Speaking of nice people who give me books, a little while ago Alex gave me a copy of The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. Alex himself is a passionate universalist who gets a thankyou in the book's preface and is very active on the Evangelical Universalist forum, which is well worth a look.
For myself, becoming a universalist was a fairly painless part of my gradual detachment from orthodox Evangelicalism. At some point I realised I no longer believed that a loving God would condemn people to eternal torture, and when I realised that this viewpoint was called "universalism" I adopted the label for myself.
For others the transition is much harder. I've written previously about Rachel Held Evans' spiritual crisis, precipitated by the idea that innocent non-Christian victims of the Taliban would go straight to hell. For someone like Evans, passionately empathetic and completely immersed in Christian fundamentalism, such a realisation can be catastrophic and lead to deep and agonised soul-searching.
It was much the same for Robin Parry, the real person behind "Gregory MacDonald". He is a highly trained theologian and at the time The Evangelical Universalist was published he was editor at Paternoster Press, a respectable evangelical publishing company. Here is how he describes his dilemma.
Have you ever experienced the painful knowledge that the noble words of praise coming from your lips are hollow? I can recall one Sunday morning when I had to stop singing for I was no longer sure whether I believed that God deserved worship. For a believer, that is a moment of despair. Ever since I had been a Christian I had never wavered in my conviction that God loved people, but on that Sunday I didn't know if I could believe that any more. I was having a doxological crisis - wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so. This crisis was brought on by my reflections on hell.
Fortunately for Parry, as a theologian and publisher he had access to a lot of resources to help him work through the issue, including the riches of historical theology and the opportunity to supervise post-graduate students who had to review universalist works. He found himself more and more convinced that universalism provided a biblical solution to his dilemma, and wrote this book not so much for publication to help himself work through the issues.
When friends finally persuaded him to publish, he had another problem. Personally, he was happy to own his views, but he worked for a highly orthodox publisher and didn't want to bring trouble on their heads or get himself sacked. As a result, he sought out a small niche publisher for the work and published under a nom de plume which is a combination of the names of two of the most famous universalists in Christian history, Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald.
He maintained this alter-ego from publication in 2006 until his final "coming out" in 2009, corresponding from a dummy e-mail address, maintaining a blog under his assumed name and even taking part in a radio debate with his voice digitally altered. It seems that after all this skulduggery, his final coming out was underwhelming - his conservative employer refused his offer to resign and life went on.
The Evangelical Universalist stands out not so much for its radical departure from Christian orthodoxy as for its thoroughgoing theological conservatism. The major departure from the traditional understanding of heaven and hell comes in the opening section of the book, in which he deals with the problem from a philosophical point of view. What we see here is that the problem of hell is closely aligned with the wider problem of suffering.
Christian theology has traditionally taught that God is all-powerful - his will can't be thwarted - and perfectly loving, desiring the best for all his creatures. The existence of hell as a place of eternal torment inevitably contradicts one of these two assertions. If God is all powerful and yet allows some of his creatures to be tormented forever, this suggests his love has limits. If his love is unlimited then it must be that he doesn't have the power to achieve what he desires.
The universalist solution to this dilemma is that God will eventually save all humans - that his mercy has no expiry date and he will eventually bring all people to repentance. This is not a difficult conclusion to reach. The difficult part, especially for an evangelical such as Parry, is whether such a solution is compatible with the teaching of the Bible. This is the main subject of the book.
He begins by outlining the overall theological narrative of the Bible, found in different forms and permutations through the Old and New Testaments. Humans are created for communion with God, break that communion, are cast out and eventually restored. Israel is called to be God's nation, fails in this task, is sent into exile, and is eventually restored. Jesus comes as God's messenger to humanity, is rejected and crucified, rises from the dead, calls the church and ultimately restores all things.
There is nothing radical in this, not even anything peculiarly universalist. The key question, and the point at which universalists differ from the mainstream of the church, is what this final restoration entails. Will those who reject God ultimately be condemned and exiled forever in hell, as the mainstream church believes? Or will they also be restored through repentance, as universalists contend?
To make his case he begins with the passage from Colossians 1 which includes the following statement.
For in him (Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Alongside this he puts other similar statements, like this one from Philippians.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The all-inclusive scope of these statements seems to suggest that everyone, all creation, will be reconciled and that this will be a willing, voluntary acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. How, then, can we reconcile this with the passages in the New Testament which seem to suggest eternal damnation for some? This is where the argument gets tricky.
Parry refers to a number of key texts. A long chapter analyses the two key passages in the Book of Revelation which are widely held to promise eternal damnation for God's enemies - 14:9-11 which refers to the followers of the Beast and "the smoke of their torment rising for ever and ever", and 20:10-15 in which all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire. His detailed forensic analysis of these passages in their context leads him to the conclusion that the punishment is not the last word, and that those in the Lake of Fire can later emerge and enter the holy city.
He then moves on to the key teachings of Jesus on hell - his references to Gehenna, and the fate of the protagonists in the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the parable of the sheep and goats - and to the various passages in Paul which seem to refer to damnation. I won't repeat his arguments, merely report his conclusion. Hell is indeed real, but is not permanent. The moment of death is not our final opportunity to repent, we may also repent after death, even while we are in hell, and eventually all of us will. After all, who would not once the evidence of the need to do so is clear?
In a sense, he has replaced the Protestant hell with the Catholic Purgatory - a place where souls are cleansed of their impurity before coming into God's presence. His conservative Protestantism prevents him from acknowledging that this is what he's done and it would certainly put the frighteners under his intended audience.
It seems to me his explanations lack force for two reasons. The first is that his reading of the Bible is so relentlessly literalistic, taking the most conservative possible interpretation of each passage. In his 30 pages on Revelation he doesn't refer once to the possibility that the book is not about the last days of planet Earth but about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the alternate possibility that the scenes which describe eternal burning, like much else in the book, are intended allegorically not literally.
Similarly with the teachings of Jesus. He dismisses analysis of the fact that Gehenna (the word of Jesus translated "hell" in many English bibles) is an actual place, a valley outside Jerusalem which was the scene of many atrocities in Israel's history. Nor does he place any store on the fact that the stories of the rich man and Lazarus, and the sheep and goats, are parables which are not intended to describe actual events.
It's almost as if Parry is bending over backwards to be as conservative as possible, to demonstrate that even the most diehard fundamentalist can still be a universalist. This may perhaps be a worthwhile endeavour but it left me bemused rather than convinced. I wonder if, in the end, he was fully convinced himself? I suspect that in the long run it will be hard to sustain universalism without also jettisoning some of his literalism.
However, my biggest problem is that Parry's solution doesn't seem to me to solve his original problem. To what extent does a temporary hell, as opposed to a permanent one, rescue the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful God? Is it only the eternal aspect of hell that creates problems? Parry argues that the bliss of heaven would be less than perfect if I knew my mother was suffering eternal torments in hell. Would I be perfectly blissful if I knew instead that her torment would only last a couple of centuries? Or ten years? Or even ten months? It may not last forever, but this God still appears to condone torture.
I'm greatly encouraged by the recent rise of universalism in the protestant church, and by the people like Alex and Robin Parry who devote time to promoting it. It seems to me to be a sign that we are coming to grips with the hatefulness and violence that have been incorporated into much of our orthodox theology. The Evangelical Universalist is an important step on this way, but it also shows that we still have a way to go.