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UNIVERSAL SALVATION? The Current Debate
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Copyright © 2003 Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge
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Chapter One Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism
A Brief Autobiographical Note
As a young man growing up in a conservative evangelical church, it never occurred to me even to question the widespread assumption that, according to the Bible as a whole, a host of sinners, including some of my own loved ones, would eventually be lost forever without any further hope of redemption. Indeed, all of my early theological reflections and immature struggles took place within the context of this one unquestioned assumption - which was also the context, therefore, in which I first began to reflect seriously upon the nature and character of the Christian God.
The early catalyst for such reflection was the historical debate between the Augustinians (or the Calvinists, as some of my Augustinian friends liked to call themselves) and the so-called Arminians. The Augustinian idea that salvation is wholly a matter of grace, and an irresistible grace at that, did not seem initially compelling to me, even though it seemed to accord perfectly with Pauline theology. St Paul himself, I thought, could not have made the point any clearer than this: 'For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this [the faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast' (Eph. 2:8-9). But whenever I tried to combine in my own mind this doctrine of free and irresistible grace with the traditional understanding of hell, the idea of grace seemed to evaporate altogether. For where is the grace in a doctrine of limited election? Is God being gracious to an elect mother, for example, when he makes the baby she loves an object of his 'sovereign hatred' and does so, as in the case of Esau, even before the child has done anything good or bad? To my mind at least, such a combination of beliefs carried the obvious implication that God is anything but just, anything but loving, and (contrary to repeated declarations in the New Testament) every bit the 'respecter of persons'. So despite the clear doctrine of grace that so pervades the New Testament, I found myself rejecting Augustinian theology almost from the time I first encountered it; and during my undergraduate and seminary days, I therefore put all of my energies into working out, as well as I could, an essentially Arminian, if not outright Pelagian, theology.
But though Arminianism seemed initially plausible, especially as encountered in someone like C.S. Lewis (one of my early heroes), it too eventually led to a dead end. For even though the Arminians, with their emphasis upon free will, seemed to offer the best possible philosophical explanation of hell, I could never quite escape the suspicion that their biblical exegesis, especially in the case of a text such as Romans 9, is at times contrived and artificial. Because I was already persuaded, even as my Arminian friends were, that free will and determinism are incompatible, I was perhaps less concerned than I should have been that the central Arminian understanding of free will is not obviously a biblical idea at all. My point is not that the Bible in any way excludes the so-called 'incompatibilist' understanding of free will; to the contrary, I continue to believe that indeterminism is essential to the process whereby God, first, brings rational agents into being, and second, reconciles them to himself over time as sons and daughters. But the harder I tried to work out a consistent Arminian theology and to harmonize it with the New Testament writings, the harder I found it to escape the fact that, according to Paul, our final destiny is already foreordained and not a matter of free choice at all. Lest I be misunderstood, I should perhaps reiterate my conviction that in no way did Paul exclude free choice or the importance of moral effort altogether; far from it. Paul himself repeatedly exhorted his readers to exert moral effort. But at the same time, Paul consistently insisted that one's election (and therefore one's ultimate destiny) 'depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy' (Rom. 9:16). So in the end, I had to admit that Arminian theology fails to explain how free will might plausibly figure into the divine scheme of foreordination, as we encounter it in the New Testament.
Now curiously, even as I began entertaining the possibility that Paul really was serious about predestination, I also began questioning, for quite independent philosophical reasons, the very idea of a freely embraced eternal destiny in hell. In an understandable effort to preserve God's loving character and to defend the New Testament teaching that 'God is no respecter of persons', the Arminians grant ultimate sovereignty, at least in the case of the damned, to an utterly irrational human choice. As C.S. Lewis put it, 'I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.' But Lewis also recognized that union with the divine 'nature is bliss and separation from it horror'; and if that is true, then a free choice of the kind he attributed to the damned seems deeply incoherent, even logically impossible. For no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror - the outer darkness, for example - to eternal bliss, nor could any such person both experience the horror of separation from God and continue to regard it as a desirable state. The Augustinian idea that the damned are subjected to punishment against their will at least makes coherent sense, but the Arminian idea that the damned freely choose horror over bliss, hell over heaven, makes no coherent sense at all.
In any event, the Western theological tradition seemed to leave me with a choice between an unjust and unloving God, on the one hand, and a defeated God, on the other. But of course this hardly exhausts the logical possibilities; there remains the additional possibility that it is God's very nature to love, as 1 John 4:8 and 16 appear to declare, and that he is also wise and resourceful enough to accomplish all of his loving purposes in the end. Why, after all, should an assumption concerning everlasting punishment be the only unquestioned assumption in a context where some are limiting the extent of God's love and others are limiting the scope of his ultimate victory? Why not at least examine the pros and cons of universal reconciliation alongside those of limited election and those of a limited victory over sin and death? When my brother Stephen, who had come under the influence of George MacDonald, finally persuaded me to do just that, something remarkable happened with a kind of breathtaking suddenness. Almost from the moment I began to examine the doctrine of universal reconciliation with an open mind, something akin to a paradigm shift in science, as Thomas Kuhn has called it, or a Copernican Revolution in philosophy, as Immanuel Kant called it, took place in my theological outlook. Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place. Paul's theological essay in Romans 9-11 finally began to make sense to me, as did the warnings against apostasy in Hebrews 10 and Jesus' remarks about the unpardonable sin. Whole areas of tension between faith and reason, between the supposed teachings of the Bible and my philosophical reflections, between theology and ordinary common sense, simply dissolved and evaporated. But above all, I finally understood why the gospel really is good news, indeed the best possible news for those in our present condition, and why it should not be confused with the twisted message of fear that we humans sometimes make it out to be.
Finally, I should perhaps also point out that I now view universal reconciliation as something more than a vague hope of some kind. To the contrary, I now view it as essential to a proper understanding of salvation, essential to a Pauline understanding of grace, and essential to the inclusive nature of election. For even as many Augustinians are utterly convinced that God's salvific will cannot be defeated forever and many Arminians are utterly convinced that God at least wills the salvation of all human sinners, so I am equally convinced that both claims are true. In that respect, I now feel a kinship with the New Testament scholar William Barclay who could write: 'I am a convinced universalist.'
Three Competing Systems of Theology
When I first began interpreting the New Testament along universalistic lines, I was struck by how many regarded such an interpretation as not only mistaken, but utterly unreasonable and heretical as well. I found that a good many of my Augustinian friends, who did not regard the Arminian view as heretical (only mistaken), and a good many of my Arminian friends, who did not regard the Augustinian view as heretical (only mistaken), were united in their conviction that universalism is both mistaken and heretical. This curious response started me thinking. Why should the Augustinians regard universalism as any more heretical than the Arminian view? and why should the Arminians regard it as any more heretical than the Augustinian view?
As I began to reflect upon such questions, I observed an intriguing phenomenon. With a few notable exceptions, my own interpretation of specific texts in the Bible always seemed to find support either in the writings of a first rate Augustinian scholar or in those of a first rate Arminian scholar. The exceptions, of course, were the standard proof texts for a doctrine of everlasting separation, which the Augustinians and the Arminians both accept. But the remarkable thing is this: If you simply take the Augustinian idea of God's sovereignty in the matter of salvation - that is, the idea that the Hound of Heaven cannot be defeated forever - and put it together with the Arminian idea that God at least wills or desires the salvation of all, then you get universalism, plain and simple. And though some will no doubt reject the propriety of following such theological reasoning to its logical conclusion, it is perhaps worth comparing the kind of reasoning that leads to universalism with the kind that leads to competing theological positions.
Consider the following inconsistent set of propositions:
1. God's redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
2. Because no one can finally defeat God's redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
If the above set of propositions is logically inconsistent, and it surely is, then at least one of the above propositions is false. But which one? Because Christian universalists accept both proposition (1) and proposition (2), they reason deductively that proposition (3) is false. But suppose, for a moment, that they should be mistaken in this matter; suppose that proposition (3) should in fact be true. It would then follow that at least one of the other two propositions, either (1) or (2), is false. Of course, someone who believes in eternal punishment and therefore accepts proposition (3) could always leave it at that, pleading ignorance concerning which of the other two propositions is false. Similarly, someone who believes in the universality of God's love and therefore accepts proposition (1), or someone who believes in the sovereignty of God's salvific will and therefore accepts proposition (2), could also plead ignorance concerning which of the other two propositions is false. Beyond that, a Christian might even plead ignorance concerning all three of our propositions. But I know of no reputable theologian who both accepts proposition (3) with some degree of certitude and remains content simply to leave it at that. For the obvious questions are simply too pressing: Does God truly love those who are lost forever? Does his loving will then suffer an ultimate defeat? Because the Augustinians accept both the traditional understanding of hell (proposition (3)) and the sovereignty of God's salvific will (proposition (2)), they reason deductively that God's redemptive love is restricted to a limited elect; hence, proposition (1) is false. And because the Arminians accept both the traditional understanding of hell (proposition (3)) and the universality of God's love (proposition (1)), they reason deductively that God's redemptive love can be defeated forever; hence, proposition (2) is false. So there is an initial symmetry, at any rate, between the kind of reasoning that leads the Augustinians to limit the scope of God's love, the kind that leads the Arminians to limit the scope of God's ultimate victory, and the kind that leads the universalists to reject the idea of unending punishment altogether.
Of course, any good Augustinian will insist that the Bible itself limits the scope of God's love, and any good Arminian will likewise insist that the Bible itself limits the scope of God's ultimate victory. Similarly, many Christian universalists will also insist - and believe me, I know many who do - that the Bible itself excludes the idea of unending punishment. So yes, of course. Everyone who looks to the Bible as an authority will insist that his or her theology represents the most reasonable interpretation of the Bible as a whole. But if you simply pick up an English Bible and read it naively - that is, if you read it without bringing to it a lot of theological expectations and without imposing upon it a well worked-out theology - you will find texts that initially appear to support each of our three propositions. So let us set aside, for the moment, sophisticated exegetical disputes and simply review the obvious.
In support of proposition (1), a naïve reader of the English Bible would likely cite such texts as 2 Peter 3:9: 'The Lord ... is not willing that any should perish, but [wills instead] that all should come to repentance' (KJV); 1 Timothy 2:4: God 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'; Ezekiel 33:11: 'As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but [desire instead] that the wicked turn away from their ways and live'; and perhaps the clearest of all, Lamentations 3:22 & 3:31-33: 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end ... For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.'
Excerpted from UNIVERSAL SALVATION? Copyright © 2003 by Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge. Excerpted by permission.
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