Four senses of Universalism

A comment on the last post argues that 1 Cor 15 is a assertion of universalism in some sense. I agree with this, but there are at least four kinds of universalism.

1.) The contemporary sense is that, one way or another, after the last soul drops dead or leaves Purgatory then all will enjoy the beatific vision and Hell will be empty.

2.) St. Thomas is universalist so far as he argues that all are members of the mystical body under the headship of Christ. But he doesn’t see this as requiring (1) and will even go on to argue a few articles later that the Devil is the head of some men.

3.) The Pauline sense of universalism is that salvation is now open to all and is no longer restricted to the Jews. It’s just universalism in this sense that defined his missionary work and which defines him as Apostle to the Gentiles, i.e. to all nations and not just the Jews.

4.) But none of these is exactly the universalism of 1 Cor 15. The universalist passage is nested in the larger argument:

12 If what we preach about Christ, then, is that he rose from the dead, how is it that some of you say the dead do not rise again? 13 If the dead do not rise, then Christ has not risen either; 14 and if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is groundless, and your faith, too, is groundless. 15 Worse still, we are convicted of giving false testimony about God; we bore God witness that he had raised Christ up from the dead, and he has not raised him up, if it is true that the dead do not rise again. 16 If the dead, I say, do not rise, then Christ has not risen either; 17 and if Christ has not risen, all your faith is a delusion; you are back in your sins. 18 It follows, too, that those who have gone to their rest in Christ have been lost. 19 If the hope we have learned to repose in Christ belongs to this world only, then we are unhappy beyond all other men. 20 But no, Christ has risen from the dead, the first-fruits of all those who have fallen asleep; 21 a man had brought us death, and a man should bring us resurrection from the dead; 22 just as all have died with Adam, so with Christ all will be brought to life. 23 But each must rise in his own rank; Christ is the first-fruits, and after him follow those who belong to him, those who have put their trust in his return.[3] 24 Full completion comes after that, when he places his kingship in the hands of God, his Father, having first dispossessed every other sort of rule, authority, and power; 25 his reign, as we know, must continue until he has put all his enemies under his feet, 26 and the last of those enemies to be dispossessed is death.[4] God has put all things in subjection under his feet; that is, 27 all things have been made subject to him, except indeed that power which made them his subjects. 28 And when that subjection is complete, then the Son himself will become subject to the power which made all things his subjects, so that God may be all in all.

Paul is arguing against the claim that Christ rose but others will not. Paul takes this as the claim that Christ rose but, in general, the dead do not rise, which might be some variant of the idea that miracles are possible as one-off wonders but are not things that a reasonable person counts on. Paul’s response is to assert on his own authority that Christ’s resurrection is the first event of a much larger project. He rises as “the first fruits” in a multistage process that is accomplished by a cooperation of God and man in Christ. Christ first subjugates every rule, authority and power to himself and “puts all his enemies under his feet”. This is all a clear allusion to the King-of-Israel in mentioned in the Psalms and the Son of Man discourse in Daniel, which are themselves both universalist doctrines that describe the eschatological exaltation of Israel over all nations, though Paul clearly wants to extend this discourse to the “disposition of death” as the final enemy to be subjugated, i.e. Israel’s definitive accomplishment is the conquest and subjugation of death. This reading is compatible with any of the universalisms we described above, but it doesn’t commit us to any of them. Perhaps subjugating death is to eradicate death of any kind, even the eternal death of Hellfire, and this would certainly be a Universalism (1); but perhaps death is subjugated by taking away any further ability of the damned to tempt the living, fight the Church, or increase their numbers, which could be any kind of universalism.



  1. Will Farris said,

    May 1, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Verse 28 has a host of interesting interpretive problems. Jesus will, apparently, in the end be subject to God like all the rest of creation? This supports a hierarchical Trinity essentially for all practical purposes indistinguishable from tri-theism, and supports unitarianism. God being “all in all” also sounds like pantheism, or at least panentheism, but perhaps this is somewhat accurate in the universe to come.Who can know? However, I think this is a case where Paul’s thinking is a bit muddled insofar as he communicates it, and the principle of interpreting Scripture with other Scripture is warranted. Even having been caught up to the third heaven did not make him infallible, but had that even happened when he penned this early letter?

    • David said,

      May 1, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      I think you’re confusing philosophical rigor with infallibility.

      • William Farris said,

        May 3, 2017 at 3:39 pm

        Paul, as a hellenistic Jew trained in the tradition of Gamaliel, would understand philosophical rigor and the need for defining terms in communicating truth claims, if they are important, Consistency across his many letters is at issue here but the emphases are different for various recipients. The problems of explaining vs 28 remain…

      • David said,

        May 3, 2017 at 11:00 pm

        We seem to be working from different presuppositions. The infallibility of Paul’s epistles are a conclusion for me, from independent lines of reasoning. Those same lines of reasoning also conclude that pantheism, panentheism, tritheism, and unitarianism are all false. So what is left to do is question any interpretation of Paul that leads to what I’ve already proven for myself to be false. Since God being “all in all,” could just as easily mean, at the consummation of all things, that all things will, in all of their being, bring glory to God, pointing to God as their sole purpose for being what they are, I’m hardly going to question the inspiration of 1 Corinthians.

        In short, I think now you’re confusing philosophical rigor for poetic doxology.

        P.S. God the Son voluntarily placing himself in submission to the will of his Father doesn’t seem out of place with either the biblical data, nor the claim that he is equal and one in essence with the Father. If a wife is to submit to her husband, is she by nature less than he?

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