Since the beginning of the new millennium, theologically educated Christians have been drawn increasingly not only to “hopeful universalism” but to forms of “assertive universalism,” insisting that God must save all sinners. David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall be Saved (2019), is one of the most militant affirmations of “assertive universalism,” since he charges that all Christian theologians who are not universalists are guilty of “moral imbecility.”
The only thing that all universalists agree on is a final outcome, i.e., the salvation of all human beings—or, of all rational beings, if one includes the fallen angels as well as fallen humans. So that leaves a lot of room for differences. There are many schools of fish swimming in the universalist pond.
A first distinction is between Christian universalism and inter-religious or pluralistic universalism. The Christian universalist believes not only that all are saved finally, but that all are saved through Christ. The inter-religious universalist holds that all are saved, but also that people may be saved apart from any relationship with Christ. That is a major point of difference. My recent book, The Devil’s Redemption, 2 vols. (Baker Academic, 2018), is focused on Christian universalism, and not on inter-religious universalism. That work would have been even longer than it already is if I had attempted to address inter-religious as well as Christian universalism.
Ultra-universalists vs. Restorationists
A dispute among Christian universalists, which led to a de facto schism in the Universalist Church (USA) from the 1810s to the 1840s, was between so-called “ultra-universalists” and “restorationists,” also known as the Restorationist Controversy. The former group held that all persons without exception would enter immediately into heaven at the moment of death, and that no one had to endure any postmortem punishment for sins. The latter group held that many (if not most) persons are not ready for heaven at the time of their death, and so a purgatory-like state of suffering and fiery purification is required prior to entering into the unending joy of heaven.
This controversy, in my view, reveals a deep chasm among universalists that has never been bridged. The “ultras” claimed that the “restorationists” were contradicting or compromising the grace of God. If Christ’s suffering on the cross is a sufficient payment or ransom for all human sins, then why would anyone need to suffer for their own sins after their death? (The “ultras” were redeploying a standard, Reformation-era Protestant argument against the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.) Yet the “restorationists” had some powerful counter-arguments. They argued that if everyone without exception is saved at the moment of death, then this would mean that the thief, murderer, rapist, or kidnapper who is gunned down while committing some horrific crime will go at once to be with God.
This, they argued, would deny any “moral nexus” (i.e., connection) between the present life and the next life, and so would evacuate our earthly decisions of their ethical seriousness. These “restorationist” universalists (or “purgationists” as I call them) were concerned that universalist teaching might have antinomian consequences, i.e., that it would encourage people to continue sinning in the expectation that their sinning would carry no negative consequences. So the “purgationists” proposed that many or most persons will pass through period of postmortem suffering for their own misdeeds, and that the foreknowledge of this suffering ought to serve as a disincentive to sinning. To my mind, the failure of the universalists to resolve this nineteenth-century debate shows the incoherence of universalist theology. On the premise of universal salvation, I’m not sure there is any way to resolve this particular conflict between the universalists.
Divine Sovereignty Universalists vs. Free Will Universalists
Another distinction might be drawn between universalists who assert that all are saved because of God’s sovereign will to save all, and those who affirm that all are saved because human beings all freely choose to embrace God’s love in Christ. You might call the one the “divine sovereignty universalists” and the other the “free will universalists.” Rob Bell in Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) seems to oscillate between the two positions. Sounding sometimes like a divine sovereigntist, he asks: “Does God get what God wants?” In other words, if God “desires” all to be saved, then won’t all be saved?
David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved (Yale, 2019), goes so far as to say that God’s will to save all ultimately overrides any human will to resist God or to reject salvation. The human will, argues Hart, is enclosed or enveloped in God’s purposes in such a way it cannot finally turn away from God. In a review of Hart’s book, I argued that Hart’s viewpoint is hard to square with the observed fact that God’s creatures do sometimes deliberately choose evil. The Gospel of John tells us: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).