“All Shall Be Well”: Universal Salvation Through History, Part 1

allshallbewell coverWe’re starting a new series today. Last summer, I spent an inordinately long time going through the question of whether Mary was really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus (links in the sidebar). I liked it so much that I wanted to do a series this summer on some other pressing theological issue, but kids and a summer class and the resulting paper have conspired to wipe out half the summer before I could even start.

Then, as I was researching and writing for my paper on Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in the salvation of Satan, I ran across “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. There have been shorter titles in the history of books. Nevertheless, this collection of essays on prominent universalists over the past 1,800 years or so promises to provide some theological and historical background to the notion of universal salvation that I think might be helpful for those of you who, like me, are rethinking traditional ideas about everything, including heaven, hell, salvation and judgment. Also, it’s not likely to run you any less than $35, which is a little steep, so this is a way to get the gist without laying out the cash, if you’re as poor as I am (I’m checking this out from the university library).

The book is edited by “Gregory MacDonald,” the pseudepigraphal identity of Robin Parry, who just did some video responses on Rachel Held Evans’ blog as part of her “Ask a …” series. It’s worth checking out those comments, which make clear that Parry is a very nice guy, and smart, to boot.

Parry writes the introduction, which we’ll go through today. I hope to do no fewer than one installment in this series each week. I can’t promise that I won’t combine chapters or give up if I get too busy to keep reading, but my hope is to devote a post to each of the 18 chapters in the book, mostly because I think this topic is interesting, and hey, it’s my blog.

In the introduction, “Between Heresy and Dogma,” MacDonald (I’ll go with the pen name since that’s what the author chose) makes clear right away that this book is not designed to defend nor debunk universalism.

In the minds of the majority, it was simply a given that Christianity taught that the unsaved were consigned to suffer the never-ending torments of hell. But there were always Christian voices that sang a different song – a song in which, one day, all God’s creatures would be redeemed. The main goal of this volume is that of listening to and understanding these discordant voices. The book is intended as an exploration of their views rather than as a defense of them.

MacDonald points out that universalism has often been wrongly labeled a heresy, and that its proponents have often faced persecution by members of the church. But this is factually wrong; no church council or creed has formally condemned universalism, and as such it cannot be heretical based on the formal definition of the concept.

That said, there is some question because Origen, perhaps the most famous of the early universalists, was in fact condemned by the fifth ecumenical council in 553, and the condemnations mention his view of universal restoration. But they do so in connection with Origen’s belief in the pre-existence of souls and their eventual restoration to their original state (before they sinned and fell into human form, a notion the church eventually – and rightly – rejected as “monstrous” because of its implications for our view of creation). As MacDonald points out, Gregory of Nyssa was no less a universalist than Origen, but he was never condemned because his universalism was not connected to such problematic doctrine.

None of the central claims of orthodox Christianity, as embodied in the rule of faith or the ecumenical creeds, are incompatible with universalism. Universalism is, at the very least, not unorthodox in the sense of being contrary to essential dogma. … Indeed some universalists have embraced universalism precisely because they feel that it enables them to better hold together more important Christian beliefs that stand in awkward tension on more traditional notions of hell.

Nevertheless, Origen’s posthumous excommunication and the references to universalism attached to it had a chilling effect on discussion of the topic; very few voices raised the prospect publicly for centuries, until the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment transformed theological discussion.

That said, MacDonald points out that universalism was not simply unthinkable. Augustine of Hippo, in the Enchiridon, talks about “very many” who “moan over the eternal punishment … and say that they do not believe it shall be so.” Augustine, of course, criticizes these nameless people, who “directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture” and “soften down everything that seems hard.” Nevertheless, the opinion was clearly widespread enough for Augustine to address it.

Yet we should not fall into the opposite trap, of thinking universalism was actually the dominant belief of the early church, suppressed only after centuries of widespread acceptance. Of course, it could be that Paul and others were universalists (that’s kind of the issue at hand), but in terms of postbiblical support, the assumption of eternal torment – or at the very least annihilation – is prevalent in the second century, while universalism’s proponents are easy to pick out: Clement of Alexandria (c. 180), Origen of Alexandria (c.230), Gregory of Nyssa (c.380). “To claim that universalism is the purer, original Christianity from which later Christians, under the influence of paganism, deviated is absurd.”

MacDonald therefore argues universalism occupies the “middle ground between dogma and heresy.” It is one of many theologumena, opinions consistent with Christian doctrine but not necessary for the faith. The question then becomes: Since it’s not dogma, should those who believe in it do so dogmatically? That is, should universalists not express their opinions as hopes, rather than certainties? MacDonald rightly smacks this assumption down. Christians, rightly or not, hold strong opinions on all sorts of doctrines that are not in fact necessary for the faith – from music styles to forms of baptism to the way to read scripture.

Not only that, MacDonald argues, but this:

If universalism is theologumena then so is its denial, yet it is rarely suggested that a firm conviction that some people will be lost forever is in some way unorthodox (though one may argue that it is theologically inappropriate.

So it’s settled: Universalism is not heretical, nor is it some purer dogma corrupted by the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. It occupies the uncomfortable middle ground on which good Christians can disagree – even strongly – while still remaining good Christians.

But universalism is not a monolithic belief system, and MacDonald takes some time in the introduction to explore the differences of some prominent 16th century universalists – George De Benneville, Charles Chauncey and James Relly – who, despite being contemporaries, all came to universalism through different paths. De Benneville’s view came from his conversion experience, Chauncey’s through studying the Bible, and Relly’s through reflection on theological problems with traditional views of atonement.

I would suggest that one of the reasons that universalism seems able to keep spontaneously reappearing, even when it is not taught, is that it is rooted in some fundamental Christian and biblical convictions.

As a result of this continuing rebirth of universalism, it springs up in numerous varieties, with disagreement among universalists on how to handle the “hell texts” of the Bible, the role of Jesus in the ultimate salvation of all and any number of other topics, including the salvation of Satan (if one believes in the literal existence of such a being) and the role of human free will.

Which is why I think this series can be so helpful. Universalism is much more than Augustine’s caricature of moaners softening the hard parts of Christianity; it is a robust, diverse alternative to eschatological assumptions that have led to a deeply problematic view of God.

Working through these historical and theological explorations of universalism may not convince you – they may not convince me – that God intends to restore all rational beings to himself. But if they can give us a better understanding of and a dose of humility about, our own eschatological presuppositions then this series will have been time well spent.


3 thoughts on ““All Shall Be Well”: Universal Salvation Through History, Part 1”

  1. I read the book “The Unselfishness of God” written by Hannah Whitall Smith in th e 1800’s which really convinced me of God’s character. After a spiritual experience, she felt it was an insult to God’s character to say he punishes one of his creatures through all of eternity. It does not correlate well with the love God has for us. The portion in which she became a universalist was cut out of the book originally, but added back only recently.

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