The Good, Bad, and Ugly of John A. T. Robinson

Arguments/positions in defense of Evangelical Universalism.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of John A. T. Robinson

Postby [email protected] » Tue Sep 09, 2014 8:38 am

Article reprint from here

Objectors to my hopeful conclusions about salvation have asked me to review other books in order to win me back to traditional theology, that is that few humans are saved while most are eternally damned. I have taken up the challenge and begun reviewing various books here, . I thought it was a fair suggestion to allow myself to be influenced by Christians of different conviction. However, I thought it would also be fair to review books by those also holding to the salvation of all mankind in order to compare our reasons. Perhaps error in their reason would win me back to tradition, or truth in their reason would confirm my conclusions.

I have found that there is quite a range of thought even among universalists. In fact, sadly, the divisions between them in faith and fellowship might even be deeper than between those of traditional Christianity. Yet, most have oberserved, as I, that 'aion' is at times wrongly translated 'eternal' in the English New Testament. Some are silent about the salvation of fallen angels, while others have concluded that even Satan will be saved, to which I am not yet persuaded. Most have respected and protected inspiration and strove for reasonable interpretation of the given Word, but some have even violated the Holy Spirit suggesting that difficult verses are better explained as human error. Many have even futher differences of various natures, no doubt influenced by the traditions and experience from which they came.

I wanted to give my review of Robinson special attention because his book includes a concept that could wrongly be considered the same as one of my own conclusions. I have said that integral to the gospel are "special strategies" to reach the heart of the unbelieving as mentioned and Robinson has similarly said that the gospel includes the mythological reality of eternal damnation for the unbeliever. Though I have significant points of comparison with Robinson, I want NO part of his assertion that the Holy Scripture contains mythological reality. Instead, the ONLY myths that have ever existed are in the mind of man. For further explanation read my brief review of Robinson's work following.

John Robinson wrote In the End, GOD, A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Last Things. Robinson offends epistemology and inspiration so gravely with the invention of eschatological myth that many will throw the book away after chapter 5, if they get that far. I nearly did myself! Yet he makes key points in chapters "The Resurrection of the Body," "The End of the Lord,", and "All in All." He is accused of arrogance by Trevor Hart for asserting that God must save all mankind because of Christ. On that point I join Robinson! Yet Robinson missed the aeonic nature of Hades and instead violates inspiration to explain Scripture. Thomas Torrance also condemns Robinson for saying the gospel includes the mythological reality of eternal damnation for the unbeliever. Yet Torrance is self-condemned saying the mystery of sin requires the damnation of unbelievers though their sins are atoned!

Robinson's book is terribly difficult to read as well as the essays in response by Trevor Hart and Thomas Torrance. I confess that I only understood 50% of any of it, at best. So I will keep my review to the main points in simple outline form. If I have mis-understood Robinson, Hart, or Torrance, please contact me and I will correct this page immediately. Yet as much as I understand Robinson, his theology can be outlined in the proverbial Good, Bad, and Ugly.

The Good

Robinson asserts on page 73, "In Adam all die; but in Christ all are made alive. That is the divine 'nevertheless,' beyond all hope or merit. It rests on no condition or virtue or spirituality, but solely on the unconditional love of God." He is accused of arrogance for this statement. I will gladly take my place beside Robinson and assert the same! Confidence that Christ has paid for my sin and the sin of my neighbor equally is not arrogance, but humility.

Robinson says on page 29, "Every truth about eschatology is ipso facto a truth about God." He emphasizes that our conclusions about the culmination of the history of redemption reflect the very character of God. How true! Beware that when teaching about future things we proclaim either our faith in the God who IS -or- our faith in the god who is NOT!

Robinson quotes Matthew 25:31-33,46 on page 94, saying the Bible speaks, "On the one hand, universal restoration; on the other a clear division between the saved and the lost." Robinson insists that we cannot deny the Scriptural truth of eternal damnation. For that he is commended. Objectors to the salvation of all mankind likewise see the clear parallel construct of Matthew 25:31-46 which saves the sheep eternally on the right and damns the goats eternally on the left. Some universalists say that since the word 'eternal' is 'aion' in Matthew 25:46, then this judgment does not speak about eternal damnation, but instead age-during punishment. Robinson does not follow that reasoning, nor do I. The word 'aion' can also mean eternal when the subject in view is eternal, so this line of universalistic reasoning is not strong enough. All universalists agree that the 'aion' of Hades is temporal because Hades ends in Revelation 20:14. However, as far we can conclude from the revealed word the 'aion' of the Lake of Fire is eternal, because no end is explicitly mentioned, just as the 'aion' of God and his faithful love are eternal. Universalists further argue that the 'kolasis' of Matthew 25:46 means 'discipline' so this judgment is not damnation, but instead corrective. It may be the case that even Satan's time in the Lake of Fire is corrective and ends eons past the end of Scripture. However, there is a much stronger and more important argument to be made that is missed by Robinson and many universalists. Now to the Bad and the Ugly.

The Bad

Though Robinson uses reasoned argument in defense of his position, in order to explain the whole of Scripture he says that the truth of the gospel does not "rest on logic." I certainly agree that truth cannot rest on corrupted human logic. I also agree that salvation cannot rest on having a logical understanding. However, independent of our thoughts, the truth itself must rest on the perfect logic and reason within the Godhead, which God reveals to believing mankind to some degree. To cut out the importance that gospel truths also be reasonable opens Robinson to grave errors. There is no paradox in the mind, plans, and Word of God.

Furthermore, Robinson tries to bridge the gap between the certain universal salvation of all mankind and the Scriptures that speak about the eternal damnation of unbelieving mankind. To do so he undermines the Holy Spirit as the author of Scripture assigning it to human authors who speak eschatological myths. He says on page 28, "[Eschatological statements in the Bible] are neither inerrant prophecies of the future nor pious guesswork." Though Robinson says his proofs do not rest on logic, his whole book is an effort to make logical sense of the Bible which appears to speak contradictorally of the salvation of all and the damnation of many. However, he then illogically explains perceived contradictions in Scripture by saying Scripture does NOT contain inerrant prophecy. Whoa, stop the train! If the Biblical prophecies of future hope and future judgment are not inerrant what basis remains to establish anything Christian?

Unfortunately Robinson simply needed more information to add up the facts more reasonably. Yet, he is not more guilty than myself. In a similar way, in the first version of this book, I concluded that the New Testament usage of 'eternal' must mean temporal when the grace of God is in view. I concluded that unbelievers are sentenced to 'eternal' punishment, but the overwelming evidence of Scripture, grace, and the character of God must somehow find a way to end this 'eternal' punishment. I was further persuaded because Jesus found a way to end the 'eternal' Old Covenant and replace it with the New Covenant. I was even further persuaded because Abraham, the father of faith, trusted that "God... calls things that are not, as though they were." Finally, I noticed that the inhabitants of Hades are extracted out in Revelation 20:14. That was enough for me... initially! Similar to Robinson, I allowed grace to interpret the word 'eternal' mythologically. However, we both missed the observation made by nearly every proponent of universal salvation, that 'aion' should not be translated 'eternal' in many cases because it means the 'age' or 'life' of the subject in question. I should not have interpreted 'eternal' in a mythological way, but translators also should have used the word 'eon' instead! I guess my main difference with Robinson here is that God allowed me to correct my error. Read more

One last observation that Robinson and many of my contemporary universalist friends have missed is that the Lake of Fire is prepared for...THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS. Matthew 25:31-46 is commonly assumed to be the judgment of believing and unbelieving mankind. However, I would argue that an explanation more consistent with the rest of Scripture is that the 'ethnos' standing before Christ are those just extracted from Hades, both unbelieving mankind and the imprisoned demonic fallen angels. Christians might think that we are the sheep on the right. We are sheep, but the physical reunion of Christians with Christ has already happened a millenia earlier! The incredulous response of the sheep on the right does not sound like us Christians for we have already gone through this incredulous response to become Christians in the first place! Instead this response is from unbelieving mankind just extracted from the fires of Hades, joyful to learn that Jesus has accepted anything good they ever did by his grace for their salvation. These are the lost sheep reclaimed on the right. Further, 2 Peter 2 also makes it clear that only fallen angels are held in Tartarus, the deepest pit of Hades. The Holy Spirit does not believe Greek mythology, but he understood his audience and their word use and that Hades was temporary punishment, while there is no escape from condemnation for those held in Tartarus for future judgment. So when Hades is emptied of unbelieving mankind, the deeper pit of Tartarus is also emptied and these fallen angels, that is demons, are the goats on Jesus' left at the Great White Throne judgment. They are cast into the Lake of Fire... PREPARED FOR THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS. Read more

Robinson also spends pages and pages of words trying to protect the 'free will' of man using similar language as C.S. Lewis. They both conclude that God's love cannot be love unless it is freely received. I can hardly believe that someone who is born again could even say that. They both neglect the true condition of man apart from regeneration of the individual by the Holy Spirit. We are dead. We hate God and grace. The truth is that apart from grace we are NOT free, but instead LOCKED and BOUND to sin. Robinson gives a nod toward this fact by noting the 'surd' irrational nature of sin. So instead it is only the finger of God upon each individual's life that sets us free to rationally take our position as God's child. I just do not understand Robinson and the majority of Christendom's persistent defense of 'free will'... unless of course their faith is upon their OWN supposed decision for God instead of receiving GOD'S prior decision to pay for our sin.

The Ugly

Robinson clings with a two finger hold on the good news that Christ has paid for, has redeemed, has absolved all mankind from the guilt of sin and thus will be finally and eternally saved. However, the witness of this good faith is nearly ruined by missed observations and his mistreatment of reason and Scripture. Furthermore, the usefulness of his hope is totally ruined by his suggested application for those who hope to minister the good news. Robinson says on page 112, "To the man in decision - and that means to all men, always, right up to the last hour - hell is every way as real a destination as heaven. Only the man who has genuinely been confronted by both alternatives can be saved. To preach Heaven alone, as it is asserted the universalist must, is to deny men the possibility of salvation. For salvation is a state of having chosen; and, in the moment of choice (and no man can ever say: 'I am safe, I have chosen'), both alternatives are existentially as real. Eternal life is only for those who have passed through the valley of decision." This suggested application for Christian ministry, ugly as it is, is at least consistent with his belief in the eschatological myth. One might well ask Robinson how he can assert and hope in eternal salvation for himself and all mankind while he remains merely an existential subject himself? How did he break out of the bubble of his proposed existential model to find hope to say with certainty that all mankind is saved and that eternal damnation is really an eschatological myth? The point is that Robinson's recipe falls woefully short and anyone 'saved' through his gospel would carry the baggage of neutered reason and a mythologized Bible. The Ugly.

You might accuse me of the same errors because I have said that integral to the gospel are "special strategies" to reach the heart of the unbelieving as already mentioned. I will agree that some difficult Scripture can only be explained through the employment of Robinson's 'myth', if you will. I do not like the term, but to highlight one common thread with Robinson I will use the same word. Robinson is dead right that at some points theologians on all sides cannot build a systematic theology of salvation and remain true to the objective statements of Scripture. Something must budge. Some weakness is found at the extremes of Calvinistic, Arminian, and even Universalistic Theology when compared objectively with Scripture. While at lunch with a conservative pastor last week he exposed his unbelief by saying that he does not agree with Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universalism. Perhaps he could try Atheism. So back to the point, are the Pharisee's who rejected Christ his sheep, lost sheep, or goats? The objective statement of Christ to these self-righteous rebels is that they are NOT sheep, not even lost sheep. So there is a perceived contradiction. Christ says these Pharisees are NOT his sheep and so he did not die for them, though elsewhere the Bible plainly says Christ died for all. What is the truth? Calvinists bend one way saying Christ did not die for all mankind. Arminians bend the other way saying Christ died for all mankind, BUT we must apply the atonement to ourselves through faith. Robinson's answer is that this perceived contradiction of Scripture, is explained by eschatological myth, and that these unbelieving Jews are paradoxically both destined for salvation and damnation at the same time. Sorry John, I cannot go there. Instead I believe they are LOST sheep based on Hosea 2:23. My answer, as fully explained, is that instead it is the mind of the unbeliever that contains the myth and the Holy Spirit's inspired Word speaks to the believer and the unbeliever according to either the truth or myth that is present in their thinking. Proverbs 26:4-5 (NIV) says, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes." Jesus answers the unbelieving Jews according to the myth that is in their own head! However, there is no myth in God's head or the Scriptures! Since the unbeliever has not yet trusted that his sins are already fully paid at the cross, then eternal damnation is the destiny he inwardly fears, dispite how religious or boldy 'Christian' he may appear. Yet dispite their unbelief, their sins remain fully paid. There is absolutely no paradox in the Scripture, the Gospel, or the mind of God, as explained, but only in the mind of the unbeliever, especially the religious unbeliever.

My clarification of the good news to mankind is instead, believe! Your sins are forgiven! Meet me in Heaven! Do you deny that Christ is your Savior? Why? He IS your Savior! Be thankful that Christ has paid for your sin because the destiny of all those not saved by Christ is the eternal Lake of Fire. Why anger the Lord and hear him say, "You are not my sheep"? However, you must be warned that even if you give your life to religion, destroy your life with sin, and suffer an age in Hades resisting grace until the very threshold of damnation, even so, NOT YOU OR EVEN ONE of those for whom Christ died will ever enter the Lake of Fire which is prepared for... the Devil and his angels. Why wait? Why destroy your life with sin? Testify that Christ is your Savior! Be transformed by the Holy Spirit!

Robinson's gallant effort illustrates the true plight of sinful man. We are in utterly desperate straights: you, me, and Robinson. Apart from grace we are dead with eyes sealed shut to the truth of God's unconditional love. However, when our eyes are opened to even a ray of the shining light of truth we cling to it with all the muscle and tenacity of a desperate mountain climber. Even if we hang by a two finger hold at the last precipice of Mount Everest, we cannot let go of the truth we have seen. We are sinners in desperate need of forgiveness, and in Christ there is forgiveness for sinners! Yet our hands and feet may not find stable ground to answer all the questions we might have. Not because stable ground does not exist, but thorns, thistles, and Satan's schemes obstruct the way. And so we hang on to what we know with hands and feet struggling. Such is a good description of Robinson. Were we to see my mountain climber metaphor enacted on film, we would be clutching the edge of seats and the man with the two finger hold would be praised in the end! For the Lord himself will lift us to final safety, the dark glass will be removed, we will see him face to face in glory, and he himself will praise our faith inspite of our failings.

Though I feel Robinson has erred greatly, I find great kinship with his assertion that the work of God in Christ MUST bear the fruit of the salvation of all mankind. Though Robinson is accused of arrogance for this assertion, he is woefully misunderstood by his wicked unbelieving critics. For his assertion that God must save mankind is rooted in the fact that God himself determined to do it and has already accomplished the absolution of all our sin at the cross of Christ. Since God himself has already paid for the sins of all mankind, then who remains to condemn? Friends, no one. No one. On this key point Robinson clings to the very heart of Christian salvation and hope.

If we acknowledge Robinson's grave errors and commend his tenacity for God's unconditional love, we will see that the arrogance is not Robinson's, but in fact Hart, Torrence, the Calvinist, the Arminian, and the religious'. They claim that their sins are forgiven, with at best hypocritical doubt or likely condemnation for the remainder of humanity. What is the basis for their faith? It is not founded on the bed rock of Christ! If the grace of Christ for ALL mankind is not the hope of these arrogant, then it can only be a human condition that they themselves have supplied. That is the arrogance of the religous. Take care! Arrogant rejection of grace of this kind is just the sin for which the fires of Hades burn.


Last edited by [email protected] on Tue Sep 09, 2014 7:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of John Robinson

Postby JasonPratt » Tue Sep 09, 2014 3:09 pm

A brief clarification: there are a number of theologians and historians in that Robinson family; Jeff is talking about one of the last ones, J. A. T. Robinson, the infamous Bishop of Woolrich whose notorious Honest To God launched his public career as Britain's original modern Bishop Behaving Badly. ;) One of the few men criticized repeatedly and by name by C. S. Lewis.

His beliefs did become more conservative toward the end of his life (though still he remained a Christian universalist), and one of his final works, Redating the New Testament, made dating NT composition before 70 respectable again (partly by showing just how often respected academics across the spectrum had already been dating various books before 70 since back into the 1800s, despite the popular feeling of a settled consensus.) As he knew, though sort of downplayed, this makes a big difference in acknowledging (almost by necessity) that the texts were more likely or certainly written by the attributed authors, with less time for the doctrinal developments required by various sceptical theories.

Good book review of his collection of soteriological work (such as it was, given his handicaps). Thanks!
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Re: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of John Robinson

Postby [email protected] » Tue Sep 09, 2014 4:49 pm

Thanks and thanks for clarifying about which Robinson.
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