Hell Breaks Loose, Part III: Universalism

The topic of universalism is one of growing importance in American Christianity. It is something that has been a topic of recent debate ever since the maelstrom caused by the release of Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins, even though the book is not actually a dogmatic argument for universalism by any means. In any case, people have been less afraid to ask the question “Could God actually save everyone?” There are growing numbers of people who seem more open to this possibility, but why? I think there are many reasons why, and I will spell out a few in this article.

First and foremost, universalism is not heresy. It is entirely possible that it could be wrong, but there is a large difference between being wrong and being a heretic. The way to determine whether or not something is heretical is by referring to ecumenical councils of church history. You cannot say “This is heresy because the Bible says ____.”  That is an incredibly asinine and immature thing for any Christian to say. You are not able to say “The Bible says this,” as the Bible must be interpreted; it is not a set list of brute facts. This is why, for example, in Catholicism, tradition is authoritative as well as Scripture and works in tandem with Scripture, because it provides the means through which the Scriptures are interpreted. Many Evangelicals do not understand that the Bible cannot be read without also being interpreted. At any rate, no ecumenical council has ever broadly condemned universalism as heresy. In the second council of Constantinople, Origen and his teachings were largely written off as heresy (and he did believe some weird things to be sure), and he also happened to be a universalist. But, again, this only condemned a narrow and unique presentation of universalism, not in general. This being said, the overwhelming resistance to universalism is a fairly recent development.

There have been ardent universalists throughout church history who were never condemned as heretics, and some were even canonized as saints. While universalism is certainly a minority voice throughout church history, is not some newly fabricated “liberal false teaching” as many ignorant Christians claim. Some of these include: St. Gregory of Nyssa (the final editor of the Nicene Creed), Clement of Alexandria, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Methodius of Olympus, St. Gregory the Wonderworker, as well as other ancient and medieval figures of the church. There are also more recent Christian theologians who have at least been open to the possibility that God in Christ could and/or would reconcile all people to himself. These include folks such as George MacDonald, Karl Barth, and even our beloved C.S. Lewis entertained the possibility that everyone could be saved through Jesus. Christian universalism is not new, and in various corners of the Christian tradition it has been accepted or at least considered without much controversy.

Upon granting that universalism has been within the Christian tradition since very early on, we must ask: How have people reached this conclusion upon their reading of the Bible? As we have examined previously in my blog on annihilation, there are passages that seem to indicate the God’s future judgement will be final, and annihilationists interpret that to mean that there are individuals who have not been reconciled to Christ, and their existence will be extinguished. However, there are other passages in the Bible seeming to indicate that God’s scope for salvation is for all people and all things. One passage being Colossians 1:20, which reads “Through him (Jesus) God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ's blood on the cross.” It would seem that “all things” (ta panta in Greek) has no qualifiers, nuances, or caveats. If God has made peace with all things through Christ, this seems to imply universalism. The real question is how to take this passage into context with other passages of judgement, and the interpretive challenge is whether the passages of reconciliation will take precedence over the passage of judgement, or vice versa. The annihilationist perspective would say that the total set of “all things” becomes smaller when all that is hostile to God is eliminated and removed from existence. This is a valid interpretive decision. The universalist perspective would say that the judgement of God is what sets all of creation right, and that nothing is lost or eradicated.

There are many other passages that seem to indicate God’s vision of salvation being for all things and all people. Such as the often-overlooked verse John 3:17 “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” Or 1 Corinthians 15:22, which reads: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Is the reality of Adam’s sin universal to all people? Then why would the victory of Christ not be universal to all people? People did not choose to be in Adam, why would people need to choose to be in Christ? Or in John 12:32, in which these words are attributed to Jesus “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” The Greek word for “draw” (helko) more literally means “to drag," seeming to indicate that God will eventually "drag" all people in. People object saying “all” does not actually mean all, and “the world” does not actually mean the whole world, but a simple question: What if it actually does mean what it says?

We could quote isolated passages all day, we could dispute what the best way to interpret them is, we could argue about the context of said passages, and so on. Instead, I think the greatest argument for universalism is the overarching motif of the Bible. God’s promise to Abraham begins in Genesis 12:3, which reads “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The scope of God’s promise includes all of the world. The way Israel’s story begins is that they understand Yahweh to be a tribal deity, not that different from their neighbors’ gods. For example, in Deuteronomy 20:18, the Israelites were allegedly instructed to kill the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivite and the Jebusites. Here, God is presented as not wanting to bless them, but simply wants them to die. It seems that Israel believed God hated all the same people that they did. When you fast forward to the Psalms, we see something quite different. Such as Psalm 86:9, which reads “All the nations, whom you created, will come and worship you, O Lord. They will honor your name.” All the nations. This includes the Amorites, Canaanites, and the rest. Israel eventually began to see that Yahweh is not just a territorial god who only cares for a select group of people, but this God is universally connected to all people in all places. Similarly, another Psalmist writes “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9) God’s mercy is not selective or elitist; it is indiscriminately dispensed to all.

Another instance that this can be seen in is Israel’s relationship with Egypt. After the Red Sea closes and all of the Egyptians are killed, it reads “The Lord delivered Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” (Exodus 14:30) It seems that God was not interested in blessing the Egyptians or saving them, at least from the perspective of the Israelites in how this story is told. However, down the timeline, the prophet Isaiah writes “There will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border.” (Isaiah 19:19) There will be an altar for Yahweh in Egypt? The oppressor of Israel will eventually come alongside Israel and worship their God? The theme here is that, God continues to expand beyond the borders of his people. This all comes to a head in Jesus, as St. Paul once wrote “Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (Ephesians 2:14) There is violent hostility between many people groups today, and the universal rule of God in Christ calls us all to recognize our common humanity and divine image within each of us, and reconcile with God and one another. This could be called “universal reconciliation.” The universal promise made to Abraham ends up being solidified in Jesus.

The main point I am getting at here is that, although the Bible is not monolithic on hell, judgment, and punishment, the overarching motif is that God continually challenges the categories that we have of who is “in” and who is “out.” This should lead us to extend greater hope for all people, and rather than anticipate God condemning the majority of the human race, know that God has always been full of surprises. If God saves everyone, would you honestly be upset? If hell ends up empty, does that bother you? Would you be uncomfortable in God's new creation, sitting down at Christ's table to feast people who were murderers, sex offenders, war criminals, and terrorists? If God ends up not being that generous, then so be it. If God does err on the side of grace (which God has a track record of doing), should we not be glad?

In summation, universalism is, at worst, a strange fringe idea that could potentially be wrong. At best, it is a valid expression of orthodox Christian faith. Even if you are not a universalist, there are beautiful sketches and images of the heart of God that can be found therein. All Christians can gain things from Christian universalism even if they do not believe it to be correct. We should hold out hope that God desires for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), we should affirm that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), and this does not negate the reality of consequence for sin, nor does it mean that we disregard passages about hell, judgement, or any such thing. It means that we must place all things under the living Christ, who is the final Word of God to all things and all people. It is in Christ that God has said “Yes” to all people, and it is in Christ that God has claimed all people as his own, and that is Good News.