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.
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:
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.
Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.
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.
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:
I spend days working on this video for Gospel Conversations as transformation through participation really resonates with me and the more times I watched Sarah unpack Coleridge’s, This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, the more I got out of it. Brothers and sisters, I hope you find it as edifying as I have.
When we make—whether that be a cup of tea, whether it be a meal, whether that be a sculpture, whether that be poetry—we are participating in that great act of making in the beginning of Genesis.
Not just participation but transformation!
God makes the world anew, even as we participate in it.
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.
In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?
This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God.