Skip to content

GOTT-November 21, 2006

Gregory MacDonald, “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?”

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym), author of The Evangelical Universalist, sent me a paper he wrote, “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?”, and gave me his permission to post the paper here at GOTT.  MacDonald defends a positive answer to his title’s question.  This paper can serve as a defense of universalism from objections that evangelicals are likely to raise that is much shorter than MacDonald’s book.  And, of course, for those who get very interested and want to read more, the paper can serve as an advertisement for the book.  I’ve put the paper “below the fold,” so just click on “Continue reading….” immediately below.

Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?

Gregory MacDonald

“Can an evangelical be a universalist?” In other words, could someone be an evangelical and also believe that one day all people will be saved? If I asked that question of almost any evangelical I know the answer would be a clear and unequivocal, “No!” It would be akin to asking whether a vegetarian could eat pork. Indeed, even those evangelicals who seem to fly close to the wind at times on this issue always seem very keen to make clear that they are “not endorsing universalism.” To admit to being a universalist is the theological equivalent of signing one’s death warrant. It is like putting one’s hand up and saying, “Hi. Guess what – I am a misguided person who has abandoned the faith and embraced heresy. Would you like to be my friend?” So it is with some fear and trepidation that I choose to turn my little fishy nose against the stream and head off in the opposite direction from the majority of my fellow evangeli-fish. I will suggest that the answer to my opening question is actually, “Yes! It is possible to be an evangelical universalist.” Oh, “and would you like to be my friend?”

I must start by emphasising that it is not just a coincidence that few evangelicals have historically embraced universalism. The fact of the matter is that traditionally evangelicals have had strong and sensible reasons for rejecting the belief. If I am going to persuade you that one can be an evangelical and a universalist we will need to consider those reasons and see if they do the trick of blasting universal salvation out of the water. So why have evangelicals found universalism so objectionable? There are several reasons amongst which we find the following:

Objection 1: it is sometimes felt that universalism undermines the seriousness of sin. Universalism suggests, so many evangelicals think, that we do not deserve hell. It suggests that sin is not serious and that God’s “job” is to forgive everyone. Perhaps it even suggests that we all deserve to be saved. The evangelical knows that this liberal anthropology is self-deceptive garbage.

Objection 2: Universalism, it is often said, rests on a woolly and unbiblical understanding of God’s love (God is too kind to hurt a fly) at the expense of God’s justice and wrath.

Objection 3: it is often thought to undermine the necessity of Christ and the cross for salvation. The universalist, it is said, thinks that God will save us through whatever route of salvation we choose, whether it be Christ or some other track. It is believed that for the universalist all ways lead to God as surely as all roads lead to Rome. But the evangelical knows that this pluralist view undermines the glorious uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the gospel.

Objection 4: universal salvation is often thought to undermine the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Even if the Christian universalist insists that all those who are saved are saved through Christ and his cross presumably the universalists are the ultimate inclusivists.[1] They believe that God will save everyone through Christ whether they have heard of Christ or not and, if they have heard of Christ, whether they accepted him or rejected him. Yet, the evangelical knows that the gift of salvation comes to all who trust in Christ but not to those who spurn him.

Objection 5: a belief in universal salvation is usually felt to undermine evangelism and mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved whatever they do, then what motivation do we have to proclaim the gospel to them? Who is going to risk their health, their safety, their families or their lives to reach the lost if the lost will be saved whether we preach to them or not? Evangelism is at the heart of evangelicalism and to undermine it is to rip the heart from our faith.

Objection 6: the claim that all will be saved undermines Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that there is a hell and that it will not be empty. To accept universalism is therefore to fly in the face of the clear teaching of God’s word – something the evangelical knows is folly.

Objection 7: Universal salvation is sometimes said not to be fair. Why do we put all this effort into living the Christian life when God will save us all, including all those evil people who enjoy a life of sin? It is not fair! We may as well have fun sinning now and then let God save us.

Objection 8: universalism is sometimes thought to undermine the Trinity. After all, are not most universalists Unitarians? The historic link between “modern” forms of universalism and this heresy does not bode well.

In the face of such serious considerations it is hardly surprising that evangelicals have steered clear of the belief that all people will be saved. However, in considering whether an evangelical can believe in universal salvation it is important to realise that universalism is actually a broad family of views and not a single belief. The criticisms above do apply to some forms of universalism but not necessarily to others. There is one version of universalism that I think has good claims to being compatible with evangelicalism so rather than explaining all the different versions of universalism on the market, many of which are highly questionable from an evangelical perspective, I wish to explain just this one (which I will refer to as “evangelical” universalism with the “” marks to leave it an open question for now just how evangelical it really is). We can then ask how the standard evangelical anti-universalist objections stand up against it. It is important, before we do so, to be very clear about what I am, and am not, arguing in this brief article. I am not arguing that evangelicals ought to be “evangelical” universalists nor am I arguing that “evangelical” universalism is true. I am simply arguing that if someone holds to this form of universalism they do not automatically put themselves outsides the bounds of what can legitimately be called evangelical. So please do not complain after reading this that I did not produce any convincing arguments in defence of universalism – you’ll have to read my book (The Evangelical Universalist, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006) for my attempt to do that.

So what does the “evangelical” universalists believe? Much the same as any other evangelical. They believe that God is triune and created the world ex nihilo; they believe that humans are created in this God’s image; they believe that human rebellion separates us from God and deserves punishment; they accept the final authority of the Scriptures for matters of Christian faith; they believe that the Father sent his one and only Son as a human being (who did not cease to be divine) to live as our representative, to reveal the Father and to atone for our sins through his death on the cross; they believe that through his resurrection eternal life is available to those who trust in Christ; they believe in salvation by grace (not merit), through faith in Christ (not works); they believe in the return of Christ and the coming day of judgment; they even believe in hell! Like any evangelicals they may disagree on issues – they may be Arminians or they may be Calvinists; they may be inclusivists or they may be exclusivists;[2] they may accept penal substitution theories of atonement or they may not; they may accept retributive theories of punishment or they may not; they may accept the inerrancy of Scripture or they may not. However, on all the core evangelical doctrines (which are really just historical, orthodox Christian doctrines with some Protestant emphases) they will agree. At this point you may well be confused – exactly how are these “evangelical” universalists supposed to differ from the mainstream? In two respects

(a)   they believe that death is not a point of no return. In other words, it is possible for those in hell to cast themselves upon
God’s mercy (made available through Christ) and be saved.

(b)   They believe that in the end everyone will do this and there will be no people left in hell.

Now not all Christian universalists accept this version of universalism but it is what I am proposing constitutes an “evangelical” version of universalism. Suppose someone hold to this belief – how will they react to the standard objections against universal salvation?

Objection 1: “evangelical” universalists have a very strong view of the seriousness of sin and they believe that hell is merited. They do not think that anyone deserves to be saved so this criticism simply misses the mark. Indeed, I would say that it is not because they have a low view of sin that they are universalists but because they have a high view of grace. In the words of Paul, “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.”

Objection 2: “Evangelical” universalists arguably have a very biblical and robust notion of divine love (or so I argue in my book). They do not need to imagine that God is a soft touch who would not dream of punishing anyone. Their understanding of divine love seeks to be shaped by its revelation in Christ. And they have a strong view of divine justice. Indeed, they think that every divine action is a manifestation of what P.T. Forsythe called, “holy love.” It is not that some divine acts are loving (like saving people) whilst others are just (like sending people to hell). Rather all God’s deeds are loving and just. Whatever hell is we must not suppose that it is the action of justice as opposed to love. It is, they think, an act of severe mercy – of “holy love.”

Objection 3: obviously “evangelical” universalism insists on the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of the cross-resurrection for salvation so this objection slides away.

Objection 4: clearly “evangelical” universalism, at least in its exclusivist versions, insists on the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation (and in its inclusivist versions has no more problems than any other version of evangelical inclusivism). Hence this objection falls away.

Objection 5: “evangelical” universalists are committed to evangelism and mission more broadly construed. They desire that people enter into salvation through faith in Christ. In its Arminian version “evangelical” universalists also believe that without mission there are many who will go to hell who would not have done so otherwise thus preaching to stop people going to hell is still a motivation for evangelism. They also believe that there are many biblical motivations for mission and evangelism apart from the belief (a belief that they think mistaken) that those who die as unbelievers are damned to hell forever without hope of redemption. So whilst this objection has some teeth they are not sharp ones.

Objection 6: This really is the objection that most evangelicals think sinks universalism without a trace with so called “evangelical” universalism included. There is no way that I can possibly address all the complex issues here. For that I must refer you to my book in which I argue at length that there is a strong biblical case for universal salvation, perhaps stronger than most evangelicals have ever realised. In this context my point is merely that the “evangelical” universalist thinks that she has sought to do justice to the whole of Scripture and thinks that the Bible is compatible with her universalism. As those who seek to be true to evangelical traditions what more can we do? Obviously there are many discussions to be had on this topic and I can see the hands in the class raised even as I type. My question is simply that if we have a fellow evangelical believer who thinks in all honesty that Scripture is consistent with his universalism then, if that universalism is not a threat to any creedal beliefs or central gospel affirmations, can we exclude him from the fold? Can he not be treated simply as an evangelical who we think is mistaken about the possibility of redemption from hell? Can he not be treated with the same tolerance Arminians and Calvinists have for each other? This need not mean that we avoid arguing about the topic but simply that we see it as an argument taking place within evangelicalism.

Objection 7: Whilst I have heard some evangelicals make this “it’s not fair” objection it does seem to be a betrayal of the evangelical conviction in the gospel of grace. There is much one can say in response but it seems so clearly off the mark I shall not waste ink on it.

Objection 8: Clearly, “evangelical” universalism does not deny the Trinity. Indeed, “evangelical” universalists regard Unitarianism as a fundamental betrayal of the gospel and the biblical revelation of God.

So I ask, “Could ‘evangelical’ universalism possibly amount to a genuine evangelical universalism? Could it possibly be allowed as a legitimate evangelical option?” If not, on what basis is this denial made?

There are positive reasons for including this version of universalism within the fold even if as the black sheep of the family who needs careful watching.

First, it is based on gospel instincts and evangelicals are gospel people. The Father sent the Son to save all people (something many, though not all, evangelicals believe). The Son represented all humanity before God, and died for everyone. In Christ-our-representative all humanity dies and is resurrected to new life. Universal salvation is, in one sense, an accomplished fact in Christ. Of course, one needs to respond by the Spirit’s power to the gospel to participate in what God has already accomplished in Christ, but the fact remains that there are good biblical reasons to see the logic of the gospel (the evangel) as one with a universal reach. This form of universalism is gospel affirming and mission affirming and thus has some claim to belonging in the evangelical fold.

Second, it has biblical foundations. In my book I argue that it is not merely certain proofs texts that can be used to support universalism (e.g., Romans 5:18-21; Colossians 1:18-20; Philippians 2:9-11) but the logic of the entire biblical metanarrative from creation to new creation. Obviously that is a case that will need to be argued out elsewhere – especially in the interpretation of the hell passages (see my book) – but the form of universalism we are considering here has aspirations, at very least, to be thoroughly biblical. This instinct to seek to listen to the whole canonical witness is deeply evangelical and constitutes another reason to see the small number of “evangelical” universalists as players on the same team.

In conclusion, whilst I do not imagine that I will have persuaded anyone of the truth of “evangelical” universalism, indeed I have not sought to do so, I do hope that at very least the answer to my original question is not so obviously, “No!” and may even be, “Maybe” or just possibly even, “Yes!”

[1] Inclusivists think that it is possible to be saved through Christ without having explicit faith in Christ. Inclusivists are not usually universalists.

[2] Exclusivists believe that one can only be saved through Christ if one has explicit faith in Christ.

Posted by Keith DeRose in Articles/Essays | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Gregory MacDonald, “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?”:


Keith, I’ve always considered you an evangelical. But I do think an evangelical universalist has to say certain things that most universalists do not say, and I’m not sure all who might want to call themselves evangelical universalists will say those things.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | November 21, 2006 at 11:55 PM

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.”

“the whole world has gone after him” Did all the world go after Christ? “then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan.” Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem, baptized in Jordan? “Ye are of God, little children”, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one”. Does the whole world there mean everybody? The words “world” and “all” are used in some seven or eight senses in Scripture, and it is very rarely the “all” means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts — some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted His redemption to either Jew or Gentile …
C.H. Spurgeon from a sermon on Particular Redemption”

What about Revelation 20:15?
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Posted by: Jeremy Miller | November 22, 2006 at 08:56 PM

For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.

Jeremy M.: Do you interpret this as meaning just that some of all sorts — some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor — have sinned, and sin is not restricted to either Jew or Gentile? Note that this occurs in a context where Paul has just been contrastinng Jews with Gentiles, so if this “some from every group” reading of “all” ever makes sense, it would seem to apply here.

For my part, I’ve seen no reason at all to think phrases like “all Fs” and “all the Fs” can ever mean something like “some Fs from each of the groups of Fs”. But on this, see the section on “all” of my “Universalism and the Bible.”

(I’m having a tough time deciphering your use of quotation marks, so I can’t tell for sure what exactly is a quotation from Spurgeon, but I assume you’re endorsing what you quote, anyway, so I’ll just write as if it’s all yours.)

You cite only one example containing “all”. What you write is very interesting; you write:

“then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan.” Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem, baptized in Jordan?

Well, how do you answer your own question? I first assumed you would answer “no.” But then it occurred to me that since you apparently think “all” can mean “some,” you should answer “yes”: “Yes, all of Judea was baptized, in the ‘some’ sense of ‘all’.” Interestingly, your quotation-followed-by-question has this form:

‘p.’ p?

To which the answer would seem to have to be: Yes, if the assertion quoted is true. If you’re suggesting that the answer to your question is “no,” that would seem to imply that the quoted assertion isn’t true.

And perhaps the way to understand the likes of this use of “all Judea” in a gospel narratives is as a piece of hyperbole. But it would be a bold suggestion that Paul is engaging in hyperbole in his straight teaching of doctrine in Romans 5:18. (And if one is willing to allow that move there, then why not just write off apparent teachings of eternal torment as examples of hyperbole?)

Posted by: Keith | November 23, 2006 at 03:55 PM

Rev. 20:15 is not incompatible with universalist thought. Universalists do believe in the existence of hell and some form of punishment/correction/purgation in the afterlife. Is that verse the final comment or is the last vision of a New Jerusalem, where the gates are always open, where the leaves are for the healing of the nations, where the kings of the earth enter bringing their splendour the last word?

Posted by: Caroline | November 29, 2006 at 12:10 AM

Caroline, it may be the case rather that there will be correction/purgation, but in the end, Hell will be evacuated, having accomplished its goal of purgation. See von Balthasar’s Shall We Dare Hope, a good treatment on a Catholic take on this question.

Posted by: myles | November 29, 2006 at 08:16 AM

# Revelation 17:8
The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been *written in the book of life from the creation of the world* will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.

Apparently the names in the book of life were written “from the creation of the world”, either by predestination or God’s foreknowledge?

Posted by: Robert | December 02, 2006 at 12:02 PM


I think your response to Jeremy M. is a bit misleading or fails to address his argument. Specifically, the point of the citation regarding baptism is misrepresented as you characterize it. The point seems to be the equivocal character of the word ‘all.’ Even in English, on one use, ‘all’ does not mean strictly ‘every single one’–or even ‘every single one in the relevant domain.’ Instead it expresses something like ‘a great many’ or ‘many sorts’ and so on. So, the newspaper headline: “All of Boston celebrates as Sox win series!” Or: “All eyes turn to Florida’s ballots.” Or: “There are students from all over the world in my philosophy of language class this semsester.”

This is surely different from ‘all”s meaning when we say “all bachelors are male.” And these are only “improper” uses of ‘all’ in certain contexts. The relevant section of your essay doesn’t do justice to this in my judgment. You introduce the “all the beer is warm” example to illustrate a case where ‘all’ doesn’t mean ‘every single one in the universe’ and then go on to explain that taken in context the claim is actually “all the beer in the room is warm” and thus that, relative to the context of the room, ‘all’ when properly used must indeed mean ‘every single one.’ But I don’t think this is the case. My examples above are meant to illustrate this–even granting the particular context (Boston, the US in the Bush-Gore election, etc.) it’s not the case that ‘all’ refers to every person in the relevant context/domain. And who would call those sentences ‘lies’? Indeed, provided a sufficient number of people really are correctly described we won’t even say that the claim is hyperbolic or an exageration.

So, if my wife asks me about the beer for the party and I respond “Oh no, it’s all warm!” It won’t be the case that I’ve used ‘all’ improperly even if, say, a couple of the two dozen beers did get put in the refigerator and I know it. On what understanding of language would it be the case that this was an improper use of ‘all,’ or a lie, or an exageration? Well, probably in certain contexts like the one you initially cite in your essay, but note the highly structured character of your example: a criminal investigation–a context in which precision is exactly what’s at issue. Further, only if your wife is conducting an investigation or playing the role of logician and takes you to be doing the same or something else along those line will it be a lie or falsehood to respond ‘all the beer is warm’ when actually only 90% of it is and you know it. In countless context ‘all’ is perfectly correctly used to mean something other than “every single one of the relevant set.” It would be a flat reading of Scripture that assumed ‘all’ to be univocal in a way it just isn’t in everyday use.

Thus, the question that the baptism citation expresses is rhetorical. It seeks to demonstrate the equivocal character of the word ‘all’ by playing off two different senses of the word. The point is to get us to see that ‘all’ doesn’t always mean ‘every single one of the relevant group,’ and Spurgeon trades on the two uses to make the claim: “It would be silly to think that ‘all’ always meant ‘every single one.'”

Further, your citation of Romans doesn’t hurt Jeremy’s case (if that’s what it is) at all. I see no reason to think that, as you say, “if this “some from every group” reading of “all” ever makes sense, it would seem to apply here.” I don’t think the context leads to that conclusion at all (strict sense!). To understand each use of ‘all’ in the NT or even in any given NT book in one predetermined way seems like a very bad idea–a bad and easily avoidable kind of eisegesis. Certainly this doesn’t settle the universalism debate even on the narrow question of verses that use ‘all,’ but what it does do is suggest that any principled evaluation of such verses will have to proceed on a case by case basis where the meaning of ‘all’ is determined by the immediate context, the book as a whole, and Scripture as a whole.

Posted by: David | December 02, 2006 at 04:37 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, David.

How do you understand the alls of the likes of “All eyes turned to Florida”? There, it doesn’t seem to mean anything so weak as “some” or “some from every group”. As I wrote, it seems to me that the best understanding might be to take these as cases of hyperbole. But you seem to reject that. But then how do you understand such uses of “all”?

Likewise for telling one’s spouse that “the beer is all warm” when a few of the relevant bottles are cold. The statement seems to me to be false — but pretty harmlessly so. What does the “all” mean there, such that the statement is true? “Some” and “most” seem too weak; “some from each kind” is irrelevant: the best I can come up with is “almost all.” But then, it seems best to say this is a case of exaggeration. (Here I’m assuming that the speaker knows that there are a couple of cold bottles. If the speaker doesn’t know that, then it might not be best understood as a case of harmless *exaggeration*, but as a case of a false statement that’s close enough to being true for the relevant purposes that it may be heavy-handed to correct the speaker in certain ways.)

On what understanding of language would it be the case that this was an improper use of ‘all,’ or a lie, or an exageration? Well, probably in certain contexts like the one you initially cite in your essay

What seems to be the relevant feature of my example (of the slippery political figure) is that it’s a context in which speaking the straight truth is important. It doesn’t have to be anything so formal as a criminal investigation. If someone asks how the students in my class did, and I say, “They all passed,” this means that each & every one of them passed. If it turns out a few failed, I spoke falsely — & if I knew a few failed, then I lied. I take the assertions of important doctrines in the epistles to also be contexts in which telling the straight truth is important — unless there is some clear indication that hyperbole is being used. Given how I’m inclined to understand the likes of “All eyes turned to Florida,” my inclination is to think that just about any context is one where using “all” where it’s not the case that “each & every” will be a false use or an exaggeration — but that in many cases, it is a harmless exaggeration. But, again, I don’t know yet how you understand the “all”s of your own examples.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 02, 2006 at 06:02 PM


Thanks for your response. Perhaps Kevin and Steve who have done more in philosophy of language than I have will be able to shed some light on this whole question, but I’ll take a rough, quick stab.

With regard to questions of the meaning of words and sentences we have to strike a balance between the public character of language (in this case with respect to its fixedness) and the intentions and context of the language user(s). There are limits on how we can intelligibly use a given word and understanding meaning will require attention both to those limits and to the context in which the word or sentence is used. Further, a given word can admit of a broader or narrower range of approriate circumstances of application. The word ‘wicked’ admits of a range of approriate circumstances of application that includes both the injustice/opposite-of-‘righteous’ sense as well as the skateboarder sense. When Tony Hawk calls my trick “wicked” he means something different than King means when he uses the same word to describe racism. Neither one is doing anything improper: in contemporary spoken American English the word admits of both meanings. Obviously, the Hawk use of ‘wicked’ is novel and derivative, but it’s simply the case that in certain contexts the word can now mean something it couldn’t before and something quite different than its “primary” meaning.

With respect to ‘all,’ I don’t think exactly the same thing is going on (at least not in terms of the genealogy), but it seems clear to me that the correct circumstances of application for the word ‘all’ include all the particular cases we’ve mentioned above. The correct circumstances of application are broader than those in which the word is simply functioning as a synonym for ‘every single one.’ We know this because in all sorts of cases we use and interpret the word in this way and do so with ease. (Maybe that wasn’t always the case or maybe it wasn’t with ‘panta’ or whatever in koine, but that’s a different question–thought the judea baptism quotation seems relevant on this…) Of course in certain contexts the correct circumstances of application will be more narrowly delimited, but saying that is not the same as those contexts being ones in which “the straight truth” is at stake. Truth is not dishonored or obscured or violated in any of my examples.

To take the Florida case one can imagine contexts when the sentence actually would be an outright lie or exaggeration: with respect to the discourse (i.e. in a list of “The Precisely Correct Number of Eyes Turned to States During Various US Elections” and so on) or with respect to the facts (i.e. only Bob cares about the election…). Yet, provided the right context (1. discourse and 2. at least a certain indeterminate percentage really are turning there eyes to Florida) we don’t think the sentence is either a lie or an exaggeration. We would though if we found out only a small percentage were turning their eyes to Florida or read it in the aforementioned book. However, when we hear it on the news or in a variety of other contexts, provided a sufficient number are so interested in FL, we don’t think “That’s quite an exaggeration” or “What hyperbole!” or “Well, that’s not really true” or “Wow! Every single person is turning their eyes!” Instead, in the context, we know immediately what the sentence means and if we’re a competent user of the language we don’t give it a second thought. The person most likely to respond to the Florida claim in the wrong way is someone who either is not a competent user (a non-native speaker) or someone who has failed to understand the context. I have no idea in advance at what point the ‘less than every single one’ use does becomes a lie or an exaggeration but it seems clear to me that at some point it does–and in concrete instances I’m confident we can achieve some consensus on a threshold beyond which numbers are too few for it to be appropriately used. That we can’t say exactly what this use of ‘all’ means other than ‘a great many’ or ‘very, very many’ or ‘all sorts’ (here the “all over the world” example is what I have in mind–even if there were people from only 60 countries in my class I don’t think a skeptical conversation partner would be dissatisfied!) doesn’t seem too relevant to me: we know how to use it and its lacking a simple synonym is as arbitrary as its other use having a determinate one.

Posted by: David | December 02, 2006 at 08:24 PM

Keith, one more thing–do you mean to endorse a theory of interpretation that looks only to dictionary definitions and not in addition to various written and spoken contexts? It seems using all available resources (diction., spoken, etc) allows for a more fluid, dialectical and accurate intrepretive approach.

Posted by: David | December 02, 2006 at 08:44 PM

The problem that the traditional interpretation has for the Romans passage is its parallelism. It seems odd that Paul would construct a parallelism and then assume that we know that one side of it is hyperbole!

Posted by: Robert | December 03, 2006 at 11:20 AM

Keith, one more thing–do you mean to endorse a theory of interpretation that looks only to dictionary definitions and not in addition to various written and spoken contexts? It seems using all available resources (diction., spoken, etc) allows for a more fluid, dialectical and accurate intrepretive approach.

David: I am fine with the idea of meaning depending on context. See, for example: , , or

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 03, 2006 at 11:16 PM

Reviewing the comments, I see I failed to take account of David’s specification of what all means when it doesn’t mean every single one in the first paragraph of his first comment: that it then means “a great many.” (So, for instance, in my comment immediately following David’s first, I shouldn’t have asked him how he understands the alls in question, b/c he’d already answered that.)

I don’t think all ever literally means anything so weak. But David’s account may be a good account of what thought a speaker is trying to convey by many of the uses of all in question. In the cases in question, all means every single one (in the relevant domain), but is used hyperbolically to convey the thought that a great many of the relevant items have the property in question. An important point where David & I seem to see things differently is that he seems to take a dimmer view of hyperbole, while I seem to see hyperbole as being a more widespread and benign phenomenon. Of course, in some contexts, it is bad to engage in hyperbole — and chief among the contexts in question will be ones in which it isn’t clear that the speaker is engaging in hyperbole & where she’s likely to be interpreted as speaking literally. Contexts where it would be wrong to speak hyperbolically are not at all limited to “highly structured,” special, or high-stakes situations (like a criminal investigation), but arise, even in casual conversation, just about whenever you’re likely to be taken as speaking literally. In these contexts, however casual, where you’re in danger of being understood as speaking literally, good speakers will find a way, other than by using “all,” to express “many” or “a great many” — for instance, they can just use “many”! In such contexts, you shouldn’t say that “all” the students passed the class when the truth is only that a great many of them did, that “all” of the beers are warm when a few of the relevant beers are cold, or that “all” have sinned when the truth is just that a great many of the contextually relevant items have sinned.

But where it is clear (either from the situation, or, I suppose, sometimes the speaker can make this clear by the use of intonation) that “all” isn’t being used literally, then it can be used hyperbolically to convey thoughts about many, just as all kinds of useful terms get used hyperbolically. Here I think of some basketball announcers. One of Bill’s Walton’s favorite expressions makes effective hyperbolic use of the notion of eternity: Toward the end of a game, he’ll often forecefully convey the thought that the game is still in jeopardy by saying the likes of “48 seconds is an eternity in the NBA!” I used to watch a lot of the Knicks games on MSG, and their announcer, Walt Frazier, was fond of using lots of big words, many of them terms useful in theology, and often times hyperbolically: “Marcus Camby was omnipotent in the lane tonight!” (He was also known to say that a certain player was “omnipresent on the defensive end of the floor.”) These are perfectly fine uses of “eternity” and “omnipotent”, largely b/c it’s clear that they’re being used hyperbolically to express such thoughts as a long (enough) time and very effective. But it would seem to be a mistake to suppose that the terms in question literally mean those watered-down things, and so might be only expressing such watered-down thoughts, in contexts where it isn’t clear that they’re not being used literally — e.g. just about any use of “God is omnipotent.”

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 06, 2006 at 11:56 AM

Keith (and David),

I’m wondering if there are “live” and “dead” uses of hyperbole, in the same way there are “live” and “dead” metaphors…and I’m wondering what this would imply for the “literal” meaning of such uses. Thinking about some of our examples, I would count “…is an eternity” (in “48 seconds is an eternity in the NBA”) as “live” hyperbole, whereas I would count “all over the world” (in “People from all over the world live in New York”) as “dead” hyperbole. It seems reasonable to think that in “dead” hyperbole, the use of a hyperbolic expression has become so customary that it no longer carries a hyperbolic sense, at which point the watered-down sense would be its “literal” sense (or, at the very least, would be among its “literal” senses).

I suspect that David had something like this in mind in his “one more thing” post.


Posted by: Kevin | December 06, 2006 at 04:34 PM


Thanks. I’m completely on board with your analysis. There’s a world of difference (is that dead hyperbole or live?) between the patently hyperbolic, “Camby was omnipotent tonight,” and the straightforward uses of ‘all’ above. And I think it’s fair to say that these dead uses are among the “literal” senses. At the end of the day, the real issue is how we understand the meaning of the relevant texts–in which case the hyperbolic-literal and dead-live distinctions are, at their best, useful tools: they’re there to help but needn’t bind us unneccessarily or interfere with our efforts to determine meaning.

Posted by: David | December 08, 2006 at 09:59 AM

“from all over the world” is a very different case. I’d hesitate to call it hyperbolic at all. (What would it take for it to be true non-hyperbolically?) The alls in the scriptures used in support of universalism are tied to a a plural noun, either explicitly (“all men”) or implicitly (“all [men/people] shall be made alive”). They say something about all the Ns. As I said “People from all over the world live in New York City” seems quite different. What’s the plural noun, N, such that this statement says something about all the Ns? Not “people,” certainly; it’s not saying that all the people in the world live in New York City. It seems to be implicitly – and no doubt very vaguely – dividing the world into regions and saying that people from all those regions live in New York City. Is it hyperbolic? Well, nobody living in New York City comes from certain quite small regions of Connecticut (certain neighbourhoods, for example). But presumably the world isn’t being divided into regions so small that those areas count. And nobody living in New York City comes from certain even very large regions of, say, the Pacific Ocean and Antarctica. But I’m inclined to think that on the use in question, those don’t count as relevant regions, either. So if someone were to object to the claim by saying, “Well, nobody who lives in NYC comes from… my particular neighbourhood in Hamden / Antarctica”, they’d be either failing to understand the statement or they’d be trying to “change the conversational score” – change the partition of the world into relevant regions relative to which the statement is to be interpreted. But I think the truth-conditions of the claim demand that people from each and every (or, as I like to much more simply put it, all!) of the contextually relevant regions live in NYC. Is the claim true? Well, as I’ve hinted, it’s extremely vague. What are the relevant regions? But there are ways of dividing up the world into relevant regions so as to make the claim true, and some principles of charity, or David-Lewis-style “rules of accommodation” would have us divide the world into relevant regions in interpreting the claim so as to make it come out true (other things being equal).

But in any case, what’s important to the purportedly universalist passages of the Bible are uses of all tied to a plural noun – that say something about all the Ns: “All the students passed the test”, “All the passengers survived the crash”, “All [people] have sinned”, “All men are mortal”. And I’m understanding the suggestion to be that, wrt to such uses, “all” can literally mean something like “a great many” of the Ns – that in addition to its “each and every” use, it has another literal sense in which it means something like “a great many.” I’m not sure I understand *exactly* what you mean, Kevin, by your live/dead distinction as applied to hyperbole, but I think I have some feel for it, and I’m taking it that it does involve the thought that “dead” hyperbolic uses are or can be literal. But, at least in the relevant cases – those where all is saying something about all the Ns, it’s hard for me to see that. One problem is that “all” has logical relations to other terms that seem to run very deep, and would be hard for it to leave behind. For instance, from *All Ns are F* and *X is an N*, it’s supposed to follow that *X is F*. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal is supposed be a valid argument, whose conclusion follows from its premises. What’s proposed is a literal use of “all” where it loses that inferential power – where knowing that all Ns are F doesn’t tell you that X is F, if X is an N (in the relevant domain). Likewise, on the proposal, *All Ns are F* doesn’t exclude the possibility that *Some Ns are not F*. Etc. And I guess I’m very reluctant to think that “all” would leave those important connections behind, taking on a second sense in which those connections don’t hold, especially when the language already has very good resources for expressing the thoughts in question.

And when I look to the uses in question, I don’t get the impression that “all” has gone weak on us in the way in question, in which it loses its usual power.

Airline official: All the passengers survived the crash.
Reporter: Do you mean “all” in the “each and every sense”, or in the sense of “a great many”?
Official: All I meant was that a great many of the passengers survived.

Relative of Crash Victim: When the airline official announced that all the passengers had survived, I felt so relieved. I was the only one watching the TV at the time, so I yelled “Henry’s alive!” to all the gathered friends and family. But then my hopes were dimmed when I learned that the official was just using “all” in the “a great many” sense, and only meant that a great many of the passengers had survived.

Something is certainly wrong there. What’s wrong, if “all” has a literal sense in which it means something like “a great many”? Is it that you shouldn’t use it in this “a great many” sense when you’re dealing with a very serious matter? Well, first, why not? And, second, wouldn’t that also apply to scriptural statements about the eternal fates of persons? Is there something special about the context I’ve cooked up which excludes the “a great many” sense? But there’s a very wide range of contexts, some of them extremely casual, in which it seems perfectly fine to take “all” to mean the “strong” thing, excluding a “weak” reading where it loses its usual implications, though there doesn’t seem to be anything in the context which would rule out the “weak” sense of “all” if “all” really had such a weak sense. Imagine that in the below, the speakers are not, say, parents of students in the high school who are very concerned about the students’ fates, but are childless adults who are just wondering, in a spirit of fairly idle curiosity, how the students in the local high school fared on the big test:

A: Well, I checked at the school office, and all the students at the high school passed the test!
B: That’s surprising. I wouldn’t have thought that that boy down the street could ever pass that test.
A: Do you mean Johnny? He did fail.
B: Huh? Didn’t you say they all passed?
A: I was using “all” in its “a great many” sense. All I was saying was that a great many of the students in the high school passed.
B: Oh.

Again, something is very wrong. Note that there isn’t anything in the context that would seem to rule out the “weak” sense of “all” (in which it means “a great many”), if “all” really had such a “weak” sense. We can suppose that it would be conversationally relevant and interesting news that a great many of the students had passed — just as it’s relevant and interesting that each & every one of them passed. Well, then, what would (in the context or otherwise) rule out its meaning “a great many” here, if “all” had such a sense? Hard to say. Yet it seems decidedly wrong here for A to use “all” in the way he does.

I’ve been trying out all kinds of contexts, and all I can come up with for cases where it’s OK to use the likes of “all Ns”, “all the Ns”, “all [Ns]”, where the speaker knows that what they’re saying isn’t true of some Ns are cases where it seems to be harmless hyperbole (e.g., “All the students at the high school are wearing green this year.”) I’m strongly inclined to think these are non-literal uses. When it’s objected, “Well, that Johnny from down the street isn’t wearing green,” a good reply seems to be an exasperated: “C’mon. I didn’t mean that literally all of them are.”

But if you think that “all” does have an additional literal sense in which it means something like “a great many,” and you want to use that to blunt the force of the purportedly univeralist passages, I guess what you’d have to do is explain why it’s so wrong to use “all” in this perfectly good sense you claim it has in the very wide variety of contexts in which it clearly is wrong, and then we could check whether the contexts in which it occurs in the relevant scriptures are also contexts in which it would be wrong to use the alleged “weak” sense of “all.” Perhaps I shouldn’t anticipate what such an account would look like, but I am pretty skeptical about your prospects here, because in what seem to me the relevant respects, the likes of “all will be made alive” seem a lot more similar to “all the students passed the test” than to “all the students are wearing green this year”.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 09, 2006 at 12:55 PM

Isn’t all qualified in that Jesus Christ was a man that never sinned, yet “all” have sinned? Doesn’t that throw out an absolute meaning to all?

Posted by: Robert | December 14, 2006 at 09:54 PM

On a different tack than the language debate, I have a number of queries, mostly about hell, as it relates to “evangelical” universalism. 1) How is different than the Catholic concept of purgatory? 2) If hell can be evacuated by faith, then what of the damnation of heavenly beings (ie. Satan, demons, et al? 3) How is this concept much different than Origen’s universalism which was roundly condemned by the Church? 4) Assuming that hell can be evacuated, does it remain fluid, ie. can one fall from grace after final redemption in the new heavens and new earth–thus starting the whole stinking process of sin/redemption over again? 5) Since univeralism has been condemned as heresy consistently throughout Church history, does it truly have the same claim of “acceptability” in orthodox/evangelical Christian circles like questions of how election is understood or the proper candidates for baptism, does it rank as a litmus test like the creeds for what is truly Christian belief, or some undefined status in between?

Posted by: Zoomdaddy | December 20, 2006 at 03:33 PM

“Zoomdaddy”: You give a very one-sided history of Christian theology — “condemned as heresy consistently throughout Church history”. Consistently condemned as heresy?! Are you quite sure? Just which condemnations do you have in mind? (I should say that I am aware of the strong condemnation at Justinian’s council at Constantinople in the middle of the 6th Century. I’m just wondering what else you may have in mind.) Do you just mean that it is widely rejected, or do you really mean consistently rejected as heresy? Do you count the Eastern Orthodox Church as part of the Christian Church? Just how consistent is this condemnation as heresy?

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 20, 2006 at 05:49 PM

As far as I recall, the eastern orthodox are not universalists.

Posted by: Robert | December 20, 2006 at 09:17 PM

No, but the question is whether they consistently condemn it as heresy. My understanding is that there is a strong tradition there of holding apokatastasis to be a valid hope.

“Heresy” strikes me, perhaps more than others, as a very strong term. I suspect it to be widely overused these days — but maybe only because I understand it to be so strong.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 20, 2006 at 10:01 PM

On this —

does it [universalism] truly have the same claim of “acceptability” in orthodox/evangelical Christian circles like questions of how election is understood or the proper candidates for baptism, does it rank as a litmus test like the creeds for what is truly Christian belief, or some undefined status in between?

–, my old post, “Underground Universalism” may be relevant. I think it’s safe to say that throughout very much of evangelicalism (though the exact boundaries aren’t at all clear to me), it is definitely not OK to be a universalist: severe consequences can follow. And some seem to be working desperately to keep it not OK. My own (no doubt self-serving) suspicion as to why, at least in many cases, is that people can sense that if universalism were viewed as a legitimate option, it is one that would be opted for by many. It is often more effective to keep it from being viewed as a legitimate option than to try to win the case against it once it’s been allowed as a possibility. So, better keep it off the menu! It’s not uncommon in these efforts for the h-word (“heresy”) to be (irresponsibly, to my thinking) trotted out. (It’s worth noting that in the passage from McLaren with which I open “Underground Universalism,” the pastor/narrator uses the h-word, calling universalism a “dangerous heresy.” I don’t think the narrator retains that attitude throughout the novel, but I think this use of the word early in the book is reflective of a general tendency to use (over-use, to my thinking) the word in this connection.)

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 21, 2006 at 11:20 PM

Phillip Schaff documents in his Church History books that in the first 5 centuries of the Church, 6 theological schools existed – 4 of which were universalist (and they were pretty much all Eastern Orthodox in their orientation).

The bible is written as a narrative, a story or a letter. It is NOT systematic theology. And yet we treat it as such. We find our proof texts, we beat up our brothers with those texts, and then our brothers pull out their proof texts and beat us with those. But it was not written that way. It was written as a story – from Genesis to Revelation.

At the beginning of that story, we are introduced to God and His son, Adam (Lk 3:38). We experience Adam’s fall and the subsequent degeneracy of the human race. But we also see the narrative telling us of God’s working out His redemption of that human race.

First He chose a people, through whom the Messiah would come. But those people sinned, just like their father, Adam. A Law was given to “tutor” them, to reveal their need for a Savior.

And that Savior came to those chosen people. He died to fulfill the Law (the penalty of sin is death, and Jesus, who was without sin, suffered death for Israel). All who believed in Him were “saved” from the coming destruction – the Lake of Fire.

All throughout the OT prophets, we see where they speak of God’s fire. How it purges, purifies, refines God’s people. Those who didn’t believe, perished. They perished in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 – the Lake of Fire. These were the goats, their inheritance was “fire.” The believers inherited “the nations” or the tribes – IOW, the right to the name Israel.

The bible ends with the beautiful picture of a redeemed humanity – manifested through the living body of Christ. We, the body of Christ, live out His life in the world today, bringing healing to the nations, life from the dead, and demonstrating/sharing in the divine nature. God’s nature is Love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, patience, kindness, goodness, joy, life, compassion, faithfulness, gentleness, peace and self-control. AND WE SHARE IN IT. We can now heal those around us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, forgiveness, mercy, grace, life and self-control. We can “be like God.”

You see, being like God was never about “keeping the Law.” It was not about “knowing good and evil.” It was about doing good to others, loving others, showing mercy and grace to others, and ministering life to all around us.

So, you can keep arguing about what “all” means, or you can live the Life that Christ has placed in all of us collectively. We can start living as salt and light to the world. Or we can just keep arguing.


Posted by: Ed Burley | December 28, 2006 at 02:21 PM

Thanks for your point of view, Ed. Your first paragraph was a helpful contribution (to me). But I’m a bit confused by your hostility to the discussion. I’m trying to understand.

I’ve had this before at this blog. On an earlier post of mine — also on universalism, as it turns out (or maybe this *isn’t* just a coincidence!) — a commentator wrote the following, which your (Ed’s) last paragraph reminded me of:

Why do we need to have this one sorted? Why can’t we hope for the best, and leave it up to God to sort out the details of ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’? In the meantime, let’s get on with the business of being Kingdom people.

Well, I wondered, why do we need to get anything sorted out? Whether all will be saved seemed like a potentially important enough question to attempt to sort out. I responded:

I would have thought that trying to get such matters sorted — esp. matters of such great concern to so many “seekers” — is part of the business of being Kingdom people.

But maybe I was misunderstanding that commentator — and maybe I’m misunderstanding you, too, Ed.

At places, it sounds like this is a matter of competition for our precious time: We spend time arguing / sorting out that can instead be better used living as salt to the world / being Kingdom people. If so, I wonder whether you also get bothered when you see, for instance, a church softball game. I have this picture of you noticing the game, grabbing the bat, stepping up to the plate, taking your swing, and then, after your hit or out or whatever, saying, “Now, you can keep playing softball, or you can live the Life that Christ has placed in all of us collectively. We can start living as salt and light to the world. Or we can just keep playing softball.” The players might respond that they think that playing softball is consistent with living such a life — just as I’d like to say that discussing and trying to understand important passages in the Bible is consistent with such a life.

But elsewhere it sounds like your worry is more specific. But I wonder what I should try to avoid here — any theological discussion? any theological discussion of a controversial matter?

But it sounds like you may be most perturbed by the mode of the discussion — by argument, “beating each other up” with proof texts. But then I don’t know how you’d have us handle disagreement. When we see something like the meaning of some of the key “all” passages in the Pauline letter differently, I like to proceed by giving my reasons for reading them the way I do and addressing the reasons other might give for their different reading. Is this the problem?

You instead spin a narrative. And I’ve got no real beef with the narrative you spin, so far as I understand it. But perhaps it would help to imagine someone objecting to part of the narrative you tell, maybe saying, “No, there was no fall of Adam. That’s no part of the story.” I imagine you’d probably then point them to the relevant passages where that part of the story is told. At least that seems to me the natural response. Now imagine the objector protesting, “Now you’re proof texting me! Stop beating me up.”

Similarly, I think the salvation of all mankind is part of the great narrative of the Bible. When people object and say that that’s no part of the story, I don’t know what to do other than to point them to the places where that part of the story is told. When they say I’m misreading those part of the story, I think the way to respond is to consider the reasons they give, and give them my reasons on the other side for their consideration.


Anyway, I can’t help but notice that, at least so far as I’ve read (and I must admit that I haven’t read all the comments to all the posts in this blog – or even all the posts), it’s only been me here at GOTT who’s been told that we should be “doing Kingdom work” / “living the life that Christ has placed us in” rather than discussing the things I’ve posted about. (Well, this post was written by MacDonald, but I’m the GOTT person responsible for posting it.) And, as I mentioned at the top of this comment, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that both of the times this has happened it was in a post discussing universalism. Could someone maybe send me a list of forbidden topics?

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 28, 2006 at 06:12 PM

Until there are satisfactory solutions to all of the problem texts one encounters when considering the universalist interpretations of various scriptures, I am sure that it will always be viewed as a dangerous viewpoint. The other views of afterlife punishment (eternal torment and annihilationism) lend a very stern and “crucial” approach to evangelism. The universalist view is *so* different that it does seem like an entirely different religion as manifest in its doctrine of the nature of God (what theological matter is higher than the nature of God?). Therefore, one should expect some serious emotional difference among the three views, from incredibly stern (eternal conscious punishment) to stern (annihilationism) to incredibly jubilant and hopeful (universalism), perhaps. The pragmatic results don’t necessarily solve the issue, of course Just some thoughts….

Posted by: Robert | December 28, 2006 at 11:12 PM

Wow Keith,
I didn’t think that I was being argumentative with you. I am sorry that I came across that way. It seems like I should just stay off the internet these days, as everyone I encounter thinks I am trying to beat them up.

I don’t play in the church softball league, so…But I do stay at home with my wife and kids, which I believe is kingdom work. I adopt children, which I think is kingdom work. I work with foster children and their families, which I think is kingdom work. I am a Professional Counselor, which I think is kingdom work. I study theology, which I think is kingdom work. My “sabbath” is doing Sudoku and listening to music.

Regarding endless arguments about jots and tittles, while I do engage in them, I do not condemn anyone for doing so to a greater degree. I just question as to the benefits of particularists arguing for their version of hell, while not participating in keeping as many people out of it as possible. That seems to be the case in most that I have seen.

As Gary Amirault has said before, and I am paraphrasing (so I’ll not use quotes), if you believe in hell, then you should be spending all your time trying to keep as many folks out of it as possible – or you do not truly love as God loves.

I’ll drop the subject now. I again apologize for coming across the way you think I did.


Posted by: Ed Burley | December 29, 2006 at 04:54 PM

  1. a. Sorry if I over-reacted. I guess these matters don’t strike me as mere jots and tittles.
  2. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, which Ed refers to in the first paragraph of his first comment is one of the many sources available free on-line at the great site, “Christian Classics Ethereal Library” ( The table of contents for the relevant volume (vol. 12) of the Encyclopedia is at:
    To get the history of universalism which Ed refers to, go to the table of contents at the above URL, click on “Union, Ecclesiastical to Universities”, and then go to p. 96.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | December 30, 2006 at 02:37 PM

Ed said: “So, you can keep arguing about what “all” means, or you can live the Life that Christ has placed in all of us collectively. We can start living as salt and light to the world. Or we can just keep arguing.”

1: Is dialogue the same as “arguing”?
2: Why do we have to abandon theology to live the Christian life? Wasn’t Paul writing for a purpose?

Posted by: Robert | January 01, 2007 at 09:16 PM

Hi Keith,

I have been reading your writings and want to draw your attention to
I Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Perhaps we with a Universal bent have been using the wrong side of this verse as proof.

Consider that I never heard of Adam, the Garden of Eden or even a yummy apple. If not, why am I burdened with his sin? If the evangelist retorts it is because ALL men are sinful because of what Adam did, whether they know Adam (or accept him, the Garden of Eden and a yummy apple) then it should follow that what Christ did (take away sins through redemption on the cross followed by resurrection) should be similarily inclusive to cover those that never heard of Christ, the cross or even the Holy Grail.

If the sin of the first is inclusive of all men, then redemption by the last should be inclusive of all men.

Thanks for letting me post my two cents.

Posted by: Leslie Hayes | May 24, 2007 at 06:33 PM

Skip to toolbar