The Post You NEED to Read about Universalism

It resides at Keith DeRose’s site.  Keith, often referenced by me, is a philosophy professor at Yale.  Keith has written publicly for years in defense of Christian Universalism, and he regularly corresponds with me privately on the subject.  Rob Bell, at least according to the New York Times, is unlikely to answer many questions on this topic in his forthcoming book:

Judging from an advance copy, the 200-page book is unlikely to assuage Mr. Bell’s critics. In an elliptical style, he throws out probing questions about traditional biblical interpretations, mixing real-life stories with scripture.

Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

No such worries with Keith.  Keith deals straightforwardly and forthrightly with the biblical passages that affirm universalism, and those that contradict it.  No beating around the bush here.

I have taken a brief respite from blogging about the possibility of Christian Universalism as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation (due next Tuesday!).  But when I return to this topic, I will be thinking through the biblical witness on this topic, and I’ll use Keith’s manifesto as my ur-source.  So if all the Rob Bell brouhaha has gotten you thinking about Universalism, read this paragraph, and click through to the rest of Keith’s writing:

I should be clear at the outset about what I’ll mean — and won’t mean — by “universalism.” As I’ll use it, “universalism” refers to the position that eventually all human beings will be saved and will enjoy everlasting life with Christ. This is compatible with the view that God will punish many people after death, and many universalists accept that there will be divine retribution, although some may not. What universalism does commit one to is that such punishment won’t last forever. Universalism is also incompatible with various views according to which some will be annihilated (after or without first receiving punishment). These views can agree with universalism in that, according to them, punishment isn’t everlasting, but they diverge from universalism in that they believe some will be denied everlasting life. Some universalists intend their position to apply animals, and some to fallen angels or even to Satan himself, but in my hands, it will be intended to apply only to human beings. In short, then, it’s the position that every human being will, eventually at least, make it to the party.

via Universalism and the Bible.

UPDATE: Keith has today posted about the term “all” — as in “all will be saved.”

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  • Well, the nice thing about my defense (which is really just notes I wrote up for an adult Bible study many years ago, when I discovered I had more to say than I could fit in an hour), is that it’s on-line where readers can get it right now and for free. But for those looking for a more substantial discussion (but one that’s a nice read), I suggest THE EVANGELICAL UNIVERSALIST, written by Robin Parry (when he was using the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald): It’s great; it’s clear; and it’s already published so it can actually be read. I have some other suggestions for further reading at the end of my web page. My web page may serve as something of a primer, that can serve to get Bible-driven people to start thinking about the view. (In fact, one of the best effects my web page (which has been on-line for about 12 years now, I figure) has had is that it seems to have played some role in getting Robin thinking about the topic.)

    I plan on reading Bell’s book soon after I can get it.

  • Oh, but the above isn’t meant to back away from my own defense: I stand by it and am ready to defend it. (But also ready to be shown it’s wrong.)

  • Scot Miller

    Thanks, Keith. I’m sort of sympathetic to the idea that if self-conscious immortality is possible (and I have my doubts), then at least some of us (all of us?) probably deserve to go to hell for a little while. So while I like the idea that our choices matter, I find it implausible that God would consign anyone to eternal punishment for a finite amount of evil he creates.

    My hunch is that if freedom is essential to being human, and if humans can survive death in a self-conscious way, then it’s more likely that sin and disobedience would continue in the afterlife, which would make “heaven” a lot more interesting…. So if I deny heaven and deny hell but accept an afterlife, am I a universalist?

  • Thanks, Keith and Tony. I’m trying to engage myself and many of my Evangelical friends in other biblically-based views on hell and the hereafter. I included both your page, Keith, and this post on the Robbing Hell Blog-a-thon.

    I really don’t want to dust crap up just to dust up crap, but I would like for those with my background to understand that one view can’t encapsulate God (and that doing so is idolatry).

  • Scott: There can be some tricky calls on whether to count some views as cases of universalism — especially once you start getting to the views of people who are worrying about free will (as you seem to be). For instance, Greg Boyd now reports Greg Boyd reports that “Rob Bell is not a universalist” [ ]. But I wonder whether this might be just a little stickiness in what Greg will count as “universalism.” His denial that Bell is a universalist does seem to get a little guarded: ” I would argue that Rob cannot hold to Universalism *as a… doctrine*”. And the reason seems to have to do with freedom: “While its clear from Love Wins that Rob believes (as do I ) that God wants all to be saved, it’s also clear Rob believes (as do I) that humans [and, I would add, angels] have free will and that God will never coerce someone to accept his love…”

    This gets tricky. I consider a position on which one holds that God just keeps trying to freely win everyone over, and that, given God’s amazing powers of persuasion (even while not overriding freedom) and the immense amount of time God has to work with, it is OVERWHELEMINGLY probable that all will be (freely) saved. But there is still, on the view in question, a VANISHINGLY tiny chance that there might be some forever hold-outs. Is *this* universalism? What I wishy-washily say:

    “If one takes this option, I think one can still be counted as a universalist. After all, you believe it is overwhelmingly probable that all will be saved, and in contested theological matters, …we can’t expect to reach beyond that level of certainty anyway. (Indeed, due to the usual causes — human fallibility on such tough questions — we’re not even going to get up to that level of certainty, nor even close to it, on this or any other tough matter, anyway.) But this does seem to compromise on universalism a bit, because one is not only admitting that one could (of course!) be wrong about the matter in question, but also that according to the position one holds (however firmly or tentatively), there is some (VANISHINGLY small, but still existent) *objective* chance that not all will be saved. Not even God knows absolutely for certain that all will be saved.”

    So I guess that’s classifying the view in question (which sounds like it may be close to options Bell is considering) as “kinda universalism.” I count it (for the reason given above), but can certainly understand someone else not counting it (for the reason above).

    But what’s in a name?

  • If it is of such great importance, you would think God would have made this idea of heaven, hell and salvation much more clear – wouldn’t you?

  • I’d distinguish “clear” from “clear to us.” My hope & maybe-belief (but remember, this is me we’re talking about) is that this is one of the (many) things about which we’ll eventually think: How slow of heart we were to believe all the things that were told us!

    At any rate, that the salvation of all is something God cares about & desires is something about which God is not coy: I Timothy 2:4.

    That this desire will be met? What I’ve said is that this seems at least to me to be “fairly clear” on the scriptural evidence. How’s that for wishy-washy? And yet controversial?

  • Keith – I need to read more of your writing. Looking forward to it. I agree with you (from what I can tell so far) as to how “fairly clear” the Bible is on this issue. However, I guess one comeback evangelicals might have (and maybe you cover this) is if universalism is true then why the cross and Christ’s death. At least that’s what I use to argue when I was one.

  • I think the mere fact that this topic is getting discussed so much lately is a testament to just how far we’ve come out from under fundamentalism. At least in my opinion I can’t imagine these types of conversation happening 15 years ago in the way they are now (let alone 30, though I wasn’t around then).

  • Keith, that’s a great read. Got me thinking quite a bit. I have been somewhat of an “almost universalist” for years, but just couldn’t go there fully. Now I am rethinking it. Your argument makes a lot of sense to me, but since I grew up a ‘reformed baptist protestant fundamentalist evangelical’ and cannot shake certain tendencies, I will, of course, have to dig into scripture and “test” your argument.

  • “I guess one comeback evangelicals might have (and maybe you cover this) is if universalism is true then why the cross and Christ’s death. At least that’s what I use to argue when I was one.”

    Steve C: I like to think I have it covered (but, I would, wouldn’t I?). You’ll see in my defense of universalism, I embrace what I call (though I think some others have a very similar use of this term) exclusivism (it’s only through Christ’s saving work that any can be saved), so I certainly don’t seem to be in danger of making the cross unnecessary. Going beyond that, I also accept strengthenings of exclusivism — going on to accept both what I call “strong exclusivism” and even what I call “fervent exclusivism”, so I turn out to be very exclusivistic — while somehow not excluding anybody! But it’s just plain ol’ exclusivism that’s needed to address your current worry, so I should just leave my answer at that. In short, the cross is needed, but will save everybody.

  • Thanks, Tucker. “Almost universalist” is close enough for me: I tend to consider most varieties of that to be allies-in-spirit. Even those open-to-universalism usually seem (to me, at least) to be kindred spirits.

  • Charlie (#9): You’re no doubt right about the group you’re talking about — prob. some group of Christians you’re in & that is important to you.
    Some Christian groups, though, have been having discussions like this for a long time now. In fact, these discussions very much remind of discussions I was lucky enough to be in at a Bible study I attended in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 80s, when we studied the book of Romans. (This was a Bible study attended mostly by Christian faculty and graduate students from UCLA, mostly from the philosophy department, led by a married couple of philosophy professors, one of whom was a former Presbyterian (USA) minister and the other of whom was then working to be (and now is) an Episcopal priest.)

    But yes, my sense is that this has become discussable in a lot more of the church than it was 15 years ago, and there are various important groups in which this has gone from out-of-bounds to thinkable in that time period.

    The extent to which Christian universalism is becoming accepted is very hard to get a good read on, partly because I think a good deal of the universalism that there is is “underground”:
    But maybe it would be easier to get a decent read on just how widely the view has become allowable? Unfortunately, that’s something I don’t really have a good grasp of myself.

  • Thanks for the kind words and the link, jasdye. I esp. enjoyed the cartoon at the link.

  • Christian Universalism just makes sense..Biblically, logically, ‘justly”..and any other way we look at it. The typical response to that is, “but God’s way are not our ways”. Or, “well, there’s some things we’ll never understand about God and we’re not supposed to”.

    Perhaps,it is because God’s ways are so different from ours that we have such a hard time believing He will eventually restore every single person back to Himself.

    To me, the “lack” of endless hell and all that the teaching entails, in the Bible, should speak volumes. Judgment that drastic should be on every page and spoken of to everyone and that is just simply not the case.

    To answer these two questions should be enlightening to us concerning endless
    Hell :
    1. Which ethnic group did Jesus warn about Hell?
    2. How many non-Jews did Jesus warn about Hell?

  • Charles

    The challenge, at least for me, is to look at scripture in a new light without the evangelical lens. Many of us are so steeped in that tradition that breaking free from those old established norms is extremely difficult. Any progress I’ve made in garnering a new understanding of God, Jesus, Christianity, and praxis has come from studying non-traditional authors who are not mainline evangelical thinkers. Merton, Rohr, Bourgeault, Chopra, The Gospel of Thomas, others, from the wisdom/mystical tradition are good example. I’m not saying they are correct in their theology, only that they start one thinking in a new way (for me anyway). The scriptures reveal completely new thoughts when one simply opens ones heart and mind to other thinking.

  • Thanks for an interesting discussion, everyone. I have to get back to my day job — though you may carry on w/o me, if you’d like, of course.
    Good luck with your diss., Tony!

  • Keith DR,

    Wish I could claim that cartoon as my own. 😉

  • Scot Miller

    I’ve been reflecting on this discussion, and while I’m sympathetic to universalism (indeed, I’ll stipulate that it’s the biblical position about the afterlife), I think theodicy is the biggest problem for universalism: if God is eventually going to save everyone, why didn’t God just begin with this eschatological condition and bypass the overwhelming evil and suffering that too many innocent people have suffered (e.g., child abuse, the holocaust, etc.)? Would the reward of eternal bliss compensate for the tremendous evil humans and animals have had to endure, especially if there’s no good reason God couldn’t have created that state in the first place.

    I suppose universalism is compatible with the theodicy advocated by John Hick and Irenaeus, that suffering is necessary for our soul building. But couldn’t God have made us a little less free and/or a little smarter so we wouldn’t inflict such horrible suffering on each other?

    If I remember Hick correctly, I think in the 1970s and 1980s he suggested the idea that a form of reincarnation may be true, where we are reincarnated in different universes where we wrestle with evil , and as we continue to overcome evil, we become reincarnated in progressively better states. (So he was combining Christianity and Hindu/Buddhist ideas of reincarnation.) I’m not advocating this idea of reincarnation, but it sure seems that if we can survive death, the human freedom that survives death opens up the possibility that sin and disobedience is an eternal possibility, that we’ll still have to struggle with sin and evil in the afterlife.

    I suppose I’m more sympathetic with the theodicies that redefine the omnipotence and omniscience of God (e.g., God’s power is the power of love, not coercion, and God knows everything that is possible to know, but not the future choices of free beings). So metaphysically it is not possible for God to create a world with free beings and the absence of evil. And what is heaven for universalism but the existence of the eternal survival of free beings in a state with the absence of evil?

    The problem of evil leads me to question the hope that Keith expresses that everyone will get in, that God’s persuasive force will eventually win everyone over in the afterlife.

  • Love what you wrote Scot. Very well said.

    The problem of evil leads me to question an omnipotent and omniscient God.

  • Ted Seeber

    Catholics are, as in an earlier article I read, “Soft Universalists”. To me, hard universalism smacks of Calvinism in reverse: ALL human beings will end up in heaven whether they want to be there or not.

    That is a against Free Will.

    Free Will and Infinite Mercy *demand* that souls that hate God have a place to hide from him.

    I would agree that God himself doesn’t want that solution. I would agree that God offers, through grace, the ability for all to even after death grow in enough Love for Him that Heaven is their ultimate Destination.

    Thus, by the existence of Free Will and my Roman Catholic Rejection of Calvinism, I am forced to reject Hard Universalism, or even the form of Soft Universalism of the 1st century Jews and the Eastern Orthodox (where Heaven and Hell are really Sheol, the same place, and it is your personal attitude towards full knowledge of all truth whether you experience that as pain or glory).

  • ALL human beings will end up in heaven whether they want to be there or not.

    Mr. Seeber: While some universalists may hold a position according to which some will or may be in heaven against their will, I do not, and the Christian universalists I hang out with (this is mostly on-line hanging out) don’t either.

    *My* brand of universalism comes with not only “exclusivism” (it’s only through Christ that any can be saved), and “strong exclusivism” (in order to be saved, one must explicitly accept the salvation that Christ has made possible), but “fervent exclusivism” (this accepting must be free). No one will be in heaven against their will; all will freely accept. How can I possibly accept both universalism and those things? For that, read the post Tony links to — which I must assume you haven’t read, despite Tony’s telling you you NEED to read it 🙂 Especially relevant to your concerns is Appendix B, on free will & universalism.

    Whether you’d classify my universalism or that of the other Christian universalists I know as “hard” depends on just exactly what you mean by that, which I can’t tell, but wherever my view falls in your classification, I can put your worry to rest: On my view, nobody will be in heaven against their will.

  • Scot Miller

    Keith — Could God have created in the first place the eschatological condition in which ALL free persons freely accept the salvation in Christ and still be free? If so, what’s the point of the enormous evil and suffering which innocents undergo? I’m not sure that eternal bliss mitigates the genuine evil and suffering of innocents in this world.

  • Scot Miller

    Keith– By the way, I am not someone who rejects universalism, and I’m not raising my objection to somehow overthrow universalism. As I said above, I’ll stipulate that universalism is the biblical position about the eternal destiny of all human beings. It just seems so odd to me that God wouldn’t just bypass all of the crap people endure (or not) in this life and create the state of eternal bliss in the first place.

  • Well, it’s not like we have the problem of evil solved — that we *do* know why there’s all this horrible suffering — if universalism is false (unless I’ve missed that memo), but then universalism come in and messes up this otherwise great solution. In fact, I’m not seeing how universalism makes that problem worse. In fact, though I’ve seen no good solution with with or without universalism, universalism seems to me if anything to mitigate the problem. But maybe I’m missing something here. Why do you think universalism makes the problem of horrible suffering worse? Would it somehow be *easier* to deal with if we supposed for some people the horrible suffering continues forever?

  • If limiting God’s power and/or knowledge is the key to solving the problem, what is it about universalism that blocks or hinders that solution?

  • Scot Miller

    Keith– You are correct, universalism is a vast improvement when it comes to affirming the goodness and justice of God. I suppose my problem is that you seem to talk about divine omniscience and omnipotence in rather “traditional” or “orthodox” ways in that you see no conflict between divine omniscience and human freedom and absolutely no problem with God (ultimately) accomplishing God’s will of universal salvation. On the other hand, you somehow place divine activity under temporal categories where God eventually accomplishes God’s will, but only after giving free beings time enough to be punished (if necessary) and to freely affirm salvation through Christ.

    So I suppose I’m just poking around a bit on your idea of God rather than your idea of universalism. (In fact, I don’t know how anyone could hold that God was just if God punished someone infinitely for a finite amount of evil, and you admit the possibility of punishment before some notorious evil-doers obtain salvation, e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.)

    I prefer to redefine omnipotence as persuasive love and omniscience to exclude knowledge of future decisions of free beings, which helps me solve the problem of evil, but I’m afraid my strategy leads me to wonder (1) if it’s possible for God to achieve absolute universal salvation, and (2) if the afterlife could possibly be stable state of infinite bliss. (I think there is more biblical justification for a temporal God of persuasive power than for an omnipotent God in the Greek philosophical tradition.)

    So my question is really more about God than universalism per se. Is God truly omnipotent enough to achieve God’s will of universal salvation, and is God omnipotent enough to neutralize the free will of beings in heaven when those beings have demonstrated they habitually will contrary to God’s will? I think the answer is “No” to both questions, because of the metaphysics of omnipotence and omniscience. If I’m wrong, then why didn’t God just create eternal bliss for everybody in the first place?

  • Scot Miller

    Keith– One more thought. It’s obviously important to you to be biblically faithful and to affirm “fervent exclusivism,” which I suppose is important if you want to remain as orthodox a Christian as possible (or if you still want to play with other Evangelical Christians). However, there doesn’t seem to be much biblical support for the idea that human beings will have some occasion(s) after this life to freely respond to the grace of God (or, the warrant for any kind of postmortem existence between death and eternal bliss is a bit sketchy, at best.)

    Since I don’t really play well with Evangelicals, and I think orthodoxy is overrated, I’m also puzzled about the importance of “fervent exclusivism.” Why not say that the only way to be saved as a Christian is through faith in Jesus Christ, because that’s the way Christians have conceptualized the reconciling activity of the Divine. But if God (the One, Being, the Absolute, Atman, Brahman, Sunyata, etc.) is internally related to all conscious and free beings such that their universal salvation/enlightenment will eventually be obtained, why bother with requiring everyone to affirm Christ? I’m a Christian because my religious experience was mediated through the Christian tradition, not because the Christian tradition is intellectually or spiritually or philosophically superior to any other tradition. (And to be honest, I may be dishonoring the genuine differences between traditions, since it doesn’t appear that every tradition has the same kind of postmortem existence in mind.)

  • It’s obviously important to you to be biblically faithful and to affirm “fervent exclusivism,” ….However, there doesn’t seem to be much biblical support for the idea that human beings will have some occasion(s) after this life to freely respond to the grace of God….

    Hmm. What I myself write is “I don’t know of any serious scriptural support for fervent exclusivism itself.”

  • Scot Miller

    Keith– I’m obviously confused and did not read you very carefully. My apologies. When I read your statement, “*My* brand of universalism comes with not only “exclusivism” (it’s only through Christ that any can be saved), and “strong exclusivism” (in order to be saved, one must explicitly accept the salvation that Christ has made possible), but “fervent exclusivism” (this accepting must be free). No one will be in heaven against their will; all will freely accept,” I thought you believed all of these versions. So you are merely affirming that “universalism” is true, but you yourself are agnostic about whether it is “strong” or “fervent” or merely “exclusivistic.”

    To be fair, then, you are affirming universalism, which you argue is the prima facie meaning of the biblical texts (no “interpretation” necessary here), and all persons will be saved exclusively through “Christ.” Maybe that’s not so far from what I think.

  • As you move from the main part of my “Universalism and the Bible” web page into its two Appendices, I try to mark out a transition in topics that’s being made. The main part of the page is about the scriptural case for and against universalism. However, despite that, the two issues I kept being asked about didn’t concern the scriptural case, but rather dealt with the pragmatics of believing in universalism (the potential dangers brought about by holding the belief) and some philosophy (worries about free will). So I added the two appendices to that page, not because they dealt with the scriptural case so much, but because they dealt with two of the main things folks were moved to ask me about when they encountered the scriptural case.

    It is striking to me to how little concern (at least that’s very explicitly expressed) the Biblical writers seem to have with issues of human freedom, and then the big role such issues play when Evangelicals start worrying about universalism. And in a funny way, what folks say about freedom & its implications can vary a lot depending on the topic/”heresy” that’s being discussed. In the rest of this comment, I’ll paste in what I said about that in a philosophy blog discussion:

    I might add that in discussion (like at church, or something), one will often run into this funny situation: Someone is being Mr. or Ms. Super-Incompatibilist (real freedom is incompatible not only with predetermination, but also with Divine foreknowledge; indeed, with fore-truth: It just couldn’t be true now that all will accept if the acceptance must be free & in some cases hasn’t happened yet) while trying to make trouble for universalism (or in some cases, trying hard not to be classified as a universalist), but it turns out when you ask that they think God somehow had no problem foreknowing their own free choice for Him. So when the discussion veers off into issues of human freedom, it’s often a good idea to, sooner rather than later, find out whether the person you’re talking with thinks God foreknows free choices made on this side of the grave. If so, you can often skip this whole kinda-bad-faith attempt to stir up trouble for universalism. (I might add: I tend toward super-incompatibilism myself, so these are genuine worries for me.)

    If I might be allowed to paint with a very broad brush for a minute (& wear this shoe only if it fits! — and try not to let it fit!): It’s funny: If you start talking about open theism, esp. if you use that label for it, then, b/c open theism is very much on the danger list of the guarders of “Christian Radio Orthodoxy,” then many theological conservatives will react like the world is coming to an end; but if you’re talking universalism, then they themselves (though not under this label) will often play the role of the open theist, supposing God couldn’t possibly know what one will freely do (at least when it comes to post-mortem choices), at least insofar as playing that role helps to combat/resist universalism, which is also on the enemies list. It’s kinder & therefore advisable (though a lot less fun) to cut this off at the beginning, rather than to let it go on for a while before pointing out to their horror that, say, “You know, that open theism of yours is really quite controversial.”

  • No worries, Scott: It gets rather complicated, of necessity (I like to think), because, in addition to saying how I’m inclined to come down on the relevant issues, I’m also trying to lay out alternatives that might be attractive to others. Sometimes I worry that I’m tripping myself up with all those complexities!

  • Scot Miller

    Keith — This has been a very valuable conversation for me. I’ve had a few half-baked ideas about this topic for quite a while, but I think this is the first time I’ve bothered to articulate what I’ve been thinking. I think the options you’ve been laying out are really helpful. Thanks!

  • well, this is all very good for me, thanks for this website and the link to Keith’s… i googled ‘is there ANY real argument for Christian Universalism I mean come on’ and it brought me here… I haven’t read Keith’s site yet, but I’m headed there now, I was just reading through the comments and the problem of evil has disappointingly not been resolved 😛

  • Martin Lawrence Scott

    Deuteronomy 21:1-9

    -This is the only verse I know of that can accurately defend Universalism. Christ is never referred to as a heifer. Think about Christians and think about end times. It’s about as diplomatic of a view as you get on the entire scripture. If there is one mystery left, this is it.

    21 If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, 2 your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. 3 Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke 4 and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. 5 The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. 6 Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8 Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, 9 and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

  • Alex C Smith

    Keith’s “all” link has changed to