I 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, have found helpful, and consider worthy of consideration:
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.
The universalist views of Origen and St Gregory Nyssen are well known, but what about St Maximus the Confessor. Andreapoulos believes that strands of Maximus’s eschatology intimate an openness to the universalist vision, despite the damnation passages that can be found in the Maximian corpus. Andreapoulos points to Maximus’s conviction that every human being will experience an eschatological healing and transformation of his gnomic will. When the Good is fully manifested in the parousia of Christ, why would anyone reject the Good?
Written a decade after his Theandros essay, and taking into account more recent scholarship, Andreapoulos elaborates on the eschatological perspectives of St Maximus. As in his earlier essay, he believes that the logic of Maximus’s ontological and anthropological reflections leave open the possibility of universal salvation. Regarding apokatastasis Andreapoulos concludes:
“On the one hand, Maximus foresees the restoration of the natural will and speaks of the purifying fire of the Second Coming, something that implies an end to the purification process, but, on the other hand, he emphasizes the final rest. Perhaps the answer can be found in a comment from the Q.Thal. 22 (Laga–Steel 1980: 139. 66–141. 80) where Maximus draws a distinction between the present age, the ‘age of the flesh’, which is characterized by doing, and the age of the Spirit that will be characterized by ‘undergoing’. This suggests that the final rest will not be a static rest, but that some kind of activity is conceivable. In addition, it is not specified if the activity of that age is limited to the righteous only: the analogy to the age of doing suggests the opposite. Is it possible, then, that with the mysterious phrase ‘ever-moving rest’ (ἀεικίνητος στάσις), the Confessor envisioned a rest similar to the unification of the soul with God, as described by Gregory of Nyssa, where the soul moves infinitely towards God without ever being able to reach the end of infinity, but experiencing and participating increasingly in the divine energies? The ‘undergoing’ of the sinful souls might then be translated into the contrition and repentance they never had in life, which could perhaps even then bring them closer to God, while the righteous advance in their blissful participation of the divine. Something like that would be consistent with the possibility of a final restoration of all and with Maximus’ views on the rest. This active rest would have to be understood as an unchangeable condition, in spite of the movement or undergoing of the souls, something that would satisfy its position at the end of the Maximian cosmological triad as the conclusion. It would also mean that it is not necessary to envision an ontological difference between the righteous and the wicked, as there is not one now.”
Paul Blowers has advanced a similar judgment in his recently published book Maximus the Confessor.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?
I read this book ten years ago or so, and it powerfully confirmed my long-held, but largely secret, universalist hope. Bound by Roman Catholic dogma, Balthasar could not affirm anything stronger than the possibility that God may save all, but he fervently believed that we must pray for the salvation of all. Standing under the judgment of the Cross, we cannot rightly assert apokatastasis. Universal restoration is a possibility, not a certainty. To suggest otherwise breeds presumption.
Balthasar did not convert me to the universalist hope—Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson did that back in the early 80s when they taught me the unconditionality of the divine love—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.
Sebastian Brock, “St Isaac the Syrian and his Understanding of Universal Salvation”
Sebastian Brock is one of the foremost scholars in the world on Syriac Christianity. This essay is particularly valuable for the copious quotations from St Isaac on the theme of apokatastasis. If you are unable to purchase the Second Part of St Isaac’s discourses (in which his eschatological homilies are contained), then you definitely want to read this paper.
Sergius Bulgakov, Apocatastasis and Transfiguration
Bulgakov’s famous essay in which he argues for the final redemption of the fallen angels. His argument is similar to that the argument he presents for the universal salvation of humanity in Bride of the Lamb, yet he also recognizes that it will be accomplished differently because of the differences between angelic spirits and embodied human beings made in the Imago Dei. The salvation story of Satan can only begin when he he has been cast out of the world into the void. Only then can he come to know the nothingness he has become.
_____, The Bride of the Lamb
Bulgakov was perhaps the most creative, daring, profound—and also 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 and theologian of the Church.
Section III of Bride of the Lamb is devoted to the topic of eschatology. This section can be read to great benefit just by itself. 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 we should trust God more. “The torments of hell are a longing for God caused by the love of God,” he states. It is blasphemy to think that evil will triumph over the the risen Lord. 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,” he declares. “A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ.”
This is the most profound vision of the greater hope that I have read.
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
Before a person can seriously entertain the universalist hope, he must become persuaded that the the Father of Jesus Christ loves sinners absolutely, unconditionally, nontransactionally. I can think of no better theologian to assist us in grasping this truth than Robert Capon—not because Capon is a theologian of the first-rank (he doesn’t even belong to the second-rank), but because he has an uncanny ability to think outside the conditionalist box. Such an ability is necessary when interpreting the New Testament as eschatological discourse. Capon also has a whimsical writing style that often makes me chuckle (and sometimes cringe).
This book shares Capon’s reflections on the parables of Jesus. Each parable, Capon believes, witnesses to the kingdom now present in Christ, a kingdom that Jesus gifts to his hearers. Even the parables of judgment witness to the unconditional love of Christ and his Father. Yes, his exegesis is sometimes off-the-wall and unconvincing, yet that is what can be so helpful to us. We need to have our expectations turned upside-down and inside-out.
_____, Between Noon and Three (1997 ed.)
Capon described the writing of this book a “watershed experience” and considered it his most important book. It’s difficult to describe. The first part is a parable of two adulterous lovers, Paul and Laura, with Caponic commentary. Many will find the parable scandalous, because the two lovers do not repent of their sin. Capon, of course, is not endorsing sin (despite appearances, he is not an antinomian); but he wants us to see that unconditional love (represented by Laura) transcends moralism. The second part is an imaginary coffee house Q&A between Capon and his parishioners. The third part is another parable—this time a parable about the gangster-style execution of a New Jersey mobster. Is it possible for God to forgive murder, redeem murder? Evil is eternally enveloped, judged, and redeemed within the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Oh, by the way, Capon was not a universalist. He believes that it is possible for the sinner, like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, to stand outside the festivities of the kingdom. Like C. S. Lewis, Capon advocates a free-will model of damnation. Might it be possible for the damned to repent of their rejection of the divine mercy? Perhaps. All moments in time are eternally held within the spear wound of Christ and thus, perhaps, eternally available to the damned for their exploration and reassessment. Perhaps.
Keith DeRose, “Universalism and the Bible”
Keith DeRose is not a biblical scholar. He is a philosopher at Yale University. Like Tom 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 … 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.” I certainly would not say a “clear winner,” but the case is stronger than many believe.
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: he thinks that the great theologian slides into a metaphysical necessitarianism, just as Origen did. I disagree. Bulgakov is too concerned to preserve the synergistic freedom of the creature to allow any kind of necessity to govern his eschatological convictions.
Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation
In this sophisticted work Griffiths argues for a free-will annihilationism: human beings are ultimately free to embrace sin and pass into the nothingness from which they were created. What makes his arguments particularly interesting—and suprising—is that he is a Roman Catholic who seeks to norm his reflections by the infallible pronouncements of the Magisterium. With Balthasar, Griffiths believes that we must pray for the salvation of all, though he deems the prospect unlikely, although not impossible. He agrees with the universalist that the traditional claim that God would resurrect the dead in order to condemn them to everlasting perdition violates the revealed character of God as infinite and absolute Love.
Steven R. Harmon, Every Knee Should Bow
Harmon examines how Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St Gregory of Nyssa sought to ground their hope for universal salvation in the biblical story and their reading of Holy Scripture.
David B. Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil”
This is an important essay. Hart discusses the question of eternal damnation and theodicy and comes down firmly in favor of the universalist vision of St Gregory of Nyssa. How do we reconcile the Church’s threefold confession of God’s creation of the world from nothingness, his absolute goodness, and human freedom with the traditional expousal of the eternal damnation of the wicked? Reconciliation is impossible, he contends. If God is truly good, then he would never accept the risk that even one of his beloved would be eternally lost. Humanity has been made by God for God: “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”
“God, Creation, and Evil” is profitably read alongside the metaphysical essays contained in The Hidden and the Manifest.
Wacław Hryniewicz, “Universal Salvation: Questions on Soteriological Universalism”
A courageous essay by a Polish Catholic theologian. Hryniewicz directly challenges centuries of the pedagogy of fear. The section “Is God Helpless in the Face of the Gift of Freedom?” is particularly illuminating. “God himself is the greatest hope for all His creatures,” Hryniewicz writes. “He penetrates even the infernal depths of the human heart. He can lead out of the depths of Gehenna. He does not destroy the freedom of rational beings, but respects human choice. However, he has his truly divine way of persuading the freedom of the beings most in revolt. He attracts and transforms them from the inside through His goodness, beauty and boundless love manifested above all in the voluntary kenosis of Christ.”
A thoughtful summary of the eschatological views of St Isaac of Nineveh. Hryniewicz concludes his article with these words: “Today, after the twelve centuries which have elapsed since the times of Isaac the Syrian, one reads his texts with deep affection and sincere admiration. His universal hope makes him one of the greatest guides and teachers, especially in theological thinking about the world to come. His eschatological insights correspond to the teachings of quite a number of ancient Fathers, yet what he taught was not simply a repetition of his predecessors, but the result of his personal theological experience. In this experience the central conviction is that God is love.”
Brad Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut
This may be the first book I would recommend to someone who desires to explore the biblical basis for the universalist hope. Written for a popular audience, Jersak invites his readers to bracket their dogmatic systems and listen to the Scriptures afresh, in all of their irreducible diversity and complexity. “Our obsessive attempts,” he writes, “to harmonize the Scriptures into artificially coherent, stackable propositions—as if they required us to contend for their reliability or authority—actually do violence to their richness.” One finds within the Bible specific texts that may be reasonably interpreted to support each of the three major construals of eschatological destiny—infernalist, annihilationist, and universalist. Perhaps we need to hear all three voices. Ultimately Jersak opts for a non-dogmatic, hopeful universalism.
A few years after writing this book, Jersak entered into the communion of the Orthodox Church. He remains a hopeful universalist.
_____, “Permit Me to Hope”
A fine article that Jersak wrote for Eclectic Orthodoxy. He maintains that the universalist hope remains a legitimate option within the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Alvin Kimel, “Apokatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was”
“But the the Church dogmatically denounced all expressions of apokatastasis?” the critic confidently declares, pointing to the anathemas ostensibly pronounced by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. But matters are not so simple. It appears that the anathemas in question were (1) never formally approved by the Council, (2) the anathemas are directed against the strange and esoteric of the 6th century Origenists, and (3) they do not condemn the very different construal of apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa.
The gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a message of triumph and unconquerable hope: God has and will establish his Kingdom. Preachers must learn to distinguish between law and promise.
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.
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 profoundly influence the eschatological reflection of Sergius Bulgakov.
To a large extent, opposition to the greater hope is governed by a failure of imagination: we cannot imagine how God can save all if human beings are truly free. The logic of eternal damnation binds our minds. In these homilies MacDonald liberates our imagination and invites us into a vision of the Father who loves infinitely and eternally. “Nothing is inexorable but love,” he declares. The Father will never abandon his children.
Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist
Gregory MacDonald is the 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 liberated 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.
Gregory MacDonald (editor), All Shall Be Well
A collection of essays discussing the universalist hope articulated by various theologians in the history of the Church, from Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa to George MacDonald, Sergius Bulgakov, and Karl Barth. A helpful and instructive volume.
Steven Nemes, “Praying Confidently for the Salvation of All”
Nemes argues that despite the passages in the New Testament that threaten eternal damnation, we do not in fact know whether hell will be eternally populated. Hence we may confidently pray for the salvation of all.
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.
Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis
Weighing in at over 900 pages, this is a massive work of first-rate scholarship on the theme of universal salvation in the first millennium Christian Church. This book is now mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to advance an opinion about what the Church Fathers believed and taught. You will be surprised. The universalist hope was far more prevalent than I ever knew. It was not restricted to Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa. Even St Augustine apparently believed in a form of apocatastasis early in his episcopal career. Tragically, thanks in large part to Augustine in the West and the Emperor Justinian in the East, the universalist hope was suppressed and the teaching of everlasting perdition became the teaching of the Church.
Ramelli explores Origen’s and St Gregory Nyssen’s integration of philosophy and biblical exegesis in their reflections on apokatastasis. If you can’t afford her monograph (who can?), then by all means take a look at this essay. Ramelli believes that Origen (and by implication Gregory) has been misunderstood and misrepresented by the ecclesiastical tradition. He certainly was no Origenist.
John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology”
A helpful introduction to universalist reflection in the patristic Church, with special focus on Origen, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa.
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. Talbott writes clearly and 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 infernalists do not “own” Scripture. Thanks to Talbott, it has become impossible for me to not to see the patent universalist thrust in the letters of the Apostle Paul. How did I miss it before? For me personally, the most important chapters of this book are those in which Talbott discusses human freedom and the nature of justice.
Talbott has recently revised and expanded this classic. The chapter on predestination is particularly illuminating. Also see my ten-part review of the second edition.
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. This article provides a helpful review of recent philosophical discussion of hell. Talbott does not hide his universalist sympathies. 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 relation of divine providence and divine foreknowledge is a difficult, perhaps intractable, problem, especially for classical theists but also for modern theists who desire to remain within the mainstream Christian tradition. This is not an easy piece, but it does shed light and is well worth the read. At the very least it demonstrates how difficult it is to reconcile eternal damnation with a God who is benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
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.”
I will update this list as I continue to read on this subject.