by Jedidiah Paschall
I am neither a scholar nor the son of a scholar. In truth, I am a son of a plumber, a Bible College dropout typically content to work away at fiction and poetry. This is not to say that I have not studied these matters carefully or that I am unprepared to make a bold, honest, and conscientious defense for the truth as I understand it. I have been asked to make a Reformed case for apokatastasis (universal salvation), and my own limitations notwithstanding, I shall make an effort to argue that the Calvinist tradition must engage this theological position without cavalier dismissal because the coherence of the Reformed system of doctrine is at stake. The only reason why I hazard these scholarly waters is because the matter at hand is anything but academic; it cuts to the heart of a matter of first importance – namely the Christian gospel and all of its implications for the absolute victory of God in Christ. The argument that I will sustain in this discussion is that Reformed Christianity must surrender all pretense to affirming a cohesive theological witness to the goodness of God or a faithful exegetical reading of the whole of Scripture if it falls short of affirming the universal salvation. We Calvinists are a pugnacious bunch, so in keeping with the tradition, there will be no pulled punches. I will seek to address, however elliptically, considerations for the theological case for Christocentric universalism within a Reformed framework, before moving on to Part II in another discussion where I will consider exegetical issues. It must be noted that this discussion is by no means exhaustive, there is much to be explored in terms of Reformed theology and universalism, but hopefully this will suffice in introducing some preliminary issues worth examination.
Before moving forward, it must be said from the outset that the affirmation of apokatastasis has nothing to do with a flaccid sentimentality that seeks to either save God from himself as he has been revealed in Scripture, or to relieve humans from the specter of coming judgement. Christ will return to judge the quick and the dead, and this should be a cause for trembling, not for platitudes. The only possible way to gain entrance into the eschatological bliss of heaven is by the grace of God in and through Christ alone. As Peter proclaims in Acts, “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (4:12). An unapologetic affirmation of the universal hope arises from the moral necessity to ascribe to God only what he is in himself, as well as the moral courage to interpret the whole of Scripture through God’s self-disclosure in Christ. What is not a matter of debate is the existence of hell, which is copiously attested in the New Testament canon; however, what is debatable is the contention that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment for the reprobate as opposed to a provisional and redemptive estate for sinners who have not yet come into union with God.
Protestants inherited their various iterations of eternal perdition through a labyrinthine path of dubious exegesis, ecclesiastical overreach, and political opportunism dating back to the early stages of Christendom; however, what many Protestants in general, and Reformed Christians in particular, might not be aware of is that during the earliest centuries of the church, at least into the 4th Century according to St. Basil the Great, many Christians were universalists.1 “Custom”, says St. Cyprian of Carthage, “without truth is the antiquity of error.”2 It is not proper to assume that inherited custom of declaring the perpetual damnation of the non-elect held to by our Protestant forbears arose from bad faith. However, given the rise in serious universalist scholarship, to continue on a path of assuming the Reformers got the matter in question right without serious consideration smacks of foul-play.
The perpetual infernalist system of thought, traceable to a small handful of the earliest Fathers became ossified after St. Augustine in the West, and was (supposedly – though this is debatable) condemned, with Origen, one of the early Fathers who most cogently defended universal salvation, by the meddling of Emperor Justinian at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The weight of 1500 years transformed the concept of eternal conscious torment in hell from a permissible theological position alongside universalism to a dogmatic fact that silenced the theological vocabulary that might have allowed Protestants to formulate theology along different lines. The categorical rejection of universalism in Western Christianity went largely unquestioned until the 19th Century. The surge in universalism in several branches of Christianity that began with great interest in the 19th Century has again surfaced in recent years, whether from Orthodox theologians such as David Bentley Hart, Catholic scholars such as Ilaria Ramelli, and even conservative Protestant thinkers such as Robin Parry, Thomas Talbott, and the Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp (who simply explores the issue); the doors for reassessment are wide open. In spite of the recalcitrant grip of confessional statements that might not actually best account for what Scripture actually teaches, and the mystifying unwillingness to entertain the notion that the Reformers might have got some matters horribly wrong, which typifies confessional Reformed Christianity both historically and on the contemporary scene, the great virtue that lies at the beating heart of the Reformation and its legacy stretching back a half a millennium is Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. The shining hope for the Calvinist tradition is that it can always be reformed according to the Word of God and the good and necessary consequences of the truth to which Scripture infallibly testifies. 20th Century Reformed theologians such as Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, regardless of their reception in some confessional circles, have managed to present a compelling synthesis of the universal extent of the Atonement, even when they fall short of the logical entailments of their formulae for apokatastasis. Their accounting of the biblical material on election and atonement is a marked improvement upon the theologically and morally questionable Calvinist doctrine of double predestination.
Even when confronted with the indiscriminate scope of Christ’s saving work on behalf of all humanity, questions of efficacy and sufficiency aside, the impulse of erstwhile competent Reformed scholars has been to insist on interpreting the universal statements of Christ’s completed work in bringing salvation to humanity in light of the particularities of a few notoriously difficult and commonly misinterpreted passages (e.g. Romans 9-11) surrounding election, salvation, and damnation. For these scholars, the more-or-less strict adherence to historic Reformed confessions and the broad Evangelical mainstream consensus on hell dating back to the 18th Century and earlier in the Magisterial Reformation leaves the legitimate exploration of apokatastasis in a verboten netherworld. So, what ends up happening is that Christ’s statements that he will draw all men to himself in the Johannine Gospel (12:32), or the Paul’s unambiguous statements in Romans that while all die in Adam, all are raised to life in Christ (5:13), and that all humans were shut up in wrath only so mercy could be shown to all (11:32)3, among numerous other passages that speak to the broad sweep of Christ’s atoning work, are stuffed into conformity to the proportionally far fewer passages that leave the question open to eternal conscious torment.4 So, through an elaborate series of hermeneutical gymnastics, camels can pass through the eyes of needles, and the lighter weight of a small number of passages tips the scales in spite of the far heavier canonical witness in a desperate attempt to retain fidelity to certain features of the tradition that may very well be wrong. I will revisit the exegetical questions surrounding hell at another time, but I want to move on to the theological assumptions that can be marshalled in favor of universalism before winding back to matters of biblical interpretation.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF) 2.1 reads that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Herein, the confessional witness, attested elsewhere in the Magisterial symbols and creeds affirms the most fundamental truths of Classical theism; namely, Divine simplicity and impassibility, thus keeping the Reformed tradition in line with the great Catholic and Orthodox traditions stretching back into the Patristic era. While Reformed theology has struggled at a systemic level of coherence to this Classical theism, the fact that it is a general feature of Reformed theology does open the door to the question of universal salvation, for no small reason other than the fact that apokatastasis is probably the most logical eschatological entailment of Classical theism. If God is pure act, self-identical in all the diverse manners in which he extends himself into creation, there can be no contradictions present in this extension. Whenever God extends himself in justice, he is extending himself identically in love in the same infinite and eternal act. Divine justice, and whatever can be made of the analogical language in Scripture surrounding wrath and the like; this is not divisible from God’s love, mercy, or goodness which is at every instant extending from himself into creation from its protological beginnings to its eschatological end. The good of the creature is always the end to which God moves.
So, at issue, by good and necessary consequence is whether or not the good of the creature can in the final estimation also end in the everlasting perdition. When considering the Reformed Standards in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 1 – “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” raises the question of whether or not eternal conscious torment of any human is in keeping with this chief end of glorifying and enjoying God in perpetuity. It would seem rather torturous to imagine that the damned can enjoy God in any meaningful sense in the agonies of hell with the everlasting impossibility of repenting and eventually being restored to the goodness of God. This is, of course unless one wishes to make the ghastly argument that damnation was included in God’s good purposes for any creature, and a thing to be enjoyed by that creature. This is but one of numerous examples where Reformed theology struggles to achieve coherence if the doctrine of eternal conscious damnation is to be maintained.
The other questions I will briefly touch on here are the matters of election and atonement. Election has been traditionally cast in terms of those who God has predestined to salvation and those he has predestined to perdition, and both of these are not conditioned by any quality present in the human being but solely dependent on the inscrutable and sovereign decree of God (WCF 10). John Calvin takes up the Augustinian understanding of election thusly in The Institutes III.21:
We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast, i.e., that he does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others.5
However, in the 20th Century the theology of election was reinterpreted Christologically by Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. Torrance, for example says:
… in Jesus, the election for all becomes [the] ultimate fact in our existence – and here, therefore, election and substitution combine in the most unique, most intense and personal concentration of the one and the many … In himself, as God and man in union, Jesus Christ is the actualization of the eternal purpose of God to give himself to humanity in pure love and grace … Here where God has given himself to be man’s God once and for all, nothing can undo that decision. But here too God gives man to himself once and for all, and nothing can undo that decision. It is an eternal election of love, an everlasting covenant.6
Torrance’s Christological recasting remains quintessentially Reformed in its unconditional flavor. But, instead of a merely anthropological assertion, the doctrine is depicted in a fundamentally Christocentric manner, as the above indicates. Christ is elect — hence, in Christ humanity in its entirety is elected, thus showing himself to be the God who saves, not discriminating between one class of humanity versus the other but indiscriminately for the whole of humanity.
In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theologians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:
We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.7
This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:
Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.8
It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy cannot reasonably be called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.
Oliver Crisp in Deviant Calvinism does just this by providing an analytic case that Universalism is logically compatible for both Augustinian and Barthian Calvinists. While I cannot enumerate all of Crisp’s arguments I will note the following, first regarding Augustinian Calvinism:
Augustinianism and universalism are compatible. Or, more specifically, the central moral and metaphysical intuitions behind Augustinianism are compatible with universalism … In recent theological-philosophical discussion of eschatology, there has been an interest in what has become known as the soteriological problem of evil. This is the contention that and all-powerful, loving God would ensure that none of humanity suffers everlasting punishment in hell … The argument for Augustinian universalism is one way in which an Augustinian who is a determinist could respond to this problem by embracing universalism (in which case the problem dissolves, because there is no soteriological problem of evil: all human beings are saved).9
Likewise, regarding Barthian universalism, while Barth is notoriously difficult to logically pin down Crisp asserts that Barth’s theology at minimum contemplates hopeful universalism:
If human moral freedom consists in some version of compatibilism, then, applied to Barth’s views, human beings are all elect in Christ and will all be saved. Indeed, this is inevitable, given the prior free act of election in Christ, the Elect One.10
I wholly recommend Crisp’s work in Deviant Calvinism. Generally, I have little interest in analytic theology but Crisp puts analytic arguments to fantastic use in demonstrating that universalism is certainly conceivable within a Reformed framework. What is most notable for the sake of this discussion is that universalism need not be a fringe question in Reformed theology – it can move to the center of what it means to be Reformed in the 21st Century. Whether one wishes to remain within the classical mainstream of Augustinian Calvinism, or if one prefers to follow a Barthian/Torrancean framework (which I do with the notable exception that I remain a Classical theist), the question of universalism ought not be dismissed on theological grounds without a thorough and careful investigation.
As I made clear from the beginning of this discussion, I am not a theologian in any proper sense. In many ways I feel inadequate to the task of making any definitive conclusions about the Reformed systems of doctrine. However, as a Reformed Christian, I feel it necessary to bring these matters to the attention of those in my Reformed community. My efforts here are not to liberalize or soften Reformed theology, whatever can be made of the tradition it will likely remain perennially stern in character. However, this does not mean that Reformed theology should be recalcitrant or immune to further reform. Perhaps my betters in the Reformed community would be more suited to the task of making a robust case for universalism. My hope is that, with respect to theology, it would include a continuing and deeper ressourcement with the Patristic witness and an engaging dialogue with the catholic tradition in general. Universalism is not going anywhere anytime soon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news; I would argue not merely for a flinty remnant but for all humanity without distinction. If there is any moral analogy between humans and God, the question of the eschatological destiny of humanity must deal with the question of the nature of that destiny not for some but for all. Can heaven and the beatific vision of God truly contemplate the specter of anyone being irretrievably lost? My contention is unapologetically no. For God’s goodness to be good at all it must extend, in the words of Tennyson, “at last far off, at last to all.”
￼ Basil Asketikon SR 267. ￼
 Epistle 73.9￼.
 On Romans 11:32 David Bentley Hart states: “This is the conclusion to the question of 9:14 above, which prompts the long, difficult series of reflections that end here, and which is posed in its most troubling conditional form at 9:22 (what if those who have erred or stumbled are merely vessels of wrath, whose only function is to provide a contrast to vessels of mercy?). At 11:11, however, Paul affirms that those not elected for service on the basis of divine foreknowledge, though they have stumbled, nevertheless will never fall; and at 11:12 and 25 he affirms that the temporary estrangement of the elect and ‘those who stumble’ is a temporary providential arrangement that allows the ‘full totality’ of Jews and gentiles alike to enter in; and here, finally he affirms that there is no actual distinction between of vessels of wrath from vessels of mercy: rather all are bound in sin and all will receive mercy.” The New Testament: A Translation, p. 311, n. aj.
￼ See, e.g., Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:10.
￼ John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.21.1.
 T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 109.
￼ T. F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, p. 188.
￼ Ibid., p. 189
￼ Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism, pp. 97-98.
 Ibid., p. 168.
(to be continued)
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Jedidiah comes from a construction management background and is slowly transitioning into education in order to free up more time for his passions of writing fiction and poetry. He is a Christian from a fairly conservative Reformed background with a deep appreciation for Eastern Orthodoxy and Charismatic Christianity. His theological love begins with the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament theologians like Von Rad, Brueggeman, and Waltke and he is developing a keen interest in Classical theism and the Apostolic Fathers. You can read more of his work at St. Jude’s Tavern.