10 Quick Facts About Christian Universalism | Matthew Distefano

I. The Early Church Were Universalists:

Okay, not all of the early church were Universalists, but a lot of them were. Clement of Alexandria. Origin. Gregory of Nyssa. A bunch of others. As Augustine once put it, “indeed very many.” In fact, out of the 6 major theological schools, 4 taught universal reconciliation, 1 taught conditional immortality (annihilationism), and 1 taught eternal conscious torment.

II. Universalism Wasn’t Heretical for 500 Years:

A lot of people get confused about whether Universalism is heretical or not. They think because some of Origin’s beliefs were rejected, that means universal reconciliation was also rejected. This isn’t quite true. It’s not until the 6th century when Universalism is declared “anathema,” first by the despot Justinian in 543 CE and then at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 CE.

III. The Final Editor of the Nicene Creed Was an Open Universalist

The Nicene Creed is, for many, the standard of what it means to be a Christian. I personally don’t need you to affirm it in order to consider you a Christian, but no one is really asking me these days. Interestingly enough, however, Gregory of Nyssa, one of the final editors of the Creed, was an unabashed Universalist, and yet no one thought it important enough to bring it up before allowing him to be involved in arguably the most important confession in the history of Christianity.

IV. Universalism Never Went Away

While universal reconciliation became a fringe belief after being declared anathema, it never went away. There were always a handful of Christians who kept the tradition alive throughout the Middle Ages, past the Reformation, and on into the modern world.

V. Your Favorite Fiction May Be Influenced by Universalism

I’m not certain that folks like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien were closet Universalists, but they were certainly influenced by a non-closeted one. Heavily so. In fact, both credit George MacDonald as being a great influence on their thinking, and he was not secretive about his Universalism. In addition, beloved novelist Madeleine L’Engle was a Universalist.

VI. Karl Barth Was Probably a Universalist

This is only speculation, but the most influential theologian of the 20th century was perhaps a Universalist. At minimum, Barth’s theology deemed it logically necessary. And while he never outright said it, he was certainly smart and wise enough to know the implications of his Christology.

VII. William Barclay Was a Universalist

This may come as a surprise to many, given how popular his Daily Study Bible commentaries were and still are, but it’s true. William Barclay was an unashamed Universalist, which means millions of Christians worldwide should gather up the sticks and wood and get ready to burn a whole hell of a lot of books.

VIII. Universalism is Biblical

Universalism is not correct simply because it is found in the Bible. Why? Well, aside from the fact that a lot of untrue stuff is found in the Bible, it’s because eternal torment can be found in there, too. Annihilationism is also there. But you can’t deny all the passages about God reconciling the world, about Jesus dragging all to him, about God being “all in all,” and so on. Again, it’s not to say it is necessarily true (because there are also passages about judgment, punishment, and torment), but it is in fact biblical.

IX. Universalism Comes in Many Forms

Contrary to popular belief, Universalism is not synonymous with “new age” or “liberal.” There are liberal Universalists, sure, but there are also Evangelical Universalists like Robin Parry. There are Universalists like Thomas Talbott who are more aligned with Barth or the Reformed tradition. There are Orthodox Universalists like David Bentley Hart. And so on and so forth.

X. Universalists Believe in Hell

This sounds contradictory, but only if you think hell must be everlasting. Many Christian Universalists believe in a hell of sorts. They just believe it serves an ultimate reconciliatory purpose, In other words, while the restorative effects are eternal, the duration is not.

Source: Patheos


William Barclay 1907-1978

William Barclay 1907-1978

I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God. In the early days Origen was the great name connected with universalism. I would believe with Origen that universalism is no easy thing. Origen believed that after death there were many who would need prolonged instruction, the sternest discipline, even the severest punishment before they were fit for the presence of God. Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would have to go to heaven via hell. He believed that even at the end of the day there would be some on whom the scars remained. He did not believe in eternal punishment, but he did see the possibility of eternal penalty. And so the choice is whether we accept God’s offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.

Gregory of Nyssa offered three reasons why he believed in universalism. First, he believed in it because of the character of God. “Being good, God entertains pity for fallen man; being wise, he is not ignorant of the means for his recovery.” Second, he believed in it because of the nature of evil. Evil must in the end be moved out of existence, “so that the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all.” Evil is essentially negative and doomed to non-existence. Third, he believed in it because of the purpose of punishment. The purpose of punishment is always remedial. Its aim is “to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness.” Punishment will hurt, but it is like the fire which separates the alloy from the gold; it is like the surgery which removes the diseased thing; it is like the cautery which burns out that which cannot be removed any other way.

But I want to set down not the arguments of others but the thoughts which have persuaded me personally of universal salvation.

First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief. Jesus said: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Paul writes to the Romans: “God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and of Christ Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4-6). The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.

Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato – who may have invented the word – plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.

Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.

Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:24-28). For me this has certain consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of time, it means that that one man has defeated the love of God – and that is impossible. Further, there is only one way in which we can think of the triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father – he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.

[Quoted from William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pg 65-67, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977.]

Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University and the author of many Biblical commentaries and books, including a translation of the New Testament, Barclay New Testament, and The Daily Study Bible Series.