Monday, July 02, 2007

Redemptive judgment in hell? Pt 1

Judgment on the unbeliever in hell – a brief examination of the Pauline evidence in relation to the claims of biblical Universalists

This small series will not attempt an examination of all universalism exegetical proposals – that would necessitate a book and far more time than is allotted me at the moment. Instead, I will focus upon a couple of critical points, in relation to universalism in Paul, that have suggested themselves to me as I have read through Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist, and Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God.

A typical argument used by 'biblical universalists' (by which I mean entirely orthodox Christians who maintain their universalism together with a high view of scripture), is as follows:

  1. To use Sven Hillert's terminology, there are both 'final division' texts and 'complete and final unity' texts in Paul; both eternal separation from God texts, and universalism texts (two Reihe of texts as Balthasar claims – anybody who denies this hasn't read Paul closely enough!).
  2. A straightforward understanding of both of these groups of texts cannot be both correct at the same time.
  3. Those who don't want to conclude that the bible is muddled will then argue that the universalism texts are less ambiguous and clearer than the separation texts, and ergo the 'final division' texts must be understood differently.
  4. This final point is undergirded by two important claims:
    • God's judgment is not retributive without also being restorative (sometimes retributive may be played against restorative understandings of judgment by Universalists). To justify the restorative nature of God's judgement in Paul – with a wider view cast on the nature of hell's punishments, reference is made to 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5 and/or 11:29-32 (cf. MacDonald, 136; Talbott, 94-98)
    • There is only one major 'final division' text in Paul in comparison to the many clear universalism texts (2 Thess 1:9). So MacDonald argues: 'There is only one passage in Paul that, at first sight, really does seem to teach that the damnation of sinners is irreversible' (151)

While some of us, suspecting that we should acknowledge the distinction between the signifier and the signified of religious language and appreciate its 'eschatologically becoming' nature, may want to step out of this logical speeding car before we hit junction (c), in the following post I shall follow this argument through to the two bullet points, and briefly suggest a couple of critical remarks.



At 7/03/2007 6:19 AM, Anonymous James Pate said...

I Corinthians 11:32 says that we are chastened so that we will not be condemned with the world. That tells me two things:

1. There is condemnation, and

2. The chastening is not it.

So the chastening does not equal the condemnation. That tells me that hell is not restorative. Rather, the chastening occurs to keep us away from God's condemnation (hell?).

At 7/04/2007 12:05 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

James, I think you have hit on an important point which I will look at too.

At 7/04/2007 5:18 AM, Anonymous David W. Congdon said...


I look forward to your series. You'll really want to check out Bruce McCormack's paper from the just-finished Karl Barth conference. He spent most of his time exegeting Paul and discussing the relation between the universalist and judgment texts in Scripture. You can read my super-concise summary of his paper on my blog, but at some point you'll really want to check this out. I think he offers an excellent way of thinking about these texts in Scripture.

McCormack's basic thesis is, in a certain sense, a rejection or qualification of your statement that "a straightforward understanding of both of these groups of texts cannot be both correct at the same time." He argues that both of these groups of texts are in the Bible for a reason -- viz. to keep the church from two errors: complacency and despair.

Also, while he did not address this in his paper, I think Barth would also want to reject or qualify your statement on theological grounds, on the basis that judgment and salvation are not antithetical but one and the same reality. We are judged by God, but God's judgment (including the last judgment) is an act of grace.

At 7/04/2007 2:24 PM, Anonymous Alan Spence said...


I think this is a really important theological issue and it is good to see you considering it seriously.

Looked at theologically would we not want to say that questions about universalism are second order issues in that they are dependent on other more foundational theological doctrines. Key among these are our theory of salvation - how it is achieved - and our view of the nature of the human predicament from which we are saved.

If for instance we understand the key soteriological idea in Paul as justification we need to ask whether he sees justification as dependent in some way on human faith and causally related to a transformed Christian life.

If Barth is right and justification is God's declarative act for all people of all time whatever their response, then the question is settled. If he is wrong, as I happen to believe he is, and justification is related to faith, then examination of the nature of faith in Christ and sanctification will help us recognise the extent of the redeemed community.

My point is that the big theological questions cannot be sidestepped.

At 7/04/2007 7:05 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks DW, I'll try to get a copy of his paper pronto.

Alan, thanks so much for your comments. I think this is what makes the question of universalism so fascinating. It takes on eto the heart of evangelical theology, and right into the den of exegetical and theological approach to the scriptures. Have you read Gregroy MacDonalds little book? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

At 7/05/2007 9:41 AM, Anonymous Alan Spence said...


I haven't read Gregory McDonald's book although your discussion is now tempting me to get a copy. I am a little behind schedule writing a textbook on christology so I might have to stay focussed for a while and enjoy your blog on the side.


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