Calvinism leads to universalism…

Calvinism leads to universalism… December 10, 2010

Okay, maybe Calvinism doesn’t lead to universalism inexorably–as if every Calvinist must become a universalist.  However, many leading universalist theologians are/were Reformed and believed that their Calvinist concepts of God’s sovereignty eventually compelled them to embrace universalism.

Two notable examples come to mind: Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth.  Yes, I know some Reformed people will reject one or both of them–as not truly Reformed.  However, one cannot read Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith and miss his strong Calvinist principles.  For Schleiermacher God is the all-determining reality and that is why he rejects petitionary prayer–because it implies God does not already know what is best.  For Schleiermacher, whatever is happening, including sin and evil, are foreordained and rendered certain by God.

Schleiermacher embraced universalism because he could not reconcile the all determining God of Jesus Christ with hell.  If God is love and all-determining we must conclude that there is a loving purpose for everything that happens.  If God is the author of sin and evil, then eternal punishment of sinners in hell is unjust.  Schleiermacher the Calvinist saw the issue clearly and drew the only logical conclusion from his high view of God’s love and sovereignty.

For all his differences from Schleiermacher, Karl Barth followed the same basic path from Calvinism to universalism.  I know some Barth scholarly do not believe he was a universalist and he did not embrace that label.  But I believe universalism is implied in his doctrine of election in which Jesus is said to be the only reprobate man.  Barth famously declared that our “no” to God cannot stand up to God’s “yes” to us in Jesus Christ.  For Barth, God is “He who loves in freedom.”  God is also all-determining in his sovereignty.  Barth called his soteriology “purified supralapsarianism”–purified of hell but nevertheless supralapsarian!  Barth saw rightly that the inner logic of Calvinism must lead to unversalism IF it takes seriously love as God’s nature.

The only way for a Calvinist to avoid universalism is to make God a moral monster who condemns people he could save to hell for his own glory.  Once you see, however, that hell is totally unnecessary because the cross was a sufficient revelation of God’s justice, hell becomes not only superfluous but utterly unjust.

I have sometimes said that IF I could be a universalist I could be a Calvinist.  Well, I would still have the problem of human responsibility.  But my point is that I don’t care about free will except insofar as it is necessary to explain why a God of love allows some people to perish eternally.  If I could believe that God saves everyone unconditionally, which is what I think Barth believed, I could be a Calvinist.  One reason I cannot be a Calvinist is because being one would require me to jettison all the biblical material about hell because I would find no point in even being a Christian if the God of Christianity were a moral monster.

"You conveniently overlook her response to the question: "I don't know anything about God." That ..."

What Would Be the Alternatives (To ..."
"Thank you for this illustration of my point. And for your affirmation."

What Would Be the Alternatives (To ..."
""Own will" is the issue. I am not a compatibilist; I guess you are. We ..."

Do Arminians and Calvinists Worship the ..."
"I will that all my students pass my classes, but I will not make it ..."

Do Arminians and Calvinists Worship the ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Keith

    Two thoughts:

    1) Couldn’t Calvinists make a similar argument that Arminianism leads to Open Theism (and appeal to better examples than Barth and Schleiermacher)?

    2) I recently read through Ezekiel and in chapter 38 God puts a “hook” in Gog’s jaw (v.4), brings a vast army against His people (paralleled in Rev 20), and then destroys them (v.19-22). The stated reason for all this is in verse 16, “you will come up against My people Israel like a cloud to cover the land. It shall come about in the last days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me when I am sanctified through you before their eyes, O Gog.”

    I asked myself, “Can my theology handle a God who destroys a vast multitude of people in order to make a point about Himself (“so that the nations may know Me when I am sanctified through you[r destruction])?” Calvinism seems to have categories for processing all of this, and those categories are as far from universalism as one can get.

    How can your theology handle this without concluding that God is a “moral monster”?

    • How does yours? Or do you agree that Calvinism makes God a moral monster? 🙂

    • Joel Naranjo

      In relation with the second point, I dont see that it causes much problem for arminianism. I think we must remember that it is pressuposed that Gog is a nation of unbelievers. Given Arminianism, this means that they have willfuly rejected God’s previenent grace and chosen a path of sin, and therefore rightly deserve God’s judgment. They have chosen judgment for themselves. If additionally God wants to use their deserved punishment for some other purpose, He makes no further harm to them. In Calvinism, on the other side, we must see God predetermining them to be sinners in order to punishment, with the purpose of being sanctified at the eyes of the nations.

  • Matt Waldron

    When you read about issues of heaven and hell in C.S. Lewis – in books like The Great Divorce – you get a sense that all people are saved ‘de jure.’ Heaven is open to everyone, but what keeps people from heaven is their own self-centeredness. Heaven is only open to people of faith is the ‘de facto truth’. The last book of Narnia series also illustrates this. In view of Barth’s ‘universalism’, in some places Barth does seem to affirm this C.S. Lewis-approach to why some people are in hell even though they are elect in Christ. (I do realize that the above statements muddle the issue of universal election with universal atonement but maybe that is because Lewis and Barth muddle these issues at times in their writings)

    I aniticpate that 5-point Calvinists would say that the reason why Barth’s Reformed theology leads to universlism is because Barth believes in universal atonement. However thier criticisms of Barth and universal atonement does not negate the truth of some of your statements. Namely, if you hold to a view of Unconditional Election and you hold to a view of goodness of God, then the only way that you can reconcile the two is to become a universalist.

    Arminianism brings human responsibility into the equation while at the same time affirming that salvation is by grace alone.

  • Ade

    Ohh..I look forward to reading the comments on this one…I was predestined to do so.

  • Aaron

    “But my point is that I don’t care about free will except insofar as it is necessary to explain why a God of love allows some people to perish eternally. If I could believe that God saves everyone unconditionally, which is what I think Barth believed, I could be a Calvinist. ” – Yes its not about free will but the goodness of God, I would actually be totally fine if God determined all our choices if it ultimately led to everyones salvation.

    • That’s funny…this statement piqued my interest too. But it seems to me that if human free will is important enough to God to allow some of his precious children to choose eternity apart from Him, then it has considerable more value than simply as a theological concept.

      • Aaron

        Well I agree with you, free will is important because it is required for there to be actual Love.

      • Doug in CO

        What this says about Dr. Olson’s theology is that his thinking is so bullied by Calvinism that he feels like he has to justify himself to them. There is a much bigger (and historically older) world of Christianity out there than the Calvinism/Arminianism one.

        • rogereolson

          So you’re talking about me on my blog (instead of to me)? Is that because you feel so bullied by me that you can’t even have dialogue with me? Of course not; such rhetoric is ridiculous. Be civil if you come here. My argument that Calvinism leads to universalism is simply my response to the numerous Calvinists out there who argue that Arminianism leads to universalism. Neither is necessarily true; I just think it’s more likely that Calvinism would lead to universalism than that Arminianism would lead there. I don’t feel that I have to justify myself to Calvinists; I have no idea where you get that idea than possibly just off the top of your head out of some hostility towards me. It’s just a shot in the dark that totally misses the target. Now if you have something serious to say here and would like to engage in dialogue, feel free.

  • Brandon Morgan

    This is good. But it may be a non sequitur to assume that “all determining reality” (and the many ways that such a statement can be defined metaphysically) must equal non-petitionary prayer. For example, Barth (as well as Aquinas) has a high view of God’s sovereignty without assuming that prayer plays no role in the life of God. Barth says, “His sovereignty is so great that it embraces both the possibility, and, as it is exercised, the actuality, that the creature can actively be present and co-operate in His over-ruling. There is no creaturely freedom which can limit or compete with the sole sovereignty and efficacy of God. But permitted by God, and indeed willed and created by Him, there is the freedom of the friends of God concerning whom He has determined that without abandoning the helm for one moment He will still allow Himself to be determined by them.” (CD III.3 p. 285) This is a bit more tricky than a simple claim that God does not alter his will because of our prayers. It is a claim that assumes that God has already willed himself to act according to the prayers of creatures before those prayers are spoken. This would mean that God does not “learn” from our prayers by hearing them, but already wills himself to be “determined by them” within his own self because he already knows them. It may not solve the problem, but taking into account diverse orders of causality helps to fix our habit of treating God like a divine vending machine that we stick coins into, which is often what petitionary prayer is and often what makes up most of the prayer life of many Christians. Is this not folk religion? (Of course I am not sure where I land on this issue quite yet.)

    • Good points, Brandon. (You’d think you were studying with some kind of genius or something! Or–more probably–are a deep thinker and read a lot!) The problem with Barth, of course, is his dialectical approach to theology. He doesn’t feel bound to a universal logic and revels in paradoxes (when it suits him).

      • Matt Waldron

        The token Barth Barth-junkie who follows these threads would like to respond by saying that Barth’s dialectical approach to theology has yielded some incredible insights in the nature of God. Insights that can truly be a blessing to all evengelical Christians. 🙂

        I am just glad that his paradoxical, logic-neglecting, self-suiting approach to theology was around in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

  • Jarell

    I was thinking the exact same thing and my Calvinist friend said that I was talking nonsense… so either we are both talking nonsense or there is some sense of our logic. And I agree if I could be a universalist I would be a Calvinist.

  • It’s a fascinating point. There’s a lot about the Calvinism v. Arminianism debate I’m still learning, so I hope this isn’t a naïve question, but I have to ask: can’t a similar argument be made about Arminianism, that a “high” view of God’s love leads to universalism?

    A very common objection from my skeptical friends is that they cannot reconcile the idea of eternal punishment in hell with the idea of a loving God. I have my own reasons for disagreeing with that objection, but I do see how starting from the premise of “God is love” can lead to that conclusion.

    Obviously an Arminian who follows that logic into rejection of hell is rejecting what the Bible teaches about hell. But then again, so is a Calvinist who follows the sovereignty of God to such a conclusion.

    • But Arminianism includes belief in free will (as a gift of God–not a natural endowment that survived the fall). Belief in free will would seem to negate unconditional universal salvation. C. S. Lewis based the existence of hell (in The Great Divorce and other writings) on free will. In other words, hell is the painful refuge God provides for those who are determined to resist his love to the bitter end. I highly recommend The Great Divorce. It is one of the best books of theology I have ever read (written in the genre of allegory or parable).

      • Hi Roger,

        Thanks for responding. I read The Great Divorce. It was in high school (over ten years ago for me), but it did leave an impression on me and how I thought of hell. I do view hell as a choice myself, and I have a hard time believing that free will can exist if hell does not.

    • Hans Deventer

      It can be found. The idea then is that God’s love is so persistent, that eventually, all will give in.

      • This is Juergen Moltmann’s view. It’s his way of handling his Reformed heritage. (He belongs to the German equivalent of Presbyterianism. That’s what he said to me when I asked about his denominational affiliation. Of course, in Germany it is called simply The Evangelical Church.)

        • Brandon Morgan

          This is also Balthasar’s view, though he has to step lighter than Moltmann because of his Catholicism.

  • It is debatable that Barth was actually universalist. Even if he would’ve been (if he had finished his CD) one of his most famous followers (students, translators and interpreters), TF Torrance was highly influenced by Barth’s reification of supralapsarianism, as am I; Torrance did not take it to “Universalism,” here he is talking about the “reprobate”:

    Let us be clear what this means. It means negatively, that there is no positive act of rejection or judgment extended toward any human being, but only the act of acceptance. It is an act of pure, incredibly loving acceptance, through God’s taking upon himself entirely our rejection. Therefore if a sinner is reprobated, if a sinner goes to hell, it is not because God rejected them, for God has only chosen to love them, and has only accepted them in Christ who died for them and on the cross consummated the divine act of love in accepting them and in taking their rejection upon himself. If anyone goes to hell they go to hell, only because, inconceivably, they refuse the positive act of the divine acceptance of them, and refuse to acknowledge that God has taken their rejection of him upon himself, so acknowledging that they deserved to be rejected. Thus we can say, to use the language of reprobation, ‘The negative decision of reprobation is the reprobation only of the man who refuses the election of grace, who attempts to isolate himself from it.’ (“Atonement,” 157)

    For Torrance it doesn’t make sense that there are those who do not recognize their election in Christ; but for some inexplicable ‘inconceivable’ reason (or “accidental” per Calvin) they don’t (akin to Adam and Eve’s “Fall,” we don’t know why . . . but there it is).

    I just wanted to chime in, because I don’t think Barth’s “supra” has to lead to Universalism . . . TFT is a perfect example of someone who took it a different way [if he did] from Barth, through his “Scottish heritage.”

    • The quote you provide from Torrance is perfectly consistent with classical Arminian theology. I find this often to be the case. People who stand in the Reformed heritage often express soteriology that is really Arminian but don’t label it as such. I read them with genuine agreement but wonder why they are so allergic to the label “Arminian.” I hate to name them because they might not appreciate being called Arminian, but I think that’s because of the bad rap on Arminianism common among Protestants especially of the Reformed traditions. One who comes to mind, however, is Alan P. F. Sell who I saw again recently at AAR in Atlanta. Alan was the theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now merged into the World Communion of Reformed Churches). His mini-systematic theology “Doctrine and Devotion” (3 volumes) is, in my opinion, thoroughly Arminian in the classical sense. So, when I say I could be a Calvinist IF I could be a universalist I mean by “Calvinist” one who believes in unconditional election and irresistible grace. I could gladly embrace those classically Calvinist doctrines (often NOT embraced by revisionist Reformed theologians) IF I could be a universalist.

      • Roger,

        I know what you mean by “Calvinist” — in its classical sense — I’m just trying to show that one can follow someone like Barth (in general) — like TF Torrance did — and not be a “Universalist” or “Classic Arminian.” Torrance’s understanding is very close to Barth’s (e.g. grounds both election/reprobation “in Christ”). He rejects what he calls the “logico/causal” way of thinking that both Classic Calvinism and Arminianism (in his mind) suffer from . . . which allows him to say things like he does in the quote I provide and still maintain a thoroughly “Reformed” and “Calvinist” perspective — as noted, from his “Scottish Theological” perspective (which he lays bare in his book “Scottish Theology”).

        The reality is, is that there is more to this than the binary of either/or Classical Calvinism or Arminianism (e.g. categorically and conceptually). There is more breadth and nuance in Calvinism than folks want to admit (historically, of which Torrance represents as does what Janice Knight has called “The Spiritual Brethren” in Puritan old England); while what Torrance says may “fit” within an Arminian appropriation, personally I don’t think it can in the sense that he works self-consciously from “Calvinist” thought — and more importantly the trajectory that TFT is coming from is Barthian (e.g. it’s not an “conditional election” but “unconditional and supralapsarian” it’s just that the “person” who is unconditionally elected/reprobated is Christ vs. thinking in terms of “individual persons” like both Classic Calvinism and Arminianism does).

        Thanks, Roger for the reply back 🙂 .

  • As English Puritanism evolved, it did lead to unitarian universalism, in both the US and England. And rather quickly. Part of this is due, at least in part, to its emphasis on the role of election. Rather than the emphasis being on choice (which emphasis I see all over the pages of the New Testament), the imbalanced emphasis on election seems directly related to a universalizing trajectory. I simply do not think the moral intuitions of men and women can sustain at one and the same time election as Calvinists understand it and the moral life of choosing. If they do not give up on teaching election traditionally taught, then they cannot for long live with the conclusion that we were born to go to hell and only a few born to go to heaven. This is too morally repugnant to keep present to the soul as a continual theme. It is interesting how long people will hold on to the doctrine of election (traditionally conceived), even if it leads to universalism. A strange situation.

    • Indeed. And something I find interesting is the comment by Lorraine Boettner, a giant of modern American “high Calvinism,” that God probably elects the majority of humanity to salvation. It’s his way of softening the blow of the decree of reprobation. However, it doesn’t work. Even if God decrees to reprobate one person unconditionally God is not good in any normal sense of “good.”

    • On the American continent, there were two separate streams of theological thought representing the Unitarian and Universalist doctrines. It would be fair to attribute Unitarianism as being birthed out of the Congregationalist churches i.e. Puritanism. However, the Universalists find more of their origins among the German Pietists and Anabaptists, especially among the middle Atlantic states. Granted, Adams Streeter, an early Universalist minister in Massachusetts came out of a Calvinistic background but it was Baptist and not Puritan or Congregational. These are relatively minor points yet our Calvinist friends might be quick to point these out. Regardless, they would still have to explain the Unitarian origins.

  • John I.

    I would preserve free will, even if I were allowed to choose between election of all to heaven and free will with not all saved, for the same reason that God did: one cannot have a real relationship of love without the possibility of rejection and of choosing the loved even in the face of difficulty. I think that love is the higher and more primary rationale over moral responsibility, and that moral responsibility is the corollary of freely willed love. That is, it is necessary to make how God deals with rejection of his love (i.e., hell, annihilation) moral.

    I particularly enjoyed Roger’s point that ” the cross was a sufficient revelation of God’s justice”

    John I.

  • Roger,
    Have you read Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God? If not you might find it quite fascinating as he makes a great case for Universalism. I myself am inclined towards Universalism. My journey is similar as you speculate. I attended the Master’s University in California and was introduce, for the first time, to limited atonement (John McArthur preached it). I was in shock. I was raised in a Free Methodist church most of my life. After only 1 semester I left the school and studied which brought me to believe that Calvinism was in fact not a myth. But it left me in a place exactly as you state. Either I believe God is immoral but calls himself moral because no matter what he does, it’s just good; leaving me helpless to define “good”- OR God has good intentions of those whom he sends to hell.

    Though I did disagree with Calvinism it did leave me with a strong sense of doubt of free-will (Arminian theology). I won’t say I know it’s wrong but I believe it is. For me Talbott and Parry make better cases for Universal Salvation than Calvinist or Arminians do for a God who takes people into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

    I now embrace Evangelical Universalism as Robin Parry calls it, but admittedly am not very good at defending it. Philosophy and Theology often are over my head and my qualifications for such deep thought leave me only with a small defense.


  • Schleiermacher was led to universalism by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

    Besides, Arminianism is already at the thresh hold of universalism.

    I might add that Barth wasn’t Reformed. Barth was one of “ya’ll’zes”, as Jeff Foxworthy might say. He complete rejected Calvinism and adopted instead the Semi-pelagian view:

    “Seen from the perspective of the Reformation, the emergence of modern Christianity was possible only as the enemy that had to be opposed and battled against. We may have our reasons to want to be modern Christians in spite of all that, but we must be clear about the fact that, seen from the Reformation’s view, we are positioning ourselves precisely against Luther with Karlstadt, and against Calvin with a Socinus, a Blandrata, a Castellio, Bolsec, a Servetus, or against the fathers of Dort with the Remonstrants. In the portrayals of this last Pyrrhic victory of Reformation Christianity over the enemy from the left, we sense even in a man like Seeberg the unmistakable sympathy of the modern man for those figures who are closer to us both intellectually and personally, people like Coornhert, Wtenbogaert, Arminius, Hugo Grotius, and Episcopius. These truly noble and highly respectable men would have graced appropriately any modern Protestant (even positivist!) pulpit or professorial chair! Who would be so presumptuous today as to expel such spirits with the preremptory, ‘You are dismissed! Go! Go! ‘ (‘Dimittimi, ite, ite!’) with which Bogerman at the memorable 57th meeting of the synod ejected Episcopius and his fifteen comrades from the assembly–where they had only appeared as defendants–and thus out of the church. But we must admit that the fathers of Dort were doubtless right when they described the doctrine of these men as thoroughly Semi-Pelagian, and thus a revival of Catholic Christianity. But who then are we, and where do we stand in relation to the Reformation if we should find these men to be most sympathetic to our position now? If Troeltsch had expanded his well-known thesis that these figures and the related anti-Reformation circles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the actual predecessors and ancestors of our Christianity, with a further thesis to the effect that with them we must make our commitment to Semi-Pelagianism and thus to solidarity with the anti-Reformational Middle Ages, then his theology would truly have been a word of redemption. The request, ‘Tell me thy company,’ would need once more to be put very bluntly to modern Protestantism in order to get it either to return to the Catholic Church, to which only because of a small misunderstanding it does not belong today, or to consider how it might again be or become Reformation Christianity. I need scarcely to say that this does not imply the reintroduction of the Canons of Dort.”

    [Quoted from The Theology of the Reformed Confessions. 1923. Lectures by Karl Barth. Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. Translated and annotated by Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). Pages 208-209.] Reasonable Christian: Karl Barth on Arminianism

    Yes, you read it right. Barth sided with you and the Remonstrandts. “. . .

    I got a chuckle out of that genetic fallacy, by the way:).

    • Wow. I can’t believe you so radically misunderstood Barth in that quote! It’s the classical error of mistaking a view the author is talking ABOUT with HIS OWN view. Barth is there ripping into “modern Christianity” and comparing IT with semi-Pelagianism; he is not talking about his own theology and comparing it with semi-Pelagianism (or Arminianism). Read more carefully.

      • I have the book in my library and I can assure you that I did not take it out of context. Barth’s theology includes universal atonement and universal election in Christ, the equivalent of your doctrine of prevenient grace and conditional election.

        Barth openly embraces the semi-pelagian view of the Remonstrandts and in fact includes himself by the use of the 2nd person plural pronouns, “we” and “us”. Read the book for yourself.

        • You are simply reading Barth wrongly. By “we” and “us” he is talking about modern neo-Protestants (mostly liberals of the Ritschlian school of theology) and he most emphatically does NOT mean to include himself. This figurative use of language is very common when someone is talking about a group to which they belong but with which they disagree. If you read more of Barth you will see that he radically repudiates both semi-Pelagianism and neo-Protestants. He says “we” and “us” because he belongs to the same general denominational grouping (the “evangelical” churches of Europe) that included the neo-Protestant liberals he was reacting against. You are showing how little you know of Barth and embarrassing yourself. Where did you earn your Ph.D. in theology?

  • Matt Waldron

    Barth is Reformed in that he is adamant that God gets the glory. He has a very high view of Scripture (though American evangelicals doubt this) and emphasizes the need to be obedient to the Word of God. He is very confessional. And he sees Systematic Theology (Dogmatics) as something that ought to be normative in the life of the Church. He also has a grasp on Luther and Calvin and their era and their writings like no one I’ve ever encountered.

    One thing Barth is not is semi-pelagian, just read him for five minutes. TULIP-types do not want to claim him as ‘Reformed’ because, among a few reasons, he clearly states Universal Atonement as clearly being read from Scripture (which it is).

    As the threads on here show, Barth leaves us wondering what the implications of his ‘tacit universalism’ are. Is it universal election yet with the possibility of people stubbornly refusing God’s grace and literally consigning themselves to hell? Or is it something that fits more within the framework of classical Arminianism (and therefore not universal election but universal atonement)? Barth purposely leaves us just with speculation. When he was asked this question point blank during his American lecture series in the early 60’s, in a response that would give John Piper fits, Barth declared that he was not a Universalist, but that he did not want to close and lock the door on Universalism either. God is free and can do what he wants.

    • Yes, and in The Humanity of God he responded that he neither teaches nor does not teach universalism.

  • Louis DeCaro Jr

    I appreciate your scholarship and share your heritage in the traditional Pentecostal movement, except that beginning in my studies at the undergraduate level I became convinced by “Calvinism.” My own belief is that the idea that God loves literally everyone and that Jesus died literally and comprehensively for all people would at least be a reasonable avenue toward universalism. My own sense of the Scriptures is that God saves those whom He loves, and those whom He loves, He elects. I’m not trying to pick a fight, really. Just bringing my own sense of things to the discussion. What strikes me as an unacceptable aspect of Arminianism is that God’s love is portrayed as so great as to sacrifice His Only Begotten Son, yet when sinners reject Him, they are ultimately cast into hell forever (I’m not an annihilationist either). So, it is much more theologically palatable for me to believe that God’s saving love for people is selective, because I believe if God loved everyone literally as my Arminian brethren say, then He ultimately would save literally everyone too because salvation is a work of grace. This is not the only reason I reject Arminianism, but I’d rather believe that a sovereign God ordains terrible, temporal suffering and the presence of evil in the world now then to believe that a loving God Who gave everything is going to cast those whom He actually loves into hell forever. And certainly the response that God will not violate your free choice because He loves you so much has never impressed me. With all due respect, if I’m going the wrong way leading to damnation, I’ll be most grateful if God violates my free choice and saves me, and I won’t hold it against him either. Nor would I think much of his love (or anyone’s love) if they let me perish rather than intrude upon my “freedom.” That’s just not consistent with God’s covenant love as I read Scripture. But I hasten to add, I understand this is a debate that will never be resolved, and I acknowledge that no system is without its problems, whether theological or exegetical. The Reformed view, questions and all, just makes more sense to me. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas.

    • There is a way out of the dilemma you think you see in Arminianism. As C. S. Lewis (an Arminian who didn’t embrace the label) said, hell’s door is locked on the inside. It is the “painful refuge” God provides for those who reject him and who do not want to spend eternity in heaven glorifying him.

  • JPC

    Louis: “My own belief is that the idea that God loves literally everyone and that Jesus died literally and comprehensively for all people would at least be a reasonable avenue toward universalism.” It would not be an avenue at all if you included the conditions given by God in order to enter into the salvation that He has made available to all (repenting and believing).

    “My own sense of the Scriptures is that God saves those whom He loves, and those whom He loves, He elects.” You see, comments like these are the reason I believe that Dr. Olson is making the point that he is about Calvinism leading to universalism (which I agree with). If God loves and elects, therefore granting the gifts of repentance, faith and perseverance to some unconditionally (not even based on foreseen faith), then what is stopping God from electing all unconditionally (universalism)?

    “What strikes me as an unacceptable aspect of Arminianism is that God’s love is portrayed as so great as to sacrifice His Only Begotten Son, yet when sinners reject Him, they are ultimately cast into hell forever” So let me get this straight: God, out of his love for the world, sent his only Son who gives his life as a sacrifice for our sins, then sends the Holy Spirit and the Gospel message that convicts the sinner and will save him if he only repents and believes, but when said sinner rejects this message and chooses to live in sin and dies somehow God is responsible for that? “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – Eze.18:23 Do you believe that God takes pleasure in the death of the wicked?

    “I believe if God loved everyone literally as my Arminian brethren say, then He ultimately would save literally everyone too because salvation is a work of grace.” Why do you have to say literally? Is saying God loved everyone not plain enough? You say that salvation is a work of grace but leave out faith. Salvation is by grace THROUGH FAITH!!!

    “I’d rather believe that a sovereign God ordains terrible, temporal suffering and the presence of evil in the world now then to believe that a loving God Who gave everything is going to cast those whom He actually loves into hell forever.” So you believe that God is the author of sin? You believe that he forced Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? You say that he would cast those he loves into hell but let me ask you this: What love relationship do you know that is not conditional? I love my wife deeply and we have a beautiful marriage. Now what if my wife begins to have an affair? And then another and cannot stop then takes all my money and wastes it and starts bringing drugs into my house and begins to hurt me physically and then plots to kill me? Would you still be with this person or would you rightly seek a divorce (I am sure an arrest would be in order as well) as she has broken the marriage covenant that you entered together? So it is with God as he is seeking a Holy people separate from this world that responds to his love and grace by believing in his Son and loving him back.

    “And certainly the response that God will not violate your free choice because He loves you so much has never impressed me.” This does not impress me either as it is not an argument that I have really heard before. The reason why God does not violate your free choice is because it would violate the main reason that he created man which is to have a love relationship where we choose to be with him. Why do you think that God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden? Could he not have just left that out and we would never have the fall? Why did he allow the serpent in the garden and allow Adam and Eve to be tempted? Could he not just kicked the serpent out and prevented them from getting tempted in the first place? If God wanted robots, he could have accomplished that without “ordaining” all the suffering and pain that is in the world.

    “With all due respect, if I’m going the wrong way leading to damnation, I’ll be most grateful if God violates my free choice and saves me, and I won’t hold it against him either.” With all due respect, if you are going the way leading to damnation (which you are if you are not “in Christ”), then after you hear this Gospel and are convicted of your sin then all you have to do is repent and believe and God does not have to violate your free choice at all!! But after you hear this Gospel and are convicted of your sin you reject the Lord Jesus Christ then “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Heb 10:29 and “For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” 2 Pet 2:2

    “The Reformed view, questions and all, just makes more sense to me.” Its interesting because I started from a Pentecostal background then was on my way to becoming a Calvinist except the more that I study it, the less sense it makes to me.

  • “What strikes me as an unacceptable aspect of Arminianism is that God’s love is portrayed as so great as to sacrifice His Only Begotten Son, yet when sinners reject Him, they are ultimately cast into hell forever” – I sympathize with this.

    Libertarians (Arminians) speak as if there is no “humbling” in the process. The sinner just hears the gospel and then has an “ability” to repent and is expected to humble himself. I simply don’t see that in scripture. Often I find Arminians – like Keith Green – to speak in both terms. Keith sang songs like “You won’t learn a thing until you soften your heart” then turns around and sang “I was blind until you rolled away the stone that held my heart” – well who is it that does the humbling? Who is responsible for softening the heart?

    I agree that monergists seem to have a more reasonable view this issue. When discussing soteriology with Arminians, If I understand them correctly, they never really raise up the issue of humility. For this I think Calvinists are correct concerning irresistible grace. For if God humbles someone and they reject him, then he never really humbled them did he – They’re still arrogant. And I’m convinced no man humbles himself; arrogance never commits suicide but always seeks its own preservation.

    • Ummm…prevenient grace?

      • It appears to me that Calvinists forget that Arminians, too, believe in grace as necessary for salvation. The difference is that Arminians believe such grace is resistible. This prevenient grace is quite humbling. God’s prevenient grace helps an individual learn that pride and self-sufficiency won’t cut it. This is much like Peter, when he cried out, “Lord, save me!” and when he declared, “Lord, to who else can we go? You have the words of life.”

      • “Prevenient Grace”- by that you must mean that particular grace which, in all actuality, makes the intended point of Romans 8:7-8 mean:

        7 “…the sinful mind is hostile to God.
        (except where prevenient grace affects it)
        It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
        (except where it is affected by prevenient grace)
        8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”
        (although prevenient grace-enabled repentance and belief really are pleasing to God)

        Prevenent grace isn’t common grace, or the beauty of the ‘imago dei”. Isn’t it the universal drawing that only “woos” people into the Kingdom? If it is, then how is that commensurate with John 6?

        • rogereolson

          I assume you believe in unconditional election and irresistible grace. Then here is how you must read the intended message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world (people of every tribe and national but especially Europeans and North Americans), that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever (only certain selected people) believes him (only those chosen to receive irresistible grace) may not perish (God intends some specific people to perish) but have everlasting life.

          • It means that God so loved the kosmos (the whole enchilada) that He gave His monogenes (one and only Son) for the purpose of (hina) giving everlasting life (aiōnios zoe) to the ones who believe (pistauo).

            Do you believe that the limiting phrase in this verse is “whoever believes”? If so, would you say that Christ came to save only those who believe? Or would you say that He ends up saving those who don’t believe?

          • rogereolson

            Now (again) I know how Jesus felt when the scribes and Pharisees came to ask him tricky questions. I’m not going to play your game.

          • I’m not a tricky Pharisee- so let’s back up, Roger- I’ll just ask this one:

            Do you believe that the phrase “whoever believes” in John 3:16 is referring specifically to the group of people who will receive eternal life?

            Not a trick question, I assure you.

          • rogereolson

            It is a trick question, of course. The answer depends entirely on what you mean by “the group of people who will receive eternal life.” We all (all Christians) believe it is referring to some group of people; the question is whether that “group” is already predetermined by God as to their specific, individual identities or whether that “group” is indeterminate until specific individuals join it. I suspect if I had simply said “yes” to your question you would then claim that I was agreeing with Calvinism. So, I can’t give a simple “yes” or “no” because it all depends on what you mean by “the group of people who will receive eternal life.” If you mean “the elect” as in Calvinism, no. If you mean the elect as in “whoever will by their own free choice”–a truly open number, yes.

        • Charlie Payne

          I’ve always wondered: How do Calvinist square John 6 with John 12 where Jesus says “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself”.

  • Roger, I’ll have to re-read the chapter in your book Arminian Theology to try to understand Prevenient grace better. I recall reading it and not being satisfied and have many issues with it. But granted, I read it only once and probably should give it more careful thought.

    • Gene – You said, “The sinner just hears the gospel and then has an “ability” to repent and is expected to humble himself. ” It appears to me that you are approaching prevenient grace like irresistible grace. One chance and that’s it.

      Prevenient grace, although not necessarily guaranteed, is usually offered many times. Prevenient grace is sometimes referred to as a “wooing.” Prevenient grace is God’s reminder that there is a better way to do things, a better way to live. Prevenient grace is similar to the Prodigal Son. “When he came to his senses….” found in Luke 15:17.

      I’m pleased that you are willing to go back and read the chapter on Prevenient Grace. This graces that “comes before” is an important theological concept that is often mischaracterized.

  • Drwayman,
    I def. am inclined towards irresistable grace for many reasons I’ve not stated. As I read scripture it seems to me that when we do turn to God it’s not of our own choices and intelligence. It’s truly about the heart and that heart is in the potter’s hands. I don’t see God as someone who sits by idle waiting and hoping for people to love him. I see him (as Calvinists define) as someone who purges the delusions from us, pursues us and causes us to keep his commands and walk in his ways. If God softens the heart of someone (using language like Keith Green) then is it possible for the soft heart to reject God? I would argue no. It seems reasonable to me that if the man rejects God than his heart was not softened by God at all. Or to put it in Paul’s language – God has not yet had mercy on him.
    That is why I raised up Keith lyrics and the confusing language of free will Christianity. On one hand they say things like “You rolled away the stone that held my heart” and then say “you have to soften your heart”. Calvinists are not free from such a dilemma either. The say God loves some and then turn to their audience and preach “God loves you” when they should preach “God might love you – in a salvific sense – truth be known we don’t know who God loves except they’re called ELECT”. But they justify why they don’t need to preach such a dismal message. Likewise, being raised in the Free Methodist church I was taught that God gets all the glory for our salvation yet I have to make a proper choice. I was taught that both are true – God is not blamable if you reject his offer – YET – God gets all the glory if you make the right choice; makes no sense to me.
    Dr. Thomas Talbott makes more sense to me when he writes in Universal Salvation the Current Debate “Isn’t that the whole point behind the doctrine of grace? In order to rescue us from our delusions, God must also rescue us from our unwillingness to be rescued, which is itself the product of a delusion.” (p. 264)
    Tom’s view of Total depravity makes more sense to me. He clearly believes man has an inability to save himself and to change his own mind to call upon the name of the Lord.
    Merry Christmas and God bless you,


  • The premise that an all-knowing all-powerful all-loving God must save all or be judged “immoral” isn’t a new dilemma. The answer is simply that love and morality cannot be defined outside of God himself. You cannot bring any observation of what God does and call the action “immoral,” because it is moral and good by virtue of the fact that God, who created morality and does not contradict himself, did it. To then say that if God consigns some to condemnation when he is able to do otherwise then he is “immoral” is extremely presumptuous. By WHAT standard do you judge God to be immoral or unloving?

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for providing a fine example of nominalism. This is what I’ve been saying all along about the new Calvinism. Much of it is driven by a nominalistic view of God which means that God is himself, in his eternal character, neither good nor bad but just power and freedom. That God, though, cannot be trusted because he might be lying to us. We’ve been over this numerous times here. Go back and read some of the posts and comments about nominalism. I believe I almost started this blog there!


    This article presupposes that Calvinists believe that God has a single overriding attribute: Love. Last I checked, most reformed thinkers would reject this idea as one-dimensional and unbiblical as the bible describes God as holding many attributes infinitely. For example one could say that God holds his goodness, Sovereignty, justice, holiness, love, wrath, and wisdom (to name a few) in infinite supply as well. It is only people like Barth and Schleiermacher, with their unbalanced view of God’s nature, that necessarily slip into universalism. To assign this deficiency to all who hold to a high view of God’s sovereignty is unwarranted, misleading, and uncharitable.

    • rogereolson

      God can limit his power but not his love. Wrath is not a divine attribute–even in Reformed theology. (Was there wrath in God before there was a world?) Of course love is God’s super-attribute; it is his very essence. I know most Reformed theologians don’t agree. Therein lies our deepest difference, I suspect. But, even if you don’t believe love is God’s essence, there is no sense in which predestining people to hell is consistent with love. To claim that is what God does is to sacrifice love entirely.

  • jdavis

    I do believe that God has love as an infinite attribute, but, biblically speaking, his holiness is the only attribute that is completely unbounded by his other attributes. In fact, you see God described as holy much more often than he is described as loving. Gods holiness is given by God himself as an impetus for saving people (see ezekiel 36). The three-fold cry of “holy, holy, holy” is what the angels shout around the throne (isa. 6). To say that his love is completely unbounded makes no sense in the light of his holiness, because his holiness leads him to hate things like sin, evil, and injustice. If Gods basic overriding nature/essence were love, then he would love evil and sin as well. Oh, and I am not reformed. I just cannot allow an extrabiblica theological commitment overturn the clear message of the text.

    On a side note. If we believe that God is eternal and omniscient, then ,yes, he did have wrath “before” the foundation of the world, otherwise there would be no lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world.

    • rogereolson

      God’s holiness is an expression of his love–for himself (the innertrinitarian love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Love hates sin and evil because it loves persons who are harmed by them. (Sin and evil are not things but privations.) God is eternally just; wrath is the expression of his justice in relation to sin and evil. But ultimately even justice is governed by love, otherwise there would be no mercy.

  • I like to spend time trying to ballave both human freedom of will and God’s will (election) – “incharge,” “control,” choosing (when He wills to, and when He is not willing to). Has anyone every thought of tossiing out all the “letter of the words” and using analogies? I think “will” has to also be considered along with “ability,” where ability is dependany upon both extrnal parameters as well as the individauls capability. I think, just because a person is incapable of getting up out of a wheel chair, does not deny he has freedom of will. You will obvious argue. But here is an example: Two men are placed in two different environments. One is placed in a desert, the other in a jail cell. Does the jailed man have the freedom of will to do as he pleases, for instance walk further than the bars? No. Does the man n the desert have freedom of will to walk as far as he wants. Yes. On the otherhand, each also have the freedom of will to drink water. The jailed man ha access to water, whereas the desert man does not. Is the freedom to drink water anyless with the desert man than with the jailed man? No. Is one more capable of drinking than the other? Yes. Now apply this between God’s freedom of will and man’s freedo of will. Who is more capable, more frtee in condition and miore free in access to externals? Notice in both cases of the desert man and jailed man, that BOTH are arrested in the free will to “determain” what they can and can’t do. One cannot drink if there is no water, the other cannot walk away because the bars are restricting. Each still has the freedom to decide or determain what he wants to do, but both are restricted in what they can and can’t do. It is a difference in condition and principle. The false concept of man’s free will is that God cannot arrest him. The false concept of man not having free makes God angry at his own doings – His wrath upon man is actually His own wrath for making it so. man fell, and the preflood world dgenerated into what it was – God repented? that He made man – maybe repented that He made man that way?I think we need to find another word for ”repent” in that verse. Now, when it comes to the freedom to decide about the gospel, yes man has all the abiluity to “pick” a position, whether he believes it or not. he also has a choice to believe any one of the positions – this is not God’s choice – least we make Him responsible for the confusion out there with 30,000+ creeds, doctrines, beliefs and factions in the church. But, just because there is freedom to believe what you want or feel, does not make it true or happen. man’s free will freedom has no power to succeed, beyond what that of the dectates of his parameters. God has no parameters. All things are possible with God, but not all things are probable. What happens must happen based on goodness and rightousness. God wills not against His own righteousness, but has all the ability to arrest those who think that h he cannot will against man.
    THE CHESS GAME: I propose (against all odds) that God always will play the last move – he plays according to expost-facto. If God plays to win, and must always win, and he always plays His hand after – SECONDLY to man, then God will always be supreem and ahead of man. The other way is, God plays before, and it seems that if He never allows Himself to have the LAST move, which means check-mate, and always gives man the LAST move, insupport of the false concept that He always pulls the priori-string, then He can never win the game. Man will always have the LAST PLAY-move.
    Lets KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPIDS: KISS, let us all just change the “L” in the Tulip to a “U” for Universal Atonement, universal application, universal arrest, universal chess winner, and all be happy and spread the “well-mesage,” rather than a “partial” message that places the devil’s throne above God’s – in ownership of tyhe majority of man, if not the universe.
    Q. What does the LAW of God say? God created ALL by Himself, Through Himself it came to be, and FOR Himself – ownership. I suppose that IF He lost one ‘ATOM,” he has lost the whole; as he told us, if “wre” have transgressed one of the Laws, we have transgressed the whole. LIMITED atonement and eternal torment rightly state God created all “FOR” Himself, but wrongly see that He is really NOT heir to ALL, will not reconcile it all, because he really does not will it all.
    I don’t onow about you, but, if Universdal reconciliation is not true – which I cannot believe – then it truly would be better not to have ever been born.
    LINCOLN truly said: “It is either all or nothing (no one).”
    if eternal Hell exists, and it is part of all, then how can God recile it, leaving it tjhe way it is, and be All in all,” especially when people say, that hell is the only place God is not – the place of separation – hell burners have no access to God – he is NOT there to be had.

  • Alvin Kimel

    I don’t know why this article just today popped up in my RSS reader, given that it’s three years old), but I’m glad it did.

    Roger, you may find of interest a piece I recently wrote on Calvinism and universalism, reviewing an article written by Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp:

    • Roger Olson

      Of course, I haven’t read Crisp’s article, just your review of it. But his Augustinian universalism seems identical to Karl Barth’s! I posted an article about Barth and universalism here about a year ago. I hope you’ll find it and read it. Is Crisp a universalist, then? It does seem to me the only way to go if you are a Reformed person who takes God’s love seriously.

  • mike

    Arminians believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t. Calvinist believe that God can but don’t want to. Universalist believe that He can and will, through Jesus. Tell me, which God is most loving, and powerful?

    • Roger Olson

      The first–because love cannot be coerced.

      • DanVincent

        Do you coerce you kids to love you? And yet they do – they have “free will”, but their environment inevitably leads them to love you. Even if they are rebellious, as long as you show them love first (and aren’t torturing them, or threatening to do so), they will not be able to help themselves but have a natural love for you, no matter if they are confused as to your judgments. How much more will that be the case with our heavenly Father? Given our understanding of the unconditional love of God for humankind, who could resist loving (respecting) Him when face to face with him at some point in the future? Will His grace be canceled out because “time ran out”? Or does He simply hold us all accountable for our actions, eye-for-eye, and those of us who avail ourselves of Christ’s sacrifice are spared that judgment? Perfect judgment might sting, for sure, but the end result has to be restoration. Jesus’ choice to use the father metaphor with those He taught is the grandest proof, in my view, of His true character. So simple, and yet so many miss it.

        One parting thought – how could God hold us to a higher standard then He holds Himself? Why have a Jubilee law for us when He won’t honor the same concept (eventually)? Time was served by the offender, for sure, but there is a statute of limitations built into God’s divine law, which stems from His very essence and character.

        • Roger Olson

          You have not been informed about my view of hell which is basically that of C. S. Lewis. It solves all the problems you raise.

  • Geoff Glenister

    Roger – I grew up Calvinist. Believed in “monster God”. In my early 20’s I left the church – for good, I thought. Years later I slunk back in to a church that emphasized the love of God. And this led me to deconstruct my beliefs, and I eventually became a Universalist (strangely enough, my pastor is not – but the logical conclusion you get when you combine Calvinist beliefs with Arminian beliefs is Universalism). I wrote an over 80-page defense of Biblical Christian Universalism and split it into posts for my blog. I’d be honored if you’d check out the first part, at least – I put the strongest arguments forth in this section

    • Roger Olson

      Unfortunately, I don’t have time to check it out, so I have to edit out the link.

      • Gene

        Roger, perhaps you might post it up for us to follow up. I’d like to read it too.

        • Roger Olson

          If it’s something I’ve posted here in the past, you might find it by googling my name and key words.

    • I’ll check it out. I have time to read it:P

  • AHampshire

    Two points of clarification:

    (1) Putting Schliermacher and Barth on the same side of an argument? That’s almost as bad as putting Calvin and Arminius together. In my opinion, no serious student of the history of theology would attempt an argument using such radically divergent and contradictory thinkers. If their common reformed heritage is all that matters to you here, I would submit that you can’t adequately appreciate the nuances involved in positions other than the ones you hold.

    (2) Barth was NOT a universalist. In fact, he was not a universalist for the exact reason that he rejected the extreme tenets of Calvinism. In short, any human system we derive to explain a salvific plan, but which ultimately binds God, is not a true system at all.

    For example, you stated, “If I could believe that God saves everyone unconditionally, which is what I think Barth believed…” Barth would NEVER say this, because this creates a binding system upon God. In other words, God MUST save all. This is not a free God but a bound God, and consequently not the true God (according to Barth).

    Barth rejected the binary choice you are forcing on him, Roger.

    • Roger Olson

      Read my essay on Barth and universalism. I have no doubt that Barth was a KIND of universalist. Google the key words to find my essay. I posted it here about a year ago.