Was Jesus Universalistic?

GregMacd.jpgRobin Parry’s (aka, Gregory Macdonald’s) book The Evangelical Universalist  examines whether or not Jesus believed in an eternal conscious hell and, by the time he’s done, he suggests there is a text that might suggest Jesus moved in a universalist direction.

Gehenna, Parry argues, did not refer to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem but was an image from the prophets for a place of destruction and burning. Thus he refers to texts like Isa 30:33 and 66:24. Gehenna for Jesus meant a place of condemnation and a place to avoid at all costs. In fact, Parry argues that the concept of Gehenna was not a clear concept at the time of Jesus: it meant punishment and fire.
So, he goes to the two major Gospel texts: the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) and the “eternal life/punishment” in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matt 25.

On Luke 16: he sides with Powys to say the parable is not about what hell is like but about taking a Pharisaic sense of the world to come, automated judgment, reward and punishment as well as Gehenna. Its purpose was to call the Pharisees to repentance and it subverted typical Pharisaic ideas. It is therefore unwise to infer anything about the after life.
On “eternal punishment” in Matt 25:46 he takes the typical line: “eternal” means “the age to come” and it therefore describes the sort of punishment one experience in that time period, but it says nothing about how long the punishment will endure.
He also appeals to the rhetorical intent of hell texts: to warn people to change and to warn of judgment.
Mark 9:42-50 has a powerful statement about salting with fire and Parry sees that expression referring to the purifying fire (almost a purgatory idea) instead of an endless retributive fire. He’s not certain, however
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    This does seem to me to be a hope so take on Jesus’ view as recorded in the gospels. I do appreciate the fact that Christian tradition on hell had not been established by Jesus’ time, but wonder if you can really draw out a universalistic take through Jesus’ words. Yet with true repentance and faith through God’s grace, I’m all for it, I just don’t see it. It is not good to draw conclusions from something inconclusive, though the writer is really drawing his from a number of factors, factored together I take it.
    Jesus community

  • Bill

    I think our author is hopeful Jesus moved in a universalist direction. Parry is struggling with the same thing with which I struggle. How does a loving God even entertain the idea of eternal punishment for humanity? How do we put this together? How does that work? I don’t know but I am going to take God’s word for it. If there is a place called hell (I believe there is) where unrepentant sinners go after they die, so be it, tragic as it is.
    Parry says we can’t make conclusions about hell based on the parables he cites. But we can make conclusions about there not being a hell or a place of eternal punishment based on the parables he cites. That’s amazing logic. Parry argues Gehenna was not a clear idea in Jesus’ time. So was Jesus not clear in his thinking? Maybe he was but he wanted people to avoid Gehenna. Why? If you aren’t going to spend eternity in Gehenna why worry about it?

  • Gregory MacDonald

    This is a tricky topic.
    I don’t think that Jesus taught universalism. My argument is a more modest one – that nothing Jesus taught contradicts universalism. That we can affirm what Jesus taught and be universalists (if we could not then I could not be a universalist).
    But even that modest conclusion is one that is not easy to make (esp. in light of the mainstream interpretative tradition of Jesus’ teaching). People assume that they already know what Jesus was on about.
    The simplest route – and one that I am open to – is to go with the likes of N.T. Wright and to argue that Jesus was not speaking of Hell in the trad Hell passages but of the destruction of Jerusalem, etc.. Professor Nik Ansell (another evangelical universalist) takes that approach. It might be so and if it were it would short cicuit the whole discussion.
    But, for the sake of argument, I assume that Jesus did speak of Hell. My goal in the book was simply to show that IF this is so then what he said does not rule out the possibility of redemption from Hell.
    This required handling some tricky texts. Lk 16 was one of them. To be honest, I am not sure what my view on that parable is. I am sympathetic to Powys (as Scot mentions) but I am not convinced that he was right. I need to find some time to look at such texts more carefully one day (when I am an old man). What I am convinced of is that none of them obviously teach the trad view of Hell.
    And I do think that when Jesus’ teaching is set in whole-Bible context it can be understood in ways consistent with universalism.
    But I do think that a lot more scholarly work is needed here to do a better job than I was able to do.
    Robin

  • Gregory MacDonald

    Bill (#2)
    You wrote: “Parry argues Gehenna was not a clear idea in Jesus’ time. So was Jesus not clear in his thinking? Maybe he was but he wanted people to avoid Gehenna. Why? If you aren’t going to spend eternity in Gehenna why worry about it?”
    a few thoughts
    1. My point was that there was no culturally agreed, worked-out concept of Gehenna in Jesus’ day. So for Jesus to speak of Gehenna would not necessarily make his audience think, “Ah! Yes, Gehenna is that place of everlasting doom from which there is no escape.” There was a vague concept – Gehenna as a place of punishment – but it allowed scope for individuals to shape and nuance it. Some Jews thought that it was possible to exit Gehenna. The concept was sufficiently to allow for such notions. Now it obviously does not follow from that that Jesus himself was not clear in his thinking. I was speaking of the concept as a culturally shared idea and not Jesus’ own view of it.
    2. Should I not worry about anything bad happenening to me unless I know that it is an IRREDEEMABLE bad? Surely you don’t really believe that. For instance, if you thought that eating a certain food would make you feel in debilitating agony for the next year would you not be bothered? Would you say, “I don’t care because it’s not for eternity. Please pass the salt”? I’m suspecting that you still might think the food worth avoiding even for a mere year. How much more would Gehenna be worth avoiding even if it is not for eternity?
    Robin

  • Scot McKnight

    Gregory (aka Robin),
    Thanks for weighing in. While I’m not convinced of the universalist position, mostly because I can’t find biblical warrant in a positive fashion, I do think there is a ton of misunderstanding of what the evangelical universalist is arguing.
    In particular, your comment to Bill is important and hard to get the mind around. The default position of the orthodox is to equate hell with eternity/eternal. That idea is so deeply fixed that to speak of hell as purgation or as potentially temporary makes no sense to folks. The fear of God’s judgment, in other words, stems from its eternality for the orthodox mind.
    Furthermore, the orthodox mind can’t find the terror in hell if it means “well, yes, you’ll go to hell but that, too, will pass.” I don’t make light of hell in this, but I think you see the point.
    By the way, why did you not make more of 1 Peter 3:18-25 as indicative of gospel response after death?

  • dopderbeck

    On Matt. 25:46: if the next age aion is not necessarily persistent, is that equally true for those who go away to “punishment” (kolasin) as well as for those who go away to “life” (zoe). Is the hope of heaven an “eternal” hope, or is it only a limited hope for some future finite dispensation?
    I see how you can pick through individual proof texts, but when you take the notion of the “age to come” in the prophets, Jesus, Paul, the NT apocalyptic, and Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic together, doesn’t this picture emerge: (1) there is an “age to come”; (2) the “age to come” is the final consummation of history; (3) in that final consummation, those who belong to God will experience life, and those who do not will experience death?

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#5) — can I be a little blunt? Your comment strikes me as a bit peckish, as though the “orthodox mind” is the product of some creaky unthinking fundamentalism (setting aside for the moment what the “orthodox mind” even is, particularly on a blog whose tagline is “Jesus and orthodox faith in the 21st Century!”). If “orthodox” basically means giving God proper glory, not just blindly repeating past formulas, then Lord let my mind be orthodox!
    I have some sympathy for what Bill (#2) said, but I’d flesh it out a little more. It’s not just a simple utilitarian calculus — well, if I commit adultery now, that might mean 1,000 years in purgatory, but what the hell (literally!), it’s worth it! I’ll pause here to suggest that behavioral economics shows how bad we are at discounting future pain to present value, but that isn’t my main point.
    For me a bigger issue is that even the notion that such a calculus could in principle be possible is noxious to the holiness of God. The holiness of God is absolute, and therefore any impingement on God’s holiness is absolute. The idea that 1,000 years (or a million years, or whatever) in purgatory could make up for an impingement on God’s holiness seems to me utterly wrong. All calculus fails here, and that is precisely why God Himself, in the person of the incarnate Son, had to suffer the cross.
    So, I think in a very important sense Bill (#2) is right. We properly recoil at any suggestion that an affront to God’s holiness could be satisfied through any period whatsoever of purgation. Anselm was right here: the only proper satisfaction was the cross of Christ.
    Now, I know that MacDonald et al. aren’t intending to suggest the atonement is meaningless. But that would lead to another question: if the aion to come is intended to be purgative, what purpose does the atonement really serve; and if the atonement fully serves its purpose, what purpose does a purgative future dispensation serve?
    It’s just dosn’t hang together for me.

  • Richard

    @ 7 Doperdeck
    I think the understanding in a “purgative” aion is that the atonement is what allows any repentance at any point and what ultmately allows God’s victory. I’m not sure purgative is the best word to be used here though. I think Parry is suggesting that hell allows the unreprentant to experience the fullness of their falleness until they repent and come to God’s grace, not making an accounting for their sins in this aion.
    Maybe a “test of wills” would be a fitting phrase to describe the purpose of the aion? And God’s will is strong enough to exact judgment for repentance even if it pains him to watch his children suffer, much I think like our sin pains him now.

  • Adam

    I good book that I would recommend that contributes well to today’s post is Bradley Jersak’s “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jeruslaem” (Wipf and Stock, 2009). Brad makes a good case for the idea that by the time of Jesus two Gehenna traditions had developed – both of which trace back to the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.
    1. The Apocalyptic-Infernalist Tradition: Enoch > Talmud > Church
    This tradition uses historic Hinnom as a metaphor for a literal place of punishment in the afterlife. It can be punitive or purgative, permanent or temporary, annihilation or torment.
    2. The Historic-Prophetic Tradition: Jeremiah > Jesus
    Jesus’ use of Gehenna intentionally references Jeremiah’s prophetic use of HInnom to represent literal destruction. He recalls the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE as a warning of the impending fall of Jerusalem to Rome in 70 CE.
    Btw, there is also a nice afterword in Brad’s book by Professor Nik Ansell on hell.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    Bill (#2) wrote, “Parry says we can’t make conclusions about hell based on the parables he cites. But we can make conclusions about there not being a hell or a place of eternal punishment based on the parables he cites. That’s amazing logic.”
    As I’ve followed the discussion in these posts about Parry’s book, I am uneasy that a conclusion: the Bible teaches universalism–is used to shoehorn texts that are both theologically and traditionally understood as *not* teaching universalism into a new category. We get embroiled with Paul’s use of “all” and the Apocalypse’s use of “all nations”; we get twisted new versions of God’s love and are told ipso facto that punishment does not mean punishment; it’s purgative. We start getting shoved toward atonement views that in the long run, apart from all the universalist denials otherwise, weaken the Cross of Jesus Christ. We get a non-Calvinist, but very real vision of God *making* a human being repent whether they want to or not…even if it takes hell fire to get them there. Where’s the love in that? I ask. We lose the absolute severity and dignity of human choices as Eikons of God and, whether universalists want to admit it or not, the whole Bible story deflates to mush and missional, sshhmissional–who gives a rip? Universalism, evangelical or otherwise IMO, guts the Story.

  • dopderbeck

    As an aside: I noticed in the current Scottish Journal of Theology the following article, which is fascinating and appropos to this discussion: Oliver Crisp, Is Universalism a Problem for Particularists, ST 63(1): 1-23 (2010).
    Crisp lays out clearly the case for Augustinian universalism, and then attempts to rebut it. Along the way, he makes some interesting comments about the nature of hell.

  • ron

    I ordered the book, still on back order…

  • http://emergentchristian.blogspot.com Michael Fanninger

    Some above have noted a few theological problems with universalism. Here is, I think, a better way to see it:
    Jesus, in his work on the cross, atones for all the sins of all humanity. Period. There is nothing left to be done on humanity’s part.
    Salvation, in the predominant scriptural sense, is the realization and acceptance of that fact. NOT the attainment of sin-removal through repentance, or something similar. Salvation is just waking up to the truth. That realization has the ability to transform life, and that is what we see in the scriptures. The gospel message was that “your sins have been forgiven, now recognize that!”
    Everyone, at least potentially, will come to this realization. Not because they will be tortured to repentance, or something similar, but because every illusion ultimately falls away. For Paul, this took the form of a blinding light. For others, it might take the form of a violent death, which rips away the falsehoods to reveal the truth.
    Hell, in the sense of purgatory or retribution, is not necessary.
    What are the problems with this construction?

  • Gregory MacDonald

    Scott
    you ask: “why did you not make more of 1 Peter 3:18-25 as indicative of gospel response after death?”
    Indeed – I did not even mention it. The reason was perhaps a silly one. Whenever I mentioned universalism and hope after death people always mentioned that text and assumed that my case depended on it. But it is, as you know, an ambiguous and tricky text. So I wanted to see if I could make a case that made no reference to it. Then, if I wanted, I could bring the text in at a later date to support what I had built.
    I was quite persuaded by David Horrell’s take on the passage (was it in NTS?).
    I also made nothing of 2 Cor 5. That was a mistake on my part. It is an important text in my theological case.
    Robin

  • dopderbeck

    Michael (#13): the problem with your construction is the doctrine of election. It seems passingly hard to take the Biblical materials to mean that everyone is among the elect; and if your take on election is Barthian or Arminian or Pelagian, then it seems passingly hard to suggest that people don’t have to make their own choice about whether to join with the elect.

  • Gregory MacDonald

    John (#10)
    Let me make a few brief comments on your points:
    1. “the Bible teaches universalism–is used to shoehorn texts that are both theologically and traditionally understood as *not* teaching universalism into a new category.”
    I don’t think I shoehorn texts. To me it looks like traditionalists shoehorn universalist texts like Colossians 1 to fit pre-existent theology. But the reality is that we’re all in the same boat: there are biblical texts which seem to teach universalism and some that seem not to. How do we hold them together? You do it one way. I do it another.
    2. “We get embroiled with Paul’s use of “all” and the Apocalypse’s use of “all nations”;”
    And why ever not? These are biblical texts that we revere. We cannot just ignore them because their teaching does not ‘fit’
    3. “we get twisted new versions of God’s love”
    Twisted? Sorry – you’ll need to explain how (perhaps it is in what follows)
    4. “and are told ipso facto that punishment does not mean punishment; it’s purgative.”
    Two thoughts: (a) corrective punishment is still punishment (at least it is in the Bible and in normal English usage) (b) Actually I don’t teach that Hell purges but that it exposes the horrible reality of sin and of our need of a saviour.
    5. “We start getting shoved toward atonement views that in the long run, apart from all the universalist denials otherwise, weaken the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
    Depends how you look at it. You say that the cross atones for a few people. I say that it atones for all of them. Why is my view weaker? It looks stronger to me.
    6. “We get a non-Calvinist, but very real vision of God *making* a human being repent whether they want to or not…even if it takes hell fire to get them there. Where’s the love in that? I ask.”
    Everyone who chooses to repent and to trust in God does so because they want to. You object to God making use of pain in the educative process (and there are real issues here) but it is unquestionably a biblical idea. I presume that you acknowledge that.
    7. “We lose the absolute severity and dignity of human choices as Eikons of God”
    We don’t lose the dignity of human choices nor the severe consequences of those choices (nothing I say undermines either). But we do lose the idea that we can decide a FINAL destiny other than the one that God has appointed for us. Personally I find that unequivocally good.
    8. “and, whether universalists want to admit it or not, the whole Bible story deflates to mush and missional, sshhmissional–who gives a rip?”
    You’d need to read my book. I argue at length that universalism does not demotivate mission. I’d would be interested in your thoughts on the arguments I use.
    9. “Universalism, evangelical or otherwise IMO, guts the Story”
    I think the story goes like this.
    All things are FROM God (creation),
    FOR God,
    THROUGH God (in Christ), and
    TO God (in the eschaton)
    That IS universalism. It does not gut the story but gives it the end most fitting a biblical story of creation and new creation. Or so I think.
    Hope that takes the discussion forward
    Peace
    Robin

  • Gregory MacDonald

    Dopderbeck (#7)
    I am afraid I don’t have time to deal with all your points. Let me just say that:
    1. Yes on the ‘orthodox’ thing although Scot only meant ‘traditionalist’ so nothing hangs on this.
    2. Yes, in reality people don’t make neat utilitarian calculations. Indeed. That is why the threat of eternal torment has often not proven itself to be a strong deterent historically speaking. But my point is merely that it is an error to say that my view of Hell is nothing to worry about. Whether people do in fact worry about Hell is a different issue and one that raises issues for traditionalists as much as for me.
    3. You are dependent on Anselm’s classic defence of Hell here (a sin against God’s infinite glory incurrs infinite demerit and warrants infinite punishment). It is a very problematic argument both biblically (as not all sins are equally bad in the Bible) and philosophically.
    NOBODY is making light of God’s glory! And nobody is suggesting how many bad-points are earned by act X as opposed to act Y. But I do wish to say that some sins are worse than others and deserve worse punishment. I cannot imagine the alternative.
    BUT EVEN IF I’m wrong–and every sin (from stealing a paperclip to torturing a child) are both equally and infinitely bad–that is no argument against universalism. Because you can make sin as big and bad and dark (even infinitely so) as you like but the grace of God in the cross of Christ is bigger and brighter. Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. So even if we all deserve ETERNAL torment in Hell the cross is strong enough to undo that and to save us all.
    And some universalists have taken exactly that line. We all deserve eternal torment in Hell but the cross takes that for us so that none of us have to go through it.
    All the best
    Robin

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    Robin (#16),
    Thank you for the point by point response to my concerns. I admit that I am responding without having read your book. I think I voice concerns of ‘traditionalists” and I am glad to hear that you have thought about them and engage them in an irenic way. Thanks, again.

  • Don Ledford

    Let me suggest an alternative perspective on Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In a nutshell: The parable is about the failure of the Jewish people to properly steward the spiritual riches with which they were entrusted under the covenant. (The rich man in the parable represents the Jews, while Lazarus represents gentiles.)
    Rather than sharing the glory of God with the gentiles, the Jewish nation left Lazarus begging and spiritually starving outside the gate. Interestingly, “Lazarus” is the Greek equivalent of “Eleazar,” the gentile steward of Abraham who lost his share of the inheritance when the child of promise was born to Abraham (Genesis 15:2-4). References to being “at the gate” and “dogs” were typical Jewish references to gentiles. The rich man, like Judah, had five brothers. And the clincher, Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers would not repent “even if someone rises from the dead.” Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate the triumph of the inclusive kingdom of God, but the Jewish people did not repent.
    Of course, there’s a more detailed argument to make for this interpretation than can be done in a blog comment! But this perspective is certainly in line with the overall emphasis of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. It nicely complements NT Wright’s perspective, with which I agree, regarding the judgment teachings of Jesus being fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
    I am looking forward to the arrival of your book in the mail any day now!

  • Gregory MacDonald

    Don (#19)
    Very interesting. That interpretation of the parable was, as far as I know, first suggested by John Murray (see Letter 1 of his “Letters and Sketches of Sermons”). It is clever and fascinating but, like many of Murray’s interpretations, I don’t find it very persuasive.
    You might also enjoy his interpretation of the sheep and the goats (though you may not agree with it). The sheep are all humans and the goats are the demonic powers that oppress them (from within). By separating them and casting the goats into eternal punishment the sheep (all humans) are liberated and enter life. Again – fascinating but (to my mind) implausible. It was not an interpretation followed by many universalists let alone anyone else.
    Robin

  • JoanieD

    To Robin in #17 who wrote, “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. So even if we all deserve ETERNAL torment in Hell the cross is strong enough to undo that and to save us all.”
    Amen to that, Robin. “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” 2 Cor 5:19 NLT)

  • Bob

    I wonder if anybody could comment on what Jesus said about blaspheming the Holy Spirit with regard to universalism. Specifically, I’m thinking about how he says “blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven” and “whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.”
    That “age to come” bit is interesting in light of the discussion about “hell as eternal” vs “hell as ages long,” I think.
    So, if Jesus was a universalist, does that mean that blasphemy against the Spirit *will* be forgiven, or that no one will ever blaspheme the Spirit. If the latter, why bother with the warning?
    Full disclosure: I’m “hopeful” but so far not very convinced.

  • JoanieD

    Bob, that is a good question. I am hoping maybe Robin will respond to it. I can’t remember if he addressed it in his book but I will check later.

  • http://scaredofhell.com/ Debbie Boutwell

    Bob,
    I was a hopeful universalist for a couple of years but have taken the leap, now. My understanding of no forgiveness in the age to come has to do with Don’s (#19)view of the rich man parable…
    Don said, “The parable is about the failure of the Jewish people to properly steward the spiritual riches with which they were entrusted under the covenant.”
    Since Jesus came for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, first, I believe that some things He warned them about pertained just to them. They were, as Don said, entrusted with spiritual riches. Paul said they were “given the oracles of God“. Obviously, they had a special assignment from God for His kingdom. I don’t know if that means a literal 1000 year kingdom or not, but if it does, couldn’t that be the “age to come”? If so, no forgiveness in that age would mean they would totally miss out on what they had been chosen to do in that glorious age. Thus, causing much regret and gnashing of teeth. They are in outer darkness while others, who were called, because of their sin, are ruling and reigning .(in the light so to speak) There has to be a specific meaning to this warning because of other passages in the bible that talk about God’s mercy and grace….locking up all in disobedience so He can have mercy on all…Romans 11.
    As pertaining to Jews and Gentiles , Paul said there was a secret that had been hidden for the ages that was being revealed , through him. Wasn’t that secret the fact that God, in the very beginning, planned to sum up everything in Christ, (he will reign until everything is subjected to Himself) so He can present it to God, that he may be All in All?
    I am so relieved to think that God really did not create the plan I was taught He did. It may be the child in me, but, I can see Him as the original creator of that well worn phrase that brings gladness to little hearts everywhere….“and they all lived happily ever after”
    My two cents,
    Debbie Boutwell


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