Was Julian of Norwich a Universalist?
A number of people have asked if Julian was a Universalist; that is, if she believed that eventually everyone would be saved. In my book, “Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich,” I deal with various aspects of this crucial question, from early church teachings on predestination (inspired by St. Augustine) to medieval preaching on hell and damnation.
It was inevitable, given the world in which she lived, that Julian would be concerned about her “evencristens” (fellow Christians) who had sinned grievously and fallen away from the faith. In the Fourth Revelation, as Julian contemplates Christ bleeding on the cross, she envisions the outpouring of his blood as both “plenteous” and “precious,” precisely because it is the boundless blood of the Son of God. She remarks that it is also “our own nature” because it is very human blood, just like ours. And as precious as it is, so is it plenteous, sufficient to cleanse every and all sin, if only humankind will allow itself to be purified by it. She writes:
“Behold and see the virtue of this precious plenty of his dearworthy blood! It descended down into hell and burst their bonds and delivered them, all who were there who belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood overflows all the earth, and is ready to wash all creatures of sinne who are of good will, have been, and shall be. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood ascends up into heaven in the blessed body of our lord Jesus Christ, and there is in him, bleeding, praying for us to the Father, and is and shall be as long as we need.”
In this paean of praise to the “precious plenty” of Christ’s “dearworthy blood,” Julian imagines the blood descending deep into the bowels of hell and rising up, in Christ’s resurrected body, into heaven. She even suggests that the resurrected Christ is still “bleeding” (that is, pouring out his blood metaphorically in heaven) as he prays unceasingly for humanity to the Father, for as long as we shall need . . .
From this Revelation, Julian understands that “the precious plenty” of Christ’s blood is ready to wash “all creatures of sinne who are of good will,” in times past and future. She makes no differentiation between evencristens and Jews or pagans, an extraordinary statement for her time. The first letter of Peter also taught that “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pt 3:18). Various translations have suggested the original meaning of this letter is “once for all time,” or “once for all people.”
Nevertheless, Julian would not have dared prophesy “universal salvation” outright, as this would have been opposed to the medieval church’s teaching of salvation only for those who believe in Jesus Christ, were baptized, kept his commandments, and died in the state of grace. Nevertheless, Julian writes that the “precious plenty” of Christ’s salvific blood “overflows all the earth” with its perfect cleansing. In her inclusive interpretation, Julian implies that Christ’s outflowing blood will reach all and save all who are touched, in some mystical way, by its liberating power.
Julian completes this apocalyptic vision, seeing the blood of the Lamb of God as divine energy flowing evermore throughout heaven, “enjoying the salvation of all mankind that is there and shall be there, fulfilling the number that faileth” (12:24–25.169). This refers to the medieval belief that the predestined number of souls of the elect to be saved would equal the number of angels that had dropped out of heaven when, because of pride, Lucifer fell “like a flash of lightning” (Lk 10:18). According to St. Augustine, only God knows who and how many there will be.
Julian must have been haunted all her life by the thought of all those who had died during the Great Pestilence that wiped out half the population of Norwich—and one third the entire population of Europe. She also lived in a time of constant war, when soldiers and civilians died “unshriven,” with no opportunity to confess their sins and receive absolution. While Julian repeatedly attested that she saw “no wrath in God’ throughout her visions of Christ on the cross, she knew that the church taught we are all sinners and worthy of condemnation. This seemingly insoluble paradox weighed heavenly on her mind: how could “alle thing be wele” as Christ promised her, if even one soul were damned? In desperation, Julian begged Christ for understanding:
“I cried inwardly with all my might, seeking into God for help, meaning thus: “Ah, lord Jesus, king of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall tell me and teach me what I need to know, if I may not at this time see it in thee?”
How should human beings consider themselves: as fully saved or justly condemned? It was a question that could not be put aside. This was not a scholastic issue, open to debate. There were people’s eternal lives involved: Julian’s, her family members, both living and deceased (some without benefit of the last rites of the church), friends, servants, all her evencristens from the lowliest peasants to the highest overlords, on up the social ladder to kings and queens and two popes, with the whole of Europe being torn apart by the brutalities of war and papal schism. If Julian was to go on living with some measure of divine comfort and reassurance, she had to know the answer to her question: How does God behold us in our sin?
Julian was answered in a visual and highly mysterious parable concerning a lord who had a servant. However, she did not understand the hidden meaning of the parable so she could not write about it until twenty years later—in her Long Text. There she gave a brilliant interpretation of who the lord was (God) and who the servant was (both Christ and Adam). In explicating the nuances of this profound story, Julian affirmed that:
“Because of the rightful oneing [perfect union] which was made in heaven [between God and man], God’s Son might not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind.”
In stating this, Julian no longer differentiated between “them that shalle be saved” and the rest of humanity, that is, believers from non-believers, the righteous from sinners. Here I think she was writing in more universal terms, because this was the way in which she was taught by Christ to understand the import of the parable. She understood that there can be no essential separation between one man or woman and another. All are included in the appellative “Adam” (even Eve, since for Julian “Adam” includes both sexes), inasmuch as God became man to save all.
In her exegesis on the parable, Julian described the incarnation with poetic originality: God’s Son “fell with Adam into the hollow of the maiden’s womb” (even as, in the parable, the servant Adam fell into the hollow of the ditch). And because of this incarnation of God as perfect humanity, Adam, representing the whole of humanity, was purified in his fundamental nature, excused from blame both in heaven and on earth, and fetched out of his “hell.” Indeed, even though the Catholic Church has taught that there is a hell (as the necessary alternative to the concept of heaven), it has never stated officially that any single soul is actually “in” hell.
In “Julian’s Gospel,” I discuss many other aspects of this complex issue. But for now, let us ponder with Julian the astounding reality that, as she understood:
“our good lord Jesus has taken upon himself all our blame, and therefore our Father may not, nor will not, assign any more blame to us than to his own dearworthy son, Jesus Christ.”
PLEASE NOTE: The quotations above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.
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All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.