When I was in high school I took a debate class because I was overly opinionated and loved to argue. One day the teacher flipped the tables on me after picking a debate topic: he made us switch sides and debate the opposite position than what we had signed up to do.
The reason for the exercise, he explained, was that the best way to truly understand our own position is to dig deep into an alternative position. This also helps us understand that those with an alternative position aren’t just ignorant fools, but probably have some really good points.
Over the course of time I have written extensively on the issue of hell. While I do not believe in the dominant evangelical position on hell (eternal conscious torment), it is also true that I do not currently affirm the position of Christian Universalism. Instead, I have maintained my position on annihilationism, which is the belief that those who refuse to be reconciled to God die a second death, and it’s as if they never existed in the first place.
However, this does not mean that Christian Universalism has a weak case. In a tribute to my 10th grade debate teacher, allow me to make my best case for Christian Universalism being true– and why my own position might be wrong.
1. Many of the earliest Christians held the position of Christian Universalism.
Now, just because many early Christians held the position of universalism doesn’t mean it’s true. However, it does point to the fact that this is not some off-the-wall idea that only later, liberal Christians came up with. The fact that it was not unpopular with the patristics and in pre-Constantinian Christianity, shows that there is a historical basis for this position that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.
Again, this is not proof the position is true, but certainly it’s is proof the concept is not at odds with historic Christianity.
2. The Bible teaches that universal salvation is what God wants.
There’s the famous question from Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: Does God get what God wants?
Unarguably, the Bible says that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) We also see in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “desires all people to be saved.” Thus, we know that God wants everyone who has ever lived to be saved in the end.
If God is truly all-powerful, one can make a compelling argument that God can and does get what he wants in the end.
3. Jesus seemed to hint at universal salvation.
When Jesus predicted his death he said that he was about to drive the “ruler of this world out” (Satan) and that as a result, he would “draw all people to himself.” (John 12:32).
I think the visual contained in this passage is interesting: Jesus refers to Satan and says that his death will cast him out and deprive him of power. He then refers to humanity and says he will “ἑλκύσω” them to himself, which literally means to drag off. So, Jesus seemed to argue that he was about to defeat evil and “drag off” all of humanity– free from the clutches of Satan.
Furthermore, in John 3 Jesus claims he did not come to condemn the world but to “save the world.” Notice he doesn’t say save the “elect” or save a few, but claims he is on a mission to save the entire world. If universalism is untrue, one could argue Jesus failed in his mission and didn’t save the whole world at all.
Also, as I pointed out the other day, the Bible teaches that Jesus paid for the sins of the “whole world” (1 John 2:2), and that he paid the ransom for “all” people (1 Timothy 2:3-6). If universalism is untrue, this means that Jesus paid the price of redemption for everyone, but that some are still endlessly punished for sins that were already paid for. This sounds like a case of “double jeopardy” to me and doesn’t quite make sense.
4. Biblical passages repeatedly use the word “all.”
The key word in the above passages, and so many others, is all. We repeatedly see it used– and if universal salvation is untrue, Jesus and the biblical authors seem to be in error by saying “all” people. We’ve already seen that God desires “all” to be saved and that Jesus claimed he was going to drag off “all” people to himself. There are still others that use this language:
1 Corinthians 15:22 says that “all” will be made alive in Christ.
Colossians 1:19-20 says that through the sacrifice of Jesus, “all” things on earth and in heaven have been reconciled back to him.
In these cases, the match always goes to the universalists, because their position takes the text at face value, allowing “all” to mean literally “all.” Those who do not hold to the universalist position are forced to either argue that “all” really means “just some” or to divert attention back to verses where the stronger case goes to positions other than universalism.
Point being: the strongest and most logical case is that “all” actually means “all.”
5. Universalism makes more sense of hell & God’s loving character.
I think most people reject universalism before hearing the full case because they are aware that the Bible does in fact, quite clearly describe some sort of consequences in the afterlife for refusing to be reconciled to God in this life. They mistakenly believe that being a Christian universalist means that one rejects the concept of hell or some sort of divine punishment. This in fact, is totally untrue.
One of the advantages of universalism is that it can affirm passages that seem to speak about punishment in the afterlife, and it can affirm them in a way that better reflects the love and character of God. In universalism one can argue compellingly that the intent and outcome of God’s discipline is restoration of relationship, instead of endless punishment or permanent separation. It’s a difference of restorative justice instead of simply punitive justice– and that difference better reflects the character of God which is loving and always inviting reconciliation.
The three major positions on hell would look like this:
ETC position: hells is torment and it goes on forever. It is an endless punishment.
Annihilationist position: hell is a place where the soul goes and dies. It is a time limited, but permanent punishment.
Universalist: hell has elements of appropriate punishment and correction, with the goal of producing a change of heart and repentance. It is a restorative punishment that lasts as long as needed, whether that’s one day or a million years. This position is most consistent with a loving parent who corrects and disciplines, but does so not out of vengeance– but to to encourage a change of heart and behavior.
The Bible also describes heaven as a place where the gates are “never shut” which is also a compelling argument that perhaps, the number in heaven will constantly be growing in eternity as people repent and are reconciled to God.
Thus, in the universalist position we see not an angry God torturing people endlessly in hell with no hope, or who gives up and executes everyone, but a loving God who continues to guide, correct, invite repentance and restoration, and who will continue loving and inviting for billions of years if necessary, until all finally do come to repentance and are saved.
And the Bible once again hints that this will be how the story will end: it says that “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” If we know that’s the will of God, the desire of God, and the goal of God, would it not make sense that ultimately God convinces everyone to confess Jesus as Lord?
Christian universalism is not the same thing as an “anything goes” religion where we can all believe what we want, do what we want, and all end up in the same place at the same time.
Instead, it is a belief in the power of Jesus to atone for the sins of the entire world. It is a belief that Jesus truly has reconciled all things and all people to himself. It’s a belief that God’s loving nature is so endless, that even those who stubbornly refuse to be reconciled in this life will still find themselves pursued by God’s love and invited to have a change of heart, until every last one of them turns back to God– and hell is empty.
The case for universalism is not weak or some liberal nonsense, but actually fits God’s character and the biblical narrative quite convincingly.
Universalism is a solidly Christian belief, with solid reasons and solid biblical support.
True, I’m not a universalist, but now that I’ve argued the case for them, I’m rethinking that.
Thanks, Mr. Finnegan.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.