Julian of Norwich, Universal Salvation, and “All Shall Be Well”

A long-time reader of this blog emailed me recently with the following question about Julian of Norwich:

Lately I’ve been re-reading the Showings of Julian of Norwich and am struck by the number of times Julian implies that all will be saved.  While one can infer from her revelations that she is indeed a universalist, she never comes right out and says so.  I’m interested in hearing your opinion on this question of Julian’s universalism. Are there any books there that might shed some light on this matter or are there any other resources you might suggest?

Julian probably would not have thought of herself as a universalist, but that’s because the idea of universal salvation doesn’t really show up, at least in the English language, until the 1600s. But I suspect anyone with the depth of understanding of God-as-Radical-Love that Julian clearly enjoyed, would have been at the very least vexed by this question, as she described it (in chapter 32 of her long text):

And I wondered a great deal about this revelation and reflected on our faith, wondering in this way: our faith is founded on God’s word, and it is part of our faith that we believe that God’s word will be kept in all things. And one article of our faith is that many will be damned… condemned eternally to hell, as Holy Church teaches me to believe. And considering all this, it seemed impossible to me that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And to this I received no other answer by way of revelation from our Lord God except this: ‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.’

What a logical, sensible question. Julian is essentially saying:

  1. Part of being a person of faith is accepting the teachings of the Church;
  2. The Church teaches that not everyone will be saved, some will be damned;
  3. How can “all things be well” when some people are excluded from heaven?

I wonder how many people in our generation gave up on church when they asked questions like this, at age 10 or 12, only to have the nun or Sunday School teacher tell them to be quiet. (If I’m describing you, please remember: the church is more than its ignorance).

So was Julian universalist? My hunch is that she intuitively reacted against the idea that God “damns” people to hell. While she is not willing to explicitly reject or even criticize church doctrine in her book (considering she lived in an age when heretics were burned at the stake, can you blame her?), I take her at her word, and believe she really wanted not just to reject dogma, but to understand how her experience of God as limitless Love-with-a-capital-L fits in with the teachings of the church she loved so much.

For what it’s worth, I rather suspect that Julian of Norwich, if she were alive today, would probably be very comfortable with the prevailing idea in Catholic eschatology in our time — that hell represents not so much a punishment meted down on those who anger God with their non-compliance, but rather signifies an existential reality for those who freely choose to reject Love.

In this way of seeing things, in death we are given a choice that, in absolute freedom — beyond the limitations placed on us by the conditioning of our family history, upbringing, life circumstances etc. — we can consciously and freely choose to accept or reject union with God. To accept it is salvation, to reject it is hell.

If you’d like to read a fascinating book that explores this trend in contemporary theology, check out Laudislas Boros’ The Mystery of Death: Awakening to Eternal Life, the latest edition of which features a wonderful introduction by Cynthia Bourgeault.

Julian, compassionately troubled by the idea that some people could wind up in hell (for whatever reason), bluntly asks, how call all things be well if some people are damned? But it does seem that she accepts the idea that some people do become eternally separated from Divine Love. At one point she bluntly says this about the people she writes about, “I speak of those who will be saved, for at this time God showed me no others.” We can deduce two points from this: one, that she understands (and perhaps accepts) the prevailing idea in medieval Christianity (and often still too prevalent even today) that God is only going to save some people. But then she offers that sly qualifier: “…at this time God showed me no others.” You could almost hear Julian’s thoughts as she wrote this: perhaps God’s love and grace does extend beyond just those whom the church deems ‘worthy.’

Regardless of how Julian does (or doesn’t) assent to the salvation theology of her day, it’s clear she struggles with the limitation as she understands it. “Considering all this, it seemed impossible to me that all manner of things should be well.” Admitting that she is not a scholar or a theologian, (she describes herself as “unlettered,” meaning not that she was illiterate but that she did not have academic training) Julian does not attempt to suss out a doctrinal or theological explanation of this conundrum. Instead, she basically has Jesus say “Trust me on this one.”

And to this I received no other answer by way of revelation from our Lord God except this: ‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.’

“The Deed”

Earlier in this same chapter, she makes this interesting observation:

There is a deed which the blessed Trinity will do on the last day, as it seems to me, and when the deed will be, and how it will be done, is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and will be until it is done. The goodness and the love of our Lord God wishes us to know that it will be; and his power and wisdom, through the same love, wishes to conceal and hide from us what it will be and how it will be done.

This “deed,” which remains mysterious and not described in detail, is mentioned to Julian because Christ wants us to trust him.

And the reason he wants us to know is because he wants us to be the more at ease in our souls and at peace in love, rejoicing in him and disregarding all the stormy tumults that might keep us from the truth. This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from without beginning, treasured and hidden in his blessed breast, known only to himself, and through this deed he will make all things well.

She ends with an interesting theological statement, linking the “deed” to the beauty and felicity of creation itself.

For just as the blessed Trinity made all things from nothing, so the same blessed Trinity will make all well that is not well.

“The Deed” is a secret, that will not be revealed until judgment day, but when that secret is revealed, then truly all will see and recognize that all shall be well. Since Christ never spills the beans on what this secret deed actually will be, Julian (and by extension, her readers) are left to wonder.

Is the secret some hidden way that we can reconcile the experience of God as all-loving with the reality that not all of God’s creations accept God’s love?

That we can find felicity and beatitude in this, even if someone we love dearly is among those who choose differently than we do?

These are great questions, but Julian doesn’t answer, and seems to say that it’s a waste of time to speculate like this. Simply trust that God is Love, that we are free to accept or reject God’s love, and that even in this, we can trust that in the end, all shall be well.

Is Julian a universalist? Probably not in the sense we would use the term: as someone who would flat out deny the existence of hell, leaving no possible fate for all human beings but heaven.

The problem, of course, is that universalism has its own philosophical conundrum. On the one hand, universalism appeals to anyone who cannot reconcile a God who is all-forgiving, all-compassionate, and all-loving, with the existence of hell, especially as classically understood as a “lake of fire,” a place of eternal conscious torment and punishment.

But the problem with simply rejecting hell is that it strips us away of our fundamental dignity as human beings: the freedom to say no. C. S. Lewis describes this succinctly in The Great Divorce:

Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.’

True love will never force itself on someone who is unwilling to receive it. If God will only provide us with one possible way of embodying eternity, then God is not so much “Love” as “Power.” Hell is God’s vulnerability: God’s willingness to say “I will never force myself on you.”

Never Separated from the Love of God

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, no one expresses this more eloquently than the 7th century mystic St. Isaac the Syrian. In the 28th of his Ascetical Homilies, he muses on the question of heaven and hell.

It would be improper…to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool…but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.

Growing up in a liberal Protestant Church, my Sunday School teachers downplayed the idea that hell was a place of fire, or torment. Instead, they said, “Hell is separation from God.” But St. Isaac doesn’t see it that way. No one is ever “deprived” of God’s love. But we have a choice of whether we accept love or not. If we accept the freely given, unconditional, but never forced-upon-us Divine Love, what we will experience in eternity is transfiguring light. But if we turn away from it, the exact same love will be experienced as a scourging fire.

For those who find any idea related to “hell” to be obscene or objectionable, St. Isaac’s ideas may not be acceptable. But if God is pure love, and it’s the nature of true love never to force itself on anyone, then there must be room in eternity for the dignity to say no. Maybe it won’t burn, like St. Isaac thought it would. Maybe it would just be some neutral experience. But I can’t help but think that an eternity built on rejecting love would be an eternity devoid of joy as well.

The celebrated Catholic theologian and Cardinal, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, wrote a book with the optimistic title, Dare We Hope That All Shall Be Saved?  Frankly, I think it would be obscene not to hope that! The Catholic Church, when it declares somebody to be blessed or a saint, is in effect saying “We believe this person is in heaven.” But in over 2000 years, the church has never officially declared someone to be in hell — not Judas Iscariot, not Adolf Hitler, not Josef Stalin. Jesus told us, “do not judge” and I take that to mean, among other things, never to assume anyone has ultimately rejected grace and love. If Divine Love’s respect for free will means that God would allow a person to choose hell for all eternity, still we can hope that, in the end, everyone would find it in their hearts to say “yes” to grace and to love; and hell will just be the emptiest room in eternity.

Maybe that’s the “deed” that Julian is alluding to. Because, then, all truly would be well.

Finally — my reader asked, “Are there any books there that might shed some light on this matter or are there any other resources you might suggest?” Three come to mind; I’m not sure these authors would necessarily agree with my take on things, but I bet they would have some interesting insights into how Julian struggled with the theology of salvation.

Featured photo: Julian’s Cell, Norwich, England, July 2017. Photo by Fran McColman.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.