If we are going to be thinking about universalism and what we think about it and whether it’s true or not, we at least—and first of all—need to have a nuanced and clear understanding of what it actually is we’re thinking about. Because if we don’t have a clear idea of the idea we’re thinking about, we’re never gonna be able to think about it, obviously.
The other thing that comes out of this is:
I find all sorts of versions of universalism problematic and having read masses of them for this history book [A Larger Hope?, Volume 2: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century], with a lot of these people I think, “You’re nuts,” but that’s what they thought. And I know a bunch of people will find my particular version of universalism problematic. But even if you find some version of universalism problematic—and all of us will—that shouldn’t shut down the question itself. Because it might well be that there are versions of universalism that don’t suffer from those particular things we find problematic. If you find something I say, “Oh, that’s nuts, that’s not going to work, that won’t fly,” you don’t leap to the conclusion that it can’t [ever] fly—there might be another way, there might be another way of reconfiguring universalism. So it’s worth sort of sticking with the question and pursuing it.
Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of the conclusion of the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.
Here is the 3-minute video clip and transcript of Robin Parry‘s response to the question of whether Christians should call themselves “Universalists”? This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.
As a case in point, James Relly—an eighteenth-century preacher in London—refused to call himself a “universalist”. He hated the word. So did John Murray—the pastor of the very first American Universalist Church and a follower of Relly. They hated the word “universalism” because it’s not in the Bible. Relly would always say, “I’m not a Universalist.” He thought everyone would be saved but he wouldn’t call himself a “Universalist” because it’s not a biblical word.
I don’t have that kind of aversion. I’m quite happy to use words that aren’t biblical words if it’s explaining a biblical concept. For example, “Trinity” is not a biblical word but I think it is a way of conceptualizing a biblical idea.
However, there are issues here. For example, TF Torrance—a very well-known 20th century Scottish Presbyterian Reformed theologian and a really fabulous theologian—was really opposed to “universalism”. He hated the term but it was the “ism” thing that he really didn’t like—and he’s not alone in this. I’m putting words in his mouth here but I think it felt to him like you’re trying to squeeze God into some preordained system—that God has to fit… It’s the connotations of “isms” that he didn’t like. I think that he didn’t think you could know or say whether God would save everyone or not. Maybe everyone would be saved but maybe they won’t—we can’t say. So he’s not a Universalist as such but I think his theology would be very sympathetic to universalism properly construed—definitely if you drop the term “universalism.”
Some eighteenth-century universalists didn’t talk about it like that. Some of them would talk about “universal restoration” and they’d use other phrases like, “we believe in the restoration”, “we believe in the restoration of all things.” I quite like that, in fact, the very first edition of these slides didn’t have “Universalism.” It just takes more space. Saying you’re a “universal restorationist” or something, just takes longer to say so I just think, “Oh, stuff it, I’ll call myself a universalist and just explain what I mean by that.” If you have a problem with the word, I’m very happy to drop it and just say, “I believe that God will save all people through Christ” or “I believe in the restoration of all things through Christ.” It just takes longer to say and it’s clumsy.
So my thought is: if you want to drop it, drop it. There are reasons it might disturb some people. It also has the problem of connotations because people think they know what it means. But on the other hand, that might be a helpful provocation to make them pay attention, “I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna freak you out—here’s something you think is scary—now let me tell you that it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.” It might, in some cases, get people’s attention and serve to focus thought.
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:
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.
Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.
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.
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.