The article may be mis-titled. I obviously have not read everything on the topic nor have I read all of the books and articles that others deem “essential.” But I thought it might be helpful to others to share the essential stuff that I have read and consider worthy of consideration:
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?
I read this book maybe ten years ago or so, and it powerfully confirmed my long-held, but largely secret, universalist hope. As a Catholic theologian, Balthasar could not and would go beyond the hope that God would save all, but that we must hope and pray for universal salvation, he fervently believed. Balthasar did not convert me to the universalist hope—Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson did that back in the early 80s—but he confirmed this hope and gave me a different way to think about the question. Yet eventually I realized that I needed to speak of a more confident hope than Balthasar allows.
Kallistos Ware, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All”
Think of Ware as the Orthodox counterpart to Balthasar on the topic of the universalist hope. Like Balthasar, he does not believe we can affirm anything stronger than a hope. In Ware’s judgment there is no way to rationally resolve the irresolvable conflict between divine love and human freedom. All we can do is to firmly hold them together in tension, “while admitting that the manner of their ultimate harmonization remains a mystery beyond our present comprehension.”
Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God
If I was only allowed to recommend one book on universalism, this is probably the one I would choose (though on Tuesdays and Thursdays MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist might be the one book). Talbott writes well, and he is sharp as a tack. The book is intended for a primarily evangelical-Protestant audience. Orthodox and Catholics will be put off by his ecclesiological convictions; but it’s easy enough to bracket them and to focus on his biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments. Talbott has a keen eye for nonsense. He addresses the biblical testimony head-on. I was not always persuaded by his exegesis, but he does demonstrate that the hellists do not “own” Scripture. For me personally the most important chapters of the book are those in which he discusses human freedom and the nature of justice.
This article may be the best introduction to Talbott’s approach to universal salvation. Start here! After you have read this, you should have a good idea whether you want to read anymore of Talbott’s work.
_____, “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought”
Talbott was asked to write a new essay for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It was published last April. This article provides a helpful review of recent philosophical discussion of hell. Talbott does not hide his universalist sympathies in this article. For a different perspective, see the article by Jonathan Kvanvig that Talbott’s piece replaced.
_____, “Misery and Freedom”
Is it coherent and rational to think that a fully informed and free person–i.e., someone who both fully understands that God is his supreme good and is free from delusion and bondage to disordered desires–would irrevocably reject absolute Love? Talbott doesn’t think so.
The question of divine providence and foreknowledge is a difficult, perhaps impenetrable, question; and it doesn’t get easier when the philosophers tackle the subject. This is not an easy piece, but if you are willing to patiently read and re-read and perhaps re-read yet it again, you will find it quite interesting. At the very least it demonstrates how difficult it is to reconcile eternal damnation with a God who is benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge (editors), Universal Salvation? The Current Debate
This book contains three essays by Talbott, followed mainly by critical evaluations of Talbott’s writings from evangelical biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, as well as two essays on the history of universalism in the Church. The book concludes with a response from Talbott to his critics. This is an excellent book and well worth adding to one’s library.
Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist
Gregory MacDonald is a pseudonym for Robin Parry, who has a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies. Parry looks at the primary New Testament texts that are typically invoked in the eternal hell vs. universalism debate. You may be surprised by how well the new Testament reads when divorced from a prior dogmatic commitment to the classical doctrine of hell. Parry’s exegesis is thoughtful, careful, and imaginative. He does not claim more for his interpretation of a given text than it can bear; but he does invite us to a fresh re-reading of the Bible through a hermeneutic of love.
Keith DeRose, “Universalism and the Bible”
Keith DeRose is not a biblical scholar. He is a philosopher at Yale University. Like Talbott, he believes that the Apostle Paul ultimately taught a doctrine of universal salvation. He begins his article with this judgment: “Contrary to what many would suppose, universalism, understood as above, receives strong scriptural support in the New Testament. Indeed, I judge the support strong enough that if I had to choose between universalism and anti-universalism as the ‘position of Scripture,’ I’d pick universalism as the fairly clear winner.” Such a judgment will come as a shock to those who are utterly convinced that the plain meaning of Scripture supports the traditional doctrine of hell.
John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory
If you are looking for a philosophically sophisticated defense of the universalist hope, this is the book for you. Kronen and Reitan are both trained philosophers. They are well acquainted with the philosophical literature on universalism, as well as with the scholastic tradition. They critically analyze the classical and modern doctrines of hell, present the arguments they deem most convincing in support of universal salvation, and respond to various objections. This is not an easy book to read, as it is intended for fellow philosophers. But the book is invaluable. Anyone who wants to argue against universalism first needs to read God’s Final Victory and address its arguments.
Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian
I am recommending this book for its chapter on St Isaac’s eschatology. More than a few Orthodox priests have whispered to me: “I am a universalist at heart, but I can’t tell anyone. St Isaac convinced me.” Why the power of St Isaac’s writings? Because he knew the power and unconditionality of God’s love–hence his confidence that God will eventually win over the heart and mind of every human being and every demon.
Harmon examines how Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St Gregory of Nyssa sought to ground their hope for universal salvation in the biblical story.
Ludlow examines the eschatological convictions of St Gregory Nyssen in detail. “Whoever considers the divine power,” Gregory writes, “will plainly perceive that it is able at length to restore by means of the aionion purging and atoning sufferings, those who have gone even to this extremity of wickedness.” Hell is purgation that culminates in salvation. Gregory’s views on the apocatastasis were not condemned by the Church at the 5th Ecumenical Council and would later influence the eschatological reflection of Sergius Bulgakov.
Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb
Sergius Bulgakov was perhaps the foremost, yet most controversial, Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. Those of us who are unacquainted with Russian philosophy, as I am, will probably find this a difficult book to read; yet it is illuminating in ways that most works of theology are not and can never be. Bulgakov’s mind and heart were alive with the Holy Spirit. He was a true priest of the Church.
Section III of Bride of the Lamb is devoted to the topic of eschatology. By itself this section by can be read to great benefit. That’s probably not the best way to read it, but I can well understand not wanting to trudge through the first two-thirds of the book when one is principally interested in his discussion of heaven and hell. Bulgakov’s universalism is neither sentimental nor trite. He does not envision salvation apart from repentance and ascetical sacrifice. We should fear hell and its torment. But the God of Bulgakov, who is the God of the Orthodox faith, will never abandon his creatures. “The torments of hell are a longing for God caused by the love of God.” It is blasphemy to think that evil will triumph over the the risen Lord who will return in glory. Bulgakov emphatically rejects any violation of the human person. No one can or should be coerced into the kingdom. But God will nonetheless save those created in his image. The divine judgment is nothing less than the full revelation of the Christ, in whose image every human being is made. “Every human being sees himself in Christ and measures the extent of his difference from this proto-image,” declares Bulgakov. “A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ.”
Paul Gavrilyuk, “Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov”
Gavrilyuk offers a helpful introduction to Bulgakov’s eschatology. He is ultimately critical of Bulgakov’s universalist convictions. Most importantly he thinks that the great theologian slides into a metaphysical necessitarianism, just as Origen did. I disagree. Bulgakov is more subtle than that.
Feel free to mention books and articles you have found helpful on this interesting and important subject.