You know it’s a bad sign when a response to a post is twice the length of the post itself. But I think this is an extremely important topic, one that has produced a lot more heat than light. So I would like, to the best of my ability, to shed a little light on and bring a little clarity to the issue of the compatibility of universalism and orthodox Christian faith. I want to suggest, along with Gregory MacDonald (GM), that the two (universalism and evangelical or orthodox Christian faith) are indeed compatible. Then I want to address several common objections to universalism.
First, on the issue of compatibility. Though certainly not the dominant view within historic Christianity, belief in universalism within the church is very ancient indeed. Among others, Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th century), Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), Clement of Alexandria (2nd century) and St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century) all seem to have espoused universalism and none was denounced by the Church for espousing a heresy. Gregory of Nyssa, in fact, was declared the “Father of Fathers” by the 7th Ecumenical Council. I think, therefore, that those who claim that universalism is incompatible with orthodox Christian teaching are hard pressed to show that the view contradicts anything in the so-called ecumenical creeds and hard pressed to show that the view has been denounced by any of the major and universally accepted Church Councils.
Having said that, perhaps the best known early defender of universalism was Origen (3rd century) who was in fact condemned at the 5th Ecumenical Council (553 A.D.) where the so-called 15 “anathemas” were charged against him, which included among other things, his belief in universal salvation. But, it should be pointed out that the 5th Ecumenical Council was mired in controversy, largely because it was boycotted by the Pope and called instead by an emperor.
Second, a point of clarification is in order. When GM or I speak of universalism we have in mind what I prefer to call Christocentric universalism (CU), the view that eventually all are reconciled to God through Christ. This is to be distinguished from all-roads-lead-to-Rome universalism, which holds that there are as many ways to salvation as there are religions. As I understand it, CU is by definition exclusivist in the sense that salvation is had exclusively through Christ. So it’s an exclusive (through Christ alone) inclusivism (eventually all are reconciled to God).
Christians who believe that explicit faith in Christ is required for salvation are best thought of as strong exclusivists, whereas those who do not recognize such a requirement might be called weak exclusivists. Both are exclusivists, however, insofar as both believe that it is only through Christ that salvation is to be had. (This is meant as a minor correction to GM who seems to confuse exclusivism with what I am calling “strong exclusivism”. On GM’s view, what I am calling weak exclusivism would not count as exclusivism. But this seems like a mistake, as the weak exclusivist does not deny that it is only through Christ that salvation is obtained, but just denies that explicit faith in Christ is required for salvation.)
Several objections are commonly brought against CU. For example, if universalism is true, then doesn't it follow that our pre-mortem lives lack genuine meaning since all are going to end up in heaven? And second, if universalism is true, then why bother ever becoming a Christian before death? And wouldn’t the great commission lose its sense of urgency?
I confess to being a bit mystified by these objections. The only reason I can imagine for why life would lack genuine meaning if universalism is true is if the only meaning to be found in life is sorting out our where one is going to spend eternity. But I can't imagine that anyone really believes that life’s meaning is exhausted by figuring out one's eternal destination. I should have thought that life was about anticipating God’s kingdom here and now, about learning to love, to be loved, to grow in Christ-likeness, and so on.
Becoming a Christian may be a first step in that project, but it is surely not the last. If settling one’s eternal destiny exhausts what meaning there is in life, then there is no more meaning to be found in life once one becomes a Christian. But that would be awfully depressing, especially if Christ calls you to himself when you’re young. I mean, imagine all those meaningless years ahead of you. What a pity.
Now, as for the "why bother coming to Christ pre-mortem" objection, I ask this: If you break your leg, do you say to yourself, "Ah, it's going to be healed in the New Jerusalem; so, I won’t bother fixing it now?" Of course not! If I have a cancer for which I know there to be a cure via surgery, I'm not going to forego the surgery now because I know that later in the New Jerusalem I'm going to be healed. Likewise, if we are created for a loving relationship with God, then the sooner we set about that end the better. I'm a sick soul now; and I want to be made well now. The sooner the better, seems to me.
This touches on the objection that the great commission loses its urgency if universalism is true. We human beings have been created for union with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of the biosphere. But sin has insinuated itself into these relationships resulting in misery. Well, we Christians believe the cure to our illness is Christ, his incarnation, life, death and resurrection.
I should think we ought to be inflamed with urgency, an urgency to get the medicine to the sick as quickly as we can. Why, if eventually all are going to be made well in heaven? Because not to be reconciled to God and to others is to limp around, wounded, not having realized the end for which we’re created. That’s why.
Many also believe that if universalism is true, then human freedom is, ultimately, compromised. That is to say, some people it seems will be forced to come to Christ which is hardly consistent with God’s valuation of human freedom. Let me say three things:
1. what I am about to say assumes that some people die unreconciled to God and thus enter hell. So, if universalism is true, it follows that there are second chances after death to be reconciled, just as GM notes.
2. it seems to me pretty obvious (or as obvious as anything is in the spiritual life) that God values, and values very highly, human freedom. Therefore...
3. it seems to me that God’s desire to save all would include a desire, all things being equal, to do so in a way that preserves the freedom of human beings.
However, I don’t imagine that God values the freedom of his human creatures more than the creatures themselves. So, it seems to me plausible to hold that if there should ever come a point in the way, way, way distant postmortem future at which, if God were to allow one more exercise of freedom an individual would be forever and ultimately lost, then at that point God is faced with the following terrible situation: either to preserve human freedom at the cost of eternally and forever losing one of his beloved or yanking (for a time) the freedom from one of his beloved for the ultimate good of his beloved.
As a loving parent, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the view that God would take the latter course of action. It’s not best, all things being equal. But, if preserving my child’s freedom ever meant that my child would ultimately, permanently and eternally destroy his or her life, all things AREN”T equal, and I’m going to value the ultimate good of my child over the relative good of his or her freedom. So, I guess I don’t think that one’s embrace of Christ must be free. Better if it is, of course and, in a very real sense, tragic if it isn't.
Finally, one might surmise from all of this that I am, as GM calls them, an evangelical universalist. If an evangelical universalist is someone who believes that eventually all will be reconciled, well, then, I don’t think I am. I like to put it this way.
Belief is only one possible attitude one might take toward a proposition. But there are others. For example, if I tell you that it’s raining outside you might take up any of the following attitudes: you might, as a result of me telling you, come to believe that it’s true; if you left the windows to your car down, you might come to fear that it’s true; if your home garden is parched then you might come to hope that it’s true.
I hope that universalism is true. I even pray that it’s true. But I guess I don’t believe that it’s true. The scriptures it seems to me are ambiguous on the matter. There is a good biblical case to be made both for separationism and for universalism. And in that space of biblical indeterminacy I think there is plenty of room for hoping that universalism is true, for hoping that eventually God gets what God wants and all are ultimately reconciled.