Evangelical universalism:a postscript

by Kim on October 30, 2009

On the subject of “evangelical universalism”, I would highly recommend George Hunsinger’s excellent essay “Hellfire and Damnation: Four Ancient and Modern Views” (in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], pp.226-249).

After reviewing the traditional belief in eternal punishment (represented by Augustine), the “minority report” of universal salvation (represented by Origen), the modern modification of the traditional view known as annihilationism (e.g. F. F. Bruce and John Stott), and what he calls “reverent agnosticism” (especially Karl Barth, for whom universal salvation cannot be deduced, but neither can it be excluded, and for which we may and must pray, hope, and trust), Hunsinger concludes in “The Locus of Mystery”:

“The strong view of hell as represented by Augustine would seem to be admirable at least for its unflinching consistency and for its steadfast appeal to the primacy and sovereignty of divine grace. If there is ever to be any larger hope within the bounds of traditional belief beyond the state of the question as Augustine left it, then that hope would seem necessarily to rest not on an appeal to unfettered human freedom (as in the weaker post-Augustinian apologies), but rather on an appeal to sovereign grace. For it is indeed ‘grace alone,’ as Augustine argued, ‘that separates the redeemed from the lost’ (Enchiridion 99), and if, as he also urged, God can actually ‘change the evil wills of human beings, whichever, whenever, and wheresoever he chooses, and direct them to what is good’ (Enchiridion 98), then the church may finally have grounds for a larger hope than Augustine found it possible to affirm.

“The New Testament texts as Augustine read them would have to be reconfigured into a very different hermeneutical whole. Although the whole may have been glimpsed by Origen, the hermeneutical tradition that he spawned has too often been encumbered by rationalizing and otherwise extraneous considerations. At its best, however, that tradition has focused concretely on the cross of Christ as the demonstration of God’s love for the entire world. On that basis it has refused not only to separate God’s justice so drastically from God’s mercy, or indeed to leave the two standing in apparent, severe, and inscrutable contradiction. It has also refused to allow the important universalist passages in the New Testament to be so thoroughly marginalized by those that depict the ultimate consequences of the divine wrath. If the mark of a good theology is that it knows how to honor the necessary mysteries, then there may be higher and reconfigured mysteries that the Augustinian tradition knows not of” (p. 249).

One last point - especially for Arminians to consider: observe that an appeal to human “freedom” offers no resolution to the difficulties sympathisers with universalism have with hell. First, because human freedom hardly relieves God of the ultimate responsibility for eternally punishing humans beings who have made wicked choices. And second - bracketing the fact that, ab initio, it makes the fundamental category mistake of taking divine and human freedom to be a zero-sum game - because the notion of human freedom assumed here is far too thin to bear the theological burden laid upon it. For (a), at least in Pauline terms, the “freedom” to go on sinning constitutes a flagrant violation of the Trade Description Act; and, further, (b), as Marilyn McCord Adams insists, discussing “horrendous evils”, “Any god who turns us … over to the eternal natural consequences of our action pays us an inappropriate respect”, and indeed “would not thereby honor but violate our agency by crushing it with responsibility for individual and corporate ruin.”

In short, a theolgically dense defence of “universal salvation” will resist investing in human freedom and put all its capital in the cunning omnipotence of divine grace, funded by a HIGH Christology and accordingly recalibrated doctrines of election and the atonement.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }


Rick Lannoye 11.02.09 at 9:31 pm

“…human freedom hardly relieves God of the ultimate responsibility for eternally punishing humans beings who have made wicked choices”? Seriously?

I’m sorry, but even if, for the sake of argument, we go along with the highly questionable of popular “justice,” i.e., that making people hurt in kind for the hurts they’ve caused others, does anything good, you presumption is way off!

Even the very worst person who ever lived, who committed the worst crimes ever, to the greatest degree and in the largest number, did only a finite number of them! Were God to exact upon him the precise amount of hurt his “wicked choices” caused, there would come a day when his punishment would come to an end! As such, your argument is supportive of a Purgatory, but not Hell.

I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–”Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell,” (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: http://www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it–that Jesus taught against punishment of any sort, and advocated for repentance, forgiveness and mercy instead.

If you’ll re-read the words of Jesus in the gospels, and look for where HE said his purpose for coming was to die as a blood sacrifice to PAY for our sins, guess what? YOU WON’T FIND IT. In fact, the one place where he does talk about sacrifice is where he says God doesn’t want it! He quotes Hosea, saying that God desire MERCY instead.

Look in the book of Acts, at all those first Christian sermons. One would think that would be a real good time to explain what was Jesus’ main reason for coming, right? But in none of those sermons, do any of the apostles say Jesus was a blood sacrifice to pay for our sins!

No, all these stuff about blood sacrifice was superimposed later on. Jesus actually said that God just forgives when we own up to our sins and repent. That’s it!

If not, then Jesus/God asks us to do something he, himself, cannot do, to forgive others without demanding any sort of payment or to suffer some painful punishment.


Kim 11.02.09 at 10:43 pm

Er, that’s kind of the point, Rick: if there is a hell, God’s got to carry the can for it; it’s no good saying, “It’s all you bad guys’ fault that you’re roasting forever.” I don’t find that acceptable. Which is one reason why I’m a Barthian sort of universalist.


Mark Knight 11.03.09 at 7:50 am

Dear Kim,

Thinks for this. I recommend you take a look at Tom Greggs’ fantastic recent book on this: ‘Origen, Barth and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity’. A very thoughtful exposition of evangelical universalism.


Evan 11.03.09 at 12:49 pm

Kim, I wonder if you’ve read Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? — this is the work that I keep coming back to, and one that I recommend to people who are struggling with the concepts of Hell and judgment. My sense is that it has a familial resemblance to Barth’s agnosticism. I think that Balthasar’s examination of scripture, as well as his distinction between existential and doctrinal aspects of the Christian duty to hope, is helpful.


Perry Robinson 11.11.09 at 1:01 am

I am unsure why Augustine gets to represent the”traditional view.” One can understand practically all of Eastern theology without Augustine. Basil seems like a better candidate.

I’d also offer that Origen and Augustine are two ends of the same spectrum. For Augustine, to the degree that you give to grace, you have to take away form nature. The same is essentially true for Origen since in order to stave off a destruction of nature, he has to posit recurring falls since sin is an absolute difference between creatures and God.

Hunsinger is wrong though. Freewill may not relieve God of responsibility for punishing people, but not all accounts of eternal suffering entail a retributive theory of justice and punishment. Kvanvig’s Issuant account doesn’t and neither does Basil’s.

Second, Adam’s view may skewer the Augustinian view, but again, that isn’t the only “traditional” view of hell on the market. If people solidify their own character such that God cannot alter their decisions without violating his own will in the imago dei. There is no “handing over” but rather just the nature of being an agent.


Rodger Tutt 06.17.10 at 3:28 am

Calvinism, Arminianism, or Christian Biblical Universalism

Which view of salvation is true?

Two good expositions specifically answering this question!




Shirleyann Campbell 12.04.10 at 12:23 am

I am very interested in Universalism but there are a few verses that I would like you to explain. Math 25:41-46 (and this is Jesus Himself speaking) Rev 14:11 Rev 20:15 Math 10:28, 118:8-9, 2Thes 1:8-10
If you can explain these verses you may have convert

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