Posted by: Ken Brown | February 25, 2008

Inclusivism and Universalism – To Hell With Sin?

In Michael’s latest contribution to the present conversation, he accused James of being “on the fringe of universalism.” James has denied the charge, though continued to maintain a strong form of inclusivism, which makes this a good time to fulfill my promise to explain how I both affirm inclusivism (though not as strongly as James), and yet deny universalism. The problem is this: If we accept that it is possible for a person who did not know Jesus in this life, to nonetheless be saved by Jesus, how can we expect that anyone will fail to be saved?

Surely, it will be argued, if it is in any sense possible to come to Jesus after death, everyone can be expected to do so. If God really is all good and loving, surely everyone, upon reaching his throne, will see that and believe. Doesn’t Paul say that “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11)? Does he not say that “just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many [oi polloi] were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many [oi polloi] will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19)? If we interpret the first “many” to mean all people, should we not interpret the second in the same way? If so, then Christ’s death is sufficient to save everyone, so how can it fail to do so?

This is an attractive argument, but taking it all the way to universalism means ignoring Jesus’ own comments about hell, his parables about the final judgment (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46), his claim that “wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many [polloi] enter through it” (Matthew 7:13), and the Bible’s ever-present distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. Thus, while Paul’s universalistic sounding comments can perhaps be used to support inclusivism, they cannot easily prove full universalism – unless we conclude that Paul disagreed with Jesus (and/or the Gospel writers) on this point.

Some might suggest, however, that Jesus’ comments are only meant to scare us into being good – like a parent that tells their toddler that if they don’t stay in bed the boogie monster will get them. Maybe God only threatens hell so we’ll follow him more readily, not because he actually intends to send us there.

Leaving aside the fact that this is actually a very disturbing picture of God, it simply cannot be maintained. The problem lies in free will: If God has any need at all to convince us to follow him, that must mean that we have a choice in the matter. But if human beings truly have a choice whether to accept God or reject him, then the possibility that some will in fact reject him can never be denied.

If it is true, as it seems to be, that our sins can become so entrenched that it becomes impossible for us to root them out ourselves, then ultimately we are all faced with an inescapable choice to either seek God’s aid, or remain in our sin. But that’s a problem, because it also seems to be the case that many people (and indeed, all of us are in danger of this) have embraced particular sins so thoroughly that not only are they unwilling to seek help in overcoming them, but they take offense at any suggestion that they need help. Unless we propose that God completely override their will, then such people might well condemn themselves to hell (which really means: choose to separate themselves from God). In such a tragic case, even God cannot help them.

For if God cannot justly override a person’s will to damn them (as any inclusivist must affirm), can he justly override a person’s will to save them? No matter how many chances God gives a human to repent, the possibility can never be denied that some, through pride, will still reject his offers. As usual, C.S. Lewis sums this up it best, in The Problem of Pain (the whole of this book, by the way, is directly applicable to our topic):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’ (pgs. 119-20)

This post is part of a continuing conversation.


  1. i’ve read somewhere (was it Lewis?) that in ruminating over how someone could walk away from God after seeing him, it’s interesting to consider lucifer and the other angels who’ve chosen to walk out of God’s love and rule. while i get that angels and humans are very different beings, that’s stuck with me, not only in context of the what-if-we-have-a-choice-after-death question but also in considering the motives of rational beings in relation to God.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out Carmen! It very well could have been Lewis you are thinking of. He has written in various places about the essential choice between God and the self, such that pride may almost be considered the fundamental sin – the essential rejection of God for self. Since pride is always a threat (even a perfect being in the presence of God could be tempted to treat his perfection as his own rather than as a gift), it can hardly be denied that human beings who have spent their entire lives focused on the self, and ignoring God, will have great difficulty suddenly turning to him, merely because they see his splendor.

    It seems that pride was the real sin of Adam and Eve (which doesn’t change whether we read the story as history, i.e. an account of particular people named “Adam” and “Eve,” or myth, i.e. a paradigm wherein Adam [meaning “man”] and Eve [meaning “life”] symbolize all of us): it wasn’t the taste of the fruit that tempted them, but the chance to “be like God” (Genesis 3:4). It may also have been the sin of Lucifer himself (if you read Isaiah 14:12ff as more than just a hyperbolic condemnation of the king of Assyria). Certainly, it is noteworthy that pride can lead a person to view even kindness as an insult, so how would it perceive the overwhelming goodness of God?

    Such should not make us look down on our self-focused neighbors, however, but rather to tremble at our own continuing pride and selfishness, and point them away from us and towards Him.

    Grace and peace!

  3. What I read in this post stands in stark contrast to what James says and is, for the most part, right on target with my view. As I’ve said numerous times, Christianity is at once inclusive and exclusive but not to the point of lapsing into universalism.

  4. Michael,
    I’m glad you (“for the most part”) agree with this post, but I think that you are misreading James when you accuse him of universalism. He has never (that I have seen) claimed that everyone will be saved, merely that it is possible to live a life of surrender and service that leads to God, even without maintaining full Christian orthodoxy. If he is willing to declare unambiguously that someone like Rabi’a is a better follower of Christ than many a so-called “Christians,” he shows more of a willingness to judge particular cases than I have, but that is far from claiming that all religions (or lack-thereof) ultimately and unfailingly lead to salvation. I may think that he is a bit too cavalier in dismissing the line between Christian and non-Christian, but I don’t think he is a universalist, nor even a true pluralist (unless I have quite misunderstood him, and he is welcome to correct me).

    On the other hand, I think you go too far in the other direction. When you are willing to question the salvation of Abraham himself (as it seems you have done, here), James is right that you are letting an overly exclusivistic reading of Christianity overwhelm your exegesis. As far as I can see, Paul sees the fact that Abraham was “declared righteous” as the very definition of being saved; to deny this because Abraham didn’t know Jesus makes no sense to me, and is certainly not a distinction Paul himself made.

    God bless!

  5. Wait, wait, wait…I never accused him of being a full-blown Universalist. That’s why the title of the post says “On the Fringes” and ends with a question mark. I am questioning just how close he is to Universalism; I never he said he was one!

    I also think both of you are reading me wrong when you suggest that I am doubting Abe’s salvation. I have tried to reiterate that he may be saved but that is not at all what Galatians is saying.

    I think you both have fallen into the trap of “over-reading” my posts. I think you all picture me as the typical evangelical that you already understand and know. You think you have all my “presuppositions” and “assumptions” figured out. This is not the case though. I would ask that you both try to read my posts a bit more carefully.

  6. Michael, it is entirely possible that I have been “over-reading” your posts, but I have certainly not approached them with the assumption that you are “a typical evangelical that [I] already understand and know.” I think you and I agree on a great deal (as I also agree on a great deal with James), and in any case, I am not one who thinks “evangelical” is a pejorative term. I basically consider myself an evangelical (though I’m pretty sure there are other evangelicals who would deny that I qualify!), but it never even occurred to me to wonder whether you are or not. I have indeed tried to read your posts carefully, but I will endeavor to do so even more from here on.

    That said, I hope you can understand why I would think the following qualifies as questioning or “doubting” the salvation of Abraham (which is not to say that I think or thought that you deny Abraham’s salvation):

    Paul does say that Abraham’s faith made him righteous in God’s eyes. This isn’t even close, though, to asserting that Abraham was saved. Again, Abraham may have been saved but Paul never argues about that here.

    I simply don’t understand where you see Paul making such a distinction between “being made righteous” by faith and “being saved” by faith, but I apologize if I have misunderstood you.

    As for the point about universalism, I was careful to say that you only accused him of being “on the fringe of universalism” in the post itself, but when you responded to my denial of universalism by saying that it “stands in stark contrast to what James says and is,” I interpreted this as a stronger claim. Again, I apologize for having misunderstood you.

  7. I am still trying to unpack the centrality of human response for salvation to take effect not just on an individual scale, but a cosmic scale. I do not think we can divorce this from our understanding of the Kingdom of God and Paul does not make this a distinction either. We have to think communally and not fall into our Western individualistic trappings.

    So I continued the thought mainly looking for clarifications from other views here:

    Who Benefits from Salvation?: III

  8. Hey Drew, you’re latest is very interesting; I’ve added it to the list. I particularly like your point about the kingdom being a present reality which we enter, and not something merely potential that only becomes a reality if we “do our part” (however conceived). We do have to take the step ourselves to enter the kingdom, but the kingdom exists with or without us. I’m not sure I see how this really changes the extent of inclusivism, but it does clarify our thinking a bit.

  9. Ken,
    the “typical evangelical” comment was one that James made first and it seemed in this post, you backed him on. I too, may do my own “overreading”. I can see where you get the Abraham idea but once again, from the horse’s mouth, that’s not what I said or was trying to say. I’ll clarify in my next post.

  10. Hey Michael,
    I think one of the great advantages of these kinds of dialogues is that they reveal not only our misunderstandings, but also our unrecognized assumptions. Thanks!

  11. Ken,
    Here’s a bit of clarification:

  12. I’ve added it.

  13. “Who did not know Jesus in this life”

    I think my comments stem from looking past “this life” or reinterpreting “this life” as something eternal.

    The other thing I am raising is the providence of God. If God is providential all the way, then the issue of salvation rests totally outside of our hands. Thus, pastorally it is easier for me to adjudicate between those who love their neighbor and acts of love versus acts that are not indicative of these. I can leave the question of salvation to God since I think Paul is being rather eschatological in his language pertaining to Philippians especially and certainly in Romans as well to the fulfillment of the age which extends beyond any quantifiable present moment.

  14. Drew,
    I think you are right to emphasize God’s providence (and election), but I think it goes too far to say that “salvation rests totally outside our hands.” As I see it, God’s call to love only makes sense if we have a genuine choice in the matter, which means it is “in our hands” (though only because God graciously put the matter “in our hands”).

    This post is relevant to the subject.

  15. […] tagged “hell” before now, only two discuss hell at all, one of which is fictional, and the other is focused on universalism). This is not an accident. I consider the emphasis on hell seen in […]

  16. […] couple years back on whether non-Christians can be “saved.” As argued in this post, I’m rather partial to universalism myself, but am not sure I can quite accept it, for […]

  17. […] […]

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