An Interview with the Author of the Definitive Treatment on Christian Universalism


Michael McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. His latest work, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018), is a 1,300-page history and critique of universalism.

Doug Sweeney calls it his “magnum opus . . . a tour de force of historical theology.”

Gerald McDermott writes, “This tome by Michael McClymond is a theological bombshell. . . . The first-ever complete history of the doctrine of universal salvation, this massive work is a devastating demolition of the supposition that universalism can be sustained with exegetical or systematic integrity.”

Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Important issues require important books, and McClymond has produced what I suspect will be the definitive treatment of Christian universalism for years to come.”

Professor McClymond answered a few questions from me about the book and the issues.

I suppose the first thing to say—besides “Wow”—is “Congratulations” and “Thank you.” What a massive achievement. Your book runs to 540,000 words, covers 1,376 pages, and cites around 2,500 sources (in Greek, Latin, French, German, and English). The bibliography alone runs to 90 pages in small print and double columns. What was the motivation and the process for investing so much of your scholarly life into a definitive treatment of universalism?

Isn’t this the ultimate theological question—i.e., the scope of final salvation? What could matter more? And if there is truth in the New Testament contrast between “momentary, light affliction” and the “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17), then should not all Christian believers be deeply concerned with getting it right regarding these final outcomes?

I had first encountered the teaching on universal salvation in a New Testament course that I took as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. My attitude then (as now) was that the professor teaching the class certainly had the right to hold to universalism as a personal belief, but not to be teaching us that the apostle Paul taught universalism. (Simultaneously with that course, I was in a reading course with a professor of classics going through the Epistle to the Romans line by line.) So I became the pesky student in the back of the classroom who was often shooting up his hand.

When I later studied at Yale Divinity School, I wrote what proved—for me—to be a seminal essay comparing Origen and Karl Barth on the question of universalism.

I can’t say that I had universalism on the brain during the 1990s or early 2000s.

But several years ago what really surprised me was not Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (2011), with its well-worn and hackneyed arguments. Instead, I was startled by the multitude of people I thereafter encountered holding that universalism was biblical and evangelical teaching. From my study of historical theology, I was well aware of the intense controversies in the early centuries over Origenism, and of the pushback against Karl Barth’s position on universal election from Emil Brunner and others in the 1950s. This seemed like a question worth exploring: How and why had attitudes changed so decisively in such a relatively short period of time on the crucial question of the scope of final salvation?

In what ways did Barth’s affirmation of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 help the train of universalism to begin accelerating?

Through studying the history of Christian universalism, and examining a large number of texts throughout the centuries, I concluded that ancient gnosis, Jewish Kabbalah, Christian Cabala, and Western esotericism played a decisive role in the development of universalism from ancient times up to the contemporary era. With the possible exception of some of the Anglo-American universalists in the late 1700s and early 1800s, this gnostic-kabbalist-esoteric tradition was central to Christian universalism. (Those skeptical of this claim should consult the book, which offers an abundance of evidence and citation—in nearly 4,000 footnotes.)

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the most overt Christian universalists were Russian thinkers such as Vladimir Solovyov, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Sergius Bulgakov—all of whom had been decisively influenced by Jakob Böhme and other thinkers of the Western esoteric tradition.

With Karl Barth in the 1940s, universalism seemed to be “skipping over” from esoteric thought into mainstream (or what I term exoteric) Christian theology.

Barth scholars are themselves divided as to whether Barth should or should not be seen as teaching universalism. Yet, on some level, this question of Barth exegesis does not matter much, since Church Dogmatics II/2 without any doubt made it much more acceptable among mainstream Protestant and Catholic thinkers to think of salvation as all-inclusive. John A. T. Robinson by 1950 was already affirming universalism, largely based on Barth’s premises. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism” was shaped by Barth’s writings, as Balthasar himself admitted. Apart from Barth’s massive influence on Christian theologians of all traditions in the mid- to late-20th century, it is hard to imagine that more recent thinkers such as Jürgen Moltmann would so confidently and unapologetically assert universal salvation.

In The Devil’s Redemption I analyze Barth’s biblical interpretation and seek to show that his defense of universal election is not supported exegetically. My question is not that of most other scholars—“Does universal election imply universal salvation?”—but the more basic one—“Why should anyone think that election is universal rather than particular?” When writing in the 1940s, Barth had essentially no precedent from earlier theological history for his assertion of universal election. So one has to ask: How could Barth be correct over and against all the earlier theologians? One must, I believe, adhere to a cult of theological genius to believe that a thinker who lived and wrote some 1,900 years after the completion of the biblical canon somehow “discovered” a major doctrine that no one had ever previously seen in the text of the New Testament. When one examines the particulars of Barth’s exegesis in Church Dogmatics II/2, one sees a lot of special pleading, and even some rather weird reasoning—though I would admit that Barth’s exegesis in various other parts of the Church Dogmatics has much to teach us.

Barth’s universal election doctrine does not allow him to accept the unique status of Israel as Yahweh’s “chosen people” in the Old Testament, and this leads him into some strange argumentation as he seeks to avoid the obvious implications of the texts.

Few theologians want to admit this point. It is intimidating to be up against Barth—not to mention all of the Barthians who fiercely defend their mentor’s name and reputation.

I should note that I appreciate Barth in many ways and have learned much from Barth, while at the same time I regard his advocacy of universal election as having been theologically disastrous for his own theological development and for the theological development of the global church since the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps that sounds like a schizoid approach to the Old Man of Basel. But I cannot escape the feeling that the valuable things in the Church Dogmatics are intermingled with things dangerous. For me this means that Barth’s ideas can’t simply be gathered but must be continuously sifted.

In the 20th century, it seems to me that we would have thought of universalism as mainly a liberal, white, Protestant thing. But in the 21st century, this is no longer the case. How and why did universalism “go global”?

As your question correctly implied, the 20th century rise of universalism occurred in stages.

While Russian theology is not especially well known in the West, in the 20th century prior to World War II one would have to say that universalism was “a Russian thing” (e.g., Solovyov, Berdyaev, Bulgakov).

Then, yes, from the 1950s through the 1970s, one might say that universalism became a “liberal, white, Protestant thing.” Prior to Vatican II (1962–1965), one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals (e.g., Jacques Maritain), although one does not find official Catholic spokespersons affirming universalism.

The next step in the process occurs in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed the question of the “unchurched” while evangelicals debated the question of the “unevangelized”—two ways of framing the question of inclusivism. In today’s retrospect, these debates of a generation ago look like a transitional period. Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope? launched a new discussion of “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

From the 1990s onward, the theological leading edge has left inclusivism behind and has become fully engaged with universalism. From this point onward, universalism has become a “Catholic thing,” and purportedly also an “evangelical thing” and perhaps a “Pentecostal thing” too.

The issue of final salvation seems to be as much a live issue today as it ever has been. In March 2018 the reported statement of Pope Francis (as recorded by Francis’s atheistic journalist friend Scalfari) that “there is no hell” but rather “the disappearance of souls” gives the impression that the pontiff holds to annihilationism—a position that earlier Catholic scholars rejected.

Even more recently, in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse (August 2018), and the media attention to the egregious misdeeds of Cardinal McCarrick, I have noticed essays appearing at websites appealing to conservative Catholics (e.g., First Things, National Catholic Register, LifeSiteNews, and so on) discussing the “four last things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell) and asking why today’s Catholic Church is not preaching these doctrines, and whether the clerical malefactors believe that they themselves are subject to God’s postmortem judgment. It is too early to tell, but the unfolding scandals might cause some Catholics to focus more attention on God’s judgment of human individuals and the question of final salvation.

In your book, you refer to universalism as the “opiate of the theologians.” What do you mean by that?

My phrase of course is an adaptation of a saying of Karl Marx, to the effect that religion is the “opiate of the masses” (though Marx’s original phrasing was slightly different). The point I wish to make is that universalism is the way that many religiously believing people—and contemporary academic theologians especially—would like for the world to be. The world as we might wish it to be is one in which God’s grace extends to all persons without exception, and all persons freely and positively respond to it. Some contemporary universalists suggest that the harsh traditional doctrines of divine judgment and hell are keeping people out of the church. If the Christian church would only jettison these doctrines, and replace the traditional “good news” (of salvation available through Christ) with the “better news” (of universal salvation as a foreknown outcome), then multitudes of non-Christian people would choose to become Christian. The church’s manifest love toward non-Christians would evoke a loving response from all.

Yet a moment’s reflection, on the basis of Scripture, will show the problems with this reasoning. Perfect love did appear once in history—his name was Jesus Christ. And what happened to him? Perfect love was nailed to the tree. Jesus said that “if the world hates me, you know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Jesus’s reference to “hatred”—which he here calls “hatred without a cause”—subverts the sentimentalized notion that initiatives of love (whether divine or human) will always effect a return of love in kind. It simply isn’t so—and Jesus’s life bears this out. Another text, also in John, says that “everyone who does evil hates the light” (John 3:20). Soren Kierkegaard, in Training in Christianity, argued that every situation that might evoke faith in Christ might also evoke offense or “stumbling” over Christ. Hardness of heart is all around us. The Pharaoh of the Exodus may be the biblical poster boy for this attitude—unless we wish to award that place to Satan.

While there may be no necessary correlation between universalist theology and leftist politics, there is a common tendency in both to engage in wishful thinking rather than hard-nosed observation of human folly and depravity. Just as dictators all around the world (e.g., Bashir al-Assad in Syria) are not ready to relinquish their power when other people tell them too, so too the sinner against the Lord may not be ready to give up control of his or her own life when told the message of God’s love.

My book does not attempt an analysis of the Western cultural situation, but I would say that we are living in a society characterized by make-believe. We act as though our government can borrow money without paying it back, we play video games and films to launch us into alternative universes, and we watch sexually explicit films that offer a temporarily gratifying yet deeply distorted picture of physical intimacy. There are a lot of “opiates” going around—and don’t just mean oxycontin or fentanyl. Given the social context today, it is not surprising that some Christian teachers have become purveyors of an “opiate” called universalism.

Some (though not all) contemporary universalists (like Robin Parry) try to ground their theology in whole-Bible, canonical exegesis. But you argue that universalism inevitably entails a “hermeneutics of diminishment.” What does this mean?

To repeat my argument from the book: In universalist interpretations of the Bible, one often finds the surface-level meanings of the biblical text disappear and are replaced by something else.

In the symbolic and allegorical reading of the Bible, the threatening “fire” as spoken of by Jesus becomes a cleansing and purifying “fire” that removes my own wickedness, or the “fire” of my own lacerating conscience. The “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelation—is sometimes said to be God himself, thus contradicting the text of the Bible, which identifies the “lake” with “the second death” (Rev. 20:14). (Or is God himself “the second death”?!)

In existentialist readings of the Bible, the “shut door” in Jesus’ parable that allows no one to enter the feast has nothing to do with any future situation or circumstance. These words instead—in Karl Rahner’s terms—belong to the genre of “threat discourse,” challenging me to make rightful decisions here and now. By emptying the biblical language of its reference to future events, Rahner’s existential interpretation evacuates Jesus’s gospel teaching of its spiritual force and its terrible urgency.

The canon-within-the-canon approaches to the Bible are, if anything, even less satisfactory than allegorical or existentialist interpretations for those who receive the Bible as divinely revealed. A universalist theology that begins by rejecting the Old Testament ought to be regarded ipso facto as non-Christian. One outcome of the early church battle with gnosis was a commitment—against Marcion—to the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament. Likewise, those who accept only some of the Gospels, or only certain passages in Paul, or the New Testament minus the Book of Revelation, are hardly in a better position. John Crowder goes so far as to claim that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are “not the gospel,” which is found only in the letters of Paul, and really only in what we might call the “finished work of Christ” passages and not the “work out your salvation” passages. Crowder thus offers a shrunken version of the Bible—a bit like ordering a full meal and being served a plate with three green peas and some parsley on the side.

Among scholars favorable to universalism (including Balthasar and Moltmann), many hold that there are two strands—one universalistic and another particularistic—in the letters of Paul, and that Paul never sought to resolve the contradiction. This viewpoint rests on the presumption that the apostle was an enigmatic puzzler and concocter of paradoxes (for the benefit of later professors!), had never made his mind up on something as fundamental as final salvation, or that he was simply too obtuse to see his own logical inconsistencies. I don’t find any of those assumptions to be plausible.

To my mind, Robin Parry has gone furthest toward developing an argument for universalism, based on the entire Old and Testaments, in his book The Evangelical Universalist. Yet the exegetical problems in that book are manifest, as I have sought to show in my book. I can honestly say (and as a friend of Robin’s) that reading The Evangelical Universalist convinced me more fully than before that an exegetical case for universalism simply cannot be made on the basis of the whole of the Bible, interpreted in more or less grammatical-literal terms. To uphold universalism, one has to evade certain scriptural texts, either by means of non-obvious spiritualization (e.g, the “fire” not as punishing but as purifying) or simply through a fiat rejection of bothersome verses.

One of the most interesting themes through your massive work is the idea that the universalist has the mindset of a “metaphysical rebel.” In fact, you say that a better one-word explanation for universalism is “metaphysics,” not “love.” Can you explain the role of metaphysics in the motivation and appeal of universalism?

The notion of the “metaphysical rebel” is not original with me, but it is something that I encountered in the writings of the French atheist Albert Camus and especially his book The Rebel. People throughout history have rebelled against those in authority because of particular social conditions—calling for the abolition of slavery, for a safer work environment, for voting rights for women. Yet the metaphysical rebel resists or rejects not some particular state of affairs, but the universe as such. (There’s a story about the 19th-century author Margaret Fuller, who struggled with this issue and finally blurted out: “I accept the universe!” to which Thomas Carlyle responded, “Gad, she’d better!”) The metaphysical rebel questions the basic conditions of the universe: Why should I be mortal? Why must I experience pain? Why ought I eat food? Why must I work to earn a living? The recent rise of transhumanism might be seen as a metaphysical rebellion in which human beings seek to recreate themselves in the fashion they wish—overcoming death, abolishing pain, transcending limitations. Those involved in radical body modification (e.g., changing one’s gender, becoming physically non-gendered, assuming an animal or non-human form) are further instances of the same way of thinking, in which nothing about human life is fixed or given and everything is subject to alteration, according to individual volition.

In the sphere of theology, the metaphysical rebel might begin a statement with the words: “If I were Creator of the world. . . .” To which I would want to say: “Stop! Don’t finish that sentence!” None of us is the Creator, and I don’t believe that any of us human beings is in a position to lay out on our table the various possible worlds that God might have created, and then evaluate these alongside of the actual world, and draw conclusions as to how much wisdom God did or did not exhibit in the creation of the world we presently see. A good deal of universalist reasoning is highly speculative and rests on the assumption that we—or at least some of us—are sufficiently knowledgeable and intelligent enough to adjudicate these questions. John Kronen and Eric Reitan, in their book God’s Final Victory, argue that it would be wrong for God to provide salvation only to those who believe in Christ, since salvation for believers and unbelievers alike would maximize God’s salvific purposes (see The Devil’s Redemption, p. 1,037 n. 83). For this reason, they suggest that faith cannot be a prerequisite for salvation. This is the kind of counterfactual or blue-sky speculation that originates in human reasoning that has become wholly independent of divine revelation in scripture.

Debates over universalism thus raise questions about theological method. On my view, Christian thinkers are almost wholly dependent on Scripture for all that they might affirm regarding postmortem judgment and final salvation. But that is not the position that many Christian universalists would maintain.

Is it possible for someone to retain a basically sound evangelical framework, with universalism added on? Or does it necessarily require a reworking of one’s entire theological system?

Let me tell an historical story, which contains a moral.

Just before the Civil War, the Universalist Church in the USA is said to have been the sixth-largest denomination in America. But what happened to this now-forgotten church? Arguing that God does not punish anyone, the theologians of this church (e.g., Hosea Ballou) rejected the idea that Jesus on the cross underwent punishment for the sins of humanity. The atonement was the first domino to fall. This theological alteration set the Universalist Church on a path toward rejecting Christ’s divinity. For if Jesus was not our sin-bearer on the cross, then why would he need to be divine? Ironically enough, by the early 1900s many of the Universalist church members no longer believed in an afterlife. Some members were signatories of the secular Humanist Manifesto during the 1930s. Once heavenly salvation was declared for everyone, people stopped believing in it. In the 1960s the Universalists finally merged with the Unitarians to form the Unitarian-Universalists (or UU). Yet the vitality of the universalist movement in America had been waning since the time of the Civil War.

What then is the moral? The story suggests that that universalism is a church-killing doctrine. If the doctrine undermined the sixth-largest denomination in the USA, then what effect might it have on major churches today, should they tolerate or formally embrace this teaching?

In my book I use the analogy of playing a chess game. We might imagine a game in which one player makes a bold and splashy move by taking one of a fellow player’s important pieces—let us say a rook or even the queen. The crowd applauds. Yet the grand master in the background, who has been coaching the player who just made his move, covers his face with his hands. Why? Because the grand master sees several moves in advance, perceives the checkmate that lies ahead, and realizes that the inexperienced player has made a move that looked good in the short run but which will soon prove to be game-ending. So, too, the doctrine of salvation for all is a theological move that looks like a “winner” but which in the long run is anything but that.

To use another analogy: universalism is like a house for sale that has great “curb appeal.” If one were forced to buy a house based only on what one sees from the window of one’s car, then this would be the one. But what happens when one enters the house, goes into the basement, checks out the furnace, and examines the plumbing and electrical wiring? On inspection, it turns out that the house is hardly livable, since it doesn’t supply one with heat, light, or water. So it is with the universalist house—a great-looking specimen from the roadside view, but not a house that anyone can actually inhabit for long.

It’s possible that some reading this are universalists or tempted toward universalism. What would you say to them directly?

Human salvation is inherently a good thing, and thus salvation for all—if it turned out that way—would not be something that any Christian would or should object to. The New Testament calls on believers to share the good news and to evangelize among all nations, and to do so under the most difficult of circumstances (e.g., bearing witness to Christ in the Islamic world).

So it is not the case that conservative Christians have a stake in other people’s damnation, as is sometimes claimed.

The question is this: What is the proper basis or foundation of the Christian hope—whether hope for oneself or hope for other people?

The answer, I believe, is that hope ought to be based not on human reasoning but on God’s promise. When we raise the question of final salvation, we have to ask: What relevant promise is contained in Scripture? Is there a divine promise in the Bible to the effect that God will save everyone?

At this point, many universalists would admit that universal salvation is not something promised as such, but something that might be an inference lurking in certain biblical texts. Here the case of the fallen angels is instructive, because there is no hint anywhere in scripture that Satan or any of the fallen angels is ever saved. The serpent first appears in the temptation passage in Genesis, and reappears near the end of Revelation, when again provoking humanity to sin, and then is thrown into the lake of fire. In its written prayers, the historic church has interceded for many lost and abandoned sinners—murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and so on—yet one never finds in any era or liturgy any prayer for the salvation of Satan. This is a small bit of evidence, but a convincing one, to show the consensus of Christians through the centuries that some intelligent creatures made by God are finally lost.

The “eternal fire” to which Jesus refers in the Gospel of Matthew was not made in the first instance for rebellious humans but was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:46). The first unnerving implication of this verse is that certain intelligent creatures made by God—i.e., the fallen angels—will certainly and finally be separated from God. The second unnerving implication is that some human beings—the “goats” in this passage—come finally to share the same fate as the fallen angels. It is hard to escape the force of this passage. Likewise, when Jesus was directly asked the question—“Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?”—it would seem then that Jesus had a great opportunity to preach a universalist message, but failed to do so. Instead, Jesus turned the inquirer’s attention back to himself, by saying first “strive to enter by the narrow gate” and then adding that “for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23–24). Here is another passage that resists a universalist reading.

The best universalist response to the Luke 13 text, I suppose, is that the refusal of entrance must be temporary. Of course, one could go through the whole of the New Testament and add a qualification, wherever judgment or punishment is mentioned, to effect that this is only temporary. Beyond every dark cloud is a blue sky. One might end up with something like Andrew Jukes’s teaching on salvation-for-all-through-damnation-for-all—viz., the notion that somehow, on the other side of torment, there must be a good and pleasant outcome for everyone without exception. As a theological author, I shudder at the thought of giving anyone false hope and false comfort, which in the Book of Jeremiah is a distinguishing mark of the false prophet. To me it would be spiritually hazardous to tell those who have consciously rejected Christ that beyond the present life there will be further opportunities to respond to Christ—opportunities of which Scripture says nothing.

Beginning with God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree in the garden, the whole of Scripture contains a message concerning “two ways”—a way leading to life or reward, and another way leading to death or punishment. Because this idea of the “two ways” is so deeply rooted in the Bible, I would say that a church congregation that is Bible-preaching and Bible-reading will simply not entertain the idea of universalism. That this doctrine is as widespread as it now is, is a measure of how small a place the Bible occupies in the sermons of many preachers, and in the reading and study habits of many churchgoers.

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