This is the fourth part of series which evaluates the compatibility between evangelicalism and universalism. It gives an overview of the history of Universalism in Christian thought.
WARNING: This paper was written as a part of the requirements for a Master’s of Theology. It contains terms that are more difficult than what usually appear on this blog.
The History of Universalism
With these categories in mind, we are ready to survey the history of Christian thought on universalism. As we shall see, there has always been, more or less, a constant presence of universalistic belief, albeit on the periphery of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Early Church Fathers
The first Christian to clearly propound universalism was Origen (c. 185-254). Among the influences for his eschatology were Gnosticism, Stoicism, Greek philosophy and, most importantly, the Bible. From Gnosticism came the idea of life as a period of discipleship in which one grows in the true knowledge of God, and from Greek philosophy the idea that punishment is medicinal. Combining these ideas of punishment and education allowed him to explain hell as a reformative and temporary state rather than retributive and everlasting. Stoicism provided the idea of a restoration of the cosmos to its original state. The Greek astronomical term for this was apokatastasis, which was conceptually linked by Origen to the end of the age from Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:21, ‘the time of the restoration of all things’ (apokatastaseõs pantõn), and gained its soteriological implications in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:28 where God is ‘all in all’ (panta en pasin). The term generally refers today to the idea that all of creation, including the Devil, will be saved, though for Origen it also meant everything returns to its original state. Ultimately, it was the Scriptures that provided Origen the grounds for his beliefs, however his use of allegorical interpretation left a door wide open for doubt and heavy criticism.
Origen reasoned that all created beings were good and equal, but through the misuse of their freedom fell from the state of perfection that they previously had with God. Those who fell the furthest became demons, and those who fell to a lesser degree became the souls of people incarnated into human bodies. The restoration of all these souls is through the amendment and correction of the material world and continues on into the afterlife. Eventually when death is destroyed, every human and every demon will be restored to the state they were in before they fell.
Origen did not include this in his list of clear and certain doctrines in the prologue of On First Principles. Accordingly, even though he grounded his view here as far as possible in Scripture and expressed it with apparent certitude, we are to regard it as his speculation.
Shortly afterwards came Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395). Perhaps aware of growing opposition to Origen’s theology, he was particularly interested in grounding his views in Scripture. With 1 Corinthians 15:28, he used Philippians 2:10: ‘So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ He tentatively suggests the words, ‘under the earth’ refers to demons that will be saved. With allegorical interpretation of Psalm 59, the feast of the tabernacles, and the Egyptian plague of darkness, he derived universalistic ideas. Although his whole theology is directed toward universal salvation, he shows a similar circumspection to Origen, sometimes attributing the ideas to other characters, or with the preface that ‘some people claim’.
Opposition to Origenism arose from Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403), Theophilus of Alexandria (d. 412) and Jerome (c. 345-420), however their critiques were never purely about his universalism, but against other elements such as the pre-existence of souls and the salvation of the devil. Though Origen grew popular in the Eastern Church, his universalism never did. It was the critique of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) that proved most influential in western theology, and laid the groundwork for its anathematization. With a respectful tone and regarding it as an in-house debate, he said,
I am aware that I now have to engage in a debate, devoid of rancor, those compassionate Christians who refuse to believe that the punishment of hell will be everlasting either in the case of all those men whom the completely just Judge accounts deserving of that chastisement, or at least in the case of some of them; they hold that they are to be set free after fixed limits of time have been passed, the periods being longer or shorter in proportion to the magnitude offences. On this subject the most compassionate of all was Origen who believed that the Devil himself and his angels will be rescued from their torments and brought into the company of the holy angels, after the more severe and more lasting chastisements appropriate to their deserts.
Apokatastasis was officially condemned by Jusintian in 543, and again at the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 553. The second time more in connection with the associated doctrines of Origenism than with apokatatasis specifically. As a result, understandably few were willing to propound universalism in the following centuries.
Reformation and Enlightenment
It was the political and religious upheaval of the Reformation and Enlightenment that would overturn the soil that would allow the seeds of universalism to germinate. Those that scattered the seeds drew upon those universalist thinkers of the past.
In the early Reformation Hans Denck (c. 1495-1527) was a young scholar who traveled, and was often expelled from, various Germanic cities. He was accused of teaching universalism in the style of Origen on at least three occasions, but it is not clear that he or other teachers associated with the radical reformation actually did.
Denck’s teaching was perhaps confused as universalistic because of his stress on freedom, divinization and sin as punishment that can lead to repentance. Also, teaching that God willed all to be saved, that Christ lived and dies for all, and only hinting that some might be able to resist salvation, it may have been difficult for those entrenched in the irresistible grace of the Augustinian tradition to not draw universalistic conclusions. What we do see in Denck is mysticism and liberal humanist rationalism germinating the ideas of God’s Spirit being accessible to all people, the importance of human freedom and of universal salvation as a feature of theodicy. In the following centuries these elements would continue to develop.
The writings of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) against the Reformed doctrines of election and reprobation, believing them incompatible with the Scriptures portrayal of a God engaged in universal revelation and renewal, proved influential. Although not a dogmatic universalist, his ideas were read extensively and extrapolated into universalistic systematic theologies by people such as Peter Sterrey (1613-72), who was a chaplain of Oliver Cromwell, and Sterrey’s protégé Jeremiah White (1630-1707). Boehme’s conviction that God’s supreme attribute of love would not finally be withheld from any of his creatures moved many Pietists and an idea that is present in many proponents of universalism today.
Universalist Congregations in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The emergence of universalist congregations in America and Britain was a complex one, as Morwenna Ludlow notes, partly because of the controversial nature of universalism, and partly because such sectarian groups and had a tendency to proliferate, split and re-unite with great rapidity. Using a scheme adopted by Rowell she does identify two different forms of universalistic thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first form is dubbed ‘purgatorial universalism’, which included the necessity of post-mortem punishment for reconciliation to God,  and stressed God’s goodness and the importance of human free will. The second form she calls ‘hyper-Calvinist universalism’, which applied unconditional election with an unlimited atonement.
Among the purgatorial universalists was Elhanan Winchester (1758-1816), author of Dialogues on The Universal Restoration (1788) and an American missionary to Britain. William Vindler (1758-1816) was one of his converts, and took the leadership of the Universalist church he founded in London, later converting with the congregation to Unitarianism. Among the hyper-Calvinists were James Relly (1722-88) and his disciple John Murray (1741-1815), whose interlocutor was Winchester while in Britain and Charles Chauncy (b. 1704) after he traveled to America and founded the First Universalist Church in Massachusetts.
Initially the small size of this movement and the considerably larger opposition from mainstream churches muted the debates between these two forms. For the next generation the ‘Restoration controversy’ (1812 to c. 1831) caused a more serious disturbance. This was between Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) and his restorationists opponents such as Edward Turner (1776-1853). Ballou in fact opposed both forms of Universalism, as well as the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ’s vicarious atonement, advocating instead what became known as ‘Ultra Universalism’, whereby at death all would be transformed so they could participate in the kingdom. His influence as the principle American expositor of universalism during the controversy led some Universalist churches to become Unitarian congregations. After his death and by the end of the nineteenth century however, most universalists believed in the necessity of some form of punishment after death.
Given these associations it is understandable that universalism would be considered outside the rank and file of Christian orthodoxy for much of the twentieth century. We have seen the increasing currency of universalism in Christian thought, from its early stages in the Patristic period, in the reformation period through to the enlightenment, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus far in our survey however, universalism has only been a small voice and always on the periphery. We shall now look at the influential individuals in history who have propounded universalism and helped raise the status that the doctrine has today.
Popular exponents of Universalism in the Nineteenth Century
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the first person to popularly propound the doctrine since the Patristic period. His boyhood intuition led him to question if eternal punishment could fit with the ‘eternal fatherly love of God’. In later life the ‘Father of liberal theology’ taught that the biblical evidence for eternal damnation was inconclusive, that good punishment is always reformatory, and that the state of the blessed is rendered imperfect if there are eternally damned (with or without knowledge of it). He occasionally cites Origen and the influence of Gregory of Nyssa is also apparent. Schleiermacher’s influenced his pupils, including Zurich professor Alexander Schweitzer (1808-88) and the Danish theologian Henrick Nikolai Clasen (1793-1877), but especially theologians affiliated with liberal Protestantism in Germany. It was through them that Schleiermacher’s thought would be disseminated globally.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) hoped for universal salvation based solely on faith in Christ and his saving power. He famously wrote in his journals, ‘If others for to hell, then I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary I believe that all will be saved, myself with them – something which arouses my deepest amazement.’ His influence on philosophers and theologians of later times was profound, though how much of his universalism was part of this influence is indeterminable.
In the persons of F. D. Maurice (1805-72), H. B. Wilson (1803-88), F. W. Farrar (1831-1903) we see discussion of universalism becoming more exposed to the larger church. Maurice was dismissed from King’s College in 1853 for supposedly affirming universal salvation in his Theological Essays, though it appears now he was only expressing the hope. From him comes the idea that ‘eternal death’ refers to something of the quality and nature of divine punishment, and not necessarily to an endless state. Wilson’s contribution to the controversial Essays and Reviews (published 1860) was to express a hope that after death the unregenerate would grow and mature to eventually be restored. Farrar preached five sermons at Westminster Abbey in 1877 on the subject of hell, in which he stated there was ‘nothing in Scripture or anywhere to prove [that] the fate of any man is, at death, irrevocably determined.’ Each of these men evoked a vociferous reaction by propounding a post-death purification process towards restoration.
Twentieth Century to the Present
In the twentieth century the topography of the debate changed. The two world wars, with the social changes and scientific development that attended them, led theologians to be more reflective in general on the nature of soteriology and eschatology. For example, theologians were suddenly faced with the bleak reality of the human capacity for evil, as well the need to explain how God could allow such gratuitous evil: surely God had some vastly overriding good outcome. The breakdown of colonialism, large-scale emigration from those colonies and communication from travel and media all brought Christians closer to different cultures and religions than ever before.  Furthermore, although the doctrine remained controversial, no longer were those who espoused it likely to face dismissal from university posts or public outrage. Those from more conservative churches might have faced censure, but the tone of the discussion was dialed down. Even the Roman Catholic Church, so vehemently opposed in the eighteenth century, could now tolerate hopeful universalists as long as apokatastasis was denied.
Hopeful universalism is perhaps the most distinctive feature of twentieth century universalism. Two notable hopeful universalists of this period are Jürgen Moltmann (1926–) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88). The confidence with which they elucidate their views can give a false impression they advocate dogmatic universalism. Moltmann is probably the most confident of these, grounding the hope in his theology of the cross. The image of Christ as the all-powerful judge must, according to him, be viewed with the image of Christ crucified in solidarity with all people. The Christian eschatological hope therefore becomes no longer retaliatory or causing division, but creative and the consummation of his redemptive work. Balthasar grounded his hope in the overwhelming depth of God’s love, as evidenced by his entering into the depth of human experience and God-forsakenness on the cross and his decent into hell on Easter Saturday. Universal salvation is by no means certain for him, for all depend on how humans will use their freedom. Still, God’s love gives us the right to hope.
It is hotly debated whether Karl Barth (1886-1968) believed in, or merely hoped for, universal salvation. He wanted to show that God’s self-revelation presents itself to humanity as something that has chosen us. That is, we are elect in Christ, the elected one. Barth applies both election to salvation and election to damnation to one person: Christ, who died for all, and that all have died in him. The expected corollary is that Christ rose for all, and that all will rise in him, but Barth never draws this conclusion. The remaining volumes of his Church Dogmatics were to be on his doctrine of redemption, but this project was incomplete when he died. He did consistently deny universalism was a feature of his systematic theology; however, he also denies any doctrine that attempts to predict the outcome of God’s actions. Human speculation should not, as Barth contends, predict that God will accomplish universal salvation, nor should it predict that he would not, for this is to risk ‘arrogating to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.’
Roger Olson notes that Karl Barth was very influential on the ‘self-identified progressive evangelicals who reject fundamentalism and liberal theology.’ Included among these were Bernard Ramm (1916-92) and Donald Bloesch (1928-2010).
After Ramm spent a sabbatical year under at Basel under Barth in 1957-58 he sought to assimilate the insights he gained there into a self-consciously evangelical framework. Though he was not a universalist himself, he was concerned that evangelicals not counter the universalistic impulse with a ‘stony response to the lostness of billions of human beings’. He insisted,
Every sensitive evangelical is a universalist at heart. He agrees with Peter when he wrote that ‘the Lord. . .is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:9). . . No person on the face of the earth wants everybody in heaven more than an evangelical. Only an evangelical really knows in depth the meaning of sin, the wrath of God, the reconciliation of the cross, the victory of the resurrection, the tragedy of judgment, and the glory of the New Jerusalem. Every person who fails of the last beatitude can only be of pain to him.
His thought represents a clear shift in the typical evangelical emphasis in damnation yet still upholds the reality of hell and the validity, contra Barth, of preaching it on occasion. The implication is that hell is only for those who persist in rejecting God’s offer.
Bloesch encountered Barth studying theology in 1950’s at Chicago Theological Seminary. He reflects and intensifies Ramm’s implication that hell is only for those who persistently reject God’s call by taking Barth’s optimism and suggesting the possibility of post-mortem reconciliation.
The foremost contemporary proponent of dogmatic universalism is Thomas Talbott, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University, Oregon, and author of The Inescapable Love of God (1999). He does not offer himself as a straightforward ‘test-case’ of an Evangelical, eschewing institutional Christian labels and avoiding the question of evangelical identity and parameters in his published work. This position belongs squarely to Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist. To him and his thesis we shall turn in the next section.
Our survey has by no means been comprehensive. It has only admitted prominent and outspoken proponents of universalism, omitting the indeterminate amount of theologians who have refused to declare their universalistic beliefs or hopes publicly. This has been comprehensive enough to show how the doctrine of universal salvation has slowly moved from the periphery towards the centre of acceptable theological discourse. Hopeful universalism has been more popular than the dogmatic variety. Even though the reception in general is no longer as cold as it once was, the dominant attitude today remains unfavourably disposed towards universalism. As Rob Bell’s book has decisively shown, universalism is still able to cause controversy.
Armed with a definition for evangelicalism, and a better appreciation of universalism throughout the history of the church, we move on to our assessment of the compatibility of evangelicalism and universalism. For this assessment, we turn to the arguments of Robin Parry.
- Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (ed. R. A. Parry and C. H. Partridge; Cumbria: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 215.
- Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3.
- Apokatastasis is used today as a synonym for universal salvation, however technically one can be a universalist and not believe in the salvation of the Devil. See Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms (Louiseville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 12. There is debate if this is the way that Origen should be interpreted. He seems to be open to other soteriological possibilities. See John Anthony McGuckin (ed.), “Apokatastasis” The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louiseville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 59-62.
- Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.6
- Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 193; B. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 58.
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, W. Moore (tr.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, vol. V, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 444
- Gregory of Nyssa, Treatise on the Inscrptions of the Psalms, R. Heine (tr.), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 211-12; On the Soul and the Resurrection, W. Moore (tr.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, vol. V, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 461; The Life of Moses, A.J. Malherbe & E Ferguson (trs.), Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), Part II, section 82.
- St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 21.17 (trans. Bettenson)
- Further research is required to determine whether the allegations that Zeigler, Bader and Pockuet were in fact universalists, or whether their teaching stopped short of that conclusion.
- R. Waterfield. ed., Jacob Boehme: Essential Readings, (Wellinborough: Crucible Books for the Aquarian Press, 1989).
- See for instance, Talbott and Parry.
- Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 204.
- G. Rowell, “The Origins and History of Universalist Societies in Britain 1750-1850,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 22, 1971.
- This view is called restorationism or sometimes restitutionism. This view implies post-mortem evangelization.
- ‘Ewige Höllenstrafen’, Theologische Zeitschrift 1 (Berlin, 1819), 109. cited in G. Müller, ‘Die Idee einer Apokatastasis ton panton in der europaischen Theologie von Schleiermacher bis Barth’ in Zeitschrift fur Religions und Geistesgeschichte 16:1, (1964), 3; Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 207.
- Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, (ed. H. V. Hong et al.; trans. E. H. Hong et el.; 6 vols.; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 4:123.
- F. D. Maurice, “Concluding Essay: Eternal Life and Eternal Death” in Theological Essays, (Cambridge: Macmillan & Co, 1853), 442-478.
- Ibid., 475-6.
- Essays and Reviews (1860) was considered more controversial in Victorian England than Darwin’s Origin of Species. Wilson was embroiled in a court case on the charge that he taught hell was a myth. Subsequently, most reviews of Wilson have interpreted his work through statements made during the trial. Bertrand Russell, in his famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” delivered to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, 6 March 1927, stated ‘Belief in eternal hell fire was an essential item of Christian belief until recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy council was able to override Their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.’
- F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope: Five Sermons (London: Macmillan, 1878), 82; quoted in Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity,” Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 210.
- Morwenna Ludlow, “Universalism in the History of Christianity,” Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 210-11.
- Ibid., 211.
- H. U. von Balthasar, Dare We hope ‘That all Men be Saved?’ with A Short Discourse on Hell, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988); Mysterium Paschale, Edinburgh: T & T Clark), Ch. 2.
- Barth, Church Dogmatics (trans. G.W. Bromley and T. F. Torrence; 13 vols.; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-76), IV:3:477.
- Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 58; quoted in Hilborn and Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 232.
- Hilborn and Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 232. For a discussion of the influence of Barth on the thought of Ramm see M. J. Erickson, The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker/Carlisle: Pasternoter Press, 1997), 23-28; also K. Vanhoozer, ‘Bernard Ramm’ in W. A. Elwell (ed.), Handbook of Evangelical Theologians (Grand Rapids: Backer, 1993), 290-306.
- Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 171.
- Bernard Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage (Waco: Word, 1973), 136-7.
- ‘We do not wish to put fences around God’s grace. . . and we do not preclude the possibility that some in hell might finally be translated to heaven. The gates of the holy city are depicted as being open day and night (Isa. 60:11; Rev 21:25), and this means that open access to the throne of grace is possible continuously. The gates of hell are locked, bbut they are locked from within. . . Hell is not outside the compass of God’s mercy nor the spheres of his kingdom, and in this sense we call it the last refuge of the sinner. Edward Pusey voices our own sentiments: ‘We know absolutely nothing of the proportion of the saved to the lost or who will be lost; but we do know, that none will be lost, who do not obstinately to the end and in the end refuse God.’ D. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology: Life, Ministry and Hope, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 226-28.
- See Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, (Parkland, Fla: Universal Publishers, 1999); Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Carlisle, Cumbria: William B. Eerdmans, 2003).
- Hilborn and Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 220, 241.
- Written under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2006).