The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (2 Volumes). By Michael J. McClymond. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. 1362 pp. $90.00 (paper).
Before the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were finalized in 1571, there were the Forty-Two Articles of 1553. Almost all the substance of the latter can be found in the former, which remain normative for Anglicans around the world.
There are a few articles in the Forty-Two, however, for which no corresponding article or portion of an article exists in the Thirty-Nine. One of these unretained articles reads as follows:
All men shall not be saved at the length. They also are worthy of condemnation, who endeavor at this time to restore the dangerous opinion that all men, be they never so ungodly, shall at length be saved, when they have suffered pains for their sins a certain time appointed by God’s justice.
Gerald Bray observes that in the years following 1553, some of the Forty-Two articles were removed because they “were felt to be no longer matters of controversy.” This suggests the possibility that the article quoted above was omitted for precisely this reason.
Given universalism’s stubborn longevity, one wonders if the article should have been kept in after all. Since the Thirty-Nine Articles were finalized, multiple figures throughout Anglican history—not mere laity, but ordained shepherds and overseers of the church—have either promoted universalism or contributed to its legitimization. Though they are far from being his primary focus, Michael J. McClymond discusses many such figures in The Devil’s Redemption, including John Pordage (1607‒1681), Henry More (1614‒1687), Bishop George Rust (d. 1670), Archbishop John Tillotson (1630‒1694), William Law (1686‒1761), F. D. Maurice (1805‒1872), Bishop Alexander Ewing (1814‒1873), Bishop John A. T. Robinson (1919‒1983), and John Stott (1921‒2011). Advocacy for universalism among Anglican clergymen continues today, with one such proponent being Robert Hart, a priest in the Anglican Catholic Church and the brother of noted universalist and Eastern Orthodox author David Bentley Hart.
To be sure, the persistence of universalism is not a uniquely Anglican problem. According to McClymond, Christian universalism—the belief “not only that everyone finally is saved but equally that all are saved through Christ” (xx, emphasis original)—has grown considerably in popularity across all segments of Christianity within the past several decades: “Mainline Protestant churches…no longer argue much about eternal salvation and the possibility of eternal punishment. The general presumption is that everyone, sooner or later, will be saved” (30). Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches that “hell exists and that it is eternal,” some Roman Catholics have drawn on the work of scholars such as Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar to argue that “hell exists but might be empty” (119). Eastern Orthodoxy, “like mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism…appears to have followed the general pattern in recent decades of shifting in the direction of universalism,” in that “a number of Orthodox bishops have begun more or less openly to support the doctrine of universalism,” e.g., Bishop Kallistos Ware and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (45). Finally, there has been a “growing acceptance of universalism among conservative evangelical Protestants and Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians” (45). A 2011 poll from the Barna Group found that “about one-quarter of all evangelical Christians in the United States agreed with the universalist view that all human beings will finally be saved” (116).
This recent rise in universalism’s popularity is notable, given that, as McClymond points out, “Only during the post‒World War II period—and, in some respects, only since the 1970s—did Christian universalism become a more mainstream and more widely acknowledged point of view among pastors and priests, seminary professors, and Christian laypersons” (18). Indeed, “Until the middle of the twentieth century, universalist belief was generally confined to a minority of Christian theologians along with a few self-identified universalist groups (28). Even within Eastern Orthodoxy—which has “often been more tolerant of universalism than either Catholicism or Protestantism” (39)—universalism historically “never became official teaching in any of the Orthodox churches, nor did these churches allow it to be taught publicly as Orthodox doctrine” (1005).
Thus McClymond’s The Devil’s Redemption “is a complex answer to a straightforward question: Why do some Christians believe in universal salvation?” (1, emphasis original) This single question in McClymond’s mind gave rise to others:
Where then did the idea of one final state—that is, heaven for everyone—come from? Soon the inquiry further ramified. Which arguments support universalism? What theological ideas undergird these arguments? Which arguments oppose universalism? How do biblical exegesis, church tradition, rational argumentation, and personal experience enter into these arguments? (2, emphasis original)
McClymond’s exploration of these questions is not confined to the recent decades in which universalism’s popularity has grown so markedly. Quite the contrary: this book reaches back to the very beginnings of universalism among second-century Christian gnostics near Alexandria—before Origen, even—through the patristic and medieval eras, and all the way up to the present. Along the way McClymond engages with an impressive array of figures: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Jakob Bӧhme, George MacDonald, Immanuel Kant, Sergius Bulgakov, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Robin Parry, Andre Rabe, and many others besides. Hence, given the extensive scope of this work, I will not attempt to reproduce McClymond’s historical account of Christian universalism. I will, however, offer a brief summary of the conclusions McClymond draws based on that history.
From the beginning, McClymond makes clear that “this book is about Christian universalism yet is not an argument for universalism” (xxi). Moreover, “While universalism has undeniable curb appeal for the theological driver-by, the universalist house proves to be not a very livable place. The longer one looks at this house and examines the plumbing, wiring, and crawl space beneath, the less attractive it becomes” (xxi). On McClymond’s account, then, there are some patterns in the history of Christian universalism that undermine its claim to be a viable part of orthodox Christian belief.
First and foremost, “Generally speaking, universalism relies on nonliteral interpretations of Scripture” (21). More specifically, “The various hermeneutical approaches used by Christian universalists in reading the Bible involve, on some level, a hermeneutics of diminishment. In each case the surface-level meanings of the biblical text disappear and are replaced by something else” (1053). For example, “In the symbolic and allegorical reading of the Bible, the threatening ‘fire’ as spoken of by Jesus becomes a cleansing and purifying ‘fire’ that removes my wickedness, or the ‘fire’ of my own self-lacerating conscience” (1053). Worse still, some universalists adopt “canon-within-the-canon approaches to the Bible,” in which they reject “some of the Gospels…certain passages in Paul…the book of Revelation,” or even the entire Old Testament (1053‒54). In short, “Seemingly the only options for Christian universalism lie in either rejecting one or more parts of the Bible or else interpreting it implausibly” (1054).
Another pattern in Christian universalist thought is the tendency for “abstract or a priori theological reasoning” (22). A common manifestation of such reasoning is the notion that “if God is love, then everyone must be saved” (1036). What this line of thought leaves out is “the incarnation of God’s son, Jesus’s life and teachings, Jesus’s call for faith” (22), etc.
A third recurring feature of arguments for Christian universalism is that they have often been made by people who “had visionary or paranormal experiences in which they saw everyone receiving salvation. They knew it was so because they saw it to be so” (1043, emphasis original). But appealing to such visions as an independent source of authority is problematic, given that “visionary experiences must be tested for their congruity with church teaching,” and they cannot “contradict whatever is already clearly known from biblical teaching or from the authoritative teaching of the church” (1046).
In addition to these “methodological” concerns over how universalist belief is arrived at, there are other issues with universalism. Universalist conceptions of God often characterize him as being constituted by some sort of “drama” (1013) or conflict that is internal to God’s very being. Yet this “conflicts with the biblical picture of God and the classical theological tradition of the Christian church. In the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, there simply is no division, conflict, or tragedy in God” (1016).
Furthermore, on many universalist accounts all will be saved simply by virtue of who they are or what they do—because they have a “divine spark” in them, or because they share in Christ’s humanity, or because they themselves will suffer and thus pay for their sins—rather than because of “God’s undeserved favor, freely conferred by God and received by human beings” (1024, 1026). Going too far in the opposite direction are those who believe God will “simply [reverse] all possible consequences of sin at the time of death, so that everyone without exception passes immediately into heaven” by “fiat” (1030). It should go without saying that “this last view is antinomian in its implications, and it wholly disjoins salvation from faith, repentance, obedience, and moral striving” (1031).
Perhaps the most damning indictment of universalism is the simple fact that those who adopt it tend to abandon key tenets of orthodox Christianity in short order:
Individuals and groups that in past generations embraced the teaching of salvation-for-all ended up shifting their ground on any number of distinctive and defining beliefs. The Universalist Church was once ranked as the sixth largest in the United States, and was well known for its fervent advocacy of postmortem salvation for all persons. By the early 1900s, this nineteenth-century denomination had members who no longer were sure whether there was an afterlife. In the 1960s, what was left of the Universalist Church had merged with the Unitarians—a sign of just how far their beliefs had changed. (xxii, emphasis original)
McClymond thus likens those who embrace universalism to a chess player who fails to anticipate the consequences of his moves:
To explain the relationship of the doctrine of universal salvation to the other Christian doctrines, one might use the analogy of a chess game. In chess, every move of a piece on the board has implications for the status of the other pieces…. What is more, each move has implications that may become apparent not immediately but only several moves ahead…. In a comparable way, the doctrine of universal salvation, though initially appealing, seems to be a game-ending move that ends up undoing other doctrines such as the doctrine of the atonement and perhaps also the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity. (1004)
To put it another way, it could be said that Christians who call for “traditional Christian theology with salvation for all superadded” (17, emphasis original) are like those who say “real communism has never been tried”—just as history tells us that communism of any kind tends to correlate with mountains of corpses, so the history of Christian universalism suggests that universalism and wayward souls who discard much or all of the catholic faith are closely associated, too much so to dismiss the relation as merely incidental.
This history of Christian universalism is, to reiterate, what comprises the bulk of McClymond’s work, notwithstanding my focus on the conclusions he derives from it. Again, I will not narrate that history here, but the reader can rest assured that McClymond’s account is thorough, fascinating, and exhaustively documented.
Others, however, have been more critical of McClymond’s historiography, not least David Bentley Hart, whose book promoting universalism (That All Shall Be Saved) was published a year after McClymond’s work. In his trademark style, Hart excoriates The Devil’s Redemption as “a disaster,” “a joke,” “a failure,” and “a collection of malicious misrepresentations, sinister suppositions, paranoid accusations, and willful distortions.”
Sifting out the bloviating invective that is Hart’s sine qua non, the substance of Hart’s critique is that McClymond mischaracterizes the gnostic tradition: “Neither the so-called ‘gnostics’ of old…nor the kabbalists nor Jakob Bӧhme were in fact universalists.” Moreover, McClymond’s understanding that gnosticism was characterized by a “narrative of a divine fall, a cataclysm that somehow involved even God Most High, and taught the emergence of evil or defect from God’s own depths,” etc., is said to be built on a “now thoroughly discredited historical narrative.”
In short, according to Hart, the idea that Christian universalism has gnostic origins is “a fantasy,” besides which, “no one within that supposed genealogy was a universalist. And, even if they had been, it still would not matter,” for the simple reason that universalists such as “Origen…MacDonald…Bulgakov…and all the rest explained themselves quite fully” with reference to Scripture rather than gnosticism. One gets the impression that as far as Hart is concerned, demonstrating the gnostic origins of Christian universalism is the sole purpose of McClymond’s work, and that to disprove this point would cause the whole book to collapse.
As someone who is wholly ignorant of the relevant texts even in translation (never mind the original languages!), I will not comment on Hart’s counter-claims on the nature of gnosticism. Even if he were correct on this score, though, this would have no bearing whatsoever on McClymond’s larger argument—the gnostic origins of Christian universalism may be a part of that argument, but the larger focus is on the exegetical, theological, and philosophical difficulties that history has shown to accompany universalism. Tellingly, Hart does not deign to respond to any of McClymond’s historiography or arguments on these matters, apart from a few comments on McClymond’s reading of Bulgakov and a vague jab that “philosophy is not (to put it mildly) one of [McClymond’s] strengths.” All in all, if Hart’s review represents the strongest attack that can be levied against McClymond’s book, then I think neither McClymond nor prospective readers should be overly concerned.
I will close by noting that according to Gerald McDermott, as of April 5, 2020, “Almost no major academic journal [has] reviewed [The Devil’s Redemption].” The North American Anglican is not a scholarly journal as such, but its readers are no less in need of truth than those who peruse academic quarterlies. To you I commend this stellar work of historical theology. It is as effective an antidote as I can imagine for those Christians who find themselves thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God saved everyone, no matter what?” Don’t settle for half-measures: if you know anyone drifting in this direction, throw the book at them—this book.
- Gerald L. Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation, 1526‒1701 (Cambridge: James Clarke, repr. 2004), 310, quoted in Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 402. ↑
- Bray, Documents, 284, quoted in McClymond, Devil’s Redemption, vol. 1, 402n288. ↑
- Regarding prominent lay Anglican universalists, some readers may assume that C. S. Lewis was at the very least open to universalism, as Nicholas Harelson has suggested. Notably, however, McClymond unambiguously states that while Lewis drew much inspiration from universalist George MacDonald, he departed from MacDonald on this point (Devil’s Redemption, vol. 1, 532). ↑