Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Between hopeful and dogmatic universalism

I have recently read through Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? and I quite enjoyed it. I am attracted to his hopeful universalism for a number of reasons: first, it insists on the real possibility of eternal damnation, out of respect for human freedom; second, it grounds its universalist hope inter alia in the New Testament commandment to pray for the salvation of all people (1 Tim 2.1-4); third, through the emphasis on prayer for salvation, it is a kind of universalism that goes beyond mere theologizing and reflection into personal involvement in the hoped for reconciliation of all to God.

At times von Balthasar criticizes Karl Barth's theology for coming too close to a dogmatic position on the apokatastasis panton, which is too far for him. He wants to leave open the possibility of the eternal damnation of some people alongside the possibility of the salvation of all people. Yet the question might rightly be raised: how confident a hope can von Balthasar's position tolerate? How much confidence can the Christian have, who prays for the salvation of all persons and shares the good news of Jesus with others as often as possible, and yet who considers the eternal damnation of some persons a real possibility?

Of course, the New Testament teaching on prayer is that we ought to pray with confidence and insistence. This is something that Jesus teaches on a number of occasions, For example, consider Jesus's words to his disciples in the gospel according to Luke:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks fora fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.5-13).

Likewise in Mark's gospel he teaches:

Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mark 11.22-4).

In Matthew's gospel, in the parallel to this Markan passage, Jesus says: Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive (Mt 21.22).

Prayer with a firm conviction that God will provide what has been requested is the hallmark of Christian prayer for Jesus in the New Testament. Prayer must be made with faith, with trust that God will answer as one has asked. Inversely, a person who prays with doubt cannot expect to receive anything from God at all, as James emphasizes:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord (Jas 1.5-8).

Now things do not always turn out as we wanted. Sometimes we pray for something to take place -- say, a healing -- and God does not come through for us in the way we wanted. This happens because we often pray for things that God, in his providence and wisdom, does not want to happen as we would like. Instead, God permits that some persons should suffer and still others should die of illness because it is a part of his plan -- though we cannot claim to understand why this should be so.

But the prayer for the salvation of all is of a different order altogether, because we know that this is what God wants. Indeed, Paul commands us to pray for the salvation of all precisely because this is God's will:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.1-4).

For this reason, it seems to me we should be especially confident that this sort of prayer will be answered, more so than in more controversial and uncertain matters where we are nevertheless told to pray confidently and expecting a response.

By this point, we are somewhere in the blurred, uncertain boundaries between hopeful and dogmatic universalism. We admit the real possibility of eternal damnation, yet we pray for the salvation of every human person. Moreover, we pray confidently, expecting God to answer our prayer in the way we ask, yet we do not affirm with certainty that all persons will be saved as a part of our official dogma. We urge all men everywhere to repent, because the threat of damnation is a real one; yet we know that God acts for their salvation beyond our powers and beyond our knowledge, and no purpose of [God's] can be thwarted (Job 42.2).


Federico Matias Álvarez Zarza said...

Hello Steve,

I've been reading your blog for a long time and it has made me think a lot about my theology. Right now I'm Calvinist. But I'd like to get more information about universalism. What would you recommend to me? Think that I am a beginner on this matter. What book would you recommend to a beginner on universalism?

God bless you,


(I'm sorry for my English, I am learning the language l)

Steven Nemeș said...

Hi Federico,

First, let me thank you for stopping by my blog. I am always glad to hear that some persons are interested in what I've written!

As for universalism, perhaps the classic readings are the following:

The Evangelical Universalist, by Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym)
The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott
Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?, by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Also, if you could find a copy of St. Isaac the Syrian's Ascetical Homilies, The Second Part, I would read especially homilies 39-41. St. Isaac's universalist vision is most impressive to me, the one with which I most closely relate. If you cannot find this book, you should check out The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, by Hilarion Alfeyev.

I'm sure there are other necessary readings, too, but these are a nice start. Be sure to check out the "readings in universalism" page on Fr. Kimel's blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy.

Although he was not a universalist, I would also spend some time reading T.F. Torrance's theology, especially the two books Incarnation and Atonement, though you might also check out The Mediation of Christ and A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry.

You might also consider reading some more advanced reading, too. Ilaria Ramelli's The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) is the most complete work dedicated to the documentation of the belief in Christian universalism throughout the history of the church. I have a review of this work published in the Journal of Analytic Theology available here. Likewise, there is my paper which I read at the Rethinking Hell 2015 conference in California a few months ago. There is a more up-to-date draft of this paper available here, which I have submitted for publication in the Journal of Analytic Theology.

I would say that this post on which you've commented spells out my position most accurately: universal salvation is something which we can and must pray for, and more than that, to pray for with faith and conviction that God will hear us, all the while aware that eternal damnation is a real possibility because of human freedom.

Above everything, I think that someone considering the question of universalism must experience the loving desire for the salvation of all that God himself has. I encourage you to pray to God to show you and to help you to feel the same desire that he has for the salvation of others. When you feel this desire -- I think St. Isaac referred to this as the "merciful heart"; see this post for an example -- then you will understand universalism more truly and you will begin to see the scriptures differently. I don't think universalism can be anything more than a theory to a person until she has felt in a real and profound way the desire that God has for the salvation of others. When you have this experience, then you will begin to see things differently.

By the way, your English is very good! No need to apologize. :-)

Thanks so much for commenting.

Steven Nemeș said...

I realize I threw a lot of material at you. :-) So if you had to read just one of those books, I would read The Evangelical Universalist. . . and perhaps my conference paper, and my review of Ramelli's book. ;-)

Federico Matias Álvarez Zarza said...


Thank you very much! I was waiting for this kind of answer for a lot of time. I didn't know who was the right person to ask since I don't have Universalist friends, and bloggers seem to be very busy to respond my comments :P. So I thank God for you and your response to my comment. I have a lot of questions about universalism and I'd like to know if there is any way I could contact you more personally (email, for example). If this possibility is not available, I understand, don't worry!

Thank you very much in advance,

God bless you,


Steven Nemeș said...

Sure. Email me at stevennemes (at) fuller (dot) edu.