The notions of hell and eternal damnation are endlessly troubling for many Christians and non-Christians alike, because they seem so difficult to reconcile with the true doctrine that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that he “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). On the other hand, there seems no denying that, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it,
the idea of eternal damnation, which had taken ever clearer shape in the Judaism of the century or two before Christ, has a firm place in the teaching of Jesus, as well as in the apostolic writings.
At the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, Christ says rather plainly and unambiguously: “Then [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). For many persons, it seems obvious that the universalist position is hopeless in the face of so many candid predictions of the eternal damnation of at least some persons at the Universal Judgment. Yet the case of Julian of Norwich presents difficulties for this rejection of universalist hope. Among the other revelations she received during her grave illness, she was also taught by God that “all shall be well.” Her struggles to reconcile this revelation with the teaching of the Church about hell and damnation reveal the profundity of her theological ability, and her final position is one of subtle nuance and optimism. In this essay, I argue that Julian of Norwich maintains a kind of non-dogmatic, optimistic hopeful universalist position that is compatible with the official teaching of the Catholic Church. I will accomplish this through an analysis of the general theological paradigm she presents in the Long Text of her Showings, as well as a comparison of her proposals with the theology of Isaac the Syrian, a more emancipated proponent of the doctrine of universal salvation.
The substance of Julian’s doctrine of God is contained in the notion of love: in everything, God is revealed to her as one who loves without any reservation or conditions. After all, she opens her revelations thus: “This is a revelation of love which Jesus Christ, our endless bliss, made in sixteen showings.” Because of the emphasis she puts upon this love in her retelling of her revelations, and because of the manner in which she conceptualizes this love, it becomes very easy to infer that she supposes that all human persons will eventually be saved and reconciled to God in the end. She notes that the creation itself was made and preserved through the love of God: “he who created [the soul] created everything for love, and by the same love is it preserved, and always will be without end.” She says: “for love [God] made mankind, and for the same love he himself wanted to become man.” She does not shy from saying that “God loves everything that he has made,” refusing to limit the love of God only to the elect or only to some of his creatures. All the works and operations of God “lack no operation of mercy or of grace,” demonstrating that this love of God is implicit and motivates everything which he does. The love of God which was in Christ is so powerful and profound that it does not regret the suffering or humiliation of the cross: “It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my Passion for you; and if I could suffer more, I should suffer more. … How could it be that I sould not do for love of you all that I was able?” Indeed, she comments that “love would never let him rest till he had done it.” The love of God is a source of delight for God; therefore Julian enjoins us to “let our delight in our salvation be like the joy which Christ has in our salvation.” The ultimate and most radical statement of Julian’s revelations is that God, in his love for us, does not blame us for anything: “if we see truly that our sins deserve [our pains], still his love excuses us. And of his great courtesy he puts away all our blame, and regards us with pity and compassion as innocent and guiltless children.” The apparent contradiction of this with the Church’s teaching becomes a point of fruitful theological reflection later in her Showings.
The work of salvation is something which consequently expresses perfectly the character and desire of God: “See how I love you, as if he had said, behold and see that I loved you so much, before I died for you, that I wanted to die for you. And now I have died for you, and willingly suffered what I could. And now all my bitter pain and my hard labour is turned into everlasting joy and bliss for me and for you.” On the other hand, salvation and restoration to God also represents the fulfillment and perfection of the nature of human persons: “our soul will never have rest till it comes into him, acknowledging that he is full of joy, familiar and courteous and blissful and true life.” And God tells her: “I am he whom you love. I am he in whom you delight. I am he whom you serve. I am he for whom you long. I am he whom you desire. I am he whom you intend.” Human nature is not itself opposed to God or evil; on the contrary: “Our soul is created to be God’s dwelling place,” and the lacks and shortcomings of our nature are fulfilled and completed by God’s grace. In light of all this, we can see the significance of Julian’s understanding of God’s universal providence: “For I saw truly that God does everything, however small it may be, and that nothing is done by chance, but all by God’s prescient wisdom,” and all things he “duly and to his glory … always guides to their best conclusion.” The inference seems obvious and natural: if God guides all things to their best conclusion, and if the human person finds its natural fulfillment in loving fellowship with God, then all human persons are going to be saved. And it is impossible to convince God otherwise than he has decided: “he never changed his purpose in any kind of thing, nor ever will eternally.”
Now in light of the great providential control which God exercises over the course of history, it is natural for Julian to ask: why should God have permitted sin? “And so in my folly before this time I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all would have been well.” And the response she receives from God is enigmatic and tantalizing: “Sin is necessary, but all will be will, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Here is the most impressive and most suggestive evidence that Julian affirms some kind of doctrine of universal salvation. For how could everything be well, if some will suffer the torments of hell forever? To strengthen the argument, she was taught that “I should contemplate the glorious atonement, for this atoning is more pleasing to the blessed divinity and more honourable for man’s salvation, without comparison, than ever Adam’s sin was harmful,” echoing the words of Paul in Romans 5. Yet Julian never openly interprets this revelation as universal salvation, and she makes numerous efforts to avoid drawing that conclusion explicitly.
She first distinguishes between two “portions of understanding.” First is the understanding of our savior and our salvation, which is open and easy to understand for everyone of good will. Here we find the truths about Christ’s death for us, about his grace and willingness to forgive us, and so on. But on the other hand, there is also a portion that is “hidden from us and closed, that is to say all which is addition to our salvation.” (I interpret this final sentence to mean that all which does not concern our salvation, that is, the salvation of each of us individually, has not been revealed and is hidden from our knowledge. This will be important for interpreting Julian’s theology at the end.) In all of her meditations about God’s love, her statements are almost always qualified as applying to “those who will be saved.” This curious leitmotif of her work seems to refute the notion that she envisions that all will be saved. As for those who concern themselves too much to know whether or not all will be saved, she writes:
Our Lord has pity and compassion on us because some creatures occupy themselves so much in this [matter of universal salvation]; and I am sure that if we knew how greatly we should please him and solace ourselves by leaving it alone, we should do so. The saints in heaven, they wish to know nothing but what our Lord wishes them to know, and furthermore their love and their desire are governed according to our Lord’s will; and we should do this, so that our will resembles theirs. Then we shall not wish or desire anything but the will of our Lord, as they do, for we are all one in God’s intention.
She thinks that speculation about the damned and about universal salvation is inappropriate and contrary to God’s desires for us. And she explicitly affirms the Church’s teaching that those who die outside of the grace and favor of God are eternally damned: “one article of our faith is that many creatures will be damned.” She likewise receives a revelation that “the devil is reproved by God and endlessly condemned,” so that she never entertains the notion that the devil may eventually be saved, as other universalists in history did.
And yet, once more, she receives a tantalizing revelation from God that “a deed will be done, and he himself will do it, and it will be honourable and wonderful and plentiful, and it will be done with respect to me, and he himself will do it.” This was received in reference to the revelation of God that “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” As for this “deed which the blessed Trinity will perform on the last day,” which is “unknown to every creature who is inferior to Christ,” Julian is not told what it is; indeed, it will remain unknown “until the deed is done.” In response to the nagging confusion as to how all things should be well if some are damned forever, she receives only this word: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.” She is refused a sight of hell and purgatory, and she is likewise refused a revelation of whether a certain friend of hers would remain faithful to the end and be saved.
What may be said about all this, then? My argument is that Julian’s position is a kind of non-dogmatic, optimistic hopeful universalism, which phrase I will define shortly. It is worth noting that there is a persistent ambiguity in all of the revelations Julian receives regarding the eventual fate of the human race. She is made to know that the devil will certainly be damned, but she never is revealed the final word about any particular human person. Thus her repeated use of the qualified phrase “those who will be saved” speaks to uncertainty and openness about the eventual number of the saved; because she does not know how many and who will form the number of those saved, therefore she limits her reflections to this general category of saved persons. Consequently she does not affirm dogmatically, neither does she claim to know, that all persons will be saved. Yet it is evident that the entire tenor of her theological understanding lends itself to the universalist conclusion: all the various elements of her doctrine of God—as regards love and blame and providence and the rest—point in the direction of universal salvation. I will demonstrate this through a comparison of her own theology with that of another open and candid universalist: Isaac the Syrian.
Isaac’s vision is similar to Julian’s in numerous respects, not the least of which is his singular emphasis upon the love of God as the motivation for all God’s deeds and the basis of the eventual salvation of all:
In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just.
And he insists on the immutability of God’s love for all of history: “we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or less place in His love.” For Isaac, it is “utterly abhorrent” to imagine that “anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature.” On the contrary, “Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us,” and to ascribe anything less to God in any action of his is “an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God.” Even in the difficult matter of Gehenna, “there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and willfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection” those who will be punished. For Isaac, everything that God does is undertaken “with a view to the advantage that is going to come [for us] from all these things,” which includes hell. Therefore, almost predicting the revelation to Julian, he writes:
I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more – and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness.
The numerous similarities to Julian’s theology are obvious; the only difference between the two in large part is that Isaac, but not Julian, explicitly infers the conclusion of universal salvation.
It is likely only the dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the legitimacy of which is upheld by God in her revelations, coupled with the contextually appropriate fear of being punished as a heretic, that keeps her from affirming universalism openly: after all, Julian “would not have been ignorant of the severe persecution of the Lollards” during her life, and her book was written around the time at which burning at the stake became an authorized mode for their punishment. Consequently the notion of universal salvation had to remain at the level of hope and desire, never dogma or doctrine. Yet here there is a question of theological coherence and the consistency of Julian’s greater vision. How can she desire and hope for universal salvation, if she affirms the Church’s teaching that many will be damned? I return to Julian’s remark that what is unknown and kept from us is “all which is additional to our salvation.” I interpret her to mean that the revealed teachings of the Church are ordered towards our salvation, and not towards some other end. This means that the purpose of the Church’s teachings regarding damnation is precisely that, being confronted with the real possibility of damnation if we persist in sin, we are thereby motivated to repent. These do not by themselves, however, provide us with any dogmatic certainty about the damnation of anyone. They are not intended to be taken as historical statements about the eventual doomed fate of others; the purpose of the teachings of Christ regarding hell is primarily to confront each of us individually with the decision we must make about how we will live our life. Consider what God tells Ezekiel: “And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they turn from their sin and do what is just and right … they will surely live” (Ezek 33:14, 16). Though the message given to the sinful person is unambiguous and clearly predicts her death with no explicit escape clauses, yet if she repents she will live, God’s word apparently being nullified. Surely God does not lie (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18), and yet he apparently makes these unfulfilled, unambiguous predictions of the eventual death of some sinners. Therefore these sorts of statements must not be lies, despite how they may appear to us. Consequently, it is still possible—though it is not and cannot be known by us now—that all persons may still be saved. There is no contradiction with Church dogma if it is understood to have this rhetorical function.
Julian already affirms tensions of this sort: “For God sees one way and man sees another way. For it is for man meekly to accuse himself, and it is for our Lord God’s own goodness courteously to excuse man.” Though God does not blame us, it is appropriate for us (and the Church) to blame ourselves because in this way we will “willingly and truly see and know the everlasting love which he has for us, and his plentiful mercy.” So also I understand Julian’s position regarding the teaching of the Church regarding damnation and hell: this dogmatic stance must be maintained, and excessive speculation about universal salvation must be rejected, because it has been ordained for us to work out our own salvation in this way—in light of the real possibility of damnation, if we are not careful. Yet the whole tenor of Julian’s theology lends itself to the non-dogmatic hope and (in some sense) unstated expectation that all will be saved. Just as Aelred encouraged the anchoress to “Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulation the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked,” so also Julian and perhaps the rest of us can follow Ratzinger’s advice: “Such hope [for universal salvation] … must place its petition into the hands of its Lord and leave it there.”My argument, then, is that Julian of Norwich’s theology as expressed in the Showings is best described as a kind of qualified, non-dogmatic hopeful universalism. The general tenor of her understanding of God lends itself strongly to the universalist conclusion, but the dogmatic teaching of the Church about damnation and hell must be maintained. Consequently, universal salvation remains a hope—even if strongly hinted at—but never a dogma or a piece of knowledge. I have shown this through an analysis of Julian’s writings as well as through a comparison with the more emancipated universalist, Isaac the Syrian. I have also given a biblical justification for maintaining the hope of universal salvation despite the dogmatic teaching regarding hell through a rhetorical analysis of the Church’s threats of damnation.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 215.
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978). All chapter citations from the Long Text. I will also draw from Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich (London: SPCK, 2000).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, trans. Sebastian Brock (Louvaine: Peeters, 1995); Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 175 (§1).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 190 (§8).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 291 (§57).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 192 (§9).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 198 (§11)
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 216-17 (§22).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 217 (§22).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 219 (§23).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 227 (§28).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 221 (§24).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 223 (§26).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 285 (§54).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 291 (§57).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 197 (§11).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 198 (§11).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 224 (§27).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 225 (§27).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 228 (§29).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 228 (§30).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 229 (§30).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 233 (§32).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 234 (§33).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 238 (§36).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 229 (§31).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 232 (§32).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 233 (§32).
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 236 (§35).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 160 (38, §1); Alfeyev, Spiritual World, 35-7.
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 161 (38, §5).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 162 (39, §2).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 172 (39, §22); Alfeyev, Spiritual World, 40-2.
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 171 (39, §20).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 164 (39, §3).
 Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, 165 (39, §6); Alfeyev, Spiritual World, 287.
 Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 11.
 Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 179.
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 228 (§30).
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men be Saved”? With A Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 20, 158 makes this point drawing from Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger.
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, 281 (§52).
 Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 46; emphasis added.
 Ratzinger, Eschatology, 218.