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
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).
Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.
So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.
Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.
One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!
We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?
Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.
So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.
And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.
For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.
Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.
Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.
In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.
1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be?
—First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95).
—Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority.
2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179.
3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld.
4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.
Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll start engaging with his conclusion.
The Bible teaches that God has created the world for the purpose of exalting the glory of his own name (Isa. 42:8; 43:7).
Denny Burk, page 42
everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory 1, whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:7, ESV
I think the Bible’s teaching is more nuanced. I think that the Father created everything through and out of love for Jesus:
For by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
Colossians 1:16, ESV (cf John 1:3, Romans 11:36)
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.
John 3:35, ESV (cf Hebrews 1:2)
And that out of love for the Father, Jesus brings back everything to Him:
but I [Jesus] do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.
John 14:31a, ESV
Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
1Corinthians 15:24, ESV (cf Philippians 2:6-7)
I think Jesus loves the gift (creation) that the Father has given Him and that the Father loves the gift (creation) that Jesus gives Him. So much so that God gives Himself to ransom/restore/reconcile/save creation:
and through Him [Jesus] to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross—whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Colossians 1:20, HCSB
Heaven must receive him [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 3:21, NIV
This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time.
1Timothy 2:3-6, NABRE
So I think it makes sense that this other focused love is also the telos of creation―our purpose given by God.
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us [which includes loving]. They will reign over [care for] the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”
Genesis 1:26, NLT
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
Matthew 22:37, NIV
For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
1John 3:11, NIV
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children [a reflection] of your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:44-45a, NIV
Anyway, I agree with Burk that God deserves all glory and will receive it. Although I think it will be freely given. The Father freely gives Jesus glory, Jesus freely gives the Father glory, and one day all humanity will freely give God glory. To me, this makes more sense of how Jesus spoke about glory:
Jesus answered, “… But I do not seek my glory; there is the one seeking and judging. … If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my father glorifying me, whom you say that ‘He is your God.'”
John 8:49a-50,54b, Apostolic Bible Polyglot
I realise that’s a lot of commentary about one sentence by Burk but our beliefs about our purpose―what God intended―significantly affects the rest of our theology 2. However, moving on to Burk’s next sentence:
He means to manifest both his justice and his mercy in his disposition of sinful humanity (Ex. 34:7).
Denny Burk, page 42
He continues to show his love to thousands of generations, forgiving wrongdoing, disobedience, and sin. He never lets the guilty go unpunished, punishing children and grandchildren for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:7, GWT
I agree, although encouragingly the punishment in Exodus 34:7 is significantly less than the love and forgiveness―thousands of generations vs four generations, which is actually reduced to one in Ezekiel 18:20!
The person who sins will die. A son will not be punished for his father’s sins, and a father will not be punished for his son’s sins. The righteousness of the righteous person will be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be his own.
Ezekiel 18:20, GWT
Back to Burk:
Those who follow Christ are “vessels of mercy” who show forth “the riches of His glory” (Rom. 9:23). Those who do not follow Christ and go to judgment are like Pharaoh, whom God raised up “to demonstrate My power in you and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Rom. 9:17). In short, God is glorified in both mercy and justice, and the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice in his judgment on sin.
Denny Burk, page 42
I agree that God is glorified in mercy and justice, although I don’t see those two in opposition. God’s mercy isn’t unjust, nor is His justice unmerciful. Both work together towards his purpose of realizing love between everyone.
I agree God is just in His judgment on sin. However, sin is an impediment to the harmonious relationships that God made us for. Therefore, now that Jesus, on the cross, has overthrown the power of sin, I think God is working towards eradicating all sin, through conversion and sanctification. Once all sin is gone, I can see no need for any ongoing judgment.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm.
1 Peter 3:18, HCSB
I cannot imagine anything more glorious that seeing God justly bringing everything that has ever been created, to freely, wholeheartedly, and eternally love and worship Him as He deserves and intended.
1. Most English translations seem to skip the Greek word ‘en‘ (usually translated ‘in’), which seems to change the meaning. e.g. Apostolic Bible Polyglot translation is ‘For in my glory I carefully prepared’
2. See also Why Did God Create Man?