The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Universalism and Theodicy

One of the most trafficked posts on my blog regarding UR is a post where I discuss how my attraction to UR has more to do with theodicy than with soteriology.

(Some quick definitions if you need them. Soteriology has to do with salvation, theories about how one ends up saved versus damned. Theodicy has to do with the problem of horrific suffering, sometimes called “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain.”)

Most of the conversation and debate regarding UR is decidedly soteriological in content, focusing on issues such as sin, forgiveness, judgment, justice, heaven, and hell.

To be clear, those issues are of interest to me. But what most people fail to understand is that my attraction to UR hasn’t been motivated by soteriological issues. UR isn’t attractive to me because it solves the problem of hell (though it does that). UR is attractive to me because it addresses the problem of pain.

(Incidentally, this is also why I reject annihilationism. Annihilationism is trying to fix the problem of hell rather than what I consider to be the deeper theological problem, the problem of suffering and the goodness of God.)

In short, for me universalism is about theodicy. Not soteriology. The issue isn’t about salvation (traditionally understood). It’s about suffering. Universalism, as best I can tell, is the only Christian doctrine that takes the problem of suffering seriously. As evidence for this, just note that when a theologian starts taking suffering seriously he or she starts moving toward UR. Examples include Jürgen Moltmann, Marilyn McCord Adams, and John Hick. Take suffering seriously and the doctrine of UR soon follows.

I gravitated to UR in college because the problem of horrific suffering became (and remains) the defining theological predicament of my faith experience. It’s a problem that still keeps me up at night. And while I find the doctrine of ECT distasteful, this is really just another facet of my larger theodicy concerns. Is God really loving if he tortures people for eternity? More, isn’t “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior” largely contingent upon where you were born in the world, a manifestation of what philosophers call moral luck?

Everything comes back to theodicy for me.

Here’s a test I floated on my blog about this connection. Whenever you find a person who doesn’t “get” UR (not that they have to believe it, they just have to “get” it) you’ll have person who doesn’t “get” the problem of horrific suffering. The two, in my experience, are of a piece.

This quote from Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinity and Kingdom captures a lot of what I’m trying to say:

Theodicy and the suffering it is honoring is the “open wound of life.” And theology, all this conversation we have on this forum, exists “to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound.”

And in the face of all the suffering in this world–past, present, and future–UR is the only theological answer that has enabled me to survive.

Richard, this is beautiful and heartfelt bro. :slight_smile:

I wonder if that’s why C.S. Lewis came so close to universalism, because he thought so much about suffering and experienced so much himself (some would say that he had more helpful things to say about ‘the problem of pain’ in his heartfelt and very personal A Grief Observed than he did in his more theoretical and analytical ‘The Problem Of Pain’).

I feel the same way you do about this, Richard… we all need to know that there is a very real answer to our suffering and to the suffering of the world, that it’s not all for nothing, that God understands it and somehow shares in it, and can give meaning to it and, someday, put an end to it, and leave joy in its place.

Like Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien said:

‘The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’.
In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’

Blessings to you, thank you for sharing, and have a Happy Easter. :slight_smile:


I had gone from ect to anni because I couldn’t find the immortality of the soul in scripture, but the thought of a life lived in suffering then being summarily snuffed out for all of eternity just because the liver had never believed a magic doctrine or prayed a magic prayer was just too heartbreaking to contemplate.

And while this is so for the innocent, it is no less so even for the monstrously guilty, since we might all (even the innocent victims of the guilty) be in their shoes, had we been in their precise circumstances. God has to be better than that.

Great post, Bro!

Amen, sister :slight_smile:

The problem of suffering–both here and hereafter–was my biggest issue as well. I’ve heard sermons and read books about all the benefits of suffering–to draw us to God, to refine our character, to give us more compassion for others, to make us long for heaven, etc., etc.–and I believe it all, except that *most * of the suffering in the world is not of that nature. Many people just suffer without ever experiencing those positive effects. And if they suffer through this life and then die and go into suffering that doesn’t even have a possibility of a positive result for them–well then, we don’t have much to offer.

Here is an excerpt from a paper that I hope to post soon. It shows the direction I’m going in trying to come to grips with the slaughter of the Canaanites. I had heard all the usual explanations (“You have to take drastic action to cut out a cancer,” blah, blah, blah) but none were satisfying.

"Another insuperable problem for the traditional view is how to explain God’s treatment of the Canaanites. Even people with little knowledge of the Bible are aware that God performed or allowed some pretty cruel-sounding actions in the Old Testament, including the annihilation of men, women, and children. We have enough trouble just explaining why it’s OK for Him to allow wholesale slaughter, and if those people go straight to unending torture that is far worse than anything they experienced on earth, then we have no reasonable defense for the goodness of God.

“Some of the events of the Bible will never be easy to explain, but there is a far more reasonable explanation than the traditional view can offer. If the killing of masses of unbelieving people is the tragic end of their story—or worse yet, only the beginning of a never-ending tragedy—then we have little hope to offer and are hard-pressed to prove that God is loving. But what if their physical death is only the entrance to another phase of their lives? A phase in which there may be further judgment and correction, but which also offers the hope of knowing God and experiencing eternal life? Such a possibility would put God’s actions in an entirely different light. Instead of being evidence of cruelty and vindictiveness, His allowing their physical death would be the means to lead to greater good, not just in some vague, dubious sense ‘for God’s glory,’ but eternal good for the individuals themselves.”

Dear Richard,

I appreciate this post. When I began to see the hope of universalism during my Bible studies, I needed practical reasons to publicly teach universalism because I would need to resign my ministry credentials if I went public. My denomination literally has waivers available for ministers who disagree with the denomination in eschatology but no other categories of theology. (My paycheck was not an issue because I was in a volunteer position, but nonetheless I enjoyed my credentials.) In my case, theodicy was way up there in practical reasons for publicly teaching universalism. Also, in my case, resolving the problem of hell was the biggest black eye in my theodicy. Now I freely tell people that it was impossibly for God Almighty to create free will creatures without the possibility of evil while God has a long-term plan to resolve the problem of evil. For example, one day, Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank will get past their differences and reconcile.

Very interesting thoughts, Richard. For me, the removal of theodicy’s sting and concern about suffering came about somewhat in the opposite direction as you describe. UR was something that was finally able to reach through the damaged parts of my heart and convince me that God actually does care about me, and not just “other people.” Once I got to the point of believing that I could have access to His forgiveness like everyone else, the sting of theodicy went away, and I’ve found myself drawn more and more to help those who are suffering.

Dr. Beck,

Thank you for your insightful comments. They were encouraging to read.

There is certainly a case to be made against God. He has a duty of care toward us little creatures, and it is far from clear that he is fulfilling it. But who will press charges? We need a perfectly righteous man to summon God to court on our behalf. We need a Day of Judgment where the secrets of all hearts will be laid bare, including the heart of God. Especially the heart of God.

Like all who are accused, God must be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Those who are presumptuous enough to prematurely condemn God (or prematurely acquit him) are acting unjustly.

But who would be bold enough to summon God to court? I certainly am guilty of crimes against humanity. My sins of omission are many. To accuse God would expose my own deeds to cross-examination and bring condemnation on my head.

We therefore await the Day of Judgment. But wasn’t the world judged when Jew and Gentile alike nailed an innocent man to a cross? In Christ, God faced the “justice” of Man and suffered Man’s wrath, and forgave us all. On that dark day, the secrets of all hearts were laid bare.

In living that life and dying that death, Christ earned the right to summon God to court, and he did. God himself was in the dock that day. Experiencing his own body the torments of the world, held up between heaven and earth, hovering between life and death, Christ asked God why he has forsaken us. Then he died and fell into darkness. The Resurrection (the harrowing of hell) was God’s glorious reply. In Christ, we truly see the end of the world.

The lamb that was slain broke the seal and opened the scroll.

“After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”

Insightful comments brother! :smiley:

I’m interested in Christian apologetics, and find that the whole idea of UR is an incredibly helpful tool when intellectually analysing the Problem of Evil; from a cold intellectual standpoint, it is my view that this doctrine helps to just about demolish any significant challenge from evil. However, existentially, which is far more complex, evil is something that is very, very difficult to grapple with; again, though, UR is a wonderful asset in this as well!

All blessings in Jesus Christ to everyone! :smiley:

Excellent OP, Richard, and great follow up comments everybody.

To me, the so-called ‘problem of evil’ is insoluble if UR is not true. Quite apart from the issue of human suffering - whether merited or unmerited - the very notion that God, who is love, will keep sin and evil alive for all eternity, as traditional, ECT doctrine teaches, is simply nonsensical.

The more convinced I become in my UR beliefs, the more I find it incredible that Christians can continue to clling blindly to this absurd notion. I am more than ever convinced that there is a degree of culpability, a degree of wilfulness, in this blindness, which stems from the worst sort of spiritual pride. Although they will vehemently deny it, I contend that many - if not most - Christians who espouse ECT secretly believe that they are somehow ‘better’ than the lost, the reprobate, that something they have done - ie their belief and repentance - has earned them their place in Heaven. Which is, of course, unBiblical tosh. In this respect Arminianism is probably further off the mark than Calvinism (and I never thought I’d hear mysefl saying that!!).

The proponents of ECT are skewered by Christ in His parables of the Forgiving Father (more familiarly, but erroneously, known as the parable of the Prodigal Son) and the Workers in the Vineyard.



Amen, Johnny! The more convinced I become about UR, the more incredible I find it that*** I*** ever believed in ECT!

I’m right with you there, Diane. How could I have been so blind for so long?!

Without making excuses for myself, though, I would say that as an Arminian I never subscribed to a full on, straight no chaser type of ECT. While I believed hell was eternal, and the people in it conscious and suffering ‘torment’, I always viewed this as mental torment - the sort of self-centred mental torment depicted by that great Arminian CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. I bought into Lewis’s view that God was respecting our divinely-appointed freedom by honouring our decision not to follow him, and that this in itself would ultimately prove ‘hellish’ for us. Now, of course, I see this view as unBiblical, philosophically bankrupt and inherently self-contradictory.

I can continue to sympathise with Arminians who haven’t seen the light of ECT, and who reluctantly accept the ‘truth’ of hell as they believe the Bible teaches it (which of course it doesn’t; at least, not as ECT!). But what really worries me is those Christians who *exult *in ECT, who rub their metaphorical hands together at the prospect of the damned being consigned to full blooded, physical and mental torture for all eternity. The Tertullians, the Calvins, the Jonathan Edwardses of this world - and, I might add, all those who subscribe to their teachings on ECT.

For even if ECT actually *were *true - which I am quite sure it is not, as sure as I am about anything to do with the things of God - no sane person could wish it were so.



But Johnny, do you really think there are many people today who, in their heart of hearts, genuinely and with full understanding, subscribe to the horrible things some of these men of the past have said? CS Lewis argues that each age has its own virtues and vices, and that the vice of this age was not the excessive cruelty of earlier times, but more on the lines of excessive gratification of earthly desires (or something along those lines, if I remember right.) And he said this despite living during WWI and WWII. While there was clearly cruelty and more to follow, even up to the present time, it was (and is) not the accepted norm of this period of history.

I think the majority of Arminians today sigh and ache over the idea of an interminable hell (if they allow themselves to think about it at all), and the majority of Calvinists are listening to their preachers – and that those preachers do their best to sound like Arminians as much of the time as possible. And neither of the groups (the Sunday morning listeners, anyway) even knows whether they’re Arminians or Calvinists, or that there’s a whole other group of Christians who hold such “odd” views.

The thing that worries me is that there are so many Christians who never even consider that perhaps they’re supposed to know and follow Jesus. How can these dear (pre?) brothers and sisters think that what God requires of them and will be pleased with is that they must say their prayers before bed, not smoke or drink too much nor do the other no-no’s, show up in a building we call “church” most Sunday mornings, sing, listen, believe as they are told to believe, and put a check in the offering plate?

In certain congregations, of course, the list extends – witness daily, perhaps participate in political action, vote correctly and hold the correct political convictions, and a few other assorted oddments.

How? How does this transform anyone into the image of the Son?

Have you read The God Who Risks — A Theology of Providence by John Sanders? I think this may help us a lot in our search for an answer to the problem of evil.

Hi Cindy

Great post. Thoughtful and thought-provoking as ever.

Sadly, I do think there are at least *some *‘Christians’ who consciously subscribe to the horrific ECT beliefs of Tertullian and his ilk, and do so without qualm. I have come across not a few on the internet. (Although of course, the internet is the favourite haunt of dingalings and extremists of all hues, so that’s hardly surprising.)

Fortunately these full-blooded, ‘genuine’ ECTers are, I hope and pray, in a very small minority. I’d tend to agree with what you say in your post:

I would, for example, put my dear, devout Mother and Father into the former Arminian category, and decent, devout, humane Calvinist preachers such as Tim Keller into the latter group.

But having said that, one need only take a quick look at some of the 150+ 1-star reviews of Rob Bell’s *Love Wins *on Amazon to see both how desperately the ECTers want to cling to their notion of hell as eternal punishment for all unbelievers, and how much scorn and vitriol they are prepared to pour over anyone who dares question that notion. And I do think a lot of this stems from their deep-seated, but unacknowledged or suppressed, ‘belief’ that they, having made the decision to invite Jesus to be their personal saviour (Arminians) or having been chosen by God (Calvinists) have somehow ‘earned’ their right to end up in heaven, while the unbelieving masses somehow ‘deserve’ to end up in hell.

I have also spoken with a few Christians personally who act in as loving and as Christ-like a way as they can in their daily lives, but nevertheless state that “really evil” people like Hitler, Pol Pot and the like (old Adolf still gets held up as the absolute exemplar of pure evil, although he was clearly barking mad if you ask me) “deserve” to be in hell, and the prospect of them suffering there for all eternity doesn’t faze them at all.

To this I can only say ‘hear, hear’. One of the reasons I love George MacDonald so much is that everything he ever wrote had but one aim – to encourage us to know Jesus Christ, and to be more like Him in our lives. George saw with absolute clarity that ‘religion’ – the traditional notions and behaviours of piety you mention – is worth nothing if it does not lead us be more like Christ. You are quite right, Cindy, to worry about all those fundamentally good, decent ‘Christian’ folk who haven’t got a scooby what being a Christian is really about – and our churches, so often, aren’t doing anything to remedy this. In fact they’re just perpetuating it!



Moltmann’s quote was outstanding, Richard. Thank you.

Diane, what about the Bible being errant, in particular, all the spurious translations of the verses?
Where does the errant end and truth begin.

I spend time with God and I know He would never command such. I believe some make the Bible part of the Godhead and in reality the Bible is pretty screwed up.

Forgive me for speaking plainly my belief.

i tend to “err” on the side of inerrancy…however i’ve grown more open minded to being objective about this strange book we’ve been given.
it makes some sense to me, given how God always seems to speak to us (for example, through a donkey, if that is a literal story, and i’ve no problem believing that really). God seems to take our messy humanity, with its casual evil and too often unreached potential for good, and brings fascinating truths out of it…and messages of love and hope.
given how messy God is not afraid to get, it doesn’t surprise me that He uses a book as screwed up as the Bible can be in places! He inspired humans to write it, afterall…so it’s not surprising if there are a few warts on it.

Thank you, and well said my friend. Indeed God still speaks to me through the Bible. I just know a lot of the Bible is bullshit.

With Divine Purpose.