What Is Universalism?

Learn why universalism is popular, but fatally flawed

Cross shining on all people - universalism
carloscastilla / Getty Images  

Universalism (pronounced yu-ni-VER-sul-iz-um) is a doctrine that teaches all people will be saved. Other names for this doctrine are universal restoration, universal reconciliation, universal restitution, and universal salvation.

The main argument for universalism is that a good and loving God would not condemn people to eternal torment in hell. Some universalists believe that after a certain cleansing period, God will free the inhabitants of hell and reconcile them to himself. Others say that after death, people will have another opportunity to choose God. For some who adhere to universalism, the doctrine also implies that there are many ways to get into heaven.

In the past several years, universalism has seen a resurgence. Many adherents prefer different names for it: inclusion, the greater faith, or the larger hope. Tentmaker.org calls it "The Victorious Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Universalism applies passages like Acts 3:21 and Colossians 1:20 to mean that God intends to restore all things to their original state of purity through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:18; Hebrews 2:9), so that in the end everyone will be brought into a right relationship with God (1 Corinthians 15:24–28).

But such a view runs counter to the teaching of the Bible that "all who call upon the name of the Lord" will be united to Christ and eternally saved, not all people in general.

Jesus Christ taught that those who reject him as Savior will spend eternity in hell after they die:

Universalism Ignores God's Justice

Universalism focuses exclusively on God's love and mercy and ignores his holiness, justice, and wrath. It also assumes that God's love depends on what he does for humanity, rather than being a self-existing attribute of God present from eternity, before man was created.

The Psalms speak repeatedly of God's justice. Without hell, what justice would there be for murderers of millions, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? Universalists say Christ’s sacrifice on the cross met all the demands for God’s justice, but would it be justice for the wicked to enjoy the same rewards as those who were martyred for Christ? The fact that often there is no justice in this life requires that a just God impose it in the next.

James Fowler, president of Christ in You Ministries, notes, "Desiring to focus on the rosy optimism of the universal perfection of man, sin is, for the most part, an irrelevancy... Sin is minimized and trivialized in all universalistic teaching."

Universalism was taught by Origen (A.D. 185–254) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 543. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.

Fowler adds that one reason for the resurgence of universalism is the current attitude that we should not be judgmental of any religion, idea, or person. By refusing to call anything right or wrong, universalists not only cancel the need for Christ's redeeming sacrifice but also ignore the consequences of unrepented sin.

As a doctrine, universalism does not describe one certain denomination or faith group. The universalist camp includes members of varying doctrinal categories with differing and sometimes contradictory beliefs.

Are Christian Bibles Wrong?

Much of universalism relies on the premise that Bible translations are wrong in their uses of the terms Hell, Gehenna, everlasting, and other words that claim eternal punishment. Despite the fact that recent translations such as the New International Version and English Standard Version were the efforts of large teams of knowledgeable Bible scholars, universalists say the Greek term "aion," which means "age," has been consistently mistranslated across the centuries, leading to false doctrine about the length of hell.

Critics of universalism state that the identical Greek term "aionas ton aionon," which means "ages of the ages," is used in the Bible to describe both the eternal worth of God and the eternal fire of hell. Therefore, they say, either God’s worth, like the fire of hell, must be limited in time, or the fire of hell must be neverending, like God’s worth. Critics say universalists are picking and choosing when aionas ton aionon means "limited."

Universalists reply that to correct the "errors" in translation, they are in the process of producing their own translation of the Bible. However, one of the pillars of Christianity is that the Bible, as the Word of God, is inerrant. When the Bible must be rewritten to accommodate a doctrine, it is the doctrine that is wrong, not the Bible.

One problem with universalism is that it imposes human judgment upon God, saying that logically he cannot be perfect love while punishing sinners in hell. However, God himself warns against attributing human standards to him:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8–9 NIV)   


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "What Is Universalism?" Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-universalism-700701. Zavada, Jack. (2020, August 27). What Is Universalism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-universalism-700701 Zavada, Jack. "What Is Universalism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-universalism-700701 (accessed March 27, 2023).