Editor's note: Graham Ware interviewed Brad Jersak on the Rethinking Hell podcast (listen here). The following is the written correspondence version of the interview (not a transcript) so it includes some questions and answers not covered on the podcast. Graham also asked additional follow-up questions on the podcast not recorded here.
Right now, you wear many hats vocationally. Instead of me reading your CV, maybe you could sum up what it is you currently do vocationally (besides being the author of 13 books)?
- PTM/CWR editor-in-chief (www.ptm.org);
- core faculty at WTC (www.wtctheology.org.uk) teaching NT and Patristics;
- currently working on a new children's book, a novel and a modern English version of Gregory’s ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection.’
After being discipled in Moravian Brethren tradition, and attending an evangelical bible college and seminary, you have had some changes in your theological convictions, presumably not just on the issue of hell. Can you perhaps share how those changes came about and perhaps where you sit now? Not because we're enslaved to labels and affiliations, but just to get a sense of where you're coming from as you approach a theological topic.
Actually, my ancient heritage included Moravian Brethren, but in terms of actual upbringing:
- Baptist (from birth to 22 years old) - our eschatology was dispensational, including the rapture, tribulation and final judgement to either eternal life or eternal conscious torment.
- Mennonite (married in, became a member and ordained minister - from 22 to 32) - the teaching was more Gospels-centered and included the peace tradition, which led to nonviolent atonement.
- While there, I also experienced a warm connection with the Vineyard and its Kingdom theology influence (rooted in Ladd).
- Fresh Wind (from 33-43) - we planted a church for the marginalized, with an emphasis on inner healing and a revelation of Father’s heart, by the end of which, I seriously doubted that eternal conscious torment was the final word for the majority of humanity.
- After 10 years of friendship (and catechism) with Archbishop Lazar, I was chrismated Orthodox and ordained as a reader. In that tradition, God is not a punisher and they don't buy into penal atonement theories. They also permit us to hope for ultimate reconciliation.
Now having a foot in an anabaptist/brethren "camp" and one foot in the Eastern Orthodox "camp" might sound like "strange bedfellows", and yet, it does actually seem to be increasingly common for people to draw these two traditions together. Does that create tensions?
- What they have In common: the centrality of the Gospels, Christocentric lens for Scripture, and a nonviolent God.
- Apparent tensions: hierarchy vs anarchy, but really, both have ordained ministers while also emphasizing the royal priesthood, which is the priesthood of all believers.
Specifically on the issue of hell, one interesting connection with anabaptists and the Orthodox is an acceptance of a certain amount of lack of clarity on the issue hell. Would that be an accurate assertion (since even though I've read up to some degree on both sides, but I don't belong to either tradition)?
Well, they both certainly have eschatologies (plural), but I would describe both camps' commitment to mystery. That is, having a greater clarity re: the limits of what can be known about hell, and a common subordination of eschatology to their greater dogma about the mercy of God revealed in Christ.
With regards to your own the doctrine of hell/final punishment, when did the process of questioning the eternal torment view begin, and what set that off, and how did it play out?
- It came progressively through a combination of revelation of Father’s heart through certain Mennonite teaching, Vineyard worship, inner healing experiences and exposure to Orthodoxy.
- A key waypoint was the problem that the conventional view of hell was becoming such a deal-killer for believers (who were ready to renounce faith over it) and seekers (who would come to Christ except for that).
Can you perhaps, for the sake of those who haven't read/heard your work, just briefly sum up your own current position? What will happen to those who do not before death receive salvation through Christ?
My position has been called ‘hopeful inclusivism,’ and follows along the general lines of Kallistos Ware and Von Balthasar (who we’ll discuss later). Namely, in light of the impossibility of harmonizing the great variety of visions of divine judgement within Scripture, we cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will be lost. Rather, the love of God obligates us to hope, pray, preach and work for the salvation of all – and that this hope is not wishful thinking, but the confident hope of those who fix their eyes on Jesus Christ as the Mercy who endures forever.
I should add that even this position encompasses a spectrum of views, including the great confidence of Maximos the Confessor, who only stops shy of Gregory’s universalism in that he insists that even a healed human will that is freed at last to embrace grace must still activate that choice willingingly, and probably will barring unforeseen mysteries.
We'll get to your book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut momentarily. But before we do, let's talk briefly about your participation in the Rethinking Hell Conference in 2015. You came to present a paper looking at two influential theologians, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (a Roman Catholic) and Kallistos Ware (an Eastern Orthodox Bishop), both of whom are hopeful regarding the possibility of ultimate redemption. Can you talk a bit about how you were drawn to these two gentlemen and did anything surprise you in their conclusions?
I first came upon Balthasar’s work when I was researching Her Gates. I was drawn to the fact that such an eminent RC theologian could espouse universal hope with the affirmation of Popes JP2 and Benedict. That it was a valid eschatological option for that whole wing of the body of Christ was thrilling, since it was what our hearts longed for. That is, the position may not finally be correct, but it could no longer be regarded as formally heretical. I found esp. surprising and helpful his critique of Augustine.
After that I found Ware’s paper on the same topic, and he confirmed that major church fathers who actually defined Orthodoxy not only held this hope, but that it was central to their teaching and permeated their whole system of thought. His use of primary sources was magnificent.
In 2009, your book length treatment of ultimate redemption, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut was published by the fine folks at wipf & stock, who Rethinking Hell have worked with. How did this project come about, how did you get connected to Wipf & Stock?
I think I came across them at a Preaching Peace event (organized by Michael Hardin) in fall 2008 (San Francisco) starring John Caputo and Rene Girard. I saw the quality of books they produced by some favorite authors (e.g. Walter Brueggemann) and pitched it at them.
One thing I love about this book, is the tone you bring. One of Rethinking Hell's objectives is to improve the tone of conversations on this particular topic. Your book seems to follow a really positive approach to that. Was that done consciously or did that just happen naturally?
Being humbled helps one’s tone a lot. I was humbled at that time by some serious health issues (I wrote half the book from bed) and by the biblical, rabbinical and theological data that defied the dogmatism I had inherited.
I was also trying to stay teachable as I wrote so that I wouldn’t blind myself to the text with preconceptions. For example, even just the variety of criteria for judgement in the words of Christ could not be made to fit standard evangelical theology. I didn’t try to explain that, I just presented the text as it was. I wanted the book to be primarily about gathering and offering data, rather than building a case for one of the views on the spectrum.
You argue in this book that the imagery of Scripture is somewhat mixed. You do seem to interpret most passages dealing with judgement in a way similar to most annihilationists. But then you go on to say that these are not descriptions of ultimate things, but penultimate things, of earthly judgments. Destruction and fire and sulphur destroy, but from the ashes people are raised purified and reconciled to God through Christ to live in the age to come. Is that a fair condensed version? Can you speak to that a bit, since I'm sure a lot of out listeners haven't read the book yet (and we'll link to amazon so they can all go buy it).
That seems fair to me and in fact, I may quote you on that. I would see most but not all of the annihilationist texts that way. Three examples: Zechariah 13:8-9, maybe Isaiah 66:24 and Malachi 4:3. I think there’s no question of whether some will be annihilated. Indeed, we all are. But my hope leads me to hope that such judgements are penultimate to Christ’s inclusive and redemptive mercy.
You included an excursus chapter Luke 16- the Rich man and Lazarus. However, since the publication in 2009, you've shifted in terms of how you read this text, and you've published an essay (which we can link to in the show notes) on the "layers" of meaning in the parable (love the line "Taking the parable seriously means we mustn’t take it so literally. Rather than textmining for the architecture of the underworld, we ought to be digging for the intended message of Jesus."). Can explain how the shift happened and how would you now read that text with ultimate redemption lenses on?
I don’t think my article negates any aspect of the chapter in the book, but at the time I was only prepared to engage it in lectio. Later, I came back to it exegetically and began to see three layers.
- One was Jesus’ initial warning re: the reversal of states for the rich and poor, so common to Luke’s Gospel.
- But, second, I also saw quite clear hints that Luke was repurposing it for the warning re: a reversal of states for Jews and Gentiles, so common to his ministry in Pauline context.
- At third, I noticed a paragraph in Benedict XVI’s trilogy on Jesus about how the death and resurrection of Christ are the punchline to this (and maybe every) parable. Suddenly I could see the hints in the text and how they were incorporated into the Holy Saturday tradition of Christ’s descent into hades. The chasm no one could cross, Christ has crossed. The place from which no one could return, Christ has returned. The prison from which no one can be freed, he has invaded and plundered, so that Chrysostom’s paschal homily, proclaimed every Pascha since the fourth century can say, ‘Christ embittered hades, for he overcame it, he vanquished it, he annihilated it, and not one soul is left in the grave.'
Let's talk about responses to your book. I'm there are folks who don't particularly appreciate your position. Have you received much in the way of pushback. Presumably, there's been some good, positive dialogue and I'm guessing some less than charitable comments as well? What are the most common objections you get to your book, or when you present as a speaker?
First, there are those who’ve actually read the book. I consistently find them to be charitable, even if not convinced. Some from other positions recommend it as the first book one should read on the topic. I think they found the book to be a good source of data without a heavy-handed agenda to indoctrinate, so it enabled people, including infernalists, to appreciate my apparent objectivity and charity. That kind of reader has not offered negativity so much as questions on particular points where we work together on the pursuit of a truth quite beyond us.
On the other hand, the uncharitable responses have been remarkably few, and hardly ever from those who have read the book. I have had a lot of good and not so good pushback by readers of my other works. In this case, it’s mostly just continued insistence by non-readers that I’m dangerous because I’m secretly a universalist (whatever that means to them) designed to sabotage speaking invitations. Unfortunately, they’ve been quite effective. But I figure if an invitation is cancelled on the advice of such a person, then the destination was probably not where I was meant to go.
If I may, I'd like to do a little devil's advocate here. In your work, you've presented destruction as very much a part of the biblical text, but that after the fire (literal or metaphorical as God is the consuming fire) has destroyed, all things are reconciled back to God. Would we not expect Jesus to be explicit on this point? In my readings of defenses of ultimate redemption, there are typically appeals to the "all" passages which are predominantly in the Pauline corpus (e.g. Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15, 2 Cor. 5, Phil. 2, Col. 1). But there doesn't seem to be much appeal to Jesus' teaching. He seems to stop at the destruction of gehenna. That seems to be an ultimate end (especially in Mt. 10:28)
A good question, but I think I'd rather not let you call yourself the devil’s advocate. Perhaps you’re even being Jesus’ advocate, given the hell rhetoric of Matthew especially.
First, you are right in pointing to the Pauline passages as the primary universalist texts, and we would certainly say we regard these as revelations of Christ to the apostle Paul.
Second, I take some of the ‘world’ passages in John’s gospel (and in 1 John as reflective of what John learned from Jesus). Even John 3:16 is probably John’s voice rather than Jesus, but it’s still an account of Jesus meaning, message and ministry.
- And then all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Lk 3:6).
- This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that through him all might believe (Jn 1:7).
- Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).
- For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (Jn 3:16-17).
- The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (Jn 3:35).
- We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world (Jn 4:42).
- For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn 6:33).
- I am the light of the world (Jn 8:12).
- And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself (Jn 12:32).
- Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into His hands (Jn 13:3).
- All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day (Jn 6:37, 39).
- For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him (Jn 17:2).
Now for Matt. 10:28, I think this is the strongest texts in the conditionalist arsenal.
- First, it’s very strong if, like me, you disagree with Wright’s assessment that the one who can destroy both body and soul is Satan. In context, the function of the passage and its rhetoric in both its original context and in the Matthean community is to encourage us against any fear that would lead us to unfaithfulness and to comfort them in the face of persecution with a strong word. Said positively, Jesus says, ‘Be not afraid. Every earthly threat can do no more than destroy your body.’
- Second, remember the context and genre: we note that Jesus continues shortly with: 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
- Is he just contradicting himself? Be afraid; don’t be afraid? No, this is a rhetorical method common to the era and to the NT: you lay out the worst case threat, then give immediate assurance to just the opposite. Care needs to be taken with rhetorical genres that we don’t literalize or totalize the text into a theological system.
- Third, the key word, apollumi, does mean destroy completely, or kill (though not finally), or lose (with the potential of being found). The word really can mean utter destruction, but so too, a state of lostness which is not intrinsically permanent or irredeemable. The same word in Matt. 18:11 "For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” So at least potentially, that which is killed, destroyed, ruined and even irreparable can also be resurrected, restored and redeemed.
- That this kind of dissolution MIGHT not be the last word or that it is a rhetorical strategy should not negate its dire seriousness. Destruction is real and to be avoided at all cost. Whether it trumps mercy is another matter that we’ll leave for St James.
Your most recent book, A More Christlike God, focuses on what is a growing movement in some circles of focusing in the narrative of Christ and how Christ's life and character in the revelation of the character of God. So there is this stream in Jesus' ministry of non-violence, which is foundational in Anabaptist thought. You concede that the destruction passages in the OT and the connections with destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ad are what they seem on the surface to be- God will actively destroy, but then ultimate purify and raise. So can you unpack the tension that seems to be there regarding the violence of God in destruction and the apparent nonviolence of Jesus?
Sorry, I think I concede that the wrath and destruction passages of the OT present God as actively destroying people, because as Peter Enns says, "God lets his children tell the story." However, I believe Christ and Paul (but even some OT prophets) actually reframe the wrath. As some of the Fathers like John Cassian and John of Damascus say, to read wrath literally as God’s active anger is an anthropomorphism, a projection, an idolatry and ultimately blasphemy. Rather, they identify wrath as God’s consent to our rebellion and its consequences. The phrase they use is ‘giving over.’ Rather than coercion or retribution, the wrath is seen as the wages of sin itself.
One last question before we do a little wrap up. Let's talk Church history. You have a chapter in "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut" about the presence of this vision of apokatastasis in some of the Church Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). Few would refute their genuine belief in ultimate redemption. We tend to want theological precision, and we project that back onto the Fathers. The councils were supposed to a hammering out the finer points of doctrine. But final punishment seems to have not been on the agenda at Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus or Chalcedon. Why do you suppose the Church allowed for the disagreement on this issue, while Arius and Nestorius get anathematized?
Well, on the one hand, the creeds are primarily about answering Christological questions. Who was the person of Jesus Christ? They wanted to make it very clear that orthodox Christianity regarded Jesus as fully human and fully divine and to articulate both truths without compromising either. Their task was not eschatological, except insofar as it was an extension of Christ: specifically, the Christ shall come again in glory and it will be Christ who sits as Judge of the living and the dead, and that as a result of his resurrection, we can look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. That's the entire four-point eschatology of Christian dogma. The rest is interesting and debatable, but cannot be imposed as dogma.
That said, you can see how limiting this dogma to those points also preserves freedom of thought and especially freedom to hope. Since Gregory of Nyssa (the final editor) and possibly also Gregory of Nazianzus (the chairman) believed in hope beyond the grave, it may be notable that they describe the life of the age to come as the final state of things, preserving dogmatic boundaries that allow for their own hope flourish without being anathematized.