“Eschatology,” said John A. T. Robinson, “is an explication of what must be true of the end, both of history and of the individual, if God is to be the God of biblical faith. All eschatological statements can finally be reduced to, and their validity tested by, sentences beginning: ‘In the end, God . . . .’”1 I think that this insight is profoundly important. For God to be the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God of the gospel, our eschatology must be gospel-shaped. And what does that look like? The answer, I suggest, is that it looks like the risen Lord. The gospel calls the shots. The gospel determines the shape of the end.
This sounds very much like a story for which universal salvation is a fitting ending. Thus, Paul speaks of “the mystery of [God’s] will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10).2 All creation is made “for” and oriented “to” God—and it is summed up and brought to its fitting conclusion and destiny in Jesus. Then at Jesus’ name every knee will bow—in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth (which is to say, the dead)—and every tongue confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:9–11).3 All will be subject to Christ, and then Christ will subject himself to the Father on behalf of creation, so that God will “be all” and will be “in all” (1 Cor 15:28).4That is the kind of end I would expect for the biblical story.
Now, we are so used to the traditional story of hell as the final fate of some/many/most people that we usually fail to notice how out of place it feels as a conclusion to this story. But surely we need a very good explanation for this tale ending in tragedy for some/many/most people. What possible reasons could there be for such an unexpected climax?
1. John A. T. Robinson, In the End, God . . . : A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. Special Edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 23. 2. For a universalist reading of Ephesians, see TEU, 184–91. 3. For a defense of a universalist interpretation of this text (against the often-made claim that some are forced to bow the knee against their will) see TEU, 97–100. 4. For a defense of a universalist reading of 1 Corinthians 15, see TEU, 84–90.
We live in a time between the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead, between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and our full participation in it. The new age is here now—for Christ has been exalted and the Spirit has been poured out—but we still await its complete arrival.
This tension between now and not-yet permeates NT teaching on universal salvation. On the one hand, in the person of the risen Christ everyone is already redeemed. God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:19–20).
On the other hand, only those who have been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit now participate in that salvation (and even then, only in an anticipatory way, until the general resurrection). So the actual existential participation of all people in salvation is not a present reality, it lies in the future: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).1
So is everyone currently justified? Yes and no. In that Christ has been raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25), we are all already justified in his resurrection. However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel, and are united to Christ by the Spirit, that we participate subjectively in this justification.
This now/not-yet tension is seen throughout Paul’s letters. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, Paul addresses the issue of the universal significance of Christ’s work. We read that “one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14) and that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). From this perspective there are no insiders and outsiders—everyone is an insider. And yet Paul still issues the imperative, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). A Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required if people are to share in the salvation already achieved in Christ. And right now many live outside the gospel community. So Paul makes a very clear distinction in all his writings between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not, the church and the world, believers and unbelievers, the elect and those who are not elect. The former are “being saved” while the latter are “perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3).
It is critical to note, however, that for Paul the dead in sin can become those alive in Christ, children destined for wrath can become children of mercy (Eph. 2:1–11).2 This is relevant because we cannot assume that just because Paul sees a current divide between those being saved and those perishing, that this divide will remain in place eternally. Romans 9–11 makes this point well.3
1. For a defense of a universalist reading of this passage, against its critics, see TEU, 84–90. 2. I do not have time to explore the important notion of election. For my understanding of it, see TEU, 222–42. 3. It seems to me that underpinning much NT ecclesiology is the vision of Israel’s prophets that in the last days Israel would be restored, the Spirit poured out, and the nations would come in pilgrimage and worship the God of Abraham alongside Israel (e.g., Isa. 2:1–4; 11:10–12; 18:7; 60:1–16; 61:5–6; 66:12, 18, 23). To NT authors, this vision is coming to pass in the ekklesia—the Spirit is poured out, and Jews and people from among the nations are united as equals, worshipping the God of Israel together. However, we make a mistake if we lose sight of the now/not-yet tension. The church in the present is only a prophetic foretaste of the fuller reality to come—an anticipation of the grander fulfillment in the new creation, when “all Israel” is saved (Rom. 11:26) and all the nations and the kings of the earth bring their tribute into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24–27).
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.
All Christians are universalists about creation—God created all things, through his Word. And creation is not simply about origins (everything comes from God), but about purpose and destiny. Created things have an end, a destiny, and that end, as the beginning, is God. The end of creation is there in its beginning: creation is from God, for God, and oriented towards God, reaching towards its potential and completion in God. So the question of universalism and hell can be framed in terms of whether or not God will bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it. Yes . . . or no?
Let’s get more specific. Take humans—the subject of this debate. Christians agree that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:24–26). But while God did create humans as “good,” he did not create humans as finished and completed creatures—he created them with a destiny to grow towards. This telos of human creatures is, in community, to be filled with God and to image God in the world.
Furthermore, humans find their sense of fulfillment and happiness in God. We all long for happiness; as Jerry Walls puts it, “We have a built-in hard drive to desire happiness . . . .”1 That is how God made us. And this desire cannot be fulfilled without being rightly related to God. Augustine famously put it this way: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Confessions I). So our story of creation already includes a notion of the goal for which God destines humans—and that goal is not everlasting alienation from God.
The gospel revelation of Jesus Christ deepens and sharpens our understanding of the human telos. The risen and ascended humanity of Christ is the climax of our human nature. One day we shall be like him (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:12–57; 1 John 3:2). For us, being human is a yet-to-be completed journey. Jesus is the only person ever of whom it can be said that he is fully human. Humanity has reached its goal in him. And in the gospel, it becomes clearer to us that the creation of humanity was always a two-phase project: the first Adam was earthly; the second Adam was heavenly (1 Cor. 15:42–49). Humanity was made with a destiny, and that destiny was to be conformed to the image of the true human, the origin of the new, phase-two humanity—Jesus. This theology is foundational for universalism. Humans have been created to grow towards God, their destination. They are not created for hell, but for theosis.
Genesis suggests that the move from phase-one to phase-two humanity was interrupted by sin. Sin is the creature’s attempt to interrupt the reditus, the return to God, which is the goal of creation. As such, sin represents a rupture in creation. It corrodes human be-ing at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination. Instead we spiral away from God, the source of life, into corruption, decay, and death.
All Christians are universalists about sin—all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Without divine redemptive grace human beings (and creation as a whole) are doomed to futility.
Might hell be able to build on the foundation of this plot-twist? Do we deserve divine punishment? Yes. Do we deserve divine rescue? No. But, remember, even broken humans are still in God’s image (Gen. 9:6), still valuable, still beloved:
[A]ll creatures participate in God’s goodness, especially rational creatures who were made in God’s image. . . . The rational creature is, essentially, a being bearing the divine image and ordered toward union with God. . . . God can no more cease to value rational creatures—even if they fall into sin—than He can cease to value Himself, because rational creatures are a reflection of His own essence. Therefore, He is always faithful to them, even when they are unfaithful to Him, and must seek to destroy their sin.2
John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory
To hate creatures made in his image, even fallen ones, would be a form of indirect self-hatred, and this God cannot do. Thus, Jürgen Moltmann: “God is angered by human sin not although he loves human beings but because he loves them. He says No to sin because he says Yes to the sinner.”3
Anthony Bloom, former Metropolitan Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, once stated:
Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. . . . We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty. . . . Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there.4
Blogger Alvin Rapier, commenting on this quote and annihilationism, writes:
If humans are like damaged icons and annihilationists hold that God completely annihilates human beings through the fires of hell, then the doctrine of annihilationism makes God the Great Iconoclast, the destroyer of human icons. God would be destroying the very Creation meant for communion, repeating the actions of the iconoclasts that were condemned in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Instead of treating these icons “with tenderness, with broken-heartedness” and calling out the beauty that is there, as Bloom stated, annihilationism holds that God inflicts “capital punishment” upon these images, that the fires of hell will consume them, similar to how the iconoclast extremists “tore down icons from their places in churches and broke them up and burnt them” (Stephen W. Need, Truly Divine and Truly Human, 132). The God of annihilationism is the God of the iconoclasts, the ultimate destroyer of God’s images.5
So building a doctrine of eternal hell on the doctrine of the fall may prove harder than we may at first think. Hell’s defenders should try to do so, but they will have to wrestle with the wider biblical metanarrative in which the fall is located. Will God allow sin to thwart his creational purposes to beautify the cosmos? The answer comes, as we’ll see, in the gospel story. Sin may be as deep and dark and deadly as it can, but Christ annihilates it! The first Adam may have wrought havoc, but the Second Adam more than undoes that destruction (Rom. 5:14–21). Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). One problem with hell is that it makes the victory of Christ over sin sound something of a damp squib. Sin wreaks havoc in creation, but praise be! Grace undoes a bit of what sin does! Where sin abounds, grace abounds quite a lot. Is that divine victory over sin? It looks at first blush like a doctrine of hell is a doctrine in which Satan achieves a big chunk of what he set out to do. And if the Augustinian tradition is correct and most people are forever damned then eschatological victory is in danger of sounding like celebrating the divine triumph after hearing the following soccer score:
Satan, 5; God, 1.
“Hooray! God has won!” For Augustine, this score counts as a win because God wanted Satan to score 5 and only wanted one goal himself, and because he plans on beating up Satan after the match. Yet that still sounds like another way of saying that God wanted to lose.
1. Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), ?. 2. John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 38. Some readers will be uncomfortable associating the divine image with rationality. If that is you, simply substitute “human” for “rational” in the passage. 3. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1996), 243. 4. As quoted in http://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/articles/quotes 5. Alvin Rapier, “God the Great Iconoclast? A Theological Critique of Annihilationism.” Blog post (16 Dec 2014) on www.thepoorinspirit.com.
The first part of the material that follows can be found in a modified form in my contribution to the forthcoming Four Views on Hell counterpoints book, published by Zondervan. Everything starts and ends with God. Paul writes that creation is “from” God, “through” God, and “to God” (Rom 11:36). God is the context of the world—the origin and the destiny of creation. That basic pattern informs Christian theology: exitus et reditus—“going forth” from God and “return to” God.1 It forms the very broad theological framework within which we must operate.
Consider the Christ hymn of Colossians 1.
For in him [the Son] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. … God was pleased … through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Col. 1:16, 19–20
We see here a story that begins with the creation of all things through Christ and runs on to the reconciliation of the same all things through Christ (i.e., the all things that have been created).2Exitus et reditus. Avoiding the universalism in this text remains a significant challenge for those who believe in eternal hell—eternal hell, after all, does not seem much like reconciliation!3 But I’ll say no more on that now.
So I propose we explore this Christ-centered creation-to-new-creation plotline as a context for considering hell. This hermeneutical judgment—that Christ is the norm for interpreting Scripture—underpins my entire approach. And already we may catch a possible glimpse of a red flag: might an eternal hell foul up the “reditus” of creation? How can creation return to God . . . if it doesn’t ever return to God?
1. The exitus-reditus model was adopted and then adapted from Neoplatonism. 2. While sin is not mentioned, the fact that reconciliation is required clearly presupposes it. 3. Some argue that reconciliation here means, “to put in order.” So, we are told, believers are “reconciled” by being saved, while unbelievers are “reconciled” by being damned. The problem here is that this proposal runs roughshod over the concept of reconciliation in general, and of the concept of reconciliation in Paul in particular (Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:11; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:22). Being defeated and condemned is not being reconciled! Rather, this reconciliation is spelled out in terms of “making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” Try as I might, I struggle to see how “making peace” through the cross can concern damnation, evenif the damned acknowledge the justice of their punishment.
Parry unpacks the “Christ-centered creation-to-new-creation plotline” over 71 pages of careful, biblical exegesis (he did his Phd on part of Genesis) in his book, The Evangelical Universalist, resulting in the summary diagram below:
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.
The overall trajectory of Revelation, like the Bible as a whole, is salvation through judgment. That is to say, judgment is not, and never is, God’s final word.
Parry’s argument according to Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 12m 27s)
We can certainly concede that the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment—after all, this is ultimately expressed in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, which saves us from God’s coming wrath. However, such salvation does not apply to those who end up paying the penalty for sin themselves. Either Jesus pays for our sin or we do. Thus it’s simply misleading to suggest that judgment is never God’s final word for those who die in their sin—this is indeed the case, whether in the Old Testament or in the New.
Williamson’s response to 1., Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 15m)
Given the numerous biblical examples of the judgment→salvation pattern 1 in this age (e.g. Noah, David, Jonah, Israel), it’s not surprising we agree that “the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment”. But the question is:
Does that pattern stop on Judgment Day??
The examples in this age alone set a significant precedent but there’s more. I think there are even some examples where the salvation occurs in the age to come. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah experienced “the punishment of aionios [age to come] fire” (Jude 1:7), so their promised restoration (Ezek 16:53) must also be in the age to come. If Judgment Day is the start of the age to come, another example would be the man handed over Satan so “he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.” (1Cor 5:5) The Apostle Paul explains that:
A partial hardening [being cut off for awhile] has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in [so that] all Israel will be saved
Romans 11:25b-26a, HCSB
As far as I know, Gentiles will be coming in all through this age, so Israel’s salvation must be after that, sometime in the age to come 2.
Another example might be those who responded to Jesus preaching the gospel when “He descended into hell” (Apostles’ creed)—possibly those who died “in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18).
… the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:6, ESV
I don’t know if this counts but it’s interesting that Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land in this age because he was punished but he did in the age to come (Matt 17:3).
Does God’s wrath rule out subsequent mercy? No. The world already experiences God’s wrath (Rom 1:18), and yet every day people are saved.
Does people’s penalty-paying 3 permanently exclude them from atonement? Again, I think not. There’s a lot of overlap between punishment, wrath, and penalty-paying, so the above examples may already suffice. However, it’s worth considering a penalty of sin that everyone receives—death.
For as in Adam all die
1 Corinthians 15:22a, HCSB
Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
Romans 5:12b (cf v17, 21), NLT
Everyone has died spiritually (Eph 2:1, Col 2:13, and the above), and even people who haven’t died physically, experience it through sickness, aging, etc. and the sorrow of a loved one dying.
Despite each person paying that penalty themselves, Christians still believe Christ saves at least the Elect. That someone has already served part of their life sentence, doesn’t stop a king pardoning the remainder (even if that remainder is infinite).
Or from a different angle, that a Christian experiences God’s discipline (which sometimes includes a period of penalty-paying), doesn’t mean they’ve voided Christ’s atonement for them.
So to summarise, I don’t see—in this age or the next—punishment, penalty-paying, or wrath, ruling out a subsequent turning to Christ (indeed it seems to often provoke it). Therefore, I can trust that God will use His atonement, ransom, and death for everyone (as the passages below reveal). Ultimately, nothing, even humanity’s abhorrent rebellion, can diminish the boundless effectiveness of the Cross.
And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven [atoned], and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.
1 John 2:2, GNT
He gave himself as a ransom for everyone, the testimony at the proper time.
1 Timothy 2:6, ISV
Christ’s love controls us. We are sure that one person died for everyone. And so everyone died.
2 Corinthians 5:14, NIRV
1. There’s often a warning beforehand, and also punishment, repentance, faith, etc. before the salvation. 2. Exactly when in the age to come is hard to say. It depends on whether or not the ‘full number’ means all the Gentiles, and on whether the redeemer coming from Zion is a reference to the Second Coming (Parry’s suggestion). 3. I say “penalty-paying” as I believe the paying is ongoing as we accrue debt to God much faster than we are able to pay.
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.
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.