Universalism is more controversial than it needs to be. I found when I first started to say things like, “Oh, I believe in universal salvation,” there was a lot of anxiety. Because people thought that that meant a whole bunch of stuff that it didn’t actually mean. So the first thing I had to do was to help people see what it did and didn’t actually mean, just to clarify the concept itself—that took a lot of heat out of the debate.
Once people realised that the gospel wasn’t at stake, well then we can sit down and have a talk about this. It’s actually really very simple, this is it in a sentence:
Christian universalism is the belief that in the end all people will participate in the salvation achieved for them by Christ.
If you notice there, we’ve got:
- “salvation”, which presupposes some understanding of needing to be saved from something. So implicitly there’s some idea of some problem, some issue, sin, whatever.
- “By Christ” so it’s got something to do with Jesus saving us—otherwise it’s not Christian universalism.
- of course what makes it universalism is the “all people” bit.
- and the “in the end” bit, that’s quite important.
What we’ll do is try and unpack all of this but in a nutshell that’s what I’m talking about. Let’s first of all get some sense of what Christian universalism isn’t.
Do all roads lead to God?
This is one of the concerns that people have with universalism and you can see why somebody might think that because the reasoning would go something like this: “Well look, clearly not everyone is a Christian and so if everybody’s gonna be saved, clearly all the different roads/whatever they’re taking—whether they’re atheists or whatever—they all go in the same direction, they all lead to the same place.”
But that’s not actually what we’re saying. What Christian universalists say is that Jesus leads to God, and eventually everyone will take that route. Now, there are still a whole bunch of questions around that question, as to what it would mean for someone to take that route but let’s put that on hold for now. What it is definitely saying is the only way to God is through Jesus, not all roads lead to God.
Is there no post-mortem punishment?
Now again, you can see why people might think this. They’re thinking to themselves, “Hey look, if everybody goes to heaven then nobody goes to hell.”
Ok, it depends what you mean by “hell” but leaving that concept of what Hell might be a little bit vague, this is not necessarily the case either. In fact, through Christian history almost all Christian universalists have thought that there is post-mortem punishment—the punishment after death. That participating in the fullness of salvation is not something that happens “as you die” but it’s something that happens “in the end”. So again Universalism needn’t mean rejecting post-mortem punishment.
Is the Bible wrong?
The reasoning goes like this: “Well, clearly the Bible teaches that people go to hell and so universalism can’t be true. If you’re saying universalism is true, then obviously you don’t believe the Bible.” Again—and I hope to develop this point somewhat more later—that is also not the case, most Christian universalists in history have been very committed to the inspirational authority of Scripture. The issue is to do with the interpretation of the Bible, not whether they believe it or not. So if we can relocate the discussion, it’s not about whether you accept or reject the Bible, it’s about how we understand and interpret the Bible.
Is sin no big deal?
Another misconception is that, “Clearly you don’t think sin is much of a big deal.” Again I can see how people get to this view, they’re thinking: “Well hold on, if everyone gets saved, then God must be kind of going, “Yeah, maybe you’ve murdered a few people, whatever, just come on in. I don’t mind about that stuff, brush it under the carpet.””
But again that’s absolutely not what Christian universalists think or have ever thought. If any of these people took the time to actually read what these guys have said through history, they would see that this was never the case. Universalists take sin—and God’s transforming work by the Holy Spirit—very seriously.
Does it really matter how we live?
Yeah I get this, they’re thinking, “Hey, let’s sin. Do what you like. Have a fun life (cos sin is “fun”??) and then you’re gonna get to heaven anyway so it doesn’t really matter does it?” But again this is absolutely not what any Christian Universalist has ever taught or suggested. You will see—particularly if you looked at the church fathers and some of those Christian universalists through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—they’re really hot on holiness and the importance of becoming more like Christ. We’ll see why when we get to the last talk today.
Is God only loving but not just?
I would be a wealthy man if I got like 50 pence for every time someone said to me, “Oh, well Robin, what you need to remember is that God isn’t only loved but he’s also just.”
“Good gracious, I’m so glad you told me, I never would have thought of that! Phew, here I was made labouring under this illusion that God was just kind and cuddly, and not just.”
But this is again a complete misunderstanding, Christian universalists have always adamantly insisted that God is just. In fact, they build their case for universalism precisely on this and on the idea that God is holy. Yes, God is holy but God’s holiness and justice are loving holiness and justice. So we need to think, “What do we mean when we say that God is just?” and “What do we mean when we say that God is love?” But it’s never been a matter of picking love and rejecting justice and holiness—that’s never how it was thought about. It’s not how it’s thought about now—it’s just how people imagined universalists think about it.
So we don’t need to evangelise?
We will look at this a little bit more in talk 4. I understand why somebody might think that, “Hey, they’re gonna be saved anyway, why bother preaching the gospel to them.” Of course, what Christian universalists believe is through the gospel God saves all people. So if you believe that, it seems a bit odd to go, ” You don’t need to preach it to them. God’s gonna save everyone through the through the gospel so why tell people about the gospel.” That’s just weird, nobody would think like that and Christian universalists have not thought like that. In fact, many of them have been great evangelists and missionaries. In fact, some of the great mission movement people of the 18th century were universalists.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from:
For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos
7 thoughts on “What Christian Universalism is and isn’t—Robin Parry”
What post-mortum punishment am I in for?
Only God knows the journey each of us will go on to before we arrive home. However, I look forward to Christ correcting and transforming me so that I can flourish as he intended. I’m encouraged by Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 (CSB), “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.” As we seriously try to follow Christ’s example, God works in us for good—indeed our best.
I’m convinced that universal salvation is a false teaching. We can all go back and forth (as we do) debating word meanings as though we are all on the same page, and on the same level playing field. But I think there is a more fundamental starting point from which we can know if further discussions are warranted at all. Since no truth can be grounded in a contradiction, any claim that explicitly or implicitly contradicts itself or a known truth is unavoidably false, as also is every understanding, interpretation or conclusion that is based on that false claim. If a portion of a line is crooked, the whole line is crooked.
That said, does universal salvation pass the “contradiction test”? The answer is that it does not. The essential claim of universal salvation is that, “all who die in unbelief will be saved in the afterlife.” While it may sound good, what would it imply if true? If all who die in unbelief will be saved in the afterlife, then,
1. Universal salvation implicitly denies the relevance of believing any particular religious claim in this life – since all will be saved in the afterlife anyway.
2. Universal salvation implicitly denies the relevance of believing the Bible and all it teaches – since all will be saved in the afterlife anyway.
3. Universal salvation implicitly denies the relevance of believing in God in this life – since all will be saved in the afterlife anyway.
Universalism contradicts itself (#1 above): Universalism’s supporters teach and promote it as though its claim is relevant to be believed in this life. Yet, universalism itself implicitly denies that it is relevant to be believed in this life (since all will be saved in the afterlife whether they believe it or not). Something can’t be both relevant in this life and irrelevant in this life at the same time and in the same way without violating the law of non-contradiction.
Universalism contradicts the Bible (#2 above): As God’s special revelation to mankind, the Bible, claims that it is relevant to be believed in this life (and has shown itself to be). Yet, universalism contradicts the Bible’s claim by implicitly denying the Bible’s relevance to be believed in this life. Since all who die in unbelief will be saved in the afterlife anyway, as universalism claims, then belief in the Bible and all it teaches is implicitly irrelevant in this life. According to universalism, the entirety of mankind could die in unbelief and yet all will be saved in the afterlife.
Universalism contradicts God (#3 above): All that God has done in this world, the history, the teachings, the prophecies, Christ’s first advent, the 40+ authors for his word over 1500 years, all clearly communicate that belief in God is relevant in this life. Yet, universalism implicitly denies the relevance of believing in God in this life – since all will be saved in the afterlife whether they believed in God in this life or not.
By implicitly denying the relevance of believing its own claim in this life (#1 above), and by implicitly denying the relevance of believing its claimed source of truth (#2), there is no relevant grounding to anchor the claimed truth of universalism. The implicitly irrelevant claim of universalism itself cannot achieve relevance by appealing to a source (the Bible) whose relevance it also implicitly denies.
Since a truth cannot explicitly or implicitly contradict itself or a known truth, and yet universalism is both self-contradictory and contradicts a known truth (the Bible), universal salvation is unavoidably and undeniably false. Any understanding or interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the false claim of universal salvation is also false – it can’t be otherwise. That being the case, debating bible word meanings in order to gain support for a claim that is shown to be false is an exercise in futility. No amount of references in the universe can ever make a self-defeating and contradictory claim true.
Showing universal salvation to be false firmly establishes the truth of its antithesis, that all who die in unbelief will NOT be saved in the afterlife. The universalist may attempt to rescue the collapse of their claim by trying to eliminate the implied contradictions by simply claiming that all are relevant to be believed in both this life and the afterlife. However, such an attempt is of no help to them. Simply stating that all is relevant to be believed in both this life and the afterlife while implicitly denying that it is relevant to be believed in this life is a contradiction. For if anyone can die in unbelief and yet be saved in the afterlife, then the implicit irrelevance of believing anything in this life is established. The burden of proof rests with the universalist to show that their claim is not self-defeating and that the assured afterlife salvation of all who die in unbelief does not implicitly deny the relevance of believing the Bible and its teachings and God in this life. Until then, there is no value whatsoever for the universalist to argue about word meanings in the Bible since the very foundation of their claim has been shown to be is false.
Thanks for the feedback Brian, you’ve clearly given this some thought.
Re #1 & #3: Let’s say the best doctor ever noticed that I had cancer and truthfully informed me that he will happily cure me no matter how bad it got. Would I say, “I’ll leave it until I’m on life-support as I know you’ll be able to cure it then”? Surely not… So while God does promise that He will continue to offer people salvation in the age to come, it’s far better to take up that offer today and allow the Spirit to begin freeing us from evil and transforming us. To put it another way, Universal salvation claims there is only ever one door (Christ) but that eventually, everyone will go through it. Because going through the door is what we were created for, the sooner we go through the better.
Re #2: I recommend reading https://reforminghell.com/2019/11/27/how-do-people-become-universalists-robin-parry/ . The belief in universal salvation developed in the early church primarily from reading and reflecting on the Bible. According to Ramelli et al., universal salvation didn’t exist in any religion before the Bible revealed it. I guess other religions didn’t like the idea that people outside their tribe would eventually get saved. The Bible also reveals to people the only door (Christ) so without the Bible, it’s much harder to find Christ (God occasionally reveals himself in dreams, visions, etc but they seem limited in what they can convey—they are more like signposts pointing people to go read the Bible).
I recommend watching the videos too as Robin engages your objections.
Another point would be that all ideas about death being a deadline for a ‘decision’ are based on a very few Scriptures, most of which need to be taken out of context or have inferences drawn from them indirectly. For example, Hebrews 9:27, ‘It is for men to die once and then face judgement’ is actually part of a different argument, and the writer appears to be quoting some sort of ‘axiom’ that was understood at the time, or perhaps a well-known phrase. But it doesn’t mean that it has to carry the same meaning that Evangelical belief gives it in modern times. Why should death be the deadline? I think the reason is so that pushy salespeople Evangelists can close the deal. Time is running out! Grab this deal now while you can! It’s all sales talk. And for those who say things like, ‘If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?’, actually, if you really bottom out their arguments, they too don’t know where they would go. This is because the invitation to their ‘gospel’ is more often than not an invitation to another system of Rules and Regulations, none of which can give men right standing before God. So it’s a bait-and-switch. Well, now you believe, but there’s also all these other things you have to do in order to keep that ‘free gift’ of salvation. Sorry but I call BS on that 😀
That’s an important point Tony and one that Robin raises later on in this talk (or perhaps the next one where he goes into more depth). I also agree that salvation is a genuinely free gift—thankfully!