Roger Olson: “Universalism is Leap of Optimism”

by Phillip on June 3, 2012

“I would have to wonder how a God of love can enjoy love from creatures that is not given freely. Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.”     (Roger Olson,

In the article this quote is taken from Roger Olson is very clear that he is no universalist nor is he in any way sympathetic to its point of view but instead desires to keep it at arm’s length.  We respect his position.  But consider his statement in light of the following Scriptures:

“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”  Matthew 19:26

“Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”   Genesis 18:14

“I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.'”        Romans 4:18

“Love never fails.”   1 Corinthians 13:8

“Behold, I am making all things new.”  Revelation 21:5

According to Roger Olson “optimism” is not a good thing.  Or it is at least a highly naive thing to embrace in his estimation.  But what exactly is the definition of “optimism”?  It literally means “best thing.”   It is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.”  In philosophy it is the belief that good must ultimately prevail over evil in the universe.  I would ask Roger Olson if he would judge whether the above Scriptures give us any reason to believe, to have confidence, to have hope that good will overcome evil by “destroying the works of the Devil” and “the last enemy which is death”?  Would he grant that these verses are optimistic?

As you are examining the context of the Christian Story what would you consider to be “the successful outcome”?  Would it not be the attainment of Christ’s goal to be “The Savior of the world” and to “seek and to save that which was lost”?  Would it not mean that “all would come to repentance” and “none would perish”?  Especially since we are told that is God’s desire?

In looking further into the meaning of this word choice by Olson we see that some of the synonyms for “optimism” are “hopefulness, positiveness, …and good cheer.”  That reminds me specifically of a verse I learned as a child:

“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Jesus says that He has overcome the world!  Apparently there is something so cosmic that has happened to the universe that we are told we can be of good cheer in the midst of the most horrendous tribulation.  The world and all its evil has been entirely overcome! And look how He has put this reality in the past tense!

Proverbs says, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”  To have the view that most of God’s image-bearers will fail to find His salvation and instead bear unredemptive and unimaginable torment and pain forever is, I would say, enough to make the “heart sick.”  Contemplate that as including any number of your loved ones and friends and that generates utter hopelessness, sadness and despair.

But how can this be when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that “we are not of those who have no hope”? He cannot be referring to just me, myself and I, that is–my own personal salvation, how self-centered!  God created our lives to be inextricably bound together.  The fate of others affects us.  But we are told we are not those who have no hope …period.  And that must mean for anyone and everyone.  Paul in Romans 15:13 tells us, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Abound in hope…Wow.  Is the Church abounding in hope?  Does the world see a “hope” for which they ask the reason?  In light of these verses we need to question whether the Bible’s view of hope has any room for the utter pessimism most of the Church has assigned to the Story of God.  There are primarily two versions.  One has been the Reformed/Calvinist view which says that there never was any hope offered in the first place for most of the human race as they were predestined before they were born to be damned.  Or, as Roger Olson would have it, hope is only a possibility–and the scope of the cross and resurrection only extends hope to the fortunate ones who possess a sane and healthy enough “free-will” to choose the salvation offered in Christ.

In addition, according to the article below, it appears that another of Olson’s objections would be toward any universalist who denies the wrath of God and the true nature of sin.  The true Christian Universalist believes that theology matters and that what the Scriptures have to say about the wrath of God and the reality of sin is to be taken seriously.  The Evangelical Universalist does not deny sin nor its consequences.

Responding further to Olson’s defense of “free-will” as the reason behind rejecting the ultimate reconciliation of all:  He believes that true love must operate within a relationship of true freedom in order for it to be authentic.  Absolutely, we agree.  The question that is up for debate is whether man is truly free to choose the good on his own without the Son who “makes him free indeed.”

Which leads us to ask, what does the culmination of Romans chapters 9-11 mean when Paul says, “God consigned all to disobedience that He might have mercy on them all”? (Romans 11:32)  And what exactly did Jesus mean when He said that when He was lifted up He would “draw all people unto himself”?  The Greek word for draw is akin to ‘romance’ indicating that Jesus will not force anyone but rather romance all people as He is “reconciling the world to Himself.”  Do you think it possible that God just might have that ability; the God who said that nothing is impossible for Him and  “His word will not return to Him empty”?

To read more on the nature of free-will see the three part series:

I wonder if Roger Olson sings this song in his church.  We do.  It’s quite… optimistic:

“God is able, He will never fail,

He is almighty God. Greater than all we seek,

Greater than all we ask, He has done great things.

Lifted up, defeated the grave;

Raised to life, our God is able.

In His name we overcome,

For the Lord our God is able.

He will make a way far above all we know,

Far above all we hope, He has done great things

Lifted up, defeated the grave

Raised to life our God is able.

In His name we overcome for the Lord our God is able.”  (Hillsong, 2011)

We appreciate the fact that Olson differentiates between a mistaken universalist and a liberal one who denies sin and judgment or Christ’s divinity.  Also it is gracious of him to clarify how we all are potential “heretics,” including himself.

As an interesting aside one of Time magazine’s cover stories last year was entitled “The Science of Optimism:  Hope isn’t rational–so why are we humans wired for it?”  In this article they show scientific evidence for how our brains actually “tilt toward the positive.”  This seems to correlate with our tendency to gravitate towards “happily ever after” stories that we seem to know are ultimately true even though we never quite experience it for ourselves.  In relation to this post I thought it interesting to ponder and would like to ask Roger Olson why it is that God would have us “hardwired for hope” if this was not a reality He has woven into the warp and woof of His universe.

Roger Olson’s complete article found here:

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