Heaven, the Ultimate Destination?—Williamson at Moore College—part 1

In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 gave a brief summary of Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. He gave four lectures covering the intermediate state, resurrection, judgment, and punishment. The sixth, and final, lecture covered heaven, and whether that is the final destination, and whether it is for everyone, or not 2.

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

Continuing on.

… 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.

Dr Paul Williamson
Dr Paul Williamson

1. Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, has written a number of books, and was a contributor to the NIV Study Bible.
2. See here for his talk outline.
3. Talbott points out that for people with non-believing parents, siblings, spouses, children, and life-long friends, that would mean discarding almost everything in this life.
4. Or many or most, depending on how many billion reprobates you believe there will be!

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 6

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.

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

What do you think of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? ? Have you read it?

I have, actually I just reread it recently. I think again that’s the sort of Barthian idea that we should at least hope that all will be saved. There’s that passage in first Timothy I think that kind of indicates that. But we can’t say for sure. And again the question is how could anybody resist God’s grace forever.

Mmm… Peter Kreeft, when he was interviewed about this, said, “We hope and pray that everyone is saved but we can’t say for sure.” So again that’s kind of the standard Catholic and Eastern Orthodox position. I think George Pell said that hell may be empty. I think he was criticizing people who dogmatically say there’s people in Hell. He says we can’t say there definitely will, or won’t, be.

Somebody told me there’s a website out there with lists of people that definitely are in Hell… {concerned laugh} that’s so…

Yeah… I don’t doubt that.

Four Views on Hell?

Have you read Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell?

No, I haven’t.

It’s from an Evangelical perspective, and they’ve got a case for Annihilationism, a case for Eternal Conscious Torment, a case for Universalism, and a case for Purgatory.

From an Evangelical point of view??

Yeah.

{chuckles} That’s good.

Yeah, it’s the first time that a major evangelical publisher has admitted that Evangelical Universalism is a biblical and theological Christian position, even though they disagreed with it. {shows William Four View on Hell book} It only came out this year and I haven’t actually finished reading it.

Origen?

What do you think about some of the Early Church Fathers? What do you think about Gregory of Nyssa and Origen, for example? Who both appear to hold to Universal Salvation. What’s your view on that?

{laughs} I think Origen was probably a little too confident. I haven’t read Gregory of Nyssa on that. But again I think the wiser position if to say we hope but we don’t know for sure. Origen seemed to know for sure. He seemed to know a lot of things for sure.

OK, that’s cool 1.

Torture?

You wrote a book on torture, which I haven’t actually read. Do you think torture is ever justified?

No.

No… that’s good! {both laugh} I’m glad to hear that! Some people seem to think it is…?

It’s listed in various church documents as an intrinsically evil act and I think that’s the way we should treat it. What’s interesting to me is just the way torture works in the popular imagination. You know it doesn’t work at all as it does in reality. In reality it doesn’t really work much. You very rarely, if ever, get real, actionable intelligence. It’s more for intimidating people and breaking up social bodies and things like that.

But the role it plays in the popular imagination in United States… it’s really important for some people to know that we’re torturing terrorists because that seems to protect us. This is I think, in part, behind the popularity of Trump. “He’s going to be a strong person with few scruples, going to protect us from the bad things that are out there.” It doesn’t make any logical sense but torture is a kind of theatre, is really what I argue, a sort of liturgy—anti-liturgy—that reverses the Eucharist.

Yes, I found the idea interesting, well the little bit I could read in Google, {both laugh} and I wondered how it worked.

Is Everyone A Child Of God?

We’ve almost run out of time but quickly, do you think everyone is a child of God?

Yes.

Coming from a few different passages. I think starting in Genesis.

Yes.

Yes, you do think that, and I agree. {both laugh} My latest blog series was on everyone being a child of God. What are some of the implications of that—of everyone being a child of God?

Well, you need to treat everybody with dignity, even people that seem completely alien—these days, Muslims. Children of the same God. I mean that’s at the most basic level.


1. Upon further reflection, I was puzzled by the description of Origen as “presumptuous”, as he doesn’t come across that way to me. So I asked Dr. Ben Myers, who lectures on Origen:

Short answer: no, ‘presumptuous’ would be the last word anyone would use to describe Origen! Even on the topic of universal salvation, he’s actually very tentative and suggestive and exploratory, never fully decided or dogmatic. This is because he’s essentially an exegete, not a theologian, so he’s always keenly aware of the huge diversity within the biblical canon.

Sprinkle’s Introduction to “Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

Alex holding his copy of "Four Views on Hell: Second Edition"
“Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

I’ll have to pause my current blog series because Four Views on Hell: Second Edition has arrived! This is the latest book in Zondervan’s1 Counterpoints―a series that allows 3-5 prominent scholars to each present their view on an important biblical and theological issue, and then respond to each of the others. Thus, in one book, a reader can get a good overview of the topic and see where the points of difference are. Because of this, I suspect the book will turn out to be one of the most significant books on the topic of Hell for many years to come. My aim is to post about the book as I read through it.

Preston Sprinkle
Preston Sprinkle

The general editor of this book, Preston Sprinkle, wrote the Introduction. He starts by acknowledging that Christianity’s doctrine of Hell has sometimes been poorly articulated and misused. Also, that even within evangelical Protestantism there has been a wide range of views. The examples he gives are Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and N. T. Wright. He says that in the last 20 years there has been an increasing amount of discussion of the topic (I’ve observed this too). He rightly notes that this isn’t because people are becoming “wishy-washy” but quite the opposite, it’s because people are re-examining Scripture. I think this is partly due to the Internet exposing us to many great Christian thinkers, past and present, across the entire Church, not just our local denomination. In the same vein, he mentions that dialogue between Protestants and Catholics is now common. Another reason for re-examining Scripture is that Early Church history, councils and creeds are more accessible, meaning we can see for ourselves that all of the views on Hell in this book are actually orthodox2.

If you hold onto your view too tightly, unwilling to reexamine it in light of Scripture, then you are placing your traditions and presuppositions on a higher pedestal than Scripture itself. If the view you have always believed is indeed Scriptural, then there’s nothing to fear by considering and wrestling with other views. If Scripture is clear, then such clarity will be manifest.
Preston Sprinkle, p14

I loved that he emphasised “ecclesia temper reformanda est, or ‘the church is (reformed and) always reforming’”3, which was the inspiration behind this blog (see my first post). I agree with him that we regularly need to review our views, otherwise:

It’s common, perhaps likely, that unexamined beliefs become detached from their scriptural roots over time [and acquire “unbiblical baggage” p11] … We believe particular doctrines, but can’t always defend them biblically.

Preston Sprinkle, p15

He briefly introduces each contributor4 and their view:

  1. Denny Burk is “a Professor of Biblical Studies and the director of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College”. His view is Eternal Conscious Torment, and is based on passages such as Matt 25:46.
  2. John Stackhouse is “the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University”. His view is “terminal punishment” (aka Annihilationism or Conditionalism), and is based on passages such as Matt 10:28.
  3. Robin Parry has “a PhD [in OT theology] from the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and serves as the commissioning editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers”. His view is Christian [Evangelical] Universalism (aka Universal Reconciliation), and is based on passages such as Rom 5:18. Sprinkle helpfully points out that this is not “anything goes, all roads lead to heaven” pluralism!
  4. Jerry Walls is “Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University”. His view assumes Eternal Conscious Torment but unlike Burk, he argues here for a type of purgatory where sanctification of believers and sometimes repentance of some (but not all) people who hadn’t believed in this life, can occur (similar to C. S. Lewis?), based on passages such as 1Cor 3:10-15. Sprinkle explains that this does not replace Christ’s atonement.

All of them have also authored multiple books and publications. I appreciated that he repeatedly points out all the contributors to this book:

  1. are committed Christians
  2. believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  3. affirm the existence of Hell (despite differing on the nature of it)
  4. base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality

As Christians, we should seek to understand before we refute, and if we refute, we must do so based on compelling biblical evidence and not out of fear or presupposition.
Preston Sprinkle, p15


1. Publisher of the well known NIV translation.
2. He mentions this here in relation to Annihilationism but elsewhere I’ve seen him say this about Evangelical Universalism too.
3. p15
4. All quotes in this paragraph are from p13.

Presumptions and Possibilities―Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 2

My last post began a series of posts on Brad Jersak’s book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (HGWNBS). Brad starts the first chapter looking at how globally, in both religion and culture, images of “fire and brimstone, dungeons and torture, demons and judgment”1 are deeply embedded. It’s no surprise that non-believers often think all religions are bound up with fear and violence.

Brad describes being fearful of the fate of his dear unchurched relatives as he was growing up in an evangelical church. But as he knew of no alternative to the eternal conscious torment doctrine, he did his best to try to accept it and teach it to others.

However, thankfully when he was 25 he read Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue by David Edwards and John Stott. He trusted Stott more than anyone else at the time, and so this meant Annihilationism became a valid, biblical alternative. This lead to the him to discover that, throughout Church history, there has been more than one legitimate eschatology (view of the end times/age to come). He broadly categorises the views as Infernalism2, Annihilationism3, or Universalism4. In HGWNBS he gives examples of passages typically cited to support each interpretation. He then rightly says,

All of these points reflect theological concerns for representing God’s character aright, pastoral concerns for guarding God’s flock in the truth, evangelistic concerns for presenting the Gospel with integrity, and biblical concerns for faithfulness to Christian Scripture. So how is it that we’ve come to such differing positions?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 5

In answer to this he suggests how we arrive at our view of hell often depends on:

  1. Our view of God
  2. Our view of Atonement
  3. Our approach to Scripture
  4. Our personal need (biases)

He unpacks each of these before proposing that, by design, Scripture is polyphonic (has multiple voices) so that none of us can be dogmatic. Instead there are “magnificent tensions”5. For example, the Bible affirms that God allows humans to make choices, even those with severe consequences. But that this seems to be in tension with the Bible’s teaching that God is free to relent, forgive and restore whomever He likes.

My argument for hope over presumption is just this: the Bible doesn’t allow us to settle easily on any of these as “isms”.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 7

So where does that leave us? Setting aside preconceptions as best we can, what does the Bible actually teach us about judgment and hell when we read it carefully and take it seriously? Not “what do I imagine about hell?” or “what do I wish about hell if it were up to me?” … Is there a way to approach the subject of hell that doesn’t presume or negate any of these positions, one that accepts the reality of judgment but hopes that somehow everyone might one day be reconciled to God?
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

I agree, I think it’s important to keep the Bible central.

Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist [or annihilationist] corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever… that Jesus’ plan to save the whole world might actually work.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8

Likewise, I think it’s important to consider what Christians before us have thought and taught, particularly those who were natively fluent in the Bible’s original languages, something that no one is any more.

In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic. That said, the data summarized herein did lead me to four conclusions, which you may or may not share after all is said and done:

1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.

2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.

3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.

4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10

  1. I agree we shouldn’t presume but I think we can actually be confident in this sense:

Many Christians think or feel that confident universalism is presumptuous, for we cannot claim to know the end. And while there is a lot that we do not know about the end, we do know this: “Christ is risen!”. And that’s enough, because God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here and for me that’s what it means more than anything to be an Evangelical Universalist. It means to find one’s universalism in the Evangel and to be confident in my universalism I would say is not presumptuous because I’m not claiming anything more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God.
Robin Parry at the Rethinking Hell Conference 2015

  1. I think the revelation of God includes warnings of damnation, just not everlasting damnation because I don’t think God will fail to redeem everyone.
  2. Amen!
  3. I look forward to sharing his excellent analysis of Revelation 21-22 later on in this series.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

To summarize our direction, I quote Hermann-Josef Lauter [Pastoralblatt, p123].

Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question, but love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from a Christian standpoint, not just permitted but commanded.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10


1. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 1.
2. The belief that some/many/most will be eternally consciously tormented, either by their own perpetual self-destruction or by God’s wrath.
3. The belief that some/many/most will cease to exist permanently, either as a result of their own self-destruction or of God’s wrath.
4. The belief that everyone who God has created will be forgiven, reconciled and restored by/to God.
5. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 7.

What are the current views of Hell??

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Probably cease to exist4. Known as Annihilationism, Conditionalism, or Conditional Immortality.
  3. Probably all will be saved eventually5. Known as Universalism, Universal Reconciliation, or Universal Restoration.
  4. Probably all go “straight to heaven”6. Sometimes known as Ultra-Universalism.
  5. 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:Chart

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).

In my first blog post (“Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church is always to be reformed), I was mainly thinking about those who hold view 1 but on further reflection, I think it applies to all the views, including my own.

Do you think my estimate of the distribution of views is reasonable?


1. Unfortunately the opportunity to study this topic at a tertiary level hasn’t occurred yet but I have privately studied the topic for about 7 years, and have been a Christian for about 30 years.
2. Based on passages like Revelation 14:9-11.
3. Some believe the punishment is being inflicted by God, others believe people are tormenting themselves and getting the natural consequences of their sinful behaviour. See Theology In The Raw for more details.
4. Some believe God simply stops sustaining mortals, some believe God actively destroys people, and some believe people slowly destroy themselves until there’s nothing left. See Rethinking Hell for more details.
5. Some believe it will only be a little while, some believe it will a fair while, and some believe it will be many ages. There are also different views on where the unsaved reside and what happens to them before they are saved. See Universalism and The Bible for more details.
6. Some believe as each and every person comes face-to-face with God they will repent, believe, have faith in Christ, etc. (like Saul/Paul did at Damascus) and go to heaven. See Tentmaker for more details. Some believe they are already good enough to go to heaven.
7. e.g. some believe the Bible reveals multiple possible endings. See God’s Final Victory for more details. 
8. I couldn’t find a recent, comprehensive study but the following influenced my estimates:
George Sarris’ blog
George Sarris’ survey
Barna 2003 study
Baylor Religion Survey, Wave 2, 2007
“Rethinking Hell” Facebook group
“Evangelical Universalism Invitation and Debate” Facebook group

9. I’m not a Catholic but I get the impression from the current Popes and the previous one, that they hope and pray for view 3 e.g. Pope Francis seems even closer to UR than previous 2 Popes!. Although it seems their official position is still view 1 – see What about the Catholic Church?