Scholar Michael McClymond Condemns How Universalism Became Mainstream in New Book ‘The Devil’s Redemption’

Rob Bell made a splash in 2011 with the release of Love Wins, a book that challenged settled Christian understandings of heaven, hell, and divine judgment. But as many critics pointed out in response, Bell’s musings about universal salvation relied on arguments that have been advanced—and mostly condemned—throughout church history. What explains the recent resurgence in self-described Christians affirming (or at least flirting with) universalism? In The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, scholar Michael McClymond sets out to answer this question by following the roots of universalist thought all the way back to the second century. His comprehensive, two-volume account maps out universalism’s development down through the centuries and critiques it on theological and philosophical grounds. Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke with McClymond about his book.


How do you understand the term universalism?

In theological usage, universalism is the doctrine that all human beings—and perhaps all intelligent or volitional beings—will come to final salvation and spend an eternity with heaven in God. This is a theory about a final outcome, and it leaves open the way that this outcome might be attained. One reason my book is so lengthy is that there have been many different kinds of arguments for universal salvation over the last 1,800 years. At certain points, these arguments conflict with one another, so that if someone claims to be a universalist, you might ask: “What sort of universalist are you?”

One division is between the belief that everyone goes immediately to heaven at the moment of death (called “ultra-universalism”) and the belief that many or most people first undergo postmortem suffering (a view I call “purgationism”). This issue was fiercely debated in America during the 19th century, and universalists have never been able to resolve it.

The more robust arguments for universalism hold that God’s purposes in creating the world will fail if even one intelligent creature should finally be separated from God. This line of reasoning implies that not only human sinners but also fallen angels will finally be saved. The title of my book, The Devil’s Redemption, is an allusion to that idea.

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Given longstanding Christian opposition to universalism, how has it gained so many adherents in recent times?

The change was a long time coming. As I show in my book, from the time of Origen onward there were individual Christian thinkers who held to some version of Origenist universalism. In Orthodox Christianity, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion. I found that Orthodox attitudes toward Origen through the centuries were double-sided and ambivalent (as my own attitude is), acknowledging Origen’s undoubted contributions to Christian theology and spirituality but finding fault with his speculative excesses. Western esotericists, who were outside of traditional churches or hovering about its fringes, maintained a robust universalism from around 1700 up to the mid-1900s.

Yet until that point, few official church teachers in Protestant Germany, Britain, or North America publicly affirmed universal salvation—even though privately some may have been universalists. Something changed in the 1950s, and I believe it was Barth’s affirmation of universal election that allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. From the 1950s through the 1970s, universalism was most closely associated with modernist Protestantism. Prior to Vatican II, one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals, even though no official Catholic spokespersons affirm universalism.

The next step in the process occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed “the unchurched” and evangelicals debated “the unevangelized.” A book from the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, initiated a turn toward “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by the British evangelical John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

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Source: Christianity Today