Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A biblical defense of universalism

The words rendered hell in the bible, sheol, hadees, tartarus, and gehenna,

shown to denote a state of temporal duration.

All the texts containing the word examined and explained in harmony

with the doctrine of universal salvation.

This was 1888. Talbott before Talbott.


Gordon Knight said...

thanks for posting this. I argue for watered down universalism b/c of my *philosophical* belief in free will and an open future.

But the biblical case can be made. I can't make it since I know so little, but others have.

dvd said...

But aren't there scriptures where you just can't fit universalism in?

Trav said...

Yes, there are many.

Universalism is not a legitimate biblical option.

There are many obscure doctrines which have gained in popularity- Open theism, universalism, annihilationism, calvinism.

It seems to me that annihiliationism is the only one that could possibly have any real Biblical muster.

(OK, so I'm clearly joking about Calvinism. My other comments stand)

dvd said...


I agree on annihiliationism, there seems to be a legitimate case for that.

terri said...

Yes on annihilationism...or another option which is close to it.....conditional immortality.

Jason Pratt said...

Not a bad text overall, though by its late dating and constantly derogatory use of "orthodox", I suspect there are unitarian theologians behind it. (Not that I'm calling that against the text, as nothing in my quick scan-thru jumped out as depending on unitarian theology. If it does anywhere, then of course I would have to dissent on that point.)

It actually misses a couple of strong points in its discussion of the use of the relevant terms in the OT and NT, most obviously Jesus' explanation for the purpose of the everlasting fire of Gehenna in GosMark 9:49-50. (This is very typical, even for universalists, for some reason. Hanson erroneously calls v.48 v.49 at one point, too, so he was clearly in the area at least once! Weird.)


Jason Pratt said...


There are a lot more universalistic-trending (or outright stating) texts than most people are aware of; including ones that require quite a bit of eisegesis to read in eternal conscious torment or annihilationism instead. Not necessarily a bad thing; scriptures have to be interpreted in light of other scriptures sometimes (or ultimately in light of logical principles transcending scriptural testimony). It's pretty standard for all the sides. But just as there are plenty of prooftexts that (on the face of it) can be adduced in favor of annihilation, or in favor of ECT, there are plenty of texts that (even on the face of it sometimes) can be adduced in favor of universalism, too.

(Similarly, though not in direct topical parallel, there are at-least-face-value-texts strongly in favor of Arminianistic and Calvinistic theology both, as well as Universalistic.)

As a huge proponent of ortho-trin, I like to compare the situation to that: there are precious few (arguably no?) texts obviously testifying to the truth of orthodox trinitarian theism (though quite a few which when considered in context testify to this, the baptismal statement of the Great Commission being a famous one). But there are scads of texts testifying to the full deity of Christ (and of the Holy Spirit, and of the Father of course), and scads of texts testifying to the distinction of person among the Father and the Son (which is usually the Biblical focus, but also the distinct personhood of the Holy Spirit, too), and scads of texts testifying in favor of the existence of one ultimate God and/or against the existence of more than one ultimate God, and scads of texts testifying to the full humanity of Christ. The ortho-trin position, exegetically speaking, puts these all together, in light of Jewish cultural contexts.

The exegetical case for a robustly complex universalism works much the same way--one difference being there are more specific prooftexts for it (on the face of it anyway) than for ortho-trin! (Which is one reason why universalism became such a rallying point for unitarian Christians eventually, in the 18th and 19th centuries.)


unkle e said...

"But aren't there scriptures where you just can't fit universalism in?"
"Universalism is not a legitimate biblical option."

These two comments seem to be based on the assumption that the Bible speaks with one clear voice on such topics. But surely it doesn't!

On matters like "universalism, annihilationism, calvinism", as well as faith vs works and many others, one can readily find passages in support of different viewpoints.

The question therefore is how do we deal with these differences? Unbelievers (helped by literalists and inerrantists) say it proves the Bible is unbelievable, but there are many other options - e.g. progressive revelation, neo-orthodoxy, an acceptance that there are deeper truths on these matters that we humans cannot fully comprehend, or the more liberal view that the Scriptures are simply humans reaching out to God.

I think there is probably truth in all those options.

I wish universalism was true, and I believe God's grace will extend far further than most people think, but I think that God made us as "little gods" ("little lower than the angels") and respects our choices and wishes. And some people, unfortunately, will never give up their independence.

Tim said...

This is not a subject where I have done much work, but I would suppose Hanson has his work cut out trying to get around the clear use of aion and aionios by classical Greek writers. The famous passage in De Caelo I, 9 comes to mind, as does a less well known passage from the Library of Diodorus Siculus I, 6, where the usage is similarly unambiguous:

There are two theories as to the origin of men. According to the first, the world was uncreated and imperishable, and men existed from eternity [ex aionos] and had no beginning; ...

Jason Pratt said...


to be specific, the Greek you translated was "from ages", not "from eonian". i.e., it was the plural of "ages" (as you spelled it anyway), not the adjective form of "age".

(I mention this distinction because in Biblical usage, especially NT, the debate ends up landing most strongly on how the adjectival form of eon is being used. The noun forms, especially as objects of prepositions, occur rather more often in the NT, though, so it is important to keep those in mind, too.)

Hanson (to be fair) does have his work cut out for him; but the range of usage for 'eon' (in various singular, plural and adjectival forms, including as objects of prepositions) is about the same in classical and contemporary Greek as it is in the LXX and the NT. Moreover, Hanson works at trying to consider contextual usage in scripture, too.

Similarly, in the quote you gave, what narrows down how the phrase is used in that example, is the immediate context, which speaks clearly about the idea of the world (and mankind) existing "uncreated, imperishable and without beginning". Otherwise, the prepositional phrase "from the ages" could only mean an indeterminate but long period backward in time. It could have even meant during previous well-defined ages of generally known length (much as certain eschatological dispensationalists today might talk about the previous five ages of the Earth since its creation.)


Tim said...


Yes, but the next clause is what clarifies the meaning -- "and had no beginning."

Jason Pratt said...

JRP: {{Similarly, in the quote you gave, what narrows down how the phrase is used in that example, is the immediate context, which speaks clearly about the idea of the world (and mankind) existing "uncreated, imperishable and without beginning".}}

Tim: {{Yes, but the next clause is what clarifies the meaning -- "and had no beginning."}}

Um... yes, I know. I think I mentioned that context, in favor of that interpretation. {g}