Tweaking Augustine: From Limited Atonement to Universalism

In my previous article “The Catholic Church and the Return of Hell,” I asked, Why are Roman Catholics historically pessimistic about the eternal salvation of humanity, given its teaching on efficacious grace? Needless to say, the question can be expanded to include all churches that teach some form of efficacious grace. Calvinists immediately come to mind. And they have a quick answer: predestination! limited atonement! read Romans 9! For those in the Calvinist tradition, the universal salvific will of God is sacrificed for absolute election. From all eternity God has unconditionally predestined some to salvation and some to perdition. We may not know the number of the damned, whether it be one or many; but a populated hell there most certainly will be—all to the glory of God.

Ten years ago Protestant theologian Oliver Crisp published an incisive essay exploring the question of universal salvation from an Augustinian perspective: “Augustinian Universalism” (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 53 [June 2003]: 127-145). Based on traditional Augustinian (think Calvinist) premises, he elaborates an argument for universal salvation.

Crisp begins by specifying the following convictions shared by traditional Augustinians:

1) All things that happen are pre-ordained by God.

2) By eternal decree God predestines all who will be in heaven and all who will be in hell.

3) The damned have no good reason to complain of their situation, because, to quote Francis Turretin, “If they examine themselves, they will discover in their own sin the most just foundation both of their preterition and punishment.”

4) The soteriological position of a person at the point of death defines his eternal destiny: if he is regenerate, he will be saved; if not, damned—no post-mortem conversions.

5) The punishment of hell is retributive, infinite, and eternal.

If God has predetermined that some will suffer eternal perdition, how can this be morally justified? Traditional Augustinians offer this rejoinder: “God requires that both his mercy and grace, and his wrath and justice are displayed in his creatures. That is, God could not bring about a state of affairs which involved the actualization of one set, but not the other (a set of the elect, say, which was co-extensive with the domain of peccable human agents, and where the set of reprobate was an empty set)” (p. 130).

It is necessary, the Augustinian explains, that the essential attributes of God be displayed in creation. The essential attribute of divine benevolence is expressed in God’s mercy and grace; the divine attribute of divine holiness is expressed in God’s wrath and justice. If no one enjoyed the beatific vision or if no one suffered eternal punishment, then “there would be a failure to display the fullness of the divine character,” which is one of the principal aims of the creation. Thus Jonathan Edwards:

The great and last end of God’s work which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but one; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, “the glory of God”; by which name it is most commonly called in Scripture … those things, which are spoken of in Scripture as ultimate ends of God’s works, though they may seem at first view to be distinct, all are plainly to be reduced to this one thing, viz. God’s internal glory or fullness extant externally, or existing in its emanation. And though God in seeking this end, seeks the creature’s good; yet therein appears his supreme regard to himself. (Quoted by Crisp, pp. 130-131)

St Anselm, on the other hand, offers an alternative opinion: the honor of God requires that some be rewarded to display the divine goodness and some be punished to display the divine justice:

For when thou punishest the wicked, it is just, because it is consistent with their deserts; and when, on the other hand, thou sparest the wicked, it is just, not because it is compatible with their deserts, but because it is compatible with thy goodness. (Quoted by Crisp, p. 131)

The point of these arguments “is to show that God has a reason for so acting,” namely his self-glorification. “The assumption behind these views of Edwards and Anselm,” continues Crisp, “appears to be that God has to manifest his grace and mercy and his wrath and justice in order that he is seen to be just as well as merciful” (p. 131).

This position is vulnerable to a serious objection: why has God arbitrarily chosen this world, when he could just as easily have chosen to create a world where one more person will be saved than will be saved in our world?

Given that the number of the elect is actually n, there is a possible world where the number of the elect is n+1. The question then is, why does God actualize this world, rather than another world where there are n+1 than in the actual world? In other words, God could actualize a world in which he elects one more member to the set of the elect, such that the set of the reprobate has one less member. … The fact that God does not actualize such a world appears, prima facie, to be arbitrary. God could, of course, add many more members than this to the number of the elect. But for any number of members in the set of the elect, so long as there is at least one person in the set of reprobate, we can ask why is there not one more member in the set of the elect than there actually is, since God’s justice is still served if only one person is in hell. For on the logic of traditional Augustinianism, what is crucial is that divine wrath and justice are made manifest in his creation, such that his divine attributes are clearly displayed. There is nothing in the logic of Augustinianism that stipulates the number of those benefiting from divine grace or being punished for divine justice. All that this argument for the exemplification of divine justice requires is that at least one person be in hell, so that at least one person is punished for their sin in order that divine justice be displayed and divine holiness vindicated. (p. 132)

Candidates for that one damned person immediately come to mind: Judas Iscariot, Nero, Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Ted Bundy—all would seem to qualify. But Crisp points out that the one damned person need not even be human. A single demon would suffice. (I nominate Beelzebul.) All that is necessary for justice to be displayed is the eternal punishment of one moral agent.

Augustinians reply to the problem of arbitrariness by invoking the inscrutability of the divine will: God has his own good reasons of which we are presently ignorant. Yet the appeal to divine inscrutability does not satisfy. The fact remains that “if it is possible for God to actualize a world where this level of suffering is reduced to only a single person (and his justice is still satisfied by this and adequately ‘displayed’), then the fact that God has not actualized such a world, opting instead for a world where there is objectively morally more suffering and less happiness that there could be seems to disconfirm either the essential benevolence of God, or the existence of God” (p. 133).

In the second half of his article, Crisp proposes an Augustinian universalism that does not require the damnation of even a single human being. His argument:

(1) God decrees to create and elect all human agents.

(2) God decrees that the mechanism by which the sin of all human agents is atoned for is the death of Christ.

(3) The sin and guilt accruing to all sinful human agents is transferred to Christ, who is punished on their account on the cross.


(4) All human agents are saved; none are lost, and none are in hell. (p. 135)

The argument hinges on some form of penal substitutionary atonement, which Augustine did not teach but which became characteristic of Reformed presentations of the atonement. The argument fufills three key Augustinian concerns: Christ’s atonement is particular (it atones for the sins of the elect, not the reprobate), effective (God will infallibly bring the elect to saving faith and thus to heaven), and demonstrative (the crucifixion of the divine Son powerfully displays the divine attribute of retributive justice). Most importantly for our purposes, it eliminates the problem of arbitrariness. No moral agent, other than Jesus himself, is needed to manifest the divine justice. “God’s grace and mercy,” concludes Crisp, “are shown to all human agents in their election (in Christ), and his wrath and justice are shown in the death of Christ, which atones for the sin and guilt of all fallen human agents” (p. 137).

Crisp believes that he has offered a coherent and valid argument for an Augustinian universalism. This doesn’t mean that he believes it is true, as he remains convinced that Holy Scripture authoritatively teaches a populated everlasting hell. But, he argues, if in the name of the Bible the Augustinian refuses to embrace universalism, then he must find a way to persuasively address the problem of evil raised by his position:

If God could have created the sort of world outlined in Augustinian universalism, why did he not do so, since there appears to be no reason according to the tenets of traditional Augustinianism we have examined, why God could not create a world where all human agents were in fact elect because all their sin was dealt with in Christ. Or alternatively, to return to the arbitrariness problem for traditional Augustinians, God could actualize a world where only one moral agent was in hell and all other agents were elect. (We might call this version of Augustinianism the limited damnation view.) Both of these options satisfy the retribution thesis beloved of Augustinians, and appear to display the glory of God in a way which is objectively better than the world that God did, in fact, create. (p. 142)

I’m not sure how an Augustinian or Thomist might want to adapt Dr Crisp’s universalist argument, formulated as it is within a Calvinist theological framework. Thankfully, Anselm’s satisfaction theory is available for Latin Catholics—no need to go the full penal substitution route. But the Catholic faces the same problem of evil: if God can efficaciously save one human being, why does he not save all? Why has he chosen to create a world where some (many, most) perish, when he might have created a world where only one—or even none—perish? Why hell?

(Go to “Orthodoxy and the Damnation of the Damned”)

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27 Responses to Tweaking Augustine: From Limited Atonement to Universalism

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dr Crisp has just brought to my attention that he has since written a refutation of his article in the Scottish Journal of Theology. I do not have access to this journal, but I found a discussion of the piece over at Robin Parry’s blog. From what I can glean, Crisp now maintains that the death of Christ is insufficient to display the divine wrath, since Christ was innocent of all sin: a truly guilty person needs to be eternally punished. Now I know why (if I didn’t know) I could never be a Calvinist. Parry raises some good points in response.


    • Have you read the Catholic side of the predestination issue? From my own reading of Augustine, he comes out quite the opposite as to what you would style “traditional Augustianism”.

      Universalist? Might depend what you mean. In that he believed Christ’s atonement was for all? Definitely.

      I had trouble with the eternal Hell as well until I realized that more traditional paintings of Hell were always inadequate. Whether it’s a literal fire or not, I have no idea. Will there be pain physical and spiritual? Yes. Will it be the blazing inferno as we see depicted? Skeptical. I don’t know if anyone’s actually been there in all honesty.

      Will non-Christians be the only ones denied access to Heaven? Will Christians be the only ones who avoid Hell? I find this idea laughable at best.

      We make our free choices to seek God in everything or not to seek God. God gives us what we want in the end. Whether it is Hell or Heaven, I have no idea.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Hi, welcome to EO.

        Would you mind elaborating further on your statement that St Augustine differs from traditional Augustinianism. What differences do you see?

        Take a look at Fr William Most’s article “St Augustine on Grace and Predestination.” Fr Most reads Augustine as denying God’s universal salvific will. Is he misinterpreting Augustine?



  2. phillipcary says:

    The notion that Christ’s suffering is not sufficient to demonstrate the justice of God seems to me deeply flawed. And if his suffering is sufficient, then there is no reason God could not save all. That’s the Barthian road to universalism taken by Von Balthasar. Hell is eternally populated–by the eternal Son of God, who both suffers it and defeats it.


  3. john burnett says:

    Since when did God become a cipher for a logical operation?

    Oh i get it. We’re speaking of ‘God’ the logical operation, not God the Mystery.


  4. William says:

    The whole notion that God needs to “display” or “demonstrate” anything, be it justice or mercy or whatever else, seems fairly problematic in itself.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. It sounds like an ad hoc speculation. I’m trying to think of Scriptures that would support the Calvinist claim, but none come to mind.


      • john burnett says:

        Not an ad hoc speculation, but deeply based on mediaeval notions of justice, which were about feudal ‘honor’. A lord had constantly to display or demonstrate his various qualities (justice, mercy, wealth, strength, power, wisdom, etc), or he would be perceived as a weakling and a fool, and consequently lose his allies, and then be unable to defend himself. Calvinism arose out of Scholasticism, and Scholasticism arose out of the Middle Ages. It is an attempt to rationalize the cultural framework that everyone took for granted.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m curious, John, who in the scholastic period espoused the argument that God must display his wrath through the eternal punishment of hell?


  5. Dave says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    I have serious concerns about “Calvinism” and the lack of grace apparent in their viewpoints, but I also have serious misgivings about “Universalism” and the lack of purgation (for want of a better word) in the soft universalism expounded in mainline Protestantism. It seems that both, Calvinism and Universalism (of all stripes) lead to the same question of “Why bother”. Why should I worship or convert, why should I not have all the “fun” I can now? Calvinism holds an answer that it does not matter, if God wants you “saved” you will be saved. Universalism holds an answer that it does not matter, you either have eternity to figure it out, or God just lets you in.

    I am not arguing that I want a “hell”, I do not, and I really want to believe in a form of Universalism. However, I cannot reconcile these two concepts with Jesus’ words in the Gospels, or with St. Paul.

    My question for you, is if you could point me to sources that address these concerns.

    Many thanks.


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dave, thank you for your comment.

    I would first recommend the eschatological homilies of St Isaac the Syrian. See my series on St Isaac, which begins with “The Astonishing Love of God.” The articles in this series will direct you to further readings. Also see the discussion of hell in Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb. The question is not whether there is hell. How could there not be? The question is whether that state and condition is everlasting and unredeemable. St Isaac firmly believed that the torment of hell is redemptive and will ultimately convert the damned (at which point, I would add, hell becomes purgatory).

    I do not doubt that if we die in a state of spiritual death (mortal sin), we will awaken in the afterlife in that terrible state we call hell. We have all tasted hell. We live in it on a regular basis. We know its darkness and despair. The only deliverance from this condition is Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better to repent now than later! (Also see “Is Hell Real?)

    You ask, “Why should I worship or convert, why should I not have all the ‘fun’ I can now?” Which message is more likely to convert the unbeliever: the good news of Christ’s resurrection or the threat of fire and brimstone? At the heart of our worry, I believe, is that we really do not trust the message of God’s unconditional grace enacted on the cross to convert. So we add the threat: “God loves you so much that if you don’t convert he’s going to abandon you to eternal torment.”

    What do you think?


    • Dave says:

      Thank you for the sources. I will gladly follow the links and begin studying.

      The brief argument that you make above, is intriguing, and closer to what I want to believe, in regards to postmortem conversion. I need to read, wrestle, and pray through this, especially as I am caught between the two extremes in my context.

      Thank you again, and I look forward to reading more of your work.



  7. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    As as Presbyterian with Orthodox leanings, I would like to throw in my two cents here. A line from one of my favorite hymns goes, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.” I think this captures the essence of it all, regardless of your religious tradition. BIshop Ware expresses this idea this way: “What God does [in saving us] is incomparably more important than what we humans do; yet our voluntary participation in God’s saving action is altogether indispensable. Our cooperation with God is genuinely free, but there is nothing in our good actions that is exclusively our own. At every point our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit. The inter-relationship between divine grace and human freedom remains always a mystery beyond our comprehension.”

    Non-Calvinists would agree that “Whom He foreknew, He predestined.” Calvinists would flip the verse to say, “Whom He predestined, He foreknew.” But who can delve into these things? I’m not sure that the eternal counsels of God run in sequential order at all.

    Understood in its best light, Calvinism seeks to accentuate God’s sovereignty. His part in all of this. Would any saint in church history disagree with this desire? We are the ones with the crippled hands. All we do is stretch them out, and we find healing. But we have to stretch them out. I realize this is not pure Calvinism, but it resonates.

    Do you agree?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andy, I think that synergism is a mystery and more mysterious than Orthodox sometimes realize. It’s not as if God is a creaturely “other” who is “outside” us. He is the transcendent source of our very freedom and closer to our souls than we are.

      The best analogy I know of the synergistic interaction between God and the Spirit-enabled will is the one T. F. Torrance has given: The father and his daughter are walking across a busy intersection. The little girl tightly grips her father’s hand. It is absolutely necessary that she should do so. And the father gently but firmly holds on to her daughter’s hand. It is necessary that both hold on to each other, but the daughter’s grip is comprehended in the father’s grip. It’s only an analogy and thus ultimately fails, but I think we need to find ways of speaking of synergism that avoid the intimation that our freedom depends on an independence from God’s creative activity. How could we ever be independent and autonomous in such a way?

      Just a quick thought.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andy, as you are a Presbyterian, I know that biblical testimony is paramount and decisive for you. May I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s book The Evangelical Universalist. MacDonald (whose real name is Robin Parry) is a sharp, thoughtful exegete. I think he’ll get you thinking about the biblical testimony in ways you perhaps have not considered before.


  8. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    I want to thank you for your response regarding synergism. It meant a great deal to me, more than I can say. I will look into Parry’s book. I have been on his website.


  9. PJ says:

    There’s lots to chew on here, but my immediate thought is this: Augustinian soteriology is absolutely incomprehensible apart from Augustinian anthropology, and Augustinian anthropology presupposes a proper recognition of the devastation of man’s fall. Just a quick thought as I ruminate on this interesting piece. Thank you, Father.


    • PJ says:

      Whenever I consider this issue, I am forced to wonder: If eternal damnation is such a problematic doctrine, why wasn’t it the subject of intense debate in the Church prior to the modern period? Oh, I realize that there was speculation among certain fathers, but with few exceptions, it was just that — speculation. Where are the great debates? Where is the contention? This conversation seems to have been minimal until the modern period.


      • Rhonda says:

        IMO, it stems from developments both during & since the Reformation. Basically if you remove the Church (priesthood, liturgy, sacraments,canons) & reject Church Tradition there is little left to on which to base “control” (not necessarily in the negative sense) of the faithful. Once everyone is “laity”, including the ordained clergy, then who is in control? No one, so another form of “control” was slowly & informally established…the threat of hellfire & eternal damnation until it became almost the sole focus of Protestant salvation.

        Basically, or so it seems to me, one either focuses on eternal life or eternal hell. For the Orthodox the focus is the great Mystery of Mysteries, Christ’s Pascha, the destroying of death by His Death & Resurrection through the Eucharist; hellfire & damnation are but minor footnotes when compared to the glory of Pascha. The RCC retained most of this approach through the Mass, but not to the extent of the Orthodox, thanks in part to Augustine, but primarily those that followed him that expanded upon his thought. The Protestants though really changed the focus from Pascha to hellfire as they rid themselves of anything that might be branded RC. This transition is understandable once you remove the Eucharist which is “unto the remission of sins & life eternal” (from an Orthodox prayer by St. John Chrysostom recited before receiving the Eucharist) & replace it with a mere communion which is a remembrance of death. Now though, it appears that some Protestant theologians want to focus less on eternal hell, but they have preached it so long & so loud that their faithful often seem deaf to anything else.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s not clear to me how a specific understanding of the Fall really changes anything. No matter how serious and severe human sin may be, St Augustine is confident that by God’s power and grace he can bring to repentance and saving faith anyone he so chooses (irresistible grace). If God can do this, then why doesn’t he save everyone?


    • john burnett says:

      PJ, your points are good ones; ‘Augustinian soteriology is incomprehensible apart from Augustinian anthropology’. Whether, though, ‘Augustinian anthropology presupposes a proper recognition of the devastation of man’s fall’ might be another question. i won’t try it, but someone might.

      But, yes, ‘if eternal damnation is such a problematic doctrine, why wasn’t it the subject of intense debate in the Church prior to the modern period?’

      On that question, surely it’s because the frame within which we’re trying to conceptuatlize the issue has shifted, no? Do we even view ‘salvation’ the way the Scriptures or the fathers do, or haven’t we rather transferred it entirely to an afterlife, imagining a gate (some Orthodox have added tollhouses!), and then asking what we have to do to get through, especially when the whole thing is dependent on satisfying infinite abstractions (justice, mercy) to which even God is subject— in all this, haven’t we made the problem insoluble from the git-go?

      Jesus never talked about ‘going to heaven when you die’. Such a concept is just not in either testament of Scripture!

      But I suggest we’ve gotten terribly muddled about two deeply important terms in Scripture: Paradise, and Kingdom of Heaven.

      Whenever Jesus says βασιλεία (basileia), we usually find the translation, ‘kingdom’. So: ‘kingdom of heaven’; it’s where you go when you die. But Jesus never means that. A ‘kingdom’ is a place ruled by a king— like ‘Arthur’s kingdom’. In King James’ day, the word could mean the status of being king, and the sway that a king exercised, but that’s no longer what we think of, particularly when we hear of the ‘kingdom of heaven’. That just means heaven is a magical neverneverland ruled by a king, in this case, God. But the Greek word for the domain that a king rules is βασίλειον, (basileion), not basileia, and Jesus always talks about the basileia of heaven, or of God. Basileia is what a king does— his ‘rule’, ‘reign’, ‘regime’. So ‘Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the God’s regime and saying, “Time’s up! God’s regime has arrived! Change your ways, and trust the good news.”‘ (Mk 1.14-15). He wasn’t ‘preaching’ and he wasn’t talking about a ‘gospel’ and he said nothing about ‘repenting’, in any sense that we use these religious words today. Because they’re all church words, and he was talking to peasants and rulers about their lives and their society!

      But the main point is that he was talking about the arrival, not the distant approach, of something really radical and fiery— a movement of Spirit that would cost him his life as it passed through him and into his disciples and out into the world. And it was as opposed to Caesar as it was to a corrupt Temple, but it brought life to the world.

      And what he offered— and still offers— was a chance to be part of it.

      About ‘Paradise’, you might object, But didn’t Jesus say to the terrorist on the cross, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise?’ (Lk 23.43). Yes, he said that, but instead of fantasizing what Paradise would be like, we ought to slap ourselves awake and ask where does the Bible talk about ‘Paradise’?….

      For ‘paradise’ was originally a Persian word that meant a beautiful garden even a royal one. They could be pretty big; one text refers to logging operations. But παράδεισος (paradeisos) is the word that the Septuagint consistently uses for the ‘garden of delight’ (גן עדן gan eden/i>) of the Hebrew scriptures (‘eden’ means ‘delight’). That was the garden that God planted ‘in the beginning’ or ‘in the east’ (same word, means both). Genesis speaks of ‘paradeisos’ one other time, when ‘Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of delight’ (Gn 13.10).

      Then in Nm 24.5-6, the seer Balaam delivers an oracle:

      ‘How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
      your encampments, O Israel!
      Like palm groves that stretch afar,
      paradises beside a river,
      like aloes that the LORD has planted,
      like cedar trees beside the waters.’

      The word ‘paradeisos’ isn’t used again until the other end of the Old Testament, 2Chr 33.20; Ne 2.8; Ec 2.5; Sg 4.13, Jl 2.3; Isa 1.30; Jr 36.5, Dan 13.7, 36, 54, where it always means a royal garden.

      So, what happened in Paradise? Well, as we know, Adam had ‘dominion’ (i.e., was ‘king’) over all the earth, but he ate from the tree of knowledge and was expelled from the Paradise and sent into Exile.

      And that is also exactly what happened to Israel: Israel and her king had dominion and empire over all the land, including ‘the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of delight’ (Gn 13.10), until it corrupted wisdom and was expelled from the Paradise and forced into Exile.

      Ezekiel has a poem addressed to the king of Tyre which gives us a somewhat more glittery vision of the same ancient Middle Eastern ‘myth of Paradise’:

      ‘You were in the delight of God’s paradise; you adorned yourself with every precious stone, the sardius, and topaz, and emerald, and carbuncle, and sapphire, and jasper, and silver, and gold, and ligure, and agate, and amethyst, and chrysolite, and beryl, and onyx: and you filled your treasures and your stores with gold; you were an anointed guardian cherub. I installed you; you were on God’s holy mountain; you walked amid the stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you. By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries; so I brought fire out from your midst; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever.’ (Ez 28.13-19).

      And Ezekiel 31 tells essentially the same story about Assyria.

      So the story of Paradise— in the Bible— is this: Adam, Israel, Tyre, Assyria— in every case— a king corrupts wisdom and is expelled from a royal garden.

      And in Isa 51.3, God promises to make Zion into Paradise again, after the Exile.

      The intertestamental book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) relates Paradise to wisdom in some interesting ways, in 24.28-30, and to mercy and fear of the Lord, in 40.17, 27. So it’s not surprising that St Paul describes a certain spiritual experience he had, by saying, ‘he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter’ (2Co 12.4). Nor do we find it odd that Rv 2.7 says, ‘To him who overcomes, I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of God’s paradise.’ Wisdom, after all, ‘is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her’ (Pr 3.18).

      Apart from Jesus’ words to the terrorist on the cross, those are the only times paradise is mentioned in the Old or New Testaments. Notice that not one of them is about life after death. That’s not even remotely part of the context. So what is Jesus saying to the terrorist?— is he just telling him that they’re going to live after death in a big royal garden in the sky, or is he saying the guy is going to receive divine wisdom at last, or is he saying that Adam’s Exile is over?. The first answer is not consistent with anything the Bible ever says about Paradise, anywhere. The second is plausible, but not in the context of the crucifixion. The third makes perfect sense, especially when we realize that Jesus had come precisely to put an end to Adam’s long Exile, and half the OT quotes in the NT say exactly that.

      So the one thing Paradise is not, is a garden in the sky, that is, in ‘heaven’.

      But back to ‘heaven’— Even about ‘heaven’ we’ve got it turned around. ‘The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’S: but the earth hath he given to the children of men’ (Ps 115.16 ). We don’t belong in heaven. Contrary to just about every funeral sermon i’ve had to endure, it’s not our ‘home’!

      And Jesus taught us to pray not, ‘Let us come into thy kingdom in heaven as we are on earth’, but ‘Thy regime come on earth, even as it is in heaven’! And the whole Bible ends with a vision of the New Jerusalem ‘coming down from God out of heaven… And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them’ (Rv 21.2-3). Not the other way around!

      So when Jesus talks about entering ‘heaven’s regime’, he is NOT saying, ‘Repent, so you can go with me to the Elysian Fields when you die’. In fact, the Christian creed has never been about ‘heaven when you die’. ‘I believe in one God… and in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the Age to come.’

      Period. Amen!

      We have never said, ‘I believe in one God…. who can let us into heaven when we die.’ That’s just not the story we tell!

      Or it wasn’t until a few centuries ago. I’m not sure when it changed, but it did. Because when i read the Orthodox funeral service and listen to most sermons, i have the uncomfortable feeling that they are often two different religions entirely. And that’s in a church where a patristic tradition exists!

      If Jesus is saying, ‘Repent, so you can go to the Elysian Fields when you die’, he’d be talking about a two-phase reality: today, you are not in God’s regime and can’t possibly be there, by definition, because it’s in heaven, reserved for some people in an afterlife, and it has nothing to do with what’s going on here, on earth, in this life. And the other phase is— in heaven, after we die, some people will live ‘forever’, no one is quite sure doing what, but it will be Paradise, and surely there are Unicorns there too, no? For the kids anyway.

      But if that two-phase story is true, then the WHOLE question becomes, what’s the ticket? How do i ensure that i’m going to go to the good afterlife, and not to the bad afterlife? How can I make sure I get in, when my time comes? And people have different answers to that, but all of them presuppose you’re not ‘in’ now, and that you won’t and can’t possibly ever be, until after you die and you find out that you’re ‘saved’…. or not.

      So… ‘Do you know where you’re going to spend eternity?’

      How many times, in fact, have we heard that? How many times has it been proposed as the fundamental religious question, lack of concern for which is not just fatal, but criminal, meriting an eternity of horrible torment by a just and angry God who loves us so much that he’ll burn us forever if we don’t repent?

      But is that the story in the Bible?

      Jesus didn’t say, ‘Repent, so you can go to Paradise (instead of Hell) when you die’.

      He said, ‘Change your ways, because God’s regime has arrived!’ And he said to the terrorist, the Exile is over, right here on the cross! And he said to all of us, if you want to enter, you have to become no-accounts, like children.

      Because God’s regime has arrived! It’s here, and it’s now! And it doesn’t have anything to do with your games. And Jesus offers proof of what he’s saying: ‘if by the finger of God I cast out demons, then God’s regime has come upon you’ (Lk 11.20). Or: ‘reached you’. You can’t escape!

      We can’t escape, but the question is, what are we going to do about it?

      The gospels show us various responses. There were the Pharisees, the chief priests, Herod, and people like that: they rejected and resisted, even to the point of murder. Were they ‘entering’?

      Then there were the crowds, who had a lot of potential but were usually looking for the wrong thing, and proved fickle. Were they ‘entering’?

      Then there were the disciples, who wavered a good deal but maybe proved somewhat faithful, and anyway Jesus accepted them because at least they kinda sorta got it. Well, even Peter betrayed him, but in the end, Jesus’ messenger said to the women, ‘Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he’s going before you in Galilee. There you’ll see him, just as he told you’ (Mk 16.7). Were they ‘entering’?

      Yes, but they had work to do, and if they addressed it faithfully, God would take care of them. ‘And death hath no dominion!’ (Rm 6.9).

      For whatever happens after death, we know that God is faithful, and that his desire is that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1Tm 2.4, cf Ez 18.23,32). We’re not worried about that. Our question is only, Ok, God’s regime has arrived; now how can i ‘enter into’ it? (Mt 5.20; 7.21; 18.3; 19.23–24; Mk 9.47; 10.15, 23–25; Lk 18.17, 24–25; Jn 3.5; Ac 14.22).

      That is the challenge Jesus puts to us: Not ‘how do i go to heaven’, but how do i become part of heaven’s regime? How do i sign up, become heaven’s subject, join heaven’s army, become heaven’s disciple, even become ‘great’ in heaven’s regime, which has arrived? (Mt 5.19). Or, on the negative side, What do i need to do to stop serving the ‘regime of this world’? How can i stop participating in the structures that corrupt God’s world and oppose his regime— you know, like Caesar and his army of general and private vices, his Tomahawk missiles and el Qaedas, his bankers and his entertainments and his alcoholism and his prostitutes?

      This is the sole content of Jesus’ teaching, over and over again: ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter heaven’s regime, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 7.21). Doing his will (Mt 6.10), we are already showing ourselves to be ‘sons of the regime’ (Mt 13.38; cf 8.12)— because we are earnestly praying and laboring that ‘Your regime come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ (Mt 6.10). That is his will, and we have made it our will. That’s what he’s looking for— that kind of trust is what he counted as ‘righteous’ in Abraham, and it’s what he counts as ‘righteous’ in us. That’s ‘salvation’!

      So what about people who aren’t christian?

      ‘Every man’, says St Paul, will be judged on the basis of how he lived. ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad’ (2Co 5.10). And the Bible makes it clear that there will be such a judgment— no, even more!— that in fact the judgment has already taken place, once and for all, on the cross! So the question is not whether someone ‘believes in Jesus as his personal savior’— thus obtaining a ticket to Paradise when they die. The question is not, Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?, but, Which side of the cross are you on? Not: which side of words about the cross are you on, but which side of the cross are you on? God has made his side clear; what side are we on?

      Do we have to know about the cross to be on the right side of it? It certainly helps, but not everybody has known about it. No matter; the question is still, which regime are you working for?

      ‘Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Amen I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”‘ (Mt 25.37-40).

      The king and judge in that story is the Son of Man, not us, so we can’t say in any given case what he will decide. But God is love, and no act of love in this world is lost. He’s made that clear: ‘Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me’ (Mt 25.40)— and he’s made it clear on a cross.

      So— we’ve heard the good news, that God has arrived, regime and all, and has judged the world on the cross. We now have an unimaginable opportunity and a great responsibility. We absolutely know that. We know where God stands: he has vindicated Jesus, who was crucified by the powers of this world because they did not know him (1Co 2.8). He did not vindicate Pilate, or the High Priest, or the Pharisees, or even, for that matter, his own disciples most of the time (read Mark if you doubt me). Everything is now so very clear at last! Caesar and the corrupt high priests— everyone who believes in power— is wrong! We now know what side God is on. So— whose side are we on?

      ‘As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name’ (Jn 1.12 ). Because he gave them his own Spirit, the Spirit of his Son.

      So we are able to give account of our joy to others, if they ask, and to do so with gentleness and respect (1P 3.15), for ‘through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of God’s glory’ (Rm 5.2). Do we say that everyone going to hell who doesn’t know of this hope? No, because ‘heaven’s regime is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened’ (Mt 13.33). But we know what the leaven is!

      How about those whose trust faltered? (like the prophets I am thinking of the 1%, of sex offenders, and bankers; carnal persons and suicides and drug addicts)? Are they going to hell? All judgment belongs to God alone. He has made his desire clear, ‘each of us will give an account of himself to God’ (Rm 14.12); ‘we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil’ (2Co 5.10). And ‘he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again’ (Ps 78.39).

      What of other beliefs, mysticisms, philosophies, traditions, and so forth— many of them ancient, beautiful, profound, and deeply meaningful? We evaluate everything solely by how conducive they are to ‘this grace in which we stand’. Who cares, for instance, if you’re an enlighted Zen master and— assuming someone actually ‘enlightened’ could behave this way— yet ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’ (Mt 25.42-43)? The next words you’re going to hear— in fact, the words you may be hearing already— are, ‘Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ (Lk 13.27). Imam, paṇdiṭa, shaman, or rabbi— the crucified one is king of kings and lord of lords, and his regime is the only one.

      So how do we enter? Now?

      That’s what salvation is.

      About God’s ultimate judgments, we won’t know until we know. The saints warn us to tremble, but with joy. For we do know exactly what his final judgment is: it’s all been handed down— verdict, sentence, punishment, and acquittal— all handed down precisely on the cross. And we have joy, knowing that.

      So what now, now that we know?

      ‘Heaven’s regime is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field’ (Mt 13.44).

      But seriously— and if you’ve read this far, thank you— don’t we really need to ask whether the frame within which we’re viewing the question of salvation can even be found in the Bible? Aren’t we beating our brains up and tying ourselves in knots because we’re trying to think of everything from anthropology to the destiny of the human person differently from the way Jesus does?


  10. PJ says:

    “But seriously— and if you’ve read this far, thank you— don’t we really need to ask whether the frame within which we’re viewing the question of salvation can even be found in the Bible? ”

    I read it all. Interesting stuff.

    However, I must answer strongly in the negative. Our beliefs need not be found in the pages of Sacred Scripture — especially not in their fullness! The Old Testament is a collection of poems, covenants, songs, histories, aphorisms, prophecies, visions; the New is comprised of four biographies, a handful of situational epistles, perhaps a homily or two, and a prophecy (?). It is all God-breathed. But it is only one of several pillars which support the glorious facade of Christian theology. If you want to know how Jesus thought, go to the Church, not to the Bible. After all, the Bible can only be read within the Church, and per the instructions of the Church. Indeed, a restrictive biblicism is explicitly condemned by the Roman Church. The Church articulates the truth based upon Scripture and Tradition. (And, yes, by “the Church,” I mean the bishops of the catholic, orthodox faith in union with the Successor of St. Peter. ;-))


    • john burnett says:

      that’s true, but our theology cannot be *at odds* with the Bible. That’s my point— and hence that the story we tell about salvation, heaven, and hell is simply *not found in scripture*, not really found in the traditional liturgies of the church, including, where you might expect to find it, the funeral service, and is, in fact quite at odds with them.

      This ought to give us more than pause. Vatican 2 was an effort to correct the course in the direction of scripture, because the church was in considerable danger of forgetting its original vision, out of which *all* subsequent theology flows, and drifting into a lot of pietistic ‘lore’, of which the story of ‘salvation’ that we envision and tell is one whoppingly big example.


  11. Rhonda says:

    Except for PJ’s “meaning” of Church, I agree with him 😉

    The Church & its Tradition existed before the Scriptures, which while written in the last 1/2 of the 1st c. were not canonized until several hundred years later. Even the Scriptures testify that not everything was recorded in them, nor could everything be recorded for that matter regards all that Christ did & God’s salvific plan for His creation. The Scriptures were written by those in the Church for those in the Church; & furthermore the Scriptures did not write the Church. The Scriptures reveal what was already believed by the Church when they were written, or to put it another way, the Scriptures reveal what was already an important part of the Church’s Tradition at that time. However, the Scriptures do not reveal everything about the Church, its history or the totality of Tradition.

    IMO such extensive exegesis of words may reveal bits & pieces of minutia, but one also misses the forest & even the trees & even the plants by focusing on a leaf; i.e., you lose sight of the big picture & all of the beauty, glory, majesty & mystery inherently a part of it. To separate out “rule” from “kingdom” misses the big picture…you cannot rule without a kingdom & you cannot have a kingdom without rule. God is all in all (everywhere present, filling all things)…all is His Kingdom & He does rule His Kingdom. This is the way it always has been & the way it will always will be.

    Correctly it was said “The question is not, Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?”, but neither is the question “Which side of the cross are you on?” There are “sides” to the cross nor are there any questions, so to speak…we are not saved because we said a special “sinner’s prayer” & then tried to live like good little boys & girls according to some divine standard to which even God is subject so that God cannot burn us in eternal hell. Subjecting God to some divine standard results in no God whatsoever & puts us in absolute control. We keep speaking of such things as love, justice, mercy & etc as if they were neat qualities about God. This is wrong…God’s qualities are not separable from Him. There is no such being that is God without them. God in His person IS love, He IS justice, He IS mercy. He IS the very personification of these things to such an extent that we cannot truly understand what that even means.

    We are saved by dying in Christ & rising in Christ. When we are in Christ we are part of His Body of which He is the head. And if we are in the Body of Christ then we take up His Cross by serving Him. Christ had to endure the Cross for our salvation & we must endure the Cross of Christ in our salvation so that he will say to us “Well done, good & faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” Serving Christ, being in Christ, brings joy–heaven–not serving Him brings hell; & this heaven or hell starts while we are still in this temporal life. It is not up to the servants to try to figure out what the master will do, or think, or judge given this, that or some other circumstance. Such things only serve to distract from their job which is to serve the master. It is enough for us to know that our Master is merciful & fair in His judgments…He always has been…He always will be.

    Please forgive me if I have stepped out of line or offended…


    • Rhonda says:

      Oops…2 corrections:
      1) Should have been “This is the way it always has been & the way it always will be.”
      2) Should have been “TThere are no “sides” to the cross…”

      Also, I would like to add: I highly, highly recommend the book The Freedom of Morality by Christos Yannaras regards subjecting God to some divine standard. God IS the divine standard.


    • john burnett says:

      “There are [no] “sides” to the cross nor are there any questions, so to speak…we are not saved because we said a special “sinner’s prayer” & then tried to live like good little boys & girls according to some divine standard to which even God is subject so that God cannot burn us in eternal hell. Subjecting God to some divine standard results in no God whatsoever & puts us in absolute control.”

      Rhonda, i said nothing about saying a special ‘sinner’s prayer’; that was exactly what i was opposing. Nor is exegesis about looking at some minutiae. The point is to get in front of us what the *story* is about.

      The cross is where God revealed his judgment. I can see where you might have interpreted my words ‘which side of the cross we’re on’ in the sense you did, but what i was trying to make clear is that the cross is the *reality*, the *fact* of God’s position on sin and death and law, and the revelation of his love and rescue. So as i said, the gospels present us with examples of where different groups of people are, with respect to all that— Pharisees, priests, Pilate, disciples, crowds, etc. The four stories (which, by the way, are far more than ‘biographies’, PJ; somewhere else we should discuss that!) invite us to look at where we’re at, ourselves, with respect to that revelation of God’s love and judgment that took place on Calvary. That’s what i meant by ‘which side we’re on’— God’s, or Pilate’s, or whose?

      You’re completely right to say, ‘Serving Christ, being in Christ, brings joy–heaven–not serving Him brings hell; & this heaven or hell starts while we are still in this temporal life’. Where you mention ‘serving Christ, being in Christ’, that’s an aspect or perhaps a synonym of ‘entering God’s regime’. But the point of the word basileia, ‘regime’, is that it’s an *activity*, not a place and, as you point out, that activity starts here and now. To ‘enter’ into that activity is to participate in *what God is doing with his world*, not to go to a nice place when you die, leaving behind a world of woe and evil. The church has never lost sight of that, of course, but the fact that this is the story has gotten seriously overlaid with this other story of a ‘paradise’ which is more or less equivalent to the Elysian Fields of greek mythology: it is far away, not part of this world, and has no effect on it except maybe as a motivator for doing some ‘good works’. I was trying to show how different the Bible’s view of the whole subject is. It’s actually quite a paradigm shift for us to look at things in biblical terms, but when you see it, you realize that the fathers totally got it. When Adam fell ‘creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope’ (Rm 8.20). God has acted, beginning with Abraham (Gn 12.1-3) to restore what Adam had lost (and even more, as it turns out)— not simply to rescue us from the mess. Indeed, ‘creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ (Rm 8.21-23). That’s the vision— not! ‘going to live eternally in heaven when you die’. We are invited to participate in God’s work of renewal.

      I was myself brought up short by all this once. I had been complaining on some discussion list that our Orthdoox funeral service was all about ‘going to heaven’, whereas that’s not what the Bible says, etc. Well, a priest said, When’s the last time you read it? Actually I hadn’t read it that carefully— i was only remembering my experiences of funerals. So i went and read it carefully. Well, isn’t it funny how our presuppositions color our perceptions. There actually wasn’t a single word in the funeral service about ‘going to heaven’, especially about ‘living there for eternity’. In fact, the whole thing confessed, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the Age to come”.


      And if that’s the cosmology and the eschatology, then what’s the soteriology?


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