The Devil’s Redemption?

The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Two Volumes), Michael J. McClymond, 2018, Baker Academic, 1325 pages, including appendices, extensive bibliography, and index.

I must admit that the first thing that the title, The Devil’s Redemption, conjured up in my mind was the book by Ordin K. Cambel with the same primary title: The Devil’s Redemption (March 2020, Lulu). Cambel’s work, The Devil’s Redemption: The Halcyon Atonement is fantasy. It is, I think an allegorical and metaphysical take on Universalism. After all if the Devil is redeemed, then there is no need for eternal.  In Cambel’s The Devil’s Redemption the Devil is redeemed.

I am not going to suggest that McClymond’s work is fantasy. In it the Devil is not redeemed, Universalism is proven wrong (at least in McClymond’s mind) and there still is a need for hell and atonement. I do find though, the title odd for a book in which the Devil is not redeemed. Given the title you would be excused for thinking that McClymond in his new history and interpretation of Christian Universalism does just that.

Not so.

McClymond is on a mission to prove that Christian Universalism is rooted in Gnosticism, esoteric thinking, and metaphysical scriptural denying thinking. For him Christian Universalism is a belief built entirely upon theory.

But why the mission?

Because McClymond sees Christian Universalism as a major danger within the church. For McClymond, Christian Universalism dangerously challenges traditional Christian scriptural interpretations:

That many Christian thinkers have embraced universalism is not a hopeful sign for the contemporary church, since it suggests that metaphysical speculation with little or no support in scripture or tradition have become almost as acceptable as doctrines that have strong scriptural and traditional backing (1001).

When asked in an interview if Christian Universalism was a heresy, McClymond replied:

Universalism isn’t just a theological mistake. It’s also a symptom of deeper problems. In a culture characterized by moralistic therapeutic deism, universalism fits the age we inhabit….

Universalism seems, then, to be fundamentally out of sync with the New Testament narrative of God’s loving initiative in Christ provoking some to faith and others to offense and even hatred. Because of its incongruence with the gospel narrative, universalism is, to my mind, not the first step off the path of orthodoxy, but perhaps—in Kevin DeYoung’s words—’the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder (The Gospel Coalition Blog, 2011)’

Every definition of heresy implies some correlative definition of orthodoxy—of which there are many. I’m not particularly concerned with whether universalism is termed a heresy, because to me the labeling question diverts attention from the main issue, which is showing why universalism is theologically untrue and pastorally unhelpful (“How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream.” Christianity today, March 11, 2019).

Although McClymond skirted the issue of directly claiming that Christian Universalism is a heresy, there is no question about what he thinks of Christian Universalism.

When asked in an interview in Christianity Today (March 4, 2022) what inspired him to write The Devil’s Redemption, he mentions a professor he once had at Northwestern that claimed that the Apostle Paul was a Universalist, as well as dream about how unprepared people were for the return of Christ in judgement. For McClymond, Christian Universalism is one of, in not the primary, cause of this lack of preparation.

The idea of a dream inspiring McClymond is ironic considering his instance that dreams and visions have always been a component of Universalism. About these visions, he writes, “They knew it was so because they saw it to be so (1043).” Yet McClymond knows his opposition to Universalism to be so, because he saw it as so in a dream.

It is clear that McClymond opposes Christian Universalism from an Evangelical Christian perspective. One rooted in Reformed Atonement Theology and a literal reading of the scriptures.

It is this supposed lack of Christian Universalists taking scripture literally that seems to raise McClymond’s hackles. He charges that for Christian Universalists the scripture is not only viewed non-literally, it is viewed through typological and allegorical lens. The canon-within-the-canon idea (fostered by existential thinking), according to McClymond is becoming increasingly popular among Christian Universalists (e.g., Sharon Baker, Razing Hell, John Knox Press) (1052).

And even when an appeal is made to the scriptures in a more literal sense, for the most part the Old Testament and Book of Revelation have been abandoned, McClymond claims, by Christian Universalists.

However. when a proponent of Christian Universalism seeks to be a literalist, the use of scripture is dismissed as inadequate. “Robin Parry’s effort,” McClymond writes, “to provide an exegetical foundation for universalism in a literal reading of the Bible is intriguing but ultimately unpersuasive. His reading of the New Testament Gospels and the book of Revelation strains credulity (1012).” Yet, when McClymond explores Perry’s writing (956-967), he is more interested in supposed contradictions within Perry’s description of universalism than he is in Parry’s actual scriptural defense of Christian Universalism. McClymond challenges Parry in a philosophical vein rather than an exegetical one.

For all of his concern about scripture McClymond uses scant little to challenge Universalism. He sort of excuses himself by saying that it would take several volumes to adequately canvas Christian universalist exegesis (1048).

I wonder, if Christian Universalists use so little scripture to support their position, why McClymond says that it would stake several volumes of exegesis to counter their argument?

Rather than an exegetical attack, McClymond appears to think that it is more important to write a “new history and interpretation” of Christian Universalism to prove that the “theory” (as he calls it in an interview) has always until recently been on the fringes of Christian thought and is contrary to Christian tradition.

His interpretation is that Christian Universalism through Church history has been of provenance Gnostics, esoteric thought, and metaphysical thinkers. Now that Christian Universalism has gained a toehold among Evangelicals, McClymond sees the need to address this “un-scriptural” metaphysical challenge to traditional biblical Christian doctrine and tradition.

McClymond sees The Devil’s Redemption as both a work of scholarship and of pastoral concern (Review Christianity Today). I have no doubt of McClymond’s pastoral concern. It is evident. I do not, however, find The Devil’s Redemption to be a scholarly treatise, although on the surface The Devil’s Redemption is written in a scholarly manner with a theological scholarly vocabulary and extensive bibliography.

Whether we agree or not with McClymond, his two-volume work has become the de facto rebuttal of Christian Universalism among non-universalist Christians, especially those of the Evangelical wing. And for this group, The Devil’s Redemption is a scholarly masterpiece.

For this reason alone, The Devil’s Redemption needs to be critically read by those of us who profess to be Christian Universalists.

The astute reader will recognize that all my page references come from the end of the book. The reason is simple. In the final chapter of The Devil’s Redemption (Chapter 12, “The Eclipse of Grace”) McClymond gathers together all of claims about the errors of Christian Universalism. He even helpfully provides a summary of his preceding 935 pages, chapter by chapter. It is in this chapter too, that he lays out for us in a concise manner the supposed errors of Universalism.

I suspect that most readers, especially given McClymond’s summary of chapters will read the last chapter and ignore the rest of the work. That is not a good move, no matter one’s thinking about Christian Universalism. The book needs to be read.

The errors can be placed in two groups: Philosophical Errors, that is, the errors of source, and Theological Errors.

In the first group is McClymond’s claim that all Universalism, Contemporary Christian and otherwise, is metaphysical in nature and flows from Gnostic, esoteric and existentialist thought.

The theological errors of Christian Universalism arise because of this view’s metaphysical nature.  The entire corpus of theological error is summed up in the chapter’s title: “The Eclipse of Christian Universalism.

Christian Universalism eclipses God’s grace. The individual errors, according to McClymond are:

Christian Universalism negates salvation and human freedom.
Christian Universalism diminishes God’s nature, specifically, God’s self-sufficiency.
Christian Universalism undermines evangelism.

I will leave the detailed refutation of The Devil’s Redemption to Ilaria Ramelli and Robin Parry, who in their two-volume, A Larger Hope (Cascade Books, 2019) present a vigorous argument in favor of Christian Universalism, both from an historical and scriptural perspective. [A review of that work is forthcoming.]

I do want to make some general observations which reflect upon the scholarship, or lack thereof, found in The Devil’s Redemption.

A. To me, although McClymond’s summary of the “errors” of Christian Universalism is left to last chapter (as one would expect), it appears as I worked through the two-volumes that McClymond had already formulated in his mind the errors, and thus structured his work to prove the errors rather than to engage with them. McClymond, it seems, does not want to truly dialog with and engage today’s Christian Universalist thinkers. Out of “pastoral concern” McClymond, it seems – as civil as he is in doing – wants to rid the church of these presumed (dare I say?) heresies.

B. The Devil’s Redemption: A New Interpretation and History of Christian Universalism is not as extensive as the title implies. It is important to McClymond’s case to show that Christian Universalism, up until recently, has always been a fringe theology in Christianity. McClymond is selective in whom he chooses, and whom he leaves out to support his premise. Glossing over is interestingly something that he accuses Ilarlia Ramelli of doing when she attempts to show otherwise (1101).

I find it odd that even though McClymond laments the use scripture in a literal sense by Christian Universalist, William Barclay rates only a brief mention, and then in a list. I would like to ask McClymond about his take on Barclay’s New Testament Commentary?

C. Significant for the premise of The Devil’s Redemption premise is McClymond’s treatment of Origen. Following older Western Christian Theological thought (whose source is somewhat political in nature) rather than more recent scholarship, McClymond paints Origen as a through and through Gnostic. Ilaria Ramelli presents an excellent defense of Origen in both A Greater Hope and in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Brill, 2013). On this, in Appendix D, McClymond accuses Ramelli of using “revisionist theological history (1093).”

D. I find it disingenuous for McClymond to gloss over Christian Universalism in the Eastern Church and not afford Gregory of Nyssa (in the fifteen pages he devotes to him) the depth of attention he deserves. McClymond seems content to dismiss Gregory as a fringe thinker in the Eastern Church, rather than one of the strongest proponents of Christian Universalism in the fourth-century church. McClymond needs to so to build his case that Christian Universalism historically was a fringe element within the church and that it is rooted in Gnosticism.

McClymond, it appears, is so ingrained with the traditional Western interpretation of scripture that he can easily dismiss the historical and continual strong bent toward Christian Universalism in the Eastern Church with a few words. And then claim it has always been on the fringes. Something that he doesn’t prove very successfully.

E. McClymond argues (Chapter 5), unconvincingly, that Christian Universalism is pervaded with the esoteric philosophy of Jakob Böhme (1625-1724). Böhme, ironically believed in an eternal hell, not in Universalism. It wasn’t until a later time that Böhme’s disciple, Jane Lead (1624-1704) introduced the concept. While some Universalists such as the Russian Solovyov could possibly be connected to Böhme, and many did read his philosophy, and granted, some of Böhme’s disciples, following after Jane Lead, did become universalists, it a tenuous thread with which to connect most Christian Universalists.

F. McClymond misstates Eriugena when he places Eriugena’s “not all souls were happy in their final state with God” in juxtaposition to Eriugen’s “all shall return to Paradise … but not all shall enjoy the Tree of Life … equally” to claim that Eriugena did not hold to Universalism (374 ff.). It is clear that he did so: “every creature, in heaven and on earth, has been saved (Periphyseon 5.24).” McClymond excepts without question Eriugena’s suppose pantheism and several times throughout the book uses that against him, implying that Universalism can lead to pantheism. A thorough study of Eriugena would show that his beliefs were not pantheistic.

G. Throughout The Devil’s Redemption McClymond raises false dichotomies and juxtapositions throughout The Devil’s Redemption. He quotes one Universalist favorably, and then uses that quote against another Universalist, as if all forms of Christian Universalism are identical. Some believe in some sort of purgation, some don’t. Some believe we are created as God’s children; others say it comes through Christ. Some believe in the existence of souls in heaven before birth, others don’t.

McClymond illogical juxtaposes premises: such as Bath’s “God who is for us” against his “God who is,” setting various Christian understandings of the atonement against each other (Chapter 9). He does the same with how Hans Urs von Balthasar and his different ways of expressing “Hopeful” Christian Universalism (Chapter 10).

McClymond uses this sort of juxtaposition to demonstrate that Christian Universalism is un-scriptural. We might ask, from a scholarly perspective is this an honest approach?

H. In the same vein McClymond uses one so-called fact to imply that another so-called fact is proven by the antecedent. One can follow the “thread of implication” through the book by just noting how Origen and his supposed Gnosticism implicates others who are proponents of Christian Universalism. He does the same with Jakob Böhme.

I. McClymond uses innuendos to imply that Christian Universalism is less than Christian. You have to carefully read The Devil’s Redemption to realize this. It is however, more obvious in his interviews:

Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (“Opiate of the Theologians.” First Things, Dec. 2019).

One cannot argue with that statement. It is true. But just because the Universalist Church merged with the Unitarians doesn’t mean that all Christian Universalism will devolve in the same way. McClymond in his statement glosses over the actual reasons for the merger, and implies that Unitarians cannot be Christians because they don’t fall into his traditional Christian camp.

Another example:  Although he says in his October, 23, 2018 Credo Magazine interview, “(T)here is no necessary correlation between universalist theology and leftist politics,” he spends considerable time with Karl Marx in The Devil’s Redemption. For one on the Political Right (a good bit of them Evangelicals) the connection is easily made: Christian Universalism leads to Communism.

In the same interview, McClymond, after implying that Christian Universalism is the opiate Christian intellectuals, states:

Modern intellectuals have often been attracted to ideologies of a just society and a better world, even when these theories have not proven themselves in practice. Twentieth-century. Communism is a case in point.  

Even the title of his interview in Credo Magazine, “The Opiate of Theologians” is loaded with innuendo.

In spite of the shortcomings of The Devil’s Redemption, McClymond deserves our thanks for making those of us who see Christian Universalism as being both scripturally viable and thoroughly scriptural dig deep to examine our underpinnings. Because when we do so, we come away all the more convinced of “A Larger Hope” and all the more desirous to share the Good News with others.

More importantly, our thorough study of Christian Universalism will bring us to a deeper understanding, contrary to the claims of McClymond, of what it means to be “Christian,” and how we as Christians are to live within the world’s culture of evil.

Summary of Chapters, Appendices & Notes:

Chapter 1 explores 20th & early 21th c. Universalism.  In Chapter 2, McClymond marshals his premises and sets the stage for the relevance of THE Devil’s RedemptionChapters 3 & 4 take up the “Gnosticism” of Origen and his disciples. He further develops the idea that Universalism is rooted in Gnosticism and Platonic thought. He seeks to build up this premise by calling on Augustine and Aquinas.  Chapter 5 connects the perceived Gnosticism of Origen with the esoteric philosophy of Jakob Böhme. Claiming that Böhme’s esoteric thinking pervades Christian Universalism.  Chapter 6 addresses Anglo-American Universalist generally by sectarian categories.  Chapter 7 moves us to Germany, taking a look at Kant, Muller, Scleiermacher, Hegel, Shelling and Tillich.  In Chapter 8 he looks at Russian thinkers: Solovyov, Berdyaev, Florovsky, and Bulgakov. Barth and Moltman, together with Kenotic-Relational Theologies are explored in Chapter 9.  In Chapter 10 McClymond looks at Roman Catholic thinkers who thought about Universalism, but may not have Universalists themselves. Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Teilhard de Chardon, Henri de Lubac, along with the “Inclusive, Plurocentrist, and Universalist Turns in Roman Catholicism.”  Chapter 11 brings us back to contemporary Universalism in her various forms. With each version, McClymond addresses the views of that version’s leading proponents. For example, Robin Perry with Evangelical Universalism, Thomas Talbot and Philosophical Universalism, and John Crowder (and others) with Charismatic Universalism.  Chapter 12 brings it all together, claiming that Christian Universalism is “The Eclipse of Grace.”

Appendix A. Definitions and lineages of Gnostic and Western Esotericism. Appendix B. Zoroastrian Eschatology. Appendix C. Anti-Origen Declarations in the Early Church. Appendix D. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013). Appendix E. The Sefiroth: A Kabbalistic Diagram. Appendix F. Universal Salvation in Islamic Teaching. Appendix G. Types of Christian Universalism. Appendix H. The Cosmic Saga: An esoteric view. Appendix I. Ultra-Dispensationalist Universalism. Appendix J. Words and Concepts for Time and Eternity. Appendix K. Mormon Teachings on God, cosmos, and Salvation. Appendix L. Barth and Bultmann on Romans 5.

Note on Appendices:  Although I found the appendices interesting, I am not sure why some of them were included, other than maybe to demonstrate from McClymond’s view the dangerous company that Christian Universalism keeps? The anti-Origen declaration appendix is used to bolster McClymond’s claim that Origen was a Gnostic. I think McClymond’s treatment of Ilaria Ramelli’s rebuttal of this claim fails to destroy the rebuttal. Lastly, McClymond’s discussion of Islamic Universalism, although a minor part of Islam, is too limited. There is much more that could have been said.

Note on the use of scripture: McClymond, in the “Index of Ancient Sources” does include scriptural references among other ancient references. Generally they are placed in the context of the person or theme he is examining. In the entire two volumes there are only two places where McClymond uses actually scripture: Appendix J, “Words and Concepts for Time and Eternity” and Appendix I, “Barth and Bultmann on Romans 5.”

Michael J. McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He has authored and coauthored several books, including An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (a Christianity Today Book Award winner) and An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (winner of the Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History). McClymond is the recipient of the John Templeton Foundation Science and Religion Course prize, 1997. McClymond began his career in the field of science before moving in church history and theology. He has also served as the host of a radio talk-show on KJSL, a Christian radio station in St. Louis.

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