This is a great, recent podcast where the host asks Tony his thoughts on universalism. Surprisingly, he says he’s close to George MacDonald’s view of the afterlife. A great listen. Enjoy.
For those without 30 minutes, a summary:
1.) Introduction by the host (for “Across The Pond”, promoting “Red Letter Christianity”, whatever that is), explaining that this show’s topic of universalism was suggested by a listener’s write-in question, concerning what our responsibility is to our non-Christian fellows. The host refs one of the Wikipedia entries on universalism (don’t know which one). Probably by accident, he makes it seem like Christian Universalism only involves the possibility that Jesus might save all mortal souls (compared to universalism more broadly). Salvation from hell, or into heaven, is the main quality expressed. In hindsight, having listened to the whole thing, I’m pretty sure salvation from sin is never once mentioned.
2.) Tony Campolo is introduced, and asked whether he believes all non-Christians are bound for hell, or whether he’s a universalist who believes everyone will be saved, or somewhere in between. Tony says, “Let me make it clear from the outset: I am not a universalist.”
3.) Tony spends the next half of the show (more-or-less) basically ignoring the topic of universalism per se, instead delivering a lecture on what amounts (no doubt accurately) to an accusation that most evangelicals who believe in a hopeless hell act as though they don’t really believe in it by their refusal to spend every minute of their lives evangelizing, trying to save as many people as possible from hell. (He holds himself to that accusation, too, saying he has only met one evangelist who came close to living as though he really believed in hell, by his habit of evangelizing practically everyone he ever came across. He also spends about a minute working in a jab at President Bush’s policy of capital punishment while governor of Texas. )
4.) Commercial break.
5.) The host refs Wikipedia again, quoting it to the effect that four of the six ancient theological schools of Christianity (Alexandria and Antioch–the two big ones for what became Western and Eastern Catholic Orthodoxy, by the way, though he doesn’t mention that–Caesarea and Edessa–which would be Syrian and other Church of the East centers) were universalist. (That’s probably pushing it, to say that those theological schools were just flatly universalist, but universalists were certainly well-represented there.) The Roman/Carthaginian school (per his report) taught ECT, and Ephesus taught what he calls ‘Conditional Immortality’, which by context must mean annihilationism. Tertullian and Augustine are cited as the two big anti-universalist theologians. (To be fair I’m pretty sure there were other high-rankers against universalism, too. ) Tony is asked whether he can shed more light on this topic of Christian belief in early centuries.
6.) Tony flusters for a second, and then for all practical purposes tries to write off universalism as being one of the fringe groups who manufactured non-canonical texts, citing Elaine Pagels (of all people) as saying that “most of them had a universalist message”. (Well that’s news to me! Pagels is a scholar on Gnostic sect texts, and I have never read a single detail from or about any of those texts which would be universalistic.)
7.) Tony discusses Rom 5 next, “As in Adam all have died, so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Though he doesn’t actually quote that text but rather the related text where all in Christ are declared righteous. (My comment: some Gnostic groups did apply the “all declared righteous” verse as meaning that properly enlightened people can now go around doing what would be sin for unenlightened people. But that doesn’t mean they were universalist–Gnostic groups were as heavily concerned with the final salvation of only a few (an elite, elect few) as most non-universalists are. They would have, and did, read that verse in terms just like non-universalists: all those who are in Christ, because they have come to be in Christ, are declared righteous, while all those not in Christ, which is everyone by initial default even after the sacrifice of Christ, are not declared righteous.)
8.) The first really interesting part (to me) comes next afterward: Tony’s son (whose true surrender to Christ Tony talked about previously before the commercial break) is a universalist. Too bad he wasn’t on the show. Bart’s universalism is presented as being more emotional than anything, though–the only reason Tony gives for Bart’s belief is that Bart would be unhappy in heaven if his non-Christian friends were hopelessly lost.
9.) To his credit, Tony gives a really heart-rending story (16:17 on the clock, or slightly afterward) on how Bart comforted a distraught child about his non-Christian mother who had just died. Tony seems very moved by this; and also by (what amounts to) the metaphysical principle of the story: God wouldn’t love that boy’s mother less than the boy would, but moreso.
10.) Next comes Tony’s ref to George MacDonald. I’m not sure how directly familiar Tony is with MacD; he knows MacD believed in hell, but doesn’t seem to realize just how strongly universalistic MacD also was. That tends to indicate his exposure to MacD was through Lewis, whom he refs as being influenced by MacD. He also says Lewis and MacD agreed on salvation from hell–which is true, as far as it goes, but MacD went a lot further with that than Lewis was willing to go. I can definitely vouch, as a student of Lewis, that only reading Lewis on MacD, especially The Great Divorce, one would have a difficult time realizing MacD was a strong universalist. Lewis presented him as being only a hopeful post-mortem salvationist (and annihilationist) like himself. Tony’s ref of MacD’s use of 1 Peter (concerning Christ’s descent to hell, which Tony only briefly mentions) fits the notion that he’s getting info about MacD from Lewis by secondhand (since that was a big factor in The Great Divorce).
11.) The British “Hound of Heaven” poem is referenced, in connection with the verse from Romans about how nothing not even death (Tony stresses this) can separate us from the love of Jesus. (That poem is actually more about the Hebrew underlying Psalm 23, but I certainly appreciate the Romans connection. ) Tony gets pleasantly vocal about the Psalm concerning the descent of the Lord into hades with the psalmist, too. The “descended into hell” phrase of the Apostle’s Creed is brought up, too, in connection to Ephesians 4. (The host’s interested murmur in acknowledgment of this phrase is quite moving; it’s also the only time in the whole interview he interacts whileTony is talking.)
12.) Tony: “I’m not sure where I am right now. I come pretty close to C. S. Lewis. I come pretty close to George MacDonald.” (This is another bit of evidence that he’s only reading MacD through Lewis, btw. MacD was far more gung-ho about the universalistic triumph of Christ than Lewis ever could bring himself to be.) Tony sounds awfully happy and hopeful about this!
13.) Tony affirms that repentance of sins is still necessary; Jesus doesn’t just let Hitler in regardless of what happened. (This is probably what Tony means about “not being a universalist”. Ultra-u’s would note that Tony doesn’t mention the idea that Jesus converts Hitler by rewiring without repentance from Hitler first, either.)
14.) The question of post-mortem salvation could be argued from scripture both ways. Tony: “If I have to make a choice about that, I will go with George MacDonald.” (Yes, but MacD was a universalist. Not only a post-mortem salvationist like Lewis.)
15.) Tony now briefly brings up the famous evangelical annihilationist scholar John Stott, favorably reffing his belief. (Which, not incidentally, was more-or-less Lewis’ belief, too, although I don’t know whether Stott acknowledges post-mortem salvation as Lewis did.) Tony: “I’m not real sure I believe in eternal conscious torment anymore anyway.” (Or words briefly to that effect.)
16.) The host mentions a universalistic argument (also that of post-salvation evangelists even when they aren’t universalists, of course) regarding people-groups who haven’t yet even heard of the gospel. “Universalists believe it’s unfair to condemn them to hell when they have never even had a chance to believe.” Asks Tom’s opinion on this.
17.) Tony replies with a story of Billy Graham, while at a Buddhist monestary, discovering an old monk who had never heard the scriptures or the gospel, but who listened while Graham explained and read and asked him to accept Jesus. The monk said, “I would, but he was already here with me!–I just never knew it until you told me these things! Now His spirit is bearing witness to me that these things are true!” Billy asked Tony later, “What do you make of that, Tony?! Was Jesus really alive in that man?! And if I had not gotten there, would he have been saved by Jesus?”
18.) Tony very briefly refs Romans 2 (in answer to BG??), but doesn’t actually quote where it says that the Spirit defends as well as accuses those who know not the law, before Jesus Christ at the judgment. Strongly recommends reading that chapter, though.
19.) Tony reiterates he is not a universalist, but “There is more going on in heaven and hell than any of us can imagine.”
20.) Brief closeout by the host, giving mailing address for correspondences and website addresses for more information.
Thanks for the summary Jason. Quite interesting. He’s fairly influential so if he is thinking about UR or at least rejecting ECT, then that’s awesome!
That’s a very fair and accurate summary, Jason. That took a lot of work. Thank you!
In hindsight, I have started to suspect Tony might not have been trying to paint universalism as being a Gnostic heresy, even though his reference to Elaine Pagels would otherwise logically point in that direction.
It’s still weird that he would have answered a question about the prevalence of universalism in four of the six trinitarian theological schools, with an appeal to Dr. Pagels though.