No Rational Sin: T.F. Torrance on the Error of Universalism

Anyone who has read T.F. Torrance to any extent knows that he was an ardent exponent of universal atonement and of Christ-conditioned election which vicariously includes all humanity. The common objection to these doctrines is that they inevitably lead to the notion of final universal salvation. Torrance, however, was just as ardently opposed to universal salvation as he was in favor of universal atonement and election. How could this be? Doesn’t his position seem logically incoherent, as indeed many have alleged?

In 1949 Torrance wrote an article in response to one “Dr. Robinson” who was at the time advocating the doctrine of universal salvation. It is instructive to see how Torrance critiqued Robinson’s position while at the same time maintaining his own firm commitment to the universal scope of Christ’s atoning and electing work. This is what Torrance had to say to Robinson:

All that Dr. Robinson’s argument succeeds in doing is to point to the possibility that all might be saved in as much as God loves all to the utmost, but it does not and cannot carry as a corollary the impossibility of being eternally lost. The fallacy of every universalist argument lies not in proving the love of God to be universal and omnipotent but in laying down the impossibility of ultimate damnation. Dr. Robinson has cited passages from the New Testament which would seem to him to point in the direction of universalism, but what of those many other passages which declare in no uncertain terms that at the last judgment there will be a final division between t-f-torrance-1946the children of light and the children of darkness ? What of the shuddering horror of the words: “It were better for that man had he never been born”, which came from the lips of Omnipotent Love ? There is not a shred of Biblical witness that can be adduced to support the impossibility of ultimate damnation. All the weight of Biblical teaching is on the other side.

Universalism is always and inevitably inconsistent for two reasons, (a) It commits the logical fallacy of transmuting movement into necessity. At the very best universalism could only be concerned with a hope, with a possibility, and could only be expressed apocalyptically. But to turn it into a dogmatic statement, which is what the doctrine of universalism does, is to destroy the possibility in the necessity. This is precisely what Dr. Robinson has done. He started off in the second part of his essay, with a personal analogy and a personal truth, but immediately he proceeded to universalise it. In such a procedure the actual historical particularity of every choice as a free movement disappears, and necessity takes its place—no matter how hard one may try to avoid it, and Dr. Robinson has tried very hard. Apparently he has not realised that thinking in terms of universals in point of fact destroys the free decision of faith; that when personal Christian truths are turned into general truths they become necessary truths. Every free personal choice is rooted in historical existence. To think it sub specie aeterni is to abrogate it. Universalism inevitably becomes shipwreck upon the stubborn particularity of the personal event.

(b) It commits the dogmatic fallacy of systematising the illogical. Sin has a fundamentally surd-like character. Somehow evil posits itself and cannot be rationalised. The New Testament teaches that when it speaks of the mystery of iniquity, and of the bottomless pit (abyssos). Evil is fundamentally discontinuity. No explanation involving only continuity or coherence can ever approach the problem, for that would be to draw the line of continuity dialectically over discontinuity. The doctrine of the atonement teaches us that no matter how much we think about it, here our reason reaches its limit. It cannot bridge the contradiction between God and man in guilt. The contradiction is resolved only by an act of God in which man in contradiction to God is reconciled and yet the terrible bottomless reality of sin is not denied. That act of God is ultimately eschatological so that just how the contradiction is dealt with in atonement is yet to be revealed at the Parousia. That is the relevance of apocalyptic, but apocalyptic is the antithesis of universalism.

Universalism is the doctrine that rationalises sin, that refuses to admit in its dark fathomless mystery a limit to reason. Universalism means that the contradiction can be bridged by reason after all, and constitutes therefore the denial of atonement and the anguished action of Calvary. The Christian faith which has looked into the limitless depth of the Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, and considered the great weight of sin to discover that only by act of God can man get across the gulf, will accept the way of humility where the Cross makes foolish the wisdom of this world. It will learn the discipline of suspending judgment in order to avoid foisting a false and abortive unity or a closed system of thought upon the actual facts of existence. The irrational mystery of evil is the other rock upon which universalism as a unitary interpretation of existence inevitably suffers shipwreck. True dogmatic procedure at this point is to suspend judgment, for here that is the most rational thing reason can do. Whether all men will as a matter of fact be saved or not, in the nature of the case, cannot be known.[1]

As can be seen, Torrance staunchly refused to give in to the allure of universalism, despite the direction that logic supposedly should have pulled him. Whether we fully agree with him or not, what we see here is Torrance’s effort to maintain the full scope of the biblical witness, giving due weight to both its universal and particular elements, without sacrificing either one for the sake of logical coherency. That is not to say that Scripture is illogical, but simply that it forces us to reconsider what exactly it is that should constitute what is “logical” or not.

As Torrance argues, universalism is the attempt to rationalize the irrational, to find a reason for the unreasonable, to explain the inexplicable. If we could find a way to rationally come to terms with sin and why some reject Christ, then we would have effectively emptied sin of its sinfulness, of the very thing that makes it so heinous and abominable. Sin is a “bottomless pit” of darkness and absurdity, and any way in which we try to come to terms with its operations in the human heart will only lead us to distort biblical teaching. Either we will fall, like Dr. Robinson, into the quagmire of universalism, or we will rigidly logicalize the atonement in terms of limited intent and effect, or we will reduce Christ’s work to the provision of a mere possibility. I believe that Torrance is correct in identifying each one of these options as flawed and ultimately unfaithful to the full range of the biblical testimony.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1949. ‘Universalism or Election?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology 2(3), pp.312-314.

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