Monday, December 3, 2012

"So, are you a Universalist?"

A good friend of mine asked me point blank if I was a Universalist. At first, I floundered around, trying to figure out a politically advantageous answer. I mentioned a few bits about philosophy, the background of the entire debate and just stopped when it hit me:

"I don't know."

Let me both explain and qualify.

I think Scripture contains many things that are both grandly clear and sublimely ambiguous. I think the debate over libertarian free will, compatibility and determinism is one maybe that we aren't privy to. At a glance, the Old Testament seems to advance a form of openness and the New Testament counters that with much of what Paul writes, particularly in Romans(1). That does not mean we can't choose a valid option (or that they don't all have something going for them), but it does mean that I'm not convinced that Scripture all that entirely consistent in giving us one way to look at that one example. Maybe so for this doctrine of hell as well.

I don't know if everyone who isn't elect and/or chooses to reject God will be burned forever or will be eventually irreversibly destroyed. I just don't know.

Maybe the Bible doesn't want us to know, or even more dramatically, maybe God doesn't want us to know. G.K. Beale in his commentary on the Apocalypse of John seems aware of the possibility of universalism at the end of the letter being possible and he does his best to counter this. Universalist theologian Robin Parry does the same, concurring that there is indeed tension between open city gates and a lake of fire, opting for his legitimate hermeneutical bias in favor of the restoration of all things(3).

I remember a biblical scholar speaking on Origen and Universalism and to paraphrase from memory, the scholar concluded that both "Paul and Origen seemed both particularly exclusive and strongly universalistic." In other words, Origen and Paul mentioned the beauty of universal salvation in one context (specific churches e.g. Colossae) and the terrifying possibility of complete destruction in his first letter to the Thessalonians. This isn't to say I agree with the scholar, but I definitely see the tension exhibited.

Maybe God doesn't want us to know.

Knowing many of us, to know everyone will be saved could to lead to laziness. On the other hand, knowing many of us in the same way, we are very quick to use metaphorical fire to frighten "belief" into an endangered soul that ultimately leads to the possibility of apostasy or hostility towards the church. The wonderful conditionalists at ReThinking Hell have been irenic in their many conversations with me on this most difficult doctrine.

I just don't know.

I would resonate most strongly with Thomas Johnson who says,
"The case for universalism is stronger than is usually realized. God's saving love for the world is a prominent biblical theme from Genesis through Revelation. God is the Lord and Savior of all and does not want any to perish but all to be saved. God provided salvation, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation for all, indeed for all creation. Eventually, everyone will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Yet, we do not know how God's judgment works out with respect to individuals." (2).
I suppose it boils down to faith. Faith in the power of the Spirit to bring forth salvation and that, somehow, all would eventually reach their telos. The justification for hope that "all would be saved" is indeed something many theologians of the past and present have embraced (Balthazar, Moltmann, Volf, Walls and others).

The God who saves assures us that that He is loving and just, no one escapes from his justice and that He will be "ta panta en pasin" in 1 Cor. 15:28. I tend to take solace in this, and Scot McKnight is generous to include those that are"eschatologically agnostic" into the fold of simply not being able to at this current time fix a tension seen in Sacred Scripture. There is indeed hope beyond this life. I take great comfort in that.



1). Incidentally, open theism is a budding research project for me. Consider a possible thought change on this one. Maybe?

2). T.F. Johnson, "Universal Salvation? The Current Debate" pg97. In spite of his comment, Johnson is not a universalist, instead suggesting that annihilationism is the best option based on the data.

3). Gregory MacDonald aka Robin Parry, "The Evangelical Universalist" pg133-34. This remains the best case for universalism that I have read, and I'm impressed with some of his exegesis on the Apocalypse of John.


  1. "The wonderful conditionalists at ReThinking Hell have been irenic in their many conversations with me on this most difficult doctrine."

    Thanks so much! We love ya, Nick :)

    "The case for universalism is stronger than is usually realized."

    Agreed, speaking as a conditionalist. But still weak, in this conditionalist's biased opinion, relative to conditionalism :)

    I really think that the second death of Revelation 20-21 is, perahps above all else (though not exclusively), what I think universalism most fails to account for. I'm not looking to get into a debate with you, my friend, or any of your readers, in the comments thread here. But universalists will have to come up with a plausible response to what I think is as equally powerful an argument against universalism as it is against traditionalism. As I explain in my article,, John and God interpret what takes place in the imagery as symbolizing the second death, and when Scripture offers an interpretation of perplexing imagery, it clarifies the meaning of the imagery. And so far the only traditionalist and universalist interpretations actually end up making the interpretation no more clear than the imagery.

    But time will tell :)

  2. Hi Nick,

    Here are some of my ideas. I think of universalism on two levels.

    First is the hope of universalism with the belief that God literally never gives up on a single soul. I suppose that I have a strong biblical argument for this, especially when I see at least some of the kings in Revelation die on the evil side of the Battle of Armageddon and then eventually enter the New Jerusalem.

    Second is definite universalism with the belief that God will eventually save everybody. I consider this a biblical conjecture instead of biblical doctrine but I still believe it. For example, if some people hold out and reject postmortem evangelization for a designated period of time, then I believe that God will pour out an irresistible divine revelation. This would not result in a libertarian choice of possible hold outs, but it would nonetheless offer irresistible mercy to any possible hold outs. With this, everybody can count on reconciliation with lost loved ones that I suppose is part of heaven.

    I have yet to write about opposition to the doctrine of annihilation, which could take a lengthy book itself. But I outlined biblical imagery of annihilation resulting in purification or salvation. I suppose that when I have enough time then I could make a strong argument against exhaustive annihilation of souls that I believe conflicts with God's promises of restoration.

    Blessings :-)

    1. Hey James!

      I think the first point has a lot of merit. Its a point of tension within Revelation.

      The second one is one I have a bit of trouble with.


    2. Well, Nick, going from point one to point two will take me more than seven hundred words, which I hope to develop in the future :-)