Universalism: Its Distortions and Dangers

There has been in recent years a resurgence of universalism as a theological option among Christians. Perhaps it is the pluralism of our day, the rise of postmodernism with its debunking of truth, the speed of communication via the internet, the challenges of living Christianly in an increasingly polarized world, and general biblical illiteracy in the West that have contributed to the new appeal of universalism.

Definitions and Historical Overview

Universalism is the belief that all people, and even fallen angels and Satan himself, will be reconciled to God. While the wicked of this life go to a place of torment, such as hell, they do not go there “forever.”  In due time the “fires” of hell will purify all the wickedness away and all will eventually go to heaven, to spend “eternity” in the presence of God.

This is the usual Christian form of universalism which maintains restoration after future punishment.  Another form of Christian universalism asserts that restoration takes place immediately after death.  The idea of restoration only after punishment was declared by the Universalist movement in America to be the “orthodox” view in 1878, at Winchester, N.H. “Penitence, forgiveness, and regeneration” are all involved.  There is also a pagan form of universalism that teaches that all will ultimately be happy since all are, by nature, the creatures and children of God.

The chief argument of universalism is the emotive appeal to God’s mercy and love.  As the argument goes:  How can a loving God torment people forever in hell, the lake of fire, for failing to believe during a lifetime of a relatively few number of years?  There is also an appeal to Scripture, but in the end Scripture takes second place to the appeal to a sense of fairness and justice in God’s dealing with people.

Followers of universalism go back at least to the third century when Clement of Alexandria and, especially, Origen (d. 254), a leading biblical scholar of the 3rd century, espoused such a belief.   The Scriptural arguments rest on three points:  (1) the purpose of God to restore all things to their original excellence (Acts 3:21; Origen called this apokatastasis; (2) the means of restoration through Christ (Rom. 5:18; Heb. 2:9); and (3) the nature of restoration as the union of every person with God (1 Cor. 15:24-28).  The Christian church answers that the texts which speak about “all” refer not to all but to everyone who is in Christ; and that this interpretation is the only one compatible with the Bible’s teaching on the “diverse destinies of the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 25:46; John 3:16; 5:29; Rom. 2:8-10; 9:22-23).”

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