I’m having difficulty understanding the negative, sometimes venomous, response evangelicals give to the notion of universalism. It seems to me that even the possibility of everyone being saved is a joyous notion, but it apparently leads some to doubt the sanity/faith/salvation of people who believe it, and it leads those on the receiving end to fear. The author of The Evangelical Universalist wrote under a pseudonym for fear of being burned at the stake. It was apparently staggering to evangelicals when John Stott supported the doctrine of annihilationism; imagine how his world would have been shaken had he shown an inclination towards universalism.
I don’t think the doctrine of hell is important enough to stake one’s salvation on it. I do, however, think it’s important enough that we cannot be nonchalant about it. At the very least, the notion of eternal conscious punishment in hell deserves some hard questions. It’s not something we can glibly accept; it’s too horrible.
An issue that continues to come to mind as I think about hell and salvation is whether Christ’s work on the cross (however you explain it) was enough to deal with everyone’s sin. I can’t imagine anyone saying that it wasn’t sufficient, because even the traditionalist would agree that if every person repented (in the traditional sense) they would all be saved by Christ’s work on the cross and be spared eternal damnation. His work was enough because salvation is available to everyone, it’s just a question of who receives it.
If this is indeed the case, if Christ’s death and resurrection was enough to deal with everyone’s sin, then what, exactly, is the point of the “…but…”?
Imagine a group of friends out to dinner at an expensive restaurant. After the meal, when the friends go to pay for their food, they are surprised and delighted to discover that a stranger has paid all of their bills. In fact, he has paid the bills for everyone in the restaurant and everyone who ever has and ever will eat at that restaurant. But there’s a catch, which the restaurant’s owner reveals: before each person’s bill is paid, that person must first find out who this stranger is and then he or she must ask him nicely and thank him profusely for the gift. If they refuse to do so, they will have to pay their bills again, despite the fact that they have already been paid (the owner will become a very rich man!). It’s not the greatest analogy in the history of analogies (and it was better in the first draft, but I decided to get technical), but you can see what I’m getting at. Christ’s work was sufficient for all…but…first you have to identify who did the work and then you have to ask for his help nicely.
This leads into a sneaking suspicion I’ve had for some time: that the notion of “salvation through faith”, at least as we flout it, has a distinctly “work-ish” smell about it. What I mean is, we evangelicals are big on these wonderful words of the apostle Paul: “salvation is by grace, through faith, and not by works, so that none can boast”. What this often turns into, however, is “it is your faith that saves you”, that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s salvation…except believe. It seems that the more we dwell on “faith versus works” the blurrier the difference becomes. Faith as a goal is still a way to attain salvation, or can be unwittingly treated that way. That faith saves is not orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity says that it is Christ who saves us—the role our faith plays in that is not entirely clear.
INterestingly, the Christian universalist view would provide for a salvation given (rather than attained) purely by the grace of God through the work of Christ, with nothing we’ve done (mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, etc.) affecting it.
Of course some of you are thinking that this inevitably leads to anarchy and hedonism—after all, if we all get there eventually, why not live it up now? There are many reasons, other than getting into heaven/staying out of hell, for being holy, seeking righteousness, doing justly and loving mercy, not least of which is that Jesus lived it and commanded it. (But this has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t do it again here.)