A Theological Look at Universalism

Universalism or universal reconciliation is the name commonly given to the belief that there shall be universal restoration beyond death, not only for the race, but for every individual of the race. This is based on the assumption that the demerit of sin will not last for ever, and that all who enter eternity in a state of rebellion against God shall eventually find reconciliation and peace. There are varieties of universalism which stop short of this. For example, there is the belief in Conditional Immortality, which holds that an opportunity will be given after death for the acceptance of Christ, that acceptance will mean salvation, while rejection will be followed by extinction. There is also the more general form of the doctrine that all unbelievers, with or without a second chance, will be annihilated. Both these forms are agreed in rejecting the doctrine of everlasting punishment, though the holders of Conditional Immortality accept the fact of punishment for at least a period. There are, however, certain ideas common to every form of Universalism: they all view the character of God as animated by sheer benevolence rather than by a holy love; they regard the will of man as something that can be overruled and subdued by the mere exercise of superior power, rather than something that is man's by right of the very constitution of his nature; and they regard Scripture as expressing views common to the age in which it was written, rather than a revelation of the mind and will of God. Notwithstanding this low view of the Bible, they all quote Scripture texts in support of their views, and by the manipulation of isolated texts removed from their context, they make out a plausible case for the positions they hold. Rather, perhaps, should it be said that they read the Scriptures with these beliefs and conceptions in their minds, and so assure themselves that they discover them in Scripture.

History of Universalism

Universalism is, at least, as old as Origen, and it was taught in the School he presided over at Alexandria in the extreme form that all fallen beings, not excluding the Devil and his angels, who do not repent in this world, shall pass through prolonged chastisement in the world to come. In the end, through these sufferings and the instruction of superior spirits, they will undergo a change and be brought to bliss. Though Origen's views had been condemned by the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 543), the heresy continued to appear in certain sections of the Church for many centuries. At the Reformation the sect known as Anabaptists adopted this view as regards both men and devils, and John Calvin wrote a tract condemning it. In the middle of the eighteenth century a new impulse was given to the doctrine by Otinger, and later by Bengel and Schleiermacher, the last of these basing it entirely on the grounds of pure humanitarianism. It received a considerable boost when in 1879 F. W. Farrar published his book Eternal Hope and preached universalism from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. It soon became the creed of Modern Optimism and prepared the way for the infidelity that was to follow. It is a moot point whether the Continental theologian of our day, Karl Barth, might not also be reckoned among the Universalists, were we to follow the normal processes of logic. But it is on record that he repudiates universal reconciliation. The holders of the doctrine have rallied considerable support in Britain and America where churches and even denominations have been formed to proclaim Universalism. Besides this open allegiance identified with special denominations, there are also large numbers in all the Churches who either proclaim the doctrine openly or hold it as a matter of private belief. In the larger Churches of our land it has passed out with the sphere of heresy and is regarded as progressive thought. Generally speaking it is a concomitant of the doctrine of the Universal Fatherhood of God and its corollary, the Universal Sonship of man.

The Doctrinal Basis of Universalism

That this doctrine has been congenial to human nature there is ample evidence stretching back to the day when our first parents heard and heeded the assurance: "Ye shall not surely die." Jeremiah lamented that his heart within him was broken because of the false prophets of his day who sought to curry favour with their hearers by proclaiming: "The Lord has said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you" (Jer. 23:17).

The doctrine of Universalism is related to certain manifestations of the being and character of God given to us in the Scriptures.

It is related, for example, to the character of God as Love. Love here is equated with benevolence that cannot inflict pain or suffering on His creatures, except for an end consistent with His benevolence. All suffering is, therefore, remedial and has in view the reformation and restoration of the sinner, if not in this life, then in the life to come. Here the divine benevolence and the happiness of man alone are brought into view, and all other aspects of God's nature and man's are disregarded. As regards God, it creates a false antithesis between righteousness and love. As regards man, it is baseless optimism. To argue that sooner or later he will find God's love irresistible is to fly in the teeth of reality. If a Judas could develop in closest proximity to that love in its supreme manifestation, what further manifestation is it to receive that will prove irresistible?

It is also related to the will of God, which cannot tolerate the perpetuation of evil or its consequences in the universe. Evil is held to be temporary, good is permanent, and the will of God will operate until the harmony of the universe is completely restored. This will mean that all the ravages of sin in human life will be made good. To this it can be pointed out that Scripture proclaims that here and now it is God's will that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), yet all men are not saved, and do not in this life come to the knowledge of the truth. There seems no ground for believing that the will of God in this respect shall be accepted in the life beyond death, where the very nature of the eternal state would seem to rule out any possibility of such a moral change of will and character. This belief simply ignores the reality of man's responsibility.

The doctrine is loosely related to the Work of Christ. It is held that Scripture supports a universal atonement, that as all men were dead, Christ died for all, and that, therefore, Christ shall not see of the travail of His soul till the whole of humanity is saved. Further, since salvation is dependent on what Christ has done, it cannot be nullified by anything man can do, and so Christ will eventually draw the spirits of all men to Himself. What is forgotten here is that, whether the atonement of Christ is universal or not in its intention--and the evidence is that it is not--it is practically applied only to those who exercise faith, and in the exercise of faith the will of man must make its choice freely and without external compulsion. Thus to hold that every man will eventually be saved by the work of Christ is to destroy the free action and decision of faith.

Finally, emphasis is placed on the power of God which is omnipotent in the fulfilling of all His purposes. Since God is a holy God His almighty power will be exercised to abolish evil for ever, and to restore all His creatures to the blessedness they had lost because of the folly of their sin. It is thus held to be derogatory to God that He should allow sin or its consequences to continue in the universe. It needs to be pointed out that every conception of power and its exercise is not Christian, and that a conception of God's omnipotence that imposes salvation on man whether he wills it or not is definitely unchristian.

Scripture References

A slight acquaintance with Scripture is enough to let us see that it can be made to speak the language of Universalism. In its broad sweep and cosmic vision there is so much universalism in the outlook and language of Scripture that it is not altogether surprising that it is freely quoted on the side of this doctrine.

Here is, first, its promise of the restitution of all things.

The Apostle Peter speaks of Christ as the One "whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution (apokatasteseos) of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:21). This is commonly referred to as the Apokatastasis. The meaning of the passage is difficult, and it can as correctly be made to mean "the restitution of all things which the prophets declared would be restored", leaving the extent of the "all things" quite undetermined. That this translation may be justifiable is supported by the statement in the succeeding verses: "And it shall come to pass, that every soul that shall not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" (v, 28). There we have an individual in all his responsibility of choice and decision, as before we had the work of Christ in its cosmic relations. In any case, the restitution of all things can, and does, have an interpretation that is not at all consistent with the doctrine of Universalism, for Scripture elsewhere leaves us to expect a restoration or renovation that covers the whole of nature that has been marred by man's sin. When sin is cast out, as it will be in the day of God's judgement, its scars will be removed.

Another group of proof texts quoted by Universalists would suggest the universal bestowal of Christ's righteousness.

This is understood from passages quoted from Romans and First Corinthians. "As by the offence of one judgement came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom. v, 18-19). This, and the corresponding passage in 1 Corinthians 15:22, are made to appear as supporting the final recovery of all men. And if they are detached from the context, they undoubtedly lend support to this view. But as part of the general argument pursued by the Apostle, they most clearly mean no more than that, as all united to Adam by physical ties suffer death, so all united to Christ by spiritual ties shall be made alive, a line of thought common to the Apostle Paul.

There is the promise that all things shall be gathered up in Christ. Here the passage is made use of: "That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth" (Ephes. 1:10). There is a similar reference in Colossians: "And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross, through him, I say, whether things upon the earth or things in the heavens" (Col. 1:20). These would seem to ensure a tremendous expansion of Christ's saving work to embrace "all things" both in heaven and on earth. It is clear, however, that the Apostle is looking at that moment beyond the redemption of God's people to the far-reaching relevance of Christ's work in the moral universe, for he, immediately afterwards, brings into this reconciliation the people to whom he is writing: "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled" (Col. 1:21). While this says that the believers at Colosse had a part in that scheme of reconciliation, it does not at all mean that some people, by the exercise of their own free choice, will not refuse to enter that reconciliation.

The conclusion we must come to is that these passages, and some others like them, belong to the cosmic perspective of Christ's work, and its relation not to the world only, but to the moral universe as a whole. It is only to be expected that, in this context, the destiny of some individuals of the human race, many or few, might not come into focus. Scripture throughout has these two perspectives. At one time light is focused on the loss or salvation of a soul, at another time it is the vista of a reconciled universe that fills the view. These two are not contradictory; they belong to different contexts, that is all.

If, on the other hand, the doctrine of universal salvation is accepted on such slender and doubtful evidence, not only is that aspect of Scripture itself to be reinterpreted in the teeth of much clear evidence to the contrary, but all the doctrines of revelation are thrown into confusion. Most devastating of all, the character of God shares in this chaos, the sacrifice of Christ is rendered unnecessary, and the work of the Holy Spirit becomes a futility.

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