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Universalism: Good Hope? Good Theology?

Updated: Nov 3

In one of the obscure books of the Bible, Second Peter, comes a verse—a single phrase, really—that lies at the heart of universalism: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (3:9 NIV; emphasis added).

This is hardly the only place in the Bible, of course, in which God’s loving concern for the life of the whole world is affirmed. Among the most familiar of all scriptures is John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

More verses seem to indicate that God intends to save everyone, that God’s plan is universal in scope: “This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:3-4).

Indeed, some passages seem to say that God has indeed saved everyone, that the universal problem begun by and in Adam has been resolved on the same universal scale in the new Adam, Jesus Christ: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Cor. 15:22; note that the second half of Romans 5 extends this parallel).

The history of theology, therefore, has frequently featured the teaching of universalism: the doctrine that God will eventually reconcile everything and everyone to himself—or, slightly more narrowly, all of this creation, this world, to himself: humans and the rest of earthly creatures. Satan and his minions are usually left outside the saving circle—but maybe not. Some universalists really do mean universal and claim that even the Adversary will come around eventually.

Perhaps the earliest well-known theologian identified with universalism is Origen of Alexandria (Egypt), one of the most prolific and wide-ranging thinkers in the early church. Origen flourished in the first half of the third century, producing thousands of writings: from critical editions of Bible texts to theological treatises to philosophical apologetics to sermons.

Like most people who attain a high profile, he aroused a range of reactions, from admiration (he was simply authoritative in Palestinian and Arabian churches) to antagonism sustained enough that he was never canonized and remains “un-sainted.” His hope for universalism—not for Satan’s salvation, although he was accused of teaching that; and not a dogmatic declaration, but indeed merely an expressed hope—has inspired similar thinkers ever since.

We can quickly pass over clearly heretical thinkers and movements who espoused universalism, best-known of which today would be the “Unitarian Universalist” movement arising in America at the turn of the nineteenth century. What will interest readers of this post are those espousing universalism who are not self-consciously and intentionally distancing themselves from mainstream Christianity but teach universalism within regular denominations.

Perhaps the most influential of these in our day has been Karl Barth (1886-1968), the Swiss-German pastor and theologian whose work remains a source of inspiration and instruction for many pastors and theologians a century later. (Indeed, Barth is almost alone in this respect, with relatively few fans still tending the commemorative fires of such contemporary worthies as Emil Brunner, Herman Bavinck, and Paul Tillich, to pick three quite different examples. Only Dietrich Bonhoeffer, twenty years Barth’s junior, would have the same name recognition and enduring influence today.)

Despite—or, perhaps, partly because of—Barth’s writing at great length almost everything he wrote, Barth’s position regarding universalism has been contested. Still, the view of his thought most consistent with universalism runs something like this.

Barth was a Reformed pastor, and therefore he worked in the tradition of John Calvin. Calvin taught a strong version of predestination: the conviction that God elects who will be saved out of his own mysterious and hidden decrees, out of his own unshared preferences that have nothing to do with individual human choices. God alone chooses.

Calvin himself believed that Scripture made clear that only some are thus saved and others are thus lost. At the Last Judgment, there will be some whose names are recorded in the Book of Life and there are those whose names are not. The latter will be cast into the terrible Lake of Fire to receive their just deserts (Rev. 20).

Barth, however, seems to have differed from his Reformed master not so much regarding predestination as in what he sees to be the entailment of a strong view of predestination. If God alone chooses, and the Bible teaches that God is not willing that any should perish but instead wills all to be saved, then all will be saved. Far from glorifying God, the idea that only some are saved, because only some are elect according to God’s will, actually militates against God’s sovereign glory, since some are lost and God doesn’t want anyone to be lost.

Barth put the matter in terms that drew on Paul’s characteristic language-pattern of en Christo (“in Christ”) to state that everyone is elect in Christ. So it seems simply to follow that everyone will be saved. A number of Reformed theologians since then (Thomas Talbott comes to mind) have made this line of thinking—which in Barth remains sufficiently shadowy that his own followers continue to dispute over it—as simply clear as I have just made it.

Indeed, Reformed or not—and many universalists would not identify with the Reformed tradition—this line of thinking is at the heart of universalism. Leaving aside the contentious nexus of theological ideas around free will, predestination, and the like, universalists tend to put things thus:

If God wants everyone to be saved, and God can and does save at least some, then why would God not save everyone? If faith is a gift, conversion a miracle, and God capable of changing the hardest heart, then why would God not change every heart?

Yes, perhaps some do die without converting. Many do so, it seems. But maybe death isn’t the end. Why should it be?

Why wouldn’t God keep working on every precious soul, wooing and winning, helping all God can, so that eventually every person sees the surpassing goodness of God and yields to the love of God? Why wouldn’t everyone, at least over time, with God patiently instructing and inviting them for as long as it takes, see the mortal foolishness of rebellion and cheerfully give himself or herself over to God?

Hell thus becomes a variant of purgatory, not hell as traditionally conceived. Hell is not the sequestering of evil evacuated from the rest of God’s good creation to receive evil’s just deserts. Hell instead is a training centre for the not-yet-converted, like purgatory is envisioned to be for Christians. Here is where uninformed or even resistant human beings receive whatever experiences they need in order to come to the light—which everyone will. Why wouldn’t they? Why would God fail at this task so close to God’s heart?

Universalism thus lets compassionate Christians breathe a great sigh of relief—in fact, several great sighs. Now God doesn’t look arbitrary, choosing only some and not others. Now God doesn’t look sadistic, choosing only some to live and others to reside in hell to be tortured forever. Now God doesn’t look inexplicably weak, being able to prevail in some cases but not all. And now we don’t have to worry about our loved ones who resist the gospel—or about anyone, for that matter, since all will finally be saved.

Why, then, would any healthy-minded Christian—that is, anyone who doesn’t actually relish the idea of his or her enemies roasting forever—resist universalism? Isn’t this a lovely hope?

Yes, it is. Except where it isn’t. We’ll talk about how good people might not share in this hope in our last post.

For the serious Christian, moreover, the question is not what one would prefer to believe, but what God actually teaches us to believe.

I’m convinced that universalists invariably practice theology a certain way because they simply have to practice theology that way to come to universalism. Since I judge that theological method to be dangerously deficient, and since I think that the correct theological method leads elsewhere, I am not a universalist. In the next post, I’ll show you what I mean.

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From the ThinkBetter Media Signature Series on Universalism

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