The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism
Michael McClymond is Professor of Modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He has published widely on Jonathan Edwards. His book, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (co-authored with Gerald McDermott) was chosen by Christianity Today in 2012 as the best book in theology/ethics.
[SMcK: this book will prove to be one of the most significant pieces of in any discussion of universalism.]
The following interview revolves around McClymond’s just released (June 2018), two-volume (!) magnum opus, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism
Moore: This project was a massive undertaking. Why did you decide to tackle it in such a comprehensive way?
McClymond: If there were just one version of Christian universalism—or just one set of arguments for universalism—then the book might have been much shorter. But in fact there are multiple versions—“universalisms”—and these differing theologies are quite different from one another. Like differing roads that all converge at the top of a hill, the only thing that the differing “universalisms” all have in common is final salvation for all. They arrive at the final destination in varied ways, and one major divide is between the universalists who believe that everyone goes immediately at death to heaven (so-called “ultra-universalists”) versus those who believe that most people need after death to be purified from their sins before going to heaven (whom I call “purgationists”). Christian universalists have never been able to agree with one another on this important question.
As I began my research, I found it strange that the idea of universal salvation—in previous centuries rejected by the church, and often denounced as a heresy—found increasing support among academic Christian theologians from the 1960s onward, and then in popular Christian literature since the 1990s. As a mental image of the change: picture a hockey stick laid on its side, with its end-section angling acutely upward. For many centuries there was almost no support for this belief in the mainstream of the Christian church, and then—voila!—a spectacular increase in interest and support for universalism over a brief period of time. In the 1940s, the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner referred to universalism as a “doctrine which the Church as a whole has recognized as a heresy.” Now that seems not to be the case. The basic Christian teaching on the so-called last things, regarded for centuries and even for millennia as immovable, quickly shifted in the minds of many. Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (2011), provoked many professing Christians to reconsider universalism, as did the change of mind by the African-American former Pentecostal bishop, Carlton Pearson, and also some of the reported statements by Pope Francis to the effect that “there is no hell”—as reported in the Italian press during Holy
Week 2018 from an off-the-record conversation. When I started working on the book several years ago, I didn’t know that the topic would be again in the news at the time that I published my results. I found it odd that there had been no thorough investigation of the history of universalism—in the nooks and crannies around the edges of church sanctuary for centuries, and then, so to speak, right in the church’s center aisle. So I set out to write this history and to offer an evaluation of it.
Moore: Both annihilationism (or conditional immortality) and universalism are increasingly embraced by self-described Protestant evangelicals. I know it is a big question, but what do your attribute to the growing moves many within evangelical circles are making with respect to the traditional view of hell?
McClymond: The sudden rise in support for universalism (see above) seems clearly to have something to do with the church’s current cultural situation in the Western world. What cultural factors are at play? Sociologist James Davison Hunter, I believe, named it as early as the 1980s, when he spoke of the rise of an “ethics of civility” among American younger evangelicals (although this observation might be generalized for evangelicals in Canada, the UK, Continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, etc.). The all-important principle in the “ethics of civility” is “do not offend others.” Hunter suggested that this attitude was already prevalent among the younger evangelicals of the 1980s—who today would be in their 50s and 60s, and so in key positions of Christian leadership. Many aspects of New Testament teaching were deeply offensive to those who first heard the gospel message (e.g., the notion of a “crucified Savior”). Our twenty-first-century culture may not be offended by the same things, but will almost certainly be offended by some things that are clearly taught in the Bible, centering today perhaps especially on issues of pluralism/exclusivity, sexuality, and eschatology.
Woven throughout the Bible is a message regarding “two ways”—a way of blessing and “a way that leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). A text like Psalm 1 never mentions “hell” as such, but it implies a distinction between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, and it suggests a coming time of reckoning, and perhaps also a coming separation. In the New Testament, these themes come much more sharply into focus, for example, in Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats. But let me ask: What will be the likely reaction in a typical American congregation today, if the preacher ascends into the pulpit, reads this passage from Matthew 25, expounds it as literally true, and applies it to the congregation before him? “Some of us here today are ‘goats’ while others are ‘sheep’…..” This will be an offensive message to many people—including church people. Preachers more readily speak about the benefits of being a Christian—“if you follow Christ, your life will be better…” But preachers as well as lay Christians are generally reluctant today to speak about the consequences of deliberately hearing the gospel and rejecting Christ. This may give the inadvertent impression that “everyone is okay” and no one is “lost” or “ruined” in sin—to use more traditional language. This would mean that there is an upside to being a Christian, but no downside to not being a Christian. This may not be what preachers say, but it might be what people hear. The universalist message represents the frosting on the cake—the official declaration that no one is really at risk.
One obvious question is this: On this basis, what does one do with the Jesus of the New Testament, who so often conveyed the idea that many people are indeed at risk (the wheat separated from the tares, the door shut to the feast, etc.)? Consider one gospel text: “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able’” (Lk. 13:23-24). It seems impossible to reconcile a text like this with universalism. And the longer one spends with the texts, the more uncomfortable one is likely to feel.
Moore: Many who are familiar with this debate would probably go back to Origen for dare I say it, the origin, of this issue. You start with Gnosticism and Jewish Kabbalism. How come?
McClymond: As I began my research, I was wondering what ideas might link together Christian universalists of the ancient, medieval, and modern eras. As I pondered this, I chanced on the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2006), shelved in the circulating stacks of the Yale University Library. To my surprise, I found that the dictionary contained articles on almost every figure who had appeared on my handwritten list of Christian universalists—Origen, John Scotus Eriugena, Jane Lead, William Law, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Vladimir Solovyov, and others. The dictionary also led me to other universalists previously unknown to me—Martines de Pasqually, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Valentin Tomberg, and others. Further investigation directed me into Kabbalistic Judaism and esoteric Islam. The pattern that I had already detected in studying Christian sources was mirrored in these two other monotheistic faiths. Overt universalism—or near-universalism—was strongly correlated with the esoteric strands within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Why is universalism connected historically with gnostic, kabbalistic, and esoteric teachings? As I argue in the conclusion to The Devil’s Redemption, the one word that best sums up universalism is not “love” but “metaphysics.” Throughout the centuries, the teaching of universal salvation has generally rested on an ontological or metaphysical foundation. The human spirit must return to God because of its inherent nature and its derivation from God. It is a “spark of the divine.” Just as the human spirit is destined for God, evil is destined for oblivion. Because of the ontological weakness of evil, if not to say unreality, it has no metaphysical staying power. On this basis, one might compare the human self to a helium balloon, lodged inside one’s chest, released when one dies. As soon as death occurs, then the spirit rises heavenward. The helium balloon rises because of a natural property (i.e., its gaseous density that is less than that of the surrounding atmosphere). Yet if this is how human salvation occurs, then everyone is saved just because of an inherent trait that all human beings possess. There is then no place for grace, and there is no need for a savior. Contemporary universalist theology in some instances is gravitating back to its gnostic starting point. The ex-Pentecostal Carlton Pearson now speaks of all human beings as being “essentially” divine. The Charismatic teacher John Crowder has written of how God in Christ “absorbed the entire created order into Himself.” These are metaphysical rather than biblical accounts of salvation. They leave no place for grace and they minimize faith, repentance, and obedience.
It is true that some versions of universalism emphasize not human nature as such but rather the role of the human will in choosing rightly. But if the argument for universalism is not based on human nature as such, then salvation for all creatures hangs by the slender thread of 100% correct decisions by all. This reminds me of the reported North Korean “election” a couple of years ago that reported 100% turnout and 100% in favor the dear leader, Kim Jong Un. Is that plausible? And is this what we see around us in everyday experience—that people all make the same spiritual choices when they hear about the good news of Christ? I don’t think so. Freewill-based universalism requires us to believe that everyone eventually learns their lesson, and that no one remains impenitent in their sinning. What, then, of the Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus, who repeatedly “hardened his heart”? And what of the biblical Satan? There is not the slightest hint in the Bible that either Satan or any of the demons ever repent or receive forgiveness from God. It seems then that at least some intelligent creatures suffer final separation from God. If we presume that the fallen angels are lost, then it means that there is something wrong with the gnostic-esoteric idea that every finite spirit returns to the infinite Spirit.
We could debate endlessly: Why did God make the world this way? Why didn’t God make a world in which all intelligent creatures that sinned—human or angelic—would finally be saved? I don’t have an answer for that and I don’t think anyone has an answer. And I don’t think it’s my job as a theologian to answer that. You might say that it’s “above my pay grade”—though I know that there are plenty of theologians and philosophers who might disagree with that assessment. The process of researching and writing this book has made me less “speculative” in my approach to God, and more ready to accept the limits of what we as human beings can definitely know and declare regarding God. Perhaps there are things that appear dim “in the light of earth” that will not be dim “in the light of glory.” According to the Book of Revelation, the saints in heaven cry out “His judgments are true and just” (Rev. 19:2). As I argue in The Devil’s Redemption, this I think is the point of Julian of Norwich’s saying that “all shall be well.” As Denys Turner of Yale has argued, this assertion is not equivalent to the statement that “all shall be saved.” Instead it is an earthly affirmation that all will “be well” from God’s standpoint and from an eschatological frame of reference—even if we don’t clearly or fully perceive that at the present time. If someone starts their sentence with the phrase, “if I were the Creator of the world…” then I would want to respond, “Stop! Go no further! Neither you nor I are the Creator, and I don’t think that either of us are a position to complete that sentence.”
Moore: Are Roman Catholics and Orthodox more prone to universalism than more conservative denominations within the Protestant tradition?
McClymond: I found no evidence that there had been any significant shift of views on eschatology among Roman Catholics prior to Vatican II (1962-1965). Subsequent to the council, there was debate over inclusivism in the 1970s, and concerning Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian.” Only with the appearance of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s, Dare We Hope? (German, 1986) did the contemporary debate begin on a Catholicism embrace of universalism.
Among Orthodox Christians, universal salvation has never been an official or a publicly taught doctrine, but the belief was long tolerated as a private opinion (and generally among those influenced by Origen). One was not censured for believing this, although one was also not permitted publicly to affirm this. Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism was generally an embarrassment to Orthodox leaders prior to the twentieth century. At the Council of Ferrara-Florence (AD 1438-1445), when the Latin Westerners sought to enlist Gregory’s writings in support of their doctrine of purgatory, the response by the Eastern representatives was interesting. They stated that Gregory did not teach a temporary purgatory after death, but rather taught universalism, and that Gregory was wrong in doing so. They followed up by saying that their Orthodox faith did not require them to believe everything that any one church father taught. They distinguished what was worthwhile in Gregory (i.e., his contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity) from what was worthless (i.e., his espousal of universalism). It is a mistake, then, to point to this one “uncondemned” church father as indicating support for universalism among Orthodox bishops and teachers prior to very recent times. The historical evidence does not support this interpretation (see The Devil’s Redemption, pp. 39-45, 67n148).