Who will be saved? Ruminations on Universalism


I haven’t read Rob Bell’s hot new book Love Wins (and I probably won’t) but we theologs owe him a debt for igniting a spark of interest in an old doctrine. When universalism makes the cover of Time magazine something is up (although does anyone actually read Time anymore?) And now newspaper covers consigning Osama bin Laden to hell have aroused more popular speculation.

Next month’s MCCM Barth pastors’ study session will take up the subject, and the Confessing Christ Open Forum list-serv conversation has been talking about it.

So now some thoughtful and edgy posts about the “new universalism” have flown about in the last few days, for example a lively critical one by James Smith here, and responses by David Congdon here, and by Halden Doerge here. Halden invites more serious theological reflection on the subject, so I thought I would put in my two cents.

My interest in the subject was renewed not by Bell’s book, but by a close reading of Jason Goroncy’s St Andrews doctoral dissertation two summers ago. His final chapter posits that the whole trajectory of P.T. Forsyth’s thought (centered around the holiness of God) should have led him to a doctrinal universalism but didn’t (Hope I got this right, Jason, your typescript was lost in my sewer disaster. I hope it will be a book someday!) Jason and I had some good back and forth on this, and he makes a strong case, but I suspect Forsyth knew what he was doing by exercising a theological humility about the final decrees of God.

I must confess that I may have a regional prejudice. Here in New England we have Unitarians and Universalists.  We joke that the former hold that humans are too good for God to consign to hell, and the latter hold God to be too good to consign anyone to hell. The latter is better than the former but neither takes an adequate account of sin and evil. Gabe Fackre has taught me that eschatology (how it ends) must always be in conversation with theodicy (why is there evil?)

What makes the “new universalism” new is that Rob Bell is a card-carrying Evangelical, and his departure from orthodox evangelical notions of salvation and hell are what make him newsworthy. Various stronger and weaker views of universalism have been heard from mainline pulpits for nearly two centuries with nary a magazine cover.

My own view, influenced by Karl Barth, Forsyth and Fackre, is that because of the trajectory of the whole Christian Story (with its center in the atoning cross) we have a right to hope for and pray for a universal homecoming, but this can only be an article of hope and not an article of faith. This brings me short of a doctrinal universalism into what George Hunsinger once described to me as a “reverent agnosticism” about who will be saved. This keeps the proper Reformed safeguards against not taking sin, evil, and the sovereignty of God with utmost seriousness.

For a useful and thoughtful review of the issues see Gabe Fackre’s foreword to Universalism: The Current Debate, (Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, editors, Paternoster, 2003). Here is an excerpt, where Fackre talks about the 1954 World Council of Churches assembly theme, “Christ, the Hope of the World.” (I seem to recall that he was in attendance):

One meaning (of hope) . . .  is the “sure and certain” noun usage. Given Easter, there will be an Eschaton. We need to get that message of hope out to a hopeless world. A second meaning of the word has to do with aspiration rather than accomplishment, the conditional rather than the unconditional. Here hope is often a verb rather than a noun, as in Paul’s comment on Timothy’s possible appearance in Philippi, “I hope there to send him as soon as I see . . .” (Philippians 2:23 NRSV). Karl Barth’s view of the apokatastasis is of the second sort, as in these words from Church Dogmatics IV/3/1: “We are surely commanded to hope and to pray . . . cautiously yet distinctly that. . . His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off forever.” (Lamentations 3:22f, 31) [478].  Of course this “universal reconciliation”is not a doctrine for Barth as is too often charged. He explicitly denies that: “No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (477) It is not “an article of faith” but rather an “article of hope” in the second sense of that word. . . .

Of course it is an awkward position, violating the canons of Aristotelian logic. If all the world takes part in Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, as Barth argues, how can it be that everyone is not saved? The logic of Barth’s theology runs up against the firmness of his commitment to the divine sovereignty. At the end of the day, our rational standards are not the last word. Who is Aristotle to tell the majestic God what to do? At work here is a Reformed stress on the divine freedom that trumps our human logic.

So in the end we hope and pray for the salvation of the world, for what Fackre calls a “universal homecoming,” not because we cling to a doctrine of universalism, but because of the God of Holy Love whom we know in Jesus Christ.

“He descended into Hell.” Ruminations on the Work of Christ between Good Friday and Easter

One of the most problematic phrases in the Apostles’ Creed for many people today is the assertion that Jesus “descended into Hell” (descenit ad inferos in the original Latin.)

Some congregations just omit it, others alter it. Some say he descended “to the dead, ”which seems to me to be redundant after we have just said, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The United Methodist Church omits it altogether. It doesn’t appear at all in the Nicene Creed, although there is a long tradition of iconography in the Eastern Church of the “Descent into Hell.” The Athanasian Creed contains it.

For this post I am going to skirt the complex question of what the term “hell” even means.  For many believers today the phrase means nothing more that the agony of Jesus’ death on the Cross, a metaphorical Hell. It was certainly at least that. I think it is means more.

It must be admitted that the Scriptural evidence is slender. Among the texts used are: Ephesians 4:7-10., 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6. None of them are without ambiguity.

But the belief that Jesus descended into Hell is an early one in the church. A creed from Syria in the Third Century says that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate and departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead.”

The early doctrine based on this phrase is “The Harrowing of Hell,” attested to by several of the early important Church Fathers, including Tertullian, Origen, and Hippolytus. Later Ambrose of Milan (who may have been the principle author of the Apostles Creed) refers to it.

The thrust of the doctrine can perhaps best be stated by the current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church which asserts: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.”

Since I generally operate out of what I call “a hermeneutic of trust” for both Scripture and the ancient traditions of the church, the first questions I ask are why is it there? And what does it mean?

The obvious answer is that there are three days between the death of Jesus on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter. So where was he and what was he doing?

My answer to both those questions is a simple one.  It seems to me the descent into Hell functions theologically to show the scope of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Eastern icons often show the Resurrected Christ rising out of Hell dragging Adam and Eve with him, one with each hand.

Whether it is symbolized by this deliverance of our original forebears, the preaching to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or to all who died before the first Good Friday, his descent affirms that there is no place, even Hell, where Jesus’ saving work cannot go, no corner of the cosmos untouched by his atoning Cross. This reminds me of the words in Psalm 139, where the Psalmist asks God, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there? If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Vs. 7, 8.)

This is the love that will not let us go.  This is what Jesus died for.

To end this meditation I share an irreverent contemporary prose-poem sent to me from a friend of mine, which imagines Jesus waking up in Hell:

Goodtime Jesus
by James Tate

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

Can Judas be saved? Ruminations on his role in the drama of Redemption.

Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles, and the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has become a byword in English for a betrayer.

None of us is a stranger to betrayal.  It is a particularly painful experience because it comes at the hand of someone we trusted; someone we thought would look out for us;  someone we loved, and believed loved us.  We must consider that one of the sufferings that constitute Jesus’ passion must have been that he was betrayed by one of his close friends, a member of his inner circle.

For my Holy Week devotions this year I have been reading At The Cross:  Meditations on People Who Were There by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart (IVP, 1999), two fine scholars from the University of St Andrews.  I highly recommend it.

Their meditation on Judas is particularly insightful.  Although they admit that Judas’ deed was a dark one (“there is no getting Judas off the hook”), they assert the paradox that his betrayal was a necessary act:  “The structure of the Gospel plot demands it.”

And it is quite true that Jesus speaks repeatedly, not only that he will experience death, but that he will “be given up” to death.  So Judas is the instrument of that happening, and therefore an important player in the narrative of the passion, what I like to call “the drama of redemption.”

But though Judas plays his part in the drama, the Christian tradition has pretty consistently painted him to be an utterly despicable character. I have been ruminating on this, since it raises many questions, some of which I will leave to others to address.

But with the help of Bauckham and Hart, I have two thoughts to share about his role.

The first is Judas’ solidarity with all of humanity.   We are all, to some degree or another, betrayers.  There are the big betrayals, of course, like marital infidelity or financial shenanigans like the recent ones by Bernie Madoff.  But there are also the little daily betrayals where we break trust with those we love and care for, and in this case Judas is not so different from all of us.  His sin is different in degree and not in kind.

My second thought follows from the first, and that is whether Judas can be saved?  The Christian tradition has generally said no.  Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of Karl Barth’s alleged universalism, but I believe in a God whose mercy is so vast that there might be a place for Judas in it.

I don’t make the move to dogmatic universalism, because the separating of the “sheep from the goats” is God’s job and not mine. I think I have also been influenced by a fine dissertation I read this summer by Jason Goroncy, in which he asserts convincingly that the trajectory of P. T. Forsyth’s theology should (but doesn’t) lead him toward dogmatic universalism, a belief that all will ultimately be saved.  I still don’t know whether I am there yet, but I have been ruminating about the “love that will not let me go.”  As a theologian of the cross and the atonement I would be the last to limit its power and scope.  Who can say where the saving work of Jesus Christ ends?

Is this another scandal of the cross?  It just might be.  Have you noticed that in many of our theological discussions about who is in and who is out with God, we naturally gravitate toward the extreme cases: Hitler, Stalin, and, of course, Judas.  This lets us off the hook.  But it shouldn’t.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

One of the most powerful and poignant moments for me every Holy Week is when I come to the line in the passion hymn Herzliebster Jesu where the congregation sings, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”  That pretty much settles for me the ever vexing question of who killed Jesus.  Yes, the Romans, but they were stand-ins for all of humanity.  Still, from the cross Jesus forgives his murderers, and by extension, us.

So if I can be saved, can Judas be saved?  I am not the one to say, but I am intrigued by what Bauckham and Hart do in their meditation. They end with a poem that speaks to this very point, an “imaginative construal between Judas and Jesus in death, which ironically brought Judas much closer to his master than any of the other disciples, as they hung on their respective trees.”  I am reassured that I am not the only one who sometimes has to turn to a poet when the language of theology reaches its outer limit:

The  Ballad of the Judas Tree

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time
I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first


These mediations are particularly significant to me since they were developed for a Good Friday service at St. Andrew’s, St. Andrews, Scotland, very near to where we lived, and where we sometimes worshipped, during our sojourn there in the Spring and Summer of 1995.  Alas, we left a year too early to hear them there, as they were done in 1996 and 1997.

(At The Cross:  Meditations on People Who Were Thereby Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, InterVarsity Press, 1999)