Do all roads lead to the same place? In the end, will everyone be saved? I’ve written one blog post on the view known as annihilationism or conditionalism, which asserts that after being justly punished, some will cease to exist. In this post I will explain the view called universalism, and in particular Christian universalism.
Universalism is the belief that in the end all will be saved and enjoy eternal bliss. Christian universalism agrees that all will be saved but adds to the affirmative statement two concepts: eventually and in Christ. First, according to the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, there will be a period of purification or judgment for all and the process will involve pain, but eventually all will come through the refining process. Second, Christian universalism affirms that the salvation of all occurs in Christ and through faith in Christ. Christian universalism is explained and defended in the following books:
- The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott
- Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield
- The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald
- The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis by Ilaria Ramelli (This is a 900-page scholarly work on the topic and it focuses on the New Testament and the church fathers. You can listen to the author being interviewed on youtube. She is planning to publish a popular, condensed version soon.)
Hopeful Christian universalism is the less-confident version of Christian universalism. According to hopeful universalism, Scripture gives us enough reason to hope for the salvation of all, but not enough reason to be certain that all will be saved. Hopeful Christian universalism is presented in the following two books:
- Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
- Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak
From reading those books, I will list the strongest arguments, as I see them, for Christian universalism below. Before I begin, let me state that my goal is to explain universalism as fairly as possible. I am not attempting to critique it. For a basic biblical critique see the support for annihilationism in the post mentioned above. (Loc. indicates Kindle location. All Bible quotations are from the NIV, 2011. Highlights are mine.)
I. The Love of God
John writes, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16). Therefore God cannot be unloving to anyone. God has expressed his love for the entire world in the giving of his Son (Jn. 3:16). And God’s love was even expressed toward his enemies. Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Paul’s statement matches Jesus’ teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to love our enemies even as our Father in heaven loves his enemies (Matt 5:44-48). While God has the right to judge his enemies, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jam 2:13).
The compassionate nature of God is a clear teaching in the Old Testament as well. The Psalmist writes,
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever (Ps 103:8-9; cf. Ps. 30:5; Is 54:7-8; 57:16)
For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone. (Lam. 3:31-33)
Admittedly, certain passages appear to teach that God’s judgment will be the final word spoken to sinners (e.g., “Away from me, you evildoers” Matt 7:23). But these passages and many others clearly teach that God’s anger is temporary. God will not “harbor his anger forever,” therefore God’s anger will not have the final say in his relationship with us. The following three points flow out of the argument from God’s loving nature.
1. God desires to save all
- This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4)
- he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Pet 3:9)
- Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? . . . For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezek 18:23, 32)
- By combining data from the last two chapters of the Bible (Rev 21-22), Jersek sees the invitation given in Revelation 22:17 as an expression of God’s desire to save all. “The simple math of the New Jerusalem Gospel is beautiful and powerful, even surprising: The wicked are outside the city + the gates of the city will never be shut + the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’ = hope!” (Loc. 3614).
2. God plans to save, reconcile, and unify all in Christ
Note the references to all and every in the verses below. And the contexts shows that all means all.
- Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience,so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Rom 11:30-32)
- For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:22-28)
- With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Eph 1:8-10)
- For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:19-20)
- Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)
On the idea of all things being made subject to Christ, Talbott comments, “For so long as a single will remains in a state of rebellion against Christ, so long as a single person is able to cling to his or her hatred of God, at least one power in the universe—the power of that person’s will—is not yet in subjection to Christ.” (Loc. 1383)
Regarding every knee bowing, Talbott writes, “In any case, those who bow before Jesus Christ and declare openly that he is Lord either do so sincerely and by their own choice or they do not. If they do so sincerely and by their own choice, then there can be but one reason—they too have been reconciled to God. And if they do not do so sincerely and by their own choice, if they are instead forced to make obeisance against their will, then their actions are merely fraudulent and bring no glory to God.” (Loc. 1398).
If Talbott is correct that everyone will genuinely and willingly confess that Jesus is Lord then there seems to be hope that everyone will be saved because Paul stated, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10).
3. God acts to save all in Christ
- John writes, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29).
- Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32).
- Paul writes, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom 5:18). Talbott comments, “According to Paul, in other words, we no more choose to experience the beneficial effects of Christ’s one act of righteousness than we chose to experience the destructive effects of Adam’s disobedience.” (Loc. 1245).
- For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Tim 2:5-6)
- He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn 2:2)
II. The Power of God
God has the power to accomplish what he desires and plans to accomplish.
- Jeremiah says, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (32:17).
- Jesus says, “all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27).
- so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Is 55:11)
III. The Nature of Divine Judgment = Refining or Correcting
According to Christian universalism, the love and power of God are the solid pillars upon which universalism stands. But what about all of the references to judgment and punishment in the Bible? According to Talbott, references to divine judgment should be understood as redemptive ideas (Loc. 2015). Malachi’s statement is used as support for this view of judgment.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness. (Mal 3:2-3)
Similarly, Jesus and Paul taught that the fire will test and purify everyone (Mk 9:49; 1 Cor 3:10-15). The fire’s purpose, then, is not to torture or destroy but to refine. But that doesn’t mean judgment will be painless. God’s redemptive judgment will be a painful process for those who have not been crucified with Christ because it will involve the destruction of their old person and false self (Talbott, Loc. 2107). As Paul says, “for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” (Rom 2:8-9).
Defining Punishment (Greek: Kolasis)
In addition, the Greek words used for punishment emphasize a refining and correcting process not retributive punishment. Kolasis is the Greek word commonly translated as punishment in the New Testament. It is used in Jesus’ statement, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46).
Had penal retribution been intended, Matthew could have used the applicable Greek word, timōreō/timōria (Acts 22:5; 26:11; Heb 10:29). Instead, he chose the restorative term kolasis, usually [over]translated as punishment, but which actually carries a connotation of corrective discipline or chastisement. The Greek word for punish and punishment appears just three times in the NT . . . Our common version translates two Greek words, timōreō, “punish,” and kalazō, “chastise,” with the same English word, “punish.” Chastising carries the idea of correcting with a view to amendment of one’s mistakes, while punishment is penal action. These two words were defined by Aristotle in his Rhet. 1, 10, 17, as, “kolasis is corrective, timōria alone is the satisfaction of the inflictor.” (Loc. 633)
Talbott quotes William Barclay, “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment” (Loc. 1807).
Defining Eternal (Greek: Aionias)
But what about eternal punishment? Didn’t Jesus say, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46)? Does that mean the correcting or refining will continue forever? The definition of the Greek word aionias also must be modified. It does not primarily refer to duration but to quality. Technically in the Greek eternal punishment it is age-to-come punishment and eternal life is age-to-come life.
Jersak agrees with N.T. Wright’s understanding of aionion:
Thus, for Wright, aiōnion addresses the question of “when” rather than “how long.” Whatever the judgment or punishment is, it belongs to aiōnion, in the age to come. This resonates with me and does justice to the passage, reinforcing Jesus’ central point: how you live in this age impacts your life in the next age. (Loc. 612)
Talbott quotes Barclay again,
The essence of the word aiōnios is that it is the word of the eternal order as contrasted with the order of this world; it is the word of deity as contrasted with humanity; essentially it is the word which can be properly applied to no one other than God. Aiōnios is the word that describes nothing less and nothing other than the life of God (Loc. 1827).
Defining Gehenna = Valley of Hinnom
Gehenna is the Greek word most commonly translated as “hell” in English Bibles. Gehenna is a word used almost exclusively in the Gospels by Jesus (e.g., Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). Like kolasis and aionias, Gehenna has also been misunderstood. “All of Jesus’ references to Gehenna, which are widely thought by believer and non-believer alike to refer to a Last Judgment at the end of time, are actually about the coming judgment on Israel, Jerusalem and its temple” (Jersak, Loc. 4083). And “It is a grim fact of history that when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and the temple, culminating in its destruction, one generation later, the dead who were thrown from the city walls literally piled up in the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, Hell” (Loc. 4105). (For more on the word gehenna see this blog post.)
IV. The Possibility of Postmortem Salvation
If the opportunity to repent, express faith, and be saved is limited to this life alone, then it’s difficult to see how many people who die without expressing faith will be saved. And everything that has been said about the love and power of God would be rendered void. But if the opportunity to repent and believe remains after death, the door is open to the possibility of all being saved at some point. And many early church fathers held out the hope of salvation for those who had died in a state of unrepentance. (For the arguments for postmortem salvation from the Bible and the early church fathers read this post.)
V. Support from early Church Fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy
“Although Origen was later condemned for his alleged doctrine of “the restoration of all things,” others among the most influential Fathers were never condemned, even though they openly advocated the apokatastasis—as did Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, and Jerome prior to his feud with Rifinus—or, more discreetly, propagated it as something that only mature Christians could accept, as did Gregory Nazianzen and Maximus the Confessor.” (Jersak, Loc. 2650)
“God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than death of the sinner, and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.” – Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215)
“One of the most powerful early voices in support of such a view was St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330–c. 395), who taught that, like a refiner’s furnace, the fires of hell will eventually purge sinners of all that is false within them, so that ‘after long ages, they may be restored to God in their purity.'” (Talbott, Loc. 374)
“Currently, the Orthodox Churches allow belief in universalism as an acceptable personal opinion, though it may not be taught as dogma. To some extent this reflects the very high regard that the Orthodox have for Gregory of Nyssa.” (MacDonald, Loc., 4961)
A Final Issue
But what about the human will? Will God force people to accept him? Or will God allow people to persist in their rebellion? As a hopeful universalist, this consideration leads Jersak to refrain from presuming either way, but God’s love leads him to hope.
The question, to which no final answer is given or can be given, is this: Will he who refuses it now refuse it to the last? To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”. It is the answer of the infernalists. The second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of the first series of statements from Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal. (Jersak, Loc. 3124)
Talbott goes the next step and quotes Barclay,
The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by God and in love with God. (Loc. 2732)
This post has been revised and included in my new book Surprised by Hell: Unexpected Discoveries in the Bible and Church History.