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Small group discussion guide
Discussion groups might wish to prepare their own topics, request topics from the group, use the following suggested topics, or mix and match all three.
1. If the Bible allows for the hope that everyone will be saved, why do you think so many Christians deny this possibility?
2. Dr. Parry stated that Christ died and was raised for “all humanity.” Please share your thoughts.
3. How do you understand, “Everything that went wrong in Adam was put right in Christ”?
4. It was asserted that, “There is no sin that God can’t deal with in Christ.” Please comment.
5. How do you view the claim that “eschatological judgment is not a point of no return”?
6. Do you share the view that we all have the capacity to be like Hitler? Why or why not?
7. How would you explain God’s wrath and judgment being bound up in his love and grace?
8. Dr. Parry said the traditional view of hell “doesn’t work.” What are your thoughts on this?
A few simple guidelines for leading a discussion: 1) Encourage open discussion. 2) Ask questions relevant to the topic. 3) Listen attentively. 4) Encourage divergent views. 5) Encourage everyone to participate. 6) Summarize and paraphrase. 7) Minimize teaching and preaching.
Introduction: This special edition of You’re Included comes to you from the city of St. Andrews, Scotland. The University of St. Andrews, founded in 1413, is the oldest university in Scotland and one of the oldest in the English-speaking world. In its 600-year history, the university has established a reputation as one of Europe’s leading centers for teaching and research. St. Mary’s College, the university’s divinity school, was founded in 1539. The school is still housed in its original 16th century buildings. Join us now in St. Mary’s College Hall as J. Michael Feazell, Vice-President of Grace Communion International, interviews Robin Parry. Dr. Parry is Theological Books Editor with Wipf and Stock Publishers. His published works include Worshiping Trinity, Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics, and, most recently, Lamentations.
J. Michael Feazell: Does the Bible give place to the possibility that God would ultimately be successful in drawing absolutely everybody to faith in Christ?
Robin Parry: Most Christians would answer that unequivocally no, but I’m a little unusual in that regard. I think the Bible provides good grounds for hope that indeed God will achieve his purpose of saving all people. I’m a little out on a limb here, although it is a Christian tradition with a noble heritage even though it’s been a minority sport through the years, and it’s a Christian tradition rooted in both Scripture and in the gospel itself.
I’m not suggesting it’s something that if you’re an orthodox Christian you have to believe this (I would never be so bold or arrogant to suggest that) but I do think the idea that God will save all people through Christ is neither heretical, nor dodgy, nor unbiblical. The idea grows out of a deep Christian instinct grounded in fundamental orthodox Christian beliefs. We believe that God created all things, and that God created all things good, and that God purposes good things for his creation. We believe that Christ becomes incarnate as a representative man not just for some people but for humanity. He stands before God as High Priest as a human in our place, as the God-man — that comes out brilliantly in the work of T.F. Torrance.
Most Christians (not all) believe that Christ not only came to represent all people before God in his life, but also in his death, and that when Christ dies, he dies on behalf of all humanity. There are various scriptures that do that, and some Christian traditions would deny it, but it seems clearly the teaching of Scripture, and it is the teaching of the majority of Christians. So already there is a deep orthodox instinct that God has purposes. God takes no delight in the death of anyone. God’s purpose, God’s wants, God’s heart is for the salvation of all, and it’s precisely for that purpose that he sends Christ to stand before God on behalf of all to die on behalf of all, and not simply to die but to be raised on behalf of all.
The question is, in one sense, salvation for the whole of humanity and the whole creation is not something that in Scripture we even hope God might do, but it is something that in the person of Christ himself, God has already achieved. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, that is already done in the past, the salvation of all humanity and all creation following from that in our place, in our representative, in our Messiah. The Holy Spirit is working in creation by uniting people to Christ through faith and baptism and joining our lives to Christ so that we can participate in the salvation that’s already achieved in Christ and in the Messiah.
My conviction is that what God intends to do and what God achieves in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, God will do by eventually bringing all people to faith in Christ, and with them being united to him. I’m not wanting to suggest…often people say this, “You think everyone will be saved. Does that mean all roads lead to God? Or does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do because we’re going to be saved anyway, or we can go and sin…let’s do all those things we want to do that are bad. We can do them because it doesn’t matter, because we’re going to go to heaven anyway, so what difference does it make?” I’m not saying any of that. I don’t think all roads lead to God. I think the only way to God is through Christ. The only way to salvation is through union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. There isn’t another option, so I’m not suggesting something that’s not Christ-centered or gospel focused or about the cross and resurrection.
In some senses Calvinists are right and in some senses Arminians are right, the way I try to hold things together. Calvinists have this strong sense that God is sovereign, God will not fail in achieving his purposes. What God sets out to do, in the end, God will achieve it and God wins. That’s absolutely right, and God intends to save humanity, and that’s precisely what he’s going to do. The Arminian on the other hand says we believe God loves everyone. We believe God wants to save everyone…of course, because of creature’s free will, God sadly won’t be able to achieve his purposes, but that’s what he wants to do and that’s what he tries to do through Christ. The Calvinist says, no, if God wanted to do that he could. If God wanted to save everyone he could. If God wanted Jesus to die for everyone he’d have done that, but that’s not what happened.
I want to say the Arminians are right — God loves everyone, God wants to save everyone, Christ died for everyone. The Calvinist is right in saying God will get his purposes done, God will achieve his purposes.
Christians have always been forced into this, because we feel that some people have to end up in hell forever — that’s been our unshakeable conviction. If that’s what you start with, you’re going to have to sacrifice something else. You’re going to either have to say, as many Christians do, God could save them but he didn’t want to, or you’re going to have to say, he does want to but he can’t, because somehow they throw a spanner [a wrench] in the works or something.
In 1 Corinthians 15 you have this wonderful text, “As in Adam all will die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” In Romans 5, Paul has a similar thing comparing Adam and Christ. He’s saying everything that goes wrong in Adam gets put right in Christ. “And where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” There’s nothing that sin can do to deface God’s creation that grace in Christ cannot put right. There’s no depths that sin can go to or human depravity can go to, but that the grace of God in Christ and the death and burial of Christ can’t go deeper. There’s no sin that God can’t deal with in Christ. The end of the story is resurrection, it’s the empty tomb, it’s not Golgotha. It’s the triumph of grace.
My worry with some theology is it sounds like people are saying, where sin abounds, grace abounds a little bit. Where sin abounds, what sin does, grace undoes some of it. Paul is much more robust than this. He says, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” There’s nothing that goes wrong in Adam that isn’t restored in Christ and more.
It’s not just about finding proof texts, as often the discussion degenerates — look how many texts I’ve got. “I’ve got all these hell texts.” “Oh, I’ve got all these universalist texts.” We need a way of turning the biblical story from creation through the new creation in a way that tries to do justice to the whole, and I want to do justice to the texts about hell. I can say something about it in a minute. There’s justice to the whole story that tells the story in a way where the ending of the story makes sense — where the ending of the story gets you where God wants to go and where God’s already gotten in Christ.
I think the universalist end to the story makes sense of this. We see this in Colossians 1, in the lovely Christ hymn where it says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by him all things were created.” In case we’re wondering what “all things” are, he says, “All things in heaven and on earth and visible and invisible,” he covers the ground. Everything.
JMF: Why else go that far to say it that way?
RP: Exactly. He’s says everything was created by him, for him, through him. Then in verse 20 he says, “And through him God has reconciled all things to himself, making peace through the blood shed on the cross.” What are the “all things,” reconciling all things? We know what the “all things” are because he just told us “all things” means everything. He said everything in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, everything made through Christ was reconciled in Christ, making peace through the blood shed on the cross. To me that’s about as universalist as you can get, and it’s Christo-centric, it’s gospel-focused, it’s cross-focused, it’s about a work of God already achieved in Christ.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s no need for a response. He says, you too, you were reconciled when you first came to Christ, and so they’re participating in this. We see it in 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He’s given us the message of reconciliation, so be reconciled to God. There’s this imperative. God’s done this in Christ, he’s reconciled the world to himself and we’ve got a message now, we proclaim what God has done in Christ. There’s a call that people need to participate in that, to be reconciled. Not through doing something themselves, but through coming to throw themselves on the mercy of God, to trust him, to put their trust in the grace of God and through the Spirit be united to join their lives with Christ in faith and in baptism.
In Colossians we have this thing that runs from creation through the cross to new creation, and it’s a way of telling this biblical story that the story ends in the way you think that’s right, that’s the way it should end. If you say the story ends where some people are suffering forever and ever and there’s no possibility of redemption for them, you think (and this is for me, as I ask this question, I’m not suggesting this is what all Christians think, because it’s not what most Christians think), How is that an ending that makes sense to the story? It seems out of place. Is God’s love somehow deficient or is his power somehow deficient or is the cross somehow deficient? What’s gone wrong, how has it gone wrong to end up like this?
I want to find a way to say, How can we do justice to what the Bible says about hell, given that kind of framework, because the Bible speaks clearly about it, and Jesus speaks clearly about it. If we’re going to be those who, rather than say this is what I’d like to think God is like, and make God in our own image, we have to respond to revelation. We have to say these texts are important, and we need to do justice to them in our theology.
Why assume that hell is a place from which there is no redemption? Why is this unwritten rule that if you go to hell, that’s it, there’s no exit, even if you repent, even if you throw yourself on the mercy of God, even if you put your faith in Christ? – that’s it, tough.
There are biblical grounds for seeing that there is an eschatological judgment and some people will experience it, but it is not a point of no return. I think this comes out nicely in the book of Revelation, where you have the two most ferocious hell texts in the Bible. In chapter 14 we have the smoke of their torment ascending forever and ever, and in chapter 21, you’ve got the lake of fire and sulfur. It’s where all the medieval images of what people imagine hell is like comes from, this very graphic imagery, which is drawing on Old Testament imagery.
What’s amazing is that both of these texts, when you read them in context, are chronologically followed by a picture of the redemption of the very nations who have it’s just been said that the smoke of their torment arises or that they’re in the lake of fire. In chapter 15 we have this (like an epilogue) where the redeemed are standing on the lake of fire. They talk about all “the nations.” (In Revelation, the nations are always the baddies. The church are never called the nations, the church are those who are called out from the nations, and they’re always distinguished from the nations.) But all the nations will come and worship you, it says [Revelation 15:4]. But hold on a minute, they’ve just been chucked into the lake of fire.
It’s clearer in chapter 21, where we see the kings of the earth (also always baddies in Revelation). The kings of the earth are thrown into the lake of fire, the nations are slain by this Messiah, Jesus. He comes back with a sword from his mouth and they are destroyed [Revelation 19:19-21]. They’ve had it, this judgment. But then we read in chapter 21, we see this image of the new Jerusalem and the gates are always open and the kings of the earth and the nations are bringing their treasures in [Revelation 21:24]. You’re thinking, hold on a minute, they’re the guys that have just been there in the lake of fire – what are they doing here?
But the doors are open, and I argue (in a book I wrote) that they’re coming, being redeemed and washed in the blood of the Lamb and coming out of that into redemption after death, a sort of post-mortem union with Christ. So in the end, God will “be all in all,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 [verse 28]. That’s the sort of destiny I envisage and which inspires me with hope when I see a lot of the really terrible things that happen in the world, but in Christ God has redeemed. In the end, God will bring about, for the whole creation…what he’s already done for creation in Christ.
JMF: What about the passage (in Acts 2, I think it is) where in Peter’s sermon it’s talking about the times of refreshing, times of restitution of all things? A lot of times people raise the issue of, does God love Adolf Hitler, does God love Mussolini? They can’t comprehend that somebody who was that destructive of other people could possibly be saved, and so the person themselves is decided. But it would seem that once everything is restored, everything that Hitler may have taken away from anyone is resolved, restored in the way that it would be in the age to come…the life is back, the ability of the people who were destroyed by someone like Adolf Hitler… (Well, it could be anybody. You have people go wild and kill a family, you know?) Their ability to forgive would be resolved as well, and we’re redeemed and made immortal and enter the fullness of the kingdom — ability to forgive would be not a question anymore.
RP: Yes. People often raise the Hitler thing because Hitler’s crimes are so terrible. They become emblematic.
Salvation never trivializes sin. In the cross, God saves us through the cross, and on the cross sin is not trivialized or passed over or ignored. We see the horror of sin for what it is, exposed — and that is our sins as well as Hitler’s. But if we’re Christians and we understand something of the grace of God…(I sometimes wonder if Christians raise the Hitler thing I think, Do you think you deserve to be saved? Hitler doesn’t deserve to be saved, it would be wrong for him…but you’re okay, it’s all right if God saves you, that doesn’t require too much grace “because I wasn’t really that bad.” I think it betrays a failure to understand God’s grace, God’s love, but also the transforming power of Christ in the Spirit.)
I do think God loved Hitler, because Hitler was a human being made in the image of God and terribly broken and warped and evil – but not so broken that he can’t be restored in Christ, not so evil that God can’t change him by the Holy Spirit. No sin is that deep or that big that it can’t be restored in Christ, and no person is that broken that they can’t be restored in Christ. The same grace of God that saved you and me is the same grace of God that can save someone like that and enable a reconciliation to take place. Hitler would have to experience remorse, regret, repentance and all of that, but I don’t see how it can be a Christian instinct that it would be somehow appropriate for God to save me but not Hitler.
JMF: Two things come into play. Some people feel a sense that whatever someone has done, they need to be punished at least enough to experience what they perpetrated on somebody else, and that’s their sense of fairness. Others feel a sense of needing vengeance, needing a sense of justice or whatever. It has always struck me that we don’t appreciate the fact that, at least what I think is a fact, that we all have in us to be exactly like Hitler, given the opportunity, given the circumstances, given the power, the authority to wreak some sort of vengeance or justice on people that we don’t like, that we feel are in our way, we feel that are a drag on society or whatever, and everybody has their different views of who that might be. I think within our hearts we feel that from time to time.
If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, if we had the opportunity and a council around us that said that’s the right thing to do, that’s what we need to do to further society or whatever, we all have it in us to react that way. We do react that way for a moment with our own families; with people we care about, we can have a moment of anger that reflects what’s in our heart. We all need a redemption from that kind of thing. To single out an individual who is notorious and then say, “I could never be like that,” I think is naive and silly on our parts.
RP: That’s one thing that’s scary about those psychological experiments with electric shocks. It was set up where somebody pretended to be in the chair receiving electric shocks when, in fact, they were an actor, they weren’t [receiving shocks] at all. The psychologist would invite someone to control the levels of electricity. Whenever the person in the chair got an answer to the question wrong, the participant had to administer an electric shock to them. Each time they got it wrong, they turned the shock up. There was no electricity at all, but they didn’t know that.
What they found is if the scientist told the person, “It’s okay, they might be screaming and make a lot of noise, but they’ll be fine, just keep doing it,” the number of people who were willing to administer lethal electric shocks was very disturbing. This was research done on the back of “Why was it that apparently decent, good German guards would be prepared to participate in the Holocaust just because they were told to by people they trusted?” It’s scary to realize some of the things that we might be prepared to do in certain circumstances.
JMF: We’ve never faced the circumstances, so how do we know how we would respond? The point is that we need redemption as much as the next person. It’s no surprise that Christ came for all of us. We all need redemption, we’re all capable of that. Sin is sin. I’ve never seen that as a good argument even though you could understand it, especially if you’re a victim of someone.
RP: Sure. There are arguments against the view that I take, and I sympathize with some of them. It’s not the mainstream historic tradition. The most spiritual Christians in our history, most of them have believed in traditional views of hell, and the best theologians in our tradition, most of those have believed in traditional views of hell, and I acknowledge that. I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that if you believe in a traditional understanding of hell you’re careless or you’re corrupt or anything of the sort. I just think the traditional understanding of hell is one that creates tensions within a traditional Christian theology of the doctrine of God that are problematic.
Often people will go, “You need to understand that God is loving, but he’s also just.” Then they give me that knowing look, as if somehow I’m wanting to say God’s loving, but he’s not just. He’s loving but he doesn’t punish people. That’s so wrong-headed to me because God hasn’t got two sides in there — sometimes I do loving things and sometimes I do just things. Everything that God does is motivated by the holy love of God. Everything that God does is just. Everything that God does is loving.
If God could do things that were just but not loving, as is being implied, hell is God being just but it’s not God being loving. I think, hold on here, if everything God does is motivated by the holy love of this God who is an integrated God, he’s not schizophrenic or something…you need to give an account of hell where you can say this is something that would be done by a holy and loving God. This action of sending someone to hell is an action that is consistent not just with God’s justice but also with God’s love.
It’s not that I have some sentimental view of love. I seek to have a biblical view of love. I have an understanding of love that is based around how God has revealed his love to us in Christ — what the cross is about and this story that’s stretching the notion, and shaping the notion of what God’s love is like, around creation and redemption. How can it be the case that God is love, if some of the things he does are “just” but not loving? It has to be loving. If it’s eternal torment with no hope of redemption, how is that loving? It becomes a problem. How is that an act of God, the holy, loving God?
JMF: I guess it depends on one’s definition of love. I attended a lecture by a noted American theologian on this topic of God’s justice. Someone asked the question, “How can I enjoy heaven if I’m looking at my loved ones writhing in hell?” He said, “If you understood God’s holy love, you would know that God’s love is consistent with that. He enjoys the destruction of his enemies, and you will enjoy it as well. That is how God’s love is, and you will experience God’s love that way, too.”
RP: That’s a very dehumanizing theology. What kind of human being is that shaping you to be?
JMF: God has created us with a sense of love that wars against such nonsense.
RP: Exactly. It’s a repulsive notion. But it comes out of a desire to submit to revelation, and I can respect that.
JMF: Yeah, a desire to uphold the sovereignty of God.
RP: Yeah. But you end up with a theology which is shaping humans where what it is to be fully human and fully redeemed is that we would be able to look at people suffering in excruciating pain and rejoice in it.
JMF: It takes a logical definition of how God must be and then it takes, by logic, in order to safeguard the sovereignty, and discards all sense of love that’s found in Scripture and turns it on its head to fit that. He went on to say, “You have to understand that God is an infinite God and that a sin against God therefore is an infinite sin, and infinite sin requires an infinite punishment, and it’s only fair and just.” I thought a third grader would not reason in such nonsense! How can a sin from a human being who is not infinite be infinite? Nothing about a human being is infinite — so you’re going to say a human sin is infinite? That doesn’t make sense.
RP: You’re greatly overestimating human capacities there. I’ve argued at some length against that argument in my book, The Evangelical Universalist. If God is shaping us to be more loving, more sensitive to the pain of others, then you would think that the combination of redemption…when we’re fully redeemed and so on, we would see the suffering of others and experience it with sorrow. This is how you see God responding to the suffering, even the suffering that God himself inflicts. In the book of Jeremiah, for instance, God punishes Israel for their sin, and yet several times we see God lamenting over the suffering of the people. You don’t see God going, “This is deserved and it’s just, and so I rejoice in it.”
RP: It might be deserved and it might be just, but God’s not rejoicing in it. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked, as Ezekiel says. It paints a vision of God, God somehow rejoicing in this and so we should be rejoicing in this. We will be standing there looking at maybe our children who have turned away from the Lord, suffering, and we will praise God, “Yes, this is glorious.” Something inside of most people is repelled by that.
RP: I think that’s a deep Christian instinct based on a Christian understanding of what love is and what it is to be a human and what it is for God to be God and God to be loving. It’s not just sentimentalism.
JMF: Hosea 11, “My heart recoils within me, how can I give you up?” In the face of the punishment, God can’t even endure watching it, so he reverses it. He says to us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.” What is this, something he will not, cannot do? It makes no sense.
RP: Which is a problem. This is an argument that an 18th century Baptist preacher called Elhanan Winchester, a revivalist during the latter part of the 18th century who also happened to be a universalist, so he was quite unusual. He employed this argument. He says, “Are we saying that God is calling us to do things that he himself doesn’t do? He’s calling us to love our enemies, but he doesn’t do that. He’s calling us to pray for the lost with hope for their salvation, but he doesn’t, because he knows they’re not going to be saved, so he’s got no hope for their salvation. Is God requiring us to do things that he doesn’t do?”
It’s problematic. There are all sorts of problems … What got me into this was I read William Lane Craig’s book, Only Wise God. William Craig is a brilliant evangelical philosopher. He was talking about a way in which it might be possible, it’s controversial, as to how God could be sovereign and humans could have free will, understood in this sort of libertarian sense of being able to do something or not do it. I thought, that’s amazing. God can allow us freedom, and get his will done. Then almost immediately, this was years ago, I thought, “but then why does anyone end up in hell forever, because if God could get his will done as well as allowing us our freedom, how does that work?”
He [William Craig] has some attempt to argue how it is that God can allow some people to be in hell, and, to my horror (because I really wanted to believe in the traditional view of hell), it didn’t work! I thought, “I am not at all persuaded by this.” That really unnerved me, because at the time I thought, “I know that the Bible says that some people will be in hell forever.” I thought that was a given, and not open for question. That then started me on a search, have I understood the Bible right? Haven’t I?
I began searching for a few years trying to think it through, and I came to conclusions which were different from most Christians, but in a sense I want to say, “Look, what I believe is orthodox. It’s consistent with everything in the Creeds, it comes out of the evangel, it’s gospel-focused, it grows out of a reflection on the cross, it’s Christ-centered, it’s Trinitarian, it affirms the inspiration of Scripture, and it tries to do justice to a whole load of texts, including hell texts. It is not, in terms of orthodox Christianity, heretical, although it might be fringe. I want to argue this is a view that should be tolerated as a possible expression of orthodox Christianity.
JMF: I would add that even if some people do hold out and never respond to God’s love, God’s love is no less what it is for them, and the Scripture makes plain what God’s heart is and his desire is, even if he does allow someone to hold out (which I have to struggle with, even though I have to allow it, because I don’t know), but I do know God’s heart because he reveals it, and I know that he’s awfully good at what he does.
JMF: Anyway, thank you so much for being with us.
RP: Thank you.
JMF: We appreciate it very much.
Editor’s note: Grace Communion International does not teach universalism. Our website contains this statement:
In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect, but that does not necessarily mean that all humans will ultimately accept God’s free gift. God desires that all come to repentance, and he has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship with him, but true fellowship can never constitute a forced relationship. We believe that in Christ, God makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have yet believed the gospel, but all who remain hostile to God remain unsaved by their own choice.
For more details, see the article at https://www.gci.org/gospel/universalism.