by Matt Slick
Is it possible for a Christian to be a universalist? Some will say no; others will say yes. My position is that it is possible for a Christian to be a universalist - note, I said "possible." However, to be clear, I believe universalism to be a heresy, and I would never say, "All Universalists are Christians."
Different kinds of Universalism
Not all forms of universalism are the same, though all are in error. Christian universalism teaches that Jesus is the only way, that all will be saved, and that salvation occurs quickly after death for those who have not become Christians in this life. This view erringly states that salvation can occur after death. I find nothing in Scripture that requires believing in eternal damnation in order to be a true Christian. And it is only for this reason, that I do say that Christian universalism does not "make one unsaved."
A variation of Christian universalism teaches that those who are not Christian in this life will convert to Christianity in the afterlife after suffering varying degrees of punishment. This is well outside of Christian orthodoxy regarding the doctrine of salvation since it implies that deliverance from God's wrath is accomplished after one's work of suffering is completed. This view is not compatible with the Christian faith and would demonstrate a person is not saved who holds to it.
Unitarian universalism teaches that everyone of all faiths will be saved and that Jesus is not the only means of salvation. This, of course, violates essential doctrine of the Christian faith and cannot be considered a viable option at all.
Nevertheless, let's say that there is a man who was not a Christian who believes that everyone will be saved. This man is on his deathbed in a hospital and is visited by the hospital Chaplain. The Chaplain gives him the gospel about Jesus being God in flesh, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, the need for repentance from sin, trusting in Christ, etc. The man honestly receives Christ and then dies shortly thereafter yet he never repented of the error of universalism. Is he saved or should we say that even though he trusted Jesus as his savior, believed Jesus is God in flesh, that Christ died for his sins, and rose from the dead, and the man fully received Christ, but because he also believed everyone will be saved, he is then going to hell? Would anyone condemn a person to eternal fire for simply believing that everyone will be saved? I cannot see that as being the case.
There are essentials of the Christian faith.
I have developed a "doctrine grid" where I have tried to arrange essential and non-essential doctrines into an easily understandable system. The essential doctrines are essential because the Bible says they are. Let me give you two examples. In John 8:24 Jesus said, "Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins." This is an essential doctrine because it has a penalty of damnation for denying it. Likewise 1 Cor. 15:14 says that "if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain." Here too we see an essential doctrine because there is a condition of condemnation upon its denial. So too with the other essentials (justification by faith, monotheism, and the gospel) that the Scriptures declare to be essential. See my doctrine grid again.
Though I consider universalism to be a false belief, I cannot automatically pronounce condemnation upon a person who acknowledges the essentials of the Christian faith and also affirms universal salvation. I don't because I don't see the scriptures doing it. Would I consider someone who holds to both the essentials and universalism to be inconsistent and confused? Absolutely! Should they repent? Yes! Does it mean he is unsaved? I can't say it does.
People can be saved in varying degrees of theological error. There are regenerated people who do not understand predestination, don't accept election, don't understand federal headship, are clueless about imputation, Christ's eternal priesthood, covenant, etc., yet they are regenerated. They simply haven't learned those doctrinal truths yet. Are they condemned for not rightly understanding these very important biblical teachings? No, because the ones I just listed in this paragraph are not declared by the Bible to be essential doctrines for salvation.
Now, am I saying that all Universalists can be Christian? Not at all. Do I defend universalism? No. Do I think that universalism is a serious problem that undermines the gospel? Yes, I do. But, I can see scenarios where a universalist can be a Christian (deathbed conversion, ignorance due to lack of proper teaching, etc.), and I believe that it is possible to be saved in confusion and error, including the confusion and error of universalism. I do not see how believing that all will be saved automatically disqualifies a person from being saved because I don't see the scriptures doing it.
Issues to Consider
- There are essential and non-essential doctrines (see doctrine grid). Denial of the essentials negates salvation. Denial of non-essentials does not. If a professing Christian also believes in universalism means that he is not saved, then it must mean that the person has denied an essential doctrine. Where then are the scriptures that state belief in eternal damnation is within the essentials of the Christian faith.
- If believing in universalism automatically disqualifies a person from being a Christian, then please specify the logic (with scripture) used to make such a pronouncement.
- If you say it is because they deny the eternal punishment of God, then please demonstrate how such a denial means a person is automatically not saved.
I am not trying to defend universalism. I believe it is wrong and against scripture as are other errors that do not damn. But, I cannot state in good conscience, according to what I see in God's Word, that if a person professes the basics of the Christian faith (Trinity, deity of Christ, Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, etc.) and also believes all will be saved that it automatically means the person is not a Christian.