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Let God Be God

Interview with Michael McClymond on Universalism, Part 2

This is part 2 of our interview with Michael McClymond. Read Part 1: The Opiate of the Theologians.


Is universalism merely a theological problem, or is it also a metaphysical and philosophical problem?

Many contemporary theologians have developed theologies of universalism on the basis of a non-biblical understanding of God. At the risk of becoming a bit technical here, let me explain something regarding what evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, in Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2012), has called the “kenotic-relational” view of God, which has gained ground among academic theologians since the 1980s.

The kenotic-relational theologians have diminished divine power. In their view, from the moment that God created the world, God had to become self-limited so as to “make space” for creatures such as ourselves to choose and to act. In creating the world, God had to “back off” so that human beings could “have space.” This way of thinking errs by drawing God down to the level of creatures, so that God competes with them for space and vies with them for mastery. As John Cooper comments in Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers (Baker Academic, 2013), this newer view conceives of God as “a large disembodied human person relating to much smaller beings,” rather than an “infinite Other who has graciously made us finite analogies to himself.”

Theologians who insist that human beings occupy a “space” where God does not or cannot intrude seem to be serving an agenda of creaturely autonomy. Kenotic-relational thinkers affirm that human beings are essentially self-determining, while Biblical faith in contrast rests on a profound awareness of human dependence on God. The prophet Isaiah declares: “Stop regarding man, whose breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Is. 2:22); and again, “all flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field” (Is. 40:6).

A depotentiated or diminished God is not only unwilling but also unable to exercise judgment against sinful creatures—sending Lucifer into the lake of fire, or excluding unrepentant persons from heaven. One might compare this diminished God with an unfortunate high school teacher, who is not allowed to expel anyone, but who faces unruly or even criminal behavior in the classroom. She might give students a time-out and yet find herself compelled to readmit even the worst offenders, regardless of what they have done. Though the troublemakers kindle a fire at the back of the classroom, destroy property, do drugs, or engage in sexual behavior in class, they still remain students in good standing. If this is the way that God relates to creatures, then God is simply unable to inflict the punishment of hell or separation from himself.

It should be clear that this way of thinking about God has little in common with the biblical picture of a holy and majestic God, who created all things from nothing, and is rightly referred to as Lord, Master, and King. The diminished view of God fails to consider that creatures’ self-chosen sinning is profoundly offensive to God and threatens a permanent rift between a holy God and sinful creatures. Though it might appear as small in our own sight, sin is no small thing in God’s sight. The thinking underlying this contemporary view of God is human-centered. Baldly stated, it is the idea that God will save everyone because God needs to save everyone. And God needs to save everyone because God needs everyone. Every creature matters, and I matter. God needs me to be God. Without me God cannot be God. Some contemporary theologians go so far as to speak of human beings as “co-creators” of the world with God—even though, in the Bible, only God is ever said to “create” anything. Many people who are not scholars likewise carry limited notions of God in their hearts, mentally raising themselves to God’s level or else lowering God to their own. Many people who are not scholars likewise carry limited notions of God in their hearts, mentally raising themselves to God’s level or else lowering God to their own. Click To Tweet

In response to the errors of contemporary theologians, and to the meager notions of God in contemporary culture and even among professing believers, my brief response is to say that we must return to biblical teaching and so let God be God.

What would you say to those committed to scripture but unsure where to turn in scripture to respond to the arguments for or against universalism?

Universalists have always struggled to support their views with Christian scripture. Many have chosen simply to ignore the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, adopting a canon-within-the-canon for the Bible as a whole. Others have created a canon-within-the-canon for the Pauline texts, insisting that certain verses point toward universal salvation (1 Cor. 15:28) while others plainly do not (2 Thess. 1:9). Perhaps the foremost Pauline scholar alive today, N. T. Wright, has clearly said that the Pauline texts do not support universalism. Certain passages in the Gospels seem to exclude salvation for all: “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able’” (Lk. 13:23-24). For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:14). “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction [i.e., Judas Iscariot]” (Jn. 17:12).

Universalists often apply microscopic analysis to individual verses or even to single words (e.g., aionios) while they miss the larger themes that are woven through the whole of the Bible, e.g., the “two ways” motif, in which differing ways of life lead to differing outcomes. Psalm 1:5 states that the righteous person will be blessed by God, while “the wicked will not stand in the judgment.” In Isaiah 1:19 the prophet declares: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.” Neither passage speaks of heaven or hell, but these early texts suggest differing outcomes for differing groups. The Son of Man’s separation of “sheep” from “goats,” and their consignment respectively to “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:31-46), ought not be read in isolation, but needs to be interpreted canonically. Universalists often apply microscopic analysis to individual verses or even to single words (e.g., aionios) while they miss the larger themes that are woven through the whole of the Bible. Click To Tweet

The Books of Exodus and Revelation suggest another biblical theme that is missing from the universalist repertoire: that evil does not always yield to gentle suasion, but sometimes must be overcome by divine power. Pharaoh is not finally persuaded but crushed by Yahweh’s might. So, too, the Beast, the Devil, and the False Prophet are not dissuaded from evil but are seized and cast into the lake of fire. In such cases, the exertion of God’s power to defeat evil is a good and not an evil thing.  The heavenly saints cry “Alleluia!” when the monstrous wickedness of Babylon is fully and finally brought to an end.

Finally, we must consider the biblical portrayal of Satan. Scripture never represents the fallen angels as persuadable in any sense, and they are never commanded to repent. The demons represent a limiting case of the creaturely will that recalcitrantly rejects God, and so they end up in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). The Christian churches, in their formal liturgies, pray expectantly for the salvation of abandoned sinners, but never even once, it seems, have they ever prayed for Lucifer. This is a clear sign that Christians, through the centuries, have not anticipated the salvation of Satan and the demons. Based on Scripture and on the church’s historic teaching, it appears then to be quite certain that some intelligent creatures are finally damned.

Another line of argument against universalism emerges when we consider that Scripture consistently presents eschatological teachings with a practical or pragmatic intent. Biblical teachings on eschatology blend future expectation with missional urgency, spiritual exhortation, and calls for self-denying discipline. When Jesus spoke on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the end times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’ return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14).

Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) stresses the need to be ready for Jesus’s return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present-day mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).

Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It tells us that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). First John connects eschatological hope with spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

These passages suggest the appropriateness of evaluating eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it is exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if final salvation for all were already known in advance? And can one imagine any Christian evangelists going out to preach to hostile people-groups—even at the risk of martyrdom—if they believed that those people-groups were already bound for heaven? Earlier Christian universalists—including Origen himself—acknowledged this problem and they suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a few mature believers. Can one imagine any Christian evangelists going out to preach to hostile people-groups—even at the risk of martyrdom—if they believed that those people-groups were already bound for heaven? Click To Tweet

So even if universalism were biblically supported (as it is not), and even if sound theological or philosophical arguments made it believable (as they do not), then universalism could still not become the official, public teaching of the Christian church without undermining the church’s own moral, spiritual, and missional foundation.

Responding to a universalist can be tough. Many Christians may not know how. What apologetic arguments would you recommend when engaging universalists?

Human salvation is inherently a good thing, and thus salvation for all—if it turned out that way—would not be something that any Christian would or should object to. The New Testament calls on believers to share the good news and to evangelize among all nations, and to do so under the most difficult of circumstances (e.g., bearing witness to Christ in the Islamic world). So it is not the case that conservative Christians have a stake in other people’s damnation, as is sometimes claimed. The question is this: What is the proper basis or foundation of the Christian hope for salvation—whether hope for oneself or hope for other people? The answer, I believe, is that hope ought to be based not on human reasoning but on God’s promise.

When we raise the question of final salvation, we have to ask: What relevant promise is contained in Scripture? Is there a divine promise in the Bible to the effect that God will save everyone? A careful scrutiny of the Old and New Testament shows that there is no biblical promise of God to save every person without exception. The scriptural statements regarding salvation are not unconditional but are conditional in character—“that whoever believes in him shall not perish” (Jn. 3:16), “everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32), “repent…for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).

If someone were to ask me why I embrace a particularistic view of salvation and a dualistic eschatology, rather than a religion or eschatology of final solidarity, my answer has to be not only “because this is what the Bible teaches,” and “because church teaching confirms it,” but also “because I have eyes to see.” I don’t have to imagine a hypothetical world in which human pride, stubbornness, and orneriness cause people to turn away from God’s gracious offer of mercy in Jesus Christ. This is the world I live in. This is what I see happening every day. This is what I read in the news. And we must remember the gospel history: Jesus was crucified. Perfect love appeared in history and this—yes, this!—is what human beings did in response.

In contrast to the particularist, the universalist has to imagine a state of affairs where, as Rob Bell says in Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011), “everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy…of God’s presence.” This obligatory imagining of a sort of world that no one has actually ever seen leads me toward a definite conclusion. Universalism is hopefulness run amok.

So-called evangelical universalism, argues Derek Tidball, in his essay “Can Evangelicals Be Universalists?”, is “at best . . . an argument from silence, since scripture nowhere positively states several crucial elements in universalism.” He notes that “the accent of the New Testament teaching falls on the significance of this life and the decisions made here, with no hint of a second chance, post-mortem, or of re-education in a hell prior to release in heaven.” Moreover, “there is no reason to believe that those who were impenitent on earth will become penitent in hell. This is pure supposition. Hell may, indeed, have the reverse effect and harden its residents against God.”

Regarding the final outcome of God’s work, Tidball writes that “the triumph of God and the reconciliation of ‘all things’ are adequately explained in terms of the destruction of evil and of all that opposes him.” For this reason, “to say that the reconciliation cannot take place unless enemies are persuaded by re-education to agree with God puts a particular contemporary cultural spin on what we believe must happen.” Finally, Tidball inquires into the contemporary Western context and asks whether universalist theology is not a Christian cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age in which we live: “We must ask if the embrace of universalism is not a further example of evangelicals seeking to be civil and of stretching doctrine to accommodate as comfortably as possible to contemporary culture.”

Derek Tidball makes a convincing case that the rise of Christian universalism since the 1970s is not due to any new and convincing theological arguments, and that it instead has much to do with a desire by Christians to accommodate themselves to an increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian culture. The Christian who embraces universalism does not have to trouble himself or herself any longer about the eternal destiny of atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or New Age friends, co-workers, or family members. These people are all going to be okay.

There is no urgent need to speak to them about Christ. And so the universalist Christian does not have to say something offensive by telling the non-Christian that he or she is as yet unsaved, needs to repent of sins, must believe in Christ, and runs the risk of eternal separation from God if he or she does not repent and believe.

Is there any question that universalism represents the path of least resistance in our culture today? By becoming a universalist, one gets to be “spiritual,” and can continue to call oneself a “Christian,” while one does not have to offend anyone. Universalist theology encourages a live-and-let-live attitude that appeals to many Christians today—even though this outlook is essentially unbiblical and contrary to the church’s unchanging teaching through the centuries. Universalist theology encourages a live-and-let-live attitude that appeals to many Christians today—even though this outlook is essentially unbiblical and contrary to the church’s unchanging teaching through the centuries. Click To Tweet

A well-known spokesperson for Roman Catholicism today—Bishop Robert Barron—was interviewed recently by the Jewish commentator and author, Ben Shapiro, who asked him point blank whether he himself could be saved apart from Christ and the church. Though Bishop Barron is theologically knowledgeable, he chose not to speak of Christ’s exclusive claim—“no one comes to the Father but through me” (Jn. 14:6)—and instead he offered the much weaker statement that “Christ is the privileged route to salvation.”  The phrasing Barron used made it seem like Shapiro as a faithful Jew didn’t need to believe in Jesus. It was an unfortunate gaffe, and I believe a failure of evangelistic nerve on Barron’s part, since the bishop had in that moment a golden opportunity to preach Christ to one of God’s chosen people. And one might hope for better from Bishop Barron in the future. Yet the episode illustrates the cultural pressures that are leading many Christians to embrace universalism.

In the debate over universalism, why are the stakes so high?

Isn’t this the ultimate theological question—that is, the scope of final salvation? What could matter more? And if there is truth in the New Testament contrast between “momentary, light affliction” and the “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17), then should not all Christian believers be deeply concerned with getting it right regarding these final outcomes?

Not every Christian who considers or embraces universalism will be aware of the long-term theological consequences of affirming this doctrine. In a 2012 article called “Evangelical Universalism,” Robin Parry urged contemporary evangelical Christians to add belief in universal salvation to their repertoire of beliefs, without however altering what they already believe regarding the character of God, the Trinity, Christ’s humanity and divinity, the atonement, the nature of salvation, and so on. Yet the earlier history of Anglo-American universalism provides a clear illustration of what happened in the past when evangelical Christians accepted universalism.

The outcome was ironic. The theology of these evangelicals-turned-universalists shifted profoundly, leading them ultimately to an official rejection of Jesus’ divinity and an acceptance of unitarianism. What began as a well-intentioned impulse to expand grace to everyone—and to argue that Christ’s death would save not only believers but everyone—ended up as the very opposite. Beginning with Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement (1805), American universalists began to jettison all forms of atonement theology. Once they had omitted the central and crucial doctrine of Christ’s atoning death, the all-grace teaching ended up as a no-grace teaching, and universalist theology drifted toward moralism. By the early twentieth century, belief in the afterlife among many universalists became hazy and indefinite.

Teachings on human sin and divine grace gave way to a message of moral uplift through individual, ethical striving. The Universalist Church (which established Tufts University in Boston) was once the sixth-largest denomination in the United States. This denomination eventually merged with another declining religious body to become the UU—the Unitarian-Universalist Association, which later removed the word “God” from its doctrinal basis, so as not to offend the sincere agnostics who might want to belong. A few historians of American religion are aware that the Universalist Church began as a biblically-based, evangelical movement, but today no trace of that origin remains within the UU denomination that still bears the “Universalist” label.

Those proposing universalist doctrine for the church today ought to be forewarned by this history. Imagine a farmer who seeks to rid his field of pests, and so sprays a chemical—reputedly a powerful and effective pesticide. Within weeks, the crops themselves are shriveling up. That’s universalism: in the name of updating and improving the church’s teaching, it kills the church itself along with its teaching. That’s universalism: in the name of updating and improving the church’s teaching, it kills the church itself along with its teaching. Click To Tweet

Belief in universal salvation will, in all likelihood, remain in the future, as in the past, a private conviction nurtured among a isolated intellectual elite, situated more on the fringes than in the center of the church’s life. The Christian faithful en masse will not embrace this teaching. Jesus’ sheep “hear his voice,” and “they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:5, 27). Universalism in the future, as in the past, will show itself as the self-negating, faith-undermining, church-neutering doctrine that it is. Over the long term, universalism is a theological species that is headed toward extinction.

Image credit: Michael Cheval, Echo of Misconception

Michael J. McClymond

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.

Timothy Gatewood

Timothy Gatewood is an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he teaches courses in theology, philosophy, history, and Christian political thought. He serves as the executive editor of Credo Magazine and the associate director of the Center for Classical Theology. Timothy is the author of Truth Not Served By Human Hands (Christian Focus, forthcoming), and his work has been featured in The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon, the Midwestern Journal of Theology, Didaktikos Journal, and before the Evangelical Theological Society.

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