Friday, July 9, 2010

The four main proof texts of universalism

This article comes from the universalist site, which one of my commenters recommended. In this article 'Universalism and the Bible' the author Keith DeRose cites the four passages below as good examples of the universalist interpretation of Scripture and representative of the doctrine that everyone will (eventually) be saved. As I've noted before the larger theological issues of the nature of God and sin and the uniqueness and urgency of salvation and even the way we *do theology* will influence our interpretation of these passages.  I think that while these passages might make us say; "hang on what's going on here?" They are not enough to overturn the ancient and morally significant doctrine of eternal punishment.


  • The verses don't always contain enough information to be interpreted by themselves (1 Cor 15:22)
  • The Apostle Paul doesn't contradict himself (1 Col 1:19-20)
  • Paul wants to assure us of either being in sin or being in Christ, different to Atonement (Rom 5:18)
  • Sometimes the verses need to be read in the light of the preceding argument (Rom 11:32)

1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
DeRose argues if the first about Adam is true then it should follow equally with Christ. 

Although the parallels between Adam and Christ are inescapable (e.g. the relationship between the collective and the individual) the consequences of the comparison are radically different. Chapter 15 shows that Adam's action brought defeat and death while Christ's action brought victory and life.  This chapter gives us theological framework for understanding what being made alive in Christ looks like, however it's incomplete, we need to go Luke 24:43 to understand that we'll be physical enough in the new creation to eat fish.  Nor does chapter 15 mention judgement surely an important biblical concept, so we have reconstruct how the cosmos will end using chapter 15 as just one of our building blocks. Quite possibly the Lordship of Christ will mean even the wicked will be given resurrected bodies of some sort, but just as we need to bring Luke 24:43 into the equation to make sense of the new-creation we'd also have to bring other passages into the equation to understand how exactly in what sense everyone will be made alive in Christ.

Colossians 1:19-20 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
De Rose emphasizes that if all things including people are reconciled then it must mean everyone will be saved.

In the next chapter Paul describes how God will have "disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ]." (2:15) Because God isn't schizophrenic, the universalist argument has to build up a complex picture of a second-chance purgatory to make these two passages fit together by making 1:19-20 come after 2:15. An alternative explanation that makes better sense of both passages together is that the Lordship of Jesus (which also makes sense of the fullness of God phrase) brings universal peace/Shalom that subdues all opposition.

Romans 5:18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
DeRose says that the "all men" in this verse is very persuasive, everyone will be acquitted and have life.

Chapter 5 of Romans is about Salvation, with verses 1-11 focusing on the benefits (peace with God 5:1) and verses 12-21 focussing on why we needed salvation in the first place (sin entered the world 5:12).  In this verse it shows an exact correspondence between the actions of both, although admittedly the quality (condemnation verses justification) of outcomes is very different!  Does this mean everyone will be justified?  No, because of these two reasons: firstly that Paul doesn't mention the Atonement which was clearly on his mind earlier in the chapter (5:6-8), as something that has any parallel with Adam's action. Secondly Paul is forcefully arguing for assurance, assurance that you're a sinner or assurance that if you are justified you will live.  Under what circumstances you're justified isn't specified in this particular verse. Universalism also ignores overall idea of verses 12-21 which compares the 'collective' similarity of Adam and Christ but then distinguishes the 'individual' consequences.

Romans 11:32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
DeRose argues that the all in this verse means "all without exception."

The all refers to all the different groups Paul has referred to in the preceding passages.  Another thing to keep in mind is that the two big concepts of chapters 9 to 11 have been God's sovereignty and Israel's election.  There is a lengthy progression to Paul's argument from the way God decides who he will save and who he won't in chapter 9 to the question of how Israel will be saved, which culminates in this passage.  It disrespectful to the cumulative way Paul builds his argument to assume everything needed for this verse's translation is contained in this verse.  A more respectful reading is that God has imprisoned in disobedience first the gentiles and now the Jews so that he might bestow mercy on each of these groups of humanity, how that will occur is not explicitly spelled out in this particular passage (Moo, Romans, 737).