7 Revelations About Revelation

People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.

Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.

Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.

And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God can get a little dark.

So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?

I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.

So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?

1369659Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.

  1. We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
  2. Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
  3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
  4. Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
  5. The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
  6. We all fight the Beast.
  7. God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.

Continue reading 7 Revelations About Revelation

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Book Review: Oh, Fudge, We’re Talking about Hell

13632870Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

In an effort to clear out some of my to-read backlog, I dove into Hell: A Final Word – a semi-autobiographical synopsis of Edward Fudge’s much longer and groundbreaking case for annihilationism as the biblical vision of the fate of the wicked.

Fudge, who died late last year, is little known outside of a very small group of people interested in challenging the traditional Christian notion of hell as the home of eternal conscious torment. In the 1970s, he was commissioned to spend a year researching the subject and to his surprise found that he felt the Bible taught that the souls of those condemned to hell eventually perished in the flames, thus the labels “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality.” That book was The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final PunishmentHell: A Final Word was written to coincide with the release of a biopic about Fudge’s theological journey.

(While you might think a film about a preacher engaging in a yearlong quest of biblical scholarship about hell would be horribly boring, it’s surprisingly good! It’s called Hell and Mr. Fudge, and it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in the subject. I ended up seeing a premier screening at Abilene Christian University’s annual Summit lectureship in 2012, where I also bought the book. Fudge was a lifelong member of Churches of Christ, thus the ACU connection.)

All of that to say, if you’re dissatisfied (or not!) with eternal conscious torment – either because of your own research or because of your discomfort with the nature of the God it requires you to worship – this is a good popular-level primer for how Fudge came to articulate the most comprehensive case for one of the two major alternatives.

But. Continue reading Book Review: Oh, Fudge, We’re Talking about Hell

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly

jamesrellyLast time, we talked about how universalism and Calvinism, seemingly opposites in their views of God, judgment and salvation, are actually two sides of the same coin, each believing in the sovereignty of a God saving whom he wants. Although Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White postulated their universalism in opposition to Calvinism, we now turn to James Relly, one of the most influential universalists ever to live, primarily because he converted John Murray, who is sometimes called the Father of Universalism. I guess that makes Relly the Grandfather of Universalism? Regardless, Relly came to universalism through Calvinism.

In his essay “Union with Christ: The Calvinist Universalism of James Relly (1722-1778),” Wayne K. Clymer says Relly’s “bizarre theology represents one of the most extreme modifications of Calvinism in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

Relly was a disciple of the famed British evangelist George Whitefield, and began working with him about 1741 in Wales as a preacher doing missionary work there. As a good Calvinist, Relly believed fully in the “inherent and ineradicable sinfulness of man.” In a particularly telling passage, Clymer describes what modifying Calvinism to become a universalist must have cost Relly:

His debt to Whitefield is great. To make the break must have caused him much concern, for universalism was a common foe of both the Calvinists and the Arminians – and religious hatred knows no mercy. That he took the step reveals his honesty and conviction. (121)

How much did people hate universalists in the 18th century? Murray, who was of course a friend and follower of Relly, recalled later in his life the first time he heard one of Relly’s preachers. Referring to Relly himself, he would have been “highly favored to have been an instrument of the hand of God, for the taking the life of a man whom I had never seen; and in destroying him I should have nothing doubted, that I had rendered an essential service both to the Creator and the created” (122). Yikes!

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 5: Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White

2012-03-28_22-41-12_2621At first blush, it’s hard to think of two more opposite approaches to God, sin and judgment than Calvinism and universalism. Calvinism is all wrathful, while universalism is all cuddly. In universalism, God saves everyone from hell; in Calvinism he predestines most people to it.

Yet modern universalism – that is, universalism as expressed in the modernist era, as opposed to the previous three examples of universalism expressed in the ancient and medieval era – actually grew out of Calvinism. In fact, as expressed by the 17th century ministers Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White, universalism is simply the other side of Calvinism’s coin.

In the previous chapters of “All Shall Be Well,” we saw how Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism and meditation on the nature of God combined to produce a “minority report” of universal salvation rather than the more widely assumed doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell.

With the dominance of Augustine and Aquinas, however, universalism all but disappeared from the conversation until the Protestant Reformation, which democratized scripture reading and interpretation. Not surprising, it didn’t take much more than a century for universal restoration to return as an alternative to the dominant eschatological assumptions of the church.

Louise Hickman, in her essay “Love Is All and God Is Love: Universalism in Peter Sterry (1613-1672) and Jeremiah White (1630-1707),” also points to England’s move toward less censorship and freer discourse in the mid 1600s as a contributing factor to the dissemination of “many unorthodox and sometimes eccentric theological views” and “an atmosphere of increasing tolerance and debate.” As a result, universalism was more popular than ever by 1700.

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 5: Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

julian-of-norwich-and-her-cat“We know very little about her,” Robert Sweetman writes about Julian of Norwich in his entry, but we know quite a bit about the revelations she received – or, as she called them, her “showings.”

Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 2: Gregory of Nyssa

sample-5I’m a big fan of Gregory of Nyssa, the bishop from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey, more or less) who lived in the middle fourth century. For my Patristic and Medieval Theology class, I wrote a paper about Gregory’s universalism, which led me to this book, and therefore this series.

Gregory’s universalism was complete and total – when Gregory said that all of God’s creation would eventually be restored to him, he meant it, Satan, demons and all. In my paper, which I’ll post once I get the grade back, I argue Gregory’s expansive view of the goodness of God, which Gregory believed was the overarching divine characteristic against which all of God’s actions must be judged,  required the belief in Satan’s salvation. Without it, either the evil to which Satan had turned was stronger than the inherent goodness Satan carried as part of God’s good creation – and therefore evil was stronger than God – or God’s deceit of Satan in the atonement was simply justice without mercy, and therefore not good. We’ll talk about that more when I post the paper later this summer.

Unfortunately, Steven R. Harmon touches very little on all of that in his chapter of “All Shall Be Well,” titled “The Subjection of All Things in Christ: The Christocentric Universalism of Gregory of Nyssa (331/340–c.395).”

Instead, as the title indicates, Harmon focuses on the role of Jesus in God’s plan to restore all things. He argues that such a role is somewhat hidden because Gregory talks so much about what God does in the reconciliation process.

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 2: Gregory of Nyssa

“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 1: Origen of Alexandria

allshallbewell cover

This is Part 2 of a series working through “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. See the intro here.

The most famous proponent of universal reconciliation in the early church was Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) – which isn’t really saying much because, at least in the Protestant traditions where I was raised, Origen himself, never mind his teaching, isn’t that famous.

Although not the earliest overt universalist – that title belongs to the second century’s Clement of Alexandria, who doesn’t get a chapter in MacDonald’s book, or (he says with a wink) perhaps these first-century guys named Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth – Origen’s role as the most prominent has made him influential.

Origen’s notion of restoration was condemned in 553 because of its connection to the pre-existence of souls, although Tom Greggs (professor of systematic theology at the University of Chester in the U.K.) in his essay notes that condemnations of Origen were really condemnations of Origenism, which took Origen’s views to extremes. Further, Greggs argues Origen did not view universal reconciliation merely through his misguided views about the soul, but found christological support, as well.

Some have suggested that Origen was not really a universalist, given his ambiguous, if not contradictory, statements in some works, especially those written for more pastoral reasons. “Yet the mapping of Christian theology offered in his systemic theology, along with certain comments offered in his commentaries, clearly suggests that Origen imagined an ultimate end in which all would be welll, and God’s final victory would be triumphant” (31).

So how does universal restoration work, according to Origen? In two distinct ways.

Continue reading “All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 1: Origen of Alexandria