Theological Inclusivism, Exclusivism, Universalism etc, etc.,

Very many are becoming confused by the increasing use of various theological terms which explain/qualify/quantify approaches to Eternal Life.

Most writers well-seasoned in Christian evangelical theology use the terms (more or less) accurately, but an increasing number of writers appear to be misusing the terms.
I went to one website which claimed to uphold theological Inclusivism, but when I started to read the main article I was surprised and disappointed that the article writer thought that Inclusivism and Universalism were the same thing!
On another website I read this amazing and inaccurate assertion: 'Inclusivist theology was originally developed by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner' - While Rahner holds a more or less Inclusivist position with his concept of the 'anonymous Christian', it remains the case that Inclusivism was probably the majority position of the 'Church Fathers'- and they lived rather a long time before Karl Rahner!

In the following brief article I want to define some of these terms.


This is the classical Calvinist approach. It states that only those who were called by God during the Old Testament era, such as Abraham and Moses, and all Elect Christians since the time of Christ can be saved. Those who were believers before the coming of Christ are included in the efficacy of His sacrifice; there is salvation in no other name but that of Christ. Outside of these groups, there is no salvation. All those who live and die without accepting Christ will go to Hell whether or not they ever had the opportunity to hear about Him. This theological position is also sometimes called 'Restrictivism' - according to this approach to the Scriptures the great majority of Mankind will certainly not be saved.
An increasing number of Exclusivists, however, believe that all those who die in childhood, plus the mentally handicapped, will be saved. But, technically speaking, this seems to be an inconsistency in Exclusivism, although these groups are certainly included within 'Inclusivism' (which we will consider in a moment).
Calvin built on and developed Augustine's pessimistic approach towards a broad salvation; for Calvin, if Israel were a type of the Church and they were one of the smallest of peoples, then the saved would also be a tiny number, especially in view of the Scripture which says that the gate and road to destruction is "broad" with many following that path (Matthew 7:13). However, one occasionally finds statements in both Augustine and Calvin which suggest support for a much broader salvation; it was the later Calvinism which put a final uncompromising 'hard edge' on this teaching.
It is only fair to point out that Exclusivists have been coming under increasing pressure in recent years from theologians who point out that this position was not an early Church position; indeed, a few even believe that its roots are in fatalistic Manichaeism which so affected Augustine who - in turn - had so much influence upon Calvin. There is also now quite wide agreement that Calvin's use of Romans 9-11 to backup his pessimistic view was somewhat flawed.


There is salvation in no other name but that of Christ and those finally saved will only be saved through Him. Yet, it must be true that - at the end of time - the majority of the human race will finally be saved since the Scriptures appear to speak of a final complete triumph of Christ; therefore God will extend His grace and mercy to many who have a very imperfect knowledge of Him (Exclusivists would say that God is not interested in numbers, only in quality, and He only intends saving a minority of the human race, the remainder being entirely cut off from His grace).
Inclusivists would say that Inclusivism is already clearly demonstrated in the Old Testament since those saved in the Old Testament had never heard of Christ. Also, upon the death of his little baby, David clearly seemed to believe that the child was saved (2 Samuel 12:15-23). Some areas of Exclusivism (not all) would allow for the salvation of small children and the mentally handicapped, but this may be an inconsistency in their position. Certainly, Inclusivism would include these groups and also believe that God will extend His mercy to many who may have a very incomplete knowledge of Him.
Inclusivists see the 'broad is the gate that leads to destruction' type Scriptures as a deterrent and as applying to the present age, not as an eternal reality. On the contrary, it is those who are finally redeemed who are called, 'a great multitude that no one could number' (Rev 7:9). Also, '144,000' is used of the redeemed - not literally - but because it signifies an imagination-defying multitude! (Rev 14:1). On the other hand, while Hell is warned about in the New Testament there is no biblical teaching of a huge Anti-Elect, or of the reprobated masses who are certainly going there! All one has is warnings of the consequences of the specific rejection of Christ.
Moreover, when the KJV mistranslations of words such as 'sheol' and 'hades' are removed, it becomes clear that the word 'hell' only occures 13 times in the New Testament (and not at all in the Old), while the word 'heaven' occurs 568 times throughout all Scripture. Arguing from silence can only achieve so much, but this does begin to indicate that Restrictivism may have been guilty of applying an incorrect balance in this area.
Inclusivists further point out that in the Old Testament, many outsiders became joined to Israel who wished to worship the true God; these people were never rejected but embraced, so Calvin's analogy is highly dubious. Moreover, the Old Testament Covenants always had the blessing of all Mankind in view, rather than a tiny portion of it.
Yet Inclusivism is not the reserve of Arminians but is also held by some reformed Calvinist people. After all, Reformed people stress grace and God's prerogative to furnish any with the grace necessary for salvation wherever He wills, such people being included within His elect. Our own works and knowledge, of course, are incapable of saving us; so it might even be said that Inclusivism sits more comfortably within Reformed Calvinist theology than within Arminianism.
Inclusivists appear to be on strong ground when they point out that Inclusivism is closer to the position of the 'Church Fathers' (Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr etc), than Exclusivism is. Also one might just ponder on how close the 'fathers' lived to the time of Jesus and the Apostles - indeed, Justin Martyr provides a link going right back to the Apostle John (both the Apostle and Justin - at some point in their lives - personally knew one Polycarp. So Polycarp could have claimed both John and Justin as acquaitances!)


Theological Pluralists say that all the world religions lead to God and can save. Pluralism does not necessarily say that such people will be saved, simply that all the world's religions lead to God. Of course, the huge difficulty here is that while some common themes may exist, there are often huge differences between the various religions of the world. Also, while both Exclusivism and Inclusivism can clearly be argued with scriptural support, no such support really exists for Pluralism, so upholders of this salvific view must seek support from elsewhere, mainly from ethics, psychology and philosophy.


Some confuse Universalism with Pluralism, but there are important differences! Universalism is not necessarily interested in specific religious approaches (though sometimes it is) yet states categorically that all will be saved, whatever they have done in this life. Therefore most Universalists support Pluralism (all religions can save). Logically, Universalism cannot exclude such individuals as Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible or Adolf Hitler from salvation (but Pluralism can). It is true to say, however, that not all Universalists hold the same concept of salvation! Universalists can point to certain Scriptures which appear - at least on the surface - to support their position, yet they remain confronted by a welter of other Scriptures which appear to contradict Universalism. It is disappointing that a few writers are starting to confuse Universalism with Inclusivism despite the fact that quite a gulf separates these positions!


The conclusion appears inescapable that Exclusivism and Inclusivism are the two most biblical positions to adopt on the eventual salvation status of the Human race. Both positions can muster a welter of Scriptural support! Both these positions state that salvation is only possible through the Lord Jesus Christ which is exactly what the New Testament appears to say.
I hold that Exclusivists and Inclusivists should therefore refrain from attacking each other. One very respected (though, in our opinion, somewhat legalistic) evangelical writer has written an article titled, The "Very Pernicious and Detestable" Doctrine of Inclusivism - it is a little hard to see why this man would have employed such emotive, divisive and 'call to arms' terms. If Inclusivists say that Exclusivists may have misunderstood certain Scriptures and that - in fact - God intends saving a huge majority of Humankind (rather than a very small minority of it), should that not be an occasion to rejoice?? Why do a few have such a zeal to see the huge majority of Humankind condemned to Hell?? We really must avoid any tendency to see all those not in complete theological agreement with ourselves as necessarily bound for Hell!

Where do museltof christian ministries UK stand? Like an increasing number of biblical writers of the last few years (including no less than John Stott), we have come to loosely support the position of Theological Inclusivism. This is certainly not because we have 'gone soft' or, 'gone liberal' (especially please do not insult us with the last epithet!), but because as one's biblical knowledge hopefully grows and grows, it really does appear to be the most biblical position. Of course, many of our friends and contributing writers are possibly closer to Exclusivism; that is fine - they are just as committed in their Christian walk as we are.
Robin A Brace
© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 2003. If you want it on your own website please do the honourable thing and come to us for permission first. It is forbidden to excerpt this article without our permission. Thank you. We really regret having to use copyright warnings but unfortunately a few unscrupulous people have already stolen our material word for word and claimed it as their own.



(An interesting page containing many articles which outline Evangelical Inclusivism and Unlimited Atonement)

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