Note: Can I Say This at Church is produced for audio listening. If able, I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which has inflection, emotion, sarcasm where applicable, and emphasis for points that may not come across well in written word. This transcript is generated using a combination of my ears and software, and may contain errors. Please check the episode for clarity before quoting in print.
Hey there, and welcome to the Can I say this at church podcast? My name is Seth, I'm your host. And
I have a topic for you today that Well, we decided just to go all in the first episode and discuss something that's ultimately going to happen to maybe all of us and that topic would be hell. What happens when we die? What happens with our relationship with God and Jesus when we die? And ultimately, what does that salvation look like?
This conversation was a pleasure to have. And I must say that I learned a lot with our guest. some background on him before I introduce him, He completed his doctorate, underneath the supervision of Gordon Windham, and Craig Bartholomew. He was a sixth form college teacher, it was true in the UK, in 2001. He began his work in the publishing arena at Patternoster in 2005, published to work on the Trinity that was very important, and briefly after that, took a job at Wipf and Stock publishers where he currently resides. I am of course, speaking about Robin Parry, the author of his best known book, The Evangelical Universalist, which I can't recommend enough. And again, he wrote that under the pseudonym of Gregory McDonald.
So let's get into it.
Alright, so my, my guest today is Dr. Robin Parry. Would you prefer me call you Dr. Parry, Robin.
Robin Robin’s fine. I know that there will be many listeners that that might not be not only familiar with you, but some of your work, especially over here in the type of churches that I was raised in, so I was hoping we could start with a little bit of you just introducing yourself a bit.
Sure. Okay. So I became a Christian when I was almost 15, that was through a Methodist youth group. But very quickly, I became involved in evangelical one, very quickly, I became involved with evangelical charismatic churches that was around about 1987. And that's right through some kinda Baptist at times. But then in 2012, I became an Anglican and currently training for ordination as an Anglican priest. So I am evangelical, anglican, orthodox catholic, all with small letters to the Anglican, which is the one true Church of God. ;)
Seth Okay, fair enough. The Anglican Church, is that similar? I know they have an American version of that. Is that…
Robin the Church of England?
Seth So, in researching you a bit, you have a different take on hell, then, then what I was I was raised in and what I was led to believe, all the way up through university. And you referenced it a minute ago, your small “e” evangelical. And I know understand your view of Hell is a Universalist view of hell. So I was hoping you could break those two down because in my mind, evangelical, and the church that I was raised in and universalism don't really mesh well together. I was hoping you could kind of define this.
Robin Right? No, that's what I was told to. And so for many years, I didn't even consider the possibility of universalism. So maybe I should just explain what universalism is. What I mean by universalism is the view that in the end, God will save all people through Christ.
So it's very important to understand that this is God doing this, and he's doing it through Christ. So this isn't, “God will save you. It doesn't matter what Jesus came, it doesn't matter that Jesus died rose again, we go the same with any way because he's nice”.
It's not It's not that is the view that no matter how much sin wrecks creation needs to be dealt with, God has dealt with it in Christ, and what God has done in Jesus, and His death and resurrection and ascension is enough for the salvation of the world. So It's a sort of Christ centered attempt to explain how God will save everyone.
But of course, does that mean there isn't a hell? Well, no, it doesn't mean that way. It depends what you mean by hell. So the way I was taught hell, When I became a Christian, was that hell was eternal conscious torment. And after a few years, I became persuaded that the view that some people call annihilationism, was a better way of understanding scripture than eternal torment. Because the passages, there's a few passages, which looked like hell lasts forever, and you're suffering forever and ever. But as I read various biblical scholars who took different views, I began to think, you know, those passages on the surface in English, they look very clear. But when you look into them a bit more, they're not they're not actually a clear, and some of them can be read as suggesting annihilation.
So that's the view I took for several years, and I didn't even consider didn't cross my mind for a minute than anything else could be a possible way of reading scripture. But eventually, I went through an existential crisis, which is what raised the question for me, which was that I came to believe that God was able, if He wanted to, to save everybody, without violating their freedom, because Free Will was what I'd always used as the reason why God wouldn't save everybody. He wants to, in my non-Calvinist moments, in my non-Calvinist moments, I said, “God wants to save everybody. But, but he can't, but he can't force that on people or it wouldn't be love, you know, and if it's love, He wants us to freely choose. And if we freely choose not to them, it's up to us, and God can't make us”.
But I came to be persuaded that God of course, God doesn't make us, God doesn't compel us to do things that we don't want to do, well. Sometimes he might. But God can solicit our wills in such a way that we will freely choose to be saved, and God could do this, I came to believe and still do believe, for everybody. But I was also convinced that he wouldn't do that. And then I had a problem because I thought…
Ah, so God could, without violating their freedom, save everyone, but he's not gonna - he's gonna send them to hell instead. And that is quite difficult. So I wrestled with this. And then I came across Thomas Talbott, and I read his book. I came across him through William Lane Craig, who was criticizing him. And I thought, yes, I've got to find a good reason to disagree with this view. And the more I read, Craig's criticisms of Tom Talbott, but the more I became persuaded that they weren't very good responses, and that Thomas Talbott made a good case.
So I had to be persuaded as scripture said this and Talbott gave some, what I thought were, at least at face value quite plausible ways that the Bible actually can be read in a Universalist way without twisting it. But I wasn't persuaded. So I spent the next two years reading everything I could about all these difficult texts, and scripture and how it might fit together. And at the end of two years, I got to the point where I thought, you know, I really do think that God will save everyone through Christ is in fact, entirely consistent with Scripture.
And there are difficult text, but every view that anyone might take on this issue will come across difficult texts, and you have to find a way of dealing with that; and not pretending that it's all straightforward and obvious. And if everyone just read the text, straightforwardly, they see that my view is the right one, whatever, it's more complicated. So that was back in the late 1990s, that I came to that view. And, and, and have held it ever since.
Seth So in telling people that I was anticipating doing this podcast and rounding up people that would be willing to come on. When I told them about specifically this view of, I guess salvation or sanctification, or those are two different things, but you know what I mean, they kept peppering me with just rapid fire questioning, to defend something that I'm hundred percent certain. I don't know if I agree yet. I know, I can't believe in eternal conscious torment. But the other two I'm still wrestling with. And I found that I was ill prepared to defend that. And I've seen many of your other interviews that you do that. But I'd like to approach this a different way. So I've heard you say in the past that, that Christian universalism more fits in line with the Gospel of Jesus, as opposed to the other options. And so I'd love to hear your thoughts on how the to work well together.
Robin Yes. Okay. Before I do that, I just realized I didn't actually answer the question you asked me previously, which was hell, So and I didn't actually explain hell. So let me just say this for now. And then I'll proceed to answer the question you just asked…
So whatever Hell is, and we do have to have a place for hell, because let's call it hell for now. Hell, of course, is not a word that's in the Bible itself. I mean, you'll find it in various translations. And I'm okay with that. So long as you allow the text itself to explain what it means by Hell, rather than importing all the cultural baggage that the term was acquired over the centuries.
So The term itself isn't there. But the concept of some post-mortem, end time punishment for sin and sinners is definitely in Scripture. And So, whenever we say about universalism, we have to find the space for that and take that seriously. Jesus, as I'm often told, spoke more about this than anyone else in the New Testament. And Yes, that's true, He did. And that means we have to take it very seriously. And it has to have a place in our theology.
So the kind of universalism I seek to develop is not one that says there's no punishment after death, that there isn't a day of judgment that there isn't conscious suffering for sin, and so on. What I'm saying is, that can't be the end of the story. So in the way I think of this, If someone is goes to hell, If we want to use that language. That's not the end of their story. That's like the penultimate thing, there will be a redemption from hell after that.
So I have to try and make that case, which is what I try and do and book and various other things I've done. So I mean, there's a lot more that could be said about that. But what I would want to say is, there is a hell but it's not the end, penultimate. So the question you then ask is about the gospel. And why do I think that this, this view of mine arises from the Gospel?
So I suppose…it's because I all Christian theology, and all Christian interpretation of Scripture, is Christ focused. And the gospel, and for the early Christians, the rule of faith was the thing that you read scripture in the light of the rule of faith and what the rule of faith was, was simply the Apostolic story of Jesus, that God becomes flesh in the person of Christ. That He lives among us as, as our representative, perfect human being that he, that he dies for our sin, that he's raised by God from the dead and ascends to heaven. And God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the church, and so on.
So this story, this way of understanding Christ becomes the Center for the way they read Scripture. So This is the rule of faith, which is subsequently becomes the creeds that we know which has this trinitaryian and shape, and it's focused on Christ and the story of the gospel. The story of Christ coming, dying, rising again, and so on.
So if Christian theology is going to be really evangelical, it has to have the “Evangel” which is the gospel, at the heart. Now, I'm often told that it's presumptuous to say, oh, God will save everyone, because that's not to you to say that, you know, it's up to God to do that. But I think that actually God has said this, because this is what the Gospel story is about. If you think about it, most…Almost all Christians historically have been Universalist about certain things. We’re Universalist about the claim that everybody is made by God. Everybody without exception, we are Universalist about the claim that human beings are made universally in the image of God. And as such, they have … they’re orientated towards God, they find their fulfillment in God, they're created with a purpose; with a destiny, to find their completion in God.
So human beings have a direction, as it were, for which were create; something we were created for. What we were created for is for God. We are made by him, through him and for him. So this is what Christians believe about everybody. We also believe that everyone's a sinner, so we're Universalist about that. But we also believe, and the early church fathers were quite clear about this-and scriptures to, that Christ becomes a human on behalf of humanity.
He represents the whole world, Israel, but also the whole of humanity before God. And I think the New Testaments is quite clear,and most Christians in history; except some Calvinists, have said that Christ also died for everybody. So almost all Christians are Universalist about Christ's death in that it was sharing with the intention of redeeming or Christ's resurrection, also was the resurrection on behalf of all humanity. So he rises as our representative. And this is something that Paul develops in the New Testament, youu know, that in Christ, we rise because we share in his resurrection, is the resurrection of humanity. And in Him as we share in him by the Holy Spirit who joined him, we are raised, we are raised.
So all of this stuff is stuff that Christians are Universalist about. So what I'm saying is okay, In that case, what do we learn about the future of humanity, in the story of the cross and resurrection? We see, in the resurrection, that humanity, as a whole has been raised, and it's representative in Christ. And Christ's resurrection isn’t written small. It is the future of the world. It is the new creation, it is all things made new. So the new age has begun, because Christ has been raised. And because Christ has been raised, this is not just some quirky miracle.
Look what God can do, he can raise people from the dead, this is the future of humanity. So God has already redeemed all of humanity in Christ in the resurrection. So this when I say the gospel is Universalist, I mean, all of humanity is already redeemed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course, we don't all share in that yet, in our experience. And in fact, none of us do. None of us share in that in its fullness yet, because we haven't been resurrected, right? But we will be, we will share in his resurrection, that will come. It's not a full reality for us yet, but it'll come; and already by the Holy Spirit, those who are, part of the church who've been joined to Christ, through baptism by the Holy Spirit, are starting to participate in the age to come and are experiencing signs of this in breaking future in the present. So there's a sense in which all humanity is already saved. And that is what is declared in the Gospel. So I say it's an evangelical universalism, and it grows out of the gospel. in another sense, of course, none of us experienced that fully, some of us not much at all. But the but the faith we have is that God has already shown the future and has already committed himself in Christ and in the working of the Holy Spirit, to bring about that future. And so in the New Testament, we see when Paul anticipates, you know, what is the future. Creation is, it is the future that whole thing will be headed up under Christ the reconciliation of all things through the cross, which is Colossians 1, which is already a present reality.
If this is making any sense?
Seth It does.
Robin Okay. And it is God being All in all, which was a favorite verse of the early church Universalists because they were saying, look, if God is all in all, what does it mean for God to be all in any particular individual? If God is all in me, then all evil and all rebellion has to be eradicated, because if all the rebellion and sin in my heart hasn't been eradicated, God is not all in me.
But in the future, when God brings everything to a climax, God is going to be all in all, which means going to be everything in everyone.
Seth Right? And then eradicating evil and
Robin Eradicating all rebellion and evil.
So this comes back to the question…why do I think this is more of a gospel view than the alternative?
Okay, so let's think about three different views of hell, you've got hell as a torture chamber. And these are slightly caricatures. But hell is a torture chamber is like what we could call the traditional view, but it's not the traditional view. I mean, all these views go right back into the early church, but it's the one that's become the mainstream view, particularly in the West. So there's Hell is a torture chamber.
You've got hell as a sort of execution, electric chair, which is annihilation.
Then you've got hell as maybe some kind of nasty like chemotherapy, maybe. Whereby it's something that's unpleasant, but it's intended to bring about healing. So these are three different ways of thinking about hell.
Now, they've all got pros and cons, and all of them are analogies and need to be supplemented, and modify slightly. But, um, which one of these approaches is most gospel like?
So? How does God deal with sin? How does God want to deal with sin and deal with evil? What God punishes evil, because any evil is bad. God wants to eradicate evil from creation. So How does God do this? Well, what the Gospel says is that God does this by condemning sin, and the death of Christ, and in raising Christ from the dead.
So the gospel way of God dealing with sin is not through the destruction of sinners, so that they're wiped out, it is through the redemption of sin. Not simply forgiveness, but transformation. So that sinners needs to be sinners, and become holy people who in the life of God is is fully alive and full of the Spirit. So the gospel way of dealing with sin is through forgiveness, and through transformation through redemption. That's what the gospel is about, right? That's the gospel.
So I think universalism says, Yeah, and the gospel prevails for the whole of creation, the gospel prevails. Whereas If God ends up either torturing people forever, that's not the gospel way of dealing with sin. So that's saying God's got two ways of dealing with sin, the gospel way, and some other way, which is not gospel, or annihilating them, like electric chair-ing them.
Again, God hasn't healed creation, he's gotten rid of evil as a creation just by getting rid of the evil people. Right? Which is effective. But that's not gospel, because gospel heals people. gospel doesn't eradicate people, gospel heals people.
So I think what I'm suggesting is, if God has a gospel solution to sin and evil, we know what that is, it's healing and restoration and so on, even if it goes through a difficult and painful phases, and even if it's, everyone doesn't experience it in the same way at the same time, in the end. Anyway, hope that makes sense.
Seth It does. A minute ago, you said, you know, all three views that have had history, but at least in my worldview, and my bias, and the lens that I was I was given, is, it's implied that it's always been a eternal conscious torment. So when did that… I guess the history question is in the history of the church. When was that shift? Or why was that shift? And or why did we move away from from being at least open to having the option of not being tormented for forever?
Yeah, and that's it…the answer to that wouldn't be as straightforward and simple as overly complicated. And I don't think we really know all of the details to be able to answer that problem.
I mean, we can track that there were shifts. But even then, because our data is so sparse, it's very difficult to track shifts neatly. For individual thinkers, it's not always clear. And this dispute among scholars about “is this particular person an annihilationist, an eternal torment, or a universalist. I mean, there are some people for whom all views have been claimed. So it's not always clear with individuals, because sometimes they say things that seem to conflict with each other.
It is also not clear of course, what most ordinary Christians thought, because the data we have is just from a few. Some of those people, leaders and spokespeople and whatnot, and what did ordinary folk say?
The two people who are most associated with the view of eternal conscious torment, is Tertullian, and the second is St. Augustine, and both of them from North Africa.
St. Augustine is the guy who really popularized the view in the West. He argues at length in the, City of God, as to why he takes it. To be fair, and he feels the scripture requires it, although he's also quite clear that he doesn't speak Greek.
He likes Latin, he found Greek too difficult. And so you know, there are bits where he's, it's very obvious to him what the Bible means, but he's not actually reading in Greek.
That doesn't make much sense
Yeah, well…he was a bright fellow, Augustine. And so arguably, his understanding of original sin, which was based on Romans 5, a lot of it was based on a mistranslation in the Latin of the Greek. And so if you read it in the Greek, you may want to say it doesn't say what he took it to say.
Now, you might want to argue that still read the Greek text that way. And that's fine. And I think there's important discussion to be had there, but that's not what you're asking me then.
So you had these three views. And one of them was associated with Origen, who was loved by many and hated by others.
And quite why, by the sixth century, his views, some of the people who followed him, their views had become have increasingly weird. And so when their weird versions were condemned in the sixth century, people just assume that Origen himself had had those views. And so a lot of the views to do with universalism went away, which had been pretty mainstream, even great people like Gregory of Anissa, who was very orthodox and very involved, and Saith Athanasius; the core of Orthodoxy in the battle with areas and so on, these guys were arguably Universalists. But the point is, when the view had become associated with some really quirky people with some slightly strange views, they tended to think well, that must be what Origen thought and the whole thing became condemned by association.
That makes sense.
So I think that was some of it. Some of it was politics. Some of it was just people who became influential for other reasons and their views Came to dominate.
You've alluded to the Universalist view versus a Calvinist view. And in my mind that they both struggle with a similar problem in the point of, I guess…
I was raised mostly Calvinist, and I don't believe on that anymore. But in that view, I've always struggled with what is the point of me witnessing or or proselytizing the gospel if God just picks and choose, you know, duck duck burn? And then on the Universalist side, it seems like it doesn't matter as much. So I guess the question is, why would a modern Christian then continue to spread the Gospel? With either view, they seem to have a similar shortfall.
You right, the similar point can be made against both, so it always slightly calls me when Calvinists make it against Universalist. Because I think the Calvinist always made sense to me. When Calvinists have problems, but today, you go, Well, why would you evangelize? Because God's gonna save the elect anyway? And The answer is, well, this is how God says elect through the gospel, which God has chosen to do it through the preaching of the gospel.
That makes sense to me. So, I would say, why preach the gospel? Because that's how God saves people. You know, you say, well, I'll be saved in the end anyway, yeah, they'll be saved in the end through the gospel. So you got to preach it. And it might. And again, it depends. If you're a Calvinist Universalist, or an Armenian one, right? So all not all universalists are the same.
So if you're an Armenian Universalist and you're saying that God doesn't determine everything that happens,
Seth which could then
So that’s a …. that's a free will Universalist to say you're Armenian universalist?
Free will, yes. Although it's bit more complicated, because Calvinists, believe in free will too. They believe that free will is compatible with God's determining all our choices. And Armenians say, well, No, it's not. If God determines all our choices, then are free. So so for an Armenian, our choices are free, but they're not determined.
So if that's your view, then you can say…
“Well, look, people need to hear the gospel. And there’s going to be a whole bunch of people who are not going to be saved by the time they die and are going to go to hell who wouldn't have gone to hell if they'd heard the gospel before. So, in this view you’ve got an extra motive to preach it because you don't want people to go to hell.
Even if you think they're going to be saved anyway, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. You know, who cares?
Well, it's like Jeremiah going, “what the heck, it doesn't really matter if the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and, and all that, because God's gonna restore us after the exile anyway; so do what you like!”
That wasn't his attitude at all. He was desperate to persuade people not to go that route, because it would have been better if they hadn't gone that route. But, but they did. Even if it's the case that God restores them in the end.
So an Armenian Universalist would have those external motivations, a Calvinist, of course, wouldn't. A Calvinist Universalist would have to say we preach the gospel, because Christ commands us to because this is the means by which God saves people.
But those who do not respond before they die, that's because God ordained that they wouldn't. And you know, God ordained that they would be redeemed subsequently, after having had an time in hell. And then that's quite a difficult thing. But it's not as difficult as saying God would send them to hell and then they will not get out. That's even more than,
In your mind as you do things like this. And you know, you must discuss this with people all the time; what do you find, has been just the, and I'm asking this more for the people that will listen that don't like myself, haven't made their mind up.
What do you find is the strongest case against universalism? And it does not mean that's an endorsement of the other three, or the other two.
So the strongest case…well… I haven’t come will across very strong theological arguments against universalism. Because the strongest arguments against universalism would be taking a biblical texts, that on the face of it, look like “how can that be?”
When you say particular you mean just proof-texting?
Particular texts in the Bible was somebody would say, so for example, maybe Luke 16, with the rich man and Lazarus, who goes to Hades. And there's a chasm between them, they can’t be crossed.
Right. So on the surface, you think, yeah, that's, that's tricky, isn't it? You know, that's not what you would expect to read. If universalism was true. And I think, then you have to take that seriously. I mean, I think there were things I can say about that text. Various ways that, I think, at very least mean that you can't use it as a break to say universalism isn't true, but I still think it remain as something that will niggle a Universalist. Then there are the texts, likewise, particularly, maybe some in Revelation, although in the book, I have a long chapter explaining how the language in Revelation does and doesn't work.
And, and I argue, I think I argue quite persuasively that in Revelation, although you have people in the lake of fire and the language seems very final. We also see those very same people and nations and kings of the earth, coming into the New Jerusalem.
And I think in the book of Revelation, it's very clear that the nations of the kings of the earth are not the church, they're not Christian people, they're the baddies. The people who oppose Christ and the church all the way through the book. And then they're, they're the ones who are not in the book of life. And here they are coming into the New Jerusalem. And the names are in the book of life. So it, I think, for the reader, this would send clear signals to how carefully you need to think about how to interpret that language about what the lake of fire is about.
But that said, those texts about the lake of fire, and so on, are very strong. And people like me need to feel the weight of that, you know, need to feel the challenge of that language still, and not to feel we can domesticated it. So I think the strongest arguments would be those kind rather than theological argument, because I've never heard any good theological arguments against universalism, which is to say, arguments to say, because God is just, because God is righteous is why universalism is untrue.
But they just don’t work. None of these arguments from the character of the nature of God against universalism work. Nothing from the story of the gospel. No, none of those kinds of things work, it would have to be from specific text, text matters, of course, because Scripture is Scripture, and its got authority.
So it's all about, then how do we read Scripture? How do we interpret that stuff? And how do we not domesticated but allowed to threaten us still and challenge us?
Before I let you go, where would you point people to, that are in a similar position as me that that are that are questioning and they want to be able to make a concerted effort to educate themselves in a way that will,that will yield clarity, I guess, in what they walk every day.
Yes, of course. And you need to read reviews from different perspectives. And it may be the best place to start is the Zondervan book on the Four Views on Hell.
I saw that one earlier. That one has purgatory included in it as well.
Yeah. Because that's got eternal torment, annihilation, universalism and purgatory, which isn't really a view of hell; it's something different. But anyway, it's in there. So the books good because it gives you the four different views on how they would respond to each other. So that's probably the best entry point. Because it gives a very succinct statement of each view and the arguments for it, and how they would attempt to refute their opponents. And then each of them gets a chance to argue with the other and so on, and it doesn't conclude it, it leaves it to the reader to weigh it out, and I t also points towards other resources, all the chapters do for people who would like to read more.
Sure. And your book…
Of course, from the university perspective, then there's the Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald.
There is Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God. There's a whole bunch of books, George Saris’ book, the title of which now escapes me. I can see the cover but I can’t see the title. Anyway, there's a whole bunch of books, but those would be where I’d start.
Robin, thank you so much. I know, it's been a big time difference in shift between the two of us being on different sides of the Atlantic. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to come on and talk to me very much. And I look forward to maybe, again in the future on a different topic, some form in the future, if you're willing,
If I know about any other topics. Great, lovely.
Sure. Well, thank you very much, and be blessed.
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