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.
The Bible reveals that God’s holiness is so seriously awesome that it eradicates all evil, which brings forth the wholehearted praise of each and every being/creature that ever exists—the only type of praise befitting God. This glorious telos is progressively revealed throughout the Bible—culminating in Christ’s ministry, atonement, Temple/Church, and return. The Bible Project does a brilliant and succinct job explaining this in their 6 minute summary:
God wasn’t content to leave the cosmos in an unholy mess and revealed in Isaiah that He spreads His holiness by removing iniquity and atoning for sin:
He touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Jesus’ atonement—removing iniquity and sin—fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy. Holiness in the form of life and healing flowed out of Jesus during his earthly ministry, beginning to fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy. He continues bringing life, healing, and hope through his people—the Church, the ultimate Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Tim 3:15, John 7:38).
Finally, Revelation 22—drawing heavily on Ezekiel 47:12—reveals that Jesus (“the Lamb”) completes the fulfilment by imparting life (v2), healing (v3), and flourishing (v2) to all sinners. I say all sinners because up until this last scene, the “nations” in Revelation were those opposed to God, who ended up in the Lake of Fire but God’s holiness will overflow and transform even that “dead sea” as Ezekiel 47:8 foretold. In this way, God eliminates Adam’s curse and everyone comes to delight in following and worshipping him (v3).
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him.
The last pages of the Bible end with a final vision about God’s holiness… And in his vision we see the whole world made completely new. The entire earth has become God’s temple. And Ezekiel’s river is there flowing out of God’s presence, immersing all of creation, removing all impurity and bringing everything back to life.
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.
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 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.
To figure that out, first we must ask, did he exclude anyone from the “all”? For example, did the “us” before it reduce the scope? Probably not, as he said:
God is the source of us all
And based on passages like Colossians 1:16, most Christians believe God is the source/Creator of everyone who will ever exist. It was also unlikely he was just thinking of the 2 billion people who were listening, as in the next sentence he said that God’s love embodied will result in:
a new world, a new human family
In fact, he mentioned human/humanity ten times in a 13-minute talk:
Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history … fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire, to a great extent, made human civilization possible … made human migration around the world a possibility … the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good … one of the greatest discoveries of all of human history … if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
So assuming he thinks God wants “to save” everyone (1Tim 2:4), does that mean he thinks God will actually succeed? That’s harder to figure out but I think there are clues. Will our enslavement to sin stop God? Well, Curry sounded very optimistic when he said:
There’s power in Love to … liberate when nothing else will.
Will our spiritual and psychological delusions stop God? Again, Curry doesn’t seem to think so:
There is a balm in Gilead [Love] to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul… There is power in Love to help and heal when nothing else can.
Remembering that when Jesus healed during His ministry, He was primarily interested in people’s spiritual health—their “sin-sickness”—although He healed people physically too to demonstrate that He could do the former.
Are death and hell a hurdle for God? Probably not, as Curry said:
There’s power in Love to lift up [John 12:32] … when nothing else will.
Maybe Curry forgot about God’s justice? Well, five times he said love can be redemptive and four times he mentioned its sacrificial nature (1John 3:16)—explicitly in regards to Jesus’ death, which traditionally Christians see as fulfilling justice. He also proclaimed:
let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
Additionally, he talked about hospitality and addressing poverty—both commonly associated with justice in the Bible.
What about those who don’t want to be saved? Curry talked about Love transforming everything (you, your neighbours, the entire world) and even quoted Jesus who said: “you shall love God … with all your mind” (Mt 22:36-40, noting that “shall” implies something will happen in the future).
He also sees Love bringing Shalom.
we will lay down our swords and shields—”down by the riverside to study war no more”
However, that Shalom can only fully arrive when the last person in hell stops hating God.
There was one other statement that Curry made that I thought was at least suggestive of Universalism:
We were made by a power of Love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that love—that’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.
If a luthier creates a guitar to play music, then the assumption is that it will fulfil its purpose. Likewise, as God created humans to love, it is perfectly reasonable to think that will happen eventually.
Rather than Universalism, was Curry actually preaching Pluralism—the belief that sin doesn’t matter for “every road leads to heaven”? I don’t think so. He made statements such as Jesus “died to save us”, “Love is the only way”, our “sin-sick soul” needs healing, and we need to be liberated by God (the Bible says we are enslaved to sin). Similarly, he discussed the need for transformation, which implies that all “roads/states-of-being” aren’t equally good.
So was Curry preaching Christian Universalism at the royal wedding? For the reasons I’ve given, I think he was, although it may not have been intentional. Often enthusiastic preachers who promote both God’s love for everyone and God’s infinite ability, end up preaching what is essentially Universalism.
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
… 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.