Considering how to differentiate between Biblical and Unbiblical Varieties of Universalism
by George Sidney Hurd
In writing this blog I have two primary groups of individuals in mind. The first group are those who, having been misinformed, think that all forms of Universalism are without any solid biblical foundation. This is primarily due to the fact that many preachers and teachers categorically villainize all Universalists, placing them in the same general category with heterodox Pluralistic Liberalism. Many are totally unaware that there are many good and sound biblical arguments for the belief that all will eventually be saved and restored, and that, far from being unorthodox, Biblical Universalism was actually the prevailing doctrine of the Early Church Fathers during the first five centuries before Constantine politicized Christianity and Augustine popularized the doctrine of Eternal Torment. I demonstrate this in my blog, The Testimony of the Fathers.
The second group of individuals I have in mind in this blog are those who have come to believe from Scripture that all will eventually be saved and restored, but feel overwhelmed and confused by the many diverse and often conflicting beliefs of those who teach Christian Universalism. As a Conservative Universalist, I see two basic categories of Christian Universalists: 1) Those who have a high view of Scripture as the inerrant Word of God and derive their doctrine of Universal Salvation from the Scriptures alone, and 2) Those who have a low view of Scripture and deny its inerrancy, and therefore feel free to base their doctrine of universal salvation upon what they themselves consider to be reasonably attributable to God. Since they do not believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, they feel at liberty to selectively apply or reject portions of Scripture, formulating doctrines according to their own moral judgments and philosophical reasoning.
Those who base their beliefs solely upon the Scriptures will inevitably differ on some points of doctrine, since we are all fallible in our understanding of Scripture. However, where the doctrinal confusion and fluidity of beliefs is most prolific is among those who rely primarily upon their own reason and sensibilities for understanding, rather than the Scriptures alone. Once the inerrancy of Scripture is abandoned, there remains no objective standard of truth upon which to base our doctrines, and the tendency is to deconstruct, going from certainty and conviction to doubt and confusion, often making shipwreck of one’s faith.
In the remainder of this blog, I will be briefly considering these two groups with their major subgroups in order to assist those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture in distinguishing the biblical forms of Universalism from the diverse non-biblical forms. If you are questioning the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, I would encourage you to first read my series of blogs on the subject on my website: The Evangelical Conservative Universalist.
Throughout this blog I will be providing underlined links in the text or in parenthesis which substantiate or further explain many points that are only here touched upon in passing.
By Biblical Universalism, I mean Universalists who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and therefore derive their doctrine of the final salvation of all from the Scriptures alone. The title Conservative Universalism is essentially the same as Biblical Universalism, since theologically Conservative Christians defend and conserve the faith once and for all delivered to the saints in the Scriptures. In contrast, the Progressives argue that we have outgrown the Scriptures, and therefore need to reject or nuance many passages in Scripture in the name of progress. The great drawback to the title Conservative Universalism is that it is easily confused with political conservatism.
While some prefer other titles, such as Evangelical Universalism, Patristic Universalism or Trinitarian Universalism, those titles can be misleading, since many who identify themselves by these names no longer hold to the inerrancy of Scripture. For example, The Early Fathers defended the inerrancy of Scripture, and their understanding encompassed the penal substitutionary aspects of Christ’s atonement, yet many who today call themselves Patristic Universalists deny one or both of those essential elements. I demonstrate that the Early Fathers believed in the Penal Substitutionary Atonement in my blog, (The Early Fathers and Penal Substitutionary Atonement).
Biblical Universalists believe that salvation and forgiveness of sins was only made possible through Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement for our sins, and that one must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and receive Him in order to be saved and born again, receiving the eternal life of God (Jn 1:12-13; 3:16; 8:24; Rom 3:22; 3:28; 3:30; Gal 2:16; 3:8; 3:24; Eph 2:8; Php 3:9; 2Tim 3:15 ; Acts 16:31; etc.)
Biblical Universalists believe in the Trinity and the full deity of Christ. They believe in the existence of a personal Satan, fallen angels and demons, who seek to steal, kill and destroy and must be resisted in the name of Jesus. They believe in one resurrection of the dead, as opposed to reincarnation.
Generally speaking, Biblical Universalists believe the same doctrines as other Evangelicals, except that they understand, as did the Early Church Fathers, that hell is eonian, in the sense that it is not eternal, but endures into the coming ages, and its primary purpose and goal is correction and restoration, rather than unending torment.
Among Biblical Universalists, one will find Charismatics who believe that the gifts of the Spirit are still operative today, as well as Cessationists who believe that the supernatural gifts ceased in the first century. Some see the freewill of man as predominant, much like the Arminians, whereas others believe in divine determinism, as do many Calvinists. Taking into account God’s middle knowledge by which God not only knows what will happen, but also what would happen under different circumstances, I believe that our ultimate salvation is accomplished through a perfect interplay between both the freewill of man and the sovereignty of God that unfailingly results in all eventually being effectually drawn to Christ without violating man’s will or compromising God’s sovereignty (Isa 45:22-24). I demonstrate how Universalism harmonizes with the overall teaching of Scripture in a way that Arminianism and Calvinism are unable to do in my book: “The Universal Solution.”
So, Biblical Universalists believe in all of the orthodox doctrines held by the Church throughout history, including the doctrine of postmortem punishments in Gehenna or the Lake of Fire. The only difference is concerning the purpose and duration of God’s postmortem punishments. I present a comprehensive consideration of the biblical basis for the belief in the temporal restorative nature of God’s punishments and the final restoration of all in my book: “The Triumph of Mercy.”
Having briefly considered what Biblical Universalism is, we can now turn our attention to what I consider to be some of the aberrant forms of Universalism. Sadly, the opponents of Universalism almost always ignore the sound biblical arguments of the Biblical Universalists, attacking instead the easy target of Liberal and Progressive forms of Universalism. While the beliefs among those who depart from the doctrine of inerrancy are difficult to categorize due to their diversity, I see them as generally falling into three categories: 1) Liberal Universalism, 2) Progressive Universalism and 3) Extrabiblical Hybrid forms of Universalism.
I. Liberal Universalism
Liberal Modernism arose with the Age of Enlightenment and its rationalistic anti-supernaturalism in the 18th century. Since the Bible is a supernatural book from cover to cover, it took the brunt of their attack against the supernatural. They denied anything that didn’t have a rational explanation or the backing of empirical evidence. The Bible’s claim to be the divine Word of God, along with the miracles, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, as well as the Trinity, were all denied. Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Death on our behalf was rejected in favor of a social Pelagianist gospel.
The resurgence of the biblical doctrine of Universal Salvation that began with the Reformation and flourished in the 19th century, resulted in the formation of the Universal Convention, also known as the Universalist Church of America, which for a brief time was the third largest denomination in America. However, it later succumbed to Unitarian Liberalism, forming what today is known as the Unitarian Universalist Association. As of 2006, less than 20% of their members still identified themselves as Christian. 
II. Progressive Universalism
Over the last fifty years, beginning with the cultural revolution of the Hippies, the rational anti-supernatural Modernism began to give way to Postmodernism, which abandoned Modernist certainties for a Progressive Relativism which embraces uncertainty and the supernatural. Mankind cannot live very long in the vacuum of secular materialism without any belief in the supernatural, and the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s was a rejection of naturalistic secular materialism.
Even prior to that, in the early 20th century, theologians like Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance, in reaction against Liberalism, began to formulate a new theology which became known as Neo-Orthodoxy. While still denying the inerrancy of Scripture as defended by Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the Princetonians A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, they argued that the Bible nevertheless contains the Word of God in that it is a witness to Christ, who, to them, is the only true Word of God. Barth, while affirming the divine origin of the Bible, nevertheless opposed the doctrine of inerrancy saying, “it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.”  T. F. Torrance likewise depreciates the belief in inerrancy saying: “We came up with the idea of inerrancy because we needed another mediator between God and man other than Jesus.” 
This same low view of Scripture is commonly held by Progressive Universalists today. For example, Steve McVey says:
“If you want to say the Bible is the word with a lower-case w, that it is a way that God speaks to us, I have full agreement with that.”  “Literally speaking, the Bible is not the Word of God – Jesus is.” 
Brian Zahnd, a hopeful Universalist, shows a blatant contempt for the Bible in his book entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” when he says: “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved…including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself!”  Among Progressives I have heard such depreciative comments as: “I believe in the inerrant Word of God, and He has a beard.”
What they fail to take into account is the teaching of Jesus Himself concerning the infallibility of the written Word of God. He called the Scriptures the Word of God and said that they could not be broken and that not even one jot nor tittle could pass from them without being fulfilled (Jn 10:35; Matt 5:18). I further consider the fallacy of depreciating the written Word of God in the name of Jesus in my blog: “What does the Word Word Mean to Jesus?”
There are three main beliefs among Universalists concerning the way of salvation. Biblical Universalists are Exclusivists, which means they hold that one must personally believe and receive the gospel in order to be saved (Rom 10:13; Mark 16:16; Acts 16:31). That is the reason why most Biblical Universalists are evangelistic, making sacrifices in order to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
In stark contrast to this, some Progressive and Liberal Universalists are Pluralists, teaching that Jesus is not the only way to God, but only one of many paths leading to Him. However, Scriptures are very emphatic in declaring that Jesus is the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12).
A somewhat more reserved view held by many is that of the Inclusivists who, while insisting that Christ is the only way to God, nevertheless argue that it is not necessary for one to explicitly place faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ in order to be saved. To them, one can be saved by implicit faith in a general revelation of God without ever having heard and positively responded to the gospel. They reason that one’s faith need not be cognitive as long as it is sincere and reverent. In this manner it becomes possible for one to be saved without having ever even heard of Christ. A sincere Buddhist, Muslim, or even an Atheist, can be saved through the once and for all sacrifice of Christ at Calvary without ever having consciously believed on Him – or even heard of Him, for that matter. Those individuals who are said to be Christians without even knowing it are sometimes referred to by them as “anonymous Christians.”
However, a rapidly growing number of Progressive and Liberal Universalists are now transitioning from Pluralism and Inclusivism towards a radical form of Inclusivism which says that it is not necessary for anyone to believe the gospel in order to be saved since everyone was already saved 2,000 years ago at the cross. This teaching was first popularized by Carlton Pearson with the publication of his book: “The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self,” published in 2007. Since then, Pearson has further deconstructed into New Age Expanded Consciousness and New Thought. I consider the fallacies of this new form of Inclusivism in my blog: “What must I do to be Saved?”
They often redefine sin, presenting it as not being something that we commit against God, but simply against one’s own self. This removes the need for Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Since sin is not against God, they further deny that man has ever been separated from God, except in his own mind. I consider these and other related fallacies in my blog: “The Blurring of Biblical Distinctions.”
The Denial of a Postmortem Hell
Although Biblical Universalists deny that hell is eternal, they nevertheless believe in the reality of some form of hell in the afterlife, just as the Early Church Fathers did. However, many Progressive Universalists today deny that there is a hell beyond what we make for ourselves in this life. While space doesn’t allow us to consider in detail the purpose and duration of hell, the Scriptures are clear that there will be Postmortem punishment and correction for the unjust, both in Hades, as well as in the Lake of Fire for those who are still not found written in the Book of Life at the White Throne Judgment.
Many Progressive Universalists deny the conscious state of the soul, either in Paradise or in Hades after death. Don Keathley, in his recent book “Hell’s Illusion (Exposing the Myth of Hell),” says that the only Hell that anyone will ever experience is the Hell we undergo in our own minds when we have been programmed by religion to believe in the myth of Hell. He claims that there is no need to receive Christ in order to be saved from sin, Hell and the wrath to come, because we were never separated from God to begin with. Our sins are not against God, according to him, but only against ourselves, and therefore there is no divine retribution for the unrepentant in Hell. He says: “There is no such destination after we pass from the physical realm to a place called Hell, even if you didn’t pray the magic prayer!”  The “magic prayer” he refers to is the prayer of repentance and faith when we receive Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. I consider the fallacies of the doctrine of soul-sleep in my book “Extermination or Restoration?” and also in my blog: “Is Sheol the Grave?”
III. Extrabiblical Hybrid forms of Universalism
Two-Gospel Hyper-Dispensational Universalists
I want to mention one final group that has occasioned much confusion among Universalists. It is that of the two-gospel doctrine. This doctrine was first developed by A. E. Knoch early in the 20th century. He also translated the Concordant Literal Version of the Bible. He was excommunicated from the Plymouth Brethren for his divisive, contentious spirit and deviate doctrines. He denied the Trinity and the full deity of Christ, insisting that, while the Son was exalted above all creation and created before all things, including time, He was nonetheless somehow a creature created by God at some point in eternity before time. He somehow failed to take into account the fact that there can be no beginnings in eternity before time.
While not denying the inerrancy of Scripture, he relegated all of the New Testament, with the exception of Paul’s epistles, to a previous dispensation, thereby invalidating the rest of the Scriptures for all practical purposes. The main proponent of this two-gospel doctrine today is Martin Zender. I consider the fallacies of this Hyper-Dispensational form of Universalism in a four part series of blogs beginning with the blog, “Are there Two Different Gospels in the New Testament.”
There are other deviations from Biblical Universalism which could be pointed out, but for space I will not elaborate further. Once one departs from the Scriptures as the sole infallible and authoritative source of faith and doctrine, the tendency is to either devolve into a swamp of subjectivity, as do the Progressives, or else superimpose men’s doctrines upon the Scriptures, as we see with Knoch’s two-gospel doctrine.
In passing, I would like to point out the fact that none of these three categories are exclusive to Universalism. The same categories exist among those who believe in eternal torment, including those who hold to the two-gospel doctrine.
Applying the Reformer’s theme, Sola Scriptura, searching the Scriptures as did the Bereans to see if what we have been told is in agreement with what the Bible actually teaches, we begin to discover God’s glorious plan for the ages which culminates with all being restored and reunited in Christ and God becoming all in all, as we pass from the realm of time into eternity.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 531.
 Q & A Session (FGC 2016) Video 27:00
 Steve McVey: The Word of God is. Video 17:50
 Steve McVey: The Word of God is. Video 22:00
 Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (p. 57). The Crown Publishing Group.
 Keathley, Don. Hell's Illusion (p. 46). Don Keathley. Kindle Edition.
The Inerrency of Scripture
The Love of God
The Fear of the Lord
The Question of Evil
Understanding the Atonement
Homosexuality and the Bible
Answers to Objections:
Has God Rejected Israel:
God's Glorious Plan for the Ages
The Manifest Sons of God
The Trinity and the Deity of Christ
Eternal Preexistence of Christ
Preterism vs. Futurism
The Two-Gospel Doctrine Examined