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Patristic Universalism: An Alternative to the Traditional View of Divine Judgment Paperback – January 25, 2013
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I really enjoyed this book. Despite the fact that I disagree with the overall conclusions, I found this book to be a helpful introduction into the biblical and patristic arguments for Universalism. I wish more "evangelical" books took the bible as seriously as this author did! I've rarely read a book with such academic excellence as this, especially amongst the pop-theology of most modern evangelicals. This book definitely presents one of the clearest and most scripturally backed arguments for universalism. It has expanded my perspective on the bible, and given fresh insights into the scary truth that universalism may not be so heretical after all. In the midst of an evangelical community that is up in arms against all traces of universalism, this book stands up and gives a clear, thought-provoking argument that makes clear that fact that perhaps we have jumped the gun, and gotten far too dogmatic with our doctrines of hell. I disagree with the overall position because, like Karl Barth, I believe in the freedom of God which creates the freedom of man. To say ipso facto that hell is real, eternal, or temporary, or that universalism is heresy of fact, is to deny God His right to be free in Himself, and to inspire our freedom along with Him. However, as a book, this is an excellent introduction into the perspective of universalism. If you think universalism is unbiblical, read this book! It will shed some light on the fact that the bible is not so one sided as the evangelical community seems to think.
From the Author
David Burnfield has been teaching and writing Christian material for over fifteen years. His seminars include apologetics covering such topics as; creation, biblical inerrancy and patristic universalism . His passion is to teach the reliability of Scripture and the hope it provides every generation.You can contact David Burnfield on Facebook: facebook.com/patristicuniversalist
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Top Customer Reviews
Since reading this book, my overall love for Christ has increased as I am better able to see God's heart to all of His children- believers and unbelievers alike. Furthermore, I am now more able to display the true heart of our heavenly Father with regard to how I should love my neighbor as myself. I no longer look down on those whose beliefs are not like mine as a Christian believer. When I encounter unbelievers, I no longer feel the unfounded burden of just focusing on "getting them saved" at the expense of not seeing them as individuals who were also created in the image of God. We must tend to their needs as individuals, and in so doing, Christ's love will flow through us and be seen by those unsaved individuals. To amplify this point, the author gave an example of a shelter in which victims of a hurricane were visited by Christians. Instead of meeting their immediate physical needs, those Christians came with a bunch of bibles to hand out. Though this is unarguably an important thing to think about, the more pressing issue at that moment was helping to put food on the table and to provide clothes for these people who lost everything! This is what Jesus was alluding to in passages such as Matthew 25, in which He gives us this very exhortation to look after the less-fortunate. Many times our though process is a provincial one in that we are so consumed with getting a person to pray the "sinners prayer" that we miss displaying the compassion of Christ in attending to the immediate physical needs of that person.
This book takes great lengths to show through the entirety of scripture that God's love is far-reaching. His love is for everyone and his patience and mercy endure forever. His pattern of grace and mercy even in the face of rebellion was well documented in both the OT and NT. He would pursue an individual or people group-->chasten those who are rebellious-->wait for repentance-->accept back into His fold. This is the pattern that was highlighted over and over again in this book. Once you see how God deals with the human race, you will then begin to acknowledge that His "punishments" are corrective in nature with the goal of leading us to repentance-- not to cast us off into everlasting darkness!
When reading this book, I began to question my own heart as to why would I NOT want everyone to be eventually saved? I realized my heart was previously satisfied in dividing people into the "have's" and the "have not's." This is really an unloving way to view those who are created in God's image! Reading this book uncovered my attitude that was similar to the brother of the Prodigal Son! Why is it that I should disdain the salvation of someone whom I thought was otherwise undeserving? Did I forget that I too am undeserving in and of myself?
This book is a MUST READ for anyone who has an internal objection to the standard theological principles of eternal punishment and "predestination" that don't seem to comport with your image of God's plan for His people. You will feel a sense of relief in answering the question of "what about those who have never heard of Jesus?"
Finally, the author does a great job of defining what Patristic Universalism is and drawing a clear contrast between this and the more generic definition in which the existence of hell is denied.
I certainly plan to reread this book many times, as it is that good! Praise God and our Lord, Jesus! Now I can truly see how the atoning sacrifice of our Lord is eternal and is for ALL! Love truly wins in the end!!!
He also explains, “I believe the Bible is our authority not only in regards to matters of faith and practice but in matters of science and history as well. I’ve never understood the argument by some Christians that it’s okay if the Bible is not accurate regarding scientific and historical matters because it was not intended to be a science or history textbook anyway. But if you can’t trust that the Bible teaches regarding the facts of science and history, how can you trust what it teaches regarding the Christian faith?” (Pg. 5)
He recalls, “I began thinking about the two major theological viewpoints regarding salvation---Calvinism and Arminianism---and it seemed that both viewpoints had offered up glimpses of truth while at the same time … gravitating to the extreme… the Arminianist’s view that God would like to save us but can’t because of the power of or freewill is not only illogical it’s unbiblical… Then there’s the Calvinist view… where the Calvinists fall off the rails is believing that God does not desire to save all of mankind… Logically this entails a God who created billions of people knowing they were being created for hell. Wouldn’t it have been better not to have created them at all?... might it be better to harmonize the two views and recognize that God can be both sovereign AND merciful? For me, the model that brings the two ends of the ‘rope’ together beautifully is Patristic Universalism---the idea that God will EVENTUALLY save all… I call it ‘Patristic Universalism’ because it’s the version of universalism advocated by the Patristic Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen.” (Pg. 9-10) Later, he adds, “In fact, of the five points of Calvinism, the Patristic Universalist would really only have an issue with limited atonement.” (Pg. 13)
He points out, “The main problem with the traditional view… is how one can ‘accept Christ’ if they have never heard of Christ, or were unable to understand the message (i.e. too young, mentally handicapped, etc.)… Many struggle from day-to-day just to get enough to eat. To suggest they will spend eternity in hell because they didn’t stop and ‘accept Christ’ to me is ludicrous. Given the environment most people live in throughout the world, a belief in post-mortem evangelism is the only view that makes sense.” (Pg. 19-20)
He suggests, “If ‘most’ Christians---under the guidance of the Holy Spirit---find the concept of an eternal hell completely deplorable, and if ‘all Christians’ hope there were some way around eternal punishment, doesn’t this suggest there’s something wrong with the doctrine of an eternal hell? If our God-given moral compass would reject sending someone to prison for the rest of their life because of an overdue library book, isn’t it this same moral compass telling us to reject the idea that God would torture someone eternally simply for committing the ‘slightest sin’?” (Pg. 24-25)
He notes, “If the traditional view is true that one must have explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ before they die or spend eternity in hell, what about the people who lived before Christ?... let’s go back in time to one hour after Christ’s ascension… hundreds, if not thousands, of people all over the world were dying each day from famine, pestilence, war, and punishment. These people lived after Christ’s ascension but obviously they never knew Him but according to the traditional view will spend eternity in hell… this breaks every rule of logic AND of love.” (Pg. 30)
He asserts, “Over time, the idea that God would torture young children or babies in an oven-like furnace for all eternity lost support and the concept of an ‘age of accountability’… gained wider acceptance… So if all children who die prior to the age of accountability go to heaven, why not kill all the children? If the traditional view were true wouldn’t this make more sense than allowing your child to grow up knowing them might reject Christ and spend eternity in hell?” (Pg. 32-33)
He observes, “Another problem for the traditional view is answering the question of how God could allow billions of people to be born knowing they would spend eternity in hell; would it not have been better to prevent their birth in the first place?... consider God’s decision to allow billions of children to be born knowing they will be tortured for eternity. Does this really make sense? And can someone really follow a God like that?” (Pg. 34-35)
He asks, “how can those in heaven rejoice when their loved ones in hell are being tortured? One could argue that those in heaven won’t know the fate of their loved ones or won’t remember them… [But] Do we really believe that part of the reason for our joy and happiness in heaven will be due to the fact that we don’t know that many of our loved ones are screaming and crying out in eternal pain due to the rigors of unimaginable tortures? Can heaven really be the abode of God if our happiness is based on deception? Or perhaps once we get to heaven, we stop caring about people and those we knew on earth and so their tortures and pain are of no consequence to us...” (Pg. 37)
He contends, “How is it possible that all will come to faith if many die in this life opposed to Christ?... this life is not the only time afforded to someone to come to faith in Christ. If for whatever reason someone does not accept Christ in this life (i.e., died at birth, born into a family hostile to Christianity, died without knowing Christ, etc.), Christ will continue to seek them after they die. Contrary to popular belief, there are many passages that suggest mercy beyond the grave such as Eph 2:7…” (Pg. 67)
He notes, “one of the main objections to universalism is that it violates our freewill if people are forced to follow Jesus. But since we didn’t have a choice regarding our sinful nature ‘in Adam,’ wasn’t this a violation of our freewill? And if Satan can violate our freewill to our destruction might not Christ ‘violate’ our freewill for our salvation?” (Pg. 71)
He clarifies, “The Patristic Universalist DOES NOT teach we can live any way we want and go straight to heaven… Those who live a life pleasing to God will not experience the same remedial punishment as those who don’t… thus, our earthy lives DO impact what happens to us after we die… the deeds done ‘in the body’ will be judged accordingly… But I would also argue that many Christians who hold to the traditional view believe they can live any way they want and still go to heaven because they’ve ‘said the sinner’s prayer’ or ‘walked down the aisle’ and thus already have one foot in heaven… So while other forms of universalism encourage a life without restraint, this is also true of some forms of the traditional model as well.” (Pg. 110)
He argues, “In our day how many people get a perfect or even close to perfect Gospel message? All we have are sinful, fallen people telling other sinful, fallen people about Jesus. What are the chances that the message might not be completely correct? What are the chances that something will get lost between what Jesus said and meant and a person living 2000 years later trying to convey that message from an imperfect written translation… of the Bible… And what percentage of the message must be correct for someone to be held accountable for the decision they make of don’t make for Christ? Must the message be 90% correct? Will 70% do?... Can someone be held accountable if the message they were given about Christ was only 40% correct? To believe that you must get it right in this life is to believe that we have perfect or near perfect information upon which to base that decision. But in truth, we don’t have anything close to perfect information and this is borne out by the fact that theologians differ on nearly every teaching in the Bible.” (Pg. 121-122)
He suggests, “there’s nothing in the Bible that specifically teaches an ‘age of accountability.’ … Second, even if there is such an age, we must ask, ‘what is this age?’ How does one know when that are ‘old enough to know right from wrong’? Third, if God grants a pass for young people presumably because they don’t know any better, then shouldn’t we stop evangelizing to people altogether so that they remain ignorant and thus cannot be held accountable…? Why educate anyone about Christ if it just gives them a chance to reject the message and thus be condemned to hell?” (Pg. 154-155)
About Luke 12:47-48, he observes, “It hardly needs to be pointed out that if the degree of punishment depends on the crime, then hell cannot be eternal for how can you have degrees of eternality? This passage is a major problem for the traditionalist view, which teaches all sin is punished with equal duration (eternal) because it is common sense that ‘few’ stripes will take less time to deliver than ‘many’ stripes. But notice that even if someone is to get ‘many’ stripes, the punishment will come to an end, as it does not say ‘eternal’ stripes.” (Pg. 194)
He acknowledges, “To those who hold to the traditional view, the most serious challenge to Patristic Universalism are the hell passages (i.e. Matt 10:28; 25:31-46; Mk 9:42-48; Lk 16:19-31; 2 Thess 1:7-9; Rev 20:14-15; 21:8). It might be asked, ‘If there are so many passages that seem to teach an eternal hell, how can you believe in universalism?’ While it’s true that the ‘hell texts’ are a challenge to the case for universalism it is also true that each theological model… has its own set of problem texts and therefore dealing with passages of Scripture that seem to refute one’s theological model is NOT unique to Universalism. For I could just as easily ask my traditionalist counterparts, ‘If there are so many passages that seem to teach universal salvation, how can you believe in an eternal hell?’” (Pg. 204)
Of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk 16:19-31, he comments, “there’s nothing in the parable… that negates the possibility of the rich man leaving his current state. Yes, he cannot cross over to where Lazarus is now, but that doesn’t mean he can never cross over. The Universalist would agree that those who are punished in the next age will be separated from those who are not punished. But when the punishment is completed, they will all be together… Secondly, while the rich man cannot cross the chasm and join Lazarus, this does not mean Christ cannot make the journey as he holds the ‘keys of death and Hades’ (Rev 1:18)…Thirdly, we see the positive impact of the rich man’s punishment in that he is thinking of others instead of himself by asking that he be able to warn his family… This is at the heart of the Universalist’s position that punishment is remedial rather than retributive.” (Pg. 226-227)
He explains, “What is the Patristic Universalist’s response to Hebrews 9:27? First, it must always be kept in mind that Hebrews 9:27 doesn’t say that when a lost person dies, they go to hell. It simply says everyone is judged after they die which a Patristic Universalist would agree with completely… Each one of us will be judged based on how we lived our life here on earth… but this teaching doesn’t tell us that if we didn’t get it right in this life, we go to hell; it just says we’ll all be judged one day. To the Patristic Universalist, this judgement will determine how much purifying ‘fire’ God will have to administer before we are prepared for heaven. Second, the phrase ‘to face judgment’ does not say anything regarding the severity or duration of punishment. Again, the Patristic Universalist believes in hell and believes people will be judged and punished for their sins. They just don’t believe this punishment lasts forever.” (Pg. 233-234)
He states, “Some might ask how it’s possible that the ‘lake of fire’ will destroy Satan, the beast, the false prophets, as well as death and hades, het purify those whose names were not written in the book of life?... It’s a well-known fact that when heat is applied to certain metals… it allows for the removal of impurities by forming pools of contaminants… that float on the surface whereby they can be easily removed… In the same way, when the ‘heat’ from the ‘lake of fire’ is applied to the sinner… all impurities are removed leaving the person in the initial and pure state God created them in… free from all evil and sin.” (Pg. 243)
He asserts, “I’ve never understood this line of reasoning that a loving God who protects us from Satan… is a bad thing and violates our freedom… if God wants to drag me to heaven kicking and screaming, I’m okay with that… I reject the argument that there are people who don’t want to be saved. Yes, there are people in this world who might THINK they don’t want salvation but when push comes to shove, everyone, no matter who they are, wants to be saved… even if they don’t yet realize it themselves. And if we want to be saved then we freely choose Christ.” (Pg. 248)
He summarizes, “So how did I come to accept Patristic Universalism as the best choice? First, while all three views hold up well on biblical and historical grounds, the one that completely left the others behind on philosophical grounds was Patristic Universalism. Now gone were all the troubling questions I ever had regarding the Christian faith … I’m not saying Patristic Universalism answers all my questions; I’m saying it answers all the difficult or ‘big’ questions. We’ll always have questions… but for me Patristic Universalism provides answers to the most important questions and that is a huge relief.” (Pg. 306-307)
This is an excellent and passionately-stated exposition and defense of Christian Universalism, with a much stronger emphasis on the “philosophical” arguments, than on purely exegetical or theological ones. It will be “must reading” for anyone seriously studying Hell, Universalism, or Conditional Immortality. [P.S.- if you want a book about the Universalistic beliefs of some early Christian Fathers, get Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought.]
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