Her Gates Will Never be Shut: a good read

I have just read Bradley Jersak's book Her Gates Will Never be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009). I loved it! He tackles the whole subject of a biblical theology of Hell and universalism in a very different way than I do (in terms of focus and argument structure) but his conclusions are very close to my own.

The first section surveys the range of biblical teachings on future punishment. It has an orientation chapter on Sheol/Hades, Tehom, Abussos, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire and Tartarus. This is followed by an extended discussion of the Gehenna texts (which Jersak understands to refer to historical judgements on Jerusalem and not, in the first instance, to Hell). There is also an extended study on the Lake of Fire. Here Jersak argued, somewhat more speculatively, that the Lake of Fire imagery was rooted in the Sodom and Gommarah story (presumably with the Dead Sea image merging with the fire from heaven) and a reflection on the Rich Man and Lazarus in an imagined 'dialogue' format. In all these chapter Jersak makes the case that none of these texts need rule out ultimate salvation. Indeed, there are hints of the real possibility of salvation from judgement found in the various traditions themselves. The upshot is that the mainstream tradition of eternal, conscious torment cannot claim the unequivocal biblical support that it often has and sometimes still does.

The first section ends with a quick overview of the possibilities some traditions in the Bible hold out for universal salvation. Jersak poses the question, 'How do we hold the universal salvation texts and the judgement texts together?' and simply outlines different approaches that Christians have taken.

I found his discussions to be informative, and his judgements to be balanced and appropriately cautious when the evidence did not allow dogmatism. I was not persuaded by all of it but there is much good stuff here.

The second section of the book looks at the historical theological tradition and the differing options of universal salvation, eternal torment, and purgatory proposed. He invites us to take Von Balthasar's dare seriously: i.e. to dare to hope that God might save all but not to presume that this must or even will necessarily happen.

The final section is a terrific study of judgement and universalism in the book of Revelation - one that I think compliments my own rather well.

There is an appended essay by Professor Nik Ansell from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto on whether Hell is the nemesis of hope. Ansell's position is very similar to Jersak's on both hell and hope.

In a nutshell, Jersak's position seems to be that hopeful universalism is a good evangelical position. He believes that it does justice to the biblical tensions between Hell texts and universal salvation texts - a tension he does not wish to dissolve.

Jersak believes that both the classical tradition and dogmatic universalism err on the side of presumption. I think that his position is that

1. the classical tradition presumes that final judgement obliterates hope (which pushes the biblical texts beyond where they go, and fails to take the universal salvation texts seriously enough) and that

2. dogmatic universalism does not take seriously enough (a) the possibility of humans freely resisting God forever, and (b) the fact that the Hell texts do not unambiguously allow for the salvation of all from Hell.

Well, there is just tonnes of good stuff in this book. I even have a lot of sympathy for his final embracing of hopeful universalism - I appreciate his theological justification for it and respect his integrity in handling the biblical material as he draws that judgement.

Obviously, I go further. I am a strongly inclined to accept the truth of convinced universalism (what I occasionally call 'dogmatic' universalism - although I do not mean 'dogmatic' in a technical theological sense). So I guess that my view is one that Jersak would see as presumptuous. Well, I don't mind that, but clearly I don't myself think it presumptuous.

I guess that I don't find the freewill argument against convinced universalism to be at all persuasive (for reasons sketched in ch 1 of my book). So for me to be persuaded to scale back my universalism to 'hopeful' mode I'd need some biblical case that the universalist texts don't teach that all will be saved but that all 'can' be saved or that all 'might' be saved. I just can't see that.

Jersak himself does a good job of showing that the Hell texts allow for the possibility of salvation from Hell and, whilst they do not themselves assert that all will be so saved I don't see why a reader who follows the following argument must be seen as presumptuous

1. the Bible teaches that some will go to Hell
2. the Bible allows that people can be redeemed from Hell
3. the Bible teaches that in the end all will be saved
4. So we can infer from what the Bible teaches that all will eventually be redeemed from Hell

Jersak seems to believe 1-3 but is reluctant to infer 4. I see no problem in inferring 4 and, even if the inference is somehow mistaken, is it presumptuous to believe that one day the biblical promises of universal salvation will (as opposed to 'really might') be fulfilled? If so then I confess that I am presumptuous.

But, all in all, I don't see this as a major disagreement. I consider Jersak's book to be one of the best pieces of work ever published on the topic of universalism.


Chris Tilling said…
Thanks, Robin, looks v. interesting. As you know, I have tended in the hopeful direction myself. It is not the ambiguity of the universalist texts which stop me going the whole way, but rather texts such as "those who do such things won't inherit the kingdom of God", "destroyed with everlasting destruction" etc. Its such texts as those which cause me to pause.

By the way, have you come across Reiten and Kronen's work on universalism at all (see here)? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
James Goetz said…
Thanks, Robin. I added this to my must read list.

I strongly agree with the main point that the gates of the New Jerusalem will never close to the damned.

I suppose we need more clarification in the terms related to universalism. I suppose everybody knows the meaning of "hopeful universalism". And you clarified in UNIVERSAL SALVATION that "strong universalism" means that everybody "must" eventually get saved according to God's will. But "convinced universalism" and "dogmatic universalism" are sketchy to me. I suppose dogmatic universalism sounds like strong universalism, but I'm unsure.

I like the term "weak universalism", which I define as a belief that everybody will eventually get saved while they have the hypothetical possibility of continually rejecting God's love literally forever. (For example, the committed damned would spend a gogleplex years in hell and have no less days in hell then when they began in hell, unless they accept the gift of salvation.)

I suppose convinced universalism could include both strong universalism and weak universalism. And I wonder if Jersak considered a middle ground between strong universalism and hopeful universalism such as weak universalism. Perhaps I'll figure this out after I read it.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the heads up on this one Robin.
Robin Parry said…

I'd have to re-read the book but the impression that I got was that it was, in part, the ambiguity of the Hell texts that drew BJ towards hopeful universalism. That is, he made a case that they did not rule out salvation from Hell or universalism but it is possible that they really do speak of everlasting doom and he wanted to leave that option open. I can repect that.

Eric Reitan's philosophical work on Hell is great (I discuss some of it in ch 1 of my book). Eric wrote a chapter in the book I edited called "Universal Salvation? The Current Debate" (Paternoster/Eerdmans)
Robin Parry said…

a good point. I think we do need a nuanced typology of Christian universalisms.

All that I mean by 'dogmatic universalism' is 'universalism that is confident that God will save all'. So it is interchangable with 'convinced universalism' or 'confident universalims'. I would also be happy to use the term 'strong universalism to describe this view'.

That said, I would want to distinguish within these 'strong universalisms' the view that (a) all people will be saved, from (b) all people must be saved.

And within (b) I would wish to distinguish different views on what the 'must' amounts to. Why 'must' all people be saved? I think some answers would be wholly unacceptable but that other might be fine.

I wonder if your 'weak universalism' is a species of (a) above. Perhaps, if you accepted Molinism you could argue that there are possible worlds in which some people freely reject God forever but such worlds will never be actualized. That would still be universalism (even confident/strong/dogmatic universalism) but allows for the hypothetical possiblity of eternal hell. Or, is it a version of hopeful universalism?

To be honest, 'hopeful universalism' seems a misnomer to me (if we are using the term 'hope' biblically). In the Bible eschatological hope is confident and certain. I think a more appropriate term would be 'possible universalism'.

By 'dogmatic universalism' I do NOT mean that universalims is Christian dogma, or is the authentic Christian view (as opposed to what most Christians actually believe). It does not and cannot have that status. So whilst I think the traditional view is wrong I do not think that it is unChristian.

Hmmm - all very messy. I think we need a nuanced typology to tidy all this up.
James Goetz said…
I see the mistake I made. I read a few people on the web define "strong universalism" along the lines of "unconditional election universalism". And that never was your definition. Sorry.:)

Yes, my idea of "weak universalism" is a subset of strong universalism. Perhaps I could call it "conditional strong universalism" as opposed to unconditional election universalism and inclusivistic universalism. Not that I'm being decisive on any of these terms. And this merely represents how I think of things while others would want other categories of universalistic theologies.

And I am a Molinist while I believe that any free will creature in any given universe would eventually accept God's gift of salvation, assuming that the nature of God is the same in any given universe. And I suppose that a Molinist or non-Molinist could hold to weak universalism while saying that God always avoids creating creatures who would literally continually forever reject God.
James Goetz said…
I see I have yet to explain what I mean by the hypothetical possibility of literal everlasting hell. I'll give a personal example. I rejected God's gift of salvation numerous times before I accepted it. And I believe that given the same circumstances when I accepted the gift, I could have rejected the gift. And I could have rejected the gift all following times that God would have offered the gift to me. I see this as hypothetically possible while practically impossible.

And I can analogize this to an endless series of fair coin tosses. Hypothetically, an unlimited number of fair coin tosses with heads on one side and tails on the other side could always result in heads. For example, ten fair coin tosses resulting in ten heads has odds of one in a thousand; twenty fair coin tosses resulting in twenty heads has odds of one in a million; thirty fair coin tosses resulting in thirty heads has odds of one in a billion, and ad infinitum. There is a chance of always getting heads despite the odds eventually becoming practically zero. Likewise, there's no essential chance of endlessly flipping heads in an unlimited series of fair coin tosses. And you may recall that Eric Reitan used a similar analogy in the book you edited.
Anonymous said…
Hi Robin,

Some scriptures to consider:

"Sin is in the flesh".

"He who has died has been freed from sin."

"The body is sown in corruption, raised in incorruption."

With these verses in mind, (and many others) I see no need for ANY type of Hell after death. When people are resurrected, they are no longer in their carnal and sinful nature. Sin will be non existant in the resurrection.

What are your thoughts on these verses?
Thank you for this. All too often the topic of hell comes up with my friends who have questions about biblical justice, and I have no idea how the hell to explain Eschaton to them without hell deeply comprimising its claim.

-- I have been looking deeper and deeper into this subject...

Annihilationism is a cop out; not much better than the traditional idea of eternal torture. -- Actually, in a more profound sense, it is worse, for it suggests that sin has left an indelible mark which cannot be reversed or redeemed by God. Suddenly cosmic redemption isn't so cosmic. I think we can feel it in our bones that God is not in the business of snuffing people out of existence, and further glancing over his shoulder to make sure that his hellfire is burning hot enough; smoke rising up "forever and ever" (Revelation 14:11). Yes, God does have a dimension of wrath, but as OT scholar Terence Fretheim says, God has to hold back his natural disposition toward grace and forgiveness in order to bring about a day of judgment. But must we forever separate judgment and hope? -- the Prophetic tradition certainly didn't separate the two, but had them integrally wrapped up into each other.

(I am taking a Prophets of Israel class at my college right now. the judgment/hope dimension is one of the main motifs of the prophets, along with cosmic justice. Jeremiah was not a prophet to Judah alone, but a prophet to the nations.)

The substance behind your nuance of "convinced universalism" is an interesting move on your part. Yes, maybe we ought to push the agenda toward not just wishing to think God wouldn't snuff out some and not others, like Jersak has proposed. That is a good first step, but not the last one perhaps. It seems a sort of creedal affirmation needs to be got.

Would you elaborate on Jersak's position on the Rich man and Lazarus and his idea of an imagined 'dialogue' format..?
Stephen said…
ROBIN!!! Could you please say where to obtain "Her Gates . ." + "All Shall Be Well" in Britain? It's going to be dear getting by post from Oregon, USA!
Many Thanks.
Robin Parry said…

Alas, you cannot. It is not published in the UK.


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