Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE CASE FOR CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM: Is God’s Love Conditional or Unconditional?

I didn’t choose the Christian faith for its promise of salvation. At the very moment I came to God, it wasn’t even on my mind, nor had it been at any point in the days (and years) leading up to that moment. I chose it simply because I needed a better way to live, and I wasn’t finding it on my own. When I hit my knees in the middle of the night six years ago and begged God to fix my life, the only motivation for my action was that I had completely given up hope, and so I put my life in His hands and asked Him to fix it. It was that simple. I was a desperate man, but I’d known all my life that God was real. Up until that point, I still insisted on living my life on my own terms while claiming belief in God, and He’d stepped aside and allowed me to do exactly what I wanted, although I must confess I always felt His presence during that time. I failed at doing things my way, and out of a sense of pride, I refused to ask for help until I’d exhausted any hope of fixing things myself. I had pushed God aside for 46 years, but He accepted me into His fold in an instant, no questions asked. That’s grace, and quite amazing grace at that.

But right from the very beginning of my Christian walk, I found myself troubled by the notion of God’s so-called unconditional love having conditions attached to it. I kept trying to buy into the idea that only God’s select would enjoy an eternal life with Him, while the unbelievers roasted in Hell—by their own choice, I was led to understand, since they had refused to accept Christ. I understood that God was under no obligation to explain Himself or His ways, but on a basic level, beginning with the notion that the true nature of God is Love, I found the idea of conditional love to be in direct conflict with the notion of unconditional love. I also found myself taking issue with Christians who insisted that only Christians would go to heaven, as I could see the flaws in that argument without even trying to. I wrote about this salvation issue in a previous post, which I hope you'll read as well since it provides a clear view of how I felt about the subject well before learning about Christian Universalism. The whole concept of conditional love made no sense and continued to trouble me, and over the past year I began to develop an interest in learning more about the doctrine of Christian Universalism, which deals with the concept of ultimate salvation for all, and that the opportunity to find salvation extends beyond our physical deaths.

The first time I because aware of the idea was when reading about a favorite author of mine, Madeleine L’Engle, who’d written a wonderful book that millions of children had grown to love over the past forty years, named “A Wrinkle In Time.” I read hundreds of books in my youth, but with the exception of Dr. Seuss’s canon of work (which I still love and read regularly to this day), Ms. Engle’s book was the only other one that I could remember. It made such an impression on me that I even remember which grade I read it in—fifth grade. While reading a bit about her death about a year ago, I read that she was an Episcopalian (as am I), and that she was also a believer in Christian Universalism. The article went on to explain the concept of Christian Universalism. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of a limited "hell" and the ultimate reconciliation of all, and wanted to learn more.

The biggest surprise came when I learned that the early church, right up until the time of the Emperor Constantine’s Council at Nicea in 325 AD, had largely operated on the idea that God’s love was truly unconditional, and that Christ had died a substitutionary death for all people, not just those who accepted Him in their physical lifetimes. I was also surprised to learn that the apostolic tradition and general focus of major church leaders up through the third century had been well-grounded in the concept of universal salvation, and that it wasn’t a heresy at all, but heavily supported by an overwhelming amount of Scripture.

So what had happened since the 3rd century, and how had Universalism drifted from being a core doctrine to becoming a heresy, as some modern-day fundamentalists believe? Belief in this idea explains why the Eastern Orthodox church, the modern-day continuation of the apostolic teachings that guided the church through it first three centuries, has refused to join the Catholic Church of Rome, which preaches eternal damnation and limited access to heaven. The Eastern Orthodox church makes exclusive use of the Greek New Testament (the language in which it was originally written), for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the translation of the world "eternal," which in the original Greek "aionos" is a word that doesn’t specifically mean never-ending, but relates to a finite period of time. The word “eternal” that’s used in every modern English Bible we read is an incorrect translation, as the original Greek word referred to something that was specific to an age or era, but not eternal. This isn’t a small point. In fact, it’s a huge point. Think about it. The entire western world of Christianity, which encompasses the Catholic and Protestant churches, has passed down a tradition and doctrinal point that is quite possibly false, and has been at the root of most people’s rejection of the faith for it’s claim of eternal damnation for anyone not calling upon Christ by name in this mortal lifetime.

It’s important to note that Christian Universalism (not to be confused with Unitarian Universalism) doesn’t deny any of the major doctrinal points of the faith, with one exception: Hell is real, but no one goes there forever. Any “punishment” is remedial and corrective, but not eternal. God doesn’t punish for the sake of punishment, but acts as “a refiner’s fire or launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:2). In other words, the fire of Hell is a purifying fire, not a destructive one. The consequences of sin are real, but only for as long as it takes to purify the sinner and restore him or her into God’s image. As I read verse after verse from both the Old and New Testaments about God restoring and reconciling all people to Him, it opened my eyes and allowed me to view my faith in a wonderful new light, one that has filled me with more hope than ever before. God’s love, when viewed in this light, is truly unconditional, and our opportunity to accept it extends beyond this mortal lifetime, when unbelievers are subjected to a refining process in the afterlife.

This reconciliation works in two ways: some chose to accept and follow Christ in their lifetimes (thereby escaping punishment), while unrepentant non-believers of every rank are reconciled to Him after going through a "refiner's fire" that is directly proportionate to their sins. Christian Universalism completely agrees that "none come to the Father" except by Christ, as He is the judge of us all. And if Christian Universalism is true, it shouldn't change one thing about the way we practice our Christian faith. We must still spread the Good News and do everything possible to spare others the pains of punishment in Hell. As for the counter-claim that it weakens the Christian claim of exclusivity through Christ, it's simply false. At no point does Universalism deny the exclusive role of final judgment through Christ. The only place where Universalism breaks from traditional doctrine is with the notion of punishment actually lasting forever. Nobody can claim that universal reconciliation is's abundantly supported by Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.

The verses supporting Universalism are too numerous to list here, but can be quickly resourced and researched on the Internet by doing a search for Christian Universalism, or by purchasing a few definitive books on the subject. I’ll list a few verses here to provide a start for anyone interested in learning more about the truly good news of Christ’s redemptive mission. This is simply a sampling of New Testament verses dealing with the subject of God's universal reconciliation. Keep in mind that the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Isaiah, is filled with references to all the people of the world coming to know God.

“And for this we labor and strive, that we have put our hope in the living God, the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.”
1 Timothy 4:10

All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Luke 3:6

"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
John 12:32

And in the parallel passage below, how can one claim all has two different meanings? We know from previous Scripture that all mankind suffered the effects of the Fall, not some, but all, which creates a contextual precedent that makes it impossible for the second all to mean something else.

"For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive..."
1 Corinthians 15:22

Here's one last passage that very powerfully supports the notion that on the Last Day, all will be reconciled to God, and that the opportunities for salvation extend beyond our physical lives on this earth.

"Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Philippians 2:9-11

It seems pretty clear, doesn't it? According to the original Greek, all translates as exactly what it implies: all. Salvation is not just for those who chose to follow Christ during their earthly walk, but ultimately, and in due time, all who have lived, past, present and future, although some will clearly suffer the pains of an afterlife punishment of some sort. While reading a book on this subject, I was relieved to discover that my own denomination has addressed this doctrinal issue in a very positive manner, both in its catechism and doctrinal papers. I was also surprised to learn that many other major denominations are beginning to explore the scriptural basis for it—although not fully addressing it, I suspect, for fear of being branded heretics by the more doctrinally-conservatives branches of the faith. I would also guess that there's strong opposition to this concept coming from the more prominent televangelists, who have a huge financial stake in the idea of fire, brimstone and eternal damnation for the wicked.

I fully understand that most Christians won't agree with the concept discussed here, but I still feel that we must all be willing to consider the possibility that it's true. For anyone interested in reading about this subject, I’d highly recommend two books that approach the concept from two angles: one as a simple, straightforward introduction to the concept, and the other at a seminary study level. The real appeal of this concept is that it was a doctrine taught by the early church from the time of Christ until the 3rd century, then kept alive as a doctrinal remnant up through the present day, constantly discussed within the church, but rarely brought into the light.

Personally, I will admit that I don't know all the answers, nor do I understand the original meaning of all Scripture dealing with the subject. But I do trust my heart and the guidance of the Spirit, and I find peace as I strive to better understand the fullness of God's plan. As you read these books, you might begin to consider that perhaps God’s love is truly unconditional and will someday reconcile the whole world to Himself, no matter how long it takes, and even though many will literally go through Hell before being drawn to Him on that "last day." But this shouldn't surprise you. What else should we expect from a Father who loves all His children equally and desires to bring them all back into the fullness of His glory?