In recent years, I find myself sitting comfortably with friends who would self-identify as “hopeful universalists.” It’s not a label I am comfortable with, for a number of reasons, though I’m certainly fine with the spirit of their intent. The following clarifies why I resist the label for myself:
1. Until recently, I called my position “hopeful inclusivism” as described by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Kallistos Ware, but have discovered that people consistently misunderstand “hopeful” as if I mean “wishful” or “doubtful” or “maybe.” The upside of that misunderstanding is that they correctly infer that I am not “dogmatic” and this saves me a bit of grief. And it’s true: I would not teach “ultimate redemption” (my conviction) as dogma or doctrine. But my position is actually a third critter:
I have always clarified that when I say “hopeful,” my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. That is, I use “hope” the same way Paul does when he refers to Christ as our “blessed hope.” He is completely convinced of something that is yet to come. For Paul, “the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13) is not wishful or doubtful. He holds a conviction that is anchored specifically in the faithfulness of Jesus. In the same way, I am personally convinced of ultimate redemption or the restoration/summing up of all things in Christ. I believe the New Testament anticipates this telos dozens of times. And in that sense, I’ve moved from Balthasar’s and Ware’s open-ended hopeful inclusivism (that leaves room for the possibility in principle, however unlikely, that some might forever reject the love of God) to a more confident conviction (as in St. Gregory of Nyssa or St. Maximos the Confessor) that meeting Christ face-to-face will so heal the soul and remove the dysfunctions of the fallen will, that an entirely willing response to grace will inevitably result (a la Paul’s conversion or the Phil. 2 confession of faith).
On the other hand, I call this a confident conviction, rooted, I think, in Scripture and good theology BUT am not permitted (by my conscience or my spiritual father) to teach it as doctrine. Simply put, the Nicene Creed (our dogma) says of eschatology:
- He will come again [doesn’t say how],
- to judge the living and that dead [doesn’t specify whether retributive or restorative],
- We look for the resurrection, and
- the life of the age to come.
There is no dogmatic statement about the destiny of unbelievers or the nature of hell.
There is no dogmatic statement that all shall be saved or that any shall be damned.
So while I hold a personal conviction that all shall be saved, and am even free to share my conviction and the reasons for it, I cannot impose it as doctrine, nor should the infernalists. To do so, in my mind, is technically a heresy (a mistake) because it violates the freedom of conviction of such mysteries as preserved in the Creed.
2. Despite my conviction in ultimate redemption and belief that the Scriptures teach that all shall be saved, I have also always resisted the word “universalism.” The reason for this is because the term has become so nebulous that using such a broad brush incites a lot of mistaken inferences and dismissive misrepresentations. But the problem is not only in those who misunderstand what I would mean by the term. It’s also a problem among those who use it. From my observations, today, the great majority of those who identify as ‘universalists’ have minimized some elements I believe to be essentials of the gospel. Specifically, MOST universalists now seem to downplay or negate:
- the seriousness of sin and its consequences,
- the necessity or even reality of the Incarnation,
- the critical importance of Christ’s death and resurrection,
- the reality of judgment and of a final judgment,
- the necessity of a truly willing faith response to Jesus.
If most universalists find these elements optional or even unsavory, and if labeling myself a universalist causes opponents to infer wrongly that I don’t hold to them, then it’s not the right term for me. Far too often, the word creates a redline that simply ends the conversation. Far better if I create bewilderment that demands further questions. For example, if I say, “I’m a universalist” (hopeful or otherwise), the immediate response is “You’re a heretic.” But if I say, “I am not a universalist but I believe in ultimate reconciliation,” at least I get the opportunity to answer the question, “What’s the difference?” And to that I reply with the convictions above in this way:
Most universalists disregard the following but I am convinced that:
- the wages of sin is death and that its fatal consequences require a means of redemption,
- the means of our redemption is through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ,
- and if all shall be saved, only by his death and resurrection,
- and that by way of a final but penultimate restorative judgment,
- followed by a universal willing faith response (nothing is automatic OR coerced).
For these reasons, I like to speak of judgment as penultimate (the age to come) and redemption as ultimate (“the end of the ages” when “God is all and in all”). That way I don’t need to skirt any of the dire warnings about a forthcoming judgment. But then I also insist that mercy gets the final word.
In Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, I said that we cannot presume that all shall be saved or that any shall be damned, but rather, that the love of God obligates and inspires us to hope, pray, preach, and live for the salvation of all. That is the express will of God revealed in the NT. Now, I would add this follow-up question that simplifies things for me: does the NT foresee God’s will coming about? To that, I would offer my favorite catena of 32 Scriptures that dare us to “hope” and let the reader see if that speaks to their convictions.