Thoughts about Universalism
On the heels of my recent review of the movie “Come Sunday” (about Pentecostal evangelist Carlton Pearson’s theological journey to universalism) several people have asked me to write something about universalism here. I have done that before, but I will offer some musings that may be more up to date.
First of all, definition is required. “Universalism” is any view, and there are several varieties, that affirms the eventual salvation of all people. I say “several varieties” because apokatastasis is the belief that even Satan and his minions will eventually be saved. Some people throughout church history have thought that church father Origen believed and taught that although there is debate about the matter. Some universalists believe in a temporary hell which then becomes a kind of purgatory. Other universalists deny hell altogether.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Here I will be addressing only “Christian universalism”—by which I mean belief in eventual universal salvation of all people (not necessarily Satan and his minions) by people who consider themselves Christians. There are, of course, Jewish universalists and universalists of other religions. But here I will restrict my musings to Christians who are universalists.
It seems to me that any person with an ounce of love, mercy, and compassion would at least wish universalism were true. I cannot imagine anyone with any love, mercy, and compassion wanting there to be an “eternal suffering of the wicked”—even if they believe the truly wicked should suffer for some time.
However, on the other hand, it seems to me that any person with an ounce of concern for justice, righteousness, holiness, would not want persons who commit genocide or child rape and murder (for example) not to be corrected and even punished in some manner—after death and by a holy and righteous, just God.
But what about the Bible (I can hear some conservative Christians shouting)? Well, as with so many other controversial subjects, the Bible can be “cherry-picked” to support either view. That is, either that hell is eternal torment of the wicked or that eventually all things and persons will be reconciled with God. (And, of course, there are other views such as “annihilationism” which I will not address here. One can only address so much in one blog essay!)
It seems to me that the Bible can be interpreted as suggesting that eventually all sinners, all people, will be saved. Well, in fact, it is so interpreted by many self-identified Christians who say that they believe the Bible. (In fact, there is a sub-denomination of Baptists in the Appalachian mountains called the “No Hellers” who do interpret it that way and they are fundamentalists in terms of their general approach to the Bible. See the book In the Hands of a Happy God.)
The question is: Should the Bible be interpreted as supporting universal salvation? Or, put another way, is universalism the best interpretation of the Bible?
I don’t think so. Jesus talked much about hell and left little doubt—in my mind, anyway—that he intended to teach that the wicked will go to hell. And he did not indicate that hell is temporary.
On the other hand, I have to question whether it is possible that eternal hell, “the endless and everlasting torment and suffering of the wicked in hell,” is compatible with the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. On the cross Jesus asked the Father to forgive even those crucifying him.
I have long believed that universalism is at least heterodox and at worst heresy and that if it is heresy it is the least heretical of all heresies—so long as hell is worked in somewhere and somehow. For example, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann teaches that hell is temporary and that God will never give up on anyone in hell and that eventually hell will be emptied. (I heard him say it in a lecture and I have here before provided “chapter and verse” for this from his books.) Is Moltmann thereby a heretic? Well, insofar as he teaches it as truth, as doctrine to be believed by everyone and not merely as personal opinion, I would have to say he is a heretic on that particular point of doctrine. But who is right about everything? “Let him who is without heresy cast the first stone” (to paraphrase Jesus).
I cannot affirm universalism. What I can do is affirm that hell is God’s “painful refuge” and that its door is locked “on the inside” (C. S. Lewis). All in hell, and all who will be in hell, would rather be there than worshiping and praising God in heaven for eternity.
To all those who cannot stomach the traditional view of hell as quasi-physical torment without end (even Billy Graham said that “fire” is a metaphor for separation from God) and to all those who cannot accept universalism I say “Read Lewis’s The Great Divorce.” Not because I agree with every aspect of it but because it provides an alternative view of hell that takes completely away any idea that hell is God’s vengeance against those he hates or who fail to repent and acknowledge him as Lord and Savior.
I have to wonder if reading The Great Divorce would have saved Carlton Pearson and many others who came to reject the traditional view of hell (viz., Dante’s depiction) from falling into the error of universalism.
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