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The Opiate of the Theologians

Interview with Michael McClymond on Universalism, Part 1

Michael McClymond serves as a professor of Modern Christianity for St. Louis University. Recently, McClymond published an impressive two-volume tome, The Devil’s Redemption (Baker Academic, 2018), analyzing Christian universalism from a historical, theological, and philosophical perspective. While a work on universalism is at risk of drifting into emotional arguments, McClymond grounds his presentation on biblical exegesis, careful theological consideration, and historical data. He has contributed to many evangelical journals and organizations and we are very thankful that he has added Credo Magazine to his list of contributions. One does not have to spend much time with McClymond before it is evident that he is a careful thinker with a heart and mind dedicated to the local church. He is as kind as he is brilliant and the editorial staff of Credo encourages all of our readers to carefully engage both Part 1 and Part 2 of this extensive, one-of-a-kind interview.


You refer to universalism as the “opiate of the theologians.” Why is it so seductive and addictive? 

My phrase—“opiate of the theologians”—adapts a saying of Karl Marx, to the effect that religion is the “opiate of the masses” (though Marx’s phrasing was slightly different). The point I wish to make is that universalism is the way that many religious believers would like for the world to be. The world as we might wish it to be is one in which God’s grace extends to all persons without exception, and all persons freely and appreciatively respond to it.

Some contemporary universalists suggest that the traditional doctrines of divine judgment and hell are barriers that keep people out of the church. If the Christian church would only jettison these doctrines, and replace the traditional “good news” (of salvation for those who believe) with the “better news” (of salvation for all without exception), then multitudes of non-Christian people would choose to become Christian. The church’s love would evoke a loving response throughout the non-church.

Yet a moment’s reflection, on the basis of Scripture, will reveal the problems with this reasoning. Perfect love did once appear in history—his name was Jesus Christ. And what happened to him? Perfect love was nailed to the tree. Jesus said that “if the world hates me, you know that it hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18). Jesus’ reference to “hatred”—which he calls “hatred without a cause”—subverts the sentimentalized notion that initiatives of love (whether divine or human) will always evoke a loving response. Unfortunately, it isn’t so—and Jesus’ own life bears this out. Another text, also in John, says that “everyone who does evil hates the light” (Jn. 3:20). Perfect love did once appear in history—his name was Jesus Christ. And what happened to him? Perfect love was nailed to the tree. Click To Tweet

Throughout the gospel narratives, the encounters with Jesus that evoked repentance and faith in some people provoked offense or stumbling in others. This is why Jesus said: And blessed is he who does not take offense at me” (Mt. 11:6). The believer is one who admits that he or she is a sinner, and stands in need of forgiveness from God, while the unbeliever remains aloof and dismissive, and so “takes offense” at Jesus’ message. The first-century situation is much like the twenty-first-century situation. Hardness of heart is evident all around us.

Universalism is a world built on theory. It presumes to tell us how the world should be, how the world must be, and so how it actually is. Universalism imagines a world where every heart receives the glad news gladly. Universalism admits that the first-century Jesus got crucified, but it insists the twenty-first-century Jesus will get crowned by the crowd. Universalism is the gospel narrative frozen at the moment of the triumphal entry, when everyone stands together applauding Jesus.

While there is no necessary correlation between universalist theology and leftist politics, there is a common tendency in both to engage in wishful thinking rather than hard-nosed observation of human folly. Just as dictators around the world (e.g., Bashir al-Assad in Syria) are unwilling to relinquish their power when other people tell them to, so too the sinner against the Lord may not be ready to give up control of his or her own life when he or she is told the message of God’s love.

Modern intellectuals have often been attracted to ideologies of a just society and a better world, even when these theories have not proven themselves in practice. Twentieth-century Communism is a case in point. It is startling to read through the volume edited by Stéphane Courtois and others, The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, 1999)—which documents the murders of around 100 million people under Communist regimes—and then to juxtapose this with the spirited defenses of Joseph Stalin and other Communist leaders by leading Western thinkers during the last century. In retrospect we ask: Why did these intelligent and well-informed people defend the dictators? Perhaps it was because Communist theory and propaganda sounded so wonderful.

Communism was all about economic sharing, social equality, human fraternity, and cultural dignity. The record of the last century should thus remove any doubt that intelligent and well-meaning people—and perhaps especially intelligent and well-meaning people!—can be seduced into believing a mistaken ideology so long as the ideology sounds good in theory. Christian universalism, to my mind, is a false ideology of a theological rather than political kind—an iridescent image floating in a fog of warm-hearted wishfulness. As I’ve said before, people believe this because they wish to believe this. Christian universalism, to my mind, is a false ideology of a theological rather than political kind—an iridescent image floating in a fog of warm-hearted wishfulness. Click To Tweet

Is universalism merely a single belief among many or is it an entire system of doctrines?

To explain the relationship of the doctrine of universal salvation to the other Christian doctrines, one might invoke the analogy of a chess game. In chess, every move of a piece on the board has implications for the status of the other pieces. The position of a lowly pawn might determine whether more important pieces like the king and the queen are safe or in danger, and whether a state of check or checkmate occurs. What is more, each move has implications that may become apparent not immediately but only several moves ahead. Indeed, the mark of the chess grand master lies in his or her ability to foresee many moves ahead the ultimate implications of each move of a chess piece, and so to choose moves that are advantageous over the long term and to reject moves that might be game-ending.

In a comparable way, the doctrine of universal salvation, though initially appealing, seems to be a game-ending move that ends up undoing other doctrines such as the doctrine of the atonement and even the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity.

To discern the link between universalism and theological rationalism, one might consider the developments of the last two to three centuries. The theological devolution of modern universalism into unitarianism was not an accident. Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to Trinity and Incarnation as well. Universalist-unitarian (UU) rationalism spread like a virus, infecting the sinus, the lungs, the circulatory system, and then the whole body of Christian theology. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity—all that remained for UU (Unitarian-Universalism) was moral uplift and human solidarity—or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston. As one saying went, the universalists thought God was too good to damn them, while the unitarians thought they were too good to be damned.

Lest readers imagine that UU theology is just a historical footnote, they might pause to consider Father Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ (Convergent, 2019). Author of more some forty-five books, and mentor to Oprah and Bono, Rohr sets out in his latest book to distinguish a purportedly more universal and spiritual “Christ” from the narrow, particularistic, and human “Jesus.” That, in fact, is the book’s major point. At the event that Rohr calls “Resurrection,” the “Christ” at last broke free from “Jesus”: the body of Jesus exploded into light-particles that diffused throughout the cosmos.

Rohr’s Easter evangel is not that “he is risen” but that “he is vanished.” In place of a message centering on the human and historical Jesus, Rohr propounds a “first incarnation” that occurred at the Big Bang. He writes that “Christ is a name for…every ‘thing’ in the universe,” and that “God loves things by becoming them.” For half a year this book has remained the #1 bestselling work on Christology at Amazon. Mystically-tinged UU is now a thing.

You claim that the main problem with universalism is a lack of grace. That is so counterintuitive as many assume universalism is more gracious than other views. Why do you make this claim?

One of the great ironies of Christian universalism lies in what we might call an eclipse of grace. Time and again in the history of universalism, the effort to extend grace to all has ended up denying grace to any. What seemed to be all-grace turned out, on deeper inspection, to be no-grace. What seemed to be all-grace turned out, on deeper inspection, to be no-grace. Click To Tweet

Let us begin with the biblical terminology for grace. The Hebrew term hesed (loving-kindness, grace) meant—in the words of Walter Zimmerli—“the individual good act.” The good act in this case “always contains an element of spontaneous freedom in the demonstration of goodness or in kindly conduct and it cannot be reduced to what is owed or to a duty.” Hans Conzelmann noted that charis in the Apostle Paul’s Letters carries over the nuances of the Hebrew hen/hesed. It means “showing free, unmerited grace” and “the element of freedom in giving is constitutive.” In Scripture, “grace” is a gift of God’s undeserved favor, freely conferred by God and received by human beings. Grace thus has a gift character or unmerited character, a freedom character (i.e., resting on God’s freedom in giving), a relational character (i.e., implying a human relation to God), and a reception character (something that humans must receive).

When we turn to the various forms of Christian universalism, one finds that they either overtly or subtly undermine the graciousness of grace. Universalist teachings on salvation could be summarized in terms of four different assertions: “I am saved because I am divine,” “I am saved because I am human,” “I am saved because I suffer,” or “I am saved because God so wills it.”

    1. “I am saved because I am divine.” According to this first view, I as a human being cannot finally be damned, because in my inmost self I am part and parcel of God, and God’s self cannot be fully or finally divided against itself. This “spark of the divine” theology is characteristic of ancient gnosis and modern esoteric or “New Age” teaching. This line of thinking manifestly contradicts the biblical notion of grace, since it suggests that human beings are saved on the basis of who they are, and not on the basis of who the Savior is or what the Savior has done for them.
    1. “I am saved because I am human.” According to this second view, I cannot finally be damned, because I am part of humanity, and humanity is eternally and inseparably conjoined to God through an eternal God-man. This idea appears in the theologies of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Barth. Here the mystery of the God-man or Incarnation is no longer a contingent fact of history, nor a free choice that God made to bring salvation. Instead the Incarnation is eternalized and so it is identified simply as the way that God is. On this account, grace is not a free gift, but it is something that comes to all human beings just because they are human beings. The biblical idea of grace disappears here, just as in the first view.
    1. “I am saved because I suffer.” According to this third view, I cannot finally be damned, because I will suffer to make sufficient expiation or satisfaction for my own sins in a temporary purgatorial fire or cleansing process after my death. Yet if I am saved because I suffer, then, in all consistency, it is not clear why Christ needed to suffer for me on the cross. The message of salvation by grace is greatly obscured in purgationist universalism, with its notion that each of us pay the penalty for our own sins after we have died.
    1. “I am saved because God so wills it.” According to this fourth and final view, God at the time of my death simply reverses all possible consequences of my sinning, and I, along with everyone else, will go immediately to heaven. One might call this “fiat forgiveness” or “fiat universalism.” Historically speaking, it has never been a widely held view, perhaps because it appears to trivialize sin, to minimize the moral and spiritual life, and to evacuate salvation itself of its meaning. The idea of “fiat forgiveness” makes the moral and spiritual choices of the present life insignificant. This idea that God simply obliterates all negative consequences of our sinning might seem to be gracious but it is instead a contradiction of grace. The New Testament warns believers against “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Automatic or “fiat forgiveness” is not grace but is a form of licentiousness.

Thus my argument—presented more fully in The Devil’s Redemption (Baker Academic, 2018) —is that Christian universalist theology generally reduces to one of the above four options. And none of these versions of universalism is consistent with the biblical teaching on God’s grace.

Universalists frequently cite the love of God as the basis of their argument: Surely a God of love will save everyone; it’s intrinsic to his character. But you contest this assumption. Why?  

If one were to ask most modern Christian universalists why they believe that everyone will finally be saved, the most likely one-word answer would be “love.” Universalists view themselves as affirming God’s love, mercy, or grace, while particularists, in their view, offer a theology that is seriously deficient in this respect. In defending the traditional view of heaven and hell, Christian particularists have often gone along with the universalists’ understanding of their own particularist position, invoking God’s “justice” as a balancing consideration to be set over against God’s “love.” Yet a particularist response to universalism might take a different, and I think, better course.

On close inspection, the idea of “love” or “grace” as interpreted in universalism proves to be suspect (see my response to the question on “grace” just above). A one-word explanation for universalism is not “love” but “metaphysics.” Whenever universal salvation has been expounded as part of a larger theological system—as in Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Scotus Eriugena, Sergius Bulgakov, or Jürgen Moltmann—its metaphysical underpinnings become evident. Universalist theologizing rests on assumptions about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, or the nature of good and evil that are neither taught in Scripture nor embodied in the larger Christian tradition. I’ll say more on metaphysics under the next question in the interview. A one-word explanation for universalism is not “love” but “metaphysics.” Click To Tweet

On the question of “hope,” it is important to distinguish biblical “hoping” and “hopefulness” from mere “wishing” and “wishfulness.” It is perfectly possible to wish for all kinds of things that one does not expect to happen. A man might say to himself, “I wish that I had proposed to Ellen before she left for Vancouver. Then she might not have gotten involved with Eric, and she might have married me instead.” Other wishes are based on idealistic aspirations for a state of affairs that is not impossible but that seems unlikely. “I wish that reliable cures for all forms of cancer existed.” “I wish that there were no poverty anywhere in the world.”

What these wishful or wistful desires have in common with one another is a lack of any definite expectation that the desire will be fulfilled. Yet the biblical notion of hope includes a sense of definite and confident expectation. So-called “hopeful universalism” seems to be in this vein: “I wish that all people would receive eternal salvation.” It seems more wishful than hopeful.

Christian hope is not mere wishfulness. Christian hope is not utopian. It is instead a joyful and confident expectation for the future that is grounded on God’s promise. Christian hope does not rest on a human capacity for imagining alternate futures—however important a trait that may be in certain contexts. On the contrary, Christian hope is founded on what God has already done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it looks for the completion and fulfillment of a work of redemption that has already begun. Because Christian universalists cannot identify in Scripture any clear, unambiguous divine promise on which to rest its case, it tends to migrate away from biblical hope and in the direction of wishfulness.

Yet when the Christian church embraces a message or an attitude of wishfulness, then the genuine, reliable, well-founded Christian hope will be progressively weakened and eventually lost. Misguided wishfulness drives out genuine hope.

What, then, is the alternative to a universalistic hope-for-all? It is a particularist and practical hope-for-each. There’s a saying: “I love all humanity—it’s just people I can’t stand.” None of us are in fact obligated to hope for all humanity, any more than we are obligated to love all humanity. Humanity-in-general is too massive and too abstract for any of us to ponder, and the paralysis of analysis soon overtakes us when we set our sights too high. Rather than doing what we can, we end up doing nothing. We should recall that Jesus commanded us not to love humanity, but to love the neighbor. What, then, is the alternative to a universalistic hope-for-all? It is a particularist and practical hope-for-each. Click To Tweet

Applying this insight to Christian hope, hope-for-each rather than hope-for-all means that Jesus’ followers must begin from the standpoint of God’s gracious purpose toward each individual person whom we encounter. Every person, whom we meet each day, is definitely loved by God. Jesus’ followers should seek to align themselves with God’s good intentions toward each person. In this way, they set their sights on the highest good for everyone—and especially the aim of final blessedness in God. (Augustine referred to this as “loving in God”—loving our neighbor along his or her path toward final salvation.) Such love requires acts of devoted service, faithful prayer, words of encouragement, and efforts in evangelism. Spiritual discernment is needed, because God deals with different people differently.

When the apostle Peter got a bit too curious about the future prospects of the “beloved disciple,” generally identified as the Apostle John, Jesus responded in an interesting way (Jn. 21:20–22). The Teacher redirected Peter’s attention with the words “Follow me!” And Peter was merely inquiring about one person, not about the destiny of humanity-in-general! Elsewhere in the gospels, someone asked Jesus: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus responded, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23–24). This response did not gratify the inquirer’s itch to know the number of the saved. Jesus instead reoriented Peter and this unknown interlocutor with his words: “Follow me!” “Strive to enter!” These biblical texts make little sense on the presumption of a universalistic hope-for-all, but they perfect sense in light of a particularistic hope-for-each.


This concludes part 1 of our interview with Michael McClymond. Read part 2, where Michael McClymond answers some tough theological questions about universalism.

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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