Tag: Theology

Debate over universalism in theology and philosophy—Robin Parry

Within contemporary theology and philosophy, there are lots of debates related to universalism. There are lots of issues that come up under discussion and are well worth thinking about. I don’t know the answers to all of them, by the way, but the following are the kinds of issues that would be talked about and raised.

The nature of divine justice?

Traditional views of hell are based on a particular view of what divine justice is. It’s the view that justice is understood in terms of retribution—the punishment must fit the crime, it should be appropriate to the crime and proportionate to the crime. Which in itself, raises a whole bunch of questions about traditional hell. Because if traditional hell is built on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime, how could a finite sin committed by a finite creature be so severe that the appropriate punishment is an infinite punishment? So in itself, the doctrine of retribution—which props up traditional views of hell—seems to undermine them at the same time, or at least make problems for them. There are attempts to defend traditional views of hell in the face of this kind of objection but there are also explorations among philosophers and theologians of alternative understandings of what divine justice might be. Oftentimes in Scripture, justice is seen as something that is about God’s saving justice. God saves people through justice. God restores people through his justice. It’s not simply about retribution. So there are all sorts of discussions about what divine justice might be in Biblical Studies and contemporary theology particularly.

Free will and divine sovereignty?

Particularly for universalism, the question becomes, “If humans have freedom—God can’t force people’s wills—how does God ensure that everybody chooses to be saved?” That’s a really good question and it’s a question that should be taken completely seriously. There are ongoing debates about this—particularly in philosophy of religion and philosophy. How is it that if people have free will—understood in terms of the ability to do something or not do it—how is it that God can ensure that you do the thing that God wants you to do, without forcing you? If he can’t force you, how does he ensure that the end of the cosmos will ever be what he wants? Does this mean we can thwart God’s purposes?

Some of the best people in this debate are:

  1. Jerry Walls—Methodist philosopher—is very sympathetic to universalism but not a universalist. He does think you can be saved from Hell though… but he thinks that you can’t ever be guaranteed universalism because of free will.
  2. Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.

Divine love?

Can hell be a loving thing? Some people argue that it’s loving for God to send people to hell—even if hell was eternal conscious torment. For example, Eleonore Stump—Catholic philosopher—argues, on a sort of Thomas Aquinas kind of approach, that even just existing is a good and thus if God deprived you of existence, he’s depriving you of a good… So allowing you to exist in eternal conscious torment is at least God allowing you some good (I’m sceptical about how kind it would actually be).


Some of the debates about penal substitution kind of link in with this. I mean, John Owen—great Puritan theologian—wrote what is perhaps the best defence of limited atonement (the view that Christ died for some people but not others). I remember reading it as a teenager and bits of it really drawing and attracting me, and bits of it really appalling me. Even though I was a Calvinist at the time, I still found parts of it appalling. But one of the things that was interesting, that struck me, is one of his reasons for arguing that Christ didn’t die for everyone was this: “Look, everyone for whom Christ dies will be saved. I mean, Christ’s death can’t be in vain. So if Christ died for everyone, they’d all be saved obviously. But they’re not all saved—we know that because some people go to hell—so he couldn’t have died for everybody.” The logic seems impeccable—at least on his understanding of atonement. But maybe he could have flipped it around and thought, “If Christ died for everyone….” Because the Bible does actually say that. Although to be fair, he has a good go at trying to show how the texts that look like the Bible actually says that, don’t actually say that. It doesn’t work but it’s a pretty intelligent attempt. If Christ did die for everyone, then yeah, maybe he should have contemplated the possibility of universalism.


In contemporary theology, particularly in contemporary Reformed theology, election is one of the really core things that has raised the issue again. Calvin thought that God elected some people to salvation but not everybody. As this developed within Calvinism, this sometimes became a sort of double predestination, whereby God elects some people to salvation and elects other people to damnation. But within the Reformed tradition, there was, and is, always rethinking of different doctrinal focuses—one of those was election. For example, Schleiermacher, in the 19th century, rethought it in a way where he’s trying to defend Calvin. He’s arguing that, actually, there is not a double decree—God doesn’t decide some for salvation and some for damnation. God makes a single decree, he doesn’t elect individuals, he elects the human race. God elects humanity the race for salvation but the race can’t experience that salvation unless all the individuals that composite it, experience that salvation. So he ends up arguing for universalism but a different account of election.

What’s been a lot more influential than that, is Karl Barth in the twentieth century, again with a radical revision of the reformed doctrine of election. He argued that in fact, Christ doesn’t elect some people to salvation and some people to damnation. God doesn’t elect any individual people, he elects Christ. So Christ is the subject of election and Christ is elect. Those who share in Christ are elect… well, everybody is elect in Christ. So there’s a sense in which, God doesn’t elect me to salvation, he elects Christ but in Christ, I share in that election of Christ. That rethinking of election has led a fair few people… I mean, Jurgen Moltmann was one of Barth’s students and he went on with universalism and Jacques Ellul—French Reformed thinker—developed these kinds of ideas in universalist directions. Barth always insisted he wasn’t Universalist and we could talk about that but anyway, these are some of the debates that are going on in philosophy and theology.

Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.

Parry—Burning Love: The Theological Hermeneutics of Hell

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.

Above is the first section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 1

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Violence and Theology?

Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed, I really do appreciate that! I’ve always been interested in:

  • theology—particularly how it applies to sort of everyday life.
  • politics—it often seems to be an application of one’s worldview.
  • economics—the way societies function in terms of distributing wealth and resources.
  • social justice—my wife is a social worker.

So is mine! {both laugh}
William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

So it keeps you thinking about social justice. And so there’s lots of things I could ask about but I just wanted to focus on one particular thing. I’ve listened to your lecture on religion and violence and how “religion” is a constructed term, that’s not very useful as it’s often defined to suit someone’s agenda. So I thought I’d try to narrow it down and ask you about whether some theology promotes, or excuses, or desensitises us to violence?


Yes {both laugh}… Some atheists say that theology pretty much has no impact on what people do at all. Do you think that is an overstatement? Do you think that theology actually does influence the way we act?

Sure it does. I mean it does for some people so I don’t think there’s any question that there are some Islamic terrorists that take inspiration from theological ideas—no matter how distorted that might be—no matter what other kinds of influences there are in their lives. I don’t think there’s any denying that. The Crusaders were inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. And Islamic terrorists are inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. I don’t think it can be reduced to theological causes but I don’t see that there’s any point in denying that’s certainly in the mix of influences.

What I don’t buy is the idea that theology always has a kind of tendency, or a greater tendency than other kinds of ideas, to promote violence. Some people say, “Well, if you believe in God, then you have this kind of divine mandate for kind of extremism—it’s an absolute command that you can’t disobey”. But you can just as easily argue that if you have no God, then there is no kind of power looking over your shoulder and you are God, so you can do whatever you want. And you can make that argument very easily historically, with figures like Stalin and Pol Pot, and so on.

Yeah, totally. If I had more time I’d ask you about that more. But I think—you probably agree—that there’s also some theology that can actually promote peace? I guess, even nonviolence?

Right, yeah, absolutely. That was the subject of the Girard conference last week and I think that’s at the heart of Christianity—it’s certainly what I’d want to claim—this claim of nonviolence. God becomes incarnate, we kill Him, and He doesn’t retaliate.

Yes, I think there is a lot of positive things about Christianity. I think most theology is actually a positive influence.

Just War and Pacifism?

But just focusing on a couple of negative ones: the Just War theory.What do you think about the Just War theory, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ recent criticism or critique of it?

Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was Pope Benedict the sixteenth, in the context of the Iraq war, said we have to ask whether it’s even possible to talk about a Just War anymore. Oftentimes it’s presented as if there are two positions that a Christian can take:

One is pacifism and one is Just War—that these are two separate positions.

But I kind of see them as concentric circles because really at the heart of the Just War idea is the notion of nonviolence and therefore you have to justify any act of violence under very strict criteria. And so the Just War idea kind of draws the circle a little bit wider than a pacifist would. But nonviolence is at the heart of both of them.

I think I’m not sure if I’ve made up my mind whether to call myself a pacifist or not. For one thing there’s nothing at stake, I mean it doesn’t cost me anything and that I think is a really important consideration. But also I think that even if we took the Just War tradition seriously, it would have enormously radical consequences. If we took seriously the idea that we should not simply defer judgment on these matters to the nation state but that the Church itself should make these decisions about what qualifies as a justifiable act of violence or not. It would have enormous consequences, I mean many of the churches, including John Paul the second, the Vatican and so on, had grave reservations about whether the Iraq war would be justifiable.

Yes, I remember that.

So you can imagine how dramatic it would be if large numbers of Christians, or even Catholics, just said, “We’re going to sit this one out.” Not because they’re pacifists but because they simply judge that this is not a just war and so we can’t, in good conscience, fight it. But the Just War theory never seems to work that way. It only seems to work in terms of justifying acts of war once they have already broken out.

Yes, the bar seems very low! “We’re going to save them! That’s justified it.” But do they need saving??

I’d probably answer the same as you. I’m undecided, and again, because I’m not about to go off to war, it really takes the pressure off. So I’d want to be very, very, very sure that it was completely morally justified, and I think a lot of wars haven’t been—particularly in recent history…