Before I tell you why I am a universalist, I must first clarify the kind of universalist I am. I don’t believe that one who has been a hateful jerk just automatically walks into a kin-dom of love upon death. There is nothing to suggest that simply passing through death would transform a hater into a lover. How would someone with prejudice, greed, a thirst for vengeance, etc. be able to exist in a realm of self-giving love?
So, I believe that everyone will somehow, someway, someday be changed into a compassionate, loving person. I believe that the most evil, murderous tyrant will one day be transformed into a good and caring person.
How does that happen? I don’t pretend to know. How long will it take? Again, I have no idea about that either. I see life as evolutionary, developmental, and progressive. Therefore, I am not dismissive of divine judgment in the life to come, though I see that judgment as corrective, restorative, and redemptive, not punitive and retributive. Whatever divine judgment involves (and once again, I don’t pretend to know), I believe its aim is to bring about repentance and conversion.
I must also concede that while I believe that eventually all persons will repent and be transformed into loving, compassionate, caring persons, there is also the possibility that not every person can be saved/transformed/healed/made whole. It is a cooperative effort. We must participate in our healing and liberation. And as long as we are free to choose, there is always the possibility that a person may never choose the good. I allow for that possibility, but I believe that everyone will eventually see the light. Hence, I am a hopeful universalist, not a dogmatic one.
So, what are the three reasons I am a hopeful universalist?
First, I am a universalist because I need a believable God. I need a larger, bigger God than a God who separates humanity on the basis of beliefs or some other measure of judgment. If God judges people on the basis of this life alone, then God would not be a fair, just, loving, or believable God.
Let’s be honest, some folks are dealt a really bad hand. And so much goes into the making of a soul. If I had been born into poverty, discarded by parents, treated as an outcast by my society, had very different experiences than I have had in my life, I have no doubt I would be a very different person today.
I know some people who are more loving than the God they believe in. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes,
“Mature religions, and now some scientists, say that we are hardwired for the Big Picture, for transcendence, for ongoing growth, for union with ourselves and everything else. Either God is for everybody and the divine DNA is somehow in all creatures, or this God is not God by any common definition, or even much of a god at all. We are driven, kicking and screaming, toward higher levels of union and ability to include (to forgive others for being ‘other’), it seems to me… But many get stopped and fixated at lower levels where God seems to torture and exclude forever those people who don’t agree with ‘him’ or get ‘his’ name right. How could you possibly feel safe, free, loved, trustful, or invited by such a small God?”
— Falling Upward, p. 109
Some people are better than their theology. I need a God who is better–more loving, caring, understanding, just, good, etc.–than I am or than even the best person I know, a God who invites me to be part of a larger, greater story of healing, redemption, and universal reconciliation.
Second, I am a universalist because it compels me to interpret and apply my sacred texts with a bias toward love. I was once a biblical inerrantist and was completely blind to my biases and the biases of the biblical writers. Now I can fully accept the imperfect humanity of the biblical authors and the limitations and biases we the readers bring to these texts. It is liberating to see biblical texts for what they are. Some are highly enlightened, potentially transforming, and expressive of the highest level of consciousness. Other texts are simply punitive, petty, and retributive, reflecting a much lower stage of consciousness. With a bias toward love I can discern the difference and allow the Spirit of love to lead me deeper into a text so I can discern perennial, transcendent truth beneath a text that on the surface may reflect a very dualistic, unenlightened state of development.
For example, the parable Jesus told about the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30) was interpreted by Matthew and his community in very dualistic terms with the wheat and tares representing two different groups of people, the wicked and the just (Matt. 13:36-43). My bias towards love leads me to ignore Matthew’s (or his church’s) interpretation and focus on the parable itself, which I read symbolically and spiritually. I see the wheat and tares as representing the good and evil in each of us, not two categories of people. I read this text inclusively, not exclusively. I read it spiritually, not literally.
And this brings me to the third reason I am a universalist. My universalism compels me to be a better person–a more loving, compassionate, caring, merciful person. I don’t claim to have arrived at any high level of growth. I still struggle in a lot of areas to be a more loving person. But that is my goal. My universalism prompts me to see the potential for transformation in all human beings, and my universalism inspires me to strive to realize my potential as a Christ bearer capable of loving persons unconditionally while never giving up hope that we all can change.
Really, what more can we ask of any belief system? When it comes to imagining God, all our beliefs are like fingers pointing at the moon. God is so much more. The question should not be: Are my beliefs correct? The question should be: Are my beliefs healthy? Do they challenge, inspire, empower, and compel me to be a better person and to work for the good of others?
As a universalist, I cannot write off any person, no matter how unloving or unjust that person may be. I believe he/she can and at some point will change. I must see such persons as children of God who bear the image of God no matter how marred that image may be.
I am a Christian universalist because I am committed to being a disciple of Jesus, and by following the life and teaching of Jesus, I hope to grow in my love for God and in my love of neighbor.
Photo via Unsplash.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of several books on progressive Christian faith, including his most recent, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, has contributed to the blog Faith Forward and is a monthly columnist for Baptist News Global.