Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagining Universal Salvation: Seeing Past the Uglier Confusions

A social media friend of mine, a Christian with universalist sympathies, recently posted the following:
Thought experiment:
1.) Let's say it turns out that everyone will eventually spend eternity in the blissful presence and peace of God.
2.) You are granted the knowledge of this right now.
3.) How does this make you feel? What are your thoughts on the matter?
There were numerous responses, most of them expressing feelings of joy, some expressing concerns or raising questions ("Even Hitler?"). And then there was this one:
Being as how it will not happen and cannot happen......but if it did cheated and let down!!!!!! Because that wold make God a liar, a fraud,and no better than satan himself. It wold make The Word of God a lie, and mean that satan himself and all his demonic hordes would also be in Heaven and that Heaven would actually be hell!!!!!!!!!!!!
The response makes two claims about universalism (for my purposes I will assume we're talking about Christian universalism) that are worth reflecting on, despite being somewhat lost in a haze of exclamation-point fury. They are:

A. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, then God is a liar.

B. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, this means that the devil and his demons are eventually saved as well; and a heaven filled with the devil and his demons would be no heaven at all, but would be transformed into hell.

Let me reflect on each of these

Is God a Liar if Universalism is True?

The first of these claims is presumably based on views about the nature and content of the Christian scriptures: If you assume that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and if you assume that the Bible clearly denies universalism, then endorsing universalism amounts to saying God is either mistaken or a liar.

But the "ifs" here are big ones.

The doctrine of inerrancy is just one theory about how the Bible is related to God and God's Word, and a universalist might have a different theory. Alternatively, the universalist might--based on passages like Lamentations 3:31-33, John 12:30-32, Romans 5:18-19, Romans 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Corinthians 15:28, and Colossians 1:19-20, or maybe based on a holistic reading of the biblical narrative--reject the premise that the Bible clearly denies universalism.

So it's a mistake to say that universalism implies that God is a fraud.

Suppose someone made the following claim: "If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, then God is a fraud." You ask them why, and they say the following: "The Bible says in some places (e.g., Romans 5:18-19) that all will be saved and in other places (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) that they won't. One of those claims is true and the other false. If the doctrine of inerrancy is right, then God has said something false. He's either mistaken or a liar. In either case He's a fraud."

The supporter of biblical inerrancy would likely reply in something like the following way: "That argument assumes that the relevant passages can't be reconciled. Maybe you're misreading them! It's not inerrancy that implies that God is a fraud. It's inerrancy combined with your particular understanding of the Bible that implies this. But I don't buy your understanding of the Bible!"

Yes. Exactly.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because, when it is combined with other elements of their broader theology, the implications are ugly. But that doesn't mean universalism is ugly.

Is Heaven turned into Hell if Universalism is True?

Some universalists exclude the devil and his demonic hordes from the scope of universal salvation, limiting it to humanity: God saves all humans. But let's suppose we're dealing with the version of universalism that extends God's love even to the fallen angels. Would that brand of universalism turn heaven into hell?

An important feature of Christian universalism is this: It does not say that creatures will come to enjoy eternal blessedness without being sanctified. On the contrary, most Christian universalists I know are convinced of several things: (1) To be truly blessed requires being freed from bondage to sin, such that it is impossible to enjoy the blessedness of heaven while still being a sinner; (2) We cannot free ourselves from bondage to sin without the grace of God working in and through us; (3) Everyone will eventually receive the divine grace necessary and sufficient to free us from bondage to sin.

This third belief comes in different forms, because of different theologies. Typically, Christian universalists believe that we won't the divine grace necessary for sanctification and blessedness without repentance. So long as we have our backs to God, refusing to take in what God is pouring out to us, we will remain bound by sin.

What universalists are convinced of is that God never gives up on even the most recalcitrant of sinners, and that God is infinitely resourceful and creative in finding ways to cajole and inspire them to repent. What universalists believe is that God will ultimately succeed in transforming the heart of every sinner, redeeming every fallen creature.

In other words, universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that only the redeemed are in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that all of God's creatures are redeemed.

Universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that there is no sin in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that at the end of history there is no longer any sin at all--that God finally succeeds not merely in sequestering sin in hell but in erasing it from creation altogether.

If universalists believe that Satan and his hordes ultimately enter into Heaven, it is because they believe that Satan and his hordes are ultimately redeemed, repenting and confessing their sins, and so restored to their original state as angels of God, channeling love and mercy and grace, celebrating the peace and majesty of God in communion with all the blessed.

In other words, no one enters heaven unless hell has been removed from their hearts. Universalists believe that as much as hellists do. Where they differ is on the question of whether hello continues to enternally stain God's creation, an endless den of sin's persistence--or whether, on the contrary, heaven comes to encompass all of creation in the end.

Put simply, to think that universalism turns heaven into hell is to be caught up in some serious confusion about what universalism says.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because they are confused about what it involves. They imagine sinners enjoying blessedness while still being sinners, even though such a thing is impossible (impossible because being a sinner is the worst conceivable affliction any creature can endure, such that its elimination is a necessary prerequisite for enjoying blessedness).

These points aren't enough to show that when universalism is properly conceived, it is a beautiful thing that should tug at our souls, filling us with the hope that it is true. These points are certainly not enough to show that universalism is, in fact, true. But they do show, I think, that some of the reasons why people don't find universalism beautiful are based on mistakes.

And I do find universalism beautiful, a source of hope and delight.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. My shorter version:

      Great post. I like what you had to say. I have your book on Universalism, this motivates me to actually now read it!

  2. A beautiful reflection that rings very true. I have always yearned for Christian Universalism, long before I actually encountered the term. What a rush of joy I felt when I started to realize it was more than just wishful thinking and that there are so many compelling reasons to believe it, and so many people who embrace this optimistic theology. And I think posts like this that clear up misconceptions have the capacity to change many more minds and hearts.

  3. I was thinking - why on earth would somebody feel that such a beautiful view as universalism, indeed such an obviously true belief about God, would entail that “God is liar”.

    In many cases this emotional response may have to do with peoples’ interpretation of what the Bible is or of what it says. But perhaps it cuts deeper than that: The Christian tradition as a whole considers earthly life to be some kind of test which we must take seriously, and the idea that in the end everybody will pass the test with the same flying colors will strike some people as a fraud. Part of the problem here may be that some traditions stress that the offer of heaven is God’s free gift – which on the other hand is kind of incongruent with the idea that this life is a test. Surely the right understanding is that heaven is a free gift but that to actually take that gift entails repentance – metanoia – which entails a major self-transformation. The door to our Lord’s house is wide open and no power can possibly stop one from walking inside - but one has to walk inside.

    There may be a yet deeper problem which has to do with our sense of justice above and beyond any Christian teaching. One realizes that it can’t be the case that everybody equally merits the state of eternal bliss. I think this response is actually valid as long as it makes sense to speak of different persons. In other words I hold that there is a true contradiction between the propositions “universalism is true”, “not all persons equally merit eternal bliss” – a contradiction that is solved by the insight that ultimately there are no different persons. An insight, by the way, that makes difficult ethical principles (such as “return no evil”) self-evident.

    Now I am not saying that there are no different persons. I am only saying that there being different persons is temporal condition, a property of the current state of creation we find ourselves in. At atonement (as the word actually says) there will be unity of all in God and thus no more different persons and thus also no sense in which some merit eternal bliss more or less than others. Individuality is a precious and probably necessary thing but only before atonement. Which, interestingly enough, brings us to the view of the great Eastern religions according to which at Nirvana the self is dissolved. To me as a Christian this view makes perfect sense, both existentially and metaphysically. In the actual presence of God who would want to remain an individual? And moreover in the actual presence of God there is no place for individuality.