Tag: Divine Sovereignty

Debate over universalism in theology and philosophy—Robin Parry

Within contemporary theology and philosophy, there are lots of debates related to universalism. There are lots of issues that come up under discussion and are well worth thinking about. I don’t know the answers to all of them, by the way, but the following are the kinds of issues that would be talked about and raised.

The nature of divine justice?

Traditional views of hell are based on a particular view of what divine justice is. It’s the view that justice is understood in terms of retribution—the punishment must fit the crime, it should be appropriate to the crime and proportionate to the crime. Which in itself, raises a whole bunch of questions about traditional hell. Because if traditional hell is built on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime, how could a finite sin committed by a finite creature be so severe that the appropriate punishment is an infinite punishment? So in itself, the doctrine of retribution—which props up traditional views of hell—seems to undermine them at the same time, or at least make problems for them. There are attempts to defend traditional views of hell in the face of this kind of objection but there are also explorations among philosophers and theologians of alternative understandings of what divine justice might be. Oftentimes in Scripture, justice is seen as something that is about God’s saving justice. God saves people through justice. God restores people through his justice. It’s not simply about retribution. So there are all sorts of discussions about what divine justice might be in Biblical Studies and contemporary theology particularly.

Free will and divine sovereignty?

Particularly for universalism, the question becomes, “If humans have freedom—God can’t force people’s wills—how does God ensure that everybody chooses to be saved?” That’s a really good question and it’s a question that should be taken completely seriously. There are ongoing debates about this—particularly in philosophy of religion and philosophy. How is it that if people have free will—understood in terms of the ability to do something or not do it—how is it that God can ensure that you do the thing that God wants you to do, without forcing you? If he can’t force you, how does he ensure that the end of the cosmos will ever be what he wants? Does this mean we can thwart God’s purposes?

Some of the best people in this debate are:

  1. Jerry Walls—Methodist philosopher—is very sympathetic to universalism but not a universalist. He does think you can be saved from Hell though… but he thinks that you can’t ever be guaranteed universalism because of free will.
  2. Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.

Divine love?

Can hell be a loving thing? Some people argue that it’s loving for God to send people to hell—even if hell was eternal conscious torment. For example, Eleonore Stump—Catholic philosopher—argues, on a sort of Thomas Aquinas kind of approach, that even just existing is a good and thus if God deprived you of existence, he’s depriving you of a good… So allowing you to exist in eternal conscious torment is at least God allowing you some good (I’m sceptical about how kind it would actually be).


Some of the debates about penal substitution kind of link in with this. I mean, John Owen—great Puritan theologian—wrote what is perhaps the best defence of limited atonement (the view that Christ died for some people but not others). I remember reading it as a teenager and bits of it really drawing and attracting me, and bits of it really appalling me. Even though I was a Calvinist at the time, I still found parts of it appalling. But one of the things that was interesting, that struck me, is one of his reasons for arguing that Christ didn’t die for everyone was this: “Look, everyone for whom Christ dies will be saved. I mean, Christ’s death can’t be in vain. So if Christ died for everyone, they’d all be saved obviously. But they’re not all saved—we know that because some people go to hell—so he couldn’t have died for everybody.” The logic seems impeccable—at least on his understanding of atonement. But maybe he could have flipped it around and thought, “If Christ died for everyone….” Because the Bible does actually say that. Although to be fair, he has a good go at trying to show how the texts that look like the Bible actually says that, don’t actually say that. It doesn’t work but it’s a pretty intelligent attempt. If Christ did die for everyone, then yeah, maybe he should have contemplated the possibility of universalism.


In contemporary theology, particularly in contemporary Reformed theology, election is one of the really core things that has raised the issue again. Calvin thought that God elected some people to salvation but not everybody. As this developed within Calvinism, this sometimes became a sort of double predestination, whereby God elects some people to salvation and elects other people to damnation. But within the Reformed tradition, there was, and is, always rethinking of different doctrinal focuses—one of those was election. For example, Schleiermacher, in the 19th century, rethought it in a way where he’s trying to defend Calvin. He’s arguing that, actually, there is not a double decree—God doesn’t decide some for salvation and some for damnation. God makes a single decree, he doesn’t elect individuals, he elects the human race. God elects humanity the race for salvation but the race can’t experience that salvation unless all the individuals that composite it, experience that salvation. So he ends up arguing for universalism but a different account of election.

What’s been a lot more influential than that, is Karl Barth in the twentieth century, again with a radical revision of the reformed doctrine of election. He argued that in fact, Christ doesn’t elect some people to salvation and some people to damnation. God doesn’t elect any individual people, he elects Christ. So Christ is the subject of election and Christ is elect. Those who share in Christ are elect… well, everybody is elect in Christ. So there’s a sense in which, God doesn’t elect me to salvation, he elects Christ but in Christ, I share in that election of Christ. That rethinking of election has led a fair few people… I mean, Jurgen Moltmann was one of Barth’s students and he went on with universalism and Jacques Ellul—French Reformed thinker—developed these kinds of ideas in universalist directions. Barth always insisted he wasn’t Universalist and we could talk about that but anyway, these are some of the debates that are going on in philosophy and theology.

Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.

Why the diversity of universalisms matters—Robin Parry

Universalism is a pretty minimalist thesis and basically, at its core it’s just saying, “God will save everybody.” That allows for a lot more diversity and different versions of universalism than you might suspect. It’s consistent with a range of different views on a whole bunch of issues. The following are some examples:


There are lots of debates now… penal substitution? Not penal substitution? Well, universalists were having those same debates. You could be a universalist and hold different views on that.

For example, James Relly in the 18th century. James Relly was one of George Whitfield’s converts and preachers, so he was a Calvinist committed to penal substitution. He became a universalist because he thought that penal substitution required it. “Those for whom Christ died will be saved—how could Christ’s death be for nothing? If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved—how could it be otherwise?” The argument was somewhat different from that but that’s basically kind of where he’s going. So he thought penal substitution requires the salvation of all people.

On the other hand, we could say, “What about George MacDonald?” (very famous 19th-century author and Universalist). He hates penal substitution with a vengeance. He thinks it’s anathema, destroys the gospel, and so on. Both Universalists—one a universalist precisely because he thinks penal substitution requires it—the other one thinks penal substitution is a mess.

Free Will and Divine Sovereignty

A perennial issue of interest in theology and universalists have taken both sides. Historically, universalists would be on the side that humans have libertarian free will—that’s the majority view through history. For example, the early church fathers who were universalists (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on) were really strong on this, about the importance of human freedom.

On the other hand, there have been various Calvinist universalists. For example, Peter Sterry who was a Puritan. He was one of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains and a member of the Westminster Assembly, which wrote the Westminster Confession of faith—which is super-Calvinistic-expialidocious! He is a beautiful, beautiful writer and a beautiful man and he is a universalist. He writes this fantastic book that even Richard Baxter the Puritan—who didn’t really like Sterry most of the time—thought was a wonderful book on free will because he takes this view that free will is compatible with determinism, “God determines every choice you make but that’s compatible with free will.” So universalism could go either way on this issue.


Some universalists have been really strong on the sacramentality of sacraments—particularly if they’re Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (in my case). Some, at what was called the “spiritualist” end of things, thought that sacraments are just symbols and in fact, you don’t even need them, you don’t even have to do them. For example, some Quakers were universalists.


Any kind of view of the church you could come up with, you could find a universalist who had it.


Most universalists believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture but of course, in more recent times, there have been universalists who took more liberal views of Scripture, and that’s also compatible with universalism.

Inclusivism vs Exclusivism

Just to clarify that briefly. Granted that we can only be saved through Christ, do we need to know about Christ or have explicit faith in Christ to be saved through Christ? Is it possible to be saved through Christ, even if you don’t know about Christ but maybe God takes whatever faith response you have to whatever revelation you have and applies the merits of Christ to you? Inclusivists would say that. Exclusivists would say, no, you have to have explicit faith in Christ to be saved.

Well, you got universalists who are both kinds. There are those who’ve argued for inclusivism, George de Benneville was one—he thought you could be saved through Christ without having heard about Christ or without necessarily being explicitly Christian. Others were more, no, you have to have faith in the gospel, you have to have heard of Jesus and so on. Universalism can go either way.

Important Implications

So the point is that there are diverse ways of being a Christian Universalist and what that means is we should be wary of folk who go, “Ah, well, the problem with universalism is it leads down this route, to this view…” Well, it might do but it might not! We need to be a little bit more discerning with those kinds of arguments.

For example, I read a very good book recently that was critical of universalism but one of the problems was he too easily moved from the idea that “this particular version of universalism has problems” to the idea “Well then, universalism is wrong.” Whereas in fact, it might just be that particular version of universalism has problems and other versions are absolutely fine.

Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos