Is Christian Universalism a Slippery Slope?

*Note, this is a guest piece by Charles Watson, author of Hell in a Nutshell, available now from Wipf & Stock Publishers. You can read my review of this book here.

Christians are usually caught off-guard when they are first introduced to the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation (UR). Since it challenges their understanding of the Atonement, many have become defensive of their model of Christianity. Since Scripture states that the wages of sin is death and that the second death is the Lake of Fire, many believe that Jesus came to save us from an all too real lake of burning sulfur; one in which people are tormented day and night—forever and ever. Therefore, when they witness Christians denying the doctrine of Endless Conscious Torment (ECT), they tend to either ignore the naysayers or they valiantly defend their doctrinal convictions.

When I started to doubt ECT, my Christian friends were compelled to rebuke me. I was told that I was wandering onto a slippery slope, which put me in danger of backsliding. At first, I felt alarmed. Was I sliding down a frictionless slope toward heresy? It surely felt like it at the time. I constantly caught myself arguing with myself: “You mustn’t accept CU, regardless of how much it comforts your soul.” It was heresy and I would not become a heretic.

However, as time went on, I realized that I needed to look into what actually makes heresy heretical. Did CU deny some essential truth of the Christian faith, such as the exclusivity of Jesus? It must have—since it apparently denied the reality of that from which Christ came to save us: ECT. Did Jesus come to save us from ECT? I did not, until that point, ask that question.

At the time, I was questioning so much of what I was taught as a child. Had I crossed the threshold of no-return? Could I escape this slippery-slope of death? Just how close was I to the fiery pit that I was questioning?

After seasons of doubt, I realized that I was not backsliding or even in danger of doing so. I was following biblical instruction. Scripture commands us to “test all things” and to “hold onto what is good and true.” Therefore, I decided to accept God’s invitation, to come and reason with him, rather than to blindly trust in what I was told is good and true.

Growing up, I was often reminded to beware of false teachers and to avoid strange theology; which sounds like great advice. Even though I was instructed to avoid false teachers, I was never taught how to identify them or their teachings. The company with which I surrounded myself identified strange doctrine as that which is unfamiliar or “unorthodox”; they assumed that one of the first steps onto a slippery slope included a willingness to entertain unorthodox ideas.

Backsliding definitely sounds like something which ought to be avoided at all costs, but what is it that constitutes backsliding? Is questioning orthodoxy spiritually unhealthy? Is it spiritually unhealthy to question the purpose of hell or any other particular concept? Does possessing great hope in the ultimate reconciliation of all things make one backslidden? Consider what Jeremiah had to say about this subject:

“Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing—that you have forsaken the LORD your God. And the fear of Me is not in you,’ Says the LORD God of hosts.” ~ Jeremiah 2:19

Firstly, where is the wickedness in questioning orthodoxy? Where is it in the doctrine of UR? I am not referring to the supposed wickedness in denying what many see as the “clear” teaching of Scripture. When the Bible speaks of wickedness, it always pertains to moral misdeeds, which leads to spiritual error. Questioning the validity of orthodoxy is anything but spiritual error because Scripture calls us to test such things.

Secondly, how are those who question orthodoxy forsaking the LORD? It seems to me that church authorities are the ones who feel forsaken. They are the ones fighting opposition, refusing to allow there to be diversity among their lambs. We who are committed to the testing all things are not forsaking the LORD. If anything, we are trying to escape religious oppression so that we may walk toward a less distorted image of Christ.

Finally, is the fear of the LORD necessarily in anyone who believes in any particular doctrine of postmortem judgement? What is the fear of the LORD, exactly? We know that it is the beginning of wisdom; but what is a fear of the LORD that gives birth to wisdom? Does it spring up from a fear of endless suffering in a fiery postmortem realm?

Why do so many Christians believe that God desires humanity to be enslaved and manipulated by such a fear? I cannot believe that it is so . . . not any longer. I have come to believe that the fear of the LORD is not a trepidation of postmortem possibilities, but a holy reverence toward he who formed our delicate souls. We who possess this great hope in UR are no more void of a fear of the LORD than are those who believe in ECT or Conditional Immortality.

The fear of the LORD may affect our understanding of postmortem judgement, but it does not constitute it. Given the criteria Jeremiah provided for being backslidden, one cannot say that questioning orthodoxy has anything to do with it. If anything, our desire to test theology, whether it is strange or not, reinforces our reverence toward God.

As a Christian who believes so strongly in the cross, I cannot imagine a scenario beyond one in which Jesus succeeds in drawing everyone to himself. He is a God who keeps his promises, after all.

At the end of the day, if believing in UR places me on a slippery slope, I am along to enjoy the ride! Christian Universalism is anything but heretical because it is built on a solid foundation—the unfailing love of God. The fear of the LORD may be the beginning of wisdom, but love is undoubtedly its end.

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  • Brad Kunkel

    Your “slippery slope” is one I also discovered and found to be a cool water slide: escaping from the noxious, toxic doctrine of ECT and plunging into the refreshing pool of God’s love and grace. It certainly has its foundation in the love of God, but also what the word very clearly teaches, in my view: something that becomes so obvious once you are set free from the shackles of controlling dogma that have plagued the church for so long and that are, in my opinion, why we are witnessing its demise. Have no fear! Slide on!

  • lowtechcyclist

    Something Madeleine L’Engle said in one of her Crosswicks books that I read ~30 years back eventually convinced me of universal salvation. I’ll get to that.

    But first, C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce got me most of the way there when he said: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” Which essentially boils down to, God will ultimately save all those except for those whose refusal to accept Him is steadfast and eternal.

    What Madeleine L’Engle convinced me of was that that latter category was empty – that God’s love is infinite, and human capacity to deny and reject it is finite. Infinite > finite. I had to turn it over in my mind for a few years before I was settled that it was that simple, but in doing my Ph.D. course work in math, let’s just say that’s a good way to get a sense of how many infinities on top of infinities that there really are. And that’s just in the realm of numbers, let alone the realm of God.

  • jekylldoc

    My goodness, how exercised people get over doctrines of sin, judgment and forgiveness. That whole topic was a wrong turn. Jesus used imagery of hell to make some points about who are really the followers of the shepherd (“when did we see you hungry and feed you?” and the beggar at the gate looking down at the rich man who died with his belly full are the main obvious examples) and we made such a thing of it. Forgiveness is for this life. Freedom from sin is for this life. Repentence is not the signup for the entrance exam, it is the beginning of a new life, one more abundant, one based on perspectives of eternity.

  • abeggar

    It is definitely the right thing to test all doctrines, so no argument there. However, I think the article and comments thus far demonstrate the error of viewing God’s nature as love apart from or trumping His holiness and justice. If UR were true, why would Jesus point out that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25)? Why would Jesus proclaim ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ to false disciples (Matt. 7:21-23)? Why would Jesus illustrate divine justice with Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man in torment, where even a miracle would not help Lazarus’ brothers gain salvation since they had not believed the prophets (Luke 16:19-31)?

    It is hermeneutically dishonest to interpret these and other statements as applying to some intermediate state that God would ultimately override through His love. There cannot be reconciliation without grace and faith – God has given grace, but man must have faith and believe, because those who are not for Jesus are against Him (Matt. 12:30). @lowtechcyclist was convinced that God’s love will overcome the free will of an individual to reject God, but where is the scriptural support for this view? Rather, God does not force Himself on those who want nothing to do with Him, as seen in countless examples in the Old and New Testaments. Even Saul/Paul was not forced to believe (Acts 26:19). C.S. Lewis is correct that God let’s those remain separated from Him who so desire. Please do not let man’s finite reasoning and hopeful desires lead you to embrace false doctrine.

  • Tim

    Ah, yes. Maddie was a universalist. I never realised that until I started looking into it about 11 years ago.

  • Tim

    You state this as though God’s love, justice and holiness stand opposed to each other. They do not (A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand), and that is one of the critical errors of the “traditional” view.

  • Tim

    Yep. I have been UR/ CU since 2007.