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How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream

Michael McClymond decries the rising popularity of an idea Christians have rejected for most of church history.
How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Courtesy of Baker Publishing Group

Rob Bell made a splash in 2011 with the release of Love Wins, a book that challenged settled Christian understandings of heaven, hell, and divine judgment. But as many critics pointed out in response, Bell’s musings about universal salvation relied on arguments that have been advanced—and mostly condemned—throughout church history. What explains the recent resurgence in self-described Christians affirming (or at least flirting with) universalism? In The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, scholar Michael McClymond sets out to answer this question by following the roots of universalist thought all the way back to the second century. His comprehensive, two-volume account maps out universalism’s development down through the centuries and critiques it on theological and philosophical grounds. Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke with McClymond about his book.

How do you understand the term universalism?

In theological usage, universalism is the doctrine that all human beings—and perhaps all intelligent or volitional beings—will come to final salvation and spend an eternity with heaven in God. This is a theory about a final outcome, and it leaves open the way that this outcome might be attained. One reason my book is so lengthy is that there have been many different kinds of arguments for universal salvation over the last 1,800 years. At certain points, these arguments conflict with one another, so that if someone claims to be a universalist, you might ask: “What sort of universalist are you?”

One division is between the belief that everyone goes immediately to heaven at the moment of death (called “ultra-universalism”) and the belief that many or most people first undergo postmortem suffering (a view I call “purgationism”). This issue was fiercely debated in America during the 19th century, and universalists have never been able to resolve it.

The more robust arguments for universalism hold that God’s purposes in creating the world will fail if even one intelligent creature should finally be separated from God. This line of reasoning implies that not only human sinners but also fallen angels will finally be saved. The title of my book, The Devil’s Redemption, is an allusion to that idea.

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Given longstanding Christian opposition to universalism, how has it gained so many adherents in recent times?

The change was a long time coming. As I show in my book, from the time of Origen onward there were individual Christian thinkers who held to some version of Origenist universalism. In Orthodox Christianity, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion. I found that Orthodox attitudes toward Origen through the centuries were double-sided and ambivalent (as my own attitude is), acknowledging Origen’s undoubted contributions to Christian theology and spirituality but finding fault with his speculative excesses. Western esotericists, who were outside of traditional churches or hovering about its fringes, maintained a robust universalism from around 1700 up to the mid-1900s.

Yet until that point, few official church teachers in Protestant Germany, Britain, or North America publicly affirmed universal salvation—even though privately some may have been universalists. Something changed in the 1950s, and I believe it was Barth’s affirmation of universal election that allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. From the 1950s through the 1970s, universalism was most closely associated with modernist Protestantism. Prior to Vatican II, one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals, even though no official Catholic spokespersons affirm universalism.

The next step in the process occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed “the unchurched” and evangelicals debated “the unevangelized.” A book from the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, initiated a turn toward “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by the British evangelical John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

Even though we tend to shy away from the term heresy these days, it is correct to describe universalism as heretical?

Universalism isn’t just a theological mistake. It’s also a symptom of deeper problems. In a culture characterized by moralistic therapeutic deism, universalism fits the age we inhabit. As I argue in the book, universalism is the opiate of the theologians. It’s the way we would want the world to be. Some imagine that a more loving and less judgmental church would be better positioned to win new adherents. Yet perfect love appeared in history—and he was crucified.

Universalism seems, then, to be fundamentally out of sync with the New Testament narrative of God’s loving initiative in Christ provoking some to faith and others to offense and even hatred. Because of its incongruence with the gospel narrative, universalism is, to my mind, not the first step off the path of orthodoxy, but perhaps—in Kevin DeYoung’s words—“the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder.”

Every definition of heresy implies some correlative definition of orthodoxy—of which there are many. I’m not particularly concerned with whether universalism is termed a heresy, because to me the labeling question diverts attention from the main issue, which is showing why universalism is theologically untrue and pastorally unhelpful.

In an interview on the public television series Closer to Truth, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “I don't myself quite believe [universalism] but I don't disbelieve it either. I think it's something that a Christian should at least hope for.” How would you assess such a statement?

Plantinga is a dexterous reasoner, and so I might not grasp all the nuances of his position. For the sake of argument, then, I’m going to presume that Plantinga’s outlook approximates the “hopeful universalism” of Balthasar. Essentially, my argument is that there are well-defined positions of universal salvation and particular salvation, and Balthasar’s effort to forge an intermediate view does not hang together conceptually.

We should distinguish between wishing for something and expecting it. There are any number of things I might wish for that I would not expect to occur—for instance, that there might be no violence on earth in the coming year. Yet the biblical virtue of hope involves not only wishing but expecting something—even confidently expecting something—on the basis of God’s promise.

When we turn to universalist “hope” or “hopefulness,” my question is this: Does this “hope” involve confident expectation that all will be saved? If so, then I would not call this “hopeful” universalism but “assertive” or “affirmative” universalism. I would ask further: On what divine promise is this confident expectation based? Is there such a promise by God to save everyone? Conversely, if universalist “hope” does not involve confident expectation that all will be saved, then the phenomenon falls short of biblical “hope” and might be thought of as a form of mere “wishfulness” or “wishful thinking.”

Another problem in Balthasar’s position is that he asserts that a Christian is obliged to “hope” for the salvation of all but also to reckon with the possibility of hell for oneself. That makes little sense: Why would anyone not be included in a supposed hope for all? In the final pages of The Devil’s Redemption, I suggest that Christianity is a religion of hope—and that the proper kind of hope is a “hope for each” rather than a “hope for all.”

Your book is an academic tome that cites historical sources and other scholarly works. Does it have more down-to-earth implications for Christian believers?

While I believe that The Devil’s Redemption can stand as a work of historical scholarship, there are pastoral considerations underneath my research. In my view, New Testament teaching in multiple contexts combines eschatological expectation with missional urgency and self-denying discipline. When one scrutinizes the scriptural accounts of Christ’s return and God’s judgment of individual persons, then the question of universalism takes on a different hue.

When Jesus spoke to his disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the End Times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant who is caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’ return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) likewise stresses the need to be prepared for Jesus’ return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the Resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).

The Book of Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It states that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). The Book of 1 John connects eschatological hope with moral and spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

From a pastoral standpoint, the passages surveyed suggest that one might evaluate eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it is exceedingly difficult to see how the biblical call to self-denial and godly living can flourish on the basis of universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if a universalist outcome were already known in advance? (Some Christian universalists, including Origen, acknowledged this problem and suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a select few.)

And while some argue that universalism does not logically exclude the need for evangelism, I would ask: Where are the universalist evangelists, going to the ends of the earth, painstakingly learning and transcribing hitherto unknown languages and suffering opposition, up to and including the prospect of martyrdom, so that they can deliver their message of final salvation for all? Among the non-universalists, there are tens of thousands of such laborers.

The Protestant spiritual awakenings of the 1700s and 1800s were marked by a heightened expectation of Christ’s impending return, and this was true also of the Bible prophecy movement, early Pentecostalism, the neo-evangelical resurgence of the 1940s, and the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In light of past history and experience, I wonder whether the evangelical church of the 21st century will truly recover its spiritual, ethical, and missional urgency without first renewing its preaching (and awareness) of Christ’s return and the awesome reality of God’s final judgment of each individual. Our beliefs about eschatology carry profound importance as an incentive to (or disincentive from) the difficult tasks to be undertaken in our difficult times.

May
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