Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?
Christian Universalism contends that an individual’s destiny is not fixed at death, and that ultimately everyone will be saved by Christ.
Although it has increased in popularity, Christian universalism has never been part of historic, creedal Christianity. This essay focuses on the hermeneutic used by universalists in which the doctrine of the love of God is central. Objections are then raised against universalism, noting in particular the strong biblical theme of separation. Finally, we return to doctrine of love, arguing that God’s love is not inconsistent with the finality of hell.
Universalism: Definition and Attractiveness
That the gospel of Jesus Christ is lavishly and wonderfully universal in its scope is undeniable, a truth in which we rejoice and proclaim. Such a breadth is attested by the apostle John, who sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). Paul speaks of the Son reconciling “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:20). On the other hand, universalism—the belief that ultimately all human beings will be saved—has never been part of historically mainstream creedal Christianity, which in all its major traditions has affirmed two final and irrevocable populated states: heaven and hell.
Although universalism has often been deemed unorthodox and even heretical, it has always maintained a presence on the periphery of the Christian faith. Universalism is a belief that comes in all theological shapes and sizes in terms of the accompanying beliefs on which it rests, and of the strength of conviction with which it is for some “believed” or, for others, “hoped for”—and in the work of yet others, “implied.” Certainly in the last few hundred years, at both academic and popular levels, universalism and quasi-universalism have gained some prominent and vocal advocates. Such advocates don’t simply believe it to be true and necessary; they also argue it is a plausible and legitimate option for Christian belief—and therefore ask for it to be accepted, or at least tolerated, within the bounds. Even if universalism is to be firmly rejected, it would be hard to deny that believing everyone eventually will be saved has a certain existential and pastoral pull and attraction, particularly to our modern and late-modern hearts and minds. As, however, with all theological beliefs—indeed, belief about anything and everything—we are to submit them to the authority of God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. Biblical revelation speaks truth in all cultures and across all of history, disciplining whatever our own personal or cultural tastes, wishes, or desires might be.
The Universalist Hermeneutic
This claim concerning biblical authority is crucial, because it allows us to rule out many versions of universalism which don’t believe in the ultimate authority of the Bible but are, and sometimes self-confessedly, “liberal” in their theological method. The “strongest” forms of universalism which demand attention are those advocates who claim to hold to an evangelical method in wanting the entire Bible—including all the passages that speak of judgment and hell—as their ultimate authority. Typically such advocates will affirm many fundamental and biblically orthodox beliefs, save two: first, that an individual’s destiny is not fixed at death (i.e., those in hell continue to have opportunities to be saved by Christ through faith); second, that in the end everyone will do this. This form of universalism doesn’t simply rely on neglecting or filtering out the many texts which speak of punishment and hell, while at the same time prioritizing passages which could be said to promote universalism. Rather, what is adopted by them is a universalist hermeneutic which is believed can be legitimately inferred from the whole narrative of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Indeed, concerning judgment, punishment, and hell, these universalists claim they can hold together more satisfactorily (theologically, philosophically, and pastorally) elements of the Christian tradition than historic creedal formulations can.
Doctrinally, issues surrounding the love of God are central in this debate. The type of universalism being described here claims that if God is love, and if the Christian hope is one where God is to be ultimately triumphant and victorious, then all his actions must be compatible with his love—including his holiness, wrath, and justice. As a result, any account of hell must be a manifestation of divine love and mercy. A fundamental assertion here is that the purpose of all divine judgment and punishment is never exclusively retributive, legitimizing hell being populated; rather, it is ultimately always concerned with correction, purification, and rehabilitation. Not only every individual passage of Scripture, but the entirety of the plotline of the Bible, must be read through this lens.
The Problem of Universalism
Although superficially attractive, there are many reasons even this “evangelical” universalism cannot be countenanced, and more broadly why the orthodox historical and creedal position of the church must be maintained. First, the Bible presents what might be called a straightforward separation between humanity, described in a series of contrasts: those in Christ and those in Adam, sheep and goats, and so on. The relationship between these two groups is described in terms of enmity and hostility. For the “sheep” and those “in Christ,” one can speak of a fatherly disciplinary and parental love. For those who ultimately are not the sheep, and so remain outside of Christ, the Bible speaks of the irrevocable and final punishment of judgment after death. Christ speaks of this reality as losing one’s soul (Mark 8:36), being denied by him (Mark 8:38), and doors shutting (Matt. 25:10–11). The New Testament stresses an urgency of decision in this life while it is still possible—or else face exclusion in the age to come. The parables of the wheat and tares, good fish and bad fish, wise and foolish virgins, and sheep and goats are spoken in stark terms. There is no hint that destinations can be reversed “at the end of the age” (Matt. 13:40).
Second, such language are not simply “warnings” that may ultimately be unfulfilled; it would seem there will be individuals in this category:
God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. (2 Thess. 1:6–10)
The two apocalyptic passages of Revelation 14:9–11 and 20:10–15 would appear to confirm this.
Third, the evidence for any form of postmortem “evangelism,” or opportunity to reverse decisions made in this life, seem sparse and speculative. A central motivation of Christian mission is the urgency of hearing the gospel through a human messenger in this life. For these reasons at least, it seems very difficult to wrestle the biblical texts into a universalist conclusion.
Reclaiming the Love of God from Universalism
Theologically, though, what about God’s love and its compatibility with God’s holiness, wrath, and justice? Does this demand a universalist conclusion? It does not—if we remember that while God’s love revealed to us is real and true love (indeed the definition of real and true love), God’s love is qualitatively different from human love. God is God, and humans are humans. In Scripture we see his love revealed, communicated, and accommodated in a way we can understand. We cannot ever suppose ourselves to be more just or merciful than God himself. This is not an appeal to mystery, which could be called a “cop-out,” but rather a recognition that the Bible reveals aspects of God’s love that need to be delineated and distinguished. There is the self-sufficient and perfectly self-giving love of God seen between the persons of the Trinity. Then there is the universal love of God, creating and upholding the world and everything in it in his ongoing providence and common grace. Finally, there is the particular, saving, covenantal love God has for his own people. God is never conflicted in himself, nor are his attributes compartmentalized, and therefore his perfect love is not inconsistent with his holiness, justice, or wrath. For example, in Psalm 136 the constant refrain “his love endures forever” is juxtaposed and yet consonant with “him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt” (v. 10) and “to him who struck down great kings” (v. 17).
Ultimately, God’s love is not inconsistent with hell being populated for eternity by those creatures who habitually rebel and reject their Creator. Given the sinfulness of sin, the fact God saves one of his creatures—let alone that great multitude no one can count—is an act of sheer mercy and grace. The cross of Christ is where is we see God’s retributive wrath and mercy meet such that God’s justice is satisfied. This is the heart of the gospel we are to proclaim to all and for all who will come.
- Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism 2 Vols. (Baker, 2018). At over 1,300 pages and in two volumes, McClymond’s is a monumental and exhaustive description and critique of Christian Universalism in all its varieties, from the early church to the present. Informative interviews with McClymond can be found here and here.
- Helpful introductory surveys of universalism include the following:
- Richard Bauckham, “Universalism—A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4/2 (1979): 48–54
- Gerald McDermott, “Will All Be Saved?” Themelios 38/2 (2013): 232–43
- The essays by Ludlow, Hilborn, and Horrocks in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation: The Current Debate (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003).
- See also Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
- “Does the Love of God require universalism?” in ed. Chris Morgan, The Love of God (Crossway, 2016). This chapter unpacks in more detail the arguments summarized in the above essay. See also my earlier: “A Calvinist Response to Thomas Talbott’s Universalism” in Robin Parry and Chris Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation: The Current Debate (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003).
- The following resources are in defense of universalism in some way and are recommended as resources only:
- For a defense of Christian universalism in terms of historical survey see: Gregory MacDonald, ed., “All Shall be Well”: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 2011).
- For a more biblical and theological defence of an “evangelical” universalism see Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 2008).
- Other defences of Christian universalism include: Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 1999); Nicholas Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).
- For the popular level defence of universalism see Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper Collins 2011). Kevin De Young produced this review and critique.
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