Evangelical Universalism (4) biblical material

So to Derek Tidball’s discussion of the biblical material in his answer to the question ‘Can evangelicals be universalists?’ in the  current edition of Evangelical Quarterly.


– talks frequently of the final separation at the end / terror of hell (Mt 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41, 46; Mk 9:42-48).

– Gehenna (Mk 9:48) – rejection, destruction and everlasting fire.

– John’s Gospel; strong dualism of those with eternal life and those not

Tidball argues there is no hint in Jesus that God’s judgement is irreversible or temporary but rather final. Parry’s acknowledgement that no contemporary of Jesus would have thought he was any sort of universalist, Tidball says this should be conclusive.


Parry’s case depends on establishing two ‘strands’ within Paul’s teaching, let’s call them strand A and strand B

Strand A: two ways; two types of people; two destinations. Romans 1:16-17; 2:7-9. 1 Cor 18; 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; 1 Thes 4:13; 2 Thes 1:9 (“everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord”), 2:10-12.

Strand B: Language that talks of a God who unites all creation under his reign. 1 Cor 15:26-28 (God is “all in all”). Philippians 2:10-11 (every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord). Colossians 1:20 (all things reconciled). Ephesians 1:10.

Do such ‘strand B’ texts imply universal salvation – and somehow trump strand A?

Tidball argues no: the two strands are not in tension or contradiction. It does not work to use strand B to trump strand A because strand B does not imply universalism. Indeed each of the four texts above can be best interpreted as teaching the opposite. For example, in 1 Cor 15, God is ‘all in all’ when all things are subject to him his enemies are destroyed, not re-educated or converted.

Such texts have no mention of hell being a temporary place – to argue they do is to do eisegesis not exegesis. The ‘all’ that Parry builds much upon, is all who are in Christ, not all individuals without exception – see 1 Cor 15:22.

Romans 5 develops this exclusive theme – the ‘all’ of Romans 5:8 is all (Jew or Gentile) who are in Christ as opposed to being in Adam. To argue for universalism from this and other texts goes directly against Romans 2:6-16; 14:11-12; 2 Thes 2:7-10 etc.

The ‘best’ universalist text is perhaps 1 Tim 4:10 “we have our hope set on the living God who is the saviour for all people, especially of those who believe.” But, Tidball argues, it is best translated within a particularistic framework of the letter and Paul more generally. The ‘especially’ understood as explaining the precise identity of the ‘all’ – ‘to be precise, those who believe’.

General Epistles and Revelation

Tidball refers to Howard Marshall and N T Wright on a regular basis who both conclude that there is no hint of a second chance post-mortem salvation in the NT.

Hebrews 9:27 – death followed by judgement

2 Peter 3:9 (the Lord does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance). This is a key text in a universalist argument, but to extrapolate out from this verse a conclusion that, to coin a phrase, God must get what he wants, is to interpret the verse  contrary to the whole flow of 2 Peter 3 which talks of the ‘destruction of the godless.’

1 John 2:2 – Jesus the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also the sins of the whole world. But John is strongly a two kinds of people / two paths  guy (see 1 John 5:23). This verse needs to be interpreted as talking of one saviour for all (the whole world) – whoever they are, across all ethnic, racial, gender, social and religious barriers.

Revelation: Lot of ground to cover here. Parry sees 14 and 20 as speaking of judgement, but 15 and 21-22 holding out the triumphant hope of God’s universal triumph. The latter ultimately overcoming the former. The judgement of the damned in 14 or 20 is not necessarily ‘for ever and ever’.  The open gates of the New Jerusalem point to a welcome for the judged – they will not be excluded for ever. But, Tidball contends such a reading is forced and speculative. The open gates are symbolic of peace. The whole context is of ultimate victory and the utter defeat of evil and judgement of God’s enemies to a second death (21:8).

Some concluding discussion in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

7 thoughts on “Evangelical Universalism (4) biblical material

  1. Again, thank you for such a helpful summery. Re the Jesus section only, I think there’s a whole background of knowledge that needs to be in place first. Here’s my offering.

    (1) I think it should be well accepted by now that the Judaism of Jesus’ time had no one orthodoxy on the fate of the wicked. Found among the literature are scraps of universalism, annihilationism, and never ending punishment (those of us with an “Apocrypha” edition of the Bible can look up a universalist passage in Wisdom of Solomon 11:23-26!). So it is no longer right to say that the shared understanding behind Jesus’ remarks must be “everlasting punishment”.

    (2) When Jesus himself talks about judgement and punishment, he often shows a surprising lack of finality about things. For example, it will be “more tolerable” for Sodom (Mat 10:15) and “Sodom would have remained to this day” (Mat 11:23) and some will be “beaten with many stripes” while others are “beaten with few stripes” (Lk 12:47ff). This points to an on-going process with some purpose behind it. This links with the following:

    (3) The use of the present continuous in Greek also points to things as an on-going process. For example “we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor 2:15). Typically the KJV takes that as a statement about the finally saved and the finally damned, rather that about the on-going pilgrimage of human life. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus words are more properly translated: “… wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many ARE ENTERING through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few ARE FINDING it.” Jesus is not talking about final results but midway progress.

    (4) Lastly, Jesus’ words leave open a greater hope than the tradition of men which we’ve inherited. Apart from the obvious one “when I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (Jhn 12:32), there is the fascinating one at the end of Mark ch.9. There we have Jesus’ warning that we all have to be prepared to sacrifice hand, foot or eye than go to hell with a complete but sinful body. Then Mk 9:49 immediately continues “For (gar) everyone will be salted with fire” (Why does the NIV omit the “for”?). The word “for” connects it with the preceding sentences. The word “everyone” is the same “anyone” from verse 42 onwards. So in Mk 9:42-49, Jesus seems to be saying that we will all suffer (be salted with fire) as we struggle with sin, but to deal with it ourselves in this life is so much better than have it dealt with in hell. Yet (and here is the point) even hell’s fire is a “salting” fire — purging and purifying.

    I better add that any purging and purifying in hell would not be a “saving” process, but an educative process, because it is only through Christ’s work that we are saved.

    • Hi Nicolas. it’s a big leap to extrapolate out to universal salvation from an ongoing process of salvation, especially in light of the numerous texts above that do talk of final judgement. Similiarly with the reading of Mark 9. It’s very hard to avoid the image of Gehenna as anything but final destruction (I know plenty have tried). To make the case for universalism from the NT seems to me to involve many such big leaps because the bridge to hold up the argument just isn’t there. And it seems to me that however big the leap, it will always come up short.

  2. Hi Patrick, and thank you for your reply. Yes, I can see that you have already thought deeply about all this. Your comments are a good check and ballance for my own journey in this matter. It also occurs to me that I’ve only dealt with the “Jesus” part of your post. There’s so much more, but I’ll get round to it.

    You say “It’s very hard to avoid the image of Gehenna as anything but final destruction.”

    But given that there was no established eschatological orthodoxy at the time, how can we be sure Jusus is talking about a “final” state? The NT doesn’t use the word “final”.

    Isn’t it the case that the NT is very “this worldly”, being more concerned about our life and decisions in this world? When we discuss whether a court case verdict is to be innocent or guilty, we are talking about that stage in the process. We’re talking about whether the man will go to prison or go free. We are not talking about how old he’ll be when he gets out or when he’ll die. That’s a later stage, and I think the NT is similarly only talking about the earlier stage.

    A similar example of this misunderstanding, I think, is Derek’s quoting of Hebrews 9:27 – “death followed by judgement”. But we all agree that judgement will follow death, so what is trying to be proved? I wonder if the traditionalist reads “judgement” but thinks “everlasting” punishment” — and thereby hopes to have proved his case. But the problem is that the verse is talking about ALL OF US (believers and non believers) having to go through judgement after death. So we really shouldn’t be attaching an idea of “everlasting punishment” to the word “judgement” in that verse!

    So my point is that there are some presumptions needing to be addressed first. Then the leap is not so big!

  3. As promised, a few words on the Paul section.

    I still find it difficult not knowing Derek’s own stance, because slightly different replies are needed to the different stances (never-ending punishment and annihilationism).

    The exercise Derek has carried out can equally be done in the opposite way: I can very easily go through each Strand A text and show how it does not mean “final” judgement followed by “never-ending” punishment. Then I, too, can reach the conclusion: “It does not work to use strand A to trump strand B because strand A does not imply never-ending punishment.”

    The universalist position does accept that there is a judgement after death, and a separation of the saved from the wicked, which many of the Strand A texts are talking about. But we deny that this is God’s final solution — or the end of God’s loving mercy for the wicked. So, for example, I would object to the NIV’s use of the word “everlasting” in the phrase “everlasting destruction” in 2 Thes 1:9. If they had left it as “eternal destruction” (as they did with eternal punishment in Mat 25:46) then the meaning of aionios would be left open for discussion. But with the word “everlasting” they cast their dye in the direction of “never-ending.” Evangelical scholar RVG Tasker, back in 1961, makes that point about aionios in his Tyndale Commentary on Matt 25:46 (p 240).

    I could comment on every one of Tidball’s Strand A texts, but it would be too long!! So I’ll just do one more.

    I suggest that Tidball can’t see the full force of 1 Cor. 15:27 – 28 because he’s not going back to the Greek text.
    1 Cor. 15:27-28 in the NIV seems to go out of its way to hide that the “subjection” of all things to Christ is the same word as the “subjection” of Christ to the Father, so that God be all in all.
    Although the verbs “subject/be subjected” appear no less than six times in these two verses, the NIV avoids the connection by using different verbs. While the King James (AV) also wants to break the connection, the NIV completely breaks the connection altogether. One wonders if the translators want to think of the subjection of all things to Christ as “ever-lasting punishment”, while Christ’s subjection to the Father is something completely different — despite having the same verb.

    Because it’s the same verb, it’s all a process of healing and reunion of all things in God.

  4. Dear PM,
    Just to finish what I’ve started, and hopefully give a better understanding of the Evangelical Universalist reading of the Bible.

    The General Epistles and Revelation:

    2 Pet 3:7, re the destruction of the un-godly — it’s not often I find myself arguing with the traditionalist against the annihilationist! But destruction in the NT doesn’t need to include “being put out of existence”. Indeed, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV) should tell us that destruction and salvation can work side by side.

    I’ll finish with the New Jerusalem, its ever-open gates, and the two categories of “former enemies of Christ” who come into the New Jerusalem. Compare Rev 18:3 and Rev 21:24

    The Greek phrases for “the nations” (ta ethne) and “the kings of the earth” (hoi basileis tes ges) all through Revelation are exactly the same as used in Rev 21:24. And yet, to avoid this conclusion, Beale, suggested that “the nations” could be a term also used of the redeemed as per Rev. 5:9 and 7:9. But this just doesn’t work. These two verses (5:9 & 7:9) do not refer to the saints as “the nations” — but as a kingdom redeemed FROM OUT OF the nations.

    And anyways, there is also the other category of the “Kings of the earth.” Mounce, Glasson and Rist say that the words “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” are not entirely appropriate here — that John has failed to modify them to suit his own views. My question is: does Tidball have an alternative to these two unsatisfactory explanations?

    Finally, John the Divine makes great use of the OT, but in two places at the end of the book he adds words to universalize his message:
    Is 43:19
    Behold I am doing a new thing (LXX Greek: idou ego poio kaina)
    becomes in Rev 21:5
    Behold I am making all things new (NT Greek: idou kaina poio panta)
    where the addition of “all things” (panta) really universalizes it.

    The other is Ezek 47:12
    … their leaves will be for healing.
    becomes in Rev 22:2
    the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations!

    These are just a very few of the things that point to a hopeful universalism.

    ps — just as the first death lead to resurrection, couldn’t the second death also?

    • Whew – thanks Nicolas for your comments and I mean that. I haven’t had much time this week to look at the blog.

      I can’t speak for Derek. But I maintain that the universalism that Robin Parry and yourself espouse is, in the end (to use a relevant cliche!) optimistic speculation at best.

      Now I know that most theology is ‘beyond the Bible’, by definition it has to be.
      But for a theology to have legs it needs to grow and develop from that source. The arguments put forward are impressionistic and sketchy and go against the clear flow a book. Take your Revelation example – the new creation comes after the final judgement of all God’s enemies in chapter 20. It’s hard to get a more final picture. Some have gone for annihiliation, but to take the ‘all’ at the end of Revelation in a universalist way does not work. Repeatedly the ‘all’ language is the universalism of the Christian gospel – it is open to absolutely everyone. But this is a very different form of universalism.

      it seems remarkable that such a vital doctrine as ‘eternal second chance until everyone is in’ is nowhere taught in the NT, either clearly or even unclearly. And there are interesting parallels (although there are differences) to what you are saying and more modern forms of Purgatory (the retributive aspect has been played down in recent times). For evangelicals, one objection to purgatory has always been the lack of biblical support and the same goes for universalism.

      As you rightly point out, all this is not to say that those rejecting universalism are of one voice or that there is a nice easy alternative. Annihilationism of course is one, and N T Wright tentatively goes for a version of C S Lewis’ self-chosen hell and the loss of the image of God (and he admits he is speculating too).

      The big swing towards universalism comes I think not from any compellling biblical argument – it is rather an argument looking for biblical support, a significant difference.

      It comes from a revulsion of the idea of what Wright calls ‘a torture chamber in the middle of the castle of delights’ – and an endless one at that. Maybe the Bible is reticient on this for a reason. When we go too far in filling in the blanks, we end up creating a future that fits contemporary sensibiliites. In the medieval period that meant sadistic torture chambers (I’m no expert, but that says a lot about the medieval imagination!). In today’s world it leads to universal salvation.

      Last point – I do think that framing the gospel in terms of heaven vs hell is a distortion and the NT doesn’t do this – it is much more about the kingdom of God breaking in and transformed ‘future life’ now in the power of the Spirit.

  5. Thanks again, Patrick, for your gracious reply.
    God bless us all as we continue on our pilgrimage!

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