Let’s Get “Universalism” Straight

Let’s Get “Universalism” Straight December 21, 2009

GregMacd.jpgToday I’d like to begin blogging through Gregory Macdonald’s book The Evangelical Universalist
. The first order of business, which is his too, is to get this term “universalism” straight and I want to attach adjectives to his descriptions.

After reading Parry’s definition of “Christian universalism,” do you think it can be squared with the Bible? Do you think it can be squared with Christian orthodoxy?

He sees (at least) five kinds:
First, gospel universalism means that the gospel is for everyone whether a person believes or not. Gospel universalism is why there is a missionary movement.
Second, divine-desire universalism teaches that God wants everyone to trust in Christ. Thus, God’s desire is universal thought that desire can be frustrated by human choice. Most Calvinists would not affirm divine-desire universalism.
Third, effective universalism believes that everyone on planet earth who has lived, is living, and will live will in the end be saved. 
Fourth, pluralist universalism believes that everyone on planet earth will be saved, regardless of that person’s religious faith.
Robin Parry, the actual author of this book (pseud. Gregory Macdonald), believes in Christian universalism, which we will define after the jump.

So, fifth, Christian universalism believes in all the classic evangelical and orthodox doctrines (Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone) and also in hell. But, and here’s the big but, one’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death so that those in hell can repent and trust in Christ, and in the end all will make this decision without coercion.

Thus, this Christian universalism is not pluralism, it does not find redemption anywhere outside of Christ, it does not deny hell or final punishment for rebellion and sin etc, but it also affirms that death itself does not end a person’s consciousness or chance to respond to the grace of God.

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  • Bo

    Read this when it first came out and was intensely curious as to who the real author was. Is this common knowledge now, Scot, or did you have to do a little research? Can’t wait for more of this series, this book fully converted me to believe, hermeneutically, that this kind of Universalism is the most reasonable approach to scripture, and I’m not sure I can go back, even if I was convinced with a better hermeneutical approach. I would have to hope against hope for this. Granted, I’m a college student studying philosophy as an undergrad so I can’t really argue too fiercely for another decade or so when (if) I have my PhD. I can’t wait to get your take on Parry’s method, Scot, and thanks for giving this issue both a forum and the attention it deserves. And great job at Mars Hill Sunday!

  • Bo

    Sorry, he says he wrote the book on his blog. Too quick to ask questions, my apologies.

  • Does “MacDonald” then see “hell” as being somewhat purgatorial in nature? He believes that ultimately everyone will without coercion then come to embrace Christ and his grace?
    If so it sounds a lot like some other evangelical authors over the years. The most recent that comes to my mind is Randy Klassen’s book What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? (Pandora Press, Telford, PA), 2001. Klassen argues that the nature of God’s love is such that it will ultimately transform everyone.
    However, the longer I’m around the more I’m convinced that there are people who would rather burn in eternal fire than have to spend the rest of eternity in the presence of God. They would prefer that even after death and God allows it. (But I would not be dogmatic about it other than to say that God will not coerce.) C.S. Lewis moves that direction in the Great Divorce — although he doesn’t try to settle the issue eternally.
    Do you think that Gregory MacDonald took his pseudonym as a kind of identification with George Macdonald, who held to a a form of Christian universalism?
    It looks like Amazon is out of the book.

  • Bo

    His pseudonym comes from both George MacDonald and Gregory of Nyssa

  • Scot, is there a biblical basis for “christian universalism”? i think i remember N.T. Wright including an idea to this effect in For All the Saints. am i totally off on that?

  • John C

    These are helpful distinctions – not least the initial one between the big group of ‘gospel universalists’ and the subset of ‘divine-desire universalists’.
    One issue I have is how stable ‘Christian universalism’ is. In the nineteenth-century Christian universalists very rapidly drifted away from orthodox positions on the Trinity, Incarnation etc and became Unitarian-Universalists. Was this just because they’d been ostracised by most Evangelicals and were practically forced to hang out with the wrong sort? Or was it because they had already started moving in the wrong direction (away from classical orthodoxy) and anti-Trinitarianism was a natural progression? After all, both Universalism and anti-Trinitarianism were strongly correlated with an enthusiastic embrace of Enlightenment values of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘humanity’.

  • Jordan

    I’ll be interested to see how he works out the option to repent while in hell. My first reaction is, “well who wouldn’t?! Thus all will be saved.” But maybe it won’t be that simple.

  • I’ve thought that answers to questions like this can sometimes be best answered in a fictional narrative, like what C.S.Lewis did in THE GREAT DIVORCE. I especially think so in regard to Jordan’s comment, above.
    I’ve got a link to a short novella along that line, entitled “Allegory”. It can be found on my blog page above.

  • Scot McKnight

    Brad, yes, I do think he sees it as somewhat purgatorial but not so much of one’s sins in the past but as a time where a person is purged in divine discipline to respond to the grace of God in Christ. Punishment as educative that leads a person to see the full implications of the gospel.

  • Peter

    How is that not coercive?

  • JoanieD

    I am hoping my book will be in the mail today. Looking forward to reading it and I may have to put off finishing Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places for a few days. That is a great book!

  • Scot McKnight

    Instead of seeing at as coercive, Parry sees it as “compatibilist.” Molinism is at work at times as a possible way of explaining this, and we’ll have a post on this later this week.

  • Mark Farmer

    I’m halfway through William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved?, and finding it to be thoughtfully written. Willimon regards universal salvation as a reasonable biblical hope and desire, although not a certainty.

  • Jeremy

    Great topc.
    I wonder if Parry’s Christian Universalism does to missions / evangelism?

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#12) — I’ve only heard of Molinism as a defense of exclusivism — i.e., that it is not unfair for some to have never heard the gospel, because God foreknew that those who haven’t heard would not in any event have responded affirmatively. So I’m curious to see how Molinism fits in with Christian universalism.
    The classical Reformed response to Molinism, as I understand it, is that it presumes synergism. It would seem that MacDonald’s view of Hell also presumes synergism. What’s the point of the atonement if Hell is purgative in a way that enables people to cooperate in their salvation? So, aside from all the hermeneutical problems, there is a significant theological divide at play, it seems.
    I dunno, at this point I think I prefer to let the mystery of “who’s in and who’s out” lie with God’s goodness, justice and sovereignty. I don’t think we can know the full extent of the elect, nor do I think we can grasp the criteria for who God elects (other than that it is not on the basis of human merit), though we can hope in the wideness of God’s mercy. Beyond that, I think all we can do is patiently respond to our own callings in participating in God’s establishment of the Kingdom.

  • Picking up on David’s thought in #15, where do we read of the atoning work of hell/punishment? Let’s say someone dies who vehemently denies the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ. How does that play out and on what biblical reality? Second, Where do we discover that Christ’s atoning work and scope covers those in hell itself?

  • Richard

    @5. Chad M
    Paul uses some very universal terms like “all” and “every” pretty steadily in his epistles (Colossians, Philippians, etc). There’s also some broad scope universal terms in the prophets, esp. Isaiah.
    The exclusivist hermeneutic tends to see those “all” references as hyperbole except when referring to the pervasity of sin. For a great example, check out Romans 5:12-19. Read it through the traditional exclusivist position (that all died in Adam and those who believe in Christ will live) and then try reading it through a Christian Universalist lens (that all died in Adama and all will live in Christ- can the curse be stronger than the atonement?).

  • ChrisB

    I wish I could believe that.

  • Richard

    @15 and 16.
    Is me experiencing the consequences of my sin and repenting on this side of death any different than the scenario you put forward regarding a “purgative” hell? If so, how?
    Parry definitely sees hell as punitive, but not without end. You’re there until you choose to come out into God’s Kingdom. It’s not quite the turkey timer of suffering to negate our sins and then we’re done…

  • Travis Greene

    Though I am not quite persuaded by Christian universalism, I will defend it as being within orthodoxy. And distinguishing it from the wispy universalism that would claim “we’re all saved because there’s nothing to be saved from” is very important.
    John (16),
    The idea that Christ descended into hell and preached to spirits in bondage is very very old, and has some biblical warrant. I don’t see why we would necessarily limit that only to people who were dead when he died, given the uncertain nature of time after death.
    As for people who die denying the person and work of Jesus, what’s the difference between that person and the pre-conversion Paul? It may be psychologically useful to us to define death as the cut-off point for changing, but I’m not sure that’s clear.
    As others have mentioned, Lewis’ Great Divorce and other works of fiction are probably the best we can do when we approach these mysteries.

  • michaeldanner

    I first came in contact with Christian universalism through a book entitled If Grace is True by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. I found their presentation of it compelling. They raise the same point that Richard has raised (#17) We tend to read the “all are sinners” in Adam as universal and that same “all are made alive in Christ” as exclusive. Why? There are some Bible texts that indicate eternal conscious torment is real. There are other Bible texts that speak of universal salvation. This isn’t as cut and dry as many people think.
    In response to John (#15) I don’t understand Christian universalism to be saying that hell/punishment itself contributes to atonement. Hell takes more of the form of a place/state where people exist after death who have not placed their faith in Jesus. The only difference is God is not absent from them and they are still able to repent and respond to the grace of God in Jesus. There is a tendency to think that if people can get out of hell then hell is really like the Roman Catholic’s purgatory – a place you go to purge your life of sin. In that understanding you could say that hell contributes to atonement, but that isn’t the position of Christian universalists as I understand it.
    As for Jesus’ atoning work, I’ve always understood that Jesus’ atonement is universal and without limit. By that I mean that his death paid the penalty for all sins – past, present and future – for all people throughout all time. In most popular evangelical theology the reason people are in hell has nothing to do with any limits on the part of Jesus’ sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity. If Jesus’ love, grace, mercy and forgiveness are barred from hell, doesn’t that mean that in some sense the gates of hell have prevailed over the atonement of Jesus? At the same time, if a person’s beliefs at death seals their eternal destiny in what sense as death lost it’s power and sting? It may have lost some of it’s power and some of it’s sting, but it still retains some. I’ve always thought that Jesus, as God, can go wherever he wants and do whatever he wants without limits imposed on him from the outside. Just some things to consider.

  • Michaeldanner (#21),
    You wrote, “The only difference is God is not absent from them and they are still able to repent and respond to the grace of God in Jesus.”
    Of course, an omnipresent God is not absent from them but where are we led to believe that even if those who are experiencing hell are able to repent that they want to? Out of love for God? Out of pain of hell? What of regret for what they missed? Sorry, chapter and verse?

  • Wes

    While I would hope all Christians would certainly affirm “Gospel Universalism” as defined above (and “Divine-Desire Universalism” seems to be an in-house debate), “Effective,” “Pluralist” and “Christian” Universalism seem to be different flavors of the same, wishful thinking. I suppose we’ll hear, but what does the author do with – say – Hebrews 9:27?
    Is there no end to the desire of people to re-write Orthodoxy?

  • Richard

    You are correct that there is no end to people trying to rewrite Orthodoxy. We witness this all the time as people try to right off views they don’t hold as unorthodox or heretical even if the church has historically accepted them as orthodox. Because I don’t hold to a view doesn’t make it unorthodox.
    All Hebrews 9:27 says is that everyone will die once and face judgment. Not sure how that’s denied by the Christian universalist that holds to people going to hell or the new creation. That would be judgment. The Christian universalist just holds that the gates of hades aren’t stronger than Yahweh, as mentioned by Michael (21) above.

  • I think of Christian Universalism as Calvinism in which the elect=everyone. Which I like, because I was never ok with God creating some people who were predestined to hell.

  • Darren King

    Wes writes:
    “Is there no end to the desire of people to re-write Orthodoxy?
    My question is: According to who’s Orthodoxy? Come on, who do you think you’re fooling? Christianity is not a monolithic belief system with no variance across time and space. So stop pretending otherwise.
    And this debate/discussion is not a new one. Its been an IN-HOUSE debate amongst Christians since the time of Christ.

  • Rick

    “Christianity is not a monolithic belief system with no variance across time and space. So stop pretending otherwise.”
    Disagree. There are some things that have been held throughout time (yett universalism may not be one of those issues). “So stop pretending otherwise” :^).

  • Interesting conversation, I look forward to more of the theory behind this book. I’m not sure if I’m sold on the more purgatorial view of hell and its connection to genuine repentance and faith. I will say that it seems we are making alot of assumptions- generated whether by “fact” or perception- about what Hell actually looks like. If Hell is more an endless series of torturous punishments then it makes sense that someone would be quick to yell uncle, or say just about anything to be released from it. But the views espoused by the author holds up the possibility of hell being a place or experience of enduring the pain or suffering inflicted upon others by oneself. I’m not sure which is a more true picture of Hell, but suffice it to say how we feel about this purgatorial possibility depends mostly on our own view of Hell, which may very well be our private view of what it should be, but not God’s view of what it is.

  • Your Name

    Also, there’s “God is willing none should perish” and can God’s will be thwarted? I came to believe in christian universalism about 5 yrs ago from posts on another list, from this one woman. Makes sense to me. I think a challenge, though, is we have to be mindful of our desire for revenge i.e. God will get them after death, they go to hell to be miserable for eternity. Hard to think a serial rapist or murderer could someday be with God and us, in heaven. We want them to get due punishment. That kind of thing.

  • What’s the difference between “effective” and “pluralist” universalism? Surely both believe in universal salvation “regardless of religious faith”?

  • Bill

    You know what? Adolf Hitler deserves an oven and so does Ted Bundy.
    Just because we cannot make sense out of a loving God actually having a place for unrepentant, evil souls doesn’t mean we need to reject that our eternal destinies are fixed at death or subscribe to the theology of it. The more I hear about this the more I actually think annihilation may be the way. Can’t think of anything more fixed than that.
    If our theologies are designed just to make us “feel” better about who God is and His activities, then I wonder about our theologies. What about the vengeance of God? Too uncomfortable. Too bad. What makes us think we need to answer all the questions?
    How long should one spend in hell before they can get out? Two minutes for tripping, 5 minutes for game misconduct. Come on…who sets the limit? Us? God tells us we should reserve vengeance for him. I am completely down with that. I don’t have to answer for His ways. I need to talk them up. I don’t have to seek revenge. I’ll let him handle it. If he thinks eternal punishment is in order, that’s fine with me. I don’t have to square ALL of that with His love. He does and He will.

  • Glen

    @17. “The exclusivist hermeneutic tends to see those “all” references as hyperbole except when referring to the pervasity of sin. For a great example, check out Romans 5:12-19. Read it through the traditional exclusivist position (that all died in Adam and those who believe in Christ will live) and then try reading it through a Christian Universalist lens (that all died in Adam and all will live in Christ- can the curse be stronger than the atonement?).”
    This to me is a critical point. If “all died in Adam” encompasses all of humanity, then how can “all will be made alive in Christ” be any less all-encompassing? I don’t pretend to understand how to reconcile this with the many passages that seem to imply that not all will be saved, but it seems to me that Christ’s victory can’t truly be considered a victory if it only applies to a select few. If Satan succeeds in dragging 3/4 of humanity to hell for all eternity, I’d say he wins.

  • Richard

    @ Bill 31.
    Actually, you and I deserve an oven too. Rating sins is a human game, not a divine one. That’s the point of the gospel, isn’t it? That we all deserve an oven but Christ delivers us as we follow/believe him?
    As for satisfying God’s wrath, I thought that happened at the cross? How can God expect me to forgive my enemies if he is unwilling/unable to do the same? But maybe he has led the way in this – God acted on our behalf while we were still sinners. How do we make sense of God forgiving me as an enemy by working for my good while we were still yet his enemy as Paul writes in Romans 5:6-11?
    And this isn’t to negate that 5:1 states that we must come to faith in Christ either? It’s wrestling with whether or not there’s a cutoff at death or if we can come to faith even whilst suffering the consequences of our sinful state.

  • Bill

    Richard 33.
    No. As Christ-followers we no longer deserve ovens. That’s one of the bennies about being a child of God. The wrath of God is no longer directed at us. If I still deserve an oven as a Christian, I don’t know why I am a Christian.
    If what you mean is I once deserved an oven, I agree. But now, no way. Thanks be to God.

  • Bill, am I right that implicitly you’re agreeing that you don’t understand how eternal punishment can be loving?
    I never understood it either and I just used to ‘accept’ that it somehow was, until it got to feel too Emperor’s New Clothes-ish to me.
    I’d rather have a belief which reconciles with God’s love and I don’t understand how it fits with some other characteristics of his, than one which fits with other characteristics (his vengeance?) and I don’t understand how it reconciles with his love.
    Because it seems to me that his love is a primary attribute, since the Bible says God IS love, and it never says God IS vengeance.
    That’s why I find Christian Universalism the most appealing form of Christianity.
    Yes it’s about my feelings – but if I’m made in the image of God then they should count for something and I’m not convinced disregarding them brings me closer to understanding God than listening to them.

  • Richard

    @ Bill 31.
    To be accurate, don’t you and I deserve an oven too? Rating sins seems to be a human past time, not a divine one. That’s the point of the gospel, isn’t it? That we all deserve an oven but Christ delivers us as we follow/believe him?
    As for satisfying God’s wrath, I thought that happened at the cross? How can God expect me to forgive my enemies if he is unwilling/unable to do the same? But maybe he has led the way in this – God acted on our behalf while we were still sinners. How do we make sense of God forgiving me as an enemy by working for my good while we were still yet his enemy as Paul writes in Romans 5:6-11?
    And this isn’t to negate that 5:1 states that we must come to faith in Christ either? It’s wrestling with whether or not there’s a cutoff at death or if we can come to faith even whilst suffering the consequences of our sinful state.

  • Richard

    Re: 36 sorry for the doublepost, it didn’t show on my browser the first time.

  • Hell did not create itself to oppose the love of God or thwart his grace so that “in Christ all will be made alive.” Jesus was the one who said, “Don’t fear the one who can destroy the body. Fear the one who can destroy both body and soul.” The only one who can do that is God. Hell is God’s idea…unless I can be convinced from Scripture otherwise.

  • Darren King

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree here. Do you really believe a consistent doctrine of the afterlife was developed soon after Jesus’ death – and remained largely unchanged – regardless of geographic expansion and such?
    All you have to do is look at the difference between how the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches treated this issue to see how divergent it became.
    And, of those two even – who’s right? Who gets to define orthodoxy? Historically, both claimed it – over the other in fact.
    In all honesty, it seems the only people who really believe that Christianity is one monolithic (always-the-same, from the beginning) system of belief, are the ones who are threatened by the idea that it might not be.

  • Richard

    @38 John Frye
    Great point that God created Hell. Agree 100%. That still doesn’t explain how to interpret one of the “all” phrases in that Romans passage and the other as hyperbole.
    And just because God can destroy the body and soul doesn’t necessitate he will… otherwise we would all clearly hold to the Annihlationism view of hell and hell would be nonexistence as opposed to a place we go.

  • Willie B.

    Christian universalism seems orthodox to me, of course some people’s definition of orthodoxy is far narrower than mine.
    Does it mesh with Scripture??? well first, i have not read this book yet but will as soon as i get home (tomorrow). but here are two points to consider
    1)there seems to me that there is tension in the NT witness. texts such as Matthew 24 suggests a final double outcome for man, while other texts such as Romans 5 “seem” to imply that all will be saved.
    however, this is very debatable. my main point however, is that perhaps just as there were many surprises when Christ came and fulfilled the prophecies of the OT-I suspect there will be many surprises when Christ returns again.
    but this leads me to my main point
    2)Richard Bauckham notes that C. W. Emmett’s essay “Heaven and hell” is something of a landmark in this debate because Emmett noted that the NT text indeed teaches a final everlasting judgment upon some and that any belief in universalism must go BEYOND the text.
    so many modern universalists are drawn to such conclusions not so much based on exegesis applied to a certain passage but because of the “spirit” of the NT and certain dogmatic inferences drawn from the overarching narrative of the NT concerning God’s love and victory over sin, death, evil, and hell upon the cross.
    and if it’s man’s free will versus God’s love and omni-resourcefulness, who do you think is going to win in the end? thus, God’s “yes” to the humanity in the cross and resurrection of Christ is louder than humanity’s “No” to God is the fallenness of this broken wounded creation.

  • Rick

    I am referring to early church orthodoxy, paleo-orthodoxy, Saint Vincent of Lerins (believed everywhere, always, everyone), etc… That kind of orthodox.
    “In all honesty, it seems the only people who really believe that Christianity is one monolithic (always-the-same, from the beginning) system of belief, are the ones who are threatened by the idea that it might not be.”
    “In all honesty, it seems” that some people who really believe that Christianity does not have a core orthdoxy might be threatened by the idea that there actually might be one :^).

  • JoanieD

    To Helen in #35 who said, “Yes it’s about my feelings – but if I’m made in the image of God then they should count for something and I’m not convinced disregarding them brings me closer to understanding God than listening to them.”
    I agree, Helen. God made creation, including humans, and said it was “good.” God came to earth as flesh and blood in Jesus. He took on human form and worked through the body with all its senses. Jesus taught us to look with fresh eyes at water, bread, wine, planting seeds, pruning branches, lost sheep. He cooked up fish for his disciples after he resurrected. So our senses can help us to understand some of the mystery and majesty of God.
    Sometimes our senses can get overloaded by the stress of life and then we need prayer to be still and know that God is still there, working with love at all times. Of course, there will always be people who have mental and spiritual problems and their senses can deceive them. That is when our learning from scripture, tradition, reason and from loving communities can help us to determine what is real.
    I am looking forward to the book as I want to see if his explanations can move me from being “merely” an inclusivist to being a full-fledged Christian Universalist. Some difficult passages in the Bible will need some explanation for me. I think those difficult passages were what kept C.S. Lewis and does keep N.T. Wright from being able to endorse Christian Universalism. (It’s also possible that they believed it, but felt it “safer” not to tell the world because of those people in the world that would wrongly take this as meaning they could do whatever they wanted and still be “OK” in the end. There was a church father who believed in Christian Universalism but who said it was best not to teach that, but unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read that. Sorry!)

  • Bill

    Helen 35.
    Yes. I may be implicitly saying I don’t understand how eternal punishment can be loving. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t.
    I don’t have to pit God’s acts in vengeance against His goodness or love. His vegeance is good. I also believe his hatred of sin is good and loving. He doesn’t want me to treat any part of His nature or characteristics or essence against others parts as if His mercy is somehow better than His justice. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a preference. But that preference can’t exclusively govern my theology.
    I don’t need to understand everything about how eternal punishment works with God’s love. I also don’t need to manipulate this to make me “feel” better about God and His ways. All I need to understand is that I don’t want to be on the receiving end of His vengeance; nor does anyone else.
    Just so you understand, I also don’t believe the core of the gospel is hell-avoidance but it is certainly part of the equation.

  • samb

    John (#38),
    When Jesus told his disciples to fear God because He is the only one who can kill the body and the soul, if I remember correctly, Jesus was teaching his disciples not to fear the religous leaders who would oppose them as they opposed Jesus. These religious leaders had very real power to kill. Jesus didn’t want them, or us, to fear men. He quickly added to what he said about fearing God by addressing how much God loves them. I think he was saying this, “You don’t have to fear men. If you must fear anyone, fear God. Yet let me tell you how much He loves you. You don’t have to be afraid any more. Follow me fearlessly.”

  • Darren King

    But you can’t play with history to make a rhetorical point. It might sound like a cute counter-argument, but its just not based on reality.

  • Though I’m not quite up on all of Parry’s beliefs, I must say that I think it only Christian to hope for more finding peace with God than what may appear to us. The thing that rankles so many Christians about Christian Universalism is that it purports to disregard the treasured monopoly on salvation for us, the faithful alive now; this reminds me not a little of the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
    Add to it the fact that this view paints a somewhat coherent picture using ignored or glossed over passages of Scripture rather than by ignoring Scripture in a liberal fashion, and you can understand why many believers will be happy enough to retreat to “orthodoxy” or point to undesirable effects (“What would this view do to evangelism?”) in order to condemn or dismiss it.
    The point of Parry’s purgatorial view of hell, unless I’m much mistaken, is that in God’s time and as a result of His acts of mercy (which we should be able to understand), is that eventually, even Hitler may not “deserve” the oven any more than the adulterer down the street does. It wouldn’t be about Hitler’s worthiness, but God’s mercy.

  • JoanieD

    One other thing about using our senses to make “sense” of God: check out 1 John 1: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testity to it…” NRSV (I did the bold on the “sense” words.)
    You can’t get any clearer than this that God used the senses of people to help them to know Him. And he does the same for us.

  • Thanks for your responses, Joanie and Bill.

  • Dr Bob Wenz

    This sounds — unfortunately — like a mix of Catholicism and Mormonism. Especially Mormonism, since the second opportunity to hear/repent is involved (except that the “Everlasting Gospel” from Joseph Smith is not being preached.

  • Don Schiewer

    Not sure if someone already mentioned this but if we view hell in the terms of Exile – the author’s view makes more sense…
    G_d often sent Israel into exile – but always with the intent of restoring them to the place that they belonged – Fully His children and Fully in the Promised Land…
    I’ve often wondered how a G_d who uses exile as a means to bring about restoration (much like we put a child in time-out) could use any means of exile (read::hell) as a permanent destination.
    Not sure how eternal heinous torture burning off of flesh for billions upon billions of years just to put it back on and start over again equates to a Just G_d?!?!?
    just my $.02

  • Scot McKnight

    Don at #51, precisely one of Robin Parry’s points.

  • Dana Ames

    John Frye @38,
    you might do some study on what the Jewish thought was about sheol, and compare and contrast by chapter and verse 🙂 Jesus’ use of sheol with his use of Gehenna.
    Often in our English scriptures they are both translated with the word “hell”, which comes from a good old Anglo-Saxon word (hel) whose meaning, from Anglo-Saxon mythology, is very close to our “traditional” understanding of hell as a place of eternal punishment. “Hell”, sheol and Gehenna are three different things whose meanings got conflated with English usage over the years, also influenced by the politics of the middle ages that made Rome beholden to the germanic armies. It’s an interesting story to a language geek like me. It’s one of the reasons I rejected “hell” as a specific place of eternal torture some time before I encountered the Orthodox view.
    So I would say that God created sheol, but not “hell”; human beings created those other two. Gehenna denotes the Jerusalem garbage dump; it connotes the “place” where all useless and fruitless and worthless things end up and are “burned up”. Check it out.

  • Don Schiewer

    Agreed! It does become a very fascinating study – especially in regards to Gehenna (though I too am a geek!)

  • Robin Parry shows how the Bible teaches a Christian view of universalism.

  • Rick

    I am simply trying to point out that your accusations against orthodoxy border on ad hominem attacks, rather than attempts at objective points of disagreement.
    I am sorry to tell you, but people have very strong arguments in support of historic orthodoxy. They are not “trying to fool” anyone, they are not “pretending”, and they are not feeling “threatened”. You may disagree with some of the arguments, but that is the “reality” of the situation.
    Does that mean universalism falls outside of orthodoxy? To many (if not most), that seems like a wise question to ask.

  • Dr Bob Wenz

    The discussion of Gehenna is interesting and important. Gehenna was the garbage dump of Jerusalem, a metaphor for hell that Jesus employs. Hell appears to be the garbage dump of heaven if we carry the metaphor to its conclusion.
    I wonder also how annihilationism might intersect here.

  • Timothy

    Other books that treat this issue are…
    “The Last Word… and the Word after that” by Brian McLaren
    “Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn
    As I read the entire biblical narrative I see “shalom” as God’s bottom line. Judgment, wrath, anger… these are some of the means to accomplishing healing, wholeness, peace, reconciliation, salvation. I see myself as being orthodox.

  • Glen

    I think it’s very telling that, in most of Jesus’ teachings about hell, it’s not the unwashed masses who are threatened with it, but the religious leaders who are so sure they know who’s in and who’s out. Food for thought.

  • Dana Ames

    Dr. Bob Wentz @57,
    the point I was making was that Jesus in fact doesn’t use the word “Gehenna” when he means “the place where wicked human beings go after they die”. The Jews of Jesus’ day did not mean that. Jesus did not mean that. I respectfully disagree that Jesus meant it to be a metaphor for hell . (How can there be such a thing as “the garbage dump of heaven”?) Among other things, Jesus was warning the religious leaders that their agenda was worthless, fruitless and useless (and also that the Roman armies would eventually come and make the whole of the city into what only Gehenna was). I refer you to the studies of first century Judaism by N.T. Wright- and Dr. Scot McKnight…

  • E.G.

    So, with this point of view, what’s the point in evangelism here on earth? This sort of idea leads to the same non-evangelistic territory as would the extreme ends of Calvinism… doesn’t it?

  • Kristen

    E.G. (#61)
    In my various conversations, when questions of exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism/universalism come up it is not in the context of “What must we do to assure that we are saved?” but “What kind of God are we talking about here?”
    If anything, the way I see it, a universalist God (roughly the sort of Christian Universalism we’re talking about here — distinguished from a namby pamby who needs saving anyway sort of thing) is definitely a story to be told!
    Now, none of that means that universalism is true. But I seriously don’t understand how IF that were true, how it would make evangelism unimportant.

  • I am aware of the semantic field of sheol, hades, and gehenna. Behind the metaphors (e.g., gehenna) stands a truth: some will not experience glory and “eternal life.” Matthew 25: 11-12, a story of Jesus, presents a graphic and tragic reality–the door was shut on some and they cried for it to be opened to them. The answer is “I don’t know you.” To be known means to be in relationship with. The door was shut. Why was Paul so vague in Romans 2? Regarding eschatological judgment, Paul writes, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he [God the Judge]will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” If universalism is true, we’d expect Paul to add at the end of verse 8: “…but only for an infinite period of time depending on the extent of your sins while alive on earth. Then God’s loyal-love will win out and non-coercively lead you to repent! Yea!!” I DON’T see that in the text or in any other judgment texts.
    I think Christian universalism is an oxymoronic phrase and what gets me is that it massively trivializes the unimaginable suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus and the cross appears to be an unnecessary charade if in the end, grace wins out over true human moral rebellion and rejection of God. It seems downright idiotic to argue that just one person suffering eternal conscious torment means the devil won. Wrong…it means that the devil, demons, and unrepentant human beings *lose* big time and a loooong time. As C.S. Lewis argues in The Problem with Pain, if the game of life can be won; it can also be lost. Some lose.

  • Dana Ames

    John Frye,
    we may have to agree to disagree. At the same time, this is a real issue for people, and I think it would be helpful if you could “tune your ear” to how and why this author resonates.
    What if an *at least additional* interpretation of the Matthew passage could be that Israel was not ready for her Messiah, and Jesus’ point is that those who call themselves the people of God should take care to watch; that “I never knew you” was the master’s answer to foolish, unprepared people who did not recognize the day of their visitation and were deeply misguided as to the nature of their relationship with him? What if the “wrath and anger” in Rom 2 are not God’s wrath and anger, but rather what is experienced -from inside of us- in the Presence of the Almighty Triune Godhead if, up until the point of Jesus’ return, we haven’t wanted him? What if at least some of Jesus’ judgment sayings are about AD 70?
    At the end of Revelation, *after* the judgment, *after* the Lord has come to dwell on earth with people, a river flows from the throne of God out of the city. Twelve trees grow along the banks with leaves that are for the healing of the nations. Say what? Hasn’t everything been healed already? What’s that about?
    If the ultimate human problem is forensic, then anything that detracts from the penal substitutionary view could be seen to trivialize the sufferings and death of our Lord. It seems to me that perhaps it’s the Resurrection that could be seen to be trivialized in the current “traditional” view. *In no way* am I saying that the one should be pitted against the other; both are necessary. along with the incarnation, for our salvation. It’s notable to me that in the sermons recorded in the book of Acts, it’s when the preacher gets to the Resurrection that either people want to hear more, or else all h*ll breaks loose… What if the ultimate human problem is ontologic?
    Well, it would be great to sit down with you over a cup of coffee. I may not convince you, but one thing I am convinced of: you are a person of integrity and your faith is demonstrated in acts of real love, and that’s way more important than winning any argument. Please pray for me.

  • Dana,
    I am all for learning and good conversation. How can you say that Paul is not talking about wrath from God in Rom 2 when Paul explicitly names it as God’s wrath in Rom. 2:5? I still think all redemptive historical events this side of the cosmic renewal are trivialized in the (universalist view’s) great wash of grace through hell in eternity future.

  • Travis Greene

    You may or may not be right about universalism trivializing life now. But at least try to understand that, from the point of view of the Christian universalist, it’s exactly because of Jesus’ death that grace is extended to all. The atonement, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are crucial, they are the reason there is a “great wash of grace through hell in eternity future”. Whatever universalism is, it does not trivialize Jesus’ death.

  • Wes

    Universalism, in any form, is heresy. Plain and simple. That’s the historic position of the Church in its understanding of the Bible. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve got the testimony of history and the Church on the side of those who reject this nonsense.

  • Stephen

    I totally agree with Wes. I grow so weary of many people here saying things like “I like that idea,” or “I’d rather have a belief which…” or “I find Christian Universalism the most appealing form of Christianity.” This is nothing more than a denial of the authority of scripture and replacing that with a “whatever I believe I (or ‘like’) has merit” approach to Christianity. This is not only wrong, it is wicked and sinful. My borthers and sisters, it makes no difference what “you think!” This is the same error that leads to other heresies, such as open theism. Many here will vehemently disagree with me, and that’s okay…but that doesn’t make it any less true.
    There is only ONE truth; and while it is often challenging to know it all and have everyone agree on everything (which of course is why we have denominations within orthodox Christianity), the idea of universalism is outright heretical. So you can all call me, along with Wes, narrow minded. I’d rather be narrow minded than embrace heresy.
    Also, everyone keeps referring to the “all” passages in Romans 5 while ignoring where Paul uses the word “many” in the very same passage. Just the fact that he did not exclusively use “all” in the same context, regarding the very same doctrine he is teaching, is proof that he did not intend “all” to be an absolute “all” in every case. We do this all the time in our speech when we say things like, “Why don’t you all come over for coffee.” When I say that, I do NOT mean to include George Bush! To try to argue otherwise is futile, PARTICULARLY in light of the passages elswhere that oppose universalism.

  • Stephen

    By the way, Joannie D (#48), the passage you site is confirming the fact that the apostles, who gave us the inspired scriptures, were authorized to do so because they personally saw, heard and even touched Christ. This passage defines the function of an apostle. They were to take what they personally saw and heard from Christ and proclaim it through word and letter. They were also given unique, miraculous gifts to authenticate their authority (see 2Cor 12:12). Yes, we have “senses”, emotions, etc., but these are very unreliable. The ONLY reliable way God communicates to us today is through His word.

  • John Frye,
    Peace of Christ to you and to all the saints of God.
    I am perhaps out of line to jump in on a conversation a day late and a dollar short. I have been reading along.
    As a person who does believe in universal salvation, who sees hell as an exile from the radical love of God, who responds that their is a healing of the nations going on in the New Jerusalem, etc… I found your last comment worth responding to.
    “all redemptive historical events this side of the cosmic renewal are trivialized in the (universalist view’s) great wash of grace”
    The interesting point, is that I feel the ‘eternal torment’ belief structure trivializes the redemptive work of Christ. It is through God’s offer of himself, in solidarity with humanity, that ALL humanity, is reconciled to God. God took on himself, through the only begotten son, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING. To me, any other view weakens the beauty and majesty of Christ’s good work.
    Although naturally I don’t expect my $.02 on a message board to change the revelation of God you function under, but I was sure from the grace of your previous words and thoughts, that both camps may see the other side as a trivialization of God’s awesome work.
    Christ’s Kingdom Come,

  • duhsciple

    Terrifying, terrorizing god begets
    Terrifying, terrorizing people begets
    Terror acts against people who don’t see things “our way” begets
    Justifying evil in the name of “truth” and “righteousness” begets
    Competing Christian, Muslim, Jewish versions of this
    Terrible, terrifying, terrorizing thinking

  • Travis Greene

    Wes @ 67,
    If I call you narrow-minded, it would not be because you reject universalism, but because you do it in a belittling, uncharitable way. Christian universalism may be wrong. It is not nonsense.

  • Eddie

    Hello everyone. I just finished reading all the comments (presently at 67). I have not read any books on Christian Universalism, but have argued in the past for this doctrine on two Christian debate boards. I suppose I should read books by Christian authors for and/or against this subject, but the long-story-made-short is that my faith was overcome by a man in the past, when I was quite young. Some Christians would call this man a cultist. Whether that is so or not, he did some damage to my walk with Christ that took awhile to overcome. The backlash is, I don’t buy many books by Christian authors—some but not many. Consequently, I am not current on the names or “ism’s” one uses to describe those who hold Christian Universalism as unorthodox (whatever that means). Was Christ orthodox according to the Pharisaical or Sadduceean (sp?) point of view? For me, what things come down to is: is it Biblical?
    I have studied about this doctrine and have come to the conclusion that, unless one can prove otherwise by using Scripture, it is an eternal fact of Christian life. One of the posters above mentions Romans 5. It is precisely this Scripture that got me interested in the doctrine, but the one that finally convinced me is 1Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter. Verse-23 shows there is an order to everything that will take place. Christ is first, then those who are his at his coming. However, it doesn’t stop there. Jesus puts down every rule or thought that exalts itself above God’s authority—putting everything under his feet. In other words, God’s rule and authority is over all—no rebellion, just as it was prior to Adam’s rebellion. The final enemy that his destroyed is death, itself. Now, Romans 6:23 defines death as the reward of sin. Whether we call death “annihilationalism” or “hell” the Scripture says it will end! There is no eternal death for man according to 1Corinthians 15. I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes here, I am merely adding my two cents. I understand why folks don’t believe in Christian Universalism, but that ‘understanding’ is not an agreement that the doctrine is not Biblical.

  • Dana Ames

    Hi John Frye,
    sorry to be so late; I had to be away from the computer earlier.
    My bible, NRSV, says “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed”. I don’t see how that is “the wrath of God”. Rather, it sounds like a direct result of having a “hard and impenitent heart”.
    I would agree with how Travis Greene @66 expressed it. How sufficient exactly is Jesus death?
    I’m now part of a Christian tradition that spends more than 40 days in contemplation of mankind’s sin, one’s own personal sins, and Jesus’ death. The Crucifixion scene, called “the Golgotha”, is prominent in Orthodox churches, to the left of the altar. In my church, it’s always filled with candles. We don’t trivialize it.
    Nonetheless, the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian are still on the table.
    What if “hell” is not a “place”?
    Here are a couple of links to some things that might help you understand:

  • Stephen

    Travis Green, #72: Wes is perfectly free to call universalism “non-sense;” in fact, I agree with him. He is not being “belittling or uncharitable,” so please don’t sidestep the issue on the table, and make Wes the problem…that’s just an intellectually dishonest diversion. The problem is this sad, horrible false teaching of universalism, not Wes’ communication style. I get very tired of hearing the repeated charge of “arrogance” regarding those who have strong convictions and are willing to defend historical, biblical truth.
    Wes is completely right that we have the 2000 year testimony of history and the Church on the side of those who reject this idea, and it IS “nonsense” to believe that suddenly now in the twenty-first century we’ve finally been enlightened and figured out the real truth. There have been, and always will be, fringe heresies such as this, but just because they exist does not make them “legitimate.” Frankly, it’s astonishing that this issue has been given the legitimacy of 75 posts! I feel very badly for those of you who have embraced this teaching.

  • Scot McKnight

    Stephen, thanks for stepping in here. I see no need to debate whether or not universalism, at least the kind Robin Parry teaches (which believes fully in a doctrine of hell and is not pluralism), is nonsense but I agree that one can call that if one wants, but one would have to show why it is nonsensical (using that term with some finesse and not just meaning “absurdly and patently wrong” but in the sense that it makes no sense). And I agree with you that Wes has the church on his side, clearly. But this view is not really something new to the 21st Century, brother.
    But I’d appreciate it if Wes would admit that some in the Church, and not a few notables, including a greatly respected architect of orthodoxy, Gregory of Nyssa, have believed this but have done so with finesse and humility. Robin Parry clearly shows both of these.
    Stephen, one of the notable developments in this is that many evangelicals in England have embraced annihilationism while some, not all that many, have opted for an evangelical universalism that really does believe in hell.
    Travis, no need to call someone narrow-minded in a forum like this.
    Let’s deal with the issues … and they will unfold tomorrow and Friday and next week. I’m looking forward to honest and civil conversations about this topic.

  • Stephen

    Scot, thank you for your comments. I certainly know that this idea is not new…it’s just not orthodox. Discussing this purely from a theoretical standpoint is fine, or clarifying the belief of universalists so we may understand what they beleive to then better show them their error certainly is laudable. Other than that, I see no value in legitimizing it. I guess I’m unclear whether or not you see this position as legitimate, and if you do, I not only strongly disagree with you, but I would tell you that you are just plain wrong, in large part based on the testimony of the vast majority of our church fathers. I’m aware of your theological credentials, and I do not intend to be disrespectful. However, some of the greatest errors have come from the pens of exteremely intelligent, learned men. I simply do not see the value of going down this rabbit trail as if it will lead to anywhere good.

  • Scot McKnight

    Stephen, I’m not a universalist but I’m not sure evangelical universalism is not orthodox, though the word “orthodox” is a term that needs defining (I’d see it as the classical creeds and Protestant solas and anything that would deny what those ideas affirm would somehow get into the meaning). Remember that Robin Parry, and others like him, really do believe in a real hell of punishment.
    One of the major, major issues that emerges from this book is what happens after we die with our will and our possibilities. Parry and others think the God of love will never coerce but will always be gracious and the question is whether or not humans have potential to change after death. I see nothing like this in the NT; I can see how theological arguments can be brought to the table on these issues.
    It is of much value, however, to discuss these matters reasonably and that’s what I’d like to see happen in this series.

  • The real objection to any objections or modifications to the horific doctrine of Hell is that it deconstructs the evangelical Gospel. Jesus came to rescue us from Hell and if there’s no Hell then, as Piper says, “Jesus is just a local guy, no big deal”.
    If you remove hell everything unravels and you have to start doing business afresh with the Bible and Jesus Gospel of the Kingdom being near/here. Obviously a dualist approach is easier, wait for God to rescue us from this evil world to paradise where everything is perfect.

  • Marc (79), I’m not sure whether your comment was directed to evangelical universalism. Regarding evangelical universalism, it’s not necessarily a modification to the doctrine of hell to believe Jesus saves everyone from it.

  • Hi Scott,
    Wondering if his views (or at least conclusion) are similar to Keith DeRose’s views at his Universalism and The Bible article. I was quite convinced by DeRose’s views and they seem pretty similar.

  • Keith

    Universalism, in any form, is heresy. Plain and simple. That’s the historic position of the Church in its understanding of the Bible. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve got the testimony of history and the Church on the side of those who reject this nonsense. –comment #67
    Hmm. Any accurate history can’t be that “plain and simple” — especially if one is trying to portray with any accuracy at all the situation in the early (I guess by this I mean pre-Constantinian) Christian church.
    The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1953, vol. 12, p. 96, for instance, reports this:
    Under the instruction of these great teachers [Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Johannes Cassianus] many other theologians believed in universal salvation; and indeed the whole Eastern Church (q.v.) until after 500 A.D. was inclined to it. In the West this doctrine had fewer adherents and was never accepted by the Church at large. In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.
    This is available free on-line, thanks to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (a great resource). This link should take you to the right page:
    The material I quote above is at the bottom of the left-hand to the top of the right-hand column of the page. Read on for more brief but interesting history.

  • Maya

    Christian Universalists don’t believe in hell because it’s not in the Bible. I have studied this over and over again and have come to the conclusion that the doctrine of hell is no where to be found, the evidence is overwhelming.
    1) NO mention of hell throughout the entire OT. Everyone who died, righteous or not, went to the same place (Sheol)
    2)Four words translated to “hell”:
    Sheol–> Hebrew word which means GRAVE, the realm of the dead
    Hades–> Greek equivalent of Sheol, the abode of the dead
    Tartarus–> used once in the Bible regarding the location and the “everlasting” chains of the rebellious angels
    Gehenna–> a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem
    3) the word aion and aionios is mistranslated as eternal in some Bibles, but the word aion means AGE, not forever and ever, it means AGE
    4) Matthew 25:46 “aionios kolasin” this means age-abiding chastisement/correction NOT eternal punishment!!
    5)apolumi—> the word used for “perish” and “destroy” (shall not perish but have everlasting life) is the SAME EXACT word used for whatever was lost in the parable for the lost sheep, prodigal son and the lost coin
    6) John the Baptist talks about baptism by the Holy Spirit and FIRE
    7) “Our God is a consuming FIRE”
    8) The word for Brimstone is the Greek word Theios means divine/Godhead, also brimstone is in reference to a type of incense that has “healing properties”
    How can people call this heresy when the scriptures don’t even use the word “eternal”? How does this “punishment” last for eternity when the word used is age? This is just the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more evidence than this it’s astounding.
    I have no desire to use emotional arguments against hell, all I have to do is read the scripture in the original language and employ proper word studies.

  • Mike

    After 35 years in – I lost count – denominations – reading 1000s of books – words – beliefs – hours and hours of anguish and prayer. I’m back home “Thank you Holy Spirit”. Christian Universalism as it is labeled by some encompasses “The Good News” PERIOD. Save your self 35 years of HELL right here. I’m back into Daddy’s hands where I started. “Free at last – Free at last. Praise you Father Free at Last”