I have just read Bradley Jersak’s book *Her Gates Will Never be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem *(Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009). I loved it! He tackles the whole subject of a biblical theology of Hell and universalism in a very different way than I do (in terms of focus and argument structure) but his conclusions are very close to my own.
The first section surveys the range of biblical teachings on future punishment. It has an orientation chapter on Sheol/Hades, Tehom, Abussos, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire and Tartarus. This is followed by an extended discussion of the Gehenna texts (which Jersak understands to refer to historical judgements on Jerusalem and not, in the first instance, to Hell). There is also an extended study on the Lake of Fire. Here Jersak argued, somewhat more speculatively, that the Lake of Fire imagery was rooted in the Sodom and Gommarah story (presumably with the Dead Sea image merging with the fire from heaven) and a reflection on the Rich Man and Lazarus in an imagined ‘dialogue’ format. In all these chapter Jersak makes the case that none of these texts need rule out ultimate salvation. Indeed, there are hints of the real possibility of salvation from judgement found in the various traditions themselves. The upshot is that the mainstream tradition of eternal, conscious torment cannot claim the unequivocal biblical support that it often has and sometimes still does.
The first section ends with a quick overview of the possibilities some traditions in the Bible hold out for universal salvation. Jersak poses the question, ‘How do we hold the universal salvation texts and the judgement texts together?’ and simply outlines different approaches that Christians have taken.
I found his discussions to be informative, and his judgements to be balanced and appropriately cautious when the evidence did not allow dogmatism. I was not persuaded by all of it but there is much good stuff here.
The second section of the book looks at the historical theological tradition and the differing options of universal salvation, eternal torment, and purgatory proposed. He invites us to take Von Balthasar’s dare seriously: i.e. to dare to hope that God might save all but not to presume that this must or even will necessarily happen.
The final section is a terrific study of judgement and universalism in the book of Revelation - one that I think compliments my own rather well.
There is an appended essay by Professor Nik Ansell from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto on whether Hell is the nemesis of hope. Ansell’s position is very similar to Jersak’s on both hell and hope.
In a nutshell, Jersak’s position seems to be that hopeful universalism is a good evangelical position. He believes that it does justice to the biblical tensions between Hell texts and universal salvation texts - a tension he does not wish to dissolve.
Jersak believes that both the classical tradition and dogmatic universalism err on the side of presumption. I think that his position is that
the classical tradition presumes that final judgement obliterates hope (which pushes the biblical texts beyond where they go, and fails to take the universal salvation texts seriously enough) and that
dogmatic universalism does not take seriously enough (a) the possibility of humans freely resisting God forever, and (b) the fact that the Hell texts do not unambiguously allow for the salvation of all from Hell.
Well, there is just tonnes of good stuff in this book. I even have a lot of sympathy for his final embracing of hopeful universalism - I appreciate his theological justification for it and respect his integrity in handling the biblical material as he draws that judgement.
Obviously, I go further. I am a strongly inclined to accept the truth of convinced universalism (what I occasionally call ‘dogmatic’ universalism - although I do not mean ‘dogmatic’ in a technical theological sense). So I guess that my view is one that Jersak would see as presumptuous. Well, I don’t mind that, but clearly I don’t myself think it presumptuous.
I guess that I don’t find the freewill argument against convinced universalism to be at all persuasive (for reasons sketched in ch 1 of my book). So for me to be persuaded to scale back my universalism to ‘hopeful’ mode I’d need some biblical case that the universalist texts don’t teach that all will be saved but that all ‘can’ be saved or that all ‘might’ be saved. I just can’t see that.
Jersak himself does a good job of showing that the Hell texts allow for the possibility of salvation from Hell and, whilst they do not themselves assert that all will be so saved I don’t see why a reader who follows the following argument must be seen as presumptuous
- the Bible teaches that some will go to Hell
- the Bible allows that people can be redeemed from Hell
- the Bible teaches that in the end all will be saved
- So we can infer from what the Bible teaches that all will eventually be redeemed from Hell
Jersak seems to believe 1-3 but is reluctant to infer 4. I see no problem in inferring 4 and, even if the inference is somehow mistaken, is it presumptuous to believe that one day the biblical promises of universal salvation will (as opposed to ‘really might’) be fulfilled? If so then I confess that I am presumptuous.
But, all in all, I don’t see this as a major disagreement. I consider Jersak’s book to be one of the best pieces of work ever published on the topic of universalism.