All posts in “Universalism”

Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan (Review)

Book: Eternal Blessedness for All?: A Historical-Systematic Examination of Schleiermacher’s Understanding of Predestination by Anette I. Hagan (Princeton Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [PUBLISHER LINK]

Overview: Anette I. Hagan’s book is a careful and thorough examination of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election. She focuses on all the relevant historical and systematic contexts shaping Schleiermacher’s thought, resulting in a thoughtfully constructed study well worth reading.

I’ve been diligently studying up on Schleiermacher’s theology over the last five months (in preparing to write the next book in my Plain English Series). It has been a surprising experience! His work is often caricatured poorly, especially by Barth. But in spite of my love for Barth, I have genuinely come to enjoy and appreciate Schleiermacher’s work. One of the many surprises I have discovered from reading Schleiermacher is his profound doctrine of election, the subject of Hagan’s excellent book.

Hagan’s book is a superb study which clarified and expanded my understanding (and appreciation) of Schleiermacher’s contribution. She masterfully outlines both the historical and systematic contexts in which he developed his understanding of election. The historical insights she offers were especially beneficial. Schleiermacher’s essay, On the Doctrine of Election, is brilliant, but without an understanding of these historical contexts, it was difficult to grasp all of its significant points. Hagan’s book is helpful in this regard, as she provides clarity to better understanding why Schleiermacher wrote this important essay and the specific goals he had in mind.

Hagan’s book also explores a number of systematic considerations from Schleiermacher’s theology which bears weight on the doctrine, such as the doctrine of creation. She also offers an insightful survey of the sermons Schleiermacher preached which were relevant to his doctrine. These provide further details to understanding Schleiermacher’s contribution.

All of these considerations bring into focus the significance of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election.

One of the brilliant aspects of Schleiermacher’s understanding of election is his emphasis on God’s decree for all humanity rather than for individuals. This emphasis results in a fascinating argument for the universal redemption of all. Hagan offers a succinct summary:

In Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the doctrine, the reprobate are those who have so far been overlooked and are not yet affected by the Spirit. They do not cease to be incorporated into the shared religious life and remain objects of divine love, and they therefore do not lose the potential of being regenerated at some point in the future—even after death. Reprobation is compatible with God’s love precisely because the reprobate fulfill a necessary role within the historical unfolding and development of the human race as an integral part of God’s creation. Schleiermacher thus turns both the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions on their heads: the issue is not whether perdition is ordained, or foreseen and permitted, but whether it is a necessary or a contingent part of God’s decree. If it is a necessary part, it has to be consistent with divine love, and the only way to reconcile both notions is by interpreting reprobation as temporal rather than eternal. […]

By claiming that perdition is a necessary temporary stage to be overcome by the ultimate universal reconciliation and restoration of all that has been lost, Schleiermacher has solved the conflict between divine justice and divine love. ‘The difference at the point of death, then, between the person of faith and the person not of faith is simply the difference between being taken up into the reign of Christ earlier or later.’ [Schleiermacher: On The Doctrine of Election, 94] 1

Schleiermacher’s contribution strikes me as an aspect of his thought that is not taken seriously enough. Hagan’s book is a noteworthy study which would be indispensable to a complete study of Schleiermacher.

Overview: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Schleiermacher particularly, but also to those who are interested in the doctrine of election more generally. This book is a carefully written and exhaustively researched study of Schleiermacher, and as such, it is a great book for those interested in his work.

Click here to purchase your copy of Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan

My thanks to Pickwick Publications and Wipf & Stock for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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  1. Eternal Blessedness for All?, 116-7

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

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  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

T.F. Torrance on Universalism and Limited Atonement (as Dual Heresies)

I’ve been reading the newly released collection of essays by T.F. Torrance, Divine Interpretation: Studies in Mediaeval and Modern HermeneuticsWipf & Stock Publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy, and when I finish reading the book I will be posting my final thoughts here. But I wanted to share an important quote from the book before then.

I was excited to discover that this collection reprints an important essay Torrance wrote, which prior to this book was only available in the costly out of print study, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianThis essay is entitled “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy”, and includes some profoundly important remarks about how Torrance places Barth within the western tradition.

Especially insightful, however, is how Torrance explains the “dual heresy” of universalism on one side and limited atonement on the other. I’ll let Torrance explain more himself in this insightful quote. Comments in between quotations are my own, and bold text is also mo own emphasis. Enjoy! Continue Reading…

Karl Barth on Universalism

Paradiso_Canto_31Karl Barth responds to the question of universalism directly, though briefly, in his short book The Humanity of GodHis response to the question of universalism is brilliant, and perhaps one of the best pictures of how he understood universalism. It’s an often debated subject: whether or not Barth was a universalist. 1 I personally would argue that he is not, but here, in Barth’s own words, is a beautiful response to the question.

Does this mean universalism? I wish here to make only three short observations, in which one is to detect no position for or against that which passes among us under this term.

“1. One should not surrender himself in any case to the panic which this word seems to spread abroad, before informing himself exactly concerning its possible sense or non-sense.

“2. One should at least be stimulated by the passage, Colossians 1:19, which admittedly states that God has determined through His Son as His image and as the first-born of the whole Creation to ‘reconcile all things to himself,’ to consider whether the concept could not perhaps have a good meaning. The same could be said of parallel passages.

“3. One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept gradually surrounded. What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy? Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself? This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.” 2

What a fantastic answer!

We might break down these three points like this. First, Barth argues that we should avoid the gut-reaction common to the term universalism (especially among evangelicals). I take this to mean that Barth wants us not to immediately dismiss the idea as heretical just because that’s what we’ve been told about it. Second, if we take the scriptures seriously we cannot help but at least find ourselves stimulated by the idea of universalism, as there are certainly universalist tendencies in the scriptures. And finally, universalism, at the end of the day, is far more preferable over doom-and-gloom pessimism! That is perhaps the more serious error. But if we’re going to error, isn’t it better to error on the side of God’s loving-kindness? to “understand [God’s love] as being still greater than we had seen before”, rather than to error on the side of pessimism in which universalism is dogmatically impossible? The possibility of universalism may not be a perfect one, but it is a far better alternative to dogmatic pessimism!

All these three points could, in other words, be summarized by Barth’s most famous statement on universalism, “I don’t teach it [universalism], but I don’t not teach it.” Barth said it himself: he takes no position either for or against universalism.

It is this emphasis that I find so compelling, especially since this subject is all too often dealt hastily with cheap and quick yes or no answers. I admire that Barth leaves the question open and unanswered. It’s a sign of respect for God, I believe. Ultimately, I think this is the best way to understand Barth’s position towards universalism: it is an open, unanswerable question. He cleverly is giving us a non-answer here. I don’t think he was afraid of the question, I think Barth genuinely considered it unanswerable, as any attempt to dogmatically answer it is, ultimately, I think, an attempt to play God. Who will know in the end what will take place? Only God can, and will, answer the question of universalism. But we can and should have hope for it, or at least not be so quick to dismiss it as many do today!

It is an open question, one which we can hope for, but never dogmatically assert. The error of dogmatic assertion is on both sides here, as Barth rightly warns us. To dogmatically claim that salvation/redemption is not universal is just as problematic as to dogmatically claiming that it is universal.  We can hope for it, but we cannot try and “play God” and thus divine what the outcome will be. Although, as Moltmann pointed out, our hope is a “certain” hope, founded on the cross of Christ. So it is not merely a “wishing for the best,” but a definite hope in what God has done in Jesus Christ and will do for all humanity.

What do you think of Barth’s answer? Is this a brilliant way to answer the question, or just a nonsense answer? In your reading of Barth, would you say he’s a universalist? Leave me a reply in the comments!

(P.S. The Humanity of God is this month’s free book for those of you in my Readers Group! If you’re not a part of my mailing list, you should be. You get free books like this each month, plus my book Where Was God free right away! Sign up here.)

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  1. One of the best articles on the subject is Roger Olsen’s.
  2. The Humanity of God, John Knox Press, 1960, pp. 61-2

Karl Barth on Grace and our Response (with Help from Ansell)

PrintA few days ago I wrote my review of Nicholas Ansell’s fantastic book on the universalism of Jürgen Moltmann, aptly entitled The Annihilation of Hell (LINK). I also wrote some reflections on how, as I learned from Ansell, Moltmann argued for a “certain” hope, over against a “wishing for the best” or even a dogmatic kind of universalism. I found this book compelling, and it goes to show just how compelling it was for me when even after finishing it I am left thinking again and again about what I learned.

I was looking through my notes on the book, and one quote stood out to me that I wanted to share here. In this, Ansell is answering how Moltmann’s kind of universalism might answer the problem of human freedom. It’s often said that universalism negates the human response, falling prey to a kind of determinism that turns free humanity into a robotic partner to God’s grace. But here Ansell points to Moltmann’s alignment with Barth’s theology of grace and response, specifically of human freedom in the response to grace, as a way forward past this difficulty. In simple terms, Barth argued that we are free because God makes us free; we are free in God’s freedom. And here Ansell expounds this quite beautifully as it relates to Moltmann’s kind of universalism. Enjoy!

(Italics are from the original, bold is mine for emphasis. Brackets “[ ]” are added for clarity.)

A great strength of Barth’s theology, I suggest, is his realisation that God’s grace lies beyond all human power and control. It is a gift that empowers. Our very existence is graced. Theology must contend with what Matthew Fox has called ‘Original Blessing.’ Barth puts it well: ‘Creation is the work of the truly free, truly undeserved grace of the one true God, both as an act and in its continuance.’

The gift precedes our ability to respond. Our capacity to respond to the gift of Life is itself a gift of Life. We don’t choose to be born. Our capacity to choose is itself born due to, thanks to, those who have helped bring us into existence. If we may speak here of the giving of others then such giving may be seen as mediating the giving of God. Gift precedes response. A response can embody/express the gift, can be gifted, can rest in something beyond, or prior to, itself. But the gift is beyond our control, grasp, understanding. It is never exhausted in our responses. Our ‘being’ precedes our ‘doing’. Our ‘being’ is not an ‘essence’ within. The gift/call of who we are is prior to, more than, what we make of ourselves. 1

In Barth’s position, God’s Yes to creation embraces a humanity that cannot naturally say Yes to God. In grace, we respond to God’s freedom and find our true freedom. 2

“Perhaps this dilemma is not insoluble [the universalist dilemma of human freedom/response]. A case for a ‘covenantal’ universalism can be made, I suggest, if we root the claim that ‘all respond to God’s grace in God’s grace’ in the conviction that we are created for Life and for God ‘from the beginning’. Responding to God’s creational grace is the warp and woof of our authentic nature. Redemption is the reaffirmation, liberation, and restoration of our true nature, rather than being a creatio ex nihilo. Our true nature is a gift/promise that responds to the gift/promise. In the context of grace, our true nature, we might say, ‘comes into its own’. This is not autonomy or heteronomy. Our response to the gift/call of Life is our response, our life. This is freedom truly defined. Freedom is not ‘doing what we want’. Freedom is not doing ‘what God wants’ instead of ‘what we want’. Freedom is faithfully keeping covenant with the God of Life in the way we choose. A universal salvation that is non-coercive must, in my view, affirm the fact that we are made for God, made for Life, to respond to Life, to initiate Life, to live (and without God there is no life) by being who we are (who we are called to be). In this sense, salvation (including universal salvation) reveals our very nature.

“Redemptive grace reaffirms and re-offers the gift of life. Graced nature ‘naturally’ responds by God’s grace to God’s grace. This is neither divine monergism nor syn-ergism (in the pejorative sense). Our working out of the gift-promise of life is covenantal. It is not a ‘work’ of the kind the reformers opposed. In covenant with God, our work is also God’s work while remaining thoroughly our own (in a non-possessive, non-autonomous sense). 3

“God is the God of creation. Creation is the creation of God. To love God is to love life. It is to find and celebrate our freedom. Only with God may we be human.” 4

There’s a degree to which I think Ansell has taken liberties in thinking beyond Barth, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Although I will say that the one problem I had with the book is how Ansell often referred to Barth as a universalist. I disagree with that claim. Moltmann may be a kind of universalist, but Barth rejected this idea as something we ultimately cannot know. Though it’s a heavily debated subject among the so-called “Barthian” community, so we won’t hold it against him either.

But regardless, this is an insightful look into the nature of grace and response which Ansell seems to think Moltmann is indebted to Barth for. Do you agree with his assessment of Barth? Do you think this is a helpful understanding of human freedom and God’s grace? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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  1. P. 278
  2. P. 281
  3. P. 281
  4. P. 282

Jürgen Moltmann’s “Universalism of the Cross” (A Book Review of “The Annihilation of Hell” by Nicholas Ansell)

PrintBook: The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann by Nicholas Ansell (2013). (Amazon link)

Publisher: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Jürgen Moltmann is one of my favorite theologians, and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review Nicholas Ansell’s book The Annihilation of Hell from the kind people at Wipf and Stock publishers. Thank you!

This book is a sympathetic engagement with Moltmann’s eschatology, specifically focusing on universal salvation and the nature of time in Moltmann’s theology. Generally speaking, I greatly enjoyed reading this book and appreciate the tremendous effort Ansell has put forward in it. I recommend it to anyone interested in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, especially in how it pertains to universalism.

Ansell’s critique

Ansell presents an overview of his work in a summary at the end of the book. He writes,

This study is an engagement with the theme of universal salvation as viewed within the overall structure of Moltmann’s theology, eschatology, and theocosmogony. Consonant with Moltmann’s understanding, the main title, The Annihilation of Hell, refers to the overcoming of Hell as our eschatological hopes are realised, whilst at the same time alluding to Hell’s own annihilative power in history—a power with which hope must contend. For Moltmann, Hell is the nemesis of hope. Yet hope clings to the certainty that God in Christ has embraced all things, even death and Hell, so that creation may participate in the divine Life of the Age to Come. (P. 424)

Prior to this remark, Ansell gives an overview of his general critique of Moltmann’s position.

Although I accept Moltmann’s ‘universalism of hope’ and greatly appreciate his ‘universalism of the cross’, his ‘theocosmogony of the cross’ is a very different story. (P. 372)

Ansell argues quite well in this book that Moltmann’s universalism of hope and of the cross is a commendable one, but he is critical of his theocosmology. Particularly, he is critical of how Moltmann seems to blur the line between creation and fall in his usage of zimzum, and in turn of his negative assessment of creation (and thus of time). Ansell proposes a way forward which I find insightful and constructive. He spends a great deal of time in the book dealing with the nature of time. It may very well be time well spent (see what I did there?), but I was less interested in this section than in his overall affirmation of Moltmann’s universalism.

In this review, as the title suggests, I want to focus on what Ansell says positively about Moltmann’s universalism. Because, frankly, most of what Ansell had to say negatively about Moltmann’s theocosmology  I had not picked up on in my reading of his work. Most of his insights were great in this regard: that I felt as if I was learning a new way of reading Moltmann. This is the most notable factor of his carefully nuanced critique. (And from this I am challenged that I need to read Moltmann again, and perhaps more carefully!) But obviously this also means I would have difficulty engaging with Ansell’s criticism of these ideas. Though I do commend his work and think he is certainly right about much of his critique.

(And it is generally a constructive critique, as Ansell offers many helpful alternatives which he feels strengthen Moltmann’s universalism. I’m just not as well versed in the philosophy of time as Ansell is.)

Ansell’s affirmation

A better understanding of Moltmann’s universalism of the cross is the primary gain I take from this book. The key feature that I found commendable was how Ansell placed Moltmann’s universalism into conversation with modern theologies, asking: Does Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatology present a kind of universalism which might be approachable for today’s evangelical theology? Ansell offers a supportive yes.

For Moltmann, universal salvation is not a dogmatic assertion, but it is a certain hope. (I’ve written more on this here.) It is a certain hope not because of theological deduction, but because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, specifically because of what has taken place in His death and descent into hell. For Moltmann, then, universalism is best argued from the standpoint of the crucified Christ. Moltmann writes in his famous work, The Crucified Godthat “the theology of the cross is the true Christian universalism.”

For Moltmann, the basis of universal salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ, who was buried and descended into hell. In this way God may truly become “all in all”, because even in hell there is hope because there is the presence of Christ.

For this reason, Ansell calls Moltmann’s universalism “pre-theological”. He writes what follows, summarizing the difference between a dogmatic universalism and a merely hopeful one (apart from the substance of the cross):

A universalism of hope, I was thereby suggesting, is neither a dogma nor a ‘nice idea’. Those who, in looking forward to God’s final victory over evil, find themselves looking forward in hope and confidence to a ‘universal’ salvation are convinced of something that others cannot be convinced of unless—or until—they come to share in that hope. In my view, a conviction of this kind, which is pre-theological and pre- doctrinal in character, is legitimate—at least in principle—even if those who hold to it cannot justify it theologically. Moltmann himself captures this pre-theoretical confidence well when he describes his own position as “a universalism of hope which is not a doctrine . . . but is a presupposition.” This is a hope I share and a ‘universalism’ I accept. (P. 211)

That in the end all will be redeemed is not the theological doctrine Moltmann claims, but rather it is his theological presupposition. As I’ve written elsewhere, for Moltmann the fact that Christ has descend into hell means hope  for the redemption of all creation. The famous warning over Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope…”, is deemed null and void in the light of Christ’s cross and descent into hell. Because if even in hell there is hope, we can presuppose that in the end all will be saved. This is not because we think God should or must do this, but because of what God has done in Jesus Christ and His cross we can presuppose this as the ultimate goal of redemption.

Moltmann’s universalism, therefore, is deeply connected with the whole of his theological project, which is centered upon the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. Hope for the universal salvation of the cosmos is affirmed, according to Moltmann, on the cross.

Beyond this focus, Ansell also shows how Moltmann navigates the two major arguments often spoken against universalism. First, that it negates the freedom of mankind, and second, that it negates the freedom of God. Dogmatic universalism perhaps does this, but Moltmann’s universalism of the cross is not stuck in this same position. Dogmatic universalism is often plagued with a sort of determinism, in which ultimately all will be saved because God “must” save and we “must” be saved. The problems of this position are address well and their relation to Moltmann’s position are very insightful. It is one of my favorite aspects of this book, that Ansell strives most of all to engage Moltmann with the contemporary theology of both the Arminian and Calvinist positions. Moltmann’s universalism of the cross untangles itself from this dual problem of freedom in an admirable way. Thus, Ansell seems to conclude that Moltmann’s universalism, with some alterations, is one which the Christian community at large might engage and possibly accept as viable.


Ansell’s book is an excellent and nuanced study on Moltmann’s eschatology and his universalism of the cross. I look forward to further work from Ansell, as he wrote in a clear yet erudite manner. This book is approachable for most informed readers, though I do recommend, if you’re interested in reading it, that you have at least a basic understanding of Moltmann’s theology beforehand. (It’s especially helpful if you’ve read God in Creation, The Coming of Godand Theology of Hope.)

This book helped me see many aspects of Moltmann’s theology I may have missed otherwise, and I plan to revisit some of the key books he mentions to study further Moltmann’s thought. This book has also helped me come to greater terms with Moltmann’s universalism and the commendable features of it. I appreciate far more Moltmann’s theology and especially his kind of universalism, which I personally find quite viable for the church today.

You can buy the book here from Amazon or directly from the publisher.

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Universalism: A “Certain” Hope (Jürgen Moltmann)

PrintI’m currently reading Nicholas Ansell’s book on the universalism of Jürgen Moltmann, entitled The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann. (LINK) So far I am enjoying it tremendously, and I have no doubt that I will eventually have more to say about it later, along with a full review of the book once I’ve finished.

But from the first chapter there was an interesting idea Ansell brings up that I wanted to share here. I have said before that I am not a universalist, though I could rightly be called a “hopeful” one. With Balthasar I believe it is not only permissible but essential that we hope for all humanity, that in the end all will be redeemed. We cannot dogmatically assert this, but we can and should hope for it. 

This tension between dogmatic and hopeful universalism, one of which is heretical and the other of which is acceptable and encouraged, is something which Ansell clarifies through highlighting what he calls Moltmann’s “certain hope”. He writes:

This ‘certain hope’, as I have referred to it, and the “confession of hope” with which he [Moltmann] brings his discussion to a close, need to be carefully distinguished from the ‘hopeful’ universalism that finds approval in The Mystery of Salvation. In the latter, the universal salvation we ‘hope’ for is something that we desire, without knowing for sure what God will finally be able to achieve in the face of human freedom. Because there is no way that we can be certain, in this understanding, the best we can do is ‘hope’ for the best. ‘Dogmatic’ universalism is thus inappropriate. Moltmann’s ‘theology of hope’ is very different. While he would certainly agree that God’s eschatological Judgment is still to come, and is thus not something we can describe, at the same time, he insists that because the revelation of God’s purposes in the Christ event has already taken place, a hope that is rooted in the cross is not simply an expression of what we would like to happen. Given God’s decisive action in Christ, we can be confident of the outcome: “What Christ accomplished in his dying and rising is proclaimed to all human beings through his gospel and will be revealed to everyone and everything at his appearance.” The “confession of hope,” as articulated by Christoph Blumhardt, can and should be preached with conviction. This has nothing to do with merely ‘hoping for the best’. For hope, in Moltmann theology, provides the way to certainty. And the cross provides the way to hope. In “submerg[ing] ourselves in the depths of Christ’s death on the cross,” Moltmann writes, “… we find the certainty of reconciliation without limits.” 1

Here we see a distinction between hope as merely “hoping for the best,” and hope as certainty grounded upon God’s actions and will in Jesus Christ on the cross. While this does not affirm dogmatic universalism, it does refine what we mean by “hopeful” universalism. It is not the hope of what we want, over and against what God wants; it is a hope based on the certainty that this is what God wants for the human race, as revealed in Christ and His cross. God wills redemption, not destruction, salvation, not damnation, restoration, not abandonment.

This certain hope is not the hope of wishful thinking, but hope in the certainty of God Himself, of God’s consistency with Himself, and certainty in His work in Jesus Christ. We hope with certainty because, as Peter writes, God wills that none shall perish. (2 Peter 3:9) And furthermore, God has acted with this purpose in mind. Our hope is certain because it is a hope not against God’s will and work in Jesus Christ, but with it! Thus it is a certain hope.

I am looking forward to reading more from Ansell and this book. I highly recommend this book if Moltmann’s eschatology interests you, especially as it pertains to universal salvation. You can buy the book here.

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  1. Nicholas Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell,  2013 Cascade Books, pp. 39-40. (Bold text mine for emphasis)

“I Know Someone Who Was in Hell: Christ” (Moltmann)

stavronikita-mount-athos_16cHappy Holy Saturday!

Holy Saturday, especially in protestant churches, is a deeply under appreciated part of the Easter story. In recent years, though, as I’ve meditated more on what it means, I’ve become convinced that Holy Saturday is just as essential to the gospel as Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Let me explain why.

Holy Saturday is the day in which Christ was buried in the grave, and descended to hell (as the Apostles Creed proclaims. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”) The significance of this day is brought out, at least for me personally, most of all in the works of Jürgen Moltmann. For Moltmann, Christ’s descent to hell is a further movement of His solidarity with mankind. As on the cross Jesus suffered our forsakenness and our death, so too in the grave Jesus suffered our hell. He went so far as our God acting for us that He not only overcame our sin and death, but our hell too. Jesus has bankrupted hell, robbing it of any power it once had over mankind. He has defeated the grave.  Truly, we can say with Paul: “Death where is your sting? Grave where is your victory?”

Here Moltmann writes in Jesus Christ for Today’s World on this descent to hell:

“Is there a hell?

Yes, I believe there is a hell. In the horrors of Auschwitz and in the terrors of Vietnam, people experienced a hell of suffering and a hell of guilt. That is why we talk about the hell of Auschwitz and the hell of Vietnam, meaning a senseless suffering with no way out, an unforgivable guilt and a fathomless abandonment by God and human beings. Is there a hell after death too? I believe there is, for the hell before death is worse than death itself. For many people death was a release from the suffering and fear of that hell.

Do we know anyone who is in hell? Would we tell a mother weeping at her son’s grave that her son is in hell because he never found faith while he was alive? We should respond to the first question with an embarrassed silence. And we would not answer ‘yes’ to the second one either. But I know someone who was in hell: it is Jesus Christ, who the creed says ‘descended into hell’.

When we were thinking about the tortured Christ, we asked: what does this article in the creed mean? When did Christ go through hell? And we saw that in the past two answers have been given. The earlier interpretation said that after his death Christ descended to the realm of the dead, to preach to them the gospel of their redemption and to deliver them. Luther looked at it differently, maintaining that Christ endured the torments of hell between Gethsemane and Golgotha, in his profound forsakenness by God. But whatever we may think about Christ’s descent into hell, Luther was right when he said: ‘Regard not hell and the eternity of torment in thyself, nor these things in themselves, nor yet in those who are damned. Look upon the face of Christ, who for thy sake descended into hell and was forsaken by God as one who is damned eternally, as he said on the cross: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” See, in him thy hell is vanquished …’ Because Christ was in hell and endured its torments, there is hope in hell for redemption. Because Christ was raised to life from hell, hell’s gates are open and its walls have been broken down. Though I make my bed in hell, you are there.’ And then hell is not hell any longer. ‘O hell where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ? (1 Cor. 15:55, 57).” 1

Hell Overcome

Hell is overcome by Christ. Whatever else we have to say about hell, it’s duration or existence or who goes there—we can say for certain this: hell is overcome. And we only know with certainty of one who has been there: Jesus Christ. This means that even in hell, there is hope. Because even in hell there is Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world, the redeemer of mankind, the friend of sinners.

This does not, of course, automatically equate to universalism. As Karl Barth has said about the subject, “I don’t teach universal reconciliation but I don’t not-teach it.” Because in the end the question of universalism is not something we can answer. Instead, it will only be answered by God. As Jürgen Moltmann has also said, “Does the new creation of all things mean ‘universal reconciliation’ and ‘the restoration of all things’? This is a difficult question, because only God will answer it. If we think humanistically and universally—God could perhaps be a particularist. But if we think pietistically and particularistically—God might be a universalist. If I examine myself seriously, I find that I have to say: I myself am not a universalist, but God may be one.” 2

If we take seriously the scope of Christ’s redemption, and the solidarity He has taken up with mankind, it’s impossible, in my mind, not to have at least some hope for the redemption of all creation. We cannot claim factually that all will be saved. But we can, and must, have hope for it. And we have hope for it because in Christ we see only this hope, the hope that all will be saved.

(For more see further my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good News appendix B, along with Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? by Hans Urs von Balthasar.)

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  1. Moltmann, J. (1994). Jesus Christ for Today’s World. (M. Kohl, Trans.) (pp. 143–145). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  2. Moltmann, J. (1994). Jesus Christ for Today’s World. (M. Kohl, Trans.) (pp. 142–143). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

I Am and I Am Not a Universalist – Robert Capon

rfc“I am and I am not a universalist.

“I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .’ All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

“But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.”

– Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace

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