How I Became a Universalist (a guest post)

[Editor's Note (Kurt Willems): If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I am not a universalist. In fact, I've written about my view of hell in detail, a view which I call: "Purgatorial Conditionalism." I also responded to Love Wins here (but you really need to read the Hell Series first to understand my point). I believe (with quite a bit of flexibility) that humans are born mortal and only become eternal creatures through choosing God's free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, if a person dies and doesn't know Christ, that person (most likely) will simply be "dead" for all eternity. This person will only "wake up" at the resurrection (upon the return of Christ) where they will face judgment in the fires of God's love. Fire images in the Scriptures are about refinement, so it is possible that some will, in that intense moment of judgment, choose to be reconciled to God and ushered into the renewed creation. However, many/most who don't know Christ 'now' will probably not want Christ 'then' and will ultimately cling to their evil inclinations. In God's mercy, the fires of love will metaphorically burn these people up, until there is nothing left of body or soul... they will be dead for eternity. This is hell.

While I don't agree with Rev. Heath's perspective about universalism, I believe that it is important to listen to other voices - especially those that I still consider to be my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have friends that are Christian universalists and I have friends that believe in eternal torment... we all belong in dialogue with one another and ultimately at the table of Christ to break break together. Therefore, here is one man's story about why he became a universalist. His book on the subject can be purchased on Amazon.]

By Rev. Heath Bradley

It was not easy for me to become a Christian universalist, which is someone who believes that ultimately God will save all people through Christ. It was not easy because so many people I respect as Christian leaders dismiss universalism as heresy. It was not easy because I have a high view of the Bible, and it seemed impossible for me to square universalism with Jesus’s words about “everlasting punishment.”  It was not easy because I only knew a very small number of Christians who even were open to such an idea, let alone who fully embraced it. Yet, about a decade ago, I became a universalist. Here’s why.

From the time I began thinking theologically, I have been troubled by hell. I grew up in a rural United Methodist church, and I do not recall ever hearing hell talked about at church, but it is just in the air you breathe in this part of the Bible Belt. As an undergrad, I began seeking to reconcile the existence of an everlasting hell with a loving God, and I succeeded for a while. I came across C.S. Lewis’s writings, and embraced his defense of an everlasting hell as the necessary consequence of human freedom. People are not in hell by God’s choice, according to this view, but by their own. “The gates of hell are locked on the inside,” Lewis said. This free-will defense of everlasting damnation, which is very popular, has received a strong defense by several contemporary philosophers of religion, such as Jerry Walls and Jonathan Kvanvig, and these defenses convinced me for several years. Love requires freedom, so if God wants us to respond out of love for God, then God cannot make us choose for God. Case closed.

Over time, though, I started wondering about how we can speak of an ultimate divine victory over evil, which the Scriptures seem to clearly declare (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:28; Rev. 21:1-5), if there are some people who will forever resist God. How in any meaningful sense can we claim that Christ is truly victorious over evil if evil will always exist in the hearts of those who eternally reject him? Relocating the basis of hell from divine justice to human freedom solves one problem, but it opens up many more. How could God be happy knowing that some of the creatures made in his own image and likeness were forever damned? If we are to think of God as being better than any human parent, as Jesus taught us to (Luke 11:11-13), then how could God ever be content knowing that God’s children are forever lost?

Jesus seems to have raised this question in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). After the prodigal son has come home and the father has decided to throw a party, the older brother refuses to come in and so the father goes out to plead with him to come in. The story ends with the father outside the party pleading for the older son to come in. Are we to imagine that the father in this parable at some point will give up on the older brother, “respect his freedom,” and go back to the party? It seems that Jesus is telling us that God, precisely because his heart overflows with compassionate love, cannot rejoice and join the party until all his children are at home.

God is not a “gentleman,” as one pundit put it in the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy, who leaves wherever he is not wanted. When a person rejects God, God doesn’t get offended and back off. According to Jesus, the good news is that God is a heartsick father who pursues, begs, pleads, refuses to give up, and does everything that God can bring that person to an awareness of their need for grace and to an awareness that there is more than enough grace to meet their need. Is it possible for some to forever hold out and refuse God’s offer of a loving embrace? Can some forever refuse to come home to the divine party?

While it may be possible, it seems to me to be a virtual impossibility, given the nature of God’s steadfast love. I do not believe that God will ever force anyone against their will to love and worship God, but from own experience, I know that God has the power to thoroughly change human hearts and set them free to seek joy where it may truly be found. If God can do that for people in this age, then I see no reason why God couldn’t do it in the age to come for those who resist here and now. While I still believe the gates of hell are locked from the inside, I also believe that Christ has descended into hell and has the keys to set the captives free (Rev. 1:18). That’s why I became a universalist.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

Rev. Heath Bradley is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and the author of Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation.  Heath blogs at: thesundaydrivehome.blogspot.com

 

Print Friendly

  • Marc

    Interesting post. I relate. I carry on as a “hopeful universalist” still because of the lack of clarity in scripture. Things can be inferred one way or another and that keeps me from committing either way!

    But I wonder if this conversation about hell needs to change slightly. Should the discussion perhaps shift from “Is there a hell?” to “Should hell be included as an essential part of the gospel message?” I have two reasons for wondering this: 1. the reason people are thinking about hell again is because we’re becoming uncomfortable with preaching hellfire and damnation; 2. The apostles never (as I can recall from Acts) included hell as part of their gospel message. People were saved because they heard that Jesus died and rose again.

    Hell is still an important question, but it’s not a question that will be resolved.

    • Andrew

      If it won’t be resolved then that leaves me to conclude that we needn’t sort about it. Something so serious as eternal conscious torment for a huge majority of the population should have been front and center from the garden if Eden. And clear. That is if its true.

    • http://markcaudill.me/ Mark

      I too am a “hopeful unversalist” in the sense that I long for universal reconciliation but I do struggle getting around many of the passages that refer to eternal torment.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Marc, your point is an incredibly important one that is too-frequently ignored. If hell as taught by typical Evangelicals is a reality, it truly makes no sense that none of the evangelistic messages we have on record by either Jesus or the Apostles, mentions it as a reason to seek salvation. It also makes no sense that Jesus did not refer to eternal destiny in his Great Commission.

      An important part of the discussion needs to be a close look at where the Biblical writers talk about hell/punishment, and what they do–or don’t–say about the matter. That the Biblical message is so different from the modern Evangelical message ought to give us cause for serious reflection.

      • Tim

        In terms of Jesus and the great commission -an argument from silence is a dangerous thing, either something is true because it is explicitly stated or it is can be demonstrated to be implicitly true following the consequences of the explicit truth. Anyway, if the only content which is important in terms of salvation, life and doctrine in the great commission we would definitely be without the fullness of what God has for us. I’m not saying that the great commission is any less than what God has for us but it is not an exhaustive explanation of the way to preach the gospel. I don’t think hell should be the reason we seek salvation but if we are committed to the text, that is the only serious option we have – that without repenting and believing in Christ people will suffer an eternity of conscious torment. I don’t care how it relates to evangelism, it is a doctrine that the whole bible agrees on in unicen. God’s justice requires that he punish every sin either in the death of Christ or in eternal hell

        • http://nailtothedoor.com/ Dan Martin

          Tim, what is your scriptural basis for the statement “God’s justice requires that he punish every sin either in the death of Christ or in eternal hell?” I’ve studied what the Bible actually says about hell, particularly what Jesus actually said, and I sure didn’t find anything close to what you said.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com/ Rebecca Trotter

    There were two verses which started me down the path towards becoming a universalist. The first is 1 Timothy 4:9-10:
    “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and
    for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living
    God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”
    The second is Romans 5:15-19:
    “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many
    died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and
    the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow
    to the many! Again,
    the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The
    judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift
    followed many trespasses and brought justification. For
    if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man,
    how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace
    and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man,
    Jesus Christ. Consequently,
    just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so
    also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that
    brings life for all men. For
    just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made
    sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be
    made righteous.”

    After being convicted by these verses, I started on an epic study of the issue of hell as taught in the bible and came away utterly convinced by the truth of universal reconciliation. Not only for philosophical reasons such as the ones given by Rev. Bradley, but because that is what is taught in the original language of scripture and what was held as true by the majority of the ancient church. And since embracing universal reconciliation, my faith as blossomed and born fruit like never before. It sounds like a crazy claim to make, but many, many, many long hours of study have convinced me of the truth of it. If anyone is interested, I did a series a while back on the subject explaining the basis for these claims:
    http://theupsidedownworld.com/hot-topics/hell/
    (I hope it’s OK to put in a link – this is a topic I obviously feel passionately about and the information I examine can be a bit hard to come by.)

  • Ray S

    Luke 19:19-31 We do have the choice here, i am not saying all thing are not possible through Jesus. I am just saying i think this warning was much more profound than the prodigal son. the son was still alive and changed the life he lived. The rich man was dead, and could not even reach his family. I think we must reach everyone through our life, to have eternal life. by the blood of Jesus Christ.

    • John Gordon

      And yet, in the parable, the poor man went to paradise or heaven without ever knowing or believing in Jesus! This is a problem, when we start to pick out certain parts of a metaphor and apply them literally.

  • http://twitter.com/JimPuntney Jim Puntney

    Two questions:

    1- can we take credit for seeing Christ?

    2- those who did, or do not ‘see’ Christ, who has or is blinding them.

    Food for thought, Leviticus 16

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    I do not subscribe to a standard hellfire-and-damnation perspective on eternity, as those of Kurt’s readers who know me can attest. Nevertheless I’m a bit troubled by an argument of universalism (or any other position, for that matter) that fails to engage those scriptural texts that don’t fit with the author’s point.

    I believe a good argument can be made that the usual “Evangelical” position on hell is wrong … I’ve made that argument myself (read the posts in reverse posting order to get the chronological reasoning). But one must also look at those texts that don’t fit so comfortably if one is to be faithful to the scriptural witness. I tried to do this in my series; see the “New Testament Survey on Hell” in the above link for a comprehensive list of all the passages I could find on the subject. I don’t think they lead reasonably to universalism.

  • Mark Davis

    Interestingly perhaps the greatest Christian philosopher of the last half century, Alvin Plantinga, describes universalism as something that Christians should hope for:

  • Bob Freeman

    Over the years, I have attended funerals of friends and acquaintances whom I was not certain had ever experienced the newness of life that comes from encountering the living Christ. At those times, I have often thought to myself that I hope the Universalists are right. But I fear they are wrong.

    In John 3:16- 18 We find this…..3:16 God loved the world so much that He sent his only Son. 3:17 God did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save it. 3:18 He who believes on Him (Jesus) is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already..

    If those who do not believe in the Son are condemned then what are they condemned to? What then is salvation? Who needs it if all are to be saved in the end?

    I believe scripture clearly teaches, as in the example of John 3:18, that those who come to Jesus for salvation will experience eternal life with unspeakable joys. Those who do not will not experience eternal life. If they do continue to exist is in some place where God is not found.

    I realize that God is able to do anything. But I also believe that his perfect will is revealed to us in the bible.

  • Tim

    Essentially, if everyone is saved in the end and hell is a temporary place intended to create repentance in the ungodly, why should we bother in this life preaching the gospel?

    • Daniel

      I would say an analogous argument would be “If the doctor can fix a broken arm, why should we catch someone falling out of a tree?” Yes, in the grand scheme of things, there may not be so much difference, and the final outcomes are equivalent, but there is an interest in salvation and love in the here and now, rather than allowing suffering to go on.

    • Johnny Gordon

      Because of the joy of knowing our saviour now! Of living a life free from the bondage of sin!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X