Universalism: Within Orthodoxy or Heterodoxy?

I follow Stephen Mattson’s blog (http://stephenjmattson.com/) which has a lot of great reads on theology, life and culture. A short while ago he posted on a few books he was reading, one of which caught my attention. The book’s subject matter was on Universalism, which is the belief that at some point in the ages to come, God will ultimately redeem all people whether through faith in life now, or through corrective punishment after death (an important argument of this particular book).

This book, Hope Beyond Hell (http://www.hopebeyondhell.net/ you can get the book free via PDF or Kindle) has suggested some really interesting ideas. Admitting this is difficult for me because of the tradition with which I am affiliated. I am part of the Reformed tradition. One of the most important early Reformers was Augustine who also happened to be one of the earliest proponents of eternal conscious punishment. So, my tradition is rooted in a particular perspective of destiny, but more than that, a particular understanding of who God is. The understanding at the foundation of the Reformed Christian tradition has a view of God which does not see a theological/rational disconnect in eternal conscious punishment. Yet, a few nights ago I was reading J.C. Ryle (a 19th century pastor in the UK) on a completely unrelated topic. He was using scriptural texts to defend his thesis, and as he did so, he made it emphatically clear that one does not always need books and books to support a doctrine, but a single, clear verse, much like Jesus, or Paul did. You must be wondering why I added that last bit? Because, the verse I am going to point out next forces questions for me.

Romans 5:18-19 says ” Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Okay, so this single text suggest a few things that I have trouble theologizing away (though my Reformed training is inclined to). Here goes.

Paul clearly says in Romans 5:18 Adam’s trespass led to “condemnation for all people” (in Greek “all men”). Totally agreed. No issues so far. Had Paul stopped right there I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. But, he didn’t. He continued by combining this phrase with another through the words “so also.” What does it mean to say “so also”? It means, “in just the same way.” Now, what is the focus of this verse? The focus of this verse is actually the one act committed by the first Adam (Adam) and the last Adam (Jesus). So, “so also” is saying both acts had equivocal results. One act brought about one result for “all people” and one other act brought about justification and life for “all people.” Do you see why people (and myself) struggle with this? How do you take such a plain passage?

Paul seems to say that “all people” are redeemed, justified and made alive by the one act (namely Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, which is actually three acts, but all a result of the one act of utter faithfulness to God). Does that look like the plain meaning of the text?

Paul does the same thing in 5:19. Adam’s disobedience made “many” sinners. Likewise, Jesus’ obedience will make “many” righteous. Now, it might be said here, “Aha! Paul clarifies in this verse than not all will be made righteous, just many.” Well, that is true only if you would also agree that not all were made sinners, only many. It doesn’t work there, does it? Nope. Scripture is emphatically clear that “all” are sinners. If evidence is needed, look at the previous verse.

So, in these two verses in Romans 5, which admittedly is a fraction of the whole letter to the Romans, Paul seems to say that Adam’s work is infinitely surpassed in Jesus work as his work brought a reversal of Adam’s curse. Adam brought death and sin into humanity, and Jesus brought life from death and forgiveness and justification for sin for “all people.”

Here is the point of this post. I am not trying to endorse universalism as I’m not convinced it fully absorbs the teaching of Scripture. I am, however, simply wanting to as whether it is at least possible that Universalism may have warrant as a belief within the realm of orthodoxy? (Remember, this view was held by some throughout church history.) What do you do with texts that seem to carry such a hope?

The ultimate desire of my heart is not divisiveness, but clarity. Nor is there a desire to question doctrine for the sake of questioning doctrine. Questions are asked so that wisdom might be learned. May the Holy Spirit grant wisdom into Scripture.



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