of “no more tears”… Some people respond by saying, “We will cease to love our loved ones”, but I would’ve thought the more Christlike we become, the more loving we’d become 3.
What do we make of God allowing sin to exist, even in a cordoned off part of the New Creation?
Another good question. Maybe we can return to it after this lecture. I’m not sure that I’ve got an answer to that one, but perhaps someone here does.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (20m 12s)
I think this is a huge problem for the Eternal Conscious Torment view, especially for Calvinists who believe God could cause evil to cease by converting all sinners.
He then got into the lecture and I agreed with his argument up until this comment:
Moreover, texts such as Isaiah 45:23, arguably allude to forced subjugation of defeated enemies rather than genuine repentance and salvation.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (36m 4s)
Unfortunately he didn’t explain why he interprets the verse that way.
By Myself I have sworn; Truth has gone from My mouth, a word that will not be revoked:
Every knee will bow to Me, every tongue will swear allegiance.
Isaiah 45:17-25, HCSB
Many translations translate the swearing as a positive act: “swear allegiance” (HCSB, ESV, AMP, EXB, NASB, NLT, etc.); “will promise to follow me” (NCV); “solemnly affirm” (NET); “vow to be loyal to me” (GNT, WYC); “worship me” (CEV). Robin Parry explains why:
That this is no forced subjection of defeated enemies is clear for the following reasons. First, we see that God has just called all the nations to turn to him and be saved, and it is in that context that the oath is taken. Second, the swearing of oaths in Yahweh’s name is something his own people do, not his defeated enemies. Third, those who confess Yahweh go on to [immediately] say, “In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength,” which sounds like the cry of praise from God’s own people.
Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, p68-69
… without question, the eschatological inclusion of the nations in the salvation of God is clearly articulated several times in both Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament. However, as even Parry concedes, this hope is not universalist in the sense that it envisages the salvation of all individuals who have ever existed.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (36m 15s)
I’m guessing he’s referring to a comment in The Evangelical Universalist, however Parry explains:
While it is true that the Old Testament is interested primarily in groups (Israel and national groups) rather than individuals, this does not mean that we cannot infer the fate of individuals. We have seen that the ultimate vision for humanity is one in which all humanity worships Yahweh; and, thus, it anticipates a future in which each individual does.
Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, p72-73
Furthermore, as the OT doesn’t have a developed concept of resurrection, it wouldn’t make sense for it to focus on the fate of those who had already died.
But for all its emphasis on the eschatological inclusion of the nations, the Old Testament offers little support for the idea that this future utopia is going to be the ultimate destiny for everyone, including those who fall under God’s wrath. Rather those who fall under God’s wrath are very clearly and explicitly excluded in Isaiah.
Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (39m 6s)
Parry’s chapter on the OT highlights a biblical pattern of rebellion, warning, consequences/punishment, repentance, and restoration—of both Israel and the nations. While it isn’t proof of universalism, I think it’s highly suggestive and anticipates the explicit passages in the NT.
I think we should also step back and ask why God created everyone, for what purpose. I think Genesis 1-2 shows us it is for harmonious relationships, firstly with God but also with everyone else. The promises of the New Creation in Isaiah build on this, whereas non-universalism posits that some 4 relationships are left discordant forever, which seems significantly less than God’s original intent for creation.
Lastly, Acts 3:21 says a time will come for “God to restore everything as He promised long ago through His prophets [i.e. the Old Testament]”. It seems non-universalists have to either significantly reduce the scope of “everything” or the quality of the “restore”. It’s hard to see how eternally broken relationships could ever be described as restored and reconciled (Col 1:15).
In my next post I’ll look at the second half of this lecture.
Of particular interest were his comments (clips below) on Evangelical Universalism—he explains the view and says that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. In the Q&A it turns out he has read the second edition of Four Views on Hell, and while he disagrees with Robin Parry, he acknowledges that Parry is a genuine Evangelical seeking to be faithful to Scripture.
One other comment that caught my attention was:
Hell has generally been perceived as a place of conscious punishment that endures forever. Not surprisingly, many find such a thought deeply disturbing, indeed there’s probably something wrong with you if you don’t find such a thought deeply disturbing.