Most Anglicans I know have enough respect for the Scriptures and their traditional interpretation that when confronted with a bald Universalism — such as that presented last year by David Bentley Hart’s latest book — they have enough sense to reject it. But Universalism is a Hydra with many heads. To my great dismay, while most Anglicans will take the sword to the proudest head, they do not keep fighting the other eight, and, if we are not careful, Universalism may still strike its fatal blow to the Gospel in our branch of Christ’s Church.
UNIVERSALISM IN HISTORY
Universalism proper is the idea that all humans will be saved in the End, and that if there is a Hell it will be empty. In its fully teased-out instantiations, it includes the Devil and the demons among the ultimately-saved. This idea often goes by its greek name apokatastasis — the restoration of all things. It was first proposed as a theory by Origen in the early third century, and had a bit of a heyday among Evagrian and Syriac monks in the 4th and 5th century. One or two of the ninety or so recognized Church Fathers dabbled in the idea, but it remained squarely condemned by the consensus patrum. By the sixth century, it had become a sizable enough idea to be addressed by the authoritative teachers in the Church — the bishops — who roundly condemned it, first in local synods and then (probably) at the fifth ecumenical council, and again (certainly) at the sixth. The doctrine laid fairly dormant for a good while, and then woke up with vigor in the seventeenth century, though remaining outside of mainstream Christianity. In the twentieth century a re-evaulation of Origen was part symptom, part cause of a reappraisal of the Christian validity of the doctrine, being picked up by Karl Barth, and promoted by various well known figures in recent decades. The full history is of course much more complex than this, and for it I refer the interested reader to Michael McClymond’s magisterial (and enormous) new book, The Devil’s Redemption (Baker, 2019).
Arguments for Universalism build their case on three foundations: First and foremost, Logic. Or I should say, human logic. It is no coincidence that Universalism is most often a temptation to the philosophically inclined. There is a neatness, a symmetry, and a commensurate balance to what we can grasp of God’s power and goodness to the idea. Second, there is a moral argument — arguing from human morality, that a good God “could never” torment an intelligent creature eternally, or, from the other side, that an intelligent creature “would never” reject the Gospel of God. Third, the handful of verses in the New Testament that speak of God’s desire that all would be saved are taken as having a total authority to limit all the other scriptures that speak about damnation, and are appealed to (often through very flimsy exegesis) as a buttress to the logic argument, to try and show credentials that might be compelling to Christians.
As is plain even in this cursory summary, the arch-problem with the theory of Universalism is that it holds up a human-measuring stick to Almighty God — what he “can” and “can’t” do — and runs rough-shod over all the many, many, many verses in the Bible that speak unequivocally about eternal conscious suffering, under many and varied images: Gehenna, the lake of fire, the outer darkness, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the worm doesn’t die, eternal destruction, etc.
THE THREAT TODAY
But, as I said, Universalism proper is not my chief worry within our Anglican pastures. Wolves in wolves’ clothing are easy to spot. The real danger I am concerned about are the other faces — or heads, to keep the Hydra metaphor going — of Universalism. The ones that don’t look as menacing, but are equally destructive to the moral force of the Gospel. There are three in particular that I have heard on the lips of multiple Anglican clergy: Annihilationism, Hopeful Universalism, and delusions about a Pseudo-Purgatory.
These three ideas need to be recognized for the hydra-heads of Universalism that they are, and need to be battled and eradicated by Anglican clergy, not entertained, let alone propagated. All three have a corrosive effect on the Christian’s whole-hearted submission to Scripture, and therefore threaten salvation itself. Not only for the lived outcomes that result from holding these views, but because we will also be held to account on Judgment Day for what we believed (and especially what we taught), as well as what we did. So, to the three heads I shall turn.
Annihilationism is the idea that the wicked who are put away from God on Judgment Day undergo an ontic demise resulting from their punishment, and that the hellish suffering of the absence of God leads to the dissolution of being itself, and so at some definite point, the damned individual ceases to fully exist. They are annihilated (hence the name). Hell’s punishments are therefore temporary and not eternal. This idea was given support by John Stott, which has given it an air of mainstream status among Anglicans. The spirit that animates the arguments for annihilationism is the self-same spirit that animates the moral argument for apokatastasis: It is a human attempt to try and make Almighty God appear less “monstrous” (their word) than the Apostolic preaching has maintained for millenia. The question occurs: Why is it that the doctrine was happily accepted for so many centuries, but now needs correction? Were we wrong before? Or are we just soft and tepid now? The latter seems far more probable.
Moreover, Annihilationism ultimately guts the moral-impulse for submission to the Gospel to the same degree as Universalism proper. If the penalty for not following God is ultimately to just not exist — which would of course mean no consciousness of not existing, since there would be no “I” — what’s the big deal? At the end of the day, this is the same Eschaton that all materialists and secularists yell from the rooftops. Annihilationism cannot account for the Biblical language of eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9) or a punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7), or the fact that the smoke of the torment goes up forever and forever (Revelation 14:11).
Sometimes annihilationists will play a sleight of hand by trying to link eternal suffering with the idea of the inherent eternality of the soul, and then will demonstrate that the latter is not required of Christian Faith. True enough, we do not know if the soul is inherently immortal, but the major premise is still rejected out of hand, because Eternal Punishment as a doctrine is not built on this contention.
The idea that goes by the name Hopeful Universalism was formulated by one of the geniuses of ressourcement, Hans Urs von Balthasar. The contention is that, although neither the Bible nor Holy Tradition give us warrant to believe Origen’s idea of apokatastasis, in addition to maintaining a heaven/hell dichotomy in our dogma, we may nevertheless hope that hell will be empty, and that in the end, all, or at least mostly all, will be saved. Like annihilationism, this certainly sounds much friendlier than the received doctrine of eternal conscious suffering of the wicked, but it falls apart on several fronts. On the one hand, functionally the “hope” seems to entirely undermine the real dogma of hell. It seems like this is perhaps just a timid Universalism, compared to the brazen bully-like form as espoused by David Bentley Hart, et al. At least the brazen are consistent, unlike the Balthasarian theory. Like all other crypto-Universalisms, it guts the moral-force of the Gospel and its call to submit to God in faith and obey him, if “it all works out in the end” anyway. It also cannot account for passages in Scripture like our Lord saying “Wide is the path and broad is the gate that lead to destruction, and many enter.” (Matthew 7:13)
A more subtle form of Hopeful Universalism has come out of the C.S. Lewis school, in the idea that the gates of hell are shut from the inside, and that none is there who doesn’t choose to be (an idea in The Great Divorce). While not claiming hell might be empty, it suggest that it will be very sparsely populated, for after all, who would want to be there? This theory cannot be squared with the fact that in Jesus’ teaching on hell it often involves the sentencing of those who actively do not want to be there, such as the Rich Man who ignored Lazarus, or those who worked miracles in his name, or the goats who are separated from the sheep.
It is God’s desire to save as many as possible from the fires of destruction, and for this purpose he has created the Church, against whom the gates of hell will not prevail. God’s desire is made real in the sending out of evangelists and missionaries from his Church. This is the ground of Christian hope for the salvation of others, not a vague, “hopeful” everyone-gets-a-trophy soteriology.
Caution is needed in parsing this. It is of course the case that Article 22 prohibits Anglicans from maintaining a Romish doctrine of purgatory — that nightmarish fiction constructed of nine parts moral speculation and one part rough exegesis of Scripture. But that there may be some sort of purification, of unknown duration and unspecified quality, between the moment of death and the Resurrection at the Parousia, remains a permissible opinion to Anglicans. This is to be sharply distinguished from “purgatory”, even if it is purgative. St. Catherine of Genoa’s marvelous little treatise was a guiding light to the Tractarians in making this distinction. Nevertheless, it is a frequently neglected fact that even in the full-bore Romish system, Purgatory is a destination only for those Christians who die in a state of grace. That according to many of their own theologians (especially before the 20th century), countless throngs of well-meaning baptized Christians forfeit grace entirely and are not admitted to the privilege of purgatory, but are sentenced to an eternity in hell. Ignoring the systematic location of purgatory in the Romish system, I have encountered many Anglicans who — with more or less definition — have imported fragments of the idea of a purgatory which in their effect approximate Universalism.
I call this ‘pseudo-purgatory’, to distinguish it from the Romish idea, which has errors all its own. In this theory, basically all the baptized (and possible some of the upright heathens) end up in a purgatory where they can more fully decide to turn toward God, and be further sanctified, and end up avoiding the punishment of fire, enjoying bliss forever. Apart from being an un-systematic fiction of our own generation, this notion is also a very near approximation of Origen’s own (condemned) thought, which was that hell was essentially purgative and therefore temporary. A belief in pseudo-purgatory, like all Universalisms, renders the Today if you hear his voice aspect of the Gospel moot, and it cannot account for the decisive krisis of death as it is presented in the New Testament. The continuous Tradition of the Church, developed out of Sacred Scripture, is that this life is the only time of trial: The only time when it is possible to choose Christ, and the only time when it is possible to live in the Faith that produces such works that can lead to a favorable judgment before the Great Judgment Seat. Instance Hebrews 9:27: It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, which is taught parabolically in Ecclesiastes 11:3: In the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. A truth that is driven home by the sudden and unexpected quality of God’s parsing judgment in the parables like the two women grinding in the field, or the return of the bridegroom, etc. The virgins who did not have enough oil for their lamps were not given the consolation of “don’t worry, you can get oil in the next go around”. No, Matt 25:11-12: Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
I hope that even this brief analysis of these three theological opinions sufficiently exposes them for what they are: Heads of the same beast Universalism. As Anglicans who submit to God’s Word, “respectful of the Church’s historic and consensual reading” (Jerusalem Declaration, Art. 2), we can give these false doctrines no quarter, in our hearts or in our teaching. In as much as we buy into them, so much will our ministry be gutted of its Apostolic authority. In maintaining the traditional teaching: That there is a real hell, of eternal conscious punishment, we are not being severe or alarmist, but simply carrying forward the teaching of our blessed Lord, who died to save us from it.