Brad Jersak. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009.
“I’m not a universalist, but I hope God is.” I’m not sure who first said this, but it’s often attributed to NT Wright. Is it right for an evangelical to hope for and consider the possibility that maybe all of humanity will be reconciled to God? For most of history the answer from almost all evangelical theologians has been a resounding no. But can a biblical case be made for at least hoping for the possibility of universal salvation. Recently, I interviewed Brad Jersak for the Rethinking Hell podcast regarding his work on this subject, and here I want to respond to his book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
What it’s about:
Jersak is presenting what he calls hopeful inclusivism. This he depicts as the belief that we cannot presume that any person will be “lost”, that is, the belief that God’s victory over evil, and his sovereignty over all things, and the biblical statement that God desires or wills that all be saved means we have basis for hoping for, and striving for the salvation of all people. This is not the same as universalism (the belief that all will be saved) in that it doesn’t speak in presumption, but in hopefulness. It is also different from pluralistic universalism (all roads lead to God), in that it insists that all things will be made new and reconciled through Jesus Christ. It is also to be distinguished from many forms of Christian inclusivism, in that his argument is not in spite of Scripture, but because of Scripture. So Jesus is still the exclusive means of salvation, but that salvation may extend beyond those who confess faith prior to death, either through postmortem repentance, or through a time of purgation and ultimate restoration, and Scripture is still the authoritative guide for this view. Jersak argues that the Scriptures at least leave open the possibility of hope for the restoration of all things through Christ’s saving work, and we can and should hope and pray that God’s victory will indeed make all things new.
So what about all that biblical evidence of hell and destruction and judgement? Jersak would read these as penultimate, not ultimate things. Those who are found wanting at judgement are “reduced to ash”, but from the ash will emerge as resurrected, made new person. In other words, Jersak suggests that annihilationists do correctly read the passages which they interpret as pointing to the death and non-being of the unsaved. But, he argues that other passages present us with another picture of something beyond that destruction. The Scriptures are thus polyphonic, speaking in many different ways, and taken as a whole hold out the hope of universal restoration. And so when we see the language of “all” in passages like Col. 1, Rom. 5, 2 Cor. 5, 1 Cor. 15, it does mean all (chapter 6).
Jersak begins with giving the “lay of the land”, giving brief summaries of different views, and some of the other questions (God’s character, atonement, Scripture, our own bias and desires) we bring to the question judgement and hell and how those may influence our conclusions (for better or for worse), and leaves us with a challenge to avoid presumptions, and ask what possibilities the text of Scripture leaves us with. He provides four theses (10):
1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.
3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.
4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatalogical hope.
He then (part 1) journeys through the backstory of the Old Testament to develop an accurate depiction of the vision from which the New Testament draws. He unpacks the terminology of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, eternal, punishment, etc. to present the “possibilities” of damnation and hope, and the various ways the bible speaks of judgement and punishment.
By looking at the Old Tetsament’s (and especially Jeremiah’s) use of the Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom, and then tracking the development of the Gehenna tradition in Second Temple Judaism, and the diversity within Rabbinic thought, Jersak shows more than one way of viewing Gehenna in the time of Jesus, thus more than one “possibility” for those who enter Gehenna; annihilation, eternal torment, or restoration after a time. Jersak’s conclusion is that the portrayal of the New Testament is consistent with the vision of the Old Testament of judgment followed by the possibility of restoration, as Ezekiel 16:53-55 even suggests Sodom and Gomorrah, though completely destroyed, will find restoration.(91-97) This vision of destruction and restoration, argues Jersak can be seen in the New Testament in death and resurrection. Death can be seen as penultimate- able to be undone by resurrection and restoration. Thus, Scripture in fact leaves open the possibility for reconciliation, but a stern warning of the possibility of judgement, making all three major views (eternal torment, conditional immortality, and universal reconciliation) possible outcomes.
Part 2 examines historical theology, in which Jersak demonstrates strong cases for apokatastasis among the early church fathers, alongside the other views. He argues that until Augustine in the West, and even later in the East, apokatastasis (reconciliation of all) was an option for theologians, and was proposed by several influential thinkers (notably Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). Augustine becomes the looming figure for the Western medieval tradition, and into protestantism through Calvin, who was quite fond of Augustine. Thus, our limiting of the possibilities is unjustified since several key, influential, orthodox thinkers have presented this notion, and the Church has never had an ecumenical statement presenting a single view.
Finally, in Part 3 Jersak looks the vision of Revelation 21-22 to show how the possibility of reconciliation is left open. That the unredeemed remain outside the city, but the gates remain open, and the Spirit says “come”. These, he argues suggest an invitation to reconciliation postmortem. By connecting the river of the water of life in Revelation, with the river depicted running from Jerusalem east to the sea, causing life to spring up (Ezek. 47) can be read as life going out from the heavenly Jerusalem to all people.
I actually believe this book is far more thoroughly biblical than any argument for eternal torment I have read to date. This isn’t to say that Jersak is right (I don’t really think he is; see below), or that there isn’t a biblical case to be made for eternal torment (I haven’t read every book on the topic, obviously, but what I have read, I have found unconvincing and scant on actual biblical insight) but simply that Jersak is at every turn engaged in exegesis (parts 1 & 3) and historical theology (part 2) and does it thoroughly, does it well, and presents with grace and rigour. Jersak provides keen, incisive, and intelligent analysis of the background context from the Old Testament; the language and imagery of Jeremiah and Ezekiel especially, in formulating a set of possibilities for later interpreters to draw from. Although his reading of Second Temple and Rabbinic texts is somewhat selective and limited (the whole book is 210 pages, so he probably could have done more with this section in my opinion) it does provide sufficient evidence for us to at least open up our understanding of the assumptions within Jesus’ historical context. Jews of the first century had differing ideas about Gehenna, the fate of the wicked, God’s justice, and the Age to Come. In particular his reading of the Lake of Fire and River of Life imagery from Revelation in light of Ezekiel 16 & 47, Hosea 11, and Zechariah 14 (chapter 5) is of note, and really should become a central topic for discussion moving forward. Those who wish to put aside claims of hopeful inclusivists and universalists will need to wrestle with this and respond well, as this is a strong, compelling, and well presented argument.
The Historical theology section is where I think Jersak can score the most points. The Old Testament and Second Temple data may provide the basis for the possibility, but did the authors of Scripture, and the Christian Church explore that possibility? And in the case of the Fathers, Jersak shows us that at least some did. Jersak demonstrates that Clement of Alexandria understood punishment in the New Testament (Greek kolasis) to mean correction doled out to bring sinners to repentance in the present or in the Age to Come. These punishments are not to satisfy God’s wrath, honour, or justice (as in the thought of Anselm or Calvin) but meant to bring stubborn, unrepentant people to humility and repentance. Similarly, Origen draws on the notion of apokatastasis panton (“restoration of all”) from Acts 3:20-21, and nobody seems to refute that Origen taught this doctrine that the fires of the Age to Come were healing, transformative, or purgative. Finally Jersak shows that the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa becomes dogmatic even about the restoration of all. Thus we have at least three examples of Church Fathers (one of whom is recognized as a pillar of historical orthodoxy) affirm at least the possibility of salvation for all. Jersak does leave out some more contested folks who may have implied the possibility of apokatastasis (Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Nanzianzen, Evagrius of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Isaac the Syrian, et al). He could have scored more points, but shows some restraint, as some of this is disputable data.
I of course disagree with Jersak on this particular discussion. I still affirm conditional immortality (the belief that humanity requires the intervention of God and his salvation through the person of Jesus Christ in order to have eternal life, and thus, those who reject this salvation perish and go into non-existence). I believe this is what Scripture teaches, as a vast array of biblical texts speak of destruction with no implication of hope beyond. Philippians 3:19 says of those who oppose the cross, “Their end is destruction” (Greek: on to telos apoleia). The word telos (“end/completion”) is a strong way of speaking. This certainly does not appear to be a statement of penultimate things, but of an ultimate, final thing. Other texts like Matthew 7:13-14, 10:28, 2 Thess. 1:9, 2 Peter 2 & 3, 1 John 5:11-12, and others speak of death, destruction, extinction, etc. with no mention of any hope beyond that.
Secondly, the “all” passages, when read in broader context are passages I find hard to read in the way Jersak does. For instance, when Jersak quotes Colossians 1, he ends the quote at verse 19. But if we keep reading, we see that this reconciliation will be completed, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” (Col. 1:23). Similarly, even though 2 Cor. 5:14 and 1 John 2:2 speak of Christ’s death for all, this simply makes this reconciliation available to all. There is still a call “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20). There is still an act of faith, trust, response required for reconciliation, and there is no text which makes it explicit (at least in my reading) that postmortem repentance will be an option. The all in all refers to all things which are part of the Age to Come, I would argue. There are some, perhaps many or even most of humanity, who I believe will sadly be excluded. As much as I may want Jersak to be right, I don’t see enough evidence in Scripture for this. I think he raises some questions which certainly give me more than enough cause to affirm his position as within the boundaries of what the Church has historically accepted as orthodox. I see no reason to exclude Brad from the table of orthodoxy. I am deeply saddened that others have done so. Having interviewed him and read this book and other pieces he has written and listened to him lecture, I not only dare to call him a brother and friend, I emphatically affirm this, in spite of our disagreement on this particular topic.
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is a book which needs to be widely read. The out-of-hand dismissal and knee-jerk reactions against any and every assertion of the hope of the salvation of all is unjustified by Church history, and if we actually hear what is being said by Jersak and others, violates our protestant assertions of Sola Scriptura and semper reformanda. I am very grateful to Brad Jersak for this book, and his interaction with me on this topic. I am encouraged by his graciousness, even in the face of fierce opposition. My hope is that this book will open up a conversation between camps which can enlighten us to the beauty of diversity within orthodoxy. Jersak draws heavily from the Eastern Orthodox tradition which draws sharp distinction between dogma and theologomena. The Early Church did not make a firm dogma with regard to hell. So within the communion of the holy, catholic and apostolic church, there can be lively, but gracious discussion on this, and Brad Jersak has moved the conversation along. There is more to unpack obviously, and rehashing the same tired arguments is not useful. This book pushes our understanding, opens up the possibilities of alternative readings, and challenges those who disagree to disagree better.