I was talking to one of my Reformed friends the other day–some reasons why I don’t identify as “Reformed” coming later–and I realized that Limited atonement, the “L” in the Calvinistic “TULIP” acronym, is actually compatible with Universalism. Listening to my friend, I found it illuminating to recognize that part of the problem with universalists (like myself) is that we are talking past particularists. For me, universalism is primarily an eschatological view, whereas it appears that to particularists, universalism looks like a soteriological view. But now I think I understand what particularists mean by “Limited atonement.”
My Reformed friend said, “Limited atonement means that the atonement only applies to people who are saved.” That is, Limited atonement means that only those who have faith in Jesus Christ are the recipients of the atonement. As a universalist, I completely agree with that statement. How? I am a universalist because I believe that God will continue to devise opportunities in the afterlife for each individual to be reconciled to him through faith in Jesus Christ. Universalism doesn’t mean that people can be “saved” without putting faith in Jesus Christ. This obviously undermines basically the point of Christianity, that the Good News is “power to salvation for everyone who believes.”
An afterlife approach to universalism–the only one that I tend to regard as feasible in Christianity–kind of sounds like a version of the Parable of the 100 Sheep, in which Jesus leaves 99 safe sheep to find 1 lost sheep. It is difficult for me to believe that in the New Jerusalem, God will leave scores of people in hell. Shall he then leave the 1 to find the 99? But the parable has it the other way around.
So while Unitarian Universalists are running around as Pluralists in disguise, listen to some Trinitarian Universalists, including Robin Parry and Jason Pratt. I would be lying if I counted Barth among the convinced universalists, but he acknowledged it as possible. The legendary Eastern Orthodox academic and cleric, Timothy “Kallistos” Ware also regards universalism as possible, along with Brad Jersak and David Bentley Hart. To my knowledge, even a few important Roman Catholic clerics identify as universalists as well. Augustine wrote that many, driven by “compassion,” were universalists in his day. Origen of Alexandria was a universalist, and it appears that Gregory of Nyssa was as well, although it this sometimes disputed. The point is this: universalism is far from confined to the theologically incompetent. I believe it has much support.
Here, I quote the very verse that caused me to question my former rejection of universalism. “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast.” (2 Samuel 14:14 ESV)
And if a man has a hundred sheep and one of them is lost, shall he not leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one?