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Is universalism a heresy?

What is universalism?

Universalism is the belief that all people will eventually be saved and go to heaven. This is in contrast to the traditional Christian belief that only those who put their faith in Jesus Christ will be saved.

Universalists believe that through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, God will ultimately bring all people to salvation. This salvation may happen immediately after death, or it may occur after a period of purification or punishment in hell. But in the end, universalists believe that God’s love and mercy will triumph over evil.

Brief history of universalism

Universalism has appeared in various forms throughout Christian history, but did not become a major movement until the late 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the early proponents of universalist ideas included:

  • Origen (185-254 AD) – An influential early church father who believed that all creatures, including the devil, would eventually be reunited with God.
  • Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) – One of the Cappadocian Fathers who taught that God would ultimately restore all things to himself.
  • Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) – A medieval mystic who received visions from God about his love and salvation being universal.
  • George de Benneville (1703-1793) – A French universalist who brought universalist ideas to America in the 18th century.
  • John Murray (1741-1815) – The father of modern universalism who began preaching universal salvation in America in the late 1800s.

In the 19th century, as universalism spread in America, the Universalist Church of America was founded. Although not a large denomination, the universalists played a role in emphasizing God’s love over judgment and the importance of social reform. The universalist denomination later merged with the Unitarians in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Key biblical texts for universalists

Universalists base their beliefs on several key biblical texts that point to God desiring the salvation of all:

  • “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
  • “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
  • “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
  • “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” (Romans 5:18)
  • “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

These verses point to God desiring the salvation of all people, not just an elect few. They form the key biblical basis for the universalist hope that all will ultimately find salvation.

Different types of universalism

There are a few different forms that universalism can take:

Pluralistic universalism

This view believes that all religions lead to the same God and the same salvation. Jesus Christ is not the only way, but one of many ways to salvation and eternal life.

Purgatorial universalism

This view, sometimes called Christian universalism, believes that salvation is found only through Jesus, but that postmortem punishment in hell or purgatory will purify and restore even the worst of sinners, so that eventually all will be saved.

Universal reconciliation

This position believes that through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God has already reconciled all humanity to himself, so that no postmortem purification or punishment is needed. Some in this camp believe people can freely reject this salvation and remain separate from God.

Main arguments in favor of universalism

Here are some of the main arguments made in favor of universalism:

God’s love –

Universalists emphasize Bible verses about God’s unconditional love (1 John 4:8; Romans 8:38-39). They argue that God loves everyone, even the worst of sinners, and will not abandon anyone forever.

Universal atonement –

Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (John 3:16-17; 1 John 2:2), not just for the elect. His sacrifice provides salvation to all who turn to him.

Compatibility with God’s justice –

Punishment in hell, or a time of purification, is compatible with God’s justice and holiness. But perpetual judgment or damnation is not compatible with a loving, merciful God.

God’s sovereignty –

If God desires all to be saved and has the sovereign power to accomplish his will, then we can hope for the ultimate reconciliation of all things to God (Col. 1:19-20; Eph. 1:9-10).

Scriptural warnings of judgment –

Bible verses that speak of God’s judgment and some facing eternal punishment should be read as severe warnings, not definitive pronouncements about the eternal state of certain groups.

Main objections to universalism

Here are some of the common objections to universalism and problems that are raised with it:

Contradicts Scripture –

Numerous Bible verses indicate that some will refuse salvation and face eternal judgment and separation from God (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10,14-15; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7).

Undermines evangelism –

If all will ultimately be saved, it can remove motivation for the difficult work of evangelism and missions.

Demeans Christ’s atonement –

Jesus died to make salvation available to all. But for those who never repent and believe, his death does not automatically provide salvation.

Undermines human freedom –

Forced universal salvation contradicts human free will to persist in rejecting God if we so choose.

Justice for evil –

Perpetual punishment in hell may be the most just and proportional punishment for horrendous evil done in this life. Annihilation or temporary punishment are inadequate.

Historical views on universalism

The historical Christian church has overwhelmingly affirmed the doctrines of salvation conditioned on faith in Christ, eternal heaven for believers, and eternal hell for unbelievers. But views on universalism have varied:

Early church –

Some influential early church fathers, like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, leaned toward universalism. But it was always a minority view.

Medieval church –

While some mystics hoped for universal salvation, official church teaching strictly upheld the eternity of heaven and hell. Universalism was treated as heresy.

Protestant Reformation –

Leading reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all strongly affirmed eternal punishment for the unsaved and rejected universalism.

Modern era –

From the 19th century onward, some liberal theologians have re-embraced various forms of universalism, though evangelicals continue to oppose it.

Official positions of different churches

Throughout history, Christian churches have almost unanimously affirmed biblical teaching on heaven, hell, and salvation by faith in Christ alone. Here are some official positions:

Roman Catholicism

While allowing for purgatorial purification after death, the Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned universalism and affirmed the possibility of eternal loss.

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Orthodox churches reject universal reconciliation, teaching that immortality includes the eternal joy of the saved and the eternal suffering of the damned.


The Protestant reformers and their theological heirs have consistently rejected universalism and upheld the necessity of personal faith in Christ for salvation.

Conservative evangelicalism

Modern evangelical statements of faith uniformly assert the biblical teaching on heaven, hell, and salvation through repentance and faith in Christ alone.

Is universalism a heresy?

Whether universalism constitutes outright heresy has been debated over the centuries. But it remains deeply problematic from an evangelical perspective for several reasons:

  • Contradicts the clear message of Scripture.
  • Undermines evangelism, missions, and witnessing.
  • Distorts the biblical portrayal of God as both loving and just.
  • Robbs human beings of the responsibility for our choices.
  • Weakens biblical urgency to repent and believe.

While we can hope and pray for the salvation of all, the possibility of eternal separation from God cannot be brushed aside without doing violence to the Bible’s message.


Universalism presents an appealing picture of God’s love triumphing over sin and evil. But it simply does not align with the word of God taken as a whole.

The Bible makes clear that the joy of eternal life is reserved for those who put their trust in Christ in this life. The warnings about hell and judgment are meant to stir us to repentance and faith while there is still time.

Clinging to an unbiblical hope of automatic or eventual salvation for all can have disastrous consequences. It undercuts evangelism and missions at home and abroad. And it lulls people into a false sense of security about their need for salvation now.

Jesus and the apostles preached urgent repentance in light of coming wrath and judgment. We must maintain that same sense of urgency as we call people everywhere to confess Christ as Lord today. He may return at any moment. And no one is guaranteed tomorrow.

While hoping and praying for as many as possible to come to salvation, we must preach the full biblical gospel. That includes the reality of eternal separation from God for those who reject Christ. Any theology that denies the possibility of eternal lostness should be seen as a dangerous distortion of Scripture.

Additional questions

Don’t all roads lead to heaven?

No, the Bible clearly teaches that there is only one way to heaven and that is through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The apostles also proclaimed salvation in Christ alone (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5). While God may grant mercy to those who have never heard the gospel, the Bible does not teach that non-Christian religions lead to heaven.

How can a loving God send people to hell for eternity?

God does not send people to hell. People choose to go there by rejecting God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. God is loving and merciful, but he will not force anyone to spend eternity with him who persistently says no to his love. Hell is the just punishment for those who have rebelled against their Creator. But no one has to go there – we can put our faith in Christ and receive his forgiveness and eternal life instead.

Don’t all the verses about mercy and love mean that God will save everyone in the end?

While there are beautiful verses speaking of God’s universal love and mercy, we cannot neglect all the sober warnings about judgment and hell. Taken together, the truth is that God loves all people and wants all to be saved, but will not override anyone’s freedom to persist in rejecting him. God’s love does not mean universal salvation regardless of our response. We must accept his gift of salvation during our earthly lives or risk being eternally separated from him.

How could heaven be heaven if some people are in hell?

For believers in heaven, the joy of being with God will far exceed any regrets over the lost. Christians during this life manage to rejoice in God’s goodness while still feeling grief over those who do not know him. So it will be in heaven, only our rejoicing will be even greater as we dwell in God’s glorious presence. We will understand that God’s judgments are entirely just even if some reject salvation.