Universalism: Barth, Gregory, and Me

Many of my favorite theologians are not universalists. Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karl Rahner all believe that universalism should be hoped for, but not necessarily believed in as a dogma. Interestingly, Barth and von Balthasar both reject affirming universalism as a dogmatic. “We can neither confirm nor deny that all persons and Devils will be saved,” one might imagine Barth and von Balthasar saying.

However, not all of my favorite theologians think that universal salvation is something merely to be hoped for, rather than believed in. Even in the above list, Jürgen Moltmann, in The Coming of God,” strongly implies that we can do even more than hope for the salvation of all. But there are more adamant advocates of the doctrine. David Bentley Hart made the case in a talk at Notre Dame University that if God is not the savior of all without fail, “then the kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare.” J. A. T. Robinson, the Anglican father of secular theology, believed that God would restore everyone to wholeness, and the myth of eternal hell would remain unfulfilled while the myth of universal restoration would triumph.

Going back further in the days of the church, Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Syria believed that all will be saved. For Nyssa, God’s foreknowledge and wisdom means that God is, on the scale of eternity, omni-competent. If God desires to rescue a sinner, even if he be the very Devil, God will do it. He has all of eternity. He cannot fail. For Isaac, as I understand it (I know more of Gregory than Isaac), it is God’s gracious compassion that must triumph. Otherwise, sin is shown to, in some cases, be stronger than grace.

Where does this leave me? I believe that God’s grace will triumph in the end and in every life. Though there is indeed punishment, I believe it is only for the purpose of restoration. Barth said that if we teach universalism dogmatically, we are impinging on God’s “freedom.” But what man would admire an emperor who, with plenty of available resources, failed to feed those beneath his rule? Would we not, even on our most generous days, think of that emperor as a capricious, contemptible, wicked, and malevolent fellow? How then, can we expect so little from God, whose gifts far surpass the imagination?

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