Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Evangelical Universalist

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. 


Brad McCoy said...

Interesting. Does he cover the idea of annihilationism (non-believers being destroyed forever, rather than either suffering in hell or joining believers in the new creation) at all?

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, he mentions it briefly, saying he passed through annihilationism on the way to universalism, but he doesn't think it solves the problem of every knee bowing, or the problem of eternal bliss being marred by the absence of loved ones.

Hermit said...

"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 all wrong. We don't come up with our theory, and then go and see if we can read the Bible in such a way as to find support for our theory there.

Jon Eastgate said...

Hermit my clumsy summary probably made that sound more linear than it really is. This more describes the way he presents the case, rather than the way he arrived at his views.

I think in practice we read the bible as a kind of silent dialogue. We come to it with our ideas and preconceptions, we use them to question it, it questions them and so we learn. No-one is a blank slate, and if you were miraculously able to come to the Bible without preconceptions, who knows what you would find? The idea that the Bible is inerrant, for instance, is not something you can deduce from the bible itself, it's something you bring to it and which shapes the way you read it.

Alex Smith said...

Thanks for taking the time to read & review it Jon! I've just read it (now running late to work :-P) & I will try to push back on a couple of points as soon as I get a chance.

Jon Eastgate said...

Look forward to it Alex.

Alex Smith said...

Came home early so I could reply :-D

I agree with much of this review. E.g. I think it’s easy to make a very strong philosophical case based on Christian foundations, and most people I’ve come across admit that & say something onto the lines of “Universalism would be lovely, but I just don’t see it in the Bible”.

Robin, both in the book & elsewhere (e.g. intro to book on history of Christian Universalism & presentation at Spurgeon’s College), goes to great length to try to show how Universalism can be within traditional, orthodox Christianity, indeed even with Evangelicalism, although admitting we’ve been a minority tradition in both.

The reason metanarrative of the Bible is such a significant support for EU is due to the symmetry we find in passages like Col 1. That all that is created is reconciled. i.e. God is working towards restoring everything to the pre-Fall Eden state (no ECT/P in Eden!). As I’ve done further reading, I’ve found this has been identified by non-EUs too, for example John Dickson & Greg Clarke on p169 of “666 And All That”:

“Do the opening chapters of Genesis play the pivotal role in the New Testament vision of the world-to-come that they obviously do in the Old Testament? Any attentive reader of the (whole) Bible will instinctively say yes, but at least three passages – from three different apostles – confirm this intuition with great clarity. It is no accident that the final two chapters of the Bible contain more references to the first two chapters of the Bible than do any other part of Scripture.”

Furthermore, as the Father gives all things to the Son in a “very good” state, it would be surprising for the Son to give it back to the Father in a worse state…

Robin directly addresses the difference from Purgatory here.

On p126, Robin says, “It is entirely possible that this is an apocalyptic description of the historic destruction of the nations and has little or no bearing on the issue of post-mortem punishment. [Footnote about N. T. Wright’s Preterism] However, given the parallels between 14:9-11 and 20:10-15, I shall assume, for the sake of argument, that 14:9-11 does refer to post-mortem judgment.” He also says somewhere something along the line of “due to the genre of Revelations, it’s unwise to use it as a foundation for detailed/precise doctrines” (John Dickson & Greg Clarke repeatedly say similar things in their book). I often say something along the lines of, “Preterism is probably right, but even if it isn’t, EU can still stand because…”.

Similarly with Lazarus, Robin realises it’s probably a non-literal/“subversion” of one the Pharisees would’ve known e.g. there’s an Egyptian parallel, seven Jewish ones, and one from Lucian (see his blog)

If you haven’t read the 2nd edition appendixes, I highly recommend them as they address a number of objections that came up since the 1st edition. e.g. p207-210 looks at “Does God still torture people?”.

Alex Smith said...

I’d also say that Purgatory isn't just a Catholic idea, Gregory of Nyssa held something similar long before them, and according to Wikipedia, Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and other Protestants (like Jerry Walls) still do too. Importantly, there's a huge difference between paying for one's sin yourself (i.e. earning salvation) and having it purged out of you by God. James Gould (God's Saving Purpose and Prayer for All the Departed. Vol 10, p183­211. Journal of Anglican Studies. 2012) helpfully clarifies:
It might seem that belief in purgatory contradicts Anglican teaching. Point 22 in the Thirty Nine Articles says, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory... is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture.’ While the Reformers had good reason to reject the scandals involving indulgences, pardons, relics and invocations to the saints, it is possible – as Newman argued – to believe in purgatory without accepting ‘the Romish doctrine’... since the satisfaction and sanctification views are clearly different.

In the satisfaction theory the purpose of purgatory is to remove guilt by paying for sins which are not repented of before death. The problem with this view is that, according to Scripture, Christ alone makes complete and final satisfaction for sin...

In the sanctification theory that I have defended the purpose of purgatory is not to pay for sin, but is to complete the process of transformation which is necessary for eternal fellowship with God. As Justin Barnard puts it, ‘on the satisfaction model, what gets purged through the purgatorial process is the penalty for sin ... By contrast, what gets purged in the sanctification model is the disposition to sin.’

Many Anglicans have abandoned the Reformers’ assumption that death in and of itself perfectly sanctifies a person’s character. While some avoided the term ‘purgatory’, Ussher, Newman, Pusey, Maurice, Claude Moss, C.S. Lewis and the Commission on Doctrine all embrace the idea that those who die in a state of grace and favor with God but who are not free of sin and ready for complete union with God need a period of growth in their ability to love.

Gould goes on to explain why gradual sanctification in ‘purgatory’ makes much more sense theologically than being made instantly perfect. Anyway, the whole article is really worth reading, particularly if you’re an Anglican.

Jon Eastgate said...

Thanks Alex - don't let me get you sacked though! (I can't get sacked because I'm a partner in the business.)

You've obviously studied this subject and this book more closely than me, so thanks for clarifying some of my sloppy reading. What I've written here is pretty much my initial impressions (although a couple of weeks after finishing the book) and obviously it's quite a complex book and requires more thought. I also have to confess to writing the review without reading the appendices which is a bit lazy I know.

On the subject of hell, though, I still find his extra explanations unsatisfying. Of course neither purgatory nor hell are clearly described in formal Catholic doctrine, although there are some very lurid ones in popular piety. James Joyce recreates one of horrific specificity in the middle of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". (I think it was part of what turned him away from the church.) But both appear to clearly involve suffering - purgatory for a limited time to bring us to the point of perfection, hell for eternity. Parry draws the lines differently from traditional Catholic theology but his hell is closer to their purgatory than to their hell.

None of this (or his appendix on God as torturer which I've just had a look at) addresses my biggest problem. The existence of a hell which resembles the descriptions in the Bible makes God a torturer, or at least someone who turns a blind eye to torture. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why is this necessary? Could he not have found a non-torture way to achieve the same end? I think Parry's appendix shows clearly that he gets this problem, and in the end he seems to be saying that the descriptions of hell may be best understood as anthropomorphisms. In other words, as I suggest, he starts to move away from literalism.

I didn't have time to develop this theme (perhaps another time) but there is a strong link with theodicy here and in that case the problem seems insoluble since we obviously do suffer. No reason to think the question should become simpler when transferred from time to eternity.

Alex Smith said...

Here are some of my recent thoughts on theodicy - I think it applies both to now & hell:

With heavy heart I believe God allowed it to happen as temporary suffering is the only way for beings with free will to learn. Not only that, but He suffers along side us, knows the harm isn't irreversible/irreparable & is working as fast as possible** to resurrect, restore, repair, reconcile all things to a far better existence than any of us have experienced.

**given our finite view it's not surprising we can't see that this is occurring.

in my experience, & limited understanding of machine learning/AI, learning/maturing in general usually involves suffering. Given I think this life is chapter one of each person's eternal journey, it's slightly easier to cope with death, because I believe we'll all be reunited. Again from my finite view, I don't know the specific things each person is learning, nor the complex interactions between the suffering of others.

Because I think God is omniscient & all-loving, I deduce that this must be the most loving way to get to the good end for all of us that He desires. Also that if it was any quicker then it would be less loving...

Has anyone else come up with a better system that's proven to work?

Alex Smith said...

The alternative is to make a C. S. Lewis move & say the suffering is all self inflicted, God simply allowing the natural consequences of sin to play out.

Jon Eastgate said...

I think I prefer the first option to the Lewis one. All suffering is clearly not self-caused unless in a cosmic sense that it's all the result of the fall - we have microbes, floods, fire and earthquake, not to mention suffering caused by ruthless dictators.