Note from Randy: I so appreciate this article by Michael McClymond (professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University and author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism). It’s theological and serious, but has great practical implications, because “Christian universalism” is spreading. I’ve addressed it in various critiques of Paul Young’s books The Shack and Lies We Believe about God. But Michael’s article is much more ambitious, covers more ground, and puts things in a succinct way.
This is an excellent resource, not only for those who are personally struggling with questions about the doctrine of hell, but also for readers who are interacting with friends, family members, and members at their church who are tempted to move toward universalism.
There are many good points in Michael’s article, but this paragraph may be the best:
“Perhaps one underlying reason why professing Christians today are examining or embracing universalism is that they don’t want to be placed on the hot seat in a world that’s increasingly hostile toward Christianity. They’d like to avoid ever being in a position in which they must tell a non-Christian that there are dire consequences for rejecting Christ. Hell is a disturbing doctrine, an ultimate turnoff, an egregious insult. The so-called 11th commandment—'You shall not offend’—has become paramount for some. Universalism offers a semblance of Christianity with the unseemly parts edited out.”
By Michael McClymond
No compassionate person delights in seeing other people suffer. How much less should a Christian believer rejoice in anyone’s everlasting suffering? Christian belief is not compatible with schadenfreude—taking pleasure in another’s misfortune.
It’s not surprising that some thoughtful Christian believers today are being drawn toward universalism—the belief that all humans will finally be saved into God’s blissful presence. His love makes universalism an obligatory belief, some contemporary voices contend. Any Christian who isn’t a universalist is, in effect, a moral imbecile.
If we compare universalism to a house for sale, we should admit the house has curb appeal. But would any of us decide to buy a house we’d only seen from the outside? Wouldn’t we want to check out the inside too? And wouldn’t we insist on getting down into the crawl space so we might inspect the plumbing, the wiring, and the HVAC system? Whether the house was habitable would be decisive in our decision to buy—or not.
What follows is especially intended for those who are convinced of or inclining toward universalism. These are honest points for discussion, not trick questions. Still, I’m convinced the universalist “house” is ultimately not worth buying—and not permanently habitable for someone committed to biblical teaching and Christian living.
Christian belief in the reality of hell and the possibility of separation from God rests on Jesus’s own words in the Gospels. “Hell” or “Gehenna” and other related terms point toward a state of punishment and suffering after death. Yet if everyone without exception is headed toward the same final destination with God—as universalists claim—then why do we find Jesus saying the “sheep” will be separated from the “goats” (Matt. 25:31–46)? That the “wheat” will be separated from the “weeds” (Matt. 13:30)? That the “wheat” will be separated from the “chaff” (Matt. 3:12)? That the “good fish” will be separated from the “bad fish” (Matt. 13:48)? That the “wise virgins” will enter the wedding feast but the “foolish virgins” will be stuck outside (Matt. 25:1–13)? Separation is occurring in all these passages.
But if universalism is true, there can be no truly lasting separation. And in that case, isn’t Jesus’s teaching highly misleading? Are we to imagine that our Savior frightened his hearers by describing a fixed separation of sinners that will never occur, or a future state of punishment that will not exist?
In the ancient church, Severus of Antioch and Augustine made a similar observation: in Matthew 25:41 and 25:46, the same Greek word (aionios) is used to describe both the duration of heaven and the duration of punishment after death. Universalists often argue that aionios as applied to hell or punishment doesn’t mean “eternal” in the strict sense, but merely “age-long.” In other words, hell exists but it’s temporary. In that case, though, we’d need to conclude heaven too is temporary—that heaven comes to an end. Otherwise, how can the same Greek word have two different meanings in the very same verse—“age-long” when applied to punishment or hell, but “forever” when applied to heaven? This makes little sense.
The New Testament’s teaching on heaven and hell doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. The theme of “two ways” leading to differing outcomes is woven throughout the Bible. In just the second chapter (Gen. 2), Adam is given a choice between life with God (if he doesn’t eat from the forbidden tree) or death in defiance of God (if he does eat). In Psalm 1 there are different outcomes for the righteous and the wicked, and so also in Isaiah 1: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword” (Isa. 1:19–20). The universalist idea of only one outcome for everyone—regardless of choices made—doesn’t merely contradict one verse here or there. It runs against the whole thrust of Old and New Testament teachings.
It’s a poignant moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asks his heavenly Father to “remove this cup” of suffering from him (Mark 14:36). What is the outcome? His petition is denied. The sinless Son of God prayed to the Father—yet his request wasn’t granted. It’s hard to imagine how the necessity of his death on the cross could be demonstrated more emphatically than this. But why? If God simply wanted to demonstrate his love for humanity, there were innumerable ways he might have done so. Yet as John Stott argued in The Cross of Christ, the love revealed in Jesus’s death was a holy love. The cross satisfied justice and demonstrated love—thus it can’t be viewed as an act of divine love in isolation from divine justice.
Universalism struggles to explain the necessity of Jesus’s horrifying death. For if a universalist admits that God’s righteous opposition to sin required something that awful (i.e., the death of God’s incarnate Son), then it also makes sense to say that sinners not justified by Jesus’s death deserve hell or something like it. God’s justice requires one or the other—either the hell of Jesus’s agony, in which the sinner’s guilt is vicariously atoned for, or the hell of individual suffering for the one who rejects Jesus and his atoning work. The logic of atonement and the logic of hell are intertwined.
Universalists generally understand God as a loving being who doesn’t exercise judgment toward sin or sinners. Yet Revelation offers a picture of God’s righteous judgment against a sinful world, in overt rebellion against himself, as the bowls of his wrath are poured out (Rev. 16). The Beast, the False Prophet, and the Devil are later seized by the Lord and thrown into “the lake of fire” (Rev. 19)—an outcome set over and against the New Jerusalem, where the Lord dwells with Christ and the saints (Rev. 21).
In his book The Evangelical Universalist, Robin Parry tries to interpret Revelation in a universalist fashion, and does so by equating God with “the lake of fire.” Sinners fall into “the lake of fire,” get purified in God’s fiery presence, and then enter the New Jerusalem. But since Revelation identifies “the lake of fire” with “the second death” (Rev. 20:14), if “the lake of fire” is God, then God is “the second death.” Such exegesis twists the meaning of Scripture and distorts the character of God.
No less than seven times in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has saved you” (Matt. 9:22; Mark 5:34; 10:52; Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). A concordance will show the words “faith” and “believe,” with their cognates, appear over 500 times in the New Testament. The texts are too numerous to cite. Hebrews 11 is a whole chapter linking salvation to faith. But how is this tight connection between salvation and faith consistent with universalism?
The universalist is bound to say either that (1) people in the present life who don’t seem to be believers really are believers in some hidden or cryptic fashion, (2) people who depart this life in unbelief get a further opportunity to become believers after death (see #11), or (3) salvation isn’t tied to faith, despite the biblical witness to the contrary. None of these three options is congruent with Scripture. Some universalists believe God saves people who don’t believe and don’t want to be saved. This sounds a lot like coerced salvation.
If universalist teaching is correct, then it’s remarkable it never found its way into any of the official documents, confessions, or creeds of the major Christian communities—Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. With the exception of the Universalist Church in the States, beginning in the 1800s and continuing to the early 1900s, one simply doesn’t find universalism officially taught by any Christian community. (Many Unitarian Universalists today don’t believe in life after death at all.) Read through Philip Schaff’s or Jaroslav Pelikan’s multivolume works on the creeds and confessions—you won’t find universal salvation as a historic Christian teaching.
In Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity generally, certain individuals were self-conscious universalists (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh), but they represented a minority group, and their universalist views were merely a tolerated, private opinion. Universalism was never admitted as official public teaching nor allowed to be preached from the pulpits of Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant congregations.
Moreover, the best-known early teacher of universalism—Origen—was condemned by name at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553. Throughout history, this condemnation was taken as a rejection of Origen’s teaching on universal salvation. In the ancient church, the number of nonuniversalist writers far outnumbers the universalists, by a factor of about 10 or 12 to 1 (see my tabulation in The Devil’s Redemption, 1097–99). This was true not only of Latin-language authors but also of those who wrote in Greek, Coptic, and Syriac.
If the universalists are correct, then many of the greatest Christian teachers—including Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bellarmine, Pascal, Owen, Edwards, Newman, and so on—were all mistaken on an essential theological question. Do we really think 21st-century Christianity is so much more enlightened than preceding centuries that we alone have discovered the truth of universal salvation? Is it not more plausible to imagine we inhabit an age of spiritual and moral laxity and that universalism is growing because of a widespread desire to find a more permissive set of beliefs?
Some universalists say that if only Christian churches would abandon their teaching on hell, an ecclesial golden age would commence and multitudes of new members would enter in, no longer hindered by the offensive “stumbling block” of hell. History, though, suggests an opposite conclusion: universalism is a church-destroying doctrine. In the mid-1800s, the Universalist Church—which few today remember—was briefly the fifth-largest denomination in the States. What happened? Having officially declared themselves for universal salvation, a theological self-demolition promptly took place.
Already in the early 1800s, universalist thinkers denied that Jesus was our sin-bearer on the cross. God punishes no one, they argued, and so Jesus wasn’t punished. Soon enough the universalists began to question, and then to deny, the divinity of Christ. Jesus was now simply a moral teacher. Eventually, the universalists merged with unitarians to become the Unitarian-Universalists—still with us today, though in ever-shrinking numbers. The greatest irony was that some people in the Universalist Church stopped believing in the afterlife and ended up as secular humanists. Heaven, once it was made all-inclusive, became unreal and irrelevant even to the universalists themselves. Why should we imagine a 21st-century universalist church would fare any better than the 19th-century version?
Universalists often begin from the presumption that God does not, would not, or could not create intelligent, moral beings (i.e., who are capable of making moral choices) without ensuring all such beings are finally saved. So argues David Bentley Hart, among others. But if this is so, it means Satan and the demons must all be saved—just like all human beings. In Scripture, however, there isn’t the slightest hint that Satan or the demons will ever be saved. Jesus speaks of the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). There’s never a call or summons or invitation for demons to repent.
Throughout history, believers have prayed in hope for the salvation of mass murderers and other egregious sinners. But there are no traditional Christian prayers for the salvation of Satan. Scripture and church practice give us no reason to assume Satan or demons will ever be saved. The universalist assumption—that God would never create an intelligent creature who sins and is eternally separated from him—thus appears to be a false starting point. And if Satan and the demons are lost forever, then one must consider some humans might also be lost forever, as implied in the wording of the verse just cited: “Then [Christ] will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41).
Essential Protestant teaching—based on Scripture—holds that Christ’s death made full payment for the guilt of sinners. Nobody can add or subtract anything from his atoning work. Scripture is clear: sinners must simply receive in faith what Christ has done to make salvation possible. But many universalists contradict this. Those not ready at death to be with God, they say, will make satisfaction for their own sins in a fiery state of suffering and punishment (akin to Roman Catholic purgatory). This idea of paying for one’s own sins through postmortem suffering is utterly incompatible with salvation by grace alone. But what is the alternative for the universalist? The only alternative is to say everyone proceeds immediately at death into the blissful presence of God. In the 1800s this became known as “ultra-universalism”—heaven for everyone as soon as death occurs.
But this “ultra” position means it’s not only saintly people who go immediately into God’s presence but even the mass murderer who’s shooting his victims and is suddenly struck down by a policeman’s bullet. And if everyone immediately enters heaven, then our moral and spiritual choices in this life appear not to matter at all. The universalists feuded among themselves as to whether or not there’s postmortem purification from sins, yet they never resolved the issue. (For more on American universalists’ lack of cohesion in their 19th-century heyday, see chapter 6 of The Devil’s Redemption.) They could not agree, for it appears to be an insoluble dilemma. If universalists affirm people can self-atone through postmortem suffering, they’re denying Christ’s full atonement on the cross. But if they affirm a full atonement on the cross, they must admit everyone goes immediately to be with God at death—regardless of how they lived or the choices they made.
These are the only two options for the universalist, and neither makes much sense theologically.
If there is such a “second chance” for salvation after death, then it’s never clearly presented or described in Scripture. Instead, Jesus’s teachings seem to point in the other direction. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) emphasizes the limited time and opportunity that humans have to respond to God—and it implies a time will come when the door to the “wedding feast” will shut and it’ll be too late to enter in. One key text appears in the Gospel of Luke: “Someone said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able’” (Luke 13:23–24).
Jesus’s message is explicit. Some people—or rather “many”—will wish to enter God’s kingdom but will “not be able.” How is this passage consistent with the idea—common among universalists today—that the Lord will give endless opportunities, both prior to and after death, for individuals to turn to Christ and find salvation? He explicitly says that “many . . . will seek to enter and will not be able.” Take heed.
Some universalists assert that belief in universalism would not interfere with the call or motive toward Christian evangelism. But there’s no evidence this is so. An consistent universalist evangelist wouldn’t call people to decide for Christ but would tell them God had decided for them. He or she wouldn’t tell people to be saved but would say they’re saved already. It’s hard to imagine a theological view more likely to engender complacency or indifference.
Christian missionaries—like Isaac Jogues in French Canada or Jim Elliot among the Huaorani people of Ecuador—went into dangerous situations to preach the gospel to those who’d never heard it, and in the process, they gave up their lives as martyrs. Father Damien, for another example, went to serve and evangelize the lepers of Molokai—knowing in advance that he’d eventually contract the disease and die. Can anyone imagine a Christian universalist doing this? Is there a single case of such a universalist missionary-martyr? Christian believers have undertaken the most arduous labors in evangelism, in self-denial, and in self-giving service precisely because they were aware of the eternal realities of heaven and hell and believed that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Christian martyrs bear witness to a practical fruit of holiness among those who believe in a final state of heaven and hell.
Perhaps one underlying reason why professing Christians today are examining or embracing universalism is that they don’t want to be placed on the hot seat in a world that’s increasingly hostile toward Christianity. They’d like to avoid ever being in a position in which they must tell a non-Christian that there are dire consequences for rejecting Christ. Hell is a disturbing doctrine, an ultimate turnoff, an egregious insult. The so-called 11th commandment—“You shall not offend”—has become paramount for some. Universalism offers a semblance of Christianity with the unseemly parts edited out.
Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) spoke of liberalized Christianity in this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment by the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Here we have four essential doctrines—God, humanity, kingdom, and Christ—minus their hard and scandalous aspects: wrath, sin, judgment, and the cross. These words, though written by Niebuhr in the 1920s, are a fitting description of Christian universalism a century later. No wrath of God, no sin that damns, no fearful judgment before the throne, no cross of suffering to satisfy God’s justice.
Yet these are precisely the doctrines that, perhaps counterintuitively, express God’s moral goodness. These are the doctrines needed to reawaken and reenergize the church as we reach out, in humble love, to an increasingly confused and broken world that is perishing without the Savior.
Friend, don’t be fooled by universalism’s “curb appeal.” Step out of the car and examine the integrity of the house. Just be careful—it’s fragile within.
This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition, and is used with permission of the author.
Michael McClymond is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University and author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism,