And finally… notes from the fourth and last talk at the one-day Spurgeon’s conference on universalism, given by Spurgeon’s principal Nigel Wright:
German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann (born 1926) is a clear universalist. In his 1996 book The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology there is a chapter titled ‘The restoration of all things’.
In this chapter JM discusses (and disputes) the ‘double outcome’ of salvation – eternal life for some, eternal death for others. He believes that final judgement was originally conceived as a hope for the losers of history. Since Constantine though, the model of judgement has been based on the imperial tribunal as a means of distressing conscience to awaken the need for salvation. The promise of judgement was therefore transformed from a liberating hope to a threatening fearful idea.
It’s a question of the nature of God – do we conceive God as a being who goes with all created beings into death and resurrection etc, or one who stands against them? And how can God condemn creatures in themselves rather than condemning the evil they’ve done? JM believes that eternal damnation goes against the revelation of God in Christ.
In history of theology, we have Origen’s universalist apocatastasis supplanted by Augustine’s view that only a few would be redeemed. Universalism re-emerged in the 16th-17th centuries, not out of anabaptism/liberalism but out of pietism (F.C. Ertinger?). The idea that emerges is that there is a final judgement and hell but they are limited, and everything serves only the purpose of God’s eternal kingdom.
In the 19th century K. Blumhardt made a confession of universal hope. Emile Brunner disputed this, saying that scripture unanimously taught the ‘double outcome’. Universalism was a premature attempt to harmonise conflicting positions which scripture left open/untied: the idea that it’s possible to be lost needs to be kept, but it’s equally necessary that the providence of God will set all things right. Both need to be held together. (And the mystery of the origin of evil and its end are alike hidden from us.)
Moltmann comes at this position and is not satisfied by it. Salvation limited by a person’s faith rather than God makes humans the final power. The other side is that God can save all but only saves a few. Neither are acceptable to Moltmann.
Moltmann gives an overview of the biblical material and sees that there are things to be said on both sides (eternal damnation and universalism). It comes down to which side of the discussion you see as having priority.
The key issue is what does ‘eternal’ mean? To JM, it’s time without a fixed end – indefinite but not infinite. Only God (and his kingdom) is eternal. Salvation and damnation are not symmetrical. Hellfire is purifying and corrective. Damnation belongs to the End Time – it is penultimate not ultimate (ultimate is when God makes all things new).
(However, he acknowledges that human decision is serious and meaningful, and potentially final. So the universalist perspective is a possibility but not definite?)
JM speaks against the ‘double outcome’. Wrath is God’s temporal mode against sin, whereas his grace is everlasting. (Wrath and judgement are his loving anger against what harms and destroys that which he loves.)
Universalism is therefore an expression of confidence in the boundlessness of God’s grace; whereas damnation is over-confidence in human will. If God is for us, even we cannot be against us!
Moltman and the doctrine of election
Double predestination – idea that in both salvation and damnation God’s glory would prevail. JM thinks this comes from an Aristotelian love of symmetry rather than from scripture
Hypothetical universalism (‘Amiraldianism’?) – conditional election dependent on faith. God’s intention is universal but people can accept or reject (very similar to Arminianism).
True universalism (Schleiermacher) – the particular election of Israel is the means to the universal end of salvation for all.
Barthian – in Christ all humans are elect. Humans are ontologically redeemed through Christ but this has to be actualised by the Spirit. So in principle salvation is universal but it’s not for us to set limits on this. Barth sees others as ‘Christians in hope’ or ‘not yet Christians’.
Moltmann is closest to Barth but goes beyond Barth in affirming the final salvation of all – any alternative is inconceivable for him. The cross of Christ is the foundation of Universal Hope. He’s clear that his doctrine doesn’t deny or lessen death and hell. Christ suffered the true and total hell of God-forsakenness and experienced the true and toal damnation of sin. Hell is not a place but an existential experience. In enduring it on our behalf he consumed or took it up into himself and swallowed it up. Universalism is therefore not cheap grace – it’s the costliest thing God can give. “All will be liberated through transformation” (including the devil).
NB Moltmann would have said he was ‘evangelisch’, a true Protestant.
So universalism is an option for evangelicals, in that some evangelicals choose it. It’s also possible to believe in universalism for evangelical reasons. Universalist theology re-emerged from pietism, and evangelicalism is indebted to both puritanism and pietism. Universalism places reliance/emphasis on God’s sovereignty and his desire to save. In Barth, double predestination becomes good news not bad news, understood as fulfilled in Christ as both the elect and reprobate.
Moltmann’s theology is of boundless hope in God – it’s better to put your hope in God than humans. It is cross-centric with a robust substitutionary view of atonement, and does not underplay God’s wrath or judgement. This universalism then is not a capitulation to liberal theology.
Salvation is not automatic nor compelled; it requires relationship. So how can we imagine the continuing search for God after death? Moltmann says little about this.
Is it helpful to be as dogmatic about salvation as Moltmann and Robin Parry? Robin’s idea of ‘non-dogmatic dogmatic universalism’ is helpful – i.e. universalism that is rooted in scripture but with an acknowledgement that it may be a wrong interpretation. It could well be for a good reason that the biblical record is diverse; perhaps we don’t need to and aren’t meant to close the circle. Perhaps it’s better to live in the tension: “Scripture is given not to give us answers but to give us a narrative context in which to live”. It stops short of definite answers on this subject. There are huge grounds for a greater hope – that “all shall be well”. But we cannot and should not be too definite about it.
That finishes off most of my notes from the day, barring a couple of Q&A sessions and a dialogue between Robin Parry and Derek Tidball in which Robin was able to respond amicably to some of the points from Derek’s talk.
One of the other interesting points made by Robin was from a Calvinist friend who defends eternal conscious torment but who said “if you don’t want universalism to be true there must be something wrong (even psychopathic) with you”.
Overall it was a fascinating and stimulating day. I didn’t come out entirely convinced by dogmatic universalism, but I thought the case for the universalist side was made surprisingly well. At the moment I’m closest to Nigel Wright’s position that we’re best off not trying to close the logical circle that the Bible leaves open, and that there are good grounds for hope about universal salvation but not for certainty.