Monday, April 18, 2011

The Real Problem with Universalism

We are having the same old universalism discussion again right now because some mega-church pastor has discovered that it sells books. Let me try to come at this question from a completely different angle.

I propose the thesis that the main theological problem with popular ideas of universalism is that they ultimately make our relationship to Christ something less than the most important issue we face in life.

Why do I think this is so?

Typically, the line of debate goes like this: Well, maybe I can accept that bad people like Hitler might be in hell, but what about Ghandi? What about my grandfather who was not a Christian but was a good family man, hard-working and decent? What about the guys at Rotary Club? What about - and the list goes on.

Think about what is being said here. Hitler is bad so he is in hell. Grandpa is good so he can't be in hell. The criterion for who is in hell and who is not is now who lived a good life. If this theology is acceptable than the Pharisee in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was hard done by at the hands of Jesus. (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus must have been some sort of extreme fundamentalist in condemning such an upstanding, religious man.

Is living a comparatively good life - for your day and age and society - and maybe a bit of moral heroism sprinkled in here and there enough for salvation? What happened to Rom. 1-3? What happened to "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God?" (Romans 3:23) Why did Jesus bother to come and die anyway?

Usually, when this problem becomes apparent to would-be universalists who don't want to lose their Evangelical audiences completely, the next step is to begin speculating on the possibility of hell being eventually emptied by the love of God drawing everyone to Himself.

What this does is to make life basically unserious: "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we don't exactly die, we just move on to a stage in which it will make a lot more sense to be religious than it does in this life."

Is this life really where issues of eternal destiny are settled? The whole Bible seems to think so and the Church has always operated on this premise. To operate on any other seems to me to be basically dangerous and unserious.

But that is what universalism is about: making this life and our relationship with God into a lifestyle choice, an option, something we can take or leave. That is the real problem with universalism. It makes faith in Christ less than the most important issue we face.


Tim Bertolet said...

I think another pernicious problem with universalism is that the "Last Judgment" is not really all that final and last. God can, in this scheme, change and redo the judgment whenever he wants.

So if the judgment isn't really all that final then the resurrection doesn't then really furnish proof that he's fixed a day in which he will judge the world (Acts 17:30-31). Eschatology may be inaugurated but never really gets all that consummated since hey whenever you want the final verdict reversed just let God know. Then it makes a mockery of the notion that God will be 'justified his his words and prevail when he judges' (Romans 3:5).

While I agree with you that universalism makes this life trite as the "day of salvation" that is "now", (and this is no small problem), I think the greater problem is how it universalism robs God of his glory in the final judgement. Just my thought.

I enjoy the blog and read pretty regularly.

Craig Carter said...

Thanks for your comment!

Gordonhackman said...

Don't know if you saw the piece I wrote on my blog about universalism, but I took a Dorothy Sayers, "dogma is the drama" approach to the issue and argued that the current preferrence for universalism among certain people is rooted in a demand that all of reality should make sense to our limited understanding of things and that in so doing it makes both the faith and our lives small, undramatic and ultimately meaningless.

You can find it here: