So last time I was looking at the Calvinist idea that God could sovereignly choose to save or redeem everyone, but doesn’t, for whatever mysterious reason. I said that though this view has some scriptural backing, there are other Bible passages that present a different (and I think better) picture.
Option 2 – God wants to save all but can (or will) only save those who are willing
Also known as Arminianism after the 16th-century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, this is the alternative mainstream view for those who (like me) reject Calvinism.
The deciding factor in this view is human choice and free will – whereas Calvinists think only God’s will should decide. But you could also put it that the deciding factor is God’s generosity or love; his willingness to let us have a say in our own fates.
A key verse is ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4). This says clearly that God wants to save everyone, which instantly undermines the Calvinist approach (that he could save everyone but chooses not to).
An obvious related verse is ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). This can be read in a Calvinist way – that only those who are called by God to believe in Jesus have eternal life. But the more obvious reading is that since God’s love is for the whole world (literally the cosmos), then he wants everyone to turn to Jesus and so be ‘saved’ – but it’s likely that not all will.
Not everyone wants to be saved?
This interpretation can then be read back into the texts that back the Calvinist view. Rather than meaning that God only calls some, only gives faith to some, they could perhaps mean that God calls everyone, but not everyone listens; offers faith to all, but not all accept. It’s not such an obvious reading, but it makes more sense to me in terms of what it says about God’s character and human nature.
So the bottom line here is that God wants to save all, but not everyone wants to be saved. Or to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, there won’t be anybody in hell (whatever that is) who hasn’t chosen to be there.
There are different variants of this view depending on whether you think people need to make an active choice to accept or reject Jesus, on whether or not everyone gets a chance to make such a choice, and on whether God takes account of the factors that may have hindered people from accepting Jesus.
Forced conversions don’t work
Assuming that we do need saving or redeeming in some way, there’s certainly a good argument that God won’t just rescue us without our consent and cooperation – because that would be coercive, disempowering and would lead to spiritual immaturity (even slavery). We need to struggle, to try (and fail), to be willing and active participants in our own redemption.
But what of cases where God apparently does override human free will to bring about a conversion, as with Paul on the road to Damascus? The difference is that Paul was already zealous for God, and his conversion was a radical change of direction within his existing commitment to God. Furthermore, what I think God will not (even cannot) ultimately force is our love, and that he works to woo and win us rather than using coercion.
So God doesn’t just save everyone or make them Christian with a wave of a magic wand, simply because that’s not how it works. It’s a relationship of love and freedom, and that can never be forced or imposed.
Option 3 – God saves all in the end
This is the ultimately hopeful option for those who don’t wish to believe that in the end anyone perishes. It’s certainly the one I hope for, even if I’m not fully convinced by it.
There are two main variants of this viewpoint – either that God simply saves everyone in the end (Universalism), or that he saves all who have any kind of religious faith (Inclusivism). If we say that even atheism and agnosticism are forms of religious faith, then the two versions come back to the same thing – everyone is saved. Lovely.
For Christian universalists and inclusivists, what then is the point of being a Christian at all – why bother with any faith, and why settle on this particular one?
Christian inclusivists might say that religion is like language – the underlying grammar is universal, and it doesn’t matter in the end which language you speak, but only one language will ever be your native tongue. And to those of us (like me) who still hold that Jesus is unique, the Christian inclusivists would argue that Jesus is present in other religions too, albeit in a more hidden way (though I might personally draw the line at Satanism and Scientology). If so, God doesn’t need to make people Christian to ‘save’ them.
Christian universalists might say that the role of Christians in the world is a bit like the role of priests in the Old Testament community. We become the priests of the whole world, and through our presence (or rather God’s presence in us) the whole world is sanctified and made clean, is brought into God’s presence.
Oddly, support for universalism comes from the two extremes of the theological spectrum. So there are (surprisingly) a few Calvinist universalists, who argue simply that the utterly sovereign God must ultimately get what he wills. And since he wills for everyone to be saved (1 Tim 2:4 again), in the end all will be saved. You can find out more about ‘evangelical universalism’ here.
As I don’t share the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty I don’t fully go along with this kind of universalism. But I do believe that God wishes all to be redeemed, to be part of the heavenly community of his Kingdom, and I hope that in the end all will.
At the other end of the spectrum (but with the same conclusion) are the liberal universalists, who don’t necessarily view the Bible as inspired, nor Christianity as necessarily the Only Way, but rather believe in the supremacy of the love of God, a God who is perhaps encountered in all religions, albeit in different ways. For them, this overwhelming and all-conquering love will ultimately win over all hearts; none will in the end be able to resist God’s great welcome.
So which is it?
So which is the true answer – that God could save all but chooses not to, that he wants to save all but can’t, or that he does in the end save everyone? I don’t know. It depends what you believe about God and about people and about the Bible. It also depends on what we mean by ‘saved’, and on whether or not that requires our cooperation. But though I don’t think we can know for sure, I do believe we can trust God’s great goodness and love.
So if I had to choose, I’d be somewhere between options 2 and 3. I believe God genuinely longs to redeem everyone and does his utmost to achieve that, and I greatly hope that he will ultimately succeed. But I’m just not sure it’s possible for God to redeem those who steadfastly refuse to accept his love or to participate in the process of redemption.