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.)