“Universalism” as I am using the term is defined as the position in which all human and angelic beings are restored to fellowship with the Triune God through the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. That is, if universalism were to turn out to be correct, then there would be no human or fallen angel (“demon”) who goes to Hell forever.
In addressing this question, I have committed myself insofar as I am capable to the faith of the teaching authority (“Magisterium”) of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). That is, I have undertaken great pains and theological revisions in order to think about Hell and universalism from an orthodox Roman Catholic perspective. In this post, I will discuss universalism as I have come to think about it.
In order to have a meaningful discussion about universalism from a Roman Catholic position, I believe that at least four broader topics must be addressed, namely, Holy Scripture (the Bible), the Magisterium (especially Emperor Justinian’s anathemas against Origenism that have come to be associated by many churchmen with the Fifth Oecumenical Council) and the broadly universalist writings of the Patristic period (particularly those of Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa), universalism’s relationship to models of human and angelic freedom, and the sin of presumption. Finally, I will propose an approach to Hell and universalism based on Christ’s role as Son to whom the Father has given all Just and Loving judgment, an approach that I hope is at once practical and daring.
Universalism and Holy Scripture
Arguably the most epistemically significant source of information about Hell and universalism is Holy Scripture. The first item to note about Holy Scripture is that it is — frankly — ambiguous on the question of universalism. Even the most abrasive threats of Hellfire are arguably conditional: “if one does ‘x’, one will go into everlasting punishment”; however, it is by no means necessary that anyone will do ‘x’. Even a thief who was crucified with Jesus, who apparently repented only in the hour of his death, is promised paradise by Christ. In Scripture, Christ speaks of a God who does not consider a ninety-nine percent success rate good enough. Even one lost sheep out of one hundred total sheep is not expendable to Christ.
Universalism, the Roman Catholic Magisterium, and Patristic Universalists
The Magisterium is the dogmatic teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Its decrees are “infallible”, free from the very possibility of error. The only question one must face when approaching the Magisterium is this: what doctrines are properly understood as true decrees of the Magisterium, and what doctrines have not been addressed by the Magisterium?
To answer this question, it is necessary to distinguish between the “Ordinary Magisterium” and the “Extraordinary Magisterium.” The Extraordinary Magisterium consists of statements like ex cathera doctrines of Popes (who according to Vatican I are capable of defining dogmatic statements) and decrees of Oecumenical Councils (such as Nicea and Florence), whereas the Ordinary Magisterium consists of the perennial teachings of the church throughout time (such as teachings on human sexuality) . In order for any sort of belief or hope for universalism to be permitted for Roman Catholics, universalism must be demonstrated to be consistent with the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium.
Regarding the Extraordinary Magisterium, there is probably only one topic that greatly needs to be addressed: the Justinian anathemas against Origenism that are sometimes associated with the Fifth Oecumenical Council. The first thing to note here is that it seems to be the case that the Justinian anathemas were not approved by the Fifth Oecumenical Council. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart addresses this critical point in online article about Origen . As Hart observes, Norman Tanner’s edition of the decrees of the Oecumenical Councils omits the Justinian anathemas as spurious late additions to the decrees of the Fifth Oecumenical Council. If Hart and Tanner are correct, then the Extraordinary Magisterium has not closed off the possibility of universalism. Furthermore, even if the anathemas against Origenism are authentic to the council, it is not at all apparent that they eliminate St Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universalism .
What about the Ordinary Magisterium? One obvious possible rebuttal to claims that the universal teaching of the church contradicts universalism is that at least two very early theologians — the aforementioned Origen, and even a canonized saint, the Cappadocian “father of fathers” St Gregory of Nyssa — explicitly taught universalism. Origen taught it at least as a possibility, and Gregory proclaimed it as a certainty. According to St Gregory, even the Devil himself will one day be redeemed by Christ. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Gregory of Nyssa states ,
…the logical consequence of Christ’s deification [for Gregory] is the apokatastasis–the restoration of humanity to its unfallen state. Because evil is a privation of the good and is therefore limited, Gregory believes that there is a limit to human degradation. At some point, everyone must turn around and strive for the good. Besides, the ultimate good, which is God, is infinitely attractive. Thus, Gregory endorses Origen’s (First Principles I 6.3, II 10.4 – 10.8, III 6.5 – 6.6) much-maligned theories of remedial punishment and universal salvation (Great Catechism 8 [36 – 37], 26 , 35 ; Making of Man 21 – 22 [201 – 205]; Soul and Resurrection [97 – 105, 152, 157 – 160]). In other words, for Gregory as for his intellectual ancestor Origen, everyone–even Satan himself (Great Catechism 26 [68 – 69])–will eventually be saved. This means that there is no such thing as eternal damnation. Hell is really purgatory; punishment is temporary and remedial. As Gregory puts it in a colorful metaphor, the process of purgation is like drawing a rope encrusted with dried mud through a small aperture: it’s hard on the rope, but it does come out clean on the other side (Soul and Resurrection ).
Origen and St Gregory represent a minority tradition among Patristic writing. However, given their testimony, it appears to be possible that the Ordinary Magisterium and the Extraordinary Magisterium may permit universalism, or at least the hope of universalism’s potentiality. Indeed, the liturgy of the Church invites us to pray for the salvation of all.
Universalism and Creaturely Freedom
To fully address universalism’s relation to human and angelic freedom would take us to speculate depths that far exceed my own capacities and learning . However, I will make a few comments that I believe are worthwhile. First, I believe it is plausible that the Thomistic conception of human free choice coheres with a compatibilist understanding of freedom . I also accept the possibility of the salvation of demons, a position that Paul J. Griffiths’ argues has not been precluded by the Magisterium . Assuming that these premises are valid, then it is indeed possible that the salvation of every creature is compatible with a specific variety of freedom of the will.
One important biblical reason that I accept a compatibilist notion of free will comes from St Paul’s brief statements on predestination in Romans 8:28-30 and “the remnant” in Romans 11. I estimate, in line with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, that Paul accepted a model of predestination . In any case, I personally do not see at the moment how it could be possible that anyone is the object of infallible predestination unless a compatibilist theory of freedom of choice is correct. If anyone is predestined, then compatibilism seems true to me. If compatibilism true, then it would not be problematic to assert that God can save all creatures in cooperation with the exercise of a truly free will on the part of the creatures.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Hopeful Universalism and the Sin of Presumption
Probably the single most famous Roman Catholic argument for embracing a “hopeful” universalism is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope that All Men be Saved? . I think that one of the most valuable points that Balthasar makes in that monumental book is universalism’s relationship with the sin of presumption. We may, Balthasar asserts, hope and pray for the salvation of all humans , but to predict universalism would be in Balthasar’s estimation to commit the sin of presumption, whereby we presume that, for whatever reason, God owes us divine grace. In contrast with presumption, Holy Scripture teaches that the only wage we are due for our sin is death. Any act of rescue on God’s part is sheer grace. This means that, while we can hope and pray for our own salvation and for the salvation of every creature, we must refrain from presuming that God owes salvation to us. God does not owe us salvation, for as St Paul writes, all of us have sinned (Romans 3).
The challenge, as H. U. von Balthasar frames it, is to hope and pray for the salvation of all without presuming that God is required to give anyone eternal salvation. I believe that it is possible to cultivate this attitude, and I will now offer advice on how this might be accomplished.
If Christ alone is the Judge, We may not Presume or Pronounce Judgment
John’s wonderful Gospel states that God the Father has given all judgment to Christ the Son. If God has given “all” judgment to Christ, then that means that there is no judgment left for us to pronounce. I propose that we may neither judge that any will be damned, nor that all will necessarily be saved. Either view would be equivalent to pronouncing a judgment, whether negative or positive. We can be neither convinced universalists nor committed infernalists.
Allow me to end this series of meditations on universal reconciliation by discussing Karl Barth’s stance on universalism. Although Barth was a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian, Pope Pius XII called him the greatest Christian thinker since Thomas Aquinas. (It is difficult to imagine higher praise for a Protestant from a Pope of Rome!) Like Balthasar, Barth taught that we are free to hope and pray for universalism, but should not expect it as something necessary on God’s part. I believe that this posture is healthy. However, I also recognize that at least one churchman (Gregory of Nyssa) held a more certain position than Barth’s, and that Gregory is a canonized saint. In any case, the pronouncement of the final judgment belongs to Christ and not us.
Fr Aidan Kimel: Readings in Universalism. Accessible here as of 10/04/17: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/.
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite. The chapter on eschatology provides an in-depth discussion of universalism throughout the corpus of St Gregory of Nyssa.
St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection. This work can be accessed for free by searching the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org).
Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 235-255. I think that this source offers a particularly excellent universalist exegesis of Matthew 25:31-46.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, The Doctrine of God: The Election & Command of God. In this book, Barth attempts to revise John Calvin’s controversial doctrine of election.
Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures. Of particular interest is Griffiths’ argument for the possibility of Satan’s salvation in chapter 4 (on the angels).
Robert Wild, A Catholic Reading Guide to Universalism.
 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen (accessed 10/04/17). To be clear, Origen has never been canonized as a saint, and I personally do not believe that he ought to be; Ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church is difficult enough for Roman Catholics without the tension that would undoubtedly be caused by questioning the St Justinian’s anathemas against Origen.
 https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/ (accessed 10/04/17). Here Fr. Kimel asserts that, “Gregory’s views on the apocatastasis were not condemned by the Church at the 5th Ecumenical Council and would later profoundly influence the eschatological reflection of Sergius Bulgakov.” I am inclined to agree with Fr. Kimel on this score.
 http://www.iep.utm.edu/gregoryn/ (accessed 10/04/17).
 Probably the single best Roman Catholic treatise on eschatology (besides Dante’s Divine Comedy) is Paul J. Griffiths’ Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures ( https://www.amazon.com/Decreation-Last-Things-All-Creatures/dp/1481302299 ). Griffiths’ study addresses the eschatological teachings of the Magisterium as well as the spectulative theologies of the Dominican and Franciscan traditions. Griffiths also discusses Magisterial statements on the salvation of the fallen angels (demons), arguing that even the Devil’s salvation is a possibility left open by the Roman Catholic Church.
 As its name suggests, “compatibilism” is the view that freedom of choice is compatible with determinism. If compatibilism is (as I think it is) a coherent view of human (and demonic) freedom of will and choice, then it is possible for God to determine that all humans and demons will be reconciled to Himself. However, I estimate that it is very important to insist that God does not owe anyone salvation; salvation is a sheer gift of grace. It is also necessary to say that, if any human or demon does end up in Hell, it is not because of God, but because of that human’s (or demon’s) completely free decision to reject divine love.
 A statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church appears to contradict the possibility of a demon’s salvation, however. “It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. “There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.”” (CCC 393, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm , accessed 10/04/17). However, it is important to recognize that the Catechism sometimes reproduces merely the opinions of specific church fathers, and does not necessarily represent the infallible teachings of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium.
 Contra St Gregory of Nyssa and Paul J. Griffiths, Balthasar rejected the possibility of demonic salvation.