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Universalism and Preterism: Bedfellows or Bedlam?

By Samuel Frost


I have been asked to write a paper on the issue of universalism and what some see within our movement as a “drift” towards this doctrine. I won’t delve into the history of universalism only to say that it did not arise within preterist circles. It is, therefore, a fallacy to associate preterism with universalism, or to conclude that preterism necessarily leads to such. It is just as bad a logic to insist that Calvinism leads to disregard for evangelism or that driving a Volkswagen (German, for the “people’s car”), which was given the go ahead by Hitler, means you support Nazi-ism.

First, I must define my terms with the particular type of universalism I want to deal with. I will call this Christ-centered universalism, or Bible-believing universalism because its adherents believe that the Bible is God’s revelation and that universalism is what it teaches. Keith DeRose, Allison Foundation Professor of Philosophy, Yale University, wrote a paper in support of this view. His definition is,

“Universalism” refers to the position that eventually all human beings will be saved and will enjoy everlasting life with Christ. This is compatible with the view that God will punish many people after death, and many universalists accept that there will be divine retribution, although some may not. What universalism does commit one to is that such punishment won't last forever. Universalism is also incompatible with various views according to which some will be annihilated (after or without first receiving punishment). These views can agree with universalism in that, according to them, punishment isn't everlasting, but they diverge from universalism in that they believe some will be denied everlasting life. Some universalists intend their position to apply animals, and some to fallen angels or even to Satan himself, but in my hands, it will be intended to apply only to human beings. In short, then, it's the position that every human being will, eventually at least, make it to the party (Universalism and the Bible - http://pantheon.yale.edu/%7Ekd47/univ.htm#1.)

Clarification is something I greatly appreciate and this is about as good as it gets. If a preterist proclaims the doctrine of annhilationism, then he cannot be a universalist. I know of no preterist that proclaims the salvation of satan or demons. So, let us stay in keeping with the definition above.

With that being stated, I want to argue three points:

1) Is this a biblical view?

2) Is this a heretical view, or one that can be tolerated?

 3) In answer to the last question, if heretical, how are we to treat those who within our movement who are universalists? The first question is exegetical whereas the last two are practical.

I will continue with DeRose and briefly consider the biblical arguments that he has made in his paper. First, I Cor 15.22 is appealed to as supporting universalism. That verse reads, “for just as in ha adam all are dying, in the same way also in ha meshiach all will be made alive” (my translation). A few remarks are in order, first. This sentence is composed of two clauses that are balanced equally in Greek by syntactical structure. I have used the Hebrew for “the Adam” and “the Christ” because this is what Paul has in mind. The entire question for interpreters is the definition of the word “all” here. If “all” in the first clause means “every single human being” then it must mean that in the second clause as well, so the argument goes. DeRose, “The grammatical function of “in Christ” here is not to modify or limit the “all.” The passage doesn't say, “...so also shall all who are in Christ be made alive.” If it said that, I wouldn't be so cheered by the passage. Rather, “in Christ” is an adverbial phrase that modifies the verb "shall be made" or perhaps the whole clause, "shall all be made alive." Thus, this passage says that all shall be made alive.” For those who do not know Greek, such an argument sounds quite convincing. But, not so fast.

This is a typical example of “prooftexting”. Taking one verse out of its context and applying meaning to it is impossible. Paul is comparing two bodies, those who have solidarity with the body of Adam (“all those who are dying/falling asleep”) and those “in Christ” (all those who are being made alive). “In Christ” is a rich theological phrase for Paul. It is true that the dative prepositional phrase “in the Christ/in the Adam” functions adverbially. But prepositional phrases go beyond mere adverbs. They also serve to highlight the noun as well. The noun in this case is “all” (plural) which is the subject of both verbs (“dying/made alive”). What Paul is saying, I think, must be understood from what was being denied: the resurrection of dead ones.

Verses 20, 21 make it clear that Paul is arguing against the denial of the resurrection of the dead by affirming that, “But now, Christ has been raised out of dead ones (those who have fallen asleep); he is the firstfruits of those who have been asleep (and are still asleep)” (my translation). Those who have been asleep and are still asleep (the perfect tense is used here) are the very ones who were being denied. Why are they asleep? Why are they not in heaven and awake? “For because through man – death! Also through man – resurrection of dead ones!” For Paul the state of being asleep and remaining asleep is to be under the reign of the last enemy: the Death (15.26). The Death is what keeps them in a state of sleep rather than bringing them into a state of being awake/quickened/made alive. It is not physical death that is in mind here, but the result of physical death: the state of sleep rather than the state of being awake in the presence of God. It is this result of physical death that is the punishment that came as a result of the sin of the Adam. For Paul, sleep is dying. Catch this: if the present tense is used for those “all” dying in Adam, and physical death is what is meant, then how can Moses, dead over a thousand years, still be dying? It is because he was currently under The Death’s power and sting: the state of sleep (we can see here why the Thessalonians were worried about their dead kin because they knew that the Death had not yet been conquered). But, we know that Moses was “alive” soulishly for to God “all is alive.” To be in the state of sleep was to be under the sting of the Death; that is, Moses was soulishly alive, but alive in a state of death/sleep. What Moses awaited for was to be made alive again by through Christ.

Now, if “those who have been asleep and are still asleep” are those who are being denied resurrection life by “some” of the Corinthians is compared with those who are “fallen asleep in Christ” (15.18 – the verb here is aorist), then we have a definition of Paul’s “all.” If those who have previously fallen asleep are being denied, but those who have fallen asleep in Christ are not denied, then Paul is arguing that all, that is those who have fallen asleep and those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be raised. Both groups will be “made alive in Christ” since both groups have fallen asleep in Adam. In other words, falling asleep in Adam does not discount a person from being raised in Christ, which, apparently, some in Corinth thought that it did. From this perspective, “all” is not defining “every single human being,” but the group that was being denied (“those who have fallen asleep” – perfect tense) and the group that was being affirmed (“those who have fallen asleep in Christ” – aorist tense). Paul is saying that all (both groups) will be raised in Christ without entertaining every individual.

Verse 23 clarifies this even further in that “each in his own order” will be raised, first, “the firstfruit-Christ (those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit), then those who are of the Christ.” This limits the “all” to only “those who are in the Christ.” If Paul would have said, “the firstfruit-Christ, then all who die in Adam” the universalist would be thrilled. But, from our exegesis, the group being denied, who have fallen asleep, are also in Christ as well as those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Paul is not speaking of every single individual in this text.

It may seem that I have elaborated a great deal on this one verse to disprove DeRose. I have. DeRose and others like him make their case sound simple, but it isn’t. Context is everything. In my view the “all” is balanced nicely because the same “all” that were dying in Adam (sleeping) is the same “all” that will be made alive in Christ. However, for Paul the “all” are those who have hoped in Christ (15.19), and this cannot be said of every individual that came out of Adam. Those who would participate in the resurrection are not only those who fell asleep in Christ, but all those who hoped in Christ long, long ago. It was the latter group that was being denied in Corinth. Rather, then, than proving universalism, this verse proves that only those who hoped in Christ, along with those who fell asleep in Christ, will be made alive.

DeRose quotes two other verses, Col 1.20 and Rom 5.18. The first reads, “and through him to reconcile the all things to himself -- having made peace through the blood of his cross -- through him, whether the things upon the earth, whether the things in the heavens.” DeRose comments, “Note again the "all." Show me someone burning in hell, and I'll show you someone who's not yet been reconciled to God. So, show me someone who's under divine punishment forever, or who is simply annihilated, and I'll show you someone who's never reconciled to God through Christ, and thus someone who gives the lie to this passage.” But, this would include the devil and demons and the animal kingdom, slugs and bats – something DeRose said above that, “Some universalists intend their position to apply animals, and some to fallen angels or even to Satan himself, but in my hands, it will be intended to apply only to human beings.” Well, well. “The all things” here is limited to human beings! Let’s not forget trees, flowers and that fence in my backyard, either. I mean, “all things” means “every single possible thing that can be called a thing” right?

Well, let’s see. In Col 1.15 Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation.” The next verse, “for in him the all things were created.” And what would that be? “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.” One could certainly include devils and demons here! “For he is before all things and in him all things consist.” This asserts the pre-existence of the Son before God said, “let there be light” in Genesis. Certainly sounds like Paul is emphasizing all of creation; anything that was created. “And he is the head of the body, the ekklesia; he is the beginning, the firstborn out of the dead ones, so that in all things he might have priority.” Here we have the body of Christ, the ekklesia. “And through him to reconcile the all things to himself -- having made peace through the blood of his cross -- through him, whether the things upon the earth, whether the things in the heavens.”

If all things are reconciled to Christ, then every man will be made a member of the body of Christ. That is what DeRose is stating. So far, it would be difficult to argue against him. “The all things” in this verse must be the same “the all things” that started this thread; the “all things” of creation. Let us continue to read Paul, however. “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Does DeRose take this last verse to refer to the same content of “the all things” in 1.15-20? “All creation” and “under heaven” are two phrases Paul has already used, but who would argue that the gospel was preached in Paul’s day to the Eskimos or the Chinese? Also, there appears to be a conditional “if” in verse 23. What would it matter “if” they didn’t remain in the faith, stable and steadfast? They are already reconciled. Finally, Paul concludes, “whom we proclaim, admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ (1.28).” That is, every man Paul ran across he taught so that he might present him to God, if that man remained steadfast in what he heard. But, again, why would this be necessary?

I want to use this as a segue into this question. The same comments I would make on Rom 5.18. There, it can be shown that “the many” are the Jews and the “all” are Jews and Gentiles, which has been Paul’s point all along: “is the God the God of the Jews only, or also of the Gentiles”? The universalist would argue that all men are made alive in Christ, or eventually will be. DeRose does not deny a phase of punishment. So, here, Paul wanted his hearers to come to Christ now instead of coming to Christ later under brutal conditions of punishment. Eventually they will come…so why not come now? When a person comes to acknowledge Christ (“every knee shall bow”) they will also be presented before the throne of God “spotless.” This spotlessness is achieved through acknowledging, “Jesus is Lord.”

Now, the reason DeRose does not accept the devil as being saved is because he is viewed as being thrown into the lake of fire. “Could they be including angels, including fallen angels, and maybe even Satan himself? My reason for not going out on that limb -- besides passages like Rev 20:10, which reports that the devil is "thrown into the lake of burning sulpher", where the beast and the false prophet (who's not clearly human) were previously thrown, and where "they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" -- is that most of the universalist passages don't go that far. Some, like I Corinthians 15:22, write simply of "all", and, as I said, I think the most natural way to understand the scope of the "all" is as referring to all people. Indeed, it's difficult to construe that particular passage more broadly so as to include Satan, for there seems to be no good sense in which Satan died in Adam, and the passage reads: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”” Very well. But, when he comes to Col 1.20 and Rev 20.10, he writes, “How to square that with Rev 20:10, I don't know, though I am in general far more cautious about my understanding of Revelation than of any other book in the Bible.” That’s an honest enough answer.

What is missed though is that those not found written in the book of life were also cast into the same place the devil was. If DeRose is willing to leave the devil there, then how can he bring those men who were also thrown there, out? DeRose does not answer. He does talk about “second chances” and such after death, but what is pictured in Rev 20.11-15, your name is either there or it isn’t. Rev plainly teaches that the destiny of the devil is the same destiny of those not found written in the book of life: the second death.

It is towards the end of DeRose’s paper that he runs out of Scripture and begins to think in other terms. There is not much exegetical weight for the universalist. In fact, some of them admit this. It’s a wish built on a few verses that at first glance appear to teach universalism, and so the naïve and well-wishers believe that they have enough “evidence” to at least give some credence to their position as tenable and Evangelical.

Here, I want to answer the first question: is universalism biblical? My answer would be, “no.” Does that mean that it is heretical? I do not believe that speaking in tongues today is biblical (even though I used to speak in so called tongues). Does that make it heretical? Here we begin to enter into the question of what is, and what it not “heretical.” For the preterist this is made even more difficult because, by all definitions from church history, councils, creeds and confessions, he is a heretic! A heretic calling another person a heretic is downright funny.

Preterists never seem to take this last point seriously. “So we disagree with two-thousand years of church history and every creed and confession that have been written…big deal.” One can rightly see that those who are “orthodox” would look upon this attitude as simply, well, heretical. After all, didn’t Joseph Smith do the same thing? I take church history extremely serious. After all, God’s providence has guided the church for the last two-thousand years, so it can’t be all bad. It’s a heavy burden the preterist carries (and one that many preterists are not even aware of, or either care about, which I find shocking and arrogant). Others, like myself and Ed Stevens, have attempted to wrestle with this question, and have come out with two very different answers. I applaud the wrestling.

The universalist Christian, such a DeRose, is trying to make an honest answer, no doubt. He is sincerely trying to teach the contents of the gospel, and he cannot be said to use trickery when he plainly admits that he does not know how some passages should be reconciled. Sounds like a preterist! Does the attempt to construct a universalist message within the context of faith in acknowledging Jesus is Lord, the Bible is God’s word, and the church is God’s people make one a heretic? That is the question I am struggling with. At the request of those who wanted me to write this paper, I must confess in all honesty – hanging myself out there to dry – I don’t know. Is the great church father Origen in the lake of fire? He was a universalist, too!

Now, I can hear many already starting to scream that somehow I am giving credence to universalism. I am not. I don’t know how one could say that after the exegesis and analysis I have just provided. Universalism cannot be sustained in my opinion. Therefore, I will counter it wherever I run into it (like I counter freewill, tongues, futurism, anti-church gathering, empiricism, scientism, liberalism, homosexuality, etc.). The question asked is, is DeRose a heretic? Rather, should folks like DeRose be considered heretics from a preterist perspective? I can see where they would be, and have no real issue with those who say that they are. I am saying what I think – a preterist is a heretic according to the majority of the church, and that is the first problem we should be dealing with. Of course, does this mean “anything” goes? Well, one has to be somewhat inclusive at this stage of the game. Should I endorse the rapture in A.D. 70? Annhilationism found in much preterism? How about the tongue-talkers among us? Maybe the “Israel are the Gentiles” gang are heretics and neo-racists. Is the corporate body view what Paul taught? This gets back to the question of what we “let in” and “keep out.”

What do we “let in”? Naturally, we would say, “what the Bible teaches.” Well, that is currently the issue, is it not? Personally, we at Regnum Christi Ministries teach that the Westminster Confession of Faith is correct unless changes need to be made in light of preterism. The same for the Apostles’ Creed. Therefore, we as a ministry reject universalism and will not condone it as a viable, biblical alternative. But, I also reject other preteristic theories as well. Can we reject the teaching and not the teacher? Can I reject the teaching of DeRose, but continue to have a dialogue and friendship with him? What does Paul say, “live at peace – as much as you can – with all men.” We are never told to hate our enemies.

Some might also think that “petty differences” are okay, but not major ones. But, when seen from Paul’s admonitions (down to hair coverings, and speaking in tongues) none of these things were “petty” to him. To deny someone’s claim today that they speak in tongues is, to their mind, to deny the active work of the Spirit Himself! Imagine if speaking in tongues, we come to find out, is a viable work the Spirit does and here many of us have been actively opposing it! Petty? I think not! Same for the rapture in A.D. 70 view. Ultimately what this view is saying is that God Himself did this, and for us to oppose it would be to oppose the work of God. That is, if you have ever thought that this view was “silly” or “nonsense,” then you have just called the work of God “nonsense”, if the view is true. When these “petty things” are seen from this perspective, perhaps we will speak more cautiously.

What I am trying to do, and what I think needs to be done, is balance the love for correct doctrine with the love for each other that we must have in order to follow Christ. Never compromise doctrine, but neither have an attitude that just because you don’t see it my way, it’s the highway. Some might claim that Paul did, but last I checked no one reading this article is Paul – nor are they apostles with authority to bind and loose. There is within the Christian ethic of love a tension. Romans 14 notes this tension very well and roots it in a person’s conscience. The conscience for Paul was the transformed heart, the inner man, the “spiritual man” as he called it. He is bound by text, which is outside to him and dictating to him rules for living and thinking. Yet, the text is subject to misinterpretation by the text-reader – by a sincere text reader. What does one do when two get together in the name of Jesus (Jesus is Lord), reading the text (God’s holy word), and agreeing on the essentials of the deity of Christ, the equality of the Godhead and kingdom of God, differ? DeRose affirms all these things. Does his going off course with universalism mark him out as an unbeliever after all? When I say I do not know, I mean that I cannot answer that question from God’s perspective (typical Calvinist answer). Now, do I have responsibility to mark him out regardless? I think, since the agreement we have is much more on essentials, that continued dialogue/debate is in order.

We have had two universalists that wanted to join our fellowship. We had no problems with them coming. When they found out that we were committed to a Calvinistic understanding of things, they left. I have not seen them since. I won’t pursue them, either.

What does that say? Well, I don’t know their eternal destiny. I do know that we must stand up for what we believe in (responsibility). I also know that had they wanted to continue fellowshipping with us, knowing our stance, then they most certainly would have been invited to continue fellowshipping (in hopes of changing their minds to our view!). In other words, in my mind, it takes a stronger person to tolerate another’s view while standing his own ground without compromise. It is a weak person that seeks to write off everything and everyone that disagrees with him. That’s easy. Love is hard. Had I written off the first heretic preterist that I met on the basis that his view was not “orthodox” and “biblical,” would I have become a preterist?

So, I guess in conclusion I am saying several things:

1) A believer must stand his ground against universalism, constantly pointing out the ramifications it has on evangelism, the gospel and the like. It does not affect the deity of Christ or the trinity, nor does it affect the substitutionary atonement of Christ (since it believes that Christ substituted himself for all). This keeps it, somewhat, within the pale of allowing tolerance to at least some degree and to at least some point. If I am in error on this point, I will glady accept criticism.

2) By standing firm on the issue, it keeps the debate alive and active for those who are considering buying into this false doctrine. Compromise would be to simply let this issue go, pretending that it has no real overall problems. A true defender of the faith from an evangelical perspective would be to keep alive the debate with the hopes of convincing universalists to turn from that alternative.

3) It does not deserve the vicious attacks it has received as being “another gospel”. Those who hold to universalism (biblical universalism, as defined by DeRose) does not mean that they automatically “deny the faith” or are “lost.” I think that that point comes when Scripture is denied as God’s word, when Jesus himself as the Second Person of the Godhead is denied, when the Trinity is denied. Yet, one of our members told me that when he first became a Christian, he took a Modalist view of the Trinity. Within a year, he came to accept the orthodox position. When was he saved? Is faith ever allowed to mature? Can a Christian believe in doctrines through sheer ignorance of the alternatives? It is at this point that the fruits of the Spirit must be exercised. You can watch the downward spiral of someone in practice and in doctrine. First this is denied, then that, then finally, all of it. I am asking for keen and loving sensitivity and I think that this can be done without knee jerk reactionism.

So, I think that I have been clear enough to state where Regnum Christi Ministries is coming from on this issue. I think it is painfully clear in our constitution and by-laws (located on our site) what we stand for. If, then, any think that by having friendships with those who espouse a “generous orthodoxy” or who may be universalists is a sin, then I guess that will have to be proven to me in such a way that it has the stamp of “thus saith the Lord” on it. The Jesus way is to talk with any and all, and if they stick around as friends, keep on talking with the hopes of convincing them of your views. If they walk away, they walk away. You have done your duty, stood your ground, and walked in humility.

(Addendum): I recently had a wonderful conversation with a preterist brother who asked very practical questions concerning this topic. In a Christian fellowship, we of Christ Covenant Church espouse a very open policy. Like the example of the two universalists that came our way, they did not come back. If they had wanted to become serious fellow-laborers of what we are accomplishing here, their universalism would be more seriously challenged. The reason for this is practical. If any come into any fellowship with an agenda that is not the vision and goal of the group, dissension will arise. Universalism is not apart of the doctrinal views of our fellowship, and if someone came in to our fellowship with a bent to convince us of universalism, dismissal would be the result. But, this is true of trying to convince us of homeschooling (a divisive issue, to be sure); A.D. 70 rapture theory, or tongues, or whatever. We tolerate those who may hold to these things and want to honestly discuss them. That’s one thing. But, when it becomes divisive, that’s another. Pastorally speaking, the one causing the division must be removed for the sake of peace among the greater number.

Samuel Frost
 

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