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A Theological Hermeneutic on Hell, Rooted In the Biblical Story

Categories Theology

9780310516460We’ve come a long way on hell. That a Christian universalist is included in the newly-revised Four Views on Hell is proof.

In it Robin A. Parry (a.k.a. Gregory MacDonald) champions recent developments in evangelical thought that envision all of creation being ultimately reconciled to its Creator through Christ. This isn’t a universalism built on popular pluralism. Rather it is rooted in the biblical narrative and aided by a gospel-centered theological hermeneutic.

As general editor Preston Sprinkle explains, “No longer can evangelicals scoff at this view as the by product of too many hours of Oprah…Parry argues extensively from Scripture that the Bible itself teaches that the future judgment will be followed by reconciliation.” (10, 14)

Below we’ve outlined part of his view: hell in the context of the biblical metanarrative. Denny Burke, John Stackhouse, and Jerry Walls briefly respond, disagreeing with this hermeneutical lens at the exegetical level.

Reading Hell in the Bible’s Grand Story

Parry believes past debates on hell have “often gotten bogged down in proof texting.” (102) What we need instead is “a guide to help us interpret in theologically sensitive ways.” (103) That guide is the Bible’s metanarrative.

A doctrine of hell needs to make good sense in its place in the biblical metanarrative, the grand story that runs from Genesis to Revelation…when located in the plot lines of Scripture, a universalist doctrine of hell makes good sense. (103)

He begins with God, “the origin and the destiny of creation,” which is the “broad theological framework within which we must operate.” (103, 104) From here he considers hell in the Christ-centered creation-to-new-creation plot, following the contours of creation, fall, redemption, consumption.

First, Parry insists Christians are universalists when it comes to creation since we believe God created all things. This doctrine isn’t only about origin, but destination: “Created things have a telos, a destiny, and that telos is God…to be filled with God and to image God in the world.” (105)

Christians are universalists when it comes to the fall:all have sinned and have failed short of the glory of God,” and without divine redemption “are doomed to futility.” (105) While he grants we deserve divine punishment and don’t deserve divine rescue, Parry has a question: “Will God allow sin to thwart his purposes to beautify the cosmos? The answer comes in the gospel story—no freaking way!” (106)

Christians are also universalists about God’s rescue in Christ: “[Christ] represents all humans in his humanity;” “Jesus died for all people in order to save all people;” “And Jesus' resurrection is not simply Jesus’—it is ours; it is the destiny of all humanity played out in the person of our representative.” (107, 108)

Finally, where is the story heading?

All creation is made ‘for’ and oriented ‘to’ God—and it is summed up and brought to its fitting conclusions and destiny in Jesus…All will be subject to Christ, and then Christ will subject himself to the Father on behalf of creation, so that God will be ‘all in all’. That is the kind of end I would expect for the biblical story. (111)

A Traditional Response

Burk believes Parry’s argument falls short primarily because of its hermeneutical approach: “his ‘Christ-centered biblical metanarrative’ amounts to little more than a string of proof texts supporting his version of universalism.” (128)

For Burke, Parry’s particular hermeneutic leads to a particular understanding of Scripture. “Through a truncated account of Scripture it establishes a theological presupposition of universalism.” (128–129) Such is the case with his exegesis of Colossians 1:16–20, where he “fails to account for the immediate context.” (129)

An Annihilationism Response

Stackhouse grants that Parry’s universalism has “an attractive logic” and “a pleasing symmetry.” And yet he disagrees with Parry exegetically: “As we examine the many texts of Scripture…our hopeful universalism must dim considerably.” (134)

He also takes issue with “certain wonderful tellings of the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption.” Our storytelling “must be true to the whole counsel of God…The death of the ungodly is a theme from God’s initial warning to our first parents in Eden to almost the last chapters of Revelation.” (139)

A Purgatory Response

Walls also disagrees with Parry at the exegetical and metanarrative levels. On the one hand, “The bottom-line reason that I believe hell is conscious eternal misery is that I believe Scripture teaches this.” (140) On the other hand, while Walls appreciated Parry’s consideration of the biblical storyline as a controlling hermeneutic, “his focus on the big picture allowed him to make the case that these [universalism] texts can plausibly read differently from how they have usually been read.” (141)


“Parry’s essay might have ruffled some evangelical feathers,” Sprinkle concludes, “but no one can deny that his essay is heavily driven by biblical exegesis.” (204)

This brief engagement is merely a glimpse of one aspect of Parry’s contribution. Engage it and the other views to enter the important discussion on the nature of judgment, reconciliation, and eternity.

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