A Review Essay of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism

This is a very important book. In two large and carefully documented volumes, Dr. McClymond, a professor of theology at St. Louis University, has traced the entire history of Christian universalism from its first appearance in the Gnostic heresies within 100 years of the birth of the Christian church up until the veritable deluge of universalistic theological and popular literature that is challenging the Christian churches today. He traces this development not only across the centuries but also across the broad spectrum of classic Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions, as well as more recent charismatic-Pentecostal expressions. In total he examines in some detail the thought of more than 150 thinkers.

He understands universalism to be that theory that holds that every human being will eventually be saved and that no human being (or in some variations, almost no human beings) will be in hell. Some universalistic theories also hold that even the devil and the demons will be eventually reconciled with God and be in heaven, hence the title of his book. His methodology is to begin by identifying the most important figures in each age and each tradition and then provide a somewhat detailed account of their views, including the various elements that influenced them, using both the primary sources and the best secondary analyses available. He then undertakes a comprehensive review of the varying interpretations of what these major figures actually taught. This in itself is a valuable exercise as it shows the high degree of ambiguity in many of their teachings and the sometimes divergent interpretations that have sometimes resulted in quite different ecclesial responses to their theologies. A prime example of this is illustrated in the chapter on Karl Barth, where there is an ongoing debate about whether his theology of “universal election” implies a necessary universal salvation of the entire human race or not. Barth himself is reported to have said in response to a question of whether he taught universalism: “I do not teach it, but I also do not not teach it.”

In the course of this monumental study, Dr. McClymond shows the wide range of types of universalism that have appeared over the centuries. There have been those who have held to a theory of “ultra universalism” which holds that no matter what the state of a person’s soul is at the moment of death, they go right to heaven with no need of any purification, because of the power of Christ’s sacrifice. There are many others who have held to a “post mortem” need for purification or expiation before being admitted to heaven with everyone eventually admitted. One variation of this theory is that some people go to hell but hell isn’t forever and eventually everyone gets out. As a Catholic it has been interesting to see how often something like the doctrine of purgatory is explored as a way of explaining how everyone is saved but some need post-mortem purification. There are others who hold to a theory of “annihilation” where “damned” souls simply cease to exist, there being no hell.

As a Catholic, writing this review for a Catholic journal, I was particularly interested in how Dr. McClymond would handle the question of universalism in the Catholic Church. Dr. McClymond is himself an Anglican who teaches on a Catholic theology faculty. In an email exchange with Dr. McClymond, he reminded me that John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton did some of their best theological writing when they were Anglicans! I have studied and written on this issue myself and I found his knowledge of universalistic currents of thought in the contemporary Catholic Church to be very complete and his judgements very sound.

In his history of universalism as it pertains to the Catholic Church, he makes a point of saying that Origen wasn’t the first to introduce universalistic theories into the church but that this had happened already through the gnostic sects such as the Basilideans, Carpocratians, and Valentinians that appeared as early as 130 AD. It is worth nothing though that we already see, even before the appearance of gnostic sects, many references within the New Testament about a time coming when people depart from the truth and wander off into “myths” (2. Tim. 4: 4), as well as many warnings from Jesus himself and the apostles about the doctrinal confusion and false teachers and prophets that were actually already emerging or about to emerge in New Testament times.

Origen, of course, is a major figure in the development of universalistic currents of thoughts in all the Christian traditions, not only in the Catholic Church. Again, there are conflicting interpretations about whether Origen actually taught universalism or simply speculated on it as a possibility. However, Dr. McClymond is among those interpreters of Origen who point out that his “metaphysics” actually entails universal salvation because of his teaching of the pre-existence of souls before their appearance on earth and shares a common pattern with gnostic theories.

“His cosmology of the premundane fall of souls, their embodiment, and their final return to God replicated a common pattern in gnostic and especially Valentinian cosmologies.” (4)1

One of Dr. McClymond’s most original contributions to the study of universalism in the Christian churches is his discovery that universalism often arises from and is significantly impacted by recurring impulses of the fallen human mind to come up with theories that take away our discomfort with the concept of eternal punishment, despite the explicit teaching of Jesus and the apostles to the contrary and as officially taught by all the Christian traditions up until fairly recently. Not only is the influence of gnostic theories throughout the ages of great significance but also the influence of subjective mystical experiences that often carry with them universalistic interpretations. And shockingly enough, sometimes there is an open acknowledgement on the part of those who promulgate universalism that their theories have been confirmed by “spirits,” sometimes even in séances. He provides remarkable documentation about this gnostic/occultic influence on universalistic theories, not only in the Christian tradition but in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, and elaborates on this in a series of important appendices to the main body of his work.

Without doubt, though, Origen’s speculations served as a rich source of universalistic speculation for centuries to come. This raises the important question as to what extent universalism was a teaching of some of the church fathers. Dr. McClymond draws on the most widely respected studies on the Patristic teaching on eschatology, and especially on Fr. Brian Daley’s The Hope of the Early Church to answer this question. Based on a tabulation of data provided by Fr. Daley, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, McClymond concludes from his study the first eight centuries that 68 of the authors clearly teach a two-fold outcome to human lives, heaven and hell, seven authors are unclear, two teach something like eschatological pantheism, and four authors appear to be universalists in an Origenian sense. This is an important fact as often the impression is given that a wider number of fathers embraced universalism or in some way the Orthodox Church does.

Dr. McClymond makes the further point that many of the Greek fathers not only affirmed the reality of hell but also asserted that this was the destiny of the majority of the human race. He also makes clear that even though the Orthodox Church seems to be more tolerant of private theological opinions than the Catholic Church, it has never taught universalism in any of its official documents and in fact joined in condemning Origen and his non-orthodox theories in the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553. While there are various issues raised about what indeed was condemned in this Council, Origen was condemned by name. And whatever is resolved about the varying interpretations of this Council, for fourteen hundred years afterward, until the mid-twentieth century, the churches understood the condemnation to be aimed at Origen’s universalism.

Disruption in the Catholic Tradition

Which leads us to the mid-twentieth century in the Catholic Church. As McClymond sums up the Catholic situation until mid-twentieth century.

“The Catholic tradition — from its post-apostolic era, during the Origenist controversies, and guided by such thinkers as Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Bellarmine, and Newman — was consistent through the centuries in teaching a final twofold state of heaven and hell.” (868) This teaching was clearly reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030-1037). The Catechism further makes clear that Jesus didn’t descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy hell, but to free the just who had gone before him. (CCC 633)

Cardinal Avery Dulles in his extensive review of the attitude of the Catholic Church to universalism throughout the centuries concluded that there was “a virtual consensus among the Fathers of the Church and the Catholic theologians of later ages to the effect that the majority of humankind go to eternal punishment in hell.”(Cited in McClymond, p. 869) Cardinal Dulles further commented that “about the middle of the twentieth century, there seems to be a break in the tradition.”

It is this break in the tradition that Dr. McClymond examines in some detail in a lengthy chapter devoted to the contemporary situation in the Catholic Church regarding universalism. He identifies Karl Rahner, whose “anonymous Christian” theories became popular in the 1970s, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose “hope for the salvation of all” became popular in the 1980s, as the two theologians most responsible for this rupture with the tradition.2

Of the two, Balthasar’s theories are currently the most influential and so I will restrict myself to summarizing how Dr. McClymond evaluates his influence on the doctrine of universalism. Balthasar’s name actually comes up rather frequently throughout the two volumes as Dr. McClymond comments on how the various forms of universalism take shape over the centuries and how Balthasar’s approach contains elements of many of them.

The Influence of Balthasar

Central to Balthasar being able to propose his theory is “neutralizing” the many scriptural texts that clearly speak of a twofold outcome. He does this by proposing that there are actually two streams of scripture, many indeed speaking of the twofold outcome, but some speaking of universal salvation. What he next proposes though is quite surprising. He claims that these strands of scripture are contradictory and can’t be and shouldn’t be harmonized. This is of course in direct contradiction to how the Catholic Church views the scripture (they don’t contradict each other and indeed need to be interpreted in light of each other) and how the entire tradition has interpreted them.

The Sacred Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of Vatican II teaches quite clearly that the entire canon of scripture, Old and New Testaments is inspired and has a unity. And it makes the very strong statement about how we are to receive it.

“Since therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” (DV 11)

The Church has consistently harmonized what Balthasar claims are two irreconcilable streams of scripture and manifests that harmonization in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Yes. God desires that all men and women be saved and offers everyone the grace to be saved; but if this grace is rejected and there is a refusal to repent and believe, persevered in to the end, they will be lost. The technical theological language for this is understanding that God’s antecedent will is indeed the salvation of all, but his consequent will is that all those who respond to his antecedent will by faith in Jesus and repentance will be saved but those who don’t will be condemned. Balthasar’s facile rejection of the Catholic approach to scripture and how the whole tradition has understood these complementary, not contradictory, verses is shocking.

Dr. McClymond provides an excellent summary of the various ways in which universalists attempt to deal with the scriptures, whether by attempting to identify a canon within the canon, or privileging one strand of scripture over another, or though allegorical and symbolic interpretations that are implausible. (1047-1054)

Ignoring Evangelization

Another troubling aspect of Balthasar’s teaching is that he claims that we should only meditate on hell as a theoretical possibility for ourselves and not think about our neighbor’s eternal destiny. His motivation is that we not smugly consider ourselves saved and our neighbor as possibly lost, but the result is a total lack of a concern for evangelization in his well-known work on universalism Dare We Hope.

“One of the striking features of Dare We Hope? is the complete absence of reference to mission, evangelism, or proclamation as basic functions of the church . . . Balthasar’s theology is thus fundamentally unmissional. It centers on a contemplative practice of ‘seeing the form’ and on a decision to ‘hope for all,’ but without a distinctive focus on preaching, mission, or evangelism. It is no wonder, then, that contemporary Catholic leaders find it hard to link Balthasar’s theology to the ‘new evangelization.’ They do not share the same presuppositions.” (930, see also 1011-1012)

Dr. McClymond finally characterizes Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism” as “wishful thinking.” (1012)

And while Balthasar claims he isn’t teaching universalism, he lets his sympathies be known in such an obvious way that there is no doubting that that is what he believes even though he is not formally teaching it. For example, he summarizes his teaching by quoting a text from Edith Stein that she never published “which expresses most exactly the position that I have tried to develop.”

“Temporal death comes for countless men without their ever having looked eternity in the eye and without salvation’s ever having become a problem for them: that, furthermore, many men occupy themselves with salvation for a lifetime without responding to grace — we still do not know whether the decisive hour might not come for all of these somewhere in the next world, and faith can tell us that this is the case.”

“And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infinitely improbable — precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul.”3

Strange Spiritual Influences

Even more troubling, though, than Balthasar’s approach to scripture and tradition is his openness to suspect spiritual experiences and private revelations that came to him through his very close collaborator, Adrienne von Speyr. Dr. McClymond quite convincingly establishes in his study of universalism through the centuries and in all the churches the frequent influence of the occult, of spiritism of “esoteric “ knowledge, of secret societies, “white magic,” theosophy, alchemy, astrology, of private revelation in generating and supporting the views of those who teach universalism, automatic writing, séances, astral projection, “spirit guides,” etc. The evidence is overwhelming and shocking and is extensively documented in this very important book. (22-23, 96, 200-215, all of chapters 5, 8, etc.)

Unfortunately the evidence for occultic influence on Balthasar’s theories is rather clear. Dr. McClymond while doing a masterful job in tracing the philosophical and theological influences on Balthasar — the church fathers inclined to universalism, the similar influence of Karl Barth with which he had frequent conversations, the universalism of prominent Russian thinkers, German idealism, etc. — also documents the troubling “esoteric” influences on his “hopeful universalism,” including even the little-known fact that Balthasar wrote an admiring afterword to Valentin Tomberg’s work of Christian esotericism, Meditations on the Tarot. (931)

The relationship between Balthasar and Speyr was unusual. He moved in with her and her husband and had an intense spiritual relationship with her. He claimed grounding for his unusual doctrine of the Trinity that seems to imply conflict and darkness in the Trinity, and his unusual interpretation of Holy Saturday, on the revelations of Speyr. He repeatedly claimed that the two of them can’t be separated and they are one in their theology. He even, in an interview with Cardinal Scola towards the end of his life, claimed that the Church would have to revise its doctrines in the light of her beautiful theories, and wondered why it hadn’t known these things sooner.

He actually wrote two books describing their relationship and the accounts he gives there of what transpired between them spiritually and theologically are quite troubling. Speyr claimed to be in constant communication with St. Ignatius and told Balthasar that St. Ignatius wanted him to leave the Jesuits, and he did. She sometimes spoke to him in a guttural voice that wasn’t hers, in extremely demeaning ways. His skepticism about anyone being in hell, even Judas, was based on his lifelong attraction in this direction and her specific revelations. He was thrilled that everything in his theory was coming together and being confirmed and deepened with her. Dr. McClymond points out that Balthasar was very open in acknowledging these significant influences.

“I was tremendously and lastingly attracted by Barth’s doctrine of election, that brilliant overcoming of Calvin. It converged with Origen’s views and therefore with Adrienne’s Holy Saturday theology as well.”4

There are also disturbing sexual innuendo in the images Speyr uses when talking about their relationship, even though no one has ever accused them of an illicit physical relationship. McClymond draws heavily upon Karen Kilby’s study on Balthasar’s relationship with Speyr. Besides the excellent work of Kilby and McClymond, I’ve also published an article on their relationship and the need for discernment of the source of her spiritual experiences in the Angelicum journal, which I think contributes to this important issue.5

It’s time to bring an already long review to an end. I would like to do so by citing some of the general observations that Dr. McClymond has made as a result of his work and then conclude with some of mine particularly as they pertain to the situation of the Catholic Church today. But first I’d like to address a question that probably many of you have. Do I really have time or interest or theological competence to read a two-volume work like this? Who really should read this?

Who should read this book?

Well, first of all, every theological library should have these volumes. They are an indispensable entry in the literature on universalism which is an extremely important theological topic for every Christian church. Also, every theologian interested in this issue should have them (Amazon always offers discounts!). But what about the theologically interested or literate lay person who is not a professional theologian? Yes, they should seriously consider getting these because Dr. McClymond actually offers two different ways of using the volumes. He suggest that those who want to get a good overview of his work and its main argument should read the Introduction and then the summary and conclusions at the end of each chapter and then his overall conclusions in chapter 12. Those interested in particular thinkers or how particular churches approach this issue can read the chapters (and appendices) of most interest. Another option would be to read the beginning of each chapter which explores the most important thinkers main thought but then to skip the varying interpretations of that thinker and of derivative thinkers, unless one was especially interested. The book is so interesting it’s hard to skip anything, but possible!

 General Observations of Dr. McClymond

  1. One of the underlying motivations of universalism is a desire to accommodate to the culture, and the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.
  2. One of the underlying motivations for universalism is an arrogance that thinks that our understandings of justice, mercy, and love are superior to scripture and tradition. It is a theory that is attractive to our fallen nature. We can end up judging God. A remarkable example of it comes in the words of John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century British philosopher: “I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures.” (84) This attitude permeates much of the rationale that universalists give for their turn to universalism.
  3. One of the underlying motivations for universalism is a “metaphysical revolt” against how things actually are, a revolt against nature and God.
  4. Much universalist “exegesis” of scripture is an attempt to explain away its plain meaning.
  5. It’s remarkable that the “spirits” that are often invoked in universalist narratives seem to be in complete agreement that no one ends up in hell.
  6. To virtually impose grace on all whether they want it or not is to undermine the reality of grace and to diminish the dignity and seriousness of human life, and to do away with the possibility of real love and friendship between God and man.
  7. The adoption of universalism often results in the destruction of other revealed truths as well, such as the atonement, the nature of God, the nature of man, the identity of Christ, the significance of keeping the moral law, blurring the line between God and creation, between good and evil, etc.

Our Situation as Catholics Today: My Observations

  1. What a blessing to be a Catholic and have the wisdom and stability of scripture, tradition and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
  2. Yet the bark of Peter is being tossed in a storm and an uncertain sound is coming from the trumpet from many theologians.
  3. We need to remember what Vatican II teaches about the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.
  4. We need to remember that the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches in harmony with scripture and tradition that there are two and only two ultimate outcomes, purgatory being a temporary state of purification and expiation.
  5. We need to remember that the Catholic Church has defined as certain doctrine, based on the scripture, that there are no “second chances” after death, that the state we die in is the state that determines our eternal destiny.
  6. Balthasar claims that the mystics support his “hopeful universalism.” They don’t. Catherine, Teresa, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Faustina, etc.
  7. When in doubt, go with Jesus, go with Mary. We’re fools not to.
  8. There are so many warnings in scripture to “don’t be deceived,” (1 Cor 6: 9-11; Gal 5: 19-21; Eph 5: 5-6; 2 Thes 2: 9-12; Mt. 7: 13-23; Mt. 24: 22-28; etc. to not believe the “doctrine of demons” infiltrated into the church by “plausible liars” (1 Tim. 4: 1-7; 2 Pet.3:3; Jude 18, CCC 672).
  9. Let’s hold fast to the truth revealed to us for our salvation as it comes to us in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, and is summed up for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let’s be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have within us, Christ in us, the hope of glory, and pray and sacrifice for the salvation of souls. Where there’s life, there’s hope. So let’s hope, and pray and witness for everyone alive today that they may believe and repent and be saved. 

A final word

Thank you, Dr. McClymond, for the immense amount of work, time, prayer, and labor that went into producing these volumes. We are in your debt.

  1. When I quote from Dr. McClymond’s book, I’ll put the page number in parenthesis after the quote.
  2. In full disclosure, Dr. McClymond periodically cites my own book on the subject, Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and its Implications for the New Evangelization (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2013). In this book I have two lengthy chapters on each of these theologians, and, while acknowledging their many positive contributions, seriously fault them both for how they deal with Scripture and Tradition and the verification of their theories in face of the empirical realities apparent to all. Dr. McClymond and I are similarly critical but not in exactly the same way.
  3. See Dare We Hope, pp. 218-21. Bishop Robert Barron recently posted his views on why he doesn’t teach universalism even though he thinks Balthasar provides the best approach to this question. He says he can’t go as far as Balthasar does in endorsing Edith Stein’s statement about the rejection of grace being infinitely improbable. But he again affirms the approach to Scripture and Tradition that Balthasar takes, namely, that the two supposedly contradictory streams can’t and shouldn’t be harmonized, so that therefore there is a well-grounded hope for the salvation of all.
  4. Balthasar, Our Task, 101, cited in McClymond p. 867. See also McClymond, p. 20.
  5. Ralph Martin, “Balthasar and Speyr: First Steps in a Discernment of Spirits,” Angelicum 2 (2014), pp. 273-301. http://www.renewalministries.net/files/balthasar_and_speyr_first_steps_in_a_discernment_of_spirits_angelicom_2_2014_pp273_301.pdf.
Dr. Ralph Martin, STD About Dr. Ralph Martin, STD

Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic renewal and evangelization. Ralph also hosts The Choices We Face, a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world.

Ralph holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome and is a professor and the director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was named by Pope Benedict XVI as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and was also appointed as a peritus to the Synod on the New Evangelization in October of 2012.

Ralph is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call, The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, and Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. He and his wife Anne have six children, and seventeen grandchildren, and reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


  1. Yes, we are very much in an age of Neo-Universalism. I’m a convert and the admission that I deserved Hell for eternity played a part in my conversion. I was shocked the first time I had to try and convince a fellow Catholic that Hell is real and an eternity long. After hearing too many contradict perennial Church teaching regarding Hell and its finality, I’ve pretty much concluded that some form of Neo-Universalism permeates far too many persons in the pews these days. It seems no one believes in a fearful way that Hell is possible for them or their loved ones. Denial of it for everyone? They’ll get there if you bother to talk to them for as long as it takes. Is Hitler saved? They’d even question that and say some stupid thing like, “well maybe he repented at the end of his life,” and expect to be taken seriously. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom says the Psalmist, but fear of Hell is sufficient to keep a person doing the next right thing. But no one fears God or Hell much anymore. Thanks for the article. I look forward to the book. God bless.

  2. Avatar Kim Batteau says:

    Good article, Dr. Martin! I’ve read much of these two volumes, with profit and in full agreement! Lord save us from the universalists!