I’m just about finished The Evangelical Universalist, and my initial thoughts are that some arguments are very strong and convincing, others less persuasive and I was left wishing more exegesis was included (especially given the sheer number of strongly UR texts that are discounted or reinterpreted by ECTers).
Briefly, I was strongly inclusivist prior to reading this book (to the point of believing that a majority of all humans would ultimately be saved - I confess that my research some time ago into NDEs propelled me in this direction) and in my current research, was leaning towards a “hoping UR is true, but not fully convinced”. So at this point, taking TEU into consideration, I would say I am a universalist but suffering cognitive dissonance as I’m not yet fully convinced on the *aion *question. Nevertheless, I fully acknowledge that any top-level belief system (eg. Calvinism, Thomism, Pentecostalism etc) will have difficulty texts, a point that Robin made clear in his book.
I found his early discussion of Craig and Talbott particularly interesting as I can count Craig as my primary influence in embracing Molinism years ago. As a point of trivia, I was always intrigued by Craig’s paper suggesting that under a Molinist perspective one could hold that God ordered the world in such a way that those who would never believe in any possible world, were geographically and historically placed in our world such that they belong to the group who never hear the gospel. I may be misrepresenting him a bit there, it’s been awhile since I read that paper, but I always found that line of thinking unpersuasive. It may solve a logical problem (in the way that Plantinga solved the logical problem of evil) but it is less than satisfying and certainly not pastorally insightful. I actually found it a little ad hoc.
Anyways, my main point of writing now is to muse out loud and to share an email I just wrote to great friend who is a strong believer in hell. We’ve never really discussed hell so I think this will be an interesting conversation. I won’t be sharing any of his responses here as such, but I think this letter neatly summarises where I am right now.
Please forgive any errors of fact or less-than-clear lines of thought as I never intended to write this email. It just morphed out of a basic reply about day-to-day activity.
I’m actually reading a really good book at the moment. It might interest you even if you disagree, it’s definitely stretching. It’s called “The Evangelical Universalist”. His position is straight down the middle of the road evangelical Christianity with the only difference being that he sees hell as corrective and rehabilitative in addition to retributive, and that ultimately all people will be saved even if they first experience a very long dose of hell. He builds his case from the central foundation of what it means to affirm “God is love”.
At first blush, the average Christian (me included initially) would snort and exclaim, “Rubbish. The bible is clear about the damned and their fate.”
As I’m already inclusivist (ie. I believe many who have never heard the gospel in this life will nevertheless be saved through grace), I am however, finding his arguments surprisingly persuasive as he dismantles contradictions with the traditional view of hell that Christians tend to hold but not think about. For example, how can any finite crime (sin) merit infinite punishment? No matter how much horror and wrongdoing a person accumulates in one life (eg. Hitler) it still only sums to a finite amount. And in what sense of ‘just’ could we ever affirm that a finite amount of crime warrants infinite punishment?
The standard objection is that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts not our thoughts. But this is a double-edged sword. In our emotionalism, we are more likely seek revenge and over-compensate for a wrong another has committed us. We don’t merely want to get back at them and even it up, we really want to get back and them and make them hurt! On that point alone God would be different to us, because His action in return would be perfectly just, not capricious and malevolent. In any case, it does no good for someone to object God’s justice is different to ours (and I accept the irony here), because if we affirm that God is just, we must, however imperfectly, understand what justice is and what it looks like. No well thought out human system of justice would ever conclude that a finite crime should have an infinite punishment. If we cannot understand ‘justice’ sufficiently (if not exhaustively) then to say “God’s punishments are just” means no more than “God’s gribbles are slooply”.
Interestingly, the Christian universalist (as opposed to other varieties of universalism) position was quite widely held in the early church and a number of very prominent leaders, including one who was elected as an early church council leader, espoused it. It appears the direction of the church changed with Augustine. He actually thought that a Christian could legitimately hold the universalist position, but himself believed in eternal hell and his formulation of the doctrine of hell took hold. Augustine actually formulated the idea of purgatory. That appears to have been his way of dealing with the biblical verses that affirm universalism.
There is really only one area in which I am not yet convinced but I have to admit the weight of evidence is in favour of universalism even here. The NT verses that talk about hell being eternal, everlasting, forever and ever etc. are generally mistranslated. The underlying Greek phrase (aion, aionios, aionian) is either “age-long” or “for ages of ages”. Again, it returns to Augustine as one of the chief culprits in the shift of the early church away from universal reconciliation. He didn’t speak Greek, tried to learn it, but hated it. The relevant Greek words shifted from meaning ‘age-long’ to aeternum in Latin, which means eternal. This in itself is factual and uncontroversial. Where the difficulty arises for me, is in how God is often spoken of as being aionios, and life for the saved is aionios. We would not think that either God or the life of the saved is only ‘age-long’. Yet this is only a difficulty and not a contradiction and of its own does not undermine or refute the weight of evidence supporting the position of universal reconciliation, that in the end the victory of Christ is complete and love conquers all, even hell.
What is particularly persuasive is the sheer number of biblical verses that affirm universal reconciliation and yet we have been trained to gloss over them or ignore what they so obviously mean. The question really comes down to what hermeneutic do we use? Every major Christian belief system has passages that support their view and passages which contradict or offer difficulty for their view. So everyone holds a certain set of passages as foundational and then interprets difficult passages accordingly (think for a moment of the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians, or between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals). So do we affirm the universalist passages and interpret the hell ones accordingly, or do we affirm the hell passages and interpret the universalist ones accordingly? For me the deciding factor is the essence of God as love. This is something I already consider foundational to my whole belief structure, but I’ve just not gone far enough by considering what does it mean for God to love someone who is in hell. Thus, justice and wrath should be seen as aspects of love, in contrast to the view that wrath and love are in tension in God. We affirm that God is love, but we don’t affirm that God is wrath. Love is something He is in His very nature. Wrath, on the other hand, is something displayed against evil. If no evil existed, His wrath would never be known. But He would always be love.
Just some musings. There is a lot in this to think about as it requires a paradigm shift, yet it is one of those things that once you see, you can’t unsee.