Christian Universalism

Christian universalism is the belief that Jesus’ work will ultimately save everyone, including those who don’t believe in him. In my experience, the biggest objection Christians have to this is the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)

…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations… (Luke 24:47)

The argument goes something like this: if all will be saved, why is Jesus telling us to go out and make disciples/spread the Gospel? Clearly it was Jesus’ wish that we go out and save souls. With a “going to heaven when I die/salvation from eternal damnation to hell” view of the Gospel this question makes complete sense.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but Gregory MacDonald’s book, The Evangelical Universalist, argues that in the end Jesus does save everyone. However, the author also appears (though I haven’t read the book yet) to believe in a literal hell as well as the need for evangelism (he considers himself Evangelical). How can this be?

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday in this regard. It may, in fact, be what MacDonald will argue in his book as well. If, as I suggest in a previous post, the Gospel is much broader than “my ticket to heaven”; if the Gospel is not only about the forgiveness of sins, but also about God restoring creation, justice, truth, beauty and spirituality; if Jesus has invited us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now; then MacDonald’s position could make sense.

The purpose of all three versions of the Great Commission is not, by all appearances, “saving souls” in the “saving from hell” or “becoming religious” sense of the term. Matthew’s gospel says “go and make disciples”—that is, teach others to live in the Kingdom way, as followers of Christ; Mark says “proclaim the Gospel”, which, as we’ve seen, may well be a much broader term than many of us have previously envisioned; Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed”—repentance, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is not just “being sorry for your sins”, it is turning away from our current allegiances and way of living (which gives it a similar meaning as “discipleship”).

Within this broader understanding of the Gospel, it is plausible for Jesus to tell his disciples to evangelize even if salvation is ultimately universal as there is still Kingdom work and living to do here on earth. The Kingdom of God is at hand, proclaimed Jesus, it is now: live the Kingdom way and teach others to do so as well.

This may seem heretical to some of my readers. I don’t hold this view at this point, so don’t lynch me (by removing my from your RSS reader)—I am just thinking out loud. But I am, as Brian McLaren (I think) called it, a hopeful universalist. I’m not sure why Christians (particularly Evangelicals) are so hostile to the notion of Christian universalism. In this frameworkd, Christ is still “the way, the truth and the life” (but saves all). Isn’t that a beautiful notion? It may, of course, conflict with the justice of God and a whole host of other theological points, but it’ll be an interesting subject to read and think on.

I’m looking forward to getting back into MacDonald’s book. I had already read the first two chapters but was distracted by other books several months ago and have not read it since. As I say, MacDonald calls himself an Evangelical, and he approaches the notion of universalism from within the historical Christian views of salvation and hell (i.e. Calvinism, Armenianism, etc) and from a Biblical perspective. I’ve failed at every other attempt at blogging through a book, but I’ll give it another go with The Evangelical Universalist (once I’ve finished reading it).

19 thoughts on “Christian Universalism

  1. critic

    “SAVE” everyone from what? The world is hell, look around, watch the news. It’s also heaven, go for a walk in nature, watch the sun set. But “save” everyone? From what, from having other belief systems? I don’t mean to be cynical here, I am curious. Seems to me going around “spreading the word” as its sometimes put, is actually just pushing their belief system on other people. Ultimately we shouldn’t be living for that “golden ticket to heaven” but trying to make the earth itself the ‘heaven’ its supposed to be instead of the hell its become/becoming.

  2. jim

    Marc, I can identify with your “epiphany”, I’ve been having similar ones lately. I’m looking forward to your posts on the book. I think everything that you have put forth is valid.

    I’ve had the same question running through my mind, that is, why is CU so objectionalble to so many Christians? “Isn’t that a beautiful notion?” I think it is. Perhaps the major reason why it’s hard to swallow for many is that it means people like Pickton are going to feast with us all at “the great banquet”. I don’t know if you remember a girl named Brita (can’t remember her last name), that studied at BBC while I was there and then became a RA for the girls for a while. She’s been on to other things. She knew some of these women that ended up on Pickton’s farm. She made an amazing post about her struggle to accept that God’s grace is comprehensive enough to include Pickton. Interspersed are some thoughts on Universal Reconcilation by Brad Jersak. It’s worth reading…

    If anyone’s interested…check it out

  3. Marc

    Critic:

    I actually agree with most of what you said, particularly if we’re looking at this from the perspective of a broader Gospel.

    The world is hell, and this is precisely what God is setting right—a return to true justice, truth and beauty. In spite of this, creation (the natural world) is “good”, as God said when he created, and he didn’t take that back. I imagine those moments in nature are glimpses of heaven and earth joined.

    As far as “spreading the word”: who would object to a message of God setting the world right? That aside, there’s nothing wrong with trying to convince people of something. Jesus does ask for repentance, which is likely going to involve turning away from some of one’s beliefs.

    In this sense, “salvation” would include saving from one’s belief systems (whatever they may be), as well as from ourselves, from sin, from a world gone wrong. Part of this broader Gospel is the notion that God is saving all of creation, not just individuals. This is an interesting way of looking at salvation: the world, including individuals, is being saved from the way things are—we are being saved through God’s work to restore creation.

    Jim:

    Thanks for the link, Jim. I do remember Brita. I’ll be sure to read that article.

    It’s interesting how people respond to the various notions of salvation. Some have difficulty swallowing the notion that Pickton or Hitler might be saved; and yet these same people would be deeply offended at the notion that they themselves need saving.

    Who are we to set limits on God’s grace? I don’t think that’s our business.

  4. Marc

    Sweet mother of pearl, NO! DON’T ADD ME TO YOUR BLOGROLL!

    🙂 Just kidding. As it’s your blog, you are free to do as you please. Thanks for stopping by, Tom.

    I meant to say, Critic, that this broader understanding of the Gospel isn’t about getting to heaven in the sense of some spiritual cloudy place up in the sky. In this context, heaven and earth will overlap when all things are said and done. In this sense, God is working to make earth into heaven (or at least “heaven on earth”).

  5. Andrew

    Technically, it’s not a heresy – there’s a number of different views held by various strands of mainstream Christianity through the millenia with some heavy weight theologians favouring universalism or hopeful universalism.

  6. graham

    Just responding to Andrew’s point about your point on heresy, I think that the technical heresy (for the Orthodox, at least) is pronouncing universalism as a dogmatic and central truth, rather than a hopeful or implicated one.

  7. Toni

    Well I’m not sure it would qualify as a heresy, but a lot depends on whose definition of ‘heresy’ one uses.

    To me it doesn’t seem likely because:

    a) It doesn’t fit the idea of a just God.

    b) Jesus distinctly talks about people experiencing suffering in separation from God as a result of sin.

    There’s probably more, but this is my lunch break and my head is a little fuzzy and I’m being asked questions on and off by other people. It’s a nice idea, but I can understand why it might make people angry – it makes a mockery of those that suffer for their faith or even push through hard times.

    I can see a couple of scriptures that might support the idea, but they need stretching a little.

  8. Marc

    Toni:

    Good questions. If I may ask some questions, without intending to be argumentative, as I think through this:

    a) God’s justice — I imagine that this is the biggest objection to universalism. Is it possible that we have mis-defined God’s justice or that we simply don’t understand it or that we are defining from a human perspective?

    Does a just God require that some not be saved? Is it just that a mass serial rapist/murderer could be saved simply by repenting and believing?

    Is it just that a God who could save everyone doesn’t? (That’s a question I took from the second chapter of MacDonald’s book)

    b) While Jesus may talk about people suffering in separation from God, that doesn’t preclude ultimate salvation for all. MacDonald, for instance, appears to believe in hell as a place where people will go (but presumably only temporarily).

    “it makes a mockery of those that suffer for their faith or even push through hard times.”

    I’m not sure how it would do this. Jesus said “you will be persecuted because of me” and “he who loses his life for my sake will find it”. Arguably “my sake” is more than just getting people to say the sinner’s prayer. Doing Kingdom work is not diminished if everyone is saved in the end. Was the “goodness” of the “good” son diminished when he welcomed the prodigal son home with a fattened calf and a party?

    Just some thoughts that come to mind…

  9. Ian

    Universalism is great and all, but unless you’re willing to totally dismiss Pauline theology, it’s bunk. “[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Rom 10:9-10) The corollary is obviously that if you don’t, you won’t be saved.

    What would the need for hell be in a world where everyone escapes it?

  10. Marc

    Naturally, we’ll have to wait and see what MacDonald has to say in his book to answer those questions.

    A couple of thoughts:

    — I’m not sure the corollary is necessarily that you won’t be saved. Of course, we may be dealing with a semantic issue here: what do we mean by “saved”?

    — Hell could presumably be there simply for Satan & his demons (assuming you believe in a literal evil being). Others would argue that our doctrine of hell isn’t Biblical–that references to hell were more often than not to the dump outside Jerusalem.

    — Others still would suggest that we’ve got Paul wrong (although I couldn’t tell you in what way).

    What I find particularly interesting when discussing subject such as this one is the variety of views one finds over the course of Christian history. Theology hasn’t been monolithic throughout.

  11. Andrew

    Paul never talks about hell, and it’s possible that his view of ‘salvation’ was different from modern notions of that concept. In fact, of all the NT authors, Paul is probably the easiest to fashion a universalist.

    In any event, and aside from the issue of universalism, the verse quoted from Paul can be contrasted with other of Paul’s writings that foe example indicate Paul believed that even those who do not ‘confess’ will be judged by their deeds.

  12. jim

    Ian… It is a common misunderstanding that in order to be a universalist one has to dismiss or ignore much scripture or Pauline theology as you put it.

    Rather than dismissing passages like Romans 10:9-10 many (including myself) have honestly asked, “what was it that Paul pleaded with first century people to believe in and be saved from?” When the people (Jews) on the day of Pentacost realized that they had crucified the Messiah…

    “Act 2:36-37 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

    What were they cut to the heart about? What were they afraid of coming upon them? Hell fire and brimstone in a place called hell for eternity was not in their vocabulary. Verse forty gives us a clear clue, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”. Jesus said to the Jews that because of their disobedience, “Mat 23:35-36 … on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” Then Matthew records that Jesus laments over Jerusalem. Then as Jesus and the disciples leave the temple he predicts a great tribulation and the destruction of the temple and warns them to flee when they see it coming to pass… and says it again, that these things will come upon that generation.” It did by AD 70.

    I know the focus of this post is not to get into eschatology but it is hard to avoid. I have presented a very sketchy fulfilled eschatological interpretation of the verse quoted to make this point… people who see it this way (i.e. me) don’t naively dismiss passages like these making what we believe “bunk”.

    Accepting that all will be ultimately reconciled does not remove salvation of all its meaning.
    Looking at it from this point of view, salvation is also about being saved from ourselves in the “here and now”. Even if all will be ultimately reconciled, by our choice we may or may not existentially experience it today. I think that is what Paul was talking about when he said, “Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

    And as Andrew pointed out, throughout the millenia there have been heavy weight theologians have favoured universalism or hopeful universalism.

  13. Ian

    What were they saved from? Christ himself tells us that the broad gate (which many enter) leads to destruction.

    There’s also the small matter of Christ’s teaching on the end time, including the obvious sheep and goats separation, and more subtle ones like the parable of the ten virgins, where there is obviously some kind of exclusion going on.

  14. Marc

    Well, I’m in over my head on this one. I’m only examining an idea.

    I think what’s clear, Ian, is that the Bible isn’t clear cut on the issue. There are hell and separation verses and there are passages that imply something different. What do we do? Ultimately what we think will happen doesn’t make a difference to what will happen. Presumably, MacDonald’s position doesn’t require people to be less evangelical.

  15. Andrew

    The NT does discuss ‘judgment’, though as Marc says, it’s often less than clear what that entails. There’s still room to argue that ultimately all will be reconciled, perhaps after a time of judgment. The other possibility is that eternal life is a gift, and not something innate–and that the judgment of ‘destruction’ is just that – finality, and not never-ending torture and suffering.

  16. Ian

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of the picture of hell as caves of fire where the damned are tortured by demons with pitchforks. Hell could be (and again, just in my opinion) existence without the presence of God.

  17. Andrew

    Is there such a thing as existence without the presence of God? For one, I wonder if our existence *depends* on God; and isn’t God’s presence all pervasive?

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