Why I Am Not (Quite) a Universalist

Why I Am Not (Quite) a Universalist May 11, 2022

My friend Camila. Photo by her dad, Rich Potts.

Last week I promised to re-open the elephant-sized door and discuss Last Judgment. I’ll frame my comments here around the questions of universalism.

Universalism is an ancient view in Christian theology that all creation will ultimately be restored and commune with God. That God’s last words to us will be a repetition of God’s first words: “It is good.”

I hope that turns out to be the case. But I am not a universalist. Not quite anyway. 

Who Gets to Go?

Many years ago, I accepted an invitation to speak to a large interfaith event at the University of Texas. My assignment was to offer a Christian answer to two questions: “What is heaven? And who gets to go?”

Many of the students attending were conservative evangelical Christians. I don’t know if they were regularly attendees of these events, or if they came for this theme especially. Either way, this particular group (I was to discover) tends to feel embattled in the predominately secular and progressive ethos at U.T. 

I focused my comments on the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. “Heaven is like God’s feast,” I said, feeling as though with that I’d more or less answered my first prompt. “And as to who gets to attend, the answer here seems pretty clear: anyone who wants to.”

A Lesson Learned

An elephant-sized door, indeed.

Back in my early adulthood, when the Indiana Pacers were actual competitors in the NBA East, they had a bench player with the nickname of “Big Smooth.” He was a crowd favorite. When he would come in and score, they would call out his name in a kind of deep bellow: “SMOOOOOOOOTH.” The thing is, if you didn’t know ahead of time what they were saying, or if you weren’t paying attention, you might think they were booing. 

My well-meant comments invoked a similar sound from the gathered students. And my name is not Big Smooth. 

I went home that night bruised and spent, but having learned two valuable lessons. First, know your audience. Second, eschatology is a battlefield of the culture wars. 

The Grace Problem

I am not a universalist, but I upset those students by sounding like one. I meant my “whoever wants to” in something like the way C. S. Lewis says it in The Great Divorce (really should have said that). There he tells a parable of the dead disembarking a bus, and encountering the sheer solidity of heaven. Even the blades of grass contain an overwhelming density of reality. The journey into this land will require much, and many simply lose interest. 

I hope that in the end, all creatures rejoice in God’s presence. But as soon as I claim that as true, or make it the conclusion to an argument, I find that I’ve said something about grace that I don’t want to say. (Yes, grace: did you expect me to say justice?)

Thomas Aquinas, paying attention to the way God works through us rather than in our place, says that grace perfects nature, it doesn’t destroy it. In the Old and New Testaments, God is always setting creatures free to do the things we’ll do, and then bending that freedom toward restoration. Even if they “mean it” for evil, God can mean it for good. 

I hope that all human sin gets the “Joseph’s brothers” treatment, at the end of all things. But if I make universal restoration the end of an argument rather than a hope, then I have just said that God’s gift of mercy (grace) overwhelms human freedom. Grace just superseded nature.

Is God a Universalist?

We tend to frame the question in a dualistic way:

  1. Do temporal sins receive eternal damnation, or
  2. Does God choose to ignore them?

I don’t like dualisms, generally. I wrote in Leaving Emmaus about how some version of purgatory makes more sense to me than an insistence on an everlasting hell. Sins are destructive and unholy. But maybe what the Bible calls the lake of fire is not only a place where these sins and sinners receive justice, but where they (we) also receive illumination. Maybe we all end up discovering that what we really want is to attend the feast.

I like the way Gregory of Nazianzus puts it in his autobiographical poem. He doesn’t argue for universal salvation. In this he distinguishes himself both from his young colleague Gregory of Nyssa and their theological ancestor Origen. But he does give a caveat, in effect asking for help with his limited imagination. The fire of hell seems eternal, he says, “unless it be that someone might know the latter to be understood in a way that is more humane and worthier of God.”

I hope, as Gregory hoped, that God’s fire ends up being both purgative and illuminative for all. But I don’t know a way to say that that doesn’t cause other theological problems.

So I am not a universalist. 

But I hope God is. 

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