Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
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.
Really, for Christian universalists, Christmas is about the same stuff as it is for every other Christian: the birth of Jesus—the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in human flesh. It is about “God with us” as one of us; it is about God’s faithfulness to promises he made to his covenant people Israel; it is about the promise of redemption; it is about the turning point in history. And the Christmas stories contain loads of other themes: the humility of Mary, submitting her reputation, and perhaps even her life, to obey God; the gentle pride-swallowing grace of Joseph; the revelation of the gospel to mere shepherds; the political power-hungry paranoia and ruthlessness of an insecure king Herod; and so on. But none of this is obviously universalist.
But when Tim Nash calls, one responds, so I want to pursue two lines of thought about how a universalist may have a slightly different spin on Christmas.
The first of these begins with an observation that would, perhaps, even appear to be a problem for universalism—I am referring to the fact that the Christmas story as narrated in Scripture seems to be primarily concerned with the implications of Jesus for the Jews.
The stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are almost exclusively concerned with Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is the nation that God has chosen from all the other nations to be his own special possession. They are his covenant people. However, they had repeatedly fallen short of their covenant calling and were struggling under the oppression of their enemies. They needed salvation; they need transformation; they need the covenant renewing; they need forgiveness; they need the Spirit of God to be poured out on them as the prophets had said.
Many Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting a new king or a new priest to come from God to deliver them from their enemies and renew the covenant. They were looking forward with aching hope, waiting for the anointed one—the priestly or kingly Messiah—to come. God had promised it through the prophets of old. This is, of course, what Advent is about.
Now the birth stories, the Christmas stories, in Matthew and Luke very clearly announce that this long-awaited salvation is at last dawning for Israel because her Messiah has been born. God’s king is at last here!
This is indeed good news for Israel, but in the birth-stories in the Gospels, the relation of Gentiles to Jesus gets hardly a look-in. This is especially evident if you read the speeches of the characters in Luke’s Gospel: the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. For all of them, as for Luke himself, this story is about the redemption of Israel, God’s covenant people.
But, I hear you cry, what about the words of the angel to the shepherds? You know the ones.
Fear not, said he,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and . . . all mankind.
While Shepherds Watched, Nahum Tate
That’s nice but the problem is that this is not what the angel said. What he actually said was: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Not “for all people” but “for all the people.” And there can be absolutely no doubt in the context of Luke Israel-centric birth stories that “the people” means “the people of Israel.”
The only hint of something more comes in the song of Simeon on seeing baby Jesus:
“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Luke 2:30–32, NIV
It is not clear whether Simeon was thinking of salvation coming to the Gentiles or merely of salvation coming to Israel, with all the nations witnessing it. However, there can be no doubt at all that Luke himself does see Jesus as one who brings saving revelation to the Gentiles, as well as to Israel. And Luke intends his audience to perceive this in Simeon’s words.
The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel similarly function as representatives of the gentile nations, coming to worship the Messiah, the true king of Israel.
Nevertheless, there is not a whole lot for the universalist here
Every day we see and experience broken relationships. Sometimes they are so broken that parties end up killing each other. For example, just this morning I was reminded that in Australia alone each week two women are murdered by their partners―this week one was a pregnant mother.
In today’s post I want to look at one of the reasons why I believe eventually all broken relationships will be healed in the New Creation. We find this promise in the “The Christ Poem”1:
I love how this passage shows the preeminence (the utmost importance) and centrality of Jesus in everything―past, present and future. And it does this using wonderfully interwoven parallels:
– Jesus is over everything (a) because everything (b & c) was created by Him.
– Jesus is before everything (d) because everything (e) is held together by Him.
– Jesus is preeminent in everything (f) because He is:
the beginning (or origin) of Creation
the head (or origin) of the Church
the firstborn from the dead (the beginning or origin of the New Creation)
the “telos” (purpose and destiny) of everything―everything (c) is created to Him, and everything (g) will be reconciled to Him.
(I think these dot points also show the Bible’s overall story)
Now as far as I can see, the scope of all of these “everything”s3 is identical and includes absolutely everything created4. In case there was any doubt, Paul twice reinforces the “everything” (b & h) with the “in heaven and on earth” phrase5, and makes sure we understand that the phrase includes everything visible and invisible, even thrones, dominions, rulers or authorities.
However, what does “reconcile everything to Him” mean? Thankfully, I think Paul explains it in the same sentence. It is “making peace”, and Jesus achieved6 this through His self-sacrifice, “His blood shed on the cross”. I think Paul gives examples of what this looks like, both before and after the poem:
He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him.Colossians 1:13-14
Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds because of your evil actions. But now He has reconciled you by His physical body through His death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before HimColossians 1:21-22
Paul uses it similarly in Romans 5:10 (HCSB), explaining that amazingly the reconciliation was inaugurated (begun) while we still hated God:
For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!
Not only is the relationship to God reconciled but relationships to everyone else:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jews and non-Jews] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)
And this isn’t just a future hope or dream, it’s something God invites us to be involved with now:
Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.2 Corinthians 5:18-19 (HCSB)
I find it immensely encouraging to know that each self-sacrificial peacemaking, small or big, takes us one step closer to seeing every relationship restored and reconciled―indeed reformed to what God always intended!7
I hope this brief overview will inspire you to at least look into this more. The best exposition of Colossians 1:15-20 I’ve ever read is in Robin Parry’s book8―you can read the pages here. It strongly influenced this post, however I also found Diane Castro’s blog post9 helpful, as well as Talbott’s discussion10.
1. Colossians 1:15-20 2. N.T. Wright, “Poetry and Theology in Colossians 1:15-20,” in idem, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 99–119. Found on page 42 of The Evangelical Universalist. 3. Each time it’s the Greek word “pas”. 4. While not talking about creation, the extent of the image and fullness of God is similarly absolute, as Jesus is fully God. 5. Also used by Paul in Ephesians 1:10 and by Jesus in Matthew 28:18. 6. And achieves. I think it’s a “now and not yet” scenario. He has won but it’s not yet fully actualised. 7. I want to make it clear that sadly there are limits to how much some relationships can be healed in this age. For example, I’m NOT advocating women staying in, or returning to, domestic violence―violence is the opposite of the peace that God intended, and will achieve for all relationships in the age to come. If you are facing domestic violence please seek help via HumanServices.gov.au or WomensHealth.gov. For those interested in present and future reconciliation more generallly, I recommend reading Miroslav Volf’s profound material e.g. The Final Reconciliation: Reflections on a Social Dimension of the Eschatological Transition. 8. MacDonald, Gregory. The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 41-53. 9. Reconciliation: The Heart of God’s Grand Plan for Creation. 10. Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God (1999, revised 2015), p63.
My last post introduced what I think are the most common views that Christians have on Hell (broadly defined as the fate of those who aren’t saved in this life). This week I’m going to look at one of the reasons why I think Hell needs to be reformed, and that is because current notions of Hell don’t seem to fit well in the Bible’s overall story or metanarrative.
There are a lot of themes that could be included but I’ll walk us through a simple summary of the Bible that focuses on the relationship between God and people:
We start with the perfect, eternal God who creates everyone.
For everything was created by Him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through Him and for Him.
Colossians 1:16, HCSB
Sadly, everyone deliberately puts themselves first at the expense of others. This unloving attitude is a core aspect of sin. Unchecked, I think we become increasingly proud and narcissistic, while pushing away the Source of life, growth, vitality, joy and hope. Furthermore, the attitude and behaviour is a rebellion against God and His desire for the way things should be (wholeheartedly enjoying and praising Him—together, forever!). The climax of this rebellion was executing Jesus on a Roman instrument of torture, a wooden cross.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
Romans 3:23, NLT
If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
1 John 1:8, HCSB
I think sin/rebellion becomes self (and other) destructive—spiritually, mentally and physically. Our physical death seems to be a reflection (a consequence, a form of punishment1) of this spiritual deadness/broken relationship.
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
Romans 5:12, NLT
Jesus’ death on the cross thankfully changes things2, including demonstrating God’s forgiveness of our rebellion and drawing people to repent and believe in Him.
We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.
1 John 3:16, NLT
Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!
Romans 5:10, HCSB
Although it would be nice to unpack each step a lot more, so far hopefully most Christians would be more or less in agreement. However, a major disagreement arises about the fate of people who don’t repent and believe in this life. Those people, according to many Christians, aren’t saved at this point, nor can they be saved at any later time.
Next week, in part two of this mini-series, I’ll try to make a case for why I think there is actually an amazing symmetry in Bible’s story, that the “people” in the last two steps of this flowchart are actually the “everyone” in the first three steps!
1. However, our current physical limitations, particularly death, should shatter our delusion that we are God and act as a limitation on the amount of evil (and self destruction) we can commit. In that sense, both are merciful and mean that the road to restoration is shorter. 2. Many books have been written on what happened on the cross and how we should understand the Atonement but Atonement Metaphors and Animated Explanation of Sacrifice and Atonement are helpful starting points. 3. We are also reconciled to each other – see Top 7 Bible Verses About Reconciliation.
While I’m itching to get into more detail about why and how I think we should reform our view of Hell, I think we first need to establish what the current views of Hell are. This is hard to do accurately because not many people talk about Hell, and of those that do, it seems that quite a few are required to promote a particular view (e.g. there are some seminaries, ministry positions, and denomination memberships that require it). However, a broad definition could be, “The fate of those who aren’t saved in this life.”
Religions have different views about what this fate is and the quantity of those who will experience it. However, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the religion, Christianity, that I’ve got some knowledge1 of and experience with. Even within Christianity, there are at least 5 common views of the fate of those who aren’t saved in this life:
Probably everlasting conscious torment2 or punishment3. It’s hard to know what label to give this view, some suggest “Traditionalism” but all views have a long tradition. I’ll use “Hellism” – not because other views don’t have a view of Hell but because none of the others have Hell as the final fate of anyone.
Probably cease to exist4. Known as Annihilationism, Conditionalism, or Conditional Immortality.
Probably all will be saved eventually5. Known as Universalism, Universal Reconciliation, or Universal Restoration.
Probably all go “straight to heaven”6. Sometimes known as Ultra-Universalism.
Too hard to predict7. Sometimes known as Soteriology Agnosticism.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve said “predict” and “probably”. This is because epistemologists explain that knowledge of anything is difficult, and I assume future events are particularly so. Anyway, here’s my very rough estimate8 of how many Christians hold each view:
One of the reasons I think view 5 is common is because it seems to be the unofficial Catholic position9, although I’ve also met plenty of Protestants who hold it, at least for specific individuals (i.e. if you ask someone if they think person X is in Hell, many will say they don’t know).
One of the things I appreciated growing up in the Reformed tradition, was Reformation Day1. Among other things, this celebrated the ideal that we should always be reforming the church, or at least be willing to consider our beliefs and practices, in light of Scripture.
I believe the Reformers made many important reforms. However, I think that they should have reformed their soteriology2 and eschatology3 further, back past Augustine4, to Gregory of Nyssa5 and Origen6. One of the reasons is because I believe these earlier Church Fathers’ interpretation is more in line with the Apostle Paul.
God willing, over the next few weeks I’ll be able to unpack this…