The Basis of the Teaching of Universalism

The teaching that everyone will eventually experience fullness of life (salvation) is based on several factors. While this could
be approached within the context of various faiths, the following will be a defense of the teaching of universalism from a
Christian perspective. We will consider the history and significance of universalism, what the Bible says, and implications of
universalism versus eternal damnation.

The History and Significance of Universalism

1.   The history of universalism
During the time of the early church, it was widely believed by Christians that everyone would eventually experience
salvation. Many people at that time, however, believed in unending punishment of the wicked. Some Christians retained
that belief as well. Proponents of universal salvation included Clement and Origen of Alexandria, two of the most prominent
theologians and leaders of the early church. In contrast to this, the theologian Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was converted
from heathenism to Christianity at age 32 and, consistent with his heathen roots, he continued to believe in the endless
punishment of the unsaved. His theology soon started to became dominant in the church. Consequently, at the Fifth
Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D. the church took an official stand against the teaching of universalism.  

The doctrine of universalism lay largely dormant for several centuries. Eventually, however, it started to revive, and became
quite strong again by the eighteenth century. Rev. John Wesley, the primary leader of the Methodist movement, had a close
association with the Moravians, Christians who believed in universal salvation. Many people are convinced that Wesley
came to believe in universalism late in his life, which is attested to in his sermon, titled; “On the Fall of Man”, that he
preached on March 13, 1782.  

The American Colonies proved to be a particularly fertile ground for the spread of the teaching of universalism. George
DeBenneville, a physician, came over from France to Pennsylvania in 1741, and did much to promote the teaching in that
area. John Murray came to the Colonies from England in 1770, and worked closely with the Quakers and the Baptists in
spreading the teaching of universal salvation throughout the American Colonies. Under the leadership of Murray, the
Universalist Church in America was organized on January 1, 1779.

Nineteenth and Twentieth century theologians who promoted the teaching of salvation for everyone include; Friedrich
Schleiermacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Leslie Weatherhead.

2.   The significance of this issue
Lukewarm Christianity is a consequence of the teaching of a God of eternal damnation. Many people cannot bring
themselves to be very enthusiastic about serving such a God. Nearly half the population in our country doesn’t go to church
at all. Many churches would be more successful in their evangelistic efforts if they stopped teaching the bad news of eternal
damnation and instead, consistently presented the good news of salvation for all.

We all want the world to be a better place, but we are hindered in our efforts to make that a reality by teaching that God
imposes or enforces endless punishment in hell. The perception of a cruel God produces cruel Christians. If we believe that
God is sometimes vengeful, unforgiving, condemning and cruel, it’s easy for us to justify exhibiting at times those same
characteristics ourselves. On the other hand, if we believe that God is consistently loving, kind and forgiving, we are more
likely to always act that way ourselves.

If we reject the perception of a God of eternal damnation and embrace the teaching of universalism, believing in the power
of love and the preciousness of each individual, we can rise above being judgmental and cruel and treat others as our
brothers and sisters. With that attitude, our love can extend even to our enemies, and we can transform the world through
love.  


What the Bible Says Regarding Universalism

1.  Scripture that raises questions about universal salvation
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43   Parable of the weeds in the wheat.  
Matthew 25:1-13                Parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids
Matthew 25:31-46              Parable of the great judgment
Luke 16:19-31                    Parable of the rich man and Lazarus

Key issues:  
While the Bible sometimes makes reference to the fires of hell, it is important to realize that the earliest understanding is that
the fire was for purification rather than punishment.

These passages teach of hell following death, but none indicate it is without end.  The Greek word, aionios, which is
translated “eternal” (in reference to the length of suffering in hell) does not mean “without end” but means “age lasting” or
“indefinite but limited duration”.  If the writers of the New Testament had intended to communicate that suffering in hell
would be without end, they could have used the Greek word aidios, which means perpetual, but they didn’t.  Instead, they
chose aionios and by virtue of its definition we can conclude that suffering in hell, whether in this life or beyond, will
eventually come to an end.

2.  Scripture that supports universal salvation
Psalms 139:8             God is with people everywhere, even in Sheol (the abode of the dead or hell).
Luke 15:3-6              Parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd (who represents God) kept looking until he found the last
                                lost sheep.
John 12:32                “I, when I am lifted up…will draw all people to myself.”
John 12:46-47           “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”
Romans 5:18             “Therefore just as one man’s (Adam’s) trespass led to  condemnation for all, so one man’s (Christ's)
                                act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
Romans 8:38-39        Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.
1 Corinthians 15:22    “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6   Jesus preached the gospel to people in hell, to convert them.
Colossians 1:19-20     “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”
1 Timothy 2:4-6          God “desires everyone to be saved….Christ Jesus…gave himself a ransom for all.”
1 John 2:1-2               “Jesus Christ…is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the
                                whole world.”

3.  Jesus’ Lack of Urgency
Jesus didn’t exhibit any urgency to help people experience salvation before they died.  He displayed unhurried patience as
if he had all of time to accomplish his mission.  That is reflected in 2 Peter 3:8-9; “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his
promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

4.  Regarding the prospect of Jesus reaching out to people in hell to save them  
It seems highly questionable that Jesus would be content to spend all of his time in heaven with proper folks while ignoring
those who suffer in hell.  When Jesus lived among us, he was so accepting of outcasts and sinners that it was scandalous to
the highly religious people of his day.  In light of how he lived, and what his priorities were when he walked among us, it is
logical to conclude that Jesus would not spend all of his time exclusively with people enjoying heaven.  Since “Jesus Christ
is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), it makes sense to believe that Jesus’ preaching to people in
hell (according to 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6) was not just a onetime event, but that he will continue to reach out to them as long
as people suffer there.  After all, it is the people who are experiencing hell, whether in this life or beyond, who are most in
need of God’s transforming love and grace.


Implications of Universal Salvation versus Eternal Damnation

1.  God is more gracious and merciful than humans
While many people contend that God sends some people to hell and leaves them there forever, they would not do so
themselves.  No mentally healthy parent would punish his or her own children without end.  Anyone who would do such a
thing would be judged either criminal or insane, so how can we believe God would commit such an offence?

2.  What is God like?  
God is not a tribal or family deity or the Wizard of Oz, but is Spirit, the ground of our being and is unconditionally loving.  
Love makes it possible to convert and transform everyone.  Anything, such as the teaching of a God of eternal damnation,
which diminishes God’s love, has to be wrong.  If we, like God, are truly loving, we will not be content until the last
precious soul has come to experienced fullness of life/salvation/heaven.

3.   Salvation for the worst of sinners without violating their free will  
We all have free will and exercise it every day.  But we do not have total freedom when it comes to the issue of where we
will spend eternity.  If people were able to resist salvation forever that would mean they are more power than God, who
wills that everyone be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).  A loving God could never have created a world in which we, through our
free will, would have the capacity to damn ourselves for eternity.  If that were true, it would make God either a weak God
of unlimited love but limited power, or a cruel God of unlimited power but limited love.  The teaching of universal salvation
makes it possible to believe that God is both all loving and all powerful.

Those of us who are already people of faith were converted without our free will being violated. While honoring our
freedom, God will guide everyone into union with God.

4.   Many lack opportunities to experience salvation before they die.
Would God be so unreasonable as to deny people opportunities beyond death to experience fullness of life? If we insist
that people must respond favorably to the gospel before they die in order to experience salvation, we have erroneously
concluded that the grave is the end point of God’s grace.
 
          
5.   The purpose of punishment
The purpose of punishment or suffering according to the Bible is to make a wrong-doer into a right-doer.  If hell is endured
without end with no chance of embracing good, repenting and attempting a new beginning, it would be a travesty.
Destined For Salvation Ministries