Monday, May 19, 2008

Universalism and the Salvation of Satan

Must a universalist believe that Satan will be saved?

Not necessarily. A universalist could believe that God will save all humans but perhaps not fallen angels. We could call that 'human universalism'.

But it has been pointed out that the logic of the arguments that I employ in chapter 1 of my book would entail a more radical conclusion - that God will redeem all fallen creatures, both human and angelic. Let's call this 'radical universalism'. So the question then becomes, "Does Gregory MacDonald believe that Satan will be saved?"

I confess to being agnostic on the issue. Agnostic not because the logic of my arguments is not clear but because I am not sure what to think about the Devil.

Is the Devil a personal being? Suppose that he is (perhaps he is a fallen angel, although Scripture never spells out his origins). If Satan was once a good spiritual person who was later corrupted then the logic of my position is indeed that God could and would redeem him. There are two problems with this and both are big.
1. Scripture indicates otherwise (Rev 20)
2. the Christian tradition is clear that Satan will not be redeemed (indeed, contrary to popular opinion, not even Origen claimed that Satan would be saved).
The only way that I can think to get out of this bind is to suggest that Lucifer (the good being created by God) will be saved but that Satan (the name for Lucifer-as-corrupted) will be destroyed. This is analogous to the way that God destroys our old natures in Christ and makes us new creations. If anyone is in Christ - new creation! Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Satan is dead. Long live Lucifer. But, I freely confess, this is very speculative and it is not what I actually believe.

Suppose then that Satan is not actually a personal being at all. Suppose that he is a personification of evil or, more plausibly, some kind of epiphenomena supervening on human evil (individual and social). I am thinking along the lines of Walter Wink here. On this view of Satan then even a radical universalist such as myself would insist that Satan cannot be saved. Indeed, quite the opposite! Satan must be purged from the created order in order for there to be radical, cosmic redemption.

If you have thoughts on this difficult topic please do post a comment.


James F. McGrath said...

I'm not inclined to think there is a personal being named "Satan", but if there were, the idea that such a being would be "beyond redemption" seems problematic from a Christian perspective.

I noted on my blog some time ago how strange it is that stories such as the Ramayana or Star Wars seem to treat the possibility of redeeming even one who has turned to evil more seriously than Christians do in this case.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link that has a good perspective on it.


Jason Pratt said...

Well, I believe in the existence of rebel supernatural entities, and that at any given time there must be (at least one {g}) Greatest Rebel, so while I'm not particular about names I would agree there's a Satan.

The hope I have for myself is the same hope I have for him.

Is his salvation testified to in scripture? I find that the hope of it is ("reconciling all things to Himself whether in the heavens or the earth", among other places); and if I can believe (which I easily can) that those in the lake of fire judgment can still be saved from sin by God, Who will continually persist at this, then that would go for Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet, too. We've been told they will be there for the eons of the eons, but that isn't the same as being hopeless about their salvation.

Moreover, there is imagery earlier in RevJohn testifying to the hope of the reclamation of those in the Abyss--for in one place it talks of there being no more sea (I take this to mean the emptying of hades per se at the resurrection of the dead), and yet in another place it speaks of the sea before the throne of God being smooth and clear as glass, i.e. at peace. The sea, in Jewish religious thought (and RevJohn is steeped in Jewish apocalyptic thought), typically represents the prison of the evil, chaotic rebel gods.

Another interesting bit of testimony of hope in favor of Satan's salvation, can be pieced together from the book of Job. Job's torment, though instigated by "the Satan", is permitted by YHWH for a particular reason stated by YHWH in the prologue of the story: so that "the Satan" may regard Job (a verb that is connected to learning.) Not incidentally, Job and his friends are quite sure that Leviathan, one of the primordial rebel dragons subdued by God and imprisoned in the sea, has no hope of being anything other than a loser rebel. But when God shows up to contend with Job, God points out that He has intentions not only to subdue Leviathan and Behemoth (i.e. Bahamut, another cosmic-dragon entity), but to tame them, bringing them back into the fold (so to speak), and even making covenant with them.

Another scriptural hint in this direction involves how Jesus treats demons, sometimes: He will command them to "phimeroo" (in Greek), which can mean several things. I was always partial to "be strangled", myself. {g} "Shut up!" would work as a colloquial meaning. But--it can also mean "be muzzled".

So yes, scripturally I find hints scattered around here and there (perhaps most importantly in RevJohn) that I can even have hope, in God, for Satan. At the very least, I can trust God to keep trying to save even Satan from sin--just like I can trust God to never give up on me. {s}


Anonymous said...

I am an agnostic when it comes to the question of whether satan and the demons are "personal" and what that might mean, although I lean towards James view. If he (?) is a personal being, I agree with James that his being beyond redemption is problematic, since we are promised that God shall be all in all and that everything will be reconciled to God.

Jason. What about the beast in Revelation. Do you think that the beast too is a person? I think the easiest way to understand the beast with the background of Daniel is to view it as the Roman empire or some aspect thereof. And if this is the case, this might point in the direction of a non-personal satan too.
/Jonas Lundström

Jason Pratt said...


While the "wild beast" could be typographically understood as Imperial Rome, perhaps, in some places in RevJohn, there are other places where he seems identified (via "the number of the beast" which is explicitly mentioned to be that of a man) as Nero Caesar. Be that as it may, multiple typography is normal in canonical apocryphal prophecy, both OT and NT.

More to the point, the last we see of the "wild beast" in RevJohn, he (or it) is in the lake of fire and sulphur, where "they" (the beast, the false prophet and the Adversary) shall be tormented day and night into the eons of the eons.

Not much point tormenting a derivative abstraction like "an Empire"! (Though there might be some point tormenting citizens or members of an Empire, because those are persons.) Had the beast, here, represented a concept or state, such as "hades" and "death", it would make more sense for it to have been destroyed (like hades and death) by being thrown in the lake. (That goes for a Winkian Satan, too: what's the point of tormenting an epiphenomena supervening on human misbehavior, again?? Is that even possible in principle?! Sounds like a category error to me.)

So in the portion of scripture Gregory was concerned with, Rev 20, the Big Nasty Three rebels are treated as (duh) rebel persons, like the other rebel persons who were thrown in the lake of fire and sulphur. (Sulphur was the ancient form of medicine for curing infection, of course. {wry g})

If we have hope in God for one set of rebel person, we can have hope in God for the other set. Which I think everyone here agrees with in principle--the main question being whether there's any scriptural indication of that hope for rebel angel/gods. (Or Roguents as I like to call them in my novels. {g})


Anonymous said...

Jason. Thanks. I am open to your argument, I will think about it.

Jason Pratt said...

Btw, Greg, Chris over at Chrisendom has put up a new entry quoting the end of your book (as a counterpoint, perhaps, to Chris' frankly rather bizarre dismissal of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. That's the next entry down.)


Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Jason,
You seem to be stretching the idea of "no more sea," though I totally agree with you that the sea was considered a place of monsters in the O.T., like Rahab, and that Yahweh is described blowing his windy breath or spirit over it at creation, or in the case of the Exodus it is split by his windy breath, or Yawheh is described elsewhere attacking the sea, and in Ezekiel a monster is said to lay at the heart of the sea (a metaphor for an evil king I think).

But I don't think you can make much of a case for the salvation of Satan (or for universalism) out of the sea's absence as you seem to suppose.

I think the absence of the sea in Rev. can also be understood as the absence of primeval waters, such at those that overwhelmed creation during the Flood, and I think the ancients imagined their cosmos surrounded by cosmic waters above and below. (As for such flat earth imagery carrying over into first century Palestine see the book of Enoch and it's blatantly flat earth view of the cosmos, written a century of so before the N.T.)

I also see a difficulty in making much of the lack of a sea in Rev. when there are more explicit verses in Rev. such as people being "cast into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever," which suggests either eternal torment or annihilationism, not universalism. Though I'm sure some universalists might want to argue that it refers to a refiner's fire. Still, the games one can play with words and metaphors and pictures.

I tend to view the N.T.'s apocalyptic and eschatological imagery as being derived from the O.T. and intertestamental period (the latter being the period when talk about "Satan's" role expanded, and demons and angels started being named, and the idea of eternal torment -- as in the book of Daniel, a work completed during the intertestamental period -- began to outpace the idea that everyone merely went to one and the same place, i.e., Sheol).

So, Jesus and the Gospel authors were men of their time, using such apocalyptic words and imagery that had arisen just before their time, and hence their views are no more necessarily accurate concerning the afterlife than the views of the O.T. Jews were who believed everyone went to Sheol.

As for what can be said about the afterlife today we have merely anecdotes from say, people who have had NDEs, and their experiences vary quite a lot. Including a Buddhist from Thailand who met a talking turtle god. While most NDEs involve no deities at all, but mostly involve a white light or sometimes meeting beings of some sort often identified as simply people. Meetings with divine beings who are recognized by name are far rarer among NDEs.

And of course some doubt that the Near Death Experience has anything to do with an afterlife.

Jason Pratt said...


Since “the sea” oftens refers in Jewish religious imagery to the prison of chaotic rebels against God, and continues to do so in the NT religious imagery (even if not quite as prevalently), I think it’s worth testing the identification in RevJohn to see how well it fits. Certainly RevJohn features the sea/swirling depths (i.e. “abyss”) as the home of rebel chaotic monsters, too; so the connection is hardly foreign to the text. Moreover, the “no more sea” interpretation fits directly into the “no more hades” concept later in RevJohn.

If I thought it was much of a stretch, I probably wouldn’t even be talking publicly about it. {s}

{{But I don't think you can make much of a case for the salvation of Satan (or for universalism) out of the sea's absence as you seem to suppose.}}

I don’t think I’m making as much of a case for the salvation fo Satan (or for universalism) out of the sea’s absence as you seem to suppose. {g} It’s more of an interesting side-observation; it adds a bit of inductive confirmation, for anyone who respects the texts, but I hardly need it.

{{I think the absence of the sea in Rev. can also be understood as the absence of primeval waters}}

Certainly; that’s how I understood it myself for years. But that’s far from excluding the further meaning.

{{when there are more explicit verses in Rev. such as people being "cast into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever," which suggests either eternal torment or annihilationism}}

Annihilationism would be ruled out as a meaning by the subsequent results in the final chapter--the sinners there are hardly in any state of annihilation. Moreover, ‘eternal’ torment (in the sense you’re using ‘eternal’) is similarly ruled out by the continuing hope of their salvation in the final chapter. At the same time, there is something being obviously “annihilated” by being thrown into the lake of fire: death and ‘hades’. But that makes good enough poetic sense, in talking about the resurrection of the wicked as well as the good: can’t have a res of the good and the evil without the death of death-and-hades.

The smoke rising up “forever” is more specifically rising up “into the eon”. Not necessarily the same thing as what translators typically mean by “forever” (though it could be that, too.) It ought to be obvious, though, that the smoke is a change-result brought about by the fire, and that this smoke is rising to God. (It is even specifically compared to incense.)

The question of what this means has to depend on what is true about the character of God; not the other way around. People have been in a habit of interpreting it in much the same fashion as they’ve been in a habit of rendering “shepherding” as “ruling” in chapter 19.

{{Though I'm sure some universalists might want to argue that it refers to a refiner's fire.}}

Pretty much, yeah; not least because the same refiner’s-fire imagery is not uncommon in the scriptures in talking about those whom God is acting toward saving from sin.

{{Still, the games one can play with words and metaphors and pictures.}}

Which is why I don’t base my conclusion primarily on the words and metaphors and pictures. Nevertheless, I’d be being irresponsible if I didn’t check to see if the imagery could feasibly support the notion.

{{So, Jesus and the Gospel authors were men of their time, using such apocalyptic words and imagery that had arisen just before their time}}

And it’s impossible that they were using the words and imagery for different purposes? Or that the different purposes could be more accurate or in some way better?

I think it’s pretty obvious that they weren’t only doing what came before, whether in regard to the testamental or intertestamental periods. Still, there’d be a strong cultural pressure pushing back toward earlier meanings, too; especially insofar as the authors are routinely advocating respect for the texts that came before them.


joel said...

The possibility, though not certainty, of Satan's salvation was an element of Christian tradition among the Greek Fathers Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximos the Confessor. See e.g. the extensive discussion here:

Gregory MacDonald said...


Thanks for that link


qraal said...

Another perspective is that "Satan" is doing a job - that of testing weak-willed humans - and eventually will be finished in that role. Thus Satan isn't 'evil' as such. That's the view in "The Clementine Recognitions" so it's an old viewpoint.

James Goetz said...

Gregory, I'm convinced that Satan will eventually repent while God will graciously reconcile with Satan. And as I wrote in my blog article Orthodoxy and Gregory of Nyssa's Universalism, 1 Peter 3:18-20 teaches that Christ preached the gospel to fallen incarnate angels in hell so we have a biblical precedent for the possible redemption of fallen angels.