Four Views on Hell, Part III: The Case for Universal Reconciliation

In the first two installments of this review of Four Views on Hell, the latest in Zondervan’s superb Counterpoint series, we examined the arguments for and against eternal conscious torment (ECT) and terminal punishment (aka annihilationism or conditionalism). Next, we turn to Part III, Robin Parry’s case for the doctrine of universal reconciliation (UR).

Mr. Parry, who holds a PhD from the University of Gloucestershire (UK), is the commissioning editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers and the author of several books, including The Evangelical Universalist (under the pen name Gregory MacDonald). “Christian universalism,” Parry writes, “is the view that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ…[s]in rots creation from the inside out, and humans need to be rescued from it and its consequences. Only God can deliver us…and that is precisely what he has done through the atoning work of Christ.”

Parry lists numerous Early Church Fathers of the first millennium who were adherents of UR, making the point that “universalism is an ancient Christian view that arises from impulses deep within Christian theology itself.” But rather than starting out with a series of arguments or proof texts, Parry establishes the criteria for judging the merits of any doctrine of hell. Since advocates for ECT, annihilation, or UR can each point to verses that appear to solidly support their viewpoint, Parry writes that “Everyone…who thinks that the Bible is not contradictory will need to interpret some passages in ways that run counter to their prima facie meaning.”

But there has to be an appropriate, objective framework for such interpretations. Parry’s position is that “the gospel narrative of the triune God manifest in Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and return must be at the core of the interpretation of Scripture…a theological hermeneutic rooted in the gospel itself…” One’s doctrine of hell should fit comfortably into the grand metanarrative of the Old and New Testaments, and Parry spends the next nine pages hitting the highlights of that metanarrative.

“Christ is the norm for interpreting Scripture,” writes Parry, noting that in Colossians 1, “all things” are both created by and reconciled to Christ. And it can’t be that unbelievers are reconciled through damnation, because Paul makes it clear that reconciliation consists of ‘making peace through [Christ’s] blood…”

Christians, Parry points out, are all universalists on these key topics:

  • Creation: “God created all things;” and the “telos [destiny] of human creatures is, in community, to be filled with God…” The “question of universalism,” Parry notes, is “whether or not God will manage to bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it.”
  • The Fall: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). But “[w]ill God allow sin to thwart his purposes…[d]oes Christ undo all the damage caused by in, or does he only undo some of it?”
  • Redemption: Christ “represents all humans in his humanity” and “became human so he could heal [us] through his death and resurrection…Jesus died for all people in order to save all people…[w]ill the cross save all those for whom Christ died, or will his death [and resurrection] have been in vain for some people?

On the one hand, Parry notes, all have been redeemed by the risen Christ; on the other hand, a “Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required…to share in the salvation already achieved in Christ.” And Parry observes that in Ephesians and Romans, Paul makes it clear that those “perishing today” are not necessarily eternally doomed; “children destined for wrath can become children of mercy.” The church today prefigures “the grander fulfillment in the new creation, when…all the nations and the kings of the earth bring their tribute into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24-27).”

“This,” writes Parry, “is a story for which universal salvation seems a fitting ending…the biblical story told in a non-universalist way ends in a tragic partial failure for God.”

In wrapping up his theological framework, Parry affirms that “if God is love, then God loves all his creatures…to love someone is to want the best for them…God will continue to love those in hell, desiring their best.” God’s love and God’s justice are not “in opposition to each other,” and hell must “be seen as a manifestation of divine goodness: of loving justice, and of just love.”

A Hell Compatible with the Gospel
The damned are in hell because of divine judgment, and the metanarrative of Scripture shows us that “[b]iblical justice is about putting wrong things right…[t]he primary end of God’s justice…is not punishment, but salvation.” Critical to interpreting conflicting passages in Scripture is the observation that “a specific pattern of divine punishment occurs again and again in the Bible, acquiring the status of a normative paradigm. This is the pattern of judgment followed by restoration.” Parry provides several examples from the Old Testament, and proposes “that we think of hell in precisely the same way…the punishment of the age to come follows the same pattern set throughout Scripture.”

UR demands a belief in the possibility of post-mortem salvation. “There are no biblical texts that say death is a point of no return,” notes Parry, “but neither are there texts that unambiguously say that one can repent after death.” But the notion that God “no longer want[s the damned] to turn from sin back to him” is not consistent with the God of the gospel, “who keeps on seeking a lost sheep ‘until he finds it.’”

Texts that Seem to Contradict UR
The best defense is a good offense, and over the next seven pages Parry addresses passages often cited by advocates for the doctrines of ECT and terminal punishment. I encourage UR skeptics to study them carefully. A good example would be Parry’s discussion of Matthew 25:31-46, which, like Stackhouse’s analysis in defense of terminal punishment versus ECT, notes that aionios—translated eternal, as in eternal punishment versus eternal life—can be used qualitatively as well as quantitatively. But does this then imply that eternal life is not in fact everlasting life? “Don’t panic,” Parry quips. “The life of the age to come is indeed everlasting. We know this not because Jesus called it aionios in Matthew 25, but because eternal life is a participation in Christ’s own incorruptible resurrection life (1Cor.15)…[but e]schatological punishment lacks any Christ-centered theological basis for being everlasting…to argue that both [eschatological life and punishment] must be everlasting is to go beyond the parable.”

The Free-Will Argument against UR
Approaching his wrap-up, Parry addresses the argument that, while “God desires to redeem all people, he does not wish to do so in such a way that violates their free will…[t]hose in hell are there not because God wants them to be there, but because of choices freely made.” Parry’s counter argument is similar to Thomas Talbott’s in The Inescapable Love of God; briefly, that freedom requires rationality, and once a human creature has full knowledge of the reality of God, it would be irrational to choose hell over heaven. Such a soul is essentially a slave to his emotions or delusions; if truly free to choose, he will always choose what is in his best interest; therefore he will choose God. Paul is perhaps the most powerful example of a man who, once divinely blessed with knowledge, turns 180 degrees from persecuting to serving and adoring God.

Parry’s Conclusion
Scripture tells us that “death will die, and God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).” Can this be “despite the damnation or destruction of many of his creatures?” [quotation from John A.T. Robinson].  As Parry writes earlier in his essay: no freaking way!

Commentary and Author Responses
That the icy reception with which UR has often been greeted in the evangelical community has started to thaw is evidenced by the absence of any chapter on UR in the previous edition of this book, published twenty years ago. As editor Preston Sprinkle observes in his Conclusion, “[p]opular-level writers like Rob Bell have done universalists a disservice by relying on emotional appeals and rhetoric;” and while Sprinkle does not agree with Parry’s conclusions, he sees his writing as “a game changer…Christians can no longer dismiss his view as unorthodox.”

Well, amen to that. I suppose anyone who has published under the pen name MacDonald has something of a home-field advantage on this website, although this writer remains an agnostic on the issue of whether all or only some are ultimately saved; but I can say, along with Sprinkle, that “I hope Parry is right.”

In 27 pages, Parry could hardly have been expected to address every verse that supports alternative doctrines, and (as we’ll see below), that leaves openings for the opposing authors. But, for me, such criticism doesn’t blunt the force of his argument. Parry’s power punch is his theological framework for evaluating alternative doctrines of hell—the idea that any vision of hell must make sense given the metanarrative of Scripture.

Sprinkle particularly focuses on Parry’s failure to address numerous verses that appear to support annihilation as a major theme of Scripture. But, to my mind, if we assume that the metanarrative is about God’s path to victory over sin and death and darkness, one can only choose between UR on the one hand and Burk’s take on ECT on the other. Under annihilationism—terminal punishment—God’s desire that none be lost and all saved has been thwarted, whether only one soul or billions have been destroyed. By contrast, what I’ll call the hard-core Jonathan Edwards/Denny Burk doctrine of ECT has a premise that keeping some number of sinful souls in eternal torment is necessary to “demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice.” Some—I hope many—of us might recoil at this notion as a low vision of God (was God less glorious before he created those fated for damnation, or is the spectacle of their torment purely for the benefit of the saints, who otherwise would fail to appreciate the full extent of his glory?), but at least the argument is logically consistent, given its dark premises. Parry’s argument for UR, by contrast, shows the victory of the God who utterly cleanses sin from the new heavens and new earth while achieving his desire that all be saved.

Anyone wrestling with Scripture must come to terms with the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, and Parry is no exception. The very first sentence of his essay defines UR as the view that “God will reconcile all people to himself” [italics added]. Later on, he writes “it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel and are united to Christ by the Spirit that we participate [in the justification Christ has won for us]; a “Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required if people are to share in the salvation already achieved by Christ.” [italics added]. Now, this subject is not the primary focus of Parry’s essay, but the juxtaposition of the three phrases quoted above pleases me immensely. While many there are fiercely debating “monergism” and “synergism,” the message of Scripture is, I believe, “Yes, God is sovereign, and yes, man has free will. Frustrated? Want a simple answer? Get over it!” Implicit in the lines above, it seems to me, is that Parry is comfortable living with that tension in his writing.

On the other hand, I’m less convinced when Parry explicitly deals with this subject in his Talbott-influenced counter to the free-will argument against UR, summarized above. It has always seemed ironic to me that C.S. Lewis featured George MacDonald as the man who meets him on the threshold of heaven in The Great Divorce, given that the premise of that book appears to be that many there are whose hearts have hardened and flee heaven to return to the hell their egos can’t bear to lose. MacDonald considered that possibility, but rejected it as an unimaginable defeat for God. Is that perhaps an Irish accent with which MacDonald greets Lewis?

In Romans, Paul reminds Christians that Christ’s death and resurrection has freed them from slavery to sin, but warns them not to return to it of their own volition. Here on earth people choose hell over heaven every day, with no deficit of knowledge concerning the consequence of their choices. Is it not possible that hearts can become so hardened that Lewis’ vision in The Great Divorce is the more accurate? Both Stackhouse and especially Walls seize on this point in their responses to Parry.

Two thoughts of my own in defense of Parry’s position: first, if it were possible for human hearts to remain hardened post-mortem, that would still leave us with the problem of a defeat for God. Would it not suggest a fatal defect in the design of human beings? Surely the Fall was not a surprise news-flash to the Almighty (“Boss, you’re not going to believe what’s happened in the Garden!”), who had, after all, already planned, from before the beginning of time to rescue man from the terrible consequences of his free-will decision to sin. The reason why “all things” will be reconciled to God in the end, a universalist would argue, is that God is a perfect creator, and Christ’s death and resurrection mean that it is not possible for us to end up, ultimately, as something less than human, as helpless slaves to sin.

The other argument I would propose, however, is to simply ask: as human parents, do we put respect for “free will” above our concern for the very life of our children? If even an adult son or daughter is descending, by freely made choices, into a morass of drug addiction that will inevitably end in a fatal overdose, which of us would say, “Well, wasting her life by choking on her own vomit at the age of 22 if awful and all that, but it’s her life, I just have to respect her senseless decision to die!” And, if you agree that you would not let that happen, are you a better parent than God? So what if God overrides a free will here or there? Seems to me there is ample Biblical evidence that he has done that more than a few times, at least on this side of the Great Divide.

I’d love for Parry to write more on this subject; but I digress. Let’s look at how Burk, Stackhouse, and Walls defend against Parry’s artful arguments for UR.

Denny Burk
Burk, I think recognizing the power of how Parry has framed his position, starts out by arguing that Parry has conveniently tailored the Biblical metanarrative to support UR. For example, Burk tackles Colossians 1:16’s reference to God reconciling all things to himself. “The universalist rendering of ‘all’ fails to account for the immediate context;” he writes, because Paul subsequently warns the Colossians that they will only be reconciled “if indeed [they] continue in the faith…” The “conditionalism of verse 23 excludes unbelievers from the company of the reconciled;” so, therefore, “all” in verse 20 does not really mean all people, only believers. QED!

Or not! For a true Counterpoint junkie, it would be irresistible to offer the essay author the opportunity to respond to his critics (suggesting, of course, a near-infinite regress resulting in a tome too heavy to lift).  For me, Burk’s critique is not at all persuasive. It is certainly true that one of the themes throughout Paul’s epistles is the critical importance of pressing on, of persisting in the obedience of faith. Salvation and sanctification are closely linked; my reading of Paul is that salvation is a process, and there is real risk as we run the race—not that any power in the heavens or below the earth can separate us from the love of God, but we ourselves can return to the slavery of sin. Paul does not tell the Colossians that failing to “continue in the faith” will doom them to everlasting torment; he is telling them that they won’t achieve salvation unless they persist. There’s a difference. Can their path to salvation be interrupted by moments of backsliding, and then resume? This passage doesn’t address that; but if you consider the state of the church in Corinth, Paul was definitely wasting his time if that is not the case.

Burk objects to the notion that both Parry and Stackhouse support, that the metanarrative is about restoring a creation cleansed of sin. But all that is needed for the renewal of creation, Burk argues, is for sinners to be judged. And the notion that God’s wrath and justice are aspects of his love (remember that whole “God is love” thing?) meets with Burkian scorn. God’s anger isn’t just directed against sin, Burk writes, perhaps channeling Jonathan Edwards, but against sinners.  “God’s wrath is not tantamount to love. It is what sinners need to be saved from (Rom. 5:9)…God’s wrath is his means of executing vengeance—not restoration—on his enemies (Rom 12:19)…God does not love those who are put into hell. On the contrary, his wrath means that he is angry at them forever (Rom 2:8).” This volley of proof texts has the ECT contingent on their feet cheering: Burk appears to have Parry in a full nelson: is it all over for the defender of UR?

The casual reader will assume that Burk has closely paraphrased Paul in these citations. Well, here are the verses cited, using the NIV:

Romans 5:9: Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!

Romans 12:19: Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.

Romans 2:8: But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.

I don’t have room to present the full context, but I encourage you to read for yourself. Romans 5:9 does indeed talk of being saved from God’s wrath; but the purpose of that wrath is not therein defined. A UR apologist would simply say, you can be saved the easy way or the hard way, take your pick. Similarly, Romans 12:19 does say that God’s wrath is his means of avenging; but again, it doesn’t spell out whether that wrath is purely retributive or can also have some grander, nobler, restoring purpose. And the reference to Romans 2:8 is also dubious; I went to a variety of translations, including Young’s Literal and the KJV, and none of them read “eternal” wrath and anger. Now, Burk’s response would likely be that the preceding verse reads “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life,” thereby implying that the wrath and anger in 2:8 would be everlasting; but not only is that not definitive, there is still the question of whether aionios is being used quantitatively or qualitatively.

Toward the end of his response, Burk writes “The inability to travel out of torment into blessedness highlights the urgency of repentance before death. (Luke 16:30).” The irony of this particular citation—"The NIV reads, “'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'”—is that it’s from precisely the section of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that, to me, conveys its core meaning: if we ignore the clear message of Scripture, no miracle, no heavenly messenger will make a difference. One would think that the verse cited bears on the “inability to travel out of torment,” but it does not. The notion that believers in UR feel no urgency to repent in this life is a straw man argument; I have never met anyone who espoused UR who had an inclination to spend any time in the torments of hell, and doubt that Burk has, either.

John Stackhouse
Good Counterpoint manners call for starting with polite, if often faint, praise for the essay you are about to eviscerate, and Professor Stackhouse begins with an acknowledgement that there is a “pleasing symmetry” to God beginning with a perfectly good creation, and ending by entirely redeeming it (indeed there is!); and he adds that “one must grant that Paul sometimes enjoys speaking in such categories of ‘all’ and ‘all.’” (But mere wishful thinking to attach much significance to those ‘alls’!) A bit later, Stackhouse picks this up again in saying “each biblical use of ‘all’ has to be interpreted carefully, lest we interpret the reconciliation of all things to include, say, cancers or viruses, as well as the reprobate.” This seems a specious argument, however, since cancers and viruses are arguably entirely the result of sin, whereas man, while grievously tainted by sin, is still the direct creation of God, made in his image, and (unlike a virus) capable of repentance.

Certainly the power punch that Stackhouse throws is his emphatic insistence that “[t]here is nothing like a universalist hope evident in the Old Testament.” The primary strength of his essay in defense of terminal punishment is that the Old Testament is packed with imagery suggesting the utter annihilation of the wicked, who vanish from the world “like smoke from a window.” Not for nothing has annihilationism gained advocates, and Stackhouse puts some points on the board.

But for me, there are two reasons why Stackhouse’s argument is not fatal to Parry’s case. First, no one doubts that the wicked will be utterly absent from the New Jerusalem; just as no one doubts that the “old man,” to use Paul’s phrase, must die and the “new man” be born again from above. The old man will indeed have vanished like the morning dew, and the new man will have taken his place.

Second, Parry does address the Old Testament in sketching out his metanarrative; this is the “pattern of judgment followed by restoration” “played out time and again for both Israel and the nations.”

Near the end of his response, Stackhouse picks up the free-will argument discussed above, making the point that “[s]in addles us to the point that we sincerely believe we are seeking our true interests in ignoring, or even rebelling against, God…sinners aren’t logical.”  As I’ve argued, this is a valid point; but Jerry Walls makes it more effectively as the centerpiece of his response.

Jerry Walls
Jerry Walls is an advocate for ECT, but from premises that, to this reader, are radically different from Burk’s. “Eternal hell,” he writes, is neither a theological, philosophical, moral, nor metaphysical necessity. It is entirely contingentand need not be true…God emphatically does not need to damn some persons forever to display his wrath in order to glorify himself…[i]n my view, all persons are given every opportunity to repent and accept God’s saving grace, so none need go to hell forever.”

These are premises with which any advocate of UR would agree. But contemplate for a moment Walls’ statement that hell is not any sort of necessity. Roughly one hundred billion humans have walked the earth, so far. If hell is not a sort of divine Guantanamo Bay, housing Nero, Torquemada, Hitler, that guy who traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, plus a handful of others, then tens of billions are in eternal torment. And it’s not a necessity?

Well, the problem with such an objection is that it is based purely on human reason, which is only one leg of the stool; if tradition and Scripture lead to different conclusions, then so be it (which is why I am—for now!—agnostic on the matter of UR).

“The bottom line reason that I believe hell is eternal conscious torment,” Walls explains, “is that I believe Scripture teaches this. Some people will in fact remain separated from God forever, by their own choice.”

Walls admits that this is not “decisively clear from Scripture,” but believes that tradition tips the scales. He also concedes that UR provides the most satisfying ending to the Biblical metanarrative, but deeply disagrees with Parry (and Talbott) on the free-will argument, not only for Scriptural, but for logical reasons. Yes, if we gain a “full appreciation of the objective truth about God,” we flee to the Father’s welcoming arms. But, says Walls, consider how we gain that “full appreciation.” It comes only “as we progressively respond with trust and love to God’s self-revelation and internalize what he has revealed to us. This involves far more than processing information or intellectual content. It occurs, rather, as we come to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and allow him to form a character in us that reflects his own holy character.”

Well! That is not an argument to be lightly dismissed. Walls has thrown a staggering left hook, just as the bell rings to close out round three. Talk about cliffhanger endings!

Next week, Walls takes center stage with his essay, Hell and Purgatory. Until then, buy Four Views on Hell and be ready to join in the debate!