Can God Be Too Good? Part 2 by Monte Wolverton
Can Christians Be Universalist?
When the subject of Christian universalism is raised among some traditional Christians, hackles rise like those on the back of a Jack
Russell Terrier who has just spotted a cat.
As far as many “Bible-believing” Christians are concerned, the
terms “Christian” and “universalism” are not compatible. Universalism, they say, is a dangerous heresy that has arisen from paganism like a toxic green slime, oozing through New Agers and Unitarians into mainstream Christian churches in recent decades, threatening to engulf and corrode cherished, time-tested doctrines (especially those having to do with an everburning hell).
But not everyone writes off Christian universalism as heresy. According to the same Barna surveys, some 25% of committed Christians believe that “all people are eventually saved or accepted by God.”
That’s quite a number—large enough to warrant our attention and careful investigation.
Just what is this thing called universalism? It’s often misunderstood
and misapplied because it can mean (or be confused with) several
Theological inclusivity—the idea that all faiths and philosophies share universal truths.
The universal church—certain churches believe themselves to be
the one true church, encompassing all cultures and ethnicities. Historically, the Catholic (meaning universal) church believed this—and many denominations and cults still do.
The universality of the church —Yes, this sounds a lot like the previous item, but it’s completely different. This is the truth that the genuine Christian church is catholic (universal)—embracing and including all believers in Christ from all backgrounds.
The first three items have to do with being a Christ-follower in the
here and now. Our final definition, and the subject of this article, has
to do with the universality of God’s relationship and reconciliation with human beings in the afterlife:
Christian universalism—the assertion that somehow, in some way, all will ultimately enjoy eternity with God.
Why is Christian universalism such a hot issue? Because it carries with it several unsettling and far reaching implications and questions:
• If everyone is automatically “saved,” why did Jesus have to die?
• If salvation is universal, what about an ever-burning hell? Is the eternal punishment spoken of in the Bible (Matthew 25:46) not one and the same as eternal punishing?
• If there is no justice or punishment for mass murderers, tyrants and terrorists, what’s the point of trying to live a good life?
• If everyone is destined for heaven, why bother to evangelize and share the gospel? Will people who have not been evangelized in this life receive some sort of postmortem evangelization?
• If all religious paths lead to eternal life, and Hindus and atheists get the same reward as Christians—why not just believe and do whatever suits your fancy?
• Most importantly, this issue may ultimately be based on what we believe about the nature of God—his mercy and judgment—in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
These questions can be disturbing, especially for those who are confident that they have all their theological ducks arranged in a neat row. Such Christians would be even more perplexed if they knew that some of the same early church fathers who helped develop fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity also dared to hope that Jesus actually meant it when he said he would “draw all people” to himself (John 12:32). But more about that
If you’re not confused yet, you’re probably about to be. Within our definition above, Christian universalism represents a whole spectrum of beliefs. (see below “The Expanding Universe of Christian Universalism”). If you look at this table carefully, you’ll see that there are variations on the same recipe with differing mixtures of the following ingredients:
Punitive punishment—punishment for the sake of justice.
Remedial punishment—punishment intended to teach and reform.
Salvation of Satan and demons—yes, some believe it is possible.
Justice—will big-time evildoers get what’s coming to them? If so, how?
Free will—the ability for humans to have choice in their eternal destiny.
Predestination—the idea that God has already made choices for us. Also called determinism.
The last two items are fundamental issues in universalism. Many Christians reject universalism out of hand because they believe it does not allow for free will. You see, strict universalists insist that God has predestined all to be saved (ironically, they share this dis-allowance of human choice with Christians who insist that God has predestined some to be “saved” and others to be “lost”).
Less doctrinally adamant, but still considered by many to be under the umbrella of universalism, are those who hold hope and confidence that all will ultimately respond to and be reconciled to God, allowing for human choice and free will.
We add a major wrinkle to the discussion when we ask—how capable is a human being at making a genuine free-will decision about his or her own eternal destiny—a fully conscious and aware choice for or against God—in this life?
The Expanding Universe of Christian Universalism
Christian universalism is the idea that somehow, in some way, all will ultimately be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Modern Christian universalism seems to have its roots in 17th century England, quickly spreading to America. It found fertile soil among pietist and Anabaptist believers, in addition to Quakers, Methodists and Lutherans. Early adherents were often of German ancestry.
Within Christendom today, the word universalism is most often associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church, formed in the 20th century by consolidation of two older organizations. Although the Unitarian Universalist Church has roots in Christianity, it now embraces non-Christian beliefs, and therefore does not represent Christian universalism. It’s necessary, therefore, to make a clear distinction between the classically known Unitarianism of the Unitarian Universalist Church and Christian Universalism.
Christian universalism includes a broad spectrum of belief. The following continuum moves from the most radical beliefs found within Christian universalism (#1) to more conservative and cautious (#6).
- Every one of God’s creatures will be saved—even Satan and the demons. God has predestined it so, and human (or angelic) choice is not a factor. Jesus’ sacrifice has saved everyone. This variety of universalism has also been called restorationism, as it is believed that God will restore the creation to perfect harmony. This is not to be confused with other teachings known as restorationism, including the Christian primitivist restorationist movements, which are concerned with restoring the Christian church to its early apostolic roots, or the 19th century movement to restore the Jews to the Holy Land.
- Same as #1, except Satan and the demons will not be saved. Their fate is sealed.
- All human beings will ultimately be saved, with the addition of an element of choice: Those who have not accepted Christ in this life will receive, understand and choose to accept the gospel posthumously.
- Same as #3, except that those who have not accepted Christ in this life will receive temporary punishment for their sins in the afterlife (similar in some ways to Catholic purgatory)—until they repent and accept Christ. This punishment is neither punitive nor soul-purifying (as is Purgatory), but remedial—intended to bring the soul to repentance, reconciliation and acceptance of God’s grace. Some early restorationists (see #1) believed in this temporary form of hell. Others denied the existence of hell entirely.
- Same as #4, except that those who have not accepted Christ in this life will not receive punitive punishment for sins, but they will have to review (and on some level, experience) the pain they have caused others—with the goal of repentance and reconciliation at the foot of the cross.
- God will save “all but a few.” Some may argue that this is not really universalism, which by definition means all, but we still include it under the Christian universalist umbrella. This is the type of “hopeful universalism” that some of the early church fathers maintained. While they did not say dogmatically that all would be saved, neither did they deny the possibility. This position allows for free will: God does not force salvation on anyone, yet it is possible that all will ultimately receive his grace.