Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Some discussions around the blogosphere have got me thinking. Is a universalist a Christian, and is a universalist just as motivated to help others as those who believe in limited atonement?

Two great women suggest that the answer might be in the affirmative. Florence Nightingale and and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, were both universalists. These two amazing women started organizations of immense importance. In addition, Henri Dunant, founder of Red Cross International was also a universalist, as well as Albert Scweitzer.

Universalism is the theological doctrine that all people will eventually be saved, while evangelicalism stresses the importance of personal conversion as the means of salvation. Here are some scripture verses which support universalism,
  • and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself John 12:32
  • so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:9
  • who gave himself a ransom for all 1 Tim. 2:6
  • and he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 2 Cor. 5:15
  • Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. Romans 5:18
My question is whether an evangelical can honestly point to evidence that universalism is a) not based on scripture and b) not able to motivate people to serve others sacrificially. I am asking if it is useful to lay down boundaries.What if we simply responded to people on the basis of their actions, whether they were doing good or harm to others?


Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I think you should distinguish more clearly between universalism, "the theological doctrine that all people will eventually be saved", and universal atonement, the doctrine held by the great majority of Christians through the ages, excluding extreme Calvinists on one side who believe in limited atonement and universalists on the other side. According to universal atonement, in principle Christ died for all (as clearly taught in the verses you quote), but not all benefit from his atoning death, maybe because they reject its benefits and choose not to be saved. That is, in summary, what I believe on this matter.

Lydia said...

I agree with Peter, you have to define it. If you mean that 'every knee will bow' means that all will be saved in the end, that would include Hitler, Stalin and Mohammad. So, where are they now?

If it means universal atonement, that is different.

If all will be saved in the end, there is no need for the fruit of Spirit or for us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. And 1 John, did not need to be written.

Bob MacDonald said...

Why do we have to have a name and a logic? Our logic is full of holes in any case and our names for the animals are incomplete. We may say 'if' but our 'then' is often based on different data than the stated antecedent. Are we convincing ourselves of some abstraction in order to salve our damaged souls - creating a space in which we can look 'objectively' at our psycho-social state (I am influenced by my reading of Ticciati on Job this morning.)

I don't know if any of you have read my recent work on Job - over 100 posts! but here's a verse that speaks to me of suffering in perpetuity till 'the devils themselves are at peace' - to give Christopher Smart his due.

Peter will be up for critiquing me on this translation: Elihu chapter 34
my father he will be scrutinized in perpetuity
to the turnings in mortals of iniquity

A peculiar turn of phrase: 'my father' - one could turn the word into an exclamation, but does the young Elihu anticipate the universal generative power of creation or does he represent Israel - the Deuteronomic covenant redeemed? But aside from this - 'the turnings of iniquitous mortals' perhaps can mean that Job will be scrutinized for ever since the poem will be put as question to every iniquitous mortal past and future - until she repent (turn).

I am a universalist for one simple reason - all are part of my body. That's part of why Christ Jesus as the new Adam appeals to me. But I assure you it is not only an abstraction that I worship - but one who calls me into question at every level and who gives me his own self as a remaking and reawakening of my self - body soul and spirit in his completeness. For me, this is the reason I urge that we make ourselves present to him (quoting Elihu again - who for the first time reflects this verb of assembly in the frame-story in the poem) - not for hope of future salvation, but for the gift of his face. Surely this presence dissolves even the accuser. What more universal salvation would you wish for?

Here's a link to the pdf with Hebrew side by side.

Anonymous said...

Suzanne - You might find this interesting:


He used to be a universalist.

God Bless,
R. Rao

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Fantastic comments! These will all stimulate me to think further about this topic. I did read some of Robin's posts - good points.

I was raised to view universalists as non-Christians, so I am exploring the way that universalism relates to both ministry and to the scriptures.

Thanks for responding to my thoughts on this.

Kevin Knox said...

Hello Suzanne,

I'm afraid I cannot compete with the comments already here, but I wanted to go in a slightly different direction.

> Is a universalist a Christian?

This question is a non-sequitor, like, "Is an evolutionist an atheist?" There may be a trend, but it's not a cause. Theology doesn't cause life any more than biological sciences cause birth.

> Is a universalist just as motivated to help others as those who believe in limited atonement?

This question, though, is excellent. Good theology will result in good action, in the same way biological sciences cause safer birth.

It would seem that universalism would result in more generous love, since every single person you reject will eventually end up in heaven. There's no untouchable class of "the reprobate" for a universalist. For that reason, I'd love to be a universalist.

Still, Jesus does not seem to have been one Himself. With all His talk of judgements and burnings, He seems to have been quite set against some people. And I don't see a single time He says those who spend time in the outer darkness and eventually in fire ever are redeemed from that fire.

And that's in keeping with God's character displayed toward Israel. He's long-suffering, but He's not blind to their cheating. Eventually He rejects Israel.

George MacDonald held to a "second chance" kind of universalism. He had people being advanced from this life to another and another (apparently in other realms) until they were finally redeemed (and Lilith was redeemed last.)

I can only accept George as a God-fearing lover of Christ. I think he misses some points in coming up with that plan, but that's OK. He's thinks I miss some in mine, too. It's loving and submitting to Christ that makes us both believers, not either of us being closer to right about the way things behind God's curtain really happen.

Bob MacDonald said...

Kevin writes: With all His talk of judgements and burnings, He seems to have been quite set against some people. And I don't see a single time He says those who spend time in the outer darkness and eventually in fire ever are redeemed from that fire.

Kevin, I think the division between the wicked and the righteous is much deeper than an 'other fire' image. The destruction of the wicked is an ancient human topic and a common religious topic. The problem is distinguishing who is who. Jesus has accomplished redemption by destroying both the wicked and the righteous in himself through his own death. Either this is true or not. If it is not, then the redemption in his death is incomplete. The eternal fire burns right there - its worm never dies - it is always available for the destruction of the flesh for us all - it is the means whereby we walk in Christ - and the means of approach and entry - for all. The fire of judgment is the same fire as the fire of love. Ultimately none of us will be estranged from it, yet all of us are born into an estrangement from it.

The death of Jesus is intimated as the solution to our conundrum throughout the TNK - I have seen it especially clearly in the Psalms and in my slow reading of Job. The problem with modern exclusivist Christians is that they do not have a gospel in their proclamation. They proclaim words based on individual understanding and by their understanding they exclude anyone who doesn't think like them. This is a form of nonsense and a false walk. Even in their theology they are 'shut up in their own disobedience'. In other words, even 'the saved' need this real salvation - and it is not as cheap as holding a doctrine without action.

No one is redeemed from that fire - all are redeemed through it.

Margaret Mary said...

Thomas Talbott's book, The Inescapable Love of God, is an overview of Universal Reconciliation. Talbott lists an inconsistent set of 3 propositions that led him to become a believer in Universal Reconciliation. These are:
1) It is God's redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;

2) It is within God's power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;

3) Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.

Talbott unpacks all the scriptures that support each proposition. For anyone trying to grasp the logic behind universal reconciliation, this is an excellent primer.

CD-Host said...

10 texts (4%) "Gehenna"
26 (10%) to "burning up"
59 (22%) to "destruction, perdition, utter loss or ruin"
20 (8%) to "separation from God"
25 (10%) to "death in its finality" or "the second death"
108 (41%) to "unforgiven sin", where the precise consequence is not stated
15 (6%) to "anguish"
1 (0%) Revelation 14:11 = eternal torment.

I'm with the adventists on this one, I think the bible teaches annihilationism and frankly it is the vastly more moral doctrine than eternal torment.

Kevin Knox said...

Both MacDonalds think I've missed a little something in my thinking. :-)

Bob MacDonald said...

Ah K, but is 'thinking' what is important? Torah is to be done - it is a walk - an action - at every moment, a face without judgment.

Allan Popa said...

//... Is a universalist a Christian, and is a universalist just as motivated to help others as those who believe in limited atonement?...//

There's a danger in universalism that it carries such imperialist overtones which neglect the rich faith traditions of other religions. If offers a singular system which shows no respect for the theology of other faiths but subjects all people unto itself. I'm in favour of religious pluralism and not universalism.

One of the reasons why Evangelicals will not accept universalism is that they fit a particular Bible in one single hermeneutical matrix (rather than many), and expect a consistant and singular vision therein (rather than many). Thus, when they read passages that can be interpreted in what appears to be a universalist soteriology, or even an annihilationist soteriology, they take solace in holding the entire collection of books together and returning to their proof texts.

I don't think that the argument: "Universalism is Scriptural" is a good enough reason to run with it. In the same respects one could argue that Arianism is Scriptural or Montanism is Scriptural (they've both got Scriptural basis). What needs to be examined is the Wirkungsgeschichte in the history of Christian theology, to see what sort of basis there is for particular points of view. I personally can't imagine that "Scripture" and "Tradition" are two distinct entities.