Why I am a Universalist
I think all who call themselves Christians would assent to certain foundational beliefs:
- There is a single consciousness – spirit or logos – that has created from nothing all reality: spacetime, energy, a world of unimaginable beauty and complexity, us. We call this Creator God.
- God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-present.
- God is infinitely and wholly good. While he permits evil, there cannot be any aspect of Him that is itself evil.
- God sees his creation as good.
- God loves us and wants each of us to have an eternal relationship with Him. He wants us to achieve the perfection of our natures in union with Him.
- Creation is fallen. Through delusion, ignorance, and pride, humans have turned away from God. Many of us presume that we can dispense with dedicating ourselves to asking what God wants from us. We don’t see the need to try to understand and obey.
- Evil and malevolence are absolutely real.
- We are in thrall to evil.
- By ourselves we cannot release ourselves from the shackles of evil. Christ had to do this for us and He did.
Different Inferences: Universalists versus Infernalists
From these premises, universalists infer that in some mysterious way, unknowable to us, all of creation – including the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, killers and torturers of innocents, etc., — ultimately will be redeemed and saved through Christ. God through Christ will rescue us and overthrow all evil – natural evil, moral evil, the hell we create for ourselves. The gospel in essence is a story of rescue and restoration.
Universalists say it can’t be any other way. If it were, one could not avoid the conclusion that God had willed an act of evil. If God has freely created all that is and knows in advance that some of His creatures will doom themselves to eternal torment, He is committing an act of evil. Whether I do it or God does it, evil is still evil. But if God is good, it cannot be in His nature to do this. Starkly put, how could any rational being love a God who, as David B. Hart puts it , “has elected to create a reality in which everlasting torture is a possible final destiny for any of his creatures (David B. Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Yale University Press, 2019).
In stark contrast, many Christians are what theologians call “infernalists”; they believe God will permit some humans to condemn themselves to eternal damnation and suffering. While plausible at first glance, I think their arguments not only do not bear close examination, but are contrary to the core message of Christianity. But, they seem plausible at first glance and deserve a reasoned response:
- God’s ways are so beyond us that we have no right to presume to be able separate benevolence from malevolence. In some way, therefore, it is acceptable for a good God to condemn disobedient creatures to eternal suffering.
Espousing this view is an act of self-lobotomization. Even God cannot turn a circle into a square. In like manner, He cannot commit an act that even we humans can immediately see is malevolent. For example, permitting one child to be torn apart by wolves as the price of saving all the rest of creation, would still be an act of a celestial sadist. This is not a God I or any rational person would worship. God permits evil out of respect for the free will of his creatures, but being wholly good He neither wills nor intends it.
- If ultimately all are saved, then it doesn’t matter what any of us does. We can lie, murder, steal, rape, torture to our hearts content, and it doesn’t matter.
It is ineluctably true that if there is no God, then anything, absolutely anything, is permitted. Without God, there is no morality, only power. But, saying that all will be saved is not equivalent to saying there are no consequences to behavior, no matter how foul. God is watching. In the fullness of time, each human is, I believer, answerable to his Creator. But, as a universalist, I also believe there is no evil that good cannot overcome. Also, God has not structured reality such that unless we feel threatened by eternal damnation and suffering, we by default will behave wantonly. He gave us reason and a natural moral sense of right and wrong. Through reason, we can see that while debauchery and exploitation feel fun in the short run, even in sheer practical terms ,the long-term costs are overwhelming. With no exceptions, no one gets away with anything even in the here and now. There are no cases where money, power, screwing people, hurting people, etc. have bought the perpetrator happiness. When Ignorant or possessed by evil, we lose touch with our moral sense, but it seems to stay with us, making us uncomfortable in our awareness of how we have hurt or betrayed others. Finally, feeling “saved” could just as easily invoke intense feelings of gratitude rather than license to do any damn thing we want.
- God gave each of us free will. If we choose to turn away from Him forever, we can, but we will suffer the consequences of eternal damnation. So be it. Hasta la vista, baby.
We need to be careful in determining what we mean by freedom. Does any sane person think that choosing to become a heroin addict confers freedom? Does any activity that enslaves a person make him free even if he voluntarily chose it? Every action involves intentionality, the pursuit of some goal. True freedom depends on what goal one is pursuing. Some goals lead to self-enslavement, even destruction of the self that lives in time. Asserting that God gave us freedom to condemn ourselves forever is the same as saying that God makes possible and perhaps even enables our own eternal destruction. No loving father would do that. God doesn’t.
True freedom is not unfettered license. True freedom depends on sanity, rationality, and correct knowledge of how the world is. True freedom exists only when there is a fit between the intentions of a sane mind, fully conscious of the nature of reality, and the consequences of that mind’s actions. Freedom , to use Hart’s phrase, is “liberty from delusion”. Christ excepted, no human has ever had full consciousness.
A loving God will not condemn his creatures to eternal torment because they sought false freedom. He will rescue every one of them. Adopt any other position and it is impossible to avoid concluding that God must be a moral monster who permits a creature of his own creation to suffer everlasting torment. God cannot both be good and permit eternal misery.
In the end, a universalist interpretation of Christianity is the ultimate good news. It says, to use Hart’s words, “that God can so order all conditions, circumstances, and contingencies among created things as to bring about everything He wills for his creatures (while not violating their autonomy)…. God in His omnipotence and
omniscience is wholly capable of determining the result of all secondary causes, including free will, while not acting as yet another discrete cause among them…. God can … arrange the shape of reality that all beings, one way or another, come at the last upon the right path by way of their own freedom in this life or the next.”
- The words of the gospel belie the universalist view. In passage after passage, Christ echoes the theme, “… strait is the gate , and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be can find it ((Luke 13.24).
Just read the words, I am told. My response is, “Which words?” If you were keeping score as to the number of biblical passages proclaiming universalism (ultimate salvation for all) versus those supporting infernalism (eternal damnation for some), universalism would win. The list of universalist passages below is illustrative but not exhaustive:
1 Corinthians 15:22
2 Corinthians 5:14
2 Corinthians 5:19
1 John 4:14
2 Peter 3:9
I John 2:2
1 timothy 4:10
The inescapable fact that the Bible contains passages that can justify either view creates a conundrum. The doctrines are inescapably contradictory and mutually exclusive.
The way many Christians get around this is to ignore the contradiction. We all tend to “cherry pick “ the passages we find most congenial as “the real deal” and presume that opposing passages are wrong. This is dishonest and self-delusional. Falling back on the chestnut, “God’s ways ae mysterious”, while true, is not helpful to gaining at least a glimmer of understanding.
Are we forced to pick one view or the other, based on nothing but personal taste, or can we use our God-given reason – the only tool we have to separate truth from wish fulfillment and sentiment – to find paths out of the blatant contradiction? I am hopeful we can.
One path is to do our best to understand what it is we are reading. Is a particular biblical passage a metaphor, an allegory, or a literally true statement of the nature of reality? Making this distinction is difficult and can be done only if biblical passages are read in context of what is being said before and after. Failure to consider context is always unwise and misleading. Both universalists and infernalists must approach biblical interpretation with humility and an open mind.
I believe that Christ often used terrifying imagery describing final judgment to express his displeasure over how the weak and the poor are treated in the here and now. When speaking of discrimination between the righteous and the wicked or the devastating consequences of the actions of the wicked in this life, he is not giving us a literal description of the world to come.
A second, reason-based way to integrate infernalist passages with a universalist conviction is to distinguish between two frames, the frame of the reality we all inhabit (history, spacetime, matter, energy) and the frame beyond history and physical reality, God’s frame for ultimate creation, as prefigured by Christ. In the frame of history, most people have not surrendered to God’s love. No one can deny this , but as a universalist, I have conviction that this frame will be subsumed in God’s ultimate bringing forth universal salvation in the age to come. There is no evil that cannot be overcome by the good.
Am I sure my universalist view is correct? Obviously not, but I can see how the “infernalist” passages can be integrated into a universalist view without abandoning the use of reason. By contrast, there is no way I can use my reason to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the possibility of eternal damnation of even one human being. By contrast, infernalism, besides being exclusionary and divisive, unavoidably portrays God as capable of an evil act.
Why do I feel so strongly about my universalism? I am not a prickly pedant, hung up on some obscure matter of doctrinal nicety. Infernalism is not only wrong but dangerous. It promotes self-satisfied exclusivity – I belong to the club and you don’t. This mindset makes it acceptable to regard other people as “other” and implicitly lesser. That is the opposite of the spirit of the gospel.