The Logic of Christian (Biblical) Universalism

(Some branches of Christianity enjoy delving into the field of logic. Professor Tom Talbott is a retired professor of Philosophy at Williamette University. In this brief article, he applies the disciple of logic to the three primary beliefs on the scope of Christ's atonement.)

Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism:
Some preliminary reflections.

By Tom Talbott
Professor, Department of Philosophy
Willamette University

When I first began interpreting the New Testament along universalist lines, I was struck by how many regarded such an interpretation as not only mistaken, but utterly unreasonable and heretical as well. I found that a good many of my Calvinist friends, who did not regard Arminianism as heretical (only mistaken), and a good many of my Arminian friends, who did not regard Calvinism as heretical (only mistaken), were united in their conviction that universalism is both mistaken and heretical. This curious response started me thinking. Why should Calvinists regard universalism as any more heretical than Arminianism?--and why should Arminians regard it as any more heretical than Calvinism?

As I reflected upon these questions, I also began to reflect upon the following inconsistent set of propositions:

(1) It is God's redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;

(2) It is within God's power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;

(3) Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.

If this is indeed an inconsistent set of propositions, as I believe it is, then at least one of the propositions is false. Calvinists reject proposition (1); Arminians reject proposition (2); and universalists reject proposition (3). But in fact we can also find *prima facie* support in the Bible for each of the three propositions. So one day I sat down and, setting aside disputes over translation and sophisticated theological arguments, began to review the obvious.

In support of proposition (1), one might cite such texts as II Peter 3:9: "The Lord . . . is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance"; I Timothy 2:4: God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"; Romans 11:32: "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all"; and Ezekiel 33:11: "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn away from his way and live . . .." All of these texts seem to suggest that God sincerely wants to achieve the reconciliation of all sinners, and that his failure to achieve this end would therefore be, in some important sense, a tragic defeat of one of his purposes.

Similarly, in support of proposition (2), one might cite such texts as Ephesians 1:11: God "accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his own will"; Job 42:2: "I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted"; Psalm 115:3: "Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases"; and Isaiah 46:10b & 11b: "My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose . . . I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it." These texts seem to imply that God is able to accomplish all of his purposes--including, therefore, all of his redemptive purposes. And in addition to these texts, a number of others seem to imply that God has both the will and the power to bring all things into subjection to Christ (I Corinthians 15:27-28), to reconcile all things in Christ (Colossians 1:20), and to bring acquittal and life to all persons through Christ (Romans 5:18).

But finally, in support of proposition (3), one might also cite such texts as Matthew 25:46: "And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life"; II Thessalonians 1:9: "They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might . . ."; and Ephesians 5:5: "Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." These texts may seem to imply that at least some persons will be lost forever and thus never be reconciled to God.

After a quick review of these texts in my own mind, one point struck me as altogether obvious: Anyone who takes a position with respect to our three propositions--whether the person be a Calvinist, an Arminian, or a universalist--will end up denying a proposition for which there is at least some prima facie biblical support. And in that respect universalism is no different from either Calvinism or Arminianism. So I found myself, at this point, wanting to put several questions to those who would simply dismiss universalism as heretical: If it is not heretical for the Arminians to believe that God, being unlimited in love, at least wills (or sincerely desires) the salvation of all (proposition (1)), why should it be heretical for the universalists to believe this as well?--and if it is not heretical for the Calvinists to believe that God, being almighty, will in the end accomplish all of his redemptive purposes (proposition (2)), why should it be heretical for the universalists to believe this as well? And finally, if it is not heretical to accept proposition (1), as the Arminians do, and not heretical to accept proposition (2), as the Calvinists do, why should it be heretical to accept both (1) and (2)?

Now as a matter of logic, there is a possible answer to this last question. If the biblical warrant for proposition (3), or a doctrine of everlasting separation, were overwhelmingly greater than that for the other two propositions, then one might conclude that only (3) could not reasonably be rejected. But nothing like that seems to be true at all, and here, at least, is how I see the matter. The biblical warrant for proposition (1), that God wills the salvation of all, is simply overwhelming--so overwhelming that those who worry about heresy, as I do not, ought to regard Calvinism, not universalism, as heretical. The biblical warrant for proposition (2), that almighty God will eventually accomplish all of his redemptive purposes, is likewise exceedingly strong, as the Calvinists have always insisted. And proposition (3) is the weakest of the three. For only (3) seems to rest upon controversial *translations* as well as controversial interpretations; and whereas (1) and (2) seem to rest upon systematic teachings in Paul, the texts cited on behalf of (3) are typically lifted from contexts of parable, hyperbole, and great symbolism.

Others will no doubt assess matters differently. But to those who claim, as many do, that everlasting punishment is clearly and unmistakably taught in the New Testament, I would put this question: Which of our other two propositions would you then reject? Would you deny that God wills (or sincerely desires) the salvation of all human beings?--or would you deny that he has the power to accomplish his will in this matter? And finally, why do you believe that the biblical warrant for proposition (3) is stronger than that for propositions (1) and (2)? It is not enough, in other words, merely to cite the standard proof-texts in support of (3). For if (3) is true, then either (1) or (2) is false. To provide a full biblical defense for a doctrine of everlasting punishment, therefore, one must show that the biblical warrant for (3) is stronger than that for (1) or stronger than that for (2)--a daunting task indeed! And I know of no one who has even tried to build any such comparative case as that. So why do so many regard it as heretical to reject a doctrine of everlasting punishment, but not heretical to limit God's love or to limit his power? Which view does more, in the end, to undermine the glory and the majesty of God?

For more scholarly treatments on Biblical Universalism, see:

Scholars Corner


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