Understanding Universalism: The search for spirituality
What is Universalism?
The world view of universalism is very simple; whilst at the same time has the ability to rebuff the most complex arguments and faiths. Simply put universalism believes that all roads lead to a sense of valuable spirituality. In the western context there are two main forms of universalism. The first simply advocates the importance and value of all religions and faiths, the second also known as pluralism is universalism based in Christianity. They teach that through Jesus all people in all religions are saved. Perhaps the most unpopular claim of Christianity is that there is only one way to God through Jesus Christ and worse still that those who do not come to Christ are lost for eternity in hell, Christian universalism succumbs to this external pressure and claims ALL are saved through Jesus Christ regardless of their sin and relationship with God and that there is no hell.
The appeal of Christian universalism/pluralism
On the surface Universalism is a very attractive worldview, it appears that you can have spirituality without offending or excluding anyone, respecting each worldview and seeing value in it. The uncomfortable message of hell is either lessoned or altogether avoided; it removes the fear of hell and the accountability of our sin, with universalism everybody seems to win.
Throughout church history Universalism has made an occasional appearance on the fringe of mainstream Christianity however it is only in the past 200 years that it has become so widespread. It now seems to be the default position of the western media especially prevalent in TV personalities such as Oprah Winfrey influencing millions of everyday people.
Ironically, despite its desire for inclusivity there is disagreement among Universalists exactly how it will work.
1. All belief systems are valuable (Buddhism, Hinduism)
2. All are saved outright by Jesus
3. Repentance and trust in God is necessary but this can occur at any point e.g. during life, after death, once in hell.
4. Still others claim there will be specific point at which we might repent again.
5. Hell is a sort of cosmic prison where depending on our sin we may serve our time and then be released
6. Hell is a metaphorical image of a life lived on earth with no spirituality.
The Universal Gospel?
Christian universalism is a logical response to an inadequate gospel. A lot of the Universalist claims are diminished by presenting the true gospel.
We can affirm a key tenet of the Christian Universalist, it is true Jesus died to save all, and redeem all.
John 3:16a ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’
1 Timothy 2:4 ‘This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’
Jesus did indeed come to save the whole world and God does indeed desire all to be saved however both the above verses when read in context qualify that although Christ’s victory is universal; the necessary relationship with Jesus to realise that victory is not universally accepted.
John 3:16-21 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
1 Timothy 2:4-5 ‘This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.'
The ‘knowledge of truth’ that is spoken of is qualified in 1 Timothy 1.
1 Timothy 1:15-17, ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
How can this be that God who claims to love us unconditionally will allow judgement on people?
The reason for judgement is because God does not desire simple pets, a living object purely on which he may lavish his love and never be reciprocated. What God desires is a back and forth honest relationship with his people. God has not failed to save the world but rather the world must acknowledge and respond with their hearts to the relationship that victory has won for them. God excludes no-one from a relationship with him but humanity rejects his proposal.
Imagine the claim of the Universalist in the setting of marriage, a metaphor that is used often in the bible. The claim of universalism is that all people are brought into relationship with God no matter what they worship or what they continue to do.
Imagine a wedding ceremony where the bride has refused the proposal but is forced by the groom to continue in the marriage. She tells the groom to his face ‘I will sleep around, I will be unfaithful I will take the good things that you give me and use them to chase other relationships; my life will not change in anyway once we are married, I do not love you.’ But the groom is very loving and accepts the marriage on those conditions and is content with it.
That is the relationship with God that is proposed by the Universalist, a loving God would not force people to be in relationship with him.
Heaven is not the Gospel
The crux of the problem of Christian Universalism is heaven. Universalism is a logical response to a diluted and simplified gospel. That diluted gospel goes something like this.
1. Man is created to live in an earthly heaven
2. Man ran from this heaven and sinned
3. Man’s rightful place is to be in heaven
4. Jesus died so that humanity can be restored to its rightful place in heaven.
The good news of the gospel therefore is that we can get back to heaven and blissfulness.
There are fundamental problems with that gospel.
1. Humanity was not made for an earthly heaven, man was made primarily for a two way relationship with God, part of that relationship is that God lavishes his love on us with all the gifts he can offer.
2. Man did not reject God's gifts in that earthly paradise but elevated the gifts above God, humanity rejected God. Humanity was then removed from Eden. The sin in Eden was not they ate some specific fruit but rather committed adultery against God by listening to the serpent and desiring equality with God.
3. Man’s rightful place is not in heaven but in true relationship with his God, the context does not matter whether you are amongst poverty, suffering, richness and persecution, man’s place is in relationship with God.
4. Jesus did not die so we can have an elixir or life or so that we can go to heaven. Jesus died for you, for relationship with you.
Therefore the gospel is not that people get to heaven, the gospel is God. Those that reject God on earth will hate what heaven has to offer because what heaven has to offer is God.
Throughout the bible people are always given the choice to go their own way and live as they please without God with all the consequence’s that go with it or to return God’s love.
Hell in people’s imaginations is very different from what is spoken of in the bible. It is perceived in people minds as a mixture of images and metaphors taken from the bible, pagan imagery and the imagination of a few authors from throughout history for example Dante’s inferno.
It is important that we are aware of what a Universalist is rejecting when they reject hell. What is hell, as taught from scripture?
A simple argument that is often used is that the word ‘hell’ is never used in the original translations of the bible. The technical term for this type of argument is called the etymological fallacy, meaning if the word used to describe something is unauthentic then the concept must be false. The root word for the term hell is Germanic with only very loose connections to Latin, stemming from Germanic languages around 700AD. If we saw the term 'hell' in the original translations then we would have to assume that they are inaccurate translations. However the bible uses three words that we translate into the English word hell.
Gehenna, a Hebrew word used in both Old and New Testaments when discussing hell, it means ‘Valley of Hinnom’ and much like the word Jerusalem it is sometimes used to describe a physical location and sometimes used to describe a concept. The valley itself was a place where many of the Kings that rejected God used to practice human sacrifice, (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35) the shrine and cult associated was finally destroyed by king Josiah (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 32:35) however despite its destruction the idea of the valley was linked with a people who destroyed themselves in fire and rejected God, a place of destruction. It is used as such in the New Testament chiefly by Jesus.
Matthew 5:30 "better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for you whole body to go into Gehenna"
Matthew 23:33 speaking to the Pharisees: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of Gehenna?"
Jesus is saying 'you are engaged in a practice that will lead to your own destruction.'
Sheol, used to describe broadly something unseen hidden and subterranean. Coming from the root concept of 'to make hollow' literally a closed hole in the ground. This word can be used to describe a simple grave as in Genesis 37:35 when Jacob is lied to by his sons that Joseph has been killed. He responds "Now, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Meaning simply that he will mourn until he is dead and in his grave. However that is not the only use of term and it is linked with judgement. God swallowed up a rebellious group that seeked to overthrow Moses into what seems to be a underground cavern or earthquake (Numbers 16:1-33) the climax of which is in verse 33 'So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.'
It is in this sense that Sheol is an alternative to 'the path of life'. The term Sheol appears often in Psalms and teaches that we are destined for hell if we are not brought back to God.
Psalm 16:10-11, For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 30:2-3, O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Hades, which is simply a Greek alternative to the Hebrew word Sheol. It is used four times by Jesus in his teaching
Mathew 11:23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
It is clear that the town of Capernaum rejected the marriage proposal of Christ and thus Jesus says they will be brought down to Hades. Not because Christ failed to save them but because they rejected the relationship.
Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.
The church that Jesus established with the apostles will stand firm against the gates of Hades or the ‘stronghold of Hell’. This verse is important because it establishes connection with the church as part of Kingdom of God that stands against hell, the alternative to Hell is God’s kingdom.
It is very evident from how God speaks about his judgement in Ezekiel that he wants nothing more than for people to return to him but that judgement waits for those that refuse.
Ezekiel 18:23, 32 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?... For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’
So a loving God does not send people to hell but you must walk past God to get there.
A question of fairness
At this point in the discussion we may be asked what about people that never hear the gospel? Is it fair that they go to hell because they never heard about Jesus? What if they have never heard of the proposal or miss the sign pointing to God.
The bible makes it clear that God is knowable from the world he has created
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
It is entirely possible that someone might come to know God apart from anyone else; through the world God has created, through dreams and visions or spiritual experiences. So just because the gospel has not been preached somewhere does not mean that the people do not know God. There have been many stories of people coming to know God through the most extraordinary coincidences and visions.
The underlying question is about God’s fairness;
Premise 1, God is all powerful and all loving
Premise 2, Some people never hear the gospel and are lost
Conclusion 1 Either God is not all powerful and unable to save all
Conclusion 2 or God is not all loving and does not desire to save all
Conclusion 3 (universalism) God is all powerful and all loving and has saved all regardless of whether they have responded to the gospel.
We of course disagree with all three conclusions and therefore must disagree with the premises. Since we affirm premise 1 to be true we must disagree with premise 2.
The bible contains several characters who are not part of Israel who have never heard the Gospel or of God and yet have relationship with him. Melcheizadek a cannonite King who was a priest of God. (Genesis 14:18). Rahab the prostitute heard rumours of God and followed him (Joshua 2:1-11). Cornelius, a prestigious Centurion who had a devoted relationship with God but knew nothing of Christ was told in a vision to go and seek Peter and hear what he has to say. (Acts 10)
2 Peter 3:8-9 With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Everybody is given an opportunity to be saved; the bible makes it clear that God is a God that pursues those he loves. He is able to converse with humanity directly whilst still allowing free choices, to enter into relationship or to continue going your own way.
The scriptures of Universalism
Many universalists claim all holy books are valuable from any religion.
‘When we read scripture in worship, whether it is the Bible, the Dhammapada, or the Tao Te-Ching, we interpret it as a product of its time and its place. There is wisdom there, and there are inspiring stories, but scripture is not to be interpreted narrowly or oppressively. It can be beautiful, inspirational and wise. But in our tradition, scripture is never the only word, or the final word.
From the beginning we have trusted in the human capacity to use reason and draw conclusions about religion. Influenced by experience, culture, and community, each of us ultimately chooses what is sacred to us.’ (Taken from the UUA website)
The implication then is that they are free to cherry pick parts of different religions scriptures and interpret them in any way they like. So when we show them scripture they can and will say ‘I don’t like that bit’ and then ignore it. This is of course is offensive to any and all books that are held as scripture. They aim to accept all religions but in doing so they are in fact creating a new one out of any combination of scriptures or ideas that pleases them. Furthermore it is intellectually dishonest, taking a statement out of context you can radically change the meaning the author had intended. For example if I was quoted as saying ‘I hate my flat’ you would think I had a problem with my accommodation but if I had actually said ‘I hate my flat tire’ the context is radically changed and I in fact have a puncture. The same goes for Jesus and his teachings.
The Universalist Jesus
The Universalist position is usually that he is a good teacher and perhaps a Jewish Messianic figure. C.S Lewis popularised a famous argument for why Jesus cannot just be dismissed as another wise teacher. The argument is known as Liar, Lunatic or Lord, ‘Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.’
‘I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.’ (Taken from Mere Christianity)
Jesus is undoubtedly a wise teacher but the only record we have of his teachings is from the gospels. But he did so much more than teach on the human condition but made some big statements about himself.
During his trial he was asked, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” And He said,
• “I am.” (Mark 14:60-62)
• “Yes, it is as you say.” (Matt. 26: 63-65)
• “You are right in saying I am.” (Luke 22:67-70)
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!” (John 8:58 using an Old Testament name for God the ‘I AM’)
and perhaps most relevent for the Universalist claim,
John 14:6-9 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?
Elephant in the room
There is an eastern proverb about religion that goes as follows.
Six blind men encounter an elephant. The first touches its trunk and says that an elephant is like a palm tree, another touches its side and says that an elephant is like a rough wall. Another feels its tail and says that an elephant is like a piece of rope. Each comes into contact with a different part of the elephant and is convinced that their own explanation is correct and that the others are wrong. None of them realises that they are all experiencing just one part of the same elephant and that none of their explanations are complete.
The proverb teaches that there is value in all understandings of God each is partly right. In effect universalism is a religion created for that purpose alone the seeking out of spirituality. It offers no answers for the Universalist the religion is the search, the journey. If you are to find answers then you will have to do something about it and disagree with your neighbour.
If we are ever going to know the elephant our groping in the dark alone is not enough what we really need is for the elephant to make himself known. We need God whoever that is, whatever he is like and whatever he does, to make himself known, to take the intuitive and introduce himself to humanity. That is what the bible is and why it is so important, God introducing himself as the real personality of a loving creator. God is the instigator of the relationship, and all the big answers in life are found in the relationship we were designed for.