Will everyone one day be saved? Is hell only temporary, if it exists at all? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the historic Christian commitment to the conversion of the world to Christ would appear to be somewhat silly. Why go to such effort and expense trying to persuade people that Jesus is the only way if they all will see that eventually anyway? Why risk offending people—especially those who follow other religious traditions—with the presumption that their way is insufficient without knowledge of Jesus Christ if we will all one day enjoy the full truth in peace and joy?
For most of the twentieth century, belief in universal salvation was found primarily among liberal Protestants or otherwise-orthodox Protestant and Catholic thinkers influenced by Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Recently, however, evangelicals have started to make their own proposals to advance this view. This article outlines the arguments of the major proponents of universalism in the last century and then critically analyzes them. It closes by briefly commenting on the danger of universalism.
1. A Brief History of Universalism
But before we look at recent claims for universalism, it would be well to sketch its history briefly.2 Overall, it is a short one. That is, the notion that all will or might be saved has come into vogue among a significant number of major theologians only since the mid-twentieth century. There was not a hint of universalism in the first two centuries of Christianity. Then in the next three centuries there were some noted proponents of the notion, but they were in the minority. Many Greek Fathers such as Irenaeus (d. ca. 200), Basil (d. ca. 379), and Cyril of Jerusalem (d. ca. 387) said that hell would be the destiny for most human beings.
Origen’s (d. ca. 254) doctrine of apokatastasis (the restoration of all beings to their original state in God) seems to imply a rudimentary form of universalism.3 Theophilus of Alexandria (d. 412) took issue with Origen’s teaching, and Basil the Great rejected his brother Gregory of Nyssa’s (d. ca. 394) version of the same.4 Augustine (d. 430) attacked it with gusto in the City of God, and in the anathemas published after the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (553), it was condemned in no uncertain words: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.”5
Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked. A sampling includes the Athanasian Creed (early sixth century); the Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 1 (1215 A.D.); the Augsburg Confession, ch. 17 (1530 A.D.); the Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 26 (1564 A.D.); the Dordrecht Confession, art. 18 (1632 A.D.); and the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 33 (1646)—as well as many later denominational statements of faith from the seventeenth century onward.6 The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.
There were ripples of interest in universalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Socinians, Deists, and Enlightenment philosophes doubted the traditional doctrine of hell. Then in the nineteenth century the father of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), challenged the teaching on hell by suggesting that divine election was corporate, not individual. Thus, anticipating Barth, Schleiermacher intimated that all human beings were elected for salvation.7 Later in the nineteenth century, Scottish novelist and poet George MacDonald (1824–1905) suggested that the fire of God’s love would burn away sin and impurity in some sort of purgatorial state after death. Significantly, MacDonald’s disciple C. S. Lewis elected not to follow his master’s lead.8
Already by the mid-twentieth century, fewer people in the West accepted traditional teaching on hell so that the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was able to observe, “Hell is neither so certain nor so hot as it used to be.”9 Prominent theologians too rejected the idea of eternal damnation and began to teach various forms of universalism. The most influential has been Karl Barth (1886–1968), the great Reformed theologian from Switzerland. Barth taught that all human beings were both damned and elected in Christ and that the damnation took place on the cross. The mystery of salvation is not that some are saved, as Augustine and the Reformers taught, but that some sin against grace and reject salvation. Yet we have reason to hope for the salvation of all because there is always more grace in God than sin in us. Barth insisted that we cannot say that all are saved because such a statement is a theological abstraction divorced from the particularities of the biblical witness to Jesus Christ.10 Yet most of Barth’s interpreters conclude that Barth’s theological logic points to universalism, and this was exactly the conclusion reached by those influenced by Barth: John A. T. Robinson, Jacques Ellul, Jan Bonda, Eberhard Jüngel, and Jürgen Moltmann.11
From a quite different perspective, theologian and philosopher John Hick advocated universalism as the only credible response to the vexing problem of evil and suffering: only if ultimately all are saved can we believe in a God of love.12
Some twentieth-century Catholic theologians also questioned the traditional Catholic doctrine of hell. Jacques Maritain speculated that there might be a limbo (without punishment) for the damned. Karl Rahner said that we have no clear revelation that anyone is damned forever and that we must uphold God’s universal salvific will. Hans Urs von Balthasar opined that we have an obligation to hope for the salvation of all. Even Pope John Paul II speculated that hell is not a punishment but a condition of those who separate themselves from God and that we do not know if humans are actually damned in the ways that traditional belief conceived.13 Yet more recent Catholic statements from the Vatican have shown greater adherence to traditional eschatology. Dominus Iesus (2000) warns that those in other religions who do not accept the gospel face an “obstacle to salvation” that puts them “in a gravely deficient situation.”14 The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “the existence of hell and its eternity” and that those who die in a state of mortal sin “suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’”15 Commenting on statements such as these, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles remarked on the “thoughtless optimism” of previous and contemporary theologians.16
In Eastern Orthodoxy, the story has been similar. For most of its history, its official documents have taught two destinations for humans: heaven and hell. Only since the 1970s have two Orthodox theologians begun to call for a revised view—Kallistos Ware and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Russia.17
Evangelicals and Pentecostals are newcomers to this conversation. Robin Parry, sometimes under the penname of Gregory MacDonald, has brought out a number of volumes dedicated to “evangelical universalism,” which includes several varieties but all of which agree that ultimately God will save all through the work of Christ.18 Parry argues that neither orthodoxy nor evangelicalism need preclude universalism; in other words, an evangelical and orthodox Christian can embrace universalism without a sense of theological incoherence. Yet in what is perhaps his most interesting volume, Parry edits a variety of essays on universalists who are theologically unorthodox (Schleiermacher, Robinson, and Hick, for example) or un-evangelical (Julian of Norwich, Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann).19 Thomas Talbott is an evangelical philosopher whose work on universalism has attracted wide attention.20 In 2012 megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, which implicitly recommends a hopeful universalism (like Balthasar’s: we can hope without knowing for sure), sparked a perfect storm of controversy both within and without the evangelical world.21 Time magazine featured the book on one of its covers. If evangelicals had not known that some of its theologians and pastors had been challenging traditional eschatology, this new book made them suddenly aware.
2. Three Ways That Universalists Treat Biblical Texts on Eternal Punishment and Banishment
How do universalists make their case? It might be helpful first to examine three ways they have interpreted the many biblical texts that speak of eternal punishment and banishment from God’s presence. Some of these are overlapping, but all three represent different ways of interpreting problem texts.
A first group believes that these texts mean something other than what appears on the surface. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, for example, believed that texts about the fires of hell refer to the fire of God’s love, which will purge sinners of their impurities over the course of many lives.22 Karl Rahner maintained that “hell” is simply a metaphor for lostness. Emil Brunner thought that texts talking about two destinations for sinners are not intended to give theoretical information but are existential invitations to sinners to come out of a state of perdition.23 For Brunner and others, these are threats, not predictions—like the exasperated mother warning her son, “If you don’t clean up your room right now, I’ll kill you!” She does not really mean it but hopes it will motivate her son to change.
A second group of universalist interpreters thinks that the biblical authors really did mean that there would be eternal punishment for the wicked, but they conclude that these authors were simply mistaken. They were benighted by what Schleiermacher called the “alleviating influence of custom” and so were prevented from seeing straight.24 Ancient culture was not as clear-eyed as modern sensibility. If the ancient authors had really understood the implications of what they did see about God’s love, they would not have sketched eschatology as they did.
A last group sees two different themes in Scripture and regards them as paradoxical. So Barth taught that Scripture teaches both that God elected all in Christ and that some reject that election, which is the greatest mystery of all.25 It is a paradox that we can hope that God finally resolves. For German Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, the paradox of God’s damnation of some and universal will to save must remain an open question. For Emil Brunner these two conflicting strands of teaching are incompatible. John A. T. Robinson said that universal restoration and final division are the NT’s two eschatological myths, the reconciliation of which is paradoxical.26 In the end God’s omnipotent love will break the deadlock by forcing everyone to a free choice prompted by that love.
3. Three Positive Arguments That Universalists Use
If these are three basic ways of construing texts that pose problems for universalism, there are also three kinds of positive arguments universalists use—philosophical, theological, and biblical.
3.1. Philosophical Arguments
The philosophical is best represented by evangelical Thomas Talbott, who sets out three philosophico-theological axioms: (1) God is love and therefore must love all his creatures, not just some; (2) if God is love, he must will the salvation of all he loves, which means all his human creatures; and (3) since God is all-powerful, he will achieve all his purposes, which includes the salvation of all. Talbott considers the objection that this might override the freedom of those creatures, but responds that once they are fully informed of God’s offer, all humans will realize that to reject the offer would be irrational. Thus they will accept freely, without coercion.27 Parry adds that those in hell must have a second chance to repent since a God of love would not refuse one who repents and calls for help, no matter where that one is.28
3.2. Theological Arguments
Universalists’ theological warrants are various, but nearly all of them come down to an argument from divine love. This is very similar to the philosophical arguments for universalism, but whereas Talbott argues that logic forbids an eternal hell, Parry and others focus on the meaning of love for theological understandings of God’s nature. As Parry puts it, “Any view of hell as purely retributive punishment brings God’s justice and wrath into serious conflict with God’s love and is in danger of dividing the divine nature.” But even when Parry considers that traditional eschatology might attribute other reasons for hell than simply retribution, including eternal conscious torment makes it “very hard to square with God’s love for the damned.”29 The only way that some universalists can accept hell is to think of it as therapeutic and therefore temporary—progressive and restorative rather than punitive and final. For God’s compassion and love, they aver, would never permit a soul’s final exclusion from the company of the redeemed.
3.3. Biblical Arguments
Universalists believe that the Bible supports their view. They point to a number of biblical texts that seem to predict the salvation of all. For example, Jesus claims, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32),30 and Paul declares, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).31 They also proffer NT texts that seem to announce God’s intention to save all (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) and others that they see linking the cross of Christ to the salvation of all, such as Heb 2:9: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”32
4. Critical Examination
Now let us critically examine these arguments for universal salvation. A full response is impossible here, and in any event we must tread carefully since there is much we simply do not understand about God’s love and mercy, not to mention his wrath and judgment.33 There is mystery here, and we must avoid speculation that conflicts with what Scripture clearly attests. But several brief comments are in order.
4.1 Freedom to Reject God
First, Talbott’s argument from God’s love to universal salvation problematically assumes that all people will freely respond positively to God’s love. Why should we accept this assumption? Many have argued that significant freedom must include the freedom ultimately to reject God, thereby choosing for oneself the terrible reality of hell.34 Philosopher Jerry Walls thoughtfully responds to Talbott’s case for universalism: “A person can so deceive himself into believing evil is good, or at least holds sufficient advantage to be gained, that he comes to the point where he consistently and thoroughly prefers evil to good.”35 In such cases, it is plausible to believe that God will allow the person the evil reality he prefers, an awful reality apart from God’s presence (i.e., hell).36
4.2 Abstracting God’s Attributes
Second, the theological argument based on love has come under fire from assorted critics for abstracting that divine attribute from others such as justice.37 No good reason is given for preferring love to justice in the order of divine attributes, except the modern sentimentalist presumption that love must finally prevail over justice. Besides, some argue, the very idea that love prevails over justice misunderstands the nature of God and replaces the biblical vision of divine love with a modern sentimentalist one. Moreover, if the biblical authors are right, divine love is very different from human love. It is a love that is fiercely holy and not averse to punishment. The same Jesus who emphasizes the importance of love also says, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).
Karl Barth was right to reject theological abstractions in eschatology that are divorced from the concrete revelation of God in Christ. But when he rests his hopeful universalism (we may or should hope for the salvation of all) on the knowledge that there is always more grace in God than in us and that God is free to enlarge “the circle of redemption,” he embraces his own sort of abstraction—that God’s freedom and election will always prevail over human resistance. Barth compared willful blindness and deafness to a dam against a rising and surging stream. “But the stream is too strong and the dam too weak for us to be able reasonably to expect anything but the collapse of the dam and the onrush of the waters.”38 Barth’s point here seems to be similar to Talbott’s noted above and thus faces the problem Walls articulates in his response to Talbott. Moreover, it seems to be at odds with the actual biblical witness, which Barth insisted should direct theology. To this witness we now turn.
4.3 OT Judgments That Hardened Hearts
We have seen that universalists stress the restorative function of God’s justice. They also highlight OT texts that emphasize repentance and mercy after threats of judgment. So, for example, some point to Jonah’s delivery of God’s message that Nineveh would be overturned in forty days. The result was not destruction but restoration. Nineveh repented, and the promised destruction never ensued—at least at that time.39 Others point to Judah’s exile to Babylon, which led eventually to repentance and return to both God and the land.40 They also cite Egypt, Assyria, and Elam, all of whom were judged with punishment but were later given or promised mercy and blessing.41
But traditional eschatologists point out that the OT contains hundreds of stories and passages that feature judgment, illustrating vividly that the God of Israel is “judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25). The prophets regularly spoke of two different outcomes, depending on the behavior of Israel and the nations. Rewards were contingent on obedience. Judah and the nations mentioned above received mercy as well as judgment, but there were others such as Babylon and Edom who received only judgment. They were said to be perpetual wastes, symbols of eternal destruction.42 Therefore some judgment in the OT led to softening the heart and to restoration. But other judgments hardened hearts, and the fate of those hearts mirrored that of the generation of Jews who came out of Egypt and “fell” in the wilderness because they never changed in repentance. They were like those Jeremiah criticized for refusing “to take correction. . . . they have refused to repent”; as a result God “struck them down” (Jer 5:3).
4.4 Two Different NT Outcomes
The Gospels present a similar eschatology of two different outcomes. The evidence is overwhelming. As NT scholar Richard Bauckham wrote in his survey of universalist thought, “Few would now doubt that many New Testament texts clearly teach a final division of mankind into saved and lost, and the most that universalists now commonly claim is that alongside these texts there are others which hold out a universalist hope (e.g., Eph 1:10; Col 1:20).”43 I. Howard Marshall, another NT scholar, argues that the NT authors both teach and assume that there is a double outcome for humanity and that this outcome is final.44 Jesus said that he would deny before the Father those who denied him during their lives (Matt 10:33) and that many would seek to enter the kingdom but would not be able (Luke 13:24). In his parables of the wheat and the tares and the dragnet, he said that some would be excluded from his kingdom (Matt 13:24–30, 36–43, 47–50). He taught that there is an eternal sin that cannot be forgiven (Mark 3:28–30). The foolish bridesmaids and those indifferent to the needy would be given chilling sentences: “I do not know you. . . . Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:12, 41). Luke says that Jesus stressed repentance and warned that some would knock but be told by the master of the house, “Depart from me, you workers of evil” (Luke 13:25–28).
Was the judgment Jesus proclaimed only temporary and thus restorative? In Matt 25:41, Jesus says that he will send the goats to the same place he will send the devil and his angels: “the eternal fire.” Orthodox Christians have always believed and taught that all of Scripture is inspired by the same Spirit so that the book of Revelation is divinely inspired just as are the Gospels. Revelation speaks of the smoke of the fire of hell that goes up “forever and ever” (Rev 14:11; 20:10). Universalists object that the word for “forever” (aiōnios) means only “age-long.” Yet it is used in the Gospels in the phrase “eternal life,” where clearly the meaning is life that goes on forever.45 Aiōnios also occurs in the Gospel phrases “eternal weight of glory,” “eternal glory,” “eternal covenant,” and “eternal gospel,” all of which seem to denote things that go on without end. In the words of the early-nineteenth-century scholar Moses Stuart, “We must either admit the endless misery of hell or give up the endless happiness of heaven.”46 We concur with Scot McKnight in his conclusion that Jesus clearly taught “punishment in an individual, eternal, sense.”47
Nor does the rest of the NT support universalism. The Gospel of John never mentions hell, but the theme of judgment is pervasive throughout (cf. John 3:19–21, 36; 17:3). Judgment begins now when people fail to believe the gospel message; they bring judgment on themselves. Jesus evokes two responses—welcome from those who embrace him and refusal from those who reject him or are indifferent to him. Faith is needed to come into the eternal life he offers in his person; there is no automatic entry.
4.5 Favorite Pauline Passages
The Pauline epistles are more challenging, for they have always offered to universalists more apparent support than any other part of the Bible. Yet at the same time the Pauline epistles contain eighty references to divine judgment.48 Nevertheless, universalists point to the texts that use the word “all,” such as Rom 5:18, one of their favorites: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” The interpretive problem in the whole passage, which runs from verses 12 to 21, is that Paul uses two different terms for the same group: both “many” (vv. 15, 16, 19) and “all” (vv. 12, 18). So “all” are also “many”—not a conclusive case for universalism. Paul probably uses “all” in the way the author of Joshua does when he writes that “all Israel stoned Achan” (Josh 7:25). A small representative portion of Israel participated in the stoning.49
Another favorite for universalists is Phil 2:19–11: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It seems to affirm universal salvation in its depiction of every knee bowing to the lordship of Jesus. But it is important to recognize that this is almost a direct quote from Isa 45:22–25:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.”
Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
to him shall come and be ashamed
all who were incensed against him.
In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
shall be justified and shall glory.
The context in Isaiah is a speech by Yahweh declaring his reality against the unreality of the gods of the nations.50 Those of Israel who trust in him shall not be put to shame (Isa 45:17), but those who trust in other gods will be ashamed (Isa 45:24). These are people “incensed against him” (Isa 45:24). This was a familiar picture to residents of the ancient world: conquering kings and generals would return from battle with their prisoners of war who would be forced to bend their knees in subjection to the victor. The native subjects of those kings and generals would also bend the knee, but in joyous submission. Yahweh’s speech ends with a prediction of destructive fire for those who do not submit to his reality and reign (Isa 47:14–15).51 The language in Phil 2 about every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus as Lord must be understood in light of the background to Isa 45. In the NT in general and in the Pauline letters in particular, then, there is a prediction of future universal submission that takes place in two different ways: there is voluntary submission for some and involuntary submission for others.
Two other notes are instructive for this brief discussion. First, the declaration that God desires all to be saved in 1 Tim 2:4 is qualified by warnings in the same epistle that faith is necessary for salvation (1 Tim 1:16; 4:10). Second, the eternal destruction of the wicked in 2 Thess 1 is retributive, not restorative or remedial. Why will the wicked “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9)? Two reasons are given: “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thess 1:6). Furthermore, the punishment inflicts “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). Robin Parry acknowledges that this text is a problem for universalists.52 For this punishment is said to be both eternal and vindictive. No restoration is in sight.
4.6 The Book of Revelation
The book of Revelation adds to the problems for universalists. The God portrayed in these apocalyptic dramas does not try to persuade unbelievers, waiting forever until they accept his loving offer, as many universalist accounts suggest. Instead, the God of Revelation attacks, defeats, and subjugates his enemies. Nor do we read, as some universalists claim, that every tribe is redeemed. It is only some from (ek) every tribe who are redeemed (Rev 5:9; 7:9). This is what Michael McClymond calls “representative universalism,” which is the pattern many have observed in the OT—people from all the nations (but not all of the people in all the nations) will join Israel in the latter days to worship the true God.53 For the biblical and especially NT authors, hell is not a problem but a solution. It helps answer the question, “Why does God permit evil to continue unpunished?” Rather than create a problem for theodicy, as it does for moderns, hell for the ancients was a solution to difficult problems of theodicy. People of God in biblical books like Habakkuk, Job, and Revelation—not to mention Matthew—struggle with God’s patience in permitting sin and wickedness but seldom with his judgment on evildoers. For them, the ultimate horror of the universe is not the suffering of the wicked but the suffering of the innocent because of the oppression of the wicked.
Universalism is attractive to many because of modern presumptions about love and justice that were not shared by the biblical authors. The philosophical and theological underpinnings of universalism do not survive careful scrutiny, and the biblical witness is to an eschatology that flatly contradicts it. But it is not simply its shaky theological and biblical moorings that should cause the church to reject universalism. It is also dangerous.
The church is now facing an aggressive and hegemonic secularism that is at war with both Christian anthropology and public theism. The new secularism says that religion is only incidental to the human being, perhaps even alienating, and therefore a private matter that should be kept out of the public square. Hence the claims of conscience, especially those that religious persons make, are irrelevant to government policy that regulates public not private affairs.
Many evangelicals, not to mention John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have taught that the church’s best response to this new secularism is a robustly evangelical response—a new evangelization that includes both the promise of salvation to individuals and the counter-cultural witness to life and freedom through the public claims of the church.
But the new evangelization for the conversion of the world will founder if Christians believe that there is no need for conversion. This has happened before. When universalism captured the theological heights of liberal Protestantism in the mid-twentieth century, few were surprised when in 1973 the World Council of Churches declared a moratorium on missions. Instead of those churches converting the world for the gospel, the world converted the churches to its vision of sexual and gender liberation. A new complacency settled over the world of mainline Protestantism, replacing the urgency of the nineteenth-century missionary movement that sparked the spectacular growth of Christianity in the global South. At the time, it seemed to make sense. If everyone would eventually be saved, why risk lives and reputations to get them saved now? And if spiritual salvation was not urgent, why not focus on social liberation from poverty and oppression?
The same lethargy will come to Christian churches if the new universalism prevails. Although historic orthodoxy has always held that eternal salvation and earthly justice are inextricably connected, Christians will focus nearly exclusively on this-worldly justice once the need for conversion has been jettisoned. Many Christians have already come to that conclusion. The result will be a lost opportunity. Just when orthodoxy has gained new strength in the global South and parts of the North, momentum will slowly change direction. The new evangelization will sputter and a new Dark Age for orthodoxy will ensue.