“The Lord was not only baptized himself; he also renewed our fallen nature and restored to us our status as God’s children”

As soon as he had been baptized, Jesus came out of the water. The heavens were opened to him and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove came down and rested on him. Then a voice from heaven said: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.

If the Lord had yielded to John’s persuasion and had not been baptized, do you realize what great blessings and how many we should have been deprived of?

Heaven was closed until then; our homeland on high was inaccessible. Once we had descended into the depths we were incapable of rising again to such lofty heights. The Lord was not only baptized himself; he also renewed our fallen nature and restored to us our status as God’s children.

At once “the heavens were opened to him.” The world we see was reconciled with the world that lies beyond our vision; the angels were filled with joy; earthly disorders were remedied; mysteries were revealed; enemies were made friends.

“The heavens were opened to him,” you have heard the evangelist say. This happened for three wonderful reasons. The heavenly bridal chamber had to open its shining gates to Christ at his baptism because he was the bridegroom. The gates of heaven had also to be lifted up to allow the Holy Spirit to descend in the form of a dove and the Father’s voice to resound far and wide. The heavens were opened to him and a voice said: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.

This is my beloved Son who appeared on earth without leaving his Father’s side. He both appeared and did not appear, for he was not what he seemed. As far as appearance goes the one who confers baptism is superior to the one who receives it. This is why the Father sent the Holy Spirit down on him from heaven. As in Noah’s ark a dove revealed God’s love for the human race, so now it was in the form of a dove, as though with an olive branch in its beak, that the Spirit descended and rested on him to whom the Father would bear witness. He did so to make sure that the Father’s voice would be recognized and the ancient prophecy believed. Which prophecy? The one that says: The Lord’s voice resounded over the waters. The God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders across many waters. And what does he say? This is my beloved Son in whom lam well pleased.”

Pay close attention now, I beg you, for I want to return to the fountain of life and contemplate its healing waters at their source.

The Father of immortality sent his immortal Son and Word into the world; he came to us to cleanse us with water and the Spirit. To give us a new birth that would make our bodies and souls immortal, he breathed into us the Spirit of life and armed us with incorruptibility.

Therefore in a herald’s voice I cry:

Peoples of every nation, come and receive the immortality given in baptism. To you who have spent all your days in the darkness of ignorance I bring the good news of life. Leave your slavery for freedom, the tyrant’s yoke for a kingdom, corruptibility for eternal life. Do you wish to know how to do this? By water and the Holy Spirit. This is to say, by the water through which we are born again and given life, and by the Spirit who is the Comforter sent for your sake to make you a child of God.

Hippolytus of Rome

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A Reformed Case for Universalism

by Jedidiah Paschall

I am neither a scholar nor the son of a scholar. In truth, I am a son of a plumber, a Bible College dropout typically content to work away at fiction and poetry. This is not to say that I have not studied these matters carefully or that I am unprepared to make a bold, honest, and conscientious defense for the truth as I understand it. I have been asked to make a Reformed case for apokatastasis (universal salvation), and my own limitations notwith­standing, I shall make an effort to argue that the Calvinist tradition must engage this theological position without cavalier dismissal because the coherence of the Reformed system of doctrine is at stake. The only reason why I hazard these scholarly waters is because the matter at hand is anything but academic; it cuts to the heart of a matter of first importance – namely the Christian gospel and all of its implications for the absolute victory of God in Christ. The argument that I will sustain in this discussion is that Reformed Christianity must surrender all pretense to affirming a cohesive theological witness to the goodness of God or a faithful exegetical reading of the whole of Scripture if it falls short of affirming the universal salvation. We Calvinists are a pugnacious bunch, so in keeping with the tradition, there will be no pulled punches. I will seek to address, however elliptically, considerations for the theological case for Christocentric universalism within a Reformed framework, before moving on to Part II in another discussion where I will consider exegetical issues. It must be noted that this discussion is by no means exhaustive, there is much to be explored in terms of Reformed theology and universalism, but hopefully this will suffice in introducing some preliminary issues worth examination.

Before moving forward, it must be said from the outset that the affirmation of apokatas­tasis has nothing to do with a flaccid sentimentality that seeks to either save God from himself as he has been revealed in Scripture, or to relieve humans from the specter of coming judge­ment. Christ will return to judge the quick and the dead, and this should be a cause for trembling, not for platitudes. The only possible way to gain entrance into the eschatological bliss of heaven is by the grace of God in and through Christ alone. As Peter proclaims in Acts, “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (4:12). An unapologetic affirmation of the universal hope arises from the moral necessity to ascribe to God only what he is in himself, as well as the moral courage to interpret the whole of Scripture through God’s self-disclosure in Christ. What is not a matter of debate is the existence of hell, which is copiously attested in the New Testament canon; however, what is debatable is the contention that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment for the reprobate as opposed to a provisional and redemptive estate for sinners who have not yet come into union with God.

Protestants inherited their various iterations of eternal perdition through a labyrinthine path of dubious exegesis, ecclesiastical overreach, and political opportunism dating back to the early stages of Christendom; however, what many Protestants in general, and Reformed Christians in particular, might not be aware of is that during the earliest centuries of the church, at least into the 4th Century according to St. Basil the Great, many Christians were universalists.1 “Custom”, says St. Cyprian of Carthage, “without truth is the antiquity of error.”2 It is not proper to assume that inherited custom of declaring the perpetual damnation of the non-elect held to by our Protestant forbears arose from bad faith. However, given the rise in serious universalist scholarship, to continue on a path of assuming the Reformers got the matter in question right without serious consideration smacks of foul-play.

The perpetual infernalist system of thought, traceable to a small handful of the earliest Fathers became ossified after St. Augustine in the West, and was (supposedly – though this is debatable) condemned, with Origen, one of the early Fathers who most cogently defended universal salvation, by the meddling of Emperor Justinian at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The weight of 1500 years transformed the concept of eternal conscious torment in hell from a permissible theological position alongside universalism to a dogmatic fact that silenced the theological vocabulary that might have allowed Protestants to formulate theology along different lines. The categorical rejection of universalism in Western Christianity went largely unquestioned until the 19th Century. The surge in universalism in several branches of Christianity that began with great interest in the 19th Century has again surfaced in recent years, whether from Orthodox theologians such as David Bentley Hart, Catholic scholars such as Ilaria Ramelli, and even conserva­tive Protestant thinkers such as Robin Parry, Thomas Talbott, and the Reformed theolo­gian Oliver Crisp (who simply explores the issue); the doors for reassessment are wide open. In spite of the recalcitrant grip of confessional statements that might not actually best account for what Scripture actually teaches, and the mystifying unwillingness to entertain the notion that the Reformers might have got some matters horribly wrong, which typifies confessional Reformed Christianity both historically and on the contem­porary scene, the great virtue that lies at the beating heart of the Reformation and its legacy stretching back a half a millennium is Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. The shining hope for the Calvinist tradition is that it can always be reformed according to the Word of God and the good and necessary consequences of the truth to which Scripture infallibly testifies. 20th Century Reformed theologians such as Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, regardless of their reception in some confessional circles, have managed to present a compelling synthesis of the universal extent of the Atonement, even when they fall short of the logical entailments of their formulae for apokatastasis. Their accounting of the biblical material on election and atonement is a marked improvement upon the theologically and morally questionable Calvinist doctrine of double predestination.

Even when confronted with the indiscriminate scope of Christ’s saving work on behalf of all humanity, questions of efficacy and sufficiency aside, the impulse of erstwhile compe­tent Reformed scholars has been to insist on interpreting the universal statements of Christ’s completed work in bringing salvation to humanity in light of the particularities of a few notoriously difficult and commonly misinterpreted passages (e.g. Romans 9-11) surrounding election, salvation, and damnation. For these scholars, the more-or-less strict adherence to historic Reformed confessions and the broad Evangelical mainstream consensus on hell dating back to the 18th Century and earlier in the Magisterial Reformation leaves the legitimate exploration of apokatastasis in a verboten netherworld. So, what ends up happening is that Christ’s statements that he will draw all men to himself in the Johannine Gospel (12:32), or the Paul’s unambiguous statements in Romans that while all die in Adam, all are raised to life in Christ (5:13), and that all humans were shut up in wrath only so mercy could be shown to all (11:32)3, among numerous other passages that speak to the broad sweep of Christ’s atoning work, are stuffed into conformity to the proportionally far fewer passages that leave the question open to eternal conscious torment.4 So, through an elaborate series of hermeneutical gymnastics, camels can pass through the eyes of needles, and the lighter weight of a small number of passages tips the scales in spite of the far heavier canonical witness in a desperate attempt to retain fidelity to certain features of the tradition that may very well be wrong. I will revisit the exegetical questions surrounding hell at another time, but I want to move on to the theological assumptions that can be marshalled in favor of universalism before winding back to matters of biblical interpretation.

Theological Considerations

The Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF) 2.1 reads that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Herein, the confessional witness, attested elsewhere in the Magisterial symbols and creeds affirms the most fundamental truths of Classical theism; namely, Divine simplicity and impassibility, thus keeping the Reformed tradition in line with the great Catholic and Orthodox traditions stretching back into the Patristic era. While Reformed theology has struggled at a systemic level of coherence to this Classical theism, the fact that it is a general feature of Reformed theology does open the door to the question of universal salvation, for no small reason other than the fact that apokatastasis is probably the most logical eschatological entailment of Classical theism. If God is pure act, self-identical in all the diverse manners in which he extends himself into creation, there can be no contradic­tions present in this extension. Whenever God extends himself in justice, he is extending himself identically in love in the same infinite and eternal act. Divine justice, and whatever can be made of the analogical language in Scripture surrounding wrath and the like; this is not divisible from God’s love, mercy, or goodness which is at every instant extending from himself into creation from its protological beginnings to its eschatological end. The good of the creature is always the end to which God moves.

So, at issue, by good and necessary consequence is whether or not the good of the creature can in the final estimation also end in the everlasting perdition. When considering the Reformed Standards in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 1 – “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” raises the question of whether or not eternal conscious torment of any human is in keeping with this chief end of glorifying and enjoying God in perpetuity. It would seem rather torturous to imagine that the damned can enjoy God in any meaningful sense in the agonies of hell with the everlasting impossi­bility of repenting and eventually being restored to the goodness of God. This is, of course unless one wishes to make the ghastly argument that damnation was included in God’s good purposes for any creature, and a thing to be enjoyed by that creature. This is but one of numerous examples where Reformed theology struggles to achieve coherence if the doctrine of eternal conscious damnation is to be maintained.

The other questions I will briefly touch on here are the matters of election and atonement. Election has been traditionally cast in terms of those who God has predestined to salvation and those he has predestined to perdition, and both of these are not conditioned by any quality present in the human being but solely dependent on the inscrutable and sovereign decree of God (WCF 10). John Calvin takes up the Augustinian understanding of election thusly in The Institutes III.21:

We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast, i.e., that he does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others.5

However, in the 20th Century the theology of election was reinterpreted Christologically by Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. Torrance, for example says:

… in Jesus, the election for all becomes [the] ultimate fact in our existence – and here, therefore, election and substitution combine in the most unique, most intense and personal concentration of the one and the many … In himself, as God and man in union, Jesus Christ is the actualization of the eternal purpose of God to give himself to humanity in pure love and grace … Here where God has given himself to be man’s God once and for all, nothing can undo that decision. But here too God gives man to himself once and for all, and nothing can undo that decision. It is an eternal election of love, an everlasting covenant.6

Torrance’s Christological recasting remains quintessentially Reformed in its unconditional flavor. But, instead of a merely anthropological assertion, the doctrine is depicted in a fundamentally Christocentric manner, as the above indicates. Christ is elect — hence, in Christ humanity in its entirety is elected, thus showing himself to be the God who saves, not discriminating between one class of humanity versus the other but indiscriminately for the whole of humanity.

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.7

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.8

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy cannot reasonably be called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.

Oliver Crisp in Deviant Calvinism does just this by providing an analytic case that Universalism is logically compatible for both Augustinian and Barthian Calvinists. While I cannot enumerate all of Crisp’s arguments I will note the following, first regarding Augustinian Calvinism:

Augustinianism and universalism are compatible. Or, more specifically, the central moral and metaphysical intuitions behind Augustinianism are compatible with universalism … In recent theological-philosophical discussion of eschatology, there has been an interest in what has become known as the soteriological problem of evil. This is the contention that and all-powerful, loving God would ensure that none of humanity suffers everlasting punishment in hell … The argument for Augustinian universalism is one way in which an Augustinian who is a determinist could respond to this problem by embracing universalism (in which case the problem dissolves, because there is no soteriological problem of evil: all human beings are saved).9

Likewise, regarding Barthian universalism, while Barth is notoriously difficult to logically pin down Crisp asserts that Barth’s theology at minimum contemplates hopeful universalism:

If human moral freedom consists in some version of compatibilism, then, applied to Barth’s views, human beings are all elect in Christ and will all be saved. Indeed, this is inevitable, given the prior free act of election in Christ, the Elect One.10

I wholly recommend Crisp’s work in Deviant Calvinism. Generally, I have little interest in analytic theology but Crisp puts analytic arguments to fantastic use in demonstrating that universalism is certainly conceivable within a Reformed framework. What is most notable for the sake of this discussion is that universalism need not be a fringe question in Reformed theology – it can move to the center of what it means to be Reformed in the 21st Century. Whether one wishes to remain within the classical mainstream of Augustinian Calvinism, or if one prefers to follow a Barthian/Torrancean framework (which I do with the notable exception that I remain a Classical theist), the question of universalism ought not be dismissed on theological grounds without a thorough and careful investigation.

Conclusion

As I made clear from the beginning of this discussion, I am not a theologian in any proper sense. In many ways I feel inadequate to the task of making any definitive conclusions about the Reformed systems of doctrine. However, as a Reformed Christian, I feel it necessary to bring these matters to the attention of those in my Reformed community. My efforts here are not to liberalize or soften Reformed theology, whatever can be made of the tradition it will likely remain perennially stern in character. However, this does not mean that Reformed theology should be recalcitrant or immune to further reform. Perhaps my betters in the Reformed community would be more suited to the task of making a robust case for universalism. My hope is that, with respect to theology, it would include a continuing and deeper ressourcement with the Patristic witness and an engaging dialogue with the catholic tradition in general. Universalism is not going anywhere anytime soon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news; I would argue not merely for a flinty remnant but for all humanity without distinction. If there is any moral analogy between humans and God, the question of the eschatological destiny of humanity must deal with the question of the nature of that destiny not for some but for all. Can heaven and the beatific vision of God truly contemplate the specter of anyone being irretrievably lost? My contention is unapologet­ically no. For God’s goodness to be good at all it must extend, in the words of Tennyson, “at last far off, at last to all.”

 Footnotes

[1] Basil Asketikon SR 267. 
[2] Epistle 73.9.
[3] On Romans 11:32 David Bentley Hart states: “This is the conclusion to the question of 9:14 above, which prompts the long, difficult series of reflections that end here, and which is posed in its most troubling conditional form at 9:22 (what if those who have erred or stumbled are merely vessels of wrath, whose only function is to provide a contrast to vessels of mercy?). At 11:11, however, Paul affirms that those not elected for service on the basis of divine foreknowledge, though they have stumbled, nevertheless will never fall; and at 11:12 and 25 he affirms that the temporary estrangement of the elect and ‘those who stumble’ is a temporary providential arrangement that allows the ‘full totality’ of Jews and gentiles alike to enter in; and here, finally he affirms that there is no actual distinction between of vessels of wrath from vessels of mercy: rather all are bound in sin and all will receive mercy.” The New Testament: A Translation, p. 311, n. aj.
[4] See, e.g., Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:10.
[5] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.21.1.
[6] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 109.
[7] T. F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, p. 188.
[8] Ibid., p. 189
[9] Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism, pp. 97-98.
[10] Ibid., p. 168.

(to be continued)

* * *

Jedidiah comes from a construction management background and is slowly transitioning into education in order to free up more time for his passions of writing fiction and poetry. He is a Christian from a fairly conservative Reformed background with a deep appreciation for Eastern Orthodoxy and Charismatic Christianity. His theological love begins with the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament theologians like Von Rad, Brueggeman, and Waltke and he is developing a keen interest in Classical theism and the Apostolic Fathers. You can read more of his work at St. Jude’s Tavern

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May we hope for the salvation of all (even if some will be damned)?

by Steven Nemes

Will everyone be saved, or will some be lost forever? If some are lost forever, will they be punished unendingly in hell or will they eventually be annihilated and pass out of existence? I don’t know the answer to these questions. I think there are good arguments in favor of each of the three major positions in Christian eschatology—viz., traditionalism, conditionalism, and universalism—and so I abstain, in quasi-Pyrrhonian fashion, from committing myself to one view or another. Nevertheless, I do think I can give a good enough argument in favor of adopting a particular attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation which is in prin­ciple consistent with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the relevant “hell texts” in the New (and Old) Testament. More specifically, I think that universal salva­tion can be (perhaps ought to be) the object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, but it cannot be the object of Christian teaching, preaching, or knowledge. I think Christians ought to hope, desire, and pray for the salvation of all human persons, but they should not teach or preach that everyone will be saved, nor can they claim to know that this will be so. Moreover, I think that such an attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation is compatible with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the classic “hell texts” because I think the function of those texts is not so much to predict with accuracy the final destination of some number of human beings, but rather to motivate repentance and evangelical outreach on the basis of the real, existent, but avoidable danger of damnation.

Put another way, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility, even if all the relevant biblical passages describing the final destiny of sinners are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. I know this (or at least I claim this) because there are various instances in Scripture in which God unconditionally declares the future destruc­tion of some sinners, leaving no room for ambiguity or hope of salvation, and yet this does not happen. On the contrary, it is arguable that God uses such unconditional, “hopeless” language precisely for the purpose of avoiding the very scenario of punishment and destruction which He predicts.

Let me give a few examples. When the Hebrews worship the golden calf, the Lord tells Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exod. 32:10). Moses intercedes, however, as a result of which the Lord “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (v. 14). Now, as a classical theist, I do not think that the immutable, impassible, omniscient God really changed His mind or that Moses managed to convince God to do something other than what He already had been planning to do. On the contrary, I think that God spoke that way with Moses precisely to bring it about that Moses would intercede for the Hebrews and so that he could be a channel of God’s mercy. Indeed, viewed in this light, it becomes all the more significant that God seems to try to discourage any intercession on Moses’s part (“let me alone”)—He forbids Moses to do precisely that which He intends to get him to do. This opens up an impressive interpretive option: God warns of destruction and punishment, even forbidding intercession on behalf of the sinner, precisely to bring it about that the intercession is all the more passionate and, as a result, all the more effective.

Or consider what God tells Ezekiel: “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right … they shall surely live, they shall not die” (Ezek. 33:14-15). The message to the sinner is straightforward and doesn’t leave any room for doubt: you shall surely die. Yet, if the sinner, in response to this unhappy disclo­sure of the future, turns from her wickedness and repents, then she will not die. Of course, the sinner is not told this herself. It would seem rather counterproductive to make this condition known to the sinner, because it undoes the force of the “surely” in “you shall surely die.” It leaves her with the option of repenting later, rather than effecting desperate repen­tance here and now, as the unconditional “surely” manages to do. And God is perfectly happy to be proven wrong in His categorical predictions about the future, if it means that a sinner has turned from death to life and from evil to righteousness (v. 11). I want to stress the discrepancy between what God says and what actually happens: God says that the sinner will surely die, leaving no room for doubt or interpretation; but if the sinner repents, then God’s description of the future is falsified, and precisely this seems to have been the point all along.

This also happens in the story with Jonah. The message which God gave Jonah to share with the Ninevites was relatively straightforward and clear, as far as doomsday oracles go: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:4). There was intended no implicit “escape clause” in Jonah’s message, as is clear from the uncertainty and trepidation in the king’s decree: “Who knows? God may relent and change His mind” (v. 9). And yet, because the people repent, God does not destroy them — they escape the future from which there was (seemed) no possibility of escape! The narration of Jonah says that “God changed His mind” when He saw how the people repented (v. 10), but again, I do not think that this is literally what happened. God is omniscient; He knew what the Ninevites were going to do in response to Jonah’s message. He is immutable and impassible; the prayers or repentance of any sinner cannot actually change His disposition towards her or make Him act otherwise than He already was going to act from eternity. Rather, I think the more plausible under­standing of the event is that God knew that the Ninevites would repent if Jonah preached to them by unconditionally announcing their imminent destruction (rather than explicitly making it conditional upon some acts of repentance on their part), and so that is what He decided should happen. God is not bothered by the fact that what He says does not come true; what is important to Him is not the death of the sinner (even if this preserves the truth of His words), but that he should turn and live (Ezek. 33:11).

Now, if on these occasions God made use of an unconditional prediction of destruction and punishment precisely in order to prevent such a thing from coming about—whether through the intercession of a righteous person, or else through the repentance of those so threatened —then it is obviously possible for Him to be doing this in the New Testament threats about hell, also. But what does “possible” mean in this context? I am talking about epistemic possibility, not metaphysical possibility. I believe there is already a fact of the matter as to whether all will be saved or not; I don’t think it is metaphysically indeter­minate. But I also think that there is no way to know the truth of the matter about this question, because it is always epistemically possible that the Bible’s threats about hell and damnation are providen­tially ordered by God to preventing the very threats from coming true—whether through the repentance of sinners, or the intercession of the righteous who worry about the fate of others, or (most likely) because of a combination of these factors.

The Bible teaches us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for everyone” (hyper pantōn anthropōn, on behalf of all human beings) because “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1, 4). I remain unconvinced by John Calvin’s proposed interpretation, according to which St. Paul means to say that God wants all sorts of people saved—“kings and all who are in high positions” (v. 2)—even if He does not strictly speaking want every person to be saved. I think this is a theologically motivated interpretation of a text which is otherwise sufficiently transparent in itself. God wants pantes anthrōpoi to be saved, which quite clearly means every human being or all human persons. And because He wants that all be saved, He also enjoins us through His apostle Paul to pray for the salvation of every human being, on the basis of the salvific intervention of “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (hyper pantōn)” (vv. 5-6). Beyond this, Christ teaches us to pray in a very specific way: namely, with a kind of child-like confidence that we will receive the thing we asked for from God. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). His disciples took up this same attitude: John says that “if we ask him anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him” (1 John 5:14-15); and James says we should ask for wisdom “in faith, never doubting” (Jas. 1:6). Thus, if Christ teaches us to pray with such confidence—not presumption!—and if Paul teaches us to pray for the salvation of all, then it seems to me eminently biblical and justified to pray with confidence for the salvation of all human beings. We should pray for this end with the same kind of confidence and faith and even “expectation” that we would have when praying for a family member or close friend who is sick or in need of help. (Maybe we should pray with even greater confidence, since the Bible commands us to pray for the salvation of all!) And indeed, this is what we are doing —for all sinners are nevertheless part of the human family, and we are “close friends” insofar as we all share the same human nature, with all its weaknesses.

Someone might raise an objection at this point: “If the threat of eternal damnation does not literally come true in the case of any creature at all, then won’t the threats have been empty? Has God simply been lying this whole time?” In response, I suppose I could make a few points. First, I do not think there is any point in holding out hope for the salvation of demons or the devil. Paul, in any case, commands us to pray for all human beings, never for the demons or for Satan. So, the question is whether or not God’s threats of damnation will have proven empty if no human beings are damned. Second, I don’t think the threats will have been empty, so long as the possibility of damnation was a real one—i.e., so long as some persons would have been damned forever, had they never repented or had no one ever prayed for them, etc. (This remains a real possibility; that is why the threats and predictions are made in the first place. So, the epistemic possibility of damnation cannot be excluded, regardless of whether this damnation is interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. This is why I do not accept a kind of dogmatic universalism, in addition to rejecting dogmatic traditionalism or conditionalism.) Third, I think the following argument, even if it may seem sophistic, can dispel any worries about God’s having lied about hell and damnation:

(i) God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
(ii) Yet, God makes categorical declarations about the future destruction and punishment of some sinners which nevertheless go unfulfilled; indeed, He probably makes such statements with the express purpose of falsifying them through their very terrible nature.
(iii) Therefore, to make such statements with such an intention does not constitute lying.

If someone objects to this argument, I don’t know what else to say in its defense except that the premises are true and the conclusion follows from their conjunction.

Universal salvation therefore remains an appropriate object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, regardless of whether or not the relevant “hell texts” are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. Indeed, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility even if all distinctly universalist interpretations of the “hell texts” are hopelessly mistaken. This epistemic possibility—to my mind, anyway—rules out any dogmatic confidence in traditionalism or conditionalism. At the same time, however, I think that dogmatic universalism is also excluded. Instead, I prefer not to make any judgment whatsoever on what will be, limiting myself to the way in which I orient myself to the eschatological outcome. The argument thus far has been very brief and quick, of course, and much more would need to be said to make it maximally convincing. I have already done this work in my Heythrop Journal article “Praying Confidently for the Salvation of All.”

* * *

Steven Nemes is in the middle of a PhD in Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes philosophical theology and attempts to utilize a fusion of analytic, phenomenological, and Thomistic insights in his work, in addition to teaching an online bioethics course at Grand Canyon University. He really enjoys the jazz guitar stylings of Pat Metheny Group.

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David Bentley Hart Rules: A Banner Year for Eclectic Orthodoxy

2018 was a banner year for Eclectic Orthodoxy, registering a 21% increase in views (hits) and a 20% increase in visitors! Total views: 424,340; total visitors: 158,714. This big increase, as we shall see, was largely due to the popularity of two pieces by David Bentley Hart, which he graciously allowed me to publish (thanks, David!). This also has the downside that if I’m unable to persuade Dr Hart to write something for Eclectic Orthodoxy in 2019, my viewing audience will no doubt drop precipitously. But that is all to the good.

Most popular articles:

1. “A Reply to N. T. Wright” by David Bentley Hart

The response generated by this article was simply astounding: 26,859 hits! To give you a comparison, the previously most popular article was published back in 2013, when I dared to comment on Pope Francis. That short piece got mentioned on Catholic social media and we had an explosion of hits—6,611. It was very strange and viewing quickly returned to normal. Since then the most popular articles each year have averaged around 2,000–3,000 views. And then DBH made his appearance—BOOM!

2. “Anent Gary Wills and the DBH Version

Total views: 3,453. No surprise here. David Hart rules!

3. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was

This article was originally published back in 2015, but I decided to update and republish it. Bingo! Clearly folks are interested in the topic of the universalist hope, and not much has been written on the Fifth Ecumenical Council and its (alleged) repudiation of apocatastasis. It’s more complicated than what your parish priest has told you.

8. “How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective” by Thomas Talbott

1,569 hits—I was delighted that Dr Talbott gave me permission to publish his article on biblical hermeneutics and the universalism. Everyone uncritically assumes that the Bible teaches everlasting damnation, clearly and plainly. They do not consider the possibility that the reason they think this is because they are reading the Scriptures through perditional glasses. Take off those glasses and things start looking very different.

9. “In Defense of Christian Platonism” by Alexander Earl

I am proud to have introduced to the world the young scholar Alexander Earl. Alex hit the top ten with this piece on Platonic metaphysics and Christian theology. Welcome to EO, Alex!

Of my own 2018 articles (none of which hit the top ten), I particularly enjoyed writing on divine creation in Tolkien and on St Dionysius the Areopagite (this series covered four months—sorry about that, folks).

In addition to Hart, Earl, and Talbott, several other guest writers graced the pages of Eclectic Orthodoxy, including Fr John Behr, Jonathan Geltner, Thomas Cothran, Christopher Ben Simpson, Henry KarlsonAlvin Rapien, Addison HartBrian Moore, Robert FortuinTom Belt, and Fr Jonathan Tobias. Thank you, gentlemen! You carried my blog on your shoulders this past year.

I want to thank you for your faithful support. Theological blogging (and hopefully mine qualifies, in some modest way) is nothing compared to the heyday of 10–15 years ago. It’s been replaced by Facebook and Twitter, which is really too bad. I am proud that Eclectic Orthodoxy has survived for over six years. I will be turning 67 later this month and have noticed a big drop in both energy and memory retention. But I intend to keep plugging away. I have also decided to try to write a journal article on the greater hope, which will no doubt compete with my blogging. We’ll see how it goes.

Special thanks again to David Bentley Hart for making this a banner year for Eclectic Orthodoxy!

I bid the blessings of our Lord upon you and yours in 2019.

Yours in Christ,
Fr Aidan Kimel

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“But John baptizes, Jesus comes to Him perhaps to sanctify the Baptist himself, but certainly to bury the whole of the old Adam in the water”

And now, having purified the theatre by what has been said, let us discourse a little about the Festival, and join in celebrating this Feast with festal and pious souls. And, since the chief point of the Festival is the remembrance of God, let us call God to mind. For I think that the sound of those who keep Festival There, where is the dwelling of all the Blissful, is nothing else than this, the hymns and praises of God, sung by all who are counted worthy of that City. Let none be astonished if what I have to say contains some things that I have said before; for not only will I utter the same words, but I shall speak of the same subjects, trembling both in tongue and mind and thought when I speak of God for you too, that you may share this laudable and blessed feeling. And when I speak of God you must be illumined at once by one flash of light and by three. Three in Individualities or Hypostases, if any prefer so to call them, or persons, for we will not quarrel about names so long as the syllables amount to the same meaning; but One in respect of the Substance — that is, the Godhead. For they are divided without division, if I may so say; and they are united in division. For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or to speak more accurately, Who are the Godhead. Excesses and defects we will omit, neither making the Unity a confusion, nor the division a separation. We would keep equally far from the confusion of Sabellius and from the division of Arius, which are evils diametrically opposed, yet equal in their wickedness. For what need is there heretically to fuse God together, or to cut Him up into inequality.

For to us there is but One God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and One Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom are all things; and One Holy Ghost, in Whom are all things; yet these words, of, by, in, whom, do not denote a difference of nature (for if this were the case, the three prepositions, or the order of the three names would never be altered), but they characterize the personalities of a nature which is one and unconfused. And this is proved by the fact that They are again collected into one, if you will read — not carelessly — this other passage of the same Apostle, Of Him and through Him and to Him are all things; to Him be glory forever, Amen. The Father is Father, and is Unoriginate, for He is of no one; the Son is Son, and is not unoriginate, for He is of the Father. But if you take the word Origin in a temporal sense, He too is Unoriginate, for He is the Maker of Time, and is not subject to Time. The Holy Ghost is truly Spirit, coming forth from the Father indeed, but not after the manner of the Son, for it is not by Generation but by Procession (since I must coin a word for the sake of clearness ); for neither did the Father cease to be Unbegotten because of His begetting something, nor the Son to be begotten because He is of the Unbegotten (how could that be?), nor is the Spirit changed into Father or Son because He proceeds, or because He is God — though the ungodly do not believe it. For Personality is unchangeable; else how could Personality remain, if it were changeable, and could be removed from one to another? But they who make Unbegotten and Begotten natures of equivocal gods would perhaps make Adam and Seth differ in nature, since the former was not born of flesh (for he was created), but the latter was born of Adam and Eve. There is then One God in Three, and These Three are One, as we have said.

Since then these things are so, or rather since This is so; and His Adoration ought not to be rendered only by Beings above, but there ought to be also worshippers on earth, that all things may be filled with the glory of God (forasmuch as they are filled with God Himself); therefore man was created and honored with the hand and Image of God. But to despise man, when by the envy of the Devil and the bitter taste of sin he was pitiably severed from God his Maker — this was not in the Nature of God. What then was done, and what is the great Mystery that concerns us? An innovation is made upon nature, and God is made Man. He that rides upon the Heaven of Heavens in the East of His own glory and Majesty, is glorified in the West of our meanness and lowliness. And the Son of God deigns to become and to be called Son of Man; not changing what He was (for It is unchangeable); but assuming what He was not (for He is full of love to man), that the Incomprehensible might be comprehended, conversing with us through the mediation of the Flesh as through a veil; since it was not possible for that nature which is subject to birth and decay to endure His unveiled Godhead. Therefore the Unmingled is mingled; and not only is God mingled with birth and Spirit with flesh, and the Eternal with time, and the Uncircumscribed with measure; but also Generation with Virginity, and dishonour with Him who is higher than all honour; He who is impassible with Suffering, and the Immortal with the corruptible. For since that Deceiver thought that he was unconquerable in his malice, after he had cheated us with the hope of becoming gods, he was himself cheated by God’s assumption of our nature; so that in attacking Adam as he thought, he should really meet with God, and thus the new Adam should save the old, and the condemnation of the flesh should be abolished, death being slain by flesh.

At His birth we duly kept Festival, both I, the leader of the Feast, and you, and all that is in the world and above the world. With the Star we ran, and with the Magi we worshipped, and with the Shepherds we were illuminated, and with the Angels we glorified Him, and with Simeon we took Him up in our arms, and with Anna the aged and chaste we made our responsive confession. And thanks be to Him who came to His own in the guise of a stranger, because He glorified the stranger.

Now, we come to another action of Christ, and another mystery. I cannot restrain my pleasure; I am rapt into God. Almost like John I proclaim good tidings; for though I be not a Forerunner, yet am I from the desert. Christ is illumined, let us shine forth with Him. Christ is baptized, let us descend with Him that we may also ascend with Him. Jesus is baptized; but we must attentively consider not only this but also some other points. Who is He, and by whom is He baptized, and at what time? He is the All-pure; and He is baptized by John; and the time is the beginning of His miracles. What are we to learn and to be taught by this? To purify ourselves first; to be lowly minded; and to preach only in maturity both of spiritual and bodily stature. The first has a word especially for those who rush to Baptism off hand, and without due preparation, or providing for the stability of the Baptismal Grace by the disposition of their minds to good. For since Grace contains remission of the past (for it is a grace), it is on that account more worthy of reverence, that we return not to the same vomit again. The second speaks to those who rebel against the Stewards of this Mystery, if they are their superiors in rank. The third is for those who are confident in their youth, and think that any time is the right one to teach or to preside. Jesus is purified, and do you despise purification? … and by John, and do you rise up against your herald? … and at thirty years of age, and do you before your beard has grown presume to teach the aged, or believe that you teach them, though thou be not reverend on account of your age, or even perhaps for your character? But here it may be said, Daniel, and this or that other, were judges in their youth, and examples are on your tongues; for every wrongdoer is prepared to defend himself. But I reply that that which is rare is not the law of the Church. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor one line a geometrician, nor one voyage a sailor.

But John baptizes, Jesus comes to Him perhaps to sanctify the Baptist himself, but certainly to bury the whole of the old Adam in the water; and before this and for the sake of this, to sanctify Jordan; for as He is Spirit and Flesh, so He consecrates us by Spirit and water. John will not receive Him; Jesus contends. I have need to be baptized by You, says the Voice to the Word, the Friend to the Bridegroom; he that is above all among them that are born of women, to Him Who is the Firstborn of every creature; he that leaped in the womb, to Him Who was adored in the womb; he who was and is to be the Forerunner to Him Who was and is to be manifested. I have need to be baptized by You; add to this and for You; for he knew that he would be baptized by Martyrdom, or, like Peter, that he would be cleansed not only as to his feet. And You come to me? This also was prophetic; for he knew that after Herod would come the madness of Pilate, and so that when he had gone before Christ would follow him. But what says Jesus? Allow it to be so now, for this is the time of His Incarnation; for He knew that yet a little while and He should baptize the Baptist. And what is the Fan? The Purification. And what is the Fire? The consuming of the chaff, and the heat of the Spirit. And what the Axe? The excision of the soul which is incurable even after the dung. And what the Sword? The cutting of the Word, which separates the worse from the better, and makes a division between the faithful and the unbeliever; and stirs up the son and the daughter and the bride against the father and the mother and the mother in law, the young and fresh against the old and shadowy. And what is the Latchet of the shoe, which thou John who baptizest Jesus may not loose?  thou who art of the desert, and hast no food, the new Elias, the more than Prophet, inasmuch as you saw Him of Whom you prophesied, thou Mediator of the Old and New Testaments. What is this? Perhaps the Message of the Advent, and the Incarnation, of which not the least point may be loosed, I say not by those who are yet carnal and babes in Christ, but not even by those who are like John in spirit.

But further — Jesus goes up out of the water … for with Himself He carries up the world … and sees the heaven opened which Adam had shut against himself and all his posterity, as the gates of Paradise by the flaming sword. And the Spirit bears witness to His Godhead, for he descends upon One that is like Him, as does the Voice from Heaven (for He to Whom the witness is borne came from thence), and like a Dove, for He honours the Body (for this also was God, through its union with God) by being seen in a bodily form; and moreover, the Dove has from distant ages been wont to proclaim the end of the Deluge. But if you are to judge of Godhead by bulk and weight, and the Spirit seems to you a small thing because He came in the form of a Dove, O man of contemptible littleness of thought concerning the greatest of things, you must also to be consistent despise the Kingdom of Heaven, because it is compared to a grain of mustard seed; and you must exalt the adversary above the Majesty of Jesus, because he is called a great Mountain, and Leviathan and King of that which lives in the water, whereas Christ is called the Lamb, and the Pearl, and the Drop and similar names.

. . .

But let us venerate today the Baptism of Christ; and let us keep the feast well, not in pampering the belly, but rejoicing in spirit. And how shall we luxuriate? Wash you, make you clean. If you be scarlet with sin and less bloody, be made white as snow; if you be red, and men bathed in blood, yet be ye brought to the whiteness of wool. Anyhow be purified, and you shall be clean (for God rejoices in nothing so much as in the amendment and salvation of man, on whose behalf is every discourse and every Sacrament), that you may be like lights in the world, a quickening force to all other men; that you may stand as perfect lights beside That great Light, and may learn the mystery of the illumination of Heaven, enlightened by the Trinity more purely and clearly, of Which even now you are receiving in a measure the One Ray from the One Godhead in Christ Jesus our Lord; to Whom be the glory and the might for ever and ever. Amen.

St Gregory the Theologian

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“When gifts are brought to the God-man, the dignity of the divine motherhood is exalted”

This is the day on which Christ was clearly revealed to the world, the day on which he consecrated the sacrament of baptism by receiving it in person, and also the day, according to the belief of the faithful, on which he changed water into wine at the wedding feast.

On this day too water became wine in a spiritual sense; the letter of the law ceased to apply, and the grace of the gospel shone out through Christ.

Christ was baptized, and the world was renewed. At his baptism the world put off the old man and put on the new. The earth cast off the first man who is earthly by nature and put on the second man who comes from heaven. When Christ was baptized the mystery of holy baptism was consecrated by the presence of the whole Trinity. The Father’s voice thundered: “This my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. But it was the divine will that only the Son should be baptized by blessed John.

Although the whole Trinity was at work in the incarnation of the Word and the mystery of his baptism, the Son alone was baptized by John, just as he alone was born of the Virgin. With the exception of sin, he experienced all the sufferings of the humanity he had assumed, yet in his divinity he remained untouched by suffering.

Today is festive enough in its own right, but it stands out all the more clearly because of its proximity to Christmas.

When God is worshiped in the Child, the honor of the virgin birth is revered. When gifts are brought to the God-man, the dignity of the divine motherhood is exalted. When Mary is found with her child, Christ’s true manhood is proclaimed, together with the inviolate chastity of the Mother of God. All this is contained in the evangelist’s statement: “And entering the house they found the child with Mary his mother, and bowing down they worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The gifts brought by the wise men reveal hidden mysteries concerning Christ. To offer gold is to proclaim his kingship, to offer incense is to adore his godhead, and to offer myrrh is to acknowledge his mortality.

We too must have faith in Christ’s assumption of our mortal nature. Then we shall realize that our two-fold death has been abrogated by the death he died once for all. You will find a description in Isaiah of how Christ appeared as a mortal man and freed us from our debt to death. It is written: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.”

The necessity of faith in the kingship of Christ can be demonstrated on divine authority, since he says of himself in one of the psalms: “I have been appointed king by him,” that is, by God the Father. And speaking as Wisdom personified he claims to be the King of kings, saying: “It is through me that kings reign and princes pronounce judgment.”

As to Christ’s divinity, the whole world created by him testifies that he is the Lord. He himself says in the gospel: “All power has been given me in heaven and on earth,” and the blessed evangelist declares: “All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made.”

St Odilo of Cluny

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“If he was not flesh, who was lying in the manger? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and glorify?”

The facts themselves bear witness and his divine acts of power teach those who doubt that he is true God, and his sufferings show that he is true man. And if those who are feeble in understanding are not fully assured, they will pay the penalty on his dread day.

If he was not flesh, why was Mary introduced at all? And if he was not God, whom was Gabriel calling Lord?

If he was not flesh, who was lying in the manger? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and glorify?

If he was not flesh, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes? And if he was not God, whom did the shepherds worship?

If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph circumcise? And if he was not God, in whose honour did the star speed through the heavens?

If he was not flesh, whom did Mary suckle? And if he was not God, to whom did the Magi offer gifts?

If he was not flesh, whom did Symeon carry in his arms? And if he was not God, to whom did he say, “Let me depart in peace”?

If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph take and flee into Egypt? And if he was not God, in whom were words “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” fulfilled?

If he was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if he was not God, to whom did the Father from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”?

If he was not flesh, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and serve?

If he was not flesh, who was invited to the wedding in Cana of Galilee? And if he was not God, who turned the water into wine?

If he was not flesh, in whose hands were the loaves? And if he was not God, who satisfied crowds and thousands in the desert, not counting women and children, from five loaves and two fishes?

If he was not flesh, who fell asleep in the boat? And if he was not God, who rebuked the winds and the sea?

If he was not flesh, with whom did Simon the Pharisee eat? And if he was not God, who pardoned the offenses of the sinful woman?

If he was not flesh, who sat by the well, worn out by the journey? And if he was not God, who gave living water to the woman of Samaria and reprehended her because she had had five husbands?

If he was not flesh, who wore human garments? And if he was not God, who did acts of power and wonders?

If he was not flesh, who spat on the ground and made clay? And if he was not God, who through the clay compelled the eyes to see?

If he was not flesh, who wept at Lazarus’ grave? And if he was not God, who by his command brought out one four days dead?

If he was not flesh, who sat on the foal? And if he was not God, whom did the crowds go out to meet with glory?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Jews arrest? And if he was not God, who gave an order to the earth and threw them onto their faces.

If he was not flesh, who was struck with a blow? And if he was not God, who cured the ear that had been cut off by Peter and restored it to its place?

If he was not flesh, who received spittings on his face? And if he was not God, who breathed the Holy Spirit into the faces of his Apostles?

If he was not flesh, who stood before Pilate at the judgement seat? And if he was not God, who made Pilate’s wife afraid by a dream?

If he was not flesh, whose garments did the soldiers strip off and divide? And if he was not God, how was the sun darkened at the cross?

If he was not flesh, who was hung on the cross? And if he was not God, who shook the earth from its foundations?

If he was not flesh, whose hands and feet were transfixed by nails? And if he was not God, how was the veil of the temple rent, the rocks broken and the graves opened?

If he was not flesh, who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”? And if he was not God, who said “Father, forgive them”?

If he was not flesh, who was hung on a cross with the thieves? And if he was not God, how did he say to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?

If he was not flesh, to whom did they offer vinegar and gall? And if he was not God, on hearing whose voice did Hades tremble?

If he was not flesh, whose side did the lance pierce, and blood and water came out?And if he was not God, who smashed to gates of Hades and tear apart it bonds? And at whose command did the imprisoned dead come out?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Apostles see in the upper room? And if he was not God, how did he enter when the doors were shut?

If he was not flesh, the marks of the nails and the lance in whose hands and side did Thomas handle? And if he was not God, to whom did he cry out, “My Lord and my God”?

If he was not flesh, who ate by the sea of Tiberias? And if he was not God, at whose command was the net filled?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Apostles and Angels see being taken up into heaven? And if he was not God, to whom was heaven opened, whom did the Powers worship in fear and whom did the Father invite to “Sit at my right hand”. As David said, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, etc.”

If he was not God and man, our salvation is a lie, and the words of the Prophets are lies. But the Prophets spoke the truth, and their testimonies were not lies. The Holy Spirit spoke through them what they had been commanded.

St Ephrem the Syrian

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