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.)