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Is Evangelical Universalism an Oxymoron? Part 03

This is the third part of a series which evaluates the compatibility between evangelicalism and universalism. In the previous parts we looked at defining evangelicalism in order to evaluate its compatibility with universalism. In this part we evaluate the definition of universalism.

WARNING: This paper was part of the requirements of a Masters of Theology. It contains some terms that are more difficult than are usually permitted on this blog.

Universalism

So far we have explored the heritage of evangelicalism and its shape in the modern world, as well as how it is popularly defined by influential institutions and people. We have then proposed a normative theological definition for evaluation against universalism. In this next section we shall unfold some of the different variations of Universalism, briefly explore the history of Universalism in the Christian church, and then move on to closely scrutinise the ‘evangelical universalism’ of Robin Parry.

A Taxonomy for Universalism

Simply put, universalism is the belief that eventually all will be saved. There is nothing in this summative definition that implies a time-line or method by which this is accomplished. This means that it need not be limited to one religious tradition. We however will be looking at how universalism is conceived in the Christian tradition, and for clarity a taxonomy is required.

There is a sense in which all Christians can be called ‘universalists.’ Universalism understood this way is the claim that those who are saved are composed of people from all nations and races. We may call this view Multi-racial universalism. This is an uncontroversial thesis and not the subject under discussion here. A second sense in which Christians can be ‘universalists’ is in the way Arminians affirm that God wants all people to be saved. We may call this view Arminian universalism. This is made controversial in Christian theology by the disputation of Calvinists, however this also is not the sense in which the term will be used here. The third sense in which Christians can be ‘universalists’ is what we may call Strong universalism. This is a family of different views that can be sub-divided into three distinct categories; Pluralist universalism, Hopeful universalism, and Dogmatic universalism.

Pluralist universalism understands that all religious systems equally lead to the same goal. This is the view expounded by John Hick (1922–).[1] The consequence of this view for our understanding of Jesus and his atoning work on the cross is that these doctrines become merely one route for salvation. It is no longer the case that Jesus is central on this proposal. It is also a consequence on this view that justification by faith alone is false. Accordingly, though other critiques can be launched, on the basis of our proposed definition alone we may regard pluralist universalism as non-evangelical.

Hopeful universalism is the view that there is reason in Scripture to believe that every individual will be saved, and that the arguments for this are possibly cogent. That is, hopeful universalists believe it is possible that all will be saved, yet remain unconvinced that all will be saved, either due to the counter-balancing of arguments for the traditional understanding that some will inhabit hell forever, or due to the under-cutting effect of arguments posed against the certainty of universal salvation. Accordingly, hopeful universalism is better described as agnosticism with respect to the fate of all.

Dogmatic universalism is the belief that all people will certainly be saved. They are convinced that the arguments in favour of Universalism are cogent and the counter-arguments are not. Somehow, in some way, God’s purposes of saving every individual will be achieved.

Often when people seek to include universalism of some form into their theology it is accompanied by other highly questionable views. What this means is that those wanting to dismiss or refute particular theological schemes that are universalistic, have also tended to condemn universalism as well with everything else. One must resist this temptation however, for these accompanying doctrines may not be integral to sustaining universalism in their system of thought. There may also be other universalists who disagree with these extra doctrines.

Indeed, as we shall see, there is a great variety of things that universalists disagree on, in areas such as interpretation, soteriology and eschatology. This diversity includes; whether Satan and other demons will be saved or not, whether hell is merely a possibility that is deserved but will never eventuate or is real but only temporary, whether universalism is the only permissible Christian position or if other positions are permissible too, whether salvation through Christ by faith must be conscious or could be unconscious, whether human freedom is compatibilistic or libertarian, whether punishment is restorative or retributive or both, and whether the New Testament is consistent in its universalism or not.[2]

Footnotes:

  1. John Hick’s pluralist universalism was hopeful rather than dogmatic. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
  2. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), xxii-xxiii.

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