A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Heading towards heresy” in which I began to explore the idea that God could, in the end, reconcile everything and everyone to himself. I had so many interesting conversations after starting that discussion that I’ve asked a few friends to contribute guest posts on the theme of “Hope for everyone?” If you’d like to contribute a piece, from any point of view, do get in touch.
Today’s guest post is by Daniel Timms, a soon-to-be-finalist studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. I’m told that this does not necessarily destine him to become Prime Minister, and I’m sure he’s very bored of being asked if that is his aim, but for what it’s worth, I’d vote for him.
Before having my two pennies’ worth, I’d like to say two things: Firstly, thanks Claire for allowing me to use your blog to express my point of view! Secondly, I want to immediately confess that I am not very well acquainted with Universalist thought. I am not well read on the topic, and being currently in Peru and fairly busy I have not had the chance to become more so since I saw the offer to write on this theme on Facebook! So if any Universalist reading this feels that I have done an injustice to their position, please do comment below to let me know, and by all means point me towards places I can become more clued up. Given the above, rather than attempt to mount a full-scale rejection of universalism, I shall settle for just expressing some of the concerns I have regarding Universalist thought. I’ve put down four; the second, third and fourth are all much shorter than the first!
The first of these (unsurprisingly, perhaps, I am one of Claire’s evangelical friends!) relates to the use of the Bible in the discussion. Universalists essentially either believe that all will be saved, or at least all will have the opportunity to accept Christ and be saved after death. Personally, I feel there is very little warrant for this belief in the Bible; in fact numerous passages seem to assert the contrary. For example:
“But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” – Daniel 12:1b-2
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it… And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life… All whose names were not found written in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire… Nothing impure will enter into it [the New Jerusalem], nor anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” – Revelation 20: 11, 12, 15; chapter 21:27.
The parable of the sheep and the goats – Matthew 25:31-46
“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction… But our (the church’s) citizenship is in heaven.” Philippians 3:18-20
At this point, some may have already reached the conclusion that I am a “hellfire and brimstone” kind of chap, who relishes highlighting these passages. Not at all, far from it. But I have to acknowledge (as I believe all who read their Bible with due seriousness must) that as well as many passages about the wonder of God’s love there are clear warnings about the coming judgement. Nowhere do I find indications that this is perhaps metaphorical or optional after death.
Furthermore, what makes me particularly uncomfortable is attempts to explain away such passages with reference to “context”. Please don’t misunderstand me – it is of course unintelligent to read the Bible as if Jesus’ words were being reported in today’s newspaper, or as if Paul’s letters had just been dropped off by the postman (Indeed, looking at context can often yield a far deeper understanding of a text). However, is it not equally unintelligent to just use “context” as a get out clause for anything we find uncomfortable? Words about eternal matters are only context sensitive as far as their meaning would have been understood differently at the time. Is their evidence to suggest common understandings of Hell at the time such passages were written was sufficiently different?
Another route is of course to write off all or parts of the Bible altogether. But I fear to do so is to get rid of the very thing through which we find a basis for our hope. I do not mean to say that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation, but where else do we find the infinitely precious words of God’s love and forgiveness? Of course, the concepts of God’s grace may have first been communicated to me by my parents; and them by other people, but these ideas surely first come to us from the Bible. We could ask: if biblical evidence isn’t sufficient to establish a Hell where people will actually go, what grounds are there for even expecting God to be loving and gracious at all?
My second concern is that universalism might lead us to forget or de-emphasize one of the things that I believe is so good about the good news: that it is freely given, and none of us have any legitimate claim to it. Does the Universalist think that a situation where only some are saved is really good news? If not, then the notion that we somehow deserve God’s grace has already been subtly introduced. My worry is that one of the motivations for universalism is that the gospel of salvation by faith is not good enough; however, if we don’t deserve God’s salvation, the fact that anyone could be saved is surely great news. Perhaps I am wrong, and this is not a motivation, but if so, what does motivate the theory?
Thirdly, I do worry there’s a danger here (as is always the case when theologising) to forget the perspective that we are viewing things from. Hell is not an arbitrary punishment from a God who dislikes those who aren’t in his club, but the result of righteous anger at sin which remains on us unless we look to the cross knowing we are dependent on that sacrifice. As sinful creatures inhabiting a world full of sin, naturally it is often difficult to empathise with God’s righteous anger at sin, although sometimes we get a taste when we or someone we love is directly sinned against. Let us not forget that all sin is sin against God. I will leave this here as a previous post by Natalie King looks into this more deeply. But I’d finish by urging the humility to accept that God’s righteous anger at sin (and accompanying justice) might be just as far beyond our complete understanding as his awesome love.
My final concern (cheers for staying with me this far) is that if universalism is false, its promulgation is dangerous. Strong language, but I believe it befits the occasion. Certainly I know for myself that if I were to accept universalism I would lose motivation for sharing the gospel. Of course, I shouldn’t, the gospel is indeed very much about this life (see Josh Bell’s helpful post for more on this) as indeed it is the next. But when those who don’t know Jesus seem to be getting on just fine, thank you, and meanwhile following Christ seems particularly difficult and unrewarding, sometimes the eternal importance of knowing Him is the only motivation I can find. Absolutely this is a fault of mine, and maybe I’m unusual, but as I say, it still gives me cause for concern.
Hope for everyone? Yes, absolutely. No-one is too far, no-one too lost, and no-one too sinful to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Anyone who humbles themselves and follows Christ will be saved from the judgement their sins deserve. So by all means let us discuss the wonder of God’s salvation. But let us also live it out, as we urge others to join us in trusting Him for it.
 If in any doubt about this please consult the following: Ephesians 3:18-19 (God’s love is massive and beyond complete understanding), 1 John 3:1 (It is shown to us in that he calls us his children) and Luke 15:11-32 (where both of the above two points are made in a beautiful parable)