For many years of my life, “universalism” (universal salvation) seemed like a bad word. It was liberal heresy. A slap in the face of the gospel. Diminishing Jesus and the cross.
I no longer see it that way.
My journey from exclusivism, to a much more inclusive view of the gospel, and eventually into Christian universalism, took many steps. There was no single verse, no single theologian, no single event in my life that caused the shift. As with most major theological shifts, it was a journey of twists and turns, new insights, embracing a different perspective on Scripture and God.
But there were two biblical texts that stood out prominently:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
So Scripture seems pretty clear about this: God wants, God desires, everyone to be saved. And God wants, God desires, that no one perish.
But the traditional (exclusivist/inclusivist) view of the gospel is that only some will be saved, while the rest (many, even) will perish.
The troubling conclusion, then, is that God does not get what God wants. That God’s will, forever and ever and always, is eternally frustrated. Even more: the inescapable conclusion of the traditional view of the gospel is that, either ultimately due to the free will of human beings (Arminianism) or to the eternal decree of God (Calvinism) or to both, God is forever at odds with God’s own will and desires. God’s will is eternally defeated.
But how can this be? Are we really to rest content with the idea that either God cannot, or that God will not, achieve God’s own desires for the reconciliation of all people and of all creation?
Consider the flip side. If God is as powerful, effectual, and faithful as Christians so often proclaim, wouldn’t it be more natural to believe that God will eventually accomplish the desires that Scripture affirms that he has?
Reformed theologian Thomas Talbott puts it this way, in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate:
If you simply take the Augustinian idea of God’s sovereignty in the matter of salvation–that is, the idea that the Hound of Heaven cannot be defeated forever–and put it together with the Arminian idea that God at least wills or desires the salvation of all, then you get universalism, plain and simple. (7)
Granted, plenty of theologians have responses to this “simple move,” and argue that, just as you and I have competing desires, or a hierarchy of desires, not all of which can be fulfilled–for any of number of reasons–so God can have a desire for the salvation of all, but a “greater desire” that free will be honored, or that justice be done, or for God’s own glory, or whatever.
But just think about it for a minute. It’s easy to imagine our own desires competing for our attention. It’s easy to imagine having to suppress one desire in favor of another wtihin ourselves. But is it so easy to imagine this to be the case in God? Is it so easy to believe in and worship a God who is eternally frustrated, because he simply cannot–or will not–reconcile and save everyone?