A Response to Four Views on Hell, Pt. 3 (Robin Parry on Universalism)

Ever read something you know you disagree with but still can’t help but admire the actual argument presented? That’s how I felt about Robin Parry’s presentation in the second edition of Four Views on Hell. Parry is an editor with Wipf & Stock Publishers (who published both Rethinking Books through their subsidiaries Cascade and Pickwick), and a friend of the Rethinking Hell project. Like John Stackhouse, he’s appeared twice on the podcast (here and the second as part of our series with Chris Date and the contributors to Four Views) and he was one of the plenary speakers at the second Rethinking Hell conference at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in 2015 (that lecture is available on the conference DVD set). But of the four presentations in Four Views, I am inclined to say that Parry’s is the best in the sense of a well argued, compelling case. This isn’t to say I think he’s right, but simply that of the four authors, Parry has plead his case for universal reconciliation better than the other authors did for their views.

Universal reconciliation, or apokatastasis, is the often maligned (at least in evangelical circles) view that God can and will ultimately restore all people to himself. Whether or not one receives the Gospel prior to their death, God will, through Christ, win a total victory over sin and death. Those who persist until death in rejecting Christ may have to experience a time of corrective and redemptive punishment (as opposed to retributive punishment which is typically in view in most presentations of eternal torment and annihilationism) so as to be brought to proper repentance and sin might be purged and destroyed.

Parry differentiates from many forms of universalism. He makes clear that apokatastasis does not take sin lightly, and that properly understood, his position does is not an “all roads lead to God” argument. Instead, Parry is arguing for a specifically Christian hope- that all things are reconciled because Christ’s victory is complete. So while he acknowledges that his view “is a minority voice within the church… it is not some new-fangled liberal theology.” (101) The central question as he reads the overarching narrative of Scripture and the future hope it points to is “Will God’s desire to save all people be satisfied or eternally frustrated? Will the cross save all those for whom Christ died, or will his death have been in vain for some people?” (108) And this is of course a valid question. If some (perhaps even the significant majority) of human beings die having either not heard or having not accepted the gift offered through Jesus Christ, does this not mean Christ’s death for all has not won a victory for all? Does this not mean God has proven unwilling or unable to save all as he desires (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9)? The advocates of eternal torment and conditional immortality will have to grapple with this. Will God not get what he desires? In some sense, I have to concede he won’t. But we’ll leave that aside for a moment as we assess Parry’s argument.

Parry begins by asserting that, although a minority position, there is an established historical tradition of apokatastasis in Christian theology. He cites a long list of theologians who did (or who least may have) held to universal reconciliation. Most would certainly concede Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and admit a strong probability that Clement of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac of Nineveh, Evagrius Pontocus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia held this view (though the orthodoxy of the latter two is highly suspect, and Theodore was anathematized at the very controversial 5th ecumencial council). But Parry adds other possible universalists, some of whom I would say Parry would have a tough time proving, most notably Athanasius (who was probably a conditionalist). But his assertion that apokatastasis has a historical basis is clearly reasonable and hard to refute, since many of these universalists are held in high regard and recognized as pillars of orthodoxy. So, dismissing universalism out of hand is simply to ignore the historical evidence. Whether we want to admit it or not, the fact remains that universalists have a place at the table, and ought to be treated as equally orthodox brothers and sisters. Robin Parry himself, and Brad Jersak have been friends of Rethinking Hell, and we are happy to count them as such. We obviously interpret Scripture differently, but we recognize that apokatastasis as it is argued by Parry is an evangelical option.

This of course brings us to the most important issue here; it is often assumed that universalism must be argued in opposition to the text of Scripture, not from it, and thus, if evangelicals trust the authority of Scripture, universalism cannot properly be considered compatible with evangelicalism. But, as one reads Parry’s chapter, one can’t help but be impressed with the extent to which he commits to faithful exegesis of the biblical text rather than dodging it. The challenge then for evangelicals who disagree is to actually engage with the argument to evaluate the actual exegesis.

Parry’s approach is to take the broad sweep of the metanarrative of Scripture and try to establish a telos, or end to which it is moving. Here, Parry follows the common creation, fall, redemption, consummation model, and uses Colossians 1:16, 19-20 as an interpretive lens concluding that all things are from him (creation), but the fall “makes it impossible for us to reach our destination. Instead we spiral away from God, the source of life, into corruption, decay, and death.” (105) But all things are for him and through him, so God begins the process of redeeming all things, and, argues Parry, since all things are to him, the redemption project will result in all things reaching their telos, their destination or end, which is God, because the “telos of human creatures is, in community, to be filled with God and to image God in the world.” (105) This was the intent of creation, and if God’s purpose and desire is to be met, all things must brought to their designed telos, and “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Parry focuses in on several New Testament texts which seem to imply that God’s design and desire is to justify and reconcile all people through Christ, and that Christ’s death is for all. He cites passages like 1 Jn. 2:2, 2 Cor. 5:14, 1 Tim. 2:3-6, Heb. 2:9, Jn 1:29, 3:17 & 12:32, 2 Pet. 3:9, 1 Cor. 15:22, Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:19-20. He argues that Christ’s death and resurrection are framed as being for all of humanity, and God’s desire in the incarnation, death, and resurrection is to redeem all (noting Athanasius and Gregory Nanzianzen who argue that the Word takes on the fullness of human nature to redeem all of human nature, and all of humanity; see pg. 107).

In this, says Parry, we see God’s story setting out a trajectory; the salvation of the cosmos which he created good and created with a purpose, a telos. The biblical story is then the story of God, in the end, fulfilling the original intent for creation which got derailed by the fall. Parry notes the common objection that universalism has diminished view of the severity of sin, which, in my opinion, even in his brevity, Parry capably rebuts, saying that the whole point of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows that yes sin is severe—so severe that God has to personally enter human history to resolve—but that sin cannot thwart God’s purposes.

“Every doctrine of hell implies a doctrine of God, and every doctrine of God will shape one’s theology of hell” (112). I think all of the contributors can agree with this, as would I. I have serious objections to the doctrine of God which emerges from Burk’s chapter, and even some real struggles with Stackhouse’s. I actually think Parry gives much to commend in his comments regarding hell and the doctrine of God (112-113). Of course, as I noted in my response to Stackhouse, our formulation of assertions regarding hell must rest first and foremost on Scriptural exegesis, but how our conclusions on that fit together with out other assertions matters. Some interaction with the character of God after working through Scripture is preferred over the other way around—trying to fit Scripture into one’s view of God. Although notably brief, I think Parry’s insistence on God’s essential goodness, love, and mercy is well put. That said, his affirmation of God’s goodness does not fit exclusively with universal reconciliation, in my opinion. I would point out that many conditionalists have argued passionately for God’s inherently loving nature. In fact, in the first edition of Four Views on Hell, conditionalist Clark Pinnock wrote a passionate essay that was heavily criticized for being sentimentally driven, which absolutely emphasized a doctrine of God similar to that which we see in Parry.1I wrote some thoughts on Pinnock, hell, justice, holiness, and the love of God here It is, I believe, mistaken to argue that “a theology of hell in which it can be seen as a manifestation of divine goodness: of loving justice, and of just love” (113) is only found in universalism. I would certainly reject Burk’s assertion in his response to Parry that God’s justice demands eternal torment as the only appropriate response, or that God’s judgment, which he believes ends with the unending torment of sinners, “is part of God’s putting things right” (130), but I would have to argue that Parry’s description of God, though accurate, does not demand we conclude that universal restoration is the most biblically sound, and theologically consistent view.

Does this description of the big picture of the biblical metanarrative combined with a few samples of biblical texts which speak of “all” or “the world” provide evidence for a definitive statement that God will do somehow redeem those who persist in the way of destruction? I don’t think Parry has met the bar he was aiming for. Do these texts really confirm that all persons will be reconciled or do they rather mean that reconciliation is possible for all? If God makes eternal life available to all2Although Rethinking Hell contributors take various opinions regarding election and soteriology, I personally hold to a general atonement view; that is that Christ did die for all, not simply for the elect. but some opt out of that, does that mean God’s purposes have been eternally frustrated? Parry’s question is valid, but I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. The problem arises when we see considerable evidence in Scripture suggesting that some, perhaps even most will not have eternal life. For example, we see Paul speak of the opponents of the Gospel being punished with “eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). We read of Christ’s warning that the righteous will enter eternal life in the Kingdom, while the unrighteous will go into “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). Even if we understand “eternal” as “of the age”, as Parry does (120-121), there is still no indication that Jesus intends us to see here a period of punishment followed by entering eternal life. It seems to me that Jesus was telling his hearers that those excluded will be permanently excluded from the life of the age to come. We read in 2 Pet. 3:7 of fires of judgment being kept for “the destruction of the ungodly”. In the preceding chapter we read that the wicked will come to extinction. Jesus speaks of two ways; eternal life and destruction/perishing (e.g. Mt. 7:13-14, Jn 3:16) which is echoed by Paul (e.g. Rom. 6:23, Gal. 6:8), James (Jam. 4:12), and John (1 Jn. 5:11-12). And in perhaps one of the trickiest passages for Parry’s argument, Paul says of the enemies of the cross, “Their end (telos) is destruction” (Phil. 3:19).

So is Scripture polyphonic? Is there a disagreement between different passages? Can Paul speak of some having a telos of destruction in one passage while saying all have a telos of redemption and eternal life in another? The text which Parry points to in order to define the trajectory of the metanarrative (Col. 1) is problematic, because although the text says “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (1:19-20) we cannot stop reading there. It certainly looks, if we read these verses in isolation, that the text supports Parry’s claim. However, as I’m sure someone must have pointed out to Parry by now, Colossians continues on from there; “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col 1:22-23a, emphasis added). So while Col. 1 (and Rom. 5:18, 2 Cor. 5:14, 1 Jn. 2:2, etc.) certainly give us cause to hope that all can have eternal life, those same books warn us that not all will have eternal life. Romans 2:7 and 6:23 make it difficult to affirm Parry’s thesis that Romans 5 suggests all will be saved. 2 Cor. 5:14 affirms Christ’s death is complete in making access possible for all, but 5:17-21 provide what certainly appear to be important conditions that need to be appropriated; that new creation is dependent upon one being “in Christ” and “reconciled to God” with some form of participation or agreement required. 1 Jn 2:2 likewise says that yes, Christ died for the sin of every person, but the rest of 1 Jn. (esp. 5:1-12) is difficult to reconcile with Parry’s assertion of universal application of the saving work of Christ.

The objections to universalists are substantial, and certainly well known to Parry. He addresses many of them in the second half of his chapter. What is the place of judgment when everyone ends up at the same telos? Can one come to Christ after death? What about those other texts? Because of limited space, Parry obviously cannot tackle all the objections in detail in this contribution. But he does provide some answers which, although I’m not persuaded by them, move the conversation forward. He argues that we see in some examples, earthly judgement poured out on a nation, city, or people, which is then to be followed by restoration. Jeremiah brings a prophetic word against many nations, and also speaks of a restoration to come afterwards, and Ezekiel even speaks of the restoration of Sodom (Ezek. 16:53), and Isaiah 19 suggests reconciliation of Egypt (114-115). Parry suggests that this is analogous to how final judgement will play out. People will be judged, humbled, appropriate redress will be made, but restoration will come after this. While intriguing, I think this goes beyond the text. There is a sense of definiteness and finality to the judgement we see referred to in the texts noted above, and others.

Regarding postmortem repentance, Parry argues that there isn’t explicit support for this notion, but there isn’t explicit evidence against it either. His challenge “does death somehow fix us in some eternally sinful state?” is one that needs to be wrestled with by folks on all sides, as is Parry’s appeal to the character of God revealed in the parable of the lost sheep; that God “keeps on seeking a lost sheep ‘until he finds it’ (Luke 15:4)” (116, emphasis Parry’s). Can God redeem a beloved, albeit rebellious, person after they have died? Well, the chapter after the lost sheep parable gives us the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which does not give literal details on the nature of hell (it’s set in Hades, not Gehenna), but it does give the impression at least, that the Rich Man won’t cross the chasm to be where Lazarus is. Jesus seems to be saying that our earthly lives determine what comes next, and it does seem that this is fixed when the Rich Man enters Hades. It would be unwise to be too absolute when dealing with parables, but one can’t help but think Parry has pushed beyond the text here.

All of the texts Parry addresses as “tricky texts” I discussed in my response to Burk, and so I will simply respond to Parry’s reading by saying that these texts are best understood as pointing to irrevocable non-being and exclusion from the age to come as the telos of those who finally and ultimately reject God’s redemption.

Overall, Parry has given an incisive, and intelligent overview of a specifically evangelical universalist position. I am glad Zondervan did a 2nd edition mainly because of this essay. I don’t think Burk or Stackhouse brought anything new to the table in their contributions. Wall’s essay is interesting, bringing a protestant case for purgatory. In the first edition, the Catholic Purgatory view was presented, and no evangelical argument for universalism was included. Kudos to Preston Sprinkle and the publishers for filling out the discussion, and kudos to Robin Perry for an interesting, albeit unconvincing presentation. I was left wanting to pursue his case further.3Parry wrote a book length presentation of evangelical universalism, under a pen name, which I am planning to pursue in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. Parry’s bold, against the current, yet also gracious and respectful in tone, incisive case is what one wants from something like this project. He brings a lively, well composed, “good bang for your buck” argument, covering a lot of ground in a small space. As much as some may want to, I don’t see how evangelicals can continue to dismiss apokatastasis without real engagement. I remain unconvinced by the argument, but pleased and eager to continue real engagement with those who are convinced.

Liked it? Take a second to support Rethinking Hell on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

1 I wrote some thoughts on Pinnock, hell, justice, holiness, and the love of God here
2 Although Rethinking Hell contributors take various opinions regarding election and soteriology, I personally hold to a general atonement view; that is that Christ did die for all, not simply for the elect.
3 Parry wrote a book length presentation of evangelical universalism, under a pen name, which I am planning to pursue in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.