Universalism argues and believes that God’s grace, love and power will ultimately accomplish the full and complete salvation of all things in every dimension of icon

Universalism argues and believes that God’s grace, love and power will ultimately accomplish the full and complete salvation of all things in every dimension of

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Universalism argues and believes that God’s grace, love and power will ultimately accomplish the full and complete salvation of all things in every dimension of creation.

This is a huge subject that touches a whole range of biblical and theological themes: love and justice, freedom and sovereignty, atonement and election, God’s victory over evil and so very much more.

While universalism has always been a minority view in the church it does have a long tradition going back to the earliest centuries. People like Origen and Gregory of Nazianzus held it. It has always been acceptable to believe that maybe everyone will be saved, but heretical to believe firmly that everyone actually will be saved. This being so, I am a heretic!

My personal journey to becoming a convinced universalist has been a long and unfolding one that has been driven by realising the true implications of two overarching biblical ideas; the incredible vision of ‘shalom’ (peace and wholeness) and the awesome nature of ‘mishpat’ (judgement) – see below.

There are a number of forms of the idea of universalism: -

  • Non-Christian universalist beliefs;

  • Pluralism, which see the Christian way as only one path among many moving towards universal salvation;

  • Christian universalism that is only possible because of the victorious atonement of Jesus Christ.

In terms of ultimate destiny, Christians have taken three approaches: -

  • Augustinianism: God loves and chooses only the elect who alone will be saved, Jesus only died for the elect, and all others will suffer conscious eternal punishment in hell as a mark of God’s justice;

  • Arminianism: God loves everyone, Jesus died for everyone, but not everyone will freely choose the gift of salvation offered and so they will be lost forever, suffering either eternal hell or annihilation;

  • Universalism: God loves everyone, Jesus died for everyone and God’s love and grace will ultimately save everyone for all eternity.

Remember that, which ever of these three positions you hold will come down to how you actually interpret particular biblical texts. This requires sensitivity and integrity and a willingness to look at traditional understandings in a fresh way.

Let us explore together the case for believing in the universal salvation of everyone. In doing so we are not attempting to win an argument, but rather to get as close as we possibly can to the truth. So let’s try to help each other to achieve just this.


  • The total integration of all things’


Vision of shalom

The Bible presents us with a vision of future hope expressed in an understanding of the cosmic manifestation of shalom; the wholeness, peace and integration in complete harmony of all things. We are not going to heaven, but will be part of the resurrection community in the new heaven and earth. Here are just a few sample scriptures: -

  • ‘Of his all embracing kingdom and of his peace there shall be no end’ [Isa 9:7];

  • ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ [Isa 11:9];

  • ‘For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating...’ [Isa 65:17-18 cf 66:22];

  • ‘... the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; and his dominion shall be from sea to sea ...’ [Zec 9:10];

  • ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ [Mt 5:9];

  • ‘… at the renewal of all things’ [Mt 19:28];

  • ‘Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets’ [Acts 3:21];

  • ‘The creation itself will be set free from its bondage and decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ [Rm 8:21];

  • The peace of God, which surpasses understanding [Phil 4:7];

  • ‘But in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home’ [2Pt 3:13];

  • ‘ … for the Lamb at the centre of the throne shall be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ [Rev 7:16-17].


God’s character is love

The primary biblical character of God is love: -

  • ‘… for God is love … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’ [1Jn 4:8,16].

This truth is built on a solid foundation from the Hebrew scriptures; for example: -

  • ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; … For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’ [Lam 3:22,31-33];

  • ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ [Ezk33;11];

  • ‘But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence’ [2Sam 14:14];

Inclusive love and atonement

The Augustinian (Calvinistic) view is that Jesus only died for the elect, known as ‘particular redemption’ or ‘limited atonement’. However, the text of the New Testament makes it quite clear that God’s love and Jesus’ atonement is in fact inclusive and universal in its effect: -

  • ‘God so loved the world … God sent his son that the world might be saved through him’ [Jn 3:16-17];

  • ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself’ [Jn 12:32];

  • ‘…God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ [2Cor 5:19];

  • ‘... through him (Jesus) to reconcile to himself all things ... making peace (shalom) by the blood of his cross’ [Col 1:20];

  • ‘God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ [1Tm 2:4];

  • ‘We have a hope set on the living God, who is the saviour of all people, especially those who believe’ [1Tm 4:10];

  • ‘He is the expiation of our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ [1Jn 2:2];

  • ‘The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ [2Pt 3:9].

There is also the image and language of the ‘two Adams’ in Paul’s writings: -

  • ‘… for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ … The first man, Adam, became a living being, the last Adam became a life-giving spirit’ [1Cor 15:22,45; but see also v20-28; 42-49];

  • ‘Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all’ [Rm 5:18; but see also v12-21].

The impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection overturns completely the impact of Adam’s rebellion and sin; just as all have been affected by sin, in the same way all will be saved.

It is interesting that the Calvinist (Augustinian) theologian Daniel Strange says, “It is indeed correct that if Christ died for everyone then everyone will be saved” (his italics).1 In the light of the scriptures quoted above I think little more needs to be said!


Reconciliation of all things

Building on the cosmic wholeness of the shalom vision and the inclusiveness of God’s love and atonement in Jesus, scripture is quite clear that the ‘finished work of Christ’ is the total reconciliation of ‘all things’. This phrase ‘all things’ means the totality of everything without exception.

  • ‘… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ [Phil 2:10]

The verb translated ‘confess’ is used in the LXX to imply not just confession but praise and thanksgiving. This passage clearly has links with Isa 45:22-23:

‘Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”’

This cannot be forced, but is rather the free spontaneous confession from a heart of praise, reinforced by these scriptures: -

    • ‘… if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ [Rm 10:9];

    • ‘… no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ [1Cor 12:3].

The theme of the complete cosmic reconciliation of all things continues: -

  • ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all’ [Rm 11:32];

  • ‘(God) has made known to us the mystery of his will … set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ [Eph 1:9-10];

  • ‘… for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together … and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace (shalom) through the blood of his cross’ [Col 1:16-20];

  • ‘When all things are subjected to him, then the son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all’ [1Cor 15:28 but see also v20-27].

It is quite clear that the language of ‘bending’, ‘bowing’, ‘confessing’, ‘swearing’, and ‘subjecting’ is not coerced, but rather the free joyful, worshipful expression of the heart like that of Jesus the Son towards God the Father.


  • Augustinians (Calvinists) see the work of Jesus as triumphant, because he only dies for some (the elect) and only those are saved;

  • Arminians see the work of Jesus as triumphant because all those who believe are saved and evil is defeated;

  • Universalists are alone however, in seeing the work of Jesus as completely triumphant. Scripture does not say ‘almost all things’ or ‘all things with the exception of …’ It simply and clearly says ‘all things’, absolutely everything and everyone without exception!


  • God putting everything right’

Taking sin and evil seriously

I am a ‘hard’ universalist; this means that I recognise sin and evil as a terrible reality that must be dealt with in a way that meets all the demands of divine and human justice. There can be no place for soft options or subtle compromises; neither love nor justice can turn a blind-eye to any aspect of sin. Sin must be dealt with totally, completely and satisfactorily.

Augustinians (Calvinists) frequently accuse Arminians and Universalists of having an inadequate understanding of sin. Here, H Bavinck, a Calvinist theologian, provides his definition of sin: -

“(It is important to recognise) the deeply sinful character of sin. Sin is not a weakness, a lack, a temporary and gradually vanishing imperfection, but in origin and essence it is lawlessness, a violation of the law, rebellion and hostility against God, the negation of his justice, his authority, even his existence.” 2

While this is a limited, and not completely satisfactory, biblical definition of sin, there is nothing in the statement that is unacceptable. True universalism sees sin and evil as serious and deals with it as a central issue.

Remember, that in exploring this subject we are dealing with texts, ideas and images that are largely drawn from hyperbole, parable and apocalyptic styles so they must be handled very carefully indeed.


Hebrew idea of judgment

The consequence of sin is judgement. The Hebrew scriptures speak about the subject many times and in graphic detail. The images are intended to be disturbing because sin is a profoundly serious matter. Here are just two of many possible examples: -

  • ‘Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations...’ [Hag 2:6];

  • ‘I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.’ [Joel 2:31].

In reality, ‘judgement’ is one of the most exciting ideas in the whole Bible. The Hebrew word is ‘mishpat’ and it means both ‘judgement’ and ‘justice’. The core idea is ‘putting everything right’. In a universe that is corrupted and perverted by evil and sin what could be more thrilling?

In Western culture the adversarial justice systems have reduced judgement to always involving winners and losers. Exodus 18:23 surprisingly speaks about the result of judgement saying, “… all these people will go to their homes in peace (shalom).” A biblical understanding of judgement and justice involves everything being put right to the full satisfaction of every party involved. This must also be true of eschatological judgement and justice (see below).

While in biblical history the language and experience of judgement can be terrible, nevertheless, time and again the prophets speak of salvation hope for the people beyond judgement. For example, Hosea refused to divorce his wife despite her persistent adultery because he loved her, and he took her back even after she had publicly shamed him; in the same way Yahweh promises continuing love and to restore Israel, drawing her back to him, beyond judgement: -

‘I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord’ [Hos 2:18-20].

These principles are important in informing a Christian understanding of eschatological judgement as it unfolds in the New Testament.


Hell and ‘the wrath of God’

The ‘wrath of God’ is a powerful biblical phrase that runs through both the testaments. It refers to God’s just anger towards all sin and it is surely the response that all good people share; “Aren’t you enraged about all the evil in the world?” The ‘wrath of God’ gives us confidence that ultimately all evil will be overthrown and totally destroyed; it also connects with one of the ways in which the word ‘hell’ is actually used.

‘Hell’ is the word in popular theology that has become associated with final eschatological judgement; however, when the word ‘hell’ actually appears in our English translations it presents a real problem: -

  • In the Hebrew scriptures it translates ‘sheol’ the place where the dead, both good and bad, are to be found following death (cf Ps 16:10);

  • In the New Testament it can be used to translate the Greek ‘hades’, which is also ‘the place of the dead’, righteous or otherwise (cf Mt 16:18);

  • In the New Testament it is also used to translate the Hebrew ‘ge hinnom’ (Gk: ‘Gehenna’), literally ‘the valley of the sons of Hinnom’, on the west side of Jerusalem; the rubbish tip where everything foul was destroyed, including pagan idols during the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah (cf Mt 10:28).

So the word ‘hell’ has to be handled very carefully: -

  • On most occasions it is neutral, simply referring to ‘the place where the dead are’ (ie Heb: ‘sheol’ and Gk: ‘hades’) – remember that in Hebrew understanding, ‘death is simply the weakest form of life’;

  • When it is translating ‘ge hinnom’ it is referring to the total eschatological destruction of evil.

Closely associated with ‘hell’, in this eschatological sense, are images in phrases like ‘outer darkness’ [Mt 25:30], ‘eternal fire’ [Mt 25:41], ‘eternal punishment’ [Mt 25:46], ‘unquenchable fire’ [Mk 9:43], ‘eternal destruction’ [2Th 1:9] and ‘eternal judgment’ [Heb 6:2]. There are several important points to make: -

  • These are all expressed in apocalyptic language; using graphic images to communicate powerful truth rather than literal or literalistic detail;

  • They all refer particularly to the ‘means’ and the ‘quality’ of the final destruction of evil (total and final), rather than the personal experience of those who are sinners.

There have been three different ways in which ‘hell’ has been interpreted: -

  • Traditionalists argue that God keeps sin and sinners alive eternally in hell in an experience of conscious punishment; this is based on the non-biblical idea of the ‘immortality of the soul’ and a failure to recognise that ‘eternal’ refers to the means of destruction;

  • Annihilationists argue that God totally destroys sin, but will also annihilate sinners who have refused to respond to his grace;

  • Universalists argue that God totally destroys sin and evil but redeems all humanity and the whole of creation.

Now we shall reflect further on universalism and explore some of the more detailed implications by looking at some particular biblical passages.


Jesus and judgement

The subject of judgement and hell in the teaching of Jesus usually brings the story of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ [Lk 16:19-31]. However, it is a parable, Jesus is clearly using popular images of the time and the main point of the parable is that even if someone comes back from the dead people will take little notice. This is not material to build a doctrine of judgement and hell from.

A much more important passage is another parable, the ‘Sheep and Goats’ that concludes with these words: -

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’ [Mt 25:45-46].

  • The word ‘eternal’ (Gk: ‘aionios’) refers to God, it expresses God’s eternal character and eternal purpose rather than referring to ‘an unending temporal experience’

  • The word ‘punishment’ (Gk: ‘kolasis’) originally referred to pruning trees to make them grow better and became the standard Greek word for ‘remedial punishment’ and is used in no other way3.

So the idea of God’s punishment in Jesus is ‘restorative justice’. How could the God who calls us to, ‘Love your enemies …’ (Mt 5:44), and whose son Jesus requires us to, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful’ (Lk 6:36), demand retribution? It is not that the issue of punishment is not serious but that judgement is at the heart of the restoration of all things.

As Walter Wink has pointed out: -

“Jesus … understood judgement not as an end, but as a beginning. The penitential river of fire was not to consume but to purify, not to annihilate but to redeem. Divine judgement is intended not to destroy but to awaken people to the devastating truth about their lives. Jesus seizes the apocalyptic vision of impending doom and hurls it into time, into the present encounter with God’s unexpected and unaccountable forgiveness. Judgement is now no longer a crushing word on a failed life but the first word of a new creation”.4


Paul and punishment

There is only one text in all of Paul’s letters that might appear to challenge universalism: -

‘These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ [2Th 1:9]

  • It should read ‘eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord’; the word ‘separated’ should not be included for grammatical reasons;

  • The word ‘destruction’ does not suggest annihilation, cf 1Cor 5:5 where the ‘destruction of the flesh’ is for the redemption of the person. Note that in that in that 1 Corinthians passage: -

  • The sin is heinous, ‘of the kind not even found among the pagans’ (v1);

  • The punishment sounds like retribution, ‘let him … be removed from among you’ (v2) and, ‘delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh’ (v4), but in fact it is all about restitution.

This passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is about the process towards the fullness of all things in Christ.


Epistles and evil

A scripture that has been widely used to emphasise the total destruction of creation and sinful humanity: -

‘Then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.’ [2Pet 3:10]

This passage is written in apocalyptic style, it is about purification (fire) not destruction (as with water in Noah’s flood). It is about no manifestation of evil, or sinful person, escaping the judgement of God. The final consequence of this action is to bring into being ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (v13).


Revelation and restitution

Judgement, punishment, destruction and fire all carry a powerful double message: the total abolition of sin and evil from existence and the purification and the restitution of humanity. This is what lies behind the disturbing apocalyptic images in the book of Revelation: -

‘Those who worship the beast and its image … they will be tormented with fire and sulphur … And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night …’ [Rev 14:9-11]

‘The Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’ [Rev 20:14-15]

Fire is the symbol of both the annihilation of evil and the purification of people. We are told that we will be saved ‘but only as through fire’ [1Cor 3:15]. The New Jerusalem has ‘gates that never shut’ [Rev 21:25], “Who would want to leave?” No one, they are ever open for those who wish to enter following purification.


Two crucial points

The discussion so far leads us to two essential demands: -

  • Justice demands judgement: As we have mentioned above, ‘A biblical understanding of judgement and justice involves everything being put right to the full satisfaction of every party involved’. The Day of Judgement must see those who have suffered injustice satisfied and those who have perpetrated injustice confronted with full restitution made. Nothing whatever can be left unresolved. Judgement is deeply searching, and at the heart of the experience is the true significance of Jesus’ atonement and resurrection.

  • ^ Love demands freedom: For everyone to be saved there has to be an individual free choice of faith. For Augustinian (Calvinists) God’s grace is ‘irresistible’, but this denies the free choice of being made in the image and likeness of God. Biblical universalism is built upon the power of God’s love to be triumphant. God is the cosmic lover, the divine beloved, wooing to win every human heart, never ever giving up and seeing the creative power of the Spirit relentlessly overwhelming each person with love. There may be paths that lead through punishment and seeming destruction but always energised with love, mercy and compassion. The fact that faith is needed does not imply that some will not have faith.

Every knee will willingly bow, every tongue will freely confess, the work of God in Jesus will be seen to be totally and absolutely triumphant in ever possible sense.

Final reflection

Why is there often such a hostile reaction from Christians to the incredible vision of universalism?

  • It challenges the whole framework of traditional Christian thinking; it is painful and unsettling to have to rework deeply established patterns of believing;

  • It makes me the same as everyone else; the idea that I have a special deal with God, a ‘limited edition’ salvation, a unique spiritual insurance policy, evaporates. The very nature of the gospel is that we all stand the same before God;

  • It sparks resentment that we have tried to live a godly life, turning our back on ‘the pleasures of sin’, “For what purpose if everyone is going to be saved? I could have had a good time and still be saved!” We can feel cheated, but it actually unmasks the true intention of our hearts;

  • It raises the question, “What’s the point of evangelism?” Our real motivation and understanding are revealed; salvation by works? It should be to work to overthrow evil and to share the life of the age to come in people’s lives ahead of time!

All this brings to mind Jesus’ parable about the ‘Labourers in the Vineyard’ [Mt 20:1-16] where the extravagant generosity of the farmer is an offence to the daylong workers. With the astonishing grace of God we all get more than we deserve and some get scandalously more! This is universalism! The understanding of the grace and victory of God in Jesus that it brings takes the Christian vision of hope into whole new dimensions.

Some concluding thoughts: -

  • ‘I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’ [Job 42:2 cf Ps 115:3];

  • ‘… I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is no one like me … I have spoken I will bring it to pass; I have planned and I will do it’ [Isa 47:9-11];

  • ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable are his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.’ [Rm 11:32-36].

1 Daniel Strange: ‘A Calvinist Response to Talbott’s Universalism’, in ‘Universal Salvation? – The Current Debate’ Ed R Parry & C Partridge pub Patternoster 2003 page 160. However, Strange makes it very clear that he is in fact completely convinced by the doctrine of ‘particular redemption’ or ‘limited atonement’!

2 See H Bavinck ‘The Last Things: Hope for This World and the Next’ Ed J Bolt & J Vriend pub Baker Books / Patternoster Press 1996 page 151

3 W Barclay ‘A Spiritual Autobiography’ pub Eerdmans Publishing Company 1977 page 66

4 Walter Wink ‘Engaging the Powers’ pub Fortress Press 1992 page 266

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