Food for Thought on the Bible, Hell and Universalism from one of the Fine N.T. Scholars of our Era

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The transition from Victorian to more modern forms of universalism is marked by some changes of which the most important concerns exegesis. Almost all universalists before this century thought it necessary to argue for a universalist interpretation of those texts of the NT which seem to teach eternal punishment or final condemnation, and the standard approach to such texts was to deny the everlasting or final character of the punishment. Texts such as Matthew 25:46 or even Revelation 14:10f. were held to refer to a very long but limited period of torment in hell, from which the sinner will eventually emerge to salvation. The nineteenth-century debates always included extensive exegetical discussions, especially over the meaning of aionios. In [the 20th] century, however, exegesis has turned decisively against the universalist case. Few would now doubt that many NT texts clearly teach a final division of mankind into saved and lost, and the most that universalists now commonly claim is that alongside these texts there are others which hold out a universal hope (e.g. Eph. 1: 10; Col. 1: 20).

--Richard Bauckham, Universalism: a historical survey a Themelios article from 1978 (emphasis mine).

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch History* TheologyEschatologyTheology: Scripture

Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:15 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. BlueOntario wrote:

Which has led to a doctrine (if you can have doctrines in some universalist sects) where Hell has been dispensed with. There’s a cultural reflection to this idea as well.

August 9, 8:18 am | [comment link]
2. Undergroundpewster wrote:

“Few would now doubt that many NT texts clearly teach a final division of mankind into saved and lost…”

I know where you can find quite a few of those few.

August 9, 10:41 am | [comment link]
3. Frank Fuller wrote:

Wouldn’t the important point now be that the common assumption is that universalism (“Inclusivity” writ large) is the gospel, and it matters not a whit what any text of scripture says about it, so damn the exegesis, full speed ahead.

August 9, 11:07 am | [comment link]
4. NewTrollObserver wrote:

In Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Roman Catholicism, the possibility (to be distinguished from the *inevitability*) that all humans may be saved is an allowable belief. The Church has not declared any one person to be damned, nor has the Church declared that any one will definitely be damned. That in itself allows for the non-heretical option of hoping that all will, voluntarily and without imposition, accept the gift of salvation.Origen’s specific version of universalism, in which universal salvation was the predestined fate for all, was condemned, but what has never been condemned is the hope that all may be saved.

August 9, 6:20 pm | [comment link]
5. art wrote:

Two points seem worth making to me:

1. NewTrollObserver (#4) is correct. Even the likes of Hans Urs von Balthasar has a powerful section in his final volume of Theo-drama, entitled “The Question of Universal Salvation” or apokatastasis.
2. Yet again, even the likes of Karl Barth does not wish to push the (human) logic of his own theology to its (human) logical conclusion, such is his respect for certain key Biblical texts, like those found in Matthew’s Gospel about final judgment’s division.

So; we’re not the Judge, just witnesses.

August 9, 8:37 pm | [comment link]
6. Frank Fuller wrote:

I am utterly in sympathy with the above, but it seems to me I recall some pretty vivid language in the later Ecumenical Councils about Origen and others, in part concerning his views on apokatastasis, in which the Holy Fathers of the Council pronounced fairly clearly where they thought O. landed up.  EO and RCC conciliar language about anathemas would not seem to me entirely supportive of the more sanguine interpretations you suggest.

The larger question is what part such universalist optimism does spiritually to our missionary imperative.  If the stakes of the game are not an eternal outcome, then our universalism seems likely to function rather like the doctrine of Karma in eastern religions, to justify a pretty indifferent attitude toward missions, evangelism, perhaps even charity. 

Would the way this has worked out have some explanatory power to account for growing 20th century indifference to religion itself.  If we all end up the same place, who cares for all that churchy stuff?  Just sayin’...

August 9, 9:00 pm | [comment link]
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