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.

So where does this leave the “free will universalists”?

And then there were four

Logically speaking, there are only a limited number of options that are available. Perhaps

  1. 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…
  2. 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…
  3. 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

  1. 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.

The modern shift toward universalism

The shift toward universalism over the last twenty to thirty years was a long time coming. From the time of Origen onward there were individual Christian thinkers who held to some version of Origenist universalism. In Christian Orthodoxy and in Eastern Christianity generally, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion. In my research I found that Orthodox attitudes toward the early author Origen through the centuries were double-sided and ambivalent (as my own attitude is), acknowledging Origen’s undoubted contributions to Christian theology and spirituality but finding fault with his speculative excesses. Origen’s universalist eschatology was generally, through the centuries, the most debated aspect of his theology. Western esotericists, who were situated outside of traditional churches or hovering about its fringes, maintained a robust universalism from around 1700 up to the mid-1900s.

It was not until the nineteenth century that one found any religious body calling itself “church” that made universal salvation its official teaching. The Universalist Church in the USA seems to have been the first to do this. The Universalist Church later merged with another, to form the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. Click To Tweet

Except for certain Russian thinkers—such as Sergius Bulgakov—there was little overt expression of universalism among acknowledged church teachers during the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1940s the Catholic writer Jacques Maritain confided to a notebook his private thoughts regarding a larger hope of salvation, and the Swiss Reformed thinker Emil Brunner affirmed without fear of contradiction that apokatastasis (i.e., universal salvation) is “a doctrine which the Church as a whole has recognized as a heresy.” At mid-century, Roman Catholic theology showed little if any sign of the changes soon to come.

Yet a tectonic shift took place during the 1950s and 1960s.

Out of the shadows: universalisms today

Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 (1942, German orig.) allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. The influential Catholic author, Hans Urs von Balthasar, acknowledged Origen’s influence on his thinking and that of “Barth’s doctrine of election, that brilliant overcoming of Calvin.” The next step in the process occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed “the unchurched” and Evangelicals debated “the unevangelized.” Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope? (1988; Engl. Trans.), initiated a turn toward “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, suggesting that faithful Christians were duty-bound to hope for universal salvation even if they could not definitely or dogmatically assert salvation for all.

Yet theological views continued to evolve since the 1980s, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism. Tentative suggestions by the British Evangelical John Stott, regarding conditionalism or annihilationism (that the unrighteous will not be punished forever in hell, but will simply cease to exist), triggered intra-Evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, theologically educated Christians have been drawn increasingly not only to “hopeful universalism” but to forms of “assertive universalism,” insisting that God must save all sinners. David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall be Saved (2019), is one of the most militant affirmations of “assertive universalism,” since he charges that all Christian theologians who are not universalists are guilty of “moral imbecility.” So much for Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, and John Henry Newman! Hart is not bashful in making his claim that it is only the universalists who have properly interpreted the message of Jesus and the New Testament. The global Christian community today thus faces a new theological challenge from a brash bunch of aggressive universalists.