UNIVERSALISM – Noel Moules
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: -
In terms of ultimate destiny, Christians have taken three approaches: -
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.
SHALOM: SALVATION & LOVE
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: -
The primary biblical character of God is love: -
This truth is built on a solid foundation from the Hebrew scriptures; for example: -
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: -
There is also the image and language of the ‘two Adams’ in Paul’s writings: -
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!
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.
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: -
The theme of the complete cosmic reconciliation of all things continues: -
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.
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.
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: -
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.
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: -
So the word ‘hell’ has to be handled very carefully: -
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: -
There have been three different ways in which ‘hell’ has been interpreted: -
Now we shall reflect further on universalism and explore some of the more detailed implications by looking at some particular biblical passages.
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].
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
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]
This passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is about the process towards the fullness of all things in Christ.
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).
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.
The discussion so far leads us to two essential demands: -
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.
Why is there often such a hostile reaction from Christians to the incredible vision of universalism?
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: -
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