A Larger Hope? Volume 2

Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Robin A. Parry, Ilaria L.E. Ramelli
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , March
     2019.
     326 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498200400.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christians rejecting the historically dominant view of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) are often accused of theological novelty by those who assume ECT enjoyed consensus for the first 1,800 years of Christian history. It therefore comes as little surprise that Robin Parry—one of today’s ablest advocates of universalism, according to which everyone will ultimately be saved and hell eventually emptied—has addressed the accusation with his survey of universalist thought in the first four hundred years of Reformation history, as a follow-up to fellow universalist Ilaria Ramelli’s survey of earlier universalist ideas in A Larger Hope? volume 1. Parry’s book is not a history of people and events, but of “the theological ideas of certain interesting, but mostly long-forgotten people” and their “lines of influence as the universalist idea passes from one generation to another” (1). From the 16th and 17th centuries in part 1, through the 18th in part 2, and into the 19th in part 3, Parry successfully proves that universalism is by no means novel, while highlighting some of the important themes that motivated it.

As history, Parry’s book is a surprisingly enjoyable and engaging read. More importantly, Parry does good history, presenting universalists honestly, proverbial warts and all—even when those warts might discredit universalism in the eyes of theologically interested Christian readers, who are likely to constitute its primary audience. Parry’s subjects, for example, variously believed in Arianism, modalism, and other forms of unitarianism (though most were trinitarian and christologically orthodox); in the preexistence of human souls and reincarnation; and in Christ having been implanted in human nature as a “divine seed” at the Fall (99), or indwelling every human as a “‘Jesus light,’ which draws us Godward” (195). Many experienced ecstatic visions that they assumed were from God and they thought justified seemingly novel, universalist readings of Scripture. Their biblical exegesis was often highly dubious, in some cases “implausible” by Parry’s own admission (100, 134). As ugly as such warts may be, however, critical readers from non-universalist perspectives must be careful not to throw stones too hastily, lest they shatter their own glass houses. After all, surely more mainstream views of the afterlife should not be discounted simply because many of their historical adherents exhibited quirks of varying degrees of contemptibility.

Especially germane to Parry’s stated goal, readers familiar with contemporary universalists will recognize recurring themes and readings of Scripture that still motivate universalism today, and others meant to legitimize it. The foremost of such themes included the infinite love and perfect justice of God and the intuition that meaningful punishment must be restorative, not retributive. Buttressing such thoughts were superficial treatments of biblical texts expressing God’s desire and work to save “all” people (e.g., 1 Tim 2:4; 4:10) and redeem the “world” (e.g., 1 John 2:2), promising a reconciliation of “all things” (e.g., Eph 1:10; Col 1:20) and that God will one day be “all in all” (e.g., 1 Cor 15:28), and equating the scope of those affected by Adam’s fall with that of those redeemed by Christ’s obedience (e.g., Rom 5:18). As for texts cited by critics of universalism, Parry’s subjects predictably interpreted the destruction of sinners in hell (e.g., Matt 10:28) as the destruction only of sinful nature, and they argued that biblical words often translated “eternal” (e.g., Matt 25:46) refer only to long, indefinite periods of time or communicate nothing about time at all. Less predictably—indeed, somewhat shockingly—to mollify fears that universalism would render the gospel seemingly less urgent, they encouraged universalist evangelists to keep quiet about it, and thus it was “reserved for internal consumption only, not for open declaration to ‘the godless’” (83). Naturally, this utilitarian strategy will concern critical readers who think evangelists should favor truth over expediency.

Particularly interesting are noteworthy commonalities between ECT and the universalism Parry surveys. Like their ECT-affirming counterparts, Parry’s subjects thought eschatological punishment would consist in “long and long Ages of fiery Pain, and tormenting Darkness” (101), when the Bible warns of death (e.g., Rom 6:23; 2 Pet 2:6). Whereas biblical figures and authors long for immortality and enduring life (e.g., John 3:16; 1 Cor 15:54-55), Parry’s universalists, like believers in ECT, thought of eschatological reward primarily in terms of “happiness” (39-40, 77, 139) and “bliss” (211, 247, 262). Scripture says death will be the last of God’s enemies to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) when previously mortal Christians are made immortal at the resurrection of the dead (v. 54), but like ECT, universalism affirms that other enemies of God, including sin itself, will subsist for untold eons after death is no more (92, 142). Universalism and ECT make strange bedfellows, it seems.

Famously, one of the most important lessons to be learned from studying history is how to avoid repeating it, and Parry’s book may afford ECT-believing readers with just such a lesson. Parry concludes with what he thinks is the “fascinating” observation that many of his subjects came to believe in universalism on their own, uninfluenced (knowingly) by other universalists (270). Yet, his own survey renders this observation unsurprising, for time and time again, soon-to-be universalists were spurred in that direction by the surrounding church’s belief in ECT. Rarely do they appear to have even been aware of the alternative known as conditional immortality (CI; a.k.a. annihilationism), and those who were evince no substantial understanding thereof. Conditionalists were relatively small in number and constantly had to defend themselves from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy. Had conditionalists existed freely in greater numbers, CI’s compelling biblical basis might have prevented some of Parry’s subjects from embracing universalism. Therefore, if readers who believe in ECT are concerned about the increasing popularity of universalism, it might behoove them to consider CI.

Parry’s intentionally narrow focus on the history of universalist theology is likely to interest a commensurately niche audience, namely, Christians engaged in the perennial debate over hell’s nature and duration, and historians of religion curious about the development of afterlife beliefs. Such readers will find Parry’s treatment of post-Reformation universalism fascinating and at times surprising. More importantly, they will come away better informed of the hell debate in Christian history and with a greater appreciation for why universalists believe what they believe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher M. Date is Adjunct Professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin A. Parry is an Editor at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Senior Reseach Fellow in Hellenic Studies at Princeton University.

Keywords: 

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.