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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Very provocative thought of the day: Hell and the "God behind the back of Jesus Christ."

Warning: the following post is me in my slightly more assertive and provocative mode. I hold those who take different views from me (i.e., almost every other Christian theologian in the world) in high esteem. So the following comments are intended as constructive and not critical in any hurtful way. I fully appreciate why those who differ from me hold the view that they do.

I have a theological worry about the idea that the end of the story for some/many human beings will be eternal destruction, whether that be annihilation or eternal conscious torment.

Setting the Scene
As Christians Jesus Christ is the starting point and the ending point for our theological reflections. He is the definitive revelation of God and of God's kingdom purposes. And thus all our eschatological reflections and speculations must be utterly reconfigured around Jesus.

Christ, as Second Adam, represents all of humanity before God. He is the eschaton made flesh. The "Last Things"—the coming of final judgement and resurrection—have erupted into the present in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So eschatological speculations on the final state of humanity must take Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, as definitive. In his risen body the destiny of humanity is revealed.

My Worry
My theological worry is simply this: to me, the suggestion that some (indeed, many or even most) people will never experience salvation sounds very much like the claim that something other than Jesus Christ is definitive for the shape of the future.

The suggestion that God's final victory will involve the irreversible destruction of many/most people sounds to me like something other than the resurrection of Christ is being allowed to govern our understanding of "God's triumph." The idea that God can "reconcile" some creatures by forcing them to acknowledge that he is the boss and then destroying them is, to me ear, a call to allow the understanding of "reconciliation" to wander free from its anchoring in the gospel.

The proposal that we need to allow God the "freedom" to decide the "end of the story" and that universalism is a presumptuous attempt to snatch such freedom from God sounds to me like an exhortation that we find another God "behind the back" of Jesus Christ. God has already shown his hand in the story of Jesus. He has already chosen, in his freedom, to "be our God." (And what kind of "freedom" are we being asked to allow God here? The freedom to damn people he could just as easily redeem? To me, this sounds like the "freedom" for God to be someone other than God. Such a "freedom" is, to my mind, an imperfection and unworthy of God).

As an aside, and with all due respect to all my friends who are "hopeful universalists," I will now explain my theological problem with "hopeful universalism."

Whilst I can appreciate that hopeful universalists seek to be humble before God and before mystery (and I am very much in favour of humility and mystery), I do think that such hesitancy is problematic. To say, "My hope is that God will save all but I cannot say with certainty that he will" sounds to me like the following:
"I hope that God will utterly triumph in the end but I cannot be sure that he will";
"I hope that God will be all in all—it is a live possibility—but we cannot be dogmatic."
To me such "hopeful" universalism sounds like the worry that perhaps God's reconciling action in Christ will, in the end, fall short for some reason.

Eschatological universalism is nothing more than a claim that the end of the story cannot be anything other than an empty tomb. Anything less is not a divine triumph but a divine failure because on any other scenario the future of the world is being shaped, not by the redeeming action of God in Christ but by sin; not by the Second Adam but by the First.

If we wish to know the future of humanity we look to the risen Lord. End of story.

39 comments:

Andrew Tweedy said...

Well said Robin. When we see Jesus we see God. When we see the victory of Jesus we see exactly what the victory of God is like. What you are saying seems uncontroversial and in fact vital once you "get it", but the old doctrine of hell, whatever its source, does not give up easily.

Jason Goroncy said...

Hear, hear!

Kurt said...

Most "hopeful universalists" that I've seen are merely "hopeful" for at least one of two reasons.

1. They are some sort of free-will theist, and so at a philosophical level, they cannot be dogmatic about the fact that God will win everyone (including Satan/demons). Some might be, or their own volition, irrevocably hardened to God and God will have to put them out of existence.

2. They believe the biblical data is not clear enough to be dogmatic about total redemption of all.

I sympathize with both of these reservations. Don't be too hard on the "hopeful" ones. :)

Alex Smith said...

Well put Robin and I think it's a good challenge to many people sitting on the fence. However, I agree with Kurt, and would add, that a small number of people I've come across, genuinely find it hard to be certain of anything, not because they don't want to, but because mentally they can't, due to anxiety disorders, etc. (at least not until Christ returns):(

Terry Wright said...

As a hopeful-universalist-almost-convinced-of-universalism-proper (!), I would encourage you, Robin, to produce a journal-quality essay on these thoughts. They're too important to leave on a blog and need to debated in a more formal forum.

I don't know why I'm not going for full universalism, so to speak; it accords very well with my own Beale-influenced eschatology that the world will one day be equivalent to Israel's holy of holies. Perhaps I'm just scared of coming out (in this sense)!

Sue said...

Thank you for your honesty, open mindedness and exploration. I enjoyed the conference on Thursday and am looking forward to reading your book. God bless you

Robin Parry said...

Kurt,

Of course, I am being provocative.

"Hopeful" universalists and non-universalists have good reasons, such as those you note, for not embracing "certain" universalism. I myself once had similar reasons so I understand and feel no animosity towards any of them.

Also, I know that none of them would deny that "God wins" or that "God will be all in all" or that "theology should be focused in Christ." All these things they would affirm.

However, I do wish to provoke fresh thoughts amongst such Christians as to whether their account of divine freedom and divine victory are adequate CHRISTIAN understandings. I wish to provoke such believers to ask whether they have appreciated the IMPLICATIONS of a christocentric eschatology.

My hope is that even those who think I have misread the theological implication will not mind have such challenges posed to them.

Also, I argue in my book (TEU)
(a) that freewill theism does not provide a solid reason to waver over the final human destiny and also
(b) that Scripture is compatible with universalist hope.
So whilst the reasons for rejecting "certain" universalism are good and understandable, I would say that there is a good case to be made for them not being good enough.

Again, I do not expect everyone to agree. I have no problem at all with those who, in good faith, take a different view.

Robin Parry said...

Alex

Sure—not all people are psychologically able to believe such things and I understand that. No problems at all.

Robin

Robin Parry said...

Terry

Not sure I am capable of a journal-quality theology paper. I have never even tried to write one (I always found contemporary theology quite hard to understand). I kind of get it when I read it but my brain does not work in those kinds of ways.

But I will think about that. Perhaps I could offer a paper at SST one year (never tried that either) as a trial and see if it works

Robin Parry said...

Sue

Thanks for the kind words

Robin

R.May said...

Universalism is considered a heresy because it removes the need for tne necessity for Jesus to save anyone since they are going to be saved anyway regardless of what they have done during their earthly life. Having read through the Bible 18 times, I can only come to the conclusion that God has rules and if we don't follow them, we are in trouble. His creation, His rules, His conclusions.

Most mainline protestant preachers only do half of their job. They preach love, love, love of Jeeezus, and leave out the law. A good example is my pastor who this morning preached on Matthew 5:13-20. The problem was that he only used verses 5 through 16, leaving out 17 through 20, which definitely calls out that we are expected to conform to the law and that anyone who teaches differently is in a world of hurt. I submit that not preaching the law gets a preacher in trouble with his God. Universalism sounds sweet and lovable. It just isn't Biblical. I further submit that God didn't creat us to love, but we are created and allowed to continue to exist because we are fun to watch. The love stuff is egotistical hope on our part. If you read the Bible with the idea that the intellectual relationship gap between God and man is greater than the intellectual gap between man and the microbes on the fleas on his pet dog, the words take on a whole different meaning. First off, we can see why Satan was upset with God for even paying attention to us mud creatures. Secondly we begin to see that those writing the Bible, even under the guidance of God, sneaked in a bunch of self-serving stuff to make them look good...or powerful....or leader-like with God as the ultimate dooms-day weapon. Try reading the Bible from that mind-set. And yeah, you egoists may remind me that the Bible says we are "slightly lower than the angels".....so....what level
does slightly lower" put us? To conclude, the Bible nowhere says we have an immortal soul, not does it say we burn in hell forever. It says hell is forever. If we don't make the final cut to heaven, we are done away with and
God goes on with the people he can use and have been fun to watch. That is a merciful God.

I'm interested in any comments.
dick.may@verizon.net

crisp family said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
crisp family said...

The fact is, universalism is the doctrine that all humans are saved through Christ. So it would make little sense to claim that universalism removes the need for salvation. In fact, for universalists like Robin, salvation through Christ is a necessary prerequisite to life everlasting. Perhaps R. May should read Robin's book " The Evangelical Universalist" ...?

Terry Wright said...

Robin, I think you misjudge your abilities re: journals. Besides, I'm sure Oliver or someone would be willing to help you tidy things up if necessary.

Robin Parry said...

R. May

Oliver is right. I think that you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that universalism is not quite what you think it is. Take a read and see what you think.

Thanks for commenting,

Robin

Drew said...

Hello Robin,

My name is Drew. I have been reading your blog for a while and have found many of your points fascinating and fairly convincing. But I am so torn right now brother. One of my good friends (who I respect very much and has a brilliant philosophical mind) has some major philosophical and theological problems with universalism so much so that he has said that he hopes universalism is not true. He actually views God as being a monster if he saves everyone. At one point my friend wanted it to be true, but now is pretty certain he does not want it to be true. Here are his following reasons.

1. Universalism leads to theological determinism which (in his mind) erases any meaningful notion of choice. Love requires a choice and he feels that to lose our ability to choose to love God ends up turning God into a monster who ULTIMATELY forces himself on us. He overrides our wills. (big no no for my friend).

2. He asks a good question: Why would God want to ultimately force people to be with Him who consistently denied him and wanted no part of him at all? Why won't God let them have their wish?

3. He asks: What is the point of this life then? Why would God allow people to go through horrible suffering, angst, torment, confusion, and despair, just to be ultimately saved and live with God? God could easily have created people to be with him immediately. To my friend, universalism seems to mock this life and sees it almost as a cruel joke.

These are the big three problems my friend has. I know that they cannot be responded to adequately in a few paragraphs, but some initial thoughts would be very helpful. Thank you

Andrew Tweedy said...

Drew, your friend's objections sound a bit like those of Jonah and the prodigal's elder brother! Grace can seem so unfair from our perspective. I started to look into universalism after I quoted Brian McLaren in one of my sermons and somebody came up to me and said "he sounds like a universalist and I cannot accept that heresy". Two years down the line I am a convinced universalist and have been greatly helped by Tom Talbott's "The inescapable love of God" as well as Robin's "The Evangelical Universalist" (as Gregory MacDonald). Some of my friends think I'm wrong but we agree to differ. You have to listen to God and make your own mind up, regardless of what others think.
Robin and others can give your friend better answers but for my twopennorth I don't believe God forces anyone to be reconciled. I think everyone eventually wants reconciliation, even though for many people that moment comes after death. When face to face with Christ we have an "Oh its YOU" moment and God is always and forever ready and able to forgive, cleanse and heal.

Alex Smith said...

I totally agree with Andrew, although I'd also add a few thoughts:

Is it more loving to allow someone to choose Hell (which is worse than allowing someone to commit suicide), than it is to deny them making that choice? Taking it further, what if the person wanting to make the choice, is your child?

Fortunately, I don't think God will have to force anyone, as He is extremely patient, powerful and clever! Being infinitely awesome, He is able to allow/gently guide everyone to eventually, freely choose Him.

Anyway, you might find the evangelicaluniversalist.com forum (see Robin's "Recommended Sites") a helpful place to ask questions and find encouragement. Talbott & Robin are members, however, members don't have to be universalists, and indeed there are some who argue (usually politely) against it.

As you probably guessed, I'm also a member of the forum :)

Robin Parry said...

Drew

Regarding those very good question I would refer you to chapter 1 of The Evangelical Universalist. For a more detailed treatment of them see the article by Eric Reitan in "Universal Salvation? The Current Debate" and various academic papers by Tom Talbott which are on his website here (http://www.willamette.edu/~ttalbott/publications.html). As I recall, the following are well worth a look:
Freedom, Damnation and the Power to Sin with Impunity
Universalism and the Greater Good
Misery and Freedom: a reply to Jerry Walls.

However, all Tom's stuff on freedom and universalism is very good. Check it out and see what you think.

Marc said...

Amen, God always has the last word and then He can still have another word after that. The fact is God reconciled Himself to the world. If I forgive my enemies, even if they reject or are ignorant of my reconciliation, I do not crush/destroy them later. That would be to deny the reconciliation. Hell is a denial of God's reconciliation, of the very Gospel of Peace.

Eddie Eddings said...

Robin, thank you for the post. I just want to correct a very common mistake. Many well known preachers and teachers have made it, as well as the ESV Bible on a chart on page 2495. Jesus is never referred to as the "second Adam". He is called the "last Adam" in 1 Cor. 15:45. The "last Adam" (not the second) to show that He is NOT ONE OF A POSSIBLE SERIES but the ONLY alternative to the first Adam.
A few verses later (1 Cor. 15:47) the word "second" does indeed occur in connection with Christ:
1st man -- dust of the earth
2nd Man -- from Heaven
...and here "second man" (not last) is very appropriate, for two reasons:
1) Adam in his innocence was man as God created man, man as God intended him to be, true man...when sin entered the race, man ceased to be man as originally created and became something less. Consequently, Jesus Christ in his sinless humanity was indeed the "second man", the ONLY FIGURE IN HISTORY SINCE THE FALL TO STAND AS FULLY MAN IN THE WORLD!
2)The whole point of His mission as the second man "from Heaven" was that he MIGHT NOT BE THE LAST MAN, BUT RATHER, THE BEGINNING OF A NEW SERIES, THE FOUNDATION OF A NEW HUMANITY, the "first born" among many brothers (Romans 8:29)

Mike Gantt said...

Robin, I just learned of you and your work on this subject from Randal Rauser's blog.

I myself believe everyone is going to heaven and have written a book about it called "The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven" which is available free and online at http://wp.me/PNthc-i6

I hope you and others find it helpful.

Robin Parry said...

Thanks Eddie and Mike for you thoughts/link

MikeG said...

Hi Robin,

A very good post (and an interesting discussion... I particularly like Marc's comment).

You talk about "hopeful" universalists and the problems therein. Hebrews 11:1 says that "faith is being sure of what we hope for..."

Perhaps it could be seen that those "hopeful" universalists are not actually sure of their hope? Just a thought!

I need to finish reading your book at some point... :D

Robin Parry said...

Mike

You are right. And it is precisely for that reason that I never feel comfortable refering to that position as "hopeful" universalism. I often use scare quotes because it is not hopeful in the biblical sense of hopeful.

A more accurate description may be "open-to-the-possibility-of-universalism" but that is a bit of a mouthful.

"Wishful universalists" might do it but that could also be said to cover those who deny universalism though wish that it were true.

Possibly "tentative universalists"

Hmmmm

Think I need to work on that

Terry Wright said...

Given the mouthful you acknowledge howabout abbreviating it to 'ottpo' universalists? ;p

Anonymous said...

I think it was J I Packer who referred to hopeful universalists as "wishful universalists" -- and I took it that he meant it in a derogatory way -- not actually sure of their hope? (Hebrews 11:1 "faith is being sure of what we hope for...")
I think this was MikeG's point too.

RD Rauser said...

Robin,

FYI here's my case that every Christian should be a hopeful universalist:

http://randalrauser.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1321&action=edit&message=6

Robin Parry said...

Randal

Your arguments are always worth considering!!!

Your argument is convincing and anyone who disagreed with it would need some serious santification work on their emotions (except for those who think that there is no chance of the card being picked . . . in that case their failing to hope that the "everyone wins" card will be picked is not a consequence of unholy desires).

However, your's is an argument for Christians who think that the chances of universalism actually being true are small at best. That's fair enough.

I am coming at things from the other end. I guess that is kind of easy for me because I happen to think universalism is the sober truth. So the argument is not aimed at people like me. (But why should it be?)

What I offer is not incompatible with your case (I agree with your argument).

What I am offering is a theological reason for holding to a robust universalism.

Now, I will be honest with you. I do not think that my argument will have (or ought to have) persuasive power for those who think that the Bible points in a different direction. So we cannot avoid dealing with the biblical material. But perhaps my argument tips the scales in favour of a universalist theological reading of the biblical texts. And perhaps when we come to texts which could be read in traditional or universalist ways and we cannot break the impasse this argument will make the universalist reading preferable.

RD Rauser said...

Robin,

I hear ya. What I frequently encounter is evangelicals who think of universalism as heresy akin to Arianism or Pelagianism or Gnosticism or ....

But from my end it is a huge hurdle if we can get people to say "I hope universalism is true" which is, of course, something the average Christian wouldn't say about Arianism, Pelagianism or Gnosticism. This automatically removes the stigma the view once had. And when universalism is no longer a four letter word the way is clear to consider your arguments.

Robin Parry said...

RDR

I agree with you. I think I shall borrow your argument (whilst acknowledging its source)

RAP

Anonymous said...

In studying the word aeon, eternity etc. there is merit in the possibility that the coming judgment may end. This is a point that is worthy of note. My problem with Universalism is that everyone referred to as being "saved". Saved or salvation is in the NT a term used for those who believe in Christ NOW in this age, and salvation is from the coming judgment. Whether that judgment is eternal, w/o end or not is one issue. If people are ultimately reconciled after having been, [in the next age] in that judgment, You cannot refer to them as saved in the Biblical sense. Universalism, stressing everyone being saved is in the strict meaning of the NT term wrong. Arguments about final restoration and all that means is a whole different issue. Saying that people are saved after going through the coming judgment confuses the matter.

Robin Parry said...

Anonymous,

That is a fascinating comment and I will need to consider it carefully before I can give an adequate reply.

On the one hand, I suppose that not a whole lot depends on what you say except our use of terminology. You agree that one could accept your argument and be a universalist. Interesting. I see that.

On the second hand, even if one were to concede your point one might still argue that we are free to use the word "saved" of such people so long as we are clear that we are not using the term in exactly the same way as certain NT authors. Theological terms in systematic theology do not necessarily follow biblical usage slavishly. So with care things might be OK.

On the third hand—and here I would need to look more closely at the text so what I am about to say is tentative—I think that there is quite possibly a biblical case to be made for using "salvation" language of those saved out of hell. Within the Bible itself salvation language is not monochrome and has a range of meanings and nuances. But I think it is right to say that God can "save" Israel, say, from the oppression of Babylon—an oppression which he himself sent as a punishment.
Israel could be saved from Babylon in one of two biblical senses.
1. Saved from affliction in the first place
2. Saved from the midst of affliction after it has started.
I don't suppose that an analogous approach to hell need cause too many problems. Could some be "saved, but only as those escaping through the fire"?

Alex Smith said...

Augustine: "after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, “They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come.” [Matt 12:32]" I've found this allowance for postmortem salvation was common up until Calvin.

Anonymous said...

Alex, we meet again!

I am absolutely amazed that Augustine ever said anything so "tender hearted". In fact his very point is one I think I learned from Thomas Talbott -- that
“They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come.” [Matt 12:32]"
simply means they must go forward for "Divine" punishment and then, having paid the price, be restored.

So Calvin out-Augustined Augustine!

TN

Matt said...

I would be interested to know where Oliver Crisp sides in this debate of Universalism. I have read his work for a long time and have not been able to surmise what his position might be. In his article on Karl Barths denial of Universalism many years ago he aptly pointed out Barts inconsistency in denying Universalism. Stating in effect the only "real" universalism is not hopeful but "dogmatic" universalism. (i might be wrong on this understanding though). Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts.

Robin Parry said...

Matt

Oliver will (I hope) reply for himself.

Robin

crisp family said...

@ Matt: Thanks for your comment. I'm surprised (dismayed?) that my view seems opaque to you. I published a paper in last year's SJT called 'Is Universalism a Problem for Particularists?' In it, I argue against the Augustinian construal of necessary universalism I'd set out in a previous paper. So I'm not a universalist. I'm a particularist, i.e. think not all are saved - salvation is particular. I realize some strains of universalism could be called 'particularist' because according to such views a particular number are saved - all people! - but in the theological literature this term is usually reserved for a different view, namely, the one I'm defending.

That said, like Warfield and Shedd amongst others, I'm a hopeful particularist. That is, I hope that the vast majority of humanity will be saved.

I hope that clears things up a bit!

BW-

Oliver.

jflyhigh6 said...

before anybody goes haywire on me, and i have no problem with that because absolute truth can't be changed no matter how much we want to justify ourself. ( i would love universalism to be true) however i can't believe what i'm hearing, this is rediculous, God will not save everyone because the Bible says so. I've read jersak, parry, talbott, mcdonald, chambers, bonda, and more, the fact is it's very little weight at best and i'm being very lenient here. there's tons more evidence for either tradional view or conditionalists view but that's it, were playing ball with only two sides of the Bible, because universalism makes no sense to talk about or preach about for a rediculous amount of reasons