7 Assumptions About Universalism That Are So Often Wrong

7 Assumptions About Universalism That Are So Often Wrong April 15, 2019
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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 history

To 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?

Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books and a co-host of the Heretic Happy Hour podcast. He lives in Chico, Ca with his wife and daughter. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Mark

    Matthew, thank you for writing and sharing this article. I agree that many Christians make inaccurate assumptions about the type of universalism that Christians like yourself hold. Many also make similar unfair assumptions about my own view, which is conditional immortality (aka annihilationism). While I respect you and I try to avoid unfair assumptions, I still think universalism is not true. The main reason I feel universalism is not true is that I see conditional immortality as a far better fit for all the language, verses, and truths taught in Scripture. I’ve written on this quite a bit. Here is one of my most recent posts, written just this past week: https://parresiazomai.blogspot.com/2019/04/words-of-annihilation-plato-and.html

  • Thanks for commenting.

  • Eric Schramm

    Thank you for such a well written article.
    Can I ask what belief system mine are in?
    I used to be very evangelical, but I have given up those restrictive beliefs.
    I’m pretty much a universalist but with one exception.
    The Jews say our vision of it is too harsh. They say hell is a purification fire (like a blast furnace) powered by God’s love, not hate. It’s here to remove our ‘sins’ prejudices, hates, etc. so we can be the best, purest, most loving people we can. The Jews say it’s automatic and you will never stay there more than two years.
    My problem with that is that scripture says some people will stay forever. The Jews disagree with those verses.

    I think hell is interactive. It simply shows you what you’ve done from an outside perspective so you can see things clearly. This causes emotional pain that the writers only symbolically compared to flames. See your life from a new perspective and you turn from each ‘limiting factor’ and grow in knowledge. But some people would actively turn away from that information and close their minds to it. “I’m right. I won’t listen. You won’t change my mind!” Eventually they would “Cauterize their soul as with a hot iron” like Paul put it in the Bible.
    I believe in evil spirits. There are too many instances of “ooga booga” that I can’t explain any other way. What if they are people like us who permanently turned away from … love?
    Again, I’m not saying this HAS to be right, just that it’s my personal opinion. Is there an official religion that shares this belief?
    Thanks for listening.

  • It sounds similar to Patristic Universalism.

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    Easy confessions and absolutions lead to sin, not universalism. “I accept Jesus. All my sins are forgiven.” So I can go sin again, and be forgiven again.

  • What about the metaphysics of free will? Cannot one choose eternal damnation? And if not, then wouldn’t we have to say that at least metaphysically speaking, universalism is on par with TULIP predestination doctrine, at least in terms of free will?

  • ashpenaz

    Universalism is actually kind of harsh–would you like to spend a million years in a lake of fire? Or would you rather ask for forgiveness now? I think there are a lot of people who would say “Yes!” to that gospel message. Just because punishment doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it less painful.

  • I don’t affirm libertarian free will. I’m more aligned with David Bentley Hart, who argues that free will is primordially and teleologically oriented toward the good. In other words, freely choosing eternal damnation is no free choice at all, but a choice made from a place of enslavement.

  • I tend to agree, but we are then simply silencing the whole Camus/Rebel aspect of the free will discussion. I wouldn’t want to do that – I want that voice also to be heard.

  • Hearing all voices is certainly recommended.

  • Awesome article!

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I think most universalists would say you can choose “eternal” damnation, but what you can’t do is choose it eternally. Hell / rejecting God has literally nothing good in it and heaven / God literally nothing bad. You are free to defiantly say to God “I will never accept you and rather burn in Hell!” and God will leave you there as long as you desire, but God is still happy to take you back once you have discovered what confining yourself to the outer darkness and the complete absence of God is in fact like. You might say that the universalist would say that the one thing you are not free to do is renounce your own freedom.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The issue is whether ultimately anyone has a stronger will and greater patience than God, or there is anyone whom God lacks the skill, capacity or love to get through to. A sinner who fails to repent despite God expending his best efforts for all eternity is a sinner who has achieved victory over God.
    There are some places in the Bible that suggest everlasting torment or destruction, but I don’t believe that there are any that actually require believing it: both Hebrew and Greek use words that are often translated as “for ever” when they really mean “for long ages” or “indefinitely”, and which carry no implication that there might someday be a change, much as we are happy to describe in English e.g. a job or a building as “permanent” even though we know perfectly well that at some stage they may come to an end or fall down.

  • Interesting argument!

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I’d like to claim it original to me, but it isn’t.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    Except, by Christ’s own words, that attitude makes you a phony ‘christian’.

    Jesus said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” – John 14:15-21

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    Jesus had two commandments: love God, love your neighbor. What did he ever say about the trinity or even homosexuality? My point is that fundamentalism, which you seem to embrace, says that believing in Jesus (whatever that means) leads to redemption. I think that belief is an easy way out . . .

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    Are you serious? Why would universalism lead to a million years in a lake of fire? What did Jesus say about universalism? I can’t believe in a God who would consign a person to a million years in a lake of fire merely because he (or she) didn’t conform to some standard recorded by folks who believed in a three tier universal. Or in a God who consign Her children to an eternal lake of fire. No loving parent would do that.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    Wrong! I am no longer an “Evangelical”. I severed ALL ties with ALL of those “Harlot of Babylon” fake-christian churches,
    ever since 2016, when 81% of them went over to the Dark Side and aligned themselves with TЯ卐m₽ >–> the Beast.

    Furthermore, loving Christ IS loving God and loving your neighbor too. That’s what my Lord and Saviour meant when He said:
    “if ye love me, keep my commandments”.

    Where does it say, anywhere in my post, a single word about the Trinity or homosexuality? Do you get a thrill out of adding your own words and interpretations to other peoples’ comments? Or are you just a troll looking for a argument?

    You might try taking a few moments to actually read and comprehend a person’s comment before you go riding away,
    all knee jerk, on your sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, high-horse.

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    Jeez, all I said is that you SEEMED to embrace fundamentalism. All you had to say was “I don’t embrace fundamentalism”. The ad hominems are gratuitous. I don’t consider myself a Christian; in the Jesus context, I consider myself a Jesusian. I value what Jesus taught, not what is taught about Jesus.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    You think because you added the word “seemed” that somehow dilutes your false assumption that I’m still now an Evangelical?
    I am a Christian! That means, I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah. I aspire to follow all of His teachings and commandments … as well as follow in His footsteps regarding how to treat others, especially those less fortunate.

    I value everything about my Lord and Savior: His teachings and commandments, His compassion and mercy, His example of love, His guilelessness, His sacrifice, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, His glory sitting at the right-hand of God, and the Holy Spirit’s influence in my life, teaching me all things and keeping me from falling.

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    In common English usage, the word “seem,” used as I have used it, is viewed as a qualifier and indicative of an assessment, not an assertion. I’ll leave it to you to distinguish between an assessment and an assertion – they are not the same. I am NOT a Christian, as I have noted; I respect and attempt to live by the two commandments that Jesus offered. I do not know what “believing” in Jesus means, except as defined by those claim to know the original intention of the various stories told about Jesus and the various adages, aphorisms and parables attributed to him by authors who did not live contemporaneous with him.

  • soter phile

    To uphold universalism, one has to evade certain scriptural texts, either by means of non-obvious spiritualization (e.g, the “fire” not as punishing but as purifying) or simply through a fiat rejection of bothersome verses.

    …As a theological author, I shudder at the thought of giving anyone false hope and false comfort, which in the Book of Jeremiah is a distinguishing mark of the false prophet. To me it would be spiritually hazardous to tell those who have consciously rejected Christ that beyond the present life there will be further opportunities to respond to Christ—opportunities of which Scripture says nothing.

    – Michael McClymond, author of A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, a 1300pg history & critique of universalism

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    I’m not going to argue “original intent” about the authors of Scripture.

    Suffice it to say, “believing in Jesus” means not only attempting to live by His two Great Commandments:
    (“Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength and mind.” & “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”)
    but recognizing Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God and the one and only Messiah.

  • Peter Bateman Mockridge

    I’d suggest that believing that Jesus is the only way to know God is a trait of a fundamentalist. I believe that we are all children of God (if there is a God).

  • Al Cruise

    I would say your assumptions are correct. The real evidence can be found at deaths door. Loving and comforting those as they pass through that door has shown us a lot. Especially with those who are the least amongst us. The evidence is also universal, from all faiths around the world from those who comfort the dying. People lived and died long before the bible was written, and the western version (evangelical) of salvation is based on being born in the right place and time in history, and not of any real Spiritual substance. Richard Rohr’s new book , Universal Christ, is one of the best works on this topic to date.