Universalism Is ‘Alive and Well’ — How Do We Oppose It?
Dr. McClymond, hello. To start us off, what books, besides the Bible, have most impacted you?
That really is hard. One would be Jonathan Edwards’s Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. That was a focus of half of my doctoral dissertation. I remember when Piper came out with his new edition of that. I wrote him a letter because I just was taken with joy.
At that time, there was almost no one writing on it. I mean, it just dropped out of sight. Everyone was always talking about Freedom of the Will, which obviously is important. But Sydney Ahlstrom at Yale said that the dissertation on The End was the essence of Edwards’s theology. It’s kind of a distilled down version of that “God-entranced vision,” to use the language of the book.
Yes, that book is titled God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Such a great book, and fundamental to Edwards and Piper and everything we do at Desiring God.
But we’re not here to talk Edwards this time. We’re here to talk to you, Michael J. McClymond, about your new book. We talked six years ago, and in passing you said you were starting a new project about the history of universalism. I had no idea that would become a massive two-volume magnum opus. It is a 1,400-page work titled The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, now out from Baker Academic. What an incredible achievement. So talk to us about Christian universalism. First off, what is Christian universalism?
Well, first of all, starting with the word universalism. Universalism, quite simply, has different meanings in different contexts. In the context of theology, it is the idea that in the end everyone is saved. That would mean all human beings, every human individual, without exception. It could also be extended to the fallen angels. The unfallen angels would not be saved, but fallen angels — Satan and the demons — would be saved as well. That would be the definition if you hold to a full-bore universalism.
“Christian universalism says that everyone will be saved in and through Christ.”
Christian universalism may add something to that that says that all that salvation occurs in and through Christ. Christian universalism, therefore, would be different from an interreligious universalism. There’s plenty of this interreligious universalism in the culture now. It’s the idea that all roads lead to God, and that one need not come through Christ to God. A Christian universalism says, “No, it has to be through Christ. Somehow, through Christ all will be saved.”
When you write, you bring vast awareness to a subject. What are some of the various stripes of Christian universalism you’ve discovered?
Well, it is a big story. One of the reasons the book was as long was that the question of final salvation intertwines with questions about the doctrine of the atonement, questions of free will, questions of election, etc. There’s almost no major doctrine that isn’t somehow a part of the discussion of universalism.
I think the current situation is highly eclectic. I say in my book that there are many schools of fish swimming in the universalist pond. Many universalists have in common the idea of a final salvation for all, but they are major differences between them. They all argue in vastly different ways. Some base it primarily on human free choice, others on divine election, or the “Barthian” type of universalism that focuses on God’s overriding purpose that will somehow achieve its aim. Then there are various forms of a kind of a gnostic, esoteric universalism in which everyone has a spark of the divine within that is destined to return back to God.
There’s a lot of variation. I actually think that the universalists are maybe not aware of how much they differ among themselves.
Speaking of Karl Barth, you do fine work in showing that his doctrine of election is problematic here. He essentially codes universalism into the DNA of his theology through universal election. Your book is a massive historic study that spans decades and centuries, but what’s the current state of Christian universalism in the West today?
My impression is that the Internet and digital media are very prominent in today in promotion of universalism. There’s certainly plenty of books. If one goes to Amazon and types in Christian universalism, there would be lots of popular books, many of them published within the last twenty years. There’s has been this amazing takeoff of new popular literature since about 1999, so in the new millennium.
“I actually think that the universalists are maybe not aware of how much they differ among themselves.”
If you had to look at the world as a whole and find a digital center of distribution online, it’s actually here in Missouri — Hermann, Missouri. It’s an aggregation site called Tentmaker. It’s sort of like the drudge of the universalist wall, because they have lots of links to universalist literature.
My understanding is that Gary Amirault discovered nineteenth-century universalism, and then became very interested in it. I think he’d been a missionary at one point. There’s a huge amount of material there.
There’s also another site called The Evangelical Universalist Forum. I did a crazy thing with that site. I went into that website, and I found there were 100,000 words of comment on an early lecture I gave at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I logged in under my own name, and suddenly I had dozens and dozens of people shooting questions to me. It was actually exhausting. I had to disengage at that point. Who knows, maybe I’ll reengage at some point after they’ve looked at the book.
Universalism is alive and well.
It is alive and well. A man in my own congregation recently took me out to lunch. This is a wealthy retired businessman, who had a house church in his home. We’re sitting over lunch, and he pulls up an app on his phone. He then starts reading from something called the Mirror Bible. The Mirror Bible says that the only difference between Jesus and us is that Jesus knew and understood his own identity. This is very much a gnostic teaching. It’s the idea that we all have God within us, or are identical to God. It says that we are eternal in our essential nature.
He started reading from this, and this gentleman in my church was actually trying to win my own pastor over to universalist views. This book I wrote for everyone out there suddenly was literally affecting the person right next to me in the pew, in my own congregation. It struck close to home.
Frightening. I can imagine church leaders hear you tell this story, and they want to proactively ensure universalism doesn’t get a foothold in their own churches. What do you say to pastors?
Actually, about a year and a half ago I got together with fifty local pastors from the greater St. Louis area. I presented that question: “What would be your pastoral response to universalism?” What they came up with was actually the same essential response that I did through my own research.
“If you preach the cross rightly, so many theological issues resolve themselves.”
To put it very briefly, preach the cross. If the cross is preached in its full depth, richness, and integrity, then it shows us God’s holy hatred and opposition for sin, and his profound love that was willing to endure the destructive weight of sin in order for us to be redeemed.
If you preach the cross rightly, so many theological issues resolve themselves. I think one of the reasons we have universalism emerging in churches is that we haven’t been preaching the cross. The cross shows us that our salvation did not come cheaply, that it came at a very high price.
I would recommend John Stott’s marvelous book The Cross of Christ, which really is a multidimensional study that looks at the cross and suffering, the cross and the problem of evil, and the cross in the Christian life. For someone who says, “I’d like to begin putting the cross more at the center of my preaching,” that book might give some clues as to how to do that.
Excellent. That’s a great book. We’re out of time today, and I have several questions remaining. So let’s pick it up next time, on Wednesday, so I can ask you about the specific ways universalism distorts theology and the gospel of grace.
We’ll see you next time with guest Michael McClymond. I’m your host, Tony Reinke. See you then!