A list of books, articles, blogs and films which I consider worthy of reading and watching – The subject matter generally having to do with religion, spirituality and universalism. I will add to this list as time goes by.
Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God
This is the first book I recommend to people who have even a slight interest in exploring the greater hope of universal salvation. When I first read this book, it resonated with me deeply. I found Talbott’s brief testimony in the introduction, where he journals his heartfelt search in the Christian traditions for a God who is truly loving, to be both convincing and compelling. The theories he puts forward on how to interpret the “scary” passages of scripture in a Universalist way are jarring at first, but they have grown on me tremendously as time has gone by. If you are interested in learning more about Universalism, start here.
John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory
This is probably the best book on Universalism I have read to date. It is written with philosophers precision; Kronen and Reitan clearly outline the doctrine of Hell in all possible variations, and then mercilessly tear them all down and reveal them to be logically inconsistent and incoherent. They also outline a variety of doctrines of Universalism and show them to be preferable to the traditional view. The book is less accessible and harder to read than Inescapable love, so I recommend starting there rather than here. However if you want to get into serious debate on the topic of Universal Salvation – either for or against – you really need to wrestle with the arguments put forward in this book.
Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist
I include this book mainly because other people have told me that it resonated with them when they read it, and it opened up their eyes to Universalism for the first time. The arguments in this book are mainly biblical and exegetical, rather than logical and philosophical. I generally prefer philosophical argumentation and find biblical exegesis a bit boring, which is why this book didn’t hit me too hard the first time I read it. One part that did stand out to me was MacDonald’s analysis of the book of Revelation, which contains some of the scariest hell passages in all of scripture. MacDonald makes the interesting point that the exact same people who get tossed into the lake of fire “forever and ever” are later seen walking into the heavenly Jerusalem praising and glorifying God. What are we to make of that?
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?
Balthasar is an advocate for what is known as “weak” or “hopeful” universalism. This is basically a vague “hope” that all will be saved, without any confidence that it will actually happen backing up that hope. Balthasar effectively argues that it is a live possibility and permissible from a Catholic perspective to hope that all be saved, and that we have a duty to pray for this outcome. Nevertheless he treats universal salvation as a hopeful prayer to behold rather than as a certain outcome. Balthasar never rises to the confident hope of the previous three books on this list, but it is still worth reading this book as a stepping stone located in between mainstream infernalism and a full, confident doctrine of universalism.
Father Aiden F. Kimel, Eclectic Orthodoxy
This blog is how I was first introduced to the universalist hope. Fr Kimel has surveyed a wide range of Universalist literature and writings, starting from the earliest days of the church all the way to the present time. He regularly blogs on interesting and fascinating theological concepts and ideas. My conversion to universalism was almost entirely due to reading the book reviews, articles and arguments on this blog. Fr Kimel does not reveal directly what he himself believes, but instead prompts questions and highlights inconsistencies in mainstream thought, causing you to reconsider entrenched perspectives on Hell. He makes slow-burning arguments and is quietly forceful in his presentation. I am ever thankful for what he has written on this blog as it has enriched my life immensely and brought me to an understanding of the fullness of the Gospel.
A couple of influential series of articles on the blog, in no particular order:
The Eschatology of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, “A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ”, this succinct statement of Bulgakov neatly summarises a large chunk of his apokatastasic eschatology. This series of articles serves as a summary of Bulgakov’s masterpiece, “The Bride of the Lamb”. The theological views that he puts forward therein capture the imagination and put fire in the heart.
The Loving God of St Isaac the Syrian, St Isaac is a 7th century Syrian mystic whose theology was permeated with the doctrine of a loving God with a universal salvific will which even encompasses Satan and the fallen angels. The love of God was crucial to every aspect of St Isaac’s thinking, and he managed to keep this love front and centre in his discourse even when discussing difficult topics such as Hell. Fr. Kimel’s coverage of St Isaacs mystical theology is a brilliant introduction to this wonderful saints thinking.
Synergism and Double Agency, This short series of articles is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between creaturely freedom and divine sovereignty. The conclusion is that sovereignty does not imply God is a puppet master pulling our strings, and we do indeed possess true freedom. We discover that God’s primary action is to create, not to control. God bestows existence upon all aspects of reality, but in such a way that agents within reality possess true libertarian freedom. There are also some brief meditations on what this means for soteriology: “The work of our salvation is totally and entirely an act of divine grace, and yet in that act of divine grace we humans remain totally and entire free.”
Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was, In this article, Fr. Kimel explores the dogmatic ramifications of the fifth ecumenical council, which is commonly invoked by Catholics and Orthodox who are familiar with conciliar history to swiftly and dogmatically squash the Universalist hope. He comes to the conclusion that things are not as cut and dried as they seem; there is still significant wiggle room for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian who feels compelled to maintain the universalist hope.
Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever: Aiónios and the Universalist Hope, In this article, Fr. Kimel analyses the Greek word Aionios – commonly translated as “eternal” or “everlasting” – and comes to the conclusion that this word is more subtle and nuanced than it seems at first glance. This has important ramifications for the reading of certain classic Hell texts such as Matthew 25 – the sheep and the goats. A more literal translation of the word would be “of the coming age”. This is highly relevant to Christians who put a large weight on the “plain sense” of scripture in order to back up their infernalist convictions: Things are not as clear as they seem on this matter.
Rob Bell, Love Wins
A controversial book by a controversial author. The book consists mainly of questions and thought experiments. It’s not really written as a standard discourse, and is instead aimed at getting you to question and reconsider entrenched beliefs. I found that Bell attempts to appeal to emotion more often than reason in this book, and as such it is unlikely to have much of an impact on more rational readers. Nevertheless he does make some good points and while he never outright advocates for universalism, he flirts extremely close to doing so for the majority of the book.
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A brilliant book by a brilliant author. Lewis explores the concepts of Hell, Heaven and Purgatory in an extremely imaginative way through the form of narrative. This is where the current ecumenical understanding of Hell (the “free will” defence) was first given it’s most iconic expression: “The gates of Hell are locked from the inside”. Lewis argues that the damned could always and at any time catch the bus from Hell to Heaven, however they simply have no inclination to do so; they have become so warped and twisted and inhuman that they simply never exercise their freedom to be saved, preferring instead to wallow in misery in the dark town. I found this account of the afterlife to be extremely compelling and entertaining in the early days of my conversion to Christianity. Since becoming a Universalist I have had to revise my understanding of Heaven and Hell, however The Great Divorce is still dear to my heart and exercises a significant influence over how I think of life in the afterlife.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Another classic from Lewis. A series of letters from a master demon named Screwtape, to a junior demon who has been assigned to tempt a man living in England during world war two and drag his soul down to Hell. The book is supremely ironic and wickedly entertaining, and as I read it it caused me to reflect on my own life and the various ways that my own personal shoulder devil has succeeded at ensnaring my soul and pulling it down into damnation.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
I must admit that I have never finished this book. Not because I found it boring, but simply because I have never found myself with adequate time to devote to reading the entire thing. I have however read the first few chapters, and they are masterful. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien is engaged in a brilliant exercise of world building. The first chapter is a beautiful creation myth (one which I personally find more interesting and engaging than the biblical equivalent) in which the one true God creates a pantheon of minor gods and has them perform a symphony. The symphony directly results in the creation of middle earth and it’s entire history. One of the minor gods interferes with the symphony and tries to introduce his own theme into the music, representing the introduction and presence of evil in the world. These opening chapters are incredibly engaging and thought provoking. Even if you don’t read the whole thing, these first few chapters are good enough to recommend the entire book.
Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe
“The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films” is a book which had a profound influence on me during my final years of high school. It opened my mind up to fascinating ideas surrounding determinism, free will, the meaning of life and death, epistemology, morality and so on. It’s wildly entertaining and brilliantly thought provoking. Since becoming Christian I have discovered other interesting books on similar topics, but for a long time this was my bible.
Pavel Lungin, Остров (The Island)
A brilliant movie set in Russia in the 20 years following World War II. It is a window into the life of a “Holy Fool” who has found himself in a Russian Orthodox monastery, deep in Siberia, after committing a terrible sin for which he feels no amount of penance can atone. The other monks don’t know what to make of this fellow. I found the exorcism scene to be the most powerful, and well directed sequence in the film: it does not depend on flashy effects and cheesy jump scares to make it’s point, and you get the impression that this is exactly how an exorcism would occur in real life. I have made a ritual of watching this movie once per year during lent.