“I began to wonder if never being a father might have caused a blind spot in my own theology. I resolved to catch up on what had been written on the topic of Christian universalism since I had studied it earlier as part of a Doctor of Ministry degree I’d completed in 1996. The topic of my thesis for this degree touched on the three main understandings of hell in the history of Christianity—those being: hell as a place of eternal torment, hell as a place of final annihilation, and hell as a place of restoration. Once I started looking again into Christian universalism in 2011–2012 I quickly discovered the landscape had changed quite a bit. My previous research had been done in 1996 without the aid of the internet. But this time around, with the help of the internet, I discovered stronger arguments for hell as a place of restoration. And to my complete shock and surprise, I discovered most of the recent writing in favor of Christian universalism was coming from people with backgrounds in the evangelical wing of the church.
I was especially impressed with the book The Inescapable Love of God written by a Christian professor of philosophy named Thomas Talbott. In Talbott’s work I found another signpost. Talbott wrote at a genuinely academic level and gave insightful arguments for Christian universalism. I was fascinated with the gentle but powerful, logical progression of Professor Talbott’s thought. As I continued my research I was also surprised to discover that William Barclay had come to believe God would ultimately save all. Barclay (1907–1978) was professor of divinity at Glasgow University. Barclay’s commentary set on the New Testament sold millions of copies and was in the church library of every church in which I’d ever served. Barclay, in A Spiritual Autobiography, wrote about how he had come to an understanding of himself as a convinced universalist. He gave credit to the early church fathers who had believed this way. But Barclay also wanted to set forth his own reasons on why he had come to this conclusion. He gave four reasons why. First, he thought there was more than enough evidence in the New Testament to support it. Second, he believed the phrase eternal torment found in Matthew 25: 46 could just as easily be understood in the original Greek to mean remedial punishment. His third and fourth reasons had to do with the power of grace and the nature of God. I found his third and fourth reasons especially compelling. Here they are in full:
Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.
Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (1 Corinthians 15: 24–28). For me this has certain consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of time, it means that that one man has defeated the love of God—and that is impossible. Further, there is only one way in which we can think of the triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father—he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family forever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God. 108
Barclay neatly summarized the basic arguments about which I had been reading and studying. For Barclay, the determinative factor lay finally in how God should be considered more than a judge or king, but above all as a parent, and how no parent could finally rest easy until all of their children were back home. During this period of renewed study on the possibility of God saving all, I also had a profound spiritual experience. One night I lay awake in bed pondering all these things. I started wondering how all of this applied to me. How sure was I of my own ultimate salvation? I had yet to face any real tragedy in my own life. I started wondering what would happen if I was to face real tragedy. Was it possible my whole spiritual life might unravel? Might I potentially crack right down the middle? If I somehow got headed towards an unrecoverable situation, would God intervene? How far would God’s parental concern for me go? Then I began the following conversation with God in my mind: “God, I’m doing pretty well spiritually right now. I’m even a minister. But what if the wheels fell off? What if the wheels really fell off? What if I completely lost it? What if something terrible happened? What if, because of it, I lost my faith? Then what, God?”
That night, as I lay there contemplating how I wasn’t bulletproof, I had to admit, given the right series of tragedies, I might just lose it all. And then I had a God moment. I did not hear an audible voice. But the strong impression I received was this: “David, this is not about you having me. This is about me having you.” That was a turning point for me. That was the moment I crossed over spiritually into believing I wasn’t just partially saved by grace, but completely saved by grace, completely secure in grace—that there was nothing which could defeat God’s perfect will for my life. And then I began to see, of course, this couldn’t be just for me. If it was for me, it had to be for everybody. It came to me with great force that each and every person is God’s dearly beloved child. We are all being saved by grace alone—saved by God’s enduring, sovereign, saving presence in each of our lives.
After this revelatory moment, I began a new way of living spiritually. I began to live out of the understanding that I, and everyone else, was eternally accepted and included. I saw each person, including myself, as a flawed person on one level, but on a much deeper level, as a dearly loved child of God, a sheep of God’s flock. From this moment on I saw Jesus as the great shepherd who came to save and deliver all his sheep, which is all of us. I stopped trying to do anything spiritually in order to earn, or to secure my salvation. I stopped trying to do anything spiritually for the purpose of increasing my value in the eyes of God. I stopped doing anything spiritually to make God love me more. I resolved for my only spiritual motivation to be a deeper experience of the grace of God which had been carrying me all along, and which I had come to believe would finally carry me and everyone else to perfection in Christ.”
Artman, David. Grace Saves All: The Necessity of Christian Universalism (p. 114). Wipf and Stock, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition. Used with permission of the author.