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The Universalist Witness of the New Testament

The following excerpt is from The Purest Gospel: The Good News that Everyone will be Saved, available now on Amazon in paperback and eBook form:

One of the first accusations that is almost immediately levelled against the Christian universalist is that they are ignoring the plain meaning of scores of verses that allegedly speak of eternal torment. Those verses, in fact far fewer in number than commonly presumed, and often wildly mistranslated, will be addressed in the next chapter. But the irony of this accusation is that the Christian particularist in turn has to ignore the plain meaning of a raft of verses across both the Old and New Testaments, and most especially in the Pauline epistles, that really seem at face value to indicate rather universalist conclusions: that Christ died for all men, that he gave his life a ransom for all, that this leads to acquittal and life for all men, that he appeared for the salvation of all men, so that he may unite all in himself; sent by a God who desires all men to be saved.
            As a former Calvinist, it really is remarkable, looking back in hindsight, at the extraordinary lengths of exposition and hermeneutics that are attempted by some to ‘explain away’ so many verses; driven by a need that stems from a place of deep defensiveness and discomfort. As seen already when addressing the universalism of Romans, this often boils down to the argument that ‘all’ really only means ‘some’ (unless, of course, we’re talking about sinners, in which case ‘all’ always means ‘all’). But those who are not Calvinists, yet use the free will argument to justify eternal torment and reject universalism, are in scarce better a position. For we are told that Christ will draw all men unto himself; in him shall all be made alive; so that every knee will bow, and every tongue joyfully confess that Jesus is Lord. That doesn’t leave much room for a free-will ‘opt out’ for some.
            Let’s, then, consider a number of these verses. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22; RSV). This, of course, is remarkably similar to that key verse from Romans that we studied in the previous chapter: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Rom 5:18; RSV). This direct, very careful and deliberate parallel between Christ and Adam is therefore a recurring motif with Paul, something central to the gospel that he preached. It would certainly appear that he is suggesting that the scope and efficacy of Christ’s work of redemption is the same as that of Adam’s sin: affecting all men, that is to say, every man. There’s no conditionality attached to it, nothing to suggest that it is only a possibility that all men may be made alive in Christ; on the contrary, Paul states plainly: “in Christ shall all be made alive”. And this plain reading is only bolstered by the fact that it occurs within the context of a direct parallel to the death that came by Adam, that was unconditional and all-encompassing, coming upon every man. A plain reading of this verse, therefore, negates any Calvinistic rebuttal that “all” really only means “some”, or a more Arminian, free-will based argument that Christ only offers life to all men, which they can freely reject. On the contrary: “in Christ shall all be made alive”. That’s definitive: a result, and not a mere possibility; not something conditional upon acceptance, any more than the death that came through Adam was. The universalist, then, is able to take this powerful, carefully crafted verse at face value, while the particularist must attempt to ‘explain away’ its apparent meaning by an appeal to complex exegesis and hermeneutics.
            This theme of the all-encompassing, all-embracing power of Christ’s salvific work, and creation’s redemption through him, is pervasive all throughout the New Testament. In Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he writes: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15; RSV). In his first epistle written to instruct his young disciple Timothy, Paul writes of “God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:3-6; RSV). In the Epistle to Titus, it is written that “the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11; RSV). Luke’s Gospel gives us a rather jarring and forceful picture: “The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently” (Luke 16:16; RSV).[1] In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32; KJV). Or to take an example from the General Epistles, consider this verse from 1 John: “he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world(1 John 2:2; RSV).
            These examples raise a few interesting points. The last example, quoted from 1 John, is a clear statement that Christ did not die only for the sins of believers (the “our” encompassing the author and the believers to whom he wrote), but for the “whole world”. This certainly appears to deal a striking blow to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement: the belief that Christ died only for the elect. One Reformed pastor admits this verse was one of his “biggest hurdles”, and that “at least at first glance, 1 John 2:2 seems to strongly deny this idea that Jesus’ death was designed for a particular people”.[2] Having granted that the universalist reading is the most natural one, he launches into a lengthy exegesis to explain why 1 John 2:2 doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. Primarily, he appeals to hermeneutics, noting numerous verses where Christ is said to have died either for God’s people, or for his church, or for his sheep. Of course, in this appeal to hermeneutics, at no point does he raise the multitude of verses stating Christ died for all, because that would destroy his case. For here’s the rub: if Christ died for all, then it is perfectly valid to say that he died for the church, or his sheep, or God’s people; just as we may say he died for you and for me, without meaning he died only for you and for me. But if Christ only died for a select few sheep, or for a limited ‘elect’ people, or for a church that will never encompass all humanity, then Christ cannot be said to have died for all. Since the scripture says that Christ died for the church, and for his sheep, and for God’s people, and for all, then only a universalist interpretation can offer a consistent hermeneutic, and take all these verses at their face value.
            It is also worth noting those verses from Paul’s letter to Timothy, where he writes of: “God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3-4; RSV). The idea that God desires all men to be saved certainly doesn’t fit well within a Calvinist framework, whereby God has deliberately fashioned legions of men from all eternity with the express purpose of condemning them to eternal wrath, in order to shew forth his righteous justice. But God desiring all men to be saved could fit within a more Arminian, free-will based case against universalism. If God only desires us to be saved, and we can reject his offer, then the verses in question need not promote universalism. However, the Greek term here translated as “desires” in the RSV, is θέλει/thelei, a third person singular verb form of θέλω/theló, entry number 2309 in Strong’s Concordance. This term is very often translated in other verses in various translations as “would”, “wilt”, “will”, and “intend”; all much more definitive terms than “desires”. To say that God “intends” all men to be saved, would, of course, carry a much stronger force than merely saying he “desires” them to be saved. Both translations are valid, but the total dominance of the weaker term in translations reflects a theological bias on the part of the translators. David Bentley Hart is an example of one very well-rounded and respected scholar who now favours the more forceful translation.[3]
            The restoration that is brought about by Christ is often portrayed in such a vast and total way that it encompasses not just all men, but all that is in earth and in heaven; to the lowest creature beneath us, and the greatest cosmos above us. Consider Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10; RSV). In a very similar vein, he writes of Christ to the Colossians that: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:18-20; RSV). When reading such verses, does it sound like Christ died only to save a small remnant of men on earth?
            Paul’s majestic vision of cosmic restoration calls to mind the promise given in the Second Epistle of Peter: “But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; RSV). And so it is in the Book of Revelation, that we hear of the almighty vision: “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever” (Rev 5:13; KJV). Of course, one must apply caution when studying Revelation, so rich with the hyperbole and dramatic symbolism that defines the apocalyptic genre. But this theme of a restored creation that encompasses not just man, but the creatures beneath him and the cosmos above him, is too recurrent a theme throughout Paul’s epistles to dismiss. Indeed, this vision in Revelation calls to mind that verse from Romans that had such an impact on my Christian consciousness: “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom 8:22; KJV).[4]
            Paul’s colossal vision of salvation and restoration is that of a mighty Saviour God; one able and desirous to save all, and not a mere remnant. Accordingly, he writes to Timothy that “to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10; RSV). Paul certainly seems to suggest that the God who we so often and joyfully praise as our Saviour in worship is not the Saviour only of those who have been brought to belief, but of “all men”. Of course, defenders of the particularist orthodoxy turn to the usual arguments to ‘explain away’ this verse, even as they grant that a universalist interpretation is – taken at face value – the most obvious one. The ESV Study Bible openly grants that this verse could appear to support universalism and the belief that everybody will be saved, but argues that wider scriptural teaching means it couldn’t possibly mean that. One prominent Evangelical ministry returns to the old canard that “all” doesn’t necessarily always mean “all”; so when Paul said “all men”, he in fact meant only “all sorts of men”.[5] It appeals to the ESV translation of 1 Timothy 6:10, which states that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10; ESV). In both 1 Timothy 4:10 and 6:10, the same Greek word πάντων/pantōn (entry 3956 in Strong’s Concordance) is used. Can pantōn, by itself, mean “all sorts of” or “all kinds of”, as opposed to simply “all”? This word occurs 1,248 times in the New Testament, and is the common Koine Greek term for “all” or “every”. Like modern English “all”, it means “all” unless otherwise qualified. Neither the RSV nor KJV, and many others besides, add “kinds of” to “all” in either verse, and this is most consistent with how the term in translated in all English language Bibles in the many hundreds of other instances in which it appears, where it is overwhelmingly translated simply as “all”, or else as “every”, “everyone”, “everything”, and so on. “Kinds of” or “sorts of” could be read implicitly into either of the verses in question, but only if one’s theology demands it. A strictly literal translation, that takes the word at its plain meaning, tends against it.
            More desperate arguments are, however, resorted to. One prominent Reformed apologetics website argues that “the word [Saviour is] used in a way that is far less grandiose than that which we generally think of the word” throughout the Old Testament. Various temporal rulers are described as saviours for delivering Israel from her enemies.[6] And yet, of course, such a strained interpretation would hardly work in the context of 1 Timothy. And so it is argued that God is a “saviour” of sorts in that he sustains the world, gives us our daily bread, and preserves our life each day; and in this sense Paul could write that he is the Saviour of all men. And yet the Bible nowhere calls God a “Saviour” in reference to these attributes. While particularists resort to such unconvincing (if not unimaginative) ideas to ‘explain away’ the face-value reading of 1 Timothy 4:10, the universalist can embrace it in its plain and apparent meaning, and affirm that Paul is using the term Saviour in its full, worshipful and Christian sense, as indeed he does elsewhere throughout the epistle (e.g., 1 Tim 1:1; 1 Tim 2:3-4).
            A final Pauline passage to consider is that wonderful praise from the Philippian hymn: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11; RSV). Such a translation could be validly interpreted in two ways: the universalist could posit that here we have a picture of universal restoration; however, the particularist could counter that we have not a picture of reconciliation, but of subjugation, where Christ’s enemies kneel before him and yield him obeyance, like defeated prisoners of war. Either interpretation could be reasonably inferred from any major English-language translation, like the RSV quoted above.
            The original Greek, however, is less ambiguous. The term translated as “confess” is a form of the Greek exomologeomai, and significantly, this very same term is used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament: the version used by Jesus and the New Testament authors.[7] Throughout the Old Testament and especially in the Psalms and Isaiah, exomologeomai is used exclusively to denote joyful and voluntary praise.[8] The Philippian hymn borrows from Isaiah, who used this very term, when he prophesied that: “To me [the Lord] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isa 45:23; RSV). When, therefore, Paul writes of how shall “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”, he is claiming that every tongue will joyfully, praisefully, and voluntarily confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. By returning to the Greek, any ambiguity in understanding this verse is removed, and it becomes clear that this is a picture of total reconciliation, not subjugation.
            We have, then, a very thorough New Testament witness to the gospel of universal reconciliation. It can be found in its most systematic form in Romans, but its pours over from the pages as one reads the New Testament epistles. Paul presents scores of verses that the particularist – the orthodox Evangelical and especially the Calvinist – must ‘explain away’, but that the universalist can comfortably accept at face-value. We have a God who is willing, able and desirous to save all men; a Saviour who died for all men and who draws all men to him; and a Gospel that is to be preached to all men; confident in the knowledge that just as all died in Adam, so “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22; RSV). And so the day will come when every knee will bow, and every tongue joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

[1] There is actually a good case that the original Greek indicates this violence in this verse is not on man’s part, but on God’s, who forces all men into his kingdom. This translation is supported by David Bentley Hart in his recent book That All Shall Be Saved (Yale University Press, 2019), pp.101-2. See also Ilaria E. Ramelli’s article, The Good News of God’s Kingdom is Proclaimed and Everyone is Forced into it; Journal of Biblical Literature

Vol. 127, No. 4 (Winter, 2008), pp. 737-75, available at:

[2] His argument can be read online at

[3] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (Yale University Press, 2019), pp.82; 96; 187

[4] It is interesting that I find myself drawing so heavily on works attributed to the Apostles Paul and John here in this chapter. Martin Luther commented that: “In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine.” Of course, Luther was not a universalist, and relegated Revelation to the status of New Testament Apocrypha in his German-language Bible. See Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament I, ed. by E. Theodore Bachmann, Luther’s Works 35 (St Louis: Concordia, 1960), p.362



[7] There isn’t in fact any single version of the Septuagint, rather the term refers to any ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew original. The Greek can vary quite significantly from the Hebrew at times, and that is why, when reading New Testament quotations of the Old Testament, we know that the authors almost exclusively used the Greek over the Hebrew, and regarded it as authoritative.

[8] See Gregory Macdonald (a.k.a. Robin Parry), The Evangelical Universalist, the Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012, 2nd ed.), p.100


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