Paul's Universalism -- Philippians 3 (Bruce Epperly)

This is the third of Bruce Epperly's six essays on Paul's letter to Philippians.  In it Bruce invites us to consider Paul's universalist message, a message that is found here in Philippians 2.  What is God's vision for humanity and creation?  Is it possible that God will restore/reconcile all to God's loving embrace?  What does that mean for us?  Bruce invites us to consider this message in this essay.  I invite you to read it and engage in a conversation about this message.


Philippians III – Paul’s Universalism
Bruce G. Epperly

What is it about “every” that you don’t understand?

At the name of Jesus
            every knee should bend,
            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11            and every tongue should confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord,
            to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:10-11)

What is it about “all” that you don’t understand?

            God will be all in all. (I Corinthians 15:28)

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation
for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification
and life for all. (Romans 5:18)

We can find a lot in scripture.  We can justify almost any theological position by few verses.  Yet, few Bible readers take seriously the universalistic passages in Paul’s writings and throughout the scriptures.  While they often insist on literal interpretations on passages relating to homosexuality, limited atonement, eternal damnation, and Christian exclusivism, they try to explain away the passages above as relating to the saved and not to everyone as the passages clearly indicate.

Philippians 2 proclaims a clear universalistic gospel.  Christ lets go of power. He rules by relational love and inclusion, rather than – like Caesar – by threatening his opposition.  The peace of Christ is not the Pax Romana or rule by violence, but the peace that comes from caring, accepting, and sacrificial relationships.  Accordingly, when “every knee should bend,” this is not bending before Caesar, who will obliterate all those who do not give him due homage. It is the bending of gratitude before one who gives us - to our joy and surprise - more than we’ve asked or imagined.  It is the act of honoring one who accepts us even when we see ourselves as unacceptable. 

Philippians 2 proclaims the power of love, not submission.  Christ’s power invites us to produce a harvest of righteousness, that is, to achieve our highest good and to realize our potential. There is no competition between God and humankind: our achievements do not rob God of glory but reveal God’s ever-creative and ever-resourceful love.  God’s power is infinite precisely because it is constantly growing in partnership with the freedom of creation.

When Paul says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” -- or, as I translate it, “with awe and excitement” -- he is not speaking of heaven and hell, but a partnership in seeking wholeness and shalom.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy deep within you.  God willing and working at what will give God most pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 Message)

We don’t need to be scared into salvation, as some revival preachers say.  Rather, we need to be awakened and lured to experiencing our place as God’s companions in the quest for Shalom.  As noted preacher Ernie Campbell once stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are saved and don’t know it, and those who are saved and do.”  The message of the kenotic Christ, the Christ among us, is that you are loved, you belong, and you are mine – forever.

“Love wins,” as Rob Bell says.  But, love is not passive.  Rather, our wholeness and the wholeness of creation emerges from the dynamic partnership of God and the world, in which God lures each creature toward fulfillment.  God does not rule from afar, building walls between the saved and unsaved, but rules from within and beside us, seeking our salvation and insuring – over the long run – that all creation and every child will experience the God of everlasting communion with its creator.  (For more on Philippians, see my text on Philippians: An Interactive Study, Energion Books, appropriate for both individual and group study.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.


Brian said…
Paul shows a lot of universalism. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul states that love does not insist on its own way. Whatever happens (or doesn't) when we die, surely God does not insist on thinking or feeling the "right" things. Certainly afterlife experience cannot be impacted by magic ritual (coming forward and confessing Jesus Christ as lord and savior).
John said…
I cannot understand the notion of Christian exclusivity.

Even the most ardent exclusivist will grant that God loves everyone and desires the salvation of all. Even the narrowest will acknowledge that as Christ's ambassadors we are personally called to love each and every one of our neighbors. All will agree that the election of souls for salvation is a matter of God's choice, according to God's own unknowable criteria, and not our private merit. So then why is a theology which embraces the 'other,' and which prays for their salvation as earnestly as we pray for our own, and which leaves unfettered the possibility of God's infinite mercy, so contemnable?

Why do otherwise pious Christians want to predetermine whom God will save before God has a chance to act? It is not like we get a prize for the most correct guesses - more likely we loose points for excluding those whom God included!

Since we cannot know or even guess the whole truth of the Gospel, why not simply focus on living out the Gospel in our relationship with God and with all of our neighbors?

While we cannot know, we can do.
Brian said…
Well said John!

There is a nice book with a pastoral tone that promotes universal salvation. It was written by two alumni of Christian Theological Seminary who are Indiana Quakers.

If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person,
by Phillip Gulley & James Mulholland.

"Participation in bliss awaits everyone." - St. Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390
Gary said…
Paul was NOT a universalist. Neither were any of the other Biblical writers. Neither was Jesus Christ.

Universalism is the dream of those who insist on doing everything as THEY want, and then pretending that God will still approve of them.

Epperly has misunderstood Paul. Deliberately, I would guess.
Brian said…

Appeal to Motive is a logical fallacy.

"Universalism is the dream of those who insist on doing everything as THEY want, and then pretending that God will still approve of them.

Epperly has misunderstood Paul. Deliberately, I would guess."
John said…

I am not seeking to justify my own actions, but to better understand how I may live up to Jesus commandment that I love my neighbors as Jesus loves me,
- even if my neighbors are Samaritans who do good though they do not know Jesus,
- even if they are Romans out to kill me,
- even if they are sinners and tax collectors who would cheat me at every turn,
- even if they are immoral and unrepentant, and
- even if they are Pharisees insisting on a narrow and hard-hearted understanding of what it means to be faithful.

I think Christian love requires that we pray for their good and not for evil; and we know that their good has little to do with this life and everything to do with their eternal salvation. So that is what we pray for. Anything less surely breaks God's heart and denies the message of the Gospel.
David said…
I believe in the universe. That's a lot for me.

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