Universalism is the belief that all will be saved and reconciled to God in the end, and while there are many varieties floating around out there, from those that have little to do with Christian theology all the way to Patristic Universalism (the sort of Universalism that was present within the early Christian church), sadly, when many Christians first hear about it, they make a litany of assumptions that are, for most Universalists, simply untrue. That is to say, much of what is believed about Universalism and the people who affirm it, are nothing but strawmen. And while strawmen are easier to attack then the real thing, at the end of the day, defeating a strawman is a meaningless endeavor.
To that end, what I’d like to do in this entry is mention 7 assumptions that are unfortunately made by those who, on the surface at least, seem utterly repulsed by the idea that God would save everyone. My goal in doing this is simple: If you are going to disagree with a position of any kind, at least understand the position you are disagreeing with.
Assumption 1: Universalism renders the Gospel moot
For Christian Universalists such as myself, the Gospel is far from moot. In fact, without the Gospel—the good news—we probably wouldn’t hold to the Universalist position we do. Instead, what we argue is that, while it is far better to know the truth now, that doesn’t impact the truth as such. As the writer of 1 Timothy put it: “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” What I believe this writer is saying is that God is the savior of all people, and it is much better to know that now then not know it now.
Assumption 2: Universalism discredits God’s justice
Universal reconciliation and divine justice are not mutually exclusive ideas. The reason so many people assume they are is that justice is often assumed as retributive in nature. Punishment for the sake of punishment. But that doesn’t have to be the assumption, nor should it be. Indeed, since God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9)—meaning, God’s mercy is higher and wider and broader and deeper than ours—that means his justice (reconciliatory) is superior to our justice (retributive).
Assumption 3: Universalism overemphasizes God’s love
While the writer of 1 John makes it fairly clear that God IS love, full stop, many Christians want to add a “but” after that. This is unfortunate because it often makes God out to be rather two-faced: God is love, but he is also just; God is love, but he is also wrathful. But what if everything we said about God was through the lens that God is love? What if God’s justice is an extension of God’s love? And what if God’s so-called wrath is also an extension of God’s love? Well, that’s exactly what Universalists like myself argue for.
Assumption 4: Universalism has no place in Church historyTo quote Dwight Schrute: False. Universalism was prominent in the early Church. Even Augustine admitted that. And while it wasn’t the only eschatological position held by the earliest theologians, it was a fairly popular one. To suggest otherwise is to simply not understand your church history (sorry Mark Driscoll).
Assumption 5: Universalism is not biblically based
As I said at the onset, Universalism comes in many shapes and sizes. Some are not biblically based while others are only derived from the Bible. For the earliest Christian theologians—folks like Clement of Alexandria and Origen—the Bible grounded their Universalism. And while it can be argued that the Bible presents two other eschatological positions—viz. eternal torment and conditional immortality (i.e., annihilationism)—it’s ill-advised to suggest it doesn’t also present a case for Universalism.
Assumption 6: Universalism gives license to sin
On the surface, this may seem true. If grace is emphasized, the fear is that people will just go on sinning because, well, they can. The problem with this thinking is twofold. First, just because we argue that in the end all will be reconciled and redeemed doesn’t mean that sinners won’t face correction. In other words, no one is going to walk through the proverbial Pearly Gates without undergoing some sort of transformation. And second, this is experientially false for so many Universalists. I’ll just speak for myself here, but since I’ve affirmed the doctrine of universal reconciliation, rather than feeling free to live a life oriented toward sin, I’ve felt freed to live a life oriented toward grace, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness (you know, all those delicious fruits of the Spirit). And while I mess up all the time—who doesn’t?—I’ve found myself at least desiring to do the will of Christ, more so than before I affirmed this doctrine at least.
Assumption 7: Universalism projects human feelings onto God
I understand the propensity to suggest that Universalism overemphasizes characteristics such as grace and love, but grace and love are not projections that come from the human mind. Not mine anyway. I don’t know what kind of life you live, but I am certainly not as loving nor as gracious as I would like to be, and certainly nowhere near as loving and gracious as I believe God is. I can be fairly retributive and, on my worst days, certainly wouldn’t mind if my enemies faced a little bit of hell at some point. So, to suggest that Universalism is a projection onto the divine is out and out laughable.
Now, at the end of the day, believe what you want to believe. If you believe that in the end some sinners will be forever lost to the flames of an eternal hell or done away with altogether, that’s cool . . . I guess. Just at least understand that we who affirm universal reconciliation do so for good reason. We may not be correct but that goes for all of us. We all have fallible minds and corruptible hearts. But if you don’t at least know our stance and instead assume way too much before listening to us, you end up looking like Balaam’s ass. And no one wants to be an ass, do they?