Universalism defined

Perhaps I’ve done this before, but this kind of thing develops over time.  I was thinking about this post on the way home from class this morning and started thinking about the definition of the universalism I refer to from time-to-time on this blog.  There isn’t just one universalism; there are many.  What I am talking about is specifically Christian universalism.  By way of comparison, let me reduce the universalisms to two:

1.  Universalism (or perhaps General Universalism): everyone is “saved” regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation.  This is a kind of pluralism or relativism of sorts, because every way is a valid way to salvation.  Of course, what salvation means in this context is uncertain, because each faith system will have their own vision of what that might be (and “salvation” may not even be an appropriate term for certain belief-systems) — whether it be nirvana or heaven or simply ceasing to exist altogether or nothing.  So, in a way, all ways are valid ways, but all ways are also non-ways, because none of it really matters and the result is uncertain.

2.  Christian universalism (or, perhaps, Universalism in Christ): everyone is saved regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation (so far it’s the same as General Universalism) through Christ (that’s the clincher).  The key element in Christian universalism is that the saving agent is still Christ (and “salvation” is meant specifically in Christian terms)–Christ’s work is effective for all people (which is the orthodox belief) regardless of belief (the universalist distinctive).  I suppose you might say that Christian Universalism takes the Bible very seriously when it says that every knee will bow before Christ and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (assuming I’m understanding the intent of those passages correctly — Phil 2:8-11; Isaiah 45:23; Rom. 14:11)

This might sound coercive–you mean everyone will be *forced* to worship Jesus?–but that’s not the case.  The argument goes that when faced with the crucified and risen Christ we will not wish to do anything other than worship him–rather like being presented with a convincing, irrefutable argument in a debate, except that we wouldn’t stubbornly or pridefully refuse to admit it, as we might in a debate.  It will be a willing confession of lordship when the risen Christ is met.

If you think about it, Christian universalism is essentially theologically identical to your standard orthodox soteriology (if I may insert a fancy theological term for “the study of salvation”) with this one exception: that the best before date, if you will, is extended to beyond death to the culmination of all things.  Note that everyone will confess Jesus as Lord–they are not saved in spite of confession someone or something else as lord, but everyone will willingly confess specifically Jesus as lord (or, to put it in the terminology with which I was brought up, everyone will choose, willingly, to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”, although I don’t personally like that approach or terminology anymore).

Now this second definition–Universalism through Christ– just my (working) definition of the term universalism, as I use it on this blog.  This isn’t any kind of “official” definition, but one I’ve cobbled together.  (And it doesn’t address the issue of what this means for Christ’s command to make disciples.)

8 thoughts on “Universalism defined

  1. becky

    I’ve never understood why all Christians aren’t universalists — if only out of empathy for others’ eternal fate. While it may not be doctrinally “proven” (whatever that means), it seems to me that universalism should be the hope for all believers, if only because no one should be cast into eternal punishment (whatever that means) due to a lack of belief.

    I suppose any talk of universalism eventually leads to talk of hell, then?

  2. Marc

    I think at least hoping for universalism, even if not being able to prove it Biblically, is the kind of thing Brian McLaren was talking about in his heyday (which wasn’t that long ago, was it?). I’d say that’s certainly a/the biblical position.

    It eventually leads to talk of hell, yes, but mostly by those who strongly object to any notion of universalism. Some of the brimstone/lake of fire imagery must be dealt with, because it is there in scripture, though, as you know, not nearly as much as some people’s talk would have us think (and Real Live Preacher suggests that all the hell talk was directed at the religious elite of the day).

  3. becky

    Oh, I remember McLaren’s take on it. It was in his last of the trilogy, right? (My dad has my copy, otherwise I’d look it up)

    Why do some religious people object to universalism? Is it the human desire of “nyah-nyah, I have something you don’t” type of instinct?

    And the theological gymnastics surrounding the description/concept of hell are fascinating ones to watch from the outside. While it’s easy to reject the fire and brimstone definition of eternal judgement, it tends to get more complicated when the definition becomes so ethereal that it no longer sounds like a punishment. Which I know isn’t really universalism-related, but is interesting interesting.

    And besides, what would your theological training be if you weren’t poked by your favorite village atheist? 🙂

  4. Marc

    “Village atheist”? If I ever have to introduce you, I’m using that phrase. 🙂

    Why do people object to universalism? I suppose for some it might be an issue of fairness–e.g. “why should someone who doesn’t believe any of this or make any effort to follow Religion X get in, when I’ve spent a lifetime following?” That’s a poor reason for insisting on the doctrine of hell, in my opinion.

    For others it may simply be a misunderstanding of what universalism is or implies: a Christian might think it takes Christ out of the picture, for instance. It with this in mind I wrote this post.

    For others still, its a justice issue: should Hitler or Stalin or Charles Manson be “saved” in the end as well? This is an understandable question (which I struggle with).

    But I would hope that most Christians who object to universalism would do so out of honest conviction arising out of their study of the Bible.

  5. Mark

    Hey Marc, have you asked Chris Holmes where he stands on this? I always thought he sounded like a Christian universalist. Bring it up in class the next time you are bored and watch the sparks fly!

  6. Marc

    given what was discussed in class today in relation to Bonhoeffer, I can see how Chris might sound like a universalist (at least when talking about Bonhoeffer).

    Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus is saviour whether we believe it or not and that the whole world is already reconciled to God, etc., which to our sensitive, dispensationalist, conservative evangelical ears may as well be universalist. But I don’t think Chris necessarily believes that (although he might) and Bonhoeffer isn’t necessarily one either.

  7. Mark

    Yes, it might be true, he might just sound like a universalist – but I’d ask him more direct questions on the matter. It will certainly bring out an engaging discussion. Enjoy your classes with Chris, he has some really interesting viewpoints.

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