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.
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