Reaons why people think evangelicals cannot be universalists


Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Reaons why people think evangelicals cannot be universalists
“Can an evangelical be a universalist?” In other words, could someone be an evangelical and also believe that one day all people will be saved? If I asked that question of almost any evangelical I know the answer would be a clear and unequivocal, “No!” It would be akin to asking whether a vegetarian could eat pork. Indeed, even those evangelicals who seem to fly close to the wind at times on this issue always seem very keen to make clear that they are “not endorsing universalism”. To admit to being a universalist is the theological equivalent of signing one’s death warrant. It is like putting one’s hand up and saying, “Hi. Guess what - I am a misguided person who has abandoned the faith and embraced heresy. Would you like to be my friend?” So it is with some fear and trepidation that I choose to turn my little fishy nose against the stream and head off in the opposite direction from the majority of my fellow evangeli-fish. I will suggest that the answer to my opening question is actually, “Yes! It is possible to be an evangelical universalist.” Oh, “and would you like to be my friend?”
I must start by emphasising that it is not just a coincidence that few evangelicals have historically embraced universalism. The fact of the matter is that traditionally evangelicals have had strong and sensible reasons for rejecting the belief. If I am going to persuade you that one can be an evangelical and a universalist we will need to consider those reasons and see if they do the trick of blasting universal salvation out of the water. So why have evangelicals found universalism so objectionable? There are several reasons amongst which we find the following:

Objection 1: it is sometimes felt that universalism undermines the seriousness of sin. Universalism suggests, so many evangelicals think, that we do not deserve hell. It suggests that sin is not serious and that God’s “job” is to forgive everyone. Perhaps it even suggests that we all deserve to be saved. The evangelical knows that this liberal anthropology is self-deceptive garbage.

Objection 2: Universalism, it is often said, rests on a woolly and unbiblical understanding of God’s love (God is too kind to hurt a fly) at the expense of God’s justice and wrath.

Objection 3: it is often thought to undermine the necessity of Christ and the cross for salvation. The universalist, it is said, thinks that God will save us through whatever route of salvation we choose, whether it be Christ or some other track. It is believed that for the universalist all ways lead to God as surely as all roads lead to Rome. But the evangelical knows that this pluralist view undermines the glorious uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the gospel.

Objection 4: universal salvation is often thought to undermine the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Even if the Christian universalist insists that all those who are saved are saved through Christ and his cross presumably the universalists are the ultimate inclusivists.[1] They believe that God will save everyone through Christ whether they have heard of Christ or not and, if they have heard of Christ, whether they accepted him or rejected him. Yet, the evangelical knows that the gift of salvation comes to all who trust in Christ but not to those who spurn him.

Objection 5: a belief in universal salvation is usually felt to undermine evangelism and mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved whatever they do, then what motivation do we have to proclaim the gospel to them? Who is going to risk their health, their safety, their families or their lives to reach the lost if the lost will be saved whether we preach to them or not? Evangelism is at the heart of evangelicalism and to undermine it is to rip the heart from our faith.

Objection 6: the claim that all will be saved undermines Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that there is a hell and that it will not be empty. To accept universalism is therefore to fly in the face of the clear teaching of God’s word – something the evangelical knows is folly.

Objection 7: Universal salvation is sometimes said not to be fair. Why do we put all this effort into living the Christian life when God will save us all, including all those evil people who enjoy a life of sin? It is not fair! We may as well have fun sinning now and then let God save us.

Objection 8: universalism is sometimes thought to undermine the Trinity. After all, are not most universalists Unitarians? The historic link between “modern” forms of universalism and this heresy does not bode well.

So - should this lead us to conclude that evangelicals cannot be universalists? In my next I will respond to these objections and argue that, contrary to popular belief, an evangelical can indeed be a universalist.

[1] Inclusivists think that it is possible to be saved through Christ without having explicit faith in Christ. Inclusivists are not usually universalists.
Posted by Gregory MacDonald at 12:42 PM
James Goetz said…
Hi Gregory,

I appreciate reading your views on the web. I’m sorry that I have little time to read entire books while I’m sure that some day I’ll get to read your book.:slight_smile: I wrote a blog article that I believe at least indirectly answers all of the objections that you list. Would you care to look at Orthodoxy and Gregory of Nyssa’s Universalism?

I’ll check out the rest of your posts.


August 13, 2008 3:25 PM

What is the sin unto death?

I enjoyed reading your book. I wasn’t able to totally embrace it as there are far too many exegetical questions involved that are unsolved for me. Many scriptures that seem difficult to explain from a EU perspective. My mind and heart are open, however. I appreciated how open you seem to be. So often folks just get mad at you for challenging their beliefs and the dialogue shuts down (all too conveniently, so it seems :sunglasses: ).
Perhaps we can go over the interpretation of verses that seem point away from universalism. Perhaps a starter verse would be this one, which sounds pretty hopeless:

1John 5:16
“If any one sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.”

Peace to you, and may we all follow where He is leading!



“If any one sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.”

Roofus - thanks. I am so pleased that you are hesitant about accepting EU. Very wise. I am afraid that I do not have time to look properly at the text in question so here is a comment off the top of my head.

  1. This text is tricky for any Christian and not simply for a universalist. What is the sin unto death and what is the sin not unto death? It is not immediately obvious.

  2. Suppose that the ‘death’ in question refers to the ‘second death’/Hell (and it is not obvious that it does). I would have no problem with that. I never claim that nobody goes to Hell. Indeed, I think that it is possible for a Christian to reject Christ and face the second death (is this what John is talking about?). All that I claim is that this is not the end of the story.

Allow me to draw an OT analogy to what John is saying if we accept 2. Consider Jeremiah. Judah sinned and sinned and sinned. They went beyond a point of no return and God told Jeremiah not to pray for them - their destruction was now certain! It was a sin that leads to death. But the fact that judgement was now inevitable did not mean that there was not redemption for them beyond judgement.

Is that any help?




Roofus, I’m not sure why you suggest that 1 John 5:16 is incompatible with EU. Could you explain your interpretation of 1 John 5:16?


Here is the scripture:
“If any one sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.”

This seems to imply that there are some sins that are not influenced by others’ intercession. It seems to imply that God will not “give life” to those that commit it. Universalism says that He will do so (give life).
That’s the thought I had. I don’t know what the truth is though about what it actually means, but it seems like it might mean that!



Can you identify the sin leading to death?


[Note to admins: might this portion of the thread be well-ported over to the discussion forum against universalism? We don’t really have a thread there yet…]

Oy… that verse is freakishly difficult to translate anyway:

“If any should be seeing the brother of him sinning sin not toward death {pros} typically means ‘toward’, which is why in KJV English it’s translated ‘unto’], he shall be asking, and He [God] will be giving him life. These are sinning not toward death. There-is [or Is…? or Is there…?] sin toward death; [emphatically] not concerning this-there {ekeine_s}, ‘there’ as a noun] I say that he should be asking. All unfairness [or injustice] is sin; yet is sin not toward death.”

Notice that there isn’t actually a preposition concerning {tois}, ‘these’; though translators often add one in (trying to make a contextual guess). Also, I’m not entirely sure the phrase I’ve marked with a bracketed [Is there…?] shouldn’t be a question: it’s hard sometimes in NT Greek to tell when something is being asked instead of stated. I can however tell that the subsequent phrase is clearly about a ‘there’, as a noun, and not about a ‘this’, or a ‘that’ either. (Even though all my English translations including the various literal ones render it as either ‘this’ or ‘that’.)

I’m inclined to think that switching terms like that, indicates the writer doesn’t want the reader to be asking whether there is a sin toward death: “don’t go there!” as we would say colloquially in English to someone asking us a question we’d rather they not be asking. This impression is heightened by the final phrase of the set, which could be translated “there-is sin” (with the subject tacit), or “is sin” or “sin [emphatically] is”, or even rhetorically, “yet/and is sin not toward death?”

Another reason I’m inclined to think this paragraph isn’t talking about a distinction between praying for brothers who aren’t sinning toward death and not praying for brothers (or whoever) who are sinning toward death, is because we’re clearly taught elsewhere all over the scriptures that any sin is a sin toward death! It is only because of God’s grace that any sin does not result in death, whether in the short run or in the long run.

One could adduce the subsequent paragraph, where John is talking about how those who are begotten of God are not sinning or being touched by the evil (one?) despite living in a whole kosmos lying in the evil; to mean something along Calvinist lines: that there is no point praying for the salvation of those who are not already being begotten of God, in the sense of those whom God has not chosen to act toward saving.

The concept, then, of the previous paragraph (vv 16-17) would be that if we see a person doing sin, whom God has chosen to act toward saving from sin, then even though we know he won’t arrive at death (thanks to God) from doing that sin, we still ought to pray for God to help us cooperate with God in leading our fellow-chosen-one away from sin. (The grammar might work out that way well enough, especially if a ‘for’ was helpfully interpolated into the translation in one of a couple of strategic places.)

My problems with this are a minor exegetical and a majorly practical one. The (only?) minor exegetical problem is that this would render verse 17 inexplicable as an addition: John already told us there is a sin not to the death (that’s presumed already in his injunction, isn’t it?) Why is he reiterating it?–and why bother adding that all injustice is sin? (This is probably why a few late Greek texts omit the negative {mu} in verse 17.) This is aside from the question of whether the smoothest reading of the extant Greek wording allows this meaning, since technically one could interpolate a few words here and there (as pretty much all translations have to do anyway) in order to get the sentences to synch with this meaning.

My major practical problem is that, strictly speaking, the advice is useless–not because there’s no point praying for brethren-who-will-be-saved (since the grammar can be read to indicate, probably correctly in any case, that the point to praying is to ask God how we can help God lead our brother out of sin, in loving cooperation with Him); but because under this kind of theology WE HAVE NO WAY OF TELLING WHO IS AND WHO ISN’T CHOSEN BY GOD FOR SALVATION FROM SIN! Even people who by all outward appearances seem to be professing Christians, and even doing works of miraculous power in His name, may be headed for a condemnation that can only be hopelessly final under Calv (and Arm) soteriology. (cf RevJohn 2:1-7; Matt 7:21-23) Whereas, any of those pagan idolators over there may be led at the last moment to accept Christ. None of us have any way of knowing; we might even be (self?)-deceived about thinking we are of the ‘elect’!

It might be replied that since we cannot know for sure who is and who isn’t of the ‘elect’, then we could pray for everyone and (as the saying goes) let God sort out the bodies. True; but then the Calv translation of the injunction is still useless, insofar as it is read to be saying that we should distinguish between praying for those who are already slated not to arrive at death from their sins and those who will be so arriving.

Given that the larger local context is about idolatry, one might suppose that the topic of whom to pray for and whom not to pray for is actually limited to those who are not pagans and those who (currently?) are, respectively. This would mean that we are not to pray for pagans to be converted to Christianity; which if anything would seem worse than a more general application of the principle! (Since in the more general application at least we have no idea really who we are and are not supposed to pray for; but here the application would practically exclude everyone who isn’t already officially a professing Christian except maybe those, like Jews, who are strict monotheists right now. Even Muslims give pagans a chance to convert before killing them!)

My last observation is that St. Paul, in a couple of epistles (most famously 1 Cor 5 but also 1 Tim 1), hands over to Satan certain rebel teachers who (as 1 Tim puts it) have shipwrecked in regard the faith. (In 1 Tim these are Hymenaeus and Alexander “among others”; in 1 Cor 5 it’s the unnamed teacher and Epicurian factionalizer I like to call Stepmom-Sleeping Guy. :stuck_out_tongue: Possibly he’s one of the named guys in 1 Tim, of course.) In 1 Cor 5’s case, this looks pretty certainly like it’s to the death; and the phrasing is extreme in either case. It also reminds me of the phrasing in 1 John 5 which might be rendered “the evil one” (a nickname for Satan).

But is their cause hopeless?! Not at all! Paul in each case specifically says he’s doing it so that they’ll learn better: in 1 Tim 1:20, “so that they may be taught not to blaspheme”, and in 1 Cor 5:5, “so that [the SSG’s] spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”. Insofar as what they’re doing counts as idolatry, Paul can be said to be praying not for them to live but for them to die: he’s going further in that sense than the Evangelist in 1 John 5! (Even on Calv interpretation, John is simply saying don’t ask for those who are sinning toward death to be given life by God. He isn’t saying his readers should pray for them to die!) But Paul’s active condemnation, though into death, isn’t into hopelessness. On the contrary, he has hope for them through the condemnation of God.

Taken altogether, then, I have to lean toward rejecting a Calv interpretation/translation of 1 John 5: 16-17; and I certainly don’t see how Arminians could do any better with it, even when the translational options are factored in. Whereas, when translational options are factored in, I arrive at a result that synchs up with things I think are being taught elsewhere in Scripture (even on basically the same topic); provides the smoothest use of the Greek as it stands; has some exegetical superiority to other options… and, perhaps incidentally, fits well enough into universalism. :slight_smile:


Sorry, I meant to add that I would end up going with the following interpretive option:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning, a sin not unto death, he should ask and He will be giving him life. These are sinning, not unto death. Is there sin unto death?–I say that he should not be asking about that! All unfairness is sin; yet sin is not unto death.”

One of the ecumenical advantages of putting it this way, is that even Calvinists and Arminians (and their non-Protestant equivalents) could, in various ways, accept and apply the translation; typically by topically synching it with the following verses which talk about how those who are begotten in God are not sinning and are not being touched by the evil one despite living in such a fallen world. The third sentence could even be interpreted now to be a Calv prooftext about the sufficiency of God to save Christian brethren, with St. John disavowing even the question of whether a brother could be sinning so that God would give up on him eventually. (An Arminian might have more problems with it, I guess. {shrug} Not really my problem, though; it still fits well-enough into universalism.)


Jason, well said. I certainly cannot keep stride with you on breaking down the greek and the various possibilies of interpreting but you break it down in such a way that I understand.

I feel this tackles Roofus’ question quite well. I think Gregory mentioned earlier, who doesn’t have a problem with this verse. It is a difficult one to simply extract out and translate.

Perhaps Roofus can give us his thoughts on the passage, being he feels it possibly looks hopeless for the universalist.



Jason pretty much said what I said (that the verse indicates that the “sin unto death” is observable, whereas we cannot observe final impenitence.). Go back and check it!


Well, the verse says that under one translation option, true. But this hardly seems a problem for universalism (unlike, say, practical or even doctrinal Calvinism); and I think that’s what James was looking for more comment on.

Put another way, the verse as commonly rendered would be some kind of serious theological problem, but it wouldn’t be specially a problem for universalism any more than for Calvinism. Maybe less so, since my answer also paralleled Gregory’s reply (though in more particular detail) inasmuch as a “sin unto death” isn’t treated as being finally hopeless elsewhere in scripture despite arriving at the death.

But when the supposed threat (“sin unto death” is possible) comes packaged with a huge practical problem (it looks like the “sin unto death” is supposed to be observable, and yet both practically and doctrinally speaking it cannot really be observable by us, even if Calvinism or Arminianism is true), then I’m not worried about the claim as a problem against universalism. I start to suspect mistranslation instead.


I have a bit of difficulty accepting your above translation, as 1) I have no other authorities to compare your interp against & 2) I don’t know what level of an authority you are (I mean no insult, just claim of ignorance).
I rarely accept someone’s authority unless there are accompanying reason why I should do so.
Sorry, it’s just the way I am, nothing against you!


Well, if it comes to that, I’m not entirely happy with my translation, either. :smiley: As I noted, it’s notoriously difficult to parse out.

Most of my previous comment, though, was about how even if a sin unto death is supposed to be doable in some fashion distinct from a sin not unto death (and remember that part of my original analysis hinged on the fact that all sin is unto death), and not counting the huge practical problem involved in supposedly being able to distinguish one from another sin externally (which looks to me like a hint the translation has gone wrong)–even then universalism isn’t threatened by the statement. Because St. Paul goes even further than St. John (on the typical interpretation) and actually prays for two-or-three of his enemies to be handed over to Satan, at least one of them to the death. (Whereas on the typical interpretation of 1 John 5, John is only saying don’t pray for such people to be saved from death.) But neither of those two Pauline instances are done hopelessly; but rather in hope that the enemies will repent and learn to do better.



Please answer my questions.

Can you define the observable sin leading to death?

How can observe this sin in my neighbors?


Please read my posts. See #4, above- my response to Gregory (it is in color). I already answered that.




Are you talking about “by roofus on Thu Sep 18, 2008 9:22 am”?

If it’s another post, please copy and paste the date and time for me.: )



I’m sure Roofus is talking about his red-colored reply in message #4, included within a total follow-up repost of Gregory’s reply. Roofus wrote, “I don’t see how we could know such a thing, therefore if that is true it would be impossible to follow!” Roofus seems to be agreeing with you, Gregory and me, that there isn’t any way for us to know whether someone is sinning unto death or not; therefore if the verse is translated the way it typically is, the injunction to pray for one kind of sinner but not to pray for another kind would be impossible to follow. Roofus’ comments since then have been consonant with this: he has basically denied that anyone could feasibly distinguish one kind of sin from another; therefore the injunction is at best impractical, or even impossible to keep.


I think James has gotten the impression that you believe this impossibility to be a problem when applied to universalism. Whereas, I think we all understood you at the beginning to be talking about “a sin unto death” being the problem when applied to universalism, but in this fashion: that if we are expected not to pray for God to give life to those who are sinning unto death, in contrast to praying for those who are not sinning unto death, then how can (or why should) we expect God to give life to the sinners-unto-death anyway?

Aside from “unto death” not necessarily being a hopeless situation in several ways (as Gregory and I both mentioned), the question is: do you still think this situation is a problem even when you seem to be clearly agreeing that the injunction is impossible for us to keep?


James- roofus on Thu Sep 18, 2008 9:22 am


Good question, Jason. I have learned new things since post #1. At this point, it remains a mysterious verse. Paul says to pray for all men, no? And Jesus says to pray for enemies (enemies are those denying Christ, for sure.). Is it a problem for universalism? Doesn’t seem to be (at this point in time). This might be a stretch, but maybe it means that we shouldn’t ask God to give life to the unrepentant. It is impossible to please God without faith, for instance.