The Many Fish that Swim in the Universalist Pond
The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the question, “Will all be saved?” The following is an excerpt from Michael McClymond’s article, “The Many Fish that Swim in the Universalist Pond: A Primer on Universalisms.” Michael J. McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He previously held teaching or research appointments at Wheaton College, Westmont College, University of California-San Diego, Emory University, Yale University and the University of Birmingham (UK). He is the author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018), Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (winner of a Christianity Today Book Award), and Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (winner of the Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History). He also coedited and contributed to The Rivers of Paradise: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad as Religious Founders and coauthored The Theology of Jonathan Edwards.
The only thing that all universalists agree on is a final outcome, i.e., the salvation of all human beings—or, of all rational beings, if one includes the fallen angels as well as fallen humans. So that leaves a lot of room for differences. There are many schools of fish swimming in the universalist pond.
A first distinction is between Christian universalism and inter-religious or pluralistic universalism. The Christian universalist believes not only that all are saved finally, but that all are saved through Christ. The inter-religious universalist holds that all are saved, but also that people may be saved apart from any relationship with Christ. That is a major point of difference. My recent book, The Devil’s Redemption, 2 vols. (Baker Academic, 2018), is focused on Christian universalism, and not on inter-religious universalism. That work would have been even longer than it already is if I had attempted to address inter-religious as well as Christian universalism.
Ultra-universalists vs. Restorationists
A dispute among Christian universalists, which led to a de facto schism in the Universalist Church (USA) from the 1810s to the 1840s, was between so-called “ultra-universalists” and “restorationists,” also known as the Restorationist Controversy. The former group held that all persons without exception would enter immediately into heaven at the moment of death, and that no one had to endure any postmortem punishment for sins. The latter group held that many (if not most) persons are not ready for heaven at the time of their death, and so a purgatory-like state of suffering and fiery purification is required prior to entering into the unending joy of heaven.
This controversy, in my view, reveals a deep chasm among universalists that has never been bridged. The “ultras” claimed that the “restorationists” were contradicting or compromising the grace of God. If Christ’s suffering on the cross is a sufficient payment or ransom for all human sins, then why would anyone need to suffer for their own sins after their death? (The “ultras” were redeploying a standard, Reformation-era Protestant argument against the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.) Yet the “restorationists” had some powerful counter-arguments. They argued that if everyone without exception is saved at the moment of death, then this would mean that the thief, murderer, rapist, or kidnapper who is gunned down while committing some horrific crime will go at once to be with God.
This, they argued, would deny any “moral nexus” (i.e., connection) between the present life and the next life, and so would evacuate our earthly decisions of their ethical seriousness. These “restorationist” universalists (or “purgationists” as I call them) were concerned that universalist teaching might have antinomian consequences, i.e., that it would encourage people to continue sinning in the expectation that their sinning would carry no negative consequences. So the “purgationists” proposed that many or most persons will pass through period of postmortem suffering for their own misdeeds, and that the foreknowledge of this suffering ought to serve as a disincentive to sinning. To my mind, the failure of the universalists to resolve this nineteenth-century debate shows the incoherence of universalist theology. On the premise of universal salvation, I’m not sure there is any way to resolve this particular conflict between the universalists.
Divine sovereignty universalists vs. free will universalists
Another distinction might be drawn between universalists who assert that all are saved because of God’s sovereign will to save all, and those who affirm that all are saved because human beings all freely choose to embrace God’s love in Christ. You might call the one the “divine sovereignty universalists” and the other the “free will universalists.” Rob Bell in Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) seems to oscillate between the two positions. Sounding sometimes like a divine sovereigntist, he asks: “Does God get what God wants?” In other words, if God “desires” all to be saved, then won’t all be saved?
David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved (Yale, 2019), goes so far as to say that God’s will to save all ultimately overrides any human will to resist God or to reject salvation. The human will, argues Hart, is enclosed or enveloped in God’s purposes in such a way it cannot finally turn away from God. In a review of Hart’s book, I argued that Hart’s viewpoint is hard to square with the observed fact that God’s creatures do sometimes deliberately choose evil. The Gospel of John tells us: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).
Hart thus offers a universalist theology that hangs in mid-air and has little to do with the world that we actually live in. It is a pleasant fantasy for theologians to imagine a world where evil does not happen because God overrides the evil choices of his creatures. Søren Kierkegaard noted that philosophical thinkers often have trouble with the concept of a creature who is able to reject the Creator: “That God could create beings free over against himself is the cross which philosophy could not bear but upon which it has remained hanging.” But thus it is: we live in a universe in which creatures can and do “say no” to goodness and to God himself. So how can universalists make a more plausible case? Hart thus offers a universalist theology that hangs in mid-air and has little to do with the world that we actually live in. Click To Tweet
Contemporary universalists who stress “free will” are generally better attuned to ordinary human experience than the “divine sovereignty” types. They affirm that people make choices, that God does not override their choices, that people may choose evil rather than good, and that certain people reject God’s love in Christ. As a starting set of assumptions, this accords well with Scripture. Yet problems arise for those who seek to combine this affirmation of free choice with an assertion of universal salvation.
The problem is quite simple, namely, that everyday experience shows us that many persons, when confronted with the message of Christ, choose not to repent of sin and to believe in Christ. If we confine ourselves (for the sake of argument) to those who have overtly heard the gospel message, then we still have a problem, because there are many persons who have heard and yet do not respond in faith.
And then there were four
Logically speaking, there are only a limited number of options that are available. Perhaps
- many people who do not seem to be believers in God or Christ are somehow implicit believers without realizing it (see David Congdon’s The God Who Saves [Cascade, 2016]); or…
- at the moment of death there is a “final option” where God gives each person one last chance to receive the grace of salvation (see Ladislaus Boros, The Mystery of Death [Herder and Herder, 1973]), and everyone who has not already believed does in fact believe in the end; or else…
- there remains some further or “second chance” to repent, to believe, or prepare for heaven after death, so that death does not mark the end of the opportunity for salvation (an idea supported in various authors).
The problem with (a), (b), and (c) is that none of these proposals have any clear scriptural support, and all three are highly speculative. And in a matter as crucial as the hope and scope of final salvation, one ought not to ground one’s belief on the quicksand of human supposition, but on the rock of God’s revealed truth.
A more unorthodox version of universalism
- combines belief in universal salvation with belief in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls. On this view—which has numerous historic and contemporary representatives—the present human life of each of us is just one small link in a long chain of lives, and so whatever spiritual progress one might fail to make in the present life will be compensated for in some future life.
There seems to be nothing in Scripture to support this sort of universalism, although a surprising number of people today hold to this sort of theology.
In summary, then, there is no one “universalism” but there are many different “universalisms.” That is one key reason that the debate over “universalism(s)” is so complex, and why my book, The Devil’s Redemption, had to be as long as it was.
*Read Dr. Burk’s entire article in the latest issue: Will all be Saved?