I have not read everything on the universalist hope, 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 found helpful:
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.
_____, Christ the Conqueror of Hell
Unlike the Latin Fathers, many of the Eastern Fathers believed that when Christ descended to hades, he saved all of its inhabitants. This universality of the Lord’s paschal work is also reflected in the Orthodox Church’s hymnody. This is one reason why the greater hope simply will not go away in Orthodoxy.
Ambrose Andreano, “Patristic Universalism”
Andreano identifies the misconceptions many people have about what universalists believe and answers the common objections advanced against the greater hope.
Andreano explores what Origen really taught about the eternal destiny of Satan. Some fascinating material here. After you’ve read this, read Bulgakov’s essay “On the Question of the Apocatastasis of the Fallen Spirits.” Makes for an interesting comparison.
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 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”?
Standing under the judgment of the Cross (and bound by Catholic dogma), we may not assert apokatastasis, says Balthasar; but we may—and indeed must—pray for the salvation of all. Universal restoration in Christ is a possibility for which we may hope, but can never be a certainty we may proclaim.
Balthasar did not convert me to the universalist hope. The seeds for that hope were planted back in the early 80s when Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson taught me the unconditionality of the divine love. But Balthasar watered those seeds. Faith in the absolute love of God slowly began to grow into hope for a universalist Future. Eventually, though, I realized that I needed to proclaim a more confident, greater hope than Balthasar allows.
Belt is not a patristic scholar and certainly not an expert on St Maximus (who is?), but he is a thoughtful reader and theologian. In this article he reflects on Maximus’s Ambiguum 7 and wonders whether Maximus’ metaphysics and understanding of God logically leads to universal salvation, whether or not the great Church Father connected the dots.
Richard Bernier, “Where is Everybody? Apokatastasis, Divine Charity and Human Freedom”
Bernier is a Byzantine Catholic theologian. In this thoughtful piece, he asks the question why should we question the doctrine of everlasting damnation. His answer is blunt: we must question it because it is “monstrous, plain and simple.”
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, “On the Question of the Apocatastasis of the Fallen Spirits”
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 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. 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.”
Bulgakov’s is the most profound vision of the greater hope that I have read.
Mark Chenoweth, “St Maximus the Universalist?”
Chenoweth surveys the key texts in St Maximus’s writings and concludes that if he was not an outright universalist, he was certainly sympathetic to it. Superficially Maximus appears to have affirmed universal damnation, yet there are many elements in his theology that point to apokatastasis.
Justin Coyle, “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?”
Does the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church permit the confession of universal salvation? Probably not, but in this article Coyle pushes the envelope about as far as it can be pushed. Dogma does not interpret itself but must itself be interpreted, and there are times when dogma demands reinterpretation.
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.
Chris Green, “The Problem of Hell and Free Will”
“We need to understand human being and agency not as a limit to God—created by and as God’s act of self-limitation—but as existing within God’s freedom and because of it, in absolute dependence on God’s supremacy. We need a way of saying that God wills our free response and that our response is truly free just because God wills it.”
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.
Addison Hart, “Robert Buchanan and ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’”
The figure of Judas Iscariot has long captured the imagination of Christians, even begetting poems and songs. Hart reflects on one forgotten poem by a forgotten English poet, Robert Buchanan. If Jesus is love, is he not awaiting the return of his friend and disciple at the messianic banquet?
David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved
If human beings are made by God and for God, if the Holy Trinity is their ultimate Good, only in whom they may find the happiness they desire toward whom their consciousness is teleologically directed, then we may not entertain the possibility that they could irrevocably close themselves off to Love. God’s salvific will cannot be eternally stymied. That All Shall Be Saved has brought apokatastasis back to the catholic table. See my series on this book: “Apprehending Apokatastasis,” as well as the many book reviews published on this blog.
That All Shall Be Saved is profitably read alongside the metaphysical essays contained in The Hidden and the Manifest, especially “Impassibility as Transcendence.”
_____, “God, Creation, and Evil”
This is an important essay (also included in revised form in That All Shall Be Saved). Hart discusses the question of eternal damnation and theodicy and comes down firmly in favor of the universalist vision of St Gregory of Nyssa. Hart boldly declares that the Christian confession that God is absolute Love and Goodness, when combined with the equally Christian confession that God has freely created the world from nothingness, excludes the traditional expousal of the eternal damnation of the wicked. 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.”
_____, “What is a Truly Free Will?”
_____, “What God Wills and What God Permits”
_____, “Can Persons Be Saved?”
_____, “When Only Bad Arguments Are Possible”
Christopher Howell, “The Path Upward: Liturgy, Universalism, and George Sefiris”
First read Brad Jersak’s article “Apocatastatic Hymnody” and then follow up with this article. In addition to noting the universalist-orientation of Orthodox hymnody, he also discusses the Last Judgment hymns, which are often cited as testimony for the everlasting damnation position. His conclusion: when we read, hear, and sing the hymns of the Orthodox. Church, we “we realize that the universalist hope never did disappear” in the life of the Church.
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. Do not let others tell you otherwise.
Jersak surveys the hymns of the Orthodox liturgies and offers this conclusion: “Our kontakia and troparia, our typika and canons, are a continuous bold declaration that what Christ accomplished through the Cross, his conquest into hades and his glorious resurrection, was for all humanity, affects all humanity and calls all humanity. They comprise the gospel announcement that Christ is victorious over death and has raised up humanity with himself.”
After reading Jersak’s article, then turn to Howell’s contribution: “The Path Upward.”
“But the the Church dogmatically denounced all expressions of apokatastasis,” the critic confidently declares, pointing to the anathemas allegedly 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) are directed against the strange and esoteric teachings of the 6th century Origenists, and (3) do not condemn the very different construal of apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac of Nineveh, and contemporary proponents of the greater hope.
It is generally assumed by Orthodox believers that the doctrine of everlasting damnation enjoys the status of irreformable or infallible dogma. It is therefore necessary to examine the nature of dogma and what it means, at least for the Orthodox, to characterize a dogmatic statement as irreformable. As we see in this article, matters are more complex than popularly taught, especially when it comes to eschatological questions.
The question of everlasting damnation does not possess the status of infallibility because it directly contradicts the revealed truth of divine love and goodness and the “happy ending” promised by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is often not noticed that a significant doctrinal correction has occurred in Christian theology. For 1500 years hell has been thought as everlasting retributive punishment. This is no longer the case. Over the past 75 years Western philosophers and theologians have rejected the punitive model of hell and have proposed what is a free-will model. Quite independently, Orthodox theologians have advanced the “river of fire” model. Universal salvation is but the logical conclusion of the free-will and river of fire models. God is love, and he will not be satisfied until all have been converted to him in love.
_____, “Hell as Universal Purgatory”
I am convinced that a failure of imagination partly underlies the resistance to the greater hope. If a person dies hating and rejecting God, how can God possibly deliver him or her from that rejection? The medicinal understanding of purgatory comes to the rescue.
The gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a message of triumph and unconquerable hope: God will reconcile all sinners to himself in the eschatological transfiguration of the cosmos. This hope therefore authorizes preachers to proclaim the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise. This paper was delivered at a conference in Cardiff, Wales in 2014.
This 3-article series represents a recently revised and expanded blog version of the lecture I delivered in Cardiff in 2014. How does apokatastasis shape and inform our preaching of the gospel? How does it fit in with the Orthodox understanding of Church as manifestation of the Kingdom?
I think this was the first article I wrote on the greater hope. The eschatological homilies of St Isaac were a revelation and great comfort for me. They confirmed for me what had already become a firm conviction in my heart: hell is not God’s final word on the impenitent. “I am of the opinion,” announces the Syrian ascetic, “that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness”
Dame Julian of Norwich was probably not a universalist, not explicitly so; but clearly the greater hope dwelt deep in her heart.
“But what about Judas? the universalist is always asked. Judas is the test case of the Savior’s love. Will Christ, can Christ, save his fallen apostle?
_____, “Apprehending Apokatastasis”
This is my multi-article commentary on David Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. My hope is that others will find it helpful in grasping David’s key arguments. Together these articles present what I believe is a compelling argument that God will restore all sinners to himself in his Kingdom.
_____, “Hell as Universal Purgatory”
That there is a hell for the impenitent, all universalists affirm. But it is not an everlasting punishment but the painful redemptive process by which the risen Christ liberates us from our delusions and addictions and brings us to clear vision of that Love for which each of us desires. I draw on Bulgakov, Dante, and Ebenezer Scrooge–that’s a compelling lineup, if there ever was one.
The traditional view says no. Death finalizes the sinner’s orientation to God. But why believe this is so? All explanations seem fatuous and unconvincing. They presuppose the doctrine of everlasting damnation. In this piece I summarize the view of the great Sergius Bulgakov. Bulgakov dismisses the school opinion that death freezes the human person: “the disincarnation in death does not suppress the activity of the spirit.” The afterlife presents new possibilities!
This article is one of a series on the eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov. He contends that in the final judgment, all will see the risen Christ and in their hearts will know the One in whose image they were made and know, by comparison, how far they have fallen from the Image. “It is impossible,” declares Bulgakov, to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving him.”
Ultimately the greater hope is not grounded in a few verses of Scripture or the witness and arguments of a few theologians. It is grounded upon the apprehension of the unconditionality of the divine love, as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every affirmation of an eternal hell violates and denies the Lord’s unconditional love.
In the final analysis, only the vision of universal salvation offers a satisfying resolution to the evils and sufferings of this present world.
_____, “Hell and the Solidarity of Love”
_____, “Heavenly Amnesia”
_____, “Goddammit, Who Damns Whom?”
_____, “Hell, Prison, or Nothingness?”
_____, “The Secret of the Universalist Hope”
Andrew Klager, “Orthodox Eschatology and St Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis”
In this fine piece, Klager articulates a cosmic eschatology grounded in humanity’s ontological union with the Incarnate Word. He features St Gregory of Nyssa, but he also draws on the Divine Liturgy and the ascetical tradition on theosis. He concludes by affirming a universalist hope along the lines advocated by Ware and Evdokimov.
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. 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.
For a brief exposition of MacDonald’s greater hope, see my article “The Hell of Self and the Redemption of the Outer Darkness.”
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 Sergius Bulgakov, and Karl Barth. Tom Talbott’s piece on George MacDonald is of particular interest. A helpful and instructive volume.
Brian C. Moore, “Sin, Hell, and the Victory of Pascha”
Brian Moore–theologian, philosopher, poet, storyteller–has been a gift to Eclectic Orthodoxy. He has a unique gift to bring to light dimensions of reality that we usually miss. This article on the greater hope is one of the finest pieces published on my blog.
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.
Nemes critically analyzes two classical objections against the universalist hope, one from the Augustianian-Reformed tradition and the other from the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition: (1) The divine goodness does not require that God save anyone. (2) If human beings are genuinely free, then they must be able to eternally and irrevocably reject God and thus separate themselves from his love and mercy.
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.
Jedidiah Paschall, “A Reformed Case for Universalism”
Drawing on Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, Paschall proposes that universal salvation appropriately follows from God’s election of humanity in Jesus Christ.
C. A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan”
A helpful summary of how the question of Satan’s ultimate salvation has been addressed by Christian theologians down through the centuries. “From the outset,” Patrides writes, “one element clearly emerges: the conviction that God’s love is all-inclusive and irresistible. The crucial issue, which orthodox theologians repeatedly failed to grasp, was never whether Satan should be, or could be, redeemed, but whether Divine Love may be limited in any way, even to the extent of Satan’s exclusion from Grace.”
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.
_____, A Larger Hope?
Finally! In this affordable volume Ramelli distills her years of research on apokatastasis in the first- and early second-millennium into an accessible format. During the first six centuries, the greater hope was alive and well in many quarters of the Church. Must-buy, must-read.
Taylor Ross, “The Severity of Universal Salvation”
Bringing together Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and George MacDonald, Ross argues that universal salvation “entails a concept of judgment just as exacting, just as rigorous, and every bit as righteous as the sort of purely punitive punishment on offer in any version of the doctrine of eternal damnation.”
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 (2nd edition)
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 some of his ecclesiological convictions; but it’s easy enough to bracket them and simply 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. 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.
_____, “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.
Focusing on St Paul, Talbott invites us to read the Scriptures afresh, temporarily bracketing our infernalist suppositions. We might be surprised by what we find.
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.”
Jordan Daniel Wood, “George MacDonald against Hans Urs von Balthasar on Universal Salvation”
Balthasar is well known for his advocacy of a non-necessary universalist hope: we may and should hope that God will save all, but we must not presume that he will. Wood finds Balthasar’s position unsatisfactory and commends as an alternative the bold and confident hope of George MacDonald.
Reviews of That All Shall Be Saved
The publication of That All Shall Be Saved in 2019 was a major event. It pushed the question of universal salvation to the theological front-burner. How long it will stay there is anybody’s guess. Probably not long. The majority of online reviews suggest that the brethren would rather dismiss the universalist thesis as outright heresy rather than engage it constructively and substantively. Fortunately all is not lost. Since the book’s publication, Eclectic Orthodoxy has published a number of thoughtful reviews.
Thomas Talbott, “Tom Talbott Reviews That All Shall Be Saved” (four parts)
Shenji Akemi, “The Only Theodicy?”
Taylor Nutter, “The Possibility of a Thomistic Universalism”
David Opderbeck, “Why I’m a Fan of DBH–But …” (three parts)
Chris Green, “God is Heaven, God is Hell”
Brian Moore, “A Most Peculiar Story” (five parts)
Ty Monroe, “Faith, Reason, and Moral Sensibility”
Alvin Kimel, “Apprehending Apokatastasis” (ten parts)
_____, “A Review of a Review of a Review”
Heaven and Hell
Joel Buenting (ed.), The Problem of Hell
Do you enjoy analytic philosophical reflection on the hell? You’ll find a number of interesting essays in this volume, including a piece by Talbott on free will and character formation and a piece by Jerry Walls on annihilationism. Check out the table of contents on the Amazon page.
Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church
Unfortunately, we lack an in-depth treatment of patristic eschatology available in English. Perhaps such a work would be too much for any single scholar; or perhaps someone has written such a volume, and it just hasn’t been translated. Fortunately, we do have Brian Daley’s “handbook,” as he calls it. Published in 2002, it remains the go-to book on the eschatological views of the Church Fathers. It does need to be updated, though, in light of the recent scholarly contributions of Ilaria Ramelli.
Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes
The classic evangelical work on retributive annihilationism. Not a position with which I am particularly sympathetic—the hermeneutics that grounds the project is all wrong, but it contains a lot of useful information.
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 surprising—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.
Zachary Hayes, Visions of a Future
Hayes synthesizes Catholic reflection on the last things over the past 50-60 years. This book is helpfully read alongside Ratzinger’s Eschatology.
Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven
This has been one of my favorites since it was first published in 1990. The influence of C. S. Lewis upon Kreeft is manifest. It was here that I first encountered the view that purgatory is an anteroom of heaven.
Andrew Louth, “Eastern Orthodox Eschatology”
Andrew Louth is a patristic scholar and one of the foremost Orthodox theologians in the world. Louth grounds Orthodox reflection on the Last Things in the Divine Liturgy. Louth notes that “in Orthodox theology a hope of universal salvation, based on a conviction of the boundlessness of God’s love, has never gone away.”
Zachary Manis, Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God
For the past century the two principal models of eternal damnation have been the retributivist and free will. Manis now introduces a third which he believes expresses the best of both approaches—the divine presence model: God eternally and only intends the salvation of every human being, but human beings remain free to definitively reject his gracious gift. “The eternal suffering of hell,” Manis contends, “is not the result of any divine act that aims to inflict it, but rather the way that a sinful creature necessarily experiences the unmitigated presence of a holy God.” Also see my four-part review of the book.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life
This is a classic in Roman Catholic literature on the subject. Here we see the decisive break in post-Vatican II Catholicism from retributivist models of both purgatory and hell.
Preston Sprinkle (ed.), Four Views on Hell
If you’re just beginning to reflect on eternal damnation, this may be the book with which to begin. Four Protestant scholars present the retributive, annihilationist, free will, and universalist positions and respond to the contributions of the others.
Thomas Talbott, “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.
Alexandre Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology”
The eschatology of the Orthodox Church is notably underdetermined, in contrast to that of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result diverse understandings exist within her precincts. Turincev’s essay represents an excellent introduction to the eschatology developed by the “Parisian school” of Orthodoxy in the 20th century, as expressed in this quotation:
“The moral conscience may accept hell, understood in the sense of a state of purification of the soul – lasting, perhaps, but not perpetual. But here is what matters: hell can be vanquished, and it is already vanquished. This is the central affirmation of our Faith. To believe in Christ is to believe in His victory over hell. He is the vanquisher of death and of hell. He is our Deliverer. He alone can liberate us from hell, even now or in the next life. It should be added that the Orthodox Church disregards the Latin distinction of hell and purgatory. She prays for all the dead and does not accept that there are any who are already damned forever. The existence beyond the grave is nothing but the continuation of the deceased’s destiny, with its progressive purifying and liberating action – a healing, a maturation and a creative expectation.”
Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory
Much of Walls’s philosophical career has been devoted to matters eschatological. In this 2015 book he pulls together his reflections for a popular audience. It is clearly written, accessible, and affordable—highly recommended. Also see my multi-part review. For more in-depth treatment, read Walls scholarly trinity (below).
_____, Hell: The Logic of Damnation
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? Yes, Capon boldly asserts. 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 eternally available to the damned for their exploration and reassessment.
I will update this list as I continue to read on this subject.