Theological problems sometimes have a way of rising with urgent contemporaneity without any specific way of accounting for them. Many historical factors can contribute to their rise; the underlying spirit and mentality of a given era can form a point of contact with various specific ideas that are thrown out at that time. Recent discussions about universalism present a theological problem of this sort. The doctrine of universalism is also called the doctrine of apokatastasia, the restoration of all things and redemption for all men. This doctrine is at present high on the agenda of theological debate. It is urgent, as always, because it is a genuinely existential problem. Since it is concerned with all men, it includes us. This is why universalism has a certain compelling quality that touches us all.
Salvation for all men: this is the thesis of universalism. One day the bad dream of sin will be over. We shall all rise and go back to our father and home. There is, to be sure, a powerful resistance to the grace of God in the world. There is rebellion and a hardening of hearts. But sin’s rebellion shall be done away. This is not to suggest that sin and unbelief are not taken seriously in universalism. It is not to say that according to universalism man has not earned God’s judgment. It does mean, however, that the grace of God shall triumph in the end and break down all resistance. Universalism proclaims the glorious victory of divine grace. This is the thought that will not down. Though ancient forms, such as given by Origen, are rejected, the main motif continually returns to brace the human spirit. Contemplating the final end of the ways of God, universalists cannot imagine that there can be any other than this good ending for the human drama.
Palatable To The Heart
It is understandable that this doctrine recurrently exercises strong influence in theological thought. It is palatable to the human heart. For our hearts find it hard to take the judgment of God upon human sin with complete earnestness. With a kind of universalistic optimism, it is considered unthinkable that God’s love should not triumph. Dr. J. A. T. Robinson, for example, ended an article which he called “Universalism—Is It Heretical?” with these words: “Christ, in Origen’s old words, remains on the Cross as long as one sinner remains in hell. This is not a speculation: it is a statement grounded in the very necessity of God’s nature. In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors, no hell for any which does not at the same time make it hell for God. He cannot endure that—for that would be the final mockery of his nature—and he will not” (Scottish Journal of Theology, 1949). This statement drew a reply from Dr. T. F. Torrance for whom the argument of Robinson seemed too simplistic. “Dare we go behind Calvary,” asked Torrance, “to argue our way to a conclusion which we could reach by logic, and which would make the Cross meaningless?” What, he asks, must we think of the Scripture passages “which declare in no uncertain terms that at the last judgment there will be a final division between the children of light and the children of darkness?” This is typical of the kind of discussion that universalism arouses: it is never abstract, but is always charged with emotion, for it has to do with the love of God. Is universalism not “the very necessity of God’s nature?” asks Robinson. And is it not self-evident and forced upon us? Is God’s love not almighty and triumphant even over the dark rebellion of the human heart? “Its will to lordship is inexhaustible and ultimately unendurable: the sinner must yield.”
The discussion of universalism has also been carried on in Germany and Switzerland. Wilhelm Michaelis wrote a book in 1950 called, Universal Redemption: The Good News of the Grace of God, in which he attempted to give universalism an exegetical basis. But perhaps the weightiest discussion about universalism has centered around Karl Barth. Barth has insisted many times that he rejects the doctrine of universalism. Yet, Emil Brunner has declared that Barth teaches the most radical form of universalism that has ever been proposed, more far-reaching than that of Origen. This is not the place to enter into this discussion, but it is enough to remind us how minds are being moved by the doctrine of God’s final purpose.
Significance Of Unbelief
We will limit ourselves here to one question: the relationship between universalism and the preaching of the Gospel. This is the urgent question that concerns every one who would preach. For what is the significance of preaching, granted the truth of universalism? If we can reason from the “necessity” of the nature of God to the conclusion of the universal triumph of divine love, what must we preach? This is the decisive question that is asked more and more frequently within the contemporary discussion of universalism. Must we, in preaching, inform the people of this “logical” conclusion; is this the preaching of the Gospel? According to universalism, we are driven to ask, is preaching a factual communique instead of an urgent message which places aweful responsibility on the hearer and calls him to a decision? It is not surprising that certain Scripture passages are much in the discussion. For example, the word of our Lord in John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life and he that believeth not shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Thus, the discussion concentrates on the character of the Gospel message.
Universalism does indeed attempt to show that its doctrine also has room for a kind of preaching that sets men before responsibility, but it is not clear how the communique regarding the necessity of God’s nature leading to universal redemption can bring man to feel the need for making an important decision. Is the human choice—belief or unbelief—really important in universalism, if God in his love actually cannot be anything else but merciful to all men?
Urgency Of Decision
It is natural that there is also a good deal of discussion about the teaching of Scripture regarding the future, about the final judgment and the coming of Christ, in short about the eschatological message of the Gospel. But what was the message of the evangelists of the Kingdom of God? Was there not a tension in their message, an urgent appeal to a decision, a call to a decisive choice? Is there really not the terrible possibility of both belief and unbelief according to the Bible? Is there not a danger that we draw conclusions out of the well of human optimism which are really totally different from the original Gospel? When the Church rejected the teaching of Origen, it was not prompted by a lack of feeling or a failure to appreciate the love of God or the power of the Spirit. It only refused to tone down the command to go into the world with the Gospel of the cross and the resurrection, a Gospel full of responsibility, calling and pleading. No, the Church was not calloused in the regions of its heart. Pharisees exclude people because they do not fit into their categories of righteousness. But the Church preaches a broad Gospel, Christ as a door that is really open. It preaches the seriousness of the Gospel whose content is the Cross, a stumbling block and an offense. This was the seriousness that Simeon saw when, filled with the Spirit, he said, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel and for a sign which shall be spoken against” (Luke 2:34).
Earnestness Of Preaching
Thus, the Church upholds the earnestness of preaching which demands a decision concerning the “kindness and love of God our Saviour toward men” (Titus 3:4). It will not be led to a conclusion that, dislodged from the historical cross, proclaims a divine “necessity” which is self-evident and which ultimately takes the edge of reality away from redemption. The Church is not to speculate but to preach. For “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard; and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).
It is no accident that the discussion about universalism is concentrated on the preaching of the Gospel. For here is where it must appear whether or not the Church has understood its command. Its command is not to investigate into the secrets of God, not to soften the Gospel into a communique informing the world that everything is going to come out all right in the end. Its command is to let the voice of the Cross resound through the world with its summons to faith and repentance. This is the only “necessity” which is allowed in our preaching, the “necessity” which Paul felt when he said: “for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
When the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, when Peter preached and thousands turned to the light, an urgent appeal went out: “And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this untoward generation’ ” (Acts 2:40).
G. C. Berkouwer is the peer of evangelical theologians in our day. Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, he has provided our generation with the most extensive theological effort next to Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics are now in process of translation in 18 volumes. In his most recent work, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, he deals fully with the universalistic tendencies of Barth’s theology.
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