Can a Wesleyan Be a Universalist?

One thing is certain: Rob Bell has gotten Evangelicals talking about Hell and the question of universal salvation. As I watch the exchange of blows over his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived, I’ve had opportunity to reflect once again on why, as much as I’d like to, I cannot commit to Universalism.
I originally wrote a post called: “What Rob Bell and John Piper Might Have in Common.” But after reading some quotes from Bell’s already-controversial-even-though-it-hasn’t-been-published-yet book which indicate that he may not be so universalist as everyone might have thought, I couldn’t in good conscience write a post on what Piper and Bell might have in common were Bell to wind up a universalist. But I bet I’ve got you wondering, though. So, now the question is: What does John Piper have in common with a Universalist? And the answer to that question will make clear why my Wesleyan theology precludes a commitment to Universalism.
Everyone familiar with Calvinism understands that in that system grace is understood to be irresistible. That is, grace overcomes human resistance and saves us. Those chosen by God to be saved will be saved because his grace will overwhelm them and bring them necessarily to salvation. Here’s the thing: all that is true of Universalism as well. Universalists believe that God will ultimately save everyone. That means that the possibility cannot exist that someone might hold out indefinitely in resistance against God’s saving grace. God must eventually overcome the resistance of all people bringing them irresistibly and necessarily to salvation. Universalism commits one to a Calvinistic understanding of grace. As much as I would hope for God to save all people, this is a major reason why I don’t subscribe to universalism. As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe scripture teaches that grace is resistible, which means that someone could potentially hold out and resist God’s grace forever, which means that I can’t really believe in universal salvation. Thus, Universalism is inconsistent with a Wesleyan-Arminian theology of grace.
The difference between a historic Calvinist, like Piper, and a Universalistic Calvinist, like George MacDonald, is over the scope of salvation not the character of salvation. The Universalist believes that irresistible grace is applied to all with equity; the historic Calvinist believes that grace is applied particularly to some. For the Universalist, everyone is elect; for the historic Calvinist, only some are. Either way, a Wesleyan-Arminian concept of freedom, and thus the potential for an authentic relationship between God and a human being, has gone straight out the window. 
Wesleyan-Arminians believe that, for an authentic relationship to exist, both parties must be able to say “no.” I don’t know whether Bell would label himself  Wesleyan or Arminian, but this quote from the book suggests that he has a similar view of an authentic relationship:
“… In speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love. Namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them ‘Not here you won’t.’
Love demands freedom. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.”
If you believe that grace is resistible and that love demands freedom, then you can’t really be a Universalist. I think this is probably why Bell says what he says here (but I’ll have to read the book for the whole story), because someone who believes that an authentic relationship of love requires the freedom to say “no” cannot affirm that God will absolutely save everyone. This would necessarily require coercion, an overriding of the freedom to say “no”, and that wouldn’t be an authentic relationship, and love certainly would not win.
So, can a Universalist be a Calvinist? Necessarily! Can a Wesleyan be a Universalist? Not if he values consistency.

14 thoughts on “Can a Wesleyan Be a Universalist?

  1. Hi Bernard,

    Thanks for your comment. Since you've organized it into four points, I'll respond in kind.

    1. I think the proponent of universal reconciliation would say that ultimately all people will have a change of heart, perhaps not in this life, but eventually.

    2. I agree that the “all” makes Universalism what it is. I don't follow what you mean about making the two irreconcilable.

    3. I know there are plenty of Wesleyan-Arminians who want to be Universalists; I'm saying they are doing so inconsistently. If you look at history, though, there are Calvinists who go the route of Universalism b/c they think if God can save people irresistibly w/out negating their freedom, then he will do that for everyone in accord with his goodness. Two prominent examples would be George MacDonald and, I think, Karl Barth.

    4. I disagree that Arminians would necessarily be Universalists. Arminianism posits a world in which everyone MAY believe but not necessarily so. In order to ENSURE that everyone believe, God would need to act irresistibly, which as you know is inconsistent with Arminian thought.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. I thought you were expecting me to read your post and somehow react.

    Making it short, four points:

    (1) Calvinism's irresistible grace is the grace of conversion and regeneration. Hearts are changed, faith is exercised. Your universalism's “irresistible grace” does not care with the recipient's frame of heart. There is equivocation here.

    (2) You said that the main difference of Universalism and Calvinism is their “all” and “some” respectively. The “all” of Universalism is what makes Universalism to be Universalism. Remove “all” from Universalism and it is not it anymore. You have just stated what makes these two irreconcilable.

    (3) I know that Universalism is plaguing the Church since the Gnostics but have you checked church history of whose umbrella accomodates more Universalists, Calvin's or Arminius'?

    (4) Following your method of premise-conclusion, some may also say that Arminians are “Necessarily!” Universalists for creating a possibility of saving everybody when everybody chooses to believe.

    Bottom line: better re-acknowledge that Universalism is out of the bounds of Calvinism and Arminianism alike.


  3. Hi Matt, great thinking here as I've never considered this connection before. I think however, that I'm with Luke on this one.

    First, I think your argument against Luke's scenario–that God's grace is ipso facto irresistable IF everyone chooses to trust Christ in the end, is a false premise. There is nothing about this condition which proves that grace is irresistable. The occasion has simply not happened.

    Second, it might not ever happen since the number of souls in this scenario is finite. The idea that one soul will eventually, absolutely, reject God's grace is a contradiction to the law of probabilities.

    BTW I hate talking this way, but I think it clarifies the logic for us, despite its mechanistic silliness.

    Third, your insistence on the link between God's sovereignty and universalism is actually the thing that drives some compatibilists crazy (and I think if you are a Wesleyan-Arminian, you must be a compatibilist), namely that there is a contradiction between God's sovereignty (and His corresponding grace) and human free will. If all humans choose to receive God's grace, then all humans have still chosen.

    Finally, this conversation is not predicated on Scripture–and so if I can stick something in about this idea more generally (and Rob Bell). I feel like Rob Bell opts for a scenario in which grace, by an almost indefatigable evolution, comes to enfold all people and usher in the Kingdom of promise to the exclusion (or alienation) of the Scriptural theme of God's judgment on sin and the need for an apocalyptic dispensation of grace in order to consummate God's promised finale. This latter theme seems to preclude any Scriptural basis for universalism–not to mention the fact that it does more justice to ideas of human depravity and sin.

    Thanks for this forum.
    Respectfully, JS


  4. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that when God raised Jesus from the dead it was not debatable. However, I would suggest as well that his resurrection was conditioned on his life of faithfulness. God justified/vindicated Jesus because the human court judged wrongly; Jesus was innocent from birth to death. If he had not been, then his sacrifice would have been unacceptable and I don't think he would have been resurrected.
    So, resurrection is God's sovereign act, but that does not mean it is not conditional.

    Let me add that if God decides he wants to raise unrepentant sinners from the dead and grant them eternal life in Christ, he'll get no beef from me. I don't see it in scripture, though. So, I don't affirm it theologically.

    Thanks for reading and commenting,


  5. I've got to agree with Luke on his open theism point. Unless God's omniscience is lacking, then His ability to perfectly foresee and actualize a world-system in which all people eventually freely choose His grace would allow one to hold a libertarian view of freedom and be a universalist. Of course, I would quickly point out that Scripture doesn't allow for a second chance to accept God's grace after this life and it is more than apparent that most people actively choose to reject both general revelation and the gospel.

    But what I really wanted to point out is that the testimony of Paul seems to precisely be one of coercion. He lacked a real relationship with the living God, and so the risen Son of God struck him blind and demanded his surrender. And what of Jonah, would you not say he was coerced? (And not to be pigeon-holed, I've never been comfortable with the traditional language of “irresistible” grace.)


  6. I think it is important to see Wesley's view of human freedom within a wider Calvinistic framework (as did Wesley). In other words, he affirmed humankind's total depravity, while also affirming God's prevenient grace which overcomes our total depravity.

    Without this understanding, we head down the road to semi-Pelagianism.


  7. Hi Larry,

    I think the teaser promo is just that – a teaser intended to promo the book. I'll say tentatively that I'm beginning to expect Bell to give us some sort of inclusivism or post-mortem option rather than universalism. I think the teaser was really just trying to sell books, and it worked.


  8. Hi Luke, I see think I see what you are getting at, though I'm still not persuaded.

    The problem with universal salvation in a world with libertarian freedom is that, if God set himself to save everyone, then the potential exists that we would never arrive at the consumation. One potential holdout would keep us from what I take to be the ultimate climactic event of new creation, resurrection, and judgment (even if that judgment turns out to be positive for everyone).

    I think it is possible for there to be a world in which every libertarianly free creature MAY choose to trust Christ. Since we are positing a libertarian view of freedom, I don't think we can make the move to say everyone will eventually choose faith, unless we want to cast off the historic understanding of the consumation.

    You raise a very good question, though, to which I will give more thought. You might be right, but I'm not ready to concede yet.


  9. Thanks for the blog. I totally get where you are coming from here, and I really like the primary assertion that being able to say “no” is one hallmark of a “relationship.” That is certainly the truth of our human/human relationships, and it bears well for us to all keep it in mind.

    However, if I might play devil's/God's advocate. (depending upon how you see things, of course…)

    The crucifixion/resurrection story is actually a pretty good case for a time when humanity was not able to say “no.”

    In fact, one of my own favorite ways to see the story is that Jesus' death is caused by humanity's predictable way of “saying NO” to the powerful message of grace and love Jesus was offering. Jesus wanted nothing more than to be embraced by the people and powers of his day. But, instead, they said “No,” to him.

    The ultimate end of the story, however, is God's “No,” to their “No.” God says “Yes” to Jesus, and “No” to that choice.

    And, here's the challenge: it's not a two-way decision. God's choice for resurrection is not debatable.

    In a way of seeing, no human, not one, gets to say “No” to that. It's God's choice.

    Now, I'm not saying that this “proves” universalism, nor am I really even advocating for it.

    I am merely pointing out that, theologically, God did not give the world a choice that point.

    Can we say “No” to God in *this* world? Yes.

    Can we ultimately control the “Yes” that God says to the “No” of our world?



  10. Thanks for the blog, Matt. So, and I am just speculating, because I have not read the book, either, but does this mean that there may even be the slightest possibility, that what Rob Bell might be doing in the teaser promo is actually questioning universalism by questioning traditional “perceptions” of salvation? Could he be saying, “How do we know Ghandi is in hell, since we don't know what kind of encounter he may have had just before his death and therefore we have no right to claim that we know such a thing?” or even by questioning the traditional view that “a loving God sends people to hell” by saying that in fact, by virtue of our freedom to choose, we send ourselves there?

    Does that make sense?


  11. Do you think it is logically possible for there to be a world in which every libertarianly free creature eventually chooses to trust Christ? If this is logically possible, then it is possible for God to save everyone while still upholding libertarian freedom. God could “ensure” that everyone be saved (without usurping their libertarian freedom) simply by actualizing this possible world. It seems to me that only in an open theist scheme would God be prevented from ensuring universalism, if he so chose. My point is certainly not to defend Bell's logical consistency; he may not have even thought through this apparent contradiction. My point is simply that it may be too strong to claim that universalism is impossible given libertarian freedom, when there seems to be at least one way in which it is logically possible. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


  12. Hi Luke, interesting comment. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    It seems to me that even in a world where God foresees all of his creatures choosing him eventually that in order for God to guarantee the absolute certainty of that eventual choosing he would have to act irresistibly. Or else, the whole thing could potentially just go on ad infinitum, waiting for the last holdout. How else could God ENSURE that this holdout convert than to have a world in which he overcomes the resistance of such a one? So, I don't think I'm persuaded by your scenario.


  13. Provocative post. But I'm not sure you're right to insist that universalism would be impossible given libertarian freedom. One could posit that God actualized only that world in which he foresaw that all of his creatures would in fact choose him eventually (even if it took some many millennia in hell or purgatory or at some kind of post-mordem opportunity). This seems to be a logically possible scenario, no? So, it seems that both views of freedom (compatibilist and libertarian) could be consistent with some form of universalism. But we need to be quick to note, as you do, that both historic Calvinism and historic Arminianism strongly reject universalism.


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