Four views on hell: A universalist view

Series introduction: I recently had opportunity to read the second edition of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. This series of posts will form my personal evaluation of each of the arguments presented in the book.

It is probably fair to say that the doctrine of universalism is viewed, by and large within evangelicalism, with suspicion. When we hear the term “universalism,” we tend to immediately imagine the teaching that all religions lead to heaven. Universalists, we are led to believe, advocate the idea that those who reject Christ will gain access to heaven, so long as they are sincere in their beliefs and their lifestyle.

Robin Parry, an evangelical Christian who works as an editor for Christian publishing company Wipf and Stock, presents a different understanding of Christianity. “Christian universalism,” he argues, “is the view that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ.” Parry argues that God has provided the only means of salvation in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Those who die without Christ will go to a literal hell, but there they will be given opportunity to hear and believe the gospel. In the end, God’s persevering love and grace will win over everyone, so that all of humanity will be brought to worship God in Christ.

Parry acknowledges that this is “a minority voice” within the church, but shows that it does nevertheless have a long history, dating all the way to the mid-second century. His belief is not, however, rooted in the heritage of the teaching, but in his understanding of Scripture.

He cautions against getting “bogged down in proof texting.” His problem with proof texting is that “all sides can point to verses that seem to support their view.” Each side of the debate, however, will also need to contend with texts that seem to run contrary to their view. The solution, he suggests, is to consider the discussion in the broader narrative of Scripture rather than resorting to the exegesis of particular texts. To be sure, he brings a good number of texts into the discussion, but he tries to set them in what he perceives to be the Bible’s grand metanarrative.

Parry’s most general appeal—his summary of Scripture’s metanarrative—is Colossians 1:16–20. There, Paul writes,

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Parry observes that Christians of all traditions interpret “all things” in v. 16 universally. That is, when we read that Christ created “all things,” we take that to mean all things. Why, then, he asks, do we take “all things” in v. 20, which God will “reconcile to himself,” to mean some things? Surely if we are universalists in v. 16, we must also be universalists in v. 20. How can it be said, he asks, that the God who intends “to reconcile to himself all things … by the blood of his cross” will send people to hell to be eternally tormented or to be ultimately destroyed? In what sense will he have “reconciled” those people to himself?

But not only are Christians universalists about creation, we are also universalists about sin. When Scripture says that “all” have sinned, we interpret “all” literally. Parry suggests that “most Christians, past and present, are universalists about Christ’s crucifixion—Jesus died for all people in order to save all people.” He acknowledges that Calvinists are the exception here, though he relegates that acknowledgement to a footnote. He goes on to list a series of Scriptures that speak of “all” people benefiting from the cross (1 John 2:2; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Timothy 2:3–6; Hebrews 2:9; John 1:29; 3:17; 12:32). This, he suggests, is “the mainstream Christian view that God desires to redeem all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and has acted in Christ in order to do so.” Since God will certainly accomplish his purposes, we must assume that he will save all people (since that is what he intends to do).

Parry digs a little deeper to present texts that seem to suggest universal redemption. For example, he cites 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Again, he suggests that it is not fair to interpret the first “all” universally but the second “all” non-universally. He argues the same when it comes to Romans 5:18–19: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Why would we interpret the same phrases (“all men,” “the many”) in the same verses differently?

He goes on to argue for a universalist interpretation based on the Bible’s general teaching of the character of God. If God is love, he suggests, it must mean that he wants the best for his creatures. After all, “to love someone is to want the best for them.” And “for a human creature, the best—from a Christian perspective—would be union with God.” The logic flows, then, that God must want all people to be saved. And since God will accomplish his purposes, God will save all people.

He argues further that universalism is consistent with God’s justice. Justice, he argues, demands that God must put things right, and retribution in and of itself does not put things right. “The primary end of God’s justice,” he argues, “with respect to creation, is not punishment, but salvation.” For hell to be a place merely of retribution and not of salvation is therefore incompatible with his understanding of the biblical view of justice. As biblical support for this assertion, he points to several examples of temporal judgement in the Old Testament where God judged but promised and provided restoration at the end of the judgement. This can be seen both in Israel and in the nations. Israel is always promised restoration after judgement. Moab will be destroyed, and yet restored (Jeremiah 48:42, 47), as will Elam (49:37, 39). Even Sodom, “the very model of sinners destroyed in divine fire,” is promised restoration (Ezekiel 16:53).

While these are temporal examples, Parry proposes that “it is not a wild leap to suppose that the punishment of the age to come follows the same pattern set throughout Scripture…. We have reasonable grounds for thinking that condemnation in the coming age is more than retributive; that it is also restorative.

Of course, universalists must hold that God affords post-mortem opportunities for salvation. Since some die clearly rejecting Christ, they must be given opportunities following death to believe the gospel if they will be saved. Parry contends that the Bible nowhere suggests that death is the point of no return. Realising that his readers will likely immediately think of Hebrews 9:27, he writes, “All that this text claims is that all humans die once and then face judgment, and all sides of this debate will agree with that claim. To go further and insist that this judgment leads to irreversible punishment is to go beyond anything said in this text.”

The author then takes some time to deal with several “tricky” texts that speak of final judgement in language that seems to contradict universalism. He finds ways to make each of those texts compatible with his interpretation. He then closes his argument by noting that Christian universalism does not teach that God overrides human free will, but that God uses the punishment of hell to successfully woo sinners to himself so that, in the end, all will be saved.

It cannot be stressed highly enough that Parry believes that salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. His universalism is not the universalism of the pluralist. Still, I find his conclusions ultimately unconvincing.

While Parry takes far more time to wrestle with the text of Scripture than Walls does in his argument for purgatory, I find his exegesis to be lacking. As much as he cautions against proof texting, most of what he does is precisely that. He cites text after text, italicising the word “all” as if that is all the proof one might need.1

His contention that God’s pattern of temporal judgement must be the template for eternal judgement is unconvincing. Even if it is assumed to be true, we should remember that restoration from temporal judgement was never a universal restoration. Israelites killed in the Babylonian exile, for example, were not ultimately restored to the land, though the nation, largely speaking, was.

Parry’s assertion that hell as a place of pure retribution nullifies God’s redemption of all things is likewise unfounded. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that the eternal existence of sinners in hell, or the extinction of sinners in hell, will somehow thwart God’s redemptive purposes. God does not necessarily need to redeem all people in order to fulfil his redemptive purposes. Scripture instead seems to suggest that judgement is one means by which God restores all things and brings glory to himself (Revelation 18:20; 19:1–2).

While he cautions against setting God’s love against God’s wrath, his view seems to do precisely that. God’s love is so emphasised that it leaves little room for wrath.

Ultimately, however, Christian universalism appears to rise and fall on the notion of post-mortem opportunity for repentance. While other arguments are presented, universalism will crumble if post-mortem repentance is shown to be a fallacy. It is clear that many die outside of Christ, and therefore they must have opportunity on the other side of the grave to hear and believe the gospel if they will be redeemed. Parry thinks that it is biblically plausible that this is the case.

He argues that Hebrews 9:27 says nothing about the finality of judgement at death. The text, however, seems to argue precisely for that. The once-off nature of judgement is compared to the once-off death of Christ. In the same way that Christ’s death was final, so is the judgement at human death. Further, in Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), a great chasm is fixed between the two so that neither can cross to the other, suggesting that there is no post-mortem opportunity for salvation. As John Stackhouse says in his rebuttal of Parry’s chapter, “Universalism has always impressed me as the triumph of hope over exegesis.”

Parry’s article is helpful in terms of explaining an evangelical approach to universalism. As with all the articles in this book, space limits prevent him from detailing exhaustively the basis for his beliefs. Nevertheless, his explanation of his rationale is clear enough, and it may warrant a closer look for some at the various texts that he raises. Ultimately, his case remains unconvincing, even if it is thought-provoking.

  1. To be sure, exegetical work must be done in order to determine how “all” should be interpreted in each case, but that will need to be the subject of another post.

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