Universalists Have a Point image

Universalists Have a Point

Most heresies have a strong point. That's how they convince people that they're not heresies. Marcionism came about because there is, to be fair, a significant difference in redemptive history between the Old and New Testaments. Arianism existed, and still does, because the Father begets, or generates, the Son. Adoptionism popped up because Jesus is said to learn things, to inherit things, and to be perfected through suffering, among other things. These ideas are still heretical, but you can see where they come from.

It’s the same with universalism (the idea that all, eventually, will be saved). If I was a universalist, which I’m not, then my main line of argument - my good point, if you like - would concern the exegetical inconsistency of the way most evangelicals approach the word “all”. The general rule amongst Reformed interpreters is: if the Bible uses the word “all” about something bad, then it means “every person”, but if it uses the word “all” about something good, then it means “only some people”. Here are a few examples.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...” (Rom 3:23). This is bad, so “all” means “everybody”.
“... and are justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom 3:24). This is good, so the “all” from earlier in the sentence now means “only some people”.
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned ...” (Rom 5:12). This is bad, so “all” means “everybody”.
“One act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5:18). This is good, so “all” means “only some people”.
“God has consigned all over to disobedience, so he can have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). The first “all” is bad, so means “everybody”; the second one is good, so means “only some people”.
“As in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Again, the first “all” is bad, so means “everybody”; the second one is good, so means “only some people”.
You get the idea. So: universalists have a point.
But it would probably be unhelpful for me to stop there, because before you know it, blog posts could be appearing entitled, “Andrew Wilson: universalist?”, and people could be tweeting, “Farewell, Andrew Wilson.” And it’s a slightly irritating blogger who does nothing but ask questions about orthodoxy, and then gives no idea of how they might be answered. So here’s an (all too brief) explanation of how I understand passages like this.
A phrase that is often used by commentators, when trying to explain what Paul means when he says “all” in various places, is “all without distinction, not all without exception.” I like that. Individualistic westerners are prone to read a word like “all” as meaning “every individual”, because that’s the way we tend to use it. But there are strong clues in the New Testament that Paul, and other biblical writers, would not necessarily have used the word like that. When Luke says that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10), he doesn’t mean that every individual in Turkey heard the gospel in two years; he means, rather, “the whole of Asia”, considered corporately, in the sense of “the word of the Lord was heard all over Asia.” Most commentators have argued that “all Israel will be saved” does not refer to every individual in Romans 11:26 (although for a different view, see Andy Johnston’s argument here). The same is true in the Old Testament, actually - nobody thinks that “all Israel came to Shechem to make Rehoboam king” (1 Kings 12:1) is talking about every individual Israelite. It means, “people from all over Israel”, or “all types of Israelite”. In other words, “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception”.
The thing is, if this insight is correct of a passage like Romans 3 or 5 - and exegetically, I think it is, since Paul so clearly believes that some, tragically, will not be saved - then it may need to be applied to all the “all"s. In context, the oft-quoted “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:23-24) actually means “both Jews and Gentiles have sinned, and both Jews and Gentiles are justified freely by his grace as a gift” (compare 3:9, 20-22, 29-30), rather than being a prooftext for total depravity. Now, just to be clear: I think Romans 1-3 clearly teaches that every individual has sinned (arguably, that’s the whole point). But I don’t think that’s the particular meaning of 3:23, even though it’s frequently quoted that way. The same is true of Romans 11:32, which comes at the end of three chapters on the salvation-historical relationship between Jews and Gentiles. It’s probably true of the famous statement that God wants all to be saved in 1 Timothy 2:1-7, which aims to correct an exclusivist Jewish soteriology; Paul is talking about all without distinction (although again, the idea that he wants all without exception to be saved is clear from other texts, such as 2 Peter 3:9). And so on.
My point is, you can’t have your cake and eat it on the meaning of “all” in the New Testament. It’s no good using it as a prooftext for universal sinfulness one minute, and then howling when universalists apply the same exegetical method a few verses later. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
And with that beautiful fusion of metaphors in mind, have a go at expounding 1 Corinthians 15:22: “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Anyone?

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