Universalism—The Perennial "Heresy"

I recently published a book on belief in Christian universalism from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. It was my attempt to explore some of the diverse versions of universal salvation that appeared over that period on the fringes of the Christian church. For those who are interested, it is

Robin A. Parry, with Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019)

It is available in all the usual places. Here is a section from the conclusion of the book

The Perennial “Heresy”

One striking aspect that stands out from our explorations in this volume is the way in which universalism seems to be spontaneously rediscovered over and over again. Of course, as just indicated, there are universalist genealogies, and it is not hard to find people who were converted to universalism directly through the preaching or the writing of another. Think, for instance, of the key role of Paul Siegvolk’s book in Elhanan Winchester’s conversion, or of James Relly’s writing and preaching in John Murray’s. Nevertheless, it is fascinating how many people seem to move into a belief in universal salvation seemingly without the influence of other Christians encouraging them to. One thinks, for instance, of Hans Denck (if he was a universalist), Gerrard Winstanley, Jeremiah White, Jane Lead, George de Benneville, George Stonehouse, James Relly, Charles Chauncy, Caleb Rich, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, Thomas Erskine, George MacDonald, Andrew Jukes, and Hannah Whitall Smith. I am not suggesting that their diverse journeys into a belief in the final redemption of all were not influenced, indeed deeply influenced, by other Christians or by inherited Christian theological ideas. Of course they were—every one of them. My point, rather, is that each of these characters found their own way toward belief in universal salvation without the direct influence of other universalists. Their journeys were indeed pushed in such radical directions by other people and existing ideas, but those influential people and ideas were not themselves universalist. Rather, it was our lone travelers who took the baton and then ran with it into new and unanticipated territory. Subsequently, as we saw with Hannah Whitall Smith, the theology of other universalists can serve to refine and confirm that initial “insight,” but the insight itself was not taught them by another.
What is fascinating is that this deviancy, running off course with the baton, keeps on happening. Perhaps we might even dare to speak of universal salvation as the perennial “heresy,” echoing the way that some have spoken of Platonism as the perennial philosophy. (Of course, I use the term “heresy” with my tongue in my cheek, for I do not believe that universalism is a formal heresy; rather, it occupies a space between heresy and dogma.) It is a theological idea that refuses to go away and keeps on raising its ugly/beautiful (delete as appropriate) head over and over again, throughout the centuries. One may wonder why this is so. It is almost as if the baton itself had some “pull” of its own, drawing runners off the prescribed course. Might it be that the chief impulses behind the deviancy, in its many Christian versions, are integrally related to deep Christian convictions—about God’s love and goodness and justice, about the dignity of humans in God’s image, about the victory of Christ over sin and death, and so on. It seems to be those very convictions that raise doubts about hell as eternal torment and push in the direction of a larger hope. In other words, perhaps the seeds of this hope lie in the gospel itself. If that is the case, then as long as Christians continue to believe in such things, there will remain an inherent temptation to follow them toward conclusions that push beyond the mainstream tradition, off the prescribed course, in the pursuit of a wider hope.

Comments

Mark said…
Universalism keeps sprouting because the anointing that teaches us all things keeps telling us what man will not always tell us. I pray every day now for a mighty awakening through the church world wide. I feel convinced that just as somehow Satan buried “justification by faith alone” for so many centuries, he has also used the Constantinian Shift to suppress the truth of Universalism. Consider how long the church spread death instead of life by those who solidified ETC.
I am a Pastor of a small congregation and I am watching God change hearts through Universalism. They don't know it yet, but the way it has reshaped my preaching and emphasis is having an effect for the good. A few souls who have deep concerns about lost dead loved ones have found great comfort and solace in this as I have discreetly share what I have found. I always mention your name because you were so instrumental in both your knowledge and reason and most of all your graceful spirit. Thank you sir for all you do.
Mark said…
Universalism keeps sprouting because the anointing that teaches us all things keeps telling us what man will not always tell us. I pray every day now for a mighty awakening through the church world wide. I feel convinced that just as somehow Satan buried “justification by faith alone” for so many centuries, he has also used the Constantinian Shift to suppress the truth of Universalism. Consider how long the church spread death instead of life by those who solidified ECT.
I am a Pastor of a small congregation and I am watching God change hearts through Universalism. They don't know it yet, but the way it has reshaped my preaching and emphasis is having an effect for the good. A few souls who have deep concerns about lost dead loved ones have found great comfort and solace in this as I have discreetly share what I have found. I always mention your name because you were so instrumental in both your knowledge and reason and most of all your graceful spirit. Thank you sir for all you do.
Robin Parry said…
Thank you, Mark
Mark said…
Your welcome...sorry for the double post. I thought i was merely editing a misspelling
Jim Paxton said…
One night while watching a DVD Bible study on the Book of Mathew, the teacher paused at a ‘hell’ verse and began discussing the reality of hell. I sat there with a dark pressure on my soul. I guess like most Christians I had accepted Hell without really thinking what it meant. I was overwhelmed by the crushing thought this is wrong, all wrong. Later I paced around the house. The weight of what that teacher said pushed me to my knees and I began praying; asking God if Hell was true. I pleaded for His wisdom, His truth. I pleaded with God for answers. I didn’t want to believe in Hell; I prayed not for what I wanted to believe. I ask Him for His truth. The weight was lifted, I managed a good night’s sleep and awoke the next morning with questions. I was 72 years old, I am not a scholarly man, just an old man seeking God’s truth.

I began to see Bible verses that appeared to deny hell I began asking questions within my small Bible study group. Each time my brothers and sisters would open their commentaries and assure me Hell was true. I was frustrated by their response. The word of man, tradition, seemed to carry more weight than the word of God. I continued to question “tradition” and my pastor removed me from participating in small groups ‘for while’. I was alone. Okay fine I vowed to ignore man’s words (as much possible) and just read God’s word.

The results? Well for one I discovered and remain convinced that when Jesus spoke of Gehenna He was not referring to eternal conscious torment or even some bizarre punishment to bring about redemption. Quite simply He was referring to a very old curse: “Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.” Deuteronomy 28:26

This curse is repeated over and over throughout the Old Testament. What Jesus was saying to the Jews listening to Him. “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the accursed Gehenna where your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.” Mark 9:47 (my version).

The worm that never dies? I have seen many of them. Maggots don’t die, the turn into flies. It has taken me years to understand the truth of this one statement. “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”

Actually I rather like the Aramaic Bible translation of 1 Timothy 2:4 “He who wills that all people shall have Life, and shall be converted to the knowledge of the truth.”

Here is the bottom line for me. A young girl, say 6 years old, is snatched off the streets. She is abused and raped day after day, seven days a week. At some point she takes drugs to ease the pain and horror of her life. 10 years later she dies of an overdose ….. ZAP …. Welcome to Hell.

Robin Parry said…
Thanks for your reflections, Jim
Jim Paxton said…
Robin, just scribblings of an old man. By the way. What is your option of the Aramaic Bible translation? Just found it online a few weeks ago.
Robin Parry said…
What is it? Has someone translated the Bible into Aramaic? If so, then I have no opinion as I never learned Aramaic and I am not qualified to assess whether or not it is a good translation.

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