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Varieties of Christian Universalism: Exploring Four Views

David Congdon, ed.
Published by Baker Academic in 2023

Reviewing this book is an act of penance for me. A while back I published an article in Christianity Today explaining why I am not a universalist. In doing so I criticized the way universalists fail to do justice to biblical passages about the need for a final divine accounting for serious injustices done in human history.

I soon became aware of complaints by universalists that I had simply ignored the ways that some universalists have wrestled seriously with what the Bible says about the Final Judgement. Those complaints are legitimate. And I knew better than to fail to acknowledge that point of the complaints in what I wrote.

When I was a guest professor at a college in rural Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, I had a student in one of my classes who was passionately interested in theology. One day she came to my office to follow up on a topic we had discussed in class. When I asked her about her own church affiliation, she responded by telling me that she was a Universalist, quickly adding, “with a capital ‘U’.” When I asked whether that meant that she belonged to the nearby Unitarian-Universalist congregation, she said rather firmly: “No, we do not like those folks!”

She went on to explain that for several generations her family had been active in the Universalist Church, but when the Universalists chose to merge with the Unitarians in 1961, her parents, along with several other couples in their congregation, left to form a small household fellowship that maintained the Universalist identity. “You mentioned in class that you are a Calvinist,” she said. And with a grin she remarked: “You would be surprised to know that we actually believe that we have right version of Calvinism!”

She piqued my interest enough that I arranged to meet a couple of the leaders in her household fellowship. Her comment about her group’s Calvinist leanings was not misleading. In doing some reading on the history of the Universalist movement in New England I discovered that the way this group described their theological convictions to me fit exactly the kind of theology that had been set forth in a 1796 Universalist pamphlet by Joseph Huntingdon, entitled Calvinism Improved. Huntingdon taught that in the fall into sin human beings had rebelled against God, so that salvation was now possible only through the vicarious redemptive work of Christ, who had lived his life in full obedience to the Law of God. The salvation that was achieved by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is applied to sinful hearts by grace alone. From those premises, however, Huntingdon went on to argue that even persistent unbelief was not a barrier to the application of saving grace. In the end, then, all human beings are saved.

At one point in my conversations with these folks I told them about a joke that was passed around when the Unitarian-Universalist Church was formed in the early 1960s. The merger, it was said, was a convenient marriage of two groups that complemented each other nicely. One group believed we are too good to be damned and the other insisted that God is too good to damn us. My Universalist friends did not find this funny. They insisted that God is a righteous deity who hates sin, but who bestows his grace upon us in spite of our unworthiness.

Those folks said nothing that persuaded me to embrace their theology. But I was intrigued by their use of the Joseph Huntingdon phrase “Calvinism Improved” to describe their perspective. Suppose I got into an extensive theological dialogue with them, I wondered, could I make a compelling case that my classical Calvinism was an improvement over their version? This volume—setting forth four theologies of universalism– gave me an opportunity to wrestle with that topic, and I will briefly review each perspective here.

The chapter that I found the least compelling as a contribution to clarifying issues in universalism was David Congdon’s presentation of “Existential Universalism.” While I had appreciated, and learned from, Congdon’s detailed overview of universalist movements in his editor’s Introduction to the volume, his chapter setting forth his own perspective, although interesting for other reasons, made me wonder whether the essay even belonged in this volume.

 Congdon rejects the focus shared by the other three essays on whether all persons will be saved in the end-time. The theological world, he observes, has already “made peace with handing over the cosmic past to scientists” and it is time also to do so regarding “the cosmic future.”  Our focus instead should be on the “here and now” rather than on where people will “end up” after death. In Congdon’s soteriology, universalists and non-universalists alike should give up the arrogant insistence “that people are saved by Christ alone and that acknowledging this will somehow improve our lives.” We experience God, he says, in our awareness of our connectedness with all humanity. Faith is having “a positive relationship to God” that is “prelinguistic and unconscious.” Thus “[n]o one can be saved unless everyone can be saved.”

Tom Gregg’s presentation of “Post-Barthian Universalism” is a carefully done study of how Barth came close to endorsing universalism—and how some would say that he arrived there. But Gregg is not particularly interested in deciding the case either way. Rather he wants to show how theologians have drawn on Barthian insights to construct a theology that does proclaim universal salvation. Reformed readers will appreciate the themes that inform this constructive effort: divine sovereignty, electing grace, human depravity, the unique redemption accomplished at Calvary, and so on. Gregg’s essay is a solid contribution to our understanding of the continuing influence of Barth’s soteriology.

Reading Morwenna Ludlow’s fascinating chapter on “Patristic Universalism” led me into what was for me some new theological territory. I had previously engaged patristic thought on such topics as doctrine of God, social trinitarianism and theosis, but I had only a passing knowledge of patristic soteriology. For example, I knew that I had come across mentions of “the harrowing of hell” before, but I could not have told you that it meant that after crucifixion Christ descended into hell to preach to the population there. My ignorance was not surprising, since Reformed theology has rejected the idea that between the Cross and the empty tomb Christ descended to engage in some harrowing.

In the patristic period there is a strong emphasis on Christ’s cosmic mission, focusing on Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 15, that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” v. 22), and resulting in the universal reality that “God will be all in all’ (v. 28). The patristics were impressed by the “all” motif here. Not all of them pushed that idea to universalist conclusions, but some of the best known among them—most notably Origen and Gregory of Nyssa—did go there.

I support the idea of a cosmic redemption but am not taken with linking this to universal salvation. For one thing I do not think one can make that case on the basis of the I Corinthians 15 passage, since Paul right away singles out “those who belong to Christ” as the “first fruits” of the cosmic victory. And he then goes on to declare that in handing the Kingdom over to the Father Christ will have “destroyed every ruler and every authority and power,” having “put all his enemies under his feet.” That’s not the kind of language one would use to celebrate the salvation of God’s enemies.

The fate of God’s most powerful enemies in the end-time is a puzzle that patristic universalists struggled with in thinking about whether Satan and his cohort of fallen angels would be saved in the end. If they are not, then doesn’t that have implications for the patristic understanding that in the end the Lord will be “all in all”?

In my own thinking about the end-time the fate of those who devote themselves actively to evil schemes has come to loom large. In the 1980s, I was impressed by the case made by Neal Punt, a Christian Reformed pastor, for what he called—I think misleadingly–“Biblical Universalism.” Punt argued that instead of endorsing the line that all persons are lost except those whom the Bible clearly says are saved, we should insist that all are saved except those whom the Bible clearly says are lost. And in that latter category, he argued, are those who openly and consistently defy God’s purposes.

In that category of actively wicked persons, certainly Hitler and Stalin are obvious examples. But since universalists often roll their eyes with a “Here we go again” sigh when folks like me bring up those names, I use a more current case: a man who kidnaps thirteen-year-old girls and sells them into sexual slavery, enjoying the life of living off the profits of his nefarious business. For such a person I believe we should want divine judgment. While holding out for God’s ultimate rejection of those who actively promote evil goals, I have been reinforced in my support for Punt’s perspective in discovering that such Calvinists as Benjamin Warfield, Charles Hodge and Charles Spurgeon have argued that there will be far more people in heaven than in hell.

Now back to the patristics. Origen and Gregory saw the salvation of sinners as a process that is intimately related to the larger purification of the whole cosmos, a process that occurs over a long period of time. For individual souls this process takes the form of a “pedagogic soteriology” that begins in a person’s lifetime and extends beyond death as the soul is increasingly purified by instruction in the knowledge of God. The clear implication here is that sinfulness is essentially a matter of ignorance.

I was shocked to see how this perspective was used by the contemporary Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart to explain Hitler’s actions. Hart acknowledges that while the Nazi leader committed “horrible deeds” that were “infinitely evil in every objective sense,” they are still “aboriginally prompted into action by a hunger for the Good.” Since human beings are incapable of knowingly acting against that which is good, Hart argues, a “defiant rejection of God for all eternity is really logically impossible for any rational being.”

After learning about these diverse cases for universalism, reading Robin Parry’s defense of “evangelical universalism” was for me entering welcoming territory. Parry has no qualms about acknowledging the perversity of human sinfulness. The Cross, he affirms, was about Christ’s taking upon himself the “judgment and curse” that we deserve as fallen sinners. Even though I disagree with him on key points I admire the way he makes his case with clarity, insight and an obvious desire to be faithful to biblical authority.

Parry does not avoid engaging the texts in the Bible that we non-universalists quote to challenge universalist claims. Much of his discussion focuses on hermeneutical matters, with attention to how to deal with “tensions” in grasping the intentions of the biblical writers, with the most obvious tension being those verses that express a universal divine love and those that describe God’s desire to punish the wicked. I support the same hermeneutical principles employed by Parry; the careful study of biblical teaching cannot avoid dealing with tensions.

In addressing the way in which all human beings will eventually receive God’s saving mercies Parry insists on a key evangelical requirement, even italicizing his point in order to highlight its significance: the final salvation of all human beings “does not happen apart from a free human response to the divine initiative.” This decisionist emphasis preserves the conversion element in the process of individual salvation. Getting right with God is not just—as suggested by the patristic depiction— growing into a fuller knowledge of God; it requires the turning of our rebellious wills toward a humble acceptance of freely offered grace.

The basic issue in assessing universalist thought is the question of the final extent of saving grace. For Parry, the universal salvation is essential to a proper understanding of the Gospel itself. The good news regarding God’s saving mercies requires that in the end “God eliminates sin and evil, not sinners, from creation.” I would like to have learned more about how that elimination of sin and evil happens from Parry’s perspective. Is it that Hitler is saved in the end, but that the Lord somehow “eliminates” all copies of Mein Kampf, along with all the written records of the Nazi regime? That isn’t a facetious question for me. The traditional doctrine of eternal hell implies that Hitler will be “eliminated’ in the sense that he will be eternally banished from the presence of God. I do not see why that way of think violate what it means it means for God to be “all in all.”

Parry, like the patristic universalists, clearly believes that no conscious agent can be eliminated—cast out—from the transformed cosmos. But then Parry-also like the patristics-must face the question of the final destiny of Satan and the fallen angels. My own view, following Neal Punt, is that the one subgroup of humankind that we can be confident of ultimate “elimination” are those who have consistently and defiantly aligned themselves with Satanic schemes. But if Satan himself is to be saved in the end, those wicked human souls will be rescued with him.

Parry addresses the question of Satan’s salvation with candor, laying out what he sees as the options available to the evangelical universalist. One option is simply to restrict salvation to human persons. But then it is not clear what happens to Satan. If he is somehow “eliminated’ from the transformed cosmos, then why not the same for irredeemably wicked humans? Another is to deny that Satan and his angels have no ontological status; they are merely “a mythic way of picturing the very real evil at work in the world”—on this view, says Parry, Satan “is real, but he is not a person.

Since I do affirm the reality of a “personal” Satan while denying that he will be saved in the end, I have to hold that he and his minions will somehow be “eliminated” from the new creation. Nor does this trouble me that this means that I must disagree with a patristic type ontological account of the promise that in the end-time God will be “all in all.”

Parry concludes his discussion with a poignant reference to “a growing minority report within evangelicalism” by folks who—out of a desire “to do justice to the diversity of Scripture” –are hoping to discover some satisfactory way to deal with both the hell texts in the Bible and those that point to the possibility of universal salvation.” Parry is hopeful that this can be worked out, although the ways this could happen “have not been very much explored.” I am happy to join Parry in offering the explorers my prayerful encouragement. They might even come up with a “Calvinism improved” that Perry and I can both celebrate!

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is the President Emeritus and Senior Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary.


  • Leonard Vander Zee says:

    Thank you, Rich, for your humble apology. I am one of those Calvinist universalists who was disappointed by your failure to note the way many universalists insist on God’s final judgement on evil in all its forms. Like any aspect of Christian theology, universalists cannot fully grasp the mind and purposes of God. No one can explain exactly how, in the end, God will accomplish a salvation in which God is “all and in all,” any more than anyone could explain how the triune God brought about the creation of the world. But that inability should not prevent us from proclaiming this most wonderful gospel of grace. For me, it profoundly changes the very basis for gospel preaching from fear of God’s judgment to joyful worship before the power and scope of God’s sovereign grace. The text that most fully captures that joyful vision for me is Philippians 2. The Savior who went to the cross will one day be the Lord before whom “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

  • John Hubers says:

    Thanks for bringing Neal Punt’s book into the conversation. As someone whose life and ministry has been embedded in global mission I have often danced with unversalism without making a full fledged commitment, wishing it were so without necessarily believing it. Punt allowed me to see that there may be a way to commit myself to the dance without losing my Reformed grounding in sola scriptura.

    Still dancing …..

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Is it rude, or bad form, to Comment when you haven’t read the book, and don’t expect to? I will take advantage of Rich Mouw’s usual hospitality to weigh in on a couple of things. First, thanks for setting this table. Second, if reading and reviewing this book was penance, just remember that Luther’s 95th Thesis was, “The whole life of Christians is penance.”
    There are two big question intermixed in the above and, apparently, in the book. I don’t think the question of Universalism is directly a question about Hell. I am not a Universalist but neither do I believe in Hell. Let me explain: I don’t think the Bible sustains Universalism (even if I might wish it did) nor does it teach the common doctrines of Hell. For myself, I take St. Paul quite literally: “The wages of sin is death.” There is so much more that I could say about these things, and I have done elsewhere, except, for fear of being misunderstood, I do believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. As God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, and not at all based upon the natural possession of an immortal soul that has to spend eternity somewhere.
    But here’s my main point: What’s the good of God punishing in hell such evil people as Hitler or Stalin or the seller of thirteen-year-old girls into slavery? I get the use of doing it but not the good of doing it. The use of it, as far as I can see, is to vindicate God’s justice somehow, that lives of suffering caused by other people will not go unanswered. But I don’t see the good of it. It doesn’t do any good for the people who have suffered. No matter how many eons the criminal should suffer in hell, not one eon reverses or even softens the suffering of the victim in real time. If the good is something like the criminal should pay for his cruelty, how does his eternal suffering actually pay that? It doesn’t pay it at all. If the punishment is eternal suffering, then not one minute of that penalty suffering has any more than zero value for payback. If it’s eternal, then the debt is never paid. We might see it in pagan terms of justice as “balancing the scales,” but that assumes as well a pagan worldview, which the Gospel counters against. So I don’t see how punishing Hitler or slave-maker in Hell does any good. Might as well just leave it with death. That leaves us with the larger questions of theodicy, like how does a just God allow the suffering of those thirteen-year old slaves and the Jews in the Camps and so on, but I don’t see how the eternal suffering of the perpetrators in hell does any good in answering those questions. It is of no use to the victims. Frustrating, perhaps to us who want to see justice vindicated, but eternal suffering in hell finally does not vindicate justice. Even the Nazis all suffered in hell the equivalent years of as many victims as they made suffer, it would do their victims no good as good is defined by the Gospel.
    A couple last points: the Torah never requires either imprisonment or torture as punishments for sins. Restitution, yes, and death, yes. The Christian doctrine of Hell proposes that God uses the very punishments of torture and imprisonment that God denied to Israel. In both the Torah and St. Paul, “The wages of sin is death.” And by that we must understand body and soul. Not just the death of the body, but the death of the soul. Once again here, eternal life is not a function of the immortality of the soul. It’s a function of the gift of the Resurrection. And that changes the whole perspective on Universalism, as it is unnecessary of the relief of tortured souls (of which there are none) and far less necessary to save God’s reputation with regard to those who have lived outside the spread of the Gospel.
    Well, thanks again for setting the table.