Universal Salvation raises the critically important question of how we read the Bible—or ‘hermeneutics’. That is what Robin covers in this talk. He sweeps us through a big landscape in three succinct waves—each bigger than the one before.
First, he confronts the foreground question of biblical texts—and he makes the point that everybody has problems here. How do we reconcile God’s love with his omnipotence?
He then moves onto slightly broader terrain—we need to read texts in their context BUT the meaning of the texts will often be bigger than even the author intended or realised.
Finally, he finishes with a new horizon of interpretation—the future. He talks about the ‘trajectories’ of the biblical canon, which stretch beyond themselves for future generations—like ours—to articulate. He uses the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as an example.Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations
Tony introduces Rev Dr Robin Parry by explaining what Gospel Conversations is all about—expanding our view of God and that means inquiring into mystery. The best way to inquire is to firstly map out the landscape of a debate and see where it takes us—and that is exactly what Robin does in this marvellous talk. He gives us a birds-eye view of the long debate over universalism.
But he goes further—and he gives us a map to navigate the territory. He defines what universalism is and is not. He explains the different pathways that have led many orthodox Christians to consider it seriously—Bible, patristics, experience, and ‘gospel logic’. This takes a lot of confusion and heat out of the debate and gives us a clear view of the topic. But it also hints at a bigger view of God, and a broader view of Christian thinking. Robin gives us the gift of years of learning and thought in one hour.
Listen to the podcast episode:
Occasionally I get condemned as a non-Christian heretic because I believe in God’s ultimate, universal restoration and reconciliation—similar to Robin Parry, Tom Talbott, and the Church Fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Below is a summary of some of my beliefs. What do you think, do we share common ground?
- God: I believe the eternal Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the best way to describe the God revealed in the Bible. I believe God is infinitely and perfectly loving, holy, glorious, wise, powerful, knowing, and just. I believe God deserves complete (heart, mind, and body), voluntary, joyful praise and worship from each and every created being.
- Jesus: I believe in the historical and physical incarnation, life, death, descent, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth—about 2000 years ago. I believe this Jesus was also fully and eternally divine, the Son of God, the Logos, and the promised Messiah. I believe He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and that one day every knee will bow and confess allegiance to Him.
- Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit works within us to teach, encourage, and to help us bear the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, temperance, and self-control.
- Bible: I believe the Bible was intentionally created by God and inspired humans. I believe that it has been well preserved, and when correctly translated from its original languages and rightly understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is authoritative in both matters of faith and practice.
- Humanity: I believe each and every person is irreplaceable—immeasurably valuable—as everyone is created in God’s image. I believe each person is a unique child of God— personally known and cherished by Him forever!
- Sin: I believe any opposition—physical, mental, or spiritual—to God is a sin. I believe everyone, from Adam onwards, has sinned (except for Jesus). I believe sin taints and affects every aspect of our lives. I believe we need God to free us from our slavery to sin. I believe sin has severe ramifications—including suffering, death, and even outer darkness (God completely hiding his presence from us). However, I believe God will eventually eliminate sin entirely from all beings and therefore from existence eternally.
- Judgement: I believe God will raise the dead and that Jesus will judge everyone fairly, that no sin will be swept under the carpet—instead, people will experience God’s correction.
- Salvation: I believe Christ is the atonement for all sins, the only Saviour, that salvation is a gift of grace, received by repentance and faith (with the Spirit’s help), and that it cannot be earned.
- Missional: I believe God wants us to be actively involved in reconciling people to him, through our love and prayer for others and the proclamation of the Gospel.
- Early Ecumenical Creeds and Councils: I believe my beliefs comply with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and therefore remains within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. I also have a high regard for the early ecumenical councils, but like most Protestants, I don’t believe they are infallible and disagree with some points (e.g. veneration of icons).
- A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
- Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?
- The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle (below)
Justine: Amy is not only a prolific speaker, she’s a writer as well. One of her recent books is called, Why trust the Bible?
Amy: The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth, this is not a sort of religious mythical bubble that we need to jump into, that only makes sense internally if we just close our minds to the real world that we experience. The Bible is trustworthy because it diagnoses the human condition that you and I experience. It speaks of it in real terms—with empathy about the darkness and violence of this world—and it introduces us to the God who’s entered this real world in the person of Jesus. So I think we can trust the Bible in those kind of existential terms.
The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth…
But secondly, historically it is my experience through studying the manuscript tradition—through studying the historical process of the transmission of the Bible—that this stands up to rigorous scrutiny. That the source material for the Bible is vast. That where there are differences between manuscripts, those differences are not covered over in English or other language translations. There’s an openness about the process of transmission and I think that makes it trustworthy.
Justine: It’s also a book that you’ve seen has had an impact in some quite surprising places. I read that you went to Afghanistan when you were 19—you have all these wonderful stories in your biography—and you presented the Bible to someone in that circumstance didn’t you?
Amy: Yes, while I was a theology student at Oxford I was also not just studying Christian theology but studying Islamic thought as well and a small team of us went to Afghanistan. We ended up going the weekend after the BBC had been in town doing their groundbreaking documentary on the Taliban. We got the opportunity as theological students to interview the Education Minister, the Religion Minister, and the Foreign Minister and the Keeper of the Holy Quran (the Religion Minister). And in the process of that interview in their military headquarters we also gave them Bibles, saying, “We think this is the most precious gift one human being can give another.” And they were all heavily armed, we did wonder what was going to happen next, let’s put it like that, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. But the Keeper of the Holy Quran took hold of the Bible and looked at it and he said, “I know exactly what this book is, I’ve been praying to God for years that I could read this book. Thank you for bringing me this book, I’ll read it every day.” And that just struck me as amazing, that at the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.
At the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.
Simon: That is very surprising! Now Amy, while we might come to accept that the Bible is trustworthy in the way that you’ve described it, is it relevant? I mean, what does the Bible have to say to a complex modern society or even my own life in that place?
Amy: My experience is that the Bible has relevance today because it introduces us to the person of Jesus, who came in history, was God incarnate—God making himself known to us in human form—and that truth connects with our reality, the reality of our brokenness, of our anxiety, of our pain, of our sin, of our shame, because in Jesus, God deals with the human condition by going to the cross and offering us forgiveness, offering us new life.
It’s interesting to me that the primary image that Jesus used for what it means to come to know God is the image of birth. Now, as a mother of twins and another little boy, it strikes me as odd that a single, 30 something year old, ancient near-eastern male would invoke the image of birth. Birth is overwhelmingly, excruciatingly painful. It’s a visceral struggle for life over death. There’s blood, there’s guts, there’s gore in the process of birth, and Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born. There was no life and now there is undeniably this screaming baby, there’s life! How much more relevant could things get? God is saying that coming to know him is like being born all over again. This is ontological, this is real, this is visceral, it’s undeniable when this has happened.
Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born.
Justine: From the Center for Public Christianity, you’ve been listening to Life & Faith with Justine Toh and Simon Smart. Amy Orr-Ewing joins us again next week to talk about Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford and a force to be reckoned with.
Amy: She disliked the idea of arguing for women’s equality on the basis of calling women a class. So she’s saying we’re not a special class of human we’re actually human.
Justine: You won’t want to miss the conversation. Sign up for our newsletter at PublicChristianity.org or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes—just type “Life & Faith” in the search box to find us. While you’re there, please leave us a rating or a review, we want to know what you think of the show and it helps other people find it as well.
- The greater the importance of something to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it.
- The greater the doubt, the more you desire to have certainty.
So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?
I recently got to go to a talk by John Dickson, and in the following week two events by Peter Rollins. Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections. As I’ve been mulling over what they said, I’ve realised there are both similarities and contrasts between the two that are worth sharing.
While they both had helpful insights on a range of things, topics they both focused on were doubt and desire. They both spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. We all have doubts, at least at times, about big questions―be that the existence or character of God, the interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. This was refreshing because sometimes there is pressure to “have it all worked out”, or that any doubt implies we don’t have enough faith1.
But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling anxious or depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can2. However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two different approaches.
My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards3, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery4. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to satisfy every desire.
… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.Peter Rollins
I think Rollins’ caution should be heeded. Often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―that things are often more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.
For those with intellectual doubts, Dickson recommended reading and researching more because most quandaries have been pondered and addressed extensively by someone before. I’m naturally attracted to Dickson’s approach. My Dad is a science teacher and my Mum is teacher librarian, so questioning and reading were ingrained in me from an early age. Dickson also suggests that God, largely through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now and promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all doubts and suffering. We can have hope now. In the book that his talk summarized, Dickson writes:
But Is It All Wishful Thinking?
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven. “Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice,” he says; “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 214
I do think it is easier to endure suffering and live with the questions and doubts it raises, if we believe we are promised a good outcome.
If I knew there was a resolution [to suffering], I could walk through life without precisely knowing why I’m experiencing ugliness [suffering].John Dickson, Doubting the Bible, Hobart talk 2015
I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now5 if we are desiring the future.
… [set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins
While I think the Bible does encourage peace and contentment with the current, non-ideal situation, I don’t think that it’s suggesting this at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised. For example, I can be at peace with the death of a loved one, while still looking forward to the day when we’ll be reunited in the New Creation.
The fact that humanity has longings [for God, the afterlife, and ethics] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water. … perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst. … in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are satisfied. … [in] the final lines of the Bible itself, we are all invited for a drink…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 215-217
“Come!” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink [receive] freely from the water of life.Revelation 22:17b (NLT)
I think this verse goes even further than Dickson realises, and suggests universal salvation. For the water of life flows out (Zechariah 14:8) the open gates (Rev 21:25) of the New Jerusalem to the not-yet-saved outside (Rev 22:15) and it is God and the quenched (John 4:14) who are calling the thirsty to drink. In a future post I’ll look at the objection that some people will refuse to drink. For now, I think it’s worth considering how parched one becomes near fire6, and how irrational it would be not to accept a free drink. Anyway, for Calvinists, like Dickson, I hope they wouldn’t have this objection as they believe all whom God calls will come7.
“Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! … My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:1,11 (NLT)
1. Which could be interpreted as meaning one’s salvation is at stake.
2. This may include encouraging them to seek professional help via a GP.
3. I’ve watched some of his YouTube videos too but unfortunately I haven’t read any of his books yet.
4. This reminds me of the Eastern approach to theology.
5. He made some excellent points about making sure we give priority to loving people over philosophising about things.
6. Also located outside the gates in Revelation imagery.
7. The “I” in TULIP is for Irresistable Grace.