Universalism is the belief that all people can be saved, and that all people enter into heaven independently of their religion and of the knowledge they happened to gain during life. If a creator-God is responsible for the world, then, universal salvation from pain and suffering for all beings, is a requirement of benevolence. In other words, god cannot be perfectly good until all people are saved from the suffering that god itself made possible. Does the Bible present a universalistic salvation for all, or a selective salvation, just for some? It appears at times to propose one, and at other times to propose the other. This page starts with a summary of the verses for and against, and then looks at the main universalistic parables in more detail.
Matt 20:1-16 presents a God that will only reward some people, and unequally so. Proverbs 6:12-15 says that a person devoted to mischief has no chance of healing. Luke 17:20-32 is the same; those who look back at the unsaved will themselves be punished, like Lot's wife (Genesis 19:23-26). Therefore, there are unsaved people even at the time when God's Kingdom is finally victorious. Likewise the parable found in Matthew 25:1-12 indicates that those who do not prepare for the big event will find that "the door is shut" and God no longer knows them. Hence, the Bible presents a non-Universalist theology and many Christian organisations have taught a very strict doctrine of select salvation.
Contradicting the selective salvation verses are plenty of stories and sayings in the New Testament where salvation is universal. Universalism has long been a feature of Christianity. Modern fundamentalist Christians who deny that anyone else is saved are at odds with the beliefs of many of the very earliest Christians. There is the parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 and the parables of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 12:11; Matthew 18:11-14 and Luke 15:4-7, which all portray a God who patiently and tirelessly works until every individual is saved. Romans 2:4 states that God intends on saving everyone - "God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance" [NIV]. As God is all-powerful and perfect, God's intentions are of course all made real. Also, Philemon 2:10 says that all will be converted to Christianity (although doesn't say they're all saved) but Luke 3:5 says that even the crooked will be made straight. Satan itself, then, will eventually be saved. Many Christian organisations have taught a clear universalist doctrine.
The great Christian Origen in the third century, for example, preached universalism during centuries when Christianity was more varied and interesting. He held in particular that fallen beings, and the Devil, would all be saved eventually. He was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543CE but his 'heresy' of Universalism lived on despite Christian intolerance of all things nice (that culminated in the dark ages). The Anabaptists held this view too.
The only conclusion can be that the contradictory implications arise from the fact that the authors of the Bible did not have a systematic system of salvation worked-out; they themselves had different ideas about what was required for salvation. Hence, some Christians go one way (the nice way - universalism!), some go the other way (selective salvation - a route to obnoxiousness!).
Now let us examine the principal parables that support the universalist view.
1"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' 5So they went.
6"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
7" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
8"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
9"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.12'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
13"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
16"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
Matt 20:1-16 (NIV)
Denarius is not any arbitrary amount. It's a full day's pay. It is the reward 'of the kingdom of heaven'. It is salvation. The passage is saying that even if at the last moment you do enough, God will jump at the chance of giving you a full reward. This is because God is Loving, and only needs the slightest gesture from us before he will excitedly and lovingly accept us into his fold. He cannot give more than 100%, and that is what the gift of a Denarius is. The jealous voice in verse 15 is someone (perhaps a devout Christian!) who thinks they have worked harder for salvation than other people. It is someone who thinks they've got there first.1
God will go out of his way to save people. God will do anything to save a single person. All that person has to do is some honest work. In the parable of the sheep, the lost sheep has to do nothing at all. It is saved because God loves it. It is not punished for getting lost, for going off on its own. Not only is it not punished, but when God brings it back, God celebrates. The verses:
Matthew 12:11 (KJV):
12And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
Matthew 18:11-14 (KJV):
For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
12 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
The first case is free salvation. God wishes, and does, hold on and save those who fall into a pit. People only spent a finite time in 'the pit'. God eventually rescues all.
The second case is also free salvation: 'It is not the will of God that one of these little ones should perish'. God will go out of his way, leaving all the others behind, to rescue the lost sheep. The ones left behind are the same as the workers who were hired on the first hours. They do not have a right to complain as they already have eternity, they already have everything. Now, God goes and saves one who does not have everything.
The third one is the same but has a single extra note. 'joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents'. On this model, the sinner needed to repent. This is not present in the versions that Matthew gives us: Luke feels all sinners need to repent before God will willingly save them. The first sheep parable says that no-one would not save a helpless sheep, the second one phrases it as 'God wills not one of these perish', the third one, Luke adds but God can't save you unless you repent. This contradicts 'who will not lay hold on it, and lift it out?'
If you just accept Matthew you can see that God is universalistic and will methodically save everyone. If you just accept Luke, you find that God there will only be 'joy in heaven' when the 'sinner repents'. Luke makes the same addition in his Parable of the Lost Coin immediately afterwards2. If you, however, accept all of these accounts simultaneously and add the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard we find that the overall intention makes more sense than any of them individually:
All will be saved. Matthew makes this clear. Luke makes it doubly clear that those who repent will be saved. The Vineyard parable makes it clear that those who were saved due to repenting have no right to question 'what God does with his money'. Those who have worked harder get the same reward as those who come in last. Who, asked God, would not go after that which is lost until he find it? If a good god exists and the Bible reflects the truth of salvation, then God never gives up and eventually finds all of us.1
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]