Why doesn’t God just save everyone? II: Arminianism and Universalism

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.

Calvinist universalists

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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Evangelicalism, Salvation, Theology, Universalism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Why doesn’t God just save everyone? II: Arminianism and Universalism

  1. Daniel says:

    So the real question is what he does about those that still basically believe in him but do absolutely nothing about it. Should we be saved even though we have done nothing (apart from trying to live a basically good life) and don’t really deserve it or are we sent to hell for eternity? Do we deserve an eternity in hell for basically being good but actively doing nothing about it?

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    • Hey Daniel, very nice to hear from you!

      And a good question, which really requires quite an in-depth answer. Shorter answer for now is that I don’t think God sends anyone to a fiery place of torment. But I do think that we often create our own hells, and I’d cautiously suggest that the less of God we have in our lives the more likely we are to set up other stuff in his place that can become unhelpful, harmful and in the end even maybe hellish for us.

      I’d also just query what a ‘basically good life’ looks like and whether any of us can really manage that long-term without a fair bit of divine input…

      But that’s a very brief answer and needs a whole lot of qualifying!

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      • Daniel says:

        Can’t disagree with any of your comments and hopefully will have to have a in depth answer at some point! Maybe when you and Ben eventually make it down for a Video evening.

        Also on the Question of “Basically Good Life” I don’t disagree but would question a lot of different “Religious” teachings from pretty much all religions at various times where they are at least as questionable as what a lot of people make up / feel right about!

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        • Ah, but you know we’d never actually discuss anything serious when we meet up – we’re British, male and introverts! 🙂

          I think most world religions are fairly close on what they see as ‘good’ – qualities like compassion and faithfulness, and behaviours like not stealing, killing or doing naughty sexual things – though there are a few differences in emphasis and interpretation! I’d say the main difference comes in how different religions think you can actually achieve a ‘good’ life, and Christianity tends to be a little pessimistic (realistic?) about our chances of ever managing it by ourselves.

          The main other thing I meant to say was really just Phil’s ‘Bible in a nutshell’ aka ‘it’s all about relationship’. So yes, we can believe in God and not do much about it, but then it’s not really much of a relationship. If it was a marriage, that would probably end up with drifting apart and maybe splitting up in the end.

          So if heaven is basically a perfect relationship with God, and ‘hell’ is the total absence of God, then I’d say that it’s probably as well to at least keep the relationship ticking over. That’s not so as to avoid mythical hellfire, but because only in that relationship with God can we really flourish and be truly ourselves.

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  2. John says:

    Personally, whenever I get to questions like this, I always end up back to the bible passages that state, there is nothing made that was made apart from God. Does that make any sense?
    I mean that pretty much sums up any worry I should have and God gets around to each of us on His time I guess.

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    • Yes, I can see what you’re getting at and that makes sense to me too 🙂

      My basic position is with Julian of Norwich: “All will be well”. In the end.

      And yes, I think God does get round to each of us in His time… or maybe in ours, as I think it’s generally on our side that things get held up. But I reckon he gets to us all in the end, if we let him.

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  3. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Really good stuff here, Evan. My position is close to yours–that God desires to give everyone eternal life but will force no one. I am a hopeful universalist, but I cannot make the decision to accept God’s offer of eternal life for someone else.

    Regarding other religions and the non-religious, I believe that they too can accept God’s offer of eternal life, even if that acceptance is after death with a clear mind without distorted understandings of God.

    By the way, I don’t have a Calvinistic bone in my body. Even the fundamentalist denomination in which I was raised was Arminian (Freewill) Baptist. It was one doctrinal view I did not have to abandon as I matured in my spiritual journey.

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    • Yes, that’s definitely me too – a hopeful universalist, not a certain one. And I do believe that people of other faiths and none will have a chance to accept God’s offer at some point, whether in this life or after death.

      I wasn’t brought up Calvinist either, and I’ve always been very uncomfortable with Calvinism. For a while as a sort-of evangelical I thought that it might be the right view, but I’ve never really been able to accept it.

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  4. Terry says:

    I need to push you on this quotation, Harvey:

    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.

    I can appreciate that it seems obvious that John 3:16 points to God’s love for the whole world, but ‘world’ can surely be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the context of Jewish-Gentile relations, ‘world’ here could simply mean ‘God so loved Jews and Gentiles‘. (Of course, this doesn’t detract from your wider point.) There’s also the view that would say that God loves the world, that Christ died for the world, but that only those predestined for life will accept God’s gift of eternal life. I know you don’t agree with this (and I don’t, either), but I tend to recoil from any use of the word ‘obvious’ for the simple that what’s ‘obvious’ to one person isn’t ‘obvious’ at all to another. For me, John 3:16 makes the ‘obvious’ point that only those who believe in the Son will not perish but have eternal life, which, at first glance at least, ‘obviously’ jeopardizes the validity of universalism. But then, of course, John 3:16 ‘obviously’ could affirm that everyone will come to believe in the Son . . . et cetera, et cetera. 🙂

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    • Terry says:

      Darn quotation things didn’t work again. What is the coding for putting quotations in comments!?

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    • Terry, you’re absolutely right of course – the word ‘obvious’ is not the best one here. When I said it was an ‘obvious’ verse, I really meant it as shorthand for ‘well-known’, one that might easily spring to mind while thinking about this subject. In other words, I was trying to say that the verse itself was an ‘obvious’ one (as in many of us might be likely to think of it), rather than that its relatedness to the Arminian position was obvious. But I didn’t say that very clearly!

      I agree, the verse can be interpreted in a number of ways. I think the Greek word for world used here is κόσμον (kosmon), which I understood as meaning the world or universe in the widest sense. But looking briefly at a concordance I can see it gets used in many different contexts with rather different meanings: http://biblehub.com/greek/kosmon_2889.htm.

      I do of course think that my interpretation fits better with the usual use of the word than the strict Calvinist one, but then I would think that 🙂

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      • Terry says:

        I don’t dispute the initial use of ‘obvious’ as ‘well-known’; it was the later ‘more obvious reading’ I had problems with. There are no ‘more obvious readings’ (on my reading). Obviously.

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        • Ah I see – I’d missed that one. I must have got carried away with using the word ‘obvious’ – when I’ve used it once, there’s no stopping me.

          Of course, I do still think it’s the more obvious reading… but I should clarify that ‘it seems to me the more obvious reading’ – based on what little I understand of the Greek word, and what little I understand of God. I appreciate that others will see differently!

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  5. Alfiethedog says:

    Thanks. This certainly clarified in my mind the fact that my failure, over many years, to thrive or feel at home in evangelical circles was probably as much a theological one as a temperamental one. Deep down, I’ve always been a universalist. Not least because, well, it just seems logical. If the whole of the universe was created and is maintained by God’s grace, and if at the heart of the Godhead is a unity of three persons existing in the closest possible union unterruptedly and for ever, then surely it follows that God will want to be in fellowship with his creatues for ever, and that he won’t give up on us because of such (cosmically speaking) ultimately insignificant matters as our sins and our corporeal death? God’s not nasty, which is why classic Calvinism doesn’t work, but nor is he, as you put it, dependent on ‘human choice and free will’ – criteria which surely aren’t big or divine enough to constitute the ‘decisive factor’ in dealing with such colossal mysteries as salvation. In many ways, of course, I’m attracted to the clarity and rigour of universalist Calvinism – as long as it’s understood that God’s ultimate will is to be in a permanent loving relationship with the creation at whose centre he sits (and there’s no shortage of biblical texts that you could adduce in support of such a proposition). Given that all my other instincts are liberal though, I guess I would part company with all the historical forms of Calvinism soon enough. It is genuinely liberating, though, to think that not only can not save souls, but that in the end one doesn’t have to. It’s only on that basis that the so-called Romero prayer becomes existentially meaningful for me – you know, those bits about us being ‘workers and not master builders, ministers and not messiahs’, and about committed Christian action being ‘incomplete, but a beginning, a small step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s GRACE to enter and do the rest’.

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    • I remember a time as a relatively new convert when I was rather shocked by the idea of universalism and convinced that it must be an anti-biblical heresy… but increasingly I’ve felt drawn to it over the years, to the point where it now seems to me almost the only possible option (with some caveats).

      Unlike you, I’m actually slightly repelled by the rigorous logic of universalist Calvinism – it seems too logical to me, and I’m not sure that anything involving real humans and real relationships is ever entirely logical. But maybe I’m imagining God as too human.

      I’ve not come across the Romero prayer but will now look it up.

      And a big yes to GRACE, always!

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    • tonycutty says:

      I also find it liberating that we’re not actually called to save souls. To make disciples, maybe, but calling that the same thing as ‘saving souls’ is a juxtaposition that evangelicalism has asserted without being thoroughly challenged. Really, all we’re called to do is to follow Jesus. If He calls someone else to follow in a different way, what is that to us? (Jn 21:22) Personally, I believe that ‘call’ is to be Jesus to the people we meet and the people we live with. ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christ’, and that’s what I would like to be. Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did (1 Jn 2:6) – again, that’s what I aspire to. Not to imitate his gait exactly (lol) but to do the things He did etc. And in so doing to bring the Kingdom forward into the present time, the Kingdom of wholeness, healing and love. That’s liberating! We just be Jesus, and leave the changing of others up to Him. And them.

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      • That’s pretty much exactly what I think. 🙂

        I don’t find it at all easy to be Jesus, and my Christ-like-ness is a stumbling work in progress, but I do think that’s what it’s about.

        I wrote a piece sort of on that a while back where I argued that all God wants of us is for us to become truly Christlike and fully ourselves: What does God want you do to?

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  6. tonycutty says:

    Another great article on life and death’s big questions.

    There is another view on ‘other religions’, other than Christ being present in them, well it’s slightly similar….but it’s that of the Emeth character from C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Last Battle’. You will know what I mean, in that everything that people of other religions give to whatever their god is, it coults as being offered to the One God. Also, Jesus still is the ‘Way, the Truth and the Life’… nothing in Scripture says that a person must ‘accept Christ’ in this life. I have written on this at some length here: http://tinyurl.com/q8n8mxn and my reasoning will probably make more sense if you take a look there.

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