GRACE SAVES ALL: The Necessity for Christian Universalism. David Artman, Forward by Brad Jersak, Afterword by Thomas Talbott. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, April 2020. ISBN: 978-1-5326-5088-8, Paperback, 147 pages with bibliography and notes. $21.00
As a Christian Universalist I realize that there are some issues that come with the view. From my perspective perhaps the greatest issue is the danger of Christian Universalism becoming a universalism that negates the role of Christ and removes the necessity of faith. For many reared in the church, the issue is how do we deal with the need for retribution for our sins, and subsequently, what do we do with hell.
Although I would argue for the necessity of Christian Universalism from a different perspective, David Artman in GRACE SAVES ALL: The Necessity of Christian Universalism takes on the issue of faith, as well as the question of retribution and hell, in a deep and scholarly understanding of scripture. In doing so presents a formable challenge to the idea of damnation into an eternal hell.
Scholarly the book may be, but David didn’t write to argue with biblical scholars, he wrote Grace Saves All for the person in the pew. He is writing for the person who thinks that although Christ dies for all, one has to “accept Christ” or otherwise be condemned to an eternal hell. David writes from his own experience, sharing with us his own thoughts as he gravitated from that view to that of Christian Universalism.
In an email exchange, David commented,
(W)hen I was a teenager I hadn’t grown up in church and I was in Irving, TX in the Bible belt and the evangelicals were always telling me that Jesus had died for my sins by in order for me to benefit from it I had to accept it….or else. But then when I would ask about what I had done there was this explanation about original sin and Adam and how I was born a sinner. So, somehow I didn’t have to do anything to get the bad stuff from Adam. I was included in that no matter what. But then I had to perform some kind of mysterious faith act in order to get the good stuff from Jesus.
I think that’s probably why I’ve gravitated almost unconsciously to the idea of being covered in an act of saving grace in Christ that I didn’t have to do anything to get.
It is from this perspective that David writes, GRACE SAVES ALL: The Necessity of Christian Universalism.
In recent years a number of books have been written about Christian Universalism, some better than others. Few, even while arguing the biblical reality of Christian Universalism, put out the necessity of Christian Universalism. This I believe is David’s greatest contribution to Christian Universalism. David sums up his argument for the necessity of Christian Universalism: “The Inclusive Christian Universalism approach is the only one that safeguards the goodness of God (p.119).”
From the beginning to the Conclusion, Grace Saves All tackles the objections to Christian Universalism that most Christians would raise. David, in chapter three, “Grace”, addresses three approaches to the role of grace in salvation. The first, he calls, “The Transactional Approach,” an approach that rejects the idea that grace alone saves. This approach is found in the Arminian-Holiness segment of the Church. The second, he calls, “The Exclusive Solution,” an approach that “rejects grace goes to all.” This is the Calvinistic side of the Church. The third view is “The Inclusive Approach.” This view “rejects that some will never be saved,” but rather claims that grace flows to all. This last view is that of Christian Universalism.
The first two chapters in which David expands upon the fact that God wants to save all (Chapter One) and that judgement is about restoration (Chapter Two). However, as important as these two chapters are, the best part of David’s argument for the necessity of Christian Universalism is found in what follows the “Grace Chapter (3).” In each of the subsequent chapters David build his argument. He doesn’t remove the possibility of a hell. Rather, closely following and explaining scripture, hell becomes the place of purification and restoration—a necessary place, but a temporary one. For those who would argue the necessity of an eternal hell from Revelation, David articulately counters with the very same verse.
For many the real obstacle to Christian Universalism is the question of Free Will. The view that we as humans have been given by God the free will to reject God. It is here too, that many who would believe in Christian Universalism come to a theological impasse. For them, Christian Universalism becomes a “hopeful theology,” a theology of hopeful inclusivism.
To the question of free will, David answers:
Christian Universalists believe God’s sovereignty and human freedom don’t have to be tied up in a completely unresolvable mystery. We see how God can allow a tremendous amount of rebellion and still accomplish God’s redemptive purpose. As humans we do have a choice. We can choose to resist God if we wish. However, God also has a choice—a choice more powerful than ours. God has the choice and the ability to break through even the hardest of wills and set them truly free (p.89).
David doesn’t arrive at this in an arbitrary way, but rather lays out a strong case for God’s ability, willingness, and desire to restore everyone.
Not to long ago I read the writing of an Evangelical preacher ranting and raving about the “new heresy of Christian universalism.” Christian Universalism is not new, nor has it always been a “heresy.” As David aptly demonstrates in Chapter Seven, “Authenticity,” Christian Universalism has always been an accepted alternative to eternal damnation. Not only that, it was widely accepted until the time of St. Augustine, who came to reject Christian Universalism.
Although David and I started our faith journey in an Evangelical Church, my journey to Christian Universalism has taken a different direction. Before I became a Christian Universalist, I began by asking, “Why did Jesus have to die?” My answer took me away from the idea that Jesus’s death was atonement for my sins to thinking that the death was about beginning my (and Creation’s) theosis. Thus, I read Grace Saves All not to argue with David’s view, but rather as a challenge to my view. I also read the book to see how well the book proved its premise that Christian Universalism is a necessity in light of the author’s view that some sort of atonement or purification was required.
I think David did an exemplary job of proving his thesis of the necessity of Christian Universalism in view of the common Christian thinking, that an atonement is necessary for salvation. I think too, that Grace Saves All needs to be read and honestly considered by every Christian who believes in eternal damnation, especially those of an evangelical bent.
In reading Grace Saves All it seemed to me that from what David said, even those who have accepted Christ may still need to go through a purification. In that sense hell seemed more like the Purgatory. In an email conversation with David, I asked, “Are those who have ‘accepted Christ’ exempted from hell, or in your view does hell serve more as a purgatory for all?”
I think hell serves as a purgatory for all, and I don’t think that “accepting Christ” exempts anyone from necessary correction. For instance, a hardened Christian racist may require a very difficult “cure”.
On the other-hand I don’t think anyone who has sincerely been seeking a God of true love outside of an understanding of Christ as their savior will require punishment of any kind.
While this may help those of the Catholic persuasion to consider Christian Universalism, I think it would have been beneficial for evangelicals to expand upon this idea.
In regard to my own view, I can honestly say, David challenged me to think about my understanding of those verses that are thought of as “salvation” or “hell verses” (in my view an afterlife hell does not exist). This was something I needed.
Thank you, David.
Following the Afterword, David presents an extensive “recommended reading” list, a Lenten Devotional, and bibliography.
David Artman is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He holds a Master and Doctor of Divinity from Brite Divinity School, located in Fort Worth, Texas.
© Frank A. Mills, November 24, 2020