How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.


I begin with a confession. For I must confess here at the outset that I am now utterly confident in the exegetical case for a universalist reading of the Bible as a whole, and I am also persuaded that the standard arguments against such a reading are wholly untenable. I say this because virtually every opposing argument I have encountered seems to me badly flawed in one of two ways: either it rests upon a rather elementary logical confusion, or it is easily reversed in a way I’ll try to explain in due course. But given that I am neither an expert in the languages of the Bible nor an expert in the historical background of its various documents, how can I so confidently (or even reasonably) reject so many arguments of so many distinguished scholars who read the Bible very differently than we Christian universalists do?

Behind that question lies the more basic question of just what it might mean to interpret the Bible as a whole. Some scholars (especially those of a more liberal persuasion) are understandably suspicious of any such effort; some would even dismiss it, though I do not, as an incoherent project. For as even religiously conservative scholars typically acknowledge, the Bible is not a single text with a single (human) author; neither is it, as the New Testament scholar Donald Hagner once put it, a systematic theology that has floated down from above like a balloon. It is instead a rich and diverse set of documents that appeal to the religious imagination in a variety of complex ways. Given the diversity of interests and writing styles of its various authors, the history of some of its documents, and the variety of perspectives it includes, a fertile imagination can almost always find a congenial way of putting things together. And for that reason alone, a theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole is as much an art, as much a work of the imagination, and as much a product of theological reasoning as it is of historical and linguistic study. Just as proponents of the geocentric theory of the solar system found many ways to account for the anomalous behavior of planets, so those who interpret the Bible from the perspective of a given system of theology inevitably find many ways to account for anomalous texts in the Bible.

Mind you, I would never minimize the contribution of Bible scholars to our understanding of the text. To the contrary, I have always tried never to challenge an expert on any specific point in his or her area of expertise. Nor is it necessary to do so, because large-scale theological disputes, particularly those between Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists, almost never turn decisively upon scholarly minutia, and that is but one reason, perhaps, why one can find accomplished scholars in each of these theological camps. In any case, I shall now try to explain why a universalist reading of the Bible as a whole seems to me far more reasonable than any competing reading of it.

Saint Paul’s Apparent Universalism

That many Pauline texts at least appear, when taken in their own context, to teach an explicit universalism should be obvious to any careful reader of the New Testament. For again and again, Paul made explicit statements to the effect that God will eventually bring all things into subjection to Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-28) and reconcile all things in Christ (Col. 1:20) and bring justification and life to all persons through Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). These statements are neither obscure nor incidental; indeed, the lengths to which some have gone to explain them away is itself a testimony to their clarity and power.

As a good illustration, consider more closely a single text, namely Romans 5:18,1 and consider first its parallel structure:

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all [humans],

so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for [them] all.

The whole point of such a parallel structure, so typical of Paul, is to identify a single group of individuals and to make two parallel statements about that single group of individuals, and the practical effect is therefore to eliminate any possibility of ambiguity. The very ones who came under condemnation, as a result of the first Adam’s act of disobedience, will eventually be brought to justification and life, as a result of the second Adam’s act of obedience. Or, as Paul put it in verse 19: the very ones who were constituted sinners, as a result of the first Adam’s act of disobedience, will eventually be constituted righteous, as a result of the second Adam’s act of obedience. I do not know how Paul could have expressed himself any more clearly than that.

So does anything in the immediate context of Romans 5:18 justify the widespread supposition that Paul did not intend to say what his words in fact do say? One of the more popular arguments at this point appeals to 5:17, where Paul spoke of “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.” According to Douglas J. Moo, for example, “the deliberately worded v. 17, along with the persistent stress on faith as the means of achieving righteousness in 1:16-4:25, makes it clear that only certain people derive the benefits from Christ’s act of righteousness.”2 Others, such as the New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin, point to Paul’s use of the expression “the many” in verse 19, which Martin interprets as “a Semitic way of saying that ‘all’ are included with the assurance that ‘the all’ [included] are not a few in number.”3

I think it fair to say, however, that neither of these arguments is even remotely plausible. As for Moo’s appeal to 5:17 in an effort to limit the number of those who eventually receive justification and life, there are, I believe, two decisive objections. First, Moo never even considers those contexts in which Paul obviously used the verb “to receive” (lambanō) in a passive sense, and this has nothing to do, by the way, with the grammatical idea of the passive voice. When Paul declared, “Five times I have received [active voice] … the forty lashes minus one” (2 Cor. 11:24), we understand that he received these 39 lashes in the same passive way that a boxer might receive severe blows to the head; and when he spoke of those who “have received [active voice] grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), we again understand that such persons are the recipients of some divine action in the same passive way that a newborn baby receives life. Similarly, in Romans 5:18 and 19 Paul was comparing the effect of Christ’s one act of righteousness on the whole mass of humanity with the effect of Adam’s disobedience, pointing out in verses 15 and 17 that the latter is far greater, and far more extensive, than the former. So even though the Reformed New Testament scholar John Murray rejected altogether the universalist interpretation of our text, he nonetheless pointed out that the “word ‘receiving’ [in 5:17] … does not refer to our believing acceptance of the free gift but to our being made the recipients, and we are regarded as the passive beneficiaries of both the grace and the free gift in their overflowing fullness.”4 According to Paul, in other words, we no more choose to experience the beneficial effects of Christ’s one act of righteousness than we chose to experience the destructive effects of Adam’s disobedience.

Second, Moo has attributed to Paul a fallacious argument of the following form:

(1) Only those sinners receiving the abundance of grace will “derive the benefits of Christ’s act of righteousness” and thus be saved.


(2) Not all sinners will “derive the benefits of Christ’s act of righteousness” and thus be saved.

The premise sets forth a necessary condition of salvation, namely that a sinner must receive “the abundance of grace” in order to be saved, and the conclusion draws the inference that, therefore, some sinners will never meet that necessary condition. But the inference is obviously fallacious—as is the following inference of exactly the same form: only those believers who remain faithful to the end will be sanctified; therefore, not all believers will be sanctified. So even if Paul were not using lambanō in a passive sense, as he surely was, Moo’s appeal to 5:17 in an effort to explain away 5:18 would merely attribute to Paul the same fallacious inference that Moo brings to the text. For unless Paul himself had drawn a similar fallacious inference, neither “the deliberately worded v. 17” nor the “persistent stress on faith as the means of achieving righteousness” carries any implication that Paul intended the second “all” in 5:18 to be more restrictive than the first. Much less would it justify Moo’s conclusion that, according to Paul, “only certain people [that is, only some sinners and not all of them] derive the benefits from Christ’s act of righteousness.” Quite the contrary. Paul’s explicit affirmation in 5:18 that Christ brings “justification and life” to all humans already entails that all of the necessary conditions of such justification and life will eventually be met. So you can hardly challenge the universal scope of the second “all” in 5:18 merely by pointed out, as Moo does correctly, that the right kind of faith is one of these necessary conditions.

Accordingly, if you want to understand Christian universalism accurately before criticizing it, as any competent critic would want to do, the first lesson to learn is this: proponents of such universalism not only do not deny, but even insist, that the salvation of any sinner requires that certain conditions be met. But they also believe that Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death is what guarantees that all of the relevant conditions will indeed be met in the end.

Consider next Martin’s suggestion that Paul’s use of “the many” in verse 19 reduces his “all” in verse 18 to something like more than a few in number. Unfortunately, that ignores Paul’s own clarification in verse 15—where Paul distinguished within the group or class of all human sinners between “the one” and “the many”—“the one” being Adam himself, who first sinned, and “the many” being all of those who died as a result of Adam’s sin. So once again it is John Murray who, despite his own vigorous opposition to universalism, has nonetheless pointed out the fatal flaw in Martin’s kind of argument:

When Paul uses the expression “the many”, he is not intending to delimit the denotation. The scope of “the many” must be the same as the “all men” of verses 12 and 18. He uses “the many” here, as in verse 19, for the purpose of contrasting more effectively “the one” and “the many”, singularity and plurality—it was the trespass of “the one” … but “the many” died as a result.5

In the same context, moreover, Paul insisted that “the one,” namely Adam, was “a type” of Jesus Christ (vs. 14), presumably because Jesus Christ, the second Adam, stands in the same relationship to “the many” as the first Adam did. But with this difference: “if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (vs. 15–NIV). It seems to me indisputable, therefore, that Paul had in mind one group of individuals—“the many,” which included all human beings except for the first and the second Adam—and he envisioned that each of the two Adams stands in the same relationship to that one group of individuals. The first Adam’s act of disobedience brought doom upon them all, but the second Adam’s act of obedience, whose effects are even greater and more extensive than the effects of Adam’s disobedience (thus the expression “how much more”), undid the doom and will eventually bring justification and life to them all. In the words of M. C. de Boer, “Unless the universalism of vv. 18-19 is taken seriously … ‘how much more’ is turned into ‘how much less,’ for death is then given the last word over the vast majority of human beings and God’s regrasping of the world for his sovereignty becomes a limited affair.”6 Or, as Arland J. Hultgren has put it, “As Adam was the head of humanity in the old eon, leading all to destruction, so Christ is the head of humanity in the new age which has dawned, leading all to justification and life. The grace of God in Christ amounts to ‘much more’ than the trespass of Adam and its effects (5:17). All of humanity is in view here without exception.”7

The Wider Context of Pauline Thought

Even opponents of universalism sometimes admit that, taken in its own context, Romans 5:18 at least appears to teach an explicit universalism. Indeed, no less a conservative authority than John Murray appears to have made such a concession in the above quotations; he therefore appealed to the broader context of Pauline thought in an effort to escape the clear universalistic import of our text. He thus wrote:

When we ask the question: Is it Pauline to posit universal salvation? the answer must be decisively negative (cf. II Thess. 1:8, 9). Hence we cannot interpret the apodosis in verse 18 [of Rom 5] in the sense of inclusive universalism, and it is consistent with sound canons of interpretation to assume a restrictive implication. In I Cor. 15:22 Paul says, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”. As the context will demonstrate the apostle is here dealing with the resurrection to life, with those who are Christ’s and will be raised at his coming. The “all” of the second clause is therefore restrictive in a way that the “all” in the first clause is not. In like manner in Rom 5:18 we may and must recognize a restriction in the “all men” of the apodosis that is not present in the “all men” of the protasis.8

The first sentence in the above quotation is especially relevant to our main topic of how to read the Bible from a universalist perspective, and I’ll return to it shortly. But first I want to point out that Murray too has fallen prey to an obviously fallacious inference, indeed the same kind of reasoning that we have already encountered in Moo. From Murray’s premise that the second “all” in 1 Corinthians 15:22 is restricted to “those who are Christ’s and will be raised at his coming,” it simply does not follow that the second “all” is therefore more restrictive than the first. To get that conclusion, you must adopt the additional assumption that the first “all” includes some who will never belong to Christ—a question begging assumption, if ever there was one. As a good Calvinist, Murray held that the elect have belonged to Christ from the very foundation of the world—long before any of them knew they belonged to him and long before they consciously identified with him. So even if one should accept Murray’s understanding of the context—which is itself debatable—why not draw the inference from 1 Corinthians 15:22 and its immediate context that the entire human race has belonged to Christ from the very foundation of the world? That inference, unlike Murray’s, would at least have the virtue of being a valid inference.

In fact, Murray appears to have gotten the matter exactly backwards because the first “all” in 15::22 is, if anything, more restrictive than the second. For right after making his two parallel statements about the entire human race, Paul immediately expanded his second “all” to include not only the descendants of Adam, but every competing will as well. Christ must continue to reign, he insisted, until he finally brings all things, including every will and opposing power, into subjection to him (15:24-27), and there is but one exception to this “all things,” namely the Father himself (15:28). The last enemy to be destroyed is death (15:27), which in the larger context of Paul’s thought includes all separation from God. When Christ finally overcomes all separation from God, all persons will then be in subjection to Christ in exactly the same sense that Christ places himself in subjection to the Father (15:28)—a sense that, as I have argued in various places, seems clearly to imply spontaneous and glad obedience. Then and only then will the Father truly be “all in all,” because then and only then will all persons belong to him, or at least know that they belong to him, through his Son.

Note also that Murray seems to have thought it sufficient merely to cite 2 Thessalonians 1:8- 9 as proof that we should reject the apparent universalism of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In a similar vein, Charles Hodge once wrote: “As, however, not only the Scriptures generally, but Paul himself, distinctly teach that all men are not to be saved, as in 2 Thess. I.9, this [universalistic] interpretation [of Romans 5:18] cannot be admitted by any who acknowledge the inspiration of the Bible.”9 On its face, that is a remarkable claim for two reasons: first, because many Christian universalists have believed as strongly as Hodge did in the inspiration of the Bible, and second, because one could just as easily, if one wanted to be uncharitable, use the same kind of argument against Hodge. For surely, the following argument, which is just the reverse of Hodge’s argument, is equally cogent at this point: “Because not only the Scriptures generally, but Paul himself, distinctly teach universal reconciliation, as in Romans 5, Romans 11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Hodge’s interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 cannot be admitted by any who acknowledge the inspiration of the Bible.” As this counterargument illustrates, the issue of inspiration is a distracting irrelevancy in the present context; it is the correct interpretation of a text, not the inspiration of the Bible, that is here at issue. And concerning that issue—the correct interpretation of Romans 5:18—the appeal of Murray and Hodge to 2 Thessalonians 1:9 suffers from a serious weakness. For without any trouble at all, one could simply reverse their argument and argue just as plausibly in the opposite direction.

Herein lies an important key, I believe, to reading the Bible with confidence from a universalist perspective: to do so, you need only become aware of how easy it is to reverse the most common arguments against such a reading. There are, after all, two prominent New Testament themes that may initially seem difficult to harmonize: that of Christ’s total victory and triumph over sin and death, on the one hand, and that of God’s wrath, judgment, and punishment of sin, on the other. Such texts as Romans 5 and 11, 1 Corinthians 15, and the old creedal hymn reproduced in Colossians 1:15-20, among others, illustrate the first theme, whereas such texts as 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), among other texts, illustrate the second. Now one possible response is to claim that these two themes are simply incompatible and hence irreconcilable. But those who reject such an inconsistency, as do most Arminians, Calvinists, and George MacDonald-type universalists, can reason in one of two directions, each of which is just the reverse of the other. Those, such as Murray and Hodge, who interpret various judgment texts as teaching that some sinners are destined for unending retribution in hell, will adjust their understanding of Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph in light of that presumed teaching; and we universalists, who interpret certain texts as teaching that in Christ God will eventually reconcile the entire human race to himself will in a similar manner adjust our understanding of God’s wrath and judgment in light of that presumed teaching. The one pattern of argument is just the reverse of the other.

So do we here encounter a mere impasse or stalemate? Not in my opinion. For Paul himself, I believe, teaches us exactly how to understand God’s wrath, judgment, and severity as an expression of his boundless love and inexhaustible mercy.

God’s Severe Mercy

According to Paul in the eleventh chapter of Romans, God’s severity towards the disobedient, his judgment of sin, even his willingness to blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the disobedient, are expressions of a more fundamental quality, namely, that of mercy, which is itself an expression of his purifying love. In 11:7 he thus wrote: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (or blinded). He then immediately asked, “Have they [the non-remnant who were hardened or blinded] stumbled so as to fall?” And his answer was most emphatic: “By no means!” (11:11). By the end of the following verse, he was already speaking of their full inclusion: “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:12). And three verses later he was hinting that their acceptance would mean “life from the dead” (9:15). He then generalized the whole thing: God blinded the eyes and hardened the hearts of the unbelieving Jews, we discover, as a means by which all of Israel might be saved (Romans 11:25-26)—all of Israel including those who were blinded and hardened. There is simply no way, so far as I can tell, to escape the universalistic implication here. The specific point that Paul made in Romans 11 was this: though the unbelieving Jews had become in some sense “enemies of God” (11:28), they nonetheless became “disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy” (11:31–NIV). But the general principle (of which the specific point was but an instance) is even more glorious: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32–my emphasis).11

According to Paul, therefore, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgment, punishment. When we live a life of obedience, we experience it as kindness; when we live a life of disobedience, we experience it as severity (see 11:22). Paul himself called this a mystery (11:25) and admitted that God’s ways are, in just this respect, “inscrutable” and “unsearchable” (11:33), but nothing could be clearer than his own glorious summation of the whole thing in 11:32. If the first “all” of 11:32 refers distributively to all the merely human descendants of Adam, if all are “imprisoned” in disobedience, then so also does the second; they are all objects of divine mercy as well. And if one should insist, as some have in a seemingly desperate effort to escape universalism, that neither “all” literally means “all without exception,” the obvious rejoinder is that here, no less than in Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, the parallelism is even more important than the scope of “all.” According to Paul, the very ones whom God “shuts up” to disobedience—whom he blinds, or hardens, or cuts off for a season—are those to whom he is merciful; his former act is but the first expression of the latter, and the latter is the goal of the former. God hardens a heart in order to produce, in the end, a contrite spirit, blinds those who are unready for the truth in order to bring them ultimately to the truth, “imprisons all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to [them] all.”

But if God is truly merciful to all, according to Paul, how are we to reconcile that with the claim in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that some “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction,” or the claim in Matthew 25:46 that some will “go away into eternal punishment,” or the claim in Luke 16:26 that an unbridgeable chasm exists between the place where the rich man was being tormented and the place where Lazarus was being comforted in Abraham’s bosom? One common strategy among Christian universalists is to point out that the word aiōnios, which many of our English Bibles translate as “eternal” or “everlasting,” literally means something like age enduring or perhaps that which pertains to an age. But neither annihilationists nor proponents of an unending hell typically find such a move persuasive. According to Arthur W. Pink, for example, “The Greek word . . . ‘aionios‘ and its meaning and scope has been definitely defined for us by the Holy Spirit in” 2 Corinthians 4:18, where Paul noted that “the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (KJV). According to Pink, then, “it is obvious that … if the things ‘eternal’ are merely ‘age-long,’ then they cannot be properly contrasted with things that are temporal.”12 But of course, if that which is eternal in some quasi-Platonic sense is to be contrasted with that which is temporal, then that which is eternal, being timeless, would carry no implication of temporal duration at all and hence no implication of unending temporal duration either.

In any case, I typically adopt a very different strategy against those, such as Pink, who insist that aiōnios implies unending temporal duration. For we can always make them a present of this Greek adjective and turn our attention, in specific cases, to the noun it qualifies. As an illustration, consider the expression often translated as “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Just how should we understand the relevant destruction here? Should we understand it as the annihilation of some individual person who is a sinner? Or, should we understand it as the complete destruction of what Paul called the old person, the very thing whose destruction is required for salvation? Which understanding fits better with Paul’s own insistence that God’s severity is always an expression of his mercy? In fact, Paul used exactly the same term for destruction (olethros) when he wrote this in 1 Corinthians 5:5: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Here the relevant destruction is explicitly a means of correction, albeit a very severe means, and nothing in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 excludes a similar meaning there. So once we come to understand that the idea of destruction is itself a redemptive concept, the issue of the correct translation of aiōnios pretty much fades into the background.

Accordingly, I would here stress one simple and utterly non-controversial point about the word aiōnios: it is an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective. Because adjectives often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things, one of the most popular arguments concerning Matthew 25:46 is deeply flawed. Here I have in mind the argument that, if eternal life is life without end, then eternal punishment must likewise be punishment without end. We can illustrate the flaw in this argument by switching from Greek to English. Consider how the precise meaning of the English word “everlasting” can vary in different contexts. An everlasting struggle, if there should be such a thing, would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation need not be an unending temporal process at all and certainly not one that never gets completed; it might instead be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps even an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state that endures forever.

Nor is there any doubt that the life and the punishment of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 25:46 belong to different categories of things. For whereas the life (zōē), being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end. And throughout the Greek world, furthermore, the word kolasis was widely understood to signify a means of correction. But even if the Gospel writer had chosen the word timōria, a common word for vengeful punishment, you cannot infer the absence of a corrective purpose from harsh language alone. Given Paul’s explicit teaching in Romans 11 that even God’s harshest judgment serves a merciful purpose, it follows that, whatever additional purpose it might serve, divine punishment is administered, at least in part, for the good of the one being punished. And once we come to understand that, it matters little whether we translate “eis kolasin aiōnion” as “into eternal correction,” “into everlasting correction,” or “into the kind of correction that pertains to the coming age.”

As for the unbridgeable chasm of which Jesus spoke in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, not one word in this parable, even if taken as literal history, as some do take it, implies that the chasm between Hades and Abraham’s bosom will remain unbridgeable forever. Do not Christians believe that the cross has already guaranteed the ultimate destruction of sin and death, where the “last enemy to be destroyed,” as we have already noted, “is death” itself? When 1 Peter 3:19 depicts Jesus as preaching to the spirits in prison (or those who were disobedient in the days of Noah) and 1 Peter 4:6 also depicts him as preaching the gospel to the dead, do these texts not illustrate perfectly the view of Elhanan Winchester,13 who wrote: “I believe, that Jesus Christ was not only able to pass, but that he actually did pass that gulph, which was impassable to all men but not to him”?14 Even if one should take the details of this parable more literally than one should, in other words, one can still view the Cross as the means whereby Jesus Christ has bridged this hitherto unbridgeable gulf. By flinging himself into the chasm between the dead and the living and by building a bridge over it, Jesus thus brought his message of repentance and forgiveness to all people, including those in Hades, which is the abode of the dead.

In conclusion, our time constraints here are incompatible, unfortunately, with a thorough discussion of these matters. But however sketchy this discussion of a few specific texts has been, I hope it illustrates two points: first that, according to Paul’s teaching in Romans 11, God’s severity towards the disobedient, no less than his kindness towards the obedient, is an expression of his boundless mercy to the entire human race, and second, that anyone who takes this teaching seriously can plausibly interpret the biblical theme of divine judgment accordingly. In particular, one can interpret the so-called eternal destruction of the wicked as the final destruction of what Paul called the old person, which is our sinful nature; one can also interpret the so-called everlasting punishment of the wicked as an everlasting correction or transformation of the wicked; and one can interpret the hitherto unbridgeable chasm between Hades and Abraham’s bosom as precisely the chasm over which Jesus alone was in fact able to build a bridge.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from the Bible here are from the New Revised Standard Version copyrighted in 1989 by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

2 Douglas J. Moo, Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 344.

3 Ralph P. Martin, “Romans” in D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer (eds.), The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 1026.

4 John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 198. Richard Bell, following M. E. Boring, makes a similar point in “Rom. 5:18-19 and Universal Salvation”, New Testament Studies 48.3 (2002), p. 429. See also Boring, “The Language of Universal Salvation in Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986), pp. 269-92.

5 Murray, op. cit., pp. 192-193.

6 M. C de Boer, Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), p. 175.

7 Arland J. Hultgren, Christ and His Benefits: Christology and Redemption in the New Testament (Philadelphia: For- tress Press, 1987), pp. 54-55.

8 Murray, op. cit., p. 203.

9 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Armstrong, 1896), p. 270.

10 In order to avoid the implication that God hardens the heart as an expression of mercy, some commentators have insisted that Paul was here speaking of Israel as a corporate whole. As John Piper has put it: “Notice that this [i.e., the “they” in 11:11] is not a reference to all Jews but to Israel as a corporate whole conceived of as an entity that endures from generation to generation made up of different individuals from time to time” (“Universalism in Romans 9-11?” 12). But that will never do. For in 11:7 Paul mentioned three groups of people: Israel or the nation as a corporate whole, “the elect” or the faithful remnant, and “the rest,” that is, the non-remnant Jews who were hardened. Now the antecedent of “they” in 11:11 cannot be the faithful remnant; they are not the ones who stumbled and were hardened. Neither can it be the nation as a corporate whole, for Paul had just distinguished between two groups within that corporate whole: the faithful remnant who did not stumble and were not hard- ened, and “the rest” who did stumble and were hardened. Accordingly, the antecedent of “they” in 11:11 must be “the rest,” the non-remnant Jews, the very ones whom God had hardened. Even John Murray effectively admitted this when he asked: “Is not the denotation of those in view [in verse 11] the same as those mentioned in verse 7: ‘the rest were hardened’? And is not Paul thinking here of those in verse 22: ‘toward them that fell, severity’?” (Epistle to the Romans, Vol I, 75, n. 18). The answers are, “Yes” and “Yes.” But since Murray could not believe that God’s severity, or his hardening of a heart, might be an expression of mercy, he continued to insist that “those who stumbled did fall with ultimate consequences.” The “denotation of those in view” in verse 11, however, is not only “the same as those mentioned in verse 7,” as even Murray recognized; it is also the same as those mentioned in verse 12: those whose “full inclusion” will mean so much more than the stumble that made their full inclusion possible.

11 As the New Testament Scholar James Dunn correctly summarized the point, “God hardens some in order to save all; he confines all to disobedience in order to show mercy to all” (Romans 9-16, 696).

12 See A. W. Pink, “Eternal Punishment,” Sec. 6.

13 Although I here adopt the interpretation of these texts that prevailed in the early church, especially in the East, until Augustine tried to circumvent it, many scholars do reject it and do so for reasons that I find utterly unpersuasive. Some insist that in 3:19 the “spirits in prison” were fallen angels rather than the spirits of disobedient humans; others insist that, according to 4:6, the gospel was preached (passive voice) by someone or another to those who were previously alive long enough to hear it and then subsequently died before 1 Peter was composed. Fortunately, however, we need not try to resolve such exegetical disputes here, because the idea that the Cross built a bridge over the hitherto unbridgeable gulf between Hades and Abraham’s bosom in no way requires some particular interpretation of these texts.

14 Elhanan Winchester, The Universal Restoration Exhibited in Four Dialogues between a Minister and His Friend (Philadelphia: Gibon, Fairchild & Co., 1845), p. 25. 10

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Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University and author of the celebrated book on the greater hope, The Inescapable Love of God.

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28 Responses to How to Read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective

  1. Beau Branson says:

    I’ll have to read this thoroughly later (just skimmed it for the moment). I’m always interested in what universalists do with the false prophet and the anti-Christ. (Rev. 20:10 “And the devil who had deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. brian says:

    Well argued, Dr. Talbott. Apart from particular elements of your argument (largely persuasive,) the key hermeneutical claim is that “a theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole is as much an art, as much a work of the imagination, and as much a product of theological reasoning as it is of historical and linguistic study.” I concur. Indeed, I would further claim (following David C. Schindler’s exposition in The Catholicity of Reason and aspects of William Desmond’s metaphysics) that reason itself is ecstatic, necessarily responding to reality by moving beyond itself. There is an intrinsic aesthetic aspect to revelation that requires interpretation to transcend a more limited notion of Scripture as a collection of “univocal facts.” Hence, a kind of wise finesse is called for whereby the beauty of the Lord initiates a participation in vision. Imagination is equivocal. It can be deformed by diabolic powers or become a kind of “rhapsodic nihilism” (Nietzsche’s poetic will-to-power as the alternate to a mathesis using technology to impose meaning on a valueless, “neutral” nature.) Yet imagination is properly not a subjective distortion or a lower grade knowledge secondary to reason, but the flourishing mode by which reason evades the narrow limits of discursive ratio. The medieval notion of intellectus points towards a more robust reason, a loving perception that surpasses the kind of dualist “either/or” of finite being in favor of Triune coincidence of Justice and Mercy.

    Unfortunately, one cannot produce vision by argument. In that regards, dialectic is necessarily limited.

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  3. I have four children. I will lead them all to a successful life. Of course there is no comparison in my imperfections as a father with the perfection of God’s salvation. But I will still say with confidence that I have excluded none of my children when leading them to success.

    What does it mean to lead?


  4. Dennis says:

    If “universalism” is true, then why be a Christian at all, why bother trying to be “good” in this world, or to believe anything, if all will be saved in the end? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry, and perhaps be a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin if you feel like it, because all will be saved in the end eh?

    You do realize what you preach is indeed heresy? Or, being a univerasalist, I guess there is no heresy. After all, one will be saved no matter what one believes according to universalists.


    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I cannot speak directly for them, but I’ve read enough of Dr. Talbott’s work as well as Fr. Aiden’s to say that they would disagree with probably all of your characterization of Christian Universalism. What you believe, what you do, etc. is of vital importance to your salvation in any orthodox version of Universalism. That everyone will eventually attain salvation does not mean that there are no conditions which much be met. To your first question, a response could be that we do XYZ in this life because there are consequences to our actions and because our choices move us closer or further from our inevitable salvation. That the negative consequences of our actions don’t end up being eternal doesn’t seem to me to render their avoidance meaningless or fruitless. If I were to light my arm on fire, would it make sense to say “I won’t bother putting pouring water on it because in the end all flaming shirts will go out”?

      When it comes to whether or not this is heretical, you should check out Fr. Aiden’s article Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was for a starter. I would also recommend Robin Parry’s 7 Myths About Universalism as well as Dr. Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God. I’ll stop here before I go on too much of a link spree!

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      • Dennis says:

        “…because our choices move us closer or further from our inevitable salvation…”

        But if salvation is “inevitable”, what does “closer” or “further” mean sub specie eternitatis? A few thousand, or million, or billion extra “years”, more or less, in Purgatory (or the Orthodox equivalent – “toll-houses”), i.e. nothing in the grand scheme of eternity? If salvation is “inevitable”, if all will indeed be saved inevitably, and there is truly no chance of final, irrevocable, damnation, then nothing on this earth matters, and nothing of one’s actions or beliefs matter at all.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Dennis you are in a serious soteriological pickle.

          If salvation is by reason of Christ, then following your thinking indeed what we do here ‘nothing on this earth matters’. If salvation is however by reason of repentance then nothing wrought by Christ matters. You are operating on a modern notion of freedom, a freedom unhinged from the Good. It does not serve you well.

          “Why not just eat, drink, and be merry, and perhaps be a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin”
          – because none are Christ, none are Love, Life and Liberty!

          Christ be known, there is absolutely no reason to wait for the inevitable.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Dennis says:

            Of course salvation is by reason of Christ. It doesn’t follow from that, however, that all will indeed inevitably be saved – which is what universalism proclaims.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Dennis, to demonstrate the claim that “will will indeed inevitably be saved” is not the intent of Dr Talbott’s article. For such a demonstration, I refer you to his book The Inescapable Love of God. Tom’s purpose in this paper is limited–namely, to present a reasonable and plausible way to read the Scriptures. Whether anyone will find it convincing will depend, I suspect, on prior dogmatic commitments. In other words, it’s not enough for an opponent of the greater hope to quote biblical passages, as the universalist interprets these passages differently. Plus, as Tom points out, the universalist also has biblical passages he can quote that plainly declare the salvation of all.

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        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          It seems like you might be thinking of inevitability as being entirely opposed to freedom, which in turn renders individual actions meaningless. This is simply not so. In fact, it is precisely when a person reaches a state of total freedom that any choice against the good becomes impossible. As David Hart says:

          “The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance. Thus God is perfectly free precisely because he cannot work evil, which is to say nothing can prevent him from realizing his nature as the infinite Good.”

          To add to this, Thomas Aquinas wrote that “…the power of willing is caused by God alone. For to will is nothing but to be inclined towards the object of the will, which is universal good.” ST Ia, 105, 4

          So we find ourselves in a position where our wills are naturally inclined towards the good (aka God) as their ultimate end and ultimate freedom. To say that the possibility of a final and irrevocable damnation is necessary for our actions to have meaning is to say that irrationality, bondage and evil are necessary in order for rationality, freedom and good to exist.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      A quote I can’t find the source for: “If you are moral because you fear hell and desire heaven you aren’t moral at all; you’re a sociopath on a leash”

      Liked by 2 people

    • RC says:

      Are you asking why we would want someone to live in the true freedom of union with Christ? Is faith in Christ only beneficial because we get to avoid hell? Participating in the life of the Holy Trinity is joy beyond compare. Why would we not desperately want that for all people, here and now?

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jim says:

      “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.” ― Rustin Cohle, “True Detective” (HBO)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kim Fabricius says:

    On Romans 11, see the concurring analysis of Douglas Campbell, the the doyen of contemporary apocalyptic readers of Paul, in his recent compelling portrait of the apostle Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (2018). From chapter 13 (“Love Wins”) on Romans 11:26a: “All Israel will be saved”:

    “Why? Essentially, because of the nature of God who summoned Israel into existence in the first place… He is this sort of God, a God who lovingly elects and then maintains this commitment in spite of any hostility and foolishness in the objects of his love. His love will eventually triumph over Jewish unbelief. In short, in the contest between divine benevolence and human recalcitrance fought out in the space that is Israel, God will win. All Israel will be saved.

    “But there seem to be no good reasons for withholding exactly this narrative from humanity in general. (Paul himself did withhold it, but we are extending him here consistently.)

    “God loves humanity as much as he loves Israel, Israel standing as a remnant and hence as a saving sign in relation to the rest of humanity just as the believing Jewish remnant stands as a sign to the rest of Israel… In the contest between divine benevolence and human recalcitrance fought out in the space that is the human race, God will win. All humanity will be saved. And we can be confident, in view of this, that God really is a covenantal God, committed to us all permanently and irrevocably.”

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    • apoloniolatariii says:

      Robert Jewett in his commentary to the Romans interprets Paul as a universalist too. And EP Sanders seems to be persuaded of this interpretation as well.


  6. Rodney Morrison says:

    I have read many articles on this blog regarding universalism. I still am unsure how that viewpoint does interpret the sayings of Jesus, such as the “outer darkness” in Matthew 22:13. Are these temporary abodes or is there some other exegetical approach taken. I would be grateful if Father Kimel or others could direct me to where these are treated in regard to universalism.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      George MacDonald in “Unspoken Sermons” returns to this theme several times. You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg, if you are interested.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Picking up on Iain’s mention of George MacDonald, here’s a passage from “Consuming Fire”:

      If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him–making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end–for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself–with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;–then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope.

      MacDonald refuses to give up on God’s desire and power to save all.

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  7. Tom Talbott says:

    Hi Dennis,

    You wrote: “If ‘universalism’ is true, then why be a Christian at all, why bother trying to be ‘good’ in this world, or to believe anything, if all will be saved in the end? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry, and perhaps be a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin if you feel like it, because all will be saved in the end eh?”

    I have addressed this question so many times over recent decades that you will forgive me, I hope, if I try to save time by copying a previously composed response. Here is what I wrote in the second edition of The Inescapable Love of God, page 194:

    “But if our salvation is guaranteed from the beginning and guaranteed no matter what choices we make in the present, then where is the incentive, many would ask, to repent and to enter into communion with God? Why not just keep on sinning if we are going to be saved anyway? That very question, however, betrays a terrible confusion, and Paul himself, I might add, exposed a similar confusion when his interlocutor had asked: ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ (Rom 6:1). Nor did Paul ever reject the assumption behind the question: namely, that the more we sin, the more grace will indeed abound. To the contrary, he endorsed this very assumption when he wrote [two verses earlier]: ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20). Not in a million, or a billion, or even a trillion years could our sins ever out-duel the grace of God.

    “So why, then, did Paul answer his own question, correctly, with his characteristic ‘By no means’? He did so because of his firm conviction that sin is utterly irrational and utterly contrary to our own best interest. For how, he in effect asked, could those who have ‘died to sin’ and therefore understand its true nature continue to sin (6:2)? Is not sin (or anything that separates us from God) precisely the problem, the very thing making our lives miserable? That the pain I experience when I thrust my hand into a flame may serve a beneficial purpose—because it enables me to avoid an even greater injury in the future—hardly entails that I have a good reason to thrust my hand into the flame again and again. And similarly, that the misery and discontent that sin brings into a life can serve a redemptive purpose—because it can provide in the end a compelling motive to repent—hardly implies that one has a good reason to keep on sinning and to continue making oneself more and more miserable in the process.”

    You went on to write: “You do realize what you preach is indeed heresy?” I certainly realize that many regard Christian universalism as a heresy, even as the Arians regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as a heresy. I grew up, after all, in a fundamentalist church, attended a conservative Christian high school, and later attended an evangelical seminary. But you are quite mistaken when you remark that, “being a univerasalist, I guess there is no heresy.” To the contrary, I regard the Calvinist understanding of limited election as quite heretical, even demonic. Having said that, however, I see no point in charging others with heresy and doing so as a pronouncement rather than as the conclusion of a careful argument. All that typically accomplishes is to put an end to what might otherwise have been a fruitful discussion.

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  8. Tom, thank you for providing us a brief interpretive framework for approaching universalism, especially from a Protestant framework. It is especially important to interact with those in my own Calvinist tradition on the matter, and I appreciate how you do this Murray, Moo, and Hodge are all (rightly) respected scholars in the tradition, and men whose work I still esteem of value. I have shifted to a more Barthian or Torrancean Reformed position, and while they fall short, or in Torrance’s case explicitly deny universalism, it is to me clearly implied in their teaching on election and atonement. I also think that Robin Parry gives an admiral exegetical defense of universalism in his book, especially since his audience is a more general one.

    I remain happily within my Protestant, even Calvinist tradition (though I suspect many of my Calvinist brothers reject my understanding of Reforming Calvin as mere pretense) because I do think that Reformed Protestantism, for all of our defects have a legitimate Protest against Rome, and that the high view of Scripture among confessional Protestants ensures that the preaching of the Word in the life of the church remains a prominent feature of our tradition (which, though not absent in Orthodox and Catholic circles is certainly not as prominent). The philosophical case for universalism is rather straightforward, and has the moral and ethical weight to remain formidable even in the Western Protestant world. However, I have yet to come across exegetical arguments for universalism among Protestants that are as rigorous as the exegetical arguments made among the Church Fathers, or Orthodox proponents – Robert Capon, while he doesn’t seem to argue for a throurogoing universalism, probably does the best job in sustained arguments for at least a maximal view of salvation. Are there any works that you are aware of that build off of the solid work that Parry has done, but are possibly more scholarly and make a more comprehensive case? My sense is that there is still much work to be done in this area, because as you rightly argue in the limitations of the blog article, the case is actually quite strong for apokatastasis.


  9. Reblogged this on ST. JUDE'S TAVERN and commented:
    Protestant scholar Thomas Talbott presents a solid interpretative framework for universalism, interacting with several respected Protestant scholars in this helpful summary.


  10. Jeff says:

    Problem is nature doesn’t determine each hypostases, it wasn’t hypostases that were assumed , ( Damascene), so necessary universalism has problems


  11. I’m reminded of St. Thomas’ disputed question on the eternity of the world, in which he argued that the question of whether the world was eternal , as Aristotle claimed, or had a beginning “in time” was a question in which either answer could be plausiby held through Reason and Philosophy, it required Revelation to provide the definitive answer. In like vein, I see Dr Talbot and Fr. Kimel’s presentations on Christian Universalism – especially this one on the art of interpreting scripture as a whole- as arguing for the plausibility, not the necessity of the Truth of Universaliam. I am not persuaded of the necessity of this teaching, but I can and do recognize it’s plausibility, all other things going being equal. The caveat is that all other things are not equal.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I do not know if Dr Talbott would be satisfied with plausibility, but I am. If biblical interpretation is more than critical-historical exegesis but art inspired by the Spirit–and it must be this “more”; otherwise Scripture becomes mere historical artifact–then I will be happy if my readers find my interpretation of Scripture plausible but (yet) not probative. The “yet” may lie on my side (inadequate exegesis of difficult passages, failure to attend to the liturgical or theological tradition, spiritual and aesthetic immaturity, undeveloped virtues, etc.), but it may also lie on the side of the reader, for the same aforementioned reasons. But in addition to all of this, I believe what is often the case is that both are looking at the data through two different hermeneutical paradigms. What do you see, rabbit or duck?


      • Well, to answer your last question first, it depends on just how much (of the image) I see. When I first saw the image and before reading the question i saw a duck, but that was also because the image was cut off by the keyboard before the neck. Then I saw the whole and could see a rabbit, especially when i
        tilted the image such that the two protuberances point upward. When I see it’s “natural ” now though, i see a duck coming out of the back from a rabbit, while sharing an eye like a magical transformation frozen in time.

        As to the plausibility argument, one problem with merely accepting plausibility is you get Anglican adoption of ordination of women because proponents claim as a plausible interpretation that St. Paul recognized, accepted, and approved leadership roles of women *in the Church*, but that centuries of overlaid patriarchal practice and (mis)interpretation all but obliterated St Paul’s true meaning; Tradition certainly disfigured it, or so the argument goes.

        On the other hand, I am content to *hope* for the salvation of all, and leave it to the Unfathomable Justice, Love, and Mercy of God to work out what is truly meant by reconciliation of all things in Christ.


  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have just republished an article by Dr Talbott that was originally published here two years ago: “Free-Will Theodies of Hell.” It should add a different dimension to the discussion.


  13. brian says:

    I was perusing Bulgakov’s The Lamb of God today. This passage has relevance for the topic:

    Certain authors (in particular, Socinus) have expressed doubts concerning the very possibility of redemption: How can the sin of one individual be pardoned in virtue of the sufferings experienced by another individual? The very manner in which this question is stated is marred by individualism and juridicism, however, for it considers only isolated individuals to whom the principle of formal justice is applied. However, such a difference between “mine” and “thine” is overcome by love, which knows not only the difference between I and thou but also their identity (italicized). That which is absurd for abstract justice becomes natural for love. And, above all, Christ is by no means “another” individual for every human being, for the New Adam includes in Himself every human being naturally (italicized) in His essence and compassionately (italicized) in His love. The sin He takes upon Himself by virtue of love is no longer a sin alien to Him; it is now His own sin, although not committed but only accepted by Him. Such is the power of identification (italicized) that is manifested in the redemption. . . . Here we have not a juridical (italicized) but an ontological (italicized) relation, which is based on the real unity of the human essence, given its real multiplicity in the multi-unity of hypostatic centers. Christ assumed the entire (italicized) human nature (p. 362).

    This ought to be read in conjunction with David Bentley Hart’s essay “The Whole Humanity.” I maintain that much thought regarding soteriology is locked into conceptual modes that do not take into account the distance between person as revealed by Christ and atomized individualism. Juridical notions that apply to the latter are insufficient for the novelty of the former.

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