Friday, 11 March 2011


Nothing gets Christian bloggers talking like Universalism, the idea that all people, irrespective of faith, will receive God's mercy in the end.  Recently the debate has fired up again on the back of some very clever pre-publicity by the publishers of a book by Rob Bell called Love Wins.  I haven't read the book - in fact the only people who have so far are those lucky enough to receive advance copies to review - but the debate around its teasers is already fierce.

In the small and rather random group of blogs I read, Mr Hackman, Like a Child and the wonderful Richard Beck argue the universalist side, while Luke and Simone among many more hold up the more orthodox end of the debate.  I have to confess that I lean fairly strongly to the universalist side, but I'm not well-read about the subject and it doesn't dominate my thoughts much of the time, at least not consciously.  We'll get to that in a minute.

The dialogue, such as it is, seems to me to be pretty much a dialogue of the deaf.  It's fascinating to read debates in the various blogs where both universalists and believers in hell (what is the catchy term for that?) argue their cases from the Bible.  I suspect there are two reasons why the sides remain so far apart.  One is that in fact both views are present in the New Testament (and neither is in the Old Testament, where life after death has not been thought of).  As Hans Kung says, the New Testament already contains a number of different theologies.  I also suspect that the issue of heaven and hell was far less central to the New Testament writers than it is to us - they were both less individualistic than we are, and less steeped in the platonic notions of ideal forms and immortal souls.  They were not driven to answer this question clearly because they had other things on their minds.

However, the larger reason is that we have such a huge emotional investment in the outcome.  Ultimately, people become universalists, or maintain orthodoxy, because they can't bear the opposite.  People remain orthodox because they understand that universalism will rock their faith in every area.  People become universalists because they believe passionately in God but are unable to bear the notion that he/she has the level of cruelty required to send people to eternal torment.  Until we engage our emotions in this argument, bring them into the daylight and allow them to speak their hopes and fears, the discussion will never progress.

This emotion is not really about the hypothetical question of whether there is a hell, and whether anyone goes there.  We can't know that now and are bound to know sooner or later - unless the atheists are right in which case we never will.  It's more about our lives here and now.  Here's some things universalism changes.

It changes the way we grieve.  With an orthodox world-view, when relatives or friends die outside the Christian faith, the proper response is despair - or perhaps despairing resignation.  Your mum is now burning in hell.  Thankfully most orthodox believers I know are unable to actually rise (or fall) to this level of consistency and resort to a fudge - you never know what was in people's hearts, God moves in mysterious ways, insert your comforting phrase here.  For a universalist, grieving can always be conducted in hope, since God's mercy will triumph.  It can focus on our own pain, the awful empty space in our lives that no other person will ever fill.

It changes the way we evangelise.  Traditional evangelism is driven by the need to save people from eternal torment.  It is driven by fear as much as love.  The task is urgent and literally a matter of (eternal) life and death.  For a universalist, the eternal question doesn't come into our sense of mission.  The entire question is - is the love, message and person of Jesus worth spreading in the world?  It is of small consequence whether or not people convert, our only motive can be to incarnate Jesus' love in the here and now, hoping to bring forward the Kingdom of God.

It changes the motivation for our morality.  We do not fear God's punishment, but we want to imitate his love.  This is, indeed, also true of Protestant orthodoxy, where nothing we do can save us and we are forced to rest on God's grace.  Yet how often have you heard people who grew up in the Christian church talk of waking up in a quiet house and lying in terror at the thought that Christ had returned and taken everyone but them?  Or the anxiety they feel after a particularly fiery sermon which leads to them answering the altar call again and again in case their previous repentance was not genuine enough?  So much of our striving to be good is based in this elemental fear of God's anger.  In a universalist world view, the only motivation for good behaviour is love.

Universalism is weakness.  There is no reason people should become Christians, no reason they should be good, except an appeal to their better nature.  The rebel, the apostate, the oppressor, the persecutor of Christians, will not ultimately be punished.  The only answer to evil, oppression and violence is love and forgiveness.  This is frightening, it makes us powerless, it has its own terror as we realise there will be no flaming sword to defend us.  It is the way of the Cross.

(More on the subject here.)


Andrew said...

Excellent! Just Excellent!

I often get the "but what if you are wrong, or, how can you deny scripture" arguments... regardless of scriptural justifications, I think in the end, my universalism is based on what you talk about here. The "eternal hell" view, in my estimation, has created a very hobbled Christianity.

Alex Smith said...

You have made some insightful observations Jon, and I agree with almost all of what you say. E.g. I believe that there will probably be a temporary hell for some people, until they come to repent. Also to be picky, I think that some forms of universalism can be "orthodox" in the sense that they weren't rejected by the early church councils & creeds.

Anyway, I hope you don't mind but I posted three paragraphs of it on the Evangelical Universalist forum (My mum's cousin's husband on Universalism). I would've liked to post it all but I didn't think it would be loving to plagiarise without permission!

In case you're interested, my Dad, my wife, Luke and one other relation (not sure if they want to be named) are already on the forum. I reckon you'd enjoy it :)

Alex Smith said...

I agree Andrew, ECT has done Christianity a lot of harm and continues to be an major obstacle for many people coming into a relationship with God.

William Brennan goes as far as saying:

"The doctrine of endless torment has poisonous implications for every locus of systematic theology:

It insults God's character

leads to dispair for the lost

It reduces Christ's significance (savior of a select few only)

Makes his work ineffective

It divides the Church

It skews all hope for the future"

Jon said...

Thanks Alex, I'm happy for you to use it and you've quoted well - I enjoyed people's comments and disagreements as well. That's a good forum you have over there.

BTW I can't work out what ECT stands for.

Alex Smith said...

Thanks :)

What is ECT? Eternal Conscious Torment, Everlasting Conscious Torment or Endless Conscious Torment.

Luke Isham said...

[Let's try that again.]


An interesting round-up, although I'm not convinced both views are present in the New Testament, although both views are present (to varying degrees) in Church History.

I'm afraid of chaos, or truth being non-truth, my worst nightmare would be history being found to be false. To me 'Christian Universalism' just seems inconsistent, an overemphasis on God's immanence as opposed to his transcendence, or frustrating in it's reinterpretation of sin and justice. 'Humanistic Universalism' seems unduly optimistic, evidentially and morally.


Brennan is incorrect; I'm not sure how eternal punishment insults God or reduces Christ significance, because it's significant Christ saves anyone at all, let alone some. Neither does it makes sense to say Christ's work is ineffective, if he only dies for the lost. The dividing the church charge is particularly odd, because it could be levelled at anyone who has a contrary opinion. Regarding Eschatology it could be said it makes whatever you do pointless because it'll come right anyway.

Alex Smith said...

It's funny you think it's inconsistent, as I find it way more consistent than Calvinism. For example, right now, I'm sad at seeing 90% of people go to hell, however, Calvinism tells me that I'll actually be rejoicing about that, once I get to heaven!

ECT insults God, as it says God doesn't actually love His enemies, which is something He says He does, and tells us to imitate.

It reduces Christ's significance because instead of being every single person's Saviour and the one who everyone willingly worships, he becomes the Saviour of a few, with most people cursing His name. (Yes, even saving one person is significant, but saving them all is even more so)

Jesus claimed to be the Saviour of the world, if He actually only saves 10% of the world, then He turns out to be not as effective as He possibly could've been.

ECT has the potential to create a culture of "us" & "them". The loved/saved elite and the hated heathen. Universalism, says, "God love's everyone, and therefore, everyone will one day be your brother or sister, so treat them as such."

It means the future for most is hopeless, regardless of what they do, because if God only elects some to be saved, He therefore elects most to be damned.

Jon said...

Responses prove my starting comment - this subject gets more reaction than anything I have written about in the past 12 months.

@Alex, thanks for the definition.

@ Luke, knowing the importance you put on tradition I can understand why you would reject universalism, since the main stream of church tradition also rejects it. This seems reasonable if not for the unspeakable cruelty involved in the idea of hell.

"it could be said it makes whatever you do pointless because it'll come right anyway"

I see your point, but disagree. It is only pointless if the point of our faith is to get to heaven. But my recent immersion in the Lives of Jesus has strongly reinforced a different view - common to scholars who have vastly different views on other issues - that Jesus was not simply focused on getting to heaven, but on building God's kingdom here and now. This task matters both now and in eternity, whether you believe in hell or not.

Alex Smith said...

Happy to help you prove that point :)

I also disagree with Luke on that point, but he already knows that so I didn't want to repeat myself (and my previous comment was getting to be too long).

Sammy said...

First I wanted to say that I stumbled across your blog today and I have greatly enjoyed reading your posts.

For me, universalism is about love. Growing up in a conservative Christian church, I was taught that God was love, but if you did not accept Jesus and live a moral life, God will torture you for all eternity. That's not love, it's fear. Although not the only reason, the doctrine of hell was the biggest reason I left Christianity as a teenager. The idea of hell brought me nothing but constant cycles of fear and guilt. I couldn't reconcile how God could be all-loving and still through so many of His children away like trash.

Discovering universalism allowed me to have a relationship with God, something I had never had before. It's made me a better person and taken away all the guilt and fear I had for years.

As for what the Bible says on the subject, I think it's inconsistent. The Bible was written by different men, in different times, who had different motivations and different conceptions of God. That's not to say the Bible is useless. Quite the contrary, I believe the Bible contains great wisdom. But I also recognize it's not perfect.

I don't have all the answers when it comes to hell. If hell does exist, I believe God uses it for rehabilitative punishment, not torture. No God who is all-loving would abandon one of His children forever.

O said...

Oh Boy, you guys have it bad!
I have recently become convinced of God's complete and literal transcendence and so I ignore the whole idea now and I still find I want to be good and to love people. Plus I don't have to give a s*** about what God does.

David Miller said...

Any god of any religion who threatens ECT is totally and completely evil. Propitiation of that god is understandable, worship is not.
However, the desire for mercy, so as to escape justice for one's sins and crimes, is despicable. Such people are not worthy of 'salvation'.