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Brian McLaren’s Emerging Universalism

by Bruce A. Sabados

Brian D. McLaren, a leading spokesperson of the emergent church movement, concedes that his critics, after reviewing his controversial The Last Word and the Word After That, will conclude, “It is bad enough that McLaren has undermined conventional understandings of Hell, but in its place what has he offered? No clear alternative. One cannot even tell for sure, after a careful reading of this book, whether McLaren is an inclusivist, conditionalist, or universalist. All one can say is that he is clearly not an orthodox exclusivist.”1

McLaren is correct in his final observation: he is clearly not an orthodox exclusivist. But, after a careful reading of his published works, it appears that McLaren does offer an alternative to the traditional concept of Hell as the place of everlasting torment for the unsaved. While the doctrine of everlasting punishment disappears from McLaren’s thinking, the belief historically known as apokatastasis, the final and universal salvation of all humanity, emerges in its place.

The doctrine of universal salvation is not new. It can be traced through the early Greek church fathers, most notably Origen (d. AD 254), who hoped that even the Devil himself would finally be reconciled to God. Significantly, the second council of Constantinople (AD 553) specifically condemned Origen’s “impious, godless writings.” The doctrine has proven resilient, though, and has gained increasing momentum within the emergent church movement.2

Before going further, it will be helpful to explain what McLaren means by “orthodox exclusivist.” Orthodox exclusivists, such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, believe that one must exercise an informed faith in Jesus Christ if he or she is to be saved. Conversely, orthodox exclusivists also believe that if one does not consciously trust in Jesus Christ, he or she will, when this life ends, experience what the Scriptures call “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:14). That is, the person will be everlastingly separated from God in Hell as the due punishment for sin.

One of the strategies of the emergent movement is to challenge orthodox exclusivity in a number of areas in the interests of a more “generous orthodoxy.”3 As a “critical realist,” McLaren expresses the emergent movement’s basic skepticism concerning the accessibility of truth. While many emergent leaders, including McLaren, would agree that absolute truth does indeed exist, the emergent movement would not grant that truth, due to the limitations of human language, can be as easily “captured” in the way exclusivists claim. That is, emergents discount the possibility of an inscripturated, propositional revelation from God that clearly and authoritatively provides one standard for all people in all places.4

Then there is the matter of suspicion. McLaren captures this mood as he writes,

Bearing in mind the old saying, “Those who win the battles write the history,” it’s easy to see the danger of describing orthodoxy by looking in the rearview mirror. Where there has been diversity of opinion in the past, the winners label previous divergences as heretical and unorthodox and unchristian, leaving the impression for their descendants that everyone everywhere under the banner of orthodoxy has always agreed with them. In that light, orthodoxy might seem to follow those who fight the hardest and perhaps the dirtiest. Not a pleasant thought.5

And so, in the interest of fairness and “generosity,” McLaren offers a fresh presentation of the doctrine of universal salvation. This is how he makes his case.

The Foundations for McLaren’s Universal Salvation

Deconstruction of the Biblical text. McLaren lays the foundation for universal salvation by deconstructing the Biblical text. He describes deconstruction by relating a conversation someone pointed out to him,

You’re trying to show that hell is a human construction. Human beings constructed the idea by taking elements from lots of other cultures. You’re trying to go back and show how those elements were used to construct the idea so that you can see what’s left when you deconstruct it. If it’s an idea that arises in human history, then it’s constructed by humans, and if humans constructed it, then humans can deconstruct it.6

In other words, if a Biblical concept can be found in another culture prior to appearing in the Biblical text, it can safely be considered “borrowed” and then sifted from the text. Consequently, after examining what McLaren considers to be extra-Biblical origins of the concept of Hell, he concludes,

Hell was not “revealed” in the Old Testament. Nowhere did a Hebrew prophet have a vision or dream that revealed the reality of hell. It’s never mentioned once in the whole Hebrew Bible. Even the latest books of the Old Testament, thought to have been written about 450 B.C., have no reference to hell. Instead, the idea appears suddenly—to us, anyway—in the Gospels, on the lips of Jesus. That’s why it’s such a thorny issue for Christians.7

This allows McLaren to suggest that while “Jesus is the first in all biblical literature to talk about hell, and he talks the most about it,”8 “Jesus isn’t to blame for thinking it up.”9 And, McLaren suggests, Jesus did not believe in Hell as a place. Instead, Jesus used this culturally acceptable concept in an entirely different way as “persuasive rhetoric,” a strong but parental-type warning to the self-righteous that a searing existential encounter with God is coming.10 For McLaren, Hell is not a place of everlasting torment for the unrighteous dead. It is a defining experience of a divine-human encounter, a defining experience of self-awareness and purgation when confronted by God. For McLaren, Hell as a place of everlasting torment has no part in the teaching of Jesus.

The elevation of love. By elevating the divine attribute of love over all the others that God possesses, McLaren contrasts two alternative concepts of God.

“God A,” according to McLaren, is characterized by “dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion.”11 For McLaren, these traits tend to characterize the God of orthodox exclusivism. “God B” reflects God’s “interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom”12 and is best characterized by his “saving Love.”13 “God B,” more inclusive and generous, is the God Who resonates with McLaren.

In debunking “God A,” McLaren utilizes Jonathan Edwards’s well-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” McLaren writes,

Whatever you think of Edwards’s sermon, the conventional doctrine of hell has too often engendered a view of a deity who suffers from borderline personality disorder or some worse sociopathic diagnosis. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the prescribed way, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever.14

So much for “God A.” “God B” is the better God, Whose last word is always “love.”15 For McLaren, this means that “if God’s love is always there, waiting, would they [the unsaved] be able to hold out longer than God?” His answer? “It’s hard for me to imagine somebody being more stubbornly ornery than God is gracious.”16

Acceptance of the Christus Victor model. McLaren describes the effects of Christ’s atoning work exclusively in terms of the Christus Victor model of the atonement. According to this theory, a real change has occurred in humanity’s status as the result of Jesus’ work on the cross and subsequent resurrection on the third day. God has defeated the power of the Devil and death and redeemed all humanity by paying a ransom to the Devil, whose prisoners we had rightfully become. The ransom God paid was Jesus. And the Devil accepted the payment, releasing humanity from his grasp in exchange for Jesus. However, Jesus’ resurrection on the third day also freed Him from the power of Satan, leaving the Devil empty-handed in the process.17

Since the Christus Victor model is both objective (the atonement actually accomplished redemption) and corporate (Jesus redeemed all people everywhere), the “deal is done,” so to speak. A price has been paid by God and received by the Devil, the transaction has been finalized through the death of Jesus, and all humanity has been transferred from the realm of Satan to the realm of God. The benefits of Christ’s atonement have automatically and decisively been applied to all. Everyone. This allows McLaren to suggest, “Maybe God’s plan is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one.”18 One has no need to “opt in” because everyone is already “in” by virtue of the universal redemption by Christ the Victor. And, of course, who would want to opt out?

In a telling series of comments, McLaren clearly disavows the penal substitution model of the atonement. McLaren writes that according to the penal theory “the enemy, so to speak, is God’s just wrath at our sin, and Jesus’ death absorbs God’s wrath.”19 McLaren then expresses his discomfort with this model: “How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?”20

Defining God’s one purpose. McLaren completes the foundation for universal salvation by offering that God has only one purpose for humanity. Utilizing Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as an analogy for God’s one purpose in Christ, McLaren muses, “Could God’s response to sinners be any less magnanimous than Lincoln’s response to the South? Or will God say, at the end of all things, ‘with malice toward many and charity to a few’?”21 For McLaren, God’s one purpose is redemptive. Just as there exists a human solidarity by virtue of “creation,” there likewise exists a solidarity in redemption. McLaren summarizes his argument for universal salvation in The Last Word and the Word After That with a poem. He writes,

Scripture ends in marriage.
This is the end to which all
Things tend, the end which makes all
Things new. Marriage unites, but
In its fire, true love does not
Consume. Selfishness burns. All
That mars love ignites, makes ash.
But faith, hope, love survive. Love
Is the last, best word, the end
Into which all will bend, and
Then begin again. The next
Word and the new will be love
As well: for love never ends
And in love all are made, yes,

God’s one purpose is redemptive.

Evaluation of McLaren’s Universal Salvation

By way of a brief evaluation, McLaren’s subtle and dangerous presentation of the doctrine of the final and universal reconciliation of humanity to God goes astray from the beginning.

Repudiation of the Bible as inerrant, propositional revelation. First, his deficient understanding of the inspiration of the Scriptures leads to his repudiation of the Christian Scriptures as an inerrant, propositional revelation initiated by God and given to humanity through the divine agency of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:19–21).23 This in turn robs the sixty-six canonical books of their abiding authority for the church and the world. McLaren’s low view of the Scriptures allows him to deconstruct the Biblical text as he does.

And, given the nature of revelation as progressive, it should not surprise us that Jesus has spoken more definitively concerning Hell than any of the preceding prophetic ministries. And, against McLaren, it is simply not true that none of the Hebrew prophets spoke of everlasting judgment. Witness, for example, the testimony of Daniel (12:2).

Arbitrary elevation of love. Second, McLaren’s commitment to divine love as the controlling attribute of God is arbitrary. After all, other attributes such as holiness are also predicated of God (1 Peter 1:16). The doctrine of divine simplicity reminds the reader that God perfectly, eternally, and simultaneously possesses a number of attributes that are distinguishable but inseparable from one another. No one attribute may be isolated from and elevated above the others. This means, for example, that God’s love is a holy and righteous love that is faithful and true to God’s character and word. Eternally.

McLaren’s presentation of “God A” and “God B” as mutually exclusive alternatives is likewise misleading. “God A,” largely a caricature by McLaren of God’s attributes of transcendence, is Biblically driven, though a more balanced explanation than McLaren offers is required to properly appreciate these attributes. “God B,” the type of God McLaren prefers, is somewhat defined by God’s attributes of immanence. But God is both transcendent and immanent at all times. In other words, God is both “A” and “B” (Isaiah 57:15). He cannot be “A” or “B.” The problem is made greater by McLaren’s emotionally charged description of God’s sovereignty, reflected in his description of “God A.”24

Incomplete model of the atonement. Third, no one model of the atonement is by itself adequate to explain what Jesus has accomplished by His death. While the Christus Victor model does identify the objective accomplishment of the cross, it fails to describe what the penal substitution model of the atonement contributes. Here McLaren fails to take seriously the Biblical emphasis on the necessary individual and subjective response of repentance and faith to Christ’s atoning work (Romans 3:23; 5:8; 6:23; 10:9–15). Biblically, the benefits of salvation are never said to be automatically and corporately applied as universalism claims. Each individual must receive these benefits by grace alone through faith alone.

Denial that sin deserves punishment. Fourth, and last, sin is a conscious act of rebellion by the creature against the Creator. God, in an act of saving love, has provided a way of reconciliation through His Son. Hell, and finally the Lake of Fire, as horrific as they are, are places that God has prepared for those who persistently and finally reject His offer of pardon through Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:41–46; Revelation 20:11–15). And, in the end, God grants only what they have chosen.

Bruce A. Sabados (ThM, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is pastor of Leonard Heights Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.


1. Brian D. McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), xv.

2. See, for example, Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). It should be noted that McLaren provided the foreword. Several prominent thinkers have provided a theological basis for McLaren and other emergent leaders who tend toward universalism. Prominent among them are Karl Barth and Jan Bonda.

3. Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Besides serving as the title of the book, the phrase provides the framework for McLaren’s emergent perspective.

4. McLaren, The Last Word, 72. The school of philosophy that most influences the emergent movement is called critical realism. Of it McLaren writes, “It’s saying, look, we need to be critical and realize that language is about models, symbols, metaphors. We need to realize that there is some distance between the symbols and the realities they represent. But that doesn’t mean we give up language, and it certainly doesn’t mean we stop trying to describe reality or pursue truth.”

5. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 29.

6. McLaren, The Last Word, 105.

7. McLaren, The Last Word, 45.

8. McLaren, The Last Word, 45

9. McLaren, The Last Word, 57.

10. McLaren, The Last Word, 62, 79.

11. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 76.

12. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 76.

13. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 76.

14. McLaren, The Last Word, xii.

15. McLaren, The Last Word. The second part of the title, and the Word After That, is a reference to the finality of God’s saving love. Love is the final word.

16. McLaren, The Last Word, 138.

17. For a helpful study of this model, see Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor (trans. A. G. Hebert; Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003).

18. McLaren, The Last Word, 138.

19. Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 104.

20. McLaren, The Story, 102.

21. McLaren, The Last Word, 67, 68.

22. McLaren, The Last Word, 179.

23. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 161–163. While acknowledging both divine and human aspects of the Christian Scriptures, McLaren consistently places the accent on the latter. His bibliology is finally similar to the neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth. For Barth, God is, at times, pleased to use the Scriptures to communicate with humanity. The Scriptures, however, are primarily human documents with no inherent authority of their own.

24. For a helpful discussion of the doctrine of divine simplicity, see Millard J. Erickson, God the Father Almighty (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 210–232.

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