Universal Salvation: The promise of Holy Saturday

A scriptural review of Universal Salvation

In the rush of Holy Week there is one day which is predominantly overlooked, and yet is central to the early Christian understanding of salvation: Holy Saturday. This day, falling between the grim remembrance of Good Friday and the joyous celebration of Easter, is a day of both mourning and anticipation. On the eve of Easter, we still sting, with Mary and the disciples, from the horrors of the crucifixion. But this day is more than mourning Good Friday and anticipating Easter. It is the day of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descends to hell to take his victory over death beyond the grave, and to bring home any and all who accept His mercy. For early Christians, and many still today, across denominations, this day is the basis, along with strong scriptural support and the teachings of the early Church mothers and fathers, of Universalism, or Universal Salvation — the theology of universal redemption of all souls to Christ, even from the pits of hell.

Prior to the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church, convened in 553, Universalism was a dominant teaching, if not the predominant teaching, of Christian salvation theology. At the time, there were three schools of thought on salvation, and two of them centered on Universal Salvation. (For a much more in-depth examination of exactly what the Fifth Ecumenical Council did and did not declare anathema regarding Universalism, see this post).

So, what is Universalism, exactly?

Unfortunately, there is no exact answer. “Universalism” is not a term with homogeneous meaning. It has been used to describe both the widely rejected teachings of Nestorianism (the teaching that there were two separate persons, one human and one divine, in the incarnate Christ) and the orthodox teachings of exalted Church Fathers, saints and contemporary clergy and theologians. To weed out heterodoxy from orthodoxy, I will use the following points to define Universalism for our purposes:

  • Universalism affirms all faithful affirmations of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.
  • The Harrowing of Hell of Holy Saturday, as set forth in Scripture, is a continual and timeless process by which Christ ceaselessly pursues our souls and offers redemption, even from the pits of hell.
  • Universalism declares that all souls that do not accept God’s eternal love, incarnate in Christ, descend into hell. 
  • Hell is beyond our powers to fully comprehend, just as the Trinity and Heaven.
  • Hell is the consequence of our willful self-isolation from God, but it also is expiationary in nature — it is the recuperative, refining fire by which all souls who accept such healing are cleansed of that which separates them from God.
  • All souls that accept the healing grace of Christ may be redeemed to Christ and awarded heaven — but only by their acceptance of said grace. (A topic for another day: St. Justin Martyr and many early Christian theologians, held that anyone who lives according to the Logos of Christ — that is, according to a life of love and selfless service to others — is, in fact, a Christian, even if not in name, even if an atheist, and thus is saved)

What Universalism is not

Refutation of Universalism is primarily based on objections that are not germane to Universalism as defined above. Universalism does not:

  • Diminish the meaning of the cross, Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the Resurrection. Rather, Universalism strengthens our understanding of this redemption and resurrection to stretch beyond the grave to those who, by their own free will, have refused God’s love. To wit: the death of death extends beyond death.
  • Remove free will. As noted above, Universalism only brings hope to the damned when they freely accept the universal grace of Christ.
  • Offer a “get out of jail free card” for earthly errors and sins. Universalism, as defined, does not refute hell and damnation. On the contrary, by its definition, likely far more people suffer hell, and far fewer ascend directly to heaven. Most of us will require the purging fires of hell to attain that state in which we can fully recognize and accept Christ’s invitation to salvation.

A review of Scripture on Salvation

Theologians Emil Brunner and J.A.T. Robinson argue that verses related to salvation can be put into two distinct categories: damnation for some or eventual reconciliation for all. First, the former. We’ll now look at Scripture that is used to refute Universalism, and analyze it within the context of our definition of Universalism

John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” This passage is consistent with both eternal damnation and universal salvation, as it makes no stipulation of requiring the acceptance of the Son before mortal death. Universalism agrees that whoever rejects the Son remains outside salvation, but in Universalism, both acceptance and rejection can occur after death.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The same argument as in John 3:36, as to compatibility with both eternal damnation and Universalism. We shut ourselves out from the presence of the Lord, but the door remains open to us in death to accept salvation.

Luke 13:23-25  “Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’” This passage is the strongest argument in favor of eternal damnation; the door being closed, no more may enter and are excluded forever. The question remains, though, is there a way to make ourselves and our origin “known” again to Christ after bodily death? Can we, after the door is closed, shed our false nature and embrace the true — make ourselves “known” once more outside the door of salvation? Continuing on in this passage, in Luke 13:28-30, Christ tells us:28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” The reference to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is consistent with Universalism, as Universalism does not deny hell, and believes it to be both punitive and remedial or reparative — but still a harsh refining process by fire. The idea of being “thrown out” also is compatible with Universalism, as those in need of refining (the vast majority of us) are placed first in the refining fire. Verse 30 refers directly to the previous two verses: to those who are thrown out, and to those who come from all directions to be seated at the table. Those who consider themselves last in the world — most needing a close relationship with Christ — will enter first. Those who have rejected God’s love and placed themselves “first” in the world, believing themselves to be above the need for salvation, will be the last to enter — after the refining fires of hell have purged them of pride and allowed them to fully accept the love of God incarnate in Christ. They are last through the doors — barred from entry until properly prepared to enter — but still they enter.  

This last passage certainly has multiple valid interpretations, so let us consider another passage involving Christ as the door into the feast. 7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Again we properly see Christ as the gate through which we, the sheep, must enter salvation. In verse 8 Jesus tells us those who try to place themselves before him, in false “theologies” of greed, fear, et al, are “thieves and robbers,” who attempt to steal salvation. Then Jesus makes several statements that support Universalism in John 10.  

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. This makes no mention of the election to the gate of Christ being solely before mortal death, and if our soul is eternal, the saving grace of Christ, and our opportunity to accept it, also is eternal. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Fullness of true life does not come until we die to this world and accept Christ — “For whoever wills to save his life will lose it and whoever will lose his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) If we must die to this world to accept Christ, we may die to this world while in it (spiritual death to this world), or we may die to our misconceptions of this world in hell (after physical death) and spiritually accept life “to the full” by accepting God’s mercy. To say that dying to this world is only a spiritual death denies the dual nature of Christ — both fully human and fully God — who himself died and entered hell so that he may emerge again from hell and lift us — all of God’s children — above death and hell. 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  Jesus compares himself to a hired hand — the false saviors of this world, who run at the approach of Satan and hell — while he is “the good shepherd” who does not run or abandon his flock in the face of that threat, but fights for and pursues them no matter how far they stray (see the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in Luke 15:3-7 and Matthew 18:12-14). Then, Jesus makes this absolute statement: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Sheep “not of this pen” are understood as sheep outside the Jewish faith of the time, and as Judaism being the root of Christianity and Jesus being Jewish, this also extends to those outside Christianity. Jesus assures us he “must bring them also.” Not may bring them. Not “must bring them if they enter this pen by my gate before they die.” Must bring them. To believe this is only a statement confined to mortal life requires believing Christ’s will, that he must bring us all, is likewise confined to mortal life. In the end, he tells us, “there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Revelation of St. John The entire book of Revelation has been used by anti-universalists to utterly and irrefutably destroy Universalism — or so they contend. Especially: Revelation 20:10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And, Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” These passages, however, appear in direct contradiction to two other Revelation passages: Revelation 5:13 “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To the One who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’’” and, regarding the New Jerusalem (abode of saved souls), Revelation 21:25 “Its gates will never be shut by day–and there is no night there.” The only way to reconcile the latter passages with the former, to align worship from the pits of hell and eternally open gates to the New Jerusalem, is to understand that, while hell is eternal, and we remain trapped there, up to eternity, while we continue to identify with the devil, the beast and the false prophet, the door remains eternally open for us to shed hell, accept God’s mercy and enter the gates of His abode.

Scripture in Support of Universalism

We’ve briefly analyzed the Scripture passages commonly used to advance eternal damnation, and seen there are multiple ways to read them, with some of those readings not only making room for, but fundamentally supporting, universal salvation. Let us also consider passages that more explicitly support Universalism. 

1 Corinthians 15:12-14;21-22 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. The 12th verse makes clear there is resurrection for the dead — this is mandated by Christ’s resurrection. Verse 22 states this resurrection will be for all people — all will be made alive with and through Christ. This strengthens, rather than detracts from, as some say, the importance and meaning of the cross and resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:26-28 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. Christ destroys death. If death is destroyed it is destroyed for all — there is no indication of the end of death for some, as annihalationists believe. Christ puts “everything” under his feet, including death, damnation and the powers of Satan to retain souls. What that means coming from a God who is Love is that God will be “all in all” as in Verse 28 — not all in some.

1 Corinthians 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? There are multiple interpretations of this Scripture, but one advanced by such heavyweights of Christian theology as Grotius, Michaelis, Tertullian, and Ambrose, held this verse to mean substitutionary baptism or vicarious baptism — being baptized in the name of one who has already died. The notion of relieving penal suffering in the next life is the basis of intercessory prayer for the dead. Vicarious baptism follows in this same vein, as an act of righteousness performed as an intercessory act on behalf of someone otherwise believed to be “damned.” Paul essentially asks “Why would we do this (vicarious baptism) if it doesn’t work?” The very notion of vicarious baptism is predicated on the ability to be saved after death — this is the root of Universalism. (The ethics of performing Christian baptism vicariously for people of other faiths — essentially against their will — is reprehensible, and a topic for another day).

Acts 2:26-27;31 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, 27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. … 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. These words, spoken by Peter, recall the words of David, who was foretelling Christ’s descent to hell and that hell could not hold him. Numerous passages of the Epistles tell us Christ lives in us. If we commit what are deemed by man to be “mortal sins,” does Christ abandon us, or does he continue to pursue us? The parables of the Prodigal Son, Lost Sheep and others tell us it must be the latter. If that is true, then the presence of Christ within us is not conditional for those who’ve been baptized and those who die in a state of grace, and that presence cannot be held in hell.

1 Peter 3:19-20 Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah…” This reading makes clear Christ descended to the dead and freed those not previously saved. Most among those who teach the Harrowing of Hell hold this to be a limited freeing of the dead — i.e. just those who died before Jesus. This would seem to be the end of the discussion of harrowing hell, were it not for Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:6 — For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. The Gospel being preached to the dead, if we read it according to its obvious meaning, could only mean the continued pursuit of salvation among those who have physically died. Of course there are arguments — predominantly Protestant evangelical, and quite ironic in their divergence from literalism — that say this passage does not say what it literally says, because that would conflict with eternal damnation. In other words, it can’t mean what it says because that would conflict with our preconceptions. The 19th Century Anglican priest and theologian Charles Ellicott addressed this in his “Commentary for English Readers”: “The Greek is simply, For for this end was the gospel preached to the dead also, or, still more literally, to dead men also. No one with an un-preoccupied mind could doubt, taking this clause by itself, that the persons to whom this preaching was made were dead at the time of being preached to. If this is the case, then, pretty obviously, St. Peter is carrying us back to his teaching of 1 Peter 3:19, and is explaining further the purpose of Christ’s descent into hell.” In other words, if we read Peter’s words “un-preoccupied,” or without preconception, the message is a continuation of 1 Peter 3:19, and thus a continuation of the Harrowing of Hell to those “who are now dead,” in addition to those who were dead “in former times.”

2 Peter 3:8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The above argument regarding 1 Peter 3 and 4 would fall on its face if we, as is often argued, took the stance that the Harrowing of Hell was a one-time event, since Holy Saturday occurred only once. This objection to Universalism, however, ignores God’s standing above and outside both time and space. Time is relative to God, as this verse from 2 Peter 3 affirms. We can also turn to For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy (Isaiah 57:15) and “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8), to see that God does not exist in a linear notion of time as we do, but inhabits all of eternity at once, and who lives in the Beginning and End at once. Thus, the Harrowing of Hell cannot be a single, one-and-done, one-day event, as we understand time — it must be a continual process that stands outside time, for all time, for all those in its need. If we are to reject this nature of Christ’s timelessness and his omnipresence, we would have to ignore or refute (through heresy) the state of anamnesis in the Eucharist — of there being one Last Supper, into which we step, across time and space, through the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist transcends time and space to feed us. The Harrowing of Hell transcends time, space and death to teach and save us.

Philippians 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This passage makes it clear that all shall submit to Christ — above and below the earth, i.e. those who are living, those who are dead, those saved and yet-to-be saved. Ultimately, every tongue — every human soul — shall acknowledge Christ as Lord. Early 20th Century Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, based on this passage from Philippians, states emphatically it is “impossible to admit any limitation of the power of the redemptive sacrifice.” Like many other Universalist theologians, Bulgakov states that Christ’s power is absolute, his redemption is absolute, and thus all spirits eventually will be conquered by Christ’s saving grace, even demons (fallen angels) and the devil.

Psalm 139:7-10 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. The psalmist here makes clear there is nowhere we can escape God — not on Earth, not in Heaven and not in Sheol (the Old Testament place of souls after death). No matter where we go, God is with us, and “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” As the Bible makes clear in numerous passages, especially in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ pursues us to bring us into the fold, into his protection, which is salvation. 

Lamentations 3:31-33 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. 32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. 33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. Universalism is often misunderstood as refuting hell altogether. This is absolutely not the case. Universalism not only acknowledges but demands hell — hell is the refining fire through which Christ removes anything holding us back from him, and from which we are saved when we are sufficiently refined to accept our true nature and turn to Christ’s redeeming grace. Thus, we are cast off so that we may rise above what is holding us back from heaven — this drives us to grief in the mortal sense. But ultimately it is an act of compassion, as God, in His unfailing love — love that does not fail, no matter what — desires to redeem all His children. And God will not be cheated of His children — to believe so would be to place God in an inferior position to the devil. As this passage makes clear, no one will be cast off forever — only as long as it takes us to turn back to Christ.

1 Timothy 4:10 That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. In this passage Paul makes a distinction between those who believe, and those who are outside belief. In the teaching of eternal damnation, those outside of Christian belief, either by creed or mortal sin, face damnation, or at best, “salvation according to their belief.” But, Paul says Christ is the Savior of all people — again no time limit is specified — and “especially of those who believe,” which is to say that those who do not believe also are saved, but not “especially.” This is keeping with Universalist theology, in which all are saved, as Paul tells us, but some need more refining, more time, perhaps more time in the refining fires of hell, before accepting Salvation.

Colossians 1:15-20 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. All of us, and all of Creation, are made through Christ, for Christ. We are his, and for our sake he became “firstborn from among the dead” so that he may have supremacy over everything — including death, hell, the devil and those who’ve trapped themselves in perdition. Through Christ’s cross and blood God is pleased to “reconcile to himself all things.” That means all of us, or none of us. 

It is little wonder, with so much of the Bible giving credence to Universalism, that early Church Fathers turned first to Scripture as the basis of their belief in redemption for all. Ecclesiastical scholar Ilaria Ramelli states: “The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory … grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.”

To capture the statements of these early Church leaders in support of Universalism would take volumes (and has, by many reputable theologians and scholars). But, here’s a taste of their embrace of Universalism — the dominant Christian teaching on salvation for almost the first 600 years of the Church.

  • For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetual, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them. — Diodore of Tarsus, 320-394 A.D.
  • These, if they will, may go Christ’s way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice. — Gregory of Nazianzeu, Bishop of Constantinople. (330 to 390 A.D.)
  • In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. — St. Jerome, 331-420
  • We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life. -– Clement of Alexandria
  • Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless eons (apeirou aionas) in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. — Olnmpiodorus (AD 550)
  • While the devil imagined that he got a hold of Christ, he really lost all of those he was keeping. — St. Chrysostom, 398 AD
  • In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impiety. — Theodoret the Blessed, 387-458
  • All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? — Clement of Alexandria

In today’s Christian world, to claim Universalism is to subject oneself to criticism, even attacks, by those whose faith rests on the threat of eternal damnation, usually for anyone who does not claim Christ as Lord and Savior prior to the grave. But, as we have seen, this was not the majority view of the early Church, and it is at least equally refuted as supported by scripture. If anything, scripture leans heavily toward Universal Salvation. But, even if there were an equal scriptural balance between the schools of thought on salvation, Christ’s overwhelming message of love for all God’s children, and the teachings of the early, incorrupt, Church, more than tip the balance in favor of hell being vanquished, and all eventually being saved. Let us not be timid, then, in proclaiming our hope — our assurance — of salvation for all. And on Holy Saturday, let us rejoice at Christ’s saving grace beyond the grave.

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