It seems that universalism—the idea that God is somehow present in all people, or that all will experience ‘salvation’ without differentiation—is the widespread and mostly unreflected assumption of many in the C of E. I offered a critique of this a couple of years ago, in response to a comment made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and had previously questioned the idea of Sam Wells that we should ‘forget about hell‘ (though he didn’t welcome the questions).
Michael McClymond recently published an exhaustive history of the idea of universalism in a two-volume work The Devils’ Redemption, and offered some fascinating reflections in an interview with Christianity Today.
Universalism isn’t just a theological mistake. It’s also a symptom of deeper problems. In a culture characterized by moralistic therapeutic deism, universalism fits the age we inhabit. As I argue in the book, universalism is the opiate of the theologians. It’s the way we would want the world to be. Some imagine that a more loving and less judgmental church would be better positioned to win new adherents. Yet perfect love appeared in history—and he was crucified.
Universalism seems, then, to be fundamentally out of sync with the New Testament narrative of God’s loving initiative in Christ provoking some to faith and others to offense and even hatred. Because of its incongruence with the gospel narrative, universalism is, to my mind, not the first step off the path of orthodoxy, but perhaps—in Kevin DeYoung’s words—“the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder.”
Every definition of heresy implies some correlative definition of orthodoxy—of which there are many. I’m not particularly concerned with whether universalism is termed a heresy, because to me the labelling question diverts attention from the main issue, which is showing why universalism is theologically untrue and pastorally unhelpful.
In the light of this (and provoked by a recent conversation), I here offer an extract from a dictionary article I recently wrote, on universalism in Paul, which will be included in a revised form in the forthcoming new edition of the IVP Dictionary of Paul and his Letters.
Universalism within Christian theology is most commonly understood as the belief that all of humanity will experience the salvation of God and be redeemed in the new creation. This has been argued on philosophical, theological and textual grounds, and is found as early as Origen (De Principiis 1:6.1) and Gregory of Nyssa (A Treatise on First Corinthians 15).
Contemporary claims that Paul had a universalist outlook appear to be driven in Western commentary by the cultural offence of particularity in salvation, which differentiates between those who respond to the invitation of God with faith, and those who appear to refuse this invitation. They rely either on a re-reading of the key texts in Paul, or a dismissal of texts articulating particularity based on a Sachkritik reading in which Paul’s theological position is contradictory and incoherent, so that we select the views expressed in certain texts and prioritise those over the theological position of texts which appear to say something different.
The key texts offering a universalistic understanding of salvation are those passages in which Paul refers to ‘all’, including Romans 5.12–21, Romans 11.32, 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 2 Cor 5.19, Philippians 2.5–11, Ephesians 1.9–10, and Colossians 1.20. Additionally, within the Pastoral epistles we find ‘all’ language in 1 Tim 2.4, 6 and 4.10. We will consider these texts in turn, and locate them within Paul’s wider theology; I do not here differentiate between ‘Paul’ and so-called deutero-Paul, but rather take the whole corpus of Pauline literature together. [The full article addresses each of these texts in turn.]
The universalist claim in relation to Romans 5.18 is that, since the scope of sin reaches to ‘all’ people, the scope and reach of salvation must, in the same way, apply to ‘all’. To assess this, we need to understand the place of this passage in Romans, and the way Paul uses the language of ‘all’.
Romans constitutes Paul’s exposition of the gospel to a mixed Jewish-Gentile community that he has neither planted nor visited, and the tensions and questions between Jewish and Gentile believers are evident throughout. Chapter 1 rehearses classic Jewish condemnations of Gentile culture, demonstrating the need of Gentiles for forgiveness of sins, and in chapter 2 Paul turns to the Jew who is also in need of forgiveness, for it is clear that the law alone cannot save. This is demonstrated negatively in chapter 3 by Scripture itself, and positively in chapter 4 by the example of Abraham, who was justified by faith and so is ‘the father of us all’ (Rom 4.16), both the Jew who sins with the law and the Gentile who sins without it. This is important background to the language of ‘all’ and ‘many’ in chapter 5.
Paul’s language of ‘all’ introduces this section, and in Rom 5.12 and 18 it functions to offer both a contrast and a parallel. The contrast is in verse 12 between the ‘one’ who brought sin and death into the world (Adam) and ‘all’ who are affected by death because ‘all’ have sinned. We should note here the similar wording with Rom 3.23, where ‘all’ has the clear emphasis of ‘both Jew and Gentile’. The parallel is then introduced in verse 18: as one trespass (Adam’s) brought sin and death to all, so one righteous action (Christ’s) has brought forgiveness and life.
Paul fills out the discussion with a switch to the language of ‘many’; as Marshall notes (2004, p 61), ‘many’ is used in a Hebrew sense to contrast with ‘one’, and has the same rhetorical force as ‘all’. This can be seen in the close parallels throughout these verses:
|Rom 5.12||one person||all people|
|Rom 5.15||one trespass||many died|
|one person||abounded for many|
|Rom 5.18||one trespass||condemnation for all|
|Rom 5.19||one disobedience||many sinners|
|one obedience||many made righteous|
In this sense, the ‘universalist’ reading has a strong appeal; Paul is using comprehensive language for the scope of salvation in Jesus. It is not possible to reject this by claiming that ‘many’ is narrower in scope than ‘all’ in this passage.
However, the universalist claim faces serious obstacles.
First, it is clear that Paul is not talking about categories of humanity simpliciter. Humanity ‘in Adam’ is not condemned merely on the basis of its status, but because ‘all sinned’ (Rom 5.12), which is the means by which death has spread to all. To borrow later theological categories, ‘original sin’ is not for Paul about people being guilty because of what Adam has done, but because of what they too have done. In other words, condemnation and salvation cannot be explained by group categories alone; it is related to responsible action. If death comes through sin, then life comes through repentance and faith at every point in Paul’s writings.
Secondly, the language Paul uses for salvation has a strong sense of present realisation. Whether we take the language of ‘justification’ as a forensic declaration in the Lutheran tradition, or as the future verdict brought forward into the present in line with ‘New Perspective’ readings, Paul is clear that ‘justification’ is a present reality both in theology and experience. How could this justification then be universal, when it is not universally experienced? Those offering a coherent universalist reading (Talbott, 2004 and Parry 2012) must argue for a post-mortem experience of purging, repentance and forgiveness for which there is simply no evidence in Paul.
Thirdly, in this passage the comparative greatness of forgiveness is not found primarily in its scope, but because of its nature: where death was the appropriate recompense for sin, the gift of life is unmerited and undeserved. Paul uses the language of charisma and dorema in verses 15 and 16 respectively, but both are related to his central theological idea of charis. John Barclay (2015) has demonstrated the contrast between Paul’s understanding of God’s charis and contemporary understandings of gift-giving in the first century, in which gifts were given to those who merited them by their worth, and in which the conferring of a gift also conferred an obligation. The gift of life in Christ is offered without consideration of merit, which is what makes God’s gift/grace so remarkable. However, Barclay argues, it is not without the obligation of response; God’s charis is unconditioned, in the sense that there is nothing we can do to merit it, but it is not unconditional, for it requires the response of faith if it is to be received.
Marshall summarises this vital connection between salvation and faith and the problem it poses for the universalist reading:
So the ‘many’ and the ‘all’ are indeed all people, but the gift becomes a reality for them only when they believe. People do not experience the gift of salvation until they become believers; apart from Christ they do not receive the gift of the Spirit, they do not have peace with God, and they do not share in the fellowship of the body (op cit, p 62)
1 Corinthians 15:20–28
This passage contains what is often thought to be the most compelling text for a universalist reading in Paul: ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive’ (1 Cor 15.22). This is the text from which both Origen and Gregory of Nyssa took their universalist readings, and it is commonly cited today. However, as Wilson (2016) highlights, there are in fact four elements of this passage which have been used to argue for universal salvation. It is worth noting from the outset the similarities with Romans 5, where there is an implicit contrast between the one progenitor and the universal effects of his action, and the antithetical parallelism between the act of Adam and the work of Christ.
First, Weiss (1910) argued that the sequence in verse 23–24 should be interpreted as Christ first, those who are in Christ second, and then all others, not yet in Christ but who will receive life of God, third. This relies on translating τέλος as meaning ‘others’ rather than ‘the end’, which is not plausible, and assumes that there is some post-mortem process by which people can receive the gift of life, which Paul never suggests.
Secondly, Origen (De Principiis 1.6.1) argued that the language of ‘everything being put in subjection to him’ (verse 28) implies salvation for all. However, ‘subjection’ is not the same as salvation; Paul depicts this subjection as including ‘destruction’ (in verse 24); and if all God’s enemies are subjected to him, and this means salvation, then this implies that the (personified) force of ‘death’ is also ‘saved’—which does not make much sense.
Thirdly, the language of ‘all’ in verse 22, if taken to mean ‘every individual person’, would imply universal salvation. As with the ‘all’ passages in Romans 5 and 11, the grammar of verse 22, taken on its own and out of the context of Paul’s argument, looks universal: the ‘all’ who are in Adam are the same ‘all’ who are made alive in Christ. But it is clear, even in the immediately surrounding verses, that Paul’s concern here is not with the destiny of all humanity, but with the hope for believers. This section of Paul’s rhetoric, from verse 20, is a response to the hypothetical counter-argument from verse 12: if there is no resurrection, Christ was not raised, your faith is in vain, and those who have died in Christ have perished. The response, starting ‘But in fact’ (Νυνὶ δὲ) relates precisely to the destiny of those who are ‘in Christ’. Indeed, the whole argument is framed in terms of ‘the resurrection of the dead’, an explicitly apocalyptic framework which, within both Jewish and Christian theology, involves the dead being raised, judgement, and separation between those who live and those who perish.
And the verses that follow run parallel to and offer a commentary on verse 22. How will ‘all in Christ’ be made alive? First, Jesus at his (past) resurrection; then, at his return (ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ) those who belong to Christ; and then the end. Paul is quite explicit here that it is those who are already ‘in Christ’ who will be raised; this summary statement mentioning only the righteous being raised accords with much OT expectation, though is a contrast to Dan 12.2 and Rev 20.13, in which both righteous and unrighteous are raised after which judgement divides them.
The implication of v. 23 is that it is those who already are Christ’s people who will be resurrected when he comes (cf. 1 Thess 4:14, 16). There is nothing said to imply that some (other) people will become Christ’s people after he has come (Marshall, 2004, p 69).
Fourthly, the language of ‘death being destroyed’ has been claimed to mean that all humanity must receive the gift of life in Christ: ‘[t]he destruction of the “last” power effects salvation for all human beings, not just some of them’ (de Boer, 136). Wilson describes this as ‘the strongest argument’ for seeing universalism in this passage, since it does not depend on a discussion of the scope of the ‘all’ referred to earlier.
One possible reading would be to see Paul as following the tradition in Dan 12.2 and Rev 20.13f, where (personified) Death and Hades give up their dead, are themselves destroyed, and the dead are then judged. This tradition is also found in other Second Temple texts—1 Enoch 51:1–2; 4 Ezra 7:31–35; LAB 3:10 and 2 Bar. 21:23, none of which has a universalistic outlook.
When set against this backdrop, the destruction of death which Paul refers to in 1 Cor 15:26, rather than implying a soteriological universalism, could in fact be a necessary precursor to the divine judgment of all humanity (Wilson, 810).
But it might be more natural here to note that Paul’s concern in these verses is not with the post-mortem destiny of any particular group, but of the cosmic and magisterial triumph of God, through the resurrection of Christ, at the parousia. Although most commentators defer consideration of this until the citation in verse 54, it is clear that Paul is dependant on the language and ideas of Is 25.6–8. The triumphant hope that God ‘will swallow up death forever’ is a series of ‘all’s—all peoples, all nations, tears from all faces, all the earth. The Septuagint expands this to six ‘all’s, by repeating ‘all nations’ and referring to ‘all tears from all faces’. This looks like just the kind of universalism some read in Paul—yet the immediate context of the preceding and following verses is of God’s judgement of Israel’s enemies and their complete destruction. If Isaiah’s ‘alls’ are universal in their acclaim, but not universalistic in their vision of redemption, then we must surely say the same of Paul’s language in 1 Cor 15.
For Paul, the defeat of death was an essential and climactic part of Christ’s cosmological victory, but it did not negate the judgment of all. Thus, while Paul could say with certainty that all who are in Christ will be “made alive,” he could not (and does not) say the same of every single human being (Wilson, p 812).
Resolving the tension in Paul
Those who argue for a universalist position in Paul frequently note that their reading of the more ‘universal’ texts stands in sharp tension with other texts in Paul which talk about judgement and destruction. The most notable explicit examples are 2 Thess 1.9, ‘They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction…’ and 2 Thess 2.10 ‘those who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.’ Yet the theme is deeper than these specific examples; Paul consistently describes the possibility of people perishing without salvation as both a motivation for his missionary preaching and his concern to protect the gospel from the error of false teaching. The truth must be preached far and wide in order that as many as possible might be saved, a motivation which makes no sense if Paul believes that salvation is universal regardless of response. Paul’s anguish at the situation of his fellow Jews who have not put their faith in Jesus (Rom 9.1–3) only makes sense if their decision had real consequences.
Robin Parry (2012) notes this tension:
Clearly my interpretation is underdetermined by the texts, so I cannot claim that it is obviously the only way to interpret that matter. I am not so much exegeting the texts as trying to draw out the logic of New Testament theology as I understand it and its implications for those texts. In the process I may be offering ways of reading the texts that go beyond what their authors had in mind (p 140).
The question then is how to resolve the apparent contradiction between wider themes in Scripture, or even within Paul, and what particular texts actually say.
Richard Bell (2002) is happy to accept that Paul is simply contradictory: in Romans 5 we are offered a vision of universal salvation; then in Romans 11, it is clear that not all Gentiles will be saved, but all Jews will be.
A more philosophical approach is that of Sachkritik, as deployed in different ways over the last 100 years. It involves a critical assessment of what a biblical text actually says in the light of what the critic believes is the overall message of the gospel. Bultmann deployed this approach in his discussion of Barth’s theological exegesis, and it eventually led to Bultmann’s approach of demythologising the New Testament to recast it in terms more acceptable to modern presuppositions. It is now used by Douglas Campbell and others to reject parts of Scripture in the light of their own modern understanding of what the gospel means.
Reception historians can see from these three strategies how all historically critical theologians claim either more or less continuity with their scriptures while recognizing that much in them is incredible, and inapplicable to modern Christian identity (Morgan, 2010).
Given that this approach makes the assumption both that the New Testament texts are incoherent (in that their particular details do not accord with their overall message) and that the modern critical interpreter is in a better position than either the writers or the first interpreters to discern what the message of the gospel really is, it cannot escape the criticism of Marshall:
The major weakness in the universalist view is thus that in attempting tempting to explain the few texts which it interprets to refer to the salvation of all people it has to offer an unconvincing reinterpretation of texts about God’s judgement and wrath and to postulate an unattested salvific action of God in the future. (Marshall, 2004, p 72)
It is important to note here that we have not addressed the debates around the nature of judgement, in particular the question of whether the unsaved experience eternal conscious torment or annihilation. Neither have we addressed the question of the destiny of those who have not heard or had a chance to respond to the gospel, or the belief in the immortality of the soul. Although these issues are often cited as reasons for leading to a universalist position, it does not logically follow. They are distinct issues which need their own discussion.
There is a better way to read Paul and the whole narrative of Scripture:
Biblical ‘universalism’, therefore, consists in this, that in Christ God has revealed the one way of salvation for all men alike, irrespective of race, sex, colour or status. This biblical ‘universalism’ (unlike the other sort) gives the strongest motives for evangelism, namely, the love of God and of men (Wright, 1979, p 58).
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Boring, Eugene ‘The language of universal salvation in Paul’ JBL 105.2 pp 269–292 (1986)
de Boer, Martinus The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1988).
Dunn, James, Romans 1–8 Word Biblical Commentary 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988).
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Parry, Robin (= Gregory MacDonald) The Evangelical Universalist. (Eugene: Cascade Books, Second Edition, 2012).
Paul, Ian, ’Reconciled Reconcilers: “Reconciliation” in the New Testament’ in Good Disagreement ed Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015).
Talbott, Thomas ‘A Pauline interpretation of divine judgement’ pp 32–54 in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate ed Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
Weiss, Johannes Der erste Korintherbrief (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1910).
Wilson, Andrew ‘The strongest argument for universalism in 1 Cor 15.20–28’ pp 805–812 JETS 59.4 (2016)
Wright, N Thomas ‘The Letter to the Romans’ pp 396–770 in volume 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002).
Wright, N Thomas, ‘Towards a biblical view of universalism’ Themelios 4.2 54–58 (1979).