In my last two essays I’ve tried to provide a very brief but accurate overview of Calvin’s and Arminius’ positions on election, predestination and foreknowledge. The former believes that God has chosen some to be saved from damnation regardless of who they are and, because the Lord has ordained it, they have no choice but to surrender to Christ. The latter opines that God respects each individual’s free will but, due to His prerogative of seeing into the future, He’s known since the beginning of time who’ll choose on their own volition to believe in Jesus and who’ll reject the gospel. Now I’ll introduce the reader to ideas formulated about these things by the Universalists. They believe that due to God’s amazing mercy and grace, along with His unfathomable love for all mankind, no soul gets left behind. Like the Calvinists and Arminians they base their conjectures on scripture so as to not give the impression that they’ve developed their theory out of thin air but straight out of God’s Holy Word.
In comparison to the two aforementioned alternatives, Universalism is relatively new (although its adherents insist that it was a very common belief system held by church leaders prior to the 6th century). But after the Protestant reformation movement shook the religious world to its core in the middle of the last millennium it fell out of favor until John Murray (1741 – 1815) revived it in the United States and formed the Universalist Congregation that has grown steadily over the years to be a significant segment of the modern Christian church. In 1899 the initial Universalist General Convention was convened and they agreed on 5 basic principles as being representative of their sect. They are: (1) An unwavering belief in God, (2) a solid belief in the deity of Jesus Christ, (3) the immortality of the human soul, (4) the reality of sin and (5) the doctrine of universal reconciliation for every person. As you can imagine, it’s the fifth tenet that lies in direct opposition to both Calvinism and Arminianism. Once again I’ll remind the reader that it’s not my intention to pass judgment on any belief system but to present each hypothesis clearly and in plain English in order to educate those who may be curious. (Somewhere down the line I’ll give my own humble thoughts on the subject but not now.)
Universalism has no quarrel with the traditional belief that, in light of us Christians being saved solely by grace, we can take no credit for our own salvation or even for behaving as decent citizens of this planet. They take no issue with all attribution for our justification going to God Almighty. They aver that, when understood correctly, the doctrine of salvation by grace has three vital virtues. First, it effectively undermines pride and any misguided assumptions of self-righteousness in the disciple of Christ. Second, it encourages followers of Jesus to acknowledge his/her status as a sinner, along with the rest of the entire human race (including the most wretched and evil-minded of criminals). And thirdly, it provides the Christian with the greatest possible assurance that, no matter the difficulties they encounter in this life, everything works out in the end. What Universalists can’t condone is the proposition that there’s a final and irrevocable division between who’ll be permitted to stroll through the pearly gates and who’ll boil forever in a fiery lake. They feel that God’s supposed selection of only certain folks to be with Him throughout eternity is an absurd thought. Plus, arguing over whether such a thing is either “conditional” or “unconditional” is an ignorance-fueled affront to God’s steadfast goodness and, furthermore, implies that the great I AM’s compassionate love is limited in scope. They insist that we can’t restrict God like that just because various Biblical scholars have determined that God is biased, fickle and stingy with His sympathetic tendencies towards individual members of mankind who live in a fallen world they didn’t create.
Universalists offer as evidence four tell-tale verses found in the New Testament. 1 Timothy 2:4 declares that it’s the Heavenly Father’s will that all humans come to Christ “…since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” and they figure what God wants God gets. 2 Peter 3:9 confirms that God’s desire is that none should be lost: “The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” In the Universalist mindset this is the central reason for God sending his only begotten Son into the cruel world. 1 John 2:2 states clearly that Jesus “…is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.” And, in direct opposition to the belief that God’s love is conditional, they cite Romans 3:3-4 to point out its impossibility: “What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: ‘so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”
Since Universalism unequivocally states that everybody will eventually be saved and any discussion about or interpretation of the scriptures that intimates otherwise is erroneous, they don’t see a need to canonize five points that spell out the intricacies of their beliefs. Rather, Universalism emphasizes four principal arguments intended to refute the ultraconservative claims of Calvin and Arminius.
The first position is that a doctrine of limited election is inconsistent with what 1 John plainly puts forth in chapter 4, verse 16: “And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him.” Thus, to portray the Heavenly Father as being capable of doing such an unloving thing as to condemn even one of his created children to hell is a logical impossibility. Leon Morris wrote, “God is love. This means more than ‘God is loving.’ It means that God’s essential nature is love. He loves, so to speak, not because he finds objects worthy of His love, but because it is His nature to love. His love for us depends not on what we are, but on what He is. He loves us because He is that kind of God.” In fact, Universalists find it odd that this characterization of the great I AM as the supreme lover should be deemed controversial at all. They find it repulsive to think that God chooses to make some people the object of His love and mercy and others the object of His iron-fisted wrath because that would indicate that it’s possible for Him not to love someone. And, if that’s true, then love is not one of His essential properties and that stands in abject contrast to what the Bible explicitly says about Him.
Universalists highlight the fact that many respected theologians from John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to J.I. Packer want to have God be both loving and vengeful at the same time and they find that middle-of-the-road attitude to be ultimately intolerable. It seems to them that Calvinists and Arminians alike intentionally ignore 1 John 4:16 so that it doesn’t conflict with their beliefs about individual election and predestination. God is either the source of pristine, unfiltered love or He isn’t. Thomas Talbott said, “If God has commanded us to love our families, our neighbors, and even our enemies, as the New Testament consistently affirms, then a doctrine of limited election carries the awkward implication that God hates (or simply fails to love) some of the ones whom He has commanded us to love.” If God is like that then He’s a hypocrite who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk and all Christians know that can’t be right. To embrace the idea that God’s love is somehow limited nurtures a temptation as old as religion itself; the temptation to distinguish between the favored few (a club we, of course, belong to) and everyone else. Jonah’s story illustrates it well. He hated the Ninevites so much that he balked at obeying God’s instructions for him to go plead with them to repent and be saved. As bad as the Ninevites were, God still loved them. When they heeded the reluctant Jonah’s preaching God spared their city. Jonah became so disenchanted that he wanted to die. He preferred they not be part of the “elect.” To the Universalist, limited election ultimately reflects attitudes similar to Jonah’s. If God’s will is for us to love our neighbors as ourselves then it’s imperative that we consider Him to be the perfect model of that ideal.
The second position involves God’s unrestricted mercy and they use Romans 11:32 as a guide: “For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.” To the Universalist this is further proof that limited election is totally incompatible with the thrust of Paul’s theology. In fact, they view the 11th chapter of Romans as an indisputable confirmation of God’s all-encompassing mercy that renders that stoic doctrine utterly null and void. Their opinion is that the message Paul consistently conveys is that God is forever merciful, even as he is forever righteous. That His so-called “rejection” of a sinner is only temporary and merely serves a redemptive purpose in the overall scope of things. Even when the Lord allows people to be disobedient as Paul expresses in Romans 11: 8-10 (quoting from Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Psalms) by blinding their eyes, hardening their hearts or even cutting them off for a season He does so in order to display His mercy on them. Lamentations 3:31-32 says “For the Lord will not reject us forever. Though he causes us grief, he then has compassion on us according to the abundance of his loyal kindness.” Universalists also refer to 1 Timothy 2:4 and question how Calvinists and Arminians can make “all” turn into “some” arbitrarily. They point out that there’s not one indication that Paul meant something else in using the word “all.” Therefore, because he intentionally wrote that God is merciful to every one of His children and merciful even in His disciplining, Paul would surely reject any view that restricts God’s mercy to a select few.
Their third position concerns the disputed 9th chapter of Romans, the 15th verse in particular as Paul borrows from Exodus 33:19 wherein God addresses Moses with “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” They feel that in the context of Paul’s discourse he was tackling the problem of Jewish unbelief while systematically defending his thesis that God has every right to extend His mercy to all the descendants of Adam, including Gentiles. Universalists also insist that God’s “good pleasure” (mentioned in Ephesians 1:20 and Colossians 1:20) is precisely His loving will to be compassionate towards all (expressed in Romans 11:32), to reconcile the entire world to himself (as stated in 2 Corinthians 5:19) and to achieve this end through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also suggest that to understand chapters 9-11 of Romans we must savvy that Paul was employing a literary structure much like that of a fairy tale to heighten the impact it would have on his readers. Accordingly, Paul begins with referencing his “unceasing anguish” over the unsaved who are but “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” in order to amplify the sudden joyous turn he reveals at the end of chapter 11when he says that our Father in heaven’s rejection is always temporary and always has a merciful purpose, i.e. the redemption of all human beings!
The fourth position is that God’s will cannot be stopped from coming into its full fruition. In Romans 8:38-39 Paul boldly announces that he is “…convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Since our Messiah achieved a complete victory over sin and death on Calvary, God won’t just quarantine evil in a dark corner of His creation known as hell but He’ll demolish it altogether. Universalists believe that God will eventually annihilate evil in the only way possible short of eradicating the objects of His unfailing love: by saving all people from their sins. 1 Corinthians 15:22 reads, “For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Arland Hultgren said, “As Adam was the head of humanity in the old eon, leading all to destruction, so Christ is the head of humanity in the new age which has dawned, leading all to justification and life.” When Jesus addressed His Father with “Not my will but yours be done…,” He unleashed the power of the cross (the transforming power of love) that’ll successfully bring every rebellious will into conformity with Christ’s own loving will. At that juncture the Son turns His kingdom over to the Father for all time to come. In other words, to be foreknown is simply to be loved beforehand. All those whom God has loved from the beginning (all the descendants of Adam) are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. And there’s never been the slightest possibility that God would lose any of the loved ones whose salvation He’s already foreordained even before the foundation of the world.
Now, Universalists don’t deny that Paul believed in predestination but they opine that Calvinists and Arminians, despite their good intentions, got the Apostle all wrong about it. They concede that our free choices have real consequences in our lives and that they determine how we’ll encounter God’s grace in the future; but whichever way we choose, God’s perfecting love will meet our true spiritual needs perfectly. Furthermore, our decisions, fine or foul, are a source of revelation. They sooner or later reveal (either in this life or the next one) both the horror of separation from our Heavenly Father and the unequaled bliss of union with Him. Universalists conjecture that after numerous trials and tribulations caused by us “doing our own thing” we’ll finally learn why estrangement from God can bring only greater, more profound misery into our existence and why a close relationship with Him is the only thing that’ll satisfy our deepest longings. At that point all resistance to His engulfing grace will melt away like ice on a hot summer day.
In conclusion, Universalism considers a doctrine of limited election the replacing of grace, as Talbott said, “…with a horrible decree, one that separates the redeemed forever from some of their own loved ones; and perhaps no other doctrine, not even the doctrine of everlasting punishment itself, has, as a matter of historical fact, produced so much anxiety in the lives of those who actually believe it.” Yet they don’t let those who endorse “conditional” election off the hook, either. They think that belief also carries the threat that some of our loved ones will eventually be lost forever, doomed to suffer in hell interminably, while undermining the Christian’s solidarity with the human race as a whole and manufacturing unwarranted reasons to boast of being “more loved.” They lean heavily on the parable Jesus, our vigilant shepherd, delivered in Luke 15:4 in the form of a question: “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it?” If Jesus was, indeed, God incarnate, then there can be no doubt that He will seek, find and rescue every member of His flock.
Universalists believe that the gospel is the best news imaginable and truly glorious in its simplicity. What it tells us raggedy sinners is that the death and resurrection of Jesus has already achieved a complete, thorough victory over sin and death and, though Satan and his legion of demons (the enemies of God) remain a despicable and disruptive part of our present reality, their eventual demise has been guaranteed. Therefore the reconciliation of the world and every person in it is assured because there is no force, no army, no entity or power in the universe (including our self-centered, stubborn and rebellious free wills) that can possibly “…separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”