Bad Arguments Against Universalism

by Travis Prinzi on May 20, 2010

Scot McKnight argues that “universalism” is the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism for 3 reasons:

  1. universalism suggests personal conversion is not finally necessary
  2. it calls into question the importance and even necessity of evangelism as a form of Christian activism
  3. it weakens the atoning significance of the death of Jesus if it is understood as that which separates the believer from the non-believer

Surely these aren’t impossible hurdles for someone who embraces a Christian universalism. To be fair, he doesn’t take up the point of a specifically Christian universalism, and he addresses this in comment #8. But, as others did (I wrote this post before reading the comments), I’ll make the evangelical universalist response:

  1. It suggests no such thing, as “every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The Christian universalist only denies that death is the final chance to personally convert.
  2. It most certainly does not call these things into question, as the only one who saves and heals is still Jesus. Jesus is still the only redemption and motivation for activism.
  3. A doctrine that says Jesus’ death will eventually save all is definitely not a “weaker” doctrine as one that says He will only save some. Apart from that, I’m not sure what he’s saying about the separation of believer from non-believer. That separation still exists and is not weakened anymore than it is by the difference between a believer and a non-believer who will convert next week.

As I explore this whole question of who will be saved, bad arguments on both sides need to be dissected.

I’m hoping to find time soon for a post on C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which I recently re-read.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave June 13, 2010 at 12:30 am

Hey Travis, I don’t know what is meant by “universalism” in this context, but I wanted to express how glad I am to have stumbled across your blog (haven’t originally discovered you at Hog’s Head).

I’ll toss out some questions, just in case you’re willing to indulge my ignorance:

1) How is universalism similar (or related) to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory?
2) Does universalism discount free will and choice? The notion that everyone is evetually saved by Christ’s sacrifice seems to, at least superficially?


2 Dave June 13, 2010 at 12:38 am

Correction: haven’t == having. I found you at Hog’s Head first. I enjoy listening to your podcast while I’m running or hacking out some code. I really appreciate the unique point of view your training and background give you. You and Corey Olson (the “Tolkien Professor”) are the coolest guys on the web. You guys should have each other on your respective ‘casts.

I’ll be lurking!


3 Travis Prinzi June 13, 2010 at 12:49 am

Hi Dave, glad you found this blog, and thanks for your kind words! I’ve been in touch with Corey Olsen recently, and yes, it would be fun to do a joint effort with him. I might see if he’s interested in an interview for the PubCast.

Regarding your two questions, I’ll say first that I’m exploring this issue and not coming to any firm conclusions (yet). But I’d answer this way:

1) How is universalism similar (or related) to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory?

Taken in the Lewisian Great Divorce way, there are both similarities and differences. The key difference is that Catholics believe Purgatory is populated by the saved who are in need of purification, and there is still a very separate category of the damned who never make it to eternal life. The Lewisian version allows for the possibility that all in “Hell” could one day make it to Heaven, in which case Hell will have been nothing more than Purgatory.

2) Does universalism discount free will and choice? The notion that everyone is evetually saved by Christ’s sacrifice seems to, at least superficially?

In the evangelical universalist perspective, no. I can see where you’d say that, “superficially,” it does. But the evangelical universalist doesn’t necessarily believe that no matter what one chooses in life, one goes to heaven. Instead, the belief is that sometime on earth, or sometime in eternity, all will eventually choose to believe and be saved. The difference between the evangelical universalist and the evangelical is that the former doesn’t believe death is the “last chance” to come to Christ.


4 Dave June 13, 2010 at 3:05 am

I understand. It’s a subtle difference, between compulsion to believe (i.e., no free will) and inevitability of belief (the conviction that everyone will believe, in time), but perhaps it is no more problematic than the apparent contradiction between the omnipotence of God and the free will of human kind, which most Christians accept.

I’m actually pretty comfortable with some notion of universalism; to put it in a more trite form, I’ve always thought that it would have to be damn hard to end up in Hell. In fact, the notion of a God who is absolutely loving and merciful demands that. What troubles me, though, is that Scripture (particularly the Old Testament) tells us in no uncertain terms that God is also absolutely just. This world is obviously not just, so a just God would have to impose true justice after death. But that seems somehow to contradict the notion of an all-merciful God (unless we think that no crime in life justifies eternal separation from God). Which, then, is God’s true nature, justice or love? Or both? And if it’s both (and I think that’s what mos of us believe), how does that work?

The biggest problem for universalism, in my opinion, is that it seems to render life meaningless. It seems as though, according to universalism, we get a “second chance” after death to choose God, and presumably, this second chance is much more effective in convincing us to choose Him (if everyone inevitably chooses to believe, then it must be). In that case, life appears to have no consequence, at least with respect to our afterlife desination.

And perhaps the question of universalism is relevant only when the afterlife is understood in terms of the heaven/hell reward/punishment paradigm? Suppose heaven is not reward, nor is hell punishment?


5 Travis Prinzi June 13, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Dave, good points for discussion! I think the “biggest problem” that you raise is an important one, and it does seem that if everyone eventually gets there, why all the trials of life, and what did all our good and bad works, or faith and lack of faith mean, anyway?

I think just as many difficulties exist on the other side. Why did God create people who did not choose to be born in sin (i.e., couldn’t not sin) but who never heard the gospel? Why did God create anyone just to send them to Hell, foreknowing their eternal destiny?

I’m too tired to think this all through fully at the moment, but I’d suggest that the Fall ends up answering a lot of these questions. If the Fall is not thought of in the Calvinist sense – something God intended to happen (though did not actively create) so that he could show his glory in his mercy on the few – then we can see it as a tragic event, not part of the intention of creation, and something that God seeks to remedy whether in “time” or eternity.

Lots to think about when I’m less tired.


6 Dave June 16, 2010 at 12:59 am

That’s an interesting point, too. Most of these issues really do appear to be rooted in the contradiction of free will with an all-knowing, all-powerful God. However, what comes to mind for me (having recently read the Ainulindale from the Silmarillion), is the way Tolkien handles Melkor and the introduction of evil into Arda; while Iluvatar directs the Ainur in the great music, Melkor goes off theme and attempts to hijack the music and introduce his own influence. It creates disharmony and evil, and while it is not what Iluvatar intended, he nevertheless weaves it into the music and brings even more wonderful themes from it.

Regarding the Fall, what other possible paradigms for understanding it are there? I ask because a few years back in school I studied a lot of Kierkegaard and Tillich, and they seemed to understand the Fall significantly differently (and here comes my foggy memory interpretation) more from an existentialist point of view, in which original sin is in some way characteristic of the finite nature of our existence (o be distinguished from the perfect, eternal nature of our Being). If I remember correctly, Tillich defines sin as estrangement, from God, from ourselves, from others, from nature, etc.’

On another note, I’m working my way back through your older podcasts, and I’m quite impressed by some of the predictions you made, how you were often simultaneously very right and yet wrong. For example, you were right about the hallows being objects that pointed to something more than themselves, but you got most of the objects wrong (though you nailed the cloak, which I don’t think many other people did, did they?). But when you were right, you were about the essential details and the major themes, even if you missed the specifics (which is what much of the fandom fixated upon, while ignoring the major themes). Great podcast, Travis.


7 Travis Prinzi June 13, 2010 at 12:50 am

Also, just so you know, this blog runs pretty slowly. I also write at The Rabbit Room and The Boar’s Head Tavern, and it’s hard to find time for all the sites!


8 Rodger Tutt June 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Calvinism, Arminianism, or Christian Biblical Universalism

Which view of salvation is true?

Two good expositions specifically answering that question!




9 Aaron July 5, 2011 at 2:39 am

How does eschatology fit in with universalism? I was raised in a dispensational, Calvanistic tradition. As of recent, I am convinced by the universalist position. Recently, I have read a good book from the partial preterist, Calvanistic position; however, I am curious about full preterism, as I feel that two “Second Comings” of Christ seem a bit ridiculous. Do you have any suggestions that could help me in my search?


10 Christie @ Spinning Straw into Gold December 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm

So I realize I’m dropping a completely un-scholarly and un-proveable point in here, but . . . what do you make of the saints who have supposedly seen the souls in hell?


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