Bad Arguments for Universalism

by Travis Prinzi on April 15, 2010

Here comes a big statement that I figure I’ll make whilst this blog is still struggling back to life and has few readers: I don’t think becoming a universalist makes one a heretic.

Take a deep breath. Another. Another. Good. Let me proceed.

I mean specifically a Christian universalism. It’s the minority position by far in church history, but orthodox theologians have believed that God would in Christ reconcile all to himself in the end. “Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.” Some version of universalism, or at least the acceptance of its possibility, was held by Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Jerome, and many others. St. Basil and Augustine both noted that the belief was “widespread” and held by “very many.” Annihilationism has been held by no less than John Stott. N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis both put for ideas both about there being far more saved than we imagine, and about any unsaved completely losing their humanity altogether (ceasing to be human, which I take to be a form of annihilation).

We’re not talking about fringe folks here. These are undoubtedly Christians. This is one of those things that makes me stop and revisit beliefs I’ve always had, and ask difficult questions about those beliefs. I intend to chronicle some of those questions soon. In the meantime, some brief notes about a book I just read on the subject.

To be clear: I am not saying that I am a universalist. But I am very interesting in reading arguments for universalism. I came across the book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, so I grabbed a copy from the library and starting plowing through. I was hoping for a solid argument for Christian universalism. I did not find it here.

This book is a pick-and-choose theology that is illogical, poorly argued, and based on the simple belief that “God whispered to” the author and told him something, and now everything else needs to fit. By just over halfway through the book, he’s completed jumped the shark by ditching Jesus as the means of salvation, as well as his divinity, while continuing to appeal to Jesus and the Scriptures (certain selected ones) to make his case.

A simple disclaimer about theology: If you’re just some random guy in the 21st century, and you think that because God whispered to you, you can just begin picking and choosing what parts of 2,000 years of Christian theology are valid and which are not, you’re not credible. And you’re too arrogant to be listened to.

If there is any possibility at all that an argument can be made for Christian universalism, it must remain Christian. Jesus still has to be the one to do the saving.

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reading Scripture » A lot of people will like this book.
March 6, 2011 at 8:18 am

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1 Jeremy April 16, 2010 at 6:15 am

Have you seen “The Evangelical Universalist” by Gregory MacDonald? He makes some solid arguments but he also cites other Christian universalist theologians which you could follow up on.

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2 John H April 16, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I agree with Jeremy that Gregory Macdonald’s book is a must-read on this topic, even though I don’t particularly agree with the model he puts forward. (I lean more towards what he describes as “existential universalism”, and to a hopeful rather than dogmatic position, as described in this post on my “universalism” blog).

In any event, as you point out, it’s all got to be about Jesus. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”.

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3 garver April 18, 2010 at 8:33 am

Have you read Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” It makes for interesting reading. I think the currently popular distinction between universalism as an “article of hope,” over against an “article of faith,” is largely attributable to him.

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4 Mr Pond April 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm

The most eloquent defense of universalism I’ve read is George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. His arguments are difficult to argue with, especially when he reconciles universalism with a robust doctrine of hell. A very worthwhile study, for many things beyond just universalism, too.

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5 Dein May 14, 2010 at 12:52 am

One book I like on this topic is Thomas Talbott’s Inescapable Love of God.

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6 Joe July 1, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Have you considered reading The Restitution of All Things by Andrew Jukes or Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved by Hans Urs Von Balthasar?
Hope this helps.

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7 Ron Henzel March 6, 2011 at 8:23 am

While I would count myself among those who believe that becoming a universalist does make one a heretic, I appreciate your thoughts. I especially appreciated your paragraph:

A simple disclaimer about theology: If you’re just some random guy in the 21st century, and you think that because God whispered to you, you can just begin picking and choosing what parts of 2,000 years of Christian theology are valid and which are not, you’re not credible. And you’re too arrogant to be listened to.

That is eminently quotable, indeed!

I’ve written my own review of If Grace Is True at my reading Scripture web site. Thanks!

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8 FeverEffect January 25, 2015 at 2:21 am

It seems fair to say that much of the rationale behind universalism is the desire to reconcile the ‘Arminian’ passages of scripture (which state or imply that God wants to, or will, save ‘all men’) and the ‘Calvinist’ passages (which state that God always gets what He wants). As many universalists have argued, those two sets of passages taken together (in isolation) imply that God will save all men. Unfortunately, to many bible-believing Christians, the universalist interpretation of the passages about the final judgement and Hell seem strained, with a lot of ‘reading between the lines’ to fill in what isn’t actually in the text. However, there is an alternative, non-universalist, interpretation of scripture that also affirms that ‘all men’ (in the sense of ‘every man’) will be saved, thereby reconciling the Arminian and Calvinist passages without recourse to universalism. Since I’ve not seen this interpretation mentioned in any of the debates on universalism, I thought I would bring it up here for discussion.

In summary, this alternative interpretation claims that, read in context, the words ‘men’ or ‘man’ in the relevant passages refer to the physical descendants of Adam (who inherit Adam’s sin, and are therefore the exclusive objects of salvation). But not all homo sapiens are physical descendants of Adam. The non-Adamic homo sapiens are those referred to as ‘tares’ in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13. In Matthew 13:38-39, Jesus states that, “The tares are the sons [i.e physical descendants] of the evil one [Satan], and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” In the next verse, Jesus states that the tares “are gathered and burned with fire.” It is instructive to note that ‘tares’ are a variety of weed (Lolium temulentum) that looks like wheat, until differences emerge near harvest time (hence Jesus’s instruction in Matthew 13:29 to not remove the tares till harvest time, “lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the
wheat with them”). In other words, the tares look like human beings, but they are the physical descendants of Satan, and this will become more apparent (in their behavior) as we get closer to the Last Days. Like the real tares, they are utterly destroyed in the fire at ‘harvest time’.

At the outset, it should be stressed that we are commanded to love our enemies, no matter who they are (Matthew 5:44), and not because of what they are but because of who our God is, and who we are in Him (1 John 4:8). But that love has to be appropriate to the kind of creature we’re dealing with. We cannot distinguish the wheat from the tares, so we are not to cast judgement and show favoritism in who we choose to help (except for practical reasons such as proximity, or biblical ones such as parental responsibility). There is no excuse for not loving anyone (though we don’t have to like them). However, it is not appropriate to wish salvation upon the tares, anymore than one would wish a bicycle on a goldfish. The tares are the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22).

To understand how Satan could possibly have physical descendants who look human, we need to turn to Genesis (I won’t attempt a complete biblical exegesis here, I’ll just raise enough points to show that this view is not as unbiblical as at first glance). Clearly, the Fall didn’t happen because Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit (even if it was in disobedience to God). The ‘fruit’ symbolized something that the serpent (Satan) tempted Eve into doing (and Adam too, but for him, it didn’t have the same physical consequences as it did for Eve). It isn’t necessary to go into the sordid details here, though it is worth noting that in Romans 1:21-27, Paul places sexual impurity (including homosexuality) top on his list of the manifestations of spiritual rebellion. In 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Paul draws a parallel between adultery and the way Eve was tempted by Satan, “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted…” In Genesis 3:15, God says to Satan, “I will put enmity between … thy seed and her [Eve’s] seed”. Notice the word ‘seed’ crops up repeatedly, a word that usually means ‘physical descendant’.

Shortly after the Fall, Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel, who have notably different personalities. 1 John 3:12 says Cain was “of that wicked one [Satan], and murdered his brother.” In John 8:44, Jesus told some of his persecutors, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning … ” Again, the terminology implies physical descent from Satan, with murderousness as one of the prime characteristics of that descent. Both Cain and Abel are excluded from Adam’s genealogy in Genesis 5. Abel may have been excluded because he had no descendants, but although Cain had descendants (Genesis 4:16-24), his entire lineage was left out of Adam’s genealogy. It is likely that the two lineages (Satan’s and Adam’s) would intermingle from time to time, so God had to ‘weed out the bad seed’ occasionally, notably in the Flood (which was probably a local one), and in his exclusion of Esau and Ishmael from Israel’s inheritance. God also kept the Israelites genetically isolated in Egypt for 400 years (Genesis 15:13; as slaves, they would not have been allowed to mingle with non-slaves), and subsequently forbade them from marrying non-Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:3–4). It is unlikely that this ban was motivated solely by fear of religious pollution, as other religions don’t have a problem absorbing spouses from other faiths.

But God had a larger plan than simply isolating the Israelites genetically. Not all of Adam’s seed were taken into captivity in Egypt, and subsequently led out by Moses as ‘Israelites’. Many Adamites (descendants of Adam) were scattered throughout the world. In Genesis 12:3 God told Abraham, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The word translated ‘peoples’ is ‘mishpachah’ (Strong’s 4940), which is better translated ‘kindered’ (as in the Douay-Rheims and Amplified Bible translations). God told Abraham that all his Adamite kinfolk (not ‘every person’) around the world would be blessed through him. Similarly, in Genesis 22:18, where God says to Abraham, “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,” the word translated ‘nations’ is ‘gowye’ (‘the nations’), which according to Strong’s (1471), is often used “specifically of descendants of Abraham.” God had already planned beforehand that He would reconcile all of Adam’s descendants back to Himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, so that, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). The ‘all’ in that verse are those who ‘die in Adam’, excluding those who are not Adam’s descendants, and who therefore did not inherit his sin.

All Adamites will be saved, even those who had never heard of Jesus (such as Abraham, whose faith “was credited to him as righteousness”, Romans 4:22). All Adamites, past, present and future, will be saved through their innate faith in God’s saving grace. This innate faith may have been the gift that God imparted to all Adamites when He created ‘ha’adam’ or ‘Adamkind’ (poorly translated as ‘Man’ in most Bibles) in “His own image” in Genesis 1:27. Note, in that verse, what was created in God’s image was both “male and female”, so God’s image could not be passed on through Eve (or Adam) alone. So the descendants of Satan and Eve could not inherit the image of God, nor could they inherit Adam’s sin. Instead, they inherit the sin nature of their father ‘the devil’, marked by a rebelliousness that caused him to fall from Heaven to Earth (Rev 12:9). It is noteworthy that Matthew 23:32 states that when Jesus returns, “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them [the nations, not ‘people’ as in some translations] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The word translated ‘nation’ there is ‘ethne’ (Strong’s 1484), where we get the word ‘ethnicity’. In other words, Jesus will separate the Adamic bloodline from the Satanic bloodline (sheep and goats are two different species who look quite similar, so the analogy is fitting).

Why can’t the children of Satan be saved from their sin? The Bible teaches that Adamkind is composed of body, soul and spirit (1 Thess 5:23, Hebrews 4:12). Paul taught that, “The Spirit Himself (meaning the Holy Spirit) beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). However, Paul states that “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).” Since the ‘tares’ (the seed of Satan) are excluded from salvation (being entirely consumed in the fire, as real tares are), it follows that they are the ‘natural man’, lacking a spirit to ‘bear witness’ that they are ‘children of God’, and are therefore unable to respond to the Spirit of God.

The children of Satan only have a body and a soul, they lack a spirit (which was the ‘image of God’ that was given to Adam and Eve as a couple). It is noteworthy that Jesus said, “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). He did not mention ‘spirit’ being in hell, because the spirit cannot be destroyed (being the image of God), which is why it ultimately returns to Him in the salvation of all Adamkind. On the other hand, the Bible states that “The soul that sins [without the spirit] shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Hell destroys both soul and body, so it entirely consumes the seed of Satan. However, Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet are cast into Hell, where “they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev 20:10). Satan is an angelic being, and it is quite likely that angels never die. Jesus taught that believers “will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25), where there is no death (Rev 21:4). The
Beast and the False Prophet will have their souls and bodies destroyed, but while on earth they were indwelled by Satan or a fallen angel under Satan’s direction, who will therefore spiritually represent the Beast and False Prophet in Hell ‘for ever and ever’.

So Satan and his fallen angels will be the sole occupants of Hell. Because Satan’s offspring only have a soul and body, their spirit is Satan (or a fallen angel under his control), who indwells them from time to time. When they are not possessed, Satan’s children only follow their (corrupted) natural instincts, as “brute beasts … who have gone the way of Cain” (Jude 1:10-11). As such, they cannot ‘sin’ (anymore than a rabid cat can ‘sin’). It is Satan who sins in their bodies whenever he indwells them (or directs a fallen angel to do so). So he will pay for the sins ‘of’ his children in Hell (and the fallen angels will pay for their part), just as Jesus paid for the sins of His people. There is a terrible irony in this, as the Satan-indwelled Antichrist (meaning ‘in place of Christ’) seeks to be a counterfeit Jesus. So it is fitting that Satan should be punished by being made to play ‘Jesus’ for real. It is noteworthy that in the Parable of the Sheep
and the Goats, Jesus says to the goats, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). He did not say, “The eternal fire prepared for the devil, his angels, and all human sinners.” That’s because no human beings dwell in the ‘eternal fire’, they are all consumed by it (for the relevant verses, please refer to the literature on Annihilationism).

What about God’s mercy, which the Bible says is “everlasting” (Psalm 100:5)? Should He be kind to Satan and his angels, and either destroy them or forgive them? Angels are a special category of beings, they possess privileges and powers that humans don’t enjoy (humans were “made a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5)). Such an exalted status carries a corresponding responsibility, with more severe penalties for transgression (for example, among believers, teachers are judged more severely than others (James 3:1), in terms of God’s discipline in this life, and degrees of reward in the next (1 Cor 3:10-15)). Presumably, Satan and his angels will continue to sin in Hell (after all, Satan returned to sinning after being bound for a thousand years (Rev 20:7)). Perhaps the privilege of being immortal carries the responsibility of eternal punishment for unrepentant continual rebellion. If Satan or his angels were to repent, God may well forgive them, and in that sense, His mercy is everlasting. But the Bible states that Satan and his angels are tormented “for ever and ever”, which implies that they never repent (Rev 20:10), though God may be ever-merciful in his willingness to forgive. Their torment may well be their own psychic pain in the presence of someone they hate. In Rev 15:2 the saved are standing (comfortably) on “something like a sea of glass mixed with fire” before “the throne of God” (Rev 4:6). It may be this very same sea that Satan and his angels are standing on, but it is the presence of God (rather than the fire) that torments them. After all, before his fall, Satan “walked among the fiery stones” (Ezekiel 28:14), which didn’t seem to bother him.

Some may object that in Romans 9:27, Paul quotes Isaiah 10:22 in stating that, “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.” So how can all of Abraham’s Adamite ‘kinfolk’ be saved? Paul supplies the answer, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6). He cites the example of Esau, whom God ‘hated’ (Romans 9:13). As was mentioned earlier, the Satanic and Adamic bloodlines probably mingled at certain points, leading God to ‘weed out the bad seed’ such as Esau and Ishmael. Not all who can trace their descent to Adam necessarily have a pure Adamic bloodline. If some of their ancestors were from the Satanic line, the Satanic genes will be present in some individuals (while skipping others) in the generations that follow. So it is possible for non-identical twins, such as Esau and Jacob, to bear the Satanic and Adamic genes respectively. Correspondingly, someone who has a mixed bloodline (i.e. a ‘Gentile’) can be saved, if he happens to have the Adamic genes inherited from a distant Adamic ancestor (so the Adamic bloodline doesn’t correspond to any particular ‘race’ by physical appearance). The saved will come from “every nation, tribe and tongue” (Rev 7:9), but only a remnant (literally, ‘the remainder’) of those who call themselves ‘Israel’ will be saved. To those who have the Adamic genes, “The [Holy] Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).

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