Many people reject Christian Universalism out of hand as heresy, as something outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Whether I would have labelled it as “heresy” or not, I certainly saw it in the past as an option no genuine Christian could take. I’ve been researching universalism quite a bit lately, and I must say I’m now convinced otherwise. The following thoughts are for the most part, taken from “Towards a better understanding of universalism”, the first chapter, written by Thomas Talbott, in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. I’ve sprinkled in some of my own thoughts and rewordings, but the ideas are mostly Talbott’s.
Consider the following three propositions:
1. God’s love for everyone means that he sincerely desires the redemption and salvation of every single human.
2. Because of God’s sovereignty and his irresistable grace, God will triumph and successfully redeem all those he sincerely desires to redeem.
3. Some humans will never be redeemed, but will instead be forever separated from God.
Two things are important to note about these three propositions:
a) One can find, prima facie (on first sight), support for all three of these propositions within scripture.
b) These three propositions are exclusive in that one can believe any two of them, but not believe all three. Believing any two of these statements requires that the other one is false.
So knowing that one of these is to be rejected, which one do we reject? Calvinists reject Proposition 1. The Calvinist believes that God predestined some to salvation, and also predestined the rest to Hell. In the Calvinist view, God does not desire all to be redeemed. The Arminian rejects Proposition 2. For the Arminian, the free will given by God means that God will not achieve his desire of redeeming every human, as some will not find his grace irresistable and will reject God. The Universalist, on the other hand, rejects Proposition 3. The Universalist accepts that God desires all to be saved, and also accepts that God will be triumphant in all his purposes in the end, and therefore must reject the third proposition, that some humans will find themselves separated from God for eternity.
I find this to be a good framework to see how universalism works and is different than Calvinism and Arminianism. However, it doesn’t quite demonstrate that universalism is not heresy, because if Proposition 3 is the most important of the three propositions to hold, then it could be argued that universalism is heresy. However, my experience is this:
a) Calvinists will not maintain that the doctrine of Hell is more important than that of God’s sovereignty – his ability to accomplish all his purposes. Arminians will not maintain that the doctrine of Hell is more important than that of God’s universal love for all.
b) Calvinists in general do not consider Arminians to be heretics, and Arminians do not in general consider Calvinists to be heretics.
If a Calvinist will not see an Arminian as a heretic despite the Arminian denying that God achieves all His purposes, and if an Arminian will not see a Calvinist as a heretic despite the Calvinist’s denial that God’s love for all entails that he desires all to be saved, then it only follows that neither Calvinists or Arminians can view a universalist as a heretic. The Universalist is denying a doctrine that the Calvinists and Arminians do not see as more important than other doctrines that they do not see as heretical to deny, so calling a Universalist a heretic is inconsistent.
Here are a few of my own thoughts that come out of this:
1. We should not be so quick to kick universalists out of our circle, whether that be Christianity, or evangelicalism, or whatever circle that may be (with the obvious exceptions of Calvinism and Arminianism.) We need to look deeper into someone’s theology than just the universalist label before we tell them, “Farewell.”
2. Universalism is not merely using a half dozen “universalist” texts as the lens to read all other scripture, but is instead a combination of affirming a doctrine that Arminians agree with, also affirming a doctrine that Calvinists agree with, and then coming to the inevitable conclusion that comes from it. In other words, universalism is a belief that (like Arminianism and Calvinism) takes into account large, over-arching themes of scripture, as opposed to one that just looks at a few pieces of scripture out of context, or one that just takes our human desires and projects them onto our image of God, as it is often portrayed to be like.
3. A surface level reading of scripture will not provide an answer to this debate. We cannot just do a battle of proof-texts and come up with the answer. We necessarily have to bring in philosophy, theology, tradition, and reason, to help us resolve it. To just say, “But the Bible clearly says this” is to not understand the problem.
I should clarify that the point of this post isn’t to defend universalism as true, but to demonstrate how it theologically fits in with competing doctrines. I find this particular framework incredibly helpful as I investigate universalism further, and just wanted to share.