Book Review: Christ Triumphant

Thomas Allin. Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture (Annotated Edition). Robin Parry (ed.). Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2015.*

Originally published in 1885, Wipf & Stock has released this new, annotated edition of Thomas Allin’s case for universalism. Editor Robin Parry (author of The Evangelical Universalist) has provided an introduction and extensive footnotes throughout, providing bibliographic and historical notations so that this work adheres to current standards of citation and clarifies some particular phrases and references relevant to the 19th century.

Thomas Allin (1838-1909) was an Anglican clergyman, and passionate advocate for universalism (or what he often calls the “larger hope”; Allin does state universalism is a hope, albeit a strong hope, but is not held as dogma). At the time of its publication Universalism Asserted, was among the most thorough examinations of final punishment from a universalist perspective. His three-part argument (examined from reason, historical theology, and Scripture) has been repeated by several authors since (e.g. Robin Parry, in The Evagelical Universalist, though, Parry assures me, he hadn’t actually read Allin until after writing TEU, so the similarities in argument are coincidental).

His first section begins with a strong criticism of “the popular creed” (eternal conscious torment); the central piece being an argument that eternal torment would entail the final victory of evil and sin over God, since God’s attempt to save the world would come up short, and evil would be preserved and given an eternal place in God’s creation. Further, since the preservation of evil would be God’s doing, God’s benevolence would be contradicted. In this criticism he does also argue that conditional immortality would not be a significant improvement, since although sin would be eradicated, so to would be the people Christ came to redeem. As I noted in response to Robin Parry, neither conditionalists nor advocates of eternal torment have satisfactorily answered this critique yet. But when we look to Scripture we do consistently see that God is the saviour of the world, that he desires the salvation of all, and that some will not be saved, but will instead perish. For the New Testament authors, it seems, this did not undermine God’s victory or his benevolence. Allin’s argument following this is that only universalism can claim God as completely God and completely victorious. Allin’s questions are incisive, though perhaps more antagonistically worded than they could have been (but 19th century rhetoric was a bit less charitable at times) and he occasionally descends into sentimentalism. But overall, this section does have raise some very valid challenges.

The second section on the Church Fathers is an definite eye opener. It’s no secret that universalism was present in the early Church, particularly in Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen, as well as in Gregory of Nyssa. Allin shows that annihilation is certainly well attested, especially in the Apostolic Fathers and early apologists. He also shows that universalism is both early and wide spread, even among some Western Fathers, and that eternal torment seems to not be well attested outside of the North African tradition (Tertullian and Augustine being the main authorities promoting this view seriously) and seems far more limited than many assume prior to the 5th century. Allin provides several instances of theologians preaching unending, terrible punishments, but elsewhere suggest that the use of “noble deceit” is acceptable to bring the most stubborn to repentance. For example, he shows that the fiery John Chrysostom occasionally spoke in ways which appear to expect, or at least hope, that the punishments of the age to come end with the reconciliation of all people. Allin suggests that Chrysostom (he also suggests Gregory Nanzianzen as an example) used the notion of eternal torment as a rhetorical device in the their preaching, even though they did not necessarily believe it.

The lengthy compilation of quotations does seem quite compelling, suggesting that a very broad and diverse group of Church Fathers were universalists, with representation in the schools of Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, Cappadocia, and even in the Latin West. This approach to reading and quoting the Fathers does look similar to the atomistic, proof-texting approach to Scripture used in a variety of theological discussions. Allin doesn’t demonstrate how these quotations fit into the contexts in which they were originally composed, and he fails to show a fully developed theology of universalism, demonstrating how these statements fit into a broader theological system. Even so, Allin does score some points here in showing that universalism was taught by or was consistent with the teachings of a large number of early theologians who are acknowledged to be within the bounds of historical orthodoxy.

Chapter 6 (Universalism and Doctrine) however, is quite problematic. Here Allin tries to connect universalism to other doctrines to show a harmonized systematic theological system. His attempts come up short. He argues that humans have a “reasonable immortal spirit” which, although affirmed in some places within historical theology, is not taught anywhere in Scripture. Allin then argues that in the incarnation, Christ is united to human nature as a whole, and therefore the fate of all humanity is the same; i.e. either all of humanity is saved, or none are, so when Christ makes atonement for humanity, that atonement is applied to all. While this inference may seem like it is supported by texts like Rom. 5:12-21, 2 Cor. 5:14-21, and perhaps 1 Cor. 15, all of these texts feature conditional statements, or pleas to the hearers to accept, and appropriate the gift available to all. Allin attempts to argue that death does not mean an end of life, but a transition, since all of humanity has been freed from subjugation to death; “Death is, in fact, the crossing from one stage of our journey to another. It is not an end; it is a transit” (212). This is simply odd, since Christ’s resurrection brought life out of death. Death is the opposite of life; it is ceasing to live.

Finally, in the third section (chapters 7-9), Allin works his way through Scripture, arguing that both Old and New Testaments depict God’s salvation being for all without exception. Although Allin does provide a considerable number of proof-texts which he argues demonstrate a consistent thread of statements which point to the salvation of all, several of these are taken out of context, and are misapplied. Does the teaching of Scripture that Christ is the saviour of the world necessarily mean each individual person will inherit eternal life through Christ? The problem with Allin’s approach is that his reading of Scripture is highly atomistic, and leaves off a significant amount of the biblical data either by simply ignoring it or through some considerably strained exegesis. He conveniently chops off several passages mid-thought, leaving off important qualifiers in the text. For instance, like many universalists, he quotes only Col. 1:15-20, which is followed by a qualifying “if” in v. 23. Similarly, he quotes Romans 5:16-18, but replaces most of v. 17 with an ellipsis, thus ignoring the important participle “those who accept” (Greek lambonontes) which limits what would otherwise be a universal application. He ignores several passages which present humanity in two groups; those who receive eternal life and those who do not (e.g. James 4:11, Phil. 1:27-29, Matt. 7:13-14, 1 Cor. 1:18, 1 John 5:11-12, Rom. 6:23, Rev. 20:11-15, etc.). All these biblical arguments appear frequently in universalist literature, but they remain unconvincing because they are imcomplete.

Chapter 9 unpacks the passages which depict a punishment for those who died without accepting the salvation offered in Christ. Like many universalists, Allin does affirm punishments in the age to come, even severe ones. However, he argues that these are therapeutic and restorative rather than unending and punitive.

Although one must admit that Allin puts forward a passionate case, and raises some very important questions, that must still be answered by proponents of eternal torment and conditional immortality, his positive case for universalism comes up short. His challenges to “the popular creed” are indeed valid, however, his criticisms of conditional immortality are significantly weaker. Universalists are certainly able to refine and strengthen Allin’s argument, and some have. But the counter evidence of a vast number of Scriptural passages is hard to overcome. Although the New Testament does call the Church to bring the gospel of Jesus to all people, and affirms that Christ died to save all of humanity, it also indicates that many will not receive the benefits of Christ’s victory, and yet the authors of the New Testament don’t show any evidence that this in any way diminishes Christ’s victory or his grace.

*Rethinking Hell was provided with a free copy by Wipf & Stock in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks again to our friends at Wipf & Stock.

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