I posted an essay on my blog detailing my arguments in favor of Christian Universalism. It’s geared mainly toward Christians of backgrounds similar to mine (i.e., Church of Christ), but hopefully it can be easily understood by anyone (who reads English). If I ever have an acquaintance who wants to know why I believe this way, then the idea is to direct them to my essay, which is slightly more eloquent and thorough than I can ever be in real-life conversation (which isn’t saying much).
As a side note, I opted not to publicize this post on Facebook, as I usually do, because I have many FB friends from church. If anyone asks me about my beliefs, I’ll tell them the truth, but I felt it would be more prudent, at this point, to avoid causing unnecessary controversy by broadcasting my views all at once. On the other hand, I wonder if I could help someone else who might have privately struggled with this issue by sharing with them. Any thoughts on whether I made the right call?
I have copied the full essay below, and here is the link to my blog post: vaguemusings.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/savior-of-everyone-2/
Many people say that the biggest theological problem in Christianity is the issue of human suffering–why does a good and all-powerful God allow (or cause) so much pain in this world? That is a great difficulty, but there is an even bigger problem, one that makes all of the combined sufferings of every person on this planet insignificant in comparison: why did a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God create a world full of billions of people, knowing that the vast majority of them will be tormented eternally after they die?
I’d like to suggest a bold alternative for Christians: what if it’s not true?
I’ve always been troubled by the doctrine that God will punish millions of people by torturing them for an infinite amount of time, in most cases because they happened to be born in the wrong place or time. (Some Christians believe that lost souls are simply annihilated, instead of being subjected to eternal torment. To me, that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement.) Some Christians might tell me that I’m simply experiencing a human, emotional reaction that has no basis in Scripture. I used to believe that. For a long time, I tried to avoid the old cliché that “a loving God would never send anyone to hell”, regarding it as the product of some sort of liberalized, watered-down version of Christianity that denies all of its basic doctrines. I thought it was the same as believing that all religions are equal, or that it doesn’t really matter what you believe.
But I’m not saying any of that. I don’t believe that all faiths are equal, or that all religions lead to God. I still believe that Jesus is the only way. I believe that the Bible was inspired by God. I’m also not claiming that there won’t be a temporary experience for many of us (or perhaps all of us) after death that we might describe as hell. But the idea of eternal punishment goes against not only my conscience (which by itself doesn’t count for much), but also reason and Scripture.
I sometimes think Christians are too nonchalant about this issue. We go to our nice churches and enjoy ourselves, seemingly unconcerned about all of the nonbelievers around us who are going to be roasting for all eternity. (I’m just as guilty, by the way.) Not all Christians are like that, of course. I’ve read accounts of some people who have agonized for years over this problem, or have nearly gone mad from it. I haven’t been affected to that degree, but that’s mainly because I’m such an apathetic and selfish person by nature, and because I’ve usually tried to avoid thinking about it too much. And maybe it’s also because I’ve never really believed in the doctrine of eternal hell with all my heart. Nevertheless, I had never seriously considered any alternatives until recently, because it goes against what I’ve been taught, and because the Bible says hell goes on forever, right? So when I started studying it, I was amazed at how much scriptural evidence there is to support the idea of universal reconciliation: that all people will be with God in the end.
When I started reading C. S. Lewis, I was attracted to his idea of hell as a place that people go to willingly, because they refuse to let go of whatever is standing between them and God. Thus, hell for these people consists of being separated from God and plagued eternally by the very sins they cling to. I also agreed with his belief that, although Jesus is the only way to salvation, it is still possible for people who have never heard of him to be saved by him. I also latched on to all the hopeful Bible passages I could find, such as the parable of the servant who will only be beaten with few blows from Luke 12, indicating that at least there will be different degrees of punishment in hell.
Lewis even admitted that hell was an extremely disagreeable doctrine to him, and one that he would gladly eliminate if he had the power to do so. His writings made the idea of an eternal hell somewhat more palatable. But it still wasn’t enough for me. What exactly is the purpose of eternal punishment? What good does it do the sinner, if he can never escape from it? Is God some sort of cosmic sadist who enjoys torturing people? How could a God who, according to St. John, is “love” do such a thing? All of the explanations I ever heard, usually involving ideas about God being “just” and “holy”, and about how much we deserve going to hell, always sounded trite and unconvincing.
As it turns out, there are numerous verses that say Jesus came to save the entire world. I don’t know how I ever missed them before. Here is a sampling of the many Bible verses that indicate salvation will apply to every human being ever created.
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. (I Timothy 4:10) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (I Corinthians 15:22) And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32) Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11) For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:32) He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:2)
Many Christians will try to explain how “all” really means “some”, or “the world” really means “part of the world”, or something like that. I hesitated to even list any verses at all, because I don’t particularly want to get dragged into a duel of the Bible verses. I understand that verses can’t just be yanked out of the Bible, but they must be studied in context. But it’s not just about using a set of isolated verses to prove a point, it’s about finding out the best way to harmonize all the teachings from the entire Bible, many of which seem contradictory. And none of those verses need to be explained away if one understands the concept of universal reconciliation; they can simply be taken at face value. (I realize that the universalist position also requires some difficult verses to be explained, but more on that later.)
Do we really think Jesus is going to fail in his mission, or be content with saving only a small fraction? If Jesus came to save the world, but only ends up saving one percent of the world, or even 25%, then that sounds to me like a huge victory for Satan, not Jesus. In the parable of the lost sheep, the Shepherd was not content with 99 saved sheep; he insisted on finding the last one, no matter how much trouble it was.
I’ve also heard that the verses describing everyone bowing to Jesus and proclaiming him Lord means that some people will be forced to worship him against their wills, presumably just before they’re cast into perdition forever. That sounds like something Zod from the Superman comics would do, not God. It’s clear from the Bible that God is only interested in sincere and willing worship. Jesus said, “these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
So if I believe that everyone will be saved, but also that everyone must believe in Jesus to be saved, how is that going to work? Most Christians have an ingrained assumption that death is final, and that once that moment is passed, God instantly withdraws his mercy and compassion. I’m not aware of any Bible verses that support such a view. Yes, there’s that verse that says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). I don’t deny that there will be judgment for everyone (yes, even for Christians), but that’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not that judgment is eternal and irrevocable, and this verse says nothing at all about that. I believe God will allow anyone to repent and come to him, regardless of whether they have already died or not. After all, isn’t God’s grace greater than all our sin? (Romans 5:20) This grace also covers all those who have died without ever having had the chance to believe in Jesus.
Most Christians accept the idea that it’s just too bad that many people will never have the chance to accept God, and that God has no obligation to “play fair”, or that since God created us, he has every right to destroy us. What Bill Cosby once said about his child as a joke (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!”), Christians have no problem applying in perfect seriousness to our heavenly Father. But is that really so? According to Scripture, God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6). It’s also very clear that God desires everyone to be saved (I Timothy 2:4). Everyone would agree that a father who murders his own children is a monster, and Scripture constantly compares our relationship to God as that of children to a father, so why would God hold us to a higher standard than even himself? Why would he ask us to forgive our brother 70 times, when he only gives us one chance? Jesus told us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat. 5:48) In other words, we are to eventually become like him, not in terms of power, but in terms of goodness. Does anyone really believe that for a human to go from a state of loving and caring about lost souls, to completely disregarding them, is an advancement?
But wait, you say. Without the threat of hell, what reason do we have to live righteously? Surely you don’t mean to say that the only reason that you don’t steal things or cheat on your spouse is because you’re afraid you’ll go to hell if you do. God ultimately wants us to obey his commands not out of a fear of being punished, but out of love for him and for other people. ”Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (I John 4:18) And besides, has the threat of hell really stopped very many people from committing all sorts of sins? Yes, we’re supposed to fear God, but that’s all about revering and venerating the Almighty and doing what he commands out of love, not about constantly worrying whether we’re doomed to hell, and desperately trying to follow a set of rules and regulations.
You might also ask what reason Christians have to spread the gospel, if everyone is going to end up in the same place. I think there would be even more cause, because it would truly be good news. You wouldn’t have to tell anyone that their dead parents are burning in hell forever. God desires and intends for everyone to be reconciled to him eventually. Wouldn’t it be better to accept him now?
I think the purpose of the church is not to be an exclusive Christian country club in heaven, reclining on clouds and strumming on harps while everyone else is frying away in hell. Its purpose is to be the elect; the first of all the saved, whose role will be to help lead the rest of the world to Christ. ”He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.” (James 1:18)
But what about all those verses that say non-believers will be punished eternally? I admit that those are troubling verses, especially considering that most of them come straight from Jesus, but many Bible scholars who have studied Greek extensively have determined that the Greek word in the New Testament that has been often translated as “eternity” or “eternal”, aionios, does not mean “forever”, at least not in most contexts where it appears in the New Testament. It actually means “age”, or “age-long”, or “lasting”. There are places in the Bible where the word (or its Hebrew equivalent) is used to describe something that is clearly not going to last forever. And the word used for punishment, kolasis, is closer in meaning to the idea of corrective discipline, not retributive torture. I believe there may be torment, but it will be for the purpose of stripping away everything in us that is false and sinful, until only our true selves remain. It will be done out of love, not out of retribution. ”Everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49)
But why would such an important concept be mistranslated in our most popular English translations? (There are a few translations that don’t use the word “eternal”.) I don’t know. If there is an all-powerful God who intended for the Bible to be one of his main tools for revelation, then it seems that he would make sure it remained more or less accurate. But perhaps it’s not as important to God as it is to me that everyone understands all of it right now.
But if the Greek word we translate as “eternal” doesn’t usually mean “forever”, then what does that say about the verses promising eternal life, such as, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46) ? It’s quite possible for an adjective to convey a different meaning depending on the noun it is modifying, even in the same sentence. After all, Bible scholars who believe in eternal punishment must deal with the verse “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” in the same way. The term “eternal life” is actually defined for us in John 17:3. ”Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” This implies that it’s not the duration of the life that is being described, but the quality of that life, as a union with God, who is eternal.
You might also be wondering why I’m being such a hypocrite, accusing some Bible scholars of explaining away certain words as meaning something different in order to fit their preconceived ideas, and then doing exactly the same thing myself. Well, maybe we all believe what we want to believe. But the fact is, the Bible seems to support three different outcomes for nonbelievers: eternal torment, annihilation, or universal salvation. No matter which view you take, you are going to have to explain the verses that seem to contradict your view. But I am convinced that a belief in universal salvation makes more sense in the context of the entire Bible, and requires far fewer rationalizations. Scripture is filled with declarations of how God’s mercy and love is never ending, and how his anger is only momentary. True, it also says he is holy and just, but why do we think God’s attributes of holiness and justice are somehow totally unrelated or even in conflict with his love? Is God a schizo? Because God is holy, he cannot allow us into his presence until we are made perfect. God’s holiness doesn’t mean that he will throw most people away forever because they’re not fit for his company. Instead, he will make all of us perfect, no matter how long it takes, or how great the cost.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, you might say. I’m glad you brought that up, and I totally agree. But let’s examine the context from Isaiah 55:7-8, shall we?
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
God’s ways are not our ways because He is more merciful than we are, not less! It’s humans who don’t want to be merciful, not God. It’s terrible that Christians try to use that verse to prove that God possesses some sort of alien morality that is totally inexplicable to us, as if he were one of the Great Old Ones from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. In Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories, the gods are completely incomprehensible, if not outright hostile, to humanity. But if the Bible is true, God made us in His image, which means He imparted to us a sense of His divine goodness. If God’s goodness is different from ours, then it’s only because He is more good, more loving, more compassionate, and more merciful than we could ever be. St. Paul says that even those who have never heard of Jesus are without excuse, because the requirements of the law are written in their hearts. True, our consciences are partly flawed because of our sinful natures, but they are not (in most cases) something fundamentally opposed to God’s goodness. When the goodness of God is fully revealed to us, I am sure we will recognize it as a higher and more perfect version of our own feeble morality, not as something totally contradictory. Furthermore, the Bible instructs us to use our own consciences to tell right from wrong. Indeed, none of the Bible would make any sense to us if it didn’t affirm what we already know in our hearts to be true.
But what if someone refuses to submit to God, no matter what sorts of punishments are inflicted on him? Is it really better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven? I used to be totally repulsed by Calvinist doctrine, but I’m starting to think that Calvin was right about God’s will being greater than man’s. Paul even says so in Romans 9. I believe we do have a limited free will, but God will ultimately have his way. I don’t mean to make God out to be like the Borg from Star Trek, with resistance being futile and all that; I just believe (and hope) that everyone will eventually and willingly come to a point where they confess that Jesus is Lord, either in this life or the next.
There are two mainstream schools of thought in Christianity about the eternal fate of humans, but I believe both of them to be flawed. Calvinists believe that God’s will is totally sovereign, and his grace is irresistible, but they also believe that not everyone will be saved, because God has only chosen a few. Arminians believe that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, but they also believe that not everyone will be saved because man’s will is capable of forever resisting God’s will. Christian universalism simply takes the most hopeful (and still biblical) position of each and says that all will be saved, because God desires it, and his will is sovereign.
I could go on longer and show many more arguments, but I want to finish this post at some point. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive defense of universal reconciliation; just a list of some of the reasons I agree with it. I should also point out that most of the arguments I’ve used in this post were taken from a couple of books that have been very helpful to me: The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott, and Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin.
I admit that a biblical case can be made for eternal torment or annihilation for unbelievers, but I believe universal reconciliation to be the most coherent position. It’s amazing how many troubling passages in the Bible are now starting to make much more sense, when viewed with this idea in mind. I’m still plagued with doubts about God’s very existence, but I no longer struggle with the idea that God might be a cruel tyrant. If there is a God, I believe him to be far more merciful and more loving than we can understand. He wants everyone to be saved (I Timothy 2:4), and he will be totally victorious. Christ will defeat his enemies, not by destroying sinners, but by bringing them back to himself, so that God will be all in all (I Corinthians 15:25-28) Evil will be completely destroyed; God will not need to quarantine it forever in a section of his creation. He intends to renew all of his creation someday (Romans 8:20-21), and that includes all people who have ever lived.