If we are going to be thinking about universalism and what we think about it and whether it’s true or not, we at least—and first of all—need to have a nuanced and clear understanding of what it actually is we’re thinking about. Because if we don’t have a clear idea of the idea we’re thinking about, we’re never gonna be able to think about it, obviously.
The other thing that comes out of this is:
I find all sorts of versions of universalism problematic and having read masses of them for this history book [A Larger Hope?, Volume 2: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century], with a lot of these people I think, “You’re nuts,” but that’s what they thought. And I know a bunch of people will find my particular version of universalism problematic. But even if you find some version of universalism problematic—and all of us will—that shouldn’t shut down the question itself. Because it might well be that there are versions of universalism that don’t suffer from those particular things we find problematic. If you find something I say, “Oh, that’s nuts, that’s not going to work, that won’t fly,” you don’t leap to the conclusion that it can’t [ever] fly—there might be another way, there might be another way of reconfiguring universalism. So it’s worth sort of sticking with the question and pursuing it.
Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of the conclusion of the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.
There is a quiet crisis creeping through the experience of faith today. For whatever reason, the modern church has put ‘hell’ right at the core of Christian faith, so whoever starts to worry about it, feels they are challenging their whole faith. This means they are in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, if they end up rejecting the ‘hell’ doctrine.
Those who try to avoid thinking about the doctrine, may not leave the faith but unconscious anxiety and questions don’t go away. They gnaw at you—potentially eroding your love for God.
This is the negative side of the picture. The positive side interests me more.
I recently met two young Christians who had begun to encounter, through my talks, an alternative picture of the future; the prospect that God will save all people (in fact all the cosmos) as the final end of his purposes. Both were educated Christians in a traditional evangelical church. I asked them what effect this different paradigm was having on them. They paused for a while, and then one of them said, “It has recovered my love for God.”
All human beings imagine the future, including the future beyond death. In order to imagine this future, we need to use imagery more than we normally might, for the simple reason that this future does not exist yet.
This makes the study of future thinking particularly intriguing but also more difficult than analysing the past and the present. This difficulty can make the study of the future seem speculative and optional. However, the future is important for another, more immediate reason; how we see the future will influence how we see the present, and therefore how we understand, decide, and act in the present.
Designers and architects harness this power of the future by a technique called ‘backcasting’. They try to imagine a very different kind of city—buildings shaped more by their aspiration than traditions, and then work backwards from these new conceptions of the future towards the present realities, with the hope that they can design exciting new structures.
The church can learn a lot from backcasting and really should be brilliant at it—at imagining and declaring a great future and using that vision to influence what it does today.
Paul reveals his vision of the future in Ephesians 1—his prayer captures his aspirations for all of us. As such, it is a most significant template for his vision of the character and the mind that he wants to see developed in the believers. Interestingly, he does not pray for a litany of good behaviours, or victories over sins and temptations; he believes that this holy living will flow from an inner transformation of the mind and the ‘eyes of the heart’. He prays that they will grasp three significant new ways of thinking:
The ‘hope of their calling’
‘the riches of God’s inheritance in the saints’
‘the greatness of his power exercised on their behalf—specifically the power of resurrection that he first unveiled in raising Jesus from the dead’
These are the ways of thinking by which the believer will see all reality differently—as radiating possibility and glory secured already by the massive resurrection work of Jesus.
The effects of this transformation on our minds is all-pervasive. It shines a sense of wonder and hope over all things, all events, all contests in this world. It includes every corner of the cosmos and every moment in time in its transformative vision, and it thus breaks down forever the narrow boxes and divisions into which our faith all too often shrinks. Far from reducing our emphasis on Christ and the claims of Christ, it puts him at the centre of all things. It declares that no category of human endeavour or creation can be excluded from His Lordship and His demands. Finally, it is a beatific vision which circumscribes evil as temporary, insubstantial, and limited; and it amplifies goodness as inevitably eternal and all-pervading because it alone is the quality of God.
From this perspective, we can return to the topics of ‘hell’ and ‘judgment’. The church fathers took these themes seriously (as did most people who have espoused some forms of cosmic redemption) but they circumscribed them as means or ways to God’s purposes, not the ends. If the end of all things is humans sharing the rule of God, then humans need to develop and grow the capacity to do this. This development cannot be imposed on anyone but must be embraced and chosen. We don’t grow if we don’t want to grow. That is the basis of every decent educational program. Thus, cosmic redemption is not a free ticket to glory, it is an invitation to grow and develop towards the only end game in town.
In the writings of the church fathers, this could take place both before death and after death. In other words, death and the promise of immortality are not a mere open or shut gate but a continuation of a pathway; we are growing in this life, and we will also grow in the life of the age to come. Furthermore, our growth and trajectory in this life continues into the life of the age, and deeply affects our journey in the life of the age. If we reject our opportunity to grow in this era, we won’t be cast aside but we will travel a hard path in the age to come. There is judgment to be faced—and this judgment will include the believers in this life—but this judgment, like all fires in the Bible, will be for the purpose of purifying us not punishing us.
This leaves Christians with a very sobering and plausible warning to declare over human life and activity in this era. It boils down to no more than this: nobody gets away with evil, neglect, complacency, selfishness, cruelty, greed, or oppression in this life. Not Assad, not the cruel rulers of Sudan, not the despots who pillage their countries for personal gain—and not you and me. Thankfully, we have a God from whom nothing is hidden, and whose judgments are utterly pure and uncompromising. This means we need to take life seriously and weigh our actions in the light of this eternal rectitude.
But the Christian view of judgment goes one step further. The true success of any punishment system is not to crush a wrongdoer but to reform them so they choose to live godly lives. The mechanism for enabling this epic transformation remains the same as it has always been in the Christian gospel; the death of the God-man, Jesus and his subsequent resurrection from the dead—a resurrection which means not just our salvation but the death of death.
Let’s just say a little bit about different routes that people take into universalism or, how is it that somebody might become a universalist? There are actually different ways—this is my version. I’m an Anglican and Anglicans have this thing: “The three legged stool, scripture, reason, and tradition.” This is how we do theology. But I became a Christian in a Methodist Church and as we’re in a Wesleyan building now, I should pay deference to that. There is a Wesleyan quadrilateral: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.” So I’m going to be an Anglodist and put these together:
So this is the way I think about scripture, reason, and tradition. So “Scripture” is obviously Scripture. What I mean by “Tradition” is—it’s quite a wide-ranging thing—all the patterns of prayer and worship that we inherit by becoming part of the community of faith. It is doctrine, like the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s the doctrine of Scripture too. Your belief about Scripture being inspired and authoritative, that’s part of tradition, that’s not Scripture, that’s what tradition tells you Scripture is (and rightly so, I think). By “Experience”, I am talking about your own experiences but more than that, also the way in which we might draw on empirical sciences, for example, as we reflect about God. Or the social sciences, physics, or whatever, I’m including that in experience. The little arrows are my bit of “Reason” because I don’t think reason has its own domain. You don’t study Scripture and then study reason. Reason is how we reflect about Scripture, how we reflect on our experience, how we reflect on doctrine, and how we go back and forth between them. We use reason as we think, “How does Scripture relate to tradition?” and “How does it relate to experience?”, etc.
A healthy Christian approach to thinking about faith is going to involve all of these and it’s going to be a constant moving around between the poles. Back and forth, as you reason them with Scripture and experience and tradition. Back and forth, and it never stops so, sorry, this is gonna be the rest of your life.
All those people who got into Christian universalism through history involved all of these things. But particular poles were important for different ones of them—especially important as, sort of, routes in. One of those routes in—one of those poles—that has always been very important for people becoming universalists is the Bible.
For most Christian universalists, the Bible played a key role in the journey towards belief in universal restoration. I mean, after all, these guys are Christians! (and by “guys” I’m including girls as well—this is a generic “guy”) These guys are Christians and if they thought that this was unbiblical, they’re not really going to be too sympathetic to it, are they?
Let me just give you an example of one guy. I love this chap Elhanan Winchester—18th century Baptist, revivalist preacher. He grew up a very strict Calvinist. This was in North America and during the Great Awakening. He’s very strict—like he’s a hyper-Calvinist—but a real heart for the gospel and a real anti-slavery campaigner.
One day somebody sort of gives him this book, which is a German Pietist book but it’s defending universal salvation. He kind of looks through it and thinks, “Well, that’s interesting, never thought about that,” but he puts it aside. Then a few months later he’s at a friend’s house and he sees the book again. He picks it up and flicks through it and thinks, “Well, I’m not sure that’s a good argument, not sure what I’d say to that.” But again he puts it aside. However, it kind of gets under his skin, he just can’t get these questions out of his head. So whenever he goes around to talk to his Baptist minister friends, he sort of plays devil’s advocate and starts saying, “What do you think about this argument?” and all this, and he pretends to defend the view. He gets to the point where he said he was half a convert but really resisting it, to the point, that he would preach with great ferocity against this view—trying to persuade himself more than anyone else.
Anyway, it all comes to a head when he becomes the minister of the biggest Baptist Church in Philadelphia and it sort of gets out that he’s been asking these questions. He thinks, “I need to know what I think about this,” so he basically locked himself away with the Bible and just reads the Bible. “I just want to know what the Bible says, and whatever it says, I’m going to go with that.” After a few days he comes out and says, “Right, now I know, Scripture says this. From now on I’m committing myself to this, even if all my friends reject me, and they probably will.” And a bunch of them did, sure enough, but for him the key thing is Scripture. It has to be scriptural. We might think that some of his readings of Scripture are quirky and all that but the point is, this is the thing that drives him, this is what motivates him. That’s the case for a lot of these guys.
Charles Chauncey, another guy who was the minister of the first Congregationalist Church in Boston—a very important church. He became a universalist just through studying Scripture, I mean nobody—no universalist—influenced him, he’s just studying texts. 1 Corinthians 15 is the one that gets him into it. He’s a very careful exegete and scholar. He kind of gets into this and then starts reading other bits and the whole thing comes together for him that way. So for some of these guys, Scripture is really key.
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 absolutelynot 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:
With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.
Romans 9:1-3 (NLT)
Wow! Would you be willing to be cut off forever for the sake of others? I’m not confident I’d even be brave enough to die for someone, let alone be cut off forever. However, I believe Paul genuinely meant what he wrote as he gave up his life to serve others—he was literally killed doing it.
Jesus also valued the fate of others more than His own. He was cursed and killed by us yet miraculously He was raised. This will lead to the end of Paul’s sorrow and grief as it inaugurated the salvation of all our brothers and sisters! Paul doesn’t need to be forever cursed, indeed Christ says that in the Age to Come, “There will no longer be any curse” (Rev 22:3, cf Rom 5:12-21).
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves
Philippians 2:3 (NIV)
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
Romans 12:10 (NIV)
We are encouraged to value others above ourselves. This doesn’t mean despising ourselves as we are God’s precious children but hopefully it challenges us to be less self-indulgent. I know that’s hard as we are continually bombarded by a culture telling us we must focus on ourselves above all else and that we never have enough.
As Paul said in Romans 9, an even bigger aspect of valuing others is caring about their salvation. We definitely should do that now but what about when others don’t appear to be saved in this life? What does valuing others above ourselves look like in the Age to Come? I’d suggest we will continue inviting them:
Both the Spirit and the bride** say, “Come!”
Let anyone who hears, say, “Come!”
Let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who desires take the water of life freely.
Revelation 22:17 (CSB)
I love how the invitation grows exponentially as the non-believers hearing and receiving the water of life invite others, who in turn invite even more!
** “the bride” is Christ’s Church, who I believe already have the water of life because when Jesus gives people the “water” now they never thirst again (John 4:14, below).
Jesus reinforces the “never” with the phrase: eis ton aiōna.Thayer’s, NAS, HELPS, et al. describe eis as “denoting entrance into” or “motion into”,ton as “the”, and aiōna as “age”. Those who receive His “water” now won’t be thirsty now, nor going forward into the Age to Come. I say, “Age to Come” because:
We can’t go “into” our current age because we’re already in it.
As the “water” quenching the thirst is directly linked to the life aiōnion—the adjective of aiōna—almost always describes things pertaining to the “Age to Come”.
Paul describes even the idea of his “brothers and sisters” not being saved as “bitter sorrow and unending grief”. His concern about salvation also extended to his Gentile (non-Jewish) “brothers and sisters” as he spent decades seeking to see them saved too:
For so the Lord has commanded [Paul and Barnabas], saying,
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
Spiritually Christians believe we all share in the image of God, which is one of the reasons we are all children of God, even those who don’t yet live in the light of that relationship.
Praise be to God that He promises our grief will end when each and every person is made new!
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne [Jesus] said, “Look, I am making everything new.”
He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”
Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
The Bible reveals that God’s holiness is so seriously awesome that it eradicates all evil, which brings forth the wholehearted praise of each and every being/creature that ever exists—the only type of praise befitting God. This glorious telos is progressively revealed throughout the Bible—culminating in Christ’s ministry, atonement, Temple/Church, and return. The Bible Project does a brilliant and succinct job explaining this in their 6 minute summary:
God wasn’t content to leave the cosmos in an unholy mess and revealed in Isaiah that He spreads His holiness by removing iniquity and atoning for sin:
He touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Jesus’ atonement—removing iniquity and sin—fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy. Holiness in the form of life and healing flowed out of Jesus during his earthly ministry, beginning to fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy. He continues bringing life, healing, and hope through his people—the Church, the ultimate Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Tim 3:15, John 7:38).
Finally, Revelation 22—drawing heavily on Ezekiel 47:12—reveals that Jesus (“the Lamb”) completes the fulfilment by imparting life (v2), healing (v3), and flourishing (v2) to all sinners. I say all sinners because up until this last scene, the “nations” in Revelation were those opposed to God, who ended up in the Lake of Fire but God’s holiness will overflow and transform even that “dead sea” as Ezekiel 47:8 foretold. In this way, God eliminates Adam’s curse and everyone comes to delight in following and worshipping him (v3).
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him.
The last pages of the Bible end with a final vision about God’s holiness… And in his vision we see the whole world made completely new. The entire earth has become God’s temple. And Ezekiel’s river is there flowing out of God’s presence, immersing all of creation, removing all impurity and bringing everything back to life.