Most Christians believe that some people will be etenally lost. But not all Christians agree with this. Some are supporters of the view that no people will be lost. Among them is one of my friends, the articulate theologian Robin Parry. A few years ago Robin wrote a great book called The Evangelical Universalist. He wrote it under a pseudonym (Gregory MacDonald) because of the heat that can be generated in some circles by associating yourself with universalism. I didn’t know he wrote it (we live on different continents) but I knew the book. So then we were out for a coffee at a conference in San Diego when I mentioned that I had assigned this book to a student doing a directed study. After seeing the twinkle in his eye I quickly surmised that he was the author.
And so it goes. Careful Christian scholars are still often forced to distance themselves from their universalist convictions, even though they have substantive biblical, theological and philosophical grounds to hold those convictions. In case you’re wondering, I’m not referring covertly to myself here. I do not affirm the proposition “All people will be saved”. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the case to be made for that proposition. It definitely is a strong one.
At this point I should probably define what I mean by universalism because one of the problems is pervasive misunderstanding. I identify three basic types:
(1) Pluralist universalism: denies the uniqueness of any Christian claims. All people are (or will be) in relationship with the one absolute and various religions are vehicles for this salvific relationship.
(2) God is a teddybear universalism: Historic Christian doctrine is correct in many key respects, but certain doctrines such as the wrath of God and hell need to be rejected. When we die the loving God will resurrect all of us into paradise because that is what a loving metaphysically absolute teddybear would do.
(3) Orthodox universalism: Affirms major historic orthodox doctrines but argues that hell, while real, is reformative rather than solely retributive and that eventually hell will be emptied.
I am not interested in defending (1) or (2): (1) simply constitutes a rejection of Christianity while (2) is, to my mind, a clear distortion of it. When I argue that there is a case to be made for universalism, the kind defended by Robin Parry, it is for (3). The first step to a careful appraisal of universalism is a clear definition of what it is we’re aiming to appraise.