Over the weekend, at about 4 AM Saturday to be precise, I was involved in a short conversation about Universalism. No, I wasn’t smoking anything; but I was chaperoning a youth lock-in at church, so I was sleep-deprived. It’s amazing what becomes interesting when you’re in that state. Anyway, the conversation started me thinking about the subject again and, as usual, what I think has wound up here. So, here goes my take on Christian Universalism.
Christian Universalism (I use that term because there is more than one type) is the belief that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God. What’s “reconciliation”, you ask? To answer that, we need to backtrack a little. I think we all know the story of the Fall. Whether you believe it’s literal history or just a myth (or somewhere in between), the story explains why humans are in such a sorry state and can’t seem to do the right thing. In essence, through the actions of Adam and Eve, we became separated from God. Reconciliation (or salvation) is when we return to God, much like the Prodigal Son Jesus spoke of in Luke. So, universalism basically says that everyone will be saved. This is not a new concept; it’s at least as old as Origen, one of the leading scholars and theologians of the early church. It was condemned by the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, embraced by the Anabaptists and blasted by Calvin. In the modern era, individual churches and whole denominations have been founded around it and respected theologians like Karl Barth have shown sympathy to the doctrine. Several emerging church leaders, such as Tony Jones and Brian McLaren, have discussed it without accepting it. Universalism is the Energizer Bunny of early church heresies.
In the first paragraph, I promised my take on the subject, so here it is: it’s a lovely idea, but I’m not so sure about the practice. What’s that mean? Well, I like the idea of a God who wants to save every one of his children and doesn’t want to see them suffer. One of the most appealing aspects of universalism is the idea that the door doesn’t close with death. C. S. Lewis explores this idea in his story “The Great Divorce”. In it, people who died without accepting the grace offered by God are consigned to the “grey town”, which is basically Hell. On a regular basis, people in the “grey town” can board a bus and travel to a wonderful place (heaven) where they are met by others who urge them to repent so they stay. I like this much more than the belief that those who die apart from God are condemned to eternal torment. That idea either limits God or paints him as a dick. Either he can’t save people after death or he can, he just doesn’t want to. What kind of God is that? There are scripture references that seem to back up the doctrine of universalism. Unfortunately, there are also scripture references that support Calvinism and Arminianism. God knows, people have been reading into the Bible for as long as the thing has been around. My problem with universalism boils down to one thing: free will. Free will is a big thing amongst Wesleyans and Arminians, it’s a major piece of our doctrine. And, in my mind, universalism undermines that doctrine, if doesn’t throw it out all together. If everyone will be saved, then I don’t have a choice in the matter any longer. If that’s the case, universalism is just the flipside of the Calvinist coin and I’m definitely not a Calvinist. I like the idea that God loves us enough to save all of us. But, I love the idea that he respects us enough to allow us a choice in the matter.