Essential Readings on Universalism

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.

_____, “Universalism

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.

_____, “Providence, Freedom, and Human Destiny

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.

Steven R. Harmon, Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought

Harmon examines how Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St Gregory of Nyssa sought to ground their hope for universal salvation in the biblical story.

Morwenna Ludlow, Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner

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.

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21 Responses to Essential Readings on Universalism

  1. whitefrozen says:

    A good list – I’ll be looking into some of these for sure.

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  2. Sean says:

    Is there a Torrance reference?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Torrance wrote a lot on the unconditionality of divine grace, but he did not support universal salvation. In one of his early pieces, “Universalism or Election?” he criticized an essay by J. A. T. Robinson “Universalism–Is It Heretical?” both published in the Scottish Journal of Theology. He did not believe that we could go further than the evangelical assertion that all of humanity is elected to eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. Both essays have now been included in a reprint of Robinson’s book In the End, God. Like Barth, Torrance drew close to universal salvation but stopped just short of it.

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  3. Matthew Petersen says:

    George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons and Lilith.

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  4. Nicole says:

    I was planning to list books that I’ve read as well and focus on one book in particular. Thanks for the recommendations! If I get around it, I’ll post a link to the books found here. I’m too tired to do much posting today. Thanks as usual!

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  5. Seraphim says:

    You might also add Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” to the list.

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  6. Kevin Miller says:

    I would add the following titles:
    If Grace Is True
    Patristic Universalism
    Raising Hell
    Hope Beyond Hell
    Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

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  7. Matt Malone says:

    I personally know Paul Gavrilyuk. He used to be a deacon at my parish and a professor at my University, The University of St Thomas in St Pail, MN, USA. If any one had any questions about this issue or his book. I am sure he would be happy to answer them

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  8. Eric says:

    Essentials of New Testament Doctrine, Ernest L. Martin, awesome Book, I love it,
    specially Chapter 26: God’s Manifesto of Human Rights and Privileges

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  9. dino says:

    Forgive me for pointing this out, and for being a little out of topic here, but, I get slightly concerned sometimes that such a great volume of reading, (so much philosophical speculation in particular), needs to be countered (and grounded) by an equally vast volume -at least- of hesychastic, noetic prayer of the heart… Without it we will never have the first-hand certitude of Divine Revelation, no matter how robust and reasoned our intellectual (“second-hand”) arguments. And, more importantly we need it in order to escape danger, delusion, distraction etc.

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    • markbasil says:

      Hi Dino.
      I would be interested in a private correspondence on this and other subjects, if you are open to it. Please reach me at: man or they at gmail dot com (all one word).
      Thank you for your voice;
      -Mark Basil

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome back, Dino.

      I do not, of course, disagree with what you have written; but I’m not sure how helpful it is for purposes of theological reflection and discussion, not just on this topic but on any theological topic.

      One might, for example, argue that the only persons who are qualified to engage in theological reflection are those who have achieved a certain level of theosis. I have, as I’m sure you have, seen this argument advanced in some Orthodox internet circles. If we take this argument seriously, then, if we are honest with ourselves, we should probably conclude that we should all withdraw from theological discussion and attend to our prayers. I certainly know that I am insufficientlly sancitified. All Orthodox theology blogs and internet forums would immediately shut down (which probably would make the internet world a more pleasant place to live in). The only ones left to reflect on theological matters would perhaps be a handful of monks at Mt Athos, but they are rightly reluctant to publish on theological topics, much less blog.

      The invocation of spiritual experience raises some difficult issues. At least on the internet, the appeal to spiritual experience is often invoked as a form of magisterial authority to close theological discussion. The Catholics have their infallible Pope (under specifiable conditions), the Protestants have their infallible Bible (when correctly exegeted), and the Orthodox have their … infallible elders (?). I am not at all suggesting that this is what you are doing, but I think it’s important to note the problem.

      Needless to say, within the context of theological discussion and debate, the appeal to the authority of someone who has experienced theosis, and therefore presumably knows what he is talking about through direct experience, immediately shuts down all discussion. The only possible response is to invoke the contrary judgment of someone else who has experienced God directly. And then we are faced with a conflict of two infallible authorities. I invoke St Isaac the Syrian in favor of apocatastasis and someone invokes St _____ in favor of eternal torment in hell. What do we do then? Go home and pray, I suppose.

      (I remember reading on the web an interview with Met John Zizioulas politely complaining about the criticisms advanced against him by a group of Athonite monks. What bothered him particularly was their implicit appeal to infallible spiritual authority and the intimation that he lacked the spiritual experience to address theological questions. Unfortunately I cannot find the interview.)

      I think we need to ask, how have Orthodox theologians traditionally done theology? A review of fourth and fifth century patristic writings, as well as St John Damascene’s On the Orthodox Faith, reveals that the Fathers argued just as we would expect—namely, they exegeted Scripture and invoked the liturgical and ascetical practices of the Church in support of their views. And sometimes they would criticize the illogical reasoning and philosophical ineptitude of their opponents. What they typically did not do is invoke their own spiritual experience as a decisive and sufficient argument in favor of their own theological judgments. (Oration 27 of St Gregory the Theologian might be cited as a counter-argument, but I suggest that the oration needs to be interpreted within its polemical context.)

      Important questions also need to be asked about Christian mystical experience. To what extent is it shaped and informed by the prior theological and philosophical convictions and beliefs of the mystic? Is there such a thing as a culture-free mystical experience (see, e.g., Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience)? What is mystical experience (see especially Andrew Louth’s Afterward in the 2nd edition of his book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, as well as Denys Turner, The Darkness of God). What kind of theological weight should be accorded to the experience of theosis and the theological judgments of the the one who has been deified? At what point do we move into a kind of gnosticism and spiritual elitism? These kinds of questions are inevitable once the mystic or elder is advanced as a quasi-infallible authority in a theological dispute.

      What is the value of the philosophical arguments I am presently reviewing? I think that they help us to think more clearly about the love and justice of God and the implications of the popular teaching on damnation and final judgment. It certainly is not a matter of substituting secular philosophy for the revealed faith, but rather a matter of reflecting more deeply on the revealed faith. Consider, for example, Talbott’s argument on God’s love for the Blessed. The argument only really persuades if one already holds a properly Christian understanding of God and his infinite love. It is clearly not for Talbott an academic exercise but a matter of profound existential concern.

      All of this is beyond my competence. I’m just a simple retired priest and preacher and now part-time blogger. And since I’m a sinner and still just a beginner at prayer, all of my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. 🙂

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      • Mark says:

        Fr Aidan, I share your questions about “Christian mysticism”.
        My spiritual father is Egyptian by birth. He spent his young adulthood in the French community L’Arche. He became a monk and lived for decades now in Canada. He speaks and thinks differently from an Athonite monk and even has some criticisms of certain cultural elements of Athonite monasticism.
        Nevertheless these various cultural elements can surely be transcended through communion with Christ. What is interesting is that this sort of intimacy does not obliterate certain ways of speaking or thinking– i.e. there are tendencies to do with culture, language, etc. that may remain within a holy elder. But these somehow cease to be barriers.
        I have to accept this if I really believe that salvation is theosis. If I really accept that God became man so we might become god, then I have to believe it is possible to transcend our culture as much as it was possible for Jesus of Nazareth to do so- because there is no theosis, no mysticism, no adoption into the Faith except through union with the One Son of God. There is One who is Holy, and holiness must mean Christ-likeness. Sometimes this means Elders are able to recognize certain ‘errors’ in their cultural or linguistic heritage (and I’m speaking here of the *Christian* culture that formed them- the Orthodox church in her particular manifestation within the world). More often though I find that while these Elders keep speaking and thinking within the ‘form’ of certain cultural elements, these forms are no longer barriers. For the communication is no longer bound by the material, but it is transcended by the energy of God.
        What I mean is, there is a dynamism and fluidity to language and other material elements- so that the Holy Spirit can work through ‘non-ideal’ words and concepts to communicate Himself, spiritually.
        What comes to mind here is my surprise that St Seraphim of Sarov would often give little bits of herbs from the forest, or a bit of charcoal or oil, pretty random stuff, to people with illness and they would be healed! So where was the healing property located? If *I* were to administer the same medicine, it would heal no one (they’d just gag and leave me!). But neither is the material irrelevant; somehow the Holy Spirit worked through synergy of St Seraphim’s holy heart and will, the properties of God’s created/natural world which is meant for our communion and enjoyment, and the reception of the ‘faithful’ person. (I think again of our Lord’s inability to work miracles without the faith of others- this is all about communion, participation, cooperation, etc.).

        But the major point, which Dino made in a later post, is that we are not talking about *us* going to Elders and quoting them, or using them as our authoritative “trump card”. (the problem with this is that *I* am still not holy- so I do not even know how to understand or apply the teachings or insights of these God-bearers). We are talking rather about *our own* spiritual discipline. That we must conform our own selves to Christ through humility, obedience, purification.
        Without these exercises we actually are incapable of using our minds, and reading our literature, rightly.
        It remains a point of interest to me that our Lord did not write anything himself. That the Mother of God is hardly even mentioned in the Scriptures! And yet, these are the Holy Ones we have to contemplate and emulate.
        And finally, the point is not “being holy”, it is orientating ourselves toward Christ. It is ongoing repentance; am I even willing to see there’s a problem? To believe my passions move me even at my best? etc.

        Well, I am clearly a hypocrite from the length of this post. Good thing Christ came to save sinners. 🙂
        Pray for me.
        Love;
        -Mark Basil

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  10. Pingback: good books on christian universalism and spiritual healing | Bipolar Christianity

  11. Orthodox Ruminations says:

    Reblogged this on Orthodox Ruminations.

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  12. Randall P. Robinson says:

    A year and a half before my precious 15 year-old son committed suicide, he made the startling announcement, “I don’t believe in God. I’m not a Christian.” I had earnestly hoped that, with time, my son might come around to an understanding of God that is more in conformity with my own beliefs. My son’s time ran out on October 17, 2012 when he put a gun to his head. My son’s death precipitated an immense crisis of faith that I continue to struggle with to this day. I have often said that there is only one thing that is worse than losing your only son to suicide and that is losing your precious child to suicide and not knowing or having the assurance that they reside in Heaven where, hopefully, we will meet again. Since his death, I have made excuses for my son’s unbelief. I have rationalized that he was frustrated and angry with God for the disappointments that he faced in life and that this caused him to turn his back on God. I have tried to convince myself that maybe…just maybe, in His infinite mercy, God might have understood my son’s pain and made an exception for him to be admitted into Heaven, despite his professed unbelief, even though this runs contrary to everything I have ever been taught in my evangelical Protestant upbringing. I have struggled mightily with the notion that our loving Heavenly Father would condemn my son to an eternal torture chamber. It pains me no end to try to envision my own presence in the Eternal Kingdom if that place does not include my son. I live for the day that I will be reunited with my son. Heaven would not be heaven for me if it does not include my son. I cannot imagine being happy in heaven, knowing that my son is being eternally tortured in Hell for his unbelief.

    Thus, I have been privately drawn to an alternative theology that is at odds with my own inculcated understanding of the essential requirements for admission to Heaven. Is it possible that, in his infinite mercy, God might have received my confused and troubled young son into his loving eternal embrace? Is it possible that God might have lovingly shown my son that he is a very real presence before welcoming my son into the paradise that He has created for His children? Nothing can or ever will separate me from the love I have for my only son. Is our Heavenly Father any less loving than I am as my son’s earthly father? Is our Heavenly Father any less tolerant or willing to indulge the mistaken beliefs of his children than I have been? My prayer is that God will allow me the peace of knowing that my precious son is safe from all harm and eternally secure in the loving arms of our Heavenly Father — despite my teenager’s confused thinking about the reality of God’s existence.

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    • dino says:

      There are always extenuating circumstances involved in a suicide – a million and one extenuating excuses when this involves a 15-year old!
      The strictness we use when giving a general description (explaining to the ‘living’) of why a Christian should never contemplate suicide is one thing. However, God’s mercy and understanding is something all together different -beyond all human conception- something we cannot talk, something we can do nothing other at than wonder in awe, with copious tears of gratitude…
      This holds true of your beloved son dear Randall as well as Father Aidan’s.
      Remember what happened with the Apostle Carpus (of the 70) who lost his patience and began to pray that God send down death upon a most sinister pagan and his prey: an apostate. The Lord Christ Himself appeared Crucified anew to Carpus saying: “Strike me; I am prepared to be crucified again for the salvation of mankind.” !

      http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/05/vision-of-apostle-carpus-of-seventy.html

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Randall, there are no words. The loss is devastating. No one who has not experienced the death of a child can understand.

      If you have not read it, you may find helpful the homily I preached at the funeral of my son Aaron: http://goo.gl/yoL2mh.

      I also commend to you Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff. I found myself identifying profoundly with the Wolterstorff’s grief.

      If you would like to correspond, please feel free to write me at: tigana99 @ hotmail.com.

      Do not despair. God is more merciful and loving than we can imagine.

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