The Biblical Support for Universal Salvation
by Rev. Kevin Daugherty
Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me:
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my soul; for I am holy:
O thou my God, save thy servant that trusteth in thee.
Be merciful unto me, O Lord:
for I cry unto thee daily.
Rejoice the soul of thy servant:
for unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive;
and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.
Give ear, O Lord, unto my prayer;
and attend to the voice of my supplications.
In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee:
for thou wilt answer me.
Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord;
neither are there any works like unto thy works.
All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord;
and shall glorify thy name.
For thou art great, and doest wondrous things:
thou art God alone.
O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me;
give thy strength unto thy servant,
and save the son of thine handmaid.
Shew me a token for good;
that they which hate me may see it, and be ashamed:
because thou, Lord, hast holpen me, and comforted me.
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
I was very excited to see this psalm come up in the lectionary for this week (the other lectionary passages can be found here). I only want to say a brief bit about the psalm as a whole, because I would like to focus on one specific verse. In short, this psalm is a prayer for God’s help when faced with enemies. The superscription of the psalm is “a psalm of David”, but it is certainly possible that this psalm was written in David’s honor or later attributed to David.
What I really wanted to focus upon in this week’s lectionary reflection is the ninth verse, “All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name.” Notice the absolute nature of this verse. All nations will worship before the Lord and glorify his name. I believe this verse is clear evidence of Universalism, or universal reconciliation. However, I do have to admit bias here, as I have a number of Universalist associations.
Universalism (universal reconciliation) is a pretty simple concept at its core. It is the belief that God, through his sovereign grace, will save all people. This is contrasted with what most Christians believe.
Reformed soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) often falls into two camps, Calvinist and Arminian. The Calvinists believe that God is sovereign and humanity can only be saved by his grace. However, they believe in a limited atonement. Only some of us will be saved, and everyone else is predestined to hell (i.e. double predestination). Arminians believe much of the same, but also that God intentionally gave us free will. God offers salvation to all, but you have to accept it. There is also the Lutheran view, which is a good bit more paradoxical. In Lutheran soteriology, God is sovereign just as in Calvinism, but God can only predestine someone to heaven, not to hell. They also agree with the Arminians that someone can choose eternal damnation in hell. I am not going to touch upon Catholic and Orthodox views on salvation, as I am not familiar enough with them.
An alternative view, Universalism, has always existed in the church, but it has often been the minority. It was revived during the Radical Reformation and the First and Second Great Awakenings, after which formal Universalist churches and associations started to form. Some of this history can be found here.
Universalism tends to share Calvinism’s emphasis on sovereign grace and Arminianism’s emphasis upon God’s love and grace being offered to all (i.e. unlimited atonement). Like all of the different aforementioned views on salvation, Universalism has different interpretations and approaches. For example, there are purgatorial Universalists who believe that hell is a place of temporary judgment and transformation, while others believe that all people are redeemed without any sort of hell.
These explanations of soteriology and Universalism are intentionally very limited. I want this post to focus upon the Bible. I want to share a piece of the Scriptural evidence for universal reconciliation. I remember back when I was a member of a conservative Presbyterian church. Even though I was a Universalist, I had never shared it publicly. When I had, the pastor was deeply concerned, which I find odd. Why is it a problem to believe that God will save all people? It seems like something that all Christians should at least hope for. My pastor at the time was convinced that the Bible simply could not support Universalism. I want to point out some other Scriptures that suggest that God will actually bring all nations to himself.
There are several important verses that highlight the same theme as Psalm 86:9.
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32)
Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest. (Revelation 15:4)
All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. (Psalm 22:27)
O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. (Psalm 65:2)
All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing to thy name. (Psalm 66:4)
Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people. (Isaiah 56:7)
And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. (Isaiah 66:23)
These verses talk about how all nations will come before God. There are others which go one step further. Not only will all people come before God, but God will actually save all people.
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all. (Romans 11:32)
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
For it pleased [the Father] that in [Christ] should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:19-20)
That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him (Ephesians 1:10)
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Now, I am not naive according the Scriptures. There are many passages that talk about the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:13, John 4:16) and eternal punishment or destruction (e.g. Matthew 25:46, Mark 9:48, Philippians 3:19). I offer a few solutions to this problem, which may not fully resolve this contradiction, but does provide a helpful alternative to the traditional approach:
1. When Jesus talks about the “narrow way” and being “the way, the truth, and the life”, I suspect that Jesus is talking about a couple different things. First, Jesus is emphasizing discipleship. Following Jesus is the path we should follow, and that is a difficult and narrow path that many cannot handle. Second, Christ’s atonement is the vehicle through which all are saved. I like to think of it like a funnel. Christ is the bottom of the funnel where all pass through.
2. There could be an issue with how we often translate the term “eternal” in the New Testament. The Greek term is usually aion (αἰών). This term generally means an age or eon rather than an eternal or everlasting state. The term aion was mistranslated historically. For example, in Matthew 28:20, the King James Bible reads, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”. The term translated “world” is aion. The NRSV corrects this mistranslation, “I am with you always, to the end of the age”.
3. Much of the language about punishment and hell-fire in the Bible could be from a purgatorial perspective. For example, the Apostle Paul talks about a purifying fire:
According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, emphasis mine)
Peter states something very similar:
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7)
In these passages, the fire burns up all the excess, and leaves behind a tried and perfected saint of God.
I fully admit that I could be wrong on this point. Universalism may just be a hope rather than the truth. However, I think the testimony of Scripture points more toward the latter than the former. I do hope that this post was edifying. If you are a Universalist, I hope it showed you the Biblical foundation for your belief, and if you are not a Universalist, I hope it opened you eyes to a different way of reading the Scriptures.
This article reflects the opinions of the author, and not an official opinion of Unfailing Love or the United Christian Church in America.