The Tentative Apologist
2/15/11 at 11:36 AM 0 Comments

Does universalism have a chance in hell of being true?

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Thomas Talbott has pointed out that one can find evidence from scripture to support the following three incompatible claims:

(1) God wants to save everyone

(2) God can save everyone

(3) Not everyone will be saved

Since this is an inconsistent set, a person has to give up at least one of these propositions. And so Christians do.

The Calvinist gives up (1). Thus, according to Calvinism though God could have willed that all people be saved he instead chooses to damn some (either through an active or passive decree). And in doing so, it is claimed, God is glorified more fully than if he had saved all.

The Arminian rejects (2). God cannot save everyone because he has granted human beings libertarian free will and that includes the possibility that some creatures will reject God eternally.

Finally, the universalist rejects (3). Everyone will, in fact, be saved.

But hold on. How can the universalist argue this? One might ask the same of the Calvinist and Arminian. In each case, a person identifies certain scriptural passages and broader theological themes as their controls in interpreting other passages which would otherwise seem to count against their view. Thus the Calvinist interprets passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 against the control assumption that God does not will to save all. And the Arminian interprets passages like Romans 9:10-14 against the control assumption that God desires to save all. And the universalist interprets pasasges like Matthew 25:31-46 in light of the controlling assumption that God will save all.

But are there any verses that could be read in support of universalism? Sure. Here are some examples: John 1:29; Acts 3:21; Rom. 5:18; Rom. 14:11; 1 Cor. 15:22, Phil. 2:11-12 and Col. 1:20. This is not to say that Calvinists and Arminians cannot have their own interpretations of these passages in light of their control passages. Certainly they do. Rather, it is simply to point out that the most natural reading of these passages (or at least of many of them) is universal reconcilation in the same way that the most natural reading of 1 Timothy 2:4 is supportive of Arminianism and the most natural reading of Romans 9:10-14 is supportive of Calvinism.

But do these passages really support universalism? Or at least are they amenable on one natural reading to universalism? Let's take a look at one of these passages, Colossians 1:20:

"through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself [God the Father] all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

This phrase concludes a passage (1:15-20) which describes in sweeping terms the impact of God sending Christ into the world. With that in mind let's note three things:

First, all things (everything that exists in creation) are affected by the coming of Christ.

Second, as a result of Christ's coming the impact on all things is their reconcilation to God the Father. The verb to reconcile" (apokatallasso) means "to bring back again" or "restore to a former state of harmony."

Third, this universal reconcilation occurs through the peace (eirenopoieo: meaning the establishment of harmonious relations) made by the blood of Christ.

So to accommodate this verse to a traditional doctrine of hell one would have to propose either that Paul is speaking hyperbolically/symbolically (i.e. that not really all will be reconciled) or that it is consistent to say that some people are reconciled to God in virtue of being damned forever. (I actually heard this argued at a conference once.) The first suggestion strikes me as implausible, the second one as downright absurd. What is harmonious about eternal damnation?

So at the very least a person should concede that there is a biblical case to be made for universalism. That case is even stronger when one considers broader theological and philosophical considerations. And this makes the widespread dismissal of the theory among contemporary evangelicals rather inexplicable.

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