From Exclusivism to Universalism

A Primer on Soteriology

who-is-savedIn the conversations about Rob Bell, I think that it is helpful to outline exactly what we are talking about in the question of “who is saved?”

So I made a quick draft of the chart above. A “primer” means a short introduction. “Soteriology” is the study of salvation: who is saved? who is left out? how does one become “saved?”

While it is tempting to say that the chart is from “fewest saved” to “most saved” or concentric circles of salvation, to me the chart is more about a spectrum of certainty.

  • Predestination: Calvinist position of only the “select few” are chosen by God, regardless of human action.
  • Exclusivism: Traditional Christian position of “those who believe in Christ are saved by faith”
  • Inclusivism: Most (or all) faiths worship in different ways through different avenues but all lead to God for faithful members of those faiths.
    • The subform is “Christian Inclusivism” where all other religions are actually worshipping shadow versions of Christ and lead to the Christian God if they are faithful to the shadow Christ in their religion.
  • Universalism: two forms
    • Soft (Universal Grace): God offers salvation to all in this life or the next. Rejecting salvation leads to life without God (hell, possibly).
    • Hard (Universal Salvation): God saves every person in one heaven.
  • Pluralism: each religion leads to its own Heaven, many paths, many destinations.

More theologically astute people than I can critique the chart and I’ll update it if necessary. I wish I could put “notable people” in each camp but I don’t have that breadth of knowledge of all the sections.

From my reading of Rob Bell, I think he is closest to Soft Universalism as he believes in human freedom and the possibility of choosing life without God (hell).


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  1. says

    I think pluralism (at least in a soteriological scheme) is the metaphor of many paths up one mountain. Therefore, it is one destination but there are many ways of getting there. Also, it is important to recognize that pluralists do not have to claim that all religious or ethical traditions are valid pathways.

    When you defined pluralism, I think you were actually defining particularism. Each path is distinct and leading to its own destination. The paths may cross but eventually they make it to their own “heaven”

  2. Haley says

    Rather than, “who is saved”, I think a more important question might be, “from what are we saved”. When we focus on the “salvation from Hell” aspect of Christianity, we become self-absorbed and inward-looking. Pascal’s wager, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to empty faith. If we’re only in it for ourselves, and only concerned with eternal salvation, we become blind to the problems of the here and now and to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Salvation is so much more multi-faceted than that. We are saved from hell, sure, but we are also saved from sin, saved from evil, saved from hopelessness, saved from helplessness. And, perhaps more importantly, we are saved to things: saved to love, saved to be in relationship with God, saved to be more fully in relationship with others, etc.

    There’s something very basic about this whole flap that I don’t understand, or perhaps there’s something very basic to Christianity that Rob Bell’s critics don’t understand. It’s so much more than pie in the sky, and I am distressed that so many reduce it to that, because we lose so much of God’s richness – and our own potential – that way. Love and grace and mercy have transformative power. We are shown these things by God. We are commanded to show these things to one another. I don’t necessarily understand God’s justice, but I know that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. I wish we could work out how to focus on that and let the rest take care of itself.

    • says

      I like your comments on being saved from and to, Haley. That’s helpful for each individual to work it out: are they being saved from or to or both? Thanks.

      I think the crux of Bell’s work is to focus us on the world around us instead of worrying about who is in/out.

  3. Hansen Wendlandt says

    Ugh, J, you know I love your blog and often steal your clever ideas to share with the Presbyterians, but I can’t continue my day without correcting some (OK, a lot) of your soteriology primer. Excuse my boldness, but I’m a Calvangelist who just read Love Wins the minute it came out, so throw me grace for the tone of my corrections. 1) Foremost, your ‘definition’ of ‘predestination’ is far off. You have shared an implication of a specific kind of predestination, namely double predestination. The basic doctrine is that salvation is in God’s hands without (or before, ‘pre’) any reference to your merits, whether those merits be acts, beliefs, rituals, etc. Double predestination (Calvin at his worst) says that God points folks in two ways, regardless of merits; single predestination is basically your Hard Universalism (Tillich at his sloppiest, Augustine at his best). 2) Exclusivism is not necessarily about exclusion by belief. Aquinas and pre-Reformation Catholics were accused of ‘works righteousness’ exclusivism (he wasn’t one), Luther should be accused of ‘belief righteousness’ exclusivism, many of today’s Baptists hold to a ‘ritual righteousness’ exclusivism, Pentecostals to a ‘spirit-filled rigteousness’, et cetera. The point is, God excludes (or, in the parlance of the exclusivists themselves, the non-believer/doer/baptiser excludes ‘him’self) someone from salvation for a reason, i.e., you deserve what you get. 3) Your description of ‘inclusivism’ should be contrasted with pluralism as a type of universalism; it is NOT the opposite of your exclusivism, as the graph seems to imply. The issue is that God includes everyone, either from/to their own path/destination (pluralism, see lazy pop-theologians smoking the tree of not-very-much knowledge), or from different paths to the same destination (your inclusivism, see college students discovering the world, man), or from apparently different but really the same path (your Christian inclusivism). This last is best described by Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity”, and you can find it in Romans 10 along with weak parts of Rob Bell’s new book. 4) Soft universalism, or ‘resistable grace’ is most associated with Jacob Arminius (Calvin’s contemporary ankle-biter). Rob Bell is distinctly NOT one of these. In Love Wins, he comes down as an atemporal, non-located Hard Universalist. In other words, he would describe your hard universalism just like you did, with the added words, “where heaven isn’t a place, and salvation can take as long as God wants to encourage your will.” 5) OK, I have to go back to work, to write a church newsletter article on Rob’s new book. Peace!

    • says

      Hansen, I wouldn’t throw it out there if I wasn’t open to correction. Bring it! Point by point:

      (1) Thanks for your nuances on Predestination. So at the furthest end of the scale, Double Predestination would be the most appropriate? I can’t wrap my head around Single Predestination = Hard Universalism except to agree that it negates human choice. Single Predestination isn’t Calvin, right? Or early/late Calvin writings?

      (2) Fair enough on expanding the section from faith to other factors. I agree with what you wrote but didn’t feel the need to outline them all except in anticipation of annoying you by my ambiguity. 😛

      (3) I was thinking of Rahner’s “Anonymous Christians” when writing Christian Inclusivism, so well done there. I’m not contrasting this with exclusivism (I don’t make any connections on the graph except in the Universalism section) but with pluralism, as you state. Perhaps another line connecting the two. It’s a basic primer, and I’m glad I got the section narrowly defined but in the right place.

      (4) I haven’t finished the book, so I’m probably ignorant. But given Bell’s reliance on choice, he wouldn’t be a hard universalist in any form. As you claim, hard universalism and single predestination negate human choice entirely…but even given an eternity to wear down human will involves choice. You can’t have it both ways.

      (5) I would like a dollar for each clever idea you steal.

      • Hansen Wendlandt says

        1) Single Predestination is a type of Hard Universalism. The subtle difference is that in 2PD God makes the choice to save, whereas in Hard Universalism it is almost a logical conclusion.
        4) I have finished the book, and there is (almost?) nothing about choice and salvation, in the sense you have laid out. Maybe earlier Bell (can we say that, as though he is old and important?) emphasizes choice in one’s relationship with God, but “Love Wins” gives all the credit to God, that vaguely and eventually (non-temporal eternity) everyone will be saved (non-locally). So, if you have to squeeze him into one of these boxes, he comes down clearly in the single predestination / hard universalist box, with some nuance as to the when and how. Of course, if you’re through the first chapter, you’ll know that he wouldn’t want to be squeezed into any of these boxes. Like when Jesus says ‘the kingdom is here with me’, Rob is promoting salvation/damnation on earth, in this life, not a dreamy afterlife. Basically, you need another line on your graph, Concurrent Soteriology. (Tillich at his best goes heree.) For Bell, it’s up to us (here’s your choice) when and how to act in ways that promote personal and cosmic salvation, but in the long run, it is irresistable. So, yes, he wants it both ways.

  4. Carl says

    Predestination needs to come off the left end of that spectrum. Any student of Barth will clearly show that predestination/election through Christ is inclusive of all humanity. People who are universalists and people who are not both may believe in predestination.

  5. says

    Yes, I think your chart is right.

    I myself believe everyone is going to heaven, but I did not get there via any of the “ism’s.” Rather it was the Holy Spirit and the Bible. And thus I have written The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven. (

    I’m sure it sounds strange to read these words. I was an evangelical’s evangelical. It was, in fact, clinging to what my evangelicalism taught me (that is, Jesus is supreme and the Bible is the word of God) that led me finally to the conviction that everyone is going to heaven.

    This does not reduce the importance of repentance and obedience. Not at all.

    Truly, Jesus is Lord!

  6. River says

    For academic completeness, you should add Atheism/Secular Humanism at the far left where no one is “saved.” And Unitarian Universalism sprinkled throughout the spectrum to align with each individual’s belief systems.

    As an aside, the only way this salvation hypothesis will be resolved is by taking a headcount on the other side. At which point the debate will be moot, unless you can send a message back. Ah, the irony.

  7. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    The problem with your diagram is that it suggests that a spectrum exists in which the middle ground is somewhere in between inclusivism and pluralism; this is not a Biblical nor an orthodox standpoint to be expressed within Christianity.

    Firstly, the reality is that the accepted consensus within orthodox Christianity, adhered to by the majority of Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, as well as the majority of church fathers (with a few isolated exceptions) is that all salvation comes through Christ. Now, the Eastern Orthodox take a rather agreeable view on this subject; they do not in the manner of some Calvinists arrogantly assume immediate and irrevocable salvation on the basis of their professed faith, but rather salvation as a process, and life eternal as the reward lying beyond the finish long of a desperately challenging life-long struggle with sin. Martin Luther, driven to the brink of insanity by the oppressive and heterodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church during its dark period (in which I would agree with him might be referred to as a “Babylonian Captivity”, but which fortunately has been over since at least the era of John Henry Newman), felt compelled to proclaim that we should “Sin and sin boldly,” but I feel that he was wrong to say that; even if we do accept the doctrine of Sola Fide, which is not in and of itself an unreasonable doctrine, we should not assume that our faith will continue without, at a minimum, the necessary repentance of, and aversion to, sin; while mankind in this life cannot help but be in a state of sin, one should not openly and enthusiastically embrace sin.

    This takes us to the second point, which is that allowing for a universalist approach to salvation hampers the missionary work of the church, and promotes sinful behavior. Surely, if one cannot help but be “saved”, regardless of one’s actions, then one might as well ignore the biblical proscriptions against adultery, lasciviousness, drunken revelry, dishonesty, and cruelty to the extent one finds it advantageous. The admonition of Immaneul Kant, that even if one does not believe in a God, one should act as if there is one, becomes laughable in the face of such a view, and the Christian faith itself will not persist, which is why the Unitarian Universalists have drifted away from preaching the Gospel.

    Finally, and most importantly, I feel compelled to mention the very important observation by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia (who is eminant both by title and on his own merits as an intellectual and theologian) when he expressed clearly the problem with the view that “all must be saved,” by pointing out that the one thing God cannot do is force us to love him; love that is enforced is in fact not love. The gates of Hell, as CS Lewis put it, are locked on the inside. However, Ware points out that it is legitimate to hope that all *may* be saved; it should also be noted that the Eastern Orthodox, in the doctrine of Christus Victor, consider that Christ in the “Harrowing of Hell” gave those who had preceded his ministry in this world the opportunity to follow him into salvation; I have seen a rather touching Eastern Orthodox icon which depicts an empty and desolate Hell, with empty chains and shackles lying about. However, another equally poignant icon depicts the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, with Christ leaning out a trapdoor at the top of a ladder, assisting those faithful climbing up it to safety, while winged demons pelt them with arrows and capture those who falter. This nightmarish image accurately depicts this world in which we live, in which we benefit continually from the grace of God’s creation, yet at the same time continually suffer due to our sinful nature and the constant and pervasive evil temptation that our adversary subjects us to.

    The unfortunate and unpleasant truth, which I would propose John Wesley understood better than any other Protestant theologian to date, is that we are completely lost without our Lord, who has given us the free choice as to whether or not we will love and honor him, and who is both infinitely patient and long-suffering. It is both legitimate to hope and pray that all may be saved, regardless of their faith, as long as we affirm that their salvation is purely the product of the grace of Christ; no one is saved through their own merits; but we also cannot deny that one can surely just as easily be damned by one’s lack of merit. Thus as Christians, we are obliged to continually stress the importance of repentance and holiness, and not to concede to the demands of modern secular thought just because we want to make people feel better; we must not tell people what the want to hear, but rather, what they require for their salvation.


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