The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Allegorical vs Literal vs Universalism

Not sure this would be the right area to post this, but will give it a shot.

I’ve been a universalist Christian in some sense for almost 20 years. My understanding of the Bible’s universalism is that although it’s foundation is in the Bible’s literal sense, it’s not clarified or expounded in the literal but allegorical sense. [In general conversation I use terms like ‘allegorical’ and ‘metaphorical’ as generalizations meaning merely figurative.] Thus for me the AIWN and AIWNIOS arguments have never really meant much (this, as is true of semantics generally, is an argument lodged in literalist hermeneutics) though many Christian universalists appear to place exceptional (and imo unwarranted) weight on this argument. Conversely, it seems not many CUs look to the allegorical to explain their universalism.

If the salvation of all is true and eternal punishment is not, shouldn’t a universalist soteriological account be able to resolve the tensions imposed by traditional ideas of salvation? What puzzles me is that the allegorical view–at least the one I contend for–does just this, so why do universalists seem intent on looking for answers in a literal landscape which has not been able to resolve the tensions between Calvinist and Arminian theology for over 400 years?


I don’t understand your question or affirmation. The reason I came to believe in UR is because 1) all the passages of scripture that seem to affirm the salvation of all, 2) the lack of actual biblical evidence in support of ECT, and 3) the passages concerning judgment that seem to affirm that judgment is of a remedial nature. And to me UR fully embraces the principle perspectives of both Calvinism and Arminianism concerning the nature of God, that God is sovereign and loves all. Of course, UR also rejects the concept of ECT that both Calvinism and Arminism affirm, that (Calvinism) God chooses some to damn forever and (Arminianism) that Jesus fails to save some. One makes God out to be a monster, the other makes God out to be inept and puts faith, not in Jesus, but in the will-power of man.

Hi Lightbuzz

I’m with Sherman here. I don’t understand what you mean when you say, “why do universalists seem intent on looking for answers in a literal landscape which has not been able to resolve the tensions between Calvinist and Arminian theology for over 400 years?”

Please could you explain what you mean by this statement. Thanks.


Hi Sherman,

I understand your elaboration for coming to the salvation of all.
I’m not up on some of the popular acronyms…assume ECT means ‘eternal torment’?

I’ll try to explain what I mean using a couple questions. There are a number of unresolved tensions between Calvinism © and Arminianism (A).

  1. Re eternal salvation, C claims God chooses, A claims humans choose. How would Christian Universalism (CU) resolve this tension without creating a new one?
  2. Setting aside the aion/aionios arguments, how would CU respond to C and A use of eternal decrees (some for salvation, other for destruction, for example) of God in salvation?
  3. C and A argue that the Bible is clear that there exist two classes of people, saved and unsaved. How does CU resolve this tension?

I’m asking because as is true in all other brands of Christianity, there are a variety of beliefs in CU, some of which may not be completely compatible with the next CU’s. Don’t want to misrepresent the views of respondents to the OP.

To try to answer your and Johnny’s question simultaneously, I’m speaking in the OP to what I suppose we can call the ‘doctrinal methodology’ we use to provide warrant for our beliefs. Sherman listed some problems with traditional methodology above. I see many of tradition’s problems as caused by an unnecessary grounding in a manmade literalism which controls what Scripture is allowed to say rather than allowing God to say what He will in it. It seems to me many URs respond to traditionalists in much the same vein of traditional thinking…i.e., the aionios/forever arguments is probably the prime example. These seem to me to supply ambiguity to debate, but don’t resolve any tensions. Many–not all–CU arguments seem to follow this failure to resolve tensions in salvation and in some cases appear to present new ones, e.g., C says some justified, A says all justified, CU says A is correct, that this is what God wills, but no tension is resolved in explaining Cs arguments from Bible showing only some justified. This make any more sense?

The Question Never Asked

Truth, when it’s found, has the nature of dispelling ambiguities, of eliminating tensions. Harmony, unity, accord, agreement, conformity, etc. are derivatives of truth. The closer we get to the truth of a subject, the more intense our clarity of understanding becomes. Ambiguity dissolves.

The salvation of all, if it is true, should be able to solve tensions in traditional views of salvation. As long as the dialog surrounding the salvation of all is confined to popular hermeneutics or interpretive standards, truth will not win the day. Seems to me (on theology boards anyway) that the proponents of universalism have only succeeded in supplying a competing third view of salvation using the same expositional format Calvinists and Arminians use, e.g., present passages which support that view, and build a case accordingly. Nothing wrong with this per se, but if this structure doesn’t erase tensions (and it has failed to do so between Calvinist and Arminian theology for over 400 years now), what is gained?

The problem as I see it is thus;

  1. The salvation of all by Christ Jesus’ atonement begins (as do most or all spiritual/moral concepts in the Bible) in the literal, but moves to the allegorical for substantiation.
  2. Most of modern Christianity generally has low regard for allegory and many will not entertain allegorical or esoteric clarification which goes beyond orthodoxy. (Meaning “orthodox” in the 'general not formal sense.)

As to #1, I don’t expect anyone to take my word; if the thread develops, I’ll present a case in support of this.

As to #2, suggesting that the salvation of all can be proven allegorically is immediately dismissed by most opponents with various levels of disdain. Most non-universalists refuse to discuss this possibility further. Even those who engage in discussion usually only do so briefly, then revert to the same arguments as other traditionalists: (You’re changing God’s plain, literal word by making up meaning that isn’t there!; The context of Scripture clearly refutes your ideas!; God intends only one meaning in His inspired author’s words, only those in league with Satan would try to change the pure word of Scripture, etc.) Even most Christian universalists back quietly out of the discussion at this point and go back to arguing in the same literalist vein as traditionalists. This is understandable, since most universalists, including me, come from a traditional Christian background. We’re trained, many of us from youth, to argue from ‘within the system’.

The bigger problem is, I’ve never once heard anyone on theology boards, universalist or traditionalist, ask the truly pertinent question:
“What criteria can we use to determine whether an allegorical Bible interpretation might be true?”

Never. Not once. Most simply accept that allegory is ‘spiritualizing’ and make believe, or carries little or no weight in arguments. There’s no reason to ask how it might actually be tested to see if it’s true because it’s already clear God’s word is being manipulated to say what the allegorist wants it to say. As is typical of most religious discussion, objective truth is not really very important. What’s important is that my truth finds warrant in my mind.

The proper answer to the question is really simple: Any allegorical method should be able to pass the same objective criteria of truth as any other interpretation of the Bible.

The real rub is that tradition has long ago stopped using truth criteria to test the validity of its own doctrines. Calvinists don’t care about the passages which suggest the human will has a role in salvation, and Arminians don’t care that the Bible lists many passages on salvation which point up God’s sovereignty. Now bring in a competing soteriology, universalism, and it will invariably be judged false, not by any objective truth criteria, but by whatever the doctrine happens to be of the non-universalist opponent of the moment. All can’t be saved because the Bible (MY DOCTRINE) says that some are not saved. Those passages you use to show that all will be saved are taken out of context (NOT PROPERLY MODIFIED BY MY DOCTRINE) so they are not valid.

Obviously, the problem is that in the eyes of most traditionalists—at least 98% of those who debate on message boards—their doctrine is to them the same as truth. Therefore, doctrine is the proper standard by which to judge universalism. This is circular—your view can’t be right because it contradicts mine, and mine is true.

Allegory should be able to withstand the same truth tests as the literal, e.g., congruity, harmony, non-contradiction, coherency, etc.

Example: In every passage in which salvation is referenced or alluded to in the Bible in a comparison between two classes of individuals (saved and unsaved) or states of affairs, popular literal interpretive structure maintains the meaning of these verses as applicable to classes of individuals.

Tensions are resolved when it’s understood that God superimposes meaning over and above the authors’ intended meaning (violating a fundamental tenet of evangelical hermeneutics), the truth of which is then found in allegorical structure.

The Universalist contends that all are saved. The traditionalist points to any number of passages which seem to refute the idea: For example, Mat 7:13-14, Luke 13:23-27, Mat 25:32-46, Mat 13:24-30, etc. These tensions are erased in the proper allegorical structure. Metaphorically, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, narrow and wide gate represent conditions found *within each individual *or, in the case of verses like Mat 7:13-14, conditions which allude to distinct classes of individuals. Narrow and wide gate reference these states and the paths each leads to…e.g., evil components are directed to the wide gate [destruction] and good find the narrow gate [life]. Hence the mystery of inner regeneration or sanctification is metaphorically revealed, where bad is destroyed eternally [eternality takes the form of permanence of evil’s eviction from the soul of each person] from the essence of an individual. In keeping with the death and resurrection principle of core Christianity, good is reborn in place of the destroyed evil (metaphorically represented in the Bible by the OT references to the ‘bringing forth of offspring’).

When God’s judgment in Scripture is transferred from the individual to components within each individual, tensions dissolve in the Universalist position and now arise in traditional doctrine. How can God destroy, separate from Himself or condemn an individual in which some good exists? God can never destroy good, which is in harmony with His own essence. Evil stands in total opposition to God’s essence and nature and must be destroyed.

The question remains, can this allegorical model pass the tests of truth? I believe so, with flying colors. The separation of evil from good is harmoniously, congruously present in both Testaments, is coherent in that it simultaneously satisfies both Godly justice and wrath in the form of destruction and rebirth, resolving tensions imposed by the idea that different classes apply to individual human beings. Notice that both eternal hell and annihilation are laid to rest by what I might call ‘allegorical transference’: when the destruction the annihilationist demands is moved from individual to components of the individual, annihilation becomes merely a tool of God (part of the regenerational process) used in the salvation of every soul.

Lightbuzzyear, ECT is short for Endless Conscious Torment. Concerning changing from a literal to an allegorical interpretation of scripture, that’s very challenging. The parables lend themselves to an allegorical perspective. Other more didactic passages don’t, imo. And I believe that in Judgment God does, well, burn the Hell out of us! It is where we face the truth concerning our lives and the truth of the love and righteousness of God, our flesh (selfish nature) is consumed in the fire of God’s presence and our spirits (that which is from God) is inlivened.

It’s going to be very challenging to get people to change to, or even seriously consider, a non-literal interpretive method of scripture, even if the style of literature implies such. And for me, it was not necessary to go there because I’ve found there to be little, if any, support in scripture for ECT, and a surprising amount of support for judgment and punishment of sin being remedial, for our good, and that’s within the literal perspective.

It is my opinion that the EU model balances out the tensions between Calvinism and Arminianism.

For example Calvinism states that salvation can never be lost because Christ secured salvation for those how chose , and Arminianism teaches that salvation can be lost by human will. Eu balances both , in salvation being secure. Human will prevents sanctification or being prepared for the Kingdom of God.

Not sure if I understood your question, but for me personally , this balances out the problems with Calvin and Armenian theology.

Buzz I pretty much only see things on the sod level. I agree that it is only at that level all tensions can be resolved. Not that the literal arguments arent sufficient like Sherman said. But that the fullest expression is attained when we see things at that level. Now for apologetic purposes it may be a very tough road because like you said most christians believe in the letter only. I just did a short paper on UR yesterday for some friends we shared the the true good news with the other day. I devoted one page to the feasts, tabernacle, image in conjunction with 1 cor 15. We’ll see how it goes.

Don’t I know it. But the focus shouldn’t be about merely changing from a literal to allegorical perspective, it should be about resolving tensions in an honest search for truth.

This is interesting in light of the fact that for many centuries the great majority of Christianity has seen tremendous support for an eternal hell in the literal perspective. Universalists are still being pegged as heretics in most Christian denominations. Given the ease with which you brush aside the doctrine of eternal torment as a biblical doctrine and see the salvation of all so clearly within it, how is it that so many Christians don’t also see these things? Are you able to elaborate a clear and concise universalism from the literal sense of the Bible such that opponents are convinced? Can you provide links to threads in which you’ve provided these clear truths in debate with traditionalists? I’ve been debating and reading other debates for many years and I have yet to see an elaboration of biblical universalism that is convincing to non-universalists. I agree with you completely that Biblical death and destruction is punitive and reformative, but how do you present this in such a way that non-universalists also see it?

If I understand your position correctly, I agree with you Wendy. Paul teaches the dual aspect of salvation in Rom 11…after preaching two classes of individuals in time (e.g., branches grafted into or cut off from the wild olive tree) he tells of God’s plan for literally *all *Israel, the eternal promise. Calvinism and Arminianism represent (assuming this is what you are alluding to) the two positions in this temporal/eternal dualism. Arminian faith follows the nature of time and space where one may lose salvation (but I think only temporarily until cleansed to be put back on the path to faith) and suffer God’s wrath…Calvinism adheres to the eternal nature–immutability, where God’s decrees (salvation of all) can’t be broken.